Thomas Middleton was another leading dramatist and poet of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. Active from about 1597 onwards, he collaborated with William Shakespeare on Timon of Athens,and recently there has been some speculation that he also had a hand in the writing of All’s Well That Ends Well. Macbeth and Measure for Measure are also believed to have heavily involved Middleton, possibly after Shakespeare’s death.
Born in London to upwardly mobile parents in April 1580, Thomas Middleton was the first son of William Middleton and his wife, Anne. William’s trade as a bricklayer allowed him to join one of London’s trade guilds, the Honourable Company of Tilers and Bricklayers, which brought him prosperity. By 1568 he enjoyed that status of ‘gentleman’ having been granted a family coat of arms. When William died five years after Thomas’s birth, his estate was valued at £335.
Unfortunately for the young Thomas and his sister, his mother remarried hastily. His new stepfather, Thomas Harvey, made a claim on a trust which had been established for the siblings, and a fifteen-year legal battle ensued. Middleton’s plays would later feature biting satires of the legal profession, probably coloured by this experience.
Middleton enrolled at Queen’s College, Oxford, in April 1598, leaving without attaining a degree. By February 1601, he was in London and writing for the theatre. A prolific and diverse writer, he wrote or co-wrote over thirty plays, as well as fourteen masques, poetry and numerous prose works. Apart from Shakespeare, he is the only one of his contemporaries who is considered to have written masterpieces in every genre of drama – history, comedy and tragedy. The best-known of these works include Women Beware Women, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling. But unlike Shakespeare, he had no allegiance to a particular playing company, preferring instead to work on a freelance basis.
In 1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s death and the ascension of James I to the throne of England, Middleton married a fellow Londoner, Mary (or Magdalen) Marbeck, the granddaughter of the famed musician John Marbeck, and niece of Roger Marbeck, one time chief physician to the queen. The couple had only one child, Edward. Although the exact date of the child’s birth is unknown, he is believed to have been born between November 1603 and November 1604.
Thomas Middleton died at the relatively young age of forty-seven on the first or second July 1627, and is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Newington. Despite achieving widespread popularity, Middleton left little money behind to look after his widow. She died, impoverished, a year later.
William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.
See also article on John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father, Richard Burbage, a pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era, and Christopher Marlowe.