Thomas Middleton Essay - Middleton, Thomas (Drama Criticism)

Middleton, Thomas (Drama Criticism)


Thomas Middleton 1580-1627

Middleton is one of the finest English playwrights of the Jacobean period, ranked by some critics behind only William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. A productive writer and frequent collaborator, he composed some thirty plays as well as prose pamphlets, masques, and pageants with such contemporaries as Thomas Dekker, John Webster, and William Rowley. Some scholars argue that he even collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens and was the anonymous reviser of Macbeth. (Two songs from Middleton's The Witch have been incorporated into Shakespeare's tragedy.) Middleton's plays are noted for their intricate plotting and detached, ironic tone. His comedies, such as The Roaring Girl and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside are admired for their lively depictions of city life in London, while his greatest tragedies—including The Revenger's Tragedy, Women Beware Women, and The Changeling—are heralded for their incisive depictions of corruption and moral depravity.


Middleton was born in London, the son of a prosperous bricklayer. His father died in 1586, leaving a substantial estate, over which the heirs conducted numerous and protracted legal disputes. Middleton entered Queen's College, Oxford, in 1598, but it appears that he did not complete his studies. A legal document from early 1601 records testimony that indicates that Middleton was in London at that time, "accompaninge the players." Evidence of Middleton's earliest theatrical work comes from the Diary of Philip Henslowe, joint owner of the Fortune theater and banker for the Lord Admiral's Men, an acting company that played at the Fortune. Henslowe recorded that on 22 May 1602 a payment of five pounds was made to Middleton and others for work on Caesar's Fall, or The Two Shapes, a play now lost. In 1603 Middleton married Magdalen Marbecke, whose brother Thomas was a member of the Admiral's Men. Around this time Middleton also began writing for the Boys of St. Paul's, a company of child actors associated with the school at St. Paul's Cathedral. A number of his early successes, including A Trick to Catch the Old One, A Mad World My Masters, and Michaelmas Term were produced by this troupe. Subsequently he was briefly associated with another children's company, the Blackfriars, before beginning a series of tragedies for the King's Men, the foremost company of its time—a group that included Shakespeare among its members. It is during this period that Middleton is thought to have worked on Timon of Athens.

In 1613 Middleton was engaged to write a civic pageant for the inauguration of the new Lord Mayor of London. This work, The New River Entertainment, was the first in a series of pageants that eventually led to Middleton's appointment as Chronologer to the City of London in 1620. The duties of this remunerative post, which he held until his death, included the keeping of a journal of civic events and the occasional writing of speeches and public entertainments. Middleton's greatest triumph on the stage came with his last—and most controversial—play, A Game at Chess (1624). A biting satire depicting religious and political contentions between Spain and England, the play was a phenomenal success that ran an unprecedented nine days to packed houses until it was suppressed at the command of King James I. The principal actors of the King's Men were questioned, as was Middleton's son Edward. Middleton himself apparently had gone into hiding. There is no firm evidence that he or anyone else was ever punished, though tradition holds that Middleton was imprisoned for a time. The play was soon published and went through three editions within a year. This, then, was Middleton's final artistic achievement of any note; aside from a pair of civic pageants, he wrote nothing more before his death in 1627.


Proficient in several genres, Middleton produced comedies, satires, tragicomedies, and tragedies. His greatest comedies were his early "citizen comedies" set in contemporary London among the middle class. Constructed around schemes and intrigues typically involving money and marriage, such plays as A Trick to Catch the Old One, A Mad World My Masters, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and Michaelmas Term are highly theatrical pieces, carefully plotted and suffused with realistic detail. The realism is offset, however, by the frequently farcical action and the numerous outlandish or grotesque characters. The world Middleton depicts in his comedies is one in which there are no moral absolutes; the ostensible heroes are often merely the most effective schemers, the villains may go unpunished, and supposedly virtuous characters are frequently depicted as fools or hypocrites. Middleton's great tragedies are also set in morally ambiguous worlds that corrode the virtue of the principal characters. Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy, Beatrice and De Flores in The Changeling, and virtually all of the figures in Women Beware Women are depraved by the pervasive corruption of the societies depicted in the play. With penetrating psychological realism, Middleton shows these characters to be fully aware but powerless victims of desires that are unchecked by societal restraints.


