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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

§ 7. His realism

If we seek a reason for the almost universal choice of brothels and taverns as favourite scenes of Elizabethan comedy, we shall find it partly in a theory, taken over from Latin and Italian drama, that this was the proper province of the comic muse. The accidents of a player’s or professional writer’s life gave opportunities for knowledge of just that world into which he was naturally thrust. The Elizabethan audience was accustomed from the first to the two extremes of noble tragedy and brutal comedy. This violent contrast appealed to a taste always hungering and thirsting for strong meat and strong drink. Puritan limits had not yet fixed themselves; they were but divined as a thing one could be aware of and mock at. At the same time, the stage was not exactly respected; it had no character to keep up. Thus, the dramatist, being as free as a modern French caricaturist to make his appeal in the most direct way, to the animal through the animal, had no hesitation in using the gross material at hand grossly. In the more serious dramatists, we get no more than painful attempts to please a taste which Middleton must have found it easy to gratify. He was no dreamer; he was not a poet in the instinctive irrepressible sense in which Dekker, for instance, was a poet; and he shared a love which was common to Dekker and to others at that time, for mean adventures of loose people in cities, knaves who gulled and fools who were gulled, sharpers and, outside cities, highwaymen and gipsies. His eyes were open to every folly of fashion or freak of religion; he knew his law and his lawyers, and he saw their capabilities for entertainment; he had all the terms of astrological and other cant at his fingers’ ends, and realised the savour of the oddities of popular speech. It was easy for him to set these people talking as they would really talk, or with just that heightening which his sense of pungent and appropriate words gave him; and he could set scene after scene galloping across the stage, without taking more trouble than his public demanded as to making his plots consistent or probable, so long as they went at full speed along familiar ways; not caring, most of the time, to create individual characters, but relying upon the effect of vividly realised moods, or people very much alive for a given moment. A character so ripely developed as Sir Bounteous Progress in A Mad World, My Masters is rare among these nimble types and instances of fixed follies or ascertained “humours.”

We remember Midldeton’s comedies, not for their separate characters, but for their brace of gallants, their “school” of wantons, their clash of cozener with cozener, their ingenuities of deceit the “heat of fury” of their entangled action. We remember single scenes, of a marvellous and sometimes cruelly comic reality, like the deathbed of Dampit the drunkard in A Trick to catch the Old-one, or that other death scene in A Chast Mayd in Cheape-side, where an old sinner makes his exit in grotesque and frightened repentance, while the man and woman whom he may be supposed to have most wronged remember the fact for the first time, as they foresee the stopping of their shameful revenue. Here, as often in Middleton, irony comes out of the mere faithfulness with which he sets before us exactly what would happen at such a moment. His plays are full of these paradoxes of event, which it is the custom to call unpleasant—and which, sometimes, certainly are unpleasant, when the playwright seems to be unaware that some hideous piece of villainy is being set to rights (so far as relative justice is concerned) by a trick of “virtue” hardly less pardonable.

If Bullen is right in his conjecture that The Widdow (a play published in 1652 as a “lively piece, drawn by the art of Jonson, Fletcher, and Middleton”) belongs to about this date, though revised later, it would seem to be curiously innocent, for a play by Middleton, notwithstanding all its vivid banter and thieves’ foolery. In how many plays of this period could the characters say to one another at the close, without irony, “Be good” and “Be honest,” as two of the characters do in this? Jonson is for nothing in it, unless as a passing influence; but it is hard to see why Fletcher might not have been the reviser, as well as the writer of one or two of the songs. But the main part, unmistakably, is Middleton’s, and it is, perhaps, in this play that the romantic element first shows itself among the incidents and actualities of knavery.

It took Middleton a long time to recognise, as a dramatist, that there was such a thing as honour, even in transactions which he felt it his business to watch from the knaves’ point of view because that view was the one which would best entertain his audience. He chose stories, persons and surroundings for their immediate stage effect making them as real and amusing as he could, scene by scene; and it was so rarely that it occurred to him to temper the trickeries of his plots by some honest motive that we find him confusing moral values without due indication of his being aware of it. There is no doubt that he wrote hastily, and with ease, and a man who writes hastily and with ease for the stage will readily sacrifice a point of conscience to a theatrical solution. Once, in The Roaring Girle, some frank and convincing honesty comes into the bad company, and has the best of it there. But how much of what gives a pleasant quality to that play is Middleton’s, though the play is not less astir than the others with his usual crew and company?

Though the work of each overlaps occasionally, there can be little doubt of the main shares of Middleton and Dekker in The Roaring Girle. It was Dekker, undoubtedly, who created, and mainly set in action, the good honest hoyden who masquerades through the play in the name of Moll Cutpurse—a creature of another colour, if we can believe contemporary records. “Worse things I must needs confess,” says Middleton in his preface “To the Comic Play-Readers,” “the world has taxed her for than has been written of her; but’t is the excellency of a writer to leave things better than they are.” To paint a woman who asks justly,

  • must you have
  • A black ill name, because ill things you know?
  • and to show her talking thieves’ slang among thieves with an easy familiarity, and yet going through this evil company like a knight-errant, helping honest lovers and putting down knaves, was a task more within the power of Dekker than of Middleton, whose metre and manner come and go with the gallipots and rattling roguish shopkeepers who cry their wares and carry on their complicated private doings through the whole underplot of the play. But little of the really significant speech of Moll can be attributed to Middleton, and, though much of the business and movement of the play is his, and much of the “manners,” Dekker, too, is responsible for the fifth act with its almost too liberal local colour of “canting.” The play is untidy, but very much alive; and Dekker seems to bring fresh air into musty rooms, not only by the presence of this vital woman, not to be paralleled elsewhere in his associate’s comedies, but by a way of writing which is more a poet’s way than Middleton’s. The very sound of the lines has a lilt and spring in them, as in a casual image of this kind:
  • my thoughts must run,
  • As a horse runs that’s blind round in a mill,
  • Out every step, yet keeping one path still.
  • Middleton’s verse, for all its sinews, could not have given just that turn to a line; and Dekker brings with him that beauty which was always a natural accident in his speech.