Philip Massinger

From New World Encyclopedia

Philip Massinger (1583 - March 17, 1640) was an English dramatist famous for his plays throughout the 1600s. Born the second of five children to Anne and Arthur Massinger, he grew up as a commoner, attending Oxford College from 1602-1606. Although he left Oxford in 1606, without a degree, Massinger went on to write numerous plays, many of which were performed for the King and his court. From such performances, Massinger was named the chief playwright of the King's Men. His plays, including A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The City Madam, and The Roman Actor, are noted for their satire and realism, and their political and social themes. He died unexpectedly in his home, lying in his bed, in considerably good health, and just prior to the shut down of the English theaters as a consequence of the iconoclasm of the Puritan revolution.


Early life

Born the second of five children, and only boy, to Anne and Arthur Massinger in 1583, Philip Massinger was baptized in the church of St. Thomas's Salisbury on November 24, 1583. He belonged to an old Salisbury family, whose name occurs in the city records as early as 1415. His father earned a B.A. from St. Alban Hall, Oxford, and went on to receive an M.A. from Oxford and Cambridge, becoming a fellow of Merton College. Philip grew up with his father working as a long-time trusted servant to Sir Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, and then to his, heir Sir William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. His father remained in this position until his death, in 1603.


On May 14, 1602, Philip Massinger entered as a commoner of St. Alban Hall, Oxford. He described himself as the son of a gentleman in his matriculation entry at St. Alban Hall, Oxford, in 1602. In order for him to attend the prestigious university, Massinger had his tuition and all college expenses paid by The Earl of Pembroke, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essea patron during the four years he spent there. The 3rd Earl of Pembroke, the William Herbert whose name has been connected with Shakespeare's sonnets, succeeded to the title in 1601. It has been suggested that he supported Massinger at Oxford, but the omission of any reference to him in any of Massinger's prefaces suggests the contrary. However, Massinger displeased his patron by focusing his studies solely on poetry and romances, rather than the philosophy and logic courses which he had agreed to study as his patron had intended. Massinger then found himself without a patron, in need of financial assistance, shortly after his father died 1603, all which contributed to his departure from Oxford without earning a degree.

His whereabouts are still unknown between 1606—when he left Oxford—and 1613. After leaving the university, he went to London to make his living as a dramatist, but his name cannot be definitely affixed to any play until years later, when The Virgin Martyr (registered with the Stationers Company, December 7, 1621) appeared as the work of Massinger and Thomas Dekker.


Massinger died suddenly at his house near the Globe Theatre. On March 18, 1640, he was found dead in his own bed, having died the previous night, alone. He was then buried in the churchyard of St. Saviour's, Southwark, sharing a tomb with his friend, John Fletcher. In the entry in the parish register he is described as a "stranger," which, however, implies nothing more than that he belonged to another parish than the one in which he was buried. The grave that is shared by Fletcher can be seen to this day in the chancel of what is now Southwark Cathedral, near London Bridge, on the south bank of the Thames. The plaques with the names of Fletcher and Massinger are located next to a commendatory plaque prepared for Edmund Shakespeare (William Shakespeare's younger brother) who is buried in the Cathedral. Although the exact location of the grave is unknown, Massinger and Fletcher's names appear on adjacent plaques laid in the floor between the choir stalls of the parish, which is visited today by many tourists and admirers of Massinger's work.


While best remembered for A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Phillip Massinger wrote and collaborated with others to produce numerous plays. Many of his plays demonstrated his own religious beliefs, namely Roman Catholicism.

He initially began his career as a dependent playwright, working on joint plays. During these years he worked in collaboration with other dramatists; there are numerous documentations of these collaborations and projects with others, especially John Fletcher. Throughout these collaborations, there were many debts, feuds, and situations that arose between Massinger and his coworkers. A joint letter, from Nathaniel Field, Robert Daborne, and Philip Massinger, to Philip Henslowe, begs for an immediate loan of five pounds to release them from their "unfortunate extremity," the money to be taken from the balance due for the "play of Mr. Fletcher's and ours." A second document shows that Massinger and Daborne owed Henslowe £3 on July 4, 1615.

