"Massinger the Censor"

Critic: Philip Edwards
Source: Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, pp. 341-50. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1962.

[(essay date 1962) In the following essay, Edwards argues that Massinger was a thoroughgoing moralist who nonetheless was capable of producing fine dramas in which he restrained his own views and displayed a moral tolerance.]

Massinger seems to have been one of the reluctant dramatists of his age: a gentleman in reduced circumstances who became a playwright as gentlewomen later became governesses. That he would have preferred to be a lord (of the old school) seems a safe guess. What he might have done, as a nobleman, to educate his family, his tenants, his neighbors--and, indeed, his king and his country--he had to do in his plays. Everyone who writes on Massinger recognizes him as a moralist, a sage and serious man determined to indicate what behavior was acceptable and what was not. Yet the kind of dramatic romance he chose to write, or felt he had to write, seems preposterously unsuitable for preachments and sermons. The incongruity has often been noticed. Massinger's latest biographer, T. A. Dunn, has no doubt that the moralist sabotaged the dramatist. "For him," he says, "artistic conscience always succumbs to the conscience of the moralist" (Philip Massinger, 1957, p. 74). I do not think this is easily granted. A square peg in a round hole Massinger may have been, but he made a very determined effort to make his art both popular and moral, to present convincing theatrical action which should at the same time be the figured language of morality. Finding himself a dramatist by necessity, and being a moralist by nature, he tried to make 'two distincts, division none.' To watch him at work, bending an unlikely form of play to its moral mold, is perhaps to find a better artist and a more interesting moralist than has sometimes been recognized.

It may seem odd that Massinger should have been so set on wooing the public with the Fletcherian kind of play. He had served his apprenticeship, and more than his apprenticeship, in collaborating with Fletcher in the very popular tragicomedies and romantic tragedies; he seems dedicated to the view that these were the plays which the drama's patrons wanted. Fletcher had not conceived his plays as disquisitions on conduct, and the risks which Massinger later ran are his own responsibility. Massinger chases the consequences of moral choice as Fletcher had fled from them. The sense of strain in continuing to write what his friend and master had shown to be popular is often evident. Though he was a leading writer for the King's Men for a long period, the public does not seem to have been very fond of his plays. In his commendatory verses (1630) to The Renegado, Shirley implies that there was a positive dislike and says, with a touch of defiance,

Yet I commend this poem, and dare tell
        The world I liked it well.

William Singleton mentions "detraction" in his verses (1632) for The Emperor of the East. The prologue to the same play says frankly that "Many are apt to wound his credit in this kind." W. B. (in his verses, 1624, to The Bondman) goes so far as to claim that Massinger was indifferent to detraction: "his own best way Is to be judge, and author of his play ... Nor does he write to please, but to endure." It is not likely that Massinger was unmoved by unpopularity. The tone of the prologue to the late play, The Guardian, is embarrassingly humble. It speaks of the failure of two plays, a two-year silence, and a reputation for playwrighting lost. The author fears his "strengths to please," and submissively asks to know his errors, that he may reform them. Not all of this can be explained as the perfunctory obeisance of a prologue.

Yet Massinger could write other kinds of play. His two comedies of social satire, A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam, show that he can excel in that kind. The liveliness of the invention and of the verse carries both plays along with wonderful vigor. It is hard to explain why he wrote only two. Such satires are necessarily built round a moral spine, and seem to perform just what he asked of drama. His patrician contempt for mercantilism, and his dislike of frivolity in women and servility in men, can show themselves in the very material of the plot. The outwitting of Overreach and (in the other play) the ingenious double discomfiture of Luke and the women, are as excellent theatrically as they are 'edifying.' But there are only the two plays. In the dedication (1633) to A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Massinger asks the Earl of Carnarvon, by accepting "this trifle," to encourage him to present "some laboured work, and of a higher strain." Such a work Massinger had written, probably soon after A New Way, and already published, namely The Roman Actor (1626). In that play is a startling example of the uselessness of satire. To cure Philargus of his avarice, Paris the actor puts on a play, "The Cure of Avarice," confident that Philargus,

      looking on a covetous man
Presented on the stage, as in a mirror
May see his own deformity, and loath it.


