Philip Massinger Massinger, Philip - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Philip Massinger 1583-1640

English playwright and poet.

Massinger was a successful dramatist during the Jacobean and Caroline periods, authoring or co-authoring over fifty plays. He served for a time as the chief playwright of London's leading theatrical company, the King's Men, a post that William Shakespeare and John Fletcher had held before him. The best known of his fifteen extant plays are his realistic social comedies, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625) and The City Madam (1632), in which he satirizes greed, materialism, and ambition. As with these plays, an emphasis on morality is also evident in his more serious works, such as The Duke of Milan (c. 1621-22) and The Roman Actor (1626), in which he shows his concern with proper governance and attacks the evils of an unjust society. Although Massinger's reputation is overshadowed by those of Shakespeare and other contemporaries, including Fletcher and Ben Jonson, critics have commended the consistent moral framework of his plays, which often explore the tensions arising from social and political change. Massinger continues to be admired for the dramatic range of his plays, the effectiveness of his verse, and the forcefulness with which he conveys his moral convictions.

Biographical Information

Most of what is known about Massinger's life has been gleaned from theater records. It is not known where he lived, or whether he married or had children. He was born in Salisbury in 1583 into a well-to-do family. His father, Arthur Massinger, served the Earl of Pembroke and was a member of Parliament. In 1602 Massinger entered Oxford, but he apparently did not graduate, perhaps because after his father's death in 1603 he did not have the means to continue his education. The details of Massinger's life from 1603 until 1613 are unclear, although it seems that he did not enjoy the social and economic advantages that he had known during his early life; it is speculated that he may have been an actor. Sometime during those years he most certainly began his apprenticeship in the theater. Around 1613 Massinger, along with fellow playwrights Nathan Field and Robert Daborne, was imprisoned for debt; a surviving letter contains an appeal to theatrical manager Philip Henslowe to pay their bail. From 1613 to 1620 Massinger collaborated on a number of plays with Field, Fletcher, Thomas Dekker, and others, but he was often uncredited. The Fatal Dowry (c. 1617-19), a collaboration with Field, is the earliest play in which it is clear that it was substantially written by Massinger. Around 1620 Massinger began to work as an independent author, though he continued to collaborate with Fletcher on plays for the King's Men. The Duke of Milan is thought to be the first play composed solely by Massinger. In 1625 he succeeded Fletcher as the leading playwright of the King's Men. In 1630 Massinger encountered difficulties with the censor when his play Believe as You List, which included a scene in which the king of Portugal is deposed by the king of Spain, was refused a license to be produced because of a recently declared peace between England and Spain. Massinger reworked the play, setting it in antiquity and depicting the defeat of the Syrians by the Romans. The rewritten play passed the censor and was staged in 1631. A copy of the revised play in Massinger's own handwriting survives; marked up and altered for an actual performance, it is one of the most significant extant theatrical documents from the period. He encountered difficulties with the censors again in 1638 with his (now lost) play The King and the Subject, which Charles I himself found offensive because of a passage about a tyrannical monarch's method of raising money. Two years later Massinger died in his sleep, and records indicate that his body was accompanied to the churchyard by actors from his theater company.

Major Works

Massinger had a hand in writing over fifty-five plays, more than thirty of which survive. Fifteen of these were composed by Massinger alone; the rest were written in collaboration with a number of other playwrights. His most frequent collaborator was Fletcher, with whom he worked on some thirteen plays. Of the many plays to which he almost certainly contributed, his work on only two of them can be confirmed by external evidence: the domestic tragedy The Fatal Dowry, written with Field, and The Virgin Martyr (1620), a historical play written with Dekker. Massinger's independent work includes four tragedies: The Duke of Milan, The Unnatural Combat (1621), The Roman Actor, and Believe as You List. These works are noted for their intricate plots, often involving information that is withheld from the audience until late in the action; sensational incidents and displays of extreme passion; and examinations of moral and social problems, particularly the abuse of power. The Duke of Milan, for instance, shows the corrosive effects of power in its depiction of the autocrat Sforza. Insanely enamored of his wife, Marcelia, Sforza cannot bear the thought that she may outlive him. He therefore instructs his aide, Francisco, to kill Marcelia if he, Sforza, fails to return from an expedition. Francisco, as it is later revealed, seeks revenge against Sforza for his previous seduction of the aide's sister; he manipulates events to culminate in Sforza's murder of his wife in a fit of rage. The Unnatural Combat is generally considered Massinger's least-successful play, sensationalistic and badly organized. It centers around Malefort, the admiral of Marseilles, who kills his own wife and son and conceives an incestuous lust for his daughter. Although he does not seduce her, she is raped by another. Malefort repents in the end, but is killed by a bolt of lightning. More successful is The Roman Actor. This play interweaves the story of the tyrannical Emperor Domitian with scenes involving the actor Paris that demonstrate both the power and limitations of drama. Domitian lusts after Domitia, who becomes infatuated with Paris after seeing him in a play. As she attempts to seduce the actor, they are discovered by the Emperor. The jealous Domitian insists on performing in a play with Paris, during which he stabs him. Domitian is later murdered by a group of conspirators for his many atrocities. Believe as You List traces the conflicts, presented as a series of rhetorical debates, between the virtuous Antiochus, King of Syria, and the ruthless totalitarian power of Rome, as represented by the imperial ambassador Flaminius. Though noble and honorable, Antiochus is ultimately powerless against the might of Rome and is made a galley slave. In the end, Flaminius is arrested for his many misdeeds, but Antiochus, a destabilizing influence, is also incarcerated. The play thus ends at an impasse between the forces of morality and the immoral power of the state.

