Martin, Mathew. "Introduction." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003) <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-3/intro.htm>.
Thomas Middleton's stock as a playwright has risen considerably over the almost four centuries since Ben Jonson pronounced him a "base fellow" and "not of the number of the faithful, i.e. poets" (Conversations with William Drummond 156-158). Today Middleton is recognized as one of the most complex and perhaps the most versatile of early modern English dramatists. His city comedies rival Jonson's not only in formal sophistication and tonal complexity but also in the depth of their social considerations and in their sheer theatrical pizzazz. The Roaring Girl, which Middleton co-authored with Thomas Dekker, is evidence that Middleton's critical social vision could extend beyond Jonson's often misogynistic take on the rapidly changing urban environment of early modern London. His tragedies rank with Webster's and Ford's for their bleak analyses of the intricate connections between power and sexuality, and Middleton would also turn his hand to tragicomic endeavours, following the lead of Beaumont and Fletcher. If the Augustans claimed Jonson and the Romantics Shakespeare, several recent critics have claimed Middleton as the early modern dramatist whose concerns are particularly resonant with our own: "Middleton is more our contemporary today than any other Jacobean playwright" (1), Swapan Chakravorty asserts to open his recent study, Society and Politics in the Plays of Thomas Middleton. Contemporary playwrights and producers have discovered Middleton to be a rich vein to mine, and film directors such as Alex Cox are joining the rush. This special issue of Early Modern Literary Studies contains a review essay by Ben Spiller on Cox's new film version of Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, scheduled to be released in London on Valentine's Day of this year (a fine Middletonian irony).
It is tempting, then, to write a Whig version of the history of Middleton criticism. Like Donne's poetry, one might argue, Middleton's dramatic art has undergone a progressive positive revaluation at the hands of the increasingly sensitive tools of modern literary criticism. If Middleton's arrival onto the big screen signals his contemporaneity, the projected Oxford edition of Middleton's complete works signals his arrival into the canonical status of one of the major early modern English dramatists. Yet this story tells only a partial truth, and I would like to suggest that Middleton's position in 20th-century Renaissance drama scholarship is the result not so much of revaluation as of the various crises in the notion of evaluation itself.
Rather than recite the history of Middleton criticism, to illustrate my suggestion I'd like here to take up several points of critical contention particularly relevant to the articles in this special issue. The first concerns the relationship between Middleton's dramas and their historical contexts. In his oft-quoted essay on Middleton, Eliot praises Middleton as the "great recorder" (93) whose "photographic" (92) realism displays the impersonality and absence of message so highly prized by Eliot's modernist aesthetics and later by academic New Criticism. When L. C. Knights in Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson challenged Eliot on Middleton, he did so not by disputing Eliot's characterization of the realism of Middleton's drama but by invoking other criteria by which to assign it a value. Knights granted that Middleton's realism might be "photographic," but argued that "it is no use looking for the more important kind of illustration of the life of the period, for the kind of fact that is inseparable from interpretation and criticism of the fact" (268). For Knights, it was precisely Middleton's impersonality or lack of message that warranted his relegation to the status of second-rate playwright. This is an old debate, and modern Middleton criticism has moved on from the simple and polarized terms in which Eliot and Knights conducted it, sceptical on the one hand of Eliot's notion of "photographic" realism and suspicious on the other of Knight's assumption that the anti-acquisitive world view inherited by the Elizabethans from the middle ages was the only critical perspective on nascent capitalism available to early modern dramatists. Nonetheless, Middleton's plays continue to challenge the more sophisticated reconceptualizations of the relationship between text and culture which underlie recent New Historicist, cultural materialist and feminist readings of the plays. Perhaps we have simply transvalued impersonality as elusiveness, irony and parodic cultural quotation, qualities especially attractive in the wake of postmodern theory. Fashionableness aside, though, attention to these qualities in Middleton's plays has revealed the complexity of the relationship the plays construct between the world they stage and the world of which that stage was a part.