But it doesn't work. Philargus 'identifies,' but despises the repentance of the stage miser. "An old fool, to be gull'd thus!" Correction by satire does not work. There are two other playlets in The Roman Actor. While watching the first, Domitia is so aroused by Paris, who is acting the part of a lover, that she afterwards seduces him. In the second, Paris acts the part of the servant wooed by his master's wife--a mirror scene of the actual situation he is in--and the emperor, playing the role of the master, kills him in earnest. The moral of the three playlets seems clear. Drama reflects the passages of real life, drama has power to move the audience into 'identification,' even into confusing simulated action with reality. But satire cannot amend the vicious, and the vicious may find cause for vice even in a virtuous play.

It is possible that Massinger had no faith in the usefulness of portraying Overreach and Luke, and preferred to use the moving power of drama to strengthen the potentially virtuous rather than to try to cure the wicked. This is speculative, but it is certain that social satire gave him less scope than the more romantic drama for portraying nobility and (his forte) near-misses at nobility. Had he been left to himself, with no audience to please, he would no doubt have worked entirely in the 'higher strain' of The Roman Actor. "I ever held it the most perfect birth of my Minerva," he wrote in 1629. It is as well he was not left to himself; the play is rather wooden and lifeless, too carefully worked to an austere pattern of excellence. Believe As You List is much better, easily his best tragedy, but the misfortunes which attended that play show the cost of writing political tragedies. At every point, he seems driven to the Fletcherian mode.

A Very Woman, a late play, seems to be not merely in the Fletcherian mode, but actually a revision of one of Fletcher's plays. It is a failure, perhaps because of the difficulties of reworking, but its weaknesses are instructive. It contains the favorite romantic components of a death which is not a death and a lover in disguise. The last act will bring the dead man back on to the stage and reveal the lover. The familiar components are used to portray, not violent passions and dreadful miscalculations, but insufferable conduct--a defect in nobility and courtesy which Spenser might have been interested in. A strong first act shows the intolerable manners of the lovers, Almira and Cardenes, in slighting the respectful, rejected suitor Antonio. The outcome of their rudeness is a fight and the 'death' of Cardenes. Massinger goes on to test his two flawed characters. Cardenes, dangerously ill, is somewhat tediously brought to repent of his discourtesy. Almira, the "very woman," is tested by the return (brought about by pirates) of Antonio in disguise. She falls in love with the interesting "slave" whom, as a prince, she had spurned. Her lightness is incurable. Antonio is properly disgusted. But there is a woeful happy ending. Cardenes being no longer interested in women, Almira chooses the slave; and when he is revealed as the prince--he accepts her. Here indeed the moralist has been betrayed by a miserable devotion to the conventional marriage-ending. It makes no sense at all. This is the only play in which I feel that the artist and moralist have been tugging in different directions, and that the work of art is the poorer because the moralist has lost.

The weakness of A Very Woman helps us to judge the strength of two other plays, The Bondman and The Maid of Honour. Each of them deals, more or less centrally, with defective honor or courtesy. We may take The Maid of Honour first, because its ending, though in a way formally 'correct' for tragicomedy, is quite the opposite of that in A Very Woman in suiting the moral drift of the play. Camiola, the maid of honor, and Bertoldo, a Knight of Malta and natural brother to the King, are in love. Bertoldo is presented with a wonderful detachment by Massinger. Detachment, even if it arises from some fundamental lack of warmth in the dramatist, is yet a great asset in the dispassionate scrutiny of worth and frailty. One should not make too much of Massinger's heavy-handedness in distinguishing right and wrong. He had the talent to let deeds speak for themselves, as the present play shows. Bertoldo has all the appearance of nobility. In the matter of sending troops to aid their ally in distress, he is all fire and honor, and is opposed to the prudent, self-interested, and somewhat crooked caution of the King (usually supposed to be an image of James, hesitant about aid to the Elector Palatine). But there can be no doubt that the war is a bad cause; the ally has been rash and dishonorable, and the King is right not to support him, even if he acts from the wrong motives. With a pleasant cunning, Massinger makes it harder for us to see Bertoldo's imperfections by giving him the attractive qualities of impulsiveness and warmth and setting him against a cold, self-regarding monarch (and, of course, by making Camiola love him). His impulsiveness is, in fact, a wanton rashness. His words about "the glory of the war," and "redeeming our mortgaged honours," seem hollow indeed when we eventually get to the scene of the war. Bertoldo's fellow-officers are carpet knights who thought that

To charge, through dust and blood, an armed foe,
Was but like graceful running at the ring
For a wanton mistress' glove.


