Thomas Middleton Essay - Middleton, Thomas (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Middleton, Thomas (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Thomas Middleton 1580–1627

English poet and playwright

Middleton is considered 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 poetry, prose pamphlets, masques, and pageants with such contemporaries as Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, and John Webster. Some scholars argue that he even collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens and was the anonymous reviser of Macbeth (which includes two songs from Middleton's The Witch). Middleton's plays are noted for their intricate plotting and moral complexity. His comedies, including most notably The Roaring Girl (1611) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (c. 1613), are among the first so-called "city comedies" about middle-class London life. His greatest tragedies, including The Revenger's Tragedy* (c. 1606), Women Beware Women (c. 1621), and The Changeling (1622), confront contemporary corruption and depravity.

Biographical Information

Middleton was born and lived most of his life in London. His father, a prosperous bricklayer, died in 1586, leaving a substantial estate which became the source of numerous and protracted legal disputes among his heirs. Middleton entered Queen's College, Oxford, in 1598, but it appears that he did not complete his studies, perhaps due to the conflict over his inheritance. A legal document from early 1601 indicates that Middleton was in London at that time, "accompaninge the players." Evidence of his earliest theatrical work comes from a record of the Admiral's Men, rival company to Shakespeare's King's Men; on 22 May 1602 a payment of five pounds was made to Middleton and four others for work on Caesar's Fall, or The Two Shapes, a play now lost. In 1603, Middleton married Anne Marbeck, 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 (c. 1605), Mad World, My Masters (c. 1606), and Michaelmas Term (c. 1606), were produced by this troupe. 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 the time. It is during this period that Middleton is thought to have collaborated with Shakespeare 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 his appointment as Chronologer to the City of London in 1620. The duties of this remunerative post, which he held until his death, included keeping a journal of civic events and occasionally writing 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 of religious and political tension between England and Spain, the play was a phenomenal success: it ran for an unprecedented nine days to packed houses. Finally it was suppressed at the command of King James I, and the principal actors of the King's Men were questioned by authorities. Middleton's son Edward was also questioned, but Middleton himself appears to have gone into hiding. There is no evidence that he or anyone else was further punished, though tradition holds that Middleton was imprisoned for a time. He soon published the play, and it went through three editions within a year. This was Middleton's final artistic achievement of any note; he wrote little more than a pair of pageants before his death in 1627.

Major Works

Middleton's early poetry was unsuccessful, but as a playwright his range included popular comedies, satires, tragicomedies, and tragedies. His early comedies, unlike Shakespeare's romantic comedies, were "citizen comedies" set in contemporary middle-class London. Constructed around schemes and intrigues typically involving money and marriage, plays like A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605), A Mad World, My Masters (1606), The Roaring Girl, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside are indebted to New Comedy, a genre derived from Plautus and Terence in which father-son conflicts are resolved through trickery. They depend on farcical action and allegorical characters with exaggerated virtues and vices. At the same time, the world of Middleton's 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 often emerge as fools or hypocrites. Middleton's great tragedies are also set in morally ambiguous worlds that corrode the virtue of the principal characters. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, they derive from the tradition of revenge tragedy, in which the hero tries to resolve moral conflict by resorting to violence that usually results in his own death. Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy, Beatrice and De Flores in The Changeling, and virtually all of the figures in Women Beware Women (1621) capitulate to the pervasive moral corruption of society. With penetrating psychological insight, Middleton shows these characters to be self-conscious victims of desire in a world insufficiently governed by social restraints.

Critical Reception

Middleton was popular during his lifetime, but there is no hint in the early documents that he would ever be considered one of England's finer writers. For decades after his death, he was best known for A Game At Chess and The Mayor of Quinborough (c. 1618), plays not generally considered among his masterworks now. After the Restoration his reputation plummeted. It began to rise again with the Romantics, beginning with Alexander Dyce's 1840 edition, and has risen slowly ever since, impeded by Victorian fear that his open treatment of vice and human sexuality constituted an offense against public morality. Many of his readers have been wary of his indelicate sensibility, his cynicism, and his apparent lack of moral seriousness. But earlier twentieth-century critics praised his realism, and later critics have appreciated his irony and psychological insight. In the later twentieth century Middleton's reputation stands higher than it ever has, as scholars rank him second only to Shakespeare (and sometimes to Jonson) and theaters produce an increasing number of his plays. Most recently, critics have taken interest in how his plays reflect and intervene in the political tensions of Jacobean London, particularly the tensions surrounding gender, class, and religion. Middleton is now appreciated for his presentation of penetrating anatomies of a society whose value-systems have broken down.

