Malvolio’s character and the misfortunes he encounters though out Twelfth Night provide a lot of the play’s comedy scenes. His haughty and pretentious demeanour makes him easy to dislike, yet the treatment he receives is at times a little undeserved and leads to the issue of whether or not Malvolio deserves his fate.
In Act 1 of Twelfth Night the audience is immediately presented with Malvolio as a pompous and arrogant man who is ‘sick of self-love.’ He is shown as selfish and disillusioned with self-importance when unwilling to carry out menial tasks like delivering a ring; ‘you might have saved me pains’ even though it is part of his job. Blindly, he simultaneously criticises Feste’s lack of funniness and Olivia for laughing at it; ‘your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal,’ he arrogantly lectures his superiors showing that he thinks he is above them.
This negative representation of Malvolio is continued into Act 2 where the audience gets a glimpse of Malvolio as a puritanical killjoy. Before Malvolio even enters to bring an end to Sir Toby’s fun, Maria comments on her surprise that Olivia hasn’t already ‘called up her steward Malvolio’ to do so. This shows how other characters also think Malvolio is a curmudgeon. Our contempt for Malvolio increases further when he enters and begins to tell the knights off, even though they are his social superiors. He accuses them of being ‘mad’ of acting like ‘tinkers’ who have ‘no wit, manners, nor honesty’. His remarks indicate that he believes they are acting like commoners and that he would never stoop to such a level, he believes he is above them. He is rude to them and also to Maria, who is his social equal, although he clearly doesn’t think so; ‘if you prized my lady’s favour…you would not give means for this uncivil rule.’
Malvolio’s relationships with the other characters in the play are on the whole not very good. He does not respect them and they dislike and ridicule him. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste and Maria do not share Malvolio’s patronising, high opinion of himself and they mimic him by singing at him and reminding him that he is no more ‘than a steward.’ The audience’s dislike for Malvolio is deepened when he leaves threatening to tell Olivia of their behaviour ‘by his hand,’ because of course, nobody likes a telltale. Later, Maria directly calls Malvolio a ‘puritan’ this word is used to describe him as a religious killjoy who wishes to inflict his strong, opinionated views on everybody else. Maria also calls Malvolio an ‘affectioned ass’ showing that he is so deluded with such a high opinion of himself he believes everybody else should share it. This directly relates to Malvolio being vain about his committed Christian values and portrays him as an outsider among more fun loving people.
The language and imagery used to present Malvolio in the early stages of the play enforce a negative image of a rude, pompous and irritating man but he never actually does anything harmful or nasty. He genuinely respects his ‘ladyship’ Olivia and is a loyal servant shown by his dismay at Sir Toby’s behaviour, ‘Is there no respect for place, persons, nor time in you?’ His loyalty shows he understands the value of trust. He is clearly learned and articulate in speech, ‘mitigation in voice’ and he is an efficient steward who, after all, is only doing his job.
Prior to Malvolio receiving the false letter declaring Olivia’s love for him, he makes matters worse for himself by arrogantly imagining his marriage to Olivia, ‘to be Count Malvolio.’ This antagonising behaviour shows that Malvolio is very shallow and simply imagines the trappings of wealth; ‘sitting in my state,’ ‘my officers around me’ and ‘my branched velvet gown,’ his ideas are far above his station, he his developing his enjoyment of appearing important. When he picks the letter up and reads it, Malvolio almost instantly relates Olivia’s love to himself, ‘M – why, that begins my name.’ This shows that his vanity lets him believe, with out question, he is the sort of man Olivia would fall in love with. He falls so easily into such a palpable trap that it is difficult not to believe that he deserves what is coming to him. He convinces himself, on the basis of very thin evidence, that this is confirmation of Olivia’s love for him, ‘I will be point-device the very man.’ Unfortunately this means that Malvolio’s pomposity gets virtually out of control, ‘I will wash off gross acquaintance’ and he becomes completely carried away with his dreams.
Malvolio falls for the trick so entirely that he induces a little sympathy from the audience because he is so gullible and easily deceived. He is a naturally ambitious person, a social climber who only wishes to fulfil his personal potential. Perhaps his imagination is a little over active but he isn’t harming anybody with thoughts. Despite Malvolio’s self-delusion the actions of the conspirators begin to appear a little spiteful and excessive, especially as they are already sowing the seeds for further misunderstandings within the play by forewarning Olivia of Malvolio’s ‘madness.’
