Middleton and Shakespeare

I’ve been mulling over an SAA blog post for a couple weeks now, allowing everything to percolate before committing pen to paper (or…whatever the digital equivalent is). I’ve also been a little busy since returning from Atlanta rehearsing for a little show I’ve been working on. It’s taken me a while to get to this, but I’m glad that I waited. In my mulling time, Andy Kesson published some of his SAA thoughts to the Before Shakespeare blog; among other, equally important arguments, Kesson laments the centrality of Shakespeare even in settings that seem designed to sideline or transcend his influence. Sympathetic scholars–myself included–joined his lamentations on Twitter:

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Kesson’s frustrations struck a chord with many of us who think of ourselves as “early modernists” rather than “Shakespeareans.” For me, it rephrased an issue that had come up in the Middleton and Shakespeare seminar, which I audited at SAA.

Middleton and Shakespeare was an exciting and productive seminar in many ways, but there was one thing that troubled me. There seemed to be a consensus in the room that it was Shakespeare who instigated or initiated his collaborative relationship with Middleton.

When I asked the group about the evidence underpinning this claim, their answers felt unsatisfying: there is no hard evidence, but Shakespeare was the more senior playwright and a sharer in the King’s Men at the time. Plus, he wrote a greater proportion of the plays on which they collaborated. So it makes sense that he was the dominant collaborator.

But does it? Or rather: does “dominant playwright” automatically mean “initiating playwright”?

In the absence of hard evidence, allow me to speculate (or perhaps fantasize) about a different kind of collaborative relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton.

Middleton (or ThoMidd, as I affectionately call him to myself) was a freelancer and career collaborator in ways that Shakespeare never was. While it’s true that a greater proportion of Timon of Athens, for example, seems to be Shakespeare’s, I don’t think this automatically means that Shakespeare sought out Middleton for collaboration. Indeed, I think it’s far more plausible that Middleton sought out Shakespeare.

Think about it: around the time that Timon was being written, Middleton was in the midst of an intense legal battle with his wicked stepfather. He would’ve had a strong financial incentive to seek out additional work, if nothing else. But Middleton was always more of a “gig” writer than Shakespeare, who made his real money as a sharer in a company of players. In contrast, Middleton took a job as city chronologer and wrote pageants and court masques in addition to his plays and poems. He earned his living as a writer and collaborated often in all of the various forms and genres to which he contributed. He was a skilled collaborative writer. He was a freelancer for much of his career.

Any good freelancer knows that you can’t wait for the work to come to you. You have to go out and find it. Maybe it’s because I’m so very “on the market” right now, but I can easily picture Middleton–strapped for cash, looking for additional sources of income, and just beginning to make a name for himself–approaching Shakespeare with a pitch.

What impetus would Shakespeare have had to seek out a collaboration of this kind with a very junior colleague, unless he was astonishingly generous?  He was comfortably ensconced as a sharer and was effectively the house playwright for the King’s Men. He had job security in a way that Middleton did not at the time. Perhaps this created an environment in which he felt safe taking a risk on a collaboration with a talented but less experienced writer. Perhaps he was feeling stuck and needed another head in the mix to shake things up. There are, of course, a million possible reasons why a senior, comfortably employed Shakespeare might seek out the assistance of an up-and-comer like Middleton.

But based on the evidence available, isn’t it as least as likely that it was the other way around?