‘Virtue perforce is vice’: Ceremonial and Infernal Nuptials in John Marston’s Sophonisba

Adrian Blamires


John Marston's Sophonisba has long been considered a dauntingly severe neoclassical tragedy, described by T. S. Eliot (an admirer of the play) as 'Senecal rather than Shakespearean'. More recent critical attention has tended, however, to highlight the play's innovative theatricality. Its nuptial design reveals a significant Shakespearean influence. Sophonisba is, like Othello, structured around a series of displaced consummations, with the bridal chamber at the heart of things. This essay sheds new light on Marston's antithetical staging of the wedding night; equal space is given to the ceremonial union of Sophonisba and Massinissa, and the infernal mock-wedding of Syphax and Erictho. The readings offered challenge a number of commonly held assumptions, whilst suggesting that the play's reputation for austerity is unwarranted. The hubristic desires of the major characters - each seeking some form of 'god-like' transcendence, whether Stoic or Epicurean, hierogamous or nefarious - are drawn out through close attention to linguistic and semiotic patterning. A case is made for Sophonisba as a drama of considerable affective power.


Marston; nuptials; theatricality

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