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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VI. Philip Massinger

§ 1. Massinger’s life

EVERY biographer of Philip Massinger must echo the frequently repeated complaint that we know very little about the life of many of the chief dramatists of the times of Elizabeth and the first two Stewart kings. We may consider it an exceptional good fortune that we know at least the chief facts of Massinger’s early days—that he was born at Salisbury in 1583, the son of Arthur Massinger, who, in some manner, was intimately connected with the “noble family of the Herberts,” to use Philip’s own expression, and who was evidently highly esteemed by his employers; that his baptism took place on 24 November, 1583, and that he was entered on 14 May, 1602, at St. Alban hall in the university of Oxford. In 1606, he left the university for unexplained reasons without having taken his degree. From Oxford he came to London, where we lose sight of him for many years as totally as of the great immigrant from Stratford-on-Avon about twenty years before.

One fact, however, stands out clearly—that Massinger’s London career was far from prosperous. When we hear of him again, in 1613 or 1614, we find him already immersed in those financial difficulties which remained the heavy burden of his life. He reappears as one of the three signatories of a petition for the loan of five pounds, addressed to that powerful personage to whom many needy dramatists used to look more or less hopefully—the theatrical manager and broker Philip Henslowe. In a few additional words, Massinger pathetically calls him his “true loving friend,” and the joint request was granted. There was a similar pleading in 1615.

As in the case of this epistle to Henslowe, most of the first dramatic ventures of Massinger seem to have been joint productions. The first time we meet his name in print, on the title-page of an evidently successful drama, we find it coupled with the name of an older and very popular dramatist. In 1622 was published The Virgin Martir, a Tragedy, written by Philip Massinger and Thomas Dekker. But Dekker, whose poetical temper was different from Massinger’s, was neither his first nor his most important fellow worker. A good many years before the composition of The Virgin Martir, he must have fallen under the sway of John Fletcher. It is a curious fact that no early edition of any one of those dramas which have been recognised as the joint labours of Fletcher and Massinger makes the slightest reference to the participation of the younger dramatist; all were printed as by Fletcher alone. Massinger seems to have been quite content to leave the risk and the glory to his teacher; so far as we know, he never protested against the omission of his name on the title-pages of the dramas printed during his lifetime. However, one of his most enthusiastic benefactors and friends, Sir Aston Cockayne, repeatedly insisted on the fact of Massinger’s co-operation with Fletcher—an assertion which, in the case of a considerable number of Fletcherian plays, has received support from the philological researches of later times. And that he was buried in Fletcher’s grave, probably by his own wish, may be taken as a striking proof that no coldness had arisen between Massinger and the man with whom he had associated in the early years of his dramatic writing.

We are not able to fix the time when Massinger ventured to present himself as an independent author to the public of the metropolis; but we may assume that this did not happen much before the end of the second decade of the seventeenth century. For the ensuring period of his life we possess a considerable number of direct utterances of his own, the authenticity of which is not to be questioned, but the biographical value of which is somewhat impaired by their official character and by the consideration necessarily shown in them for the position and feelings of the persons addressed. These utterances consist in the dedications prefixed by Massinger to the ten dramas published by himself. In these letters, Massinger’s prose appears to the greatest advantage; it is, perhaps, a little pompous now and then, but it is clear and perfectly free from Euphuistic tricks of style.