Academic journal article Early Theatre

'[A]dore My Topless Villainy': Metatheatrical Rivalry in John Marston's Antonio's Revenge

Academic journal article Early Theatre

'[A]dore My Topless Villainy': Metatheatrical Rivalry in John Marston's Antonio's Revenge

Article excerpt

Despite Antonio's Revenge declaring itself a serious tragedy, a 'black-visaged [show]' that seeks to 'weigh massy in judicious scale', the play's metatheatricality has made the play difficult for scholars and critics to categorize (Prologue 20, 30). (1) Characters in Antonio's Revenge do not speak so much as they extemporize, riffing knowingly on the conventions of early modern revenge plays. The dialogue in the play often exaggerates the stock rhetoric of revenge tragedy to the point that John Marston's play may seem indecorously tongue-in-cheek. Samuel Schoenbaum calls Marston's work 'bizarre--more eccentric than the art of any of his contemporaries' and claims that 'the essential incongruity of Marston's work' is its most 'striking feature'. (2) R.A. Foakes takes Marston's 'fustian' lines, which he wrote for the Children of St Paul's to perform, as intentionally and parodically melodramatic, especially when spouted from the lips of child actors:

The plays [Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge] work from the
beginning as vehicles for child-actors consciously ranting in oversize
parts, and we are not allowed to take their passions or motives
seriously. Their grand speeches are undermined by bathos or parody, and
spring from no developed emotional situation, so that we are not moved
by them, and do not take them seriously enough to demand justice at the
end. (3)

As an effect of the play's theatrically self-referential rhetoric, Marston's characters' deployment of heightened language always seems strategic, since characters contextualize it as 'mimic action' which is 'apish' and 'player-like' rather than voicing authentic sentiment (1.5.78, 80). Marston's use of (often bombastic) rhetoric and his defiance of the conventional expectation that a revenge tragedy should end with the death of the titular revenger have left scholars debating whether Marston is writing serious tragedy or perhaps giving revenge tragedies a parodic send-up, turning Senecan speeches of grief and bloodlust into exaggerated farce.

The prevalence of histrionic and self-aware lines has proven difficult to reconcile with the play's stark, brutally visceral depictions of violence. Schoenbaum, for instance, argues that with Antonio's Revenge, 'Marston assumes the pose of the satirist lashing the follies of the age', while also claiming that 'the distinguishing characteristic of Marston's work is violence' and describing the play's ending as 'a succession of gratuitous horrors, excessive even by Elizabethan standards'. (4) The play's historical proximity to a rival play amplifies the problem of generic categorization. Antonio's Revenge likely competed with William Shakespeare's Hamlet, a play which has certainly weighed massier than Marston's in the annals of canonical literature. The plays feature similar plots, and scholars have assumed both to be adaptations of a preceding version of Hamlet (the Ur-Hamlet), which Thomas Kyd might have written and of which no known copy survives. (5) Shakespeare's play has become an emblem of psychological realism and, over the last few centuries, scholars have fashioned it into a keystone text for understanding the emergence of modern interiority in Western culture. (6) In contrast, early modern scholars have remained skeptical that Marston is even taking his material seriously as a tragedy. Phoebe Spinrad claims that the play's self-aggrandizing rhetoric leaves scholars wondering whether Marston wants us to sympathize with the urges that characters express for revenge or be revolted by the play's sensationalism, or perhaps we are supposed to throw our hands up and 'see his whole world as absurd and not really care'. (7)

When scholars do take Antonio's Revenge seriously as tragedy, they have trouble interpreting Marston's depiction of revenge without framing it in ethical or sociopolitical terms. Following the conventions that Kyd's immensely popular Spanish Tragedy established, Elizabethan revenge tragedies depict revenge as a last resort, reserved for some form of private justice when all other options have failed. …

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