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Thomas Middleton

Thomas Middleton, depicted in the frontispiece of Two New Plays, a 1657 edition of Women Beware Women and More Dissemblers Besides Women

Thomas Middleton (1580 – July 1627) was an English Jacobean playwright and poet. Middleton stands with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson as among the most successful and prolific of playwrights who wrote their best plays during the Jacobean period. He was one of the few Renaissance dramatists to achieve equal success in comedy and tragedy. Also a prolific writer of masques and pageants, he remains one of the most noteworthy and distinctive of Jacobean dramatists.


  • Life 1
  • Works 2
  • Reputation 3
    • Plays 3.1
    • Masques and entertainments 3.2
    • Poetry 3.3
    • Prose 3.4
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Middleton was born in London and baptised on 18 April 1580. He was the son of a bricklayer who had raised himself to the status of a gentleman and who, interestingly, owned property adjoining the Curtain theatre in Shoreditch. Middleton was just five when his father died and his mother's subsequent remarriage dissolved into a fifteen year battle over the inheritance of Thomas and his younger sister: an experience which must surely have informed and perhaps even incited his repeated satirising of the legal profession.

Middleton attended Queen’s College, Oxford, matriculating in 1598, although he did not graduate. Before he left Oxford (sometime in 1600 or 1601[1]), he wrote and published three long poems in popular Elizabethan styles; none appears to have been especially successful, and one, his book of satires, ran afoul of the Anglican Church's ban on verse satire and was burned. Nevertheless, his literary career was launched.

In the early 17th century, Middleton made a living writing topical pamphlets, including one—Penniless Parliament of Threadbare Poets—that enjoyed many reprintings as well as becoming the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry. At the same time, records in the diary of War of the Theatres. The grudge with Jonson continued as late as 1626, when Jonson's play The Staple of News indulges a slur on Middleton's great success, A Game at Chess.[1] It has been argued that Middleton's Inner Temple Masque (1619) sneers at Jonson (then absent in Scotland) as a "silenced bricklayer."[2]

In 1603, Middleton married. The same year, an outbreak of plague forced the closing of the theatres in London, and James I assumed the English throne. These events marked the beginning of Middleton's greatest period as a playwright. Having passed the time during the plague composing prose pamphlets (including a continuation of Thomas Nashe's Pierce Penniless), he returned to drama with great energy, producing close to a score of plays for several companies and in several genres, most notably city comedy and revenge tragedy. He continued his collaborations with Dekker, and the two produced The Roaring Girl, a biography of contemporary thief Mary Frith.

In the 1610s, Middleton began his fruitful collaboration with the actor William Rowley, producing Wit at Several Weapons and A Fair Quarrel; working alone he produced his comic masterpiece, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, in 1613. His own plays from this decade reveal a somewhat mellowed temper; certainly there is no comedy among them with the satiric depth of Michaelmas Term and no tragedy as bloodthirsty as The Revenger's Tragedy. Middleton was also branching out into other dramatic endeavours; he was apparently called on to help revise Macbeth and Measure for Measure, and at the same time he was increasingly involved with civic pageants. This last connection was made official when, in 1620, he was appointed City Chronologer of the City of London. He held this post until his death in 1627, at which time it was passed to Jonson.

Middleton's official duties did not interrupt his dramatic writings; the 1620s saw the production of his and Rowley's tragedy The Changeling, and several tragicomedies. In 1624, he reached a pinnacle of notoriety when his dramatic allegory A Game at Chess was staged by the King's Men. The play used the conceit of a chess game to present and satirise the recent intrigues surrounding the Spanish Match. Though Middleton's approach was strongly patriotic, the Privy Council shut down the play after nine performances on the complaint of the Spanish ambassador. Middleton faced an unknown, but probably frightening, degree of punishment. Since no play later than A Game at Chess is recorded, it has been hypothesized that his punishment included a ban on writing for the stage.

Middleton died at his home in Newington Butts in Southwark in 1627, and was buried on 4 July in St Mary's churchyard.[3] The old church of St Mary's was demolished in 1876 to facilitate road-widening, and its replacement was destroyed in the Second World War and not rebuilt. The old churchyard where Middleton was buried survives as a public park in Elephant and Castle.


Middleton wrote in many genres, including tragedy, history and city comedy. His best-known plays are the tragedies The Changeling (written with William Rowley) and Women Beware Women, and the cynically satirical city comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Earlier editions of The Revenger's Tragedy attributed the play to Cyril Tourneur,[4] or refused to arbitrate between Middleton and Tourneur.[5] Since the statistical studies by David Lake[6] and MacDonald P. Jackson,[7] however, Middleton's authorship has not been seriously contested, and no scholar has defended the Tourneur attribution.[8] The Oxford Middleton and its companion piece, Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture, offer extensive evidence not only for Middleton's authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy, but also for his collaboration with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens and his adaptation and revision of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Measure for Measure. It has also been argued that Middleton collaborated with Shakespeare on All's Well That Ends Well.[9][10]

