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 a good time but making a huge disturbance with their drunken singing. Malvolio barges in and tries to put an end to their gallivanting. Unfortunately the way he chooses to do this proves offensive to Sir Toby and his revellers, as they know he is in no place to reprimand superiors. He is against the festive spirit of the play. It is sensible of Malvolio to try and calm the party down as it is causing a disturbance in his lady’s house, Maria, who is no friend of Malvolio’s had recently remarked:
“What a caterwauling do you keep here! If my lady have not called up her steward Malvolio and bid him turn you out of doors, never trust me.”
Again Malvolio seems to exceed his brief but perhaps we should also note that Malvolio is not acting as an independent person, but as countess Olivia’s dutiful employee, obeying orders:
“Sir Toby, I must be round with you. My lady bade me tell you that, though she harbours you as her kinsman, she’s nothing allied to your disorders. If you can separate yourself and your misdemeanours, you are welcome in the house. If not, an it would please you to take leave of her, she is very willing to bid you farewell.”
Sir Toby then makes a scornfully snobbish remark.
“Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
Unlike the wealthy, carefree Sir Toby, poor Malvolio has to work for his living. He is just obeying orders from the countess, but at the end of this scene has to suffer humiliation at the hands of this drunken, idle group. Sir Toby is constantly reminding Malvolio of his place in the household.
“Go, sir, rub your chain with crumbs.”
Sir Toby could here be talking about the chain of command in the household, his chain of office or of the invisible chains which seem to hold Malvolio captured to their torments. It is his errand at the wishes of his mistress that provokes Maria, Toby and Andrew to hatch the plot against Malvolio.
Maria plots to make a fool out of Malvolio. She thinks it is time he learned a lesson and intends to make Malvolio believe that Olivia is in love with him by dropping love letters for him to find (written by Maria but in Olivia’s handwriting). Maria knows that Malvolio will do some crazy things for Olivia’s love.
Malvolio’s self love is apparent in Act 2, scene 5:even before he has found the forged letter, he is fantasising about being married to Olivia and the social power this will bring him. Malvolio is simply in love with the idea of being in love with Olivia. He wants to be above the other servants and able to reprimand Sir Toby.
“Saying, Cousin Toby, my fortunes having cast me on your niece give me this prerogative of speech…”
Malvolio is desperate for revenge after the humiliation that has been forced on him because of his social class. He knows that in his present situation this will never be achieved. He does not realise that while he is fantasising about putting down Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, they are, along with Fabian (another person who wants revenge on Malvolio), at that exact moment hiding in the box tree and listening to every word he is saying about them. This does not encourage them to be lenient with Malvolio.
After witnessing Malvolio’s egoistic fantasies, we can see why he is so easily duped by Maria’s letter. Ironically the man who once put down the clown (Feste) is now becoming the clown himself as he reads out coarse puns:
“These be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s; and thus makes her great P’s.”
Malvolio is convinced that Olivia is deeply in love with him but doesn’t know how to tell him. In the letter Maria makes Malvolio believe that Olivia is asking him to wear yellow stockings as a sign that he loves her, a style which she in fact detests. Even though these items are not usually included in Malvolio’s sombre attire he is desperate to please the countess:
“I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings and cross-gartered, even with the swiftness of putting on. Jove and my stars be praised!”
We must remember that Malvolio is still “a Puritan” who does not believe in love and happiness. He therefore convinces himself that it is the work of “Jove” that has brought this occurrence about.
In Act 3, scene 4, Olivia calls upon Malvolio for advice about her troubles with Cesario. She thinks Malvolio has an appropriate manner for her present feelings as he is sad and solemn.
“Where’s Malvolio? He is sad and civil,
And suits well for a servant with my fortunes.”
It is then that Maria takes the plot against Malvolio further than a joke. She tells Olivia that Malvolio has gone mad and may well be possessed. Malvolio then bounces in, smiling and kissing Olivia’s hand just like the letter said he should. Unfortunately Olivia has not seen the letter and therefore does indeed believe Malvolio has lost his wits. When Malvolio is asked by Olivia why he is smiling as she sent for him on a sad occasion, he thinks she is talking about him and the fact that she cannot show her love for him. He confuses Olivia greatly by misunderstanding her.