They put up no kind of a showing and, worst of all, the war is against a woman. In undertaking it, Bertoldo is breaking his vow as a Knight of Malta. This is the understanding of Bertoldo which Massinger slowly reveals. But we must come back to Camiola's opinion of him. She loves him, but she will not consent to marry him for two reasons: first because their ranks are too disparate, and secondly because marriage means the abandonment of the vows of his order to celibacy. These are the obstacles which honor puts in the way of love. The question of rank, incidentally, was decisive for Massinger, who had a respect for the niceties of stratification which seems unhealthy to us. Camiola has money, but she is not an aristocrat.

The action of the first half of the play, up to the capture and disgrace of Bertoldo in the field, is to reveal the essential shallowness of Bertoldo and the constant honor of Camiola in his absence. Now occurs a scene which seems to have no direct significance. A suitor of Camiola's, Adorni, a gentleman who "had dependence" on her father, fights and wounds the King's favorite for his insulting behavior to Camiola. In the most delicate way, he hints that his protection of her name deserves the reward of her affection. With equal indirection, she firmly puts him in his place. Protection of her name would have been fitting in one in a position to make her his wife, "a height, I hope, which you dare not aspire to." The importance of this scene is that it mirrors and explains the crux of the play--Camiola's ransoming of Bertoldo.

The King has refused to ransom his brother. Camiola, with magnificent generosity, pays the huge sum. She does more than this; by the emissary, she withdraws her previous refusal to marry him, says indeed, in a jesting way, that her granting of his suit shall be the price he shall pay for the ransom. But this great act, of generosity and love, is a fall. It is coming down to the level of Bertoldo and Adorni. It is coming down to Bertoldo's level because she is now prepared to waive her previous refusal and to think as little of his vows as he has done. It is coming down to Adorni's level because she imagines she is erasing inequality of rank through an act of generosity. Her refusal to allow Adorni to buy equality with courage now condemns her own actions. If she previously believed that the disparity in rank between herself and Bertoldo was an insurmountable obstacle, it must always be so.

The reward for the misguided compromise which her love and good intentions lead her into are frightful. Bertoldo reveals his full lightness and inconstancy, by yielding, as soon as he is free, to the attentions of his equal in rank, the princess Aurelia. In the last act, when all is revealed, Aurelia gives up Bertoldo to Camiola. Bertoldo is entirely penitent. What shall Camiola do? She forgives him--but she will not marry him. She will marry no one now, and retires into a convent. If there is to be no compromise with honor, her commerce must be with Heaven and not with men. The last act is surprise upon surprise in the best tradition of tragicomedy. And of the last surprise, the audience has no inkling. It is good theater, and it is the better theater for following the logic of the moral attitude. The moral attitude is undoubtedly daunting. The conception of honor is austere and stern--so it always is in Massinger. But at least it is consistent, and Camiola's final firmness is preferable to the complaisance of Antonio in A Very Woman.

A much lighter play, The Picture, also has a strong ending to underline Massinger's criticism of his characters. For his usual study in frailty, Massinger cleverly uses the absurd folk-tale element of a magic mirror which will announce a wife's infidelity. The husband is an excellent study in masculine self-assurance and confidence, priggishly making sure of his patient wife's behavior in his absence. But it is he who is tempted and very nearly falls. When he returns to the arms of his wife and we expect a yawning passage of tenderness, the wife refuses to have him back until she is convinced that she has exploded his sureness in himself and his doubting of her. Massinger's plays are rather like those 'house-parties' at which candidates for posts live under constant scrutiny for several days on end. They live to be tested.

The best example of a play in which the trappings of romantic drama are used to test character is The Bondman, the finest of the more serious tragicomedies. Massinger took great care in planning the play. Taking from Seneca's Controversiae the basic situation of a slave who had protected his mistress during a slave's rebellion and of his right, therefore, to marry her, he welded together patches of Sicilian history from different parts of Diodorus, borrowing from Plutarch and others too, to fill out the moral landscape and draw a distinction between true and false nobility and true and false love. And yet the story is essentially only the familiar one of a prince (disguised as a slave) winning his bride after a series of highly-colored incidents, proving himself a fit husband at the end, from the social point of view, by throwing off his disguise.