Because he worked so often in collaboration and wrote plays for hire in a variety of styles and genres, Middleton's reputation among critics was for many years that of a theatrical craftsman rather than an artist. Beginning in the nineteenth century, however, his works began to receive scholarly attention. Fundamental studies have since been conducted which have more precisely defined Middleton's canon, establishing which plays were or were not composed by him and determining his share in his numerous collaborations. With the author's overall output at least reasonably well established, subsequent commentators have been able to evaluate the characteristic attributes of Middletonian drama. They have examined and admired the intricate plots, swift pacing, and complex characterizations in his work. Critics have also analyzed the ironic tone, the close correspondence between characters and their speech patterns, and the vivid evocation of place and situation in Middleton's plays. With such investigations has come greater recognition of Middleton's stature as an artist. As T. S. Eliot said simply, "Middleton in the end … is a great example of great English drama."

NOTE: The authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy has been the subject of much scholarly debate. It is assumed in the following entry that Middleton is the author of the play, though individual critics may attribute it to Cyril Tourneur.

Principal Works


The Honest Whore, Part 1 [with Thomas Dekker] 1604

The Phoenix c. 1604

A Trick to Catch the Old One c. 1605

Your Five Gallants c. 1605

A Mad World My Masters c. 1606

Michaelmas Term c. 1606

*The Revenger's Tragedy c. 1606

A Yorkshire Tragedy c. 1606

The Second Maiden's Tragedy 1611

The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse [with Dekker] 1611

No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's c. 1611

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside c. 1613

The Witch c. 1614

A Fair Quarrel [with William Rowley] c. 1617

The Mayor of Queenborough, or Hengist King of Kent c. 1618

The Old Law, or A New Way to Please You [with Rowley] c. 1618

Anything for a Quiet Life [with John Webster] c. 1621

Women Beware Women c. 1621

The Changeling [with Rowley] 1622

A Game at Chess 1624


The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased (poem) 1597

The Ghost of Lucrece (poem) 1598-99

The Black Book (pamphlet) 1604

The New River Entertainment (pageant) 1613

The Triumphs of Truth (pageant) 1614

The Triumphs of Honor and Industry (pageant) 1617

The Inner Temple Masque, or Masque of Heroes (masque) 1619

A Courtly Masque; the Device Called the World Tossed at Tennis [with Rowley] (masque) 1620

Honourable Entertainments Composed for the Service of This Noble City (collected pageants) 1621

*This work is sometimes attributed to Cyril Tourneur.

Overviews And General Studies

T.S. Eliot (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: An originally unsigned essay entitled "Thomas Middleton," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1326, 30 June 1927, pp. 445-46.

[Eliot, a celebrated Americanborn English poet, essayist, and critic, stressed in his commentary the importance of tradition, religion, and morality in literature. His emphasis on imagery, symbolism, and meaning helped to establish the theories of New Criticism. Eliot's concept of the "objective correlative" is considered a major contribution to literary analysis. In his Selected Essays (1932), he defines the objective correlative as "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion" and which has the ability to evoke that emotion in the reader. Here, in a very influential and oftencited survey of Middleton and his works, Eliot extols the playwright as one of the greatest writers of the Elizabethan period. For example, The Changeling, he asserts, "stands above every tragic play of its time, except those of Shakespeare"; and Moll, the heroine of The Roaring Girl is, in his estimation, the most vivid depiction of a woman in any drama of the period]

Thomas Middleton, the dramatic writer, was not very highly thought of in his own time; the date of his death is not known; we know only that he was buried on July 4, 1627. He was one of the more voluminous, and one of the best, dramatic writers of his time. But it is easy to understand why he is not better known or more popular. It is difficult to imagine his "personality." Several new personalities have recently been fitted to the name of Shakespeare; Jonson is a real figure—our imagination plays about him discoursing at the Mermaid, or laying down the law to Drummond of Hawthornden; Chapman has become a breezy British character as firm as Nelson or Wellington; Webster and Donne are real people for the more intellectual; even Tourneur (Churton Collins having said the last word about him) is a "personality." But Middleton, who collaborated shamelessly, who is hardly separated from Rowley, Middleton, who wrote plays so diverse as Women Beware Women and A Game at Chesse and The Roaring Girl, Middleton remains merely a collective name for a number of plays—some of which, like The Spanish Gypsy, are patently by other people.

