Graduate student contribution

Thomas Middleton (playwright)

As a young man, Thomas Middleton went by the pseudonym Thomas Medius & Gravis Tonusmedius meaning in the middle but also middling, ordinary and neutral, ambiguous (Taylor, Middleton, Thomas). All these epithets could be said to fit. As a prolific writer of poetry, plays, masques, and entertainments, Middleton occupied the centre of public imagination in London. However, he achieved neither the fame of a Shakespeare nor even the notoriety of a Marlowe. His work - often written in collaboration with other writers - occupies an ambiguous space between ribald comedy, biting satire, and sober allegory.
Middleton was baptized on 18 April 1580 in St. Lawrence Jewry, London. His father, a well-to-do gentleman bricklayer, died when Thomas was a young boy, and his mother subsequently wedded Thomas Harvey, an itinerant grocer of dubious means (Barker 2). Harvey’s pecuniary difficulties, combined with a family feud over Middleton Senior’s estate, left young Thomas with a meagre inheritance and a bitter taste of legal chicanery and debt, themes that would later surface, comically or otherwise, in many of his plays (Friedenreich 1).
Middleton matriculated at Oxford in 1598, although it is doubtful that he graduated. Family obligations brought him repeatedly back to London, where he was seen daylie accompaninge the players (Snode, qtd. in Friedenreich 1). Indeed, Middleton soon surrendered himself to theatre and what he called the lickerish study of poetry (qtd. in Barker 7). He published his first collection of verse while still at Oxford (Taylor, Middleton, Thomas), and, by 1602, he was writing plays for Philip Henslowe’s company at the Rose in Southwark (Barker 9).
The Rose specialized in populist entertainment, but Middleton, never one to yoke himself to a single theatre company or even a single style, simultaneously took on more reputable projects, including plays for children’s theatre companies such as the Children of St. Paul’s and the Children of the Chapel (Barker 10). The audiences for these plays tended to be gentlefolk and citizens with deep pockets and extensive connections. Hence, Middleton’s name began to spread within powerful circles. In 1603, he was commissioned to write a speech for Thomas Dekker’s The Magnificent Entertainment. The Phoenix, his earliest surviving play, was performed before King James in the court’s first winter theatrical season (Taylor, Middleton, Thomas).
During this period, Middleton continued to write plays for both popular and elite audiences. His works include Michaelmas Term (1605), A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605), and possibly The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), though the attribution of this final work to Middleton is still a matter of debate. In these plays and others, financial and moral perdition constitute recurrent themes, and the lubricious underbelly of contemporary London emerges as a favourite backdrop, as in The Roaring Girl, or, Moll Cutpurse (with Dekker, 1611) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) (Taylor, Middleton, Thomas).
From 1610 to 1920, Middleton’s more highbrow commissions continued apace. In October 1613, he undertook his first Lord Mayor’s show: The Triumphs of Truth (Barker 17), written for the Grocers’ Company. Staged in honour of London’s new mayor (confusingly also named Thomas Middleton), the spectacular allegorical pageantry of The Triumphs of Truth remains on record as Early Modern England’s most expensive mayoral entertainment (Bergeron 134). As Middleton’s affiliation with the city and court developed, he also undertook commissions for masques, celebrations (including the opening of the New River waterway), and two more Lord Mayor’s shows (Taylor, Middleton, Thomas). In 1620, he was appointed to the salaried position of city chronologer. One of his functions as chronologer was that of Inventor of Entertainments (Barker 20).
All the while, Middleton never stopped writing plays. His greatest theatrical success, the 1624 political allegory A Game at Chess, ran for an unprecedented nine consecutive days, and the controversy it inflamed was so tremendous that the playwright was forced, briefly, to go into hiding (Barker 22).
The late 1620s saw a deterioration of Middleton’s affiliation with the city. Plague forced the cancellation of the Lord Mayor’s show in 1625, and dissatisfaction with other civic entertainments led the common council to terminate Middleton’s pay. He took on less lucrative commissions from livery companies, never quite regaining his prestige, until his death in 1627 (Taylor, Middleton, Thomas).
See also: Taylor, Thomas Middleton: Lives and Afterlives; Marshall, Thomas Middleton in the edition of The Triumphs of Truth on this site (ed. Marshall and Campbell). The standard scholarly edition of Middleton’s works is Thomas Middleton: The Complete Works, ed. Taylor and Lavagnino; see also Taylor and Lavagnino, eds., Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture: A Companion to the Collected Works.


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MLA citation

Mead-Willis, Sarah. Thomas Middleton (playwright). The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 6.6, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 30 Jun. 2021,

Chicago citation

Mead-Willis, Sarah. Thomas Middleton (playwright). The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 6.6. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed June 30, 2021.

APA citation

Mead-Willis, S. 2021. Thomas Middleton (playwright). In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 6.6). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

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Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

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ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Thomas Middleton (playwright)
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 6.6
PY  - 2021
DA  - 2021/06/30
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

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