The Life of John Marston (1576-1634)

Excerpted from:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XVII.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 777-8.

JOHN MARSTON, English dramatist and satirist, eldest son of John Marston of Coventry, at one time lecturer of the Middle Temple, was born in 1575, or early in 1576. Swinburne notes his affinities with Italian literature, which may be partially explained by his parentage, for his mother was the daughter of an Italian physician, Andrew Guarsi. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1592, taking his B.A. degree in 1594. The elder Marston in his will expresses regret that his son, to whom he left his law-books and the furniture of his rooms in the Temple, had not been willing to follow his profession.

John Marston married Mary Wilkes, daughter of one of the royal chaplains, and Ben Jonson said that " Marston wrote his father-in-law's preachings, and his father-in-law his sermons." His first work was The Metamorphosis of Pigmalions Image, and certaine Satyres (1598). "Pigmalion" is an erotic poem in the metre of Venus and Adonis, and Joseph Hall attached a rather clumsy epigram to every copy that was exposed for sale in Cambridge. In the same year Marston published, under the pseudonym of W. Kinsayder, already employed in the earlier volume, his Scourge of Villanie, eleven satires, in the sixth of which he asserted that Pigmalion was intended to parody the amorous poetry of the time. Both this volume and its predecessor were burnt by order of the archbishop of Canterbury. The satires, in which Marston avowedly took Persius as his model, are coarse and vigorous. In addition to a general attack on the vices of his age he avenges himself on Joseph Hall who had assailed him in Virgidemiae.

He had a great reputation among his contemporaries. John Weever couples his name with Ben Jonson's in an epigram; Francis Meres in Palladis tamia (1598) mentions him among the satirists; a long passage is devoted to "Monsieur Kinsayder" in the Return from Parnassus (1606), and Dr Brinsley Nicholson has suggested that Furor poeticus in that piece may be a satirical portrait of him. But his invective by its general tone, goes far to justify Mr W. J. Courthope's1 judgment that "it is likely enough that in seeming to satirize the world without him, he is usually holding up the mirror to his own prurient mind."

On the 28th of September 1599 Henslowe notices in his diary that he lent "unto Mr Maxton, the new poete, the sum of forty shillings," as an advance on a play which is not named. Another hand has amended "Maxton" to" Mastone." The earliest plays to which Marston's name is attached are The History of Antonio and Mellida. The First Part; and Antonio's Revenge. The Second Part (both entered at Stationers' Hall in 1601 and printed 1602). The second part is preceded by a prologue which, in its gloomy forecast of the play, moved the admiration of Charles Lamb, who also compares the situation of Andrugio and Lucia to Lear and Kent, but the scene which he quotes gives a misleading idea of the play and of the general tenor of Marston's work.

The melodrama and the exaggerated expression of these two plays offered an opportunity to Ben Jonson, who had already twice ridiculed Marston, and now pilloried him as Crispinus in The Poetaster (1600). The quarrel was patched up, for Marston dedicated his Malcontent (1604) to Jonson, and in the next year he prefixed commendatory verses to Sejanus. Far greater restraint is shown in The Malcontent than in the earlier plays. It was printed twice in 1604, the second time with additions by John Webster. The Dutch Courtezan (1605) and Parasitaster, or the Fawne (1606) followed. In 1605 Eastward Hoe, a gay comedy of London life, which gave offence to the king's Scottish friends, caused the playwrights concerned in its production — Marston, Chapman and Jonson — to be imprisoned at the instance of Sir James Murray.

The Wonder of Women, or the Tragedie of Sophonisba (1606), seems to have been put forward by Marston as a model of what could be accomplished in tragedy. In the preface he mocks at those authors who make a parade of their authorities and their learning, and the next play, What you Will (printed 1607; but probably written much earlier), contains a further attack on Jonson. The tragedy of The Insatiate Countesse was printed in 1613, and again, this time anonymously, in 1616. It was not included in the collected edition of Marston's plays in 1633, and in the Duke of Devonshire's library there is a copy bearing the name of William Barksteed, the author of the poems, Myrrha, the Mother of Adonis (1607), and Hiren and the Fair Greek (1611). The piece contains many passages superior to anything to be found in Marston's well-authenticated plays, and Mr A. H. Bullen suggests that it may be Barksteed's version of an earlier one drafted by Marston.

The character and history of Isabella are taken chiefly from "The Disordered Lyfe of the Countess of Celant" in William Paynter's Palace of Pleasure, derived eventually from Bandello. There is no certain evidence of Marston's authorship in Histriomastix (printed 1610, but probably produced before 1599), or in Jacke Drums Entertainement, or the Comedie of Pasquil and Katherine (1616), though he probably had a hand in both. Mr R. Boyle (Englische Studien, vol. xxx., 1901), in a critical study of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, assigns to Marston's hand the whole of the action dealing with Hector, with the prologue and epilogue, and attributes to him the bombast and coarseness in the last scenes of the play.

It will be seen that his undoubted dramatic work was completed in 1607. It is uncertain at what time he exchanged professions, but in 1616 he was presented to the living of Christchurch, Hampshire. He formally resigned his charge in 1631, and when his works were collected in 1633 the publisher, William Sheares, stated that the author "in his autumn and declining age" was living "far distant from this place." Nevertheless he died in London, in the parish of Aldermanbury, on the 25th of June 1634. He was buried in the Temple Church.

Marston's works were first published in 1633, once anonymously as Tragedies and Comedies, and then in the same year as Workes of Mr John Marston. The Works of John Marston (3 vols.) were reprinted by Mr J. O. Halliwell (Phillipps) in 1856, and again by Mr. A. H. Bullen (3 vols.) in 1887. His Poems (2 vols.) were edited by Dr A. B. Grosart in 1879.

1 Hist. of Eng. Poetry, iii. 70.

Excerpted from:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XVII.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 777-8.

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