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Arnold Klein

When I assert that Thomas Middleton could not have written The Revenger’s Tragedy, as literary scholars have recently decided he did do,1 I will perhaps be suspected of engaging in as futile and pedantic an enterprise as those scholars themselves have; but if the reader will stick with me, I think I can show that there is more at stake in this particular misattribution than may initially appear; indeed, a great deal more. Forgive me if I do not spoil what little suspense an excursion into matters as abstruse as these may possess by revealing at this point exactly what more; and besides, it will be interesting to see how rapidly so narrow-seeming a topic becomes metaphysical.

The case for Middleton’s authorship is based on what scholars in this line regard as “internal evidence,” and, first of all, on spelling. It is argued with respect to, for example, certain “colloquial contractions,” that each Jacobean dramatist had, beside a predilection for some forms of these and not others, a characteristic habit of spelling them one way and not another—w’ere instead of we’re, to take one—and that, by percentages, the “spelling pattern” of The Revenger’s Tragedy conforms more closely to Middleton’s than to any other contemporary dramatist’s. It is further argued that like conformities between them obtain, percentage-wise, in “oath forms” (Slid and Sfoot, etc,), in the frequency with which individual “function words” such as and, but and or occur, and in the pattern of “pausation”—in where, that is, in his verse, taken line by line, the poet has indicated a metrical pause by inserting some kind of punctuation or break.

It is clear that such a method of literary scholarship is, as indeed it claims to be, “analytic,” in that it breaks down its material into individual units and considers these irrespective of their place and function in any larger whole—it disregards, perhaps as “vitiated by subjectivity”  (a great bugaboo for this method), the possibility that, for example, different oaths have different meanings, and that there might be thematic grounds for using one and not another; that the word and may function to make connections, or even to make disconnections, of very different kinds; and that the placement of a pause in any given line may be determined by the larger musical phrase of which that line is a member, or by the temperament of the character (these being plays, after all) who speaks it. And it can’t be denied that this method is, as the scholars say, “objective,” in that the data (their word) it yields will tally the same for whoever bothers to generate it; nor that it yields “evidence,” in that the data it produces is routinely accessible to any one who bothers to look for it. And this data is indeed, as they say, “internal”—

Ah, but here the question is, internal to what. What exactly are the objects these scholars suppose themselves to be examining with this unit-analytical method?

Hand-written or printed texts.

Not poetic texts specifically (pauses, so understood, occurring in prose as well), or dramatic ones, or even literary ones: any hand-written-out or printed matter is susceptible to unit-analysis of this kind, and the crown of authorship of it awarded, or denied, on the basis of conformity to “patterns” so  conceived and tabulated. But are these the patterns that really tell one poet from another?

Allowing that question to remain rhetorical for the moment, notice that a first question of the sort I called metaphysical arises at this point: is the artifact the work of art? This question is unasked but answered in the affirmative by the proponents of this unit-analytical method, as indeed it is by common sense, since what else but the artifact could a work of art possibly be? To see how it may be plausibly answered in the negative,2 consider the case of someone who, not knowing English, buys a copy of an English book—of The Revenger’s Tragedy, let us say. Does he possess the poem? It pains me to have to say, obviously not: if proximity to a poem were enough to confer possession of it, literary insight would be even easier to attain than the scholars’ unit-analytical method makes it out to be. No, there is something more he must do, beyond even learning the language, to possess the poem, and not just as a poem but as the very poem it is: he must apprehend it in its concrete specificity; and I hope to give an example of what at least a part of such an apprehension looks like a little later. For now, it is enough that such an apprehension involves, in our case, as the very thing it is, what we might call, without committing ourselves to a theory of genre, a dramatic poem; and if, having so apprehended it, we insist on going on to attribute authorship of it (and I will have something metaphysical to say about that presently), we cannot advert to “internal evidence” that, though internal in a way, and evident even to fools, has nothing whatever to do with drama, poetry, or poetry in dramatic form.

