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Middleton was as much a journalist as a playwright, documenting the politics and society of 17th century London. He saw it transformed by immigration, and witnessed the rise of a middle class struggling to cling on to morality amid a flood of new wealth. "It was a time of incredible ferment and change, both economic and intellectual," says Laurence Boswell, who directed Women, Beware Women for Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company last year. "Middleton was freaked out and excited by it all."
Sometimes this enthusiasm got him into trouble: a 1624 production of his play A Game at Chess, which satirized the tense Anglo-Spanish relations at the time, was the biggest box-office hit of the era but it landed him in prison on charges of attempting to provoke public unrest. Unlike some of his fellow playwrights, Middleton dared to write about actual people and current events. This willingness to court controversy led some of his works to be banned or burned, which has made it all the harder for later scholars to reconstruct his oeuvre. There were several attempts in the 20th century to put together his complete works, all of them failures. Shakespeare had a definitive anthology only seven years after he died, when his friends published what became known as the First Folio, giving scholars centuries to study and interpret his work. To do the same for Middleton, Taylor and co. had to start from scratch, first picking through the writer's 30-year career to figure out which works were his, then making sense of the cultural references that run through almost every line. "We've been practicing how to read Shakespeare for centuries," says Taylor. "But we don't, as a culture, have a sense of how to read Middleton. You can't read Middleton as though he were Shakespeare. That would be like reading Shakespeare as though he were Dickens."
Once decoded, though, any one of Middleton's plays tells us more about the London of centuries ago than Shakespeare's entire catalogue could. Shakespeare was a dreamer; he made heroes of kings and princes. Middleton's work was more rooted in reality. His heroes (or, rather, antiheroes) are regular folk in extraordinary situations: merchants, con men and lonely housewives. Nowhere is that more evident than in the way he treats women. In Shakespeare, they tend to be "neatly categorizable as virgins or sluts or Madonnas or monsters," says Celia Daileader, a professor at Florida State University who annotated the comedy A Mad World, My Masters for The Collected Works. By contrast, the women in Middleton are as complicated as they are in real life. "He gives you a view of female sexuality that's very complex," says Daileader. "And he has some very sympathetic women who commit adultery something inconceivable to Shakespeare." Things happen to Shakespeare's women; Middleton's make things happen. Characters like The Roaring Girl's Moll Cutpurse, who flaunts social rules by wearing trousers and refusing to marry, and The Changeling's Beatrice Joanna whose plan to hire a servant to kill her fiancé backfires when the hit man blackmails her into bed are the architects of their own destiny, for better or worse.
Taylor hopes The Collected Works will allow others to discover what he's long believed: that Shakespeare may be the king of English drama, but Middleton, more than anyone else, deserves a throne of his own. Some aren't so sure. "Yes, Middleton wrote some great plays: The Changeling is a better play than many of Shakespeare's," says Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate. "And there's no doubt he's been unluckily marginalized. But I object to the idea that he alone is Shakespeare's equal. Christopher Marlowe was as good at tragedy as Middleton. And the best comedies of the age are probably Ben Jonson's The Alchemist and Philip Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts." Taylor welcomes the debate: "That's the way scholarship works: people disagreeing with each other. Now that we have this edition, everyone can go to work." After 400 years as English drama's dirty little secret, Middleton is at last poised for his comeback.