Massinger: The City Madam

October 31, 2022

The City Madam
Philip Massinger
(Delphi Classics) [1632]

After a reasonably good experience with a play by Philip Massinger, I decided to pluck another from his considerable body of work, and I plucked The City Madam. It’s a domestic comedy about two brothers — one, Sir John, a successful manager of his wealthy estate, the other, Luke, a wastrel and a scoundrel — and about what happens when the latter assumes the responsibilities of the former.

As the play opens, Luke has been brought to the family estate by his brother after having been released from debtors’ prison. The family, thinking ill of him, treat him as they would an abused servant:

My proud Ladie
Admits him to her Table, marry ever
Beneath the Salt, and there he sits the subject
Of her contempt and scorn; and dinner ended,
His courteous Neeces find emploiment for him
Fitting an under-prentice, or a Footman,
And not an Uncle. (I, i)

But Luke, at least initially, appears to be content with his humble station:

I am a Freeman, all my debts discharg’d,
Nor does one Creditor undone by me
Curse my loose riots. I have meat and cloaths,
Time to ask heaven remission for what’s past;
Cares of the world by me are laid aside,
My present poverty’s a blessing to me;
And though I have been long, I dare not say
I ever liv’d till now. (I, ii)

In fact, his character seems to be so reformed — though we, the audience, being privy to his conversations with the other servants, know this seeming to be false — that his brother, Sir John, devises a test: he, John, announces that he intends to devote himself to religious life in a monastery, and permanently transfers ownership and management of the estate to Luke. “Outward gloss,” he says in private, “often deceivs, may it not prove so in him.” Meanwhile, Sir John intends to return to the estate in disguise to see what transpires.

It doesn’t take long for Luke to reveal his true colours. He abuses his sister-in-law and nieces, throwing them into poverty (“Hee’s cruel to himself, that dares not be / Severe to those that us’d him cruelly.”), and entraps the servants by goading them into wrongdoing and then punishing them. In one memorable speech, he reveals that his sudden ascent has inflamed his greed:

Increase of wealth
Is the rich mans ambition, and mine
Shall know no bounds. The valiant Macedon
Having in his conceit subdu’d one world,
Lamented that there were no more to conquer:
in my way he shall be my great example.
And when my private house in cram’d abundance
Shall prove the chamber of the City poor,
And Genoways banquers shall look pale with envy
When I am mention’d, I shall grieve there is
No more to be exhausted in one Kingdome.
Religion, conscience, charity, farewell.
To me you are words onely, and no more,
All humane happinesse consists in store.
(IV, ii)

His wickedness reaches a humorous zenith when Sir John, who has adopted the guise of a Satan-worshipping wizard from barbarous lands (that is, from Virginia!) come in search of virgins for his rites of human sacrifice, finds Luke all-too-willing to offer up his nieces for the purpose (“They are burden some to me, and eat too much.”). Sir John conjures up a procession of all those — family, servants, and friends — whom Luke has harmed during his brief term in power, which only provokes malign laughter from him:

This move me to compassion? or raise
One sign of seeming pity in my face?
You are deceiv’d: it rather renders me more flinty,
and obdurate. A South wind
Shall sooner soften marble, and the rain
That slides down gently from his flaggy wings
O’reflow the Alps: then knees, or tears, or groans
Shall wrest compunction from me. ’Tis my glory
That they are wretched, and by me made so,
It sets my happinesse off.
(V, iii)

But it is too much. Sir John unveils himself, to great acclaim from all hands, and Luke’s downfall is immediate. He is denounced as an “avaritious Atheist” and sent away to some desert, or to Virginia!


Is it a good play? It has its merits: it is funny without being frivolous, it has a pleasing, clear structure with a satisfying ending, and its moral instincts are sound. On the other hand, the verse is, with rare exceptions, pedestrian, and the characters are not especially distinctive.

It has been occasionally revived, including in a series of 2011 performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK, but we could not say that it has had enduring success on the stage.

The title of the play is oddly tangential. There are one or two references to a “City Madam” or “City Dame”, but none, it seems to me, come near the central action of the play.

Let me put it this way: The City Madam has convinced me that I’m finished with Philip Massinger for now; with no ill will, but with no real regret either, I am moving on.

One Response to “Massinger: The City Madam”

  1. Massinger’s Luke is the comical version of Marlowe’s Faustus.

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