Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628
Very little is known about Thomas Middleton’s life except what can be determined from legal and theater records. Middleton’s father was a bricklayer but also a gentleman who acquired a sizable estate by buying London property. Middleton was born in 1580, and when he was five, his father died, leaving an estate of more than three hundred pounds to his wife. She then wisely placed the estate in trust to three advisers to protect herself and her children from fortune hunters. Soon, she married Thomas Harvey, an adventurer who had just returned from Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to colonize Roanoke Island. Apparently, marrying Middleton’s mother was also a business venture and apparently Harvey did not know about the trust; as a result, between 1587 and 1599 there was constant litigation as Harvey attempted to gain control of his wife’s fortune. From the age of seven on, young Middleton was in the midst of an ugly family situation that undoubtedly encouraged his later bent for satire.
At eighteen, Middleton entered Oxford, where he studied for at least two years but left without taking a degree. By 1601, he had left Oxford for his new love, the theater, and in the following year was receiving payment from Philip Henslowe, the theater owner, for collaborations with Dekker and John Webster . About this time, Middleton married Mary Marbeck, the sister of an actor.
At first, Middleton was writing for the Lord Admiral’s Men, but beginning in 1603, he began writing primarily for Paul’s Boys and the Children of the Chapel Royal, two companies of professional “child” actors (actors in their early and middle teens). For the private indoor theater called the Blackfriars, which served a well-to-do, sophisticated audience, Middleton wrote a number of his most satiric and successful city comedies. During the years when Jonson wrote Volpone (pr. 1605) and when Shakespeare was approaching the end of his career, Middleton became established as one of the leading English playwrights.
Soon, Middleton was working more for the adult companies, especially the Prince’s Men and the Lady Elizabeth’s Men. He came to associate more with Dekker and Webster and with William Rowley and to write a broader type of comedy. Middleton suffered from indebtedness and had to struggle through lawsuits. By 1609, he was living at Newington Butts because it was close to the theater district, and he apparently lived there until his death. Beginning about 1613, Middleton turned increasingly to writing and producing Lord Mayors’s shows, and this led in 1620 to his appointment as city chronologer, by which time he was probably fairly well-to-do. During this period, he tried his hand at several tragicomedies, a genre made popular by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Finally, in the 1620’s came his two great tragedies, The Changeling and Women Beware Women.
In 1624, A Game at Chess, probably Middleton’s last play, created a huge scandal. At the time, anger toward Catholic Spain was especially high in England, and Middleton provided a focus for this sentiment. His play is an elaborate allegory in which a game of chess reflects the contemporary international situation. The play was a phenomenal success, drawing capacity crowds for nine days in succession, an unusually long run for the theater in that era. Finally, because of protests by the Spanish ambassador over the play’s seditious nature, the Privy Council ordered the play closed down and, according to one report, had Middleton imprisoned. In any case, he was soon involved with overseeing the printing of the play, which was also very successful. Although A Game at Chess was probably very lucrative for Middleton, he left very little behind for his widow when he died three years later, at the age of forty-seven. Her death followed two weeks after his own.