Phoebe S. Spinrad
Among all John Marston’s plays, Antonio’s Revenge seems to be the hardest to pin down. Critics have long disagreed about whether the play is moral, immoral, or amoral; whether it accepts or rejects the idea of revenge; and even whether it is meant to be a serious play, a comic parody, or an early version of the Theater of the Absurd.1 To be sure, it follows many of the conventions of the revenge play of its time—a blood-crime to avenge, a ghost, a ranting hero, feigned and real madness, a long-suffering woman or two, and, finally, the drawn-out death of the villain—but it also violates many of the conventions, the most important of which is that the revenger himself must die at the end of the play. Indeed, so widespread is this last convention that Fredson Bowers, in his seminal work on revenge tragedy, seems to forget about Antonio when he outlines the conventions, stating categorically, “No slayer in Elizabethan drama escaped some penalty, and that penalty was usually death.”2 Only later must Bowers acknowledge that Antonio seems not to have been punished at all; but he makes no attempt to account for the anomaly, other than attributing it to “Marston’s Senecan morality.”3 Other critics, both before and after Bowers, have similar difficulty with this anomalous ending to the play, disagreeing with each other and at times with themselves, and also have difficulty with another scene in the play, Antonio’s killing of young Julio. Each critic’s reading of the play’s final “message” about revenge shapes his or her reading of the scenes, so that ultimately the individual scene analyses become begged questions: either we are supposed to be sympathetic to Antonio, or we are supposed to be revolted by him, or, in the recent postmodern readings, we are supposed to see his whole world as absurd and not really care.
1An excellent summary of the development of Marston criticism is given by T. F. Wharton in The Critical Fall and Rise of John Marston (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994).
2Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940), 80.