John Marston 1576–1634
English dramatist and poet.
Best known as the writer of The Malcontent (1602-03) and of violent, lurid, revenge tragedies, Marston also wrote elegant city comedies and classically-inspired satires. A successful working playwright who was associated with many different London acting companies, he exemplifies both the best and the worst traits of Elizabethan drama. Although his works were consigned to obscurity for centuries after his death, critical interest in Marston's works revived in the nineteenth century and during the 1930s; they are now acknowledged as an important part of Elizabethan literary history. H. Harvey Wood summarized Marston's career: "Marston began his literary life with satires, gave his comedies and tragedies over to cynical malcontents and firking satirists, and finished, like several more famous artists, by writing and preaching sermons."
Marston was born in Wardington, Oxfordshire, to John Marston, a gentleman lawyer and member of the Middle Temple, and Mary Guarsi Marston, the daughter of an Italian surgeon. There is no information available about young Marston's early education, but records indicate that he enrolled at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1592 and that he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree there in 1594. Although Marston's father hoped that his son would pursue a legal career, young Marston became more interested in writing material for amateur theatrical productions mounted by his fellow students, and he soon became well-known for his wit and sharp satire. With the publication of The Metamorphosis of Pigmalions Image in 1598, followed by The Scourge of Villanie in that same year, he had made a promising start as an author. Marston's career was cut short the following year, however, by the English bishops' ban on satire and their ensuing "Order of Conflagration," which mandated the public burning of all satirical works, including Marston's. Turning instead to writing for the stage, Marston began his association with various London acting companies including the Children of Pauls, the Blackfriars theater, the Children of Chapel Royal, the Children of the Queen's Revels, and the Whitefriars theater. His plays
were successful and popular with audiences but received mixed reviews from critics. Marston also collaborated with such other prominent playwrights as Thomas Dekker, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson, and with the latter became involved in a bitter professional feud. Marston had ridiculed Jonson in The Scourge of Villanie, and Jonson retaliated by making fun of Marston's Antonio and Mellida (1600) in his Poetaster in 1601. By 1604, however, they were on good terms and collaborated with Chapman on Eastward Ho (1605-05); Marston had even dedicated The Malcontent to his friend Jonson. When Marston and Chapman were sent to prison in 1608, probably due to the performance of an offensive play at Blackfriars theater, in which they were shareholders, Jonson joined them in solidarity. Marston had married in 1605 and, in 1608, following his release from prison, he decided to end his dramatic career. According to parish records, he was ordained deacon in 1609 and became a priest later that same year. He remained a clergyman for the remainder of his life, receiving a permanent position at Christchurch, Hampshire, in 1616. Perhaps because of his new calling, Marston's name was removed from several later editions of The Insatiate Countess, as well as from the 1633 edition of his collected works. He resigned his position in 1631 because of illness and died in London in 1634.
