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JOHN MARSTON (1576-1634)

The following biography is reprinted from Characteristics of English Poets from Chaucer to Shirley. William Minto. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.

English dramatist John Marston is the Skelton or Swift of the Elizabethan period. Like them, he wrote in denunciation and derision of what seemed to him vicious or weakly sentimental; and like them, he impatiently carried a passion for directness of speech to the extremes of coarseness. He was for no half-veiled exposure of vices. "Know," he cried, in the preface to The Scourge of Villany, his first furious lash at the age, "I hate to affect too much obscurity and harshness, because they profit no sense. To note vices so that no man can understand them is as fond as the French execution in picture." And a contemporary (in the anonymous Return from Parnassus) confirmed this self-estimate of his purposes:--

"Tut, what cares he for modest close-couched terms
Cleanly to gird our looser libertines?
Give him plain naked words, stript from their shirts,
That might beseem plain-dealing Aretine!"

Marston's satires are not elegant, self-complacent exercitations in imitation of Horace, such as Hall was so vain of writing; he wrote in a more savage and less affected vein:--

"Unless the Destin's adamantine band
Should tie my teeth, I cannot choose but bite."

One of his mottoes is taken from Juvenal, with whom he had more in common than with Horace--Difficile est satiram non scribere--"It is difficult not to write satire." There would be an almost Timonic grandeur in the swelling energy of his defiance of public opinion were it not for the satirist's half-humorous enjoyment of his own position. "I dare defend my plainness against the verjuice face of the crabbedest Satirist that ever stuttered. He that thinks worse of my rhymes than myself, I scorn him, for he cannot; he that thinks better is a fool.... If thou perusest me with an impartial eye, read on; if otherwise, know I neither value thee nor thy censure." Whatever other people are afraid to do has a great charm for Marston. He dedicates his Scourge of Villany to Detraction, and bids her snarl, bark, and bite--for his spirit scorns her spite:--

"My spirit is not puft up with fat fume
Of slimy ale, or Bacchus' heating grape;
My mind disdains the dungy muddy scum
Of abject thoughts and Envy's raging hate."

With somewhat less coarse bravery he consigns himself to everlasting oblivion--"mighty gulf, insatiate cormorant"--in opposition to the usual aspirations for eternal memory:--

"Let others pray
For ever their fair poems flourish may;
But as for me, hungry Oblivion,
Devour me quick."

He beseeches the wits to malign him; nothing could give him greater pleasure:--

"Proface, read on; for your extremest dislikes
Will add a pinion to my praise's flights.
Oh! how I bristle up my plumes of pride!
Oh! how I think my satires dignified!
When I once hear some quaint Castilio,
Some supple-mouthed slave, some lewd Tubrio,
Some spruce pedant, or some span-new-come fry
Of Inns-o'-Court, striving to vilify
My dark reproofs! Then do but rail at me--
No greater honour craves my poesy."

Almost nothing is known concerning Marston's private life. He is believed to be the John Marston who was admitted B.A. at Oxford in 1593, as being the eldest son of an Esquire, his father belonging to the city of Coventry. He began his literary career in 1598, publishing in that year Pygmalion's Image, and certain Satires and The Scourge of Villany, Three Books of Satires. He is supposed to be the Maxton or Mastone, "the new poet," mentioned in Henslowe's Diary in 1599; and the play there referred to is supposed to be his Malcontent, published in 1604 in two editions--one with, and the other without, an Induction by Webster. His other plays published were--Antonio and Mellida, 1602; Antonio's Revenge, 1602; The Dutch Courtesan, 1605; Parasitaster, 1606; Sophonisba, 1606; What you Will, 1607; The Insatiate Countess, 1613. He was also conjoined with Chapman and Jonson in the composition of Eastward Ho! certain passages of which, written by Chapman and Marston between them, gave such offense to the Scotch predilections of the king that it brought the trio to prison, and very nearly to the pillory. Marston and Jonson were less friendly in after life, as they had been at enmity before. Jonson told Drummond that he once "beat Marston and took his pistol from him." Marston's total abstinence from literature during the last twenty years of his life is not explained.

One of Marston's favourite butts, both in his Satires and in his plays, was the puling sentimentality of enamoured sonneteers. He goes beyond himself in the invention of mad indignities, coarse and subtle, overt and sly, for these forlorn creatures; parodies them and scoffs at them; buffets them, as it were, tweaks their noses, stealthily pulls out hairs and puts in pins, kicks them out of his presence.

"Sweet-faced Corinna, deign the riband tie
Of thy cork-shoe, or else thy slave will die:
Some puling sonnet tolls his passing bell;
Some sighing elegy must ring his knell.
Unless bright sunshine of thy grace revive
His wambling stomach, certes he will dive
Into the whirlpool of devouring death,
And to some mermaid sacrifice his breath."