Massinger sets the scene of a Sicily corrupted by a decadent aristocracy. Its members are as haughty as they are debauched. They are entirely promiscuous in their sexual habits; they are incapable of meeting a threat of invasion; they treat their slaves like dirt. They have to import Timoleon to lead them against the Carthaginians, and it is Cleora alone (the heroine) who sways them to obey him in surrendering their private wealth and in going to war themselves rather than press the peasants and their slaves. Cleora is intended by her father for Leosthenes, who is one of Massinger's most successful characters. (Massinger has not a very robust power of characterization, and he cannot differentiate by language, but he is a perceptive observer of the weaknesses of men and he collects a good gallery of individual portraits.) Leosthenes reveals himself slowly, like other characters. He is a bit like Faulkland in The Rivals. Diffident and self-distrustful, he is yet unable to trust others; his only happiness is self-torment about his relations with people. Beneath this self-distrust is a disgusting priggishness and self-righteousness (as there so often is). His speech to Cleora as he goes off to the war (2.1.108-61) is a masterpiece of a man incapable of faith in others yet insisting they should have faith in him. He takes it for granted that she will fall to the first seducer; he suggests that if he had wooed her unchastely she would have fallen. Cleora's answer is to bind her eyes and swear to look at no one and speak to no one till he returns (and she keeps her word).

In Leosthenes' absence, the mystery-man stirs up a rebellion of the slaves. Cleora knows him only as a slave who professes love for her but, amid riot and rape, takes no advantage of her helpless position. His magnanimity and belief in her affect her strangely. (She is, by the way, assured he was born a gentleman.) When Leosthenes returns and the revolt is put down, the old jealousy and arrogance are still there; he cannot believe her innocent, and when he learns that a slave has protected her, he has nothing but contempt for the slave. Cleora has had enough, like Camiola; she chooses true nobility, even in rags and in prison; she throws in her lot with the slave--who eventually justifies her choice by revealing himself for what he really is, a gentleman who had paid court to Cleora but had been rudely sent away by her family. The testing of Cleora through her reaction to a lover disguised as a slave is similar to the testing of Almira in A Very Woman. Cleora finds the nobility, even in its disguise; but Almira falls in love with the man, as a slave, whose nobility she had spurned when he was himself. The Bondman has its weak points, chiefly through the difficulty of making the hero act like Pisander and at the same time like the slave whom the audience supposes him to be. But its revelation of Leosthenes' weakness and Pisander's strength, through the incidents of a wildly romantic plot, is very well done.

Time and again one finds that Massinger's tragicomedies turn upon problems of conduct. No one would suggest that the very gentle Great Duke of Florence was primarily a didactic play. Yet the crisis of the play is the favorite's decision to lie to the king about the beauty of Lidia and to get the young hero to cover up as well; the importance of the play from the moralist's point of view is the degradation which deception brings the two men into. And all this is handled within a comedy whose tone is as light as possible. As one reads the plays, one soon gets into the position which Massinger as censor himself seems to take, and one takes a keener pleasure in the plays as plays because of this moral viewpoint. One watches closely for the telltale strokes which give away the flawed man--for, as I have said, Massinger is careful not to broadcast his disapproval at the beginning of the play. It is true that it is much more difficult to identify oneself with Massinger's rigid code of honor, but then there are difficulties in accepting Jane Austen's. The Fatal Dowry (before 1620) is a good example of a play which improves greatly when one sees oneself as a juryman. The play tells how the incorruptible Charalois, whom no cruelty could weaken, is destroyed by generosity--the gift of a fortune and a faithless wife. Again Massinger sets his hero in a corrupt society, this time a mercantile society, moved only by money values. Rochfort is so moved by Charalois' nobility in a degenerate age that he frees him from prison, pays his debts, and weds him to his daughter Beaumelle. Charalois finds her in bed with young Novall and kills her. The question which the play sets, taking it over from the source, is whether Charalois should not have pocketed up his wrongs in gratitude to the father Rochfort, who had done so much for him. The audience is asked to judge.

