John Marston Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Marston’s satiric bent is apparent in his first publications: The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion’s Image and Certaine Satyres (1598) and The Scourge of Villanie (1598). Indeed, the Pigmalion poem, ostensibly in the Ovidian amatory mode fashionable in the 1590’s, is most interesting and effective as a satiric commentary on the very tradition that it purports to embrace. Underlying the familiar romantic paradigm of the sculptor’s infatuation with his creation is the portrayal of an artist beset by what Marston calls a “fond dotage,” a form of insanity. Pigmalion’s inability to separate shade from substance is an obvious target for the unremitting satire that informs nearly all of Marston’s work. Moreover, the poem’s lurching oscillations between the genres of erotic epyllion and verse satire point to the stylistic confusion that mars several of Marston’s plays.

Certaine Satyres and The Scourge of Villanie broaden the field of satire to include an entire world of corruption and decay, of dissolving social ties and religious values. Emotionally forceful, if not always structurally coherent, the satires parade a motley cast of characters representative of the assorted vices and foibles of fallen humanity. This dramatization of moral states, as well as an overriding obsession with sexual depravity and hypocrisy, carries over into Marston’s plays.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A ceaseless experimenter, John Marston invested a variety of dramatic forms with the satiric, even mordant, worldview that originated in the late 1590’s and came to define Jacobean drama. To study Marston, therefore, is to study the structural varieties of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama: the morality play in Histriomastix, revenge conventions in the Antonio plays, romantic comedy in Jack Drum’s Entertainment, tragicomedy in The Malcontent, classical tragedy in Sophonisba. Marston’s recurring dramatic strategy pits individual integrity against worldly corruption under hysterically theatrical conditions. His protagonists are often conscious role players, gambling for survival in a world not of their making, which they bitterly condemn. Fascinated by theatrical artifice, by shadings of illusion and reality, and by the interplay between actor and role, Marston speaks to the twentieth century as clearly as he did to his own. Despite the relatively infrequent performance of his plays, even in his own day, Marston’s influence on his contemporaries was profound, his uniquely strident voice echoing through the plays of John Webster, Cyril Tourneur, and John Ford, among others.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Caputi, Anthony. John Marston, Satirist. 1961. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1976. By treating Marston primarily as a satirist, Caputi’s book demonstrates the unity of thought between Marston’s verse satires and his drama, both comic and tragic. Offers important background information on the companies that performed Marston’s plays.

Finkelpearl, Philip J. John Marston of the Middle Temple. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969. Primarily a literary biography, this book stresses Marston’s experience in London’s Middle Temple (the Tudor equivalent of a modern law school) and its effect on his drama. The book’s focus is not unbalanced, but it is not general enough to be a first resort for readers seeking an introduction to Marston.

Geckel, George L. John Marston’s Drama: Themes, Images, Sources. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980. Geckel analyzes Marston’s plays, looking closely at his sources and themes. Bibliography and index.

Gibbons, Brian. Jacobean City Comedy: A Study of Satiric Plays By Jonson, Marston, and Middleton. London: Hart-Davies, 1968. Though not limited to Marston, as its title suggests, this book places Marston’s satiric plays in the context of other ones involved in the “War of the Theatres.” Gibbons offers facts and historical commentary, which create a social backdrop for Marston’s plays and demonstrate how Marston lampooned his culture.

Ingram, R. W. John Marston. Boston: Twayne, 1978. The best introduction to Marston available, this general book covers all of his works, including the nondramatic. Its analysis of the plays, however, is thorough and integrates earlier criticism. Its annotated bibliography evaluates selected books and articles, including general sources on the period and on the genre of satire.

Tucker, Kenneth. John Marston: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. The most complete annotated bibliography available for Marston, listing, in chronological order, all significant studies of Marston’s work from his time to 1985. The exhaustive nature of this work may make its use limited in most libraries, including as it does obscure journals, and books and articles in many languages.

Wharton, T. F. The Critical Fall and Rise of John Marston. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. Wharton examines the literary criticism of Marston’s works over the years, placing them in historical perspective.

Wharton, T. F., ed. The Drama of John Marston: Critical Re-Visions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A quadcentennial tribute to the heretofore neglected playwright.