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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

§ 16. His comical figures

As to Massinger’s comical scenes, in which the male element again preponderates, his tragedies indicate an evident tendency to re-establish the purity of the tragic style. In what probably was his earliest tragedy, The Unnaturall Combat, a comical character appears in the person of Belgarde, a needy and ever hungry soldier, who, at a sudden favourable turn of his fortunes, is overwhelmed by claims of paternity something like Moliere’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac; but his chief scene is in harmony with the serious tenor of the whole work. Finding himself excluded from a banquet in the governor’s palace on account of his threadbare old suit, he comes to it in the habit which he had worn for the welfare of his country “in the heat and fervour of a bloody fight”—in his armour, eloquently and bitterly blaming the ingratitude of the world which lets soldiers starve in times of peace. In The Duke of Millaine, the report of the jailor as to the effect of a whipping on some of his former prisoners is more satirical than comical; and in The Roman Actor the dignity of tragedy is never disturbed by an attempt to raise a laugh. In the comedies, on the other hand, the usual stock of servants and gulls, of pert pages and humorous old men is to be found. There appear Calandrino, the boorish servant, aping the manners of the court; Gazet, the ambitious servant, who aspires to the office of an eunuch; and many others. The slaves of Syracuse, who, in The Bond-Man, rebel against their oppressors, are represented as ridiculous and abject creatures, with that curious indifference to the sufferings and rights of the people frequently to be noted in the drama of the period. Two of Massinger’s comical old men, the voracious and venal judge Greedy in A New Way, and the courtier Cuculo, who, in view of his frequent hints at his statesmanship, appears to be a weak reproduction of the Polonius type, are farcical, while the free-spoken Eubulus and the merry Durazzo sometimes speak very much to the purpose between their jokes: Eubulus, like Belgarde, in favour of the neglected soldiers for whom the poet, patriotically anxious about the defence of his country, puts in a good word on every occasion; Durazzo, chanting the praise of healthy country life and of the delights of the chase, especially of falconry, of which “royal sport” he gives a very pleasing description.

One cannot help observing with what persistency the satire with which dramatists frequently combined the fun of their lighter scenes is by Massinger aimed at the inmates of the courts of princes. In two of his plays, depraved courtiers, who, persuaded of the force of their own fascinations, think the seduction of women an easy task, become the victims of practical jokes and are exposed to general contempt. The exaggerated importance attached to exterior appearance and to more or less worthless ceremonies, the frequent neglect of true merit, the ridiculous pride shown by noblemen “of the last edition”—these and many other unpleasant peculiarities of court life are referred to by the poet repeatedly, and with a force of expression which might lead us to think that his bitterness was caused by disagreeable personal experiences. Other objects of Massinger’s satire are the projector and the monopolist, the empiric and the astrologer. Now and then, he attacks his countrymen in general, dishing up once more the well worn complaints about their fondness for hard drinking and for aping in their dress and manners outlandish, particularly French, fashions; and, once, he even permits a connoisseur of human wares, a slave merchant, the remark that all English people, men and women, are stark mad—remembering, very likely, one of the best known jokes of the grave digger in Hamlet. Notwithstanding such occasional humorous criticisms, we are made to feel that the poet himself was proud of being an Englishman. At the end of an uncomplimentary conversation of some Italian servants about the gross feeding and the correspondingly gross understanding of Englishmen stands the telling line: “They can fight and that’s their all,” and Bertoldo, the faithless lover of The Maid of Honour, utters a sincere panegyric on England, “the empress of the European isles,” though it is true that we can discover a melancholy inflection in the poet’s voice, the eulogy referring not to the present but to a past state of things. Concerning the political situation of his own days, Massinger shared the dissatisfaction felt by many patriotic contemporaries.

It is noteworthy that Massinger’s satirical allusions avoid two themes frequently treated by other dramatists of his time: neither satirical remarks of a literary kind, parodies of passages of the works of older writers, nor violent invectives to the address of the irreconcilable enemies of the stage, the puritans, are to be found in his plays, the nearest approach to such an attack being the statement of the jailor in The Duke of Millaine, that a sectary who would not yield to any argument of reason was made a “fine pulpit-man” by a trussing of his haunches. Probably, Massinger, who was himself prone to religious meditation, admired in secret the moral rectitude of the puritans and their energy of purpose; he may even have felt oppressed by the consciousness that he was helping to heihten the animosity of their adversaries by participating in the scurrility and viciousness then characteristic of the stage. As it is, his comic dialogue abounds in coarse innuendos. Massinger’s comic characters, advisedly, perorate in blank verse; the quacksalver, however, and the star-gazer are allowed to announce their wisdom in prose, possibly because it would have been a difficult task to versify smoothly the strange, half-Latin terms of their pseudoscientific galimatias.