Florida State University : Research in Review

[Skip Navigation]

Checking Oil's ID

Thomas Middleton is rediscovered as the Bard's genuine peer.

Gary Taylor's eureka moment came inside a rare books room in a library at Oxford in 1985.

Reading a passage from a play written nearly four centuries earlier by a little-known contemporary of Shakespeare's, Taylor found himself laughing out loud.

"And I started wondering," he remembers. "Why isn't this stuff better known? I have a Ph.D. in English literature—why have I never read all this? Why haven't I been told about all these characters?"

And so it was that an idea was born. At the time Taylor, now the George Edgar Matthew Professor of English at Florida State, was working with another Shakespeare scholar at Oxford to publish a new volume of the collected works of Shakespeare. But suddenly, Taylor knew what his next project would be. He was compelled to introduce the world to this devilishly clever writer whose name, for reasons he couldn't grasp, was all but forgotten.

Taylor didn't realize the full significance of his find back then, but he soon learned that Shakespeare had a genuine peer—a contemporary whose works at the time were just as popular and who also was every bit as prolific and witty as the Bard himself.

Taylor had found Thomas Middleton, the figure he likes to call "our other Shakespeare." With the 2007 release of the first-ever single-volume collection of Middleton's entire canon—at least what has been found—along with a volume of commentary, Taylor has taken the first major step toward reacquainting the world with the man who rivaled the most celebrated talent in English letters.

Curtains Rise on New Entertainment

Middleton's story starts in London where he was born in 1580, just as the city was about to embark on what Taylor calls "an incredible flowering of playwriting" that lasted about 40 years.

The best-known name from that era was, of course, William Shakespeare, who produced his plays from about 1590 to 1613, but there were many others, including Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and John Fletcher. By the early part of the 1600s, London had around 20 professional playwrights—men who made their living writing plays—as well as a great many nonprofessionals who wrote plays but who either supported themselves with another job or were independently wealthy. At this time London was a city of only about 200,000 people, so the number—and the quality—of the playwrights was in retrospect quite astonishing, said Taylor.

Taylor ascribes this flowering to the creation of a new "niche." In evolutionary biology, when a new ecological niche appears, a number of new species develop to fill that niche, and the same thing happened in London in the late 1500s. For the first time London had enough people to support a regular theater business. The city had recently doubled in size, as people flocked to it from the countryside, and these people had little entertainment—no newspapers, no books or magazines, and certainly no television or Internet. To meet this need for entertainment, the idea of a commercial theater grew up. In the past, entertainers had offered their performances in public and hoped that people liked it enough to pay them. "Now people were coming into a building to be entertained," Taylor said. "They were paying in advance without knowing whether they'd like it or not. This was a completely new approach to commercial entertainment."

The popularity of the theaters grew quickly. By the early 1600s, London had three or four theaters operating six days a week. A play would generally be performed once or at most a few times, and the theater would then offer something else, which led to a "ferocious demand for new plays," Taylor said. For the first time in history it became possible to make a living writing plays, and so it was that the profession of playwright appeared.

With so much work available, London developed a high concentration of talented playwrights who lived and worked in a relatively small area. These writers knew each other and were constantly learning from one another, each seeing what worked—and what didn't—in the others' work and using that knowledge to improve their own writing. They also collaborated regularly, and many of the plays of that time were the product of two or more authors, Taylor said.

It was just such a collaboration that led Taylor to his eureka moment.

Unearthing Middleton

Taylor had come to England's Cambridge University (from U. Kansas) in pursuit of a doctorate in English. His first job found him working at Oxford University Press as one of two general editors on a massive new collected works of Shakespeare. He was something of a prodigy, landing the plum job straight out of graduate school and, eight years later, publishing the master work when he was still just 33.

