Dedicated to the Earl of Essex, the 4166 lines of The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased were published in spring 1597. Bullen called this inaugural work “the most damnable piece of flatness” he’d ever read (8, 297). Since it was written by a sixteen-year-old, such defects are hardly surprising; precocious poets are usually precocious in small doses. But isolated stanzas seldom satisfied Middleton. He would later write an epitaph on Richard Burbage (1619) and an encomium on John Webster’s “masterpiece of tragedy” The Duchess of Malfi (1623), but he dedicated most of his energy to larger works.
He published two more books while still an Oxford student. Microcynicon: Six Snarling Satyres was publicly burned on 4 Jun 1599, shortly after publication, as part of an ecclesiastical attack on satire. In that genre Middleton’s immediate predecessors were Joseph Hall and John Marston, and both influenced his self-consciously little octavo by a young micro-cynic. But the self-deprecating character of its title signals a fundamentally different persona, which must reflect a real difference in its author’s personality. Unlike Marston or Hall (or Jonson and Dekker, later), Middleton does not parody the personal or literary habits of fellow writers. Instead, he tells dramatic stories about emblematic sinners (including himself).
In The Ghost of Lucrece (1600) Middleton again took up a major genre of the 1590s, the Ovidian female complaint, epitomized by Shakespeare’s then-popular Rape of Lucrece. Like his other early poems, it demonstrates Middleton’s command of the rhetorical tropes emphasized by humanist educators, and the tension engendered by the grammar school curriculum between Christian and pagan models of experience. Unlike them, it successfully creates character almost entirely through speech.
After leaving Oxford, Middleton switched from elite to popular genres. On 21 Apr 1601, having come of age, he collected the L25 reserved for him by the City of London since his father’s death; with Harvey’s final legal victory over his mother, nothing remained of his inheritance, and he needed to earn a living. By 3 Aug, he had sold The Penniless Parliament of Threadbare Poets, made the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry later that year. Unlike his earlier publications (which all died after one edition), this comic pamphlet was reprinted long and often. It initiated Middleton’s fascination with almanacs, which also produced Plato’s Cap cast at the year 1604 and the greatest English mock-almanac, 1618’s The Owl’s Almanac.
Pamphlets might make money, but plays made more. By 22 May 1602, he was writing for Shakespeare’s chief rivals, the Admiral’s Men. With Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, Anthony Munday and John Webster, he shared L8 for Caesar’s Fall; or, Two Shapes. That tragedy is lost, as is The Chester Tragedy apparently the first play Middleton wrote single-handed, for which he received L7 (3 Oct-9 Nov). On 14 Dec he pocketed 5s for a new prologue and epilogue for a court revival of Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Young Middleton obviously had absorbed Greene’s work: The Ghost of Lucrece borrows material from Ciceronis Amor, and The Black Book takes its title and some of its underworld subject matter from Greene’s cony-catching pamphlets.
These first plays, like his first poems, belong to genres pioneered by others, and draw upon classical sources or recent English writers. He shows no familiarity with modern European literature until 1605, when A Mad World, My Masters recasts Pietro Aretino’s pornographic classic Gli Ragionamenti for its hilarious sick-room scene; thereafter, his reading became increasingly cosmopolitan (including Cervantes, Machiavelli, Giambattista della Porta, Cinzio, Bandello, and others, not available in English).
By 1602 Middleton had established his credentials as a commercial playwright, working alone or with writers with whom he would collaborate repeatedly throughout his career. All were committed protestants. Middleton was raised in a parish dedicated to the reformed religion, and his own Calvinism is evident throughout his career, from Wisdom of Solomon to A Game at Chess. Indeed, Margot Heinemann characterized Middleton as a “Puritan” dramatist (Puritanism and Theatre, 1980). But none of his closest associates was a presbyterian or separatist, and Middleton often satirized Puritans. Calvinism was compatible with a life in the theatre; Puritanism was not. But with the rise of Arminianism under James I, the Calvinism dominant in the English Church in 1580 or even 1609 was forced onto the defensive. In the 1620s Middleton’s religious politics became increasingly oppositional, not because he had changed but because the national church and royal family were moving away from Calvinist positions.
By collaborating with Dekker in 1602, Middleton at the outset of his career alienated, accidentally or deliberately, Ben Jonson. Jonson and Dekker had caricatured each other in Poetaster and Satiromastix (late 1601), the central exchange of fire in the so-called “War of the Theatres”; that dispute was both personal and aesthetic and perhaps also religious, since Jonson was a professed Catholic at the time. Given Middleton’s long fruitful association with Dekker, Jonson’s persistent hostility is hardly surprising: “a base fellow”, he called Middleton in 1619 (Conversations with Drummond), and in 1626 maliciously imagined that “the poore English-play” A Game at Chess was being used for toilet paper (The Staple of News 3.2). Jonson’s friend Chapman went out of his way to disparage Middleton as “a poore Chronicler of a Lord Mayor’s naked Truth … Whose Raptures are in every Pageant seen” (The Odyssey, 1614, Ded.). The specific irritant, in each case, was Middleton’s popular success, in bitter contrast to the public’s indifference toward Jonson and Chapman. Middleton turned the other cheek.