Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, and Ford
WE have seen, in what has been already said of the intellectual habits of the Elizabethan dramatists, that it was a common practice for two, three, four, and sometimes five writers to co-operate in the production of one play. Thus Dekkar and Webster were partners in writing “ Northward Ho !” and “ Westward Ho ! ” Ben Jonson, Marston, and Chapman, in writing “Eastward Ho!” Drayton, Middleton, Dekkar, Webster, and Munday, in writing “The Two Harpies.” These unions were evidently sometimes formed, as in the case of Webster and Dekkar, from a mutual belief that the sombre mind of the one was unsuited to the treatment of certain scenes and characters which were exactly in harmony with the sunny genius of the other ; but they were doubtless often brought about by the demand of theatre managers for a new play at a short notice, in which case the dramatist who had the job hurriedly sketched the plan, and then applied to his brother playwrights to take stock in the enterprise, payable in daily or weekly instalments of mirth or passion. But there were two writers of the period, twins in genius, and bound together by more than brotherly affection, whose literary union was so much closer than the occasional combinations of other dramatists, that it is now difficult to dissociate, in the public mind, Francis Beaumont from John Fletcher, or even to change the order of their names, though it can easily be proved that the firm of Beaumont and Fletcher owes by far the greater portion of its capital to the teeming brain of the second partner.
The materials for their biography are scanty. Beaumont was the son of a judge, was born about the year 1586, resided a short period at Oxford, but left without taking a degree, and, at the age of fifteen, was entered a member of the Inner Temple. Fletcher, the son of the “ courtly and comely ” Bishop Fletcher, was born in December, 1579, and was educated at Cambridge, but seems to have been designed for no profession. At what time and under what circumstances the poets met we have no record. The probability is, that, as both were esteemed by Ben Jonson, he it was who brought them together. It is more than probable that Fletcher, the elder of the two, had written for the theatres before his acquaintance with Beaumont began ; and that in “The Woman-Hater” and “ Thierry and Theodoret ” he had proved his ability both as a comic and tragic dramatist before Beaumont had thought of dramatic composition. When they did meet, they found, in Aubrey’s words, a “wonderful consimility of phansy” between them, which resulted in an exceeding “ dearnesse of friendship”; and the old antiquary adds: “They lived together on the Banke side, not far from the playhouse, both bachelors, lay together,” and “ had the same cloths and cloak” between them. Their first joint composition was the tragi-comedy of “ Philaster,” produced about the year 1608 ; and we may suppose that this community of goods as well as thoughts continued until 1613, when Beaumont was married, and that the friendship was unbroken in 1616, when Beaumont died. Fletcher lived until August, 1625, at which time he was suddenly cut off by the plague, in his forty-sixth year.
In regard to the question as to Beaumont’s share in the authorship of the fifty-two plays which go under the name of Beaumont and Fletcher, let us first quote the indignant doggerel which Sir Aston Cokaine addressed to the publisher of the first edition, in 1647:—
And Massinger in other few: the main
Being sole issues of sweet Fletcher’s brain.
But how came I, you ask, so much to know ?
Fletcher’s chief bosom-friend informed me so.”
This gives us no information touching the special plays which Beaumont assisted in producing. None of them were published as joint productions during his life, and only three during the nine or ten years that Fletcher survived him. Of the fifty-two dramas in the collection, fifty were written in the eighteen years which elapsed between 1607 and 1625. During the first years of their partnership neither seemed to be dependent on the stage for support ; and it is almost certain that Beaumont’s income continued to be adequate to his wants, and that his pen was never spurred into action by poverty. The result was that the earlier dramas were composed more slowly and carefully than the later. A year elapsed between the production of their first play, “Philaster,” in 1608, and “ The Maid’s Tragedy,” in 1609. In 1610 Fletcher alone brought out “ The Faithful Shepherdess.” In 1611, “A King and No King ” and “ The Knight of the Burning Pestle ” were acted. These five dramas, one exclusively by Fletcher, the other joint productions, are commonly ranked as their best works, and are considered to include all the capacities of their genius. If we suppose that after 1611 they wrote two plays a year, we have fifteen as the number produced up to the period of Beaumont’s death, leaving thirty-five which were written by Fletcher alone in nine years. We do not think that Beaumont’s hand can be traced in more than fifteen of the plays, or that it is predominant in more than six.