Middleton's work is diverse even by the standards of his age. He did not have the kind of official relationship with a particular company that Shakespeare or Fletcher had; instead, he appears to have written on a freelance basis for any number of companies. His output ranges from the "snarling" satire of Michaelmas Term (performed by the Children of Paul's) to the bleak intrigues of The Revenger's Tragedy (performed by the King's Men). His early work was informed by the flourishing of satire in the late-Elizabethan period,[11] while his maturity was influenced by the ascendancy of Fletcherian tragicomedy. His later work, in which satiric fury is tempered and broadened, also includes three of his acknowledged masterpieces. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, produced by the Lady Elizabeth's Men, skilfully combines London life with an expansive view of the power of love to effect reconciliation. The Changeling, a late tragedy, returns Middleton to an Italianate setting like that in The Revenger's Tragedy; here, however, the central characters are more fully drawn and more compelling as individuals.[12] Similar changes may be seen in Women Beware Women.[13]

Middleton's plays are characterised by their cynicism about the human race, a cynicism that is often very funny. True heroes are a rarity: almost every character is selfish, greedy, and self-absorbed. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside offers a panoramic view of a London populated entirely by sinners, in which no social rank goes unsatirised. In the tragedies Women Beware Women and The Revenger's Tragedy, amoral Italian courtiers endlessly plot against each other, resulting in a climactic bloodbath. When Middleton does portray good people, the characters have small roles, and are flawless. Thanks to a theological pamphlet attributed to him, Middleton is thought by some to have been a strong believer in Calvinism.


Middleton's work has long been praised by literary critics, among them Algernon Charles Swinburne and T. S. Eliot. The latter thought Middleton was second only to Shakespeare.[14]

Middleton's plays were staged throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, each decade offering more productions than the last. Even less familiar works have been staged: A Fair Quarrel was performed at the National Theatre, and The Old Law has been performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Changeling has been adapted for film several times, and the tragedy Women Beware Women remains a stage favourite. The Revenger's Tragedy was adapted into Alex Cox's film Revengers Tragedy, the opening credits of which attribute the play's authorship to Middleton.


Masques and entertainments




  1. ^ Mark Eccles, "Thomas Middleton a Poett', "Studies in Philology" 54 (1957): 516–36 (p. 525)
  2. ^ Limon, Jerzey (1994). "A Silenc'st Bricklayer". Notes and Queries 41: 512. 
  3. ^ Thomas Middleton: the Final Decade. Accessed 1 February 2013
  4. ^ Three Jacobean Tragedies (Penguin, 1968) and the Revels edition (Manchester UP, 1975) attribute the play to Tourneur on the cover, although the Revels editor makes a case for Middleton inside.
  5. ^ The New Mermaids and Revels Student Edition leave open the question of authorship.
  6. ^ The Canon of Middleton's Plays (Cambridge University Press, 1975).
  7. ^ Middleton and Shakespeare: Studies in Attribution (1979).
  8. ^ The play is attributed to Middleton in Jackson's facsimile edition of the 1607 quarto (1983), in Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor's edition of Five Middleton Plays (Penguin, 1988), and in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (Oxford, 2007). A summary of the evidence for Middleton's authorship is contained in Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture, general editors Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford, 2007).
  9. ^ Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith: 'Many Hands – A New Shakespeare Collaboration?' TLS, 19 April 2012. Online: Retrieved 26 April 2012.
  10. ^ Coughlan, Sean. "Shakespeare's 'co-author' named by Oxford scholars". BBC News. Retrieved 30 November 2014. 
  11. ^ Dorothy M. Farr, Thomas Middleton and the Drama of Realism, New York, Harper and Row, 1973; pp. 9–37.
  12. ^ Farr, pp. 50–71.
  13. ^ Farr, pp. 72–97.
  14. ^ "Thomas Middleton," The Times Literary Supplement, 30 June 1927, pp. 445–46 (unsigned).


  • Covatta, Anthony. "Thomas Middleton's City Comedies." Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1973.
  • Barbara Jo Baines. The Lust Motif in the Plays of Thomas Middleton. Salzburg, 1973.
  • Eccles, Mark (1933). "Middleton's Birth and Education". Review of English Studies 7: 431–41. 
  • J.R. Mulryne, Thomas Middleton ISBN 0-582-01266-X
  • Pier Paolo Frassinelli. "Realism, Desire, and Reification: Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside." Early Modern Literary Studies 8 (2003).
  • Kenneth Friedenreich, editor, "Accompaninge the players": Essays Celebrating Thomas Middleton, 1580–1980 ISBN 0-404-62278-X
  • Margot Heinemann. Puritanism and Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama Under the Early Stuarts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  • Herbert Jack Heller. Penitent Brothellers: Grace, Sexuality, and Genre in Thomas Middleton's City Comedies. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 2000.
  • Ben Jonson. The Staple of News. London, 1692. Holloway e-text.
  • Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor. "Introduction." In Thomas Middleton, Five Plays. Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor, eds. Penguin, 1988.
  • Jane Milling and Peter Thomson, editors. The Cambridge History of British Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Mary Beth Rose. The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne. The Age of Shakespeare. New York: Harpers, 1908. Gutenberg e-text
  • Ceri Sullivan, ‘Thomas Middleton’s View of Public Utility’, Review of English Studies 58 (2007), pp. 160–74.
  • Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of Credit. Merchants in Early Modern Writing (Madison/London: Associated University Press, 2002.
  • Gary Taylor. "Thomas Middleton." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Stanley Wells. Select Bibliographical Guides: English Drama, Excluding Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). Volume VI. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907–21. Bartleby e-text
  • The Oxford Middleton Project
  • The Plays of Thomas Middleton
  • Bilingual editions (English/French) of two Middleton plays by Antoine Ertlé:(A Game at Chess); (The Old Law)

External links

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