Why You Might Want to Read Philip Massinger's The City Madam
|The rich merchant Sir John Frugal is having a hard time of it of late. His wife Lady Frugal spends money recklessly on clothes and food, labors under the delusion that she still looks young, and regularly consults an astrologer about their daughters' future husbands; all in all, she is a typically over ambitious, social-climbing citizen wife. His daughters Anne and Mary are perhaps worse: mimicking the poor example set by their mother, they drive away two worthwhile suitors (Sir Maurice Lacie and Master Plenty) with insufferable, and unwarranted, demands. Anne begins her marriage negotiations with this item: "I require first / (And that since 'tis in fashion with kind husbands, / In civil manners you must grant) my will / In all things whatsoever, and that will / To be obey'd, not argu'd" (2.2.102-6). Not to be outdone, her sister Mary requires that her future husband "shall receive from me, / What I think fit. I'le have the State convey'd / Into my hands; and he put to his pension, / Which the wise virago's of our climate practise. / I will receive your rents" (2.2.163-67). Rather than marry these women with plans for imperiously ruling over their husbands, the two young men decide to flee.|
If this weren't enough, a decayed merchant (Fortune), a decayed gentlemen (Hoyst), and Penury (whose "wife and family / Must starve for want of bread" [1.3.17-18]) come to see Sir John in order to plead for more time to repay the money they owe him. Taking up their cause, Sir John's spendthrift brother Luke pleads for the merchant to show the debtors mercy and give them the additional time they've requested. But Luke presents other problems too. Not content simply to be a drain on Sir John's resources, he has been encouraging Sir John's apprentices Tradewell and Goldwire to steal from their master. It turns out however that they have long been doing this, with Goldwire using his ill-gotten gains to support the prostitute Shavem.
So what should Sir John do? This is where the play takes some unexpected and interesting turns. First, Sir John sends Lord Lacie (the father of one of the suitors of Sir John's daughters) to inform the Frugal family that he "is retir'd into a Monastery, / Where he resolves to end his daies" (3.2.52-54). Lord Lacie tells them that he saw Sir John "take poste for Dover, and the wind / Sitting so fair, by this hee's safe at Calice, / And ere long will be at Louvain" (3.2.55-57) Lest you're not up to date on the locations of your early modern Catholic monasteries, there was a Catholic university in Louvain, Belgium, which, according to the editors of Massinger's Plays and Poems, was "a haven for English Catholics" (Edwards and Gibson 1976, 5:236). What's more, "In 1625 a Jesuit novitiate was established in a monastery at Watten (near St. Omers) on the main rout from Calais to Louvain." There aren't many city comedies with English merchants who flee to Catholic monasteries.
While Sir John's escape is a pretty interesting plot twist, things take an even more unexpected turn thereafter. Lord Lacie tells the Frugal family that his son (Sir Lacie) and Master Plenty have also run off to the continent, and that Luke has been made master of the Frugal family, albeit on one condition. Luke must
Receive these Indians, lately sent him fromThat's right, Indians. Three of them. From Virginia. Who claim to be kings in their native land, and who say they worship Satan. Satanic Virginian Indians!
I dare say this is the only play that includes Satan-worshiping Indians from Virginia. I won't spoil the ending for you (it's a city comedy, so you can probably guess what happens), but I thought I'd give those of you who have never read Massinger's The City Madam a reason to try it.
[Notes: The City Madam was licensed for the King's Men by Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels, on May 25, 1632. It was first published in 1658 by Andrew Pennycuicke, who reissued the play the following year with a new date on the title page. According to these title pages, the play "was acted at the private House in Black Friers with great applause."]