What You Will was written early and published late in Marston’s short theatrical career. Internal evidence – the play’s intertextual relationship with Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – points to What You Will belonging to the same period as Jack Drum’s Entertainment (c.1600-1601), an early venture into the theatre following the bishops’ ban and bonfire of verse satire in June 1599. The Induction, with its reference to the smallness of the stage, auditors sitting in the wings and the lighting of candles, confirms that the play was performed by the children’s company of Paul’s boys, for whom Marston was writing before composing for the Queen’s Revels. The play was not published until 1607, the year before Marston’s abrupt departure from the stage.
Like Jack Drum’s Entertainment, the play is a theatrical medley, often conveying an air of improvisation. The Induction, in which three auditors – including the author’s friend, Philomuse – discuss the current theatrical scene of censure and backbiting, and the aesthetics of drama in general, has, to date, carried much of the play’s interpretative burden. The Induction evidently articulates contestatory notions of theatre and decries the censorious critic who would put rules of art before pleasure. But this is only one aspect of the play’s experimental and layered dramaturgy. Despite his hot-headed defence of the author, Philomuse dismisses the play as ‘a slight toy’ and, indeed, the play we begin to watch indulges and delights in clichéd and stereotypical dramatic situations: rivalry between suitors to a ‘widow’, Celia, whose husband is believed lost at sea; the impersonation of the supposedly drowned husband, the stuttering merchant, Albano, to thwart the widow’s remarriage; comic confusion when the real Albano, having survived a sea battle, and counterfeit Albano, both lost in speech through stammering, simultaneously arrive on the scene. In the orotund declarations of the would-be lover, Jacomo, the affectations of the French knight, Laverdure, and the pedantic speeches of the schoolmaster, Marston’s self-conscious mannerist style is delightfully comic. Sexual innuendo, carried in the play’s opening line, ‘O fie, some lights, sirs, fie, let there be no deeds of darkness done among us’, is part of the play’s fabric. Threaded through the inconsequential plot are the dialogues of Quadratus and Lampatho Doria, essentially disquisitions on satire, epicureanism, fancy and imagination, life and experience. Elsewhere in the play, Marston’s depiction of the egregiously self-interested and sensuous Duke of Venice anticipates the more intense political satire of The Malcontent.
One of the challenges in editing this play is to elucidate through annotation and critical introduction Marston’s intervention in the crisis of representation that characterized fin-de-siècle comedy, and satire, in particular, and which has been labelled ‘the war of the theatres’. In criticism devoted to the poetomachia (the term used by Dekker in Satiromastix (1602) for the poets’ quarrel), Quadratus and Lampatho – in the play but scarcely of the plot – have been identified, for example, as Marston and Jonson, respectively. At the same time, I want to expand beyond late sixteenth-century theatre controversy to consider how, in its playful and self-conscious dramaturgy, What You Will can work for a twenty-first century audience. At one level, in wresting familiar tropes out of context and in its dramaturgy – both recognizable and unconventional – the play discloses tensions and rivalry in the competitive theatrical marketplace. At another level, What You Will can be seen as an early example of a theatrical revue, revelling – in postmodern fashion – in absurdity and inconsequentiality. An examination of the play’s staging, which demands multiple performance areas and a substantial onstage cast, promises to shed further light on performance techniques in the indoor theatres. This edition of What You Will will probe the play’s intriguing dramaturgy, its odd mix of meta-theatrical satire, ribald comedy, and dramatic commentary, to penetrate the layers beneath its surface wit.