John Marston
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114 ] John Marston1 John Marston, the dramatist, has been dead three hundred years. The date of his death, June 25, 1634, is one of the few certain facts that we know about him; but the appearance of the first volume of a new edition of his works, as well as an edition of his best-known play by itself, is a more notable event than the arrival of his tercentenary.2 * For Marston has enjoyed less attention, from either scholars or critics, than any of his contemporaries of equal or greater rank; and for both scholars and critics he remains a territory of unexplored riches and risks. The position of most of his contemporaries is pretty well settled; one cannot go very far wrong in one’s estimate of the dramatists with whom Marston worked: but about Marston a wide divergency of opinion is still possible. His greater defects are such as anyone can see; his merits are still a matter for controversy. Little has transpired of the events of Marston’s life since Bullen presented in 1887 what has hitherto been the standard edition.3 The date and place of his birth have been unsettled:4 but the main facts – that his mother was Italian, that he was educated at Brasenose College and put to the law, that he wrote satires and then plays for a brief period and finally entered the Church – are undisputed. We are left with the unsupported statement of Ben Jonson that he beat Marston and took away his pistol;5 but, without necessarily impugning the veracity of Jonson, or suggesting that he wished to impress Drummond with his own superiority, having gone such a long journey to talk to him, we may do well to put aside the image of a mean and ridiculous figure which Jonson has left us before considering the value of Marston’s work. And before reading the selections of Lamb, or the encomium of Swinburne, we should do better to read the plays of Marston – there are not many – straight through. Did Marston have anything of his own to say or not? Was he really a dramatist, or only a playwright through force of circumstances? And if he was a dramatist, in which of his plays was he at his best? In answering these questions we have, as with no other Elizabethan dramatist, the opportunity to go completely wrong; and that opportunity is an incentive. Dr. Wood’s first volume includes, besides Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge, The Malcontent.6 There are three quartos of The [ 115 John Marston Malcontent: Dr. Wood tells us that he has followed the second (B in Dr. Greg’s classification),7 but has adopted what seemed to him better and fuller readings from A and C. Dr. Harrison’s text is, he tells us, the “revised quarto” [ix], and he follows the Temple Dramatists principle (certainly the right one for such a series)8† of modernized spelling and punctuation. Our only complaint against both editors is that they have conscientiously limited themselves, in their notes, to what is verifiable, and have deprived themselves and their readers of that delight in aside and conjecture which the born annotator exploits. Dr. Harrison’s glossary, for instance, omits some difficult words, but includes others of which the meaning is obvious; one wishes that editors of Elizabethan texts would take as their model that perfect annotator Mr. F. L. Lucas in his monumental edition of John Webster.9 Dr. Wood appears to have had the advantage of consulting Dr. Harrison’s edition; and it must be said that they both refer the reader to Mr. Lucas’s edition of Webster for fuller information on certain points. Both Dr. Wood and Dr. Harrison seem to be assured on one critical judgment: that The Malcontent is the most important of Marston’s plays. Dr. Harrison says forthright: “The Malcontent is Marston’s best play” [ix]. Dr. Wood says only: The best of Marston’s comedies and tragedies, and his great tragi-comedy , The Malcontent, have striking and original qualities. . . . The Malcontent is one of the most original plays of its period. . . . [xxxix] It is this assumption that we are privileged to examine. If we read first the two plays with which collected editions, including Dr. Wood’s, begin – Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge – our first impression is likely to be one of bewilderment, that anyone could write plays so bad and that plays so bad...