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Massinger by Leslie Stephen

 

In one of the best of his occasional essays, Kingsley held a brief for the plaintiffs in the old case of Puritans versus Playwrights. The litigation in which this case represents a minor issue has lasted for a period far exceeding that of the most pertinacious lawsuit, and is not likely to come to an end within any assignable limits of time. When the discussion is pressed home, it is seen to involve fundamentally different conceptions of human life and its purposes; and it can only cease when we have discovered the grounds of a permanent conciliation between the ethical and the æsthetic elements of human nature. The narrower controversy between the stage and the Church has itself a long history. It has left some curious marks upon English literature. The prejudice which uttered itself through the Puritan Prynne was inherited, in a later generation, by the High-Churchmen Collier and William Law. The attack, it is true, may be ostensibly directed—as in Kingsley's essay—against the abuse of the stage rather than against the stage itself. Kingsley pays the usual tribute to Shakespeare whilst denouncing the whole literature of which Shakespeare's dramas are the most conspicuous product. But then, everybody always distinguishes in terms between the use and the abuse; and the line of demarcation generally turns out to be singularly fluctuating and uncertain. You can hardly demolish Beaumont and Fletcher without bringing down some of the outlying pinnacles, if not shaking the very foundations, of the temple sacred to Shakespeare.

It would be regrettable, could one stop to regret the one-sided and illogical construction of the human mind, that a fair judgment in such matters seems to require incompatible qualities. Your impartial critic or historian is generally a man who leaves out of account nothing but the essential. His impartiality means sympathy with the commonplace, and incapacity for understanding heroic faith and overpowering enthusiasm. He fancies that a man or a book can be judged by balancing a list of virtues and vices as if they were separate entities lying side by side in a box, instead of different aspects of a vital force. On the other hand, the vivid imagination which restores dead bones to life makes its possessor a partisan in extinct quarrels, and as short-sighted and unfair a partisan as the original actors. Roundheads and Cavaliers have been dead these two centuries.

    Dumb are those names erewhile in battle loud;
    Dreamfooted as the shadow of a cloud,
    They flit across the ear.

Yet few even amongst modern writers are capable of doing justice to both sides without first making both sides colourless. Hallam judges men in the throes of a revolution as though they were parties in a lawsuit to be decided by precedents and parchments, and Carlyle cannot appreciate Cromwell's magnificent force of character without making him all but infallible and impeccable. Critics of the early drama are equally one-sided. The exquisite literary faculty of Charles Lamb revelled in detecting beauties which had been covered with the dust of oblivion during the reign of Pope. His appreciation was intensified by that charm of discovery which finds its typical utterance in Keats's famous sonnet. He was scarcely a more impartial judge of Fletcher or Ford than 'Stout Cortes' of the new world revealed by his enterprise. We may willingly defer to his judgment of the relative value of the writers whom he discusses, but we must qualify his judgment of their intrinsic excellence by the recollection that he speaks as a lover. To him and other thoroughgoing admirers of the old drama the Puritanical onslaught upon the stage presented itself as the advent of a gloomy superstition, ruthlessly stamping out all that was beautiful in art and literature. Kingsley, an admirable hater, could perceive only the opposite aspect of the phenomena. To him the Puritan protest appears as the voice of the enlightened conscience; the revolution means the troubling of the turbid waters at the descent of the angel; Prynne's 'Histriomastix' is the blast of the trumpet at which the rotten and polluted walls of Jericho are to crumble into dust. The stage, which represented the tone of aristocratic society, rightfully perished with the order which it flattered. Courtiers had learnt to indulge in a cynical mockery of virtue, or to find an unholy attraction in the accumulation of extravagant horrors. The English drama, in short, was one of those evil growths which are fostered by deeply-seated social corruption, and are killed off by the breath of a purer air. That such phenomena occur at times is undeniable. Mr. Symonds has recently shown us, in his history of the Renaissance, how the Italian literature to which our English dramatists owed so many suggestions was the natural fruit of a society poisoned at the roots. Nor, when we have shaken off that spirit of slavish adulation in which modern antiquarians and critics have regarded the so-called Elizabethan dramatists, can we deny that there are symptoms of a similar mischief in their writings. Some of the most authoritative testimonials have a suspicious element. Praise has been lavished upon the most questionable characteristics of the old drama. Apologists have been found, not merely for its daring portrayal of human passion, but for its wanton delight in the grotesque and the horrible for its own sake; and some critics have revenged themselves for the straitlaced censures of Puritan morality by praising work in which the author strives to atone for imaginative weakness by a choice of revolting motives. Such adulation ought to have disappeared with the first fervour of rehabilitation. Much that has been praised in the old drama is rubbish, and some of it disgusting rubbish.

The question, however, remains, how far we ought to adopt either view of the situation? Are we bound to cast aside the later dramas of the school as simply products of corruption? It may be of interest to consider the light thrown upon this question by the works of Massinger, nearly the last of the writers who can really claim a permanent position in literature. Massinger, born in 1584, died in 1639. His surviving works were composed, with one exception, after 1620. They represent, therefore, the tastes of the playgoing classes during the rapid development of the great struggle which culminated in the rebellion. In a literary sense it is the period when the imaginative impulse represented by the great dramatists was running low. It is curious to reflect that, if Shakespeare had lived out his legitimate allowance of threescore years and ten, he might have witnessed the production, not only of the first, but of nearly all the best works of his school; had his life been prolonged for ten years more, he would have witnessed its final extinction. Within these narrow limits of time the drama had undergone a change corresponding to the change in the national mood. The difference, for example, between Marlowe and Massinger at the opening and the close of the period—though their births were separated by only twenty years—corresponds to the difference between the temper of the generation which repelled the Armada and the temper of the generation which fretted under the rule of the first Stuarts. The misnomer of Elizabethan as applied to the whole school indicates an implicit perception that its greater achievements were due to the same impulse which took for its outward and visible symbol the name of the great Queen. But it has led also to writers being too summarily classed together who really represent very different phases in a remarkable evolution. After making all allowances for personal idiosyncrasies, we can still see how profoundly the work of Massinger is coloured by the predominant sentiment of the later epoch.

