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Twelfth Night - We may laugh at Malvolio but to what extent does he deserve our sympathy?

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Introduction

TWELFTH NIGHT: We may laugh at Malvolio but to what extent does he deserve our sympathy? Malvolio makes a first impression worthy of his name, which lends itself to the adjectives malevolent and malicious. In our first encounter with him (Act I scene 5) he projects a persona not dissimilar to what we might expect given the name Malvolio. He is both spiteful and sarcastic as well as haughty and condescending. This is confirmed from his very first line " I delight your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal." This not only insults Feste but also is very disdainful of Olivia who is his mistress. Moreover through turning up his nose at Feste's jokes the audience could well perceive Malvolio as ill humoured and sombre, not someone we relate too or sympathise with. In all his initial scenes his portrayal is very much as someone "sick of self love". He carries out a task requested of him by Olivia with distinct bad grace. He appears to consider it beneath him, that he would be "stooping" through the performance of this errand. He gives this impression of ungraciousness not only to the audience but also to other characters in the play Cesario/ Viola picks up on his rude manner referring to him as a "churlish messenger." ...read more.

Middle

It is not until the end of Malvolio's liaison with Olivia that the trick becomes more sinister and is looking as if it were a "dish o' poison" as it is called earlier. To begin with watching Malvolio approaching Olivia believing she is in love with him is highly entertaining. Yet we realise the joke has gone too far when Sir Toby orders that they have Malvolio "in a dark room and bound." We no longer find this funny and instead are concerned for Malvolio, as we know he is not mad as Sir Toby is trying to convince everyone. Maria also thinks the trick should be brought to an end "lest the device take air and taint." We are suddenly aware that Malvolio has been, as Olivia says later in the play, "notoriously wronged" and feel that perhaps we should feel sympathetic towards him. There is now a distinct change in the nature of the trick. Before it was seemingly harmless and jovial whereas when we see Malvolio imprisoned it is far more sinister. The way Feste tries to "face (Malvolio) out of his wits" just deepens our sympathies for him because I think that as an audience we can see that it's cruel and unfair of Feste to do so. When we "see him delivered" from his confinement as a supposed lunatic we join Olivia in her sympathy towards Malvolio "Alas poor fool, how they have baffled thee." ...read more.

Conclusion

rid of this knavery...for I am now so far in offence with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this sport." I believe a modern audience would be likely to recognise that Sir Toby is not as wholesome as they might have first imagined. Today we would be far more likely to condemn Sir Toby and feel more sympathetic towards Malvolio than a Shakespearean audience. Given this I would conclude that Malvolio does indeed deserve our sympathy. "He hath been notoriously abused." There wasn't any fair reason for him to be "Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest, and made the most notorious geck and gull that e'er invention played on." This accounted for I don't think that by the end of Twelfth Night we feel as sympathetic towards Malvolio as we should. With his declaration that "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" it is easy to forget how badly he has been treated and we are reminded of why he is such a disagreeable character. If we considered it rationally he has every right to feel angry and vengeful after what he has been subjected to. Alas, as is often the case, we do not feel sympathetic towards the person who really does deserve it and our final feelings towards Malvolio are that he will not change and that our sympathies are wasted upon such an ungracious character. Jennie Agg ...read more.

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