Out of all of his collaborations, Massinger most frequently worked with his beloved friend, John Fletcher. An earlier note that probably dates from 1613, shows that from this time Massinger apparently worked regularly with John Fletcher. After Beaumont married and left the theater, scholars assume that Massinger became Fletcher's primary collaborator, in 1613. Sir Aston Cockayne, Massinger's constant friend and patron, refers in explicit terms to this collaboration in a sonnet addressed to Humphrey Moseley on the publication of his folio edition of Beaumont and Fletcher (Small Poems of Divers Sorts, 1658), and in an epitaph on the two poets he says: "Plays they did write together, were great friends, And now one grave includes them in their ends."

Although he remained friends with Fletcher, Massinger became an independent playwright around 1620. He is even mentioned in John Taylor's "The Praise of Hemp-Seed" as a contemporary writer of merit. He wrote at least two independent works for the King's Men, the leading theater company, but the exact date of composition is not known.

Between 1623 and 1626, Massinger produced three pieces unaided, for the Lady Elizabeth's Men, then playing at the Cockpit Theatre—The Parliament of Love, The Bondman, and The Renegado. With the exception of these plays and The Great Duke of Florence, produced in 1627 by Queen Henrietta's Men, Massinger continued to write regularly for the King's Men until his death. The tone of the dedications of his later plays affords evidence of his continued poverty. In the preface to The Maid of Honor (1632) he wrote, addressing Sir Francis Foljambe and Sir Thomas Bland: "I had not to this time subsisted, but that I was supported by your frequent courtesies and favors."

After Philip Henslowe's death in 1616, Massinger and Fletcher worked together again in efforts to write for the King's Men. He eventually replaced his friend, Fletcher, in 1625, as chief playwright of the King's Men.

Two unsuccessful plays and two years of silence are referred to in the prologue to in his work, The Guardian (licensed 1633), when the author feared he had lost the popular favor. It is probable that this break in his production was owing to his free handling of political matters. However, there were other reasons as well that Massinger did not produce a play over this time period. In 1631, Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels, refused to license an unnamed play by Massinger because of "dangerous matter as the deposing of Sebastian, King of Portugal," calculated presumably to endanger good relations between England and Spain. There is little doubt that this was the same piece as Believe as You List, in which the time and place are changed, with Antiochus substituted for Sebastian, and Rome for Spain. In the prologue, Massinger ironically apologizes for his ignorance of history, and professes that his accuracy is at fault if his picture comes near "a late and sad example." The obvious "late and sad example" of a wandering prince refers to Charles I's brother-in-law, the Elector Palatine. An allusion to the same subject may be traced in The Maid of Honor. In another play by Massinger, not extant, Charles I is reported to have himself struck out a passage put into the mouth of Don Pedro, King of Spain, as "too insolent." The poet seems to have adhered closely to the politics of his patron, Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, who had leanings towards democracy and was a personal enemy of the Duke of Buckingham. The servility towards the Crown displayed in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays reflected the temper of the court of James I. The attitude of Massinger's heroes and heroines towards kings is very different. Camiola's remarks on the limitations of the royal prerogative (Maid of Honor, Act V, Scene v) could hardly be acceptable at court.

Throughout his career, Massinger wrote many plays which are still read today, but most of which are lost. He remains best known for the religious influence within his work, and his most famous play, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, which is still performed throughout the world today.

Religion and politics

The supposition that Massinger was a Roman Catholic rests upon three of his plays, The Virgin Martyr (licensed 1620), The Renegado (licensed 1624), and The Maid of Honor (c. 1621). The Virgin Martyr, in which Dekker probably had a large share, is really a miracle play, dealing with the martyrdom of Dorothea in the time of Diocletian, and the supernatural element is freely used. Caution must be used in interpreting this play as an elucidation of Massinger's views; it is not solely his work. In The Renegado, however, the action is dominated by the beneficent influence of a Jesuit priest, Francisco, and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is endorsed. In The Maid of Honor, a complicated situation is solved by the decision of the heroine, Camiola, to take the veil. For this she is held up "to all posterity a fair example for noble maids to imitate."

