The roles of the malcontent on the early modern English stage

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores early modern audience response to the dramatic malcontent. Using a thematic approach, it builds an account that addresses the complex literary, social and political heritage of malcontent characters, and reveals the ways in which, by drawing on all the resources of early modern drama including its selfconsciousness and the ambiguities of its social and moral status, these figures created relationships with their audiences that came to epitomize the potentialities of the theatre itself.

Comic and tragic malcontents from Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599) to Bosola in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi (1613–1614) struck fascinating and unsettling poses on the early modern stage. The study examines the challenge embodied in such characters and the powerful and dynamic responses they elicited through their close engagement with contemporary spectators, in the light of research into staging practices, the cultural contexts in which the plays were received, and the types of audience response that can be inferred from the surviving play texts.

Jaques’s speech beginning ‘All the world’s a stage’ resounded particularly satisfyingly at the newly opened Globe, its governing metaphor clearly echoing the early modern theatre’s self-consciousness about its own processes. A striking proponent of direct address to the audience, the malcontent comments on the action of the play not only from a specific position within the dramatic illusion, but also in varying degrees of exclusion from it, characteristically initiating other self-reflexive dramatic strategies such as disguise, masques, plays-within-the-play, and metaphorical language referring to the theatre or performance (in the tradition of ‘all the world’s a stage’). To the extent that he wins the admiration or sympathy of spectators through the quality of his performance, he creates the disquieting effect of moral complicity. The malcontent’s persona thus has the potential to embody the many pleasures and potentialities of the theatre: generating ideas and plotlines, playing with language, highlighting contradictions and predicaments, operating as a would-be stage manager as well as actor, and representing his own ideal audience.
Part 1 considers audience response in the light of early modern conceptions of subjectivity, spectatorship, and the standpoints from which ethical judgements may be formed. Ideas about the instability of the self and the plurality of roles one person could play rendered spectators sensitive to performative aspects of the self, while the network of causes and effects depicted onstage drew attention to the problem of agency, and the apparent powerlessness of the spectator. The malcontent exploits the theatrum mundi metaphor to interrogate the characteristics of the genuine as opposed to the false, the natural as distinct from the constructed, and the current as contrasted with the historical, in the context of a theatrical illusion that may or may not have sought mimetic realism.

As influential as contemporary ideas about subjectivity and spectatorship were the early modern tropes of melancholia, considered in Part 2. Cultural assumptions about the melancholic humour, especially its links with bereavement or injustice, and its association with both intellectualism and madness, framed audience expectations of the malcontent. Biting satire and political dissent were among the more dangerous attributes associated with melancholia, along with an intrinsically theatrical type of self-presentation and a tendency to create and act out plots against perceived adversaries. Wronged women were sometimes represented in a way that approximates to the dramatic malcontent, or even to the malcontent revenger, but female characters were usually depicted in a powerless state of grief rather than melancholia. A definitive portrait of the masculine melancholic in contemplation is found in Hamlet, the play that most famously persuades spectators they are being addressed by a character who stands both within and outside a dramatically and socially constituted role.
The dominant issues in Hamlet are problems of justice and revenge. While the malcontent can hold the stage in comic, tragicomic, or tragic mode, the role is often associated with the obsessive revenger, the subject of Part 3. Building on the Senecan tradition, early modern drama appeared to set aside religious and legal prohibitions on personal revenge, yet these social frameworks contextualize the malcontent revenger’s appeals for justice. The audience faces the challenge of reconciling incompatible moral imperatives in the light of its judgement of the revenger’s career, while witnessing his ritualistic transformation from victim to perpetrator, a process that is quintessentially theatrical.
The excesses of the revenger lend themselves to satire and black humour. But melancholia may also be expressed in the type of discontent or social alienation that can be given a lighter, comic cast (as in the case of Jaques). As detailed in Part 4, comedy finds a place for the malcontent not only as an object of mockery but as a counterpart to comic harmony and joy, asserting a genuine melancholia that represents a satirical view of prevailing manners and ethics. As in all other genres, the energy of the malcontent characteristically emerges in the metatheatrical effects that are instrumental in creating the distinctive frisson of the early modern playhouse. The malcontent shares with the fool or clown – that other pungent commentator upon the human condition – the privilege of free speech, and likewise occupies a liminal position from which, in comedy, the tendency is to expound social theories and establish fresh perspectives rather than perform dramatic actions. The dialogue and unexpected kinship between malcontent and clown broaden audience sympathy and create an incisive, intensely dramatic critique of contemporary life, one that becomes emblematic of the range of possibilities inherent in theatre.
Date of Award1 Nov 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJohn Lavagnino (Supervisor) & Sonia Massai (Supervisor)

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