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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

§ 13. His women

In view of this inclination of Massinger to repeat himself, we are not surprised to find, also, that many of his dramatis personae resemble each other in a pronounced manner; the theory of the typical characters of a dramatist stands confirmed by many of his figures. The most typical of his heroines is the passionate woman who falls violently in love at first sight and runs to the embraces of her beloved without any reserve. This class of women is most characteristically represented by the Turkish princess Donusa, who offers herself to the unsuspicious Vitelli and persists in her wooing until he becomes the victim of her seductive charms, notwithstanding his Christian scruples about her being an infidel. With the same self-abandonment, the empress Domitia makes love to the handsome player Paris. Nor can Aurelia, the duchess of Siena, in The Maid of Honour, who, at the first sight of young Bertoldo, forgets all about her princely dignity, and claims him for herself, to his intense surprise and to the great dissatisfaction of her court, be rated higher than her heathen sisters, though she retains at least an outward show of decency. Less objectionable, but not less masterful, appears this form of the passion of love in the character of another duchess, Fiorinda of Urbino, in The Great Duke of Florence, who abjectly endeavours to induce the unwilling Sannazaro to take herself and her duchy, though she knows that he loves another, the charming Lidia. Another copy of the same type is the inconstant Almira in A Very Woman, who obstinately refuses to listen favourably to the wooing of the price of Tarent, but, later, when he crosses her way once more in the habit of a slave, is immediately charmed with him to such a degree that she, the daughter of the viceroy of Sicily, does not hesitate to offer a nocturnal meeting to him, a slave. Massinger himself so much affected scenes in which a woman acts the part of the wooer, that he introduced a similar situation in a play where there was no pressing need for it: queen Honoria in The Picture seeks to seduce the knight Mathias, only in order to be able to refuse him, and, in this manner, to punish him for having praised the beauty and the chastity of his wife.

A somewhat subtler art of character painting we observe in Massinger’s delineation of the nature of those women who are not the powerless victims of a sudden passion. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the utterances and the behaviour of his virtuous women often reveal that, in drawing female characters, he could rarely escape from the region of the senses. But, though most of Massinger’s women are of the earth, earthy, we must not forget that he was able to create at least two women in another mould: the chaste Camiola and the lovable Lidia. Camiola, the Maid of Honour, deserves this appellation, though, perhaps, the poet impaired the nobleness of her presence and of her actions by two superfluous additions: the violence of her refusal of an unwelcome, boisterous wooer—whose bodily defects she criticises in a strain approaching, though by no means equalling, the invectives which the passionate Donusa hurls at the head of the unfortunate basha of Aleppo when he comes to court her—and the cautious contract (taken from the source of the play) by which Bertoldo, to liberate whom Camiola spent a fortune, is placed under an obligation to marry her. Perfectly delightful is Lidia, the youthful heroine of The Great Duke of Florence. In her, everything is charming: the simplicity with which she talks of her love for prince Giovanni; her naive conviction that the fiercest enemy “would let fall his weapon” when looking on the sweetness of her lover; her anxious pleading at the feet of the duke, who is righteously angry with his deceitful nephew, and her trembling readiness to sacrifice her own hopes to the happiness of the prince. Nothing could be more winning than the manner of her receiving the fatal letter of her boy lover: she kisses it, she scarcely dares to hurt it by breaking the seal fastened by the beloved hand—even Shakespeare’s Julia did not prattle more tenderly when kissing and piecing together the fragments of the letter of her beloved Proteus.

With this exception, a comparative survey of the women of Shakespeare and Massinger is the surest means for convincing us how rapidly the moral character of the English stage had changed since the days of the greater poet. The effrontery of Donusa and Massinger’s other women of the same stamp would suffice to indicate the rise of a taste demanding stronger stimulants; but he went far beyond the loss of dignity and of delicacy of feeling which they exhibit. He created the Syracusan Corsica, the lewd wife of old Creon, who tries to seduce her stepson (The Bond-Man); Iolante, who, in the absence of her husband, is ready to accept the first handsome stranger as lover (The Guardian)—not to speak of bawds like Calipso in the same play, or the drunken hag Borachia in A Very Woman. We are but rarely allowed to forget that Massinger is seperated from Shakespeare by Fletcher, whose plays had accustomed the public to the open licence of women.

Massinger’s male characters, as a rule, are more interesting than his women. If we except one short scene of the patriotic Cleora, his women think and talk of nothing but the dominating passion of love in its different gradations; while their lovers, though meeting their desires, are yet, at the same time, not rarely made the interpreters of the views of the author. The Venetian Vitelli, whose virtue is too weak to resist the temptations of the infidel Donusa, is, by the admonitions of his ghostly counsellor, the Jesuit Francisco, filled with a repentance which rises to religious ecstasy, so that, in the end, he even aspires to the glory of the death of a martyr, becoming the most eloquent exponent of Massinger’s religious feelings. Still more distinctly, we hear the voice of the poet himself in one of the speeches of Paris the Roman actor, in a splendid apology for the stage and its poets and players. Paris, the favourite of the Roman public, is cited before the senate, being accused of satirical attacks on persons of rank and of being a libeller “against the state and Caesar.” The gist of the actor’s defence is that he and his companions cannot help it, if the conscience of the spectators is shaken by what is done and said on the stage; The energetic flow of this oratio pro domo, one of Massinger’s rhetorical masterpieces, and its superfluousness from the dramatic point of view—for it stands quite outside the action of the tragedy—show how willingly he availed himself of the opportunity offered by the part of the actor to speak against the detractors of his art in general, and against those “Catos of the stage” of whose persecutions he bitterly complains in one of his rare prologues.