If we write about Middleton's plays we must write about Middleton's plays, and not about Middleton's personality. Many of these plays are still in doubt. Of all the Elizabethan dramatists Middleton seems the most impersonal, the most indifferent to personal fame or perpetuity, the readiest, except Rowley, to accept collaboration. Also he is the most various. His greatest tragedies and his greatest comedies are as if written by two different men. Yet there seems no doubt that Middleton was both a great comic writer and a great tragic writer. There are a sufficient number of plays, both tragedies and comedies, in which his hand is so far unquestioned, to establish his greatness. His greatness is not that of a peculiar personality, but of a great artist or artisan of the Elizabethan epoch. We have The Changeling, Women Beware Women, and A Game at Chesse; and we have The Roaring Girl and A Trick to Catch the Old One. And that is enough. Between the tragedies and the comedies of Shakespeare, and certainly between the tragedies and the comedies of Jonson, we can establish a relation; we can see, for Shakespeare or Jonson, mat each had in the end a personal point of view which can be called neither comic nor tragic. But with Middleton we can establish no such relation. He remains merely a name, a voice, the author of certain plays, which are all of them great plays. He has no point of view, is neither sentimental nor cynical; he is neither resigned, nor disillusioned, nor romantic; he has no message. He is merely the name which associates six or seven great plays.

For there is no doubt about The Changeling. Like all of the plays attributed to Middleton, it is long-winded and tire-some; the characters talk too much, and then suddenly they stop talking and act; they are real and impelled irresistibly by the fundamental motions of humanity to good or evil. This mixture of tedious discourse and sudden reality is everywhere in the work of Middleton, in his comedy also. In The Roaring Girl we read with toil through a mass of cheap conventional intrigue, and suddenly realize that we are, and have been for some time without knowing it, observing a real and unique human being. In reading The Changeling we may think, till almost the end of the play, that we have been concerned merely with a fantastic Elizabethan morality, and then discover that we are looking on at an impassionate exposure of fundamental passions of any time and any place. The conventional opinion remains the just judgment: The Changeling is Middleton's greatest play. The morality of the convention seems to us absurd. To many intelligent readers this play has only an historical interest, and only serves to illustrate the moral taboos of the Elizabethans. The heroine is a young woman who, in order to dispose of a fiancé to whom she is indifferent, so that she may marry the man she loves, accepts the offer of an adventurer to murder the affianced, at the price of becoming the murderer's mistress. Such a plot is, to a modern mind, absurd; and the consequent tragedy seems a fuss about nothing. But The Changeling is not merely contingent for its effect upon our acceptance of Elizabethan good form or convention; it is, in fact, far less dependent upon the convention of its epoch than a play like A Doll's House. Underneath the convention there is the stratum of permanent truth to human nature. The tragedy of The Changeling is an eternal tragedy, as permanent as Oedipus or Antony and Cleopatra; it is the tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, suddenly caught in the consequences of its own action. In every age and in every civilization there are instances of the same thing: the unmoral nature, suddenly caught in the inexorable toils of morality—of morality not made by man but by Nature—and forced to take the consequences of an act which it had planned light-heartedly. Beatrice is not a moral creature; she becomes moral only by becoming damned. Our conventions are not the same as those which Middleton assumed for his play. But the possibility of that frightful discovery of morality remains permanent.

The words in which Middleton expresses his tragedy are as great as the tragedy. The process through which Beatrice, having decided that De Flores is the instrument for her purpose, passes from aversion to habituation, remains a permanent commentary on human nature. The directness and precision of De Flores are masterly, as is also the virtuousness of Beatrice on first realizing his motives—

Why, 'tis impossible thou canst be so wicked,
Or shelter such a cunning cruelty,
To make his death the murderer of my honour!
Thy language is so bold and vicious,
I cannot see which way I can forgive it
With any modesty

—a passage which ends with the really great lines, lines of which Shakespeare or Sophocles might have been proud:—

Can you weep Fate from its determined purpose?
So soon may you weep me.

But what constitutes the essence of the tragedy is something which has not been sufficiently remarked; it is the habituation of Beatrice to her sin; it becomes no longer sin but merely custom. Such is the essence of the tragedy of Macbeth—the habituation to crime, the deadening of all moral sense. And in the end Beatrice, having been so long the enforced conspirator of De Flores, becomes (and this is permanently true to human nature) more his partner, his mate, than the mate and partner of the man for the love of whom she consented to the crime. Her lover disappears not only from the scene but from her own imagination. When she says of De Flores,

A wondrous necessary man, my lord,

her praise is more than half sincere; and at the end she belongs far more to De Flores—towards whom, at the beginning, she felt such physical repulsion—than to her lover Alsemero. And it is De Flores, in the end, to whom she belongs, as Francesca to Paolo:—

Beneath the stars, upon yon meteor
Ever hung my fate, 'mongst things corruptible;
I ne'er could pluck it from him; my loathing
Was prophet to the rest, but ne'er believed.

