Philip Massinger

Philip MassingerAlthough Philip Massinger will never be estimated above the second rank of Elizabethan playwrights, he is becoming more and more admired by modern readers and critics because of his qualities of simplicity, saneness, and dramatic (rather than lyrical) effectiveness. He belongs to the third and last generation of Elizabethan writers for the stage, since he was born in 1584, established his contacts with the theater just as Shakespeare was beginning to bring his work to an end and as Beaumont and Fletcher were producing their most famous plays, and died in 1640, just before the closing of the theaters by the Puritans. Massinger's birth into a family of education, his early patronage by the Pembrokes, and his partial education at Oxford, all started his career under favourable auspices. When he left college for London without a degree, probably about 1606, he seems to have gradually won for himself the confidence of such men as Field, Tourneur, Dekker, and Fletcher, with all of whom he eventually collaborated. His work with Fletcher from 1613 to 1623 for the King's Men has given his own friends and contemporaries, such as Sir Aston Cockayne, as well as many later scholars, plenty of opportunities to claim for him large portions of plays generally attributed to the more famous member of the intimate partnership which succeeded that of Beaumont and Fletcher on the retirement and death of the former. With the exception of 1623 to 1625, when for some unknown reason Massinger transferred his talents to the Queen's Men, his characters were created for the King's Men during the remaining years of his life. But, although he wrote many plays, both alone and in collaboration with other dramatists, he was never prosperous, and is known to have borrowed money at least once from old Philip Henslowe.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The Maid of Honor represent [Massinger's] work at its best and most characteristic, for his two fortes were comedy and tragi-comedy; tragedy he is known to have practiced rarely, in such plays as The Duke of Milan and The Fatal Dowry, although Bishop Warburton's unfortunate cook is reputed to have consumed the manuscripts of several of Massinger's unprinted plays in his culinary operations. A New Way to Pay Old Debts, which was printed in 1633 and perhaps acted in 1625 or 1626, is not only one of the few Elizabethan plays which could be successfully produced for a modern audience almost without alteration, but, because of its being founded directly on Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One, it also affords an extremely interesting comparison between the spirits of the two men as well as between those of their generations. For in this comedy, as well as in his tragi-comedy, The Maid of Honor (printed in 1632 and probably acted less than a decade before), Massinger reveals himself as close to the cleanest and most high-minded of the playwrights of his age, though unluckily the same statement cannot be made about all of his writings, some of which are gratuitously coarse. Not only morality but also religion often bear leading parts in his works, although there is no necessity for accusing him of turning Roman Catholic because he presents adherents of this church in a particularly heroic light in some of his plays. His women are especially attractive, and in fact offer more variety and interest than his men, who, like his plots, tend to lack originality. The story of The Maid of Honor, for instance, derives from Boccaccio's "Camiola and Rolande" through the intermediary of Painter's Palace of Pleasure.

†This article was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays Ed. Charles Read Baskervill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. pp. 1355.

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Philip Massinger

Philip Massinger

Philip Massinger: Poems

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