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Thomas Middleton

Thomas Middleton

The English playwright Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) was one of the most productive and talented playwrights of the Jacobean period. His best work was done in "city comedy"—comedy of intrigue with emphasis on the more lurid features of contemporary London.

Thomas Middleton was born the son of a fairly prosperous London bricklayer. He began writing early and had published at least three nondramatic pieces before he was 20. He attended Oxford in 1598 but apparently left without a degree. By 1602 he was in London, actively engaged in writing plays, first as a collaborator and then independently.

Some of Middleton's most successful work as a dramatist was done between 1602 and 1608, when he wrote a series of lively realistic comedies of London life. These include The Family of Love (ca. 1602), The Phoenix (ca. 1603), Michaelmas Term (1605), A Mad World My Masters (1605), and Your Five Gallants (ca. 1607). A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611), probably Middleton's most widely read comedy today, is a play of the same kind.

Most of Middleton's early work was written for performance by one or another of the companies of boy actors which were flourishing at this time. After 1608, as the popularity of the children's companies waned, he seems to have written almost exclusively for adult actors. His most notable plays from this later period are The Changeling (1622; written in collaboration with William Rowley) and A Game at Chess (1624).

The Changeling, one of the most powerful tragedies of the Jacobean period, traces the developing engagement to evil on the part of the beautiful and wealthy Beatrice-Joanna. Her sudden and inexplicable attraction to Deflores, a servant whom she had always found repulsive, initiates an exciting career of deception, lust, and murder. The highly unusual A Game at Chess has characters designated only as chess pieces: the White King, the Black Bishop, and so on. The action of the play, however, was clearly based on contemporary political events and caused a great sensation. The Spanish ambassador took offense and persuaded the English authorities to suppress the play for a time. Middleton apparently went into hiding to escape punishment.

In addition to his work for the professional stage, Middleton produced a number of civic pageants. In recognition of his abilities in this kind of entertainment, he was appointed city chronologer of London in 1620. He held this lucrative post until his death. He was buried in the Newington section of London, where he had resided during most of his adult life.

Further Reading

A full-length study of Middleton is Richard Hindry Barker, Thomas Middleton (1958). See also Samuel Schoenbaum, Middleton's Tragedies: A Critical Study (1955), which treats at length certain problems of authorship associated with the Middleton canon.

Additional Sources

Barker, Richard Hindry, Thomas Middleton, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974, 1958.

Mulryne, J. R., Thomas Middleton, Burnt Mill Eng.: Published for the British Council by Longman Group, 1979. □

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Middleton, Thomas

Thomas Middleton, 1580–1627, English dramatist, b. London, grad. Queen's College, Oxford, 1598. His early plays were chiefly written in collaboration with Dekker, Drayton, and others. Between 1604 and 1611 he wrote realistic, satiric comedies of London life, including A Trick to Catch the Old One (c.1604), Michaelmas Term (c.1605), The Roaring Girl (c.1610, with Dekker), and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611). His comedies, like his early pamphlets, expose contemporary vice and give graphic pictures of the more scabrous side of Jacobean life. During the years 1613 to 1618 he wrote tragicomedies. From 1621 to the end of his career he wrote his most notable plays, two powerful tragedies about the corruption of character, The Changeling (1622, with William Rowley,) and Women Beware Women (1625). Some modern scholarship suggests that he wrote a significant portion of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (c.1607, pub. 1623). Middleton was severely reproved by the Privy Council for his anti-Spanish political satire, A Game at Chess (1624). In addition to his plays, he wrote civic pageants and masques.

See his works ed. by A. H. Bullen (8 vol., 1885–86); bibliography by S. J. Steen (1985); studies by C. Asp (1974) and A. L. Kistner (1984); B. Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author (2003).

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Middleton, Thomas

Middleton, Thomas (c.1570–1627) English dramatist. He collaborated with Thomas Dekker on the comedy The Honest Whore (1604). His own comedies include A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611) and the political satire A Game at Chess (1624). Middleton is chiefly remembered for his two tragicomedies The Changeling (1622, co-written with William Rowley) and Women Beware Women (c.1625). Many critics believe he wrote The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), traditionally credited to Cyril Tourneur.

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