So, I just read Penitent Brothellers by Jack Heller. Pretty good. He argues that critics need to begin taking into account Middleton's religious background as a Calvinist when we read his works. Middleton is often thought of as amoral, but, Heller points out, his plays are littered with references to theology, Calvinism specifically. While many today think that being a Calvinist and a playwright is a contradiction in terms, Calvin himself wrote positively about theater from time to time and used the theatrum mundi metaphor often to describe the world and man's role in it. Some of his followers wrote plays; even Stephen Gosson, the infamous anti-theatrical Puritan, wrote a play. And what religion Middleton was matters because, as Debora Shuger says, the English Renaissance was a religious culture through and through.
Heller examines Middleton's comedies through the lens of Calvinist theology, seeing "grace at work" and "redemption" everywhere. In almost every play, there is a call for repentance or conversion. In the comedies, this call is taken up by the protagonist; in the tragedies, it is denied. At the same time, Middleton associates drama and theater with deception and illusion; plays within plays and characters performing roles often happen when one character wants to cheat or cozen another. Furthermore, such instances and the characters who perform them, the rogues and cheats, are often implicitly approved by the tone of the play. How can Middleton purify the sinner while still reveling in the sin?
For Heller, this works two ways. First, the victims are never innocent; they are usually cheats and rogues, too. Secondly, the protagonist is usually caught in their own crime; they cozen themselves, the "biter bit" and all that. And thirdly, the rogue exemplifies "grace at work" by repenting or converting at the end.
Critics have a problem with this clash of genres, though, the hilarity of the madcap crimes and the seriousness of the call to repentance. Heller answers this by saying that his thesis that Middleton’s comedy is about portraying grace can be demonstrated in two points. First of all, are the conversions and repentances coherent when applied to Protestant theology? Secondly, are the reprobate activities explained by the same theology? If so, Middleton’s plays and their seeming contradictions resolve in a theatrical representation of Christian belief. Finally, if there is skepticism in Middleton, his faith is the basis of this; Calvinist salvation and grace is unpredictable, and does not always go to the strongest or most likely candidate.
My friend and colleague, Arlynda Boyer, has an excellent theory that Middleton is deeply Calvinist but, believing in a limited election, sees himself as a "reprobate" and writes from the point of view of a believing reprobate--with much sympathy for other reprobates, but still with a determined moral ground.