As little is known of Massinger's life as of the lives of most of the contemporary dramatists who had the good or ill fortune to be born before the days of the modern biographical mania. It is known that he, like most of his brethren, suffered grievously from impecuniosity; and he records in one of his dedications his obligations to a patron without whose bounty he would for many years have 'but faintly subsisted.' His father had been employed by Henry, Earl of Pembroke; but Massinger, though acknowledging a certain debt of gratitude to the Herbert family, can hardly have received from them any effective patronage. Whatever their relations may have been, it has been pointed out by Professor Gardiner[6] that Massinger probably sympathised with the political views represented by the two sons of his father's patron, who were successively Earls of Pembroke during the reigns of the first James and Charles. On two occasions he got into trouble with the licenser for attacks, real or supposed, upon the policy of the Government. More than one of his plays contain, according to Professor Gardiner, references to the politics of the day as distinct as those conveyed by a cartoon in 'Punch.' The general result of his argument is to show that Massinger sympathised with the views of an aristocratic party who looked with suspicion upon the despotic tendencies of Charles's Government, and thought that they could manage refractory parliaments by adopting a more spirited foreign policy. Though in reality weak and selfish enough, they affected to protest against the materialising and oppressive policy of the extreme Royalists. How far these views represented any genuine convictions, and how far Massinger's adhesion implied a complete sympathy with them, or might indicate that kind of delusion which often leads a mere literary observer to see a lofty intention in the schemes of a selfish politician, are questions which I am incompetent to discuss, and which obviously do not admit of a decided answer. They confirm, as far as they go, the general impression as to Massinger's point of view which we should derive from his writings without special interpretation. 'Shakespeare,' says Coleridge, 'gives the permanent politics of human nature' (whatever they may be!), 'and the only predilection which appears shows itself in his contempt of mobs and the populace. Massinger is a decided Whig; Beaumont and Fletcher high-flying, passive-obedience Tories.' The author of 'Coriolanus,' one would be disposed to say, showed himself a thoroughgoing aristocrat, though in an age when the popular voice had not yet given utterance to systematic political discontent. He was still a stranger to the sentiments symptomatic of an approaching revolution, and has not explicitly pronounced upon issues hardly revealed even to

                     The prophetic soul
    Of the wide world dreaming of things to come.

The sense of national unity evolved in the great struggle with Spain had not yet been lost in the discord of the rising generation. The other classifications may be accepted with less reserve. The dramatists represented the views of their patrons. The drama reflected in the main the sentiments of an aristocratic class alarmed by the growing vigour of the Puritanical citizens. Fletcher is, as Coleridge says, a thoroughgoing Tory; his sentiments in 'Valentinian' are, to follow the same guidance, so 'very slavish and reptile' that it is a trial of charity to read them. Nor can we quite share Coleridge's rather needless surprise that they should emanate from the son of a bishop, and that the duty to God should be the supposed basis. A servile bishop in those days was not a contradiction in terms, and still less a servile son of a bishop; and it must surely be admitted that the theory of Divine Right may lead, illogically or otherwise, to reptile sentiments. The difference between Fletcher and Massinger, who were occasional collaborators and apparently close friends (Massinger, it is said, was buried in Fletcher's grave), was probably due to difference of temperament as much as to the character of Massinger's family connection. Massinger's melancholy is as marked as the buoyant gaiety of his friend and ally. He naturally represents the misgivings which must have beset the more thoughtful members of his party, as Fletcher represented the careless vivacity of the Cavalier spirit. Massinger is given to expatiating upon the text that

                     Subjects' lives
    Are not their prince's tennis-balls, to be bandied
    In sport away.

The high-minded Pulcheria, in the 'Emperor of the East,' administers a bitter reproof to a slavish 'projector' who

                     Roars out
    All is the King's, his will above the laws;

who whispers in his ear that nobody should bring a salad from his garden without paying 'gabel,' or kill a hen without excise; who suggests that, if a prince wants a sum of money, he may make impossible demands from a city and exact arbitrary fines for its non-performance.

                     Is this the way
    To make our Emperor happy? Can the groans
    Of his subjects yield him music? Must his thresholds
    Be wash'd with widows' and wrong'd orphans' tears,
    Or his power grow contemptible?

Professor Gardiner tells us that at the time at which these lines were written they need not have been taken as referring to Charles. But the vein of sentiment which often occurs elsewhere is equally significant of Massinger's view of the political situation of the time. We see what were the topics that were beginning to occupy men's minds.

Dryden made the remark, often quoted for purposes of indignant reprobation by modern critics, that Beaumont and Fletcher 'understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better' (than Shakespeare); 'whose wild debaucheries and quickness of wit in repartees no poet can ever paint as they did.' It is, of course, easy enough to reply that in the true sense of the word 'gentleman' Shakespeare's heroes are incomparably superior to those of his successors; but then this is just the sense in which Dryden did not use the word. His real meaning indicates a very sound piece of historical criticism. Fletcher describes a new social type; the 'King's Young Courtier' who is deserting the good old ways of his father, the 'old courtier of the Queen.' The change is but one step in that continuous process which has substituted the modern gentleman for the old feudal noble; but the step taken at that period was great and significant. The chivalrous type, represented in Sidney's life and Spenser's poetry, is beginning to be old-fashioned and out of place as the industrial elements of society become more prominent. The aristocrat in the rising generation finds that his occupation is going. He takes to those 'wild debaucheries' which Dryden oddly reckons among the attributes of a true gentleman; and learns the art of 'quick repartee' in the courtly society which has time enough on its hands to make a business of amusement. The euphuism and allied affectations of the earlier generation had a certain grace, as the external clothing of a serious chivalrous sentiment; but it is rapidly passing into a silly coxcombry to be crushed by Puritanism or snuffed out by the worldly cynicism of the new generation. Shakespeare's Henry or Romeo may indulge in wild freaks or abandon themselves to the intense passions of vigorous youth; but they will settle down into good statesmen and warriors as they grow older. Their love-making is a phase in their development, not the business of their lives. Fletcher's heroes seem to be not only occupied for the moment, but to make a permanent profession of what with their predecessors was a passing phase of youthful ebullience. It is true that we have still a long step to make before we sink to the mere roué, the shameless scapegrace and cynical man about town of the Restoration. To make a Wycherley you must distil all the poetry out of a Fletcher. Fletcher is a true poet; and the graceful sentiment, though mixed with a coarse alloy, still repels that unmitigated grossness which, according to Burke's famous aphorism, is responsible for half the evil of vice. He is still alive to generous and tender emotions, though it can scarcely be said that his morality has much substance in it. It is a sentiment, not a conviction, and covers without quenching many ugly and brutal emotions.

