George Wither, A Collection of Emblems, Ancient and Modern, London, 1635, book 3, illustration XXIV.
Illustration reproduced by permission of the British Library.
- 1 Philip Massinger, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, T.W. Craik (Ed.), London : Ernest Benn Ltd, 1964.
1At the end of Philip Massinger’s play, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, probably written in 1625 and published in 1633, one of the characters steps forward in order to beg the audience’s indulgence for the performance that they have just witnessed. In his epilogue, he makes explicit reference to the act of writing, hoping that the applause of the spectators will help the playwright to improve his writing skills: “your grace hath might / To teach […] him how to write.”1 The author, who has given life to his characters by composing their texts, is thus encouraged to do better with his next attempt. Within the context of the play, the act of writing is highlighted. The character is considered as a sheet of paper or a page upon which an inscription is to be made, preferably an honourable one. Indeed much of the business of the play turns upon the ability to write (a)right.
- 2 George Wither, A Collection of Emblems, Ancient and Modern, London, 1635, book 3, illustration XXI (...)
2The vision of the character as a text within the play mirrors that of the life of man as a book or a page. This idea is an old one. It is to be found in both the Old Testament and the New. The notion was also particularly popular in 16th and 17th century books of emblems, in which a man was encouraged to write a line a day upon his own blank page until, at the moment of death, he would leave behind him a fair text for posterity2. In A New Way to Pay Old Debts, the character undertakes to fulfil the task set down for him by the emblematist, that is, to author himself, thus becoming a text within the text. An important distinction must however be made between the male character and the female one. He may take up the pen himself and construct his own life-narrative, whereas she must passively wait for others to compose her text.
3Massinger’s play is centred on Sir Giles Overreach who is described in the dramatis personae as a “cruel extortioner”. He belongs to the brotherhood of moneylenders who held centre stage in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. However Sir Giles is not a typical stage usurer. He is not miserly like, for example, Philargus in The Roman Actor, another play by Massinger. Sir Giles is not tight-fisted, on the contrary, he is “Rich in his habit; vast in his expenses” (2.2.112), especially when such behaviour serves his interests. Like his cronies, Overreach covets the lands and fortunes of his neighbours and attempts by all means to get them into his hands. One of his victims is his own nephew, Francis Welborne, who, as his name implies, comes from a good family. However when his father, Sir John Welborne dies, he dilapidates the family fortune by loose living and extravagant behaviour. He is the prodigal son who speedily spends his way through his newly-acquired fortune. Soon in need of cash, he is obliged to ask his uncle for money in the form of loans. The latter confiscates Welborne’s patrimony when the young man is no longer able to repay what he owes. The main plot of the play therefore concerns Welborne and his attempts, to which the title of the play makes reference, to recover his fortune and property from his uncle’s grasp. This he does by pretending to be about to marry a rich widow who will restore his flagging fortunes. The usuring uncle is willing to do all he can to bring the match about and this even involves paying off his nephew’s debts, for it is felt that when Welborne has money in his pocket again, he will once more fall victim to Overreach’s sharp practices. However Sir Giles is outwitted, the spider is caught in a web of his own weaving, and Welborne’s new way to pay old debts proves entirely successful.
4The second plot concerns Sir Giles’s own daughter, Margaret. Overreach’s dearest desire is to see her married into the aristocracy. Indeed, his ill-gotten gains would be given a certain legitimacy by the addition of a title. He settles on Lord Lovell as a potential candidate for his daughter’s hand. Through this noble match he wishes to see his daughter made “Right Honourable”. His plans however are thwarted when Margaret secretly marries the man she loves, Tom Alworth. At the end of the play, seeing all his plans scuppered, Sir Giles turns mad. He is bound and forcibly dragged off to Bedlam hospital.
- 3 L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, London: Chatto and Windus, 1968, 274.
