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antonio and mellida

25 october 2015

I first read Antonio and Mellida in graduate school, 35 years ago, and I'm lucky; it was a bad class and it's an obscure play, but my otherwise undistinguished instructor had this going for him: he liked to have people read lots of off-the-wall primary texts. John Marston's play lingered on the edges of my memory for decades because of a single speech by the title hero, one of the countless Antonios of Elizabethan drama:

Each man takes hence life, but no man death;
He's a good fellow and keeps open house;
A thousand thousand ways lead to his gate,
To his wide-mouth'd porch; when niggard life
Hath but one little, little wicket through. (Act 3, Scene 2)
It's sardonic, earthy, and existential all at the same time, with a dash of self-pity for seasoning. The problem with those memorable lines is problem with the play as a whole: the juxtaposition of verbal brilliance with absurd bathos. Antonio, the speaker, has seemingly lost Mellida just as he's gained her. He loses and gains Mellida by turns every few scenes in the play, in increasingly goofy situations (and that's saying something, because he begins the play disguised as an Amazon so that he can court her after failing to win her hand by conquering her father's dukedom). He's just said goodbye to Mellida at this point and proceeds to flop to the ground, uttering great poetry while thrashing about in desperation and resisting the efforts of his friends to get him efficiently in flight to a different dukedom.

This is loony, and as G.K. Hunter says in a sharp introductory essay to his 1965 Regents edition, the plot of Antonio and Mellida is "a repetitive farrago of all the silliest elements known to Elizabethan drama" (xii). Part of the wackiness of Marston's play is certainly traceable to its original performance by a children's company, a strange and still little-known early-modern institution. Children – all boys – were of course indispensable on Marston's stage because they played women's roles next to adults who played men. All-child companies made use of an apparent glut of boy actors, and the apparent fascination of the public with these young stars.

The use of child actors made possible the disguise central to the opening acts of Antonio and Mellida. In Shakespeare's plays, intended for adult companies, men never disguise themselves as women except for farcical effect, as Falstaff does in The Merry Wives of Windsor. However farcical the plot device may have seemed to audiences, Antonio's disguise as Florizel the Amazon is taken relatively seriously in Antonio and Mellida because the actors playing both Antonio/Florizel and Mellida were boys close in age to each other.

So Duke Piero, Mellida's bloodthirsty father, can say to Antonio

Beauteous Amazon, sit, and seat your thoughts
In the reposure of most soft content. (Act 2, Scene 1)
and it's silly, but it's not necessarily bizarre.

There's enough bizarre stuff going on anyway. As Hunter puts it, "characters veer from insensate stupidity to diabolical cunning without warning and apparently without cause" (xii). Hunter attributes these sudden shifts to an aesthetic akin to that of opera. (At one point in Act 4, Scene 1, Antonio and Mellida even exchange a long passage of dialogue in Italian, for all the world like a Puccini duet.)

Nathaniel C. Leonard has recently noted that A&M

contains a plot with clear tragic potential, which threatens the life of the play's more heroic characters but has an apparently comic resolution (64).1
Through its "destabilization of genre" (66) – one is tempted to add of common sense and good taste – A&M opens up new generic possibilities for English drama. Leonard argues that
Marston's strategic disruption of the viewer's ability to predict or categorize the play's plot creates an experience that keeps the audience uncomfortable and distanced (74)
and he means that in a "non-pejorative" way. Leonard admits that there hasn't been much non-pejorative criticism of Antonio and Mellida, but argues that the play can be seen as a proto-tragicomedy in its mixture of tones and plot directions.

After spending much of the play literally demanding the heads of Antonio and Antonio's father Andrugio, old Piero suddenly becomes their best buddy in the final act, and blithely marries Mellida off to Antonio, a fate worse than vipers, or something, to him previously in the play. Meanwhile, the characters curse their fate, chew the scenery, defy death for honor and honor for death – unless they're engaged in courtly wooing or foolish banter. No wonder it's hard to find non-pejorative criticism (it's hard to find much criticism at all).

But for all that A&M is weirdly readable, and quite enjoyable in a what'll-they-do-next kind of way. Andrugio in particular is a stand-up guy, though it seems something of a military and geopolitical idiot. He gives a rousing speech about the true honor of kingship (Act 4, Scene 1), and when he strides in to offer Piero his head – still attached to his shoulders and still talking – you quite admire his nerve. Even Antonio is simpatico when he's not rolling around on the floor depressed fainting for love won or lost. John Marston appears from the distance of 400 years to have been slightly nuts, but English literature is the better for Antonio and Mellida.

Marston, John. Antonio and Mellida: The first part. 1602. Edited by G.K. Hunter. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

1"John Marston's The Malcontent, Antonio and Mellida, and the Development of English Early Modern Tragicomedy," The Journal For Early Modern Cultural Studies 12.3 (Summer 2012): 60-87.