Marston's The Metamorphosis and The Scourge of Villanie had established his reputation as a satirist. The first work was a licentious long poem written in the same meter as William Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, while in the second he launched pointed attacks on other satirists. His first play, Histriomastix, was performed at the Middle Temple in 1598-99. It combined a multiple plot structure with satire on the social and political themes of the day, and utilized the figure of the satirist who is both a part of and apart from the main action. Marston wrote for the Children of Pauls between 1600 and 1601 ; the five plays he wrote during that interval are marked by experimentation, and exhibit many of the themes and devices that were to become hallmarks of Marston's later style. Following the production with Dekker, John Day, and William Haughton of the comedy Lust's Dominion (1600); Jack Drum's Entertainment (1600) is a burlesque on the complications of courtship; Antonio and Mellida (1600) is a tragicomedy about the degenerate atmosphere of the Italian court; Antonio's Revenge (1600) is a revenge tragedy that is the sequel to Antonio and Mellida; and What You Will (1601) is the satirical tale of two gallants who compete for the attentions of a widow. Of this group, Antonio's Revenge is usually considered the most successful play. Borrowing from the Senecan revenge tragedy tradition, as well as Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, John Webster's Duchess of Malfi, and Shakespeare's Hamlet; Antonio's Revenge focuses on a son's revenge of his father's murder and features some of the most gruesome scenes in Elizabethan theater. Seeking retribution for his father's death, Antonio serves the head of the murderer's son to him on a plate, and later plucks out the murderer's tongue. The play's language is correspondingly lurid and marked by rhetorical excess. Marston's next play, The Malcontent (1602-03), another tragicomedy, is a topical satire that treats such themes as female chastity, political and social change, the actions of Fortune and Providence, and the then very popular interest in melancholy. Generally thought to be Marston's finest work, The Malcontent combines satire, philosophy, and an ingenious disguise plot. Parasitaster, or The Fawn (1604) is another satire dealing with corruption in court society and the uses and abuses of language. Marston's next two works, Eastward Ho (1604-05) and The Dutch Courtesan (1605) are city comedies based on the exposing of fops and other impostors, and are concerned with temperance and the moral nature of women, respectively. Marston's last completed play, The Wonder of Women, or The Tragedy of Sophonisba (1606), is a serious play about the rivalry of two Libyan kings for the love of Sophonisba. Derived from several classical sources including Appian, Levy, and Lucan, Sophonisba's main theme is personal integrity. The Insatiate Countess, a tragedy left unfinished when Marston ended his theatrical career in 1608, was completed by William Barkested.
Describing himself as "a sharpe fangd satyrist," Marston insisted that his harsh and sometimes crude satires were deliberately styled in order to make their point. Although his plays were popular with theatergoers, he was often criticized for ill-plotted structure, inflated and coarse language, excessive violence and self-conscious theatricality, and for the moral ambiguity of his themes and characters. His reputation lapsed during his own lifetime and his works were usually dismissed as minor dramas of the era until the nineteenth century, when such critics as William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and Algernon Swinburne rediscovered Marston and praised the power and originality of his works. In a prominent essay written in 1888, Swinburne defended the sincerity of Marston's style, noting that, "at its best, when the clumsy and ponderous incompetence of expression which disfigures it is supplanted by a strenuous felicity of ardent and triumphant aspiration, [Marston's language] has notes and touches in the compass of its course not unworthy of Webster or Tourneur or even Shakespeare himself." Marston's reputation was fully revived in 1934 when H. Harvey Wood published his three-volume edition of Marston's works. In reviewing that edition, T. S. Eliot also praised the merits of Marston's style, deeming him "a positive, powerful and unique personality," and adding that, "His is an original variation on that deep discontent and rebelliousness so frequent among the Elizabethan dramatists." Recent criticism has focused on such issues as Marston's relationship to the other dramatists of his time, his use of classical sources, the relationship between Antonio's Revenge and Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the authorship of the final version of The Insatiate Countess. Scholarly interest in The Malcontent, The Dutch Courtesan, and Sophonisba remains strong, with much recent probing into the feminist elements of The Dutch Courtesan.
The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion's Image. And Certaine Satyres (poetry) 1598
The Scourge of Villanie. Three Bookes of Satyres (poetry) 1598
Histriomastix (drama) 1598-99
Antonio and Mellida (drama) 1600
Antonio's Revenge (drama) 1600
Jack Drum's Entertainment (drama) 1600
Lust's Dominion (drama) [with Thomas Dekker, John Day, and William Haughton] 1600
What You Will (drama) 1601
The Malcontent (drama) 1602-03
Parasitaster, or The Fawn (drama) 1604
Eastward Ho (drama) [with George Chapman and Ben Jonson] 1604-05
The Dutch Courtesan (drama) 1605
The Wonder of Women, or, The Tragedy of Sophonisba (drama) 1606
The Insatiate Countess (drama) [with William Barksted] 1608?
The Works of Mr. J. Marston (poetry and dramas) 1633
The Plays of John Marston. 3 vols. (poetry and dramas) 1934-39
(The entire section is 106 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, Vol. 6, edited by P. P. Howe, J. M. Dent and Sons. Ltd., 1931, pp. 224-30.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally written in 1820, Hazlitt discusses Marston primarily as a satirist, praising the power of his dramas despite their "impatient scorn, " "bitter indignation, " and indelicate language.]
