- The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton ed. by Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley
Since the publication of the much-praised Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works in 2007, the work of the dramatist, poet, pageant designer, almanac-maker, and London chronicler Thomas Middleton (ca.1570–1627) has enjoyed increasing attention from readers, students, critics, and theatre directors alike. This latest collection of thirty-seven essays coedited by Gary Taylor, who helped produce the 2007 volume, and Trish Thomas Henley contributes greatly to this timely renaissance, bringing an entire host of exciting perspectives to Middleton’s unique theatrical and literary genius.
Fittingly for the multifarious protagonist of its title, The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton is characterized by heterogeneity. The introductory chapter, mischievously categorized by its editors as an “unintroduction,” encapsulates such diversity with its title “Middletonian Dissensus.” “We have arranged the essays by the entirely arbitrary principle of authorial alphabetical order,” write Taylor and Henley, “—or rather, in deference to Middleton’s own habit of turning expectation upside down, in reverse alphabetical order” (15; emphasis in original). Readers are invited to “surprise” themselves: “wander, bump into the furniture, find your own secret passageways. Argue with us, please. Join the conversation” (ibid.).
Such an entreaty is entirely justified in the proceeding chapters, for while the conversants are at times challenging, complex, and controversial, they are always lucid and entertaining. Among the wide variety of topics covered are an exploration of books and writing in The Owles Almanacke; an elucidatory analysis of Middletonian stylistics; “staging muteness” and the theatrical function of dumbshows and pageants; Middleton’s classical antecedents like Plautus and his “place in Plautine comedy’s genealogy” (299); the staging of Renaissance courtly ritual and dance in plays like Women Beware Women and A Game at Chess; and reconsiderations of Middleton’s oft-rubbished early poem “The Wisdom of Solomon,” which an editor once described in colorful terms as “a stupefying read” (G. B. Shand, qtd. in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, edited by Taylor and John Lavagnino [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007], 1915).
A particular strength of the Oxford Handbook, however, is its exploration of the redoubtable theatricality (in every sense of the word) of the Jacobean playwright’s output. Carol Chillington Rutter, in “Playing with Boys on Middleton’s Stage—and Ours,” for example, chronicles a recent all-boys amateur production of A Mad World, My Masters. In doing so, she provides a very real account of the practicalities of staging a Middleton play suffused with women using an all-male cast—a reality in Middleton’s own time, when female actors were banned from the stage. These insights into playing, and playing with, Middleton may be considered alongside Terri Bourus’s chapter titled “‘It’s a whole different sex!’: Women Performing Middleton on the Modern Stage.” Where Rutter focuses on an amateur production of young students familiarizing themselves with the dramaturgical dynamism of Middleton, Bourus records the experience of female professional players coming to grips with a playwright arguably unique in his time for his representation of females. Rutter’s boys “marvel at the deviance of [Middleton’s] deployment of transvestitism and his out[ing] of male stupidity [and] hypocrisy” (109), while Bourus recounts an especially revelatory passage from an actress’s encounter with Middleton: “I was working in 1989 on my first Equity job” observes Louise Yates “. . . and
the director, Joanna Reed, placed a casting call that I answered. I was looking for something challenging, maybe something Shakespeare, and suddenly The Changeling was in my acting life. I soon discovered that one should not make assumptions about a playwright from the seventeenth century. It is most misleading if you think that Middleton will be anything like Shakespeare. The language feels different, and there’s a greater sense of the utter inevitability of the way the character will be—simply must be—played.(563)
The comparison with Shakespeare is perhaps inevitable. As well as working in the theatre and being contemporaneous with the Bard, Middleton also collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens...