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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

III. Middleton and Rowley

§ 13. The World tost at Tennis

It was not long after the time of A Faire Quarrell that Middleton and Rowley collaborated together in the admirable and entertaining masque, The World tost at Tennis. For the most part, Middleton’s masques are tame and tedious, without originality in the invention of lyrical quality in the songs. In one only, The Inner-Temple Masque, is there any natural gaiety, any real quaintness or humour; and, as we find Rowley’s name among the actors, in the humorous peasant part of Plumporridge, may it not be conjectured that he had some share in the writing? His heavy tread is as distinctly heard through all the opening part of The World tost at Tennis, as Middleton’s new voice is heard in the later part. Middleton rarely wrote a lovelier succession of cadences than in these lines spoken by Deceit to Simplicity:

  • The world, sweetheart, is full of cares and troubles,
  • No match for thee; thou art a tender thing,
  • A harmless, quiet thing, a gentle fool,
  • Fit for the fellowship of ewes and rams;
  • Go, take thine ease and pipe; give me the burden,
  • The clog, the torment, the heart-break, the world:
  • Here ’s for thee, lamb, a dainty oaten pipe.
  • And there is suavity, swiftness and a quaint fantastic colouring in the verse chattered against hypocrites and puritans by the Five Starches.

    It was probably about the time when he was engaged on his masques that Middleton wrote The Witch; and this may well have been his first attempt at a purely romantic play. The versification is done with astonishing ease, in long, loose, rapid lines; and, in the witches’ songs, there is not only a ghastly fancy awake, but something nearer to a fine lyric cadence than he ever caught before or since. It is through the interpolation, as it obviously was, of some of these lines in the very imperfect text of Macbeth, that a play in which the main action is almost a parody of the romantic drama has come to be looked upon as one of Middleton’s chief works. The mere writing throughout is good; but the easy eloquent dialogue covers no more than the gaps and deformations of the main outline. The witches bring a new element into Middleton’s work, a wild fancy, of which he had shown hardly a trace; in the rest of the play, he does but practise in the romantic manner. They stand in dim middle air, between the old vile pitiable crone of Dekker in The Witch of Edmonton, who is dreadfully human, and the “crowned empress of the nether clefts of hell” in Macbeth, who bears no resemblance to the other Hecate but in her name, and who is more dreadful because she is not human. But Lamb has said finally all that need be said on these fundamental differences.