Antonio’s Revenge: The Metatheatrical Ghost

This essay was originally presented as a paper at the British Graduate Shakespeare Conference 2019, at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Enjoy!


John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (1602), the sequel to his comedy of the same year Antonio and Mellida, has received what one might diplomatically call a mixed critical reception. [1] Described by Rick Bowers as “Rude, crude, and theatrically unglued”, [2] Marston’s revenge tragedy consistently overleaps boundaries of convention, expectation and taste in ways which have divided critical opinion as to what exactly the play sets out to achieve: should Antonio’s Revenge remain consigned to what Barbara Baines elegantly terms “the dustbin of bad drama”? [3] Or do its various absurdities and eccentricities constitute a cunning satire on contemporary theatrical and social tropes? Although I do not propose that a study of the ghosts of Antonio’s Revenge will put the debate to rest once and for all, I do argue that throughout the play Marston establishes a clear relationship between the appearances of ghostly characters and glaring shifts in his play’s tonal register. Specifically, ghosts – primarily the recurring figure of Andrugio – appear to both signpost and facilitate a gloriously self-aware metatheatrical undercurrent designed to entertain and emotionally unsettle the audience in equal measure. 

Metatheatre, as coined by Lionel Abel, reflects “comedy and tragedy, at the same time, where the audience can laugh at the protagonist while feeling empathetic simultaneously”, [4] or indeed, where the audience can feel simultaneously disturbed and entertained by a character. However, the term can and has been expanded to refer to a self-awareness within a play of its own theatricality. Like A. J. Boyle, I read in Antonio’s Revenge a successful application of metatheatre, with its numerous dumb shows, and moments such as Piero at the end of Act 2 fashioning himself as a Senecan tragic actor – in other words a Renaissance actor playing the character of an actor who is also playing a character, in a play that Boyle reads as Senecan. [5] There is something intensely and innately theatrical about the figure of the ghost in the early modern imagination, and in the same way that ghosts are seen to cross the boundary between life and death, Marston uses them as key components in his rebuttal of expectations. Ghostly characters not only comment on the action of the play, but interact directly with the living in an attempt to influence onstage events. From the very opening of the play which invokes “meager ghosts” (1.3.43) as it subverts the comic resolution of Antonio and Mellida, to spooky nightmares and soiled undergarments, Marston’s ghosts subvert the boundaries between tragedy and comedy, actor and audience. Marston’s tragedy thus conveys a far more complex social commentary than it has hitherto been given credit for.

In what follows, I examine how the presence of ghosts at two points in the play that epitomise their metatheatrical function: the graveyard scene at 3.2, and the closet scenes at 3.4-5. In these scnes, Marston blurs the boundaries between the living and the dead in such a way as to deconstruct what Rick Bowers terms the “conventional cause-and-effect relationships that purport to hold a society together.” [6] In the first, vocal performance and theatrical geography combine to create an air of frantic vengeful confusion. In the latter, we see a bed-trick like no other. By using ghosts as tools of metatheatre, Antonio’s Revenge also inverts the usual conventions concerning depictions of ghosts in early modern drama, and instead shifts the role that ghostly characters are usually assigned from the periphery to the very centre of the dramatic action. In doing so, he establishes Antonio’s Revenge as existing outside of standard moral, narrative and theatrical conventions. 

The Talking Dead

In 3.2, revenger Antonio is accosted by the voices of the dead Andrugio and Feliche, and that of the living Pandulpho, all of whom cry “Murder” from, according to Marston’s stage directions, “above and beneath” the stage (3.2.74-6, SD 75), in order to encourage his bloody purpose. This particular instance of living/dead interaction, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Old Hamlet bellowing “Swear” from “the cellerage” at the close of 1.5, [7] functions quite evidently to off-balance the audience in exactly the kind of way Bowers describes. The staging of young revenger Antonio, vocally surrounded by the pleas of dead men enlisting his help may be aesthetically appealing, but the manner in which these two separate and distinct voices of the dead call for revenge also imparts something of a mixed message. The voices originate, after all, from above and beneath the stage – areas traditionally representing Heaven and Hell respectively – connotations which take on additional significance in light of the fact that Antonio’s Revenge is set in an unequivocally Christian location. The set-piece thus raises obvious questions regarding the theological implications of ghosts and vengeance, and in doing so creates with a stage effect the same atmosphere of ghost-centric uncertainty that Hamlet achieves with a line of dialogue: “Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell” (1.4.21). The effect is certainly intentional on Marston’s part. 

