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...
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