There are qualities in which Thomas Middleton comes nearer than any contemporary dramatist to the master mind of his time. There is a certain imperial confidence in his use of words and imagery, a daring originality and impatient force of expression, an easy freedom of humour, wide of range yet thoroughly well in hand, such as we find in the same degree even in that age of giants in no Elizabethan saving only Shakespeare.
It was as a comedian that Middleton first made his reputation, about the year 1607, comparatively late in life; and it would seem that he despaired of obtaining recognition for his powers in tragedy, for two of his most striking performances in that kind are interwoven with comic stories and the whole plays named after leading characters in the comic under-plot. Nobody would expect from the title of The Mayor of Queenborough, the intensity and force that Middleton shows in the tragic scenes of that play. The title seems to require our attention for the humorous antics of the Mayor, Simon the tanner, an imitation of Dekker's Simon Eyre the shoemaker, Mayor of London. And similarly in The Changeling, which Middleton wrote in conjunction with Rowley, the dramatists seem to modestly intimate that they set store chiefly on the comic portions. Yet there are tragic passages in The Changeling unsurpassed for intensity of passion and appalling surprises in the whole range of Elizabethan literature. That these scenes were devised and written by Middleton will hardly be doubted by anybody acquainted with The Mayor of Queenborough, and his later pure tragedy, Women Beware Women. This last play is literally open to Jonson's sarcastic note on Hamlet--"Here the play of necessity ends, all the actors being killed." The slaughter in Women Beware Women extends to every character honoured with a name. Regarded as wholes, Middleton's tragedies fall very far short of the dignity of Shakespeare's. His heroes and heroines are not made of the same noble stuff, and their calamities have not the same grandeur. The characters are all so vile that the pity and terror produced by their death is almost wholly physical. But in the expression of incidental moments of passion, Middleton often rises to a sublime pitch of energy.
It may have been that Middleton, though only six years younger than Shakespeare, was born too late for tragedy. A complaint is made in The Roaring Girl, in the composition of which he was conjoined with Dekker, that tragedies had gone out of fashion. "In the time of the great crop doublet," it is said, "your huge bombasted plays quilted with mighty words to lean purposes, were only then in the fashion; and as the doublet fell, neater inventions began to be set up." Under King James the taste was all for "light coulour summer stuff, mingled with divers colours." Thus by the time that Middleton came into favour as a playwright, the atmosphere of the theatre was not encouraging to tragic composition. How far this influenced him in the devotion of his versatile powers to comedy, and how much was due to his individual character, it is of course impossible now to determine, for we have nothing but his plays to judge by. He began his literary life, like Marston, as a satirist, writing in the style popular at the end of the sixteenth century; but he achieved no great success in this artificial line of composition. His first triumph as a writer of comedy would seem to have been A Trick to Catch the Old One. This, along with four others, was licensed in 1607. Chapman's All Fools, the great exemplar and prototype of the English comedy of "gulling," had taken the town two years before, and Middleton threw himself into the fashion. In this type of comedy he is exceedingly happy, and surpasses his masters in ingenuity of construction, and easy accumulation of mirthful circumstances. The fun begins early, and goes on to the end with accelerating speed. Middleton excels peculiarly in the dramatic irony of making his gulls accessory to their own deception, and putting into their mouths statements that have, to those in the secret, a meaning very much beyond what they intend. A Mad World, my Masters, licensed in 1608, is one of his happiest efforts in this vein. As bearing on Jonson's description of him as "a base fellow," it may be remarked that he professes to be more decent than some of his predecessors, and has a gird apparently at Marston or Jonson, as some obscene fellow, who cares not what he writes against others, yet rips up the most nasty vice in his own plays, and presents it to a modest assembly. It is the excellency of a writer, says Middleton, to leave things better than he finds them. According to this principle, in The Trick to Catch the Old One, and the Mad World, the courtesans are married and made honest women--the rakes are reclaimed; and though no lesson is weightily inculcated, there is less indecency than in the works of more pretentious moralists.
Middleton's name has of late been revived in connection with the authorship of _Macbeth_. It has been conjectured, on the ground of certain slight coincidences between Middleton's play and the witch scenes, that Middleton had a hand in the composition of Macbeth. The supposition is about as groundless as any ever made in connection with Shakespeare, which is saying a good deal. Even if either author borrowed the words of the song from the other, that is no evidence of further cooperation. The plays are wholly different in spirit. The Witch is by no means one of Middleton's best plays. The plot is both intricate and feeble; and the witches, in spite of Charles Lamb's exquisite comparison of them with Shakespeare's, are, as stage creations, essentially comic and spectacular. With their ribald revelry, their cauldrons, their hideous spells and weird incantations, they are much more calculated to excite laughter than fear as exhibited on the stage, however much fitted to touch the chords of superstitious dread when transported by the imagination to their native wilds. The characters of the play do not treat them with sufficient respect to command the sympathy of the audience for them. Familiarity breeds contempt: if they had been consulted only by the Duchess with a view to the murder of her husband, they might have kept up an appearance of dignity and terror; but when the drunk Almachildes staggers in among them, upsets some of the beldams, and is received by Hecate as a favoured lover, we cease to have much respect for them, even though they do profess to exercise the terrible power of raising jars, jealousies, strifes, and heart-burning disagreements like a thick scarf o'er life. The visit of the fantastical gentleman whom Hecate has thrice enjoyed in incubus, is a very happy inspiration in the same vein as Tam o' Shanter's admiration of the heroine of Alloway Kirk: the scene is a fine opportunity for a comic actor; but it is damaging to the respectability of the dread Hecate.