With individual differences as to mind and temperament, these dramatists had some general characteristics in common. They agreed in being tainted with the fashionable slavishness and fashionable immorality of the court of James. They believed in the divine right of kings as piously as any bishop, and they violated all the decencies of life as recklessly as any courtier. The impurity of Beaumont, however, seems the result of elaborate thinking, that of Fletcher the running over of heedless animal spirits. They agreed also in certain leading dramatic concoptions and types of character; and they agreed, in regard to the morality of their plays, in subordinating their consciences to their audiences. But the mind of Beaumont was as slow, solid, and painstaking as his associate’s was rapid, mercurial, and inventive. The tradition runs that his chief business was to correct the overflowings of Fletcher’s fancy, and hold its volatile creativeness in check. Everybody of that age commended his judgment, and even Ben Jonson is said to have consulted him in regard to his plots. The plays in which he had a main hand exhibit a firmer hold upon character, a more orderly disposition of the incidents, and greater symmetry in the construction, than the others. The verse is also simpler, sweeter, more voluble, with few of the double and triple endings and harsh pauses of Fletcher’s. Take, for example, the passage in which Philaster recounts his meeting with Bellario : —
I found him sitting by a fountain’s side,
Of which be borrowed some to quench his thirst,
And paid the nymph again as much in tears.
A garland lay him by, made by himself
Of many several flowers bred in the vale,
Stuck in that mystic order that the rareness
Delighted me ; but ever when he turned
His tender eyes upon ’em he would weep,
As if he meant to make ’em grow again.”
Now contrast this with a characteristic passage from Fletcher: —
Rent from Oëta by a sweeping tempest,
jointed again, and made a mast, defies
Those raging winds that split him ; so will I
Pieced to my never-failing strength and fortune,
Steer through these swelling dangers, plough their prides up,
And bear like thunder through their loudest tempests.”
Beaumont also, though his general temperament was not so poetical as his partner’s, had a thin vein of poetry in him, which was superior in quality and depth to Fletcher’s, though sooner exhausted. Beaumont, we think it was, who conceived that beautiful type of womanhood of which Bellario in “Philaster,” Panthea in “A King and No King,” and Viola in “ The Coxcomb,” are perhaps the most exquisite embodiments, and which also appears, somewhat dissolved in sentimentality, in Aspasia in “ The Maid’s Tragedy.” It is true that Shakespeare had already represented this type of character with even more force and purity in his Viola ; but still Beaumont’s mind appears to have penetrated to its ideal sources, and not to have copied it from his greater contemporary. Beaumont could only repeat it under other names, after its first embodiment in Bellario ; but it was too delicate and elusive for Fletcher even to repeat, and it never appears in the dramas he wrote after Beaumont’s death. Fletcher has given us many examples of womanly virtue, devotion, and heroism ; but he had a bad trick of disconnecting virtue from modesty, and the talk of his best and noblest women is often such as would scare womankind from any theatre of the present day. Beaumont alone could combine feminine innocence with feminine virtue, the most ethereal softness and sweetness with martyr-like heroism, knowledge of good with ignorance of evil, and invest the whole representation with a visionary charm, so that it affects us as Panthea did Arbaces : —
Nor beautiful ; these words express her not;
They say her looks have something excellent,
That wants a name.”
Fletcher could not, we think, have written Bellario’s account of her love for Philaster, as it runs in Beaumont’s limpid verse : —
Your worth and virtue ; and as I did grow
More and more apprehensive, I did thirst
To see the man so praised. Tut yet all this
Was but a maiden-longing, to be lost
As soon as found ; till, sitting in my window,
Printing my thoughts in lawn, I saw a god,
I thought, (but if was you,} enter our gates ;
My blood flew out and back again, as fast
As I had puffed it forth and sucked it in
Like breath : then was I called away in haste
To entertain you. Never was a man,
Heaved from a sheep-cote to a sceptre, raised
So high in thoughts as I. You left a kiss
Upon these lips then, which I mean to keep
From you forever ; I did hear you talk,
Far above singing. After you were gone,
I grew acquainted with my heart, and searched
What stirred it so ; alas, I found it love ! ”
With this superior fineness of perception, Beaumont also excelled his associate in solid humor. The chief proof of this is to be found in his delineations, in “ The Knight of the Burning Pestle,” of the London citizen and his wife. These have a geniality, richness, and raciness, a closeness to nature and to fact, unexcelled by any contemporary pictures of Elizabethan manners and character, not excepting even Ben Jonson’s. A more extravagant, but hardly less delicious, example of Beaumont’s humor is his character of Bessus, in " A King and No King,” — a braggart whose cowardice is sustained by assurance so indomitable as to wear the aspect of courage; one who is too base to feel insult, who cannot be kicked out of his chirping self-esteem, but presents as cheerful a countenance to infamy as to honor.
