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.
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...
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