“Internal in a way”—although, in another way, by employing pre-conceived categories of evidence applicable to all spelled and punctuated writings, actually external to the concrete form of any specific one of them; which is probably at least part of what the scholars mean by calling their procedure “objective.” But might there not be other factors, as objectively present in a dramatic poem as its spelling and punctuation are in any printed copy of it, but somewhat more material to it as a work of art, that might substantiate, or not, Middleton’s claim to authorship of The Revenger’s Tragedy?

Well, what about characters? Surely no dramatic work can exist without personages of some kind saying and doing things; or at least the existence of such personages in The Revenger’s Tragedy and in Women Beware Women and The Changeling (to take these as echt Middletonian) is evident enough to qualify as an “objective” fact about them, even by our scholars’ lights—a fact, that is, that may be taken in, irrespective of one’s aesthetic or moral prepossessions, by simply glancing at the texts without bothering to read them. Equally “objectively” accessible to this—typographical—critical method—though one that requires a calipers in addition to a glance—is the fact that the speeches (for so I dare to call the blocks of type following each speaker’s name) are much longer, and the alternation of speakers accordingly less frequent, in the echt-Middletonian texts than in The Revenger’s Tragedy. To draw plausible conclusions about authorship from this data we would have to actually read the plays; and when we do, we discover the reason for these remarkable differences in their physical appearance.  The central personages of Women Beware Women and The Changeling, whom, on this basis, we may justly call characters, choose, between real alternatives, courses of action whose developing consequences constitute the plot of each play; and it is because those consequences “far outstrip the characters’ preview,” as Cavell would say, that those plays are veritable tragedies. But for a choice to be an actual part of a spoken drama, it must not only be made and acted on and productive of consequences, but uttered and grounded, and those consequences realized—that is, the mental process leading to it and the mental anguish consequent on it must be gone through out loud; and a great deal of Women Beware Women and of the real parts of The Changeling is devoted to—in Women Beware Women, at least—interminable ratiocinative monologues and colloquies of precisely the sort required by the spoken drama, tragically conceived.

None of this applies to The Revenger’s Tragedy. The personages of that play are types (which is what Vindice means when he calls them excellent characters), their possibilities exhausted in their very names; their doings lead, not to consequences for their conscience (so important a word in Women Beware Women) but to complications in their situations, and that—as has long been recognized—in a manner formally identical to farce (which is what Vindice means by tragedy). Now, types, who have only to open their mouths to instantiate themselves, do not need long speeches to do so; and even Vindice’s (relatively) long ones, being, as he would say, the frets of one abusèd heart-string, and having no complexities of mind to intricate, but a great deal of propulsive force to convey, are not so much long as lengthened, by addition of instances of the same thing, usually lust or drunkenness, or both—which, by the way, is part of the real function, that is to say, meaning, of the “function word” and in The Revenger’s Tragedy, so different from the dialectical  ands of Women Beware Women (which are more like “withs”), which function to establish the simultaneity of two sides of a self-divided mental state.

There is, then, in each of these works, what we might call a specific dramatic pattern, as internal to it and as objectively determinable from it, calipers or no, as its patterns of spelling and punctuation are, but somewhat more proper to the objects under consideration, which are, after all, or rather first of all, dramatic poems. But the question with respect to attribution is, whether such patterns are sufficiently stable across different works to serve as a basis for imputing or denying authorship of any one or any corpus of them. Such stability the unit-analytical methods supposes to inhere in “preferences” for one indifferent part, present in all contemporary dramatic poems, one “oath form,”, let us say, over another, or, in the case of “pausation,” in something even less mutable—sphygmics: “the total patterns [of pauses] are likely to reveal much over which the person concerned has little control, almost as people are unable to control their cardiograms.” But—leaving our sphygmomanometers unplugged for a moment—are “preferences” the scholars themselves agree are “sub-stylistic” (“and therefore not subject to change as a writer moves from poetry to prose or from tragedy to comedy”), and seem to regard as arbitrary,  and for all they know may be those of the compositor and not the poet, really more autographic than a factor such as dramatic pattern which belongs to the poet, as the “person concerned” to write this dramatic poem and no other, as a principle guiding his total practice across the whole work, even down to his use of ands?

