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Shakespeare and Middleton a review article.

SHAKESPEARE changes, a little faster than a glacier but not so slowly that we cannot detect movement. A major shift of perception is now upon us. The Works of Shakespeare are under intense, highly informed scrutiny of authorship. This is not the idiots' question, 'Did Shakespeare write the plays of Shakespeare?' It is a vastly more sophisticated enquiry. How much of the canon was actually written by Shakespeare, and how much can reasonably be assigned to collaboration?

In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare was deemed a solitary genius, towering above his fellows. He needed no help. That Romantic view was later pecked at by distintegrators. Broadly, the Romantics held that Shakespeare wrote it all, and the disintegrators (led by J.M. Robertson) believed that most of 'Shakespeare' was his revision of earlier efforts by Marlowe, Chapman, Peele and others. These extreme views are not supported today, but there has always been a traditionalist reluctance to admit co-authorship to the canon.

Yet collaboration was the settled practice of playwrights in that era. It is comparable to what now happens in film and TV scriptwriting, with the 'plotter' (the story editor, we would say) in charge of assembling various contributions. Since the basic unit of drama was the scene, it was convenient to assign scenes and even plot-lines to different writers. We are sure that Shakespeare wrote at least one scene in Sir Thomas More, and that about half of Henry VIII was written by John Fletcher. Titus Andronicus looks like the work of Shakespeare the play doctor, who took over a 'treatment' by George Peele. The Two Noble Kinsmen (part Fletcher) and Edward III (various hands) have moved from the apocrypha to the canon. No question of principle is involved. All playwrights were jobbing playwrights. They took the work as it came along. They needed the money.

Widespread collaboration is now a given, and the overall case is established in Brian Vickers' masterly Shakespeare, Co-Author (2002). How can co-authors be distinguished? There is no single route through that maze. But the key is the search for a writer's linguistic DNA. This is the province of the computer. The computer can list not only vocabulary, but also word-formations (i'th'), syntactical usages, favourite oaths, and spellings. There is a reasonable assumption that certain spellings, as printed, came from the MS as written. (Printers then were not the insufferable know-alls that copy-editors are today.) Crucial evidence is based on socio-linguistic data. Jonathan Hope distinguishes between the work of two named candidates by three types of usage: the use of the auxiliary 'do', the use of the relative marker (that/who/which), and the choice of you/thou. When these subtle indicators all point in a certain direction, the rational argument is over. And this enhances enormously the standing of Thomas Middleton, in part through his collaboration with Shakespeare.

Middleton was a great collaborator. And this has obscured his fame. T.S. Eliot's lapidary judgment still stands: 'Of all the Elizabethan dramatists Middleton seems the most impersonal, the most indifferent to fame and perpetuity, the readiest, except perhaps Rowley, to accept collaboration'. This splendid two-volume edition, prepared by 75 scholars from a dozen countries, sets Middleton in the honoured place he merits. Middleton is hard to grasp in the fullness of his achievement, but the methods of the last few decades now justify a revised and extensive view of his oeuvre.

To begin with the Shakespeare collaborations: the editors now claim three plays are by Shakespeare and Middleton. Measure for Measure was undoubtedly written by Shakespeare in 1603-4, when it was put on at Court. But the only text we have (the 1623 Folio) is thought to be Middleton's adaptation, in 1621. He switched the location from Ferrara to Vienna, to take advantage of current political developments in central Europe. The text was heavily revised, perhaps as much as 10 per cent owing to Middleton. We are now given a 'genetic text' that identifies Middleton's contributions.

Macbeth has long been admitted to be Middleton's in part. This also is a late adaptation. The text we have (Folio) contains interpolations by Middleton, notably the Hecate material. These have not been much admired, but they look forward to the operatic future of Macbeth. Taylor thinks that Middleton wrote about 11 per cent of the material in the adapted text, and was responsible for cuts. He provided the fast, shapely play we know. As with Measure for Measure, the original text cannot be recovered, only surmised. But we can confidently ascribe to Middleton the version we have.

For a proper collaboration between Shakespeare and Middleton, we have Timon of Athens. Most of the first half is Middleton's, and he is reckoned to have composed about one-third of the text. This provokes a surprising reaction to the play in performance: the first half is brilliant, the second half dull and repetitive, as Timon launches his great tirades at the world. Can it really be true that the best parts of Timon are Middleton's, and the dull parts are Shakespeare's? It can.

