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.