John Marston Marston, John - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

William Hazlitt (lecture date 1820)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Charles Lamb (essay date 1820-25)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Algernon Swinburne (essay date 1888)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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H. Harvey Wood (essay date 1934)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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T. S. Eliot (essay date 1934)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Frederick S. Boas (essay date 1946)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Robert Ornstein (essay date 1960)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Anthony Caputi (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Philip J. Finkelpearl (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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R. W. Ingram (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Michael Scott (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Coppélia Kahn (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Kenneth J. E. Graham (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 748 words.)