The malcontent

Origins of the malcontent

The early seventeenth century was said to be pervaded by an air of melancholy in contrast to the optimism of the sixteenth century. Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, which shows the interest in this phenomenon, was published in 1621.
Many of the reasons for this atmosphere of discontent were due to the social and economic conditions of the time. This included the difficulties courtiers faced in trying to make their way in the world.

The malcontent in drama

A character typified as a ‘malcontent' appeared in plays in the early seventeenth century. There was even a play called The Malcontent written by John Marston, but plays like Hamlet and Othello also feature malcontents.
In Othello, Iago is the arch villain throughout and his every speech and action is motivated by his envy of Cassio who has been promoted as lieutenant, as well as by his bitterness towards his master Othello for promoting the younger Cassio instead of him. Feeling cheated by the world, Iago is able to appreciate the virtues of those he manipulates, but despises them none the less. In his pursuit of revenge, he shows no redeeming characteristics (unlike some malcontents who have redeeming moments when they seek to do good) and treats everyone else treacherously and with contempt, even the witless Roderigo and the innocent Desdemona. He succeeds in destroying Othello and almost brings down the whole structure of the society in which the play is set.


The population of London was still closely knit enough for the theatre of Shakespeare’s day to have a profound impact on the whole of society, much as television drama does today. It was a powerful medium to entertain, and to unite popular sentiment and provoke thought, something that ‘everybody talked about’.
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