Again, it pains me to have to say, obviously not, or, in any event, not obviously. As to its stability, the character-genetic dramatic pattern of the tragedies Women Beware Women and The Changeling persists unchanged, or only partly modified by Middleton’s conception of the genre, in his comedies. Allwit’s long monologue in A Chaste Maid, for example—the best thing in Middleton, by the way—gives out, not only that the speaker is a complaisant cuckold—information which, were he conceived merely as a type, could have been conveyed in many fewer words—but his very plausible, even psychologically plausible, reasons for electing to be and remain one—a self-awareness that belongs to character, however simplified by its comedic function; and that speech is the best thing in Middleton because in it we get not just the fact of complaisant cuckoldry, and the reasons for it, but—thanks to the marvelously skillful disposition of pauses throughout the whole speech—its very pulse.  

Now, all this not-less, and perhaps considerably more, objective and intrinsic evidence, seems sufficient, not of course to prove, but to lend, or—speaking historically—restore, some degree of confidence to the probability that Middleton did not write The Revenger’s Tragedy. But of course that was not what I undertook to argue in the first sentence of this essay. If you rifle back through its (too) many pages to the first, you will see that there I said, not that Middleton did not write The Revenger’s Tragedy, but that he could not have. In moving so casually from probabilities to impossibilities I have no doubt taken a substantial metaphysical step, or, if you prefer, leap, but one I hope to justify by adverting to a pattern as objectively real and intrinsic as what I have called the dramatic one, but so much closer to the essence of poetry as to be absolutely autographic: it is, in fact, the answer to the question I left hanging rhetorically some paragraphs back, in that it really is what tells one poet from another. That I will have to confess myself embarrassed for a one-word name for this pattern, or for the agency that produces it, if these are not after all the same thing, does not make it any less real.

That The Revenger’s Tragedy reverts again and again to the subjects (so to call them) of loss of virginity, (drunken) procreation, lust, bastardry, cuckoldry, revenge and death is certainly an objective fact about it. But why these? Why are they all in the same work? That there is no plot necessity for them (except revenge, of course) is shown by the fact that they chiefly supply the content of speeches that delay the progress of the action—an action, moreover, carried on, as we said, by types who have only to instantiate their several monomanias to be functionally fully characterized. Nor is the pertinence of the subjects, one to another, to be derived from the supposition that they commonly, or aggregately, “express a horrible vision of life” and a “loathing and disgust of humanity,” in the words of one (not always so unintelligent) critic, for though it gets the expressive part right, such criticism not only fails to account for why it’s  just these horrors (life has plenty of others) that are collocated and correlated, but, worse, departs from objectivity entirely, in that it supposes that their moral characteristics as “gross vices” are resident in, for example, lust and bastardry themselves, there to be evaluated the same by everybody, and not, what such judgments really are, evidence of the critic’s personal prepossessions, “somewhat warped in this particular,” as Santayana might say. The question respecting these poetic subjects is not with what revulsion their realities may fill a prig, but as what are they so conceived and projected as to function together as integral co-factors in this particular work of art. And the answer is: as involving instantaneous and irreversible change.

This is the absolutely autographic pattern we have been looking for; but before going on to flesh it out a bit, or venture on naming it, observe that there is nothing in the aforementioned subjects themselves that requires such a conception of them: procreation, drunken or not, need not be apprehended as a bewitching minute (not a “bewildering” minute, as some evidently prepossessed emendators suggest: bewilderment takes time); cuckolds may be savored as ridiculous, as we have seen, and not necessarily pictured as a-coining (that is, struck) apace, apace, apace, apace (four cuckolds in about as many seconds—assuming, of course, that the commas aren’t to be ascribed to the poet’s bradycardiac pulse);  and revenge (no less for a grievance nurtured for nine years) may draw itself out, and not crowd into a minute; and so on through the rest.

