Thursday, June 19, 2008

Two Engaging Essays

Thomas Middleton continues to attract attention in the press. Since my last post pointing out some of the coverage of the new Oxford edition, two noted scholars have published short essays full of interesting facts and good argument:

Gary Taylor, general editor of the aforesaid Oxford Middleton, continues to trek around England in his apostolic vein, preaching the good news and waving the good book at his audiences. It was he who coined the epithet "our other Shakespeare," so you can guess that his recent piece in the Guardian, "A Mad World," will be laudatory. He focuses this time on Middleton's play The Revenger's Tragedy, which is today being produced by two (!) theatres in London. Revenger is next on my reading list after the Changeling, so I was happy to have the preview of things to come:

Revenger...audaciously rewrites Hamlet. Against the ambiguous personal madness of Hamlet Middleton set a psychotic world in which "we're all mad people, and they that we think are, are not". Hamlet, a romantic prince, confronts a single evil antagonist, the usurper Claudius. Vindice, an ordinary man, confronts a legitimate royal family, an entire court, an entire political system, violently corrupt. Hamlet disowns his own actions, asserting that he retains a secure, moral, internal identity: his crimes were performed not by Hamlet himself, but by his madness, and "Hamlet is of the party that is wronged" and "This is I, Hamlet the Dane", and "I have that within that passes show". Vindice, instead, dissolves in the vertigo of his own disguises ("Joy's a subtle elf: I think man's happiest when he forgets himself"). At the end of Shakespeare's play, "flights of angels sing" Hamlet "to his rest". Middleton lets no one imagine such an elegiac ending for Vindice, one of those "innocent villains" who discovers and demonstrates that the logic of revenge leads to terrorism and mass murder.
He goes on to say that "Middleton's achievement in The Revenger's Tragedy does not cancel Shakespeare's achievement in Hamlet," which is nice of him. Revenger is, also, one of the very few Middleton plays widely available on video, in a recent adaptation starring Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi. There's more good stuff in that article, including more on this "Shakespeare is Michaelangelo, Middleton is Carvaggio," metaphor that Taylor keeps coming back to. I know rather less about Italian painting than I do about English drama, so I'll leave that one to better minds.

Our second essay is from Jonathan Bate (CBE FRSA FRSL, as his Wikipedia page points out--Oh, to be a Briton! Such titles! Such letters!), most recently a general editor of the RSC Complete Shakespeare. In an essay for the Times Literary Supplement, entitled "The Mad Worlds of Thomas Middleton," he offers an assessment both of Middleton and his new Collected Works that is generally positive, but far less revolutionary: here is a dramatist of great ability, long overdue for a reappraisal, but, ultimately, only one among several of the lesser lights of the period. There's a lot of apples on the tree, kid, but there's only one Big Apple.

I guess I've got to read the rest of those plays before weighing in on that one, but Bate's more measured praise certainly refreshes the palate after Taylors somewhat over-ripe evangelism. Bate is also quite right to stick a pin in some of the more inflated prose in the Collected Works. He rightly calls out this passage for ridicule as embodying "the critical indulgence of the late twentieth century:"

The metaphor of castration foregrounds not the literal status of censorship but its (dis)figurative status; that is, castration figures an originary (and paradoxically productive) lack rather than the loss of an originary plenitude . . . . what looks like defetishism (multiple, small differences constituting a clitoral criticism opposed to the single, big difference of a phallic criticism) from another perspective looks like fetishism masquerading as its opposite.
That from Richard Burt's essay on censorship in the Companion volume. Clitoral criticism? As Bate observes, "this kind of thing is so old-fashioned...that it makes the work seem dated even as it comes fresh from the press."

Bate defends the scholarship of the Oxford edition, however, on more important matters, such as the extent of the Middletonian canon. He endorses in particular the inclusion of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Lady's Tragedy (commonly called The Second Maiden's Tragedy), saying their attributions "come as close to settled facts as we are likely to get in this contentious field." He also pronounces Taylor's account of the many tangled texts of A Game at Chess "a scholarly tour de force."

