Shakerley Marmion Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Shakerley Marmion 1603-1639

(Also Shakerly, Shackerley, Shackerly, and Schackerley; also Marmyon, Mermion, and Marmyun) English playwright and poet.

One of the so-called “Sons of Ben,” Marmion adapted the rules of comedic drama propounded by the playwright Ben Jonson to his own works centering around the theme of Platonic love. Although he is considered only a minor figure in English drama whose works lack depth and complexity, he has been praised for his graceful style. In addition to his three plays, Holland's Leaguer (1631), A Fine Companion (c. 1632-33), and The Antiquary (c. 1635), Marmion composed a long narrative in heroic couplets, The Legend of Cupid and Psyche (1637), and wrote occasional verse.

Biographical Information

Marmion was born in January 1603 in Northamptonshire, the son of a country gentleman who was chronically in debt. Marmion attended the Free School at Thame, Oxfordshire, and then went to Wadham College, Oxford, where he received an M.A. in 1624. The details are unclear, but there is some evidence that he was charged with a crime just after he left Oxford. There is no record of Marmion's activities between 1624 and 1629, but it is likely he was living in London and evading the law and then serving in the military, perhaps in the Low Countries. He may also have associated with Jonson during this time. In 1629 Marmion was indicted for having assaulted a man named Edward Moore with a sword and injuring him in the head. He began his brief career as a poet and playwright in the early 1630s, and associated with the playwright and poet Thomas Heywood, as well as others in Jonson's circle. After writing poetry that appeared in various anthologies and producing three plays, he fell out of sight once again from 1635 to 1637, possibly because the plague that swept through London closed many theaters during this time. In 1637 Marmion published his verse narrative Cupid and Psyche, and the following year he composed an elegy to his mentor, Jonson, the last of his works to appear in print. In 1638 he joined a private military expedition to Scotland organized by his friend Sir John Suckling, but he became ill en route and returned to London. He died shortly thereafter, in 1639.

Major Works

Jonson's influence is clearly apparent in Marmion's three plays. His first work, Holland's Leaguer, which takes place in a brothel, has its share of dandies and witty young women, and there are frequent allusions to classical sources. The play is a work of comic satire that attempts to explore the idea of Platonic love, and while the insights are interesting, critics note, the dramatic intrigue and the plot are often unconvincingly wrought. His next play, A Fine Companion, is considered a better dramatic effort. This comedy of intrigue involves a pair of Platonic lovers, Aurelio and Valeria. Aurelio is disinherited because he is in love with the same woman as his father; his younger brother, Carelesse, has thus inherited Aurelio's rightful patrimony. Marmion was clearly indebted to Jonson's theory of humours characterization in this play, which is populated by a number of individuals who are defined by a particular psychological trait. The Antiquary, considered Marmion's best work, departs slightly from his earlier two works in that it satirizes the idea of Platonic love that he treated sympathetically in his previous efforts. The main plot also involves a pair of lovers, and the subplot concerns the deception of the antiquary Veterano by his nephew. Like his other plays, The Antiquary shows Marmion to be a playwright of limited depth, but the plot of this work is judged considerably more complex and the satire more pointed. The 2,000-line mythological poem Cupid and Psyche is made up of a translation of Apuleius's The Golden Ass supplemented by Marmion's own verses. Many consider Marmion's additions to be superior to the original, and the poem is widely regarded as his finest work.

Critical Reception

All three of Marmion's plays were produced in the 1630s, and there is some evidence indicating that they were well received. Holland's Leaguer was performed on six successive days—a significant run for the time—and A Fine Companion was performed for royalty. The Antiquary was the only one of his plays to be republished in collections of plays after his death. Although his graceful style was admired by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and the novelist Walter Scott, Marmion is chiefly remembered as one of the many Caroline playwrights who were influenced by Jonson's rules of comedy and whose works anticipated the tone and style of Restoration drama. Marmion has never enjoyed renown as a poet, but the modern scholars who have investigated his career regard Cupid and Psyche as his strongest work.