In Fletcher's wild gallants, still adorned by a touch of the chivalrous; reckless, immoral, but scarcely cynical; not sceptical as to the existence of virtue, but only admitting morality by way of parenthesis to the habitual current of their thoughts, we recognise the kind of stuff from which to frame the Cavaliers who will follow Rupert and be crushed by Cromwell. A characteristic sentiment which occurs constantly in the drama of the period represents the soldier out of work. We are incessantly treated to lamentations upon the ingratitude of the comfortable citizens who care nothing for the men to whom they owed their security. The political history of the times explains the popularity of such complaints. Englishmen were fretting under their enforced abstinence from the exciting struggles on the Continent. There was no want of Dugald Dalgettys returning from the wars to afford models for the military braggart or the bluff honest soldier, both of whom go swaggering through so many of the plays of the time. Clarendon in his Life speaks of the temptations which beset him from mixing with the military society of the time. There was a large and increasing class, no longer finding occupation in fighting Spaniards and searching for Eldorado, and consequently, in the Yankee phrase, 'spoiling for a fight.' When the time comes, they will be ready enough to fight gallantly, and to show an utter incapacity for serious discipline. They will meet the citizens, whom they have mocked so merrily, and find that reckless courage and spasmodic chivalry do not exhaust the qualifications for military success.

Massinger represents a different turn of sentiment which would be encouraged in some minds by the same social conditions. Instead of abandoning himself frankly to the stream of youthful sentiment, he feels that it has a dangerous aspect. The shadow of coming evils was already dark enough to suggest various forebodings. But he is also a moraliser by temperament. Mr. Ward says that his strength is owing in a great degree to his appreciation of the great moral forces; and the remark is only a confirmation of the judgment of most of his critics. It is, of course, not merely that he is fond of adding little moral tags of questionable applicability to the end of his plays. 'We are taught,' he says in the 'Fatal Dowry,'

    By this sad precedent, how just soever
    Our reasons are to remedy our wrongs,
    We are yet to leave them to their will and power
    That to that purpose have authority.

But it is, to say the least, doubtful whether anybody would have that judicious doctrine much impressed upon him by seeing the play itself. Nor can one rely much upon the elaborate and very eloquent defence of his art in the 'Roman Actor.' Paris, the actor, sets forth very vigorously that the stage tends to lay bare the snares to which youth is exposed and to inflame a noble ambition by example. If the discharge of such a function deserves reward from the Commonwealth—

    Actors may put in for as large a share
    As all the sects of the philosophers;—
    They with cold precepts—perhaps seldom read—
    Deliver what an honourable thing
    The active virtue is; but does that fire
    The blood, or swell the veins with emulation
    To be both good and great, equal to that
    Which is presented in our theatres?

Massinger goes on to show, after the fashion of Jaques in 'As You Like It,' that the man who chooses to put on the cap is responsible for the application of the satire. He had good reasons, as we have seen, for feeling sensitive as to misunderstandings—or, rather, too thorough understandings—of this kind.

To some dramatists of the time, who should put forward such a plea, one would be inclined to answer in the sensible words of old Fuller. 'Two things,' he says, 'are set forth to us in stage plays; some grave sentences, prudent counsels, and punishment of vicious examples: and with these desperate oaths, lustful talk, and riotous acts, are so personated to the life, that wantons are tickled with delight, and feed their palates upon them. It seems the goodness is not portrayed with equal accents of liveliness as the wicked things are; otherwise men would be deterred from vicious courses, with seeing the woful success which follows them'—a result scarcely to be claimed by the actors of the day. Massinger, however, shows more moral feeling than is expended in providing sentiments to be tacked on as an external appendage, or satisfied by an obedience to the demands of poetic justice. He is not content with knocking his villains on the head—a practice in which he, like his contemporaries, indulges with only too much complacency. The idea which underlies most of his plays is a struggle of virtue assailed by external or inward temptations. He is interested by the ethical problems introduced in the play of conflicting passions, and never more eloquent than in uttering the emotions of militant or triumphant virtue. His view of life, indeed, is not only grave, but has a distinct religious colouring. From various indications, it is probable that he was a Roman Catholic. Some of these are grotesque enough. The 'Renegado,' for example, not only shows that Massinger was, for dramatic purposes at least, an ardent believer in baptismal regeneration, but includes—what one would scarcely have sought in such a place—a discussion as to the validity of lay-baptism. The first of his surviving plays, the 'Virgin Martyr' (in which he was assisted by Dekker), is simply a dramatic version of an ecclesiastical legend. Though it seems to have been popular at the time, the modern reader will probably think that, in this case at least, the religious element is a little out of place. An angel and a devil take an active part in the performance; miracles are worked on the stage; the unbelievers are so shockingly wicked, and the Christians so obtrusively good, that we—the worldly-minded—are sensible of a little recalcitration, unless we are disarmed by the simplicity of the whole performance. Religious tracts of all ages and in all forms are apt to produce this ambiguous effect. Unless we are quite in harmony with their assumptions, we feel that they deal too much in conventional rose-colour. The angelic and diabolic elements are not so clearly discriminated in this world, and should show themselves less unequivocally on the stage, which ought to be its mirror. Such art was not congenial to the English atmosphere; it might be suitable in Madrid; but when forcibly transplanted to the London stage, we feel that the performance has not the simple earnestness by which alone it can be justified. The sentiment has a certain unreality, and the naïveté suggests affectation. The implied belief is got up for the moment and has a hollow ring. And therefore, the whole work, in spite of some eloquence, is nothing better than a curiosity, as an attempt at the assimilation of a heterogeneous form of art.

