It is an excellent principle, in literature as in life, to judge a book by its cover; and there is much to be learned from the appearance of the new Oxford Middleton. Even as the blurb declares that Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino’s monumental collection is ‘based on the award-winning design of the Oxford Shakespeare’, the binding and dust jacket defiantly proclaim its difference from that distinguished model. The Shakespeare was bound in the press’s traditional Oxford blue, its spine adorned with the familiar gilt coat of arms; the Middleton is clad in unornamented black, suggesting a sly homage to the author’s early prose satire The Black Book, with its sardonic farewell to the reader: ‘Now sir, what is your censure now? You have read me, I am sure. Am I black enough, think you, dressed up in a lasting suit of ink?’ The binding’s colour is well fitted to the dark humour of this cynical puritan, and its disdain for heraldic ornament nicely mirrors Taylor’s invitation to the reader to join ‘the republic of Middleton’, with its dig at the regal bard. This, we are being reminded, is as much a work of radical revisionism as of conventional literary piety.
A different kind of contrast is suggested by the showiness of the Middleton dust jacket: conspicuously abandoning the classical restraint of its Shakespearean predecessor, it is emblazoned with a vivid reproduction of Frans Hals’s Merrymakers at Shrovetide (c.1615), while another Hals painting, The Singing Boys (c.1623-27), adorns the companion volume, Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture. The Singing Boys is no doubt meant to recall Middleton’s early work for the Children of Paul’s, one of those boy companies whose performances were punctuated by songs and entr’acte music; but the fleshly grossness of Merrymakers at Shrovetide plunges us straight into the world of the plays themselves. The analogy is suggested by Taylor in an introductory essay on Middleton’s ‘Lives and Afterlives’, in which he compares the crowded canvases of Hals’s genre paintings with the ‘seemingly spontaneous carnival abundance’ of such plays as A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Taylor’s exuberant essay pursues a whole series of comparisons with the visual arts: recalling a 19th-century salute to this ‘Hogarth of the pen’, he goes on to associate Middleton’s tragedies with the lurid Counter-Reformation fantasies of Caravaggio, and his public entertainments with the royalist allegories of Rubens. Caravaggio’s rebellious and tormented spirit is invoked again in Taylor’s programme note for the recent National Theatre production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, and its angry young author is further imagined as an early avatar of John Osborne. But it is Hals, with his fondness for exaggerated quirks of character and his unabashed relish of bourgeois vulgarity, who provides the best equivalent for the aspect of Middleton’s art that decisively sets him apart from Shakespeare – what Taylor has elsewhere described as his ‘artisanal poetics’.
In the Shrovetide dissipation of Merrymakers, a buxom, rosy-cheeked blonde, dressed in an expensively embroidered scarlet gown with sleeves and lining of argent silk, receives the attentions of three lascivious males: a ruddy-faced older man grasps her across the shoulders and presses his cheek against her hair; to her left, a red-lipped younger man leans on the back of her chair, his gaze fastened shamelessly on the opening of her gown, while he thrusts a finger into his clenched fist in the bawdy gesture known as ‘the Spanish fig’; a second youth, also gesturing obscenely, lolls against the other side of her chair, eyeing the spectacle, his mouth gaping with derisive laughter. In the background an array of leering grotesques look on, the wine flask and platters of food in the foreground serving as an expressive metaphor for the carnal appetites they mock. At first glance, one might be reminded of Falstaff at the Boar’s Head with Doll Tearsheet; but what this scene lacks is the streak of nostalgic tenderness that illuminates that show of superannuated lechery: ‘Thou whoreson little tidy Bartholomew boar-pig,’ Shakespeare’s warm-hearted, half-infatuated whore coos, ‘when wilt thou leave fighting o’ days and foining o’ nights, and begin to patch up thine old body for heaven?’ Hals’s painting – knowing, cynically indulgent and full of the sweaty warmth of human bodies – is without a glimmer of such emotional sympathy, and in this it exactly catches the mood of Middletonian debauch: it might almost be the tavern scene in A Trick to Catch the Old One, where Lamprey and Spitchcock huddle up a match between the elderly usurer Hoard and the designing Courtesan, tricked out in her lavish guise as a rich widow.