Marston is a writer of great merit, who rose to tragedy from the ground of comedy, and whose forte was not sympathy, either with the stronger or softer emotions, but an impatient scorn and bitter indignation against the vices and follies of men, which vented itself either in comic irony or in lofty invective. He was properly a satirist. He was not a favourite with his contemporaries, nor they with him. He was first on terms of great intimacy, and afterwards at open war, with Ben Jonson; and he is most unfairly criticised in The Return from Parnassus, under the name of Monsieur Kinsayder, as a mere libeller and buffoon. Writers in their life-time do all they can to degrade and vilify one another, and expect posterity to have a very tender care of their reputations! The writers of [the Age of Elizabeth], in general, cannot however be reproached with this infirmity. The number of plays that they wrote in conjunction, is a proof of the contrary; and a circumstance no less curious, as to the division of intellectual labour, than the cordial...
(The entire section is 2463 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: "Elizabethan Drama," in Lamb's Criticism: A Selection from the Literary Criticism of Charles Lamb, edited by E. M. W. Tillyard, 1923. Reprint by Greenwood Press, 1970, pp. 18-19.
[In the following excerpt from an essay written between 1820 and 1825, Lamb offers brief commentary on Marston's Antonio and Mellida and What You Will,
comparing the former to Shakespeare's King Lear.]
Antonio and Mellida. The situation of Andrugio and Lucio, in the first part of this tragedy, where Andrugio Duke of Genoa banished his country, with the loss of a son supposed drowned, is cast upon the territory of his mortal enemy the Duke of Venice, with no attendants but Lucio an old nobleman, and a page—resembles that of Lear and Kent in that king's distresses. Andrugio, like Lear, manifests a kinglike impatience, a turbulent greatness, an affected resignation. The enemies which he enters lists to combat, 'Despair and mighty Grief and sharp Impatience,' and the forces which he brings to vanquish them, 'cornets of horse,' etc. are in the boldest style of allegory. They are such a 'race of mourners' as the 'infection of sorrows loud' in the intellect might beget on some 'pregnant could' in the imagination. The prologue to the second part, for its passionate earnestness, and for the tragic note of preparation which it sounds, might have preceded one of those old tales of Thebes or...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: "John Marston," in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 24, No. 140, October, 1888, pp. 531-47.
[Here, Swinburne attempts to defend the merits of Marston's style from his detractors, asserting that, while the dramatist can be both inconsistent and coarse in his choice of language and subject matter, his writing is "striking and sincere" in its own, very individual way.]
If justice has never been done, either in his own day or in any after age, to a poet of real genius and original powers, it will generally be presumed, with more or less fairness or unfairness, that this is in great part his own fault. Some perversity or obliquity will be suspected, even if no positive infirmity or deformity can be detected, in his intelligence or in his temperament: some taint or some flaw will be assumed to affect and to vitiate his creative instinct or his spiritual reason. And in the case of John Marston, the friend and foe of Ben Jonson, the fierce and foul-mouthed satirist, the ambitious and overweening tragedian, the scornful and passionate humourist, it is easy for the shallowest and least appreciative reader to perceive the nature and to estimate the weight of such drawbacks or impediments as have so long and so seriously interfered with the due recognition of an independent and remarkable poet. The praise and the blame, the admiration and the distaste excited by his works, are equally just, but are seemingly...
(The entire section is 7971 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Plays of John Marston, Vol. 1, edited by H. Harvey Wood, Oliver and Boyd, 1934, pp. xv-xliv.
[Wood's three-volume edition of Marston's plays was highly influential in bringing about a resurgence of interest in the dramatist during the 1930s. In the following excerpt from his introduction to that edition, Wood stresses the difficulty of evaluating Marston's "worth" as a writer. He adds that Marston is a highly original thinker and concludes that, "with all his faults … Marston had very positive virtues to commend him."]
