The English playwright Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) was one of the most productive and talented playwrights of the Jacobean period. His best work was done in "city comedy"—comedy of intrigue with emphasis on the more lurid features of contemporary London.
Thomas Middleton was born the son of a fairly prosperous London bricklayer. He began writing early and had published at least three nondramatic pieces before he was 20. He attended Oxford in 1598 but apparently left without a degree. By 1602 he was in London, actively engaged in writing plays, first as a collaborator and then independently.
Some of Middleton's most successful work as a dramatist was done between 1602 and 1608, when he wrote a series of lively realistic comedies of London life. These include The Family of Love (ca. 1602), The Phoenix (ca. 1603), Michaelmas Term (1605), A Mad World My Masters (1605), and Your Five Gallants (ca. 1607). A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611), probably Middleton's most widely read comedy today, is a play of the same kind.
Most of Middleton's early work was written for performance by one or another of the companies of boy actors which were flourishing at this time. After 1608, as the popularity of the children's companies waned, he seems to have written almost exclusively for adult actors. His most notable plays from this later period are The Changeling (1622; written in collaboration with William Rowley) and A Game at Chess (1624).
The Changeling, one of the most powerful tragedies of the Jacobean period, traces the developing engagement to evil on the part of the beautiful and wealthy Beatrice-Joanna. Her sudden and inexplicable attraction to Deflores, a servant whom she had always found repulsive, initiates an exciting career of deception, lust, and murder. The highly unusual A Game at Chess has characters designated only as chess pieces: the White King, the Black Bishop, and so on. The action of the play, however, was clearly based on contemporary political events and caused a great sensation. The Spanish ambassador took offense and persuaded the English authorities to suppress the play for a time. Middleton apparently went into hiding to escape punishment.
In addition to his work for the professional stage, Middleton produced a number of civic pageants. In recognition of his abilities in this kind of entertainment, he was appointed city chronologer of London in 1620. He held this lucrative post until his death. He was buried in the Newington section of London, where he had resided during most of his adult life.
A full-length study of Middleton is Richard Hindry Barker, Thomas Middleton (1958). See also Samuel Schoenbaum, Middleton's Tragedies: A Critical Study (1955), which treats at length certain problems of authorship associated with the Middleton canon.
Barker, Richard Hindry, Thomas Middleton, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974, 1958.
Mulryne, J. R., Thomas Middleton, Burnt Mill Eng.: Published for the British Council by Longman Group, 1979. □