Blogging Middleton

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I’ve been told there has been much in the news lately about a marriage between a certain William and a certain Middleton. I can only assume these headlines are referring to the collaboration – “the marriage of true minds” – between William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton. Personally, I am overjoyed to hear that the two Renaissance dramatists are once again making headlines and being photographed for the cover of Hello! Magazine.

In April of next year, I will be attending the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual meeting where I will have the opportunity to be a part of Gary Taylor’s workshop entitled ‘Teaching our Other Shakespeare (Middleton)’. The workshop’s goals are to share practical ways of teaching Middleton alongside his contemporary dramatists, and to design sample courses on Middleton for undergraduate students. Middleton studies is trendy among academics and theatre practitioners at the moment, but it seems to me that Middleton has not quite broken through to become a part of popular culture in the same way that Shakespeare has.

What’s strange is that in the early seventeenth century, Middleton’s popularity was nearly unmatched. Perhaps only John Fletcher and Ben Jonson could compete with the commercial plays produced by Thomas Middleton. In A Game at Chess, Middleton produced the biggest box office hit of the period. In Women, Beware Women and The Changeling (among others), Middleton fashioned a variety of female figures whose vicious ingenuity served to subvert the patriarchal tragic form. In some of the finest examples of city comedy from the period like A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and A Mad World, My Masters, Middleton transferred the seedy London life to the stage. Even the most steadfast Bardolatrist must admit that Middleton’s ability to thrill audiences within a range of genre is unparalleled.

We certainly have the tools to make Middleton our other Shakespeare. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino’s monumental 2007 OUP The Collected Works of Thomas Middleton is now available in paperback at an affordable price. Middleton plays are hitting the heights all over the world more than ever. The National Theatre’s Women, Beware Women of 2010 was hailed as “a staging that wraps its inky fingers around you and holds you, spellbound” (Financial Times). Furthermore, BBC Radio 4’s production The Tudor Tarantino introduces Thomas Middleton as a dramatist whose work uniquely captured the ferocity and the sensuality of seventeenth century London at once. And yet, despite all of this – the books, the productions, the radio programs – Thomas Middleton remains in the shadows of his great collaborator and arguably his mentor, William Shakespeare.

I have my theories as to why this is the case, but I am more interested in hearing from you all. Why is Shakespeare remembered as the greatest dramatist of the period? Why, oh why, are we not blogging Middleton? How do you think he stands up to Shakespeare? Certainly, I am not the only one who thinks Middleton is our other Shakespeare – do you?

Matt Kubus

  • Cass Morris

    I love Middleton’s plays, especially all the revenge tragedies. They’re just so vicious and visceral, real bloodsport, just damn fine entertainment all around. The ASC did The Revenger’s Tragedy a couple of winters ago, and it was one of the most entertaining things I’d ever seen. The BBC has it right — he’s the early modern Tarantino. Blood and passion represented with such violent joy, and that makes for great stageplay.

    If studying Shakespeare’s contemporaries has taught me anything, though, it’s that… he really was the best. Not all of the time. Some of his weaker plays aren’t as good as some of the best of Middleton, Marlowe, Beaumont&Fletcher, or Jonson… but no one holds a candle to his best. He had a talent the others just couldn’t match. Middleton isn’t Shakespeare in the same way that Tarantino isn’t… I don’t know, Scorsese? Hard to think of a equivalent there, but that’s the general idea. Middleton doesn’t quite transcend in the same way Shakespeare can. (Not always does, but can).

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  • Christian Smith

    I am currently spending quite a bit of time on Timon of Athens, Shakespeare and Middleton’s collaboration. This is a good place to explore the question you ask. I like Middleton. He wrote ingenious plots, characters with depth, and good verse. His contribution to Timon, most of the flattery scenes so full of satire as they are, is vital to the workings of the play. However, there is a difference, and it can be felt in this play.

    Having said that, it is time to expand our taught canon, and I am glad to see that happening.

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