In which I read Thomas Middleton so you don’t have to

The controversy over the authorship of All’s Well That Ends Well prompted me to give the Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton a try.  This turns out to have been a mistake.

A friend lent me A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Wikipedia says: “Unpublished until 1630 and long-neglected afterwards, it is now considered among the best and most characteristic Jacobean comedies.”  The Internet is littered with other encomia.  Sheesh.

Here’s what I have to say: The plot is incomprehensible, the characters are uninteresting, and the language is devoid of poetry or wit.  The play is supposed to be dirty, and that sounds promising, but it turns out to be the kind of vulgarity that a modern reader can only understand by reading the footnotes.  The word “confusion,” the editor informs us, means “incest.”  Oh, of course, shoulda figured that out myself.  The play is supposed to be funny, but it’s the humor of stereotypes that were probably banal 400 hundred years ago.  The prim Puritan ladies get drunk at a party — what a riot!  The son comes home from college and he’s full of himself with all his new-fangled learning — I didn’t see that one coming!

Even in the dreariest parts of Shakespeare you’ll come across a startling image, a beautiful couplet, a character who does something unexpected.  There’s none of that in A Chaste Maid.  The only thing that seemed even quasi-Shakespearean is a happy ending that features a rebirth of sorts — the two lovers, supposedly dead, arise from their coffins, and the funeral turns into a wedding.  But there was no particular setup for the scene, so it felt entirely arbitrary.  And the characters could have stayed dead, for all I cared about them.

There, I feel better now.  Time to re-read As You Like It.

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