Philip Massinger

The English playwright Philip Massinger (1583-1640) was a productive dramatist, although much of his energy was devoted to collaboration and revision. His most distinctive work reflects a religious and moral earnestness but somewhat limited powers of characterization.

Philip Massinger was born in Salisbury, southern England. He was the son of Arthur Massinger, a trusted and responsible servant to the prominent Herbert family and at one time a fellow of Merton College, Oxford. Philip attended Oxford for 2 or 3 years but apparently left without a degree. Nothing else is known of his activities before 1613, when he began his association with the London stage.

During the first phase of his career as a dramatic writer, from about 1613 to 1625, Massinger worked for the most part in collaboration with other dramatists, particularly John Fletcher. Fletcher was one of the most popular dramatists of the Jacobean period, and after Shakespeare's death in 1616 he became the leading playwright of the King's Men. At his own death in 1625, he was succeeded by Massinger, who continued to write regularly for the same company for the next 15 years, occasionally rewriting or revising earlier plays of Fletcher.

Massinger's best-known plays are A New Way to Pay Old Debts, a comedy written in 1621 or 1622, and The Roman Actor, a tragedy written in 1626.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts relies heavily on Thomas Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One (1608). Its chief character, however, is closely modeled on the notorious Sir Giles Mompesson, an extortioner convicted in 1621. Massinger's character, called Sir Giles Overreach, is driven to insanity when he is outsmarted by his nephew Frank Wellborn, whose property he has acquired by devious means.

The Roman Actor, which Massinger considered his finest work, is based on the life of the Roman emperor Domitian, who was murdered in A.D. 96. Although Massinger makes much of the Emperor's inhuman cruelty and insatiable lust, the play is remarkably modest and restrained, at least by Jacobean standards. The title character, the noble and talented actor Paris, defends his profession—as well as the drama generally—as a force for social and moral good. This was evidently a doctrine which Massinger shared with other literary artists of the period, who found themselves under increasing attack from Puritan moralists.

Details about Massinger's personal life are lacking, but he seems to have led a quieter and more comfortable existence than most of his fellow playwrights. Although never as popular as Fletcher or Jonson, he was patronized by several persons of distinction. He died in London, where he had spent most of his adult life, early in 1640.


Further Reading on Philip Massinger

The best biography of Massinger is Thomas A. Dunn, Philip Massinger: The Man and the Playwright (1957).