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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VI. Philip Massinger

§ 10. His literary models: Shakespeare, Fletcher, Jonson

To the question whether the remarkable independence Massinger manifested in freely expressing his political and religious sympathies be also a distinctive quality of his dramatic art, an affirmative answer cannot be given without some restrictions. When Massinger entered the theatrical world of London, which was suffering already from an excess of competition and production, he found established in it a great tradition from whose influence it was impossible for him to escape. We may well suppose the sensitive soul of a young poet to have been impressed and overwhelmed by the magnificent multitude of Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines! Not that the younger dramatists surrounding Fletcher always pronounced the name of Shakespeare with awe and veneration—we have proofs enough that the younger generation delighted in parodying famous passages of his works, and that many of them were ready to extol Ben Jonson or Fletcher in a more exalted strain than that in which they praised him—but they could not help succumbing to the influence of his creations, repeating and imitating him in thoughts, words, characters and situations in numberless scenes and passages of their own dramas. And, in Massinger’s plays, we meet with many reminiscences of this kind, though he carefully avoids anything like plagiarism. Generally speaking, it cannot be said that he possessed an overscrupulous conscience in literary matters. In this respect, he was no better and no worse than most of his contemporaries, who remorselessly appropriated the intellectual goods of their fellows: the general story of his successful comedy A New Way to Pay Old Debts, for instance, he borrowed from a play of the defunct Middleton, without deeming it necessary to allude to his model in his dedication. But, in dealing with Shakespeare, his sentiments seem to have been akin to the feeling tersely expressed later in the verse: “Within that circle none durst walk but he.”

Not Shakespeare, who, searching the human soul, became conversant with all the great problems of life—not the dead master, whose eyes had penetrated to the core of things, became Massinger’s teacher, but the living Fletcher, the creator of a partly realistic, and partly shadowy, world, who always aimed at stage effects and applause, and was prepared to risk probability in order to secure them. Undoubtedly, Massinger owed much of his own dramatic cunning to this apprenticeship to Fletcher’s cleverness in all the technicalities of the stage—but this gain could not outweigh the heavy loss in power. In reading Massinger’s plays, we often become aware of the contest between two very different forces, his own serious and earnest manner, as it were, wrestling with the injunctions of his master to lay hold of the attention of the audience by any means, however frivolous.

In view of the protracted joint authorship of the two dramatists, which must have covered many years, it is difficult to say whether Massinger transplanted Fletcherian motives and types into his own plays. It is true that the duchess Aurelia of Siena, whom he added to the plot of The Maid of Honour, greatly resembles her namesake, the sister of the emperor Carinus in The Prophetesse; that the warlike duke Lorenzo in The Bashful Lover, who is suddenly vanquished by Matilda’s beauty, strongly reminds us of the rough old warrior Memnon in The Mad Lover, adoring on his knees the suddenly revealed charms of the princess Calis; and that intimate connections are noticeable between Massinger’s Parliament of Love and Fletcher’s The Little French Lawyer—but it is possible that, in these and some similar cases, we have to assume not a borrowing of Fletcherian motives, but only a readjustment of his own contributions. To repeat himself was perfectly admissible according to Massinger’s artistic code.

As to his relations with either Shakespeare or Fletcher, Massinger himself leaves us in the dark. Shakespeare he never mentions, Fletcher but once, and then only to tell us that Fletcher never had

  • Such reputation and credit won
  • But by his honor’d patron, Huntingdon.
  • Furthermore, the name of Shakespeare’s famous rival whom many younger poets delighted to honour—the name of Ben Jonson—never appears in Massinger’s writings. Perhaps he was not on the best of terms with that outspoken poet. A few ironical words by Massinger about the strange self-love of a writer who professed
  • that when The critics laugh,
  • he ’ll laugh at them agen
  • have been thought—not without some likelihood—to refer to the angry old man who tried to console himself for the failure of one of his last dramas, The New Inne, by bitterly inveighing against hostile critics. As to the possible influence of Jonson’s dramatic method on the compositions of the younger poet, it is discoverable, perhaps, in his two domestic dramas A New Way and The City-Madam. The impressive but exaggerated personifications of the vices of avarice, hypocrisy and pride presented in these comedies are in the manner of Jonson’s types, which were assiduously imitated by later dramatists. In Massinger’s other plays, the traces of Jonsonian influence are very slight: the small group of patriotic Romans in The Roman Actor calls to mind a similar chorus in Sejanus his Fall, and the foolish wooer of The Maid of Honour, Signior Sylli, may claim kinship with Sir Amorous La-Foole in The Silent Woman, by virtue of his name and some remarks about the family of the Syllis.