That isn’t the only similarity. What at first seems to be a naturalistic rendition of bourgeois manners is in fact a theatrical imposition: the necklace of eggs and Wurst worn by the older man, and the spoon and sausages stuck in the young men’s bonnets, identify the wearers as well-known comic figures from Dutch folk drama; the laurel-wreathed object of their attentions isn’t a nubile maiden, drunken heiress or conniving prostitute, but a boy-actor playing one of these roles. Middleton was particularly fond of metatheatrical games. In The Spanish Gypsy, when Preciosa appears in gypsy costume, her father exclaims that ‘many dons/Will not believe but that thou art a boy,/In woman’s clothes.’ Urging her to defend herself against their lascivious experiments – ‘be to thyself/Thyself, and not a changeling’ – he draws the audience’s attention to the player’s previous role as Beatrice-Joanna in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, thereby reminding them that ‘a boy/In woman’s clothes’ is exactly what ‘she’ is. ‘Not a changeling, father?’ comes the boy’s reply, insisting that the role still belongs to him. ‘None but myself shall play the changeling.’
Of course Shakespeare, too, was fond of metatheatrical conceits, and sometimes they involved the same kind of knowing wink at the audience – for example, when the actor playing Polonius was required to remember his previous performance as Julius Caesar. But where Middleton delights in the game for its own sake, Shakespeare gives it a characteristically metaphysical twist, with the uncanny hint that Heminges/ Polonius/Caesar is once again to die at the hands of Burbage/Hamlet/Brutus. Hamlet’s desperate efforts to shore up the difference between self and show, acting and performance, produce in him an existential vertigo – a nausea that would be unrecognisable to the hero of The Revenger’s Tragedy. Though Vindice is momentarily troubled by a ‘doubt/Whether I’m myself or no’, his self-consciously theatrical impostures fill him with wild, self-destructive delight, as when, in his new guise as the rustic malcontent Vindice (an alter ego that both is and is not himself), he is hired to despatch his former incarnation, Piato. Dressing up the corpse of his murdered enemy, the Duke, in Piato’s clothes, he revels in self-multiplication: ‘Brother, that’s I; that sits for me. Do you mark it? And I must stand here ready to make away myself yonder – I must sit to be killed and stand to kill myself. I could vary it not so little as thrice over again. ’T’as some eight returns like Michaelmas term.’ The dark surreal farce of this moment is unlike anything Shakespeare could have imagined; to compare it with its nearest equivalent, Falstaff’s mock-death and the abuse of Hotspur’s body at Shrewsbury, is to measure the gap between the sensibilities of the two dramatists.
A prolific writer, even by the standards of his time, Middleton is mostly remembered as the author of a handful of hard-edged city comedies and three great satiric tragedies; but Taylor and his fellow editors, by rescuing his work from the obscurity in which it has mostly languished since the mid-17th century, show how capricious the judgments of history can be. It is significant that the mature Shakespeare appears to have chosen Middleton, 16 years his junior, as one of the few playwrights with whom he was willing to collaborate: internal evidence, elegantly summarised by John Jowett in the new Companion, suggests that the younger man was responsible for about a third of Timon of Athens. Later – as Taylor and Jowett argue in detailed entries on Macbeth and Measure for Measure – Shakespeare’s old company seem to have singled him out as the writer best equipped to revise the dead master’s work. Shortly after collaborating on Timon of Athens, Middleton had presented the King’s Men with a double-edged homage to Shakespeare, The Revenger’s Tragedy, whose protagonist is a frenetic caricature of Shakespeare’s hesitant revenger; and near the end of his career, in The Changeling, he would subject Othello to an equally bizarre metamorphosis, reimagining Desdemona as the spoilt rich girl, Beatrice-Joanna, and the ‘monster’ Iago as her dog-faced seducer, the embittered servant De Flores. Thus the unsentimental Middleton may well have a better claim to be regarded as Shakespeare’s heir than his official successor as principal dramatist for the King’s Men, John Fletcher, the sentimental doyen of romantic tragicomedy. After Marlowe, Middleton had perhaps the most arrestingly individual voice among Shakespeare’s contemporaries; yet whether it is just (or even helpful) to claim for him the title of ‘our other Shakespeare’ is a question this edition repeatedly forces us to consider.
