Philip Massinger (MAS-uhn-jur) was the son of Arthur Massinger, “gentleman,” of an old Salisbury family. The father had two degrees from Oxford and served Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke, in confidential matters. His son Philip was baptized at St. Thomas’s, Salisbury, on November 24, 1583, and may have served as a page in Wilton, the home of the Herberts.
On May 14, 1602, Philip was entered in St. Alban Hall, Oxford. Anthony à Wood surmises that Henry Herbert supported Massinger at Oxford until the young man offended his patron by adopting the Roman Catholic faith, and Wood states that Philip left Oxford without a degree because he “applied his mind more to poetry and romance . . . than to logic and philosophy.” The withdrawal from Oxford probably followed his father’s death in 1603.
Several years later Philip Massinger was in London, writing in collaboration with Nat Field and John Fletcher. Philip Henslowe, the theatrical proprietor, in 1613 records money paid in advance to these associates. Though Field, Fletcher, and Massinger joined the King’s Men in 1616, Massinger wrote three plays for the Queen’s Men in 1623. After Fletcher’s death in 1625, Massinger remained as chief playwright for the King’s Men until his death. He died in London and was buried on March 18, 1640, in the churchyard of St. Saviour’s, reputedly in the same grave as Fletcher. Massinger’s widow inherited the pension that the fourth earl of Pembroke had bestowed upon the dramatist.
Fifty-five tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies once showed Massinger’s hand in their composition, but twenty-two have been lost. Massinger wrote fifteen plays unaided; eighteen show collaboration with other dramatists, the majority being with Fletcher, or are revisions of older plays with an occasional scene or passage interpolated.
Undoubtedly the most popular of Massinger’s plays is A New Way to Pay Old Debts, a realistic comedy of intrigue with an English atmosphere. Though the plot was suggested by Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One (c. 1605-1606), Ben Jonson furnished the true model for such comedic characters as Greedy, Marrall, and Furnace. Sir Giles Overreach and his foil, Wellborn, are admirably conceived. This play, as well as The City Madam, shows Massinger’s ability to mingle the realistic comedy of intrigue with the “comedy of humours” that Jonson had taught him.
Massinger’s greatest claim to distinction probably rests upon his stagecraft and his skill in dramatic construction. Massinger’s ability to write moral and rhetorical declamations is superior to that of most of his contemporaries. Probably for these reasons, Massinger judged The Roman Actor, a tragedy, as “the most perfect birth of my Minerva.” A play within the play motivates the main action; a second marks the climax; a third presents the death of Paris, the actor-hero, at the hands of the Emperor Domitian. With great fervor the dramatist defends the stage for all time.
Massinger learned the art of writing tragicomedies in his collaboration with Fletcher. Characterizations in The Bondman, The Maid of Honor, and his five other unaided tragicomedies are thoroughly adequate; their Senecan stoicism gives these works a sense of moral earnestness; the speeches are rhetorical and didactic. Finally, with his usual mastery of plot, Massinger brings about a happy ending that “wants [lacks] death.”