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Friday, October 5, 2012

John Marston and Shakespeare


John Marston was born 7 October, 1576 -- only 12 years after Shakespeare was born.




Marston was a famous satirist and playwright whose works may have influenced Shakespeare.

Marston only wrote for some ten years until he mysteriously and abruptly stopped writing, and eventually became a priest. He died in 1634, eighteen years after Shakespeare died.

It would seem that Marston had a brief but brilliant career. He wrote for Philip Henslowe, the great theatre impresario. Marston even managed to make enemies with Ben Jonson. If you are upsetting Ben Jonson, you must really be either very good or brilliant.

This feud was famously called the War of the Theatres, and Marston and Jonson insulted each other in their own plays. Jonson even claims to have beaten Marston up and taken his pistol.


Ben Jonson


From what it sounds like, Jonson had a bad case of professional envy. In any event, they later became friends, probably when Jonson's success was greater than Marston's.

Marston's writing ran afoul of the censors, and his writings were among those burned in what is known as the Bishop's Ban of 1599.

It didn't stop him and by 1603, he was still pushing the limits on what could be put on stage, as far as violence, satire and lewdness were concerned.

In 1605, when James was King, Marston co-wrote a play with Jonson and George Chapman that was so offensive to the Scots that Chapman and Jonson were arrested. Marston was not. The charges were later dropped.

In 1606, Marston offended the King personally with his satire, but Marston seems to have avoided any punishment.

But the next year he wrote a play that may have been his very last. He stopped writing, he sold his share in the company of Blackfriars and went off to Oxford.

Marston may have offended the King one too many times. He may have offended someone else who complained to the King. For whatever reason, he was imprisoned, and it was not long after that his career was over.

It doesn't really matter how his career as a playwright was ended. The important point is that his career as a playwright could be ended by the court of King James.


King James

We have come a long way from the days in which a monarch, a president or a prime minister can silence a poet and playwright. Of course, there are countries today where artistic freedom does not exist.

England in the time of Elizabeth and James did not protect its artists. It was a time of great artistic flowering, but there were playwrights who suffered for their art. Marston was one in a line of artists like Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and Ben Jonson who were imprisoned and tortured. It would seem that Marlowe paid with his life.


Today, Marston's writing is considered rough and rude, and he offended many people. But he couldn't have been all that bad, because he was popular. He obviously gave the audiences what they paid for.

Shakespeare must have been rough and rude, too if Marston was his competition. Shakespeare must have entertained the crowds with satire. My version of The Merchant of Venice illustrates how truly funny and bawdy his plays could be.

Shakespeare must have been a great satirist and entertainer, but he obviously was wise enough never to run afoul of the authorities and displease his king. Or was he? What if he did displease the king, and make one too many jokes at the king's expense?


Was Shakespeare silenced? Was he forced to stop writing by the same king who stopped Marston?

It has been suggested that The Tempest is Shakespeare's farewell to the stage, and it may have been a farewell that he did not want to make, but was forced to make.


Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest
Was this play Shakespeare's farewell to the stage?


He wrote it around 1610-11, only a few years after Marston suddenly left London's theatres. Shakespeare was only about 45 years old, not quite an old man yet. He could have continued writing for many more years. He died in 1616, which was well before his time.

It begs the question if Shakespeare's "retirement" from London's theatres was the death of him. He was so prodigious a talent, that I would imagine it would have been very hard for him to stop writing altogether.

Are we to believe that Shakespeare stopped writing by choice?

In my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, I explored what it must have been like for a playwright, especially Shakespeare, who must have always been afraid of being imprisoned for his writing, afraid of having his work burned and banned, and afraid of being told one day that you could no longer write for the public.

I don't think we can truly understand Shakespeare's plays without comprehending these very real fears he had.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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