1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Middleton

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:213-14.



A conjecture that an old neglected drama by THOMAS MIDDLETON supplied the witchcraft scenery, and part of the lyrical incantations, of "Macbeth," has kept alive the name of this poet. So late as 1778, Middleton's play, the "Witch," was first published by Reed from the author's manuscript. It is possible that the "Witch" may have preceded "Macbeth;" but as the latter was written in the fulness of Shakspeare's fame and genius, we think it is more probable that the inferior author was the borrower. He may have seen the play performed, and thus caught the spirit and words of the scenes in question; or, for aught we know, the "Witch" may not have been written till after 1623, when Shakspeare's first folio appeared. We know that after this date Middleton was writing for the stage, as, in 1624, his play, A Game at Chess, was brought out, and gave great offence at court, by bringing on the stage the king of Spain, and his ambassador, Gondomar. The latter complained to King James of the insult, and Middleton (who at first "shifted out of the way") and the poor players were brought before the privy-council. They were only reprimanded for their audacity in "bringing modern Christian kings upon the stage." If the dramatic sovereign had been James himself, nothing less than the loss of ears and noses would have appeased offended royalty! Middleton wrote about twenty plays: in 1603, we find him assisting Dekker at a court-pageant, and he was afterwards concerned in different pieces with Rowley, Webster, and other authors. He would seem to have been well-known as a dramatic writer. On Shrove Tuesday, 1617, the London apprentices in an idle riot, demolished the Cockpit Theatre and an old ballad describing the circumstance, states—

Books old and young on heap they flung,
And burnt them in the blazes,
Tom Dekker, Heywood, Middleton,
And other wandering crazys.

In 1620, Middleton was made chronologer, or city poet, of London, an office afterwards held by Ben Jonson, and which expired with Settle in 1724. He died in July 1627. The dramas of Middleton have no strongly-marked character; his best is Women Beware of Women, a tale of love and jealousy, from the Italian.