"The Theme and Structure of The Roman Actor"

Critic: Peter H. Davidson
Source: AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian University Languages and Literature Association 19 (May 1963): 39-56.

[(essay date 1963) In the following essay, Davidson examines the structure of The Roman Actor and the connection it makes between kingship and the stage, noting that the play shows "metaphorically by means of the stage the essentially human nature of kings."]

The work of Philip Massinger does not appear unduly complex or profound and it is thus rather surprising that his plays should have aroused such divergent critical comments. Although very different views are most abundant in criticism of Massinger's language, other aspects of his work show an absence of critical agreement. For example, T. A. Dunn believes that 'The divine right of kings ... is accepted by Massinger, but with his own implications',1 whereas Emile Legouis states, Massinger 'had no respect for the divine right of kings'.2 In The Roman Actor, according to T. S. Eliot, 'the development of the parts is out of all proportion to the central theme'3 (which he does not define) but Emil Koeppel observes how, in The Roman Actor, 'the process of blending the accounts of historians ... results in well arranged scenes in which no trace of patchwork is to be discovered'.4 As it is with the structure of this play that I wish to deal, perhaps I might be permitted to set side-by-side further critical assessments of The Roman Actor's construction.

In stating 'The fact is Massinger had adopted two conflicting themes which could not easily be co-ordinated',5 Dunn appears to agree with Eliot. A little earlier he states: 'the play is more episodic than Massinger's usual skill would lead us to expect. The sequence is that of a series of striking situations and the comparative incoherence is inevitably worsened by the insetting of three playlets within the play, even if they have a certain dramatic or thematic relevance'.6 Some years before the appearance of Dunn's book, A. H. Cruikshank spoke of 'the dexterity with which three smaller plays are introduced into the action' (with which Dunn agrees) 'without in the least confusing the action'7 (with which Dunn cannot agree8). More recently Arthur Brown has written of the importance of the playlets in The Roman Actor.9

So skilful a use of the play within a play is ... unparalleled in Elizabethan tragedy. The opening line of The Roman Actor--Aesop's 'What do we act today?'--introduces the histrionic background for the whole performance, and the ensuing discussion between Aesop, Latinus, and Paris emphasizes the contrast between the nobility of the actors and their awareness of their high calling, and the corruption of the society before which they are called upon to play, and which is now neglecting their efforts for 'pleasures of worse natures', 'private sports the stews would blush at'. Against such a background the three plays can not only be introduced easily and naturally, each one contributing in its own way to the development of the plot, but together they may be identified completely with the main plot--without them there is no play.

These assessments are not set side-by-side to show how variable critical judgments can be. This conflict of opinion indicates the degree to which Massinger's method in The Roman Actor has been imperfectly understood or incompletely explained. I am indebted to the conflicting views of those whom I have quoted for attracting me to this problem and particularly to Arthur Brown's percipient statement which seems to me best to evaluate the significance of the playlets.

Massinger's 'command of stagecraft has been universally conceded'.10 Is it not then strange that Massinger, working for a theatre as commercial as that to which he was accustomed, and whose plots are usually 'very carefully considered and precisely jointed',11 should have attempted something as complex as The Roman Actor, a play in which he has been said to have 'found it impossible ... to make the variety contribute to a unity',12 unless there was to him some coherence in this variety? Although, superficially, it is the profession of acting and the conflict of uxoriousness and power about which Massinger is writing, his underlying concern is with the nature of kingship. It can be shown, I believe, that Massinger effectively relates his apparently disparate subjects in such a way that he argues that the divinity of a king lies in the office, not the man, and, as man, a king is answerable to his people.

It is with an examination of the structure of the play that I would begin. I shall then examine what Massinger has to say about kingship and the stage. Finally, I shall attempt to show how these are related in order to disclose the real, the underlying, concern of the play.

