The Role Of Malvolio In

‘Twelfth Night’ Essay, Research Paper

The play “Twelfth Night” was written by Shakespeare during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first, and was mainly shown during Epiphany which marks the end of the traditional twelve days of Christmas (hence “Twelfth Night”). The play was written to brighten people up because after Christmas in the 17th century, the food was scarce, and it was dark and cold. Shakespeare probably wrote this comedy to brighten people up during this time of sadness.

The Play “Twelfth Night” is a romantic comedy. Although it is termed a ‘comedy’, the essentials of the play are serious. The play’s opening lines sound it’s major theme, which is love, ‘if music be the food of love, play on’. Some form of love dominates the feelings of all of the major and most of the minor characters, including Malvolio. The play’s first line is spoken by Orsino, who is deeply in love with Olivia. Orsino’s love is purely egotistical as he sees himself as a typical lover, and won’t accept refusal. A misguided kind of love explains Olivia’s feelings for Viola (Cesario). The deception is based on physical appearance, as quoted by Olivia in Act I Scene V,

“I feel this youth’s perfections

with an invisible, and subtle stealth

to creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.”

Both Orsino and Malvolio are in different ways governed by the ’self-love’ which Olivia accuses Malvolio of at the end of act one scene five. Viola’s love for Orsino is a love which is genuine and selfless, as opposed to the vain and ambitious love shown by Orsino towards Olivia.

Another prominent theme in the play is disguise or mistaken identity. Viola’s disguise is essential to the plot as it enables the audience to know more of the true situation when Olivia and Orsino are on stage, and it is the cause of many of the dramatic complications and confusions which make up the story. Other forms of disguise are featured in the play, not just the physical, like when Olivia’s mourning is quickly discarded when she meets Cesario (Viola). A more sinister form of disguise is shown because you find out that Sir Toby Belch disguises his real motives behind his show of friendship for Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

What is meant by the ‘role’ of a character is what the character brings to the play and how the character affects the plot of the story. This will focus on the key scenes that involve Malvolio and his importance in these scenes. From these, observations on Malvolio’s feelings, and the audience’s reactions to Malvolio’s comments can be conducted.

The audience first meet Malvolio quite late in the play, in Act I Scene V. He enters with Olivia which instantly shows the audience that he has some sort of relationship with Olivia. One of his first lines show that he is intolerable of the clown’s joking towards Olivia, and brands the clown as a ‘barren rascal’ and as having ‘no more brain than a stone’. These remarks already show Malvolio as being elitist and Puritanical (The Puritans were a religious group who had condemned theatres and other entertainments because they thought they had a corrupting influence). The following insult from Olivia labelled Malvolio as ’self-loving’, a common point throughout the play. Later in this scene, the audience discover Malvolio’s main role in the play, as a steward to Olivia, as Malvolio refers to her as ‘Madam’. This is how Malvolio is introduced in the play, but is later seen as an ‘ogre’ figure, and a centre of ridicule.

The image of Malvolio as a kind of powerful, ogre-like figure is pronounced in Act II Scene III, when Malvolio catches Sir Toby and Sir Andrew commencing a drinking session in the middle of the night. Malvolio thoroughly disapproves of this act and scolds them for their lack of manners and respect for others, and for making a vulgar ‘alehouse’ of his mistress’s home. Malvolio is now seen by the audience as an unsympathetic character, and we also witness a basic conflict between the values of the aristocratic merrymaker Sir Toby and the puritanical, pompous Malvolio. ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cake and ale?’. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew stand for a tolerant pleasure-loving view of life, and Malvolio stands for the puritanical denial of pleasure. Toby, Fabian, Andrew and Maria then propose a plan to make the pretentious Malvolio look a fool in front of his love, Olivia. Maria reveals that she will forge a love letter in Olivia’s handwriting, and this letter will contain an admiring description of Malvolio, ‘the colour of his beard, the shape of his leg, the manner of his gait, the expressure of his eye, forehead and complexion’. Malvolio will find it and believe that Olivia is in love with him. When he finds the counterfeited letter in Act II Scene V, despite his self-righteous complaints about Sir Toby’s boisterous behaviour, Malvolio is not purely a Puritan at all. His egocentric self-love, as well as his vain ambition, makes him very willing to cast off his severe, Puritanical ways at the slightest hint that more raucous behaviour might give him a good chance to become Olivia’s lover. This stance is shown in the following scenes (Act III Scene IV), when he follows every point of the letter, and dons a pair of yellow stockings and ‘does smile his face into more lines then is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies’. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses many similes such as the one above which adds a more descriptive viewpoint on the play as a kind of guide for future directors. During this time, Malvolio has no idea he has been made to look a fool. The image of the hunting of Malvolio conducted by the quartet of Toby, Andrew, Maria and Feste is notable in this scene, and the concept of ‘bear-baiting’, which was referenced to earlier in the play in Act II Scene V, when Toby, Andrew and Fabian meet in anticipation in the trick they will be playing on Malvolio. Fabian is keen to watch the charade since he also has a grudge against Malvolio because Malvolio has reported Fabian to Olivia for bear-baiting. This was a popular sport for the Elizabethans. ‘you know, he brought me out favour with my lady about a bear-baiting here.’ Sir Toby replies with ‘To anger him we’ll have the bear again; and we will fool him black and blue’.

