Middleton’s friend Dekker described 1603 as The Wonderful Year, and it was certainly so for Middleton. The accession of James I created the political and cultural climate in which he wrote all his mature work. Most immediately, it led to his commission to write the speech delivered at one of the seven Arches of Triumph, part of the City of London’s Magnificent Entertainment, officially welcoming the new monarch.
The change of reign also inspired Middleton’s first surviving play, The Phoenix, successful enough to be “presented before his Majesty” in the new court’s first winter theatrical season. Middleton’s episodic panorama belongs to a group of disguised Duke plays (including Marston’s The Fawn and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure) written for rival companies in 1603-4, which adopt the conventions of the new Italian genre of tragicomedy to comment on English social and political life at a moment of profound but uncertain transition. Middleton’s mercenary Captain, who matter-of-factly sells his wife to finance another voyage, has often been taken as a portrait of his stepfather the wannabe pirate-colonist.
The union of England and Scotland under one king coincided, for Middleton, with a more personal union. He married, c.1603, London-born Magdalen (Mary) Marbecke (1575-1628), granddaughter of the famous Protestant musician John Marbecke and niece of the chief physician to Elizabeth I, Roger Marbecke. She was the daughter and co-heir of Edward Marbecke (d. 1581), one of the Six Clerks in the Court of Chancery. Middleton presumably met her through her less distinguished brother, the minor actor Thomas Marbecke (b. 1577), who like Middleton was working for the Admiral’s Men in 1602. The couple’s only child, Edward (d. 1647), was born between Nov 1603 and Nov 1604. From 1608 until their deaths, they lived in Newington Butts, Surrey, a suburban village not far from the theatres in Southwark, and they may have lived there from the beginning of their marriage. A major outbreak of plague in London in 1603 certainly supplied incentives for leaving the capital; Middleton’s sister’s first husband (Allen Waterer) and two of her children were among the victims.
Dekker considered 1603 “wonderful”, despite the bubonic epidemic, because he survived it. So did Middleton. But although the plague did not kill them, it did imperil their livelihood. In spring 1603, hoping to limit the contagion, municipal authorities closed the theatres, which apparently did not reopen until Apr 1604. Unable to sell their work to theatres, Middleton and Dekker sold it to publishers. Together, they vigorously memorialized the effects of the 1603 plague on Londoners in Dekker’s News from Gravesend (which contains c.100 lines by Middleton) and Middleton’s The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinary (which contains c.100 lines by Dekker). Middleton also published in spring 1604 two literary pamphlets, entirely his own. Father Hubburd’s Tales uses fable to portray the oppression of the weak and poor; it combines poetry with prose, satire with compassion, literary criticism with social and economic awareness. The Black Book is a sequel to Thomas Nashe’s Pierce Penniless (1592), in which Lucifer rises in person to answer Pierce’s (Nashe’s) supplication to the devil. “It is the best of the imitations of Nashe’s grotesque manner,” as one modern critic has written, but Middleton’s more disciplined intelligence supplies “a clearer narrative and dramatic framework than Nashe” (N. Rhodes, Elizabethan Grotesque, 1980, 57-8). He does so in part by describing Nashe’s (Pierce’s) down-and-out life. The earlier pamphlet laments Nashe’s death: “Thy name they bury, having buried thee; Drones eat thy honey: thou wert the true bee. Peace keep thy soul!” (Hubburd, 278-80). Since Nashe lived till 1601, Middleton almost certainly knew him personally.
But Middleton’s compassion and admiration for the older writer was not blind: even Nashe is accused of “bitterness” and “railing”, his dispute with Harvey as wastefully vicious as Jonson’s clash with Dekker. Middleton did not idealize his own profession. His dramatic portraits of writers George Pyeboard in The Puritan, Lapet in The Nice Valour, and the Fat Bishop in A Game at Chess are theatrically appealing and vivacious, but none is innocent or objective. Writers, like other mortals, are sinful and implicated; writing is an inky “black art” (Hubburd 530).
The last of these pamphlets, The Black Book was entered for publication on 22 Mar 1604; earlier that month, Dekker and Middleton were advanced L5 for “their play called the patient man and the honest whore” (Henslowe). The result was popular enough to be published within months of its premiere, to inspire a sequel (apparently by Dekker alone), and to remain in print and on stage for thirty years. Middleton’s hand is most apparent in the scenes involving Candido, the paradoxically and comically original “patient man”, who equates true masculinity with imperturbable non-violence.
The Honest Whore was performed by Prince Henry’s Men, playing outdoors at the Fortune Theatre; The Phoenix was performed by an all-boy company playing indoors at St Paul’s, to a smaller audience paying higher prices for admission. From 1603 to 1606 Middleton wrote for Paul’s Boys five brilliant comedies; unlike Jonson, he clearly preferred Paul’s to the more aggressive “bitternesse, and liberall invectives” of the rival children’s company at the Blackfriars (T. Heywood, Apology for Actors, 1612, G3v). But he was never limited to one company or one genre. While writing for Paul’s he sold a comedy to Prince Henry’s Men, a tragedy to the Blackfriars boys (The Viper and Her Brood, 7 May 1606, now lost), and three tragedies to the King’s Men. Middleton always remained a free agent, working for at least seven acting companies; his plays exploit the varied artistic opportunities offered by different casts, theatres, audiences. Michaelmas Term (1604), the first play Middleton set in contemporary London, is, if not the first, among the earliest English plays explicitly and systematically to represent the present to itself. The result is what Swinburne called “an excellent Hogarthian comedy” (Steen 165), or what Theodore Leinwand characterizes as “profound comic urban sociology” (Collected Works). Its legal title acknowledges the importance, especially in the more elite theatres, of spectators from the Inns of Court (always an important constituency for his work).
A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605) has been the most generally admired of his early comedies; performed at Paul’s, the Blackfriars, and at court, it was later plagiarized by Lording Barry, Phillip Massinger, and Aphra Behn. Combining figures from Roman comedy with the prodigal son of morality plays and English literature’s first accurate portrayal of a terminal alcoholic, it dramatizes the pursuit of credit, financial and sexual; its clever Courtesan, Jane, uses her status as a seemingly wealthy widow and her precise knowledge of the law to outmaneuvre a greedy suitor, in ways that surely owe something to Middleton’s mother. Trick shares with A Mad World, My Masters (1605) a young male protagonist, like Middleton himself, whose father is dead, and whose paper status as a gentleman clashes with his actual lack of cash. In Trick, a rich uncle (Pecunius Lucre) refuses to support the youth’s feckless lifestyle; Middleton’s well-heeled and well-connected “uncle-in-law” Roger Marbecke died in 1605, bequeathing “his neece Myddletoune” (Thomas’s wife) a mere L5 (P.C.C. 62 Hayes).
That same summer, news pamphlets describing Walter Calverley’s murder of two of his children inspired Middleton to write A Yorkshire Tragedy. Like Calverley in 1605, Middleton’s stepfather in 1595 had allegedly attempted to murder his wife (Middleton’s mother), so the playwright had first-hand experience of conjugal violence. The King’s Men performed his ten relentless scenes as “One of the four Plays in One”. Middleton’s brutal domestic tragedy was thus originally only one act of a four-act anthology or variety show, and the subject, genre, and author(s) of the other parts remain unknown; but Middleton’s portrayal of the psychotic Husband, maddened by the disparity between his status and his income, seems to have caught Shakespeare’s attention. Probably immediately afterwards, Middleton collaborated with the older playwright, writing about a third of Timon of Athens, including the bitterly comic central sequence where Timon’s creditors turn their backs on him. Usually the most successful scenes of the play in performance, these apply to classical tragedy techniques and materials developed in Middleton’s recent city comedies. Timon lives in an almost entirely male world, like that of Michaelmas Term, where intense homosocial and homoerotic relationships dwarf marriages or families. But the relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton did not last beyond one play.
Having written parts of two tragedies for the King’s Men, Middleton was well positioned to sell them The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), his reply to Hamlet, not hesitant but hectic (“hurry, hurry, hurry!”), ironic and obscene, tragic and blackly comic: “Old Dad dead?” The first English play to be translated into Dutch (by Theodore Rodenburgh in 1618), it is driven by one of the longest, most complex roles in the early modern repertoire, Vindice (almost certainly played by Richard Burbage).
Meanwhile, Middleton was still writing London comedies for boy actors. At Paul’s, The Puritan Widow (1606) targeted the mercenary hypocrisy (and gullibility) of separatists. This satire may have had a personal edge: the brother of Avis’s first husband was Roger Waterer, active for at least twenty years in the radical Brownist sect, but also accused of having defrauded Avis in the first weeks of her widowhood. In a sermon preached at Paul’s Cross on 14 Feb 1608, W. Crashaw denounced Middleton’s play for giving “hypocrites” the “names of two churches of God”, but also more generally for irreligiously bringing religion on stage especially objectionable when performed by the cathedral’s own choirboys. It may have been the company’s last play. Certainly, Middleton’s next comedy Your Five Gallants (1607) was written for the Blackfriars company.
In the first scene of Gallants, a pawnbroker worries about plague-infected clothing. The authorities kept the theatres closed for all but eight of the thirty-six months from Jan 1608 to Dec 1610. Predictably, Middleton had financial problems: he was in custody for debt (L5) on 23 Dec 1608, sued for debt by another party early in 1609 (L16), and on 18 July 1609 still owed a Westminster innholder L7 9s. During these lean years Dekker again produced amusing pamphlets, but Middleton’s two surprising publications were less entertaining; both had different dedications in different extant copies, a trick Middleton never tried elsewhere, and further evidence of financial strain. In Sir Robert Sherley his Entertainment in Cracovia (spring 1609), he translated and adapted a Latin text published in Poland, urging a European alliance with Persia against the Turks the first evidence of Middleton’s interest in European politics. Later in 1609 appeared The Two Gates of Salvation, reissued as The Marriage of the Old and New Testament (late 1620), then again as God’s Parliament House (1627). An original exploration of Biblical typology, this remarkable text deploys an apparently unique six-column polyphonic layout in the service of a Calvinist reading of scripture. In 1609 its Calvinism was orthodox enough Middleton cited Joseph Hall’s passion sermon but by 1627 the same text seemed naturally allied with unprecedented Parliamentary opposition.
From this pamphlet-period only one play survives, The Bloody Banquet (1608-9), co-written with Dekker. A tragedy of adultery and cannibalism, popular enough to remain in the repertory for three decades, the play survives only in a posthumously adapted text. Dekker flunked tragedy, but Middleton’s complex and sympathetic portrayal of the Young Queen marks a fundamental shift from all his earlier male-dominanted work.