In 1984, as he was tying up some loose ends for the collected works, he tackled one of the long-standing mysteries about Shakespeare's plays: Was Measure for Measure written completely by the Bard, or were pieces of it written by someone else? The only surviving version of the play contained a song written by someone else, prompting scholars to wonder if the play had been modified after Shakespeare's death. Looking into it further, Taylor and his co-editor were convinced that, like Macbeth, Measure for Measure had indeed been revised by someone after Shakespeare died. The question then was who.

There were only three possible candidates, Taylor said, and if the question came up today, deciding among them would be a relatively simple manner. Because the works of Shakespeare and other writers of the era are now available on literature databases, one can do computer searches to look for similarities in wording and determine the most likely author of a particular passage. But such databases were not available in 1984, which left Taylor and his collaborators with the task of doing the same sort of analysis by hand. They memorized the bits in question from Measure for Measure and set out to read everything they could find from the three candidates in hopes of discovering passages that were similar to those in Shakespeare's play.

By 1985, the evidence was overwhelming that Thomas Middleton, one of Shakespeare's peers in the London writing community, had rewritten parts of Measure for Measure after Shakespeare's death. Mystery solved. Taylor documented his discovery, and he moved on to other tasks necessary for finishing the book.

But he couldn't forget Middleton. Reading everything he could find by Middleton in the rare books room of the Oxford library had been a revelation. He had read a couple of his plays in graduate school, but he had never realized just how much Middleton had written or just how good it was. It was passages from Middleton's plays that had him laughing out loud. "These plays were fabulous." But if the only way to read all this Middleton was to find a well-stocked rare books library and camp out there, few were likely to share his experience, Taylor realized. Shakespeare's collected works had been available in a single edition since the First Folio was published in 1623. Jonson, Fletcher and other London writers of the era had had collected works published, but not Middleton. Taylor decided that this was an oversight that needed correcting, and even before the new collected works of Shakespeare was published in 1986, he had a contract with Oxford University Press to publish a parallel volume of the collected works of Thomas Middleton.

The project would take him 22 years and a team of 74 contributors from 12 countries to complete, but in late 2007, the Oxford press released the 2,018-page, seven-pound Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Taylor's co-editor for this mammoth work was John Lavignino, a lecturer in the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London.

Middleton the Man

One of Taylor's first tasks was to develop a biography of Middleton. Who was this person, and what were his influences? By collecting existing information and uncovering some new details about Middleton's life, Taylor was able to sketch out a reasonably detailed picture of his life.

Middleton was born in London in April 1580. His father, William Middleton, was a prosperous businessman who died when Thomas was five. His mother, Anne, quickly remarried, and Thomas's stepfather was soon trying to get his hands on his stepchildren's inheritance. For much of the next 15 years Thomas watched his mother fight with his stepfather over these funds both in and out of court. Meanwhile he was receiving the literature-heavy education of a London grammar school, reading and writing in several languages. Afterward he spent several terms at Queen's College at Oxford, but he left before graduating.

With little left of his inheritance, Middleton had to find a way to support himself, and he explored a number of approaches, most of them related to writing. Early on he wrote and published three long poems, none of which was particularly successful, but one did have the distinction of being publicly burned because it had offended the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. Middleton was only 19 at the time, and this willingness to tweak religious, political, and other sensitivities would be a hallmark of his writing throughout his career.

Middleton found more success with the publications known as Renaissance pamphlets. These were somewhat lengthy documents—generally about the size of a long magazine article today—that could be on any subject, fiction or nonfiction, written in prose or a mixture of prose and poetry. They were sold unbound—binding was extra, performed by a separate guild—and, in an era with no newspapers, no magazines, no novels, they were the main way the public satisfied its appetite for the latest writings. Middleton's pamphlets, which tended to be what Taylor describes at "experimental fiction," earned him a decent living and today are seen as some of the best examples of the genre from that time.

Middleton was even better known during his day as the writer of many so-called "Lord Mayor" shows. These were Renaissance-era London's version of the Super Bowl halftime show—large public spectacles held once a year and performed in front of stadium-size audiences. The shows were produced to mark the introduction of a new lord mayor for the city of London. Middleton, Taylor said, was considered to be his era's best writer of these pageants.

