Broadcaster: BBC Radio 4
Review by: Hanna Geissler
This fascinating half-hour documentary follows Dominic Arkwright as he explores the life and work of Thomas Middleton – AKA ‘the bad boy of Renaissance drama’ – and considers the fact that Middleton and Shakespeare were undoubtedly both collaborators and rivals, including an interesting look at Middleton’s alleged involvement in the writing of a number of Shakespeare’s plays.
The programme begins with an introduction to 17th Century London and provides some excellent facts concerning historical context for students studying Renaissance Drama. Arkwright describes the conflict and turmoil of the time and comments on the emergence of the theatre as a new art form that no doubt intrigued and influenced Middleton when he was growing up.
An interview with Jonathan Bate then examines Middleton’s ability to capture the darker recesses of humanity in his writing, with audio clips from a performance of ‘Women Beware Women’ by the National Theatre. Bate praises Middleton’s ability to convey the range of female experience and comments on the character type of ‘the widow’, an unusual example of a woman who has power and autonomy in a time when women were seen as the property of their husbands or fathers.
Arkwright also highlights the surprising claim that the most successful play performed in Shakespeare’s Globe was in fact a play written by Middleton, and the programme transitions to an exploration of the relationship between Middleton and Shakespeare. Gary Taylor argues that they collaborated only once, on ‘Timon of Athens’ in 1604/5, and that Shakespeare was interested in Middleton due to his status as a ‘new voice’ in Renaissance drama. Taylor also suggests that it is possible that Middleton worked on some of Shakespeare’s plays following his death.
This idea is then developed in an interview with Professor Sir Brian Vickers from the University of London, who explains how plagiarism software designed for students (like Turnitin) can be used to compare the language in Middleton’s plays and in ‘Macbeth’ and this close analysis of writing style can determine whether certain parts were written by Middleton or Shakespeare. (He concludes that Middleton was not involved in the writing of ‘Macbeth’.)
Ultimately, the programme suggests that Middleton was a satiric and unsympathetic observer, and that what sets him apart from other Renaissance dramatists is his pessimism and unflinching presentation of themes such as crime, sex, money and the flaws of humanity.