Marston, John. The Insatiate Countess. Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies. Ed Martin Wiggins. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 1-73.
N.B. A short summary of the five act plot of Marston’s drama precedes the review itself. I don’t think this ruins the plot, first, because plot isn’t the most important or even most enjoyable part of any drama (I think the language, character, symbolism, and dramatic response is what makes a play truly interesting), and second, because, as part of my review observes, Marston’s plot is fairly predictable every step of the way: it’s his interesting departures from conventional tragedy that make this play oh-so-clever.
Basically, I’m treating my review here with the same attitude as most critical responses, assuming you’ve read the play, or are familiar with its genres ahead of time; I have no wish, however, to spoil the whole thing, so if you’d like fewer plotty reveals, please skip everything in purple.
Act 1. A triple wedding. Roberto marries the Countess Isabella, only lately widowed (some say several days, some say “One hour” 1.1.131). Mortal enemies Claridiana and Mizaldus marry close friends Abigail and Thais, respectively. Revenge between the two enemies begins almost immediately, as Mizaldus and Claridiana hatch schemes to sleep with the other’s wife. Meanwhile, the noble Mendosa gets nowhere with the chaste Lady Lentulus.
Act 2. A masque. Isabella sights the Count Rogero, falling in lust with him. A few scenes later, she “Exeunts”* with him. Abigail and Thais hatch a counter scheme to exchange houses with the other on the night their husbands are to cheat on them, and in this way save their chastity.
Act 3. Isabella and Rogero have fled to Pavy where liveth Rogero’s old chum Gniaca [ii]. Isabella falls in lust with Gniaca. Gniaca protests her love, saying “I will not wrong my friend” (3.2.89). A few scenes later, the two “Exeunt” (3.4.81) [iii]. Rogero is understandably upset, and makes a long speech about the inconstancy and depravity that is Woman (conveniently forgetting he himself ran away with another man’s wife). Back in Swevia, Mendosa falls from the Lady Lentulus’s window and is picked up by the local guard. To save LL’s reputation he tells them he was attempting to rob her. Lots of bawdy puns about stealing a woman’s chastity. Claridiana and Mizaldus (who conveniently live on either side of LL) are caught in their attempts to break into the other’s house. Rather than live as cuckolds, they claim they attempted to kill Mendosa, and should therefore be hanged.
Act 4. Gniaca and Rogero meet and remember they are chums. The sitcom “let’s never let another woman come between us again” moment. Isabella, feeling a bit jilted and more than a little maligned at their long-winded insults, woos the famous Colonel, Don Sago. He promises to avenge her honour and, without much delay, shoots Count Rogero. Swevia again. After the old “put ’em in separate rooms and get ’em to contradict the other’s story” routine, it becomes fairly obvious Mizaldus and Claridiana are lying about attacking Mendosa, but they continue to insist upon being hanged.
Act 5. Don Sago realises killing Rogero was wrong, repents, and is freed. Isabella is arrested and put up on the scaffold where she is visited by her once-second-husband-now-monk Roberto, and she too repents, but instead of being freed, is executed. Abigail and Thais visit LL who convinces them they should probably reveal that their husbands are not actually cuckolds. They do. Their husbands decide they don’t want to die after all, but they still hate each other. Long speeches by the pair of them on why women should be feared. Lady Lentulus misses the entire conclusion. Exeunt.
This plot may seem a little absurd, what with the number of quick changes of affection between friends and lovers. These vacillations, sometimes three or more for a single character in a single act, with very little development leading up to the change, were striking to me, and especially so when juxtaposed with the nearly-perfect rhyming iambic pentameter and impassioned speeches that run through the text. While the speeches (like the one quoted below) are moving and at many times simply a lot of fun to read aloud (and, I imagine, to watch on stage), I can’t help but feel like the entire effect is meant to be more than a little artificial and excessive. One might claim, ironic.
Examine, for example, Rogero’s vehement diatribe against women at the end of Act 3:
Farewell thou private strumpet, worse than common.
Men were on earth an angel, but for woman:
That seven-fold branch of hell from them doth grow:
Pride, lust, and murder, they raise from below,
With all their fellow sins. Women were made
Of blood without souls: when their beauties fade
And their lust’s past, avarice or bawdry
Makes them still loved. Then they buy venery,
Bribing damnation, and hire brothel-slaves.
Shame’s their executors, infamy their graves.
Your painting will wipe off, which art did hide,
And show your ugly shape in spite of pride.
Farewell, Isabella, poor in soul and fame,
I leave thee rich in nothing but in shame.
