“THE LINES WE WRITE”: Middleton and Dekker’s Co-Written Pamphlets

Suzanne Gossett ed., Thomas Middleton in Context, (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley eds., The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton (Oxford University Press, 2012)

By Eilidh Kane

In 1603 London was struck by a terrible outbreak of the bubonic plague which killed a fifth of the city’s population. To control the spread of the disease the city authorities tried to stop people gathering in large groups and ordered the theatres to close. As a consequence, London’s playwrights faced one year, March 1603 to April 1604, during which they could no longer earn money selling their work to acting companies. Two of these playwrights responded to the crisis by writing pamphlets as a way of making a living. Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) and Thomas Dekker (c. 1572-1632) wrote some of their pamphlets separately; Dekker wrote The Wonderful Year in 1603 and Middleton wrote Father Hubburd’s Tales and The Black Book in 1604. In the case of two pamphlets, though, they combined their efforts and wrote News from Gravesend: Sent to Nobody in autumn/winter 1603 and The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinary in early 1604.

Both News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants deal with the plague but the disease itself is not their primary focus; of greater concern is the behaviour of the ruling classes. Their panicked flight from London and its disastrous consequences for those left behind in the pestilent capital are subjected to intense satirical scrutiny. The satire in The Meeting of Gallants begins with its prologue, ‘A Dialogue between War, Famine and the Pestilence,’ in which the three personified disasters argue as to who brings death most successfully. Pestilence claims that she surpasses War in causing death, since she slays “forty thousand in one battle.” War’s retort, that Pestilence claims “no men of mark or memory” while he has caused the deaths of monarchs, raises the issue which preoccupies The Meeting of Gallants and News from Gravesend: the ruling classes could afford to flee London—everybody else was forced to stay behind and suffer. Such inequity led News from Gravesend to dub the disease “the beggars’ plague.”

The Meeting of Gallants moves on from this injustice to highlight another problem caused by the flight of the wealthy from the city: the loss of income for the Londoners who remained. The pamphlet insinuates that even those wealthy citizens who stayed were too afraid to support the local businesses they would have frequented under normal circumstances. The second section of The Meeting of Gallants opens with an encounter between two fashionable men, Shuttlecock and Jinglespur, in the yard of St Paul’s at the tail end of the outbreak. Jinglespur explains that gallants and gentlemen have been making do with their old suits because they were too frightened to visit tailors and drapers since fabric was believed to harbour the plague (in fact, fleas living in fabric could indeed spread the disease): “there is as much peril between the wings and the skirts of one of their doublets as in all the liberties of London.” Inevitably, one of the most difficult aspects for the tradesmen is suggested to have been the decision of their customers to leave the city. Shuttlecock notes that it is just as well that people are beginning to return since “I know many an honest tradesman that would have come down to you else”–that is, who would have followed their customers into the country. Shuttlecock and Jinglespur are joined by more gallants who have recently returned and they move on to an ordinary (tavern), tempted by the promise of “an honest host about London that hath barrelled up news.” The host’s—often comic—stories about what has happened during the plague form the remainder of the pamphlet.

OHB Thomas MiddletonMiddleton and Dekker were in a position to sympathise with those tradesmen whose incomes were affected when the wealthy fled the city. Without the theatres, writers like them might have aimed to sell their work to a rich patron but this option was closed to them when the rich left. News from Gravesend explores the issue of absent patrons by addressing its dedicatory epistle to the imaginary “Sir Nicholas Nemo, alias Nobody.” The epistle becomes an extended joke whereby Sir Nicholas represents the absent ruling classes; when the “pestiferous shipwreck of Londoners” was abandoned by those who should have taken control during the crisis, “Nobody […] did step courageously to the helm.” The poem which forms the second part of the pamphlet meditates on the horror of the plague, its cause (the poem finally settles on sin) and how it might be stopped.

Writing for the pamphlet format was a clever way for Middleton and Dekker to earn their living while the theatres were closed and patrons were missing. Pamphlets like News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants were short in length which meant that they could be written quickly and sold to booksellers (roughly equivalent to a modern publisher) without delay. The brevity of pamphlets made them cheaper to print, as did the small size of paper used for them. The pages of a pamphlet would be fastened together but the finished book was sold without a hard cover, again keeping the production costs down. The high speed and low cost of producing pamphlets meant that they could be sold inexpensively, resulting in a large potential market for them. It is no wonder, then, that the idea of writing pamphlets appealed to Middleton, Dekker, their bookseller and printer, at least from an economic point of view.

The story I have been telling, that Middleton and Dekker wrote their pamphlets because the theatres were closed during a plague outbreak, is a critical commonplace. It appears in each of the most significant books on Middleton’s work in recent years including Thomas Middleton in Context, edited by Suzanne Gossett (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton, edited by Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley (Oxford University Press, 2012). In her essay for Middleton in Context, Elizabeth Lane Furdell notes “[w]ith stages closed, Middleton collaborated with Thomas Dekker on plague pamphlets.”[1] While Jonathan Hope writes that “[w]hen plague closed the theatres in 1603-4, Middleton’s response was a series of pamphlets” in his essay for The Handbook.[2] Financial need caused by the playhouse closures is a satisfactory reason as to why playwrights would turn their hands to pamphlets, but, as yet, no one has thoroughly answered the question of why Middleton and Dekker wrote two pamphlets together.