The Roman Actor, it would appear, deals principally with two quite different subjects. The first is the conflict of lust (particularly uxoriousness) and power, represented by Domitian; the second, the profession of acting, represented by Paris. Massinger further complicates the play by dramatizing the problems of the loyal and honest man (such as Parthenius) who serves an evil master and the temptation of an honest servant (Paris) by an evil mistress. As Domitian is presented as a cruel tyrant and Paris as an engaging and modest man, it is the latter with whom the audience most readily sympathizes. This attraction is strengthened by the prominence of Paris in the first four acts, especially in his participation in the three playlets, in his defence of the stage before the Senate, and in his bearing when tempted by Domitia. Paris's death at the end of Act IV presented Massinger with the kind of structural problem which Shakespeare faced in Antony and Cleopatra and in both plays it is the fifth acts which give much of the significance to what has gone before them. In The Roman Actor the relevance of the fifth act is not apparent unless the relationship of the two principal subjects is appreciated. It is chiefly the seeming lack of significance of the fifth act and the seeming absence of a close relationship between theatre and tyrant that have aroused the strictures of critics.

In the four scenes of the first act each of the two subjects holds the stage in alternate scenes. Although the subjects are separate in this act, there is some sense of relationship provided by the presence of the same senators in several of the scenes: Sura and Rusticus in I.i., I.iii., and I.iv.; Lamia in I.i., I.ii., and I.iv. Clearly enough, Domitian and Paris move in interlinked spheres. All these senators are to prove victims of Domitian, as will Paris also. Although there is, in the first act, no 'involution of the one leitmotiv with the other', as Dunn seems to require,13 Massinger rapidly develops interest and tension by presenting a situation in I.i. which Paris resolves in I.iii and by presenting a situation to Domitian in I.ii. which he resolves in I.iv. There is, thus, a degree of temporal interlinking between the two subjects, a certain cross-tension.

The marriage of the two subjects becomes apparent in Act II (despite Dunn's complaint that 'It is only in Act III that something like dramatic dovetailing is effected'14). This act,15 though it is in one long scene, may be divided into five sections:

i The discussion between Parthenius and his father, Philargus (lines 1-64).
ii The proposal of a play to cure the avarice of Philargus (lines 64-111).
iii Domitian speaks of his powers; his spy, Aretinus, tells him of the Senate's grievances. Parthenius whispers his request that the play to cure his father be performed (lines 112-179).
iv Lamia is tormented and sent to his death (lines 179-246).
v Domitia enters; before her, Domitian, and Philargus the first of the three playlets is performed. Philargus, uncured, is sent to his death.

(lines 246-447)

The introduction of Philargus into the play might seem, at first sight, to provide an unnecessary distraction in an already complex story but it is through the agency of Philargus that the two main subjects are united. In addition, Philargus is used to show Domitian's tyranny and to test the loyalty of Parthenius (the worthy man in the employ of a tyrant), and thus his fate is made relevant to the main concern of the play.

In the second part of the scene, theatre and imperial power are brought together in the proposal to perform a play before the Emperor. In the third part of the scene we have Parthenius's request that a play be performed to cure his father of avarice neatly sandwiched between passages in which Domitian exercises his imperial power. Massinger's craftsmanship is seen to be even more skilful if it is realized that it is because of the play to transform Philargus that Domitia sees, and becomes enamoured of, Paris. As a result she suggests a second play to which she reacts so violently that, in due course, Paris is slain in the third play. The interweaving of theatre and court, and the setting in train of the whole course of events, is thus clearly in evidence from the second part of Act II.

In the third part of Act II Caesar speaks of his power. 'Shall we be circumscrib'd?' he asks (line 143), and Aretinus his sycophantic spy, urges him:

               preserve your power
As you should, equal and omnipotent here
With Jupiter's above.

II.i. 159-161

Thus there is now not only an intermingling of Domitian's lust for Domitia with his interest in the theatre, but also some discussion of a ruler's power. Domitian's orders that Lamia be brought forth, that a play be performed, and that Domitia be summoned, occur within the space of thirty-five lines; and in these lines, also, is Domitian's unbounded authority discussed. One can see a similar intermingling in Domitian's speech at II.i. 268-285. Here he expresses the belief that no actor can possibly express 'This sordid thing', Parthenius's father; he commands Philargus's attention at the risk of his life; and he exhibits his uxoriousness.

