Realism, Desire and Reification: Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

Frassinelli, Pier Paolo
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The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
Characteristically, traditional literary criticism has read Thomas Middleton’s comedies as quasi-naturalistic representations of the social changes engendered by the early modern processes of urbanisation, the decline of the aristocracy, the concomitant rise to economic and social power of the citizen classes of London and the transformations in moral and social norms that these brought about. In T. S. Eliot’s words, Middleton ‘has no message; he is merely a great recorder’. As such, he is the greatest ‘realist’ in Jacobean comedy, in that his drama ‘introduces us to the low life of the time better than anything in the comedy of Shakespeare or the comedy of Jonson, better than anything except the pamphlets of Dekker and Greene and Nashe’ (169).1 In turn, in L.C. Knights’s revision of this argument, the notion of Middleton’s realism as mimesis or accurate reflection of social life is underscored by the deployment of something like a basic notion of typification. The background that Middleton, with his stylised characterisations, ‘implicitly asks his audience to accept’, Knights argues, ‘is a world of thriving citizens, needy gallants and landed gentlemen’, a world which finds its privileged historical referent in ‘a major social movement—the transference of land from the older gentry to the citizen middle class’ (261–62). Conversely, in more recent criticism, Middleton’s plays such as A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605), A Mad World, My Masters (1606), Michaelmas Term (1606), or A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) have been associated with a series of formal traits that have been put under the heading of a generic marker embracing a whole set of dramatic conventions. Hence the canonisation of Middleton, as well as Jonson, Marston and Massinger’s comedies as the core of a posthumous subgenre, city comedy.
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