Thomas Middleton
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122 ] Thomas Middleton1 Thomas Middleton, the dramatic writer, was not very highly thought of in his own time; the date of his death is not known; we know only that he was buried on July 4, 1627.2 He was one of the more voluminous, and one of the best, dramatic writers of his time. But it is easy to understand why he is not better known or more popular. It is difficult to imagine his “personality .” Several new personalities have recently been fitted to the name of Shakes­ peare; Jonson is a real figure – our imagination plays about him discoursing at the Mermaid, or laying down the law to Drummond of Hawthornden ;3 Chapman has become a breezy British character as firm as Nelson or Welling­ton; Webster and Donne are real people for the more intellectual; even Tourneur (Churton Collins having said the last word about him) is a “personality.”4 But Middleton, who collaborated shamelessly, who is hardly separated from Rowley,5 Middleton, who wrote plays so diverse as Women Beware Women and A Game at Chesse and The Roaring Girl,6 Middleton remains merely a collective name for a number of plays – some of which, like The Spanish Gypsy, are patently by other people.7 * If we write about Middleton’s plays we must write about Middleton’s plays, and not about Middleton’s personality. Many of these plays are still in doubt. Of all the Elizabethan dramatists Middleton seems the most impersonal, the most indifferent to personal fame or perpetuity, the readiest , except Rowley, to accept collaboration. Also he is the most various. His greatest tragedies and his greatest comedies are as if written by two different men. Yet there seems no doubt that Middleton was both a great comic writer and a great tragic writer. There are a sufficient number of plays, both tragedies and comedies, in which his hand is so far unquestioned, to establish his greatness. His greatness is not that of a peculiar personality, but of a great artist or artisan of the Elizabethan epoch. We have The Changeling, Women Beware Women, and A Game at Chesse; and we have The Roaring Girl and A Trick to Catch the Old One.8 And that is enough. Between the tragedies and the comedies of Shakespeare, and certainly between the tragedies and the comedies of Jonson, we can establish a relation; we can see, for Shakespeare or Jonson, that each had in the end a personal point of view which can be called neither comic nor tragic. But with Middleton we can [ 123 Thomas Middleton establish no such relation. He remains merely a name, a voice, the author of certain plays, which are all of them great plays. He has no point of view, is neither sentimental nor cynical; he is neither resigned, nor disillusioned, nor romantic; he has no message. He is merely the name which associates six or seven great plays. For there is no doubt about The Changeling. Like all of the plays attributed to Middleton, it is long-winded and tiresome; the characters talk too much, and then suddenly they stop talking and act; they are real and impelled irresistibly by the fundamental motions of humanity to good or evil. This mixture of tedious discourse and sudden reality is everywhere in the work of Middleton, in his comedy also. In The Roaring Girl we read with toil through a mass of cheap conventional intrigue, and suddenly realize that we are, and have been for some time without knowing it, observing a real and unique human being. In reading The Changeling we may think, till almost the end of the play, that we have been concerned merely with a fantastic Elizabethan morality, and then discover that we are looking on at an impassionate exposure of fundamental passions of any time and any place. The conventional opinion remains the just judgment: The Changeling is Middle­ton’sgreatestplay.Themoralityoftheconventionseemstousabsurd. To many intelligent readers this play has only an historical interest, and only serves to illustrate the moral taboos of the Elizabethans. The heroine is a young woman who, in order to dispose of a fiancé to whom she is indifferent, so that she may marry the man she loves, accepts the offer of an adventurer to murder the affianced, at the price of becoming the murderer’s mistress. Such a plot is, to a modern mind, absurd; and the consequent tragedy seems a fuss about nothing. But The Changeling is not merely...


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