There is in the presentation of the first playlet a delightful touch: the complete suspension of Philargus's disbelief when watching a robbery acted out as part of the playlet. At lines 337-339 he calls upon Domitian to exercise his power in order to 'Defend this honest, thrifty man'. Here Massinger is doing more than offering an observation on Philargus. By showing how deeply he is involved in 'his' playlet, he is conditioning us to accept the involvement of Domitia in 'her' playlet, and the much more complicated involvements of the third playlet (to be discussed later). (It was not, of course, beyond the belief of Jacobeans that a member of an audience could be so affected by a play as to reveal guilt; Thomas Heywood described two such occasions in An Apologie for Actors.16) It is in this first playlet that the seed is sown of Domitia's love for Paris, thus setting in train the natural development of the ensuing events.

A similar pattern of action is repeated several times in The Roman Actor. Lamia is dishonoured in I.iii and sent to execution in II.i; Philargus is made sport of and condemned to death in II.i; in III.ii, Sura and Rusticus are tormented and sent to execution; finally, in IV.ii, Domitian 'plays' with Paris and then kills him. It is Domitian who, in each instance, initiates these actions, but in the fifth act Domitian is the object of such an action for he is troubled in his sleep (V.i.181 ff.), and is tricked into leaving himself unguarded so that he can be murdered. This similarity of pattern helps to unify the individual subjects of which each of these actions forms a part.

*  *  *

It is hoped that this account will already have indicated a closer relationship between the parts of The Roman Actor than has sometimes been suggested, but the significance of the relationship has yet to be examined.

One might begin by asking why Massinger should have attempted so complex a play as The Roman Actor. He might, perhaps, like Heywood, have been moved to defend the stage from the attacks made upon it. He might have found the combination of such diverse elements as those in The Roman Actor a challenge which tempted him. Such considerations may have played some small part in Massinger's motivation, but the major part of the answer is to be found in Massinger's concern with the politics of his day.

S. R. Gardiner first gave prominence to the political element in Massinger in 1876.17 In a long footnote (number 2) he quotes many allusions detected by Gifford; Dunn refers to this article and gives a number of additional allusions.18 Neither Gardiner nor Miss R. L. Anderson in her article on Kingship in Renaissance Drama19 refers to The Roman Actor. However, Gardiner shows in some detail Massinger's concern with contemporary affairs and Miss Anderson describes very clearly how 'The stage was looked upon during the Renaissance as a mirror peculiarly fitted for the reflection of human conduct'. She continues, 'Numerous "histories" prepared for the stage set forth as in a mirror the corruption that may occur at court, the evils attendant upon the use of power for personal advantage, or the type of conduct proper for a prince. They are rich in contemporary ideation'.20 Dunn also points to Massinger's interest in the divine right of kings which he believes Massinger accepted 'but with his own implications'.21 As a result he concentrates upon that aspect of The Roman Actor in which Massinger describes how 'in the mysterious operations of Providence the semi-divine office of ruler sometimes falls to unworthy persons'22 but that though 'some sort of divinity doth hedge even a wicked prince ... tyrannicide is never justifiable'.23 This view is, of course, that of James I:

a wicked king is sent by God for a curse to his people, and a plague for their sinnes: but that it is lawfull to them to shake off that curse at their owne hand, which God hath laid on them, that I deny, and may do so iustly.24

One is here at the very core of Jacobean politics: the relative authorities of King and Parliament, and it is this that is Massinger's main concern in The Roman Actor. In addition to the passages to which Dunn makes reference and those already quoted, one might show Massinger's concern by quoting Caesar's statement to Rusticus, one of the Senators who has dared to question Domitian's authority. According to Caesar, the Stygian lake is 'prepar'd for such to howl in that blaspheme / The power of princes, that are gods on earth'.25 At IV.i. 133-135, Domitian proposes to put off

The deity you labour to take from me,
And argue out of probabilities with you,
As if I were a man.

Later in this scene, at lines 168-170, he can aver,

              this the death's head
That does assure me, if she can prove false,
That I am mortal.

'She' is Domitia and the reference to the death's head, the insignia engraved upon the finger-ring worn by prostitutes, is significant.

It is suggested by Parthenius to Lamia that only the weak, those who do not deserve the title of King, do not dare to use their power illegally:

Monarchs that dare not do unlawful things,
Yet bear them out, are constables, not kings.
Will you dispute?

