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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

§ 16. His dramatic genius

With one more experiment, and this a masterpiece of a wholly new kind, “the only work of English poetry,” says Swinburne, “which may properly be called Aristophanic,” the career of Middleton comes, so far as we know, to an end. A Game at Chesse is a satire, taking the popular side against Spain, and it was the Spanish ambassador Gondomar, the “Machiavelpolitician” and Black Knight of its chess-board, who caused the suppression of the play, and the punishment of all concerned in it. It is the most perfect of Middleton’s works, and it carries some of his most intimate qualities to a point they had not reached before. Banter turns into a quite serious and clear and bitter satire; burlesque becomes a severe and elegant thing; the verse, beginning formally and always kept well within bounds, is fitted with supreme technical skill to this new, outlandish matter; there are straight confessions of sins and symbolic feasts of vices, in which a manner acquired by the city chronologer for numbering the feasts and fastings of the city is adapted by him to finer use. We learn now how

  • fat cathedral bodies
  • Have very often but lean little soul,
  • and the imagery, already expressive, takes on a new colour of solemn mockery.
  • From this leviathan-scandal that lies rolling
  • Upon the crystal waters of devotion,
  • is sometimes the language of the Black Knight, and sometimes
  • In the most fortunate angle of the world
  • The court hath held the city by the horns
  • Whilst I have milked her.
  • Technique, in drama and verse alike, never flags; and the play is a satire and criticism, no longer of city manners or of personal vices, but of the nation’s policy; and that it was accepted as such, by the public and by the government of the time, is proved by the fifteen hundred pounds taken by the actors in nine days, and by the arrest of Middleton for what was really a form of patriotism.

    We have no record of anything written by Middleton during the three remaining years of his life. A Game at Chesse is the culmination of those qualities which seem to have been most natural and instinctive in him, in spite of the splendid work of another kind which he did with Rowley in The Changeling. His genius was varied and copious, and he showed his capacity to do almost every kind of dramatic work with immense vigour. Life is never long absent from the tangled scenes, in which a heterogeneous crowd hurries by, not stopping long enough to make us familiar with most of the persons in it, but giving us an unmistakable human savour. Few of the plays are quite satisfactory all through; there is almost always some considerable flaw, in construction, in characterisation, or in aesthetic taste; yet hardly one of them can be neglected in our consideration of the dramatist’s work as a whole. In single scenes of tragedy and of comedy (romantic comedy, the comedy of manners, farce and satire) he can hold his own against any contemporary, and it is only in lyric verse that he is never successful. He became a remarkable dramatic poet; but he was not born to sing. Poetry came to him slowly, and he had to disentangle it from more active growths of comic energy. It came to him when he began to realise that there was something in the world besides cheating shopkeepers and conzening lawyers, and the bargains made between men and women for bodies, not souls. With the heightening of emotion his style heightens, and as his comedy refines itself his verse becomes subtler. In Middleton’s work, the cry of De Flores

  • Ha! what art thou that tak’st away the light
  • Betwixt that star and me? I dread thee not:
  • ’T was but a mist of conscience;
  • is almost unique in imagination. And it is drama even more than it is poetry. His style is the most plausible of all styles in poetry, and it has a probable beauty, giving an easy grace of form to whatever asks to be expressed. It rarely steps aside to pick up a jewel, nor do jewels drop naturally out of its mouth.