After, however, awarding to Beaumont all that he can properly claim, he must still be placed below Fletcher, not merely in fertility, but in force and variety of genius. Of Fletcher, indeed, it is difficult to convey an adequate idea, without running into some of his own extravagance, and without quoting passages which would shock all modern notions of decency. He most assuredly was not a great man nor a great poet. He lacked seriousness, depth, purpose, principle, imaginative closeness of conception, imaginative condensation of expression. He saw everything at one remove from its soul and essence, and must be ranked with poets of the second class. But no other poet ever had such furious animal spirits, a keener sense of enjoyment, a more perfect abandonment to whatever was uppermost in his mind at the moment. There was no bar in his rakish and dissolute nature. Everything in him — wit, humor, fancy, appetite, sentiment, passion, knowledge of life, knowledge of books, all his good and all his bad thoughts — met no impediment of taste or principle in their rush into expression. His eyes flash, his cheeks glow, as he writes. His air is hurried and eager; the blood that tingles and throbs in his veins flushes his words ; and will and judgment, taken captive, follow with reluctant steps and half-averted faces the perilous lead of the passions they should direct. As there was no reserve in him, there was no reserved power. Rich as were the elements of his nature, they were never thoroughly organized in intellectual character; and as no presiding personality regulated the activity of his mind, he seems hardly to be morally responsible for the excesses into which he was impelled. Composition, indeed, sets his brain in a whirl. He sometimes writes as if inspired by a satyr ; he sometimes writes as if inspired by a seraph ; but neither satyr nor seraph had any hold on his individuality, and neither could put fetters on his caprice. There is the same gusto in his indecencies as in his refinements. Though an Englishman, he has no morality, except that morality which is connected with generous instincts, or which is awakened by the sense of beauty. Though the son of a bishop, he had no religion, except that religion which consists in an alternate worship of Venus, Bacchus, and Mars. An incurable mental and moral levity is the characteristic of his writings, — a levity which has its source in an intoxication of the soul through an excess of feeling and sensation, and which makes him moral or immoral, sentimental or sensual, according to the impulse or temptation of the moment.
This giddiness of soul, in which decorum is ignored rather than denied, is most brilliantly and buoyantly exhibited in his comedies. In “The Chances,” “ The Spanish Curate,” “ The Custom of the Country,” “ Rule a Wife and have a Wife,” “ The Wild-Goose Chase,” and especially in “ Monsieur Thomas” and “The Little French Lawyer,” we see the comic muse emancipated from all restraint, loose, freespoken, sportive, sparkling,—-indeed almost madly merry. It is not so much any quotable specimens of wit and humor as it is the all-animating spirit of frolic and mischief, which gives to these comedies their droll, equivocal power to please. In Fletcher’s serious plays the same levity is displayed in pushing sentiment and passion altogether beyond the bounds of character; and the volatile fancy which, in his comedy, riots in fun, in his tragedy riots in blood. What lifts both into a poetic region is the tone of romantic heroism by which they are almost equally characterized. His coxcombs and profligates, as well as his conquerors and heroes, are all intrepid. They do not rate their lives at a pin’s fee,— the first in comparison with the gratification of a passing desire or caprice ; the second, in comparison with glory and honor. The peculiar life, indeed, of Fletcher’s characters consists in their being careless of life. Wholly absorbed in the feeling or object of the instant, their action is ecstatic action, and flashes on us in a succession of poetic surprises. This is the great charm of Fletcher’s plays ; this gilds their grossness, and has kept them alive. You find it in his Monsieur Thomas as well as in his Caesar. All the comic characters profess a sportive contempt for consequences, and startle us with unexpected audacities. Fear of disease, danger, or death never dissuades them from the rollicking action or expression of eccentricity and vice. Their concern is only for the free, wild, reckless whim of the moment. Thus, in the play of “ The Sea Voyage,” Julietta, enraged at the jeers of Tibalt and the master of the ship, exclaims : —
