John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge: Kydian Tragedy or Satire?

A contemporary poster for Antonio's Revenge

A contemporary poster for Antonio’s Revenge

In his essay ‘Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge: The Morality of the Revenging Hero’, Philip J. Ayres notes that “Antonio’s Revenge has generally been accepted as the rather unsuccessful product of Marston’s attempt to write a serious Kydian revenge tragedy” (Ayres, 259), but notes also that R. A. Foakes argues the play is “a parody of that form” (260).  In her essay ‘The Sacralization of Revenge In Antonio’s Revenge’ Phoebe S. Spinrad observes this dissention among critics when she notes that many “have long disagreed about whether the play is… meant to be a serious play, a comic paradoy, or an early version of the theatre of the absurd” (Spindrad, 169).  While perhaps typical of most tragedies of the era in that it featured “a blood crime to avenge, a ghost, a ranting hero, feigned and real madness, a long-suffering woman or two… [a] drawn-out death of the villain” (169), and even a play within a play such as those featured in Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy (Piero, the play’s antoagonist, is killed during a masque held a court), it differs drastically, as both Ayres and Spinrad point out, in that the protagonist/revenger survives the play when it was commonly expected on the Elizabethan stage that “the revenger himself must die at the end of the play” (169).  Taking into consideration that Marston was a satirist driven to the stage when the Bishops’ Ban of 1599 censored works of satire and named two of Marston’s books specifically in the ban (The Metamorphosis of Pigmalions Image and Certaine Satyresand The Scourge of Villanie), it makes sense to consider the play as a satire of the genre and not a serious attempt at the Kydian tragedy.


John Marston

John Marston

One of the most obvious elements of satire used in the play, which is not even present in the text, is the juxtaposition caused when child actors of the Children’s of Paul played the adult parts.  Ayres suggests that the “frequent absurdity of the play’s rhetoric is… [a] deliberate effect , to be exploited by the child actors in their ‘infant weakness’” (Ayres, 259), and that the adult audience of the time would have been  “critically aware” (259) of the satiric elements of such a juxtaposition.  Pandulpho, one of the play’s revengers, makes note of this when he says “I ha but plaid a part,/ Like to some boy, that actes a Tragedie” (Marston, 121).  Indeed, when a boy of ten years speaks of an “inward sweltring hate” (72) that is the result of losing the woman he loves to a rival, and then goes on to claim that he will have “vengeance on his hated head” (72), it is easy to consider how flawed such rhetoric is when employed by a child and the audience is then forced to consider the absurdity of such a statement when made by an adult.  In this first scene, when Piero goes on about this vengeance, his confident, Strotzo arrives and attempts to have a conversation with Piero, but of the first six lines given to Strotzo, four of them are cut off by Piero (71-72) who is clearly making no attempt to use reason in this conversation, and of the remaining five lines that Strotzo has in the scene, four are ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses in which Piero does not allow his counterpart to offer anything in excess of a monosyllabic answer (72-73).  Piero’s tendency to refuse reason and interrupt others without listening to them can certainly be seen a fitting for a child, but for an adult such a rejection of critical thinking is a major flaw and so such rhetoric can been seen as a lampooning of the rhetoric employed in other revenge narratives.



Such rhetoric is not reserved only for the antagonist of this play, but also for the protagonist.  Upon his father’s death Antonio feels the need to exact revenge and speaks to his mother, Maria, on the matter, but just as was the case with Strotzo in the first act, Maria is both interrupted and ignored.  Maria calls upon Antonio’s duty as her son when she instructs him to go to bed, referring to him as a “dutious sonne” (100) and again, after he has ignored her requests, she tells him to forget “not dutie” (101).  When Antonio responds there is no evidence that he has listened to his mother at all as he continues his dialogue as though uninterrupted.  Antonio’s thoughts on revenge seem to be as flawed as Piero’s, and so prevalent is the thought of revenge in this play that there seems to be no page left without the words: revenge, vengeance, or vindicta.  The most problematic scene in terms of sorting out Antonio’s virtue is the one in which he kills Julio, Piero’s son.  Julio is perhaps the most innocent character of the play and professes to Antonio, whom he calls brother, that he “lov’d [him] best” (103).  Antonio even confesses before killing Julio that it is not “thee I hate” (103) and tells him: “I love thy soule” (104) and even admits that if Julio’s was in “any flesh” that he would “kisse it” (104).  Still Antonio kills Julio because he shares that same blood as Piero.  The irony is that Antonio ultimately kills Piero not only to revenge his father’s death, but also the death of Millida who, like Julio, shares the blood of Piero.  Antonio makes exceptions for Millida that he does not make for Julio and so the flaw of his logic is clear to the audience and though such a flaw might be expected of a child, such behaviour from an adult would be more than a little problematic and so Marston’s satire is evident here.