The group of jokers then decide to take the prank on Malvolio onto a higher level, and do more than humiliate, but emotionally terrorise Malvolio. They plan for Feste to dress up as a priest, ‘Sir Topas’ and to torment Malvolio by accusing him of suffering from a form of ‘midsummer madness’ and by not allowing him to explain his peculiar behaviour to Olivia. At this point, the audience would have felt sorry for Malvolio, although this is all down to Malvolio’s ignorance. As Feste put it, ‘there is no darkness but ignorance’ and Malvolio’s ignorance has been ruthlessly exposed in this scene. He was ignorant to think that Olivia could ever love him in the first place. Toby is keen to bring the joke to an end more out of self-interest than any concern for Malvolio. Malvolio is finally allowed ‘a candle, and pen, ink, and paper’ by Feste so that he can send his message to Olivia. I think that Shakespeare is trying to tell the audience to allow minorities such as the Puritans to have their views and not to judge people on what they believe in. The Elizabethan audience would not have respected Feste’s decision to allow Malvolio to write to Olivia, as the Puritans were such a hated group of people, especially to theatregoers. But I think that the audience would be confronted by a feeling of catharsis. This is the purifying process which arrives from feeling sympathy, and for being empathetic towards the character. This feeling is strong as Malvolio is being subjected to extreme humiliation and emotional torture.

The final appearance by Malvolio in the play is when he approaches Olivia in the final scene, explaining his madcap antics and showing Olivia the forged letter. She instantly recognises it as Maria’s handwriting and this is when Malvolio finds out that all this time, he has been made a fool of by Sir Toby, Maria, Sir Andrew and Feste. As Olivia puts it, he has been ‘most notoriously abused’. Malvolio does not exact revenge for the duration of the play, however, his threat of revenge ‘I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you!’, reverberates beyond the immediate context of the play as the Puritans succeeded in closing down the theatres in 1642!

In conclusion, the role of Malvolio in the play “Twelfth Night” is difficult to define for today’s audience, but for the Elizabethan audience, whom the play was written for, the role of Malvolio referred to Puritanism. Many of the Puritans in Shakespeare’s time were connected to the merchant classes and were considered to be self-serving hypocrites. Malvolio thus embodies all the attributes which the pleasure-seeking Elizabethan audience was predisposed to hate. There is no explicit sympathy for him in the play whatsoever for the 17th century audience but for today’s public, now that the Puritan movement has all but disappeared, the audience will feel sympathetic while Malvolio is locked in the cell. I do not think that Shakespeare intended for the audience to feel sympathy for Malvolio, but in today’s more accepting culture, this cannot be helped. Malvolio helps to add emotional and intellectual depth to the play and I think that the other characters would not be as clearly understood if Malvolio had not been as all-encompassing as he is. The standard that the stellar character gives the spectators help the play run more smoothly, and leaves nothing to be desired in terms of cleanliness and clarity. Toby’s tricks on Malvolio and Malvolio’s awkwardly worded speech add comedy, while the more elaborate side of Malvolio makes the audience try to understand what is going on inside his head. Every line of reference upheld by Malvolio urges the audience to get more involved in the play. Malvolio modifies the dangerously self-absorbed side of each character, and also adds an extra element of ridicule to the play.

Finally, I don’t think that Malvolio is a character that today’s audience can accurately relate to because his Puritanical views are hardly ever witnessed in today’s open society, but, as I mentioned earlier, in the Elizabethan audience, a majority of the public knew of a local Puritan group or individual and Malvolio typifies a hated minority in 17th century culture.


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