As noted above, Massinger placed moral and religious concerns over political considerations, in ways that offended the interests of king and state in his generation. Massinger's political sympathies, insofar as scholars can determine them from his works, might have placed him in a predicament similar to that of the head of the house he revered, the Earl of Pembroke, who found that he could not support King Charles I of England in the English Civil War, becoming one of the few noblemen to back the Parliamentary side. Massinger did not live long enough to have to take a position in that conflict.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts

A New Way to Pay Old Debts (ca. 1625, printed 1633) was by far the most popular play by Massinger. The play's anti-hero, Sir Giles Overreach, is based on the real-life Giles Mompesson. (Sir Giles' assistant in villainy, Justice Greedy, was suggested by Mompesson's associate, Sir Francis Michell.)

The play illustrates the hardening of class distinctions that characterized the early Stuart era, leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. In Elizabethan plays like The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599), it was acceptable and even admirable that a young nobleman marry a commoner's daughter; other plays of the era, like Fair Em (ca. 1590) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (ca. 1597-9), share this liberal attitude toward social mobility through marriage. By contrast, in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Lord Lovell would rather see his family line go extinct than marry Overreach's daughter Margaret, even though she's young, beautiful, and virtuous. Lovell specifies that his attitude is not solely dependent on his loathing of the father's personal vices, but is rooted in class distinction. Lovell rejects the idea of his descendants being "one part scarlet" (aristocratic) and "the other London blue" (common).

Though Massinger's play shows obvious debts to Thomas Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One (ca. 1605), it transcends mere imitation to achieve a powerful dramatic effectiveness. Apart from the Shakespearean canon, it was almost the only pre-Restoration play that was continuously in the dramatic repertory through much of the modern era. After David Garrick's 1748 revival, the play remained popular throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. (It was praised by Thomas Jefferson.) Edmund Kean's version of Sir Giles, which debuted in 1816, was in particular a tremendously popular success, and drove the play's reputation through the remainder of the century.

Historical context

Massinger most likely wrote the play in 1625, though its debut on stage was delayed a year, as the theaters were closed due to bubonic plague. The play was first published in 1633, in quarto by stationer Henry Seyle (his shop was "in S. Pauls Church-yard, at the signe of the Tygers head"). The title page states that the play had been "often acted at the Phoenix in Drury Lane, by the Queens Maiesties seruants"—that is, by Queen Henrietta's Men at the Cockpit Theatre. It was continuously in the repertory there and at the Red Bull Theatre, under the managements of Christopher Beeston, William Beeston, and Sir William Davenant, right up to the closing of the theaters at the start of the English Civil War, in 1642.

The 1633 quarto carries a dedication of "this trifle" to Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon, Master Falconer of England (he'd succeeded to his hereditary title, Chief Avenor and Keeper of the King's Hawks and Falcons, at the age of six). In this dedication, Massinger states that he was "born a devoted servant to the thrice noble family of your incomparable Lady" (Anna Sophia Herbert, daughter of Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke), then serving as Lord Chamberlain. Massinger's connection to the Herbert family, derived from his father, is well known; whether Carnarvon responded in any way positively to the dedication is obscure. Modern editors of the play note 52 individual editions between 1748 and 1964 (not counting collections); others have followed since.


I'll therefore buy some cottage near his manor,
Which done, I'll make my men break ope his fences,
Ride o'er his standing corn, and in the night
Set fire on his barns, or break his cattle's legs.
These trespasses draw on suits, and suits expenses,
Which I can spare, but will soon beggar him. (Act II, scene i)
The audience is presented with a character they might meet personally in their own lives, to their own cost.

The excerpt shows the power of the role of Sir Giles may lie in Massinger's success in depicting a blatant villain who has a quality of everyday believability, unlike previous anti-heroes in English theater. Sir Giles is down-to-earth in his cold malice.


