London: printed by E[dward]. G[riffin]. for Iohn Waterson, and are to be sold at his shop, at the signe of the Crowne, in S. Pauls Church-yard, 1639.
Quarto: 18 x 13.5 cm. 80 p. Collation: A2, B-K4, L2
The Hoe copy. Contents fine with a few light stains. With a printer's ornament on title, woodcut headpieces and decorative initials in the text. Bound in 19th-century green morocco, gilt arms of noted Shakespeare collector Frederick Perkins (1780-1860) on boards, gilt-lettered on spine, all edges gilt. Bookplates of Robert Hoe (1839-1909) and T. J. Coolidge, Jr. (1863-1912).
First edition of Massinger’s play exploring the two “unnatural crimes” of piracy and incest. Thought the play was not published until 1639, most critics date the play to the mid-1620s. Echoes of Thomas Middleton’s ‘The Changeling’(162) and references to statutes about swearing from early 1624 suggest that the most likely dates for composition are 1624-5, though little is known about the early stage history of the play. It belonged to the King’s Men and many have been staged at The Globe and Blackfriars, although no records of performances at this latter theatre survive. As such, it is likely to have been composed during the years when Massinger wrote other politically-charged dramas such as, for instance, ‘The Bondman’(1623) which, as Margaret Heinemann has argued, targeted, ‘court favorites, court monopolists, inefficient generals and admirals appointed because of the king’s personal favor, greedy citizens and their families, and what he saw as weak foreign policies.’”(Jowitt, Piracy and Court Scandals in Massinger's The Unnatural Combat (1624–25?))
The play tells the story of the intertwined fates of two families, the Beauforts and Maleforts. Beaufort Senior is the governor of Marseilles in France; his son, Beaufort Junior, is in love with, and beloved by, Theocrine, the daughter of Malefort Senior, the admiral of Marseilles. The admiral's son and Theocrine's half-brother, Malefort Junior, is a successful and notorious pirate; at the start of the play his pirate fleet is blockading the harbor of the city, and his father the admiral is suspected of collusion with the son's actions.
This situation is delineated in the play's opening scene, which proceeds to the admiral's trial before the governor and other officials. Malefort Senior reminds his judges of his many past victories and acts of courage, though to little effect. The trial is then interrupted by an emissary from the pirates, who bears a challenge: Malefort Junior challenges his father to single combat, which will decide the outcome of the pirates' siege. Malefort Senior agrees; it is a way for him to clear his reputation and refute the charges against him—but more than that, the challenge satisfies his bloody-minded nature. (This duel, of course, is the "unnatural combat" of the title.)
Malefort Junior and his captains arrive for the duel. The pirates, talking among themselves, express their surprise at their leader's course of action; they do not comprehend his motives. When Malefort Senior and Junior meet, they converse before the fight – and the son reproaches his father for having committed a "deed of horror" (though he doesn't specify the nature of that horrible action). They duel; the father kills the son, and mutilates his body. The pirates withdraw, according to their agreement; Malefort Senior is cleared of the charges against him and hailed once more as the city's hero.
Plans are made for the wedding of Beaufort Junior and Theocrine; but their friends note the strange, doting, almost obsessive behavior that Malefort Senior has begun to show toward his daughter. A plan is hatched to distract the admiral at a banquet in his honor, and to take Theocrine aside for a quick marriage ceremony with her fiancé. But Malefort Senior is too suspicious and watchful to be fooled in this way, and he discovers and forestalls the intended ceremony. In a soliloquy, Malefort divulges that he is suddenly plagued with, and almost overcome by, lustful and incestuous desire for his daughter. In his confusion and distress, he appeals to his cynical friend Montreville, the commander of the city's fortress. Malefort asks Montreville to take Theocrine into his custody, and has the man swear to keep them, father and daughter, separate, no matter how Malefort may change his mind, object, or plead to the contrary in the future.
