Fifteen years, ago, when I interviewed Gary Taylor, author of Reinventing Shakespeare and co-editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, Professor Taylor talked eagerly about his desire to resurrect Thomas Middleton as the other great playwright of the English Renaissance, greater even than Christopher Marlowe. He was a writer of some 27 plays most of us have never heard of let alone seen performed yet he was also an artist who went where Shakespeare feared to tread.
Personally, I’ve argued for years that local Shakespeareans should get out of their comfort zone of the familiar dozen comedies and tragedies and try on plays like John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside or his and Rowley’s The Changeling.
Taylor wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, Middleton is lauded as “our other Shakespeare,” the only dramatist to excel in every genre – a claim that elevates his only surviving historical drama, Hengist King of Kent, to a status that it cannot really carry. . . . On the other hand, Middleton is the great collaborative genius, the counterweight to Shakespeare. In terms of theatrical excellence, his best solo-written city comedies seem to me to be Michaelmas Term, A Trick To Catch the Old One, the well-known Chaste Maid in Cheapside and the underrated Your Five Gallants. But there is little to put between them and his best comic collaborations with Rowley, A Fair Quarrel and The Old Law(the euthanasia comedy which was played so effectively at the RSC a few years ago).
The evidence of the new edition suggests that “Middleton and Rowley” ought to replace “Beaumont and Fletcher” as the most celebrated collaborative team of the age, but it is not clear to me how the “and Rowley” part of the equation fits with the image of Middleton as “our other Shakespeare.”