Ironically Olivia calls for Malvolio because his seriousness suits her mood but his transformation to her ‘requests’ surprises her, ‘Smil’st thou?’ Naively, Malvolio has meticulously ‘executed’ the ridiculous requests including the ‘trick of singularity’ and ‘yellow stockings.’ He clearly believes that by doing this he will ‘achieve greatness’ and nothing can come between him and the ‘full prospects’ of his hopes. His soaring high opinion of himself allows him to believe what he wants to, because of this he misunderstands everything Olivia says. When she instructs him to ‘go to bed’ to sleep off his madness he believes she means to go to bed with her, ‘I’ll come to thee.’ Olivia shows concern for her loyal servant and asks for ‘special care’ of her ‘fellow.’ He also takes these words the wrong way and launches into a great speech about how she recognises him as her social equal and ‘fellow.’ The scheme has succeeded to make Malvolio look completely foolish but the tricksters then begin to take things a little too far when they accuse him of being ‘possessed.’
When Olivia departs the trick is rendered a success as Malvolio ‘hath taken the infection of the device’ and fallen for it. The audience is reminded of Malvolio’s snobbishness, ‘go off, I discard you.’ This only encourages the kinsmen and servants pretend they believe he is a lunatic, possessed by the devil, ‘bewitched’ and attempt to convince Malvolio himself that he is mad, ‘defy the devil.’ They wind him up and pretend to be concerned by calling him childishly affectionate names like ‘chuck’ and ‘biddy.’ Malvolio senses that they are ridiculing him, and getting annoyed he almost stoops to their ‘element’ by telling them to ‘go, hang yourselves all.’ The jest now goes one step further out of proportion when the conspirators decide they will imprison Malvolio. This, added to his evident confusion causes the audience to now feel sympathetic towards Malvolio.
Maria and the others are still treating the joke as a bit of fun but the audience is able to see how it is getting out of control by the change in Malvolio’s personality. They have begun to mess with his mind; ‘make him believe’ and they trick him into thinking he is talking to a priest but it is really Feste. This is probably in revenge to Malvolio’s remarks regarding Feste’s ‘barren’ humour. Yet this deception increases sympathy for Malvolio because he doesn’t deserve such mistreatment. Feste ridicules Malvolio with his disguise and mocks the steward’s earlier behaviour by adopting a pompous voice; ‘that that is, is.’ Malvolio’s desperation is highlighted by words like ‘never was man thus wronged’ but Feste continues to try and make Malvolio believe he is a ‘lunatic’ and a ‘hyperbolical fiend’ who is speaking the words of ‘Satan.’
The teasing and accusations are the key to the audience’s pity for Malvolio. The treatment of their prisoner even becomes a little sinister when the conspirators try to manipulate Malvolio into thinking he is insane, ‘windows transparent as barricadoes.’ Malvolio ceaselessly denies madness, ‘I am not mad,’ and his language becomes simple, direct and honest showing that he is in control of what he is saying and steadfastly refuses all of Feste’s accusations, ‘I am no more mad then you are.’ This is a complete change from his earlier pompous, lecturing tone of speech. He remains faithful to his Christian beliefs, an admirable quality, even when contradicting them would free him, ‘no way approve his opinion.’ Even when Malvolio’s dignity is taken away, he insists on his sanity ‘well is my wits as any man’ but is not willing to sell his soul, however, Feste’s suggestion of this would increase sympathy for Malvolio, who is clearly not remotely mad. His change in personality is evident when he speaks to the real Feste as an equal, ‘live to be thankful.’
Malvolio’s honesty and devotion to his faith highlights the other characters worse flaws than merely being pompous. Maria’s actions and words show her to be shallow and malicious, ‘make him believe thou art Sir Topas.’ Feste’s teasing and deception is unwarranted and cruel, ‘madman, thou errest.’ Sir Toby just wants to put an end to the ‘sport’ for selfish reasons of not wanting to agitate Olivia further, not for the humanity of Malvolio. These characters do not understand the importance of trust or friendship, at least Malvolio respects the value of loyalty.
In the final scene of the play, Malvolio’s letter to Olivia reveals how he has suffered, ‘put me into darkness.’ He leaves his ‘duty’ to Olivia in order to speak honestly of his ‘injury.’ It is clear how much his dignity and feelings have been hurt without just reason and the treatment he has received has been appalling. Olivia sympathises with him, ‘this practice has most shrewdly passed upon thee’ and considers his fate to be excessive. It is difficult not to feel pity for Malvolio when he discovers he is the last to find out about the wicked trick that has been played upon him, ‘poor fool…they baffled thee.’ Malvolio’s last words lack his usual dignity; ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,’ these words show his anger and resentment towards people he believed he knew, his motive for revenge being the immense humiliation he has suffered.
Malvolio is a loyal servant to Olivia and does far more to help her than the likes of Sir Toby or Feste. His personality flaws are not nearly as destructive as some other characters yet he is excessively punished for them. The joke would have been acceptable if it had only gone as far as to make him look a little foolish and remind him of his position but unfortunately it was taken too far. Throughout Twelfth Night the audience is reminded of Malvolio’s pompous and occasionally arrogant attitude, but despite his faults he still does not deserve his unkind fate.
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