The first part is an acrid comedy of Athenian high life. The dialogue between Timon and the Cartier salesman is pure Bond Street. What jewellers say to their clients does not vary much through the ages. The vignettes of the late friends avoiding contact with the servants of the distressed Timon are etchings of metropolitan hollowness and venality. One thinks of the marking on Walton's score, con malizia. It has a glittering vivacity altogether lacking in the post-interval Timon. The secret equation is Athens = London, and this play contains a heartless City comedy in Middleton's best vein. This perception frees us from regarding Timon as somehow incomplete, unfinished, inferior. Whatever its limitations, it is the work of two accomplished professionals who have agreed on the main lines of their joint work.

And so to the main body of Middleton's work. Recent scholarship has now fully reclaimed for him the most striking of his plays. The Revenger's Tragedy (1607). For generations some of the finest minds in literary analysis toiled over reconciling the authorship of that play with Cyril Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy (1611). How could the shadowy Tourneur-of whom almost nothing is known-have failed to keep up the high standard of The Revenger's Tragedy?

The answer is disarmingly simple. Tourneur didn't write the earlier play. It was merely a false attribution in the mid-seventeenth century, by a publisher with a notoriously feeble grip on fact. Tourneur owes much, I suspect, to the fact that he spelt his name the way he did, and not 'Turner.' Hence the extravagant praise he received from the excitable Marcel Schwob, 'Cyril Tourneur naquit de I 'union d'un dieu inconnu avec une prostituee'. As recently as the Revels edition of 1966, R.A. Foakes sat on the authorship fence. We can now forget the forgettable Tourneur. This play is echt Middleton, all of it.

Italianate, not Italian. That is the correct judgment on the play's feeling. Italy, the California of the dramatists' imagination, was the great source of glamour, beauty, wickedness, sexual allure, murder. It is as close as the Jacobeans dared get to their own Court. Here is the Duke's bastard, Spurio:
 Faith, if the truth were known, I was begot
 After some gluttonous dinner, some stirring dish
 Was my first father, when deep healths went round,
 And ladies' cheeks were painted red with wine,
 Their tongues as short and nimble as their heels,
 Uttering words sweet and thick; and when they rose,
 Were merrily disposed to fall again.


And here is the disguised Vindice, seeking to pimp his own sister for the Duke:
 O, think upon the pleasure of the palace;
 Secured ease and state; the stirring mealts,
 Ready to move out of the dishes, that
 E'en now quicken when they're eaten;
 Banquest abroad by torch-light, musics, sports,
 Bare-headed vassals, that ne'er had the fortune
 To keep on their own hats, but let horns wear 'em;
 Nine coaches waiting-hurry, hurry, hurry!


In the fevered imagination of the young Middleton (aged 26), this is the dolce vita of King James's court. His play ends with a welter of blood, a masque of revengers that leads to eight killings and an unprovoked confession by Vindice: "twas somewhat witty carried, though we say it. 'Twas we two murdered him.' And the beneficiary of Vindice's crimes, the elderly nobleman Antonio, comes out with a superbly cynical closure. He orders the immediate execution of Vindice and his brother: 'Away with 'em! Such an old man as he;/You that would murder him would murder me'.

It is a perfect surprise ending. Trevor Nunn caught the play's tone in his landmark RSC production (1967), and had this to say of the rehearsals: 'the language is brittle and flinty and sharp and jagged and consonantal ... I was also trying to reveal things of the tone of the play, people being vicious towards each other, cynical, mocking, hurtful to each other'. The play was written at the same time as Jonson's Volpone, and it has the same combination of revulsion and gusto. What terrible people-and how Middleton enjoys their disgraceful company.

The same can be said of his comedies. In the City comedy genre, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is Middleton's finest. The plot does not matter. The people are everything. His grand central Act III scene depicts the Gossips freeloading at the celebration of Mistress Allwit's new-born child, sprung from Sir Walter Whorehound's loins. Sir Walter has long enjoyed the favours of Allwit's wife, to Allwit's entire satisfaction:
 I thank him, he's maintained my house this ten years,
 Not only keeps my wife, but keeps me
 And all my family. I am at his table;
 He gets me all my children, and pays the nurse
 Monthly or weekly; puts me to nothing,
 Rent, nor church-duties, not so much as the scavenger;
 The happiest state that ever man was born to!