“Very likely,” retorts the jovial Master, —
This heroism of the blood, when it passes from an instinct into some semblance of a principle, adopts the chivalrous guise of honor. Honor, in Fletcher’s ethical code, is the only possible and admissible restraint on appetite and passion. Thus in the drama of “ The Captain,” Julio, infatuated with the wicked Lelia, thinks of marrying her; and confesses to his friend Angelo that her bewitching and bewildering beauty has entirely mastered him. When she speaks, he says :—
(Such as old Orpheus made, that gave a soul
To aged mountains, and made rugged beasts
Lay by the'r rages ; and tall trees, that knew
No sound but tempests, to bow down their branches,
And hear, and wonder ; and the sea, whose surges
Shook their white heads in heaven, to be as midnight
Still and attentive) steals into our souls
So suddenly and strangely, that we are
From that time no more ours, but what she pleases ! ”
Angelo admits the temptation ; says he would be willing himself to sacrifice all his possessions, even his soul, to obtain her; but then adds : —
That that is something more than ours, our honors;
I would not have thee marry her by no means.”
Again : Curio, in " Love’s Cure,” when threatened by his mistress with the loss of her affection if he fights with her brother, replies that he would willingly give his life, “ rip every vein,” to please her, yet still insists on his purpose : —
Compared with essential and eternal honor.”
In the plays of “The Mad Lover,” “ The Loyal Subject,” “ Bonduca,” and “ The False One,” Fletcher attempts to portray this heroic element, not as a mere flash of courageous inspiration, but as a solid element of character. He strains his mind to the utmost, but the strain is too apparent. There is no calm, strong grasp of the theme. His heroes are generally too fond of vaunting themselves, too declamatory, too screechy, too much like embodied speeches. In his own words, they carry “ a drum in their mouths ” ; and what they say of themselves would more properly and naturally come from others. Thus Memnon, in “ The Mad Lover,” tells his prince, in apology for his roughness of behavior: —
No oily language but the shock of arms,
No dalliance but with death ; no lofty measures
But weary and sad marches, cold and hunger,
“Larums at midnight Valor’s self would shake at;
Yet I ne’er shrunk. Balls of consuming wildfire.
That licked men up like lightning, have I laughed at,
And tossed ’em back again, like children’s trifles.
Upon the edges of my enemies’ swords
I have marched like whirlwinds, Fury at this hand waiting,
Death at my right, Fortune my forlorn hope ;
When I have grappled with Destruction,
And tugged with pale-faced Ruin, Night, and Mis-chief
Frighted to see a new day break in blood,”
This is talk on stilts ; but it is still resounding talk, full of ardor and the impatient consciousness of personal prowess. In the characterization of Cæsar in “ The False One,” the same feeling of individual supremacy is combined with a haughtier self-possession, as befits a mightier and more imperial soul. We feel, throughout this play, that there is power in the mere presence of Cæsar, and that his words derive their force from his character. The very minds and hearts of the Egyptians crouch before him. He sways by disdaining them ; even his clemency is allied to scorn. “ You have found,” lie says, —
Swords, hungers, fires, destruction of all natures,
Demolishment of kingdoms, and whole ruins,
Are wont to be my orators.”
When they bring him the head of Pompey, whom they have slain for the purpose of propitiating him, his contempt for them breaks out in a noble tribute to his great enemy: —
Built to out-dure the sun, as you suppose,
“Where your unworthy kings lie raked in ashes,
Are monuments fit for him? No, brood of Nilus,
Nothing can cover his high fame but heaven,
No pyramids set off his memories,
But the eternal substance of his greatness ;
To which I leave him.”
When he is besieged in the palace by the whole Egyptian army, he prepares, with his few followers, to cut his way to his ships. Septimius, a wretch who has been false to all parties, offers to show him safe means both of vengeance and escape. Cæsar’s reply is one of the finest things in Fletcher : —
To find his safety or revenge his wrongs
So base a way ; or owe the means of life
To such a leprous traitor ! I have towered
For victory like a falcon in the clouds,
Not digged for’t like a mole. Our swords and cause
We took a noble course, and hate base treason,
Some soldiers that would merit Caesar’s favor
Hang him on yonder turret, and then follow
The lane this sword makes for you.”