Antonio Banderas: As far as I know he has never been cast in a play by Marston, and I don't think there are any plans to make a film adaptation of Marston's play, but if there was, Mr. Banderas would be perfect.  He wouldn't even have to change his name.

Antonio Banderas: As far as I know he has never been cast in a play by Marston, and I don’t think there are any plans to make a film adaptation of Marston’s play, but if there was, Mr. Banderas would be perfect. He wouldn’t even have to change his name.

This irony is extended also to the senators presented in the final scene as Spinrad points out when she notes that “the senators do not merely find extenuating circumstances for the slaying” (Spinrad, 170), but even go so far as to canonize “Antonio and his friends, making them not just good citizens but patron saints of Venice” (170).  It seems ironic for Antonio to say that he is “standing triumphant over Beelzebub” (Marston, 131) when it was not justice he chased after for the entirety of the play, but revenge, which is cited as one of the seven deadly sins.  It would be more fitting to suggest that he had fallen to Beelzebub, and one might expect the senators to note this as “the closing passages… mark the part of the play in which playwrights traditionally signal their audiences how to view what has gone before” (Spinrad, 170).  Instead of drawing out the flawed nature of the events though, the senators say: “Blest be you all, and may your honours live/ Religiously helde sacred” (Marston, 131).  These senators, in calling Antonio’s actions sacred, seem have glossed over the “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) instructions offered in scripture, as well as the ‘turn the other cheek’ lesson offered in Matthew 5:39 and the ‘love thy neighbour’ prescribed in Luke 5:27.  The irony of making acts of vengeance sacred could not have been lost on all members of the audience.  It might be argued that when Antonio, along with Alberto and Pandulpho retreat to the monastery in the final scene, that they do so “as a sign of their repentance” (Spinrad, 171), but as Spinrad points out, “Antonio and his friends never speak of their sins, only their sorrows” (172).  Antonio promises to take a “virgine bed”, not as penance for the sins he has committed, but for the memory of Mellida as Antonio states that his love died with her (132).


More than simply a satire of the revenge tragedy, this play can also be seen as a satire hyper-masculine public sphere.  No more than three women appear in this play: Mellida, Maria and Nutriche (who we can presume was a woman as she was the attendant to Maria).  Their input into the masculine realm is miniscule at best.  Mellida is only a victim in the play, Nutriche a peripheral character, and Maria, though she is present for the final scene in which Perio is killed, has no part in the killing herself and even discourages Antonio from indulging in thoughts of revenge earlier in the play (100-101).  Peiro’s revenge fantasy is birthed in the absence of women and spawns the deaths of several characters whilst also instilling the desire for revenge in three other key figures: Antonio, Alberto and Pandulpho; all of whom are men and all of whom see their desire for revenge nurtured when speaking to other men in an atmosphere that seems devoid of reason.  Pandulpho even notes that “Men will break out, despight Philosophie” (121) and, as mentioned, compares their behaviour to that of “some boy, that actes a Tragedie”(121).  Philosophy can be seen as almost a synonym for reason and here Pandulpho notes that men break with reason and become childlike in such matters.  Whether the absence of women in these scenes was intended or not, it exists, and as such suggests that when women are not present, the hyper-masculine realm is doomed to forgo balanced reason and allows jealousy and vengeance to dictate the course of action.  Ironically at the end of the play the trio of revengers opt to spend the rest of their days in a monastery, an equally hyper-masculine world devoid of women.



The Children of Paul's

The Children of Paul’s

The child actors who originally performed this play would have been vainly attempting to occupy two realms at once, the realm of children, and the realm of the adult world.  There seems no reasonable way for an audience to suspend their disbelief long enough to see these child actors as adults, and so the words that they spoke would have been imbued with irony.  The juxtaposition of such a tragedy would have been comically outrageous, but would have also carried with it heavy satirical commentary for anybody who cared to look past such an extreme juxtaposition.  The notions of vengeance would have come across as childish at best, and in turn would have been viewed as a lampoon of the commonplace narratives present in revenge plays of the era (while also perhaps offering a warning to the court about the potential dangers of performing masques, which does not seem altogether outrageous since Ben Jonson made a career out of writing such masques and was quarrelling with Marston during the ‘War of the Theatre’, or as Thomas Dekker called it: Poetocachia).  Considering Marston’s career as a satirist it seems like what was is viewed by many as a flawed attempted at creating a revenge tragedy, was most certainly a satire intended to lampoon the flawed conventions present in the revenge tragedies of the day.


If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, on Facebook, and add me to your RSS feed.


Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind