John Marston’s entire dramatic career can be read as an attempt to adapt the materials of Renaissance formal satire to the stage. Although his output reveals no neat gradations of development, it falls conveniently into two general divisions: those plays from Histriomastix through What You Will, crowded into the years between 1599 and 1601, and those that followed, ending with Marston’s retirement from the theater. Perhaps the 1601-1604 hiatus constituted a period of artistic reflection and consolidation for Marston; in any event, the later plays seem clearly more successful in their integration of satiric materials and dramatic form.
Whatever their relative success as dramatic vehicles, Marston’s plays characteristically advance his moral vision by means of a potent mixture of satiric denunciation and exaggerated theatricality; the grotesque savagery of his early imagery was remarkable even in an age in which harsh rhetoric was the norm. Although Marston’s satirists never lose their hard-edged scorn, they are gradually transformed from irresponsible railers lashing out at anyone or anything that angers them into responsible critics of people and manners. Marston’s targets are legion, but they all inhabit the world of city or court.
The crucial task for Marston the dramatist is to find appropriate modes of theatrical expression for his essentially mordant worldview. Because no single attitude is proof against the rapacious onslaughts of human wickedness, the playwright is forced into constant shifts of rhetoric and tone. These, in turn, produce a drama of wrenching extremes in which tragedy is forever collapsing into melodrama and comedy into farce. At the heart of the drama is usually found Marston’s mouthpiece, a satiric commentator living painfully in a fallen world whose vices he condemns and whose values he rejects. Often disguised, the satirist proceeds by seeming to embrace, even to prompt, the very crimes and foibles that he savagely denounces. His disguise symbolizes the chasm between being and seeming wherein lies the hypocrisy to be discovered and exposed; moreover, it allows the fitful starts and stops, the aesthetic and moral twists embodied in the deliberate theatricality of Marston’s seriocomic vision.
The dangerously insecure and deceptive worldview of the plays invites the growing misanthropy of Marston’s satire. Feelings of guilt and revulsion define bodily functions and poison sensual delights. Marston includes many images of the body and its functions in his works, perhaps suggesting the dramatist’s unconscious thoughts. Dramatic action takes place in a nightmare world of brutal lust and violent intrigue in which darkness cloaks venal and shameful deeds. Women, once incidental factors in man’s degeneracy, increasingly become repositories of perverted desire, culminating in the animalistic Francischina of The Dutch Courtesan. Social intercourse consists mainly of manipulations and betrayals from which Marston’s dramatic persona finds refuge only in the impassive self-containment of stoicism. When neither stoicism nor withdrawal can protect Sophonisba from the spreading stain of worldly corruption, Marston’s last heroine elects the only remaining moral refuge: suicide. It is an ironically apt solution to the problem of acting in a depraved world, and it highlights the central theme of Marston’s plays: the moral cost of living in such a world.
Marston’s early plays experiment with various dramatic forms: the morality play in Histriomastix, romantic comedy in Jack Drum’s Entertainment, the revenge play in Antonio’s Revenge. Chiefly interesting as attempts to find appropriate vehicles for satiric commentary, they contain many of the theatrical ingredients but little of the dramatic power of Marston’s masterpiece, The Malcontent.
The Malcontent depicts the morally debilitated world of What You Will and the Antonio plays. Here, however, the characters are neither the mere labels for the commonplace ideas of What You Will nor the tenuous projections of the satiric background of the Antonio plays. In the central figure of Malevole-Altofronto, Marston has created the perfect objective correlative for his worldview. That view is embedded in the structure of The Malcontent, which continues and amalgamates Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge. Eddying between comedy and tragedy, The Malcontent employs all the Senecan sordidness, theatrical self-consciousness, and satiric commentary of its predecessors. Ostensibly, The Malcontent is a revenge play at the heart of which Altofronto, deposed duke of Genoa, assumes the disguise of Malevole in order to regain his dukedom from the usurper Pietro, who, in turn, is the tool by which the scheming Mendoza advances his own ducal ambitions. Unlike the typical revenge play, which culminates in the hero’s bloody reprisals, The Malcontent achieves a fragile harmony based on the hero’s modified goals, for this revenger seeks to reform rather than to destroy. Undeniably bitter at his dispossession, Altofronto is nevertheless driven as much by the will to rejuvenate his enemies as to reclaim his rule. A victim of deception and intrigue, Altofronto must learn to deceive his deceivers. The mask of Malevole becomes a strategy for survival in the ridiculous yet hazardous world created by fallen humanity. That world is defined by the sexual corruption of Aurelia, Pietro’s unfaithful wife; of Ferneze, her lustful lover, who competes with Mendoza for her favor; of Biancha, who distributes her favors wholesale; and of Maquerelle, the overripe procuress, no less than by the sinister plotting of Pietro and Mendoza.
Altofronto’s mask is so firmly in place from the outset that a considerable portion of the first act transpires before Malevole reveals his true identity to the “constant lord,” Celso. By this time, he has already tortured Pietro by disclosing Aurelia’s adultery with Mendoza. Liberated by the traditional role of the malcontent, Malevole will continue to castigate the corruption that he exposes. Malevole shapes the play even as he is shaped by its demands: It is in the service of reform that he spotlights human vice and folly. The essentially passive satirist, periodically intruding into other characters’ stories, now emerges as the hero of the play whose still biting commentary is crucial to its action. When Malevole, who has been hired by Mendoza to solicit Altofronto’s “widow,” Maria, and to murder Pietro, reveals the depth of Mendoza’s perfidy to the horrified Pietro, the latter disguises himself as a hermit and returns to court to announce his own death. Mendoza now moves swiftly to consolidate his rule, banishing Aurelia, sending Malevole off to urge his case to the imprisoned Maria, and hiring the hermit to poison Malevole, who in turn is ordered to poison the hermit. Forced into a horrified recognition of the depraved world that he has helped create, Pietro is not even permitted the solace of Aurelia’s sincere repentance before Malevole’s savage castigation of earth as “the very muckhill on which the sublunarie orbs cast their excrement” and man as “the slime of this dongue-pit.” This episode at court and its aftermath typify Malevole’s practice of moral surgery: positioning characters first to confront their own depravity, then to repent of it, and finally to excise it. Malevole’s manipulations fittingly culminate in the court masque that ends the play. Ordered by Mendoza to celebrate his accession to power, the masque becomes the vehicle of his undoing. The masquers reveal themselves as Mendoza’s apparent murder victims, and Malevole, again Altofronto, reclaims Maria and his dukedom. Such characters...
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