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Identity, disguise and satire in three comedies of John Marston Pegg, Barry Malcolm

Abstract

This thesis investigates the use of the conventions of disguise and deception in three comedies of John Marston (1576-1634)—What You Will, The Malcontent, and The Dutch Courtesan—in order to examine his handling of a convention for thematic purposes. The frequency of disguise in the theatre of the period may be explained by its appeal on more than one level. Its direct visual display of theatrical ingenuity was an immediate source of compelling interest for all spectators, whether in comedy or tragedy. On a more sophisticated level, the metaphysical implications of the discrepancy between appearance and reality were explored thematically by the more thoughtful of the public-theatre playwrights, as well as the satiric playwrights of the private theatres, both of course making full use of the purely theatrical possibilities. It is to this last category that Marston belongs. The Introduction outlines the reasons for the choice of plays, explains the very wide meaning allowed to the term 'disguise,' and makes the distinction between 'anonymity,' the conventional type of disguise where a character makes a temporary change of identity by altering his physical appearance, and 'cosmetic disguise,' where identity is maintained, but the blemishes are hidden and goodness usurped by propaganda or adornment. In the three central chapters, each devoted to one of the three plays, an examination of the moral setting of the play is followed by discussion of characters who are not what they seem, in terms of the thematic relevance of the disguises they adopt. Chapter V sets forth the conclusions which consideration of the plays has led to. Marston is a moralist concerned with the rejection of false systems of order in an ambiguous universe. In The Malcontent, the conventional order of kingship and obedience is shown defeating cynical manipulation of appearance. In What You Will, all approaches to reality except the most uncompromisingly objective are rejected as empty "oppinion." The Dutch Courtesan achieves a balance between the two, advocating in the person of Freevill a good-humoured readiness to navigate the unpredictable waters of society as it is, relying on experience rather than on dogma. Through them all runs the hint of an order in which deception is an impossibility— either untamed nature or ordained discipline. Thus Marston, in his best work, takes his place among his contemporaries as a dramatist capable of using a convention as an element in a thematic unity.

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