A similar vein of sentiment, though not showing itself in so undiluted a form, runs through most of Massinger's plays. He is throughout a sentimentalist and a rhetorician. He is not, like the greatest men, dominated by thoughts and emotions which force him to give them external embodiment in life-like symbols. He is rather a man of much real feeling and extraordinary facility of utterance, who finds in his stories convenient occasions for indulging in elaborate didactic utterances upon moral topics. It is probably this comparative weakness of the higher imaginative faculty which makes Lamb speak of him rather disparagingly. He is too self-conscious and too anxious to enforce downright moral sentiments to satisfy a critic by whom spontaneous force and direct insight were rightly regarded as the highest poetic qualities. A single touch in Shakespeare, or even in Webster or Ford, often reveals more depth of feeling than a whole scene of Massinger's facile and often deliberately forensic eloquence. His temperament is indicated by the peculiarities of his style. It is, as Coleridge says, poetry differentiated by the smallest possible degree from prose. The greatest artists of blank verse have so complete a mastery of their language that it is felt as a fibre which runs through and everywhere strengthens the harmony, and is yet in complete subordination to the sentiment. With a writer of the second order, such as Fletcher, the metre becomes more prominent, and at times produces a kind of monotonous sing-song, which begins to remind us unpleasantly of the still more artificial tone characteristic of the rhymed tragedies of the next generation. Massinger diverges in the opposite direction. The metre is felt enough and only just enough to give a more stately step to rather florid prose. It is one of his marks that a line frequently ends by some insignificant 'of' or 'from,' so as to exclude the briefest possible pause in reading. Thus, to take an example pretty much at random, the following instance might be easily read without observing that it was blank verse at all:—

'Your brave achievements in the war, and what you did for me, unspoken, because I would not force the sweetness of your modesty to a blush, are written here; and that there might be nothing wanting to sum up my numerous engagements (never in my hopes to be cancelled), the great duke, our mortal enemy, when my father's country lay open to his fury and the spoil of the victorious army, and I brought into his power, hath shown himself so noble, so full of honour, temperance, and all virtues that can set off a prince; that, though I cannot render him that respect I would, I am bound in thankfulness to admire him.'

Such a style is suitable to a man whose moods do not often hurry him into impetuous, or vivacious, or epigrammatic utterance. As the Persian poet says of his country: his warmth is not heat, and his coolness is not cold. He flows on in a quiet current, never breaking into foam or fury, but vigorous, and invariably lucid. As a pleader before a law-court—the character in which, as Mr. Ward observes, he has a peculiar fondness for presenting himself—he would carry his audience along with him, but scarcely hold them in spell-bound astonishment or hurry them into fits of excitement. Melancholy resignation or dignified dissatisfaction will find in him a powerful exponent, but scarcely despair, or love, or hatred, or any social phase of pure unqualified passion.

The natural field for the display of such qualities is the romantic drama, which Massinger took from the hands of Beaumont and Fletcher, and endowed with greater dignity and less poetic fervour. For the vigorous comedy of real life, as Jonson understood it, he has simply no capacity; and in his rare attempts at humour, succeeds only in being at once dull and dirty. His stage is generally occupied with dignified lords and ladies, professing the most chivalrous sentiments, which are occasionally too high-flown and overstrained to be thoroughly effective, but which are yet uttered with sufficient sincerity. They are not mere hollow pretences, consciously adopted to conceal base motives; but one feels the want of an occasional infusion of the bracing air of common sense. It is the voice of a society still inspired with the traditional sentiments of honour and self-respect, but a little afraid of contact with the rough realities of life. Its chivalry is a survival from a past epoch, not a spontaneous outgrowth of the most vital elements of contemporary development. In another generation, such a tone will be adopted by a conscious and deliberate artifice, and be reflected in mere theatrical rant. In the past, it was the natural expression of a high-spirited race, full of self-confidence and pride in its own vigorous audacity. In this transitional period it has a certain hectic flush, symptomatic of approaching decay; anxious to give a wide berth to realities, and most at home in the border land where dreams are only half dispelled by the light of common day. 'Don Quixote' had sounded the knell of the old romance, but something of the old spirit still lingers, and can tinge with an interest, not yet wholly artificial, the lives and passions of beings who are thus hovering on the outskirts of the living world. The situations most characteristic of Massinger's tendency are in harmony with this tone of sentiment. They are romances taken from a considerable variety of sources, developed in a clearly connected series of scenes. They are wanting in the imaginative unity of the great plays, which show that a true poet has been profoundly moved by some profound thought embodied in a typical situation. He does not, like Shakespeare, seize his subject by the heart, because it has first fascinated his imagination; nor, on the other hand, have we that bewildering complexity of motives and intricacy of plot which shows at best a lawless and wandering fancy, and which often fairly puzzles us in many English plays, and enforces frequent reference to the list of personages in order to disentangle the crossing threads of the action. Massinger's plays are a gradual unravelling of a series of incidents, each following intelligibly from the preceding situation, and suggestive of many eloquent observations, though not developments of one master-thought. We often feel that, if external circumstances had been propitious, he would have expressed himself more naturally in the form of a prose romance than in a drama. Nor, again, does he often indulge in those exciting and horrible situations which possess such charms for his contemporaries. There are occasions, it is true, in which this element is not wanting. In the 'Unnatural Combat,' for example, we have a father killing his son in a duel, by the end of the second act; and when, after a succession of horrors of the worst kind, we are treated to a ghost, 'full of wounds, leading in the shadow of a lady, her face leprous,' and the worst criminal is killed by a flash of lightning, we feel that we were fully entitled to such a catastrophe. We can only say, in Massinger's words,—

                  May we make use of
    This great example, and learn from it that
    There cannot be a want of power above
    To punish murder and unlawful love!

The 'Duke of Milan' again culminates with a horrible scene, rivalling, though with less power, the grotesque horrors of Webster's 'Duchess of Malfi.' Other instances might be given of concessions to that blood-and-thunder style of dramatic writing for which our ancestors had a never-failing appetite. But, as a rule, Massinger inclines, as far as contemporary writers will allow him, to the side of mercy. Instead of using slaughter so freely that a new set of actors has to be introduced to bury the old—a misfortune which sometimes occurs in the plays of the time—he generally tends to a happy solution, and is disposed not only to dismiss his virtuous characters to felicity, but even to make his villains virtuous. We have not been excited to that pitch at which our passions can only be harmonised by an effusion of blood, and a mild solution is sufficient for the calmer feelings which have been aroused.