I.ii. 85-87

But Lamia is too much concerned with other matters to debate the subject. Later, Domitian echoes Parthenius:

Shall we be circumscrib'd? Let such as cannot
By force make good their actions, though wicked,
Conceal, excuse, or qualify their crimes!

II.i. 143-145

One might compare these statements with that of Piero in 2. Antonio and Mellida (1602), II.i.:

He that hath strength and's ignorant of power,
He was not made to rule, but to be rul'd.

Domitian carries on:

What our desires grant leave and privilege to,
Though contradicting all divine decrees,
Or laws confirm'd by Romulus, and Numa,
Shall be held sacred.

II.i. 146-149

Thus one has a wicked ruler claiming divine power, sent. so King James would have asserted, to be a scourge to his people; a man who would not confess

           that any fault of mine
May be disputed.

II.i. 158-159

What of the Senate in The Roman Actor? We are shown a rather active Senate concerned with matters as light as the theatre (I.i. 59 ff.), but which also, according to the informer Aretinus (and informers were a feature of Jacobean times), was troubled by Domitian's lavish entertainments, his conception of justice, and his personal behaviour (II.i. 112 ff.). Cruikshank suggests: 'Think again of the uxoriousness of Ladislas, Theodosius, Domitian, who some have held to be a covert satire on Charles I'.26 If Domitian is designed to suggest Charles, is it too much to suggest that in Lamia one has a suggestion of Sir John Eliot and that in Domitian's outburst against the Senate (especially II.i. 143-149) one has a reflection of Charles and his Parliament of February to June, 1626? In this Parliament Eliot instituted the impeachment of the Duke of Buckingham and 'Charles, who loved Buckingham as he never loved Strafford, took up his cause with passion. To save the Duke he dissolved Parliament'.27 Eliot's impeachment of Buckingham is, I would suggest, hinted at in these lines of Domitian's:

             Dares Lamia pretend
An interest to that which I call mine?
Or but remember she was ever his,
That's now in our possession?

II.i. 137

One cannot be positive of course, but it is not perhaps without significance that the time chosen to publish The Roman Actor was 1629, one year after the Petition of Right, when three Members of Parliament, Eliot, Strode, and Valentine 'were consigned to prison without any hope of release', proceedings which, Trevelyan suggests, 'showed that even should the letter of the Petition of Right be always observed, it could not vindicate personal liberty, which nothing but a revolution in the State could secure'.28 It is not suggested that Massinger cast Valentine and Strode as Rusticus and Sura (though one could offer somewhat involved relationships linking the Roman and English names), but as events turned out, it might well have seemed to Robert Allott, for whom The Roman Actor was printed in 1629, that Domitan's treatment of his three Senators was akin to Charles's of his Members.

One can, I hope, justly conclude the first part of this argument by asserting with some confidence that in The Roman Actor Massinger was deeply concerned with divine right and the struggle between King and Parliament.

*  *  *

The second part of my argument concerns the relationship of stage to real life. Reference has already been made to Miss Anderson's article which specifically deals with this relationship, and one could give many, very obvious, Shakespearean allusions, or refer to passages quoted by Leslie Hotson,29 but it is not, surely, necessary to labour the point. Of more significance is the fact explained by Dunn, by reference to The Roman Actor, Believe as you List, The Parliament of Love, and The City Madam,30 that Massinger makes extensive use of expressions drawn from the theatre in situations which bear no relationship to the stage. He quotes, for example, Flaminius in Believe as you List, III.i.:

                I am on the stage,
And if now, in the scene imposed upon me,
So full of change--nay, a mere labyrinth
Of politic windings--I show not myself
A Protean actor, varying every shape
With the occasion, it will hardly poise
The expectation.31

There is, however, in The Roman Actor, a more significant relationship (to which Dunn does not specifically refer). In Paris's speech at IV.ii. 43 ff., and in the last four lines of Domitia's speech which immediately precedes it, one has the key to a full understanding of the play.

Domitia We seriously believe it, and presume
Our Paris is the volume in which all
Those excellent gifts the stage hath seen him grac'd with
Are curiously bound up.