In his time, Phillip Massinger was considered nothing more than a second rank Elizabethan playwright, working on collaborations with numerous playwrights of his time. It seems doubtful whether Massinger was ever a popular playwright, for the best qualities of his plays would appeal rather to politicians and moralists than to the ordinary playgoer. He contributed, however, at least one great and popular character to the English stage. Sir Giles Overreach, in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, is a sort of commercial Richard III, a compound of the lion and the fox, and the part provides many opportunities for a great actor. He made another considerable contribution to the comedy of manners in The City Madam. In Massinger's own judgment The Roman Actor was "the most perfect birth of his Minerva." It is a study of the tyrant Domitian, and of the results of despotic rule on the despot himself and his court. Other favorable examples of his grave and restrained art are The Duke of Milan, The Bondman, and The Great Duke of Florence. He translated plays into a variety of languages, including Spanish, English, and Italian, with Italian serving as the conventional locus of the comedies of his day. His haste in work, and perhaps too little earnestness, prevented him from reaching the highest level. He could not throw his whole weight into the business at hand, but repeated himself, used superficial and hackneyed terms, which abounded in coarseness. In the twenty first century, however, Massinger is admired by modern readers and critics alike. His qualities of simplicity, saneness, and dramatic effectiveness, rather than lyrical effectiveness, have created a place for him among the third and last generation of Elizabethan writers for the stage. He is now considered an expert in dramatic construction, known for his ability to write effective stage scenes and to portray character.


Solo plays

  • The Maid of Honor, tragicomedy (ca. 1621; printed 1632)
  • The Duke of Milan, tragedy (ca. 1621-23; printed 1623, 1638)
  • The Unnatural Combat, tragedy (ca. 1621-6; printed 1639)
  • The Bondman, tragicomedy (licensed Dec. 3, 1623; printed 1624)
  • The Renegado, tragicomedy (licensed April 17, 1624; printed 1630)
  • The Parliament of Love, comedy (licensed Nov. 3, 1624; MS)
  • A New Way to Pay Old Debts, comedy (ca. 1625; printed 1632)
  • The Roman Actor, tragedy (licensed Oct. 11, 1626; printed 1629)
  • The Great Duke of Florence, tragicomedy (licensed July 5, 1627; printed 1636)
  • The Picture, tragicomedy (licensed June 8, 1629; printed 1630)
  • The Emperor of the East, tragicomedy (licensed March 11, 1631; printed 1632)
  • Believe as You List, tragedy (rejected by the censor in January, but licensed May 6, 1631; MS)
  • The City Madam, comedy (licensed May 25, 1632; printed 1658)
  • The Guardian, comedy (licensed Oct. 31, 1633; printed 1655)
  • The Bashful Lover, tragicomedy (licensed May 9, 1636; printed 1655)


With John Fletcher:

  • Sir John van Olden Barnavelt, tragedy (August 1619; MS)
  • The Little French Lawyer, comedy (ca. 1619-23; printed 1647)
  • A Very Woman, tragicomedy (ca. 1619-22; licensed June 6, 1634; printed 1655)
  • The Custom of the Country, comedy (ca. 1619-23; printed 1647)
  • The Double Marriage, tragedy (ca. 1619-23; Printed 1647)
  • The False One, history (ca. 1619-23; printed 1647)
  • The Prophetess, tragicomedy (licensed May 14, 1622; printed 1647)
  • The Sea Voyage, comedy (licensed June 22, 1622; printed 1647)
  • The Spanish Curate, comedy (licensed Oct. 24, 1622; printed 1647)
  • The Lover's Progress or The Wandering Lovers, tragicomedy (licensed Dec. 6, 1623; revised 1634; printed 1647)
  • The Elder Brother, comedy (ca. 1625; printed 1637).

With John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont:

  • Thierry and Theodoret, tragedy (ca. 1607; printed 1621)
  • The Coxcomb, comedy (1608-10; printed 1647)
  • Beggar's Bush, comedy (ca. 1612-15; revised 1622; printed 1647)
  • Love's Cure, comedy (ca. 1612-15?; revised 1625; printed 1647).

