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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Philip Massinger (1583–1640)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Anna McClure Sholl (1868–1956)
 
THE PLAYS of Philip Massinger embody the prosaic spirit of the period of decline which followed Shakespeare. This spirit is not indicated by the subject-matter of his dramas. The plots of ‘The Duke of Milan,’ ‘The Guardian,’ or ‘The Fatal Dowry,’ admit of great treatment. In Massinger’s hands they are at least well woven. His absence of imagination is shown rather by his lack of moral consistency in the depiction of character. His men and women are puppets, moved to action by the will of their artificer, not by the laws of their individuality.  1
  The events of Massinger’s life are obscure and elusive. He was born in 1583; he entered St. Albans Hall, Oxford, in 1602. During his four years’ residence there “he gave his mind more to poetry and romances than to logic and philosophy.” After leaving Oxford he went up to London, to throw in his fortunes with the frequenters of the Mermaid Tavern. The enchanted world of the drama was at that time clothed in the richness and beauty of its prime. The young hearts of Beaumont and Fletcher, of Webster and Tourneur, still throbbed with “the love of love, the hate of hate.” The brain of genius was still unchilled by doubt and speculation.  2
  Massinger, though contemporary with these great children of a great age, belongs by his spirit to a duller time. His dramas have the solidity of prose without its freedom. His characters and situations lack the spontaneity of nature. He is melodramatic in the sense that his men and women are personifications of virtue or vice. The broad via media, the highway on which the majority of mankind is afoot, has no place in his dramas. He is blind to the half-lights of character,—to the subtle blendings of shade and color in the minds of men.  3
  Camiola and Adorni in ‘The Maid of Honour’ are exceptions to this rule. Camiola, who loves Bertoldo and is herself hopelessly beloved of Adorni, is “a small but ravishing substance.” Her impetuous affection, like Juliet’s, goes directly to its goal without subterfuge or deviation. When she learns from the servants that Bertoldo is in prison, abandoned by the King, the impatience of her sorrow leaps to her lips:—
  “Possible! Pray you, stand off.
If I do mutter treason to myself
My heart will break; and yet I will not curse him,—
He is my King. The news you have delivered
Makes me weary of your company: we’ll salute
When we meet next. I’ll bring you to the door.
Nay, pray you, no more compliments.”
  4
  Adorni is a noble and convincing figure. When commissioned by Camiola to rescue his rival, she asks of him, “You will do this?” He answers, “Faithfully, madam;” then aside, “but not live long after.” Massinger rarely clothes such abundance of meaning in so few words.  5
  ‘The Fatal Dowry’ and ‘The Duke of Milan’ are generally assigned the first place among the tragedies of Massinger. They are stately plays, but dreary and lifeless. His two comedies ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’ and ‘The City Madam’ are comedies only in the sense that they do not end in death and disaster. The character of Sir Giles Overreach in the former play has held the stage until the present time. Of Massinger’s classical dramas, Arthur Symons assigns the highest place to ‘Believe as You List,’ though the better known play ‘The Roman Actor’ was held by the author “to be the most perfect work of my Minerva.”  6
  Massinger is farthest from greatness in his depiction of women. With the exception of Camiola, of Lidia in the ‘Great Duke of Florence,’ of Bellisant in the ‘Parliament of Love,’ of Matilda in the ‘Bashful Lover,’ and of one or two others, his women are vulgar and sensual. Their purity and their vice are alike unconvincing. This defect of portrayal is common, however, to the majority of Massinger’s characters. They are uninteresting because their qualities are imposed upon them. There is no fidelity to the hidden springs of action.  7
  Massinger wrote a number of plays in conjunction with other dramatists. The best known is ‘The Virgin-Martyr.’ Dekker’s touch is recognizable in such lines as these:—
              “I could weary stars,
And force the wakeful moon to lose her eyes,
With my late watching.”
  8
  Massinger was a prolific writer. Beside the plays already mentioned, he gave to the stage of his day ‘The Renegado,’ ‘The Bondman,’ ‘A Very Woman,’ ‘The Emperor of the East,’ ‘The Picture,’ and ‘The Unnatural Combat.’ Coleridge has recommended the diction of Massinger to the imitation of modern writers, on the ground that it is the nearest approach to the language of real life at all compatible with a fixed metre. It is this very characteristic of it which deprives it of the highest poetical quality.  9
 
 
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