Middleton was a songwriter and choreographer as well. He wrote the most popular theatrical song of that period and two of his dances were among the most popular of the era.

But more than anything else, Middleton built a reputation as a dramatist. Between 1603 and 1624 Middleton wrote or co-wrote more than 30 plays that survive today and that can be definitively attributed to him. A number of his plays have been lost, Taylor said, including several whose titles survive but nothing else, and attribution has been a problem on a number of plays.

Perhaps the best example, Taylor found, is The Revenger's Tragedy, which for 200 years was recognized as one of the finest tragedies of that era but whose authorship was uncertain. It was only in the 1970s that experts in the field came to agree that the play was Middleton's. In his work preparing Middleton's collected works, Taylor had to address a number of such issues. He solidified the case for Middleton being an author of a tragedy called The Bloody Banquet, for example, and showed that another play was not his work.

The Bard's Peer

Having studied Middleton's plays exhaustively, Taylor revealed a list of characteristics that sets Middleton apart from every other playwright from that era besides Shakespeare.

Middleton and Shakespeare are the only playwrights from that day who wrote plays that are still considered masterpieces in each of the four major genres: comedy, tragedy, history, and tragicomedy. When The English Treasury of Wit and Language, a compilation of popular quotations from English plays, was published in 1655, Middleton and Shakespeare had far more quotations than any other writer; depending on how the quotations are counted, either Middleton slightly edges out Shakespeare, or vice versa.

And it was Middleton who wrote the all-time, number-one hit play of the era, A Game at Chess. That number-one status is based on a variety of measures, Taylor explains: The play had the longest initial run, it generated more contemporary comment, it was the first play to be published with an engraved title page (an option usually considered too expensive for a play), and it has far more surviving manuscripts than any other play from that time, indicating that interest in the play was particularly high at the time that it was being performed. There are certainly some measures by which Shakespeare beats out Middleton-no Middleton play got printed as many times as Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, for example-but together the two men stood by themselves atop the Renaissance-era playwriting heap.

Different Takes on Life & Sex

Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works contains poems, pamphlets, pageants, and the 35 plays that Middleton is known to have written or co-written. The volume finally makes it possible to properly assess Middleton and, in particular, to see how he compares with Shakespeare, Taylor said.

What is known beyond any doubt about the two is that they collaborated on at least one play (Timon of Athens). Despite that, the research shows that Middleton and Shakespeare shared far more differences than similarities—in just about everything.

Shakespeare liked to write about royalty and heroic figures—think of the various historical kings (John, Richard II and III, Henry IV, V, VI, and VIII), of King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra. Middleton, by contrast, focused mainly on the middle class and the working class. "His characters have jobs, and they worry where the money is coming from," Taylor said. "They are closer to the contemporary reader's experience of the world."

Similarly, Shakespeare liked to write "big roles for big characters," he said. Shakespeare's company featured the actor Richard Burbage, a major star of the time, and Shakespeare wrote many of his trademark soliloquies for him. "Middleton's plays are much more about people in groups and how people interact with each other," said Taylor. Instead of soliloquies, Middleton's calling card was his asides, where a character spoke his thoughts aloud for the audience to hear. Middleton was also far more interested than Shakespeare in religious, political, and cultural issues.

But perhaps the most obvious difference to anyone who reads a few plays by each of the writers is how they handle love and sex. "Shakespeare is interested in women who are virgins and in falling in love and first relationships," Taylor said. Think of Romeo and Juliet or even The Taming of the Shrew. Middleton's plays involve characters who have moved well past those first innocent moments.