But perhaps the play in which the heroic and martial spirit is most dominant is the tragedy of “ Bonduca ” ; and the address of Suetonius, the Roman general, to his troops, as they prepare to close in battle with the Britons, is in Fletcher’s noblest vein of manliness and imagination : —
To bid you fight is needless; ye are Romans,
The name will fight itself.
As daring and as confident as justice ;
The gods of Rome fight for ye ; loud Fame calls ye,
Pitched on the topless Apennine, and blows
To all the under-world, all nations, the seas,
And unfrequented deserts where the snow dwells ;
Wakens the ruined monuments : and there,
Where nothing but eternal death and sleep is,
Informs again the dead bones with your virtues.
Go on, I say ; valiant and wise rule heaven,
And all the great aspects attend 'em. Do but blow
Upon this enemy, who, but that we want foes,
Cannot deserve that name ; and like a mist,
A lazy fog, before your burning valors
You ’ll find him fly to nothing. This is all.
We have swords, and are the sons of ancient Romans,
Heirs to their endless valors : fight and conquer ! ”
The maxim here laid down, that “Valiant and wise rule heaven,” is much better or worse than Napoleon’s, that “Providence is always on the side of the heaviest columns.”
It might be supposed that the extreme susceptibility of Fletcher, the openness of his nature to all impressions, ludicrous, romantic, heroic, or indecent, would have made him a great delineator of the varieties of life and character. But the truth is, it made him versatile without making him universal. He wrote a greater number of plays than Shakespeare, and he has between five and six hundred names of characters ; but two or three plays of Shakespeare cover a wider extent of human life than all of Fletcher’s. To compare them is like comparing a planet with a comet, —a comet whose nucleus is only a few hundred miles in diameter, though its nebulous appendage flames millions of leagues behind.
Fletcher’s susceptibility to the surfaces of things was almost unlimited; his vital sympathy and inward vision were confined to a few kinds of character and a few aspects of life. His variety is not variety of character, but variety of incident and circumstance. He contrives rather than creates ; and his contrivances, ingenious and exhilarating as they are, cannot hide his constant repetition of a few types of human nature. These types he conceived by a process essentially different from Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare individualized classes ; Fletcher generalized individuals. One of Shakespeare’s characters includes a whole body of persons ; one of Fletcher’s is simply an idealized individual, and that often an exceptional individual. This individual, repeated in play after play, never covers so large a portion of humanity as Shakespeare’s individualized class, which he disdains to repeat. But, more than this, the very faculties of Fletcher, his wit, humor, understanding, fancy, imagination, though we call them by the same words we use in naming Shakespeare’s, stand for different things. Shakespeare was a great and comprehensive man, whose faculties all partook of his general greatness. The man Fletcher was so much smaller and narrower, and the materials on which his faculties worked so much more limited, that we are fooled by words if, following the example of his contemporaries, we place any one of his qualities or faculties above or on a level with Shakespeare’s.
Keeping, then, in view the fact that the man is the measure of the poet, let us glance for a moment at Fletcher’s poetic faculty as distinguished from his dramatic.
As a poet he is best judged, perhaps* by his pastoral tragi-comedy of “ The Faithful Shepherdess,” the most elaborate and one of the earliest ot his works. It failed on the stage, being, in his own phrase, “hissed to ashes”; but the merits, which the many-headed monster of the pit could not discern, so enchanted Milton that they were vividly in his memory when he wrote " Comas.” The melody, the romantic sweetness of fancy, the luxuriant and luxurious descriptions of nature, and the true lyric inspiration, of large portions of this drama, are not more striking than the deliberate desecration of its beauty by the introduction of impure sentiments and images. The hoof-prints of unclean beasts are visible all over Fletcher’s pastoral paradise ; and they are there by design. Why they are there is a question which can be answered only by pointing out the primal defect ot Fletcher’s mind, which was an incapacity to conceive or represent goodness and innocence except as the ideal opposites of evil and depravity. He took depravity as the positive fact of life, and then framed from fancy a kind of goodness out of its negation. The result is, that, in the case of “ The Faithful Shepherdess,’ Chloe and the Sullen Shepherd, the depraved characters of the play, are the most natural and lifelike, while there is a sickliness and unreality in the very virtue of Amoret. It is not, therefore, as some critics suppose, the mere admission of vicious characters into the play that gives it its taint. Milton, whose conceptions both of good and evil were positive, and who represented them in their right spiritual relations, entirely avoided this error in “ Comus,” while he availed himself of much in “The Faithful Shepherdess” that is excellent. In “ Comus ’’ it is virtue which seems most real and permanent, and the vice and wickedness represented in it do not mar the general impression of moral beauty left by the whole poem. But Fletcher, having no positive imaginative conception of the good, and feeling for depravity neither mental nor moral disgust, reverses this order. His vice is robust and prominent; his virtue is vague, characterless, and fantastic ; and though his play has a formal moral, it has an essential impurity.
