Previously Unrecorded Verbal Parallels Between Histrio-Mastix And The Acknowledged Works Of John Marston

Histrio-Mastix, Or, The Player Whipt was published as an anonymous work in 1610 by Thomas Thorpe. The play has little literary merit, and as a result attracted little interest from scholars for over two centuries. No author for Histrio-Mastix was proposed until 1878, when Richard Simpson conjectured that John Marston was a part-author of the play. He also suggested that Ben Jonson had satirised Marston as the author of Histrio-Mastix in Every Man Out Of His Humour[1], thus putting Histrio-Mastix within the framework of the ‘Poet’s War’ (or ‘Poetomachia’ or ‘War of the Theatres’), a stage quarrel around 1599-1601 involving a sequence of plays by Jonson, Dekker, Marston and possibly Shakespeare.

That Marston had at least some hand in Histrio-Mastix was not seriously questioned until 2001, when Roslyn L. Knutson argued provocatively that the evidence for Marston’s hand in the play was so weak that scholars should ‘release Marston from responsibility for Histrio-Mastix and declare the author of Histrio-Mastix once again to be unknown[2]. In Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare’s Time she went further, declaring of Histrio-Mastix that ‘John Marston did not write any of it[3]. Knutson’s vigorous argument challenges us to find the ‘unknown’ author of Histrio-Mastix.

I will present evidence here that in looking for the author of Histrio-Mastix we should not rule out Marston just yet. The evidence consists of a number of strong verbal parallels - rare phrases that are found in both Histrio-Mastix and an acknowledged work by Marston - that have not, as far as I am aware, been previously recorded. Significantly, some of the phrases exist only in Histrio-Mastix and an acknowledged work by Marston.

To determine the uniqueness or rarity of phrases I have used the Chadwyck-Healey Literature Online (LION) database, and for the purposes of this paper restricted searches to the ‘Early English Prose Fiction’, ‘English Poetry Full Text’, ‘English Prose Drama’ and ‘English Verse Drama’ datasets within LION. When I refer to the frequency of a phrase it should be read within this strict sense. Spelling variants (e.g. ‘up’/’vp’, ‘sun’/’sunne’) were used in searches. Quotes are from LION, as are dates for works when given. Finally, I have added bolding to highlight the parallels.


(1)’…whil’st there shines a sunne’

Whose glory, which thy solid vertues wonne,
Shall honour Europe whil'st there shines a Sunne. (Histrio-Mastix, Act 6)

To her faire breast, whose fame by vertue wonne,
Shall honour women whilste there shines a sunne. (Jacke Drums Entertainment, Act 3)

Comment: This parallel is unique to Histrio-Mastix and Jacke Drums Entertainment (i.e. it is found only in these plays).

(2)’…rowle…vp and downe and fill…seat’

These huge Colossi that rowle vp and downe,
And fill vp all the seate of man with froth (Histrio-Mastix, Act 4)

I roule but vp and downe, and fill a seat
In the darke caue of dusky misery. (Antonio and Mellida, Act 3)

Comment: This parallel is unique to Histrio-Mastix and Antonio and Mellida. However, there is one near parallel in Samuel Daniel’s Musophilus: ‘The rest of all, that onely bodies beare, / Rowle vp and downe, and fill vp but the row.’

(3) ‘as confident as Hercules’

When euery artist prentice that hath read
The pleasant pantry of conceipts, shall dare,
To write as confident as Hercules. (Histrio-Mastix, Act 3)

Ile stand as confident as Hercules,
And with a frightlesse resolution,
Rip vp and launce our times impieties. (What You Will, Act 3)

Comment: The phrase ‘confident as Hercules’ is unique to Histrio-Mastix and What You Will.

(4) ‘mounted place’

And as thou stalk'st (in thy prodigious shape,)
And meet'st a fellow swolne with mounted place;  (Histrio-Mastix, Act 5)

And glitter in the eye of glorious grace,
What's wealth without respect and mounted place? (Jacke Drums Entertainment, Act 1)

Comment: The phrase ‘mounted place’ is extremely rare. Apart from Histrio-Mastix and Jacke Drums Entertainment, it is only found in one other (and later) work, Glory, and Deaths Banquet, Part I (1662) by Margaret Cavendish.

(5) ‘remember to forget’

How soone they can remember to forget,
Their vndeserued Fortunes and esteeme; (Histrio-Mastix, Act 3)

Doe not expostulate the heauens will:
But, O, remember to forget, thy felfe: (Antonio and Mellida, Act 4)

Why good faith I scarce know my selfe already me thinks
I should remember to forget, my selfe, now I am so shining braue. (What You Will [Act 3])

Comment: The phrase ‘remember to forget’ is relatively rare. It occurs only 11 times overall, with the three quotes above being the only occurrences in the ‘English Verse Drama’ database. Of the other occurrences, only two are earlier than the eighteenth century (Two centvries of epigrammes (1610) by John Heath and Divine Meditations (1655) by John Quarles). That the phrase appears twice in Marston’s acknowledged works is suggestive.

(6) ‘to make up rime’

Braue ladds come forth and chant it, and chant it,
for now 'tis supper time.
See how the dishes flaunt it, and flaunt it,
with meate to make vp rime. (Histrio-Mastix, Act 2)

Till stock be melted, then sir takes vp heere
Takes vp there, till no where ought is left.
Then for the Low-countries, hay for the French
And so (to make vp rime) god night sweete wench. (What You Will, Act 1)

Comment: Surprisingly, the phrase ‘to make up rime’ is rare. But what makes the parallel particularly interesting is that the phrase is used in the same idiosyncratic way in both Histrio-Mastix and What You Will to mean ‘I’m just writing these meaningless words to make the line rhyme’. The only correlate to this usage I can find is in Taylor’s Water-Worke by John Taylor (All the workes, 1630):Normandy, Hambrough, strong poledauis, Lockram. / And to make vp the Rime (with reason) Buckram’, but even here the meaning is not quite the same.

In evaluating the extent to which these parallels suggest Marston’s hand in Histrio-Mastix we can, I think, rule out coincidence immediately - the first parallel alone is too long and too exact to be the product of chance. Nor is plagiarism by Marston of some unknown author’s Histrio-Mastix very likely, since Antonio and Mellida, Jacke Drums Entertainment and What You Will were all written before Histrio-Mastix was published in 1610. If Marston plagiarised Histrio-Mastix it must have been from seeing the play in performance (unless we postulate access to a manuscript), an unlikely scenario given the exactness and rarity of the parallels, and the fact that the parallels are spread across three of Marston’s plays. The most likely explanation of these parallels is simply that in Antonio and Mellida, Jacke Drums Entertainment and What You Will Marston reworked material from his own earlier play Histrio-Mastix.

The ‘unknown’ author of Histrio-Mastix may well be John Marston.


[1] Richard Simpson, The School of Shakspere (New York, 1878), II, 3-15.
[2] Roslyn L. Knutson,Histrio-Mastix: Not by John Marston’, SP, xcviii (2001), 377.
[3] Roslyn Lander Knutson, Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare's Time (Cambridge, 2001), 76