Both came from middle-class backgrounds: Middleton’s father was a prosperous London building contractor, while Shakespeare’s was a glover who rose to become an alderman of Stratford-upon-Avon. Both fathers were socially ambitious: William Middleton bought himself a coat of arms from the College of Heralds in 1568, thereby securing the all-important right for himself and his successors to style themselves ‘gentleman’ – a feat that John Shakespeare, with the help of his successful son, was finally able to duplicate in 1596. Both sons were grammar school boys, products of the educational revolution that supplied the administrative needs of the centralising Tudor monarchy. Although Middleton had the advantage of a couple of years at Oxford, like many gentlemen, he didn’t proceed to a degree, but left at the end of 1600 to return to London, where Shakespeare had established himself a decade earlier. Both young men were forced to make their own way in the world – Shakespeare as a result of his father’s business failures in the 1570s, and Middleton as a result of the protracted lawsuits that encumbered his family’s fortunes in the wake of his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage to a feckless but grasping merchant, Thomas Harvey. Exploiting an education whose rhetorical bias was underpinned by an immersion in classical literature, both men learned to be professional writers in that decisive period of English cultural history when economic conditions, combined with the enhanced prestige of the vernacular as an instrument of emergent nationalism, first made such a career possible. They also exercised their trade at a time when, as a consequence, the idea of literary authorship was beginning to develop a new intellectual and material currency, gradually transforming the humble playwright (kinsman of cartwright, ploughwright and wheelwright) into a dramatic poet who, in Jonson’s words, could challenge comparison with ‘all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome/Sent forth’. Yet both seem to have felt ambivalent about their trade.
As we can tell from the verses he wrote on the publication of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Middleton could be sympathetic to the grandeur of claims like Jonson’s: with a disdainful glance at the funereal pomp of Westminster Abbey, he salutes this ‘masterpiece of tragedy’ as a ‘monument’ more splendid than those of ‘death’s cathedral palaces,/Where royal ashes keep their court’. Yet, just as Shakespeare seems to have taken more pride in the publication of his sonnets and narrative poems than in his plays, so Middleton was more careful to advertise his role in composing civic triumphs and entertainments for the City of London than to proclaim his authorship of the popular dramas on which his reputation now rests. Of the plays published in his lifetime, many appeared anonymously, and hardly any were graced with the prolegomenary material (dedicatory epistles and encomiastic verses) that typically registered the new pride in authorship. Both Shakespeare and Middleton seem transitional figures, earning their living in the new theatrical marketplace, but imagining their literary importance in terms of older models partly defined by their relationship with powerful patrons – aristocratic courtiers in Shakespeare’s case, city magnates in Middleton’s.
There, however, the resemblances end. Professionally they were set apart by their very different relationships with the companies that performed their work. While Shakespeare began as an actor who discovered a talent for writing, Middleton made his early reputation as the author of verse satires, and came to the theatre from outside. Shakespeare grew wealthy from his role as an actor-sharer in his own company; Middleton had a less secure livelihood as a jobbing writer – though one in some demand. For most of his career Shakespeare not only enjoyed the backing of a single company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men), but had the singular advantage of working in a symbiotic relationship with a group of fellow actors whose skills he learned how to develop as he was testing and exploring his own genius. Middleton, while valuing the independence, was forced to hire out his talents to whoever was willing to pay: to boy companies or adult actors, to open-air playhouses like the Globe or more exclusive indoor theatres like the Cockpit/Phoenix, to the city authorities in his numerous mayoral pageants, or even to the royal house in a number of masques; and he busily supplemented all this by churning out tracts, pamphlets and satires.
There were temperamental differences too: Shakespeare’s sensibility was shaped in important ways by rural Warwickshire and the small town to which he returned at the end of his life; Middleton was a Londoner through and through. Not only was he commissioned to devise public shows for a succession of lord mayors – leading to his appointment in 1620 as London’s first official ‘chronologer’ – but the city itself remained the true subject of nearly all his plays. Shakespeare, as we know from tragedies like Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus, was powerfully interested in the classical idea of the city – the polis – as the epitome of a properly human society, a civil order. But it is only occasionally – in the mob scenes of Henry VI Part 2, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, for example, or in the tavern scenes of both parts of Henry IV and of Henry V – that the gritty realities of the London streets are brought alive in his plays. The nearest he ever came to writing a city comedy was The Merry Wives of Windsor (c.1597); but although the plot is one Middleton might have relished, Shakespeare characteristically locates it in a small town on the capital’s distant fringe.
By contrast, it was from the teeming, purulent life of London’s streets, shops and crowded lodgings that Middleton drew the characters – conniving lawyers, sharking usurers, hypocritical dissenters, lustful widows, collapsed gentry and shameless fortune hunters, whores, pickpockets and cony-catching confidence-men – who populate his comedies, nearly all of which, from Michaelmas Term in 1604 to Anything for a Quiet Life in 1621, are set in this vibrant, festering, money-hungry, plague-ridden metropolis. Its ambiguous excitements and sly corruption are at once mocked and celebrated in titles like The Widow of Watling Street or A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. In the latter masterpiece, the Lenten streets of Cheapside are patrolled by puritanical officials anxious to stuff their bellies with the forbidden meat they confiscate. Their efforts are crowned, in an inspired parody of the medieval Second Shepherd’s Play, by the discovery of an illegitimate baby, palmed off on them by a desperate wench, who gulls her persecutors into supposing that the curly pate concealed beneath a loin of mutton is actually the head of a delicious (and far from Paschal) lamb.
