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“Twelfth Night” Malvolio: A Comic Or A Tragic Figure?

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    In many productions of Twelfth Night  Act II. scene 5 represents a high point of the drama. even though it deals with what is really a sub-plot instead than the chief narrative. Malvolio enters. to fall quarry to the traps set for him by Maria. Sir Toby Belch. and Fabian.

    From his “‘Tis but luck. all is fortune” ( II. v. 24 ) as his entryway through his “Jove. I thank thee. I will smile. I will make everything that 1000 wilt have me” ( II. v. 174-75 ) as he struts off phase. he reduces himself by a series of gestures to a sap. After carefully reading the fancied missive that Maria has left to pin down him. he is wholly taken in. Believing that his kept woman the Countess Olivia is in love with him. he announces:

    Daylight and champian discovers non more. This is unfastened. I will be proud. I will read politic writers. I will perplex Sir Toby. I will rinse off gross familiarity. I will be point devise. the really adult male. I do non now fool myself to allow imaginativeness jade. for every ground excites to this. that my lady loves me.

    She did commend my xanthous stockings of late ; she did praise my leg being cross-garter’d ; and in this she manifests herself to my love. and with a sort of injunction thrust me to these wonts of her liking. I thank my stars. I am happy. I will be unusual. stout. in xanthous stockings and cross-garter’d. even with the speed of seting on. Jove and my stars be praised.

    When he following appears on phase. the Countess Olivia has sent for him because “he is sad and civil and suits good for a retainer with my lucks. ” ( III. four. 4-5 ) Coming in have oning his xanthous stockings. cross-gartered. smiling. and cross with his subordinates — making everything exactly as the fancied missive bade him to be. he behaves so bizarrely and disturbing ( III. four. 13-59 ) that Olivia becomes convinced that he has gone huffy and she must be restrained for his ain protection. ( III. four. 63-69 ) In many public presentations of the audience all but cheers as Malvolio races to his autumn.

    But is Malvolio genuinely such a amusing figure? A ludicrous clown? A close scrutiny of does non reply this inquiry. In Acts I and II. there is really small in Malvolio’s function to calculate what comes subsequently. His first address suggests possibly a certain pedantry. but non even much of this: Olivia: What think you of this sap. Malvolio? Doth he non repair? Malvolio: Yes. and shall make till the stabs of decease shingle him. Infirmity that decays the wise doth of all time make the better sap.

    Given that Malvolio is Countess Olivia’s steward. his address seems appropriate to his function. As her steward. he would be the main officer of her estate. by and large expected to move in her position and holding her authorization over family affairs. ( Black’s ) His proclamation that the really assumptive Viola is at the gate and refuses to go forth does non convey anything clownish. ( I. v. 141-65 ) He is taken aback by the youth’s audaciousness. but in response. in the one reference of the caption of the drama. Olivia shows that she places her full assurance in him. stating he is to make “what you will” to cover with the impious young person. ( III. v. 110-11: “If it be a suit from the Count. I am ill or non at place. What you will. to disregard it. ” ; Cahill )

    In Act II. he foremost “returns” the ring that Viola purportedly gave to the countess Olivia. and his addresss in this scene seem sensible. ( II. two. 1-16 ) In the following scene. he forecasts the struggle that will be his undoing when he clashes with Sir Toby Belch. Maria. and the Clown Feste. However. even Maria opened the scene by oppugning Sir Toby’s ongoing raucous behaviour. and when the work forces took to singing their off-color vocals. she returned kicking about the exuberant manner Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek were keeping Forth: “What a caterwauling make you maintain her? If my lady have non call’d up her steward Malvolio and bit him turn you out of doors. ne’er trust me. ” ( II. three. 74-76 )

    When he arrives. Malvolio does little more than repetition and expand on this. seemingly transporting out his warrant from the countess. “Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house? . . . Is at that place no regard of topographic point. individual. nor clip in you. ” ( II. three. 91-92 ) He warns Sir Toby that Olivia has lost forbearance with his disorderly behavior so that he must either discontinue his wild behaviour or discontinue the house. ( III. three. 99-104 ) When Toby calls to Maria for a stoup of vino. he warns her non to supply him with the agencies of continued public violence. ( III. three. 125-28 )

    Some critics see in his behaviour a disdain for everyone below his rank ( Peterson ) . but this is barely the lone possible reading of this scene. An every bit sound reading would admit that he is a good steward. By contrast. Sir Toby Belch has already shown that he is enforcing on Olivia’s cordial reception. condemning the fact that she mourns the decease of her brother ( I. iii. 1-2 ) and making all that he can to take advantage of Andrew Aguecheek exactly because he has money. ( I. three. 21-22 ) Against this debauch. Malvolio’s protestations can be read as no more than a sensible effort to enforce order on a bibulous satyr.

