It is not often one can confidently say of a new publication that it will alter one’s perspective on the character and the achievement of a whole literary epoch, but one is tempted to make such high claim for the two volumes of the Collected Works of Thomas Middleton: the first complete modern edition of this highly original and many-sided author. The General Editor, Gary Taylor, plausibly explains why this perhaps most versatile and prolific of Shakespeare’s contemporaries has not received the tribute of a collected edition of his oeuvre much earlier, like the Folio of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson or Beaumont and Fletcher. The chief reason is evidently connected with the fact that Middleton had no such firm and lasting basis in one particular playing company, since he worked for a very mixed and varied number of clients, which had a rather unfortunate effect on the survival and dissemination of the texts, many of them never published during his lifetime or printed without the author’s name. None of his colleagues or contemporary readers apparently felt the necessity of collecting the scripts and assembling them in a major tome. Another reason may be the very form and the quantity of his output. Many of the plays, not to mention the occasional, naturally soon outdated civic entertainments, at first sight seem to be of a more ephemeral and topical nature and this, too, had its effect on the quality of transmission. A major obstacle to the appearance of the Collected Works, of course, has to do with the ongoing, recently more vigorous discussion of authorship and problems of ascription. There is evidence, plausibly conjectured or generally confirmed, of Middleton’s authorship, collaboration or hitherto unsuspected presence in a number of well-known texts, such as A Yorkshire Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Measure for Measure, Macbeth and Timon of Athens. The issue predictably will provoke further controversy and debate between unconvinced skeptics and open-minded believers in imaginative (or inventive) conjecture in the absence of hard evidence. There is no doubt that playmaking in the times of Elizabeth I and James I was to a considerable extent a collaborative business, and professional authorship in the world of English Renaissance theatre had a more social meaning, without the individualist mystique of a later age.
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