Birthplace: Salisbury, Wiltshire, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Southwark Cathedral, London, England
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: The Virgin Martyr
English dramatist, son of Arthur Massinger or Messanger, was baptized at St. Thomas's Salisbury, on the 24th of November 1583. He apparently belonged to an old Salisbury family, for the name occurs in the city records as early as 1415. He is described in his matriculation entry at St. Alban Hall, Oxford (1602), as the son of gentleman. His father, who had also been educated at St. Alban Hall, was a member of parliament, and was attached to the household of Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, who recommended him in 1587 for the office of examiner in the court of the marches. 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 the poet at Oxford, but the significant omission of any reference to him any of Massinger's prefaces points to the contrary. Massinger left Oxford without a degree in 1606. His father had died in 1603, and he was perhaps dependent on his own exertions. The lack of a degree and the want of patronage from Lord Pembroke may both be explained on the supposition that he had become Roman Catholic. On leaving the university he went to London to make his living as a dramatist, but his name cannot be deefinitely affixed to any play until fifteen years later, when The Virgin Martyr (entered at Stationers' Hall, December 7, 1621) appeared as the work of Massinger and Thomas Dekker. During these years he worked in collaboration with other dramatists. A joint letter, from Nathaniel Field, Robert Daborne and Philip Massinger, to Philip Henslowe, begs for an immediate loan of £5 to release them from their "unfortunate extremitie", 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 the 4th of July 1615. The earlier note probably dates from 1613, and from this time Massinger apparently worked regularly with John Fletcher, although in editions of Beaumont and Fletcher's works his cooperation is usually unrecognized. Sir Aston Cokayne, 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." After Philip Henslowe's death in 1616 Massinger and Fletcher began to write for the King's Men. Between 1623 and 1626 Massinger produced unaided for the Lady Elizabeth's Men then playing at the Cockpit three pieces, 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 the Queen's servants, 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. Thus in the preface to The Maid of Honour (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 favours." The prologue to The Guardian (licensed 1633) refers to two unsuccessful plays and two years of silence, when the author feared he had lost the popular favor. S. R. Gardiner, in an essay on "The Political Element in Massinger" (Contemp. Review, Aug. 1876), maintained that Massinger's dramas are before all else political, that the events of his day were as openly criticized in his plays as current politics are in the cartoons of Punch. It is probable that this break in his production was owing to his free handling of public matters. 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 time and place are changed, Antiochus being 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 could be no other than Charles I's brother-in-law, the elector palatine. An allusion to the same subject may be traced in The Maid of Honour. In another play by Massinger, no longer 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, Earl of Montgomery, and afterwards 4th earl of Pembroke, who had leanings to democracy and was a personal enemy of the Duke of Buckingham. In The Bondman, dealing with the history of Timoleon, Buckingham is satirized as Cisco. The servility towards the Crown displayed in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays reflected the temper of the court of King 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 Honour, act iv scene v) could hardly be acceptable at court.
Massinger died suddenly at his house near the Globe theater, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Saviour's, Southwark, on the 18th of March 1640. 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.
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 Honour (c. 1621). The religious sentiment is certainly such as would obviously best appeal to an audience sympathetic to Roman Catholic doctrine. 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. Little stress can be laid on this performance as elucidating Massinger's views. It is not entirely his work, and the story is early Christian, not Roman Catholic. In The Renegado, however, the action is dominated by the beneficent influence of a Jesuit priest, Francisco, and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is enforced. In The Maid of Honour 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." Among all Massinger's heroines Camiola is distinguished by genuine purity and heroism.
His plays have generally an obvious moral intention. He sets himself to work out a series of ethical problems through a succession of ingenious and effective plots. In the art of construction he has, indeed, few rivals. But the virtue of his heroes and heroines is rather morbid than natural, and often singularly divorced from common sense. His dramatis personae are in general types rather than living persons, and their actions do not appear to spring inevitably from their characters, but rather from the exigencies of the plot. The heroes are too good, and the villains too wicked to be quite convincing. Moreover their respective goodness and villainy are too often represented as extraneous to themselves. This defect of characterization shows that English drama had already begun to decline.
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.
Massinger was a student and follower of William Shakespeare. The form of his verse, especially in the number of run-on lines, approximates in some respects to Shakespeare's later manner. He is rhetorical and picturesque, but rarely rises to extraordinary felicity. His verse is never mean, but it sometimes comes perilously near to prose, and in dealing with passionate situations it lacks fire and directness.
Father: Arthur Massinger
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