Good essays, both, and well worth a read.


Lea said...

I find that Taylor's usual MO when it comes to analyzing Shakespeare -- especially for the mainstream press -- is to misrepresent Shakespeare so that he can be iconoclastic about him.


Craig said...

Certainly, it's an odd business when a Shakespeare scholar is obliged to insist, "I really don't hate Shakespeare!" I think he's a sort of Shakespearean character himself: the web of his career is a mingled yarn, good and ill together.

Emily said...

I think he's a sort of Shakespearean character himself

I agree whole-heartedly. I've met him a couple of times and he's a very nice man, but there's definitely something of a "Shakespearean character" in Taylor.

As to your main discussion, I tend to lean a bit more towards Taylor (without quite the missionary zeal) than I do toward Bate. Middleton's contributions are fairly important in the time period -- but I'll agree that they haven't ultimately had the same historical impact as Shakespeare's.

I think that one of the reasons we stick with Shakespeare is that the poetry of the plays really is the best in the period ... Middleton's language is very differently accessible. Middleton embraces a more "common" diction -- which really works best in the comedies, I think. (This is not a bad thing for either playwright).

Perhaps one of the reasons that these discussions come up at all is that people have different reasons for approaching a subject -- I happen to love Middleton because I think his representations of the middling sort of London are more nuanced and more immediate than other writers, even in their heavy use of caricature (I appreciate Jonson too, but his love of his own erudition occasionally gets in the way). I guess the question is what we want literature to do and to show us.

(This got much longer than I intended it to be ... thanks for pointing out those articles ...)

Anonymous said...

And this post reminds me of all the early modern works I haven't read (seems a common problem with this lit).

I've been particularly remiss on Middleton's tragedies: I may pick up _The Revenger's Tragedy_ as my next non-work-related drama, though it might have to wait a month or so... (unless you can recommend a better tragedy by TM Gent.)

Hee hee. "his love of his own erudition occasionally gets in the way." Yes, but I do find his fallible pompousity loveable. (though I think it's why critics tend to read his works biographically more than WS.)

I must stop infecting your blog with Ben...

Alan K.Farrar said...

Don't worry about the letters - live long enough and you'll get one.
CBE = not good enough for a knighthood(Dame and Knight are one up) - but better than your average pop star!
Bate reminds me of the origin in 'to hit/beat' (as in debate - to beat down) - always a bit pugilistic Mr Bate - and not exactly un-controversial himself. Mind you, I do like a lot of what he says.
re-Middleton - a bit of the messianic might help rebalance the world of Elizabethan/Jacobean Theatre.

Craig Bryant said...

Oh, my friends, here you are giving me all these great thoughts while I'm away from the shop!

Emily, I'm looking forward to some of those city comedies, but my own sweet tooth is for the tragedies, so it's probably going to be Revenger, Women Beware and the Lady's Tragedy before I take up The Roaring Girl and A Chaste Maid. You have some favorites among them?

Erin, if you can infect this blog with a love for Jonson, you'll get nothing but thanks. He's a tough old coot to get to know, but I enjoy him more the more I try. As for TM, if you wait about a month, we'll probably be reading Revenger at the same time, since it's next on my list after The Changeling. Revenger is very hot right now, with two productions in London. It's also being produced by my favorite American acting company, Shenandoah Shakespeare of Staunton, Virginia, early next year.

Craig Bryant said...

Oh, and Alan, how does it work with like a Knight Bachelor versus, say, a Commander of the British Empire who is not actually a Knight? You need a pocket guide to keep this stuff straight.

Alan K.Farrar said...

Another one of those, "If you need to ask the price, you can't afford it" questions?

Basically a Knight Bachelor outranks anything that ain't yet a knight - so CBE looses on that one: Women don't get it, they get the Dame of the British Empire (so Dames and Knights of that order can be considered equivalent).

No letters after your name though!