Birthplace: London, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Mary Newington Butts Churchyard, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: A Game at Chess
English dramatist, son of William Middleton, was born about 1570, probably in London. There is no proof that he studied at either university, but he may be safely identified with one of the Thomas Middletons entered at Gray's Inn in 1593 and 1596 respectively. He began to write for the stage with The Old Law, in the original draft of which, if it dates from 1599 as is generally supposed, he was certainly not associated with William Rowley and Philip Massinger, although their names appear on the title page of 1656. By 1602 he had become one of Philip Henslowe's established playwrights. The pages of Henslowe's Diary contain notes of plays in which he had a hand, and in the year 1607-08 he produced no less than six comedies of London life, which he knew as accurately as Thomas Dekker and was content to paint in more realistic colors. In 1613 he devised the pageant for the installation of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Middleton, and in the same year wrote an entertainment for the opening of the New River in honor of another Middleton. From these facts it may be reasonably inferred that he had influential connections. He was frequently employed to celebrate civic occasions, and in 1620 he was made city chronologer, performing the duties of his position with exactness until his death.
The most notable event in his career was the production at the Globe theater in 1624 of a political play, A Game at Chess, satirizing the policy of the court, which had just received a rebuff in the matter of the Spanish marriage, the English and Spanish personages concerned being disguised as the White Knight, the Black King, and so forth. The play was stopped, in consequence of remonstrances from the Spanish ambassador, but not until after nine days' performances, and the dramatist and the actors were summoned to answer for it. It is doubtful whether Middleton was actually imprisoned, and in any case the king's anger was soon satisfied and the matter allowed to drop, on the plea that the piece had been seen and passed by the master of the revels, Sir Henry Herbert. Middleton died at his house at Newington Butts, and was buried on the 4th of July 1627.
He worked with various authors, but his happiest collaboration was with William Rowley, this literary partnership being so close that F. G. Fleay in A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama treats the dramatists together. The plays in which the two collaborated are A Fair Quarrel (printed 1617), The World Lost at Tennis (1620), an ingenious masque, The Changeling (acted 1624, printed 1653), and The Spanish Gipsie (acted 1623, printed 1653). The main interest of the Fair Quarrel centers in the mental conflict of Captain Ager, the problem being whether he should fight in defense of his mother's honor when he no longer believes his quarrel to be just. The underplot, dealing with Jane, her concealed marriage, and the physician, which is generally assigned to Rowley, was suggested by a story in Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi. The Changeling is the most powerful of all the plays with which Middleton's name is connected. The plot is drawn from the tale of Alsemero and Beatrice-Joanna in Reynolds's Triumphs of God's Revenge against Murther (bk. i, hist. iv), but the story, black as it is, receives additional horror in Middleton's hands. The famous scene in the third act between Beatrice and De Flores, who has murdered Piracquo at her instigation, is admirably described by Algernon Charles Swinburne:
That note of incredulous amazement that the man whom she has just instigated to the commission of murder "can be so wicked" as to have served her end for any end of his own beyond the pay of a professional assassin, is a touch worthy of the greatest dramatist that ever lived... That she, the first criminal, should be honestly shocked as well as physically horrified by revelation of the real motive which impelled her accomplice into crime, gives a lurid streak of tragic humor to the lifelike interest of the scene; as the pure infusion of spontaneous poetry throughout redeems the whole work from the charge of vulgar subservience to a vulgar taste for the presentation or the contemplation of criminal horror.
Leigh Hunt thought that the character of De Flores, for effect at once tragical, probable and poetical, "surpassed anything with which he was acquainted in the drama of domestic life." The underplot of the piece, though it is based on the humors of a madhouse, has genuine comic flashes. The Spanish Gipsie has a double plot based on the Fuerza de la sangre and the Gitanilla of Cervantes. Much has been said on the collaboration of Middleton with Rowley, who was much in demand with fellow dramatists, especially for his experience in low comedy. These plays, even in scenes where the evidence in favor of one or other of the collaborators is clear, rise to excellence which neither dramatist was able to achieve alone. It was clearly no mechanical partnership the limits of which can be said to be definitely assigned when the actual text has been parcelled out between the collaborators.
With Thomas Dekker he wrote The Roaring Girle, or Moll Cut-Purse (1611). The frontispiece represents Moll herself in man's attire, indulging in a pipe of tobacco. She was drawn or idealized from life, her real name being Mary Frith (1584-1659?), who was made to do penance at St. Paul's Cross in 1612. "Worse things, I must confess", says Middleton in his preface, "the world has taxed her for than has been written of her; but 'tis the excellency of a writer to leave things better than he finds 'em." In the play she is the champion of her sex, and is equally ready with her sword and her wits. Middleton is also credited with a share in Thomas Dekker's Honest Whore (1604). The Witch, first printed in 1778 from a unique manuscript now in the Bodleian, has aroused much controversy as to whether William Shakespeare borrowed from Middleton or vice versa. The dates of both plays being uncertain, there are few definite data. The distinction between the two conceptions has been finely drawn by Charles Lamb, and the question of borrowing is best solved by supposing that what is common to the incantations of both plays was a matter of common property. The Mayor of Quinborough was published with Middleton's name on the title page in 1661. Simon, the comic mayor, is not a very prominent character in the plot, which deals with Vortiger, Hengist, Horsus and Roxena among other characters. One of its editors, Havelock Ellis, thinks the proofs of its authenticity as Middleton's work very slender. It is generally supposed to have been a very early work subjected to generous revision.
The plays of Middleton still to be mentioned may be divided into romantic and realistic comedies of London Life. Dekker had as wide a knowledge of city manners, but he was more sympathetic in treatment, readier to idealize his subject. Two New Playes. Viz.: More Dissemblers besides Women. Women beware Women, of which the former was licensed before 1622, appeared in 1657. The plot of Women beware Women is a double intrigue from a contemporary novel, Hyppolito and Isabella, and the genuine history of Bianca Capello and Francesco de Medici. This play, which ends with a massacre appalling even in Elizabethan drama, may be taken as giving the measure -- no mean one -- of Middleton's unaided power in tragedy.
The remaining plays of Middleton are: Blurt, Master-Constable. Or the Spaniards Night-walke (1602); Michaelmas Terme (1607), described by Swinburne as an excellent Hogarthian comedy; The Phoenix (1607), a version of the Haroun-al-Raschid trick; The Famelie of Love (1608); A Trick to catch the Old-one (anonymously printed, 1608); Your Five Gallants (licensed 1608); A Mad World, my Masters (1608); A Chest Mayde in Cheapside (printed 1630), notable for the picture of Tim, the Cambridge student, on his return home; Anything for a Quiet Life (c. 1617, printed 1662); No Wit, No Help like a Woman's (c. 1613, printed 1657); The Widdow (printed 1652), on the title page of which appear also the names of Ben Jonson and John Fletcher, though their collaboration may be doubted. Eleven of his masques are extant. A tedious poem, The Wisdom of Solomon paraphrased, by Thomas Middleton, was printed in 1597, and Microcynicon, Six Snarling Satires by T. M. Gent, in 1599. Two prose pamphlets, dealing with London life, Father Hubbard's Tale and The Black Book, appeared in 1604 under his initials. His non-dramatic work, however, even if genuine, has little value.
Father: William Middleton
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