    Further. Malvolio’s actions subsequently in the drama show him far more the victim of serious wrongdoing than anything amusing. There is a inhuman treatment to Act IV. scene two. in which. against repeated twit and under labored fortunes. he manages a really believable defence of his saneness. tricked into believing that these people who have come to mock him are offering aid. ( IV. two. 21-122 ) In Act V. when he is eventually released and learns the truth of what has happened. he is non willing to overlook the many maltreatments that he has suffered. To him these are non mere amusing jokes ( V. i. 326-77 ) . but Olivia agrees. “He hath been most notoriously abused. ” ( V. I. 378 ) Even Count Orsino sees the justness of his claim. ( V. I. 379 )

    Therefore. Malvolio is non simply a amusing foil. In the ludicrous scenes. Act II. scene 5 and Act III. scene 4. he shows that he can be a bootlicking plotter. but is this genuinely amusing. or is this Malvolio’s defect tragic? He wants to be more than a steward. But other characters in the drama are ambitious. Orsino tribunals Olivia. Olivia wants to court Cesario. Andrew Aguecheek wants to court Olivia. Sir Toby Belch wants to take advantage of Sir Andrew. Malvolio is arguably no more ambitious than any of these. although he proves singularly unskilled in his attempt. This privation of accomplishment and his credulousness upon happening Maria’s carefully crafted missive is his tragic defect. As Hamlet said:

    So. oft it opportunities in peculiar work forces.

    That for some barbarous mole of nature in them.

    As. in their birth–wherein they are non guilty.

    Since nature can non take his origin–

    By the o’ergrowth of some skin color.

    Oft interrupting down the pickets and garrisons of ground.

    Or by some wont that excessively much o’er-leavens

    The signifier of approving manners. that these work forces.

    Transporting. I say. the cast of one defect.

    Bing nature’s livery. or fortune’s star. –

    Their virtuousnesss else–be they every bit pure as grace.

    As infinite as adult male may undergo–

    Shall in the general animadversion take corruptness

    From that peculiar mistake: the drachm of eale

    Doth all the baronial substance of a uncertainty

    To his ain dirt.

    Up until his visual aspect in Act II. scene 5. Malvolio could hold been seen arguably as a absolutely sensible steward. In that scene. he shows all of the defects that have made him a figure of such amusing. about ludicrous presentation. Yet it seems he is close to Hamlet’s theoretical account. holding that barbarous mole of aspiration and a willingness to believe excessively easy the flattery of the missive Maria has prepared for him. By that one defect. the general animadversion falls on him amid laughter.

    Indeed. the Malvolio subplot is in many ways a deformed mirror of the chief secret plan. with mistakes. camouflages. errors in individuality. and finally a matrimony. ( Cahill ) Some critics see Malvolio as “bad will. ” ( Peterson ) . Puritanically excessively certain of himself. Malvolio makes excessively much of words. taking them excessively literally. But is his gravitation a mask. patina of sedate soberness masking his true purposes. as he fawns before sympathetic blue bloods. or is he unfeignedly seeking to function Olivia as best he can. ( Peterson ) In the terminal. he is wholly outdone by Toby and Maria. and he is one character left deeply unhappy at the terminal of the drama. ( V. i. 377-79 )

    Other comedies in similar mode have played on a character’s aspiration to do merriment of him. but it is a merriment tainted with maliciousness. For illustration. in Niccolo Machievelli’s. Nicia urgently wants an inheritor. Callimacco and the rascally Ligurio convince him that they can supply him with an inheritor. if he will merely let his married woman Lucrfezia to kip with another adult male. who will so decease as a side-effect of the gestation bring oning drug. and Callimacco volitionally voluntaries. In the terminal. Lucrezia is told of the secret plan. and finds it a all right joke. appreciating her immature lover ; Callimacco gets the sexual pleasance that he wanted ; and the old and stupid Nicia ( presumptively ) gets his inheritor he urgently wanted.

    Oscar Wilde plays with affairs of camouflage and misguided individuality in a light satirical travesty. Yet there is a dark tone about it. Jack was found as an abandoned baby in Victoria Station. Wilde manages to do everything work out wittily in the terminal. but there is still a ghastliness to the drama. And see the deepness of emotion involved in the fond regard to the name “Ernest” :

    Gwendolen: The minute Algernon foremost mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest. I knew I was destined to love you.

    Jack. You truly love me. Gwendolen?

    Gwendolen. Passionately!

    Jack. Darling! You don’t cognize how happy you’ve made me.

    Gwendolen. My ain Ernest!

    Jack. But you don’t truly average to state that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernest?

    Gwendolen. But your name is Ernest.

    Jack. Yes. I know it is. But saying it was something else? Do you intend to state you couldn’