As is the case with many writers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, Thomas Middleton’s canon has never been definitively established. For several reasons, it is extremely difficult to determine what is his work: The concrete evidence is scanty. Many plays were published in pirated editions, and Middleton frequently collaborated in writing his plays. Many critics do not believe that Middleton has a distinct style. Indeed, T. S. Eliot, in an essay highly praising Middleton as an artist, went so far as to say that he felt no sense of a distinct personality unifying the plays: To Eliot, Middleton was simply a name connecting a number of works.
Although the controversy surrounding Middleton’s authorship has not been resolved, the critical consensus is that there are stylistic and thematic patterns connecting those plays that are definitely by Middleton. In fact, the Victorians had already perceived a pattern in Middleton’s plays: To them, Middleton’s viewpoint was immoral. Modern criticism consistently rejects this reading but acknowledges that Middleton’s subject matter was frequently low and often shocking and was presented with little apparent value judgment by the author. Middleton’s comedies, usually set in the city and usually antiromantic, are pictures of lust, greed, and ambition. They are frequently called “realistic,” and the term applies well in one sense. The modern reader must not expect consistent realism or naturalism in the modern sense, for, like all plays of the period, Middleton’s plays employ many nonrealistic conventions. Still, they are realistic in that they are filled with the language and behavior of the least elegant characters of London—with the bravado of grocers and the gabble of grocers’ wives, with the slang of whores and the cant of thieves, and with the equally unrefined attitudes and language of various gentlemen and gentlewomen, who are also hungry for gold and glamour. In all of this uproar, Middleton is remarkably detached. Authorial judgments are made, but they are implied through subtle ironies rather than directly stated.
Middleton worked at first with a comedy of humors in the tradition of Roman comedy and under the immediate influence of Jonson. In these early comedies, he developed an increasing interest in character, in the psychology of human behavior and particularly the psyche’s response to sin. Often, Middleton’s characters undergo startling but carefully prepared-for conversions as their sins overwhelm them. Also, he became fascinated with presenting contemporary London life from a woman’s point of view: Middleton often placed female characters at the center of his plays. Consistent with his psychological interest, Middleton from the beginning stood apart from his characters, allowing them to speak and act with little authorial intrusion. Irony is an increasingly persistent effect in these plays, and it is often gained through the aside and the soliloquy. With these conventions, Middleton reveals inner fears and desires, often in conflict with a character’s public pose. Middleton’s detached, ironic stance and his intense psychological interest are even more apparent in the tragedies later in his career. In these plays in the tradition of Shakespeare, Webster, and John Ford, he continued to use sin and retribution, particularly sexual degradation, as major themes. As in his earlier plays, he typically blended prose with blank verse, a verse that is never ornate but that rises to eloquence when the scene demands it.
There is something particularly modern about Middleton’s attitude toward his material; perhaps it is a moral relativism. This modernity shows up in his persistent exploration of the psyche’s complexity and in the ironies through which this complexity is expressed. His characters cannot be dismissed or summarized easily—a disturbing fact to previous ages looking for more decisive, discriminating judgments. Yet to the modern age, this is the highest kind of morality, and for that reason, Middleton’s reputation will probably endure.
The Roaring Girl
Written in collaboration by Middleton and Dekker, The Roaring Girl centers on a real-life London woman named Moll Frith. Moll was reputed to be a prostitute, bawd, and thief, but the playwrights present her as a woman of great spirit and virtue whose reputation is maligned by a petty, convention-bound society. In the play, as in real life, Moll dresses in men’s clothes, smokes a pipe, and wears a sword. This unconventionality, the play suggests, leads to her spotted reputation. She is a roaring girl—a brash woman-about-town—but beneath this lack of femininity is a courageous, high-principled woman. Moll intervenes in the main plots and is involved in skirmishes with many of the characters, consistently displaying her ability to stand up for the oppressed and mistreated, most eloquently when they are women.
The main plot of The Roaring Girl involves a young man, Sebastian Wengrave, and a young woman, Mary Fitzallard, in love with each other but prevented from marrying because Sebastian’s father, Sir Alexander Wengrave, wants a well-to-do daughter-in-law. Sebastian plots to outwit his father: He will pretend to be in love with the infamous Moll, and when his small-minded father learns this, he will agree to the union with Mary simply to get rid of Moll. The plan temporarily backfires, however, because Sir Alexander at first reacts by employing a false-witted humor character named Ralph Trapdoor, “honest Ralph,” to tempt Moll to theft and have her executed. Moll resists his temptations and instead exposes Trapdoor as a coward, ultimately eliciting a confession and an apology from him. She is also instrumental in helping Sebastian win Mary and even in bringing on a complete conversion of his father, who eventually sees Moll with the eyes of true judgment rather than through his willful prejudices.
Accompanying the main plot are two parallel stories of couples whose marriages are tested by callous gallants. One of these men, Laxton, leads on Mrs. Gallipot until she tricks her supremely gullible husband into giving thirty pounds to him. Ultimately, however, she becomes disgusted with her would-be seducer and denounces him to her husband, whose eyes are finally opened. Similarly, a “gentleman” named Goshawk tries to seduce Mrs. Openwork; her husband, however, is far shrewder than Gallipot. He outmaneuvers Goshawk, and together husband and wife expose Goshawk’s lechery. In both of these plots, marriage survives its attackers, but the differences between the marriages are equally important. Given Gallipot’s blindness and Mrs. Gallipot’s lechery, their marriage survives largely because Laxton prefers money to sex. The Openworks’ marriage, on the other hand, survives because of the intelligence and integrity of the marriage partners.
A major motif in The Roaring Girl is the reversal of gender stereotyping. Moll wears masculine clothes; Mary disguises herself in men’s clothes; Mrs. Gallipot speaks scornfully of her “apron” husband; and Moll several times overcomes male antagonists by means of her sword and the manly art of bullying. These reversals of sex roles are one of the means of uniting the many elements of the play: They reveal that appearances count for little, that the reality of a person’s character shows up only through certain kinds of trials. Such trials or tests are quite frequent in the play. For example, Openwork tests Goshawk’s integrity, Goshawk tests Mrs. Openwork’s virtue, and Laxton tests Mrs. Gallipot’s. Moll’s honesty is tried by Sir Alexander through Trapdoor, and Moll herself tests the courage and integrity of many characters. The play overturns conventional assumptions that men have a monopoly on courage and that all women are the daughters of Eve. Instead, the play implies that men and women must be judged carefully and on their individual merits. Throughout the play, Moll stands as a lively, unconventional, attractive woman—an ancestor of the Shavian heroine. She is the one shining example of integrity in the play and one of the great creations of the period.
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
In contrast to The Roaring Girl, which was coauthored by Middleton and Dekker, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside was written by Middleton alone. Also, in contrast to the eponymous protagonist of The Roaring Girl, the “chaste maid” of the title is a minor character. The play focuses instead on several men—Allwit, Sir Walter Whorehound, and Yellowhammer—who embody the values of London’s Cheapside district (an area notorious for its unchaste women—and men). The play is admirable for its complex interweaving of many plots and for Middleton’s detached stance, which creates such effective satire.
Yellowhammer, a goldsmith, and his wife, Maudlin, have two children: One is...
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