Seventeenth-century London never seems far away even in the nominally Italianate world of a tragedy like Women, Beware Women: when the unimaginative young factor Leantio, struggling to suppress his desires with the prudent aphorisms of the warehouse, sees his pretty new wife stolen by the Duke, we are reminded that the Florentine court is a cipher for the decadence of Jacobean Whitehall. Or when Vindice, in The Revenger’s Tragedy, describes the delights of urban luxury to his mother and sister, it is the seductive pleasures of London that Middleton’s audience is asked to remember, the city’s seemingly unlimited capacity to devour the wealth and productive energies of the countryside, destabilising the ancient hierarchies on which they depend:
It was the greatest blessing ever happened to women
When farmers’ sons agreed and met again
To wash their hands and come up gentlemen.
The commonwealth has flourished ever since.
Lands that were meet by the rod, that labour’s spared;
Tailors ride down and measure ’em by the yard.
Fair trees, those comely foretops of the field,
Are cut to maintain head-tires – much untold.
All thrives but Chastity – she lies a-cold.
Shakespeare never knew London with the intimacy that informs Middleton’s piercing and obsessive gaze; yet in a strange way this made the younger man, for all his metropolitan savvy, the more provincial of the two. Taylor reminds us that, with the year his stepfather spent in the doomed Virginia colony at Roanoke, Middleton ‘became the first important English writer to be personally exposed, in childhood, to the backwash of European global expansion’. What is striking is how little his imagination seems to have been touched by this: there is nothing in Middleton’s work to match the lofted horizons of The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello or The Tempest – or even the exotic fantasies of Fletcher and Massinger in plays like The Sea-Voyage, The Island Princess and The Renegado. It is as if the backwash of merchant venturing and North American plantation meant nothing to him beyond its catastrophic effects on his family’s finances: the city comedies keep restaging the money-grubbing scoundrel who was among the victims of Raleigh’s colonial dream, the sensuous widow on whom he preyed, the vulnerable daughter bartered into marriage with another greedy ne’er-do-well, the lawyers who battened on their quarrels, and the endless legal wrangling that must have consumed so much of Middleton’s youthful energy.
Middleton’s London-ness explains his instinctive social irreverence, the cynicism that colours his attitude to birth and status. Again and again Shakespeare’s work subjects the received assumptions of his society to sceptical questioning, but it typically does so from within the implied framework of a secure aristocratic ideal. Middleton – whatever the vanity that made him call himself ‘Thomas Middleton, gent.’ – writes as a child of the city, a world of unstable self-inventions. In the comedies, the pretensions of rank are only as good as the purse of (probably ill-gotten) guineas that supports them: ‘When did you e’er see a gentleman put his hand to anything, unless it were to a sheepskin and receive a hundred pounds,’ the Clown sneers at his work-shy betters in No Wit/Help Like a Woman’s. In the tragedies, status and authority merely reflect the arbitrary tyranny of gender – ‘Men buy their slaves,’ Isabella laments in Women, Beware Women, ‘but women buy their masters’ – or the capricious accidents of power. ‘Then I am heir – duke in a minute!’ Ambitioso gloats in The Revenger’s Tragedy, at the prospect of his stepbrother’s execution. ‘Nay,’ comes the immediate aside from Supervacuo, his rivalrous sibling, ‘An he were once puffed out, here is a pin/Should quickly prick your bladder.’ Rank is so much hot air.
Middleton’s conviction that social appearances are essentially fraudulent helps account for the fascination with metatheatricality and disguise on which the virtuoso plotting of comedies like Your Five Gallants and No Wit depends. For Shakespeare, the theatre could stand for deceit or shallow imposture, as in Richard III’s antics or Antony’s ‘excellent dissembling’; but it was just as likely to suggest the possibility of more profound psychological transformations, as in the elusiveness of Bottom’s dream or Cleopatra’s mysterious ‘becomings’. Not so in Middleton: even when he chooses a title suggestive of fairy metamorphosis, as he does with The Changeling, the very idea of change – though his characters cling to it with desperate simplicity – is erased by the sceptical irony with which Beatrice-Joanna’s deformity is exposed as already within her, like the ‘secrets’ hidden in her father’s castle. And, as The Revenger’s Tragedy, with its ‘silk and silver’ surfaces, keeps reminding us, the last secret is always death, the nullity concealed beneath the ‘three-piled velvet’ of human flesh, or the rich attire that bedecks the ‘bony lady’ of Vindice’s murderous puppet-play.
