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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

§ 5. Blurt Master-Constable

From 1602, the date of Blurt Master-Constable, to 1617, the date of A Faire Quarrell, almost the whole of Middleton’s work is in farcical comedy, at once realistic and satirical. It is to the early part of this period that a play is generally attributed into whose authorship no one would have troubled to enquire if it had not been published as “written by W. S.” The Puritane is still printed among what are called the “doubtful plays” of Shakespeare. When Swinburne says that it is “much more like Rowley’s than like Middleton’s worst work” he is strictly correct; but he is not to be taken to mean that Rowley wrote it. There is nothing sufficiently individual in the play to give so much as a solid starting-point for conjecture. Compare it with the worst of Middleton’s comedies, The Famelie of Love, and it will be found that, in that tedious satire, there is at least some intention, though it is now mainly lost to us; we have here the realist’s attempt to show up the dulness of dull people by making them speak and act no more nimbly than was natural to them. The parody, apparently, is so close that we can mistake it for the original. But the diction, though creeping, is not ignoble; it is like the fumbling of a man on an instrument which he is on the way to master. The fumbler of The Puritane will get no further.

In 1604, Middleton had some, but no very considerable, share in The Honest Whore of Dekker, so far as his manner can be traced there; and, seven years later, we find him collaborating again with Dekker in The Roaring Girle, though here, also, what is finest in the play seems to be Dekker’s. Apart from these two divergences, and an occasional masque or pageant, done to order, Middleton’s course is direct, and his main concern, as he defines it later, in commending The World tost at Tennis to the reader and understander, is to be “neither too bitterly taxing, nor too soothingly telling, the world’s broad abuses.” In a prefatory address to the “comic play-readers” of The Roaring Girle, he is still more explicit.

  • “The fashion,” he says, “of play-making I can properly compare to nothing so naturally as the alteration in apparel; for in the time of the great crop-doublet, your huge bombasted plays, quilted with mighty words to lean purpose, was only then in fashion: and as the doublet fell, neater inventions began to set up. Now, in the time of spruceness, our plays follow the niceness of our garments; single plots, quaint conceits, lecherous jests, drest up in hanging sleeves: and those are fit for the times and the termers. Such a kind of light-colour summer stuff, mingled with divers colours, you shall find this published comedy.”