The father of this dramatic poet was attached to the family of Henry, the second Earl of Pembroke, and died in the service of that honourable house. The name of a servant carried with it no sense of degradation in those times, when the great lords and officers of the court numbered inferior nobles among their followers. On one occasion the poet's father was the bearer of letters from the Earl of Pembroke to Queen Elizabeth; a circumstance which has been justly observed to indicate that he could be no mean person, considering the punctilious respect which Elizabeth exacted from her courtiers.
Massinger was born at Salisbury, or probably at Wilton, in its neighbourhood, the seat of the Earl of Pembroke, in whose family he also appears to have been educated. That nobleman died in the poet's sixteenth year, who thus unfortunately lost whatever chance he ever had of his protecting kindness. His father continued indeed in the service of the succeeding earl, who was an accomplished man, a votary of the muses, and one of the brightest ornaments of the court of Elizabeth and James but he withheld his patronage from a man of genius, who had claims to it, and would have done it honour, for reasons that have not been distinctly explained in the scanty and sorrowful history of the poet. Mr. Gifford, dissatisfied with former reasons alleged for this neglect, and convinced, from the perusal of his writings, that Massinger was a Catholic, conjectured that it may be attributed to his having offended the earl by having apostatized while at the university to that obnoxious faith. He was entered as a commoner of St. Alban's Hall, Oxford, in his eighteenth year, where he continued only four years. Wood and Davies conclude that he missed a degree, and was suddenly withdrawn from the university, in consequence of Pembroke's disapprobation of his attachment to poetry and romances, instead of logic and philosophy. Mr. Gifford prefers the authority of Langbaine, that he was not supported at all at Oxford by the Earl of Pembroke, but by his own father, and concludes that he was withdrawn from it solely by the calamitous event of his death. Whatever was the cause, he left the university abruptly, and coming to London, without friends, or fortune, or profession, was, as he informs us himself, driven by his necessities to the stage for support.
From the period of his arrival in London in 1606 till the year 1622, when his Virgin Martyr appeared in print, it is sufficiently singular that we should have no notice of Massinger, except in one melancholy relic that was discovered by Mr. Malone in Dulwich college, namely, a letter subscribed by him and two other dramatic poets, in which they solicit the advance of five pounds from the theatrical manager, to save them from the horrors of a jail. The distressful document accidentally discovers the fact of Massinger having assisted Fletcher in one of his dramas, and thus entitles Sir Aston Cokayne's assertion to belief, that he assisted him in more than one. Though Massinger therefore did not appear in print during the long period already mentioned, his time may be supposed to have been partly employed in those confederate undertakings which were so common during the early vigour of our stage; and there is the strongest presumptive evidence that he was also engaged in plays of his own composition, which have been lost to the world among those literary treasures that perished by the neglect of Warburton, the Somerset herald, and the unconscious sacrilege of his cook. Of Massinger's fame for rapidity in composition, Langbaine has preserved a testimony in the lines of a contemporary poet: after the date of his first printed performance, those of his subsequent works come in thick succession, and there can be little doubt that the period preceding it was equally prolific.
Of his private life literally nothing can be said to be known, except that his dedications bespeak incessant distress and dependence, while the recommendatory poems prefixed to his plays address him with attributes of virtue, which are seldom lavished with flattery or falsehood on those who are poor. In one of his dedications he acknowledges the bounty of Philip, Earl of Montgomery, the brother to that Earl of Pembroke who so unaccountably neglected him; but warm as Massinger's acknowledgments are, the assistance appears to have been but transitory. On the 17th of March, 1640, having gone to bed in apparent health the preceding night, he was found dead in the morning, in his own house, in the Bank-side. He was buried in the church-yard of St. Saviour's, and his fellow-comedians attended him to the grave; but it does not appear from the strictest search that a stone or inscription of any kind marked the place where his dust was deposited; even the memorial of his mortality is given with a pathetic brevity, which accords but too well with the obscure and humble circumstances of his life — "March 20, 1639-40, buried Philip Massinger, a stranger;" and of all his admirers only Sir Aston Cokayne dedicated a line to his memory. Even posterity did him long injustice: Rowe, who had discovered his merits in the depth of their neglect, forbore to be his editor, in the hopes of concealing his plagiarism from the Fatal Dowry; and he seemed on the eve of oblivion, when Dodsley's reprint of our old plays brought him silently into that light of reputation, which has been made perfectly distinct by Mr. Gifford's edition of his works.