Thomas Middleton was a poet, dramatist, literary critic, and translator. He was a complete Jacobean. Perhaps he studied law in London and in the 1590s he was at Oxford University. Later he was often employed to write pageants to celebrate civic occasions, and in 1620 he was appointed a city chronologer.
His first published work was a long poem, The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased (1597), followed by other verses and prose pamphlets. By 1600 he was in London, daily accompanying the players, and by 1603 he was writing for Philip Henslowe, working with John Webster, Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, Anthony Munday, and others; much of his work of this period is lost.
As a dramatist, he wrote a number of plays of which two tragedies were remarkable: Women Beware Women (1614) and The Changeling (1622) with a subplot by William Rowley.
Women Beware Women is a baroque and vindictive tragedy of misdirected desire ending in a blood-bath. The tragedy features an ingeniously integrated subplot dramatizing the incestuous love of Hippolito for his brother’s daughter Isabella, whom he to seduce with the help of her aunt. The most famous scene in the play concerns the seduction of Bianca by the Duke of Florence in a series of moves that parallel those of a game of chess played simultaneously between Bianca’s mother-in-law and Livia. Like Webster’s The White Devil, Women Beware Women evinces a cynical and erotic awareness of the role of power and money in human relationships and their ability to destroy even marriage.
The Changeling is a tragic drama in verse deemed one of the greatest after Shakespeare. It is written in sober, forceful blank verse admirably handled, perhaps, the finest in the Jacobean Age. John Reynold’s God’s Revenge Against Murder is the source of the play. William Rowley seems to have composed the comic sub-plot, the value of which is dubious, it is not finely linked up with the main plot. The main plot concerns the murder by Beatrice Johanne of her prospective husband Alonzo so that she can marry another person. She executes the murder by her admirer De Flores-her servant, as though by employing such a person she could herself remain free of the guilt and horror of the crime. Instead, De Flores insists that they now equal in the sin of bloodshed, and blackmails her into becoming a free mistress.
As a writer of comedy, he is a notable successor of Ben Jonson like Philip Massinger. His best comedies are-
1. A Trick to Catch the Old One (1604).
2. The Roaring Girl (1606) in collaboration with Dekker. It is a buoyant and big-hearted comedy of gender ambiguity, structured around the benevolent figure of Moll Cutpurse whose object is to smooth the course of true love. She is described by her detractors as “a woman more than man. Man more than a woman”. She is the moral focus of the play, conceived of as a Jacobean citizen comedy version of Shakespeare’s Rosalind (As You Like It).
3. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613): It is a citizen comedy of the Jacobean age, with a characteristic theme of a merchant(Yellowhammer) scheming against Sir Walter Whorehound, a desolate landed gentleman, so as to secure marriage with his daughter and entry into the land-owning class, while Whorehound, in turn, tries to marry off his mistress to Yellowhammer’s son and thereby gain his money. The play has a fling at both classes of in London society and has characteristic robustness in the way which uses the social satire at a deeper level than the merely topical relationship, so as to bring out basic types of human greed, avarice, pride, and lust in the tradition of humor comedy of Ben Jonson.
4. A Game at Chess (1624) is a political satire provoked by the King’s failure to marry his son to a Spanish princess.
In fact, he was quite in the rank of Webster, Dekker, Rowley, Munday, and others with whom he equally shared and collaborated in the fields of contemporary literature and wrote many successful comedies of the then city-life with a tinge and pinch of sarcasm. These works include The Roaring Girl (with Dekker, 1611), Michaelmas Term (1607), A Mad World, My Masters (1608), A Fair Quarrel (1617 with Rowley), The Spanish Gipsy (1625, with Rowley and Ford), etc.
Middleton also wrote many pageants and masques for city occasions and was appointed city-chronologer under Royal Declaration in 1620.
Also read: George Etherege and his famous works