This preoccupation with deceptive surfaces and theatrical pretence is in turn closely related to one of the most distinctive features of Middleton’s style: his fondness for simile and relative indifference to metaphor. Metaphor belongs to an imaginative regime in which the most astounding transformations of self and other are always possible; simile figures the world as a tissue of shifting, unreliable simulations – some treacherous, some ingenious, some merely absurd, but the best of them only half-covering a brute, unalterable reality. ‘A true deserver like a diamond sparkles,’ the infatuated Beatrice-Joanna declares in The Changeling, ‘in darkness you may see him’ – adding, with literal-minded solemnity, ‘that’s in absence.’ But scarcely has she clothed her new lover in this tired similitude than De Flores confronts her with its material counterpart, the glittering stone he has hacked from her old lover’s hand: ‘I could not get the ring without the finger.’
Middleton rather than his character is responsible for the ironic deconstruction of Beatrice’s simile. But in comedy especially, the game of similitudes has everything to do with the characters’ self-conscious exhibitions of wit; and in so far as wit is the one unchallenged positive in his writing, Middleton – as the rich assortment of comedies in this collection enables us to see – is an important precursor of Restoration drama. As Christopher Ricks recognised years ago, he is the great master of verbal and visual double entendre: he can turn this to shockingly serious purposes – as in The Changeling’s obscene and vicious play with rings and fingers – but it is also the great weapon his comic heroes use to achieve their morally dubious triumphs. In the comedies of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve, wit would become the primary instrument of social competition and the only secure index of worth; already in Middleton’s work its importance is highlighted by a succession of titles – A Trick to Catch the Old One, The Five Witty Gallants, No Wit like a Woman’s, More Dissemblers Besides Women, Wit at Several Weapons. The last of these begins with a marvellously elaborate simile from Sir Perfidious Oldcraft, extolling his own enterprising youth, and urging his impecunious son to learn to ‘live by his wits’:
I rushed into the world, which is indeed
Much like the art of swimming; he that will attain to’t
Must fall plump, and duck himself at first,
And that will make him hardy and adventurous,
And not stand putting in one foot, and shiver,
And then draw t’other after, like a quake-buttock;
May well he make a paddler i’ the world,
From hand to mouth, but never a brave swimmer …
He sinks, because he never tried to swim,
When wit plays with the billows that choked him.
In the sheer inventiveness of its language, as much as in what it says, the old knight’s speech constitutes a challenge to a comic battle of wits; and in these the patriarch must always lose. By the end of the play Perfidious will stand ‘cheated … discovered … beguiled’ by the unfilial impostures of Wittypate and his associates, yet cheerfully resigned to founding ‘an almshouse for decayed wits’.
There is no denying the inventive brilliance with which Middleton works his witty variations on the staples of city comedy: the interlaced intrigues that make up its plots; the gallery of knaves, fools and grotesques who are caught up in them. But his fondness for the genre leads to a certain monotony. The necessarily schematic designs of satiric comedy mean that tone is relatively uniform and characterisation deliberately thin. Of course there are important differences between plays like Your Five Gallants, which show Middleton at his most relaxed and genial, and those like A Mad World, My Masters or A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, in which the guilty Calvinist, responsible for tracts like The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased and The Two Gates of Salvation, suddenly surfaces. The wonderfully salacious Your Five Gallants ends with a scene of cheerful compromise, in which a crew of courtesans accept enforced marriages to the corrupt con-men who pass as gallants, on the wittily specious grounds that ‘when we have husbands, we are under covert-baron and may lie with whom we list.’ It is a good distance from such easy cynicism to the misogynistic despair of Penitent Brothel at having ‘played away’ his ‘eternal portion’ by doting on ‘weakness, slime, corruption, woman’, or the Faustian panic of Sir Walter Whorehound at the sight of his illegitimate offspring: ‘Let me forever hide my cursed face/From sight of those that darkens all my hopes,/And stands between me and the sight of heaven.’ But, for all this, it is difficult – especially given the amount of often undistinguished occasional work that fills out the volume – to escape the feeling that this Collected Works is less than the sum of its parts.
