Introduction to Philip Massinger

Philip Massinger was born in 1583. He was imprisoned for debt in 1613. Massinger learned his craft by collaborating on plays with more established dramatists such as John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. From around 1520, and through the 1630’s, Massinger composed plays primarily on his own. The works of the mature Massinger thus were contemporary with those of John Ford. When Massinger’s solo playwriting began, Shakespeare had already been dead for several years. Some critics have referred to him as the last great dramatist of the Elizabethan era.

Massinger was known to have written quickly and easily, and his characters’ speeches do indeed roll exceptionally smoothly and fluently. His verse has been called majestic and full of charm, and his powers of description capable of great beauty. A number of his scenes are among the most tender and touching of the entire period.

Massinger’s plots are more carefully worked out than are those of his contemporaries, and are never too complicated to follow. His plays generally start very strongly, but may end less convincingly.

Some critics over the ages have complained that his plays were too political; it is true that the state censor (the Master of the Revels) refused to license one of his plays because of its indelicacy with respect to the Spanish, and King Charles I himself was said to have struck out a passage which also might have offended the Spanish.

While not universally admired by critics over the ages, a significant number of academics have considered him to be the second greatest dramatist of the Elizabethan era, inferior only to Shakespeare.

Massinger does not worry about being particularly strict with his iambic pentameter; if, as you read Massinger’s verses, you mouth the words, as I do, to follow the iambic rhythm, be flexible. Massinger frequently requires the reader to pronounce multi-syllable words with 1 less syllable, and combines short words into one syllable. The result is poetry that is, as the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) writes, “picturesque…but sometimes comes perilously close to prose.” Only in a few interesting situations have I chosen to comment on accenting and syllabation.