Although he produced a number of tragicomedies, Massinger composed only four purely comic plays: the “comical histories” The Great Duke of Florence (1627) and The Guardian (1633) and the two great satirical comedies on which his reputation long rested, A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam. A New Way to Pay Old Debts is a well-plotted study of a miser, Sir Giles Overreach, and his nephew, the gentleman Welborne, who has squandered his fortune and is forced to turn to Overreach to pay his debts. By a series of tricks and deceptions, Overreach is thwarted in his scheme to enter the aristocracy and Welborne is freed from his uncle's control. The comedy was highly popular in England and America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and some of the leading actors of the day relished the role of the unscrupulous Overreach. The City Madam is a vigorous comedy of manners centering on the home and family of the wealthy merchant Sir John Frugal. Wishing to restrain the extravagant spending of his wife and daughters, Sir John pretends to withdraw to a monastery, leaving his brother, Luke, a supposedly reformed profligate, to oversee the household. Left in power, Luke reveals himself to be a miser and a tyrant. By disguising himself as an “Indian,” to whom Luke plans to sell the women, Sir John in the end unmasks his brother's hypocrisy and curbs the social ambition of his wife and daughters. Critics have viewed both A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam as satirical commentaries on the decline in power of the aristocracy and the rise of the commercial class.

Critical Reception

Massinger was a respected figure in the theater in his own time, although he clearly did not achieve the popularity or high status of dramatists like Shakespeare and Jonson. Over the succeeding centuries his reputation as a playwright depended almost exclusively on A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam. One of Massinger's most astute early critics was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who censured his characterization, judging his satirical characters to be mere types, but greatly admired his plotting and versification. T. S. Eliot's dismissal, early in the twentieth century, of Massinger's abilities as a playwright—particularly as a writer of tragedies—set the tone for much of the criticism for the next fifty years. Anne Barton's 1977 defense of Massinger, however, renewed interest in him as a skilled and effective dramatist in his own right, not merely as Fletcher's “junior partner.” Modern commentators have found Massinger's blank verse to be admirably constructed and have praised his command of stagecraft. They have extolled his adroit manipulation of plot, the simplicity of his language, and his keen political insight. Critics have increasingly come to regard Massinger as possessing clear moral principles which consistently inform all his plays, whether comedies, tragedies, or plays of mixed types.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Beggar's Bush [with Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher] (play) c. 1615

Thierry and Theodoret [with Beaumont and Fletcher] (play) c. 1615

The Jeweller of Amsterdam [with Fletcher and Field] (play) c. 1617

The Queen of Corinth [with Fletcher and Field] (play) c. 1617

The Fatal Dowry [with Nathan Field] (play) c. 1617-19

The Knight of Malta [with Fletcher and Field] (play) c. 1618

Sir John van Olden Barnavelt [with Fletcher] (play) 1619

The Bloody Brother, or Rollo Duke of Normandy [with Fletcher and others] (play) c. 1619


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T. S. Eliot (essay date 1920)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Eliot, T. S. “Philip Massinger.” The Times Literary Supplement, May 27, 1920, pp. 325-26.

[In the following essay, Eliot argues that Massinger is an inferior playwright whose dreary plays lack moral vigor and hence are typical of Jacobean decadence.]

