David Nicol. Middleton and Rowley: Forms of Collaboration in the Jacobean Playhouse

David Nicol. Middleton and Rowley: Forms of Collaboration in the Jacobean Playhouse. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. xii, 220p. ISBN 9781442643703. US $50.00 (hardback).

In this welcome study of the working relationship between two early modern playwrights, David Nicol fuses new approaches with old, revisiting familiar territory in the light of recent developments in the field. Starting from the premise that William Rowley has played second fiddle to Thomas Middleton, Nicol aims principally to recuperate the former: to this end the book is slanted towards how Rowley’s presence, in various forms, informed their collaborations. Their 1622 masterpiece is conventionally regarded as an exemplar of joint authorship, but contrarily the argument advanced here is that The Changeling illustrates difference: not in terms of linguistic analysis but, drawing on the accepted authorial division of the play, how even in collaboration they retained distinctive ideological and aesthetic preferences. Creative tension, rather than cooperation, characterized their combined endeavours. This approach produces fascinating and often persuasive insights, though the range of evidence and circumstances makes for an uneven whole overall.

Middleton and Rowley: Forms of Collaboration in the Jacobean Playhouse draws on previous attribution studies to revisit well-trodden ground: the “morality” of characters’ decision making, the significance of religion and class for each playwright, and how this informed their writing. Rather than reading the plays as presenting a coherent ideological narrative, Nicol dissects texts such as Wit at Several Weapons and A Fair Quarrel to argue for a polyphonic rather than harmonious effect, the result complicating orthodox notions of characterization, genre markers, and plotting. There is a risk of essentialism in this approach, and sometimes this leads to unfortunate value judgments (“revolting Ward” [91], or “Middleton’s cynical city comedies” [94]), but it is brilliantly illuminating when applied to a play Nicol describes as “a patchwork, not a perfectly interwoven text” (64):

Rowley’s opening scene for The Changeling creates tension by focusing on the decisions of individuals. When Middleton takes over, tension ceases to be centred on individual agency and is created instead from confrontations between characters with opposing desires. (61, italics original)

The claim that typically Rowley’s characters debate their decisions, “choos[ing] hellfire, whereas Middleton’s characters do not believe they are evil” (50, italics added) – and hence simply act – is attractive, though no doubt for reasons of space this is based rather more on the Rowley corpus (especially All’s Lost by Lust) than on a fuller analysis of the Middleton canon.

The corrective to Middleton-centric criticism Nicol seeks sheds light on how Rowley’s status influenced Middleton’s writing, though it is unfortunate that a statement such as “Rowley’s talents and limitations were thus a constraint upon Middleton’s choices” (67) acknowledges or modulates rather than challenges traditional critical judgments. Nonetheless, this signals the shift in the second half of the book towards a concern with company practices. Rowley’s status as writer/actor of clown figures is shown to be a thread running through both his own career and his collaborations with Middleton right up to A Game at Chess (though the possibility that he scripted and perhaps acted “Kemp” in The Travails of the Three English Brothers, unexplored here, would complicate this still further). This broadening of what collaborative playmaking entailed leads to intriguing links posited between The Changeling and The Spanish Gypsy, and through examination of Prince Charles’ patronage addresses the kinds of political questions critics have long associated with Middleton but which were no less significant for Rowley.

For all that collaboration currently receives considerable attention we understand very little about actual playmaking practices. Nicol’s book reminds us that strict act/scene allocation was far from the norm, that a range of habits may be detected. In addition to providing an account of one collaborative relationship, this study suggests some of the directions that scholars might take as collaboration studies continues to develop.

Mark Hutchings
University of Reading