Marston's plays have probably disappointed more modern readers than those of any other Elizabethan dramatist. Charles Lamb's eloquent praise of Antonio and Mellida, his comparison of Andrugio and Lear, and, above all, his magnificent passage on the Prologue to Antonio's Revenge, would certainly lead the reader to expect a greater satisfaction from these plays than he is likely to experience. And Swinburne's hyperbolical essay [in The Nineteenth Century, 1888], though it is (like most of Swinburne's criticism) much more balanced than it sounds, is, at best, a rather rhapsodical piece of special pleading, illustrated by passages than can hardly be said to be representative of the text from which they are taken. The demerits of a style like Marston's are, indeed, sufficiently obvious; and in reading even the best of his plays—as, for...
(The entire section is 2907 words.)
SOURCE: "John Marston," in Elizabethan Essays, 1934. Reprint by Haskell House, 1964, pp. 177-95.
[Below, Eliot argues that Marston has been underrated as a dramatist, partly as a result of comparisons between his work and that of Shakespeare. Eliot suggests that Sophonisba is Marston's best play and "the most nearly adequate expression of his distorted and obstructed genius."]
John Marston, the dramatist, has been dead for three hundred years. The date of his death, June 25th, 1634, is one of the few certain facts that we know about him; but the appearance of the first volume of a new edition of his works [The Plays of John Marston, edited by H. Harvey Wood], as well as an edition of his best-known play by itself [The Malcontent, edited by G. B. Harrison], is a more notable event than the arrival of his tercentenary. For Marston has enjoyed less attention, from either scholars or critics, than any of his contemporaries of equal or greater rank; and for both scholars and critics he remains a territory of unexplored riches and risks. The position of most of his contemporaries is pretty well settled; one cannot go very far wrong in one's estimate of the dramatists with whom Marston worked; but about Marston a wide divergency of opinion is still possible. His greater defects are such as anyone can see; his merits are still a matter for controversy.
Little has transpired...
(The entire section is 4143 words.)
SOURCE: "John Marston-Thomas Dekker: Melodrama and Civic Comedy," in An Introduction to Stuart Drama, Oxford University Press, London, 1946, pp. 132-65.
[Here, Boas presents an overview of Marston's career, tracing changes in his style as it developed. He also declares that critical opinions have changed in Marston scholarship.]
… [With] John Marston, recent critical investigation has given a more generous estimate than has been traditional of his contribution to English drama. It has been increasingly realized that Ben Jonson's burlesque of the more vulnerable features of Marston's style in his serious plays has led to an undue depreciation of his distinctive qualities. There has been more appreciative recognition of his aims as a dramatist and of their effect on his technique and his dialogue.
Documentary research has also added to our biographical knowledge. The discovery of the entry of the christening of John Marston on 7 October 1576 in the register of the church of St. Mary Magdalene, Wardington, Oxfordshire, has established the year and place of his birth. At the age of sixteen, in 1591, he entered Brazenose College, Oxford, and took his B.A. in February 1593/4. From 1594 to 1606 he was a member of the Middle Temple, but like many other residents in the Inns of Court he devoted himself to literature instead of law. In May 1598 he published an erotic poem, Pygmalion's...
(The entire section is 5039 words.)
SOURCE: "John Marston, Beaumont and Fletcher," in The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1960, pp. 151-69.
[Below, Ornstein describes Marston as a playwright who commercially exploited various philosophical notions without demonstrating an understanding of them.]
Critics who have no taste for Marston's virtues have no charity for his vices, and in truth it is often difficult to distinguish the two. Like most experiments he revels in the "original" stroke; his most reliable weapon is surprise. His lack of propriety is the breach in the wall of convention through which his wit sallies in pursuit of a novel effect. One never feels that Marston's muse was difficult or crabbed as Webster's is reputed to have been. Though his tragic style is labored, it was probably not labored over. Even in his least successful plays he writes with a genuine theatrical instinct, with a knack for racy dialogue of a somewhat unrespectable nature. In his comedies he is avowedly an entertainer, who seeks to delight and not instruct, and whose modest aim is to amuse without offending.