With John Fletcher and Nathan Field:

  • The Honest Man's Fortune, tragicomedy (1613; printed 1647)
  • The Queen of Corinth, tragicomedy (ca. 1616-18; printed 1647)
  • The Knight of Malta, tragicomedy (ca. 1619; printed 1647).

With Nathan Field:

  • The Fatal Dowry, tragedy (ca. 1619, printed 1632); adapted by Nicholas Rowe: The Fair Penitent

With John Fletcher, John Ford, and William Rowley, or John Webster:

  • The Fair Maid of the Inn, comedy (licensed Jan. 22, 1626; printed 1647).With John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, and George Chapman:
  • Rollo Duke of Normandy, or The Bloody Brother, tragedy (ca. 1616-24; printed 1639).

With Thomas Dekker:

  • The Virgin Martyr, tragedy (licensed Oct. 6, 1620; printed 1622).

With Thomas Middleton and William Rowley:

  • The Old Law, comedy (ca. 1615-18; printed 1656).

The aforementioned scheme is based on the work of Cyrus Hoy, Ian Fletcher, and Terence P. Logan.

A note about collaborations and editions

Some of these "collaborations" are in fact more complex than they may initially appear. Some collaborations are in fact revisions by Massinger of older plays by Fletcher and other playwrights, etc. (Therefore, it is not necessary to suppose that Massinger, Fletcher, Ford, and Rowley-or-Webster sat down in a room together to write a play, when in fact, they may have just all worked on the same piece.)

More than a dozen of Massinger's plays are said to be lost, (the comedies The Noble Choice, The Wandering Lovers, Antonio and Vallia, Fast and Welcome, The Woman's Plot, and The Spanish Viceroy; the tragedies The Forced Lady, The Tyrant, Minerva's Sacrifice, The Tragedy of Cleander, and The Italian Nightpiece, or The Unfortunate Piety; the tragicomedy Philenzo and Hippolita; and six plays of unspecified genre, The Judge, The Honor of Women, The Orator, The King and the Subject, Alexius, or The Chaste Lover, and The Prisoner, or The Fair Anchoress of Pausilippo) though the titles of some of these may be duplicates of those of existing plays. Eleven of these lost plays were manuscripts used by John Warburton's cook for lighting fires and making pies. The tragedy, The Jeweller of Amsterdam (ca. 1616-19) may be a lost collaboration, with Fletcher and Field.

The list given above represents a consensus of scholarship; individual critics have assigned various other plays, or portions of plays, to Massinger—like the first two acts of The Second Maiden's Tragedy (1611).

Massinger's independent works were collected by Coxeter (4 vols., 1759, revised edition with introduction by Thomas Davies, 1779), by J. Monck Mason (4 vols., 1779), by William Gifford (4 vols., 1805, 1813), by Hartley Coleridge (1840), by Lt. Col. Cunningham (1867), and selections by Mr Arthur Symons in the Mermaid Series (1887-1889).

Subsequent work on Massinger includes Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson, eds., "The Plays and Poems of Philip Massinger" (5 vols, Oxford, 1976), Martin Garrett, ed., "Massinger: the Critical Heritage" (London, 1991), chapters in Annabel Patterson, "Censorship and Interpretation: the Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England" (Madison, 1984) and Martin Butler, "Theatre and Crisis 1632-1642" (Cambridge, 1984), and Martin Garrett, "Philip Massinger" in the revised "Dictionary of National Biography" (Oxford, 2005).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adler, Doris. Philip Massinger. Boston: Twayne, 1987. ISBN 080576934X
  • Garrett, Martin, ed. Massinger: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1991. ISBN 0415033403
  • Gibson, Colin, ed. The Selected Plays of Philip Massinger: The Duke of Milan; The Roman Actor; A New Way to Pay Old Debts; The City Madam. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1978. ISBN 0521292433
  • Howard, Douglas, ed. Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1985. ISBN 0521258952

External Links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


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