Sceptical Responses in Early Modern Plays
From Self-Knowledge to Self-Doubt in Marston’s The Malcontent and Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy
Defined for the first time by Sir Thomas Elyot as a «secte of Phylosophers, whiche affirmed nothynge» (1538), the term ‘scepticism’ appears in all its variants only too rarely in the drama of the period. Chadwyck Healey databases (Early English Books Online and Literature Online) record only four different occurrences (Tomkis 1607; Jonson 1640; Cartwright 1651; Massinger 1655), in a span of time which runs from 1550 to 1655, although scepticism as a way of participating in, and responding to, life is registered on the London stages as an increasingly popular critical attitude. Vindice’s «I’m in doubt whether I’m myself or no» is evidence of that suspension of judgment which is envisaged by the sceptics as the only viable answer in a world governed by the relativism of human knowledge. Against a theoretical and philosophical background which investigates the relationship between self-knowledge and scepticism, the article looks at how this early modern revival of scepticism – so profoundly influenced by the translation of Montaigne’s essays – can couple with, and go beyond, an emergent awareness of inwardness, as the one hinted at in Marston’s The Malcontent and Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. In particular, the essay examines the interplay between the revengers’ responses to the adoption of different masks and the dictum of a philosophy which demands the deferment of any epistemological verdict. A discussion of the rhetorical strategies which better testify to the contradictions at the heart of this ontological impasse will then follow.