* The authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy has been the subject of much scholarly debate. It is now generally agreed that Middleton is the author of the play, though individual critics here and elsewhere may attribute it to Cyril Tourneur.

Principal Works

The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased (poem) 1597

The Ghost of Lucrece (poem) 1598-99

Micro-cynicon (satiric poetry) 1599

The Black Book (pamphlet) 1604

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

The Phoenix (drama) c. 1604

A Trick to Catch the Old One (drama) c. 1605

Your Five Gallants (drama) c. 1605

A Mad World My Masters (drama) c. 1606

Michaelmas Term (drama) c. 1606

The Revenger's Tragedy * (drama) c. 1606

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

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

The Second Maiden's Tragedy (drama) 1611

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (drama) c. 1613

The New River Entertainment (pageant) 1613

The Triumphs of Truth (pageant) 1614)

The Witch (drama) c. 1614

The Triumphs of Honor and Industry (pageant) 1617

A Fair Quarrel [with William Rowley] (drama) c. 1617

The Mayor of Queenborough, or Hengist of Kent (drama) c. 1618

The Old Law, or a New Way to Please You [with Rowley] (drama) c. 1618

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

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

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

Women Beware Women (drama) c. 1621

The Changeling [with William Rowley] (drama) 1622

A Game At Chess (drama) 1624

* This work is sometimes attributed to Cyril Tourneur.


Algernon Charles Swinburne (essay date 1887)

SOURCE: "Thomas Middleton," in The Best Plays of the Old Dramatists: Thomas Middleton, edited by Havelock Ellis, 1887. Reprint by Scholarly Press, 1969, pp. vii-xlii.

[In the following excerpt, the well-known ninteenth-century poet Swinburne surveys Middleton's dramatic works in an effort to establish him as a central Renaissance playwright.]

If it be true, as we are told on high authority, that the greatest glory of England is her literature, and the greatest glory of English literature is its poetry, it is not less true that the greatest glory of English poetry lies rather in its dramatic than its epic or its lyric triumphs. The name of Shakespeare is above the names...

(The entire section is 6774 words.)

T.S. Eliot (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Thomas Middleton," in the Times Literary Supplement, No. 1326, 30 June 1927, pp. 445-46.

[In this influential survey of Middleton's works, Eliot considers Middleton one of the age's great playwrights, praises his realism, and particularly extols the dramatist's portrayals of women.]

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...

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L. C. Knights (essay date 1937)

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

[In the following essay, Knights examines Middleton's comedies and finds the writer overrated, particularly in respect to the "realism" Eliot and others had praised so highly.]

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...

(The entire section is 3863 words.)

Una Ellis-Fermor (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Thomas Middleton," in The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1958, pp. 128-52.

[The following survey of Middleton's works attributes to the dramatist a wide range of skills from comedic to tragic, as well as psychological penetration and clarity of vision.]

'A great observer of human nature, without fear, without sentiment, without prejudice, without personality.' This estimate by a contemporary [in the Times Literary Supplement, 30 June 1927] sums up a quality that most modern readers of Middleton are aware of sooner or later, a quality inseparable from the rapid, unselfconscious sureness of his work. A wide and keen observer,...

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Norman A. Brittin (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Ventures in Verse and Prose" and "Comedies for the Boys' Companies," in Thomas Middleton, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972, pp. 19-30 and 31-49.

[Charting the early development of Middleton's dramatic range, the following extracts focus on Middleton's innovation and experimentation.]

I. The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased

Translation or paraphrase of the Bible, such as Middleton's first published work, The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased (1597), was regarded in his time as a laudable occupation for a poet. Middleton would have considered his rendering into English verse of such hortatory material not only a commendable undertaking but...

