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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

§ 15. His villains

Guilty women of the stamp of lady Macbeth and the two daughters of king Lear, in whose lives not the passion of love but a stormy, and, if need be, sanguinary, ambition, is the dominant influence, are not to be found in Massinger’s dramas; only his men appear capable of conceiving and executing criminal plans. His villains, generally, are monsters of the darkest dye; they resemble each other in being free of any redeeming quality. Even if they act as avengers, they display so much baseness of mind that the wrong suffered by them is forgotten in our indignation at their perfidiousness. Francisco, the treacherous favourite of the duke of Milan, is spurred on by his desire to punish Sforza for having dishonoured his sister, an impulse of which we are informed much too late, long after he has forfeited all our sympathy by the wickedness of the means he uses to gain his end. First of all, he tries to seduce Sforza’s wife, and, as he is foiled in this attempt by the resistance of the duchess, he accuses her of having made love to him, and succeeds in instigating her jealous and credulous husband to kill her. Finally, after having been bitterly reviled by his sister for cautiously sparing the life of her seducer, he enters the ducal palace in the disguise of a Jewish doctor and covers the lips and hands of the corpse of Marcelia with poisonous paint, so that Sforza is killed by kissing her: from beginning to end he acts the part of a perfidious coward, carefully abstaining from any direct attack on his mighty adversary himself. A still more despicable villain is Montreville, who, pretending to be the friend of old Malefort, avenges himself on him for injuries borne in silence during many years by dishonouring his innocent daughter Theocrine. As to the murderous and incestuous Malefort himself, one would feel inclined to regard him as an impossible monster, an isolated creature of the poet’s fantasy, did not this very isolation strengthen our belief that Massinger’s freely treated model was a historical personage, an Italian villain—that Francesco Cenci who had been killed, by murderers hired by his own daughter, some twenty years before the composition of Massinger’s tragedy. Through the enormity of his crimes, Malefort’s dark shape assumes gigantic dimensions, and we are not astonished that the poet himself felt the need of annihilating his monstrous creation, not by mortal agents, but by the direct interfernce of Heaven itself.

Massinger’s imperial malefactor, the bloodthirsty tyrant Domitian, does not stand so entirely beyond the limits of humanity as Malefort. He becomes vulnerable by his infatuation for the profligate Domitia, and this one human weakness proves fatal to him: he spares her life, forefeited by her adulterous passion for Paris, and when, later, infuriated by her imprecations at the murder of the player, he resolves to kill her, it is too late; Domitia herself heads the crowd of his assassins. By a skilful arrangement of the historical background, the dramatist succeeds in making us believe in the life-likeness of his tyrant as the natural outcome of a cruel age.

These criminals, who are finally struck down by the nemesis of their evil deeds, are the central figures of tragedies whose action lies in the far past and in foreign lands. But, even in those two comedies whose dramatis personae are intended to represent countrymen and contemporaries of the poet, we meet with two great villains: with the heartless usurer Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, and with the hypocrite Luke Frugal in The City-Madam. Sir Giles Overreach, who tries to bring his spendthrift nephew, one of the victims of his extortions, to the gallows, who commands his amiable daughter to offer herself to the lord to whom he wishes to marry her, and who boasts of his cruelties towards his debtors, be they widows or orphans, becomes so tremendous a villain, that, in order to free humanity of the fiend, the conclusion of the comedy—as, indeed, the whole conception of this ruthless character—touches the borders of tragedy. Deluded in all his ambitious hopes, the infuriated usurer goes mad. In the case of Luke Frugal, who has not hesitated to cause the betrayal of the women entrusted to his care—the wife and two daughters of his brother—the poet contents himself with stripping him of all his splendour and with exposing him to the contempt of all around him. In these two domestic comedies, one of the most glaring defects of Massinger’s dramatic world, its frequent want of truth, strikes us most forcibly. The usurer’s bragging proclamation of his vices and his crimes, which reminds us of the equally impressive and equally unlikely self-accusation of Chaucer’s pardoner, is quite as incredible as is the obtuseness of the insidious Luke, when confronted by the gross deception practised on him. The sober light of day is unfavourable to Massinger’s characters; they stand in need of the romantic twilight of the past, in order to gain a certain, but too often limited, likeness to life.