That new interest in women characters explodes in three plays written in 1611. His finest collaboration with Dekker, The Roaring Girl; or, Moll Cutpurse for the first time gave Middleton top billing. This proto-feminist classic put on the Fortune stage a sympathetic impersonation of a living woman, the determinedly independent cross-dressing Mary Frith (who also made a cameo appearance, perhaps the first Englishwoman to perform on the commercial stage). No Wit/Help like a Woman’s premiered at the same theatre a few months later, and was apparently played at court on 29 Dec; James Shirley revived it in 1638 in Dublin, and in 1677 it was adapted (by Aphra Behn, Thomas Betterton, or both). On 31 Oct G. Buc licensed, for the King’s Men, an untitled tragedy, based on Cervantes. Buc misleadingly labelled it “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy”; Collected Works prefers The Lady’s (or Ladies’) Tragedy; the complex tragic centrality of its women, and its influence on Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, are not in doubt. Either Middleton did nothing in 1612, or what he did is lost. But 1613 was a turning point in his career. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is now generally regarded as his comic masterpiece. It was performed at the Swan in spring 1613, by Lady Elizabeth’s amalgamated company, whose many boy actors enabled Middleton to put eleven speaking female characters on stage simultaneously. Later in 1613 Wit at Several Weapons marked Middleton’s collaborative debut with William Rowley, the fat and jolly leading comic actor of Prince Charles’ Men (who merged with Lady Elizabeth’s company at about this time). The jubilantly oversexed London of these 1613 comedies contrasts remarkably with The Triumphs of Truth, Middleton’s first Lord Mayor’s pageant, performed that Oct for his wealthy namesake, Sir Thomas Middleton. With Dekker in prison for debt, Middleton beat out Munday for the commission, imagining the most expensive and elaborate Lord Mayor’s pageant ever produced (described by the Russian ambassador Alexis Ziuzin). This success in turn led to Middleton’s commissions, that year, for the lost The Masque of Cupids and a brief show celebrating completion of the New River project. Thus began Middleton’s productive association with the City of London. It was followed by Civitatis Amor (the City’s celebration of the investiture of Prince Charles, 1616), and two more Lord Mayor’s shows (1617, 1619).
After The Triumphs of Truth, Middleton never wrote another London comedy on his own, though he did collaborate with Rowley on one more and with Webster on another. More Dissemblers Besides Women (1614?) and The Widow (Dec 1615?) are his first comedies since Honest Whore (1604) to be set elsewhere; like his tragicomedy The Witch (mid-1615?), they return to Italy. This change of official residence may have been prompted in part by his new relationship to the governors of London, or by the fact that all three were written for the King’s Men (who acted none of his city comedies), but like all stylistic evolution it probably had multiple causes. The city comedies for Paul’s were all written in his mid-twenties, with the brilliant surface virtuosity and drive of absolute youth, in exhilarated command of materials within the narrow circle of its own ego and experience. From that center Middleton moved gradually outward, first beyond his own sex, eventually beyond his own neighbourhood to the larger European world. He never lost his lewd, ironic, grounded comic genius, but the later comedies and tragicomedies achieve a wider emotional range and a more complex orchestration of tones. The Widow in particular plays the entire keyboard, and was widely admired from the 17th to 19th centuries. In The Roaring Girl, Middleton had compared “the fashion of playmaking” to alterations in apparel: tastes change. After 1614 audiences rejected Jonson’s obdurate city comedies; Middleton stopped writing them.
At about this time, Middleton’s sensitivity to the public pulse was acknowledged by the King’s Men. He was apparently the only playwright trusted by Shakespeare’s company to adapt Shakespeare’s plays after his death. In autumn 1616(?) he updated Macbeth, in part by adapting material from The Witch, acted earlier that year but perhaps suppressed (because of its allusions to the Overbury trials). In Oct 1621 he made alterations to Measure for Measure, changing the setting to Vienna, adding the song, and expanding Lucio’s role.
Rowley and his company provided a theatrical alternative to the King’s Men, and he proved a more flexible collaborator than Dekker. He moved with Middleton into tragicomedy, first with their hit A Fair Quarrel (1614-16??), which was performed at court. There, Middleton’s compelling dramatic exploration and critique of the machismo of duelling may have led to a commission to write The Peacemaker (1618). Published anonymously, licensed by James I, that pamphlet rapidly went through five editions. It echoes the King’s enthusiasm for international peace and hostility to duelling, but links these to a more general argument for the reformation of manners, imagining a new man whose masculinity is defined by non-violence.
Middleton and Rowley and Rowley’s mentor, Thomas Heywood next imagined The Old Law (1618-19), a tragicomedy of euthanasia later adapted by Trollope. It champions the common law over arbitrary prerogative. As one critic facetiously suggested in 1885, if “Shakespeare was Bacon, we can only say that it is quite certain that Middleton was [Edward] Coke” (Steen 149). Perhaps not coincidentally, Middleton’s Masque of Heroes was performed at the Inner Temple early in 1619 (with Rowley playing Plumporridge). The legal community’s increasing enthusiasm for Saxon precedents may explain Middleton’s turn to fifth-century history for his next play. Performed by the King’s Men, Hengist, King of Kent (1619-20?) is, in some scenes, a tragic history, which includes a unique and chilling episode of marital rape. But the play was better known in the 17th century as The Mayor of Queenborough, the protagonist of its comic scenes. The confusion over titles accurately reflects Middleton’s challenge to genre.