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.