This tendency illustrates Massinger's conception of life in another sense. Nothing is more striking in the early stage than the vigour of character of most of these heroes. Individual character, as it is said, takes the place in the modern of fate in the ancient drama. Every man is run in a mould of iron, and may break, but cannot bend. The fitting prologue to the whole literature is provided by Marlowe's Tamburlaine, with his superhuman audacity and vast bombastic rants, the incarnation of a towering ambition which scorns all laws but its own devouring passion. Faustus, braving all penalties, human and divine, is another variety of the same type: and when we have to do with a weak character like Edward II., we feel that it is his natural destiny to be confined in a loathsome dungeon, with mouldy bread to eat and ditch-water to drink. The world is for the daring; and though daring may be pushed to excess, weakness is the one unpardonable offence. A thoroughgoing villain is better than a trembling saint. If Shakespeare's instinctive taste revealed the absurdity of the bombastic exaggeration of such tendencies, his characters are equally unbending. His villains die, like Macbeth and Iago, with their teeth set, and scorn even a deathbed repentance. Hamlet exhibits the unfitness for a world of action of the man who is foolish enough to see two sides to every question. So again, Chapman, the writer who in fulness and fire of thought approaches most nearly to Shakespeare, is an ardent worshipper of pure energy of character. His Bussy d'Ambois cannot be turned from his purpose even by the warnings of the ghost of his accomplice, and a mysterious spirit summoned expressly to give advice. An admirably vigorous phrase from one of the many declamations of his hero Byron—another representative of the same haughty strength of will—gives his theory of character:—

    Give me a spirit that on this life's rough sea
    Loves t' have his sail filled with a lusty wind,
    Even till his sailyards tremble, his masts crack,
    And his rapt ship run on her side so low
    That she drinks water, and her keel plows air.

Pure, undiluted energy, stern force of will, delight in danger for its own sake, contempt for all laws but the self-imposed, those are the cardinal virtues, and challenge our sympathy even when they lead their possessor to destruction. The psychology implied in Jonson's treating of 'humour' is another phase of the same sentiment. The side by which energetic characters lend themselves to comedy is the exaggeration of some special trait which determines their course as tyrannically as ambition governs the character suited for tragedy.

When we turn to Massinger, this boundless vigour has disappeared. The blood has grown cool. The tyrant no longer forces us to admiration by the fulness of his vitality, and the magnificence of his contempt for law. Whether for good or bad, he is comparatively a poor creature. He has developed an uneasy conscience, and even whilst affecting to defy the law, trembles at the thought of an approaching retribution. His boasts have a shrill, querulous note in them. His creator does not fully sympathise with his passion. Massinger cannot throw himself into the situation; and is anxious to dwell upon the obvious moral considerations which prove such characters to be decidedly inconvenient members of society for their tamer neighbours. He is of course the more in accordance with a correct code of morality, but fails correspondingly in dramatic force and brilliance of colour. To exhibit a villain truly, even to enable us to realise the true depth of his villainy, one must be able for a moment to share his point of view, and therefore to understand the true law of his being. It is a very sound rule in the conduct of life, that we should not sympathise with scoundrels. But the morality of the poet, as of the scientific psychologist, is founded upon the unflinching veracity which sets forth all motives with absolute impartiality. Some sort of provisional sympathy with the wicked there must be, or they become mere impossible monsters or the conventional scarecrows of improving tracts.

This is Massinger's weakest side. His villains want backbone, and his heroes are deficient in simple overmastering passion, or supplement their motives by some overstrained and unnatural crotchet. Impulsiveness takes the place of vigour, and indicates the want of a vigorous grasp of the situation. Thus, for example, the 'Duke of Milan,' which is certainly amongst the more impressive of Massinger's plays, may be described as a variation upon the theme of 'Othello.' To measure the work of any other writer by its relation to that masterpiece is, of course, to apply a test of undue severity. Of comparison, properly speaking, there can be no question. The similarity of the situation, however, may bring out Massinger's characteristics. The Duke, who takes the place of Othello, is, like his prototype, a brave soldier. The most spirited and effective passage in the play is the scene in which he is brought as a prisoner before Charles V., and not only extorts the admiration of his conqueror, but wins his liberty by a dignified avowal of his previous hostility, and avoidance of any base compliance. The Duke shows himself to be a high-minded gentleman, and we are so far prepared to sympathise with him when exposed to the wiles of Francisco—the Iago of the piece. But, unfortunately, the scene is not merely a digression in a constructive sense, but involves a psychological inconsistency. The gallant soldier contrives to make himself thoroughly contemptible. He is represented as excessively uxorious, and his passion takes the very disagreeable turn of posthumous jealousy. He has instructed Francisco to murder the wife whom he adores, in case of his own death during the war, and thus to make sure that she could not marry anybody else. On his return, the wife, who has been informed by the treachery of Francisco of this pleasant arrangement, is naturally rather cool to him; whereupon he flies into a rage and swears that he will

    Never think of curs'd Marcelia more.

His affection returns in another scene, but only in order to increase his jealousy, and on hearing Francisco's slander he proceeds to stab his wife out of hand. It is the action of a weak man in a passion, not of a noble nature tortured to madness. Finding out his mistake, he of course repents again, and expresses himself with a good deal of eloquence which would be more effective if we could forget the overpowering pathos of the parallel scene in 'Othello.' Much sympathy, however, is impossible for a man whose whole conduct is so flighty, and so obviously determined by the immediate demands of successive situations of the play, and not the varying manifestation of a powerfully conceived character. Francisco is a more coherent villain, and an objection made by Hazlitt to his apparent want of motive is at least equally valid against Iago; but he is of course but a diluted version of that superlative villain, as Marcelia is a rather priggish and infinitely less tender Desdemona. The failure, however, of the central figure to exhibit any fixity of character is the real weakness of the play; and the horrors of the last scene fail to atone for the want of the vivid style which reveals an 'intense and gloomy mind.'

