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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

§ 6. His farcical Comedies: their character and material

The early comedy of Middleton is as light, rancid and entertaining as anything in Elizabethan drama. It is irresponsible rather than immoral, and does not exactly recommend, or approve of, the trickeries and debaucheries which ir represents in a lifelike way, under improbable conditions. Yet the writer is no more careful of his ethical than of his other probabilities, and takes little trouble to keep up any consistency in the minds or morals of his agile puppets. His aim is at effect, and he rarely fails in his aim. Even when we do not believe in the persons, and do not care about the upshot of the action, we are almost constantly enlivened, and, willingly or unwillingly, carried along.

The main material of his comedy is in the acts and moods of the human animal. The idea of sex dominates the whole Elizabethan drama; here, however, it is not a terror, a fascination, or a sin, but an occupation. A passage in The Phoenix might be applied to almost any of these plays:

  • What monstrous days are these!
  • Not only to be vicious most men study,
  • But in it to be ugly; strive to exceed
  • Each other in the most deformed deed.
  • Is it a merit in Middleton that he shows us vice always as an ugly thing, even when he seems to take pleasure in it, and to forget to condemn it? The “beggarly fools and swarming knaves,” to use a phrase of his own, who traffic in souls, bodies and possessions throughout the travesties, confusions and “familiar accidents which happen in town,” are set agog by no moralist, but by so keen and unprejudiced an observer of the human comedy that, for the most part, they come out in their naked colours, almost against his intention. And, as he lets vice peep through all cloaks and stand self-condemned, so he shows us a certain hardly conscious “soul of goodness in things evil.” There is true and good human feeling in some of the most shameless scenes of Your five Gallants, where a whole lost and despised world of “strange devils and pretty damnable affections” is stirred up into plausible action. They take place where there is “violet air, curious garden, quaint walks, fantastical arbours, three back-doors, and a coach-gate,” in a “music-school” or Maison Tellier of the period, and the very names of the characters are hardly quotable. The humanity is accidental, and comes from absolute knowledge of a world where “every part shoots up daily into new subtlety; the very spider weaves her cauls with more art and cunning to entrap the fly.” Middleton, though the spider preoccupies him, and lends him a web for spinning, puts the fly, too, into the pattern.