And De Flores's cry is perfectly sincere and in character:—

I loved this woman in spite of her heart;
Her love I earned out of Piracquo's murder …
Yes, and her honour's prize
Was my reward; I thank life for nothing
But that pleasure; it was so sweet to me,
That I have drunk up all, left none behind
For any man to pledge me.

The tragedy of Beatrice is not that she has lost Alsemero, for whose possession she played; it is that she has won De Flores, that she thereafter belongs to him and he to her. The Changeling is one of the great tragedies of character originally neither good nor bad deflected by circumstance (as character neither good nor bad may always be) towards evil. Such tragedies are not limited to Elizabethan times: they happen every day and perpetually. The greatest trage-dies are occupied with great and permanent moral conflicts: the great tragedies of Æschylus, of Sophocles, of Corneille, of Racine, of Shakespeare have the same burden. In poetry, in dramatic technique, The Changeling is inferior to the best plays of Webster, or even of Tourneur. But in the moral essence of tragedy it is safe to say that in this play Middleton is surpassed by one Elizabethan alone, and that is Shakespeare. In every essential respect in which Elizabethan tragedy can be compared to French or to Greek tragedy The Changeling stands above every tragic play of its time, except those of Shakespeare.

The genius which blazed in The Changeling was fitful but not accidental. The next tragedy after The Changeling is Women Beware Women. The thesis of the plays, as the title indicates, is more arbitrary and less fundamental. The play itself, although less disfigured by ribaldry or clowning, is more tedious. Middleton sinks himself in conventional moralizing of the epoch; so that, if we are impatient; we decide that he gives merely a document of Elizabethan humbug—and then suddenly a personage will blaze out in genuine fire of vituperation. The wickedness of the personages in Women Beware Women is conventional wickedness of the stage of the time; yet slowly the exasperation of Bianca, the wife who married beneath her, beneath the ambitions to which she was entitled, emerges from the negative; slowly the real human passions emerge from the mesh of interest in which they begin. And here again Middleton, in writing what appears on the surface a conventional picture-palace Italian melodrama of the time, has caught permanent human feelings. And in this play Middleton shows his interest—more than any of his contemporaries—in innuendo and double meanings; and makes use of that game of chess, which he was to use more openly and directly for satire in that perfect piece of literary and political art, A Game at Chesse. The irony could not be improved upon:—

Did I not say my duke would fetch you o'er, Widow?
I think you spoke in earnest when you said it, madam.
And my black king makes all the haste he can too.
Well, madam, we may meet with him in time yet.
I've given thee blind mate twice.

There is hardly anything truer or more impressive in Elizabethan drama than Bianca's gradual self-will and self-importance in consequence of her courtship by the Duke:—

Troth, you speak wondrous well for your old house
'Twill shortly fall down at your feet to thank you,
Or stoop, when you go to bed, like a good child,
To ask you blessing.

In spite of all the long-winded speeches, in spite of all the conventional Italianate horrors, Bianca remains, like Beatrice in The Changeling, a real woman; as real, indeed, as any woman of Elizabethan tragedy. Bianca is a type of the woman who is purely moved by vanity.

