Posts Tagged ‘John Marston’

Marston: The Malcontent

December 15, 2020

The Malcontent
John Marston
(Bloomsbury, 2014) [c.1603]
176 p.

Well, this disguise doth yet afford me that
Which kings do seldom hear, or great men use,—
Free speech: and though my state’s usurp’d,
Yet this affected strain gives me a tongue
As fetterless as is an emperor’s.
(I.1)

John Marston, about ten years younger than Shakespeare, was a successful playwright for the London stage, and a few of his plays recur in anthologies of the period. The Malcontent is one of them.

It is an entertaining play. Set in the court of Genoa, it tells a story in which the duke of Genoa, having been overthrown by a rival and sent into exile, returns disguised as a crabby, frank-talking jester, — the ‘malcontent’ of the play’s title — intent on protecting his wife and winning back his position. In a series of lively comedic scenes he worms his way into the court’s good opinion, meanwhile laying traps for his enemies.

One of those enemies, Mendoza, is a ladder-climbing sycophant willing to do anything to protect and advance his position:

I’ll be reveng’d. Duke, thy suspect;
Duchess, thy disgrace; Ferneze, thy rivalship;
Shall have swift vengeance. Nothing so holy,
No band of nature so strong,
No law of friendship so sacred,
But I’ll profane, burst, violate, ’fore I’ll
Endure disgrace, contempt, and poverty.
(II.1)

He reminded me of Iago in some respects — one of his lines (“Fortune still dotes on those who cannot blush.” (II.1)) might have come from Iago’s mouth without incongruity — though ultimately he is not nearly so vivid nor dangerous. (Othello is also a c.1603 play.)

The pleasure of the play, however, is not so much in the characters as it is in Marston’s clever plotting, in which disguises proliferate, false pretences spread thickly on the ground, and double-crossing is the order of the day. The plotting is not tight, exactly, for there were some scenes for which the purpose was obscure to me, but it is absorbing and moves swiftly to its happy conclusion.

This is the first of the Elizabethan/Jacobean plays I’ve read in this project that has been mostly prose. Verse pops up here and there, mostly at moments of high import or eloquence, but it is the exception.

In his study of the plays of this period, Swinburne finds Marston an uneven playwright, complaining that

the reader in struggling through some of the scenes and speeches feels as though he were compelled to push his way through a cactus hedge

yet concluding that despite his defects there are still good reasons to read him:

But when the poet is content to deliver his message like a man of this world, we discover with mingled satisfaction, astonishment, and irritation that he can write when he pleases in a style of the purest and noblest simplicity; that he can make his characters converse in a language worthy of Sophocles…

I don’t know whether I should agree with Swinburne here or not. A possible example of a cactus hedge might be this passage, in which the villain Mendoza erupts in a diatribe against women:

Women! nay, Furies; nay, worse; for they torment only the bad, but women good and bad. Damnation of mankind! Breath, hast thou praised them for this? and is’t you, Ferneze, are wriggled into smock-grace? sit sure. O, that I could rail against these monsters in nature, models of hell, curse of the earth, women! that dare attempt anything, and what they attempt they care not how they accomplish; without all premeditation or prevention; rash in asking, desperate in working, impatient in suffering, extreme in desiring, slaves unto appetite, mistresses in dissembling, only constant in unconstancy, only perfect in counterfeiting: their words are feigned, their eyes forged, their sighs dissembled, their looks counterfeit, their hair false, their given hopes deceitful, their very breath artificial: their blood is their only god; bad clothes, and old age, are only the devils they tremble at. (I.6)

It’s crass and stupid, of course, but consider who’s saying it, and I think it could be played to good comedic effect on stage, so I’m not sure it deserves outright censure. On the other hand, an example of Marston’s “pure and noble simplicity” might be this moral reflection:

Favours are writ in dust; but stripes we feel
Depravèd nature stamps in lasting steel.
(II.3)

Overall I found Marston remarkably amiable, and certainly less thorny-going than I found Jonson or Chapman. Perhaps further acquaintance would firm up my views; the other of his plays that I’ve seen anthologized is a tragedy, The Dutch Courtesan, and perhaps I’ll read it. We shall see.