Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 11. Marston’s Tragedies; Antonio and Mellida

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker

§ 11. Marston’s Tragedies; Antonio and Mellida

Marston’s dramatic activity was confined to about eight years in a lifetime of fifty-eight.

We may take it that the reference in Henslowe’s diary to a “new poet” Maxton or Mastone, in 1599 referred to the author of Antonio and Mellida, his first play, acted in 1600. The first part deals with “the comic crosses of true love,” the second, Antonios Revenge, with a world of vice and passion. Here, as elsewhere, Marston displays at moments a flash of tragic grandeur, but as often falls away into bombast and mere verbal gesticulation. It is impossible to deny to him in tragedy something of Marlowe’s passion and Webster’s solemn splendour, yet, whether through haste, or carelessness, or deficiency in taste, he is unable to maintain the heights to which he occasionally attains. Scenes and passages, such as Lamb selected, do not unfairly represent his power, but, when read as a whole, the dramas from which they are taken prove disappointing. Furious or monstrous characters, like duke Piero in the play under notice, or Isabella in The Insatiate Countesse, artificial rhetoric and the absence of reasonable construction, may not have alienated the sympathies of spectators who delighted in The Spanish Tragedie, but they distress and repel the modern reader. The source of Antonio and Mellida—probably an Italian story—is known, but the drama belongs to the well known “blood and thunder” species, and irresistibly reminds us of Kyd’s famous play and, necessarily, also of Hamlet. In the second part, we have the familiar ghost who clamours for revenge, the device of the dumb-show and the horrors of mutilation as well as death, repeated from The Spanish Tragedie. It is clear that Marston was a student of Seneca and knew Shakespeare’s work, for there are quotations from Thyestes and reminiscences of Richard II and Richard III. Marston’s first play, which was produced when he was twenty-four, bears all the signs of youth and must be described as a patch-work of such violent scenes as delighted the groundlings, entirely destitute of unity or skill in characterisation.