Paris                  The argument
Is the same, great Augusta, that I acting
A fool, a coward, a traitor, or cold cynic,
Or any other weak and vicious person,
Of force I must be such. O gracious madam,
How glorious soever, or deform'd,
I do appear in the scene, my part being ended,
And all my borrowed ornaments put off,
I am no more, nor less, than what I was
Before I enter'd.

Domitia believes, and the belief is still current of film and television stars, that Paris, after he had doffed his actor's clothes, must retain those virtues that 'the poet pleases to adorn you with'.32 As Domitia puts it:

Thou must be really, in some degree,
The thing thou dost present.

IV.ii. 38-39

Here, I would suggest, is the key to the play. According to Domitia, Paris 'must be really, in some degree' the thing he presents on the stage. It is inferred that a king must, in some degree, be the thing he represents--divinity--to those who believe in him. Paris, however, points out that, with 'all my borrowed ornaments put off, / I am no more, nor less, than what I was / Before I enter'd'. And, so Massinger infers, is this true also of a king. Indeed, a few moments before, at IV.i. 132, he had Domitian speak of 'putting off' his deity, so reducing himself to the status of mere man:

                    But I will put off
The deity you labour to take from me,
And argue out the probabilities with you,
As if I were a man.

The conditional, 'As if I were a man,' tells its own story.

The sophisticated audience at the Blackfriars Theatre (where the title page of the 1626 edition states the play was performed) would be aware, one can be reasonably sure, of the relationship of stage to real life. Some members of the audience might well have had in mind references by Shakespeare to the relationship between kingship and man, and the possibility of putting off the outward signs of kingship. Certainly Massinger would have been acquainted with such references.33 For example, in Henry V, at IV.i 106 ff., one has:

For, though I speak it to you, I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.

Later there is the long soliloquy on ceremony beginning at line 258:

And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?


O ceremony! show me but thy worth:
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
            No, thou proud dream,
That play'st so subtly with a king's repose.

But if a king was but a man hedged about with divinity, man plus ceremony, could that ceremony be put off?34 In Richard II (the deposition scene of which had been omitted from printed versions until Q4 of 1608) there are just such passages regarding the putting off of a king's divinity. At III.iii. 77-78, Richard demands:

                show us the hand of God
That hath dismiss'd us from our stewardship.

Whereas at III.ii. 54-55, Richard can assert:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king;

at IV.i. 207 he can say:

With mine own tears I wash away my balm.

Four lines earlier he asks those about him to mark 'how I will undo myself'. And he proceeds to dispose of his ceremonies,

To undeck the pompous body of a king;
Made glory base and sovereignty a slave,
Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant.

IV.i. 250-252

Here then one has the concept of a king as a man upon whom kingly ceremony has been laid. In addition one has the concept of the undoing, undecking, or, as Massinger has it, the putting off of royalty. One can see this concept in another form, inverted, in The Merchant of Venice where Shylock, though a Jew, is yet a man. In Macbeth there is, of course, the idea that Macbeth, on assuming the role of king, is wearing ill-fitting, borrowed, garments, and the dilemma attendant upon the removal of a tyrant underlies Julius Caesar.

Ernst H. Kantorowicz in his exhaustive study, The King's Two Bodies,35 has ably demonstrated, with particular reference to Richard II to which he devotes a chapter, Shakespeare's 'vision of the twin nature of a king'.36 He refers to Richard II as 'the tragedy proper of the King's Two Bodies37 and he compares Richard's solemn undecking of his kingship with

the rigid punctilio which was observed at the ousting of a Knight of the Garter or Golden Fleece.38

He also describes how Pope Celestine V had 'undone' himself--

by stripping off from his body, with his own hands, the insignia of the dignity which he resigned--ring, tiara, and purple. But whereas Pope Celestine resigned his dignity to his electors, the College of Cardinals, Richard, the hereditary king, resigned his office to God--Deo ius suum resignavit.39

Kantorowicz, after referring to Elizabeth's and Charles II's sensitivity to Richard II, concludes by quoting three lines from Majesty in Misery, ascribed to Charles I, which allude to the King's Two Bodies:

With my own power my majesty they wound,
In the King's name the king himself uncrowned.
So does the dust destroy the diamond.40

