Thomas Middleton

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(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...

(The entire section is 61,248 words.)