Who was John Marston?

Marston’s signature in the manuscript of the Ashby Entertainment, HM EL 34 B9, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

John Marston (1576-1634) is one of the most fascinating and daring writers of the English literary Renaissance. Author or part-author of (at least) eleven plays, a large body of poetry, and several aristocratic entertainments, he is known for his satirical sharpness, linguistic inventiveness, and caustic yet also fantastical perspective on contemporary life. His poetry was so shocking it was burned by order of the church. Notoriously quarrelsome, he was a key figure in the ‘War of the Theatres’, an often bitter exchange of barbs between rival companies into which Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Dekker were also drawn. Most of his plays were written in a brief period, 1598-1606, for companies of boy players at St Paul’s and the Blackfriars playhouses, and showcase the boys’ witty and provocative performance style. His two enduring masterpieces are the bitter Italianate tragicomedy The Malcontent and the unsettling London comedy The Dutch Courtesan. Other plays offer much variety and a restless, shifting tone. Antonio and Mellida, a seeming tragedy that turns into a play of reconciliation, is succeeded by the bloody and violent Antonio’s Revenge; Jack Drum’s Entertainment offers a strangely bucolic view of Highgate and Holloway; The Fawn, set in Urbino, is a barely disguised satire on James I; most unexpected of all is Sophonisba, a classical tragedy centring on a dignified black African queen. Mysteriously, Marston suddenly abandoned the theatre around 1606, leaving London to train as a clergyman and spend the next twenty years as a minister in Wiltshire and Hampshire. Little read in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he is now increasingly valued as one of the period’s sharpest, most idiosyncratic, and most intellectually challenging voices.

The Temple Church in London where John Marston is buried