The starting point for both The Handbook and Middleton in Context is another book published several years earlier, Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (2007). The first ever single-volume collection of Middleton’s oeuvre, The Collected Works marked a watershed in the study of the author, not least for the way in which it (re-)defined his canon. It was, for example, the first time that either News from Gravesend or The Meeting of Gallants had been published with Middleton’s name attached (the pamphlets had been published as part of a collection of Dekker’s plague pamphlets in the 1920s).[3]

Of the two essay collections, The Handbook is more explicit about its connection to The Collected Works and its companion volume, Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture.[4] This is unsurprising given that these books share a publisher in the Oxford University Press and an editor in Gary Taylor. Taylor and his co-editor on The Handbook, Thomas Henley, explain in their ‘Unintroduction’ that it is “designed to complement” these earlier books. The Handbook therefore does not dwell on material discussed in The Collected Works; it bypasses, for instance, issues of attribution or book history. For the serious Middleton scholar, who must surely own The Collected Works and its companion by now, The Handbook’s refusal to return to topics already covered is a boon. However, by establishing itself so clearly as part three of a trilogy, The Handbook could put off the more casual reader or student of Middleton.

Middleton in Context gives due credit to The Collected Works, calling it “the most immediately important context for reading Middleton,” but it is less intimately connected with that publication and so less restricted in the areas that it covers. This difference makes Middleton in Context the more accessible of the two collections. In her introduction, Gossett states that “the essays in this volume are intended to assist readers, whether students coming to Middleton for the first time or experienced scholars more familiar with Shakespeare.” Middleton in Context includes essays on topics of which The Handbook steers clear; for example, the former has a section devoted to Middleton’s “afterlives” while the latter does not because that is a subject already discussed in The Collected Works.

9780521190541jkt.qxdThe self-contained nature of Middleton in Context is one reason why it is the more approachable of the two books; another reason is the way in which it is organised. Middleton in Context groups its 38 essays into six sections, around themes like “Middleton and the London Context” and “The Context and Conditions of Authorship.” The Handbook eschews this kind of structure; as the ‘Unintroduction’ explains, it “is not organised as a guided tour.” Instead, in a nod to “Middleton’s habit of turning expectation upside down,” The Handbook’s 36 essays are arranged by author’s name in reverse alphabetical order. By choosing this unconventional system, the editors aim to encourage readers to jump between the essays and thereby create new and interesting connections between the various works under discussion. The decision gives The Handbook an energetic feel, a sense that its readers will be participating in a lively debate. However, as with The Handbook’s strong connection to The Collected Works and companion, this is perhaps an aspect of the collection which will appeal more to those who are already engaged with Middleton.

There are three essays in Middleton in Context which touch upon the role of co-writing in the Middleton-Dekker pamphlets: Lane Furdell’s ‘Life and Death in Middleton’s London’; Alison A. Chapman’s ‘Writing Outside the Theatre’ and Heather Hirschfeld’s ‘Collaboration: Sustained Partnerships’. In the sections of their essays which look at News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants, Lane Furdell considers the influence of the different authors, Chapman examines the importance of collaboration and Hirschfeld includes them as part her discussion of Middleton and Dekker’s writing partnership.

Lane Furdell sets News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants in opposition to one another as part of her discussion of Middleton’s creative response to life and death in London. For her, the apocalyptic tone which characterises sections of News from Gravesend’s poem is a reflection of Dekker’s greater input:

What if there were metaphysical origins of pestilence, as Dekker assumed? What if England were being punished by a wrathful God incensed by the licentiousness of its citizenry? Or could evil have spawned the deadly plagues that ravaged London?

The Middleton-led authorship of The Meeting of Gallants is then suggested to have created a pamphlet which serves as “an antidote to Dekker’s pessimism.” Lane Furdell’s reading of News from Gravesend overlooks the long epistle which opens the pamphlet; for me the darkly comic assessment of the plague contained there balances out the more overwrought aspects of the poem without the need for an external “antidote.” More importantly, her description of the co-writers’ roles shuts down the possibility that the pamphlets were in any way shaped by collaboration. Lane Furdell implies that the input of the lead author totally overrides the contribution of the co-writer; it is an assessment which suggests that Middleton’s hand in News from Gravesend and Dekker’s in The Meeting of Gallants had no impact. ‘Life and Death in Middleton’s London’ does not offer an explanation as to why Middleton and Dekker wrote two pamphlets together. Far from it, in fact; by contrasting the “Dekker” pamphlet with the “Middleton” pamphlet Lane Furdell implies that the collaborative nature of their writing did not alter a thing.

