Middleton, 'The Revenger's Tragedy,' and Crisis Literature
Corrigan, Brian Jay, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
The question of who wrote The Revenger's Tragedy has experienced a tortured history. Since 1926, when E. H. C. Oliphant compiled his tentative speculations favoring Thomas Middleton's authorship, evidence has been collected demonstrating to a near certainty that the play is Middleton's, yet editors and critics, perhaps out of timidity or lethargy or ignorance or some sort of aesthetic or other scruple, continue to credit Cyril Tourneur. Placing The Revenger's Tragedy in the context of Thomas Middleton's canon, however, strengthens the conjectures regarding Middleton's place as an early literary critic. The artistic temperament revealed in Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy is in keeping with what is already suggested of his critical aims in other works. The exploration of Middleton's temperament first requires a brief overview of the authorship question. The discussion of temperament will by necessity found itself upon the weakest of the authorship grounds, that of general tone, and must therefore rely upon the more substantial arguments made in favor of Middleton's authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy in order to carry the weight it deserves.
In 1891, Tourneur was treated as the presumptive author of the play, but even in that day scholars seemed dubious of the attribution. F. G. Fleay lists The Revenger's Tragedy under his biographical note on Tourneur. While he notes that the play was entered into the Stationers' Register along with Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One, he suggests that it might actually be John Webster's play.(1) Allardyce Nicoll, writing in 1929, passionately credited Tourneur without reservation,(2) and for the next thirty years Tourneur held sway. Two articles appeared, one in 1960 and the other in 1962, giving statistical evidence of Middleton's authorship.(3) But in 1964 Irving Ribner was unconvinced by the Middleton champions and reasserted Tourneur's claim.(4) In 1966, Lawrence J. Ross, attempting what appears to be an academic compromise, suggested that Middleton was the scribe who wrote the fair copy for the printer but that Tourneur was the playwright.(5) The next year Brian Gibbons accepted Tourneur as a matter of tradition but made little effort to argue the point.(6) In fact, no scholar in the past thirty years has vigorously or even seriously argued in favor of Tourneur's authorship.
But not until 1975, when David Lake presented his survey of Middleton's canon, did Middleton again find favor as the probable author of The Revenger's Tragedy. Lake's study not only demonstrated the likelihood of Middleton as author, but also, and more importantly, dismissed Tourneur's claim.(7) Two years later, Philip Ayres followed the academic tide and argued for Middleton in the introduction to his edition but, whether influenced by tradition or timidity, credited Tourneur as the author on his cover and title page.(8) The next year, 1978, George Parfitt argued that the play should be treated as anonymous, claiming that certitude was impossible. Though he tended to favor Middleton, he also bowed to convention and, despite his own arguments to the contrary, placed Tourneur's name over the title.(9)
In 1981, MacDonald Jackson, following Lake, argued for Middleton and in 1983 called again to have the play assigned to that author.(10) Two years after, R. V. Holdsworth discussed the play as if it were Middleton's without question.(11) In 1991 M. W. A. Smith added a full computer analysis to lend more credit to the Middleton hypothesis.(12) In each of the cases made for Middleton, each scholar, with the exception of Jackson, ends tentatively and shies from calling for a full re-evaluation of the attribution. Each of the latter scholars, including Parfitt, is certain that the play is not Tourneur's, yet most continue to identify the play with its traditional author.
The case for Tourneur rests upon a single piece of dubious external evidence. Half a century after The Revenger's Tragedy was originally printed, Edward Archer attached an error-fraught play list to his edition of The Old Law. …