Politics of gender in John Marston's plays

Date of Completion

January 1998


Theater|Literature, English




John Marston's plays, often overlooked by post-structuralist criticism, provide an especially rich study of gendered subjectivity during the Jacobean period, a time of profound epistemological and economic anxiety. Remarkable to Marston's drama is his ongoing concern with the fashioning of stable sexual definitions, together with his concurrent recognition that sex and gender definitions are not simply the result of nature or institutions, of the conflict between material bodies and discursive representations, but rather of complex performative situations. By offering a critical approach attentive both to the synchronic analysis of the Lacanian-influenced subjectivity theories offered by Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Slavoj Zizek, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, as well as to the diachronic discursive analyses of Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, and Robert Weimann, I illustrate how the gendered subject in Marston's plays is a function of both symbolic identification and discursive practices.^ Antonio and Mellida, Antonio Revenge, What You Will, and Marston's "disguised ruler" plays (The Malcontent and The Fawn) each view femininity as a challenge to the male subject; much of Marston's satiric commentary in these works focuses upon the reconstitution of what is configured as a lost, morally superior social order directly opposed to the heteroglossic forces of "modern" Jacobean society. Strikingly, however, Marston's emphasis shifts in Eastward's Ho, his first city comedy, from a preoccupation with the condition of the male subject to an increasingly detailed and complex representation of the female subject's "most monstrous being." Continuing through The Insatiate Countess, his final, unfinished work, Marston presents an astonishingly powerful collection of female characters, including Franceschina (the Dutch Courtesan), Sophonisba, and Isabella (the Insatiate Countess), who each in her own way refuses to be silenced and contained by her society, to surrender her materiality to the alienating gender definitions of the symbolic order. Marston thus illustrates that whereas the socially produced subject is always constrained by pre-existent cultural forces, it is also always a potential site of deterritorialization, resistance, and alternative subjectivity. ^