Much is made of Massinger's use of Shakespeare's work; and T. S. Eliot, in his essay on Massinger, argued that such borrowing indicated that 'Massinger's feeling for language had outstripped his feeling for things'.41 Without wishing to deny Massinger's inferiority in this respect, there is a use to which Massinger puts his plagiarism that has, so far, been overlooked. One has, I would suggest, in The Roman Actor, the deliberate recall of Hamlet, so that what Massinger has to say is deliberately set in a frame of reference made up of allusions to circumstances in plays of Shakespeare.42

The relationship between The Roman Actor and Hamlet is fairly obvious. There is a similar but inverted adulterous situation in The Roman Actor as a whole and in its third playlet, as there is in Hamlet. The discussion of Paris and Parthenius prior to the first playlet recalls that of Hamlet and the players; in each of these discussions there is the suggestion of a play performed at an earlier time; there is the involvement of Domitia in the second playlet after the fashion of Claudius in Hamlet; and just as the events in Hamlet are mirrored in its playlet, so are the events in The Roman Actor mirrored in its third playlet. It is noticeable that each of the three playlets in The Roman Actor are involved in some way in this reminiscence of Hamlet. Such insistent recall goes beyond the bounds of simple plagiarism. It is suggested that Massinger, in addition to recalling the overthrow of the tyrant in Hamlet, so evoking all the memories associated with that play, is endeavouring also to concentrate particular attention upon the playlet in Hamlet, for in that playlet one has a Player who plays a King, an actor representing the actions of a 'real-life' king. This relationship is of prime importance in Massinger's argument and it is here perhaps worth recalling a passage from James I's speech to Parliament on 21st March, 1610:

Kings Actions (euen in the secretest places) are as the actions of those that are set vpon the Stages, or on the tops of houses.43

Thus, to put the various parts of the argument together: the stage is the kingdom, the king (and Charles is hinted at) but an actor thereon, even though he is the leading actor on that stage. Though hedged about with divinity, ceremony, that can be put off as easily as a player's weeds. The divinity is in the office, not the man, just as the poetry is in the play, not the player. Kings are answerable to their people as actors are to their audiences. The title, 'The Roman Actor', applies not only to Paris, but also to Domitian. Further, to Massinger, it would seem a play might have curative properties. Although Philargus did not learn his lesson, and so suffered, some much lesson might, nevertheless, be being offered to Charles, or at least, to his advisers.

It is this relationship between the playlets (the theatre theme) and the theme of power (especially divine right) in conflict with human weakness (cruelty and uxoriousness) which gives to The Roman Actor a unity previously denied it. I cannot believe that a Blackfriars theatre audience would have agreed with the latter part of T. S. Eliot's stricture that in The Roman Actor Massinger was 'a dramatist who so skilfully welds together parts which have no reason for being together'.44

It is this relationship which explains why the more attractive of the principals dies first, at the end of Act IV, leaving the less affecting death of Domitian for the end of Act V. Massinger must surely be credited with realizing that he had killed first the character towards whom an audience would be most sympathetic and he could certainly have engineered the deaths in the reverse order, or brought them more closely together, had he wished. I would suggest that Massinger knew very well what he was doing; he doubtless knew that,

As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-grac'd actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious;
Even so, or with much more contempt, men's eyes
Did scowl on Richard.

Richard II, V.ii. 23-28

Massinger's arrangement of his action in The Roman Actor risks some lowering of tension and interest at the opening of Act V because of the importance of the relationship of the play's structure to its theme; this requires that the third playlet mirror the action of the whole play, and the fifth act reflect the third playlet.

In the whole play (equated with 'real life'), Paris expected death as a result of his forced association with Domitia. In the playlet (equated with 'make-believe'), Paris plays a 'make-believe' part but he is killed in reality for the make-believe accusations made against him in the playlet. Thus, real life and make-believe are shown as one.

In the fifth act, Domitian, the 'leading actor' of the empire, is slain, as was Paris, on his stage. Domitian's borrowed divinity cannot save him--no more than an actor's borrowed ornaments could save Paris. Thus the 'second body', whether it be kingly divinity or actor's costume, is no protection against present judgment.