"Middleton was very interested in sex," Taylor explained. "Any kind of sex you can think of—and some you might prefer not to think about—you can find in Middleton. But it's never just sex." Middleton liked to examine how sex interacts with all the other aspects of human life—political, economic, psychological, and religious. "He saw sex as central to human experience." For example, in The Changeling, a woman uses the promise of sex to convince an admirer to kill her fiancÚ so that she is free to marry the man she loves. In A Trick to Catch the Old One, a young man deep in debt conspires with his ex-mistress to use her wiles (and sex) to trick an old moneylender into paying off the man's debts.

Shakespeare's plays did have plenty of sexual slang and innuendo, Taylor notes, but Middleton was much more explicit and used a variety of tricks to get as close as possible to actually portraying sex onstage. In The Changeling, the stage instructions call for the main female lead, Beatrice, to drop her glove and her admirer, De Flores, to pick it up after she has gone and thrust his fingers into it. "It's like watching sex," Taylor quipped. In another Middleton play, A Mad World, My Masters, the audience can hear two lovers having sex just offstage.

Dramatic Demise

The two playwrights provide very different views of the human experience, Taylor said. Shakespeare was more of the establishment playwright, while Middleton "was pushing the limits from the time he was 19." Indeed, his career was cut short by reactions to the satirical (and enormously popular) A Game at Chess, a thinly veiled attack on Catholicism, the king of Spain, and the king's sympathizers in England.

Using a law that prohibited the portrayal of any modern Christian king on stage, England's Privy Council shut down the theater that was showing the play, fined Middleton and the actors, and forbade any further performance of the work. Middleton never wrote another play, and some have speculated that this was part of his agreement with the council to avoid further punishment. In 1620, Middleton was appointed official chronologer for the City of London, a post he held until his death at age 47 in 1627.

In the following decades, Middleton's plays were performed less and less often. "They were particularly hard to performed less and less often. "They were particularly hard to perform after 1680, when censors became more hostile to sexuality," Taylor said.

The main reason for Middleton's disappearance, however, was something else altogether. When Shakespeare died, he left a very profitable company behind that performed his plays on a regular basis. It was an early case of "artistic branding"—think Walt Disney or Steven Spielberg—and thus it was no accident that 36 of Shakespeare's plays were collected and published in the First Folio (1623) within a decade of his death.

Middleton, by contrast, was a freelancer who wrote for a wide variety of theatrical companies (including Shakespeare's). "Nobody owned him, no one had an economic incentive to invest in him as their flagship writer," Taylor said. Thus Middleton's work was never collected and published in one place like the work of Shakespeare or other contemporaries. Decades or centuries later, when plays from the Renaissance era were performed, they tended to be plays that had been published in big collections and were easily accessible—plays by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher, but not Middleton.This is the oversight that Taylor hopes to correct 380 years after the fact. "If there had been a Middleton First Folio, English literature could have had a very different history," he said, but better late than never. The publication of Middleton's collected works, along with the accompanying book of commentary, will move Middleton beyond a tiny group of specialists and into the mainstream of English literature, Taylor predicts.

For 20 years now, Taylor has been teaching Middleton and Shakespeare side by side to the students in his English classes. He knows that some students will always prefer Shakespeare; others Middleton. But he's convinced that it is nothing more than historical accident that causes the world's playhouses to regularly put on Julius Caesar or A Midsummer Night's Dream rather than The Revenger's Tragedy or A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.

Will the name Thomas Middleton ever rival that of the storied Bard of Avon? Taylor says that a Middleton revival already is under way, thanks to his and his colleagues' hard work.

"For two years I told my collaborators 'Yes we can!' Now I can finally tell them 'Yes we did!' And I can tell everyone, 'Yes we will! The new edition will change—is already changing—how people think about Middleton, about Shakespeare, about the whole history of English literature."

"But if the only way to read all this Middleton was to find a well-stocked rare books library and camp out there, few were likely to share his experience, Taylor realized."

"Shakespeare is interested in women who are virgins and in falling in love... Middleton's plays involve characters who have moved well past those first innocent moments."

1 | 2 | 3 | NEXT PAGE »


 










Florida State University Member of the University Research Magazine Association Florida Magazine Associaton