Massinger has been more fortunately and more fairly judged than several of his greater contemporaries. Three critics have done their best by him: the notes of Coleridge exemplify Coleridge's fragmentary and fine perceptions; the essay of Leslie Stephen is a piece of formidable destructive analysis; and the essay of Swinburne is Swinburne's criticism at its best. None of these, probably, has put Massinger...

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T. S. Eliot (essay date 1920)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Eliot, T. S. “Philip Massinger.” In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, pp. 123-43. London: Methuen & Co., 1920.

[In this following essay, which was first published in The Sacred Wood as an addendum to a reprint of his Times Literary Supplement article, Eliot observes that although Massinger was not an artist of the first rank, he did write two “great comedies”: A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam.]

Massinger's tragedy may be summarized for the unprepared reader as being very dreary. It is dreary, unless one is prepared by a somewhat extensive knowledge of his livelier contemporaries to grasp without...

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L. C. Knights (essay date 1937)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Knights, L. C. “The Significance of Massinger's Social Comedies, with a Note on ‘Decadence’.” In Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, pp. 270-300. London: Chatto and Windus, 1937.

[In the following essay, Knights views Massinger as the last of the Elizabethans, as his works are concerned with aristocratic values and show little interest in the middle class or common people.]

The first symptom of decadence that we notice in Massinger is his dependence on Shakespeare. Canon Cruickshank gives a close-packed page to ‘a few examples of the imitation of incidents’, and over seven pages to ‘parallels in thought and diction’.1 The nature...

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Cyrus Hoy (essay date 1959)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hoy, Cyrus. “Verbal Formulae in the Plays of Philip Massinger.” Studies in Philology 56, No. 4 (October 1959): 600-18.

[In the following essay, Hoy discusses the repeated verbal patterns in Massinger's own plays and his collaborative efforts.]

Massinger's habit of repeating himself is well known. Scholars such as Boyle and Oliphant, investigating his share in the Beaumont and Fletcher plays, have adduced the tendency as evidence for determining his work in collaboration with other dramatists.1 Critics such as T. S. Eliot, L. C. Knights, and M. C. Bradbrook see in the habit a symptom of the decadence that is generally regarded as the...

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Philip Edwards (essay date 1962)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Edwards, Philip. “Massinger the Censor.” In Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, pp. 341-50. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1962.

[In the following essay, Edwards argues that Massinger was a thoroughgoing moralist who nonetheless was capable of producing fine dramas in which he restrained his own views and displayed a moral tolerance.]

Massinger seems to have been one of the reluctant dramatists of his age: a gentleman in reduced circumstances who became a playwright as gentlewomen later became governesses. That he would have preferred to be a lord (of the old school) seems a safe guess....

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Peter H. Davidson (essay date 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Davidson, Peter H. “The Theme and Structure of The Roman Actor.AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian University Languages and Literature Association 19 (May 1963): 39-56.

[In the following essay, Davidson examines the structure of The Roman Actor and the connection it makes between kingship and the stage, noting that the play shows “metaphorically by means of the stage the essentially human nature of kings.”]

The work of Philip Massinger does not appear unduly complex or profound and it is thus rather surprising that his plays should have aroused such divergent critical comments. Although very different views are most abundant in criticism...

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Allen Gross (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gross, Allen. “Contemporary Politics in Massinger.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6, No. 2 (Spring 1966): 279-90.

[In the following essay, Gross argues against the predominant opinion that Massinger's plays are full of specific topical references but notes that Massinger did have an interest in politics and political theory and occasionally dealt with contemporary political questions in his plays.]

Nowadays the plays of Massinger and early Stuart politics seem linked as a matter of course. T. A. Dunn, in his recent study of the playwright,1 certainly has no doubt that several of Massinger's works are full of references to and comments...

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A. L. Bennett (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bennett, A. L. “The Moral Tone of Massinger's Dramas.” Papers on Language and Literature 2, No. 3 (Summer 1966): 39-56.

[In the following essay, Bennett argues that Massinger was at his best when dealing with moral and political questions and was less successful at dramatizing romantic situations.]

It is remarkable that Philip Massinger, a dramatist without a ready wit and with only a modicum of humor, should have written the most successful comedy of Jacobean times (exclusive of Shakespeare's). What is stranger still, though perhaps not inexplicable, is that a writer with such an intense moral earnestness should have the morality of his dramas questioned...

(The entire section is 3937 words.)

A. P. Hogan (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hogan, A. P. “Imagery of Acting in The Roman Actor.The Modern Language Review 66, No. 2 (April 1971): 273-81.

[In the following essay, Hogan discusses Massinger's thematic use of actors, acting, plays, and theater in The Roman Actor.]