One has, therefore, the 'reality' of the circumstances of Act IV (Domitia's temptation of Paris) mirrored in the third playlet and the result of that third playlet (the death of a man playing a part) reflected in the fifth act. We have, as Arthur Brown has stated with reference to the casting of a play in the form of a game, 'the apparent paradox of the removal of the main action one stage further from actuality in order to stress a deeper reality, a purpose which often seems to lie behind the introduction of a play within a play'.45

There is another interpretation of the third playlet, The False Servant. Caesar's summary of the play is obviously akin to the story of Potiphar's wife:

      a great lord takes to his protection
A man forlorn, giving him ample power
To order and dispose of his estate
In his absence, (he pretending then a journey,)
But yet with this restraint, that on no terms
(This lord suspecting his wife's constancy,
She having play'd false to a former husband)
The servant, though solicited, should consent,
Though she commanded him, to quench her flames.

IV.ii. 208-216

One was here, I would suggest, an allegory related to the play's main concern.46 The 'great lord' is God who takes into his protection a king, 'a man forlorn', giving him 'ample power to order and dispose' his kingdom. If this is so, then it is not, I believe, too farfetched to suggest that the great lord's wife is to be equated with divine power which seduces the man forlorn, the king, into being desirous of divine power. If the man forlorn commits adultery with the great lord's wife, he becomes on a par with the great lord himself. If a king assumes divine power, he is equating himself with God. So James I:

For Kings are not onely Gods Lieutenants vpon earth, and sit vpon Gods throne, but euen by God himselfe they are called Gods.47

Or, as Aretinus puts it to Domitian:

            So you preserve your power,
As you should, equal and omnipotent here
With Jupiter's above.

II.i. 159-161

Massinger, having shown metaphorically by means of the stage the essentially human nature of kings, goes a step further in Act V where, by means of the theme of uxoriousness, he shows the debasement of Domitian. Domitia, whom Caesar has forgiven, says to him:

                     Though thy flatterers
Persuade thee that thy murthers, lusts, and rapes,
Are virtues in thee, and what pleases Caesar
Though never so unjust is right and lawful;
Or work in thee a false belief that thou
Art more than mortal.

V.i. 39-44

One could scarcely have a more direct statement than that in the last two lines of the falsity of kingly aspirations to divine power. Domitia continues:

                     yet I to thy teeth
Will say, Domitian, nay, add to it Caesar,
Is a weak, feeble man, a bondman to
His violent passions, and in that my slave,
Nay, more my slave than my affections made me
To my lov'd Paris.

V.i. 44, 47-51

Domitian, for all his pretensions to divinity, is shown to be not even a free man, but a slave. Later in this scene Massinger has Domitian turn upon himself:

                     What accuser
Within me cries aloud, I have deserv'd it,
In being just to neither?

V.i. 189-191

That is, to neither gods nor men. Two lines later he says to himself, of himself:

Presumptuous traitor, thou shalt die!--What traitor?
He that hath been a traitor to himself,
And stands convicted here.

Cf. Richard II, IV.i. 247-50.

After Domitian has been killed, Massinger has the First Tribune promise death to those who have killed a prince, 'However wicked'.48 Massinger may have written this speech with an eye to conforming with the requirements of the Master of the Revels, but one might not unreasonably surmise that Massinger would have preferred a reformed king to assassination or to civil war.

The Roman Actor would, I believe, have appeared to an audience of its time to be an extraordinarily well integrated play, especially as in that age allegory was more readily appreciated than it is now.49 Massinger in the opening scene clearly states what he proposes to do:50

                     on the stage
Decipher to the life what honours wait
On good and glorious actions, and the shame
That treads upon the heels of vice.

I.i. 22-25

In that Massinger's method was effective in the theatre of his day and that the parts were then relevant to the whole, one cannot, surely, complain that he failed to make the development of the parts of The Roman Actor proportional to the central theme, even if that relationship is now no longer so apparent (or so relevant) to us.


1T. A. Dunn, Philip Massinger, The Man and the Playwright (London, 1957), p. 166. Referred to hereafter as 'Dunn'.

2A History of English Literature (London, 1933), p. 520.

3Selected Essays (London, 1958), p. 212.

