Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
John Marston, born in Oxfordshire and baptized there on October 7, 1576, was the son of an English lawyer and his Italian wife. He attended Brasenose College, Oxford, from February 4, 1592, to February 6, 1594, when he received his B.A. degree. He entered the Middle Temple to study law and remained there until 1608, but his father’s statement of disappointment indicates that the young man did not complete his legal training.
Marston’s first known works are books of Ovidian eroticism and poetic satire, The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion’s Image and The Scourge of Villanie. In them the young poet lashes himself into somewhat conventional anger against the abuses of the times. In September, 1599, theater manager Philip Henslowe recorded payment to “Mr. Maxton the new poete.” Making allowance for Henslowe’s customary spelling difficulties, one may assume the new poet is Marston. Very soon Marston turned from Henslowe’s company to Paul’s Boys, possibly revising for them Histriomastix (c. 1599) and writing the two Antonio plays and Jack Drum’s Entertainment. Because of uncertainty in dating the plays, it is not clear whether Antonio’s Revenge influenced Hamlet or was influenced by it (either way, both plays owed much to Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy of c. 1585-1589).
Perhaps Marston is best remembered for his part in the so-called War of the Theaters, in which Ben Jonson was on one side, and Marston and Thomas Dekker were on the other. Apparently Jonson had learned that Marston and Dekker planned to lampoon him in a satirical stage characterization; to get in his own blow first, he hastily composed Poetaster and included two characters, Crispinus and Demetrius, obviously modeled on Marston and Dekker. At the end of the play, Crispinus is given a purge which causes him to vomit up some outlandish terms that Marston had used in his poems and plays. In response, Dekker and possibly Marston brought Satiromastix to the stage with a caricature of Jonson in it; additionally, Marston’s What You Will contains an apparent attack on Jonson.
In any case, by 1604 the breach between Jonson and Marston must have been healed, for Marston dedicated The Malcontent to Jonson in that year. In 1605 commendatory verses by Marston appeared in Jonson’s Sejanus, and Marston, George Chapman, and Jonson collaborated in the writing of Eastward Ho! Satirical passages in the last play led to the imprisonment of Chapman and Jonson. Marston escaped recorded punishment at this time, though the other writers claimed that they did not write the offensive passages. This event may have caused further hostilities between Jonson and Marston.
According to E. K. Chambers, Marston was married to “Mary, probably the daughter of one of James’s chaplains.” He was imprisoned in 1608 for a lost play that criticized the Scots at court and presented King James I on stage as a drunkard. His career as a practicing dramatist ended with his Insatiate Countess apparently unfinished. William Barksteed, or Barksted, probably finished the play, since a quarto version of it was printed under his name. Barksteed was a minor actor, poet, and dramatist.
Marston took holy orders in 1609 and obtained a parish church in Hampshire in 1616. He resigned his pastorate in 1631 and died three years later, on June 25, 1634, in Aldermanbury Parish, London.
Though guilty of verbal excesses, for which Jonson chastised him in Poetaster, Marston is a worthy minor poet and dramatist. He is still readable, though hardly alive on the modern stage.