The ghostly cries from above and below anticipate a number of subsequent instances during the play in which the question of Andrugio’s theological origin and motivation is more explicitly raised. Earlier in the same scene, Antonio claims to fear being blasted by the “incensed breath of heaven / If my heart beat on ought but vengeance” (3.2.35-6), which raises a notion of divinely-sanctioned vengeance later supported by Andrugio, who proclaims that “Sons that revenge their father’s blood are blest” (5.5.82). Andrugio is also, however, able to command the “sooty coursers of the night” to “Hurry your chariot into hell’s black womb” (3.5.31-2), all of which sounds distinctly un-heavenly. Marston’s choice to direct the attention of his audience to the theatrical subtext of “above”/Heaven and “below”/Hell therefore serves to complement the narrative of his play by representing in microcosm an important facet of Antonio’s moral dilemma.

And yet even as Marston draws his audience with the one hand deeper into a world of moral uncertainty by representing the ambiguity of Antonio’s revenge through the machinations of theatre, with the other hand he pushes the audience away from that same world by using the character of Pandulpho to draw attention to the theatrical artifice of the entire scenario, driving a wedge between the audience and the story. Bizarrely, the voice of Pandulpho – who is neither dead nor present on stage at the time – accompanies the ghostly voices of Feliche and Andrugio in a jarring living/dead juxtaposition. Pandulpho has an obvious reason to wail ghost-like for justice – his son Feliche has been murdered and he himself has been banished from court – and yet the accompaniment of his living voice with the voices of the dead is incongruous to say the least. It is unclear why his voice would be coming from above or beneath the stage, and the vengeful cry itself is completely at odds with Pandulpho’s prior depiction as standing for high-minded Christian-stoic ideals. f the inclusion of Pandulpho in the “Murder” chorus is meant to be understood as a heavy-handed ironic comment on revenge-tragedy traditions of stoicism, perhaps preparing the audience for Pandulpho’s eventual lapse from high-minded Christian-stoic idealism to bloody-minded revenger, the joke falls flat: the process of Pandulpho’s transformation does not conclude until 4.5, and so a ghost-like cry for vengeance in 3.2 makes little to no sense within the context of a linear narrative. Alternatively, Pandulpho’s appearance in the scene may simply be an aberration on Marston’s part, or an ineffable stylistic quirk – and judging by the lack of modern analysis of the scene (even among those critics who actively search for the play’s ironic subtext), one may assume that this is the attitude adopted by most current scholars.  Antonio’s response to the ghostly cries, which makes no mention of Pandulpho, would also appear to support the aberration theory: “graves and ghosts / fright me no more” (3.2.77-8), he begs; neither term is applicable to Pandulpho.  

By allowing living and dead voices to be heard in unison, or living and dead characters to share common spaces, Marston thus opens up the Duchess of Malfi’s longed-for “conference with the dead”. [8] And yet if one considers the “Murder” chorus in relation to the events which follow, one may observe that the most problematic feature of the scene – the way in which it subverts the drama by drawing attention to the artifice of theatrical performance – actually anticipates the significant juxtapositions of life and death en route to the play’s catastrophe. Following the living dead demands for “Murder”, Marston presents his audience with two contrasting depictions of domestic relations – Piero’s relationship with Julio, and Andrugio’s relationship with Maria and Antonio – that both defy convention. Piero’s interactions with Julio are subversive on two different levels. First, in his appearance upon entering, Piero completely undercuts the ominous resonance of the previous scene. As Bowers observes: 