But if the general effect of the pastoral is not beautiful, none can deny its beauty in parts, especially in the lyrical portions. What Milton condescended to copy everybody must be delighted to applaud. But not merely in “ The Faithful Shepherdess ” is this lyric genius displayed. Scattered over all his plays are exquisite songs and short poems, representing every variety of the poet’s mood, and each perfect of its kind. As an example of the softness, sweetness, and melody of these we will quote the hymn to Venus from “ The Mad Lover” ; —
Thou, ill power above the seven ;
Thou, sweet kindler of desires,
Till they grow to mutual fires ;
Thou, O gentle queen, that art
Curer of each wounded heart;
Thou, the fuel and the flame ;
Thou, in heaven, here, the same :
Thou, the wooer and the wooed ;
Thou, the hunger and the food :
Thun, the prayer and the prayed ;
Thou, what is or shall be said ;
Thou, still young and golden tressed,
Make me by thy answer blessed !
Fletcher died in 1625, and the dramatist who succeeded him in popular esteem was a less fiery and ebullient spirit, PHILIP MASSINGER. Massinger, the son of a gentleman in the service of the Earl of Pembroke, was born in 1584, was educated at Oxford, left the University without taking a degree, and about the year 1606 went to London to seek his fortune as a dramatist. Here he worked obscurely for some sixteen years ; the only thing we know about him being this, that in 1614, in connection with Field and Daborne, he was a suppliant to old Manager Henslowe for five pounds, to relieve him and them from the most pinching pecuniary distress. In 1622 “ The Virgin Martyr,” a play written in connection with Dekkar, was published, and from this period to his death, in 1640, his most celebrated dramas were produced. He wrote thirty-seven plays, twenty of which have perished. Eleven of them, in manuscript, were in the possession of a Mr. Warburton, whose cook, desirous of saving what she considered better paper, used them in the kindling of fires and the basting of turkeys ; and would doubtless have treated the manuscript of the “ Faery Queene” and the “Novum Organum” in the same way, had Providence seen fit to commit them to her master’s custody.
Massinger’s life seems to have been one long struggle with want. The price for a play in his time varied from ten to twenty pounds ; if published, the copyright brought from six to ten pounds more; and the dedication fee was forty shillings. The income of a successful dramatist, who wrote two or three plays a year, was about fifty pounds, equivalent to some twelve hundred dollars at the present time. But it is doubtful if even Fletcher could count on so large an income as this, as some of his plays failed in representation, great master of theatrical effect as he undoubtedly was. Massinger was always poor, and, by his own admission in one of his dedications, depended at times on the casual charity of patrons. When poverty was not present, it seems to have been always in prospect. He had a morbid vision of approaching calamities, as —
Not got to shore yet.”
It is difficult to determine how far his popular principles in politics interfered with his success at the theatre. Fletcher’s slavish political doctrines were perfectly suited to the court of James and Charles. We are, says one of his characters, —
To what is done, and grief for what is ill done,
Is all we can call ours.”
