The last couple of weeks or so, Bartholomew and I have been reading the works of Thomas Middleton and Ben nigh exclusively. For me, this effort has been part of my on-going battle with the 4P99 paper: Thom and Ben are the subjects of my first chapter [i]. For Bartholomew, it’s a chance to get better acquainted with the early modern dramatists with whom he shares his shelf space.
When it comes to choosing favourites between the pair, I think it’s unsurprising that I’m going to pick Ben every time. Bartholomew, though, he’s throwing his lot in with Thom. Hence the theme of today’s Bookish Adventures with Bartholomew. You see, Bartholomew recently discovered that today is the 428th celebration of Thomas Middleton’s birthday [ii], and has demanded I make a fuss over the occasion.
I must admit, I sort of see his point. Thomas Middleton is, after all, pretty fantastic, and, like most of the dramatic early modern poets who don’t have the good fortune to be named Will Shakespeare, he’s sadly overlooked by the casual reader.
So why is “T.M. Gent.” deserving of your attention? Well, for starters, the man was a proficient networker. In an age of poetic collaboration, Middleton was the collaborating-est poet around, working with most of the big* names in London theatre, including John Webster, William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, John Marston, and, of course, with Ben himself. He even worked with the afore-named Will Shakespeare, on Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, and Macbeth (critics suspect he wrote the witch scenes) [iii].
Middleton is also the author of A Game at Chess (1624), the single most financially successful play during the English renaissance [iv].
Finally, Thom. is probably the early modern dramatist you’d most like to spend time with at the pub. In his city comedies*, Thom. writes on a lot of the same themes that Ben and Will are writing about: the hypocrisy of aristocrats, the debauchery of the peasants (and the aristocrats), problems of sexual licentiousness and greed in London’s market, the power politics of marriage, and, of course, the theatre itself. Yet Thom handles these subjects with a lot of liberty and understanding: he doesn’t demand we cut out our gambling and lying altogether. Too, he’s fairly supportive of homosexuality and women. In fact, since I like to quote myself so much, here’s what I wrote about his play The Roaring Girl [v]:
The simulation and dissimulation common in early modern London is the theme of both Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl and Jonson’s The Staple of News.[vi] Middleton, however, reveals (and revels in) the potential for London as not merely a simulation but a hyper-reality, a society where the signs of gender, desire, and wealth possess no real referents; his critique is mainly of the hypocritical attitude of males within this hyper-reality who insist that women conform to essential gender qualities which cannot exist as long as males insist upon women as objects of exchange in the hyper-reality. The possibility of a hyper-reality in which women are active autonomous subjects is, for Jonson, repugnant, and he takes what could be likened to an anti-theatrical stance on the problem, attempting to expose the hyper-reality of London as insubstantial system which ultimately fails against the essential virtue of a self-regulating patriarchy. Jonson’s attempt to distinguish an appropriate “essential” theatre that can operate congruently with the self-regulating patriarchy, however, fails in his inability to reveal the “essentially” virtuous Pecunia as either wholly female or male. (2-3)
That’s a bit dull, really. I only include it as part of my on-going efforts to give friends and readers an idea of what I’m writing about in my thesis (and also to prove that I am indeed getting some work done — you aren’t suffering my long-winded discussions of Ben without cause). Here’s a bit in Thom’s own words:
Lord Nol. Why, thou hadst a suitor once, Jack: when wilt marry?
Moll. Who, I my Lord? I’ll tell you when, i’faith;
When you shall hear
Gallants void from sergeants’ fear,
Honesty and truth unslandered,
Woman manned, but never pandered,
Cheats booted, but not coached,
Vessels older ere they’re broached;
If my mind be then not varied,
Next day following, I’ll be married.
Lord. Nol. This sounds like doomsday.
Moll. Then were marriage best;
For if I should repent, I were soon at rest. (5.1.110)
I admire Moll, far more than Shakespeare’s Katherine even (The Taming of the Shrew). Fearless, independent, and witty witty witty. She forces the men of the play to recognise her as an autonomous being.
So happy birthday, Thom! Bartholomew has asked that I send you belated congratulations, too, on the recent Oxford edition of your collected works! [vi]
[i] my first chapter. This chapter was finally submitted today!
[ii] Thomas Middleton’s birthday. Well, not really. Birth records in early modern London were a bit sketchy; most have to be guessed at from church records, which were much more dependently kept. 18 April 1580 is the date of Middleton’s baptism registration. His birth would have occurred in the week prior to this date.
[iii] the witch scenes. Bet you didn’t know that, did you? That’s right, the great Will, like any other dramatist of this period had a lot of input from other writers and sources. (I Shakespeare too. There are other playwrights though, folks!)
[iv] A Game at Chess. It was a political play, satirizing the Spanish court, and the Infanta Maria, who was being considered as a marriage match for young Charles I. The play was so contentious that it was shut down after nine days (the longest continuous-running performance in London at the time), and the Globe Theatre prosecuted by the Privy Council. With characters like the “Fat Bishop of Spalato,” it is fairly offensive to the Catholics/Spanish. (The marriage to Spain never occurred, by the way, but as Charles got his head chopped off in 1649, it was probably for the best.)
[v] The Roaring Girl takes as its subject the famous female transvestite, Mary “Moll” Frith, who not only wore men’s clothing, but was also known for her habits of smoking tobacco, carousing in pubs, and dueling. Moll is thought to have attended one of the performances of the play, sitting in the on-stage audience with the other roarers.*
[vi] The New Inn is the first of Ben’s late plays. Set in London, the action of the play takes place in and around the newly-formed rumour mill (yes, it actually sells gossip), and critiques the spending habits of a miser (Pennyboy Sr.), a prodigal (his nephew, Pennyboy Jr.), and the prodigal’s “dead” father, Pennyboy Canter, who learns them all a lesson in civic virtue.
[vii] collected works. Speaking of birthdays, I was going to recommend this as an excellent gift idea for anyone considering mine. Then I realised it’s $255 (I’m pretty sure it was much much much cheaper when first released). Even I think that’s a bit much for Middleton. Take a look at it anyways: it’s a nice edition.
Me! “Chapter One.” In Obviously Unpublished. (April 2008 ). 1-18.
Middleton, Thomas. The Roaring Girl. In Thomas Middleton. Vol.II. Ed. Havelock Ellis. London: T Fischer Unwin. 1-114.
18 April 2008
Glossary of Terms:
Big. adj. Of large magnitude. Another relative term; for example, “Erin thought dramatists like Middleton and Jonson were a big deal, but her readers thought she was making a big fuss.”
City Comedy. n. (lit.) Genre of comedy, you guessed it, set in the city! Usually that city is London, but Shakespeare set his Measure for Measure in Vienna. Ben’s four most popular Jacobean comedies are in this genre, as are most of Middleton’s. City comedies usually take the problems of commerce, law, prostitution and the fair as their themes/settings. Also, the plots usually involve the different characters attempting to outsmart/swindle each other.
Roarer. n. (obs.) Name given to youths in early modern London who ate, drank, gambled, drank, dueled, and generally kicked up a ruckus (while drinking). During the Protestant Interregnum under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, roaring took on a more political meaning as roarers fêted with the spirit of carpé diem, against the oppressive social regime.