This kind of versatility and impulsiveness of character is revealed by the curious convertibility—if one may use the word—of his characters. They are the very reverse of the men of iron of the previous generation. They change their state of mind as easily as the characters of the contemporary drama put on disguises. We are often amazed at the simplicity which enables a whole family to suppose the brother and father to whom they have been speaking ten minutes before to be an entire stranger, because he has changed his coat or talks broken English. The audience must have been easily satisfied in such cases; but it requires almost equal simplicity to accept some of Massinger's transformations. In such a play as the 'Virgin Martyr,' a religious conversion is a natural part of the scheme. Nor need we be surprised at the amazing facility with which a fair Mohammedan is converted in the 'Renegado' by the summary assertion that the 'juggling Prophet' is a cheat, and taught a pigeon to feed in his ear. Can there be strength, it is added, in that religion which allows us to fear death? 'This is unanswerable,' exclaims the lady, 'and there is something tells me I err in my opinion.' This is almost as good as the sudden thought of swearing eternal friendship in the 'Anti-Jacobin.' The hardened villain of the first act in the same play falls into despair in the third, and, with the help of an admirable Jesuit, becomes a most useful and exemplary convert by the fifth. But such catastrophes may be regarded as more or less miraculous. The versatility of character is more singular when religious conversions are not in question. 'I am certain,' says Philanax in the 'Emperor of the East,'

    'A prince so soon in his disposition altered
    Was never heard nor read of.'

That proves that Philanax was not familiar with Massinger's plays. The disposition of princes and of subjects is there constantly altered with the most satisfactory result. It is not merely that, as often happens elsewhere, the villains are summarily forced to repent at the end of a play, like Angelo in 'Measure for Measure,' in order to allow the curtain to fall upon a prospect of happiness. Such forced catastrophes are common, if clumsy enough. But there is something malleable in the very constitution of Massinger's characters. They repent half-way through the performance, and see the error of their ways with a facility which we could wish to be imitated in common life. The truth seems to be that Massinger is subject to an illusion natural enough to a man who is more of the rhetorician than the seer. He fancies that eloquence must be irresistible. He takes the change of mood produced by an elevated appeal to the feelings for a change of character. Thus, for example, in the 'Picture'—a characteristic, though not a very successful play—we have a story founded upon the temptations of a separated husband and wife. The husband carries with him a magical picture, which grows dark or bright according to the behaviour of the wife, whom it represents. The husband is tempted to infidelity by a queen, herself spoilt by the flatteries of an uxorious husband; and the wife by a couple of courtiers, who have all the vices of Fletcher's worst heroes without any of their attractions. The interest of the play, such as it is, depends upon the varying moods of the chief actors, who become so eloquent under a sense of wrong or a reflection upon the charms of virtue, that they approach the bounds of vice, and then gravitate back to respectability. Everybody becomes perfectly respectable before the end of the play is reached, and we are to suppose that they will remain respectable ever afterwards. They avoid tragic results by their want of the overmastering passions which lead to great crimes or noble actions. They are really eloquent, but even more moved by their eloquence than the spectators can be. They form the kind of audience which would be most flattering to an able preacher, but in which a wise preacher would put little confidence. And, therefore, besides the fanciful incident of the picture, they give us an impression of unreality. They have no rich blood in their veins; and are little better than lay figures taking up positions as it may happen, in order to form an effective tableau illustrative of an unexceptionable moral.

There is, it is true, one remarkable exception to the general weakness of Massinger's characters. The vigour with which Sir Giles Overreach is set forth has made him the one well-known figure in Massinger's gallery, and the 'New Way to Pay Old Debts' showed, in consequence, more vitality than any of his other plays. Much praise has been given, and not more than enough, to the originality and force of the conception. The conventional miser is elevated into a great man by a kind of inverse heroism, and made terrible instead of contemptible. But it is equally plain that here, too, Massinger fails to project himself fairly into his villain. His rants are singularly forcible, but they are clearly what other people would think about him, not what he would really think, still less what he would say, of himself. Take, for example, the very fine speech in which he replies to the question of the virtuous nobleman, whether he is not frightened by the imprecations of his victims:—

                     Yes, as rocks are
    When foaming billows split themselves against
    Their flinty sides; or as the moon is moved
    When wolves, with hunger pined, howl at her brightness.
    I am of a solid temper, and, like these,
    Steer on a constant course; with mine own sword,
    If called into the field, I can make that right
    Which fearful enemies murmur at as wrong.
    Now, for those other piddling complaints
    Breath'd out in bitterness, as when they call me
    Extortioner, tyrant, cormorant, or intruder
    On my poor neighbour's rights or grand incloser
    Of what was common to my private use,
    Nay, when my ears are pierced with widows' cries,
    And undone orphans wash with tears my threshold,
    I only think what 'tis to have my daughter
    Right honourable; and 'tis a powerful charm
    Makes me insensible to remorse or pity,
    Or the least sting of conscience.

Put this into the third person; read 'he' for 'I,' and 'his' for 'my,' and it is an admirable bit of denunciation of a character probably intended as a copy from life. It is a description of a wicked man from outside; and wickedness seen from outside is generally unreasonable and preposterous. When it is converted, by simple alteration of pronouns, into the villain's own account of himself, the internal logic which serves as a pretext disappears, and he becomes a mere monster. It is for this reason that, as Hazlitt says, Massinger's villains—and he was probably thinking especially of Overreach and Luke in 'A City Madam'—appear like drunkards or madmen. His plays are apt to be a continuous declamation, cut up into fragments, and assigned to the different actors; and the essential unfitness of such a method to dramatic requirements needs no elaborate demonstration. The villains will have to denounce themselves, and will be ready to undergo conversion at a moment's notice, in order to spout openly on behalf of virtue as vigorously as they have spouted in transparent disguise on behalf of vice.

