chapter  16
‘Cut my heart in sums’: community-making and -breaking in the prodigal drama of Thomas Middleton
Pages 27

The discussion which follows takes as its focus a key anxiety that pervades the narratives Middleton composed for the theatre in the early Stuart period. This is an anxiety which speaks to the ways in which experience characterized by excess may radically endanger the ethical integrity of life in society as a whole – and Middleton’s dramas demonstrate a remarkable sensitivity to the multifarious forms of excess to which the human subject may succumb. Forever prey to the threat of utter dissolution, his many and various stagings of congested urban environments, fractious households of gulled patriarchs, and of the very dark corners of court cultures interrogate remorselessly how a community may be framed, and indeed unframed, by extravagant productions of the self. In this extract from Timon of Athens (1605-6),2 the protagonist’s irrepressible cravings for self-drama mean that even his liberality is communicated in socially corrosive terms. In a citystate freeing itself progressively from all moral tethers, Timon is able to exchange swiftly the pre-eminent role of Maecenas for that of universally vilified Martyr, yet the cynic Apemantus repeatedly encourages audiences on-and off-stage to identify a painful community, nay communion, evident in all these cultural personae: ‘It grieves me / To see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood’ (ii 40-1).