Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

The "Salarie of Your Lust": Rethinking the Economics of Virtue in Massinger's Plays

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

The "Salarie of Your Lust": Rethinking the Economics of Virtue in Massinger's Plays

Article excerpt

DEBT, suspicion, and obligation are perhaps the most pervasive of all thematic conflicts in Philip Massinger's many plays. The recurring trope is of characters' foolhardy indebtedness depriving them of the ability to exercise virtue, often leaving financial obligation and moral decay as interdependent. A valuable and as of yet unappreciated context for understanding this conflict is recent work in economic history that challenges the older diachronic depiction of seventeenth-century England as an origin of secularized contract economics; recent scholarship suggests that the early seventeenth century is more than a mere transition from a community-driven and religiously informed market to one of secular individualism. (1) Craig Muldrew redraws the lines of economic transition by describing the early seventeenth century as distinctly reliant on credit relations and a commercial ethic built around reputation rather than debt. (2) A reader of Massinger will receive this historical frame with interest since it suggests a more promising perspective for interpreting Massinger's suspicion of indebtedness as a meaningful statement about the ethical implications of the market setting in theater. Yet a reading of Massinger's treatment of economic virtue is incomplete without also accounting for his steadily eccentric treatment of religion. In T. A. Dunn's opinion, "Alone of all the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists he displays an almost constant religious bias," even if, I would add, this bias is difficult to pin down. (3) Massinger freely employs an untidy mixture of Catholicism, Protestantism, and ancient Christian forms, without expressing exclusive favor for any one religious mode, and scholars have long debated the possibility of Massinger being a Roman Catholic. (4) While searching for Massinger's personal religious views is of limited value to realizing the cultural engagements of his plays, what is relevant is that his characters' reclamations of virtue often take the form of religious penitence, sometimes in disparate ways, and certainly too dynamically to deem his plays "undenominationally Christian." (5)

Against the critical trend to view his plays as merely conventional, this essay proposes that Massinger's fixations with financial obligation and religion emerge as serious respective engagements when read through one another. Massinger criticism--underrepresented but growing--has only recently begun to treat his handling of economics seriously, but such studies rarely explore the relation between economics and religion in depth. (6) For Massinger, stifling indebtedness goes hand-in-hand with spiritual depravity, and the developments in early seventeenth-century economics and theology suggest that Massinger is not alone in this opinion. Theological evolutions in the English church confront problems similar to those faced by the market, namely, the desire to move away from debt-centered theology toward a greater reliance on credit. Massinger's treatment of indebtedness draws attention to the ethical problems that arise in this transition. In short, he censures the kind of remedial virtue that occurs when a character acts to repay a debt, theological or financial; while conversely, he commends virtuous activity that aims at an ethical standard transcending the strictures of the marketplace. Using parallel characters and settings in several of his plays, I will argue that Massinger reacts to the sizeable shifts in the market and church in the early seventeenth century, and I will show how a new perspective on virtue and economic obligation enriches what is traditionally seen as Massinger's merely generic and conventional assessment of virtue and vice.

The importance of debt in early modern England is due in large part to its centrality as a moral concept. The most prominent cultural statement of this is the "Lord's prayer" with its central binding statement, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," translated as "debts" rather than "trespasses" in the 1611 Authorized Version as well as in Cranmer's earlier "Great Bible. …

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