Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge, published in quarto in 1602 were, perhaps, Marston’s first sole-authored plays. Written for Paul’s Boys, Marston had two plays in mind from the beginning, since he promises a sequel at the end of the Induction to Antonio and Mellida ‘if this gain gracious acceptance’. But, rather like Shakespeare’s Henry V, which breaks the promise made at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 to ‘continue the story with Sir John in it’, Marston’s sequel does not offer Felice the expanded role he suggested would be forthcoming: Felice appears only as a corpse in the sequel. Nonetheless the two plays do hang together in many ways, creating a generic diptych – the first a tragi-comedy, the second a full-blooded (in every sense of the word) revenge play.
Despite the titles, Piero Sforza is the central figure in both plays. He is, unhistorically, described as Duke of Venice, though his name seems to gesture towards the well-known, even notorious Sforza family of Milan. It is his enmity to the Genoese prince Antonio and his father Andrugio which provides the motor for both plots. Rather than representing Italian politics with any historical accuracy, the plays seem instead to reflect literary precedents – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the models for the first, while Hamlet, together with the tragedies of the Roman playwright Seneca, heavily influence the second.
Both plays demonstrate a highly self-conscious theatricality. Antonio and Mellida opens with an Induction in which the boy actors discuss, and complain about, the parts they are about to perform, thus drawing an audience’s attention to the disparity between the juvenile actors and their adult roles. Antonio’s Revenge deploys extended dumb shows, devices which are poised half-in and half-out of the worlds in which they are set and to which they contribute both narrative and emotion in a much compressed form.
In both plays, too, Marston incorporates a significant number of songs. He was clearly intent on showcasing the musical talents of the boys’ company, and quite frequently the songs are only tenuously motivated by the action: the singing competition towards the end of Antonio and Mellida being the most glaring example. It is also noteworthy that Marston gives virtually no indication of the lyrics to almost all of the songs. The bare instruction ‘Cantat‘ or ‘Cantant‘ (He sings/they sing) seems to leave it up to the performers to choose any roughly appropriate song they happened to have in their repertoire. Nonetheless it is clear that the entertainment’s musical component, including the music called for between each of the acts, was one of the boy companies’ major attractions.
If the plays offer many opportunities for choristers to demonstrate their vocal skills, both plays also highlight their ability to articulate feeling and emotion in extended, highly rhetorical speeches. The oscillation between swift-moving action, with quick exchanges in the dialogue (Marston frequently has speeches broken off in mid-sentence), and formal set-pieces is a central characteristic of both plays. Rapid transitions of action and feeling are a characteristic of both, but particularly of Antonio’s Revenge, where extreme grotesque and bloody action in multiple murders is juxtaposed with absurd comedy. In both it seems as if Marston in these early plays is experimenting with what he and the boy actors can manage to get away with, and this experimental quality is one of the many things which gives them their interest for a modern audience.