“I could be sad. This does make some obstruction in the blood, this cross gartering, but what of that?”
Cross-gartering, the fashion of wearing ribbons tied round the knees, is mentioned nine times in Twelfth Night, all in relation to Malvolio, whose normal attire is sombre and unadorned. One can tell why Malvolio speaks of the style’s potential for causing discomfort. Malvolio will do anything for his mistresses love as he craves the power it brings with it.
Olivia is shocked and confused by Malvolio’s sudden character change. She believes what Maria has told her is true and is worried about Malvolio. Whatever the other characters say about him, Olivia is very fond of him and would never want him to come to any harm.
“Let some of my people have special care of him. I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry.”
These words spoken by Olivia convince Malvolio even more that she is in love with him. She asked for him to be looked upon by Sir Toby which is what Maria said would happen in the letter. We can tell that part of the letter will now give Sir Toby more cause to dislike Malvolio.
“Be opposite with kinsman (Sir Toby and Sir Andrew), surly with servants (Maria and Fabian), let thy tongue tang with arguments of state, put thyself into the trick of singularity.”
Malvolio is therefore very rude and surly with Sir Toby and his comrades.
Sir Toby makes a victim of Malvolio, telling him that he has been possessed by the devil. The others join in and you get the impression of vultures circling for the kill. Malvolio is getting more and more agitated as he knows he is not mad, only doing what he thinks are his mistresses wishes.
“Pray G-d be he not bewitched!”
They continue to verbally attack Malvolio until he storms out in a huff. The minor characters are amazed that Malvolio has fallen so deeply into the trap but are not content to let the revenge rest. They decide to take advantage of Olivia thinking Malvolio is mad and lock him in a dark room. This is a cruel thing to do as they know there is nothing wrong with Malvolio. Has he not suffered enough embarrassment?
As the characters continue to victimise and mistreat Malvolio a sense of darkness descends over the comedy. Malvolio is bound in a dark room and then Feste is bought into the mistreatment in order to torment Malvolio more. Feste reluctantly disguises himself as Sir Topas (a priest) as Maria knows the summoning of this character will be further torture for Malvolio. Here Feste gives another example of how holy men are not as good as they should be.
“I will dissemble myself in’t, and I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown.”
Malvolio to could have been using his religion to hide his true feelings and personality. Feste then goes on to abuse Malvolio, who thinks that Sir Topas, a holy man, will help him. The theme of darkness is repeated,
“This house is dark.”
Which seems to show just how dark the comedy is. Feste uses words cruelly and confuses Malvolio by saying “bay windows light as ebony”, which is of course black. Even though Feste is now enjoying playing with Malvolio he soon tires of exaggerating the badness in him.
Feste then returns again to Malvolio but without a disguise. Malvolio tells him how he has been used.
“They have propertied me; keep me in darkness, send ministers to me-asses!-and do all they can to face me out of my wits.”
Perhaps Feste now feels sorry for Malvolio as he hears how Malvolio still believes in Olivia’s love. He agrees to help Malvolio by being a go- between, between him and Olivia and gives Malvolio the means to write her a letter. Later in the play he delivers it to her in person.
Olivia finally discovers the trick that has been played on Malvolio in Act 5, Scene 1. After sending for Malvolio to help solve a problem she remembers that “he’s much distract”, and enquires how he is. Feste is then prompted to read the letter from Malvolio, and after he tries to make a joke of this serious situation, it is finally read aloud by Fabian. Olivia realises that Malvolio is not mad and has just been mistreated. When brought before Olivia, Malvolio is sure that it is Olivia who has done him wrong. Olivia deciphers the letter and knows immediately that it is Maria’s handwriting. She feels sorry for Malvolio.
“Alas, poor fool! How have they baffled thee!”
This prompts Fabian and Feste to confess to their involvement in the plot against Malvolio. Malvolio, seeing how many people really despise him is hurt and angry. He storms off the stage shouting:
“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”
Even Olivia agrees that Malvolio has been most notoriously abused!