Massinger, on the contrary, was as strong a Liberal as Hampden or Pym. The political and social abuses of his time found in him an uncompromising satirist. Oppression in every form, whether of the poor by the rich or the subject by the king, provoked his amiable nature into unwonted passion. In his plays be frequently violates the keeping of character, in order to intrude his own manly political sentiments and ideas. There are allusions in his dramas which, if they were taken by the audience, must have raised a storm of mingled applause and hisses. Though more liberty seems to have been allowed to playwrights than to members of Parliament, Massinger sometimes found it difficult to get his plays licensed. In 1631 the Master of the Revels refused to license one of his pieces, on the ground that it contained “dangerous matter ”; and the dramatist had to pay the fee, while he lost all the results of his labor. In 1638, in the height of the dispute about ship-money, he wrote a drama, now lost, called “ The King and the Subject.” On looking it over, the Master of the Revels was horrified to come upon the following passage : - -
And force you to subscribe to blanks, in which
We ’ll mulct you as we shall think fit. The Cæsars
In Rome were wise, acknowledging no laws
But what their swords did ratify ; the wives
And daughters of the senators bowing to Casers
Their wills as deities.”
The play was shown to King Charles, and he, marking the obnoxious passage, wrote with his own hand : “ This is too insolent, and to be changed.” It is, however, to be mentioned to his honor, that he allowed the piece to be acted after the daring lines had been expunged.
Massinger’s spirit, though sufficiently independent and self-respectful, was as modest as Addison’s. He chid his friends when they placed him as a dramatist by the side of Beaumont and Fletcher. All the commendatory poems prefixed to his plays evince affection for the man as well as admiration for the genius. But there is a strange absence of distinct memorials of his career ; and his death and burial were in harmony with the loneliness of his life. We are told that, on the 16th of March, 1640, he went to bed, seemingly in good health, and was found dead in the morning. In the parish register of the Church of St. Saviour’s, under the date of March 20, we read : “ Buried, Philip Massinger, a stranger.” No stone indicates where in the churchyard lie was laid. “ His sepulchre,” says Hartley Coleridge, “ was like his life, obscure ; like the nightingale he sung darkling, — it is to be feared like the nightingale of the fable, with his breast against a thorn.”
Massinger possessed a large though not especially poetic mind, and a temperament equable rather than energetic. He lacked strong passions, vivid conceptions, creative imagination. In reading him we feel that the exulting, vigorous life of the drama of the age has begun to decay. But though he has been excelled by obscurer writers in special qualities of genius, he still attaches us by the harmony of his powers, and the uniformity of his excellence. The plot, style, and characters of one of his dramas, all conduce to a common interest. His plays, indeed, are novels in dialogue. They rarely thrill, startle, or kindle us, but, as Lamb says, “ are read with composure and placid delight.” “ The Bondman,” “ The Picture,” “ The Bashful Lover,” “The Renegado,” “A Very Woman,” “ The Emperor of the East,” fasten our interest as stories. “ The Duke of Milan,” “The Unnatural Combat,” and “The Fatal Dowry” are his nearest approaches to the representation of passion, as distinguished from its description. The leading characters in “ The City Madam” and “ A New Way to pay Old Debts” are delineated with more than common power, for they are embodiments expressing the author’s hatred as well as his genius. Massinger’s life was such as to make him look with little favor on the creditor portion of the British people ; and when creditors were also oppressors, he was roused to a pitch of indignation which inspired his conceptions of Luke and Sir Giles Overreach.
Massinger’s style, though it does not evince a single great quality of the poet, has always charmed English readers for its dignity, flexibility, elegance, clearness, and ease. His metre and rhythm Coleridge pronounces incomparably good. Still his verse, with all its merits, is smooth rather than melodious ; the thoughts are not born in music, but mechanically set to a tune ; and even its majestic flow is frequently purchased at the expense of dramatic closeness to character and passion.
Though there is nothing in Massinger’s plays, as there is in Fletcher’s, indicating profligacy of mind and morals, they are even coarser in scenes ; for as Massinger had none of Fletcher’s wit and humor, he made his low and inferior characters, whether men or women, little better than beasts. As even his serious personages use words and allusions which are now banished from all respectable books, we must suppose that decorum, as we understand it, was almost unknown in the time of James and Charles. Thus " The Guardian,” one of the most mellifluous in diction and licentious in incident of all Massinger’s works, was acted at the court of Charles I., and acted, too, by order of the king on Sunday, January 12, 1633. This coarseness is a deplorable blot on Massinger’s plays ; but that it is to be referred to the manners of his time, and not to his own immorality, is proved from the fact that his vital sympathies were for virtue and justice, and that his genius never displayed itself in the depravities he aimed to represent. As a man he seems to have had not merely elevated sentiments, but strong religious feelings. If his unimpassioned spirit ever rose to fervor, the fervor was moral; his best things are ethically, as well as poetically, the best; and in reading him we often find passages like the following, which leap up from the prosaic level of his diction as by an impulse of ecstasy :—
The path marked out by virtue, the blest saints
With joy look On it, and seraphic angels
Clap their celestial wings in heavenly plaudits.