Then soulless women know, whose faiths are hollow,
Your lust being quenched, a bloody act must follow. (3.4.174-189)
The speech is a tad overdone, considering Rogero himself has newly had an affair with his best friend’s mistress. Yet it’s a tricky problem: in Jacobean patriarchy, misogyny is pretty much a way of life, and all of the arguments used in Rogero’s speech here, that women are weak, prone to lust, deceptive, and even soulless, are commonplace philosophical, theological, and even medical beliefs, and can be found in almost any drama of the time (though maybe not all at once, as in Marston’s play). Nor would it be entirely unusual for the males in the drama (like Don Sago) to be reprieved for murder, while females like the Countess Isabella are executed for their lust. Morality plays of this nature were a common means of reminding women of their duties to be chaste, silent, and obedient.
It’s tempting for the feminist scholar to reclaim the play as a kind of ironic protest against misogyny, but such readings might be unwarranted. In his introduction to the play, Wiggins asks a question on this matter:
[The double standard in the play is] [a]pparent to us, of course, but what about the Jacobeans? It is never easy to differentiate between texts which deliberately represent misogyny and those which merely participate in it, and we should never underestimate any play’s capacity merely to confirm its audiences prejudices. (xii)
The reader, then, must search for other hints that suggest Marston is poking fun at Jacobean conventions. This search might involve examining the play in comparison to general plots and characters of Jacobean (sex) tragedy. The reader embarking on this comparison might conclude, for example, that Isabella fills the conventional “repentant whore” role, and is countered by the “madonna” (or “chaste maid”) figure of the Lady Lentulus. Similarly, Mizaldus plays the trope of the “revenging Jew.” Yet the characters and plots of Marston’s drama also depart from these conventions in complex ways. Looking at the footnote to Mizaldus, the reader learns that even though he “has the red beard of the stage Jew”(331) Mizaldus is also often referred to as a Catholic. The reader also learns that Marston, who himself had a red beard, would often play with this convention as a humourous allusion to himself in his own plays[iv]: a tactic which importantly suggests that the poet is not without a sense of humour.
He’s also a cleverly manipulative poet. The passage above reads almost like iambic pentameter. I at first suspected it was a sonnet with an alexandrine* couplet attached to the end, but, upon examining the passage more closely, I notice that most of the lines are iambic with an extra half foot at the end (resulting in 11 syllables per line instead of the usual ten). The form could suggest Rogero’s barely-contained anger (that extra half-foot usually indicates something askew in the world of perfectly-controlled sonnet form[v]); except Marston manages to mute the extra foot either by choosing disyllabic* end words where the stress naturally occurs on the first syllable, with the second syllable following rapidly behind, almost blending in with the preceding one (COM-mon, WOM-an, 174-175), or by hiding the end syllable through enjambment* (so that it becomes difficult to keep track of the actual line breaks: lines 177-181). In this way, Marston gives the pretence of iambic pentameter and a speech that resembles the length and form of the sonnet without actually writing a sonnet. The extra syllables in the form automatically guide us to read the “sonnet” faster than we are normally accustomed (giving the lines their emotional tension), but the whole thing seems deceptively like the concluding “rimes”* of a more conventional tragedy (the heroic alexandrines only add to this effect). The passage, then, is actually extremely complex, but appears simple.
Complex while seeming simply conventional: the reader can apply this assessment to the play as a whole. Isabella’s abrupt and apparently unmotivated repentance, then, a move which probably would be unquestionable in an early Elizabethan morality play, but which seems odd coming from the same poet who also writes Rogero’s speech above, begins to makes sense when read in an ironic context, one which reflects on, and interrogates tragic conventions, as I think the play does.
It does seem odd to me, that in a tragedy with nearly 40 characters, only two of these characters die for certain: Rogero and Isabella, both characters who seem untroubled by conscience throughout the play. Neither suffers any uncertainty or hesitation before they commit their infidelities; and neither seems quite to fit Aristotle’s description of the tragic hero [vi]:
unqualifiedly good human beings must not appear to fall from good fortune to bad; for that is neither pitiable nor fearful; it is rather repellent. […] Furthermore, a villanous man should not appear to fall from good fortune to bad. For although such a plot would be in accordance with our human sympathy, it would not contain the necessary elements of pity and fear […] What is left […] would be a person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity; but rather one who succumbs through some miscalculation. He must also be a person who enjoys great reputation and good fortune[…] (67-68 )
Neither Isabella nor Rogero possesses “a great reputation”: indeed, the Count Guido’s introduction of Isabella is one that suggests the entire city of Swevia is scandalised by her overhasty remarriage. Rogero agrees the Countess’s remarriage is a scandal, and is later mortified when he accidentally falls in her lap, but puts up no protest at all when Isabella pursues him. Both characters then, the plot suggests, are simply creatures of their lust and so do not elicit the pity and fear of the conventional tragedy.