Nevertheless Marston has offended some critics, particularly Professor Harbage, who finds [in Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions, 1952] in his plays the moral and artistic eccentricities characteristic of the "coterie" drama. More recently [in PMLA, Dec. 1952] Samuel Schoenbaum has...
(The entire section is 3918 words.)
SOURCE: "Sharp-fanged Satirist," in John Marston, Satirist, Cornell, 1961, pp. 232-51.
[In the following excerpt, Caputi examines Marston's style in the various satires, focusing on his use of speeches, types, and exempla, and discussing how he further developed these techniques in his plays.]
John Marston's work in verse satire is, perhaps, as exemplary as anything he was ever to do of the purposes that unified the fashionable poets at the end of the sixteenth century. In taking up the "Satyre's knottie rod" in 1598, he assumed a stance, a voice, and a state of mind ideally suited to a vociferous declaration of his individuality. This gesture was to exert a permanent influence on his literary career. Although he was soon prevented from publishing verse satires by the Order of Conflagration of 1599 andalthough his literary efforts after that year were almost wholly dramatic, once he had turned to satire he never abandoned it. It will be increasingly clear, indeed, that his work in verse satire constituted an apprenticeship in the literary methods and techniques that were to be the foundation of his efforts in the drama.
(The entire section is 8757 words.)
SOURCE: "The Malcontent: Virtuous Machiavellianism," in John Marston of the Middle Temple: An Elizabethan Dramatist in His Social Setting, Harvard University Press, 1969, pp. 178-94.
[In the following excerpt, Finkelpearl explores the moral and political dimensions of The Malcontent, emphasizing Marston's use of the doubling motif in the characterization of Malevole/Altofronto.]
Marston modestly admits in the preface to one of his later plays that "above better desert" he has been "fortunate in these stage-pleasings." There is reason to believe that his work was usually well received …, but with The Malcontent in 1604 he momentarily achieved a wider popularity. Three quartos of this playwere required in less than six months, and the King's Men judged it to have a broad enough appeal for production at the Globe. The reasons are not hard to discover. It has an exciting plot with a multitude of surprising twists, and in the Hamlet-like title figure Marston created a fascinating role worthy of the actor who played it, Richard Burbage.
But even with Burbage and the other immortals, a production of The Malcontent in the vast open spaces of the Globe must have been unsatisfactory. The cramped, claustrophobic setting of a private theater is absolutely essential to Marston's purposes. Using techniques prophetic of German Expressionist drama of the 1920's, the...
(The entire section is 5828 words.)
SOURCE: "Marston's Accomplishment," in John Marston, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 149-59.
[Ingram evaluates Marston's overall place in and contribution to Jacobean dramatic literature, praising his "zest" and theatrical sense.]
In 1633, John Marston, an elderly retired clergyman, may well have felt that twenty-five years' dedication to God's ministry was poorly commemorated by the reissue of six plays of his young manhood, no matter how anxiously their editor proclaimed their moral virtue. Certainly, the plays in Works of John Marston were not the contribution by which Marston wished to be remembered, since he probably wanted little, if anything, to do with the theater. If he did so desire, his wish was frustrated, for his name was removed from the pages of the collection but not from the history of the theater in his era.
Had Marston, in his retirement, visited the theater, he would have glimpsed, even behind the polished surface of Caroline tragedy and tragicomedy, pale ghosts from his plays. The stage history of his plays between 1608 and 1642 belies, however, the extent of his historical dramatic influence. Only one performance of his plays—that of The Malcontent in 1635—is recorded; but our knowledge of the theatrical calendar of those years is fragmentary. Moreover, it is quite unlikely that Marston's distinctive voice was heard only once in over thirty years...
(The entire section is 4468 words.)
SOURCE: "Dreams, Innovation and Technique," in John Marston's Plays: Theme, Structure and Performance, Barnes & Noble Books, 1978, pp. 84-96.
[Below, Scott discusses Marston's mastery of dramatic technique, focusing on ways in which his plays fuse intellectual and subconscious response in the reader.]
