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Shakespeare, Middleton and Early Modern Dramatic Authorship

What follows is an online version of the exhibition which was on display in the Upper Library from April to September 2016.The exhibition was curated by Simon Smith.

All images are copyright The Queen’s College and may not be reproduced without permission.

Introduction to the exhibition

This exhibition explores the work of two great early modern playwrights, William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, through the collection of the Queen’s College Library. On 23rd April 2016, it will be four hundred years since Shakespeare died, and so it is fitting to be celebrating his work this year in the Library, where copies of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Folios are held. Middleton, himself a student at Queen’s at the very end of the sixteenth century, is also well represented in the collection, both writing alone and as a collaborator and reviser in conjunction with Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, John Fletcher and probably others. 

The First Folio

Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London, 1623)

The First Folio of Shakespeare is one of the world’s most iconic and significant books. It contains thirty-six plays, of which half, including The Tempest, Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra, only survive through the Folio and its textual descendants. The copy in the Queen’s College Library collection, reproduced here, belonged to the great actor and Shakespearean David Garrick (1717-1779), and its margins preserve several traces of its other readers and owners over the last four centuries.

Frontispiece from Shakespeare's First Folio Sel.b.203
The Second and Third Folios

Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (London, 1632) 

Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (London, 1664)  

Whilst celebrating Shakespeare’s authorship, the Shakespeare Folios in fact contain the work of numerous other playwrights as collaborator and reviser, including former Queen’s student Thomas Middleton. Middleton revised both Measure for Measure and Macbeth into the versions we have today, the latter incorporating material from his own play, The Witch. The Third and Fourth Folios even include The Puritan, or the Widow of Watling Street, apocryphally attributed to Shakespeare but now thought to be the sole work of Middleton.

The Second Folio Sel.b.204 - pages from Macbeth
Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher

Comedies and Tragedies Written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher Gentlemen (London, 1647) 

Despite its name, the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio of 1647 in fact includes the work of at least eight dramatists, reflecting the collaborative writing of many early modern plays. Thomas Middleton is represented by works including The Nice Valour, or The Passionate Madman, a highly musical play that is also strongly influenced by early modern theories of the humours. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was a key text in this medical tradition, and may well have served as a source for the play.

Sel.b.207 Title page
Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher expanded

Fifty Comedies and Tragedies. Written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Gentlemen (London, 1679) 

An expanded version of the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio, with eighteen plays added, appeared in 1679. Wit at Several Weapons shows Middleton at work with William Rowley, a regular collaborator of his. This lively comedy, featuring ‘a shallow-brain’d scholar’, ‘an old doting Croane’ and ‘a witless Lord of Land’ among other characters, seems to have influenced both William Davenant and John Dryden. The clown’s part, Pompey Doodle, may well have been written for Rowley himself to perform.

Wit at several weapons from Fifty comedies and tragedies Z.f.20
Middleton's Phoenix

Thomas Middleton, The Phoenix (London, 1630) 
PP.e.133 (12)

Middleton’s The Phoenix, reproduced from a copy bound with The Bloody Banquet, is a disguised ruler play written around 1603-4. Several plays in this genre appeared in the wake of James I’s accession to the English throne in 1603. The young prince Phoenix, soon to become Duke of Ferrara, moves disguised through the court in order to observe his future subjects’ behaviour. The character of Phoenix may well have influenced Shakespeare’s characterisation of the Duke in Measure for Measure.

Middleton's The Phoenix PP.e.133(12)