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For other uses, see Malcontent (disambiguation).

The malcontent is a character type that often appeared in early modern drama. The character is discontent with the social structure and other characters in the play—and is often an outsider who observes and comments on the action, and may even acknowledge they are in a play. Shakespeare's Richard III and Iago in Othello are typical malcontents.

The role is usually both political and dramatic, with the malcontent voicing dissatisfaction with the usually 'Machiavellian' political atmosphere and often using asides to build up a kind of self-consciousness and awareness of the text itself that other characters in the play lack.

Important malcontents include Bosola in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, Vindice in Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, Malevole in Marston's The Malcontent, and Hamlet in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The morality and sympathy of the malcontent is highly variable, as in the examples above. Sometimes, as in Hamlet and The Malcontent, they are the sympathetic centre of the play, whereas Iago is a very unsympathetic character. The most important thing about the malcontent is that the character is malcontent—unhappy, unsettled, displeased with the world of the play, eager to change it somehow, or to dispute with it. The malcontent is an objective or quasi-objective voice that comments on the play's concerns as though somehow above or beyond them. The concept has much to do with the Renaissance idea of 'humours' and a surfeit of 'black bile' which caused melancholy.

According to Callaghan (1989: 125), "Misogyny is part of the malcontent pathology, part of the alienation of those characters from whom we expect inventive against women by virtue of dramatic convention, whose misogynistic voice is privileged at the purely dramatic level to function as the enunciator of gender ideology". Furthermore, "The special position of the malcontent is produced by his intimate knowledge of the pragmatic world of everyday life and its language of common sense, which he uses to address the audience in a manner that establishes shared experience. This makes the role of the malcontent a complex one. Further, on the one hand, he functions as the medieval Vice the audience loves to hate, while on the other the interpellates some of their own fundamental social norms in a way which implicates them in his villainy" (ebd.). Other examples of early modern malcontents are Flamineo (The White Devil) and Bosola (The Duchess of Malfi).