Giving and Taking in Massinger's Tragicomedies

By Turner, Robert Y. | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview
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Giving and Taking in Massinger's Tragicomedies


Turner, Robert Y., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


In Philip Massinger's The Renegado (1624), a romantic tragicomedy about impetuous love, the rescue of a captive maiden, and hairbreadth escapes, the hero begins the play disguised as a shopkeeper. When a Tunisian princess first sees and falls in love with him, she is visiting his shop with a suitor, Mustapha, the Basha of Aleppo. This conjunction of the everyday life of commerce with the exotic world of romance may surprise readers familiar with the proprieties of genre in the early seventeenth century when shopkeepers appeared mainly in satiric comedies, and romantic lovers mainly in tragicomedies and tragedies. For the most part, Massinger did observe this decorum, writing about money matters in two comedies, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1621-1625) and The City Madam (1632), and about romantic love mainly in eight extant tragicomedies (not to mention his collaborations with John Fletcher). Yet the episode of the shopkeeper in The Renegado is not unusual in Massinger's work. Most of his tragicomedies disclose a fundamental concern for economic exchange, whether it is buying and selling, debts and payments, or gifts and obligations. This interest imparts a special coloring to his representations of domestic and public life, a coloring not much noticed by commentators.(1) Mathias, the protagonist of The Picture (ca. 1629), a tragicomedy about testing the fidelity of lovers, must leave his home and beautiful wife to gain "rich materialls" (I.i.44) to augment his "narrow demeanes" (I.i.22).(2) One would expect after reading stories of this kind, such as Chaucer's Franklin's Tale, that he would leave home to test his valor and acquire honors, not wealth. In The Emperor of the East (1631), a tragicomedy about the uxorious love of a headstrong young king, Massinger chooses to render his irrational state of mind by wasteful extravagance rather than, say, by deeds of reckless bravery. To celebrate his marriage, King Theodosius frees all debtors from prison and pays their creditors from the royal coffers. Perhaps it is not surprising that, as a second-generation playwright, following in the footsteps of such distinguished predecessors as Shakespeare, Jonson, Marston, Middleton, Beaumont, and especially Fletcher, Massinger would deviate somewhat from his models. But the pressures of the London mercantile world, a part of which was the commercial theater, and the court, always in search of new sources of revenue while distributing favors erratically, also affected Massinger's outlook as well as the interests of his audience.

Massinger's predecessors who dramatized money matters placed the weight of their attention upon the city market where merchants and moneylenders use trickery to exploit the landed gentry and each other. In general, the playwrights showed the pursuit of profits to be inhumane by overriding the claims of family, friend, or state. In the final analysis profits turn out to be fool's gold, a source of dissatisfaction and futility. Since a simple, impersonal exchange of buying and selling does not readily lend itself to much dramatic elaboration, playwrights turned time and again to the overdue contract, when the money-lender enforces its harsh terms no matter what the extenuating circumstances. Shylock's bond provides an obvious example, but city comedies, such as Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One or Michaelmas Term use it, and we find it in Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam. Details of an alternative humane economy seem not to have attracted playwrights writing for the coterie theaters during the high period of city comedy in the first decade of the seventeenth century. We must look outside drama to Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" to find a different world of harmonious exchange. Jonson envisions a rural community of patrons and clients where an impersonal exchange of money does not intrude upon the benevolent exchange of gifts and rewards for needs and service.(3)

Massinger's plays, especially his tragicomedies, do give sustained attention to such an alternative economy of patronage as the one idealized in Jonson's poem.

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