The one figure who might be considered truly virtuous is Lord Mendosa, who dies to save his lady’s honour. Yet Mendosa is, first, a little ridiculous: he is only wounded and caught because he proves a clumsy Romeo, falling from his mistress’s balcony. Second, though he promises to die for the Lady Lentulus, his actual execution seems uncertain: Lady Lentulus promises to acompany Thais and Abigail when they rescue their husbands, claiming “He that’s willing to die to save mine honour, I’ll die to save his” (4.3.34-35), but neither character appears in the final scene, and the only potentially tragic plot remains unresolved.
If the play is a complicated tragedy, though, it is an almost impossible comedy. Yet the trickery Abigail and Thais play upon their husbands would not be out of place in a Jonsonian or Middletonian city comedy. Further, the unmarried status of the chaste Lady Lentulus seems rather similar to the mournful chastity of Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Even problem city comedies with darker ends, like Jonson’s Volpone, and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (both of which contain the threat of excessive punishment or death at the end) or Middleton’s Chaste Maid (which re-enacts the disastrous fake death of Romeo and Juliet -this time with a comic ending – and thus involves a coffin on stage during the concluding restoration scene), have at least a superficial restoration of order at the end. In Marston’s play, however, the initial feud between Mizaldus and Claridiana is deepened by the conclusion, and the pair, according to their own speeches on the untrustworthiness of women, remain humiliated cuckolds (Mizaldus claims “cuckolds are of woman’s making” 5.2.210, and prays to be delivered from future plots, while Claridiana suggests a husband must always be jealous of “Dian’s” […] bed” 228-229). This lack of trust, taken with Abigail’s offhand comment that she “fears not to come [too] late” to save her husband (4.3.44), with Lady Lentulus’s continued exclusion from the institute of marriage, and with the play’s running and unpunished violations of the Oedipal taboos of incest and patricide [vii] denies the conventional restoration of comic order.
With a plot that is too excessive and unsympathetic to quite be a tragedy, and yet too dark to be a comedy, it might not be reaching too far to claim that Marston challenges not only the early modern assumptions concerning women, but also the generic and poetic conventions of drama in general.
[i] John Marston. Marston actually only wrote the first draft of the play before abandoning it after his imprisonment in 1608. Actor “William Berksted and his associate Lewis Machin” (Wiggins, xxxvi) completed the draft c.1610 using the non-dramatic poems Myrrha and Hiren as sources.
[ii] Gniaca. I assume this is pronounced similar to “gniocchi,” with a silent “g”.
[iii] “Exeunt”. I use this phrase for consistency of innuendo, but actually, the stage direction is that they “Exit,” and re-enter after the page sings a short song. I imagine this pause in the drama could either be very awkward or very hilarious.
[iv] his own plays. I’ve lost the footnote for this reference, and shall include it as soon as I find it again.
[v] perfectly-controlled sonnet form. See Shakespeare’s sonnet 20 “A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted” for a famous example of how an extra half-foot in the sonnet form indicates a bit of a departure from the natural order of things (hint, the sonnet is ostensibly addressed to a woman, but the speaker suggests his love has a bit of “something” added to the woman’s “nothing”*).
[vi] Aristotle’s […] tragic hero. I realise that not all early modern plays necessarily conformed to the guidelines of Aristotle’s Poetics, but by Marston’s time, Aristotle was fairly well-known, and many plays were at least beginning to respond to his poetic theories. Also, as contemporary critics frequently use the poetics as a guideline against which to measure drama, I feel justified in using his work in my response here.
[vii] incest and patricide. Gniaca promises that “were Rogero my father’s son / Composed of me, he dies” (4.5.35-36), and also manages to sleep with his “brother’s” love, while Don Sago, more excessively, claims “To gain your love my father’s blood I’ll spill” (4.2.209)
Aristotle. Poetics. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David Richter. 3rd Ed. Boston, new York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 59-81.
22 May 2008
Glossary of Terms:
Alexandrine. n. The popular dramatic verse form before iambic pentameter: it consists of six iambic feet, and usually contains a caesura (slowing, or stopping punctuation) halfway through the line. The last two lines in Rogero’s speech at 3.4 are perfect alexandrines.
Disyllabic. adj. Consisting of two syllables.
Enjambment. n. & v. To run a sentence over two or more lines of poetry so that concluding period ( . ) does not coincide with the line break.
Exeunt. v. To exit for the duration of the scene.
Nothing. n. (obs.) Female genitalia.
Rime (also, “rhyme”). n. & adj. A style of overly simple, unpolished, or amateur verse. For a humourous example, see Jonson’s “A Fit of Rhyme Against Rhyme.“