4C.H.E.L. (Cambridge, 1950), VI/2, 154.

5Dunn, p. 66.

6Ibid., p. 65.

7A. H. Cruikshank, Philip Massinger (Oxford, 1920), p. 126.

8Dunn, p. 66.

9Arthur Brown, 'The Play within a Play: An Elizabethan Dramatic Device', Essays and Studies (1960), pp. 45-46.

10Cruikshank, op. cit., p. 26; Dunn, p. 55.

11Dunn, p. 56.

12Ibid., p. 66.

13Dunn, p. 65.

14Ibid., p. 65.

15The edition used of The Roman Actor is that in Five Stuart Tragedies ed. A. K. McIlwraith (O.U.P., 1959).

16An Apologie for Actors (London, 1612), G1v-G2v.

17'The Political Element in Massinger', Contemporary Review, August, 1876, reprinted in Transactions of the New Shakespeare Society, 1875-6, I, 314-331.

18Dunn, p. 172 ff.

19Studies in Philology, xli (1944), pp. 136-155.

20Ibid., pp. 136-137.

21Dunn, pp. 166-169.

22Ibid., p. 167.

23Ibid., p. 168.

24King James, Works (London, 1616), Slv.

25III. ii. 56-57. Cf. Psalms, 82.6, 'Ye are gods', a versicle which, according to E. H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, 1957), p. 496, was 'very much to the taste of political writers in the age of absolution and most certainly to that of James I, who quoted it and gave his own interpretation of it in great detail'.

26Cruikshank, op. cit., p. 72.

27G. M. Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts (London, 1949), p. 113. The Roman Actor was licensed for performance on 11 October, 1626.

28Ibid., p. 130.

29For example, in Shakespeare's Wooden O (London, 1960).

30Dunn, pp. 102-103.

31Ibid., p. 102.

32IV. ii. 35.

33Dunn lists the many plays of Shakespeare of which Massinger shows 'certain knowledge'. These include Henry V, Richard II, Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet--all those to which reference is made here. Hamlet and Othello are considered by Dunn to be 'Massinger's favourites'. He adds, 'Hamlet was, then as now, probably the best known play by Shakespeare on the stage' (p. 210). Passages from Shakespeare's plays are quoted from The Complete Works, ed. W. J. Craig, O.U.P. 1905 (1949).

34It must be stressed that I am not here concerned to show any line of reasoning of this kind in Shakespeare. My concern is to do no more than suggest the kind of situation and arguments current and popular at the time of The Roman Actor and likely to be appreciated by an audience at the Blackfriars Theatre.

35The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, 1957). In quotations, the original footnotes have been omitted.

36Ibid., p. 25.

37Ibid., p. 27.

38Ibid., p. 35.

39Ibid., pp. 35-36.

40Ibid., p. 41.

41T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 209.

42One might, perhaps, contrast this with Joyce's use of Homer in Ulysses. Romeo and Juliet is used for the purpose in William Inge's play, Bus Stop, 1955. As mentioned in footnote 33, according to Dunn, Hamlet was one of Massinger's favourite plays and one to which he was frequently indebted.

43King James, Works, 2Y2v.

44T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 212.

45Op. cit., p. 37.

46Regarding the capacity of Elizabethans and Jacobeans to apprehend allegory, see footnote 49, below.

47King James, Works, 2Y1r.

48The Roman Actor, V. ii. 78.

49Regarding the use of allegory, see, for example, Rosamond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (Chicago, 1961), especially pp. 99-109 and 133-136. Although Rosamond Tuve is concerned with non-dramatic poetry, the discussion which concludes with the statement that 'poems with many and complicated ideas to convey (like Dante's) make much use of allegoria' (p. 109), suggests how it was that The Roman Actor could have been appreciated allegorically. One can, I believe, clearly see the allegoric nature of Paris's speech beginning IV. ii. 43 and Caesar's summary of the third playet (IV. ii. 208-216). The title of the play is itself open to allegoric interpretation for it applies not only to Paris but also to Domitian.

50See also the quotation above to which footnote 9 refers.

Source: Peter H. Davidson, "The Theme and Structure of The Roman Actor." AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian University Languages and Literature Association 19 (May 1963): 39-56.