I'm married to Shakespeare, but for 20 years I've been having an affair with Middleton. Shakespeare is the Bard Next Door your parents want you to love respectable, familiar, stable, well-connected. I met him in high school and we've been together ever since. But Middleton well, they don't tell you about Middleton in high school.
If Middleton is our other Shakespeare, why don't you know more about him? Because he's the madwoman in the attic the secret we don't want our kids to discover. Would your parents want you to marry someone who describes getting pregnant as being "poisoned with child"? In Shakespeare's 39 plays there are 40 certified virgins. Middleton sees the allure of innocence ("Virginity is paradise, locked up"), and his plays include some magnificent maidens. But in his world most men want a sexually experienced woman. "Desire," Middleton insisted, "is of both genders": women can be as lascivious as men, and our hormones do not always discriminate in favor of heterosexual targets.
In Middleton's The Widow, the title character is no virgin, and neither is the male protagonist. Ricardo announces immediately that he's had sex with 1,000 women 500 of them other men's wives. Such a man is unimaginable as the romantic lead in a Shakespeare comedy.
Middleton sexed language, and languaged sex, more comprehensively and creatively than any other writer in English. His sex is never just sex: it can be fun, funny, sad, repellent, lyrical, satirical; it entangles bodies in psychology, politics, ethics, religion. Middleton dramatized incest, an adult son obsessed with his mother's sexuality, a husband happily pimping his wife, a husband literally selling his wife, a husband brutally raping his wife. He wrote of transvestism, stalking, sexual blackmail, castration, impotence, masochism, necrophilia and an adulteress forced to eat her lover's corpse.
No wonder he has been censored for centuries. Indeed, it began when he was 19: Middleton's poem Microcynicon (1599) was burned in the yard of St. Paul's cathedral by order of the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury. We don't know why, but it includes a description of the poet's relationship with a male transvestite, or "black hermaphrodite": "But truth to tell a man or woman whether,/ I cannot say, she's excellent in either."
Metrosexual Middleton's work was not only unteachable in English classrooms, but virtually unperformable on the English stage from the end of the 17th century until the 1960s. In 1962, the first professional revival of Women, Beware Women (by the Royal Shakespeare Company) was produced at the Arts Theatre, a private club, because the Lord Chamberlain would not license it for "public" performance.
If you doubt that Middleton equals Shakespeare, now you can read one book, The Collected Works, and judge for yourself. But be warned: like his character Beatrice, you may be unexpectedly seduced, and discover that bad boy Middleton is "a wondrous necessary man."
Gary Taylor is co-editor of Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works