There is another consequence of Massinger's romantic tendency, which is more pleasing. The chivalrous ideal of morality involves a reverence for women, which may be exaggerated or affected, but which has at least a genuine element in it. The women on the earlier stage have comparatively a bad time of it amongst their energetic companions. Shakespeare's women are undoubtedly most admirable and lovable creatures; but they are content to take a subordinate part, and their highest virtue generally includes entire submission to the will of their lords and masters. Some, indeed, have an abundant share of the masculine temperament, like Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth; but then they are by no means model characters. Iago's description of the model woman is a cynical version of the true Shakespearian theory. Women's true sphere, according to him, or according to the modern slang, is domestic life; and if circumstances force a Cordelia, an Imogen, a Rosalind, or a Viola, to take a more active share in life, they take good care to let us know that they have a woman's heart under their man's doublet. The weaker characters in Massinger give a higher place to women, and justify it by a sentiment of chivalrous devotion. The excess, indeed, of such submissiveness is often satirised. In the 'Roman Actor,' the 'Emperor of the East,' the 'Duke of Milan,' the 'Picture,' and elsewhere, we have various phases of uxorious weakness, which suggest a possible application to the Court of Charles I. Elsewhere, as in the 'Maid of Honour' and the 'Bashful Lover,' we are called upon to sympathise with manifestations of a highflown devotion to feminine excellence. Thus, the bashful lover, who is the hero of one of his characteristic dramatic romances, is a gentleman who thinks himself scarcely worthy to touch his mistress's shoe-string. On the sight of her he exclaims—

                    As Moors salute
    The rising sun with joyful superstition,
    I could fall down and worship.—O my heart!
    Like Phoebe breaking through an envious cloud,
    Or something which no simile can express,
    She shows to me; a reverent fear, but blended
    With wonder and astonishment, does possess me.

When she condescends to speak to him, the utmost that he dares to ask is liberty to look at her, and he protests that he would never aspire to any higher privilege. It is gratifying to add that he follows her through many startling vicissitudes of fortune in a spirit worthy of this exordium, and of course is finally persuaded that he may allow himself a nearer approach to his goddess. The Maid of Honour has two lovers, who accept a rather similar position. One of them is unlucky enough to be always making mischief by well-meant efforts to forward her interest. He, poor man, is rather ignominiously paid off in downright cash at the end of the piece. His more favoured rival listens to the offers of a rival duchess, and ends by falling between two stools. He resigns himself to the career of a Knight of Malta, whilst the Maid of Honour herself retires into a convent. Mr. Gardiner compares this catastrophe unfavourably with that of 'Measure for Measure,' and holds that it is better for a lady to marry a duke than to give up the world as, on the whole, a bad business. A discussion of that question would involve some difficult problems. If, however, Isabella is better provided for by Shakespeare than Camiola, 'the Maid of Honour,' by Massinger, we must surely agree that the Maid of Honour has the advantage of poor Mariana, whose reunion with her hypocritical husband certainly strikes one as a questionable advantage. Her fate seems to intimate that marriage with a hypocritical tyrant ought to be regarded as better than no marriage at all. Massinger's solution is, at any rate, in harmony with the general tone of chivalrous sentiment. A woman who has been placed upon a pinnacle by overstrained devotion, cannot, consistently with her dignity, console herself like an ordinary creature of flesh and blood. When her worshippers turn unfaithful she must not look out for others. She may permit herself for once to return the affection of a worthy lover; but, when he fails, she must not condescend again to love. That would be to admit that love was a necessity of her life, not a special act of favour for some exceptional proofs of worthiness. Given the general tone of sentiment, I confess that, to my taste, Massinger's solution has the merit, not only of originality, but of harmony. It may, of course, be held that a jilted lady should, in a perfectly healthy state of society, have some other alternative besides a convent or an unworthy marriage. Some people, for example, may hold that she should be able to take to active life as a lawyer or a professor of medicine; or they may hold that love ought not to hold so prominent a part even in a woman's life that disappointed passion should involve, as a necessary consequence, the entire abandonment of the world. But, taking the romantic point of view, of which it is the very essence to set an extravagant value upon love, and remembering that Massinger had not heard of modern doctrines of woman's rights, one must admit, I think, that he really shows, by the best means in his power, a strong sense of the dignity of womanhood, and that his catastrophe is more satisfactory than the violent death or the consignment to an inferior lover which would have commended themselves to most Elizabethan dramatists.

The same vein of chivalrous sentiment gives a fine tone to some of Massinger's other plays; to the 'Bondman,' for example, and the 'Great Duke of Florence,' in both of which the treatment of lover's devotion shows a higher sense of the virtue of feminine dignity and purity than is common in the contemporary stage. There is, of course, a want of reality, an admission of extravagant motives, and an absence of dramatic concentration, which indicate an absence of high imaginative power. Chivalry, at its best, is not very reconcilable with common-sense; and the ideal hero is divided, as Cervantes shows, by very narrow distinctions from the downright madman. What was absurd in the more vigorous manifestations of the spirit does not vanish when its energy is lowered, and the rhetorician takes the place of the poet. But the sentiment is still genuine, and often gives real dignity to Massinger's eloquent speeches. It is true that, in apparent inconsistency with this excellence, passages of Massinger are even more deeply stained than usual with revolting impurities. Not only are his bad men and women apt to be offensive beyond all bearable limits, but places might be pointed out in which even his virtuous women indulge in language of the indescribable variety. The inconsistency of course admits of an easy explanation. Chivalrous sentiment by no means involves perfect purity, nor even a lofty conception of the true meaning of purity. Even a strong religious feeling of a certain kind is quite compatible with considerable laxity in this respect. Charles I. was a virtuous monarch, according to the admission of his enemies; but, as Kingsley remarks, he suggested a plot to Shirley which would certainly not be consistent with the most lax modern notions of decency. The Court of which he was the centre certainly included a good many persons who might have at once dictated Massinger's most dignified sentiments and enjoyed his worst ribaldry. Such, for example, if Clarendon's character of him be accurate, would have been the supposed 'W. H.,' the elder of the two Earls of Pembroke, with whose family Massinger was so closely connected. But it is only right to add that Massinger's errors in this kind are superficial, and might generally be removed without injury to the structure of his plays.