Antonio, agitated by Pandulpho along with the ghosts of his father and Feliche, vows finally and emotively, ‘Fright me no more; I’ll suck red vengeance / Out of Piero’s wounds…’ [3.2.78-9]. And Piero immediately enters ‘in his nightgown and nightcap’ [3.2.79 SD], a touchingly ironic and harmless picture of concerned parenthood. [9]

Physically, Piero could not resemble any less the villain who began the play “unbraced, his arms bare, smeared in blood, a poniard in one hand, and a torch in the other” (1.1.1 SD). His actions, too, are a departure from what has previously been established, lacking the exaggeratedly villainous air that we have come to expect. Indeed, in his interactions with Julio, who enters the scene shortly afterwards, Piero exhibits the very values of idealised domesticity that he rails against in the first act: shifting from someone happy to “Poison the father, butcher the son, and marry the mother” (1.1.104) to one who fawns over his “pretty little son” (3.2.84). There are clear metatheatrical connotations here. The scene seems to assume the audience’s knowledge that the actor playing the villain today may act the hero tomorrow – a point made by Marston himself in the Induction to Antonio and Mellida, where the child actor playing Antonio frets about his ability to double as an Amazon, and is set straight summarily: “Not play two parts in one? away, away: tis common fashion. Nay if you cannot bear two subtle fronts under one hood, Ideot goe by, goe by; off this worlds stage” (sig. A4). [10]

This new “front” of Piero, however, is just that – an illusion of idealised domesticity that, even as it subverts Antonio’s bloody mission from his dead father, is itself subverted. Piero, after all, already proved himself to be capable of tearing his family asunder when he framed and imprisoned his own daughter Mellida in the first act. His actions against Mellida’s fiancé Antonio eventually lead to her death – the news of which he greets with characteristic nonchalance: “I will not stay my marriage for all this!” Furthermore, although he chides Forobosco for allowing Julio to “walk so late” (3.2.85), he is careless enough to leave his son behind when he exits the scene. Like Mellida, Julio too is fated for death in the name of his father – this time at the hands of Antonio, who at the behest of his own father, justifies his grotesque and ritualistic killing of Julio in terms of the boy’s relationship to Piero. There may well be an element of satire at work here, attacking the mentality of the revenger: the scene resonates strongly with, for example, the irrationality of blood feud and human sacrifice as described by René Girard in his study of Violence and the Sacred. [11] 

Yet even in the midst of seeming irrationality there is a morbid logic in the way that Julio’s ghost-incensed murder encapsulates Piero’s destruction of his own family unit. Piero has, in a manner of speaking, already sacrificed his daughter in the pursuit of power and neglected his son in pursuit of illicit love. It is not altogether irrational in the context of Piero’s wickedness that Julio’s death is framed around consanguine terms such as “brother”, “father” and “sister” (3.3.1, 26,28) – words that Piero has robbed of all significance. Antonio justifies Julio’s murder as a necessary separation not just of body and soul, but of father from son (“It is not thee I hate, not thee I kill. / Thy father’s blood that flows within thy veins / Is it I loathe” [3.3.34-6]) and it is telling of the extent to which Piero has discredited his own bloodline that under such terms Julio calmly accepts his fate: “So you will love me, do even what you will” (3.3.42). The domestic decay caused by Piero is taken to its logical symbolic conclusion in the final act of the play, when he unknowingly consumes the flesh of his own son.

Family Bonding in Marston’s Closet

While Piero’s family unit is defined by its destruction, that of Andrugio, conversely, is defined by restoration – a rebuilding only possible in the play’s environment of living death. As ghosts go, Andrugio is, as Gair observes, unequivocally “definite and explicit”. [12] His appearances are not restricted to dreams or periphery roles; instead, Andrugio spends perhaps more time on the stage than any other early modern dramatic ghost, and seems able to come and go whenever he pleases. In his role within the story, though, Andrugio certainly behaves more like a living revenger than a dead one, and takes a central role in not only inciting vengeance against Duke Piero, but organising the means by which that vengeance is carried out. In his first appearance to Antonio he commands that his son “Invent some stratagem of vengeance” (3.1.48), but in truth Andrugio does not leave Antonio alone for any length of time before he begins to influence his son’s decisions. 