As Taylor insists, Middleton’s claim to be considered ‘our other Shakespeare’ must be founded less on the striking originality of his best writing than on the sustained power and variety of his entire body of work. Taylor has made that phrase into something of a mantra: it has provided the theme for a succession of dazzling public lectures, and it was flourished again in the programme notes for the recent staging of The Revenger’s Tragedy. Middleton and Shakespeare, he insists, ‘were the only two writers of the English Renaissance who creat-ed plays considered masterpieces in four major dramatic genres: comedy, history, tragedy and tragicomedy’. There is an element of special pleading here. Middleton’s pre-eminence in city comedy is unchallenged; but his tragicomedies, though spiced with sentiment and melodrama, don’t move far from the world of his comedies; and there is nothing in his work to match Shakespeare’s extraordinary experiments in tragicomic romance. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Women, Beware Women and The Changeling – together with two plays convincingly attributed to him here, the powerful but oddly stunted Yorkshire Tragedy and the eerie Lady’s Tragedy, with its shaping influence on The Duchess of Malfi – Middleton placed himself alongside Webster as one of the period’s most formidable writers of tragedy. But he did not contribute to the evolution of the history play in the same way as Marlowe, Shakespeare or even Ford: Hengist, King of Kent rapidly loses interest in the politics of nationhood apparently proclaimed by its subject, while the controversial A Game at Chess is entirely sui generis – an ingenious allegory of contemporary politics quite unconcerned with the larger philosophical issues that animate Shakespeare’s historiography.
So perhaps, after all, Middleton is to be considered less another Shakespeare than ‘Shakespeare’s “other”’: they were ‘two very different geniuses’, Taylor concedes, and ‘we do not have to choose between them, any more than we need choose Mozart over Beethoven, or Michelangelo over Leonardo da Vinci.’ The seeming generosity of this admission is disingenuous, however; from its inception this project seems to have been driven by a determination to prove that Middleton and Shakespeare were, as The Revenger’s Tragedy programme note insists, ‘artists of equal stature’. In 1984, the 30-year-old Gary Taylor, fresh from his stint on the Oxford Shakespeare, spent an extended period of research in Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Bodleian, in the course of which he devoured every one of Middleton’s known works. ‘I thought, again and again, why was I never told to read this? Why was I never taught this? … Why have I never seen this performed? Why have I never heard this music?’ Thenceforth – or so it appeared to the astonished world of Shakespearean scholarship – Taylor was possessed by a quixotic determination to unseat the dramatist to whom he had hitherto devoted his professional life, and to replace him with his younger rival and sometime collaborator. ‘Freedom, hi-day,’ you could almost hear him hollering, ‘Get a new master, get a new man.’ Of course there was always an element of theatrical self-display in this Oedipal revanchism, and Taylor’s insistence on Middleton’s superiority has softened a little in the intervening quarter-century. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of this enterprise, which brought together 74 leading scholars, makes a powerful statement about his exceptional importance; and even as Hals’s Shrovetide revellers proclaim Middleton’s difference from Shakespeare, Taylor and Lavagnino’s decision to model their edition on the Oxford Shakespeare insists on their rivalrous equality.
To some extent, the resemblances between the two editions merely reflect the fact that they are the product of the same academic stable, but the symmetry even so is not quite an innocent one. Rather as Heminges and Condell’s magnificent First Folio of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies challenged comparison with the costly folio of his own Works on which Ben Jonson had staked his claim to literary immortality a few years earlier, so the format of the Oxford Middleton makes a strong implicit claim about the author’s ranking in the canon. It is made explicit when Taylor invites readers ‘to think of our language as the home of two world champion playwrights, not just one’. Arguing that the relative obscurity into which Middleton fell was a consequence of his never having been collected into one of those memorialising tomes, Taylor would like this edition to be recognised as ‘Middleton’s First Folio’. He even matches the famous Droeshout portrait that adorns the Shakespeare Folio with an enlarged likeness of Middleton, crowned with bays, borrowed from the posthumous Two New Playes, published by Humphrey Moseley in 1657; and, although there is no obvious candidate to replace the encomiastic verses in which Jonson proclaimed Shakespeare ‘not of an age, but for all time’, this engraving is captioned with an admiring, if rather clumsy couplet from the anonymous Wit’s Recreations: ‘Facetious Middleton, thy witty muse/ Hath pleased all that books or men peruse.’
While similar in shape and dimensions to its Oxford predecessor, the Collected Middleton is even longer and heavier. Although it contains only 29 plays to its rival’s 38, it is bulked up with nearly four hundred pages of non-dramatic and occasional writing. In addition, each text has a full critical introduction, much more substantial than those in the Oxford Shakespeare. This is a sensible concession to the relative unfamiliarity of Middleton’s work, although the historical particularity of some of the minor writing can produce introductions longer than the pamphlets they anatomise. There is also an even more generously conceived Companion. The two volumes are elaborately cross-referenced; and, as Taylor’s instructions on ‘How to use this book’ indicate, a good deal of effort has gone into making the Companion as user-friendly as possible – an effect marred only by the maddening decision to order the textual notes by the date of each work’s original publication, while the texts themselves are arranged in order of composition, giving a completely different sequence.