I have said enough to suggest the general nature of the answer which would have to be made to the problem with which I started. Beyond all doubt, it would be simply preposterous to put down Massinger as a simple product of corruption. He does not mock at generous, lofty instincts, or overlook their influence as great social forces. Mr. Ward quotes him as an instance of the connection between poetic and moral excellence. The dramatic effectiveness of his plays is founded upon the dignity of his moral sentiment; and we may recognise in him 'a man who firmly believes in the eternal difference between right and wrong.' I subscribe most willingly to the truth of Mr. Ward's general principle, and, with a certain reservation, to the correctness of this special illustration. But the reservation is an important one. After all, can anybody say honestly that he is braced and invigorated by reading Massinger's plays? Does he perceive any touch of what we feel when we have been in company, say, with Sir Walter Scott; a sense that our intellectual atmosphere is clearer than usual, and that we recognise more plainly than we are apt to do the surpassing value of manliness, honesty, and pure domestic affection? Is there not rather a sense that we have been all the time in an unnatural region, where, it is true, a sense of honour and other good qualities come in for much eloquent praise, but where, above everything, there is a marked absence of downright wholesome common-sense? Of course the effect is partly due to the region in which the old dramatists generally sought for their tragic situations. We are never quite at home in this fictitious cloudland, where the springs of action are strange, unaccountable, and altogether different from those with which we have to do in the workaday world. A great poet, indeed, weaves a magic mirror out of these dream-like materials, in which he shows us the great passions, love, and jealousy, and ambition, reflected upon a gigantic scale. But, in weaker hands, the characters become eccentric instead of typical: his vision simply distorts instead of magnifying the fundamental truths of human nature. The liberty which could be used by Shakespeare becomes dangerous for his successors. Instead of a legitimate idealisation, we have simply an abandonment of any basis in reality.

The admission that Massinger is moral must therefore be qualified by the statement that he is unnatural; or, in other words, that his morality is morbid. The groundwork of all the virtues, we are sometimes told, is strength. A strong nature may be wicked, but a weak one cannot attain any high moral level. The correlative doctrine in literature is, that the foundation of all excellence, artistic or moral, is a vivid perception of realities and a masculine grasp of facts. A man who has that essential quality will not blink the truths which we see illustrated every day around us. He will not represent vice as so ugly that it can have no charms, so foolish that it can never be plausible, or so unlucky that it can never be triumphant. The robust moralist admits that vice is often pleasant, and that wicked men flourish like a green bay-tree. He cannot be over-anxious to preach, for he feels that the intrinsic charm of high qualities can dispense with any artificial attempts to bolster them up by sham rhetoric, or to slur over the hard facts of life. He will describe Iago as impartially as Desdemona, and, having given us the facts, leave us to make what we please of them. It is the mark of a more sickly type of morality, that it must always be distorting the plain truth. It becomes sentimental, because it wishes to believe that what is pleasant must be true. It makes villains condemn themselves, because such a practice would save so much trouble to judges and moralists. Not appreciating the full force of passions, it allows the existence of grotesque and eccentric motives. It fancies that a little rhetoric will change the heart as well as the passing mood, and represents the claims of virtue as perceptible on the most superficial examination. The morality which requires such concessions becomes necessarily effeminate; it is unconsciously giving up its strongest position by implicitly admitting that the world in which virtue is possible is a very different one from our own.

The decline of the great poetic impulse does not yet reveal itself by sheer blindness to moral distinctions, or downright subservience to vice. A lowered vitality does not necessarily imply disease, though it is favourable to the development of vicious germs. The morality which flourishes in an exhausted soil is not a plant of hardy growth and tough fibre, nourished by rough common-sense, flourishing amongst the fierce contests of vigorous passions, and delighting in the open air and the broad daylight. It loves the twilight of romance, and creates heroes impulsive, eccentric, extravagant in their resolves, servile in their devotion, and whose very natures are more or less allied to weakness and luxurious self-indulgence. Massinger, indeed, depicts with much sympathy the virtues of the martyr and the penitent; he can illustrate the paradox that strength can be conquered by weakness, and violence by resignation. His good women triumph by softening the hearts of their persecutors. Their purity is more attractive than the passions of their rivals. His deserted King shows himself worthy of more loyalty than his triumphant persecutors. His Roman actor atones for his weakness by voluntarily taking part in his own punishment.

Such passive virtues are undoubtedly most praiseworthy; but they may border upon qualities not quite so praiseworthy. It is a melancholy truth that your martyr is apt to be a little sanctimonious, and that a penitent is generally a bit of a sneak. Resignation and self-restraint are admirable qualities, but admirable in proportion to the force of the opposing temptation. The strong man curbing his passions, the weak woman finding strength in patient suffering, are deserving of our deepest admiration; but in Massinger we feel that the triumph of virtue implies rather a want of passion than a power of commanding it, and that resignation is comparatively easy when it connotes an absence of active force. The general lowering of vitality, the want of rigid dramatic colouring, deprive his martyrs of that background of vigorous reality against which their virtues would be forcibly revealed. His pathos is not vivid and penetrating. Truly pathetic power is produced only when we see that it is a sentiment wrung from a powerful intellect by keen sympathy with the wrongs of life. We are affected by the tears of a strong man; but the popular preacher who enjoys weeping produces in us nothing but contempt. Massinger's heroes and heroines have not, we may say, backbone enough in them to make us care very deeply for their sorrows. And they moralise rather too freely. We do not want sermons, but sympathy, when we are in our deepest grief; and we do not feel that anyone feels very keenly who can take his sorrows for a text, and preach in his agony upon the vanity of human wishes or the excellence of resignation.

Massinger's remarkable flow of genuine eloquence, his real dignity of sentiment, his sympathy for virtuous motive, entitle him to respect; but we cannot be blind to the defect which keeps his work below the level of his greatest contemporaries. It is, in one word, a want of vital force. His writing is pitched in too low a key. He is not invigorating, stimulating, capable of fascinating us by the intensity of his conceptions. His highest range is a dignified melancholy or a certain chivalrous recognition of the noble side of human nature. The art which he represents is still a genuine and spontaneous growth instead of an artificial manufacture. He is not a mere professor of deportment, or maker of fine phrases. The days of mere affection have not yet arrived; but, on the other hand, there is an absence of that grand vehemence of soul which breathes in the spontaneous, if too lawless, vigour of the older race. There is something hollow under all this stately rhetoric; there are none of those vivid phrases which reveal minds moved by strong passions and excited by new aspects of the world. The sails of his verse are not, in Chapman's phrase, 'filled with a lusty wind,' but moving at best before a steady breath of romantic sentiment, and sometimes flapping rather ominously for want of true impulse. High thinking may still be there, but it is a little self-conscious, and in need of artificial stimulant. The old strenuous spirit has disappeared, or gone elsewhere—perhaps to excite a Puritan imagination, and create another incarnation of the old type of masculine vigour in the hero of 'Paradise Lost.'

FOOTNOTES:

[6] Contemporary Review for August 1876.

 
 
 

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