But if Middleton, this obscure and uninteresting person, understood the female better than any of the Elizabethans—better than the creator of the Duchess of Malfy, better than Marlowe, better than Tourneur, or Shirley, or Fletcher, better than any of them except Shakespeare alone—he was also able, in his comedy, to present a finer woman than any of them. The Roaring Girl has no apparent relation to Middleton's tragedies, yet it is agreed to be primarily the work of Middleton. It is typical of the comedies of Middleton, and it is the best. In his tragedies Middleton employs all the Italianate horrors of his time, and obviously for the purpose of pleasing the taste of his time; yet underneath we feel always a quiet and undisturbed vision of things as they are and not "another thing." So in his comedies. The comedies are long-winded; the fathers are heavy fathers, and rant as heavy fathers should; the sons are wild and wanton sons, and perform all the pranks to be expected of them; the machinery is the usual heavy Elizabethan machinery; Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. The Roaring Girl is as artificial as any comedy of the time; its plot creaks loudly; yet the Girl herself is always real. She may rant, she may behave preposterously, but she remains a type of the sort of woman who has renounced all happiness for herself and who lives only for a principle. Nowhere more than in The Roaring Girl can the hand of Middleton be distinguished more clearly from the hand of Dekker. Dekker is all sentiment; and, indeed, in the so admired passages of A Fair Quarrel, exploited by Lamb, the mood if not the hand of Dekker seems to the unexpert critic to be more present than Middleton's. A Fair Quarrel seems as much, if not more, Dekker's than Middleton's. Similarly with The Spanish Gypsy, which can with difficulty be attributed to Middleton. But the feeling about Moll Cut-Purse of The Roaring Girl is Middleton's radier man anybody's; and after Miranda, and Dante's Beatrice, mere is hardly any heroine of fiction who does more honour to her sex than Moll. In Middleton's tragedy there is a strain of realism underneath which is one with the poetry; and in his comedy we find the same thing.

In her recent book on The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy … Miss Kathleen Lynch calls attention to the gradual transition from Elizabethan-Jacobean to Restoration comedy. She observes, what is certainly true, mat Middleton is the greatest "realist" in Jacobean comedy. Miss Lynch's extremely suggestive thesis is mat the transition from Elizabethan-Jacobean to later Caroline comedy is primarily economic: mat me interest changes from me bourgeois aping gentry to the bourgeois become gentry and accepting a code of manners. In the comedy of Middleton certainly mere is as yet no code of manners; but me merchant of Cheapside is aiming at becoming a member of the county gentry. Miss Lynch remarks: "Middleton's keen concentration on me spectacle of me interplay of different social classes marks an important development in realistic comedy." She calls attention to mis aspect of Middleton's comedy, that it marks, better than the romantic comedy of Shakespeare, or the comedy of Jonson, occupied with what Jonson thought to be permanent and not transient aspects of human nature, the transition between the aristocratic world which preceded the Tudors and the plutocratic modern world which the Tudors initiated and encouraged. By the time of the return of Charles II., as Miss Lynch points out, society had been reorganized and formed, and social conventions had been created. In the Tudor times birth still counted (though nearly all the great families were extinct); by the time of Charles II. only breeding counted. The comedy of Middleton, and the comedy of Brome, and the comedy of Shirley, is intermediate, as Miss Lynch remarks. Middleton, as she observes, marks the transitional stage in which the London tradesman was anxious to cease to be a tradesman and to become a country gentleman. The words of his City Magnate in Michaelmas Terme have not yet lost their point:—

A fine journey in the Whitsun holydays, i'faith, to ride with a number of cittizens and their wives, some upon pillions, some upon side-saddles, I and little Thomasine i' the middle, our son and heir, Sim Quomodo, in a peach-colour taffeta jacket, some horse length, or a long yard before us—there will be a fine show on's I can tell you.

But Middleton's comedy is not, like the comedy of Congreve, me comedy of a set social behaviour; it is still, like the later comedy of Dickens, the comedy of individuals, in spite of me perpetual motions of city merchants towards county gentility. In the comedy of the Restoration a figure such as that of Moll Cutpurse would have been impossible. As a social document the comedy of Middleton illustrates the transition from government by a landed aristocracy to government by a city aristocracy gradually engrossing the land. As such it is of me greatest interest. But as literature, as a dispassionate picture of human nature, Middleton's comedy deserves to be remembered chiefly by its real—perpetually real—and human figure of Moll the Roaring Girl. That Middleton's comedy was "photographic," that it introduces us to the low life of me time far better man anything in the comedy of Shakespeare or the comedy of Jonson, better than anything except the pamphlets of Dekker and Greene and Nashe, there is little doubt. But it produced one great play—The Roaring Girl—a great play in spite of the tedious long speeches of some of the principal characters, in spite of the clumsy machinery of the plot: for the reason that Middleton was a great observer of human nature, without fear, without sentiment, without prejudice, without personality.

And Middleton in the end—after criticism has subtracted all that Rowley, all that Dekker, all that others contributed—is a great example of great English drama. He means nothing, he has no message; he is merely a great recorder. Incidentally, in flashes and when the dramatic need comes, he is a great poet, a great master of versification:—

I that am of your blood was taken from you
For your better health; look no more upon 't,
But cast it to the ground regardlessly,
Let the common sewer take it from distinction:
Beneath the stars, upon yon meteor
Ever hung my fate, 'mongst things corruptible;
I ne'er could pluck it from him; my loathing
Was prophet to the rest, but ne'er believed.