In addition to textual introductions and collations, the Companion includes more than three hundred pages of scholarly background essays, and a lengthy but indispensable section on ‘Canon and Chronology’. The essays are on topics as various as authorship, readership, the law, music, censorship, visual texts, printing and the book trade. There is some unevenness here: Taylor’s opening essay, ‘The Order of Persons’ (written with Celia Daileader and Alexandra Bennett), is a richly detailed but meandering exploration of Middleton’s ‘lists’; and Richard Burt’s piece on censorship comprehensively muddles a topic that is more straightforwardly addressed in several of the critical introductions, including Taylor’s account of A Game at Chess. Given the significant impact of censorship on Middleton’s career, it is hard to understand why Burt was allowed to get away with the high-theoretical sophistry of an argument that purports to show that, by virtue of its ‘self-deconstructive non-identity … repressive censorship cannot always be distinguished from … non-censorship’. Most of these essays are excellent, however; and some, such as MacDonald Jackson’s study of authorship or John Jowett’s investigation of Middleton’s early readers, are definitive.
The Collected Works is, of course, a prodigious achievement that only someone with Taylor’s infectious energy and obsessive determination could have brought off. Many of the texts have been properly edited here for the first time; and the addition of introductions and commentary makes them as accessible as possible. To its mass of original material, the edition adds ambitious essays on the author’s lost writings – plays, political prose and a late pageant for Charles I. But the collection’s very inclusiveness confuses its purpose: if this were indeed to have been Middleton’s First Folio, Taylor and Lavagnino should surely have adopted, as Heminges and Condell did, a more carefully selective approach. Given that they were bound by the more prosaic need to assemble a complete Middleton, it would have been sensible to discard the Oxford Shakespeare model, and to divide the contents into several volumes, separating the major work from material whose interest is almost entirely historical. It does not help one’s appreciation of the plays to find them wedged between occasional poems, satiric pamphlets, religious tracts, encomiastic verses, civic pageants, entertainments, masques and a clutch of juvenilia – including a tedious 50-page verse paraphrase of the Wisdom of Solomon, which even Debora Shuger’s diligently sympathetic introduction describes as ‘committing some of the most execrable lines extant in the corpus of English verse’.
Of more general interest is the expansion of Middleton’s dramatic canon. In addit-ion to the now widely accepted Revenger’s Tragedy, the collection includes a number of other anonymously published or misattributed plays that can be attributed with some confidence to Middleton, including A Yorkshire Tragedy, The Puritan Widow and The Lady’s Tragedy; more controversially, it greatly extends the catalogue of plays in which he appears to have had a hand, either as collaborator or reviser. Perhaps the most startling consequence of the editors’ determination to give equal billing to this aspect of Middleton’s work is the inclusion, alongside more familiar collaborations, of Measure for Measure, Macbeth and Timon of Athens. Given his relatively minor part in the actual writing of these texts, their absorption into the Middleton canon might seem designed primarily to thumb the nose at bardolators. Even in the case of Timon of Athens – the single example of collaboration between the two dramatists – the editors give Middleton responsibility for no more than a third of the play. His role as the probable reviser of the other two is even more tenuous: Taylor claims for him ‘about 11 per cent of the adapted text’ of Macbeth, and Jowett an even smaller proportion of Measure for Measure. With varying degrees of conviction they identify a larger number of passages in which he may have been at work, cutting, transposing and making small (but often significant) alterations to the text.
In order to show the presence of the reviser’s hand, Jowett and Taylor both present what they call ‘genetic texts’, in which additions and transposed passages are printed in bold, while lines intended for cutting and transposition are in grey. As conjectural reconstructions of 17th-century authorial practice, the resulting texts are fascinating, and the procedure would be appropriate for single-volume editions directed at a specialist audience – or indeed for the complementary electronic resource promised by John Lavagnino – but they are not easy to read. This is especially true of Macbeth, where Taylor prints the play in a conventionally emended text, using modernised spelling, but without punctuation or capitalisation. He does this on the specious grounds that, since Shakespeare and Middleton’s original punctuation is irrecoverable, ‘every comma, colon, semicolon, period, question mark, exclamation mark, or parenthesis … represents an act of interpretation.’ But this is equally true of almost every editorial intervention – not least emendation and the regularisation of orthography. The only effect is to make the play virtually unreadable for anyone who does not know it reasonably well – thereby, I suppose, protecting it from the other kinds of unwarrantable interpretation that occur in the act of reading itself. Perhaps this is Taylor’s unconscious compensation for what, despite his fractious denial that the inclusion of these texts is ‘part of a camp-aign to aggrandise the Middleton canon’, will still appear to many people an outrageous act of appropriation – one that his special pleading for the ‘gain’ involved in Middleton’s addition of the Hecate scenes (they supply ‘a dimension in which theatricality itself … adds a measure to Macbeth’s tragedy’) is unlikely to allay.