Nor, for that matter, need change itself receive this particular construction. Change is a constant in Shakespeare, for example, but it is change of attributes, and its natural vehicle is metaphor, especially carried on through the verbs, which—unlike simile, which likens static thing to thing, or epithet, which qualifies a stable noun— renders transformation itself as a process—the hearts that spanieled Antony discandy one line later; a process projected dramatically as lability of identity, sometimes enjoyed for its very reversibility—Rosalind is first a girl, then a boy, then a girl: nothing has a fixed or final status, and hence this poet’s actual nihilism. Again: change in Webster is change of Democritean atoms: all composite forms are temporary “accidents” of such atoms, as Lucretius would say, feign’d shadows, as the poet calls them. The natural vehicle for change so conceived is transitive metaphor, whereby a thing characterized in the terms of one metaphor undergoes re-composition in another metaphor, whose terms are themselves transitive: the phoenix passes into (among a hundred other things) the fire at the glass house which passes into an hourglass filled with (Democritean) mould’red ashes—or vice versa; hence the actual emotional remoteness of this poet from the misery of his characters, all of whom fail to realize their own unreality until the moment they lose their accidental forms and become, what they have always been, a kind of nothingno thing, that is, merely the elements from which things are composed. But in The Revenger’s Tragedy change is change of substance,3 a really different and distinct thing results from each, and there is no going back; and virginity, conception, death and the rest are selected (I will come back to this word) precisely because, and only so far as, they can be conceived and projected as involving changes of just this sort. No other poet of that time—certainly not the palavering Middleton, who is all antecedents and consequents, and can even drag out the moment of change itself4—no other poet of that time, I say, and no other poet since, that I know of, is concerned in exactly this way with exactly this; which is why I say such a pattern is absolutely autographic, though saying so involves certain metaphysical implications, which, as I promised a while back, I will take up in a moment.

The peculiar intensity of Vindice’s riffs on lust, drunkenness, and so forth, arises from the poet’s placing the initial and terminal states of changes that might in reality take years and even implicate eternity, as close to each other as language allows, so the entire process is telescoped into the few seconds it takes to utter the phrase describing its end points. The typical grammatical form this takes is to link the before and after states with as brief and as abrupt a copula as can be found, and thus eliminate everything between, cutting off a good deal of dirty way, as the play might put it. Falsify highways and put his life between the judge’s lips—the lengthy fore-career of a stand-and-deliver man begun and carried on (highways, plural) and its future termination in his capture, trial, sentencing and execution (the judge, not a judge) brought into conjunction by that most meaningful of function words, our old friend the paratactical and. Patrimonies washed apieces—slowly accumulated inherited estates and the multiplied small parcels they have been sold off into outside the family joined by a monosyllable suggesting both the size of the estates and the impossibility of their reconstitution. Fair meadows cut into green foreparts—ditto, with the synecdoche emphasizing the difference between the initial and terminal states. Ditto, fruit trees turned into bastards. Ditto, the fair trees that are cut to maintain head tires. And not only Vindice’s riffs. Hear Spurio: one incestuous kiss picks open hell, where the present tense makes the antecedent and consequent states synchronous; and the Duchess: by one false minute disinherited, where the entire stigmatized career of a bastard is compressed into the moment of conception, or—more in line with this speaker’s monomania—of ejaculation.

Sometimes the change does without a copula: wet damnation, bony lady and the astonishing description of a bawd, a bone setter. The ideal here would be to express the coincidence of antecedents and consequents in a single word, for language has no smaller unit and so no more instantaneous means than that—which in this play harlot (a right good woman, that is, who has been changed into white money), bastard and of course revenge do. And that is why the skeleton is its predestinated emblem, so to speak—not because skeletons are what the living will become after the instantaneous change of substance that is death, as in so many danses macabres, but because skeletons are what at every instant living people presently are: life and death—the oblivion before and the eternity after—superposed every second—a conception that, transformed by a different sensibility of time, will be appropriated to inform Death’s Jest-Book.

