Thomas Middleton and Anthony Munday: Artistic Rivalry?

By Bergeron, David M. | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview
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Thomas Middleton and Anthony Munday: Artistic Rivalry?


Bergeron, David M., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


Artistic lives have intersected in varied, challenging, and sometimes productive ways, whether T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. In the early seventeenth century Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher seem a fixture of artistic collaboration. We know that Thomas Middleton worked with Thomas Dekker in The Roaring Girl and with William Rowley in The Changeling, to cite two well-known examples. Yet such artistic collaboration may involve rivalry, as we think of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones working on the court masques. Their relationship, we recall, eventually collapsed. Nearly 180 years of scholarship have documented Middleton's presumed contempt for his lesser contemporary Anthony Munday. I intend to swim against this scholarly tide. I will question the evidence of their antipathy; and I will shift the ground from rivalry, which in their relationship has come to have only negative connotations, to collaboration.

By investigating the Middleton-Munday relationship, I will be asking about how we do our scholarship. We may also ask how we know what we know in scholarship. Typically we know on the basis of our own investigation and research or by accepting the testimony of a host of witnesses that has preceded us. Scholarly authority may displace the need for personal investigation. Two essential problems emerge in the Middleton-Munday debate: unsubstantiated or unjustified interpretation of texts and uncritical transmission of presumed information about the writers. I argue that a nineteenth-century fiction about the two dramatists readily became fixed as a truth and that it has been faithfully perpetuated through the twentieth century, largely unexamined and unquestioned. Although this essay concentrates on the relatively minor Middleton-Munday problem, I intend that it have implications for an array of other scholarly issues that remain insufficiently investigated, having their "truth" asserted and assumed rather than substantiated.

This study becomes an examination of the ideology and practice of scholarship, although beginning first with the dramatist's own attitude. I will try to answer how the nineteenth-century myth came about and how scholars regularly in that century reinforced and even added to the fiction. I think that this development has much to do with a nineteenth-century scholarly interest in topical readings of texts and a major preoccupation with the concept of attack, abetted by the scholars' own nervous anxiety about personal attack from fellow scholars. A "war of the theaters" mentality informs much of the scholarly commentary, leading to a preoccupation with this subject at the end of the century. Removed from the fervor of such battles, twentieth-century commentators on the Middleton-Munday rivalry have exhibited less ideology and more benign neglect of the issue, resulting in an uncritical acceptance of what the nineteenth century created and fought over.

Where does the Middleton-Munday antipathy come from? In which of Middleton's plays or prose works does he malign the hapless Munday? What about external evidence? Scholarship has focused on two passages from two of Middleton's texts, both pageant texts that provide the entertainment for the new Lord Mayor of London: The Triumphs of Truth (1613) and The Triumphs of Love and Antiquity (1619). Far too often texts of civic pageants fall victim to puzzlement or yawning indifference. Not surprisingly, when a nineteenth-century scholar establishes a position based on a pageant text, we have been ready to accept rather than investigate. The general position has been: if scholars want to read those texts, more power to them. My recent editing of Middleton's civic pageants for the new Oxford University Press Complete Works of Thomas Middleton has forced me to think anew about the pageants and to wrestle with some editorial problems I had not explored earlier. This has landed me squarely in the middle of the Middleton-Munday relationship.

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