I have endeavoured to show that Shakespeare cooperated with this derision of forced love-sighs, writing certain of his sonnets in ridicule of their windy suspiration. But Shakespeare himself was not always above the contempt of the predestined cynic. Venus and Adonis was singled out by Marston as the type of dangerous voluptuous poetry, and unmercifully parodied in his Pygmalion's Image, the arts of the goddess to win over the cold youth being coarsely paralleled in mad mockery by the arts of Pygmalion to bring his beloved statue to life. The risk in all such parodies is that they be taken as serious productions. This has been the fate of Shakespeare's sonnet parodies; and Marston either feared or had actually incurred a similar calamity.

"Curio, know'st my sprite,
Yet deem'st that in sad seriousness I write
Such nasty stuff as is Pygmalion?
* * *
O barbarous dropsy noll!
Think'st thou that genius that attends my soul,
And guides my fist to scourge magnificoes
Will deign my mind be rank'd in Paphian shows?"

Marston seems to have had rather a fancy for parodying Shakespeare: he more than once has a fling at "A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" and in The Malcontent he has several hits at passages in Hamlet, including "Illo, ho, ho, ho, art there, old Truepenny?" and a parody on Hamlet's reflection, "What a piece of work is man!" But he also paid the great dramatist the compliment of imitating from him. In The Malcontent, the conception of the villain Mendoza is indebted in several particulars to Richard III. And the hinge of the plot is borrowed indirectly from Hamlet. A banished Duke of Genoa returns to court in the disguise of Malevolo, an ill-conditioned cynic, who deliberately uses his reputation for craziness as a licence to tell people of their vices in very surly terms face to face. This origin of the idea of Malevolo might not have occurred to us but for the parodies of Hamlet in the play: and it has a certain value as showing Marston's notion of the feigned madness of Hamlet.

Marston's plays are very remarkable and distinctive productions. They are written with amazing energy--energy audacious, defiant, shameless, yet, when viewed in the totality of its manifestations, not unworthy to be called Titanic. They make no pretence to dramatic impartiality; they are written throughout in the spirit of his satires; his puppets walk the stage as embodiments of various ramifications of deadly sins and contemptible fopperies, side by side with virtuous opposites and indignant commenting censors. His characters, indeed, speak and act with vigorous life: they are much more forcible and distinct personalities than Chapman's characters. But though Marston brings out his characters sharply and clearly, and puts them in lifelike motion, they are too manifestly objects of their creator's liking and disliking: some are caricatured, some are unduly black, and some unduly stainless. From one great fault Marston's personages are exceedingly free: they may be overdrawn, and they may be coarse, but they are seldom dull--their life is a rough coarse life, but life it is. And all his serious creations have here and there put into their mouths passages of tremendous energy. Charles Lamb has gathered from Marston, for his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, extracts of passionate declamation and powerful description hardly surpassed in all that rich collection.

As we read Marston's plays, too, the conviction gains ground upon us that, after all, he was not the ill-conditioned, snarling and biting cur that he would have us believe himself to be, but a fairly honest fellow of very powerful intellect, only rude and rugged enough to have a mad delight in the use of coarse paradox and strong language. He was not a self-satisfied snarler, girding freely at the world, but tender of his own precious personality. His plays convince us that there was a touch of sincere modesty in his prayer to Oblivion:--

"Accept my orison,
My earnest prayers, which do importune thee
With gloomy shade of thy still empery
To veil both me and my rude poesy.
Far worthier lines, in silence of thy state,
Do sleep securely, from from love or hate."

In the induction to What you Will, he makes Doricus turn round on Philomene, who is railing against the stupidity of the public in the vein of the Scourge of Villany, and call the strain rank, odious, and leprous--"as your friend and author ... seems so fair in his own glass ... that he talks once of squinting critics, drunken censure, splay-footed opinion, juiceless husks, I ha' done with him, I ha' done with him." And in the body of the same play he is hardly enough to make Quadratus fall out upon Kinsayder, his own nom de plume in his early satires:--

"Why, you Don Kinsayder,
Thou canker-eaten, rusty cur, thou snaffle
To freer spirits."

We cannot complain of ill-treatment from a cynic so unmerciful to himself, so uncompromising in his gross ebullient humour. We are inclined to concede to him that, like his own Feliche, he "hates not man, but man's lewd qualities." There are more amiable and admirable characters in his plays than in Chapman's. He has good characters to set off the bad: the treacherous, unscrupulous Mendozo is balanced by the faithful Celso; the shamelessly frail Aurelia by the constant Maria; the cruel, boastful Piero by the noble Andrugio; the impulsive, unceremonious, warm-hearted, pert, forward, inquisitive, chattering Rossaline, by the ture and gentle Mellida.

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