Malvolio’s Treatment in Twelfth Night

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Felicia Rubin

Malvolio’s Treatment in Twelfth Night

        The character, Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is meant to be a comic one. We find the initial practical joke played on him to be a source of humour. It could be thought that he deserved this prank, but as the minor characters’ treatment of him deteriorates, we are forced to re-think our views and consider if their abuse of him was really necessary.

Malvolio is described as an almost Jonsonian figure in this otherwise Shakespearean play. His name means “ill wit” which gives the reader a suitable impression of him. He is a Puritan, a most despised figure in Elizabethan times, making his extremist views heard and disapproving of all types of merry making. However Maria, Olivia’s waiting gentlewoman,  does not view Malvolio as a real Puritan.

“The Devil a Puritan that he is, or anything, constantly, but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swarths; the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all who look on him love him”

The majority of characters see Malvolio as an overweening egotist, a social climber, a hypocrite and an offensive rebuker of others for their slack behaviour. All of  these attributes are witnessed throughout Twelfth Night, showing that this offensive characterisation is in fact true.    

We first meet Malvolio in Act 1, Scene 5 where he is showing his dislike of Feste the fool. As Feste seems to have made a good impression on all the other characters, we immediately see how sour Malvolio is and object to the way he sneers, delighting in putting down Feste. This also gives the impression that Malvolio is an attention seeker and is jealous of the attention Feste is getting from Olivia. He even goes so far as to criticise Olivia (his mistress) for being amused by Feste.

“I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal”

Towards the end of the scene however, Malvolio does demonstrate his loyalty to his mistress. He attends promptly upon her request and is always willing to undertake her commands. When asked questions he gives her a thorough and informative response.

“Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy; as a squash is before ‘tis a peascod, or a codling when ‘tis almost an apple”

This description could be what makes Olivia become interested in the messenger and decide to see him.

We next see Malvolio in Act 2, Scene 2, where following Olivia’s instruction he has chased Viola (disguised as Cesario) in order to return the ring which Malvolio believes was forced upon his mistress. Malvolio does not realise that the ring in fact belongs to Olivia and she is just pretending that the boy left it with her in order that he will come back to her home and return it to her. Olivia has fallen in love with Cesario and just wants to see him again. Malvolio has been lied to but he takes the return of the ring beyond his duty. When Cesario claims never to have seen the ring before he simply thinks he is being lied to as he would never doubt Olivia. Malvolio is rude to Viola and even goes so far as to throw the ring on the floor.

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“Come, sir, you peevishly threw it to her, and her will is it should be so returned. If it be worth stooping for, there it lies in your eye; if not, be it his that finds it.”


Olivia certainly did not ask him to do that! Malvolio is a dutiful servant but one who will exceed his duty to increase his own self importance and humiliate a rival.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Malvolio again gives the characters in Twelfth Night cause for complaint. Sir Toby, Feste and Sir Andrew are up very late, having ...

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