In some respects, the cheeky iconoclasm of smuggling three Shakespeare plays into the Middleton canon merely extends the irreverent approach of the Oxford Shakespeare editors who, sceptical of received bibliographic verities, were determined to take nothing for granted: with exaggerated historical scruple, they confusingly renamed plays, turning Henry VIII into All Is True, and even rechristened the Falstaff of Henry IV Part I with his original name of Oldcastle. In the Middleton collection, the late Julia Briggs edits the dubiously titled Second Maiden’s Tragedy as The Lady’s Tragedy, Paul Mulholland turns the lively Honest Whore into the didactic-sounding The Patient Man and the Honest Whore, while Valerie Wayne in her otherwise excellent text of A Trick to Catch the Old One renames the courtesan ‘Jane’. Some texts are equipped with alternative titles, and while it is useful to be aware of these alternatives, a number of editors, making a fetish of textual instability, extend the parade of options into their running titles: so a reader flicking through the pages to find No Wit, for example, could find a page headed by any of the following: ‘The Almanak’, ‘The Almanack’, ‘The Almanacke’, ‘No wit like a Womans’, ‘NO Help Like a WOMANS’, ‘No Witt, no helpe like a Womans’, ‘NO Wit like a WOMANS’, ‘No wit like a Womans’. The play listed in the contents as ‘An/The Old Law’ appears under the running titles ‘THE OLD LAW’, ‘An ould Lawe’ (in manuscript facsimile) and ‘A new way to please you’ (in print facsimile). Jeffrey Masten’s introduction to it refers the reader to the Companion’s ‘Canon and Chronology’ entry for a discussion of the alternative titles, but I searched in vain for it, though the matter is addressed in the headnote to Masten’s commentary. Perhaps this is an inadvertent symptom of the democratic approach to editing espoused by Taylor, with his constitutional suspicion of editorial ‘authority’; certainly, only a deliberate permissiveness can account for the eccentricity of Masten’s layout, which not only assimilates collations and commentary (a Barthesian gambit intended to highlight the interventionist nature of editing), but in another weirdly deconstructionist move varies the position of the notes, placing them sometimes at the foot of the page as in the rest of the volume, sometimes in a right-hand column parallel to the text, sometimes in a left-hand column, and sometimes at the head of the page. The ‘republic of Middleton’ begins to look like anarchy.
Yet the Works are also distinguished by impressive scholarship of a more conventional kind. With the same textual scrupulousness that led the Oxford Shakespeare to include two separate versions of King Lear, as well as a ‘reconstructed text’ of the notoriously corrupt Pericles, the Middleton offers both The Lady’s Tragedy and A Game at Chess in separate versions. Briggs presents parallel texts of The Lady’s Tragedy, which allow her to illustrate the changes brought about by censorship and authorial revision that she discusses so well in her introduction; while Taylor himself produces a meticulous reconstruction of two successive versions of A Game at Chess, the bafflingly complex genealogy of whose proliferating manuscript and printed versions he traces in a piece of characteristically brilliant, if necessarily baroque, detective work. A Game at Chess can rightly claim to be, in Taylor’s neat formulation, ‘a play about history, which also made history’; yet for all the originality of its allegorical design and the extraordinary audacity of its intervention in affairs of state, it is unlikely ever to be granted the stature that Taylor claimed for it in a letter in the TLS earlier this year: ‘a masterpiece that … matches Shakespeare’s achievement in the history play’. It is too narrowly local to appeal to anyone not well versed in the fraught religious and marital politics of James’s final years, and, for much the same reason, so dense with half-occluded significance that, as Taylor himself admits, ‘readers can begin to feel overwhelmed by possibilities, frustrated by the sense that we cannot hold suspended all the meanings in play.’
For a sense of Middleton’s real genius you need to go back to the unblinking psychological realism of The Changeling, or the marvellous physicality of the language in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, or the wonderfully colloquial economy of the bastard Spurio’s epitaph for the Duke in The Revenger’s Tragedy: ‘Old Dad dead?’ Our other Shakespeare? No, Middleton is, as they say, something else.