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.
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.
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.
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.