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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

§ 11. His constructive art

The most striking feature of Massinger’s individual art, undoubtedly, is to be found in his great constructive power. The structure of his best plays is admirable in the severity of its lines and in the wise economy shown in the use of his materials. In most cases, he was content with working out a single action; the mixture of plots which many of his brother poets preferred, and of which Shakespeare’s King Lear had been the great example, seems to have had no attraction for a dramatist whose intellect favoured clearness above all other poetical charms. Some of the dramas of his contemporaries resemble mazes in whose artfully interwoven paths both writers and spectators ran the risk of losing themselves—a danger which Richard Brome, for instance, perceived and tried to avoid by drawing attention to particularly difficult complications by an explicit remark of one of his dramatis personae; Massinger’s best plays convey the impression of being well built and ample halls, in which we move with a feeling of perfect security. That he was a severe critic of his own labours is proved by the clear progress to be noted in the construction of his plots in the course of years. The Unnaturall Combat, which the author calls an old work in his dedication, and which appears to be a free rendering of the story of the crimes of the Cenci family, has, no doubt, a central figure in Malefort, the destroyer of his own children; yet it contains not one but two separate tragedies. First, the tragedy of young Malefort, the son, who revenges the death of his mother and is himself killed by her murderer, his father; and then, the tragedy of the daughter, hunted to death by the father’s incestuous passion. In what probably is his second tragedy, The Duke of Millaine, we meet with a striking proof that the dramatist had not yet learned to economise his subject: the fate of his heroine reaches the tragic climax at the end of the fourth act, so that he was obliged to fill the fifth act with a new action, not clearly hinted at before, a brother’s revenge for the injury done to his sister. It is true that, in the last tragedy composed by Massinger alone, The Roman Actor, Paris, the actor, falls a victim to the jealousy of the emperor also in the fourth act; nevertheless, the poet was entitled to speak of this drama as “the most perfect birth of his Minerva,” because the fate of the player was not his chief object: he wished to present the tragedy of the bloodthirsty madness of the Roman Caesars, personified in Domitian, whose ruin is prepared and effected in the fifth act.

Our admiration of Massinger’s power of dramatic construction is further heightened, if we come to look at the raw materials at his disposal. Nothing, for instance, could be more interesting than to observe how, in The Roman Actor, the process of blending the accounts of historians, of Suetonius and Dio Cassius principally, results in well arranged scenes in which no trace of patchwork is to be discovered. Not less cunningly the plot of The Renegado is pieced together out of different works of Cervantes. That Massinger’s predilection for a single action is not to be explained by the inability to marshal and, finally, to unite a greater number of figures, is demonstrated by the lively scenes of his Parliament of Love, for the intrigues in which he availed himself of motives drawn from Martial d’Auvergne, Shakespeare, Marston and, probably, also from Middleton. It must be confessed, however, that, in this case, the fusion is not flawless, Leonora’s senseless cruelty showing that the dramatist’s wish to use a striking episode of a Marstonian drama was stronger than his respect for what the laws of psychology allow to be possible.