The man who wrote these lines remains inscrutable, solitary, unadmired; purely an Elizabethan and not himself; welcoming collaboration, indifferent to fame; dying no one knows when and no one knows how, or with what thoughts, if any; attracting, in three hundred years, no personal admiration. Yet he wrote one tragedy which more than any play except those of Shakespeare has a profound and permanent moral value and horror; and one comedy which more man any Elizabeman comedy realizes a free and noble woman-hood; and he remains, inscrutable, unphilosophical, interesting only to those few who care for such things.

L. C. Knights (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "Middleton and the New Social Classes," in Drama & Society in the Age of Jonson, 1937. Reprint by Barnes & Noble, 1962, pp. 256-69.

[A renowned English Shakespearean and Elizabethan scholar, Knights followed the precepts of I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis as he attempted to identify an underlying pattern in all of Shakespeare's work. His How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? (1933)—a milestone study in the twentieth-century reaction to the Shakespearean criticism of the previous centurydisparages the traditional emphasis on "character" as an approach which inhibits the reader's total response to Shakespeare's plays. The following discussion of Middleton is taken from his highly regarded study Drama & Society in the Age of Jonson, which was first published in 1937. Knights examines Middleton's comedies and finds the writer overrated, particularly in respect to his often-admired "realism."]

The assimilation of what is valuable in the literary past… is impossible without the ability to discriminate and to reject. Everyone would admit this, in a general way, but there are few to undertake the essential effort—the redistribution of stress, the attempt to put into currency evaluations based more firmly on living needs than are the conventional judgements. To disestablish certain reputations that have 'stood the test of time', to see to it that the epithet 'great' does not spill over from undeniable achievement to a bulk of inferior matter in the work of any one author, is not incompatible with a proper humility.

Sharp discrimination is nowhere more necessary than in the Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan period. It is not—emphatically—a minor nuisance that young men who are capable of an interest in literature should be stimulated to work up a feeling of enjoyment when reading the plays of Dekker and Heywood, or A King and No King. There is of course such a thing as an historical interest, but it is as well we should know when it is that we are pursuing and when we are engaged in a completely different activity. It is as well that we should realize—to come to the subject of this [essay]—that our 'appreciation' of The Changeling is something different in kind from our 'appreciation' of The Roaring Girl, A Trick to Catch the Old One, The Phoenix, Michaelmas Term and all those plays which have led Mr Eliot to assert that Middleton is 'a great comic writer'.

The reference to Mr Eliot is deliberate. His essay [in the Times Literary Supplement, 30 June 1927] on Middleton is, it seems to me, a good deal nearer to Lamb than Mr Eliot would care to admit. It does not of course show the exuberant idolatry of Romantic criticism, but it encourages idolatry (see the unusually generous provision of 'great's' in the final paragraphs) and—what is the same thing—inertia. Now that The Sacred Wood and its successors are academically 'safe' it is all the more necessary to suggest that certain of Mr Eliot's Elizabethan Essays (those, I would say, on Middleton, Marston, Heywood and Ford) are in quite a different class from, say, the essay on Massinger, and that to ignore the lapses from that usually taut and distinguished critical prose is not the best way of registering respect for the critic. Middleton, then, is an interesting case—for various reasons.

As the author of The Changeling, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the period outside Shakespeare, Middleton deserves to be approached with respect. It is, however, as a comic writer that I wish to consider him here, and a careful re-reading of the dozen comedies by which he is remembered suggests that the conventional estimate of him—the estimate that Mr Eliot has countenanced—needs to be severely qualified.

In the first place, it is usually held that Middleton is a great realist. 'He is the most absolute realist in the Elizabethan drama, vying with the greatest of his fellows in fidelity to life'—that is the text-book account [Schelling, Elizabethan Drama]. Miss Lynch remarks that, 'As the greatest realist in Elizabethan drama, Middleton is a hearty observer of life at first hand' [Kathleen M. Lynch, The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy], and Mr Eliot, endorsing her verdict, says: 'There is little doubt … that Middleton's comedy was "photographic", that it introduces us to the low life of the time far better than anything in the comedy of Shakespeare or the comedy of Jonson, better than anything except the pamphlets of Dekker and Greene and Nashe'.

