The Malcontent is widely regarded as one of the most significant plays of the English Renaissance; an extensive body of scholarly research and critical commentary has accumulated around it.
The play was first performed by the Children of the Chapel, one of the troupes of boy actors active in the era, in the Blackfriars Theatre. It was later taken over by the King's Men, the adult company for which William Shakespeare worked, and performed at the Globe Theatre. The King's Men's production featured a new induction, written by John Webster, and several new scenes, probably written by Marston himself. These additions may have been necessary because the original play was too short for the King's Men's purposes: plays for the boys' companies tended to involve more musical interludes than those of the adult companies, and so be shorter.
The Induction to this revised version is a metatheatrical one, in which the play's actors and its onstage spectators comment on the drama that is to follow and discuss the "bitterness" of its satire. King's Men actors Richard Burbage, John Lowin, and Henry Condell appear as themselves, while William Sly appears as a young theater-goer and John Sinklo appears as "Doomsday," his cousin. The gallant asks Condell how King's Men came to mount a Blackfriar's play, and Condell answers, "Why not Malevole in folio with us, as Jeronimo in decimosexto with them?" He suggests that the boys (compared to a sextodecimo sheet) had stolen a King's Men's play, possibly a sequel to Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, and so they stole Blackfriars's Malcontent for their folio-sized actors.
The Malcontent was entered into the Stationers' Register on 5 July 1604, and published later the same year in quarto in three states, the second and third containing the additions by Marston and the induction by Webster. All three texts of the first edition were printed by Valentine Simmes for the bookseller William Aspley.
The Malcontent tells the story of the deposed duke Altofront, who has adopted the alter ego of Malevole, a discontented parasite, in order to try to regain his lost dukedom. Malevole is an angry satirist-figure, who attacks the corruption and decadence of the court in which he lives. The degree to which the play is a comment on the court of James I and the immorality of his courtiers is debatable, as the satire is, by and large, general enough to fit any court. However, The Malcontent seemed to some contemporaries to be, like Marston's later plays, a lashing of the new, bumptious, and corrupt Scottish courtiers, and some specific satire is certain.
The play was unacted during the Restoration and through the 18th century. It was revived in 1850 at the Olympic Theatre in London. It was not acted again until the 1960s, with a production in 1964 at Southampton University and then 1968 at Oxford University. There was a professional staging in 1973 by Jonathan Miller. More recent productions include: in 1983 by the ADC Theatre in Cambridge (performed in modern dress); in 1998 by the English Department at Boston University; in 2002 by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford (with Anthony Sher in the role of Malevole); in 2010 by the Academy for Classical Acting of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C; in 2010 by the American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia (with Ben Curns in the role of Malevole and John Harrell as Mendoza); in 2011 by Custom/Practice and Graffiti Productions (with Adam Howden in the role of Malevole) at the White Bear Theatre, London. A production of the play, directed by Caitlin Mcleod, will be performed by the Globe Young Players (a youth company of twenty 12-16 year olds) at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London from 3rd-19th April, 2014.
- Logan and Smith, pp. 175-9, 182-91, 198-202, 222-3, 239-40.
- Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 431.
- See the Introduction to David Kay's New Mermaid edition, pp. xxxii-xxxvi.
- Caputi, Anthony. John Marston, Satirist. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1961.
- Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
- Finkelpearl, Philip J. John Marston of the Middle Temple. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1969.
- Marston, John. The Malcontent. New mermain edition; W. David Kay, ed. London, Methuen, 2007.
- Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. The New Intellectuals: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1977.