Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 17. His style: preponderance of the rhetorical element

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

VI. Philip Massinger

§ 17. His style: preponderance of the rhetorical element

As to versification and poetic diction, Massinger’s mastership is indisputable; his dramas contain many passages in which the beauty of the style equals the vigour of the thought. He is a great orator, excelling in speeches in which, after the fashion of lawyers, speakers have to defend some particular position and to put their case in the most favourable light. Belgarde, insisting on the merits of the soldier; Sforza, endeavouring to convince the emperor that he, too, might find him a faithful and useful ally, notwithstanding his loyalty towards the French King; Timoleon of Corinth, soundly rating the Syracusans for having shamefully neglected the means of defence of their country; Paris, in his apology for the stage; Lidia, in her pathetic pleading for her lover; Athenais, appealing to the compassion of Pulcheria—these and many other heroes and heroines of Massinger’s are never at a loss for powerful, convincing or moving words when in critical situations. The mechanical tricks of the Euphuistic style are, for Massinger, a thing of the past; his use of alliteration is very discreet, in most cases undoubtedly unconscious, and the insertion of Latin words or quotations, in which the older dramatists delighted, is a great rarity with him—in these respects, he strikes us as a far more modern writer than his predecessors and many of his contemporaries. But, on the otherhand, it cannot be denied that he also has his peculiar blemishes and tricks of style, and, among them, one which is very obtrusive and for which he has been frequently censured—a mania for repeating himself. He possesses a considerable store of set phrases, metaphors and similes, which he strews around on every occasion without troubling himself to vary and individualise his expressions. Especially numerous and montonous are his classical illustrations: Aeson and Medea, Hippolytus, Diana and Phaedra, Pasiphae and her bull, Alcides and his poisoned shirt, and a great many other figures and objects of classical mythology continually remind us of Massinger’s having received a classical education, a fact which is also recalled to us by the frequent translations of famous passages of ancient authors noticeable in his verse.

On the other hand, many of Massinger’s similes, however bookish, mirror genuinely English impressions, originally received from the contemplation of the sea, its coasts and the life of sailors. The foam-covered rock, the stream which loses its name in the ocean, the ship, returning or outward bound, the small boat wrecked by the weight of its own sails, and many other maritime incidents, are frequently mentioned. In certain situations, which repeat themselves in his dramas, stereotyped formulas are sure to be used: if a beautiful lady is to be won, Massinger’s personages never forget to talk of her “virgin fort”; the charms of his passionate ladies, when they take the wooing upon themselves, are so powerful that even an ascetic hermit would be at a loss how to resist them; Lidia and Camiola, both of them in love with men of a higher social position, talk of their north-star and of the impossibility of the wren’s building near the eagle. Too often the tinsel of these colourless phrases reminds us of the haste of the dramatist, sacrificing one of the greatest charms of any poem, its freshness of expression, to the wish to have done with his work.