Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

The Malcontent was written during a period of melancholic disillusionment that spanned the turn of the century. This fin de siècle mood was similarly expressed in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) and John Donne’s poems An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary (1611) and Of the Progress of the Soule: The Second Anniversary (1612). In the drama of the period, two of the characters “allowed” to express such disillusionment were the fool and the melancholic, or malcontent. Both are to be found in plays as diverse as Hamlet, a tragedy, and As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623), a comedy. The Malcontent takes up a middle ground between tragedy and comedy. In the figure of Hamlet, the melancholic becomes the hero. His role is therefore not that of satiric spectator, as is Jaques in As You Like It, but he is as active an instrument in restoring justice. The way offered him, though he struggles with it, is revenge. As a Christian response, Hamlet is tragic because the revenge ethic is necessarily tragic, doubly so when seen as inauthentic.

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Two years after Hamlet, John Marston reworked a similar theme quite differently. Retaining the tone of satiric disillusion, though it is possibly closer to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1623), Marston reworked the melancholic as a specific role and as a specific disguise. Hamlet’s disguise of madness was haphazard and probably more an expression of mental disorder than anything deliberately assumed. There are elements of this in Marston’s play, too. It is difficult to see Malevole as a mere mask for Altofronto, for there is a genuine expression of personality, an alter ego, expressed in powerful language coming from the heart. Yet Altofronto is clearly in control of his disguise, and he possesses an ability to manipulate events to his advantage that is totally lacking in Hamlet’s character.

Marston gives the play an Italian setting, as is very typical of other Jacobean dramatists, such as Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, and Thomas Middleton. The Italian influence is also seen in the genre of tragicomedy, which was new to English theater but common in the Italian, and in the language. Whole speeches are taken from Giambattista Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido, which had been translated into English in 1602. Perhaps even more important, the figure of Mendoza is based on what the English saw as a typical Italian villain, Niccolò Machiavelli’s prince. The Machiavellian villain became typified as a schemer who has no time for conventional morality or religion, is power-hungry, and considers the ends always to justify the means.

Marston created a dramatically well-balanced drama between the two schemers: the deposed duke, who seeks to regain his rightful authority through disguise, and the would-be duke, who seeks power through deceit and violence. In the middle stands the actual duke, Pietro, a weak-willed man and a puppet of the Florentines. Yet, as with much Jacobean drama and unlike Shakespearean tragedy, the plot, such as it is, is motivated, not by political moves but by sexual passion. Sexual imagery merges with political imagery to give a picture of total immorality and degradation. Maquarelle is the key female character because she plays out the moves of the brothel as the moves of the court. The images are reinforced in the language used by Altofronto in his role as Malevole, Passarello the fool, and in a different way, Bilioso, the biggest panderer of all.

The use of the tragicomic genre is a significant shift away from the more typical Jacobean revenge tragedy. In this genre, the moral conflicts and tensions could be resolved without losing the satiric worldview. Shakespeare likewise experimented with this alternative in Measure for Measure (pr. c. 1604, pb. 1623), which, like The Malcontent, has a supposedly absent duke who watches over the events, and in The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), where another deposed duke regains power, but this time by magic. Although Measure for Measure is usually not classed as a tragicomedy (the term “problem play” is sometimes used), The Tempest can rightfully be seen as one. All of these plays reject the revenge ethic. Marston’s solution must be seen as predominantly successful. Evil overreaches itself and in becoming too confident, becomes too naïve; at the same time, the good learn to become “as wise as a serpent,” accept the corrupting nature of power, and seek to bring about repentance and change of heart.

It is in the interpretation of such moral patterning that ambiguity is revealed. Such patterning can be interpreted to be Stoic, representing the return to political and moral equilibrium, the restoration of true authority, and the rejection of extremes of naïveté (folly) and Machiavellianism. It can also be interpreted to be Christian, in which patterns of sin, repentance, restoration, and forgiveness are dominant. Other critical interpretations have suggested that Marston’s attacks on the Church in the play give rise to the more pessimistic moral that hypocrisy and deceit are everywhere. Altofronto himself is a mask, and his forgiveness of Mendoza will only set the cycle of evil going again. Yet other interpretations, which emphasize the absurd “pretence” motifs and the nature of the play’s language, interpret the play in terms of twentieth century absurdism.

Certainly the language of the play has been a source of critical contention. Although the play is dedicated to Ben Jonson, the style bears little resemblance to the controlled, ironic language of Jonsonian drama. In fact, Jonson made fun of Marston’s apparently uncontrolled satiric style. Earlier commentators corroborated the Jonsonian censure and pointed to the amount Marston borrowed from other plays. Later critics, however, see energy and creativeness in the “free play” of Marston’s language and in its breaking down of the borders of poetry and prose. The Malcontent is a play that will continue to attract critical interest and controversy.

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