Now, as to what to name this intrinsic and objectively determinable pattern…

To call it “style” just shifts the problem, as we should then have to decide what style means; and besides, style makes it sound like a device deliberately cultivated and possibly assumed (not that in some cases it couldn’t be that). Nor is it a technique, picked up for some and put aside for other occasions, though it may degenerate into that in the hands of imitators (which is what “mannerism” means). Nor is it an interpretation of experience, a “vision of life,” for in attending to and selecting from only those aspects of experience congenial to it, including the experience of the medium, in this case, language, it seems rather to antecede and structure experience than to color it; to be an optic, not a perspective; a power not merely to interpret its objects, but to define, determine and evaluate them together—in a word, to create them. I would like to call this the poet’s poetic faculty, without denying corresponding faculties to creators in the other arts; the faculty in virtue of which a poet is a poet, and that poet, that poet. If this sounds circular, well, at least it has the virtue of all such reflexive formulations: it excludes all extra-poetic considerations.

And one of which is authorship.

But that seems contradictory. Doesn’t it rather settle the issue of attribution? After all, for such a faculty to be, what I have proposed it is, absolutely autographic, his or hers must be uniquely each poet’s own—exactly what is each poet’s own. True; but that does not make authorship a properly poetic consideration.

Let me frame the issue in terms of our present topic. Is the acknowledged author of The Atheist’s Tragedy the author of The Revenger’s Tragedy? In other words, did Cyril Tourneur write both plays?  The only properly poetic way to answer this question is with another question: Who cares? The poetic faculties informing the two poems are self-evidently utterly unlike; whether those faculties belonged to two different empirical persons, or to the same empirical person at different moments, is a question of absolutely no poetic interest: it bears on nothing real or intrinsic in the poems at all, which remain what they are however it is answered. Properly speaking, the poetic faculty is ingredient in, informing of, and inseparable from the poem that is itself the only actual evidence of its existence and character. Scholars and critics (so called) who address issues of authorship—or of influences, sources, development, “identity,” “context,” psychology, and so on through the entire university course catalogue—and university press catalogue—may fancy that they are talking about poems and art works, but what they are really talking about is poets and artists. Such talk is not only supposititious but irrelevant. It is, in a word, gossip.

I hope I will not be taken to have engaged here in such gossip myself. I have used words like “Shakespeare,” “Webster” and “Middleton” to refer to poetic faculties sufficiently consistent, but by no means invariant, across more than one work to justify the use of an expedient of this sort; and while I have argued against an attribution made on wholly other grounds, I have not made one myself. Nor would I ever bother to. Language, like everything else in the universe worthy of being, moves constantly towards its own perfection. Poetry is that perfection. Through whom it comes signifies nothing, as we all realize every time we feel its presence and its power. At that moment, all poems are anonymous.

[1] It may shock readers of a certain background to discover that this footnote does not cite what in academic circles is called “the literature” on this vexed question. The omission is deliberate. It may be well, however, to obviate suspicions of credit-hogging by saying that in what follows I do not suppose myself to be saying anything new or original; I am only collocating a few obvious facts, for the origination of which no one deserves credit but the poets.

[2] Here the credit belongs to Collingwood.

[3] This is, indeed, the only kind of change that types can undergo: as discrete, self-subsistent substances themselves, coming into and going out of existence is all they can do. And all, for that matter, that dramatic roles can do—at least, all they are asked to do in such a self-consciously artificial work as The Revenger’s Tragedy.

[4] Because change is change of quality, the same thing emerges from it...changed, but still the same. The awareness of being simultaneously the same and different is that complication of present consciousness, Middletonially  called conscience.