5These are the two strands of the plot of A New Way to Pay OldDebts, which in many ways resembles that of an earlier play, A Trick to Catch the Old One by Thomas Middleton (1608), in which a young man is also ruined by his predatory uncle, but, by using a rich widow as bait, manages to recover his patrimony. The scope of Massinger’s play is perhaps more far-reaching than A Trick to Catch the Old One. According to L. C. Knights in Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, “Middleton’s inspiration derives from nothing more profound than the desire to make a play; Massinger does at least feel indignation at a contemporary enormity.”3
6On the death of his father, Tom Alworth finds himself in straitened circumstances. He is obliged to seek employment and to become the page of Lord Lovell. He has little knowledge of the ways of the world and because of his inexperience is early on described by his step-mother, Lady Alworth, in terms of “a virgin parchment capable of any / Inscription, vicious or honourable” (1.2.78-79). He is still young enough to go either way, towards good or evil. The text behind the text here is the familiar literary topos of the young man seeking his path in life. Like the young Hercules, he is confronted with a choice, in the form of the figures of Pleasure and Virtue. In the play, the former is represented by Welborne who, because of his dissolute existence offers an example to be avoided, and the latter by Tom’s employer, Lord Lovell who is a soldier and, what is more, a kind of surrogate father to the young man. Using a textual metaphor, Overreach describes Lovell as a “lord, and a good leader in one volume” (3.2.80). His reputation is of “immaculate whiteness”, unsullied by either “taint or spot” (4.1.95-97). He offers an excellent example for Tom to follow. Lady Alworth conveys to her step-son the good advice of his late father who recommended that he should follow a soldier’s life and shun lust, riot, swearing, dicing and drinking. Tom, we are told is “his father’s picture in little” (1.2.49); the resemblance is moral as well as physical. Rather like the Countess of Roussillon referring to her son, Bertram in All’s Well that Ends Well, she hopes that he will “succeed [his] father/ In manners as in shape” (1.1.59-60). His father’s legacy corresponds to his own inclination and to the noble example set before him by Lord Lovell. The spectator feels that he will write a fair text upon his “virgin parchment”.
- 4 William Shakespeare, Complete Works, W. J. Craig (Ed.), Oxford : Oxford U P, 1991.
- 5 Jaqueline Pearson, “Women reading, reading women” in Women and Literature in Britain 1500-1700, He (...)
7The textual metaphor has here been used with reference to male characters. It is, however, more often associated with female characters. Stella, in Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (1582), is a “fair text” (stanza 67) and “the fairest book of nature” (stanza 71). In Shakespeare’s poems and plays4, women are represented as texts to be read by men: in King John, Bianca is “a book of beauty” (2.1.485), Lysander reads Helena as “love’s richest book” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2.2.121) and Florizel in The Winter’s Tale will “stand and read” Perdita’s eyes (4.4.175-176). But if women are texts to be read, they might also be passively written by men5. Othello imagines that Cassio has blotted Desdemona’s page:
Was this fair paper, this most goodly book
Made to write ‘whore’ upon? (4.2.73-74).
The “white handkerchief/ Spotted with strawberries” (3.3.435), Othello’s first gift to Desdemona, is a similar image, for he imagines that his wife’s pure white surface has been stained with lust by her lover. As Helen Wilcox points out in the introduction to Women and Literature in Britain 1500-1700, woman is “the ‘ground of white paper’ […], waiting in silent chastity to receive the imprint of the male”.6
- 7 Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, London: Penguin Classics, 366, 328. See also Susan Gubar “The (...)
8To illustrate this idea one could take a much later example from Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady, in which the young woman (Pansy Osmond) is described as “a pure white surface”, a “sheet of blank paper”. We are led to believe that through marriage “so fair and smooth a page would be covered by an edifying text”, whereas the older woman, the experienced woman (Countess Gemini) who is “written all over in a variety of hands”, has a “number of unmistakable blots upon her surface”.7
9In A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Margaret, Overreach’s only child, and heir to his fortune, is an innocent young woman, a virgin, ripe for marriage. She is the “ground of white paper” alluded to by Helen Wilcox. She is the dutiful daughter who still abides in her father’s house. However she in no way resembles him or approves of his methods. Like Jessica in The Merchant of Venice she might state, “Though I am a daughter to his blood, / I am not to his manners” (2.3.19-20). Overreach intends to force his daughter into an unwanted marriage with Lord Lovell. He longs to be able to “write […] /Right honourable” against her name (2.1.75-76). Should she refuse, he swears that he will disinherit her. Such coercion will lead Margaret to join forces with her father’s enemies in order to thwart his plans and ultimately to bring about his downfall.
- 8 Edward Said, Beginnings, Intention and Method, quoted in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Ma (...)
10To make sure of the advantageous match that he ardently desires for his daughter, Overreach would go as far as to sully her unstained honour, to break her seal and to blot, as it were, her blank page. As her father, he is the originator and first author of her text. Edward Saïd in Beginnings: Intention and Method, explains this clearly; the author is the “person who originates or gives existence to something, a begetter, beginner, father, or ancestor, a person also who sets forth written statements”.8 Overreach is at once the author of Margaret’s life, her father, and the writer of whatever inscription he chooses to set upon her.
