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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

§ 15. Later Plays by Middleton

The Spanish Gipsie is generally put down almost as a whole to Middleton, and even Swinburne refuses to see the hand of Rowley in “the more high-toned passages.” It seems possible that Rowley wrote a larger part of the play than Middleton, and not by any means only the gipsy scenes, with their jollity, dancing and crabbed ballad singing. The opening, no doubt, was actually written by Middleton; but it has a quality unusual in his work, and not unusual in the work of Rowley. It is as if Rowley stood behind Middleton, controlling him. Most of the prose, both when it goes creeping and tedious with Sancho and Soto, and when it overflows into doggerel and occasionally unsavoury snatches of song, has Rowley’s manner and substance; but he is to be traced, also, in the slow and powerful verse which ends the third act, in lines like

  • This is the triumph of a soul drowned deep
  • In the unfathomed seas of matchless sorrow,
  • and in the whole attitude and speech of a father who speaks with the very accent of Julianus in Alls Lost by Lust:
  • Teach me how I may now be just and cruel,
  • For henceforth I am childless.
  • Rowley is heard, also, through much of the fourth act, though Middleton comes in unmistakably towards the end, and is the writer of the whole fifth act. The characters are distributed between them, and so charming a person as Constanza is decidedly at her best when she speaks through Middleton. The whole play is not made very probable, or meant to be so; it is a frank romance, with stage mysteries, some of them thrilling, like the wonderful opening scene, some, mere tricks of convenience; and there is a freshness and pleasantness about it which seem to show us Middleton in full and final acceptance of the romantic manner.

    Yet it is difficult to assign to any other period the comedy of Any Thing for a Quiet Life, printed in 1662, and so badly printed that it is not easy to distinguish prose from verse, the more so as the one seems to be set to run in no very different measures from the other. It seems to be a late and only return to the earlier manner of the farcical comedies of city life, with shopkeeping scenes of the old random brilliance and the old domestic fooleries. Even more matter is crammed into it, and this even more hastily, and there is the old fierce vigour of talk. But, in two plays, published together in 1657, we see what seems to be almost the last mood of Middleton, after his collaboration with Rowley was at an end, and the influence, perhaps, not wholly evaporated. More dissemblers besides Women, which is characteristic of Middleton in its tangle of virtues and hypocrisies, its masquerade of serious meanings and humorous disguises, is written in verse of a lovely and eager quality, which bends with equal flexibility to the doings of “those dear gipsies” and to the good cardinal’s concerns of conscience “in a creature that’s so doubtful as a woman.” It is a particoloured thing, and has both beauty and oddity. But, in Women beware Women, we find much of Middleton’s finest and ripest work, together with his most rancid “comic relief”; a stern and pitiless “criticism of life” is interrupted by foul and foolish clowning; and a tragedy of the finest comic savour ends in a mere heap of corpses, where

  • vengeance met vengeance
  • Like a set match, as if the plagues of sin
  • Had been agreed to meet here all together.
  • “I ’ve lost myself in this quite,” Middleton might say with the duke, and rarely has better material been more callously left to spoil. There is no finer comedy of its kind in the whole of Elizabethan drama than the scene between Livia, Bianca and the widow; and the kind is a rare, bitter and partly tragic one. The human casuistry is flawless; the irony is an illumination rather than a correction of reality. And these vile people are alive, and the vices in them work with a bewildering and convincing certainty. The technique of such scenes as that in which husband and wife flaunt their new finery at each other is not less than astonishing. All the meaner passions are seen in probable action, speaking without emphasis, in a language never too far from daily speech for the complete illusion of reality. There is not even the interruption of a mere splendour; no one speaks greatly or utters irrelevant poetry; here, poetry is the very slave and confidant of drama, heroically obedient. But the heights of The Changeling, the nobility of even what was evil in the passions of that play, are no longer attained. Middleton, left to himself, has returned, with new experience and new capacity, to his own level.