Montreville does as Malefort requests, but for his own dark motives; he abducts Theocrine and takes her to his fortress. When Malefort eventually, and inevitably, comes to the fortress to try to get her back, Montreville has her tossed out the front gate, her clothing disordered and hair disheveled; and Montreville cheerfully admits to having raped her. He reminds Malefort that he was once a rejected suitor for Theocrine's hand, and gloats over his revenge. Montreville also reveals the sinister history the two men share, and the nature of the crime with which Malefort Junior had reproached his father on the "field of honor." Years before, Malefort had fallen in love with Montreville's mistress; to marry the woman, Malefort poisoned his first wife, his son's mother. Malefort then married the mistress, who gave birth to Theocrine.
Theocrine dies from the shock of her rape. Malefort, in his distraction, sees the ghosts of his son and his murdered first wife. A thunderstorm rises, and Malefort is struck by a bolt of lightning and killed on the spot. The forces of the governor, led by Beaufort Senior and Junior and other officials, assault and take the fortress; Montreville is led away to answer for his crime.
Massinger began to write plays sometime between 1603, when he left Oxford without a degree, and 1613, when he wrote a play (that has not survived) with Nathan Field and Robert Daborne. From about 1613 to about 1622 Massinger wrote collaborative plays with Nathan Field, Thomas Dekker, and John Fletcher, almost all of them for the King’s Men.
“About 1620 Massinger started to work with companies other than the King's Men, for whom he had so far co-scripted almost all his surviving plays. The Virgin Martyr was performed at the Red Bull, probably in 1620 and probably by His Majesty's Revels. And between about 1621 and 1625, while not breaking his connection with the King's Company, he wrote in all five unaided plays—four tragicomedies and a comedy—for the companies based at the Phoenix or Cockpit theatre. Another tragicomedy, The Great Duke of Florence, was licensed for performance by the queen's company at the Phoenix in July 1627….
“By 1625 Massinger was well established as a playwright. Payment for plays and pensions or gifts from well-connected patrons mean that he may also have become fairly prosperous. (No doubt he was not rich, but the later perception of his knowing extreme poverty results mainly from the early 'tripartite letter' and over-literal reading of references such as that, in the 1639 dedication of The Unnatural Combat, to his 'necessitous fortunes'.) He became all the more well known when he succeeded Fletcher as company dramatist of the King's Men in 1625 or soon afterwards. (Fletcher had died in the major plague outbreak of that year, which was the subject of Massinger's poem 'London's Lamentable Estate, in any Great Visitation'.) Although no contract survives it is clear that there must have been one; all Massinger's remaining plays were for this company with the exception of The Great Duke of Florence.”
“Contact with the king's company appears to have been maintained during Massinger's Phoenix years since he wrote for it the tragedies The Duke of Milan (c.1621) and The Unnatural Combat (c.1624). These explore, respectively, obsessional jealousy and a father's incestuous passion for his daughter; here seemingly brave and admirable public figures—exposed or redeemed in the tragicomedies and comedies—are destroyed by private flaws. The Roman Actor, as performed in 1626 and published in 1629, is somewhat more complex in effect..
“Massinger's career in the 1630s continued to thrive… It can be argued that the publication of six of Massinger's plays between 1630 and 1633 suggests decreasing popularity since companies often (if by no means invariably) protected work from publication while it was likely to be reusable. But confidence in achievements so far is suggested by Massinger's action, about 1632–3, in having copies of his then published seven unaided plays, together with The Fatal Dowry, bound into what is now called the Harbord volume (Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington). The volume contains corrections in Massinger's hand up to about half way through. Perhaps he intended to present the collection to a patron but he may also have been at least thinking ahead to putting together his works, following the example of the Jonson and Shakespeare collections of 1616 and 1623. And if non-publication is indeed a sign of continuing theatrical viability it may be significant that only two of Massinger's hitherto unpublished plays were printed between 1633 and his death in 1640: The Great Duke of Florence in 1636 and The Unnatural Combat in 1639.
“When dedicating The Unnatural Combat to Anthony St Leger in 1639 Massinger looked back with pride and a degree of nostalgia on 'this old Tragedie, without Prologue, or Epilogue, it being composed in a time (and that too, peradventure, as knowing as this) when such by ornaments, were not advanced above the fabricque of the whole worke'.” (Plays and Poems, 2.197).”(Oxford DNB).
ESTC S112429; STC (2nd ed.), 17643; Pforzheimer, 682; Greg, II, 559