Thomas Middleton was the rebel of English Renaissance drama. Audiences adored how his plays went right to the limits his sex was dirty, his violence grisly, his politics risky. His work was so popular in his time that it broke box-office records at London's Globe theater. But over the centuries, thanks to censorship and Victorian prudery, he fell out of fashion. By the time the world was ready again for Middleton's R-rated brand of theater, Shakespeare reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champion of English literature, knocking everyone else to the margins of the curriculum and away from center stage.
But now Middleton (1580-1627) may finally win the reputation he deserves. On Nov. 22, Oxford University Press publishes Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, the first time all his plays, poems and manuscripts have appeared in a single volume. The timing of this 2,016-page monument couldn't be better. Academic interest in Middleton has burgeoned since the 1900s as scholars have discovered that the more time passes, the more relevant his work becomes. "When you read Middleton, you get the sense that the world he wrote about is the world we live in now, with all the moral dilemmas we face and the things that shape our identities," says Gary Taylor, a leading Shakespeare scholar at Florida State University and co-editor of the new Middleton collection. "He's a great writer, who reaches out from the past and punches you in the stomach."
Until now, though, only a handful of Middleton's plays have been in print at any one time; English teachers could slip one into a course on Shakespeare's contemporaries, and theaters could dust a few of them off every couple of years, but nothing more. Taylor was convinced that the only way to get Middleton his groove back was to collect everything he ever wrote in one book, giving people the choice they never had before. He was so convinced that, along with co-editor John Lavagnino and 73 other contributors who helped edit the texts and wrote critical essays he's spent much of the last 20 years putting it together. "Now people can do what they've been straining at the bit to do for decades," he says, "which is dedicate themselves to writing about and performing Middleton, with this edition as a solid foundation."
Taylor, who previously co-edited The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, is part of a growing cohort of critics who regard Middleton as Shakespeare's equal in wordplay and storytelling. "His is a darkly comic and unsparing view of human nature," says Gail Kern Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. "He has a witty and inventive spirit, and several of his plays are as great as any plays that Shakespeare wrote," she adds, citing The Changeling, Women, Beware Women and The Revenger's Tragedy as examples. The idea now is to push him as a grittier, edgier alternative. Middleton knew that sex sells, and he filled his plays with it: sometimes nasty, often funny, and always about who comes out on top. Taking advantage of Middleton's raging literary libido, Taylor is promoting the book with a lecture tour on sex in Middleton's plays he'll kick things off at the Nov. 21 book launch at Shakespeare's Globe theater in London, a working replica of the theater where several Shakespeare and Middleton works were originally performed.
In many ways, Middleton speaks to today's audiences on a level Shakespeare cannot. While country boy Shakespeare set his plays in faraway lands of long ago, using language that was old-fashioned even then, Middleton, born and raised in London, wrote about urban life in a dialogue that's more familiar to the modern ear. A latter-day Scorsese, he walked on the dark side of the street, where you couldn't tell the good guys from the bad. "Part of the appeal of Shakespeare is that he takes you back to some imagined, glorious past," says Taylor. "But Middleton is overwhelmingly modern. He writes about a world that we immediately understand, in terms of money, politics, sex. Read a Middleton play and it's like it was written yesterday."