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Thomas Middleton (baptised 18 April 1580 - July 1627; also spelled Midleton) was an English Jacobean playwright and poet. Middleton stands with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson among the most successful and prolific of the playwrights at work during the Jacobean period. He was among the few to achieve equal success in comedy and tragedy, and a prolific writer of masques and pageants.
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 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 15-year battle over the inheritance of Thomas and his younger sister - an experience which must have informed and perhaps incited his repeated satire at the expense of the legal profession.
Middleton attended Queen's College, Oxford, matriculating in 1598, but he did not graduate. Before he left Oxford (sometime in 1600 or 1601), 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 foul of an Anglican Church 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 was reprinted several times and became the subject of a parliamentary inquiry. At the same time, records in the diary of Philip Henslowe show that Middleton was writing for the Admiral's Men. Unlike Shakespeare, Middleton remained a free agent, able to write for whichever company hired him. His early dramatic career was marked by controversy. His friendship with Thomas Dekker brought him into conflict with Ben Jonson and George Chapman in the War of the Theatres. The grudge against Jonson continued as late as 1626, when Jonson's play The Staple of News indulges in a slur on Middleton's great success, A Game at Chess. It has been argued that Middleton's Inner Temple Masque (1619) sneers at Jonson (then absent in Scotland) as a "silenced bricklayer."
In 1603, Middleton married. In the same year an outbreak of the plague forced the theatres in London to close, while James I came to 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 almost 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 the contemporary thief Mary Frith.
In the 1610s, Middleton began a 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. Middleton was, at the same time, increasingly involved with civic pageants. This last connection was made official in 1620, when he was appointed chronologist of the City of London. He held this post until his death in 1627, when it passed to Jonson.
Middleton's official duties did not interrupt his dramatic writing; the 1620s saw the production of his and Rowley's tragedy The Changeling, and of several tragicomedies. In 1624, he reached a peak of notoriety when his dramatic allegoryA 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 silenced the play after nine performances, having received a complaint from the Spanish ambassador. Middleton faced an unknown, probably frightening degree of punishment. Since no play later than A Game at Chess is recorded, it has been suggested that this included a ban on writing for the stage.
Middleton died at his home at Newington Butts in Southwark in 1627, and was buried on 4 July in St Mary's churchyard. The old church of St Mary's was demolished in 1876 to facilitate road-widening, and its replacement elsewhere in Kennington Park Road was destroyed in the Second World War but rebuilt in 1958. The old churchyard where Middleton was buried survives as a public park in Elephant and Castle.
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, while his maturity was influenced by the ascendancy of Fletcherian tragicomedy. His later work, in which his satirical fury is tempered and broadened, 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 of The Revenger's Tragedy, except that here the central characters are more fully drawn and more compelling as individuals. Similar development can be seen in Women Beware Women.
Middleton's plays are marked by their cynicism about the human race, which 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 presented as flawless. Due to a theological pamphlet attributed to him, Middleton is thought by some to have been a strong believer in Calvinism.
^The Canon of Middleton's Plays (Cambridge University Press, 1975).
^Middleton and Shakespeare: Studies in Attribution (1979).
^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).