In The Empty Space Peter Brooks writes,
The exchange of impressions through images is our basic language: at the moment when one man expresses an image at that same instant the other man meets him in belief. The shared association is the language: if the association evokes nothing in the second person, if there is no instant of shared illusion, there is no exchange.
Marston was a major figure in moving towards the creation of the total dramatic image: the language not only of words but also of sounds, actions and dreams. It is possible to identify two majorconventions employed in his compositions; the episodic and the linear. The former is exemplified by What You Will; the latter by Sophonisba. But it would be a mistake even to attempt to categorise each play under one or other of these headings. The dramas show that Marston, like Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, was constantly experimenting with his dramatic form, its conventions and techniques. Elements of Tamburlaine, Volpone, and Hamlet may be...
(The entire section is 4800 words.)
SOURCE: "Whores and Wives in Jacobean Drama," in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991, pp. 246-60.
[In the following excerpt, Kahn examines The Dutch Courtesan in the context of the evolving depiction of women's sexuality in Jacobean drama.]
Women as represented in Jacobean drama are queens, thieves, nuns, viragos, mothers, prostitutes, prophets, witches, widows, shopkeepers, servants. Whatever their vocation, social role, or temperament, they are conceived within the framework of one social institution: marriage. The few single independent women without male guardians—Cleopatra, Ursula the pig woman, Moll Cutpurse, for example—are represented as anomalies, freaks, or deviants. Female characters, with few exceptions, are either on their way to the altar or firmly attached to a household provided for and ruled over by their husbands, fathers, or brothers. Woman, generically speaking, is either maid, wife, or widow. Insofar as the basic unit of society in early modern England was the family, men too were expected to marry. Marital and filial allegiances may indeed be central to the construction of male characters. But it is only men, not women, who can be solitary and autonomous in the drama without a point being made of it.
To assert that the basic condition for the...
(The entire section is 2044 words.)
SOURCE: "The Mysterious Plainness of Anger: The Search for Justice in Satire and Revenge Tragedy," in The Performance of Conviction: Plainness and Rhetoric in the Early English Renaissance, Cornell, 1994, pp. 125-67.
[Here, Graham discusses Marston's handling of anger in The Scourge of Villanie, Antonio and Mellida, and Antonio's Revenge, arguing that "his work shows a plainness that questions all values, thus transforming anger from a reflection of some prior reality to pure self-expression."]
The connection of plainness to anger in satire and revenge tragedy is easily demonstrated. For many in the Renaissance, the satirist is a plainspeaker and vice versa, as John Earle illustrates in [Micro-Cosmographie; or, a Piece of the World Discovered in Essayes and Characters] when he says that the blunt or plain man "is as squeazy of his commendations, as his courtesie, and his good word is like an Elogie in a Satyre." Similarly, plainspeaking revengers appear in such important revenge plays as The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy, The Malcontent, and The Maid's Tragedy. The satirist and the revenger also tend to be malcontents, and the malcontent himself is typically a plainspeaker.
The common denominator here is injustice: the satirist, the revenger, the plainspeaker, and the malcontent share a strong sense of injustice, from which...
(The entire section is 8133 words.)
Baker, Susan. "Sex and Marriage in The Dutch Courtesan." In In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, pp. 218-32. Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1991.
Discusses the "confrontation among competing discourses of marriage" in The Dutch Courtesan.
Bowers, Fredson Thayer. "The School of Kyd." In Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642, pp. 101-53. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959.
Explores Antonio's Revenge as it fits into the revenge play tradition popularized by Thomas Kyd, venge play tradition popularized by Thomas Kyd, and finds Marston's play important because of the ways in which it departs from revenge conventions.
Bradbrook, M. C. "The Anatomy of Knavery: Jonson, Marston, Middleton." In The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy, rev. ed., pp. 138-64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Considers Marston an influential writer, whose "very oddity, violence and rankness … freed comedy from traditional limitations."
Colley, John Scott. John Marston's Theatrical Drama. Jacobean Drama Studies, edited by James Hogg, No. 33. Salzburg, Austria, 1974, 202 p.
(The entire section is 748 words.)