The Scourge of Villanie: Three Bookes of satyre

John Marston anticipated that readers would not find favor with Scourge of Villainie: “Fy Satyre fie, shall each mechanick slaue, / Each dungill pesant, free perusall have / Of thy well labor’d lines? Each sattin sute, / Each quaint fashion-monger, whose sole repute / Rests in his trim gay clothes, lye slauering / Taynting thy lines with his lewd censuring?”

The crude, vicious, and sometimes incomprehensible satire in Scourge of Villainie focuses on the ugliness that infects the reason of man: “A man, a man, a kingdom for a man! / … I dare swear, the souls of swine / Do live in men…” “These are no men, but apparitions / Ignes fatui, glowworms, fictions, / Meteors/ rats of Nilus, fantasties, / Colosses, pictures, shades, resemblences.” But a more reflective voice steps in at times: “In serious jest, and jesting seriousness, / I strive to scourge polluting beastliness…” “O that a Satire’s had force to pluck / Some floodgate up, to purge the world from muck! / Would God I could turn Apheus river in, / To purge ths Augean oxstall from foul sin.” 

Marston studied law and in 1595 at the age of nineteen was admitted into Middle Temple, where his father was a reader. But he was drawn to poetry, engaged with the young wits of the time—all more than ten years younger than Shakespeare and stoic in outlook, who set off in revolutionary literary directions. Marston took the lead in re-creating satire in English, inspired by Juvenal and other classical sources and leaping well beyond the complaint in earlier English satire. Satyr was the center of the reinvented satire.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London were not amused. They held a public burning of copies of Scourge of Villanie and like works in June 1599. (The present copy is one of only seven known examples.) Satirical poetry was summarily banned, later to reemerge in a more tempered form, and satire moved to the stage. The book’s historical importance is clear, but is it art? Modern critics are of mixed opinion about the literary merits of Scourge of Villanie. The book is best remembered for the above “plagiarism” of Richard III and its contemporary mention of Romeo and Juliet.  

Satire permeated the works of a new generation of playwrights, including Marston and, most notably, Ben Jonson. In Shakespeare’s plays we find the bitterly satiric Thersites (in Troilus and Cressida) and a gentle satire of a misanthropic satirist in Jacques. The face of Satyr also appeared in the mad ravings of King Lear and the utter viciousness of Iago. 

Chrzanowski 1598ma *

STC 17485

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675