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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker

§ 12. The Malcontent

A marked advance is apparent in The Malcontent. Of this comedy, there exist two editions of 1604, one of which ascribes the authorship of the play to Webster and the augmentations to Marston. That it is chiefly Marston’s work is clear, however, from the preface, in which he expresses regret that scenes invented merely to be spoken should be printed for readers, but concludes that the least hurt he can receive is to do himself the wrong. Here, again, we have an Italian story, of which the source is unknown; but we are once more reminded of Hamlet in the person of the hero, and of Richard III in the villain Mendozo. The malcontent, a banished duke, returns in disguise to his former court. Like Hamlet’s, “his own soule is at variance within herselfe,” and, under the guise of a mad humour, he contrives to speak the bitterest home truths. The situation has great possibilities, of which, perhaps, the fullest advantage is hardly taken; but Marston had already learnt important lessons in stagecraft and the delineation of character. In the cynical hero, we find depicted a type of mind somewhat akin to that of the author, and the humour of the piece is of the satirical variety which he himself appears most to have affected.

The Dutch Courtezan, published in 1605, shows a further advance in the handling of plot and character. There are scenes both serious and comic which revive memories of Beatrice and her cousin, and of Dogberry and the watch, in Much Ado about Nothing; both the men and women are fairly drawn and contrasted; the secondary plot—in part borrowed from the last novel in The Palace of Pleasure—with the knavish tricks of Cockledemoy, makes excellent fooling. The prologue apologises for the “slight hastie labours in this easie play” and declares that it was meant not for instruction but delight. It needs no apology, however, and, though charged by Antony Nixon (The Black Year, 1606) with “corrupting English conditions,” only the sourest of moralists could feel resentment against the author of the comedy, one of the cleverst and most amusing of its time. It was revived late in the seventeenth century, with the alterations of Betterton, the actor, under the title The Revenge, or The Match in Newgate.