In no scene is the domestic restoration of Andrugio’s family as significant as in the closet encounter between Andrugio, Maria and Antonio, which takes place over two scenes that 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!” (3.2.72) – 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)

Just as Piero’s entrance in his nightgown subverts Antonio’s bloodlust, Andrugio’s entrance, which presents substance where she expected absence, provides a darkly comical antithesis to Maria’s melodrama. Unlike the entrance of Piero into the graveyard, Andrugio’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 promise 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. [13]

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 to diametrically counteract Piero’s, created by the arrival of Andrugio and Antonio moments later. The relationship between the three is not without its tensions, certainly, and initially the family dynamic on display seems no less dysfunctional than Piero’s.  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 Piero 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 little, it’s almost heartwarming. Unusually for a tragedy, Antonio 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. Of all the reasons critics have for decrying Antonio’s Revenge as an aberration, the denial of traditional tragic form in the play’s conclusion is one of the most prevalent. 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. The revengers are praised for their deeds, but “Even the simplest conventional comment on the murder of the innocent Julio is omitted – or forgotten”, and the “tone of the play at the end is one of unqualified approval of all this”. [14] The cumulative effect of living death throughout the play, however, is to reiterate the fact that the world of Antonio’s Revenge exists outside of standard moral, narrative and theatrical conventions. The blurring of life and death in the build to a conclusion that juxtaposes both concepts allows for conflicting elements to clash in unpredictable and exciting ways.

While in many other contemporary plays, then, living/dead interaction proves unsatisfactory, in Antonio’s Revenge we are granted a rare concession. The audience, bereft of the ability to interact meaningfully with their dead in Protestant England, is allowed into a subversive world in which the living and dead freely intermingle. Not only does this environment of living death therefore provide the means by which Andrugio’s household is ultimately restored, it also occasions the shocking juxtaposition of contrasting ideas including life and death, actor and audience, tragedy and comedy, and Catholicism and Protestantism. While Marston does not offer any real sense of resolution between these opposing concepts, the ways in which living death manifests throughout Antonio’s Revenge nevertheless force us to reconsider how we perceive the distinctions between them. 

Works Cited

[1] All play citations taken from John Marston, Antonio’s Revenge, ed. W. Reavley Gair (Manchester: MUP, 1999). 

[2] Rick Bowers, “John Marston at the ‘mart of woe’: the ‘Antonio’ plays”, The Drama of John Marston, ed. T.F. Wharton (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 14-26, 15.

[3] Barbara J. Baines, “Antonio’s Revenge: Marston’s Play on Revenge Plays”, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 23/2 (Spring 1983), 277-294, 278

[4] Lionel Abel, Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (New York: Hill and Wang, 1963), 65.

[5] A. J. Boyle, Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), see especially 199-200. 

[6] Bowers, “John Marston”, 15.

[7] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in William Shakespeare: Complete Works, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2007), 1918-2003.

[8] John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. David Bevington et al. (New York: Norton, 2002), 1749-1832.

[9] Bowers, “John Marston at the ‘mart of woe’”, 21

[10] Marston, The History of Antonio and Mellida (London: Printed by R. Bradock for Mathewe Lownes, 1602).

[11] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977).

[12] W. Reavly Gair, Introduction. John Marston, Antonio’s Revenge, ed. W. Reavley Gair (Manchester: MUP, 1999). 26.

[13] Anton Chekhov’s loaded gun principle (usually referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun”) states that one should not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. See Ernest J. Simmons, Chekhov: A Biography (Chicago: Chicag oUniversity Press, 1962), 190.

[14] T.B. Tomlinson, A Study of Elizabethan and Jacobean Tragedy (Cambridge: CUP, 1964), 220.

Header image was part of the promotional material for the Edward’s Boys 2011 production (

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