All wit dilates on the joys of a contented wittol. But Sir Walter's prospects vanish at the birth of an heir to Lady Kix, his kinswoman, and he gets into trouble with the law. Allwit decides it is time to review his portfolio:
 I must tell you, sir,
 You have been somewhat bolder in my house
 Than I could well like of; I suffered you
 Till it stuck here at my heart; I tell you truly
 I thought you had been familiar with my wife once.


And his ever-loving wife at once backs up her lord: 'With me? I'll see him hanged first'. Morality has asserted itself, too late to be convincing, but in time to protect the best interests of the Allwit family. There is no moral centre here. Middleton shows a world governed by sex and money, nothing else. It has a disturbing veracity, a deeply unsettling resemblance to a tabloid world we know.

The Changeling has suffered from one of William Empson's less happy ideas, his promotion of the sub-plot as a commentary on the main plot. This became a trope of academic writers. But the presence of a second plot, whatever its thematic congruence, is not guaranteed to help the main action. And William Rowley's plot, which actually illustrates the title, is the work of a second-rater. Richard Eyre's well-resourced production for the National Theatre (1988) demonstrated the uselessness of this second plot. The play in performance simply does not need it and can dispense with it. With the sub-plot cut away, The Changeling has the smooth, lethal quality of a Jacobean film noir.

It is the story of a wilful, naive young woman who hires a hitman to rid her of an unwanted suitor. He does the job, and then demands his price: her. Sex and money are no longer the twin forces. It is sexual obsession that drives on De Flores, even when he is offered a large reward: 'You see I have thrown contempt upon your gold,/Not that I want it not, for I do-piteously' (3.4.114-15). Beatrice-Joanna is shocked at his words. His rejoinder is iron: 'Pish, you forget yourself./A woman dipped in blood, and talk of modesty?' (128-29) And she, who had found him physically loathsome, has to submit. Blackmailed into bed, she becomes enslaved to 'a wondrous necessary man.' In one of the great lines of this play, and all tragedy, De Flores says 'You are the deed's creature' (140), a perception at the heart of Macbeth. At the last, De Flores kills Beatrice-Joanna and then himself, with this self-epitaph:
 I thank life for nothing
 But that pleasure, it was so sweet to me
 That I have drunk up all, left none behind
 For any man to pledge me.


The erotic intensity of The Changeling has made the play an international classic, with successful productions by Ronconi and Peter Stein of late years. For the general audience today, it is the play its author is most remembered by.

In his own time though Middleton's fame peaked three years before his death, with A Game at Chess (1624). The play comments allegorically on the rivalry between England and Spain, and vents anti-Spanish feeling. He gave to the language the phrase 'nine days' wonder,' for it was played on nine consecutive days, unheard of then, before being banned. Middleton had dared to make transparent commentary on high events of the day, and paid the price. The Spanish Ambassador complained, and Middleton finished up in goal. He was released but wrote no more plays. A Game at Chess has been put on at Oxford and Cambridge, but holds no appeal for modern audiences.

And yet it seals his work. Middleton is fascinated with power, sexual and temporal, as it governs the world. His plays perform an endoscopy upon the body politic. This, says Middleton, is the way things are. There is only one value, power, and it has two main tributaries. The rest is rhetoric. Taylor is right that 'Middleton's seeming impersonality itself reflects a personality'. It is his considered judgment on the world.

All those who contributed to this monumental edition deserve unstinted praise. These volumes bring together the total oeuvre, which includes masques, pageants, epigrams, and juvenilia. Taylor supplies an invaluable biography, which draws together the threads of life and work. The effect is to present a dramatist, imperfectly known till now, who is of his world and of ours. Time magazine (November 19, 2007) gave him resplendent coverage: For Adults Only. 'AFTER CENTURIES OF NEGLECT, THOMAS MIDDLE-TON IS BEING RELAUNCHED AS THE DARK, EDGY EQUIVALENT OF SHAKESPEARE'. That's too strong, of course, but a great dramatist is moving downstage at us. Middleton did not fight for his fame, but his fame has now come to him.

Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works.

Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino, General Editors.

Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[pounds sterling]85.00.

2016 pages.

ISBN 978-0-19-8818569-7.

Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture:

A Companion to The Collected Works.

Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino, General Editors.

Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[pounds sterling]75.00.

1183 pages.

ISBN 978-0-19-818570-3.

The two-volume set, [pounds sterling]150.00. ISBN 978-0-19-922588-0.

Ralph Berry's many publications include The Shakespearean Metaphor and Tragic Instance: the Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies.
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Title Annotation:Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works
Author:Berry, Ralph
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Words:2529
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