11He would like Margaret to yield to, even to encourage all kinds of familiarity from her noble suitor before the wedding has taken place. If Lovell oversteps the bounds of decency before the official ceremony, he will no longer be in a position to wriggle out of his promise to marry Margaret. Overreach explains his strategy to her just before she meets Lovell for the first time. The following exchange between Margaret and her father recalls Othello’s words concerning Desdemona:
Overreach. Or if his blood grow hot, suppose he offer
Beyond this, do not stay till it cool,
But meet his ardour, if a couch be near,
Sit down on’t, and invite him.
Margaret. In your house?
Your own house sir, for heav’n’s sake, what are you then?
Or what shall I be sir?
Overreach. Stand not on form,
Words are no substances.
Margaret. Though you could dispense
With your own honour; cast aside religion,
The hopes of heaven, or fear of hell, excuse me,
In worldly policy, this is not the way
To make me his wife, his whore I grant it may do. (3.2.124-133).
“Words are no substances”, says Overreach. The words that he will write have no weight, they are not signs of honesty or proof of virtue, they are simply tools with which to manipulate others. In Sir Giles’s hands they can therefore be used in ignoble fashion, their meanings twisted and turned in order to achieve his ends.
12In a similar way, text and textiles are linked when Lord Lovell opposes the match between himself and Margaret. Mixing his blood with that of a class inferior to his own would defile his lineage and produce a patchwork made up of ill-assorted pieces. He explains to Lady Alworth:
I would not so adulterate my blood
By marrying Margaret, and so leave my issue
Made up of several pieces, one part scarlet
And the other London-blue. (4.1.223-226).
Scarlet designates the ceremonial attire of the aristocracy associated with rank and dignity, whereas London-blue was the colour worn by servants and symbolized the socially inferior merchant classes.
13However texts in the play are not only metaphorical. Those associated with Welborne, for example, have a very tangible existence. They are the bonds which link him, the borrower, to various lenders, particularly to his usuring uncle, Overreach. Welborne’s sheets of parchment are not blank; on the contrary, they are already blackened and blotted with inscriptions recounting the prodigal’s excesses. Welborne’s story is told by Timothy Tapwell, the innkeeper who has just thrown him out of the alehouse for the non-payment of his bills. He inherited one thousand two hundred pounds a year and a large property on the death of his father, Sir John Welborne. All the money was soon consumed in riotous living. He fell into the hands of moneylenders, "you grew a common borrower" (1.1.55) and was finally forced to hand over his property as security to Sir Giles Overreach, who confiscated it when the unthrift was no longer in a position to reimburse his debts.
- 9 William Rowley, A Search for Money, London, 1609, 11.
- 10 Caesar L. Barber, “The Winter’s Tale and Jacobean Society”, in Arnold Kettle (Ed.), Shakespeare in (...)
14The bond was the proof that a loan had indeed taken place and as long as it remained in the moneylender’s possession, the borrower was trapped, “bound in worse bonds and manacles then the Turkes Galli-slaves.”9 It was only when the debt had been discharged that the moneylender signed a release, effectively setting the borrower at liberty. The written bond inspired fear and hatred, perhaps because a large proportion of the population was illiterate and perhaps also because the word of a man promising to repay was no longer considered a sufficient guarantee. As Caesar L. Barber points out in an article entitled “The Winter’s Tale and Jacobean Society”, the move away from customary and traditional links between members of society to more formal, written ones, constituted one of the major changes in seventeenth century English society10.
- 11 The written bond gives Shylock in The Merchant of Venice the power of life and death over Antonio, (...)
15The sheets of paper connected with Welborne in the play range from “paper pellets” (1.1.56), that is promissory notes, bills and IOUs made out to various creditors, to “a fair skin of parchment/ Indented […] and labels too” (5.1.184-185). The latter is the bond which the lender keeps safely under lock and key. The parchment is “indented”, that is, it has a crooked edge showing where the duplicate was torn or cut off when the contract was drawn up. The labels are the ribbon tabs which hold the seals of the parties to the agreement. In this play, as indeed in other plays of the period, the document is a formidable weapon as it constitutes the means by which the lender is able to exercise power over the debtor and ultimately to confiscate his lands.11 It enumerates the precise conditions for the reimbursement of the debt and the sanctions to be applied in the case of default. Welborne is trapped by this single sheet of paper. Consequently, his copy book is blotted, its pages defiled. However he is given what is given to few, that is a second chance. When Overreach takes Welborne’s bond from amongst his other papers in order to prove the validity of his claim to the prodigal’s property, he finds that the sheet of paper is blank. He exclaims:
I am o’erwhelm’d with wonder!