Virtue’s allowed ascent; honor, that clasps
All perfect justice in her arms, that craves
No more respect than what she gives, that does
Nothing but what site ’ll suffer.
A soul moulded from heaven, and do desire
To have it made a star there, make the means
Of your ascent to that celestial height
Virtue winged with brave action : they draw near
The nature and the essence of the gods
Who imitate their goodness.
That pace the paths of equity, and tread boldly
On the stiff neck of tyrannous oppression,
By these tears by which I bathe them, I conjure you With pity to look on me,”
We now come to a very different dramatist, JOHN FORD, whose genius and personal appearance are shrewdly indicated in a ragged couplet from a contemporary satire :—
With folded arms and melancholy hat.”
In that somewhat dainty mental loneliness, and under that melancholy hat, the mind of the poet was absorbed in the intensest meditation of the ideal possibilities of grief and guilt, and the strange aberrations of the passions. Massinger has little sway over the heart; but Ford was not merely the poet of the heart, but of the broken heart, — the heart bending under burdens, or torn by emotions, almost too great for mortality to bear. In reading his tragedies, as in reading Webster’s, we are fretfully conscious of being shut up in the sultry atmosphere of one morbid mind, deprived of all companionship with healthy nature and genial human life, and forced into a shuddering or sickly sympathy with the extremes of crime and suffering. But the power of Webster lies in terror ; the power of Ford, in tenderness. Out of his peculiar walk, Ford is the feeblest of finical fine writers. His attempts at liveliness and humor excite, not laughter, but rather a dismal feeling of pitying contempt. His great gift is displayed only in the tragedies of “The Broken Heart,” in “’T is Pity,” and in two or three thrilling scenes of the tragedy of “ Love’s Sacrifice.” In “ The Broken Heart,” the noblest of his works, our sympathies are on the whole rightly directed ; and the death of Calantha, after enduring the most soul-crushing calamities, concealed from others under a show of mirth, is exquisitely pathetic : —
I but deceived your eyes with antick gesture,
When one news straight came huddling on another,
Of death, and death, and death, still I danced forward.”
But it struck home, and here, and in an instant.
Let me die smiling.”
Of another of Ford’s tragedies, which can hardly be named here, Campbell justly remarks : “ Better that poetry should cease to exist, than have to do with such subjects.” But it is characteristic of Ford, that his power and tenderness are never so great as in their worst perversions. Without any austerity of soul, diseased in his sympathies, a sentimentalist rather than a man of sentiment, he brooded over guilt until all sense of its wickedness was lost in a morbid pity for its afflictions, and the tears he compels us to shed are rarely the tears of honest and manly feeling.
Ford died, or disappeared, about the year 1640, and with him died the last original dramatist of the Elizabethan age ; for Shirley, though his plays fill six thick volumes, was but a faint echo of Fletcher. Thus, in a short period of fifty years, from 1590 to 1640, we have the names of thirteen dramatists, varying in power and variety of power and perversion of power, but each individual in his genius, and one the greatest genius of the world,— the names of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Heywood, Middleton, Marston, Dekkar, Webster, Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, and Ford. Though little is known of their lives, it is through them we learn the life of their time, the manners, customs, character, the ideas, habits, sentiments, and passions, the form and the spirit, of the Elizabethan age. And they are all intensely and audaciously human. Taking them in the mass, they have much to offend our artistic and shock our moral sense ; but still the dramatic literature of the world would be searched in vain for another instance of so broad and bold a representation of the varieties of human nature, — one in which the conventional restraints both on depravity and excellence are so resolutely set aside,—one in which the manycharactered soul of man is so vividly depleted, in its weakness and in its strength, in its mirth and in its passion, in the appetites which sink it below the beasts that perish, in the aspirations which lift it to regions of existence of which the visible heavens are but the veil.