Old Dad dead?

Michael Neill

  • Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works edited by Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino
    Oxford, 2016 pp, £85.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 818569 7
  • Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture: A Companion to the Collected Works edited by Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino
    Oxford, 1183 pp, £100.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 818570 3

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in