University Of Tasmania
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Certainty and doubt : moral issues in the plays of Philip Massinger

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posted on 2023-05-26, 21:09 authored by Holden, S
The theory of decadence in early seventeenth-century drama has generally been misapplied. Chapter I suggests that the moral uncertainty found in many plays is not the product of some kind of perversity but of a sea-change in the way belief, knowledge and law were perceived. The application of an ethical standard which equates a corrupt court with a corrupt private theatre imposes an ideological and inappropriate interpretation on the drama. I argue that changes in morality, the theatre and literary style are not symptoms of decay. If they are, then Shakespeare may be as culpable as Beaumont and Fletcher. I suggest, in Chapter II, that Shakespeare's tragedies and tragicomedies, like Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedies, are tragic and tragicomic precisely because they are uncertain. We usually find an unresolved tension in the ending which prevents us from carrying home a moral for our use and edification. We are disturbed rather than comforted. Massinger's method in collaboration is similar. His independent tragicomedies, as I argue in Chapter III, exploit the tension between romantic and satiric action to illustrate a complex moral world in which characters may have an uncertain and changing moral status. Typically he uses satiric characters and methods to undercut romantic assumptions and conventions. The process can sometimes lead, however, to confusions which make some of Massinger's plays morally dubious rather than ambiguous. The questions, paradoxes and tensions in Massinger's tragedies are more acute than those to be found in his tragicomedies. He presents a shifting world in which it is difficult to judge characters accurately, and in which justice seldom seems to be done. Our sympathies are complicated by the multiple moral status of his protagonists, or their antagonists, who are never totally evil or wholly redeemable. The Renaissance plays, in Chapter IV, exploit the problems inherent in the idealistic and malicious pursuit of revenge. The Roman plays, in Chapter V, deal with more political complexities, largely the result of a simultaneous sympathy for the individual and acceptance of the identity imposed on him by the state. The tension between perceived and imposed identity, and the tragic destruction of the integrity of the individual, are most fully realised in The Roman Actor and Believe As You List. The simultaneity of equal and opposite values in these plays is common to Massinger's work as a whole. The tension of uncertainty - whether broken, as in the tragedies, or not - seems to express exactly that
egative capability\" which Massinger has been denied. Only if we read him on the most superficial level can we consider him to be moralistic or simplistic."


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Copyright 1985 the Author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s). Bibliography: leaves 177-189. Thesis (M.A.)--University of Tasmania, 1985

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