'Realist', of course, means many things, but what these critics are asserting is that Middleton accurately reflects the life of a certain section of Jacobean London, of gallants and shopkeepers, of lawyers, brokers, cheats and prostitutes. But, reading his comedies as carefully as we can, we find—exciting discovery!—that gallants are likely to be in debt, that they make love to citizens' wives, that lawyers are concerned more for their profits than for justice, and that cutpurses are thieves. Middleton tells us nothing at all about these as individuals in a particular place and period. (Turn up any of his brothel scenes—in Your Five Gallants, say—for examples of completely generalized conventionality: The Honest Whore does it better.) And the obvious reason, it seems to me, is that he was not interested in doing so.

If we take A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, a typical comedy, neither one of Middleton's worst nor his best, we find after a second or third reading that all that remains with us is the plot. That certainly is complicated and ingenious. The only fortune of Sir Walter Whorehound, a decayed Welsh knight, lies in his expectations from his relative, the childless Lady Kix. He plans to better his fortunes by marrying Moll, the daughter of Yellowhammer, a goldsmith, and he brings to town a cast-off mistress whom he represents as an heiress and a fit match for Tim, the goldsmith's son. Moll, however, is in love with Touchwood Junior, whose lusty elder brother has had to part from his wife since he begets more children than he can maintain. In London Sir Walter visits the Allwit household, where the husband, Master Allwit (=Wittol—the joke is characteristic) is well paid to father the illegitimate children of Sir Walter and Mistress Allwit. Alarmed lest the knight's marriage should cut off his livelihood Allwit reveals the existence of Sir Walter's children to Yellowhammer, just as the news arrives that Touchwood Senior has procured an heir for Lady Kix, and Sir Walter's creditors are ready to foreclose. The true lovers are united by the well-worn device of feigning death and going to church in their coffins, and the only unfortunates are Sir Walter and Tim, now married to the Welsh-woman.

I have summarized me plot since it may be evident even from this where the interest centres; it centres on the intrigue. Swinburne's praise [in his Introduction to The Best Plays of Middleton] is significant:

The merit does not indeed consist in any new or subtle study of character, any Shakespearean creation or Jonsonian invention of humours or of men: the spendthrifts and the misers, the courtesans and the dotards, are figures borrowed from the common stock of stage tradition: it is the vivid variety of incident and intrigue, the freshness and ease and vigour of the style, the clear straightforward energy and vivacity of the action, that the reader finds most praise-worthy.

The style is certainly easy and, for its purpose, vigorous enough, but incident, intrigue and action do not make literature, nor are they capable of presenting a full-bodied, particular impression of any kind. Some of Jonson's comedies are the best of farces, but in each of them it is what is said that remains in the memory rather than what is done. A Chaste Maid, however, is thoroughly representative. Middleton's comedies are comedies of intrigue (in spite of the occasional professions of moral intention), and they yield little more than the pleasure of a well-contrived marionette show. One need hardly say mat the charge is not mat they fail to present full-bodied, three dimensional 'characters' (neither does Volpone or The Alchemist), nor mat they suffer from the 'invraisemblance choquante' of which M. Castelain once found Jonson guilty (the impressionistic scenes are often very good), it is simply that they present neither thought, nor an emotional attitude to experience, nor vividly realized perceptions. They stake all on the action, and mat which made them successful on the stage makes them rank low as literature.

To say this is to suggest their limited usefulness as 'social documents'—and it is as social documents 'introducing us to the low life of the time' that they are often praised. They do not embody me thought and opinion of the time, since that is irrelevant to the intrigue. They do not seize on, clarify and explore particular aspects of the social scene, since general counters are all mat the action demands. Their value in this connexion lies almost entirely in what Middleton takes for granted, in the indications provided by the situations—situations to which he thought the audience would respond sufficiently for the action to be got under way.

Indirectly, then, but only indirectly and within these limitations, Middleton does reflect some important aspects of the social scene, and we should be grateful to Miss Lynch for telling us where to look. The background mat he implicitly asks his audience to accept is a world of thriving citizens, needy gallants and landed gentlemen, and fortune-hunters of all kinds—a world that had sufficient basis in actuality to provide some theatrical verisimilitude for his thoroughly improbable plots.

