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.
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.
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 comedies, were "citizen comedies" set in contemporary middle-class London. Constructed around schemes and intrigues typically involving money and marriage, plays like A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605), A Mad World, My Masters (1606), The Roaring Girl, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside are indebted to New Comedy, a genre derived from Plautus and Terence in which father-son conflicts are resolved through trickery. They depend on farcical action and allegorical characters with exaggerated virtues and vices. At the same time, the world of Middleton's 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 often emerge as fools or hypocrites. Middleton's great tragedies are also set in morally ambiguous worlds that corrode the virtue of the principal characters. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, they derive from the tradition of revenge tragedy, in which the hero tries to resolve moral conflict by resorting to violence that usually results in his own death. Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy, Beatrice and De Flores in The Changeling, and virtually all of the figures in Women Beware Women (1621) capitulate to the pervasive moral corruption of society. With penetrating psychological insight, Middleton shows these characters to be self-conscious victims of desire in a world insufficiently governed by social restraints.
Middleton was popular during his lifetime, but there is no hint in the early documents that he would ever be considered one of England's finer writers. For decades after his death, he was best known for A Game At Chess and The Mayor of Quinborough (c. 1618), plays not generally considered among his masterworks now. After the Restoration his reputation plummeted. It began to rise again with the Romantics, beginning with Alexander Dyce's 1840 edition, and has risen slowly ever since, impeded by Victorian fear that his open treatment of vice and human sexuality constituted an offense against public morality. Many of his readers have been wary of his indelicate sensibility, his cynicism, and his apparent lack of moral seriousness. But earlier twentieth-century critics praised his realism, and later critics have appreciated his irony and psychological insight. In the later twentieth century Middleton's reputation stands higher than it ever has, as scholars rank him second only to Shakespeare (and sometimes to Jonson) and theaters produce an increasing number of his plays. Most recently, critics have taken interest in how his plays reflect and intervene in the political tensions of Jacobean London, particularly the tensions surrounding gender, class, and religion. Middleton is now appreciated for his presentation of penetrating anatomies of a society whose value-systems have broken down.
* The authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy has been the subject of much scholarly debate. It is now generally agreed that Middleton is the author of the play, though individual critics here and elsewhere may attribute it to Cyril Tourneur.