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ART. VII.-The Witch. By Thomas Middleton. the Original MS. by Isaac Reed. 8vo. 1778.
The Changeling, a Tragedy. By T. Middleton and W. Rowley. 4to. 1653.
Women beware of Women, a Tragedy. By T. Middleton. 8vo. 1657.
It has been said, often enough, that the lives of authors present but slender materials for biography; and that, in fact, their histories (which are rather histories of thoughts than actions) should be read where they are best recorded,—in their works. The first part of this assertion is well borne out by the life of Middleton. He is almost entirely unknown. The public, at least that part of the public who turn over now and then the leaves of our old dramatic writers, know that such a person existed; that he wrote, singly, and in conjunction. with great associates, some memorable matter; but nothing further. None even of the editors of our old plays, can give any material account of this author; and we ourselves unable to add any thing to the scanty statements which are already before the public. Middleton is said to have been appointed chronologer to the city of London in the year 1620, and to have been cited before the privy council, on the 30th August, 1624, as the writer of "The Game of Chess;" and there his biography ends.
Thomas Middleton was the sole author of about sixteen or eighteen regular dramatic works, and four pageants, besides being concerned in different plays jointly with Rowley, Dekker, Webster, Massinger, and even with Fletcher and Ben Jonson. It is said that during his life he owed the greatest part of his reputation to his connexion with his celebrated contemporaries; yet, as is well remarked by the author of the Biographia Dramatica, it is surely "a proof of merit sufficient to establish him in a rank far from the most contemptible of our dramatic writers, that a set of men of such acknowledged abilities considered him as deserving to be admitted a joint labourer with them in the fields of poetic fame; and more especially by Fletcher and Jonson, the first of whom, like a widowed muse, could not be supposed readily to admit another partner after the loss of his long and well-beloved mate, Beaumont; and the latter, who entertained so high an opinion of his own talents as scarcely to admit any brother near the throne, and would hardly have permitted the clear waters of his own Heliconian springs to have been muddied by the mixture of any streams, that did not apparently flow from the same source."
The truth is, that Middleton was a man of very considerable power." It is difficult to assign him any precise. station among the remarkable men who were his contemporaries. Indeed, nothing is more unsafe than to guage the comparative merits of authors by the depth of one's own personal admiration; especially where, as in dramatic writing, the individual claims to excellence are so various, as to make it almost impossible to institute any very close comparison among them. Besides, one critic may prefer tragedy, another comedy, another pastoral; a fourth may value only the truth of character; while a fifth may be careless of it, and esteem little else beyond the vigour of the diction, or the melodious flow of the verse. Dekker, Webster, Middleton, Ford, were all men of excelling talent. The first had the best idea of character; the second was the most profound; the third had most imagination; and the last equalled the others in pathos, and surpassed them in the delineation of the passion of love.— Yet these particular points were not all by which these writers caught the attention of critics, and retained the admiration of their readers. They had other qualities, differing in shade and varying in colour, which it would be difficult to contrast with any useful effect. Dekker was sometimes as profound as Webster, and Middleton as passionate as Ford. Again, the verse of Ford is, generally speaking, musical; while that of Webster is often harsh, but it is more pregnant with meaning, shadowy, spectral, and fuller of a dark and earthy imagination. So it is that Middleton, although he has drawn no sketches, perhaps, so good as Matheo or Friscobaldo, lets fall nevertheless, occasionally, shrewd observations, and displays a wealth of language, which would illuminate and do honour to the better drawn characters of Dekker. In short, one was often rich in qualities, of which another possessed little or nothing; while he, on his part, could retort upon his rival a claim to other excellencies, to which the first did not affect to have even a pretension. It seems, therefore, almost idle to determine the rank and "classes" to which these old writers should respectively belong. We can no more accomplish this, than we can determine upon the positive beauty of colours, or fix the standard of metals, whose durability or scarcity is utterly unknown. Independently of all these reasons, it is invidious, and not very grateful in us, who profess ourselves idolaters, to anatomize the remains of our gods, or to impale the reputations of these old fathers of poetry (sacrificing them face to face with each other), upon the hard and unrelenting spikes of modern criticism. They had faults which we have not-and excellencies which we do not possess. They were a fresh, shrewd, vigorous people,—full of fire, and imagination,
and deep feeling. They were not swathed and swaddled in the bands by which we cramp the thoughts, and paralyze the efforts of our infant poets; but they were rioters in their fancy,-bold, unfettered writers, whom no critics, monthly or quarterly, watched over for the benefit of the time to come. Accordingly, they dared to think,-they wrote what they thought and their thoughts were generally strenuous, and often soaring, and sometimes even rich in wisdom.
