“O, do not rant, do not turn player. There’s more of them than can well live already.”–Malevole, The Malcontent , Act IV Scene 4
It seems our illustrious Mr. Marston (the playwright of The Malcontent ) wasn’t above playful (or perhaps malicious) acts of parody when the opportunity presented itself. Take, for example, the scheming and scandalous villain of the piece, Mendoza (played rather deliciously by Adrian LaTourelle and Ramon de Ocampo). He begins his journey in this play by telling the audience exactly how empowering it truly is to not only be in favor with the duke, but to be sleeping with the duchess behind his back; in fact, he goes on at great length in praise of beautiful women in general (nobility or lack thereof aside):
“You preservers of mankind, life-blood of society, who would live, nay who can live without you? O paradise, how majestical is your austerer presence! How imperiously chaste is your more modest face! But O how full of ravishing attraction is your pretty, petulant, languishing, lasciviously-composed countenance, these amorous smiles, those soul warming sparkling glances! In body, how delicate, in soul how witty, in discourse how pregnant, in life how wary, in favours how judicious, in day how sociable, in night how — O, pleasure unutterable!”
Mendoza, The Malcontent , Act I Scene 3
Sound familiar? I’ll give you a hint:
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
Hamlet, Hamlet , Act II Scene 2
When this came up a couple of weeks ago at tablework, I didn’t know too much about The Malcontent on an academic level. So I turned to that most trusted of all scholarly resources (Google), and came up with an article, conveniently entitled “The Dates of Hamlet and Marston’s The Malcontent” by H.R. Walley (1933)* that shed a heavenly beam of light on the subject. According to him, HAMLET was definitely first performed before its registry date in 1602 (and it turns out that more recent reasoning puts the date between 1599 and 1601), but there is absolutely no reason to date The Malcontent earlier than 1604. I read several more essays on the subject until it felt more like a chicken-and-egg debate than I thought possible, but personally, I find it easier to believe Malevole as a scion of Hamlet than the other way around. The Malcontent text is rife with moments of direct parody like that one above and this one below, that if actually correspondent to Hamlet, must have come after and not before:
HAMLET: Never make known what you have seen tonight.
HORATIO and MARCELLUS: My lord, we will not.
HAMLET: Nay, but swear’t.
HOR: In faith, my lord, not I.
MAR: Nor I, my lord, in faith.
HAMLET: Upon my sword.
MAR: We have sworn, my lord, already.
HAMLET: Indeed, upon my sword, indeed…Never to speak of this that you have seen, swear by my sword.
HAMLET: Swear by my sword never to speak of this that you have heard.
GHOST: Swear by his sword.
HAMLET: Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself…
…That you, at such times seeing me, never shall…to note
That you know aught of me — this do swear, so grace and mercy at your most need help you.
Hamlet, Marcellus, Horatio, and Ghost, Hamlet , Act I Scene 5
MAQUERELLE: Visit her chamber, but conditionally you shall not offend her bed; by this diamond!
FERNEZE: By this diamond.
MAQ: Nor tarry longer than you please; by this ruby!
FERN: By this ruby.
MAQ: And that the door shall not creak.
FERN: And that the door shall not creak.
MAQ: Nay, but swear!
FERN: By this purse.
MAQ: Go to, I’ll keep your oaths for you. Remember, visit.
Maquerelle and Ferneze, The Malcontent , Act I Scene 6
But Malevole and The Malcontent are not just exercises in Hamlet mockery; the periodic parody is a symptom of the similarities between the title characters. First, take Hamlet: a melancholy and cynical usurped ruler, slightly squeamish about spilling blood, carrying himself in the guise of a lunatic to evade detection while he plots his revenge. Then, you have Malevole who…well:
…The heart’s disquiet is revenge most deep. He that gets blood the life of flesh but spills,
But he that breaks heart’s peace the dear soul kills.
Well, this disguise doth yet afford me that
Which kings do seldom hear or great men use —
Free speech; and though my state’s usurped,
Yet this affected strain gives me a tongue
As fetterless as is an emperor’s.
I may speak foolishly, ay, knavishly,
Always carelessly, yet no one thinks it fashion
To poise my breath; for he that laughs and strikes
Is lightly felt, or seldom struck again.
Duke, I’ll torment thee; now my just revenge
From thee than crown a richer gem shall part.
Beneath God naught’s so dear as a calm heart.
Malevole, The Malcontent , Act I Scene 3
Can’t you just picture how this went down? Perhaps John Marston attended the first performance of Hamlet (which, we’ve established, was probably sometime between 1599 and 1601). I also imagine that he was properly awed and shattered by the humanity and despair of it, and so enamored that he returned night after night. Alas, as is likely to occur when you watch a play every night, its mechanics grew more and more transparent and less and less credible to him until at last he threw down whatever he happened to be holding at the time (for the sake of comedy, let’s say a haunch of mutton) in complete frustration and shouted at the stage, “WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING, ALREADY?!”
All right, fine. It’s pretty unlikely that it happened quite that way. In fact, I can’t really claim that Malevole, in his infancy, had anything to do with Hamlet at all. Perhaps the bits of satire above were put in very late in the writing process after some critic saw the Jacobean equivalent of an invited dress rehearsal and snidely suggested that Marston was taking hints from Shakespeare’s playbook.
The truth is that while their similarities in circumstance are striking, and very intriguing to a conspiratorially inclined mind like mine, their differences in action too arresting to define The Malcontent merely as a Hamlet commentary. Of course, this is in part due to differences of story (Malevole’s parents do not figure in this play; nor do ghosts, convenient bands of travelling players, indistinguishable and ultimately dispensable pairs of school chums, or mad damsels drowned under willow trees), but it’s also a question of basic personality; Marston’s leading man is a Hamlet with resolve. He advances his aims at every step, he moves the world around him, he does not waste his time on soliloquy; anything brilliant he has to say, he saves until such time as others are around to appreciate it. He is thrown quite as many curveballs as Hamlet, but he reinvents his revenge for them just as many times as it takes. (In fact, I’ve decided that from now on I shall secretly refer to The Malcontent as “HAMLET: Man of Action.”)
Let’s face it; there’s only so far I can go comparing and contrasting key plot points of Hamlet and The Malcontent before you will know the ins and outs of the entire play, so perhaps I should make my point and close for the week. My point is this: whichever came first and however the inspiration came about, in writing The Malcontent , Marston managed to rewrite Hamlet as a revenge-comedy, something he himself seems to have been aware of and amused by at the time of the play’s publication. I think Marston took umbrage to Prince Hamlet as a heroic figure; in Hamlet, the pursuit of revenge is a futile quest that puts you through hell and leads you to destruction. In The Malcontent , revenge is difficult, messy, and potentially dangerous…and absolutely worth every moment of it.
I hope you’re excited to see it; you have every reason to be. After all, we are:
“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral scene individable, or poem unlimited.”
Polonius, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
Come back next week for more Unmasking the Malcontent! In the meantime…:
I shall now leave you with my always-best wishes; only let’s hold betwixt us a firm correspondence, a mutual-friendly-reciprocal kind of steady-unanimous-heartily-leagued…
Bilioso, The Malcontent , Act I, Scene 4
A2 Ensemble Member, Abby Wilde, will be sharing her experiences working on our production of The Malcontent . This is the fourth installment. For tickets, visit www.antaeus.org
*The Dates of Hamlet and Marston’s The Malcontent
Harold R. Walley
The Review of English Studies
Vol. 9, No. 36 (Oct., 1933), pp. 397-409
Published by: Oxford University Press
Article Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/508802