The second point concerns authorship and the editing, or un-editing, of Middleton's plays and Renaissance dramas in general. Placed beside the canonical Shakespeare, Middleton can seem a shadowy figure, the writer of a diffuse collection of work, much of it collaborative, which scarcely comes together as an oeuvre. Nonetheless, a central component of the now-familiar critiques of the ideological baggage of bardolatry has been a rethinking of what it might mean to edit a Renaissance play text as if it were the unified product of a single, unified author, and within this paradigm Middleton emerges as far less obviously marginal. Although a number of critics have responded to Eliot's comment that Middleton "is merely the name which associates six or seven great plays" (84) by fabricating for him one authorial persona or another, the collaborative nature of much of Middleton's work, the uncertainty surrounding the texts of the plays, the uncertainty about which plays are in fact Middleton's, and the lack of concern about authorial identity apparently displayed by Middleton himself all render the various Middletons of modern criticism patently fictional at the moment of their inception, incapable of performing the authorizing and unifying functions of such a figure as "Shakespeare," but by that very incapacity calling into question the author functions of these more established fictions.
Consequently, it seems somewhat paradoxical that the resonances between Middleton's plays and late twentieth-century critical concerns have led to that most traditional form of literary valorization: Middleton's enshrinement in a new Oxford edition of his collected works. What does it mean to canonize a previously marginal playwright whose works we find valuable because, among other things, they call into question the notion of canonicity? Gail Kern Paster, herself an editorial contributor to the Oxford Middleton, succinctly describes one potential loss involved in this paradoxical endeavour: "In retrofitting-even perhaps retroflattening-the oeuvre of so dispersed a writing career as Middleton's under the romantic rubric of the single, solitary author, an erasure of material history and local practice occurs" (101). Gary Taylor, the edition's general editor, is also aware that the new edition will inevitably limit as much as it enables: "The choices all those contributors have made, the choices I have imposed on those contributors, will limit your choices, by affecting the texts available for you to read" (99) and, one could add, the way in which you read them. And although I look forward to the day the new edition is published and will do my utmost to ensure that my university's library is in line for a copy, there is a certain perverse decorum to the way in which Middleton's works, now digitized in a number of incompatible text formats and dispersed on a number of computers, still resist any definitive gathering. Perhaps the local and the material are not so easily erased, after all.
Each of the four articles in this special issue of Early Modern Literary Studies in some way takes up the critical problems I have outlined above. Although it does not focus on the issue of A Yorkshire Tragedy's authorship, Lisa Hopkins' essay on the play subtly challenges the shift in interpretative expectations that has accompanied the play's migration from the canon of a playwright often suspected of Catholic sympathies, Shakespeare, to the canon of a playwright to whom has been attributed a clearly Protestant if not Puritan identity. Rather than use the fiction of Middleton the Puritan playwright to authorize a doctrinal reading of the play, Hopkins reverses the equation and uses her reading of the play to challenge the authorial fiction. "Everything we know about Thomas Middleton suggests that he was a Puritan," Hopkins writes, "yet there is something distinctly odd about his treatment of religion in this play" (7). The silences and additions involved in the play's reshaping of its sources, and the dramatic forms into which the play reshapes them, suggest the controlling sensibility not of a religious sectarian but of a dramatist deeply concerned with the problems and the power inherent in his own theatrical medium. "Drama may not tell the truth," Hopkins concludes, "but the lies that it tells may well be longer-lived than the truth, and will work more directly on the human soul" (15).
Alizon Brunning's essay on the Protestant poetics of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside offers a different but equally complex perspective on the connection between author and text, provocatively asserting a deconstructive relationship between the Protestant playwright and the comic form of his theatrical medium. Underlying the play's comic critique of the emptiness of the liturgical time and rituals in which its characters' lives are embedded, Brunning argues, is a Protestant critique of the sign: Catholic ritual and its Anglican vestiges mistake the material signifier for the spiritual signified, the form of ritual for its significance. Indeed, A Chaste Maid's characters seem unaware that there is in fact a spiritual significance to the ritual forms they use as a cover for their carnality. In Brunning's analysis, however, the play's comic form is not an unproblematic vehicle for Middleton's satirical Protestant critique. Like the forms whose critique it enables, the play's comic form, with its narrative telos of material inclusiveness and incorporation, privileges signifier over signified. The play signals the disjunction between its Protestant poetics and its comic form through the character of Sir Walter Whorehound: belatedly penitent and finally able to see beyond the signifier, Whorehound cannot be accommodated within the play's comic conclusion.