Alison Chapman, on the other hand, sees News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants as being intimately linked by their intertextual approach: “[b]oth are part of a long tradition of plague works.” She links News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Thomas Nashe’s “plague-conscious satires” from the 1590s and even Dekker’s solo pamphlet The Wonderful Year (1603). Chapman’s essay not only emphasises the importance of joint authorship to the pamphlets, but conceives of them as part of a collaborative network whereby texts speak to one another. Indeed, in ‘Writing Outside the Theatre’ Chapman emphasises the collaborative nature of all Middleton’s non-dramatic work by proposing that even when he worked on his own he sought to engage in conversation with others through intertextuality. Chapman’s essay argues for the importance of collaboration to Middleton but there is a next step to be taken if we are to understand the role of co-writing in News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants specifically: why did Middleton collaborate on these pamphlets with Dekker in particular?

To my mind, the essay which comes closest to taking this step is Heather Hirschfeld’s ‘Collaboration: Sustained Partnerships.’ The essay quotes from News from Gravesend, an excerpt which begins:

These are the tragedies, whose sight
With tears blot all the lines we write.

The stage, whereon the scenes are played
            Is a whole kingdom.
(emphasis added by Hirschfeld)

Hirschfeld provides an astute analysis of Middleton and Dekker’s use of “we,” arguing that it “calls attention not only to the writers’ joint work but also to their joint horror at the London before them.” In this way she shows that Middleton and Dekker’s collaborative approach was an essential part of News from Gravesend’s reaction to the plague.

For Hirschfeld, this quote also demonstrates that Middleton shares an “intensely theatrical perspective” with Dekker. She observes that Middleton and Dekker see the world as a stage “even when writing prose.” This is a slightly confusing description given that her quoted passage is taken from the verse section of the pamphlet but if Hirschfeld means “prose” in opposition to “drama” then certainly the text’s references to tragedies, the stage and scenes would support her claim.

This idea that Middleton and Dekker’s co-written pamphlets are theatrical in style is expressed elsewhere, for instance by Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith in their joint essay for The Handbook, ‘“Time’s comic sparks”: the Dramaturgy of A Mad World My Masters and Timon of Athens.’ Maguire and Smith are concerned with Middleton’s dramaturgy, yet they take the innovative step of beginning their essay by looking at his non-dramatic work. They find in his pamphlet The Black Book (1604) and in The Meeting of Gallants evidence that Middleton viewed the world through a theatrical lens. Maguire and Smith note that in the second of these, “Middleton even writes stage directions. When the Host invites Gallants to seat themselves, a parenthesis instructs ‘(Enter boys and beards with dishes and platters).’” Although this essay does not stress theatricality as being an approach Middleton shared with Dekker, I find it interesting that Maguire and Smith have taken an example from The Meeting of Gallants. The use of a stage direction in this other co-written pamphlet supports Hirschfeld’s contention that Middleton and Dekker shared a sense of theatricality.

Hirschfeld’s essay begins to capture a sense of why Middleton and Dekker co-wrote their pamphlets because, as its title suggests, it is concerned with “sustained partnerships,” the co-writing relationships which Middleton enjoyed with Dekker from 1603 to 1611 and with William Rowley from 1613 to 1623. As a result, Hirschfeld presents News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants as the starting point of a significant writing partnership, rather than a mere reaction to the theatre closures. Almost immediately after the playhouses re-opened, Middleton and Dekker co-wrote the play The Honest Whore (1604). They followed this up with The Bloody Banquet in 1608-9 and The Roaring Girl in 1611. The partnership was interrupted when Dekker’s debts saw him sent to the King’s Bench prison in Southwark where he would spend the next seven years. Once Middleton and Dekker’s pamphlets are set in the context of their long-running partnership, it is insufficient to explain their authorship in terms of economic necessity: Middleton and Dekker may have needed to write the pamphlets to earn money but they did not need to write them together and certainly they did not need to continue writing together for eight years afterwards.

It is perhaps unsurprising that in treating News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants as part of a co-writing partnership which also produced three plays, Hirschfeld is led to draw out “theatricality” as the common bond shared by Middleton and Dekker. However, by taking the first step beyond simple financial imperative, Hirschfeld opens the door for a more comprehensive study of what Middleton and Dekker’s pamphlets can reveal about the duo’s co-writing practices. While Hirschfeld’s essay uses the plays to illuminate the pamphlets’ co-written status, the inverse is also true: in the study of collaboration in News from Gravesend and The Meeting of Gallants there lies a chance to learn more about Middleton and Dekker’s co-written plays.


 Notes:

[1] Lane Furdell, ‘Life and Death in Middleton’s London’, Thomas Middleton in Context ed. Suzanne Gossett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 61-7 (p. 62).

[2] Jonathan Hope, ‘Middleton’s Stylistics’, The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton, ed. Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 247-63 (p.248).

[3] Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino eds., Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (Oxford University Press, 2007).

[4] Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino eds., Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture: A Companion to the Collected Works (Oxford University Press, 2007).

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