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Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton

The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton

edited by Gary Taylor & Trish Thomas Henley

Oxford University Press, 2012

This volume – one of the great crop of such volumes from Oxford University Press – is essentially a magnificent by-product of Gary Taylor’s decades-long fashioning of a new Oxford standard edition of the collected works of celebrated and notorious Jacobean hack-of-all-trades Thomas Middleton, and it stands as both a capstone to that epic project and a spry companion to it: here some of the finest Jacobean and Middleton scholars in the world (perhaps permissible to say the finest, except that a couple of such individuals, owing to a surfeit of collegiate surliness, weren’t invited) gather to talk about the man’s works and legacy.

It’s tricky material. Middleton either worked with and loved or worked with and then hated virtually all the biggest literary names of his time, and he famously enjoyed a distinction many of them did not: he was a freelancer, drifting from company to company, beholden to no stockholders, able to take whatever well-paying jobs came his way (although “enjoying” wasn’t always or even often true – he longed for a berth to call his own, despite how many he turned down for one petty reason after another). He courted controversy, loved being at the heart of every literary conversation broiling in a London suddenly set free from the long shadow of Elizabeth I, and although as a very young man he entertained thoughts of trying some kind of respectable career, once he felt the particular grubby thrill that comes from writing something quickly and well, he was lost to the world of office-wages. The famous modern quote “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better” might just as well have been coined centuries earlier by Middleton himself.

He’s perhaps best known today for his great, greasy play The Changeling and maybe for his dubious masterpieces, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and the brutal Revenger’s Tragedy, but in his own time he took whatever work came his way, and this Oxford Handbook easily takes it all into account, from Tiffany Stern’s look at his commercial songs to Barbara Ravelhofer’s imaginative examination of his work with dance, to Richard Hardin’s fascinating essay “Middleton, Plautus, and the Ethics of Comedy.”

In a nice fit for a handbook about an author whose works can be infernally entertaining, there’s a good deal of fun taking place in these pages. Julian Yates’ fantastic essay on Middleton’s The Owle’s Almanacke starts with the line “Hoot! Hoot! Warning! Warning! The Owle’s Almanacke (1618) will resist you – even as she appears to give herself to you completely.” And after a fast and rich discussion, it ends with “Hoot! Hoot!” Other contributions join in, including Indira Ghose’s “Middleton and the Culture of Courtesy,” which does a fine job of showing how deadly serious could be the underpinnings of Jacobean comedy (this too is fitting, since Middleton was hardly ever out of serious trouble with the law over the sharper barbs he couldn’t resist incorporating into his works).

Heidi Brayman Hackel turns in an intriguing piece on silences and muteness in Middleton, and Courtney Lehmann enjoys herself on the subject of Middleton and film, but the Handbook’s highlights, perhaps predictably, come from its two masters of ceremony. The book opens with Taylor and Henley collaborating on an “unintroduction” to their notoriously elusive subject, and Taylor himself turns in the volume’s best piece, a muscular meditation on Middleton’s vexed production of history plays that manages to feel sprawling even though it’s only 20 pages long.

In short, the thing is a feast. It’s frustrating too, of course: the semi-mythical and much-sought Common Reader today has scarcely heard of Thomas Middleton, and despite some energetic regional revivals (including a couple in dear old London that would have moved the author to grudging tears), the theatre world has largely ignored him in favor of concentrating on every stray burp emitted by the Bard. Middleton’s work is savage and lean and headlong – in his best things, he surpasses the sometimes murky stagings of his arch nemesis (and on/off best friend) Ben Jonson and gives some note-by-note rivalry to Shakespeare himself.

Priced as dearly as this big book is, it’s unlikely to change that state of affairs – which adds to the frustration, since it will instead fall into the hands only of those who don’t need it: Middleton scholars, Middleton experts, and Middleton fans. It will overjoy them, since it’s an exuberant performance from start to finish. But what Middleton needs is converts.