The Malcontent

Editing Marston’s The Malcontent

The three quartos of The Malcontent in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

Editing The Malcontent is surprisingly similar to editing the play that it so famously shadows, Hamlet. There are three different versions of Marston’s play, just as there are of Shakespeare’s – three quarto volumes, designated these days Q1, Q2 and Q3, all published in 1604. An editor’s first job is to examine as many copies of the original texts as possible, because the type was actually changed in the course of the print run. It was unusual for any play then to be printed three times in the same year, much less printed with as many differences between the texts as these have. All this probably speaks to the play’s contemporary notoriety.

Q1 and Q2 both reflect the play more or less as it was performed by the boy company which used the second Blackfriars playhouse. Their texts are broadly similar – indeed, significant parts of the first half of both are identical: they were set up from the same standing type. Under the rules of the Stationers’ Company, apparently to keep type compositors employed, printers were expected to dismantle the type once an edition of 1200-1500 copies had been run off. So this was probably an illicit manoeuvre by Valentine Sims, printer of all three texts, in anticipation of substantial sales.

Q1 contained inflammatory material that somehow escaped the licensers. An early passage speaks of ‘the place of much dissimulation, the church’ and copies have survived with ‘the church’ physically cut out. There are other highly critical comments on church matters in the play, but this one seems to have made someone (quite possibly Sims) very nervous. In Q2, this appears as ‘the place of much dissimulation, ﴾ ﴿’ – supply your own missing word. Another reference in Q1, to ‘Signior St. Andrew Jaques’, lost the ‘Jaques’ (French for ‘James’, like the king) in Q2 and Q3 – ‘St Andrew’ as patron saint of Scotland being suggestive but unspecific. Q2 also contains 8 lines not in Q1, and the text has been quite closely scrutinised by someone other than just compositors, possibly Marston himself.

Q3 retains everything in Q1 and Q2 but adds an Induction and 11 passages not printed before; modern scholarship assigns six to Marston and five to John Webster. These were to adapt the play for performance by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, at the Globe, including a whole new role for the company’s ‘fool’, Robert Armin. But were Marston’s contributions newly written for this purpose or originally drafted for the Q1-2 version? How the King’s Men were able to perform this play when the Blackfriars company owned it is not really resolved, though members of the company – playing ‘themselves’ – address the question gnomically in the Induction. Given that the play does shadow Hamlet, it must have been a particular coup to have Richard Burbage – the original Hamlet – playing his Marstonian counterpart, Malevole. The text remained as spicy as ever – ‘the church’ somehow returned and one new passage looks askance at ‘the divine right of kings’ – yet seems to have avoided official sanctions.

My edition is of the Q3 text, but I have tried to convey something of its remarkable evolution, of the way it plays with fire in addressing matters of church and state, and of the sheer meta-theatrical fun that Marston had with Hamlet and the King’s Men then had with the play they ‘stole’.

Richard Dutton

N.B. As part of the digital version of the Oxford Marston, there will be a dual old-spelling edition available in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online featuring the A-text (based on Q2) as was performed by the Children of the Queen’s Revels and the B-text (based on Q3), representing the play as performed by the King’s Men; both will be edited by José A. Pérez Díez.