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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

Middleton was a popular playwright in his own day, but not long after his death, his works were neglected and were largely forgotten. In the nineteenth century, Middleton’s work was revived, although his plays were often considered too coarse and vulgar by moralistic Victorian critics. Twentieth century scholars and critics put aside such scruples and established Middleton’s best work as superior to any of his contemporaries, barring William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

The Changeling: Alicante, Spain [graphic graphicname="TIF00181628" orient="landscape" size="B"]

The Changeling is usually considered Middleton’s greatest tragedy. In the opinion of T. S. Eliot, in his essay on “Thomas Middleton” in Selected Essays, The Changeling stands out as the greatest tragedy of its time, with the exception of Shakespeare’s tragedies. For Samuel Schoenbaum in Middleton’s Tragedies, “Nowhere else in Middleton are action and dialogue, character and theme blended together into such powerful harmony.” Critics have frequently praised the characterization of Beatrice and De Flores. The scene between these characters in act 3 (scene 4) is often singled out for comment. J. R. Mulrayne in Thomas Middleton calls this scene “one of the most powerful encounters between two antagonistic yet similar personalities in the whole range of theatre,” a judgment with which others concur.

Critics also note the effectiveness of the playwriting collaboration between Middleton, who wrote the tragic parts of the play, and Rowley, who wrote the comic subplot. George Walton Williams, for example, points out how the two plots are related, “structurally, tonally, thematically, and metaphorically with a subtlety and effectiveness that lets them speak as one on the unifying concept of transformation, or the condition of being a changeling.”