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J.R. Mulryne (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Tragedies," in Thomas Middleton, Longman Group, Ltd., 1979, pp. 23-45.

[In the following excerpt, Mulryne considers The Changeling to be one of the most powerful tragic works of its era.]

Middleton wrote The Changeling in collaboration with William Rowley, the actor and playwright. The collaboration must have been especially close, for the division of work accepted by most scholars gives Rowley not only the sub-plot—where his talents as a writer of comedy are particularly called on—but also the play's opening and closing scenes (and a short passage in Act IV, scene ii). It has usually been assumed that Middleton as the better-known...

(The entire section is 2979 words.)

Margot Heinemann (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Money and Morals in Middleton's City Comedies," in Puritanism and Theater: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama Under the Early Stuarts, Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 88-106.

[In this excerpt from her highly influential treatment of Middleton's plays, Heinemann argues that the playwright's "city comedies" satirize both city-dwellers and landed gentry.]

To see Middleton as merely 'anti-citizen' is an oversimplification. Villain-citizens in Middleton's plays, as in most Jacobean comedy, are more often moneylenders than mere merchants: for it was in this capacity that the powerful citizen most menacingly confronted the easygoing gentleman at the end of his...

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Anthony B. Dawson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Women Beware Women and the Economy of Rape," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 303-19.

[The following essay asserts that Women Beware Women presents its audience with a purposeful incoherence, generating contradictory interpretations of power relations and sexual violation.]

In February 1986 the Royal Court Theatre in London presented a new version of Middleton's Women Beware Women, reshaped and substantially rewritten by the English dramatist Howard Barker. His version ends with a rape, carried out presumably in the interests of some kind of enlightenment, a gesture which he seems to think...

(The entire section is 6520 words.)

Paul Yachnin (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "A Game At Chess: Thomas Middleton's 'Praise of Folly'," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2, June, 1987, pp. 107-23.

[In response to critical disagreement about the political situation of A Game at Chess, Yachnin views the play as both an idealization and a satire of English-Spanish relations.]

Thomas Middleton's Game at Chess might have been a play for Puritans, but it certainly was not a play only for Puritans. John Chamberlain, who was in a better position than we to know something about the play's audience, wrote [in a letter to Dudley Carleton, 21 August 1624, quoted in A Game at Chesse, ed. R. C. Bald] that it...

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Lorraine Helms (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Roaring Girls and Silent Women: The Politics of Androgyny on the Jacobean Stage," in Women in Theater, edited by James Redmond, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 59-73.

[In the following excerpt, Helms argues that, in the context of public concern about gender roles, the cross-dressing Moll in The Roaring Girl challenges gender hierarchy.]

When, in 1566, Elizabeth vetoed a petition that she marry, she implied that her right to remain single ultimately depended on her willingness to resist not only political pressure but physical force: 'Though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage, answerable to my place, as ever my father had. I am your...

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Inga-Stina Ewbank (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Middle of Middleton," in The Arts of Performance in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Drama: Essays for G.K. Hunter, edited by Murray Biggs et al, Edinburgh University press, 1991, pp. 156-72.

[The following essay addresses the critically neglected tragicomedies of Middleton's middle period, including The Witch, A Fair Quarrel, and More Dissemblers Besides Women, finding that Middleton's skepticism toward human nature is the source of these plays' theatrical energy.]

The middle plays of Middleton have been something of an embarrassment to critics. Wedged between the early, satirical comedies and the two great tragedies, they seem to suggest 'the...

(The entire section is 6023 words.)

Further Reading


Brooks, John B. "Thomas Middleton." In The Popular School, ed. Terence P. Logan and Denzell E. Smith. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975, pp. 51-84.

——. "Recent Studies in Middleton, 1971-81." English Literary Renaissance 14 (Winter 1984): 114-25.

de Sousa, Geraldo V. "Thomas Middleton: Criticism Since T.S. Eliot." Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 28 (1985): 73-85.

Donovan, Dennis G. Thomas Middleton, 1939-1965. Elizabethan Bibliographies Supplements, no. 1. London: Nether Press, 1967.

Steen, Sara J. Thomas Middleton: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K....

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