Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

'Virtue Perforce Is Vice': Ceremonial and Infernal Nuptials in John Marston's Sophonisba

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

'Virtue Perforce Is Vice': Ceremonial and Infernal Nuptials in John Marston's Sophonisba

Article excerpt

John Marston's The Wonder of Women, or The Tragedy of Sophonisba (1605-6) is one of the most neglected and least understood major dramatic works of its era. With its exotic locations, love rivalry, political machinations, battles, supernatural thrills, lustful villain, compromised hero, and brave, beautiful heroine, Sophonisba would appear to have everything. Yet many regard the play as dull and forbidding, a foursquare, bombastic, high-minded dud. Most critics emphasise its formal austerity, locating Sophonisba securely in the neoclassical tradition. T.S. Eliot calls the play 'Senecal rather than Shakespearean', and Philip Finkelpearl suggests it has 'more affinities with Gorbuduc than with the nearly simultaneous King Leaf 1 For Irving Ribner it is an 'exercise in Senecan imitation' that does not 'reflect [an] agonized struggle with the realities of the dramatist's own age'.2 Some regard Marston's claim not to have laboured 'to relate anything as an historian, but to enlarge everything as a poet' as artistic hubris.3 Craving validation from 'worthier minds', the poet-dramatist presents the play as produced for 'such as may merit oil / And holy dew stilled from diviner heat' (Prologue, 19, 23-4).4 But far from being considered a lofty, vatic masterpiece, his paean to the perfection of Sophonisba has been found tediously sententious, a work of 'patent artificiality of subject and moral assumptions'.5 Marston adapts his historical sources to foreground a contest between 'virtue' and 'vice' in marriage formation. My contention in this essay is that this does in fact reflect an 'agonized struggle' with early modern realities, one in which 'moral assumptions' are by no means as clear-cut as many commentators have themselves assumed.

Most of the play's detractors do at least note its theatricality in comparison with other neoclassical works, if only to decry an intrusive sensationalism. Ironically, such complaints often make the play sound more exciting than some of its defenders manage, many of whom stress the starkness of its playworld. As editors of Sophonisba, MacDonald Jackson and Michael Neill, suggest, somewhat optimistically, that the play's 'austerely monumental character... need prove no bar to its theatrical resurrection'.6 Another editor, William Kemp, praises Marston's 'simple' archetypes, 'unadulterated by. psychological and symbolic complexity' - which hardly makes the characters sound involving.7 To be fair, Kemp highlights the resourcefulness of Marston's staging, describing the play as no mere academic exercise, unlike the 'dead plays. flat, unactable things' produced for university stages; Marston's blend of neoclassicism and populist melodrama is, he suggests, 'probably better in production than in reading'.8 For Kemp, writing in 1979, behind that 'probably' lay four hundred years of (to my knowledge) nonperformance. There has since been one attempt to stage Sophonisba, but no full-scale production.9 Few have called for a revival, yet T. F. Wharton, who maintains that 'theatricality is the core of [Marston's] talent', sees the play as his masterpiece.10 I agree, and this essay is a piece of advocacy for what is, I suggest, a taut, rich and highly performable play. I hope to question its reputation as 'a formal, austere tragedy', to probe what I see as its 'psychological and symbolic complexity', and to make a case for its power to move an audience. This is not to suggest that it offers no pleasures for a reader - the verse, for all its knotty or starchy moments, is better than some critics allow.11 Eliot detected poetic strength, though his praise - 'the most nearly adequate expression of [Marston's] distorted and obstructed genius' - is amusingly qualified.12 An appreciation of the play needs, however, to take full account of its dramaturgy, where Marston ignores many classical conventions, whilst drawing unabashedly on populist approaches and experimenting with a variety of visual and aural effects.

Recent commentary on the play has acknowledged its 'totality of dramatic experience',13 though the appreciation of localised effects has not always shed light on Sophonisba as a whole. …

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