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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Convention and device in the plays of Thomas Middleton Tener, Robert Hampden


It has been the object of this thesis to display the handling of conventions and devices in the plays of Thomas Middleton with a view to arriving at an assessment of his qualities as a tragic artist. The term, convention, is here interpreted as an artist's means, necessarily both traditional and ephemeral, to produce certain familiar effects in building and sustaining a world of illusion. By "device" is meant any means employed by the artist to achieve the effects he aimed at, means that he originated or that have no tradition behind them. The conventions surveyed have been grouped in each chapter under four headings: theme, structure, characterization, and staging. The conventional themes are those of sex (chastity, cuckoldry, wittoldom, lust), of honour, of revenge and delay in revenge, of gulling and the trickster tricked, of ambitious climbing, and of the self-destructiveness of sin. The conventions of structure include intrigue plot-patterns, disguise-revelation patterns, de casibus rise and fall, the sin-repentance-punishment sequence of domestic tragedy, and the action-counteraction pattern of revenge tragedy. The main conventional characters are the gull and the tricked trickster, the chastity figure, the cuckold, the wittol, the lecher, the faithless wife, the wilful woman, the jealous husband, the tyrant figure (commanding fathers, uncles, and guardians, dukes and usurpers), the disguiser, the malcontent, the resolute Machiavellian, the dedicated revenger. The chief conventions of staging are those of the syncopation of time (often secured through the use of dumb-shows), the neutrality of space, the exploitation of spectacle (masques, plays-within-plays, dumb-shows, and songs). The thesis is composed of eight chapters, the first four "being preparatory to the next three which detail the handling of conventions in the three main tragedies. The last chapter attempts an assessment of Middleton as a tragic artist insofar as this may be determined by measuring his tragic conventions against the generic nature of tragedy. Middleton's City comedies, The [Family of Love, The Phoenix, A Mad World, My Masters, Michaelmas Term, Your Five -Gallants, A Trick to Catch The Old One, A Chaste Maid in Cheap- side, and The Roaring Girl, are full of the conventions of intrigue, disguising, gulling, the trickster tricked, cuckoldry, and fortune hunting, of such stock figures as gulls, cuckolds, lustful gallants, lecherous old men, faithless wives, scheming misers, young wastrels, and greedy social climbers. Dumb-shows, masques, plays-within-plays, disguises, feasts, trials, mock-funerals, the fluid handling of space and the telescoping of time are further conventions abundantly illustrated. The early tragedies, The Revenger's Tragedy and The Second Maiden's Tragedy (for which Samuel Schoenhaum in Middleton's Tragedies has assembled the evidence of Middleton's authorship), display most of these conventions, albeit frequently tailored to suit the requirements of Senecan revenge drama. Intriguing, disguising, cuckoldry, the trickster tricked, and fortune Taunting appear here in much the same forms as in the City comedies, as do the conventions of character - gulls, cuckolds, lechers, social climbers - and such conventions as the fluid handling of space and the syncopation of time. Such Senecan conventions as the revenge theme, the revenger, the ghost, dumb-shows, the fatal revels, wholesale butcherings, malcontents, and madmen also appear, too. Most of these conventions are discoverable in Middleton's Fletcherian plays (More Dissemblers besides Women, No Wit, No Help, like a Woman's, A Fair Quarrel, The Witch, The Widow, and The Old Law). But here the conventions of surprise, of the improbable hypothesis, the Protean character, the theme of honour, the rhetoric of exalted sentiment, the middle mood, and lavish spectacle, conventions which are outstanding characteristics of the new vogue of drama introduced by Beaumont and Fletcher, are prominent, too. Like most of his contemporaries, Middleton kept alert to changes in dramatic fashion. The first of his three late tragedies, however, shows that Middleton was sometimes puzzled by what his audience wanted. Hengist, King of Kent is a belated chronicle play that utilizes nearly all the major conventions that Middleton had previously employed, but which also embodies such conventions of the history play as British chronicle material, a de casibus structure, royal ambition, a loosely attached comic sub-plot, the speculum principis, tyrants, usurpers, climbers, Machiavellians, and malcontents. The theme of the self-destructiveness of sin appears here, too. This is a tragic counterpart of the City comedy theme of the trickster tricked. But, in his uncertainty of what to give his audience, Middleton rather abruptly switches the purpose of his play from depicting ambition to displaying sordid and lustful intrigues. His next tragedy, Women, Beware Women, by virtue of its being in part a domestic tragedy embodies a good many of the conventions of the City comedies. Such conventions of domestic tragedy as the exemplum moral concerning the wages of sin, the chain of vice, and the self-destructiveness of the wicked appear as well. There is here also something of domestic tragedy's four-fold pattern of repentance (contrition, confession, affirmation of faith, and amendment of life), but because Women, Beware Women is transformed in Act IV into an Italianate revenge play that repentance pattern is cut short. Although the play contains many of the conventions of revenge drama (delay in revenge, Machiavellian scheming, fatal revels, for example), and some of FIetcherian drama, (the Protean character and elaborate spectacle), Middleton contrives, especially in the first three acts, to give a compellingly lifelike reality to his characters and their careers. This life-like air is brilliantly embodied in Middleton's final tragedy, The Changeling, which in the main plot is a stunningly powerful realistic tragedy of lust and wilfulness. Superficially, some of the features of Senecan revenge drama also appear here, too. Such conventions as the self-destructiveness of sin, of the trickster tricked, the wilful woman, the lustful, Machiavellian villain are embodied here with virtually unrivalled brilliance. The artistic inferiority of the sub-plot, however, gravely disfigures the play. The concluding chapter of the thesis shows that Middleton was undoubtedly a fine tragic artist in that he did present a tragic view of life - sin is self-destructive. Moreover, he showed that he was able to make such conventions as the trickster tricked, the lustful villain, the headstrong woman, and sin's suicidal nature consummately expressive of his conviction that there is a moral order in the world that works with inexorable justice. But the concluding chapter also shows that Middleton was not a wholly successful tragic artist since the dramatist all too often resorts to convention in the pejorative sense. Hengist, King of Kent is structurally very weak since the overloading of dumb-shows with story, the switch in purpose in the main plot and the very loosely attached sub-plot make the play disjointed. Women, Beware Women is disfigured by a Protean change in the character of Livia, the key intriguer, a change subserving the Senecan denouement which in turn employs the hackneyed device of the fatal revels to produce in the catastrophe an improbable huddle of bodies. The Changeling is marred by Rowley's artistically inferior sub-plot as well as by the archaic trial of chastity in the main action.

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