Reading Massinger’s play again, I found myself most interested in how the supposedly good characters treat the parasite Marall. Tired of verbal and physical abuse by the outrageously immoral Giles Overreach, Marall opportunistically changes allegiance to his rival and nephew, Wellborn. By the end of the play, Wellborn rejects the parasite on the grounds that “He that dares to be false / To a master, though unjust, will ne’er be true / To any other” (5.1.338-40). Perhaps Wellborn has a point: Marall is only truly loyal to himself, and operates by deceit; he really is a man not to be trusted. Wellborn is a far better trickster than Marall, however; indeed, this is where much of the humour lies in act 1, as Wellborn outwits the parasite who thinks he is deceiving the young prodigal. There’s nothing to suggest that Wellborn is an inherently better person than Marall, morally. He’s certainly willing to capitalise on Marall’s deceit when he can. His advantage is in his name which indicates the possibility that he, being well-born, might be reclaimed (while Marall is going to keep on marring all those with whom he comes into contact).
The idea of remaining loyal to an unjust master is a politically-loaded one in Caroline England. Having aligned himself with Overreach, Marall is already damned. The other characters have the freedom to work against the corrupt Overreach. But English subjects had neither the choice to be subjects of their king nor the freedom to work against him, which adds some complications to Wellborn’s aphorism. I’m not really certain what to make of those connections though. Certainly Wellborn feels no compunction working against his own uncle — as though Overreach’s abuse of his nephew nullifies any right he has to Wellborn’s loyalty or obedience.
I don’t really think the play is a direct and obvious commentary on Charles I and Caroline political goings-on — although the play’s fascinations with unjust authority and debt certainly draws on Caroline anxieties. I’m also fascinated with the way that social debt/credit is exchanged for monetary debt/credit. So Wellborn can trade his previous loyalty to Lady Allworth’s husband (a social debt which her husband never repaid) in exchange for temporarily borrowing some of Lady Allworth’s class and economic value. Overeach invests 1000 real pounds in Wellborn’s increased value, and the prodigal uses the money to pay his long-standing debts with his creditors. Exchanges are hard to keep track of in the play, as they are not always grounded in material objects: many intangibles and imaginary things are also exchanged. Debt, however, seems to belong not just to one person, but is spread across the entire city — and this is the bit of Massinger’s play that feels the most accurately reflective of Caroline London.
9 March 2013 ~ Hamilton
Massinger, Philip. A New Way to Pay Old Debts. English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Eds David Bevington et al. New York, London: Norton, 2002. 1833-1904.