While thinking a bit about Much Ado About Nothing, I stumbled across an excellent book by a brilliant author I happen to have in my possession, called The Malcontent Strain. It discusses the history of the "malcontent type" from its beginnings in the poetic, novelistic and dramatic "romances" of the '70s and '80s to the full-blown and heavily-used "malcontent" of English Renaissance drama from the mid-'90s to 1604 or so, and on to a number of variants and imitations in early Jacobean drama up to 1612 or so (in John Webster's great tragedies).
The "malcontent type" is useful in satire (which is part of his function the the above-mentioned "romances") and seems to have been a kind of popular way for students and young people to carry themselves in the late '90s―dressed in black, with clothes in disarray, arms folded, and cynical remarks always at hand―something like the "Goths" of recent appearance among young people in our day.
The late '90s were not a good time for England―sliding down the back side of the glories of Elizabeth's reign and the defeat of the Armada. There was a series of very bad harvests; the Queen was aging, and nobody was sure who would follow her; students and younger sons were restless and anxious about not being able to rise up into the already well-populated Elizabethan establishment. There was cynicism and discouragement to burn.
Put simply, when Hamlet crosses ("encumbers") his arms and asks his friends not to wink or whisper together when they see him doing so, the audience recognizes that he is putting on the disguise of a "malcontent"―a melancholy-filled student/son who might well be just a little bit deranged (and dangerous).
Don John, as the accompanying brief chapter from the aforementioned book argues, is an early version of a brooding, dark-minded melancholic of this sort:
Don John, the malcontent villain in Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598) is enigmatic primarily because he seems so little developed for a character whose villainy is so central to the plot. He appears, as Anne Barton notes,
a malcontent pure and simple, a man who might say with the cold duke in Thurber's story "The Thirteen Clocks": "We all have faults, and mine is doing wickedness." Certainly, Shakespeare makes no attempt to provide him with even the kind of fairy-tale motivation that Oliver has for practicing against the life of his younger brother in As You Like It.Geoffrey Bullough suggests that Shakespeare may have created Don John partly out of an awareness that
‘natural’ villainy was becoming more desirable, more popular-in the second lustrum of the nineties, with its malcontents and men of strange humours … Perhaps the success of Shylock made Shakespeare add chiaroscuro to his comedy. So he invented Don John, ‘bastard brother to Don Pedro', 'a plain-dealing villain' and a Malcontent of the kind just emerging in satire and the theatre.Bullough may be right, although if Much Ado was written in 1598, Don John had few, if any dramatic antecedents much like himself. A large part of the matter, it seems to me, is that Shakespeare was interested in other things. He was more concerned with evil's effects on the other characters in the play than he was with the source of evil itself. Don John is simply a shorthand version of a character like Shylock or Gloucester—evil-doers whose motivations more nearly caught Shakespeare’s interest.
Curious, however, is Don John’s relation to Benedick. Both pride themselves on a sort of frank cynicism; both have a penchant for melancholy; both relish manipulating others through the use of words, and both are stubbornly unconventional. Beatrice seems to sense the similarity:
He were an excellent man that were made just in the midway between him [Don John] and Benedick. (II.i.6-7)Indeed, Benedick, for all the traits that make us see him sympathetically. must briefly take the role of villain upon himself ("Kill Claudio" [iv.i.291) before his final acceptance into the integrated social order at the end of the play. Were Messina Denmark and Beatrice's words the commands of a father's restive ghost, Benedick might well be driven into becoming more like Don John than Beatrice would care to deal with.
In another respect, Much Ado anticipates the satirical world and the foul-mouthed malcontent railers of the soon-to-be-reopened coterie theatres. As Robert Kimbrough has noted, Claudio's denunciation of Hero is cast in the ugly, caustic language of writers like Marston, Jonson, Dekker or Webster at their most extreme:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend.Antonio, an old man neither as young as Claudio nor, indeed, a member of his “elite” class, thinks he recognizes Claudio's type in his language:
• • •
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
• • •
But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamp'red animals
That rage in savage sensuality. (IV.i.33, 42, 60-62)
Scambling, outfacing, fashionmongering boys,It is in many ways gallants like Claudio who served Marston, Chapman and Jonson both as audiences and as subjects for satire. It is partly from such men that the coterie theatre malcontents learned to speak.
That lie and cog and flout, deprave and slander,
Go anticly, and show outward hideousness,
And speak off half a dozen dang'rous words,
How they might hurt their enemies if they durst. (V.i.9~98)