I got a call a couple weeks from Jumana Bozouky a correspondent from Time‘s London-based International Edition who was doing a story on what promises to be a lively debate about two near-contemporaneous playwrights Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton whose reputations have taken quite different paths in the past four centuries.
She was asking me for a comment on the claims made for Middleton by controversial scholar Gary Taylor who previously co edited the contentious Oxford University Press Complete Works edition of Shakespeare and has spent the last twenty years preparing an Oxford edition of Middleton, a brilliant and prolific Jacobean playwright most well known for The Changeling and the irresistably titled It’s a Mad World My Masters.
He’s long lingered in the shadow of Shakespeare admired by many but nothing like the vast culture behemoth beset by bardolators that Shakespeare has become.
Still Jumana told me, Taylor’s claim in the introduction to his edition is fairly breathtaking:
“Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), ‘our other Shakespeare’, is the only other Renaissance playwright who created acknowledged masterpieces of comedy, tragedy, and history…
“Our other Shakespeare”: ever since a famous (within the lit-crit trade)Times Literary Supplement essay in the late 90s Taylor has been arguing that Middleton is either Shakespeare’s equal or superior.
It’s a claim Jumana wanted to see if I’d comment on, as author of The Shakespeare Wars. (see panel on the left).
I decided I’d rather not get into the “who’s better “game since I’d not read all of Middleton’s copious output and instead recommended that Jumana get in touch with one of my favorite Shakespeareans, Jonathan Bate, editor of the recent Random House, Folio based Complete Works volume. Which she did as you’ll see with good results at the close of the piece in Time.
I do remember having read some more Middleton in the late 90s after the TLS piece by Gary Taylor, in which he argued Middleton only suffered obscurity because Shakespeare had been adopted for his political usefulness by the oppressive hegemonic forces of the time who suit him to the propaganda needs of British imperialism.
There seemed a political animus operating against Shakespeare which Shakespeare himself didn’t deserve.
And I didn’t find reading Middleton was like scales falling from my eyes and discovering “realms of gold” previously unknown. My interest tailed off, curbed I’m sure by the sinisiter boredom rays of the hegemony.
And while i had enormous respect for Taylor as a textual scholar, as you can see from my treatment of his work in The Shakespeare Wars. I was not convinced he was an arbiter of esthetic taste, since he had championed the crude doggerel verse “Shall I die, Shall I Fly”–since widely discredited–as Shakespearean. Nonetheless I thought the case Taylor made for Middleton in the Time interview was forceful and persuasive, although I think Jonathan Bate has the better of the argument.
But like all the Shakespeare wars, certainly the ones I’ve chosen to write about in my book by that name, it takes us deeper into the text and the undiscovered wonders within.