PHILIP MASSINGER, a very eminent dramatic writer, was born in 1584. His father was Arthur Massinger, a gentleman attached to the family of Henry second earl of Pembroke. He was born at Salisbury, and educated, probably, at Wilton, the seat of the earl of Pembroke. When he had reached his sixteenth year, he sustained an irreparable loss in the death of that worthy nobleman, who, from attachment to the father, would, not improbably, have extended his powerful patronage to the son. In May 1602 Massinger became a commoner of Alban-Hall, Oxford, but left it soon without taking a degree. Various reasons have been assigned for this, as the earl of Pembroke's withdrawing his support; or the same effect resulting from the death of the poet's father; but his late excellent editor, Mr. Gifford, is probably right in attributing his removal to a change in his principles, to his becoming a Roman catholic. Whatever might be the cause, the period of his misfortunes commenced with his arrival in London, where he was driven by his necessities to dedicate himself to the service of the stage. We hear little, however, of him, from 1606, when he first visited the metropolis, until 1622, when his "Virgin Martyr," the first of his printed works, was given to the stage. For this hiatus, his biographer accounts by his having assisted others, particularly Fletcher, and his having written some plays which have perished. He afterwards produced various plays in succession, of which eighteen only have descended to us. Massinger died March 17, 1610. He went to bed in good health, says Langbaine, and was found dead in his bed in the morning in his own house on the Bankside. He was buried in the church-yard of St. Saviour's. 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 passages of his life: "March 20, 1639-40, buried Philip Massinger, a stranger!"
So few particulars are known of his private history, that his life is little more than a detailed account of his various productions, for which we may refer the reader to Mr. Gifford's edition. But, says this editor, though we are ignorant of every circumstance respecting Massinger, unless that he lived, wrote, and died, we may yet form to ourselves some idea of his personal character from the incidental hints scattered through his works. In what light he was regarded may be collected from the recommendatory poems prefixed to his several plays, in which the language of his panegyrists, though warm, expresses an attachment apparently derived not so much from his talents as his virtues. All the writers of his life unite in representing him as a man of singular modesty, gentleness, candour, and affability; nor does it appear that he ever made, or found an enemy. He speaks indeed of opponents on the stage; but the contention of rival candidates for popular favour must not be confounded with personal hostility. With all this, however, he appears to have maintained a constant struggle with adversity; since not only the stage, from which, perhaps, his natural reserve prevented him from deriving the usual advantages, but even the bounty of his particular friends, on which he chiefly relied, left him in a state of absolute dependance. Other writers for the stage, not superior to him in abilities, had their periods of good fortune, their bright as well as their stormy hours; but Massinger seems to have enjoyed no gleam of sunshine: his life was all one wintry day, and "shadows, clouds, and darkness" rested upon it.
His dedications, says Mr. Gifford, are principally characterised by gratitude and humility, without a single trait of that gross and servile adulation which distinguishes and disgraces the addresses of some of his contemporaries. That he did not conceal his misery, his editors appear inclined to reckon among his faults; he bore it, however, without impatience, and we only hear of it when it is relieved. Poverty made him no flatterer, and, what is still more rare, no maligner of the great: nor is one symptom of envy manifested in any part of his compositions. His principles of patriotism appear irreprehensible the extravagant and slavish doctrines which are found in the dramas of his great contemporaries make no part of his creed, in which the warmest loyalty is skilfully combined with just and rational ideas of political freedom. But the great distinction of Massinger, is the uniform respect with which he treats religion and its ministers, in an age when it was found necessary to add regulation to regulation, to stop the growth of impiety on the stage. No priests are introduced by him, "to set on some quantity of barren spectators" to laugh at their licentious follies; the sacred name is not lightly invoked, nor daringly sported with; nor is Scripture profaned by buffoon allusions lavishly put into the mouths of fools and women. Compared with the other dramatic writers of his age, he appears more natural in his characters, and more poetical in his diction, than Jonson or Cartwright, more elevated and nervous than Fletcher, the only writers who can be supposed to contest his pre-eminence. He ranks, therefore, in the opinion of the ablest recent critics, immediately under Shakspeare. It must be confessed, says Dr. Ferriar, in his "Essay on the Writings of Massinger," that in comedy he falls considerably beneath Shakspeare; his wit is less brilliant, and his ridicule less delicate and various; but he affords a specimen of elegant comedy ("The Great Duke of Florence"), of which there is no archetype in his great predecessor. In tragedy Massinger is rather eloquent than pathetic; yet he is often as majestic, and generally more elegant, than his master; he is as powerful a ruler of the understanding, as Shakspeare is of the passions; with the disadvantage of succeeding that matchless poet, there is still much original beauty in his works; and the most extensive acquaintance with poetry will hardly diminish the pleasure of a reader and admirer of Massinger.
As the editions of Dell in 1761, and Davies in 1779, will probably be heard of no more, it is unnecessary to point out their many errors and imperfections. Massinger has at length found in Mr. Gifford an editor, who has completely revived his fame, in the closet at least, and whose well-known learning and taste, it has been justly said, are accompanied, on this occasion, with that genuine spirit of research, that acuteness and accuracy which happily detect and rectify many gross mistakes of former editors, and admirably explain the customs, manners, and language of the poet's time. This, which is perhaps the most correct edition of any of our ancient was published in 1805, 4 vols. 8vo, and so completely answered the public expectation, that a second edition was called for in 1813.