His shopkeepers and merchants are all of the kind described in The Roaring Girl—'coached velvet caps' and 'tuftaffety jackets' who 'keep a vild swaggering in coaches now-a-days; the highways are stopt with them'; who have 'barns and houses yonder at Hockley-hole', and throughout Surrey, Essex and the neighbouring counties. The gallants, on the other hand,

are people most uncertain; they use great words, but little sense; great beards, but little wit; great breeches but no money,

[The Family of Love]

and most of the country gentlemen in Town are like Laxton of The Roaring Girl:

All my land's sold;
I praise heav'n for't, 't has rid me of much trouble.

For all of this class a wealthy widow or a citizen's daughter is an irresistible bait, and if they cannot manage a 'good' marriage they intrigue with citizens' wives for maintenance.

The numerous kindred of Sir Walter Whorehound are all fortune hunters, and a good deal of the amusement they provided, when their intrigues were successful, must have been due to their showing the tables turned; the underlying assumption is mat as a rule the city preys on the country:

Alas, poor birds that cannot keep the sweet country, where they fly at pleasure, but must needs come to London to have their wings clipt, and are fain to go hopping home again!

[Michaelmas Term]

It is not merely that the city is the home of the usurer, or mat individual merchants 'die their conscience in the blood of prodigal heirs' [A Chaste Maid], Middleton assumes a major social movement—the transference of land from the older gentry to the citizen middle class.

You merchants were wont to be merchant staplers; but now gentlemen have gotten up the trade, for there is not one gentlemen amongst twenty but his land be engaged in twenty statutes staple.

[The Family of Love]

In A Trick to Catch the Old One (c. 1605?) Witgood, having sunk all his 'goodly uplands and downlands...

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The Revenger's Tragedy

L. G. Salingar (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: "The Revenger's Tragedy and the Morality Tradition," in Scrutiny, Vol. VI, No. 4, March, 1938, pp. 402-24.

[In the essay below, Salingar argues that much of the special quality of The Revenger's Tragedy is attributable to its grounding in medieval dramatic modes. He stresses that in this play, much as in morality plays, "the physical world is treated, in a peculiarly direct and consistent manner, as emblematic of the moral order, man in relation to divine will. " In this essay, Salingar ascribes The Revenger's Tragedy to Cyril Tourneur.]

Tourneur's plays have too often been described...

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A Chaste Maid In Cheapside

Samuel Schoenbaum (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and Middleton's City Comedy," in Shakespeare and Others, Folger Books, 1985, pp. 203-17.

[In this essay, which was first published in 1959, Schoenbaum compares A Chaste Maid in Cheapside to Middleton 's other comedies of urban life and judges this work far superior. A Chaste Maid, he declares, "testifies to the sudden advent of maturity, poetic and dramatic, in a major writer. "]

In his early twenties, the exasperating juvenilia behind him, Thomas Middleton applied himself to a series of comedies portraying the contemporary scene and set, for the most...

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Women Beware Women

Inga-Stina Ewbank (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Realism and Morality in 'Women Beware Women'," in Essays and Studies 1969, Vol. 22, edited by Francis Berry, John Murray, 1969, pp. 56-70.

[In this essay, Ewbank assesses Women Beware Women, paying particular attention to the unity underlying what initially seems to be a loosely constructed mixture of realistic and moralistic elements. She stresses that the highly theatrical nature of Middleton's conception and execution, rather than heightening the unreality of the allegorical masque, actually integrates it into the realistically depicted intrigues of the play.]

In this essay I wish to...

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The Changeling

William Empson (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "Double Plots," in Some Versions of Pastoral, 1935. Reprint by New Directions, 1968, pp. 27-86.

[Empson was an English critic, poet, and editor who is best known for Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), his seminal contribution to the formalist school of New Criticism. Empson's critical theory is based on the assumption that all great poetic works are ambiguous and that this ambiguity can often be traced to the multiple meanings of words. Empson analyzes a text by enumerating and discussing these various meanings and examining how they fit together to communicate the poem's ideas and emotions. In the following excerpt from...

(The entire section is 12558 words.)

Further Reading


Steen, Sara Jayne. Thomas Middleton: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984, 297 p.

Annotated list of materials relating to Middleton published from 1800 to 1978.

Tannenbaum, Samuel A. Thomas Middleton: A Concise Bibliography. Elizabethan Bibliographies Number 13. New York: Samuel A. Tannenbaum, 1940, 35 p.

Primary and secondary bibliography including sections on Middleton's plays, masques, prose works and poems, collections, and biographies of the author.

Wolff, Dorothy. Thomas Middleton: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985, 138 p.


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