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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

§ 15. His other Plays; Withdrawal from theatrical life

Marston’s last play, The Insatiate Countesse (printed 1613), does not appear in the 1633 edition of his works, and in an extant copy of 1631 its authorship is assigned to William Barkstead. It is generally, and, no doubt, correctly, assumed that this was the actor William Barkstead, author of two poems—Mirrha, the Mother of Adonis (1617) and Hiren, or the Faire Greeke (1611). Two of the best lines in the play are found in the first named poem—

  • Night, like a masque, is entered heaven’s great hall
  • With thousand torches ushering the way.
  • Of tragedies assigned to Marston, this contains the most interesting work, but much of it, clearly, is by another hand. The text is corrupt, and it seems probable that Marston devised the plot (taken from the fourth and fifteenth novels of Bandello and reproduced in The Palace of Pleasure), that he wrote the first draft and that the play was then completed by Barkstead, and finally printed without revision from a stage copy. Marston, evidently, was attracted by Shakespeare and Shakespeare reverberates through this play. It echoes Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard II and Henry IV; but some of these echoes may be due to the player Barkstead’s unconscious memories. The subject of the drama—the unbridled passions of Isabella, countess of Swevia, and her dealings with her many lovers—is too remote from nature and modern life to command our sympathy; but there are scenes which it is impossible to read without a thrill of admiration. Webster alone has excelled them in their own kind, while passing through the same dark region of things violent and forbidding, lust, cruelty, madness and death. A Latin pageant for the visit of king Christian of Denmark to England in 1606 and an entertainment for a visit of the countess of Derby to her son-in-law, lord Huntingdon, complete the list of Marston’s extant works, unless, with Collier, we attribute to him the amusing Mountebank’s Masque, performed in 1616.

    The texture of Marston’s genius was singularly unequal, and he constantly promises more than he performs. In comedy only can it be truly said that he achieved success, yet in his more ambitious and less successful work there resides an arresting quality. When we are about to condemn unreservedly, he flashes into unexpected splendour; when we lay down the book, his characters refuse to be altogether dismissed into the limbo of forgotten things. Marston, as he himself tells us, was powerfully “enticed with the delights of poetry,” and confesses that, “above better desert,” he was “fortunate in these stage pleasings.” As a young man, he essayed what all young men of talent were essaying, the highest reaches of a most difficult art. Nor was his measure of success inconsiderable, for we are told by Wood that he was “in great renown for his wit and ingenuity in 1606.” Yet it was at this time, while still a young man and on the very threshold of fame, that he resolutely turned away to take up the unexciting routine of parish business. Too little notice has been taken of this remarkable renunciation, and Marston’s character too much obscured by the unrelieved emphasis laid upon the heady violences of his satirical youth and his extravagances of diction and humour in the theatrical wars. He outgrew these affectations and absurdities; but, at the same time, he outgrew the passion for distinction. There seems no good reason to doubt the sincerity of his own statements,—“of men of my own addiction I love most, pitie some, hate none”; “I have ever more endeavoured to know myself than be known of others”—and, without hesitation, we may ascribe his neglect of his “unfenced reputation,” and his retirement from the pursuit of fame, to his having deliberately “esteemed felicity a more solid contentment,” and readily responded to the summons, when life’s current ran less turbulently, of “his bosom friend, good Epictetus,” to the quiet meadows and sober pleasures of philosophy.