3-Minute Reads // Antonio’s Revenge: a peek into Marston’s metatheatrical closet…

“3-minute Reads” are mini-essays and close readings of a variety of texts. Subject choice is eclectic, and based entirely on whatever I happen to be reading, watching, or thinking about at the time. Enjoy!


For a Senecan-styled tragedy of inordinate bloodshed, things work out remarkably well for the characters who survive John Marston’s 1602 Antonio’s Revenge: unusually for a tragedy, Antonio (the central revenger) and his accomplices escape the fallout unscathed – none die, and all are pardoned by the Venetian senate before vowing to spend the rest of their days in a religious order. On the one hand, the play’s denouement presents a surprisingly wholesome departure from dramatic convention, and allows for the possibility of reconciliation and atonement even in the aftermath of intense violence. On the other hand, as T.B. Tomlinson suggests, the idea that the revengers may be allowed to get away scot-free seems morally reprehensible when one considers the crimes that they have committed in the name of vengeance. Given that one of the aforementioned crimes involves Antonio killing a child and flicking the blood around a graveyard like a macabre sprinkler system before feeding the boy to his own father, I dare say that Tomlinson has a point.     

Whatever stance one takes on Marston’s particular brand of ethical ambiguity (to put it mildly), there is no denying that in the case of Antonio’s Revenge moral incertitude results in the kind of surprising and jarringly metatheatrical scenes rarely seen elsewhere in drama from the period. The closet scene at 3.2, for example, reads as either a parody of or antidote to the domestic destruction of the more famous closet scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While Hamlet’s 3.4 brings family members together in order to emphasise the communicative gulf between them, Antonio’s Revenge brings together Antonio, his mother Maria, and the ghost of Andrugio in order to restore the family unit. In doing so, the two scenes over which this unification takes place mark a jarring juxtaposition of convention and parody, high melodrama and dark comedy.

The family encounter is initially framed in tragic terms of absence and emptiness, as Maria laments her “cold widow-bed, sometime thrice blest / By the warm pressure of my sleeping lord” (3.2.69-70). However, the same line which acts as melodramatic climax to her mournful soliloquy – “Alas, my dear Andrugio’s dead!” – actually doubles as the set up to a joke, and the punchline is Andrugio’s entrance:

MARIA draweth the curtain, and the Ghost of ANDRUGIO is displayed sitting on the bed.

Amazing terror, what portent is this?  (3.2. SD, 74)

Andrugio’s entrance, which presents substance where she expected absence, provides a darkly comical antithesis to Maria’s melodrama. The ghost’s appearance is not entirely unexpected – there is dramatic irony in the audience’s shared awareness that Andrugio intends to visit his widow by virtue of his threat three scenes prior (3.1.43), and in any case the drawn curtain which Maria gestures towards while decrying the absence of her husband functions like Chekhov’s proverbial gun. Indeed, the curtain becomes so loaded with ghostly significance that the audience would undoubtedly have been surprised if it had been drawn back to reveal something as pedestrian as a mere bed.

The significance of his unveiling, however, goes beyond confronting domestic absence with physical presence. Andrugio’s return to Maria’s marital bed signals the creation of a picture of living dead domesticity. The relationship between the three is not without its tensions, certainly, and initially the family dynamic seems… dysfunctional, to say the least. Maria’s mournful, contemplative speech makes way for “Amazing terror” (3.4.64). Andrugio is a fearsome presence who denounces his wife’s “strumpet blood” (3.5.2): “Hast thou so soon forgot Andrugio? / Are our love-bands so quickly cancellèd?” (3.5.3-4). Antonio bursts into the scene with the intention of killing his mother, and his appearance – “his arms bloody, [bearing] a torch and poniard” (3.5.13 SD) – mirrors that of the villainous Piero (a loose counterpart to Hamlet’s Claudio) at the beginning of the play. Crucially, however, in a tragedy full of destroyed families, the meeting between the three presents the first depiction of a complete family unit in the entire play. Furthermore, the very reason for this particular unit’s initial disarray becomes the focal point for its reconciliation: in death, Andrugio provides a rallying point for Maria and Antonio: “Join with my son to bend up strained revenge” (3.5.11), the Ghost tells Maria. Even before Antonio enters, Andrugio’s ghost reveals a distinctly un-ghostly light-heartedness, which sees him abandon the conventional sadness of the early modern theatrical ghost and “pardon” his widow (3.5.7). In a manner more befitting of a comic resolution than a tragic one, Andrugio renews in living death his family ties, before wishing “Peace and all blessed fortunes to you both” (3.5.28).

The subversive spirit of comic resolution in the midst of tragedy created by Andrugio’s ghost carries through to the play’s bloody conclusion, which sees Antonio and Maria (alongside Balurdo and Pandulpho) torture and kill Piero while Andrugio applauds from the sidelines. Vengeance becomes good family fun. If you squint a bit, it’s almost heartwarming.

Image credit: Five Revenge Tragedies: The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, Antonio’s Revenge, The Tragedy Of Hoffman, The Revenger’s Tragedy (London: Penguin Classics, 2012).

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