Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 October 2009
There is a mystery at the heart of Marston's drama, and it remains unsolved to this day. T. F. Wharton concludes his account of The Critical Fall and Rise of John Marston from Marston's time to the present by advising critics who like their literature to yield coherent visions of the world to look elsewhere: ‘Those who seek consistency and wholeness will be disappointed, not only when they seek it across his canon but when they look for it within single scenes or even lines. His is not a rigorous theological or philosophical position.’ Keith Sturgess concurs: despite the publication of several full-length studies of Marston during the last three decades, his drama ‘remains enigmatic and difficult to place for the modern reader or theatre practitioner. There is little consensus about the source, or sources, of the distinctive dramatic voice we hear, or about the meaning and significance of the texts themselves.’ And nowhere is the enigmatic quality of Marston's æuvre more apparent than in the play most critics consider to be his masterpiece, The Malcontent.
In other words, criticism of Marston still finds itself confronted with the questions posed over sixty years ago by T. S. Eliot's tantalizing essay on the dramatist. Of The Malcontent, Eliot writes:
We are aware, in short, with this as with Marston's other plays, that we have to do with a positive, powerful and unique personality. His is an original variation of that deep discontent and rebelliousness so frequent among the Elizabethan dramatists. […]