Thomas Middleton (baptized April 18, 1580, died 1627) was an English Jacobean playwright and poet. Middleton stands with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson as among the most successful and prolific of playwrights who wrote their best plays during the Jacobean period. He stands with Shakespeare as one of the few Renaissance dramatists to achieve equal success in comedy and tragedy. Also a prolific writer of masques and pageants, he remains one of the most noteworthy and characteristic of Jacobean dramatists.
Middleton was born in London, the son of a bricklayer who had been raised to the status of a gentleman. This father died when Middleton was very young; his mother's remarriage devolved into a lengthy battle over the inheritance of Thomas and his siblings.
Middleton attended The Queen's College, Oxford, but did not graduate. During his college years, 1598-1601, he wrote and published three long poems in popular Elizabethan styles; none appears to have been especially popular, and one, his book of satires, ran afoul of the Anglican Church's ban on verse satire and was burned. Nevertheless, his literary career was launched.
In the early 1600s, Middleton made a living writing topical pamphlets, including one--Penniless Parliament of Threadbare Poets--that enjoyed many reprintings. At the same time, records in the diary of Philip Henslowe show that Middleton was writing for the Admiral's Men. Unlike Shakespeare, Middleton remained a free agent, able to write for whichever company hired him. His early dramatic career was marked by controversy. His friendship with Thomas Dekker brought him into conflict with Ben Jonson and George Chapman in the War of the Theatres. The gurdge with Jonson continued as late as 1626, when Jonson's play The Staple of News indulges a slur on Middleton's great success, A Game at Chess. It has been argued that Middleton's Inner Temple Masque (1619) sneers at Jonson (then absent in Scotland) as a "silenced bricklayer."
In 1603, Middleton married. The same year, an outbreak of plague forces the closing of the theaters in London, and James I assumed the English throne. These events marked the beginning of Middleton's greatest period as a playwright. Having passed the time during the plague composing prose pamphlets (including a continuation of Thomas Nashe's Pierce Penniless, he returned to drama with great energy, producing close to a score of plays for several companies and in several genres, most notably city comedy and revenge tragedy. He continued his collaborations with Dekker, and the two produced The Roaring Girl, a biography of contemporary thief Mary Frith.
In the 1610s, Middleton began his fruitful collaboration with the actor William Rowley; working alone he produced his comic masterpiece, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, in 1613. His own plays from this decade reveal a somewhat mellowed temper; certainly there is no comedy among them with the satiric depth of Michaelmas-Terme and no tragedy as bloodthirsty as The Revenger's Tragedy. Middleton was also branching out into other dramatic endeavors; he was apparently called on to help revise Macbeth and Measure for Measure, and at the same time he was increasingly involved with civic pageants. This last connection was made official when, in 1620, he was appointed City Chronologer of the City of London. He held this post until his death in 1627, at which it was passed to Jonson.
Middleton's official duties did not interrupt his dramatic writings; the 1620s saw the production of his and Rowley's tragedy The Changeling, and several tragicomedies. In 1624, he reached a pinnacle of notoriety when his dramatic allegory A Game at Chess was staged by the King's Men. The play used the conceit of a chess game to present and satirize the recent intrigues surrounding the Spanish Match. Though Middleton's approach was strongly patriotic, the Privy Council shut down the play after nine performances on the complaint of the Spanish ambassador. Middleton faced an unknown, but likely frightening, degree of punishment. Since no play later than A Game at Chess is recorded, it has been hypothesized that his punishment included a ban on writing for the stage.
Middleton died at his home in Newington Butts in 1627.
Middleton wrote in many genres, including tragedy, history and city comedy. His best-known plays are the tragedies The Changeling (written with William Rowley) and Women Beware Women, and the cynically satiric city comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. It is also widely believed that he wrote The Revenger's Tragedy, previously attributed to Cyril Tourneur, and collaborated with Shakespeare on the scenes involving the Weird Sisters and Hecate in Macbeth.
Middleton's work is diverse even by the standards of his age. He did not have the kind of official relationship with a particular company that Shakespeare or Fletcher had; instead, he appears to have written on a freelance basis for any number of companies. Particularly in the early years of his career, this freedom led to a great diversity in his output, which ranges from the "snarling" satire of Michaelmas Terme (performed by Paul's Children) to the bleak intrigues of The Revenger's Tragedy (performed by the King's Men). Also contributing to the variety of the works is the scope of Middleton's career. If his early work was informed by the flourishing of satire in the late-Elizabethan period, his maturity was influenced by the ascendancy of Fletcherian tragicomedy. If many of these plays have been judged less compelling than his earlier work, his later work, in which satiric fury is tempered and broadened, also includes three of his acknowledged masterpieces. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, produced by Lady Elizabeth's Men, skillfully combines Middleton's typically cutting presentation of London life with an expansive view of the power of love to effect reconciliation. The Changeling, a late tragedy, returns Middleton to an Italianate setting like that in The Revenger's Tragedy; here, however, the central characters are more fully drawn and more compelling as individuals. Similar changes may be seen in Women Beware Women.
Influences and Style
In comedy, Middleton generally follows classical models at some remove. His early hit A Trick to Catch the Old One is essentially Plautus brought into the seventeenth century. In his comedies, Middleton generally retains a romantic entanglement as a basic structural element; he did not experiment, as Jonson did, with comedic form. His main interest, however, is in social and psychological satire. This interest makes him akin not only to Jonson but also to the other dramatic satirists of his day, such as Marston.
His tragedies are squarely in the Senecan tradition of the Jacobean theater. They are generally concerned with courtly revenge, and even when they are not, the central narrative element is scheming and counter-scheming, motivated by lust or greed, eventuating always in a bloodbath. A Yorkshire Tragedy is a partial exception in that it is a domestic tragedy; even here, however, the key to the tragedy is the cruelty and lust of the abusive husband.
Middleton's tragicomedies follow the model set by Fletcher in broad outline: they feature remote settings, unusual and even bizarre situations, and last-minute rescues from seemingly tragic inevitability. These plays are not highly regarded.
Note: The Middleton canon is beset by complications involving collaboration and debated authorship. The following list is based on that provided by the Oxford Middleton Project, a team of scholars who are editing a new edition of Middleton's complete works. All dates of plays are dates of composition, not of publication.
Masques and entertainments
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