In theatrical tradition, The Roman Actor is merely a showcase for Paris's oration to the senate—Kean toured with this scene alone as a tour-de-force in 1822—and critics too have assumed that the actor, Massinger's heroic self-portrait, is the absolute centre of the play.1 But one need only review the disgruntled comments of T. S. Eliot, T. A. Dunn, and others to realize, in their...

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A. P. Hogan (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hogan, A. P. “Massinger as Tragedian: Believe as You List.Texas Studies in Literature and Language XIII, No. 3 (Fall 1971): 407-19.

[In the following essay, Hogan argues that Believe as You List is a subtle experiment in the integration of theme and structure that shows Massinger to be a tragedian of “considerable power.”]

Critics seldom praise Massinger's tragedies. The Roman Actor has begun to come into its own,1 but most commentators still agree with Robert Ornstein that “Massinger had to be content in tragedy with unsubstantial regal gestures” as a substitute for “imagination.”2 The most recent...

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Anne Barton (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Barton, Anne. “The Distinctive Voice of Massinger.” The Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1977, pp. 623-34.

[In the following essay, Barton reviews Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson's 1959 edition of Massinger works and, unlike most critics from Eliot on, sees the mark of a distinctive artistic personality in Massinger's plays.]

Philip Massinger died in 1640, fifteen years after his friend and collaborator John Fletcher. According to Aston Cokayne, who celebrated the curiosity in a poem, Massinger was buried in Fletcher's grave at St Saviour's, Southwark. This interment proved oddly symbolic. At least thirteen plays in which Massinger was a secret but...

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Michael Neill (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Neill, Michael. “Massinger's Patriarchy: The Social Vision of A New Way to Pay Old Debts.Renaissance Drama n.s. 10 (1979): 185-213.

[In the following essay, Neill views A New Way to Pay Old Debts as a conservative work that seeks to maintain aristocratic values in the face of the demands of the rising middle class.]

An Houshold is as it were a little Commonwealth, by the good government whereof, Gods glorie may be advantced, and the commonwealth which standeth of severall families benefited.

John Dod and Robert Cleaver, A Godly Forme of Household Government1


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Philip Edwards (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Edwards, Philip. “Massinger's Men and Women.” In Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, edited by Douglas Howard, pp. 39-49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Edwards explores Massinger's depictions of conflicts between the sexes and argues that the playwright presents the relations between men and women with sensitivity and insight.]

An extended session with Massinger's plays is likely to give a reader a frequent sense of déjà vu as similar images, protestations, situations and even characters come round again and again. But repetitiousness is not necessarily a sign of a lack of inventiveness, and...

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Douglas Howard (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Howard, Douglas. “Massinger's Political Tragedies.” In Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, edited by Douglas Howard, pp. 117-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Howard sees The Roman Actor and Believe as You List as evidence of Massinger's increased political involvement in the Caroline period and of his shift towards more appropriate subject matter for tragedy than he had treated in his earlier plays.]

The death of Fletcher in 1625 marked an obvious turning point in Massinger's career as a playwright, since thereafter he occupied Fletcher's place as chief dramatist for the King's Men. Massinger had...

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Ira Clark (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Clark, Ira. “The Power of Integrity in Massinger's Women.” In The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, pp. 63-79. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Clark argues that by emphasizing the value of female chastity, Massinger's plays “presented a reformation of gender roles that considerably increased women's power without rupturing tradition.”]

Most critics have admitted the dominating power, or at least the willfulness, of women in the drama of Philip Massinger, premier professional playwright of the late Jacobean and Caroline...

(The entire section is 6560 words.)

Martin Butler (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Butler, Martin. “A New Way to Pay Old Debts: Massinger's Grim Comedy.” In English Comedy, edited by Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and John Kerrigan, pp. 119-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Butler examines the historical and political events that influenced A New Way to Pay Old Debts, contending that it reveals the anxiety of the aristocracy about losing power and status in a changing society.]

The fate of Philip Massinger has been a curious one for a major writer of comedy. A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam are arguably the most enduring comic achievements to have been...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Dunn, T. A. Philip Massinger: The Man and the Playwright. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1957, 284 p.

Full-length critical biography that is largely unsympathetic to Massinger as a man and as an artist.

Lawless, Donald S. Philip Massinger and His Associates. Muncie, Ind.: Ball State University, 1967, 67 p.

Detailed biography of Massinger that pays special attention to his social and literary connections.


Adler, Doris. Philip Massinger. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 152 p.

Views Massinger as an important playwright whose...

(The entire section is 534 words.)