Rick Bowers' essay on A Chaste Maid in Cheapside picks up where Hopkins and Brunning leave off. "Middleton's Christianity is doubtless operative at some level in his drama, but in city comedy he is a playwright first" (20), Bowers writes, and his essay explores the "unremitting irony" of A Chaste Maid's "realist, urban grotesque"(1). For Bowers, corrosive and cynical irony is the master trope by which Middleton the dramatist bridges the distance between the world his play stages and the world in which it was first staged. "In Middleton's city comedy there are NO solutions, few satisfactions, and only ironic possibilities" (7), Bowers observes. The Bakhtinian slant of Bowers' argument renders it especially attentive to the dialogic interaction between grotesque, excessive and potentially productive bodies and the social, sexual and economic codes whose attempts to tame and harness these bodies have only a limited measure of success. Ultimately, in fact, they have no success at all, as the wayward productivity of the body undermines the foundation of early modern social discourses, birth. Here Bowers' Bakhtinian and feminist analyses converge in a pointed rereading of the play's notorious christening scene as an instance of transgressive female carnival, a space within patriarchy in which the women who participate are able to articulate a counter-patriarchal discourse whose equivalent Bowers finds in the Chinese nu shu or nonsense writing.
Pier Paolo Frassinelli's essay on A Chaste Maid intersects in a number of interesting ways with Brunning's and Bowers'. Frassinelli's main concern, however, is to reread the play in light of a rearticulation of the relationship between text and context that reverses the recent New Historicist and cultural materialist privileging of the historical context as the primary interpretive horizon: "[T]he guiding assumption here is that the imprint of the specific historical circumstances from which the drama sprang are, to use a semiotic parlance, encoded onto the textual surface of the plays, and can therefore be decoded by reading the context within the text, as well as the other way round" (5). Isolated by itself, this quotation might misleadingly suggest that Frassinelli desires a return to a formalism that sees historical concerns as merely surface phenomena to be decoded then discarded. On the contrary, positioning his argument against a naïve realism that would construe historical context as a unified object existing in an extratextual reality (a naïve realism into which historically-minded literary scholars still easily slip despite their theoretical pedigrees), Frassinelli takes seriously New Historicist arguments that history is itself textual in order to redirect attention back to the cultural work done by textual form. "[B]y keeping the rudder of interpretation too firmly in the direction line of the historical and social 'referent,' the risk is that of allowing it to overshadow the form of expression of the literary and dramatic medium, and thus to erase the transformations operated both by the intertextual elements-the generic system, cultural traditions, dramatic conventions and the like-and by the immanent formal structure of the individual work" (6), Frassinelli explains. Frassinelli pilots his reading of A Chaste Maid firmly in the direction of the transformations the play performs for and upon its early modern audience, arguing that the play mobilizes comic pleasure to disrupt the moral and satirical ideological work it seems to perform when read in the other direction, with solely the historical and social referent in view.
- Despite their differences, then, the four articles in this special issue all present Middleton (and "Middleton") as a productively problematic playwright. As each article demonstrates, the plays that pass under his name seem to provoke the hermeneutic difficulties, conflicts of perspective, and interpretative open-endedness that constitute the lifeblood of literary scholarship.
- Chakravorty, Swapan. Society and Politics in the Plays of Thomas Middleton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
- Eliot, T.S. "Thomas Middleton." Elizabethan Dramatists. London: Faber and Faber, 1963. 83-93.
- Jonson, Ben. Conversations with William Drummond. The Complete Poems. Ed. G. Parfitt. London: Penguin, 1988.
- Knights, L.C. Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson. 1937. London: Chatto and Windus, 1962.
- Paster, Gail Kern. "The Children's Middleton." New Ways of Looking at Old Texts, II. Ed. W. Speed Hill. Tempe, Arizona: Renaissance English Text Society, 1998. 101-108.
- Taylor, Gary. "Judgment." New Ways of Looking at Old Texts, II. Ed. W. Speed Hill. Tempe, Arizona: Renaissance English Text Society, 1998. 91-100.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)