In the initial, lengthy exposition of Charalois' virtue, we have a feeling that he is something too uncompromising. He is a proud man, consciously pursuing nobility, disgusted by the idea of humility or of obtaining his ends by a little flattery and diplomacy. And so, when he discovers Beaumelle's infidelity, he deliberately casts out any feeling except that of honor. Her sorrow and grief are very moving, and he fears her repentance lest it weaken him.

                               See, how you force me
To this, because mine honour will not yield
That I again should love you. ...
How pity steals upon me! Should I hear her
But ten words more, I were lost. ...
That to be merciful should be a sin!

(4.4.65-7, 76-8)

Still in the trance of the demands of justice and honor, he exacts from the wretched father the judgment that the punishment of Beaumelle's sin is legally death and, as his own executioner, he ceremonially stabs her. Rochfort's impassioned reproach seems "mere madness." In the fine court-scene at the end, Charalois maintains that gratitude to Rochfort could not be allowed to obliterate the distinction between right and wrong. His only crime is that he took the law into his own hands. And the court supports him. When he is stabbed in vengeance by the associate of his wife's lover, he sees his own death as a punishment not for his judgment of Beaumelle but for his taking the place of the hangman. His final "Forgive me!" is surely directed to the audience.

I do not think that Massinger meant Charalois to be an awful warning of what may happen when the passion for honor and absolute justice overcomes all feelings of pity, gratitude, and loyalty. He seems so to us. Given that the choice before Charalois was almost an impossible one, Massinger seems to have approved his hero's path as the better way. But he has recognized that a man is not going to be rewarded for preferring honor to compromise. He makes much of the suffering which the unremitting pursuit of justice brings about. He does all he can to move us with pity for Beaumelle and her father. And he shows Charalois' death as a direct result of his own actions. Yet he wants us to assent in the end that if Charalois erred in his virtue, he would have erred more greatly had he compromised. Whether one assents or not, it is certain that the movement of the play can only be appreciated when the center is seen to be the question of the rightness of Charalois' decision. Otherwise the crisis of the plot seems lost between a lengthy portrayal of Charalois' piety towards his dead father and an irrelevant court-scene.

It is impossible that a point of view so bleak as that implied in The Fatal Dowry should ever be attractive to more than a few people, and those few unlikely to have been frequenters of the Caroline theater. The Fatal Dowry was an early play, and only The Maid of Honour comes near to it in severity among its successors. I like to think that Massinger's efforts to make his moral romance popular were crowned with success once, in the late play The Guardian (1633) which he was so dejected about in the prologue. It is a much gayer play than Massinger generally wrote, and the farcical mistakes of the night in the middle of the play are excellently plotted. A carefully maintained tone prevents us from taking anything too seriously. There is a lightness which comes near to banter in the pastoral scenes at the close, with their hackneyed ingredients of the banished nobleman as bandit, the discovery that the servant-maid is really a gentlewoman, and the betrothal of the young leads. Besides treating his romantic genre in semiserious fashion, Massinger implies a tolerance in the moral outlook which is something entirely new. The magnificent amorality of the licentious old guardian is never rejected. He is a thoroughly sympathetic character, much more attractive than his overmoral nephew, busy idealizing women and love. Even the typically Massingerian 'cure' of Iolante--a woman in love with the romance of adultery--is carried off in a new, half-ironical way. She literally wriggles out of the constraint her husband has imposed on her, and her protestations of innocence, like her husband's forgiveness, contain unspoken reservations. Yet the play is written by a good moralist. The frailty of the woman is very neatly described, and the 'lessons' are as clear as in any other play. By easing the severity of his attitude, Massinger has increased the buoyancy of the play. Perhaps Massinger himself is running the risk of compromise. It may be only our own weakness that makes us prefer the easygoing attitude of The Guardian. But there is no doubt that the moralist and the dramatic craftsman are very happily married in The Guardian.

The Guardian is a peak after which there is only decline. Two extant plays are later than The Guardian: the failure of A Very Woman we have already seen, and in praise of The Bashful Lover there is nothing whatever to be said.

In trying to exercise the high office of a poet in so unpromising a medium as Fletcherian tragicomedy, Massinger was inevitably fighting a losing battle. But to say this is not to condemn his moral romances as plays. The plays could not have been more successful if they had contained less morality, for without the moral scrutiny which is at their core they have no reason for existing.

Source: Philip Edwards, "Massinger the Censor." In Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, pp. 341-50. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1962.