What prodigy is this, what subtle devil
Hath raz’d out the inscription, the wax
Turn’d into dust! The rest of my deeds whole,
As when they were deliver’d! and this only
Made nothing! (5.1.189-194).
The significantly-named Marrall, the down-trodden notary in Overreach’s employ, had used a special kind of disappearing ink to draw up the contract in the hope, no doubt, of taking revenge upon his cruel master at some later date. Overreach’s earlier words to his daughter here backfire upon him, as the words written on the document have been emptied of all substance. As the contract no longer exists, the debt and the forfeiture of the land no longer exist either. Welborne has been freed from his chains and reinstated in his lands and his fortune, allowing him to begin anew. This is echoed by the wiping clean of his slate in the alehouse as the establishment is finally closed down due to its tolerance of criminal activities. Such a radical change of fortune is likely, according to Timothy Tapwell, to be committed to writing for future remembrance, “He shall be chronicl’d for it”, (4.2.29).
16Although his debts have been miraculously cleared, he still needs to recover the fair name and fine reputation which his father bequeathed to him. This he does at the end of the play by choosing a soldier’s life as Alworth had done before him:
I had a reputation, but ‘twas lost
In my loose courses; and till I redeem it
Some noble way, I am but half made up.
It is a time of action; if your lordship
Will please to confer a company upon me
In your command, I doubt not in my service
To my king, and country, but I shall do something
That may make me right again. (5.1.390-397).
All evidence of his former excesses having been deleted, Welborne must indeed “write again”.
- 12 William Shakespeare, Hamlet: “An earnest conjuration from the King, / [… ] That on the view and kn (...)
17The final outcome of the play is predictable. Tom marries Margaret in spite of her father’s opposition. This is achieved thanks to yet another sheet of paper, almost blank this time, with merely a bare sketch of a note written upon it. The document carries great weight however as it changes the direction of the plot and the fate of the characters. One imagines that the text which Hamlet rewrites to the King of England is of a similar nature.12
18Tom had apparently been playing the role of love’s messenger between Lord Lovell and Margaret, but had of course been using these visits to further his own suit. Tom intimates to Overreach that his master wishes to wed Margaret in all haste and, what is more, in disguise, in order to escape the attention of prying eyes. Overreach is in full agreement with such a course of action. He does not care how the match is brought about as long as it occurs. He calls therefore for pen, ink and paper and writes the following succinct note for the officiating parson: “Marry her to this gentleman”, (4.3.126). Tom can thus easily be substituted for the aristocrat and Jack can have his Jill. This almost blank sheet of paper is not only instrumental in enabling Alworth to marry Margaret, it is of course indirectly responsible for helping the young man, formerly of extremely modest means, to a share of Overreach’s vast estates. Property and wealth are redistributed without the further spilling of ink.
- 13 Gamini Salgado (Ed.), Four Jacobean City Comedies, London: The Penguin English Library, 26.
19The sheet of paper is a frequent point of reference in the play. On the literal level, the text within the text serves to outwit the usurer and bring about the comic ending and on the metaphorical level it symbolizes reputation. One may however wonder about the purity or the immaculate white surfaces of the aristocratic characters that make up the conspiracy against Overreach. They constantly make reference to their good names and fine reputations, untainted by any hint of infamy. And yet they are found wanting. Welborne, for example, never assumes responsibility for his dissolute ways. He presents himself as the innocent victim of his uncle. Lady Alworth fails to offer hospitality to Welborne when he first appears at her door and she is apparently not charitable enough to prevent her step-son from having to work for his living. They all behave in a rather underhand way. As Gamini Salgado states in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Four Jacobean City Comedies, “they cheat, lie and brazen their way through the plot”.13 At the play’s conclusion, however, the arch-villain is removed and Welborne’s slate is both literally and metaphorically wiped clean. He is set to re-write himself and, as the epilogue suggests with reference to the playwright, he will perhaps write better on his second attempt.