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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

§ 8. Massinger’s political opinions

That, notwithstanding those warning examples, Massinger could not resist the temptation of meddling with politics, we know on good authority. In January, 1631, the master of the revels, Sir Henry Herbert, refused to license one of Massinger’s plays, “because it did contain dangerous matter, as the deposing of Sebastian, King of Portugal, by Philip II, and there being a peace sworn betwixt the Kings of England and Spain.” From the same “Cato of the stage” we hear, besides, that, in 1638, king Charles himself, perusing a new play by Massinger, entitled The King and the Subject, marked one passage for alteration with the words: “This is too insolent, and to be changed.” The play itself is lost; but the objectionable verses have been preserved for us by the censor himself. They are taken from an angry speech of Don Pedro, king of Spain, proclaiming despotically the absolute right of the king to raise new taxes. It was then the time of king Charles’s exaction of ship-money, stoutly resisted by many of his subjects, and it is hardly to be doubted that the poet when composing, and the king when cancelling, this passage were both thinking, from a very different point of view, of the possible effect this manifestation might have on the audience.

Believe as you List, against which the censor had entered his veto in order to avoid giving offence to the Spanish government, was licensed a few months later, in May, 1631, in a revised shape, the poet having made it acceptable by changing the costume of his dramatis personae. Instead of the Portuguese king deposed by Spain, Massinger introduced a fabulous Asiatic king Antiochus, deposed and pitilessly persecuted by Rome. After this change, the censor found nothing smacking of recent political changes in the play; and this proves that he did not think of the possibility of another political interpretation, since suggested by S. R. Gardiner. According to this view, Massinger’s play had a very real meaning indeed, being intended to mirror the fate of the unfortunate brother-in-law of Charles I, Federick V, elector Palatine and titular king of Bohemia, who, at that time, was a landless fugitive persecuted by his powerful enemies, just as Massinger’s dethroned Antiochus was by the Romans. Prusias, king of Bithynia, who, against his own inclinations, is forced to give up his guest to his enemies, is said to represent Charles himself, who refrained from actively assisting his brother-in-law; Flaminius, the Roman ambassador, is the Spanish ambassador, intriguing against Frederick at the English court; Philoxenus, the king of Bithynia’s counsellor, who made common cause with Rome, is the lord treasurer Weston, who used his influence with the king in the Spanish interest; and, finally, the kind queen of Bithynia, who tried in vain to save the hapless fugitive, is Henrietta Maria, queen of England, who cordially disliked Weston.

Some years after the publication of Gardiner’s ingenious hypothesis, the main source of Massinger’s plot was discovered in the French historian Pierre Victor Palma Cayet’s account of the fate of the Portuguese pretender, known as the false Sebastian. A detailed comparison led to the result that the dramatist found the prototypes of all his chief characters in Cayet’s work, with the sole exception of the nameless wife of Prusias. It is quite possible, however, that her introduction was caused by the same need of the dramatist which made him add two amatory incidents to his plot: he wanted some female characters to brighten a political story which offered him only male personages. Gardiner’s assumption that the dramatist, when he made his Antiochus a fugitive, must have been thinking of Frederick’s wanderings, because there was nothing similar to be found in the Sebastian story, is refuted by an examination of Massinger’s source. Cayet gives a detailed account of the wanderings of the Portuguese impostor and tells how, flying before the persecutions of the Spaniards, he came first to Venice in the hope of being acknowledged and protected by the republic, and afterwards to the court of the grand duke of Florence, who, by the pressure of Spain, was finally obliged to deliver the pretender into the hands of his enemies. Also, the surprising fact already alluded to, that, at the end of the English drama, we hear only of the imprisonment, not of the death, of the hero, is explained by the circumstance that Cayet, when penning his account, was not yet aware of the final execution of the pretender.

The decisive influence of the French chronicler on Massinger’s plot is not to be questioned; nevertheless, it is possible that the dramatist was reminded by some of the circumstances of the Sebastian story of the sad fate of the German prince and the vacillations of the English king, and that, induced by his personal and political sympathies, he did his best to surround Antiochus and his friends with a poetical nimbus. His fugitive, certainly, is no impostor, but a man of kingly bearing. Gardiner observed that the two Herberts, the brothers William and Philip, were opposed to Weston, trying to counterbalance his influence by means of the queen: and the introduction into Massinger’s play of the nameless queen of Bithynia and the part taken by her in its action remain the only substantial arguments in favour of the historians’ political interpretation.

That Massinger was sincerely interested in the fate of the quondam elector is proved by certain passages in another play, The Maid of Honour, containing veiled but unmistakable allusions to his fate and to James I’s tardiness in assisting his son-in-law, a slackness which had been blamed by many of his subjects and which was repeated by Charles. Some further passages, which, possibly, may refer to political personages and events of his days, have been pointed out in several other of Massinger’s plays, particularly in the tragicomedy The Bond-Man, which seems to convey a severe criticism of the royal favourite, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, and of the unsatisfactory state of the English fleet. All the utterances of Massinger which are supposed to be of a political character show him in opposition to the faction of the court.