Philip Massinger (1583-1640) and his famous works

Philip Massinger was a dramatist of the Jacobean Age. He was the son of Massinger working under the great Herbert family. He was a student of the Oxford University, but he did not take his degree. He has been suspected of Catholic leaning, mainly because of the unmistakable Catholic sympathies expressed therein:
1. The Virgin Martyr (1620).
2. The Duke of Milan (1621)—a tragedy of Court intrigue, possessive jealousy, and murder.
3. The Maid of Honour (1621).
4. The Renegado (1624).

He had collaborated with many other dramatists, particularly with John Fletcher. But some plays numbering between sixteen and eighteen are attributed to him alone. Among these two are of enduring importance:

1. A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625): It is his best comedy. The main character is Sir Giles Overreach, a man of powerful energy and unlimited rapacity, who has no scruples in his scheme to increase his own wealth and social status. He is, however, outwitted by those very social superiors, Lord Lovewell and Lady Allworth, whom he tries to flatter and exploit, they take the side of the young people whom he tries to victimise, his nephew, well-born and his daughter Margaret Overreach, thus over-reaches himself, in the manner of Ben Jonson’s characters, and he is, in fact, the last vigorous representative of the Humour Comedy tradition. The drama has certain glaring faults: First, It is almost a one-man show, all other characters falling insignificant before Overreach, hence artistically unbalanced and Secondly, his blank verse is flexible to the point of insipidity, though occasionally it reaches real poetic height. The character of Overreach is the replica of Sir Giles Mompesson, a contemporary profiteer.

2. The City Madam (1625): It is a comedy about a London merchant whose wife and daughter grow outrageously extravagant in their tastes. To teach them a good lesson Sir John Frugal temporarily retires from the world and leaves his affairs in the hands of his hypocritically humble brother Luke. Once he has power in his hand, he, throwing off his mask, comes out with all fangs to humiliate his nieces and sister-in-law. The comedy is a fling at the bourgeois extravagance and pretentiousness of the new-born urban society.

The Roman Actor (1626) is a blood tragedy set at the time of the Roman King Domitian. It dramatizes the marriage of the king to Domitia, a resourceful woman, whose husband he has executed. During a play within the play, he kills the actor Paris with whom she has fallen in love, which induces her to conspire against and assassinate him.

Philip Massinger was a dramatic poet of great natural ability, but his plots and situations are so stodgy that they seem insipid to modern readers. The marks of decadence are pronounced in his dramas, particularly tragedies. But his verse had some influence on Milton.

Also read: John Lyly and his famous works