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Temporizing as Pyrrhonizing in Marston's The Malcontent WILLIAM M. HAMLIN Critics often allude to the skepticism of John Marston's drama. Robert Ornstein calls Marston "the first Jacobean to exploit dramatically the skepticism aboutStoicself-sufficiencyexpressedbyErasmusandMontaigne and implicit in the moral philosophy of the Elizabethan age."1 Jonathan Dollimore interprets the close ofAntonio's Revenge (1600-1) as "a subversion of providentialist orthodoxy."2 And Keith Sturgess argues that The Dutch Courtesan (1605) is informed throughout by "Montaigne's skepticism and moral realism," thereby encouraging Marston "to explode any simple moral structures ofright/wrong, black/white by engaging with the genuine complexity ofhuman experience."3 TheMalcontent (1603), however , despite its status as Marston's best known play, has received virtually no attention along these lines; rather, critics have generally focused on its brilliant exploration ofrole-playand its closely-related doubleness oftheme, mood, and structure.4Yetgiven thefin desiècleintellectual milieu in which the playwas composed, not to mention Marston's evident familiarity with Pyrrhonism, it seemsworthwhile to askwhat relations mayobtain between, on the one hand, The Malcontent's examination of role-play and duality and, on the other, its participation in the forms ofskepticism—henceforth termed "skeptical paradigms"—available to an intellectually curious English poet orplaywright attheoutset oftheseventeenth century.5 That Marston had been exposed to the skeptical lexicon and to com305 306Comparative Drama monplace skeptical ideas is clear. Both at Oxford, where epistemological quaestiones were commonly posed for disputation,6 and subsequently at London's Inns of Court, notorious in the 1590s for the cultivation of radical ideas in philosophy and art,7 Marston would have had access to copies of the Latin translations of Sextus Empiricus published in the 1560s, as well as to other works—French, Italian, Latin, and English— which summarized, applauded, countered, or lampooned the skeptical arguments of Sextus with varying degrees of accuracy and persuasiveness .8 He would, in addition, during his dozen-year tenure at the Middle Temple (1595-1606), have been acquainted with Sir John Davies, John Webster, John Ford, and possibly Fulke Greville and Sir Walter Ralegh, each ofwhom played a part in the English dissemination ofancient skeptical thought.9And hemaywell haveread theEnglish translation ofSextus mentioned by Thomas Nashe in his 1591 preface to Sidney's Astrophil andStella, or else The Sceptick (c. 1590-1618), also a translation ofSextus, and often (though probably spuriously) attributed to Ralegh.10 It thus comes as little surprise that in his satirical Scourge of Villanie (1598), Marston chastises a fictional interlocutor as follows: "Fye Gallus, what, a skeptick PyrrhomistV'11 Besides offering the earliest known instance of the word"Pyrrhonist" in English, this speech, in context, demonstrates a relatively accurate understanding ofa central Pyrrhonian idea: Marston's satiric persona refuses to withhold belief in the fashion advocated by skeptics. Rather, he assures Gallus that he is a plain speaker—"He not faine / Wresting my humor, from his natiue straine"—and intends to stay that way. In contrast, then, to a writer such as Nashe, who also alludes to the "Pironiks" and to Sextus Empiricus in various works of the 1590s,12 Marston demonstrates a much sharper understanding of Pyrrhonism-an understanding closer to that evinced by John Donne (also an Inns-of-Court student), who asserts in his third "Paradox" that "the Sceptique which doubts all is more contentious then eyther the Dogmatique which affirmes, or Académique which denyes."13 Unlike Donne, however, Marston did not read Montaigne until after the 1603 publication of John Florio's English translation, and thus his initial understanding ofPyrrhonism depends upon his knowledge ofsources other than the Essayes.1* But Marston's acquaintance with elements ofthe skeptical lexicon is William M. Hamlin307 only part of the story. He is also familiar, as are many of his contemporaries , with commonplaces of ancient philosophy closely tied to skepticism , among them the Socratic nihil scio and the tactic of arguing in utramque partem. His plays are laced with aphoristic remarks such as "The wisest said: I know I nothing know" (Histriomastix [1599], 1.1.76), "I know I know naught but I naught do know" (What You Will [1601], 2.2.193), and "There's naught that's safe and sweet but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 305-320
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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