With respect to Middleton, whom we have now more particularly to deal with ;-he was, as we have said, a man of very considerable powers, and possessed a high imagination. The reader who is not intimately acquainted with his works, will recognize him, perhaps, when we mention him as the author of The Witch, from which Shakspeare is said to have collected his idea of the witches in Macbeth. This drama, indeed, is not a production of the highest character, but the witches themselves are worth any thing. The story, which involves a double plot, cannot be unravelled very briefly; nor is there anything in it of sufficient merit to compensate for the tediousness, which a detail of it would force upon the reader. It is sufficient to say, that a Duke of Ravenna, by cruel insults, drives his wife to wish for his death. She accomplishes his murder, as she conceives, by means of a fantastical courtier called Almachildes; and when she supposes that the deed is perpetrated, she is desirous of getting rid of her instrument.— For this purpose, she consults the witches. The superstition which is referred to in the beginning of the following scene, is (notwithstanding it has a somewhat Gothic look) as old as Theocritus.
"THE WITCHES' HABITATION.
Enter Duchess, Hecate, Firestone.
Hec. What death is't you desire for Almachildes?
Hec. Then I've fitted you.
Here lie the gifts of both; sudden and subtle;
By a blue fire, kindled with dead men's eyes,
Duch. In what time, pr'ythee?
Hec. Perhaps in a month's progress.
Out upon pictures! If they be so tedious,
Give me things with some life.
Hec. Then seek no farther.
Duch. This must be done with speed, dispatched
Hec. I have it for you:
Here's that will do't.
Stay but perfection's time,
And that's not five hours hence.
Duch. Can'st thou do this?
Hec. Can I?
Can you doubt me then, daughter?
That can make mountains tremble, miles of woods walk;
Of the entomb'd to burst out from their marbles ;
Nay, draw yon moon to my involv'd designs?
Fire. I know as well as can be when my mother's mad, and our great cat angry; for one spits French then, and th' other spits Latin.
Duch. I did not doubt you, mother.
Hec. No? what did you?
My power's so firm, it is not to be question'd.
Duch. Forgive what's past: and now I know th' offensiveness, That vexes art, I'll shun th' occasion ever.
Hec. Leave all to me and my five sisters, daughter:
It shall be conveyed in at howlet-time.
Take you no care. My spirits know their moments:
But they call in (I thank 'em), and they lose not by❜t.
Hec. Give me marmaritin; some bear-breech. When?
And fetch three ounces of the red-hair'd girl
I kill'd last midnight.
Fire. Whereabouts, sweet mother?
Hec. Hip, hip or flank. Where is the acopus?
Fire. You shall have acopus, forsooth.
Hec. Stir, stir about; whilst I begin the charm.
A CHARM SONG.
The Witches going about the cauldron.
Black spirits and white; red spirits and grey:
Firedrake, Puckey, make it lucky:
Liard, Robin, you must bob in ;
Round, around, around; about, about;
All ill come running in; all good keep out!
Hec. Put in that; oh, put in that.
1st Witch. The juice of toad, the oil of adder.
2d Witch. Those will make the yonker madder.
This scene, the reader will perceive, must (if written before Macbeth, and generally known amongst the writers of the time,) have been the origin of one of the scenes in that celebrated play. With regard to the witches themselves, an eminent critic (Mr. Charles Lamb) has shewn the diffèrence between Shakspeare's witches and those of Middleton; and he has awarded the palm, perhaps deservedly, in favour of the creations of Shakspeare. Nevertheless-with deference to
* For the sake of the reader, who may be unacquainted with that delightful volume, the Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets, by Charles Lamb, we transcribe the author's note upon this subject.
"Though some resemblance may be traced between the charms in Macbeth, and the incantations in this play, which is supposed to have preceded it, this coincidence will not detract much from the originality of Shakspeare. His witches are distinguished from the witches of Middleton by essential differences. These are creatures to whom man or woman, plotting some dire mischief, might resort for occasional consultation. Those originate deeds of blood, and begin bad impulses to men. From the moment that their eyes first meet with Macbeth's, he is spell-bound. That meeting sways his destiny. He can never break the fascination. These witches can hurt the body; those have power over the soul.-Hecate in Middleton has a son, a low buffoon: the hags of Shakspeare have neither child of their own, nor seem to be descended from any parent. They are foul anomalies, of whom we know not whence they are sprung, nor whether they have beginning or ending. As they are without human passions, so they seem to be without human relations. They come with thunder and lightning, and vanish to airy music. This is all we know of them. Except Hecate, they have no names, which heightens their mysteriousness. The names, and some of the properties, which Middleton has given to his hags, excite smiles. The weird sisters are serious things. Their presence cannot co-exist with mirth. But, in a lesser degree, the witches of Middleton are fine creations. Their power too is, in some measure, over the mind. They raise jars, jealousies, strifes, like a thick scurf o'er life."
VOL. VIII. PART I.