Middleton and Shakespeare were the only writers of the English Renaissance who created plays still considered masterpieces in all four major dramatic genres: comedy, history, tragedy, and tragicomedy. Middleton wrote successful dramatic texts for more theatrical venues than any of his contemporaries. The first anthology of memorable passages from English drama (Cotgrave, 1655) quoted the Middleton canon more often than the works of any other playwright. On and off the commercial stage, Middleton mastered more genres than any English writer of his time.
Hazlitt, who began the resurrection of Middleton’s reputation, praised his scenes as “an immediate transcript from life” (Specimens, 1808). What the cultural arbiters of Middleton’s lifetime admired in Sidney or du Bartas was aristocratic artifice, consciously modelled upon the monumentality of texts more than a millenium old. Middleton learned to listen instead to the transcience of the vernacular. But to call him a transcriber or as T.S. Eliot did “merely a great recorder” (Selected Essays) is to misrecognize art as artlessness. No English writer before Middleton had ever achieved such complex sustained transparency, such seemingly unconstructed representations of the shifting currents of speech.
This misunderstanding of his life’s work originated in ignorance of his life. Eliot’s massively influential 1927 essay asserted that Middleton had “no point of view”, no “peculiar personality”; “He is merely the name which associates six or seven great plays”. The central facts of Middleton’s life were not established (by M. Eccles) until four years later, in 1931; the chronology of his work did not begin to be understood until 1937. Middleton’s seeming impersonality itself reflects a personality, a decision to reject the selfish rant of battling parents and battling poets. Aged twenty, he called himself “Thomas Medius & Gravis Tonus”, punning on his surname (Lucrece 69-70); medius means “in the middle” but also “middling, ordinary” and “neutral, ambiguous” and “central”, and “the common good”. Gravis teeters, ambiguously, between “impressive” and “base”. He yokes opposites. “Was ever such a contrariety seen?” (Old Law, 2.1).
The engraved half-length frontispiece printed in 1657 almost certainly derives from one of the portrait miniatures fashionable in his lifetime, an object of intimacy and vanity, often encased in a jewelled setting. With a finely shaded face, shoulder?length curls, and a trim beard, Calvinist Middleton whom Caroline puritans “seemd much to Adore” (Steen, 54) looks sexier and more stylish than any authenticated likeness of any other early playwright. His dark gown could be legal or academic, classical or modish, masculine or effeminate, warm or swank. His left arm propped akimbo on his hip, he wears his crown of laurel as casually as one might a low-slung feathered hat.
Less egotistical than Jonson, Middleton did not collect his own “Works”; unlike Shakespeare, he was not owned by a single company of actors, who could publish all his plays in posthumous folio. Consequently his work was not collected until 1840, and it took another century and a half of scholarship to define a reliable canon. He was first identified as the adapter of Macbeth in 1869 (by W. G. Clark and W. A. Wright), and his authorship of the anonymously-published Revenger’s Tragedy was not recognized until 1926 (by E. H. C. Oliphant), and not generally accepted until the 1980s. His sociable muse long made it difficult to separate him from his collaborators, or to differentiate “Middleton” from “Middleton’s workshop”. His determined peacefulness left Jonson’s hostility unanswered, his modesty let subsequent critics take literally his own self-deprecating remarks about his work. A better estimate is given by an anonymous epigram printed in 1640 (Wits Recreations, B7v): “Facetious Middleton, thy witty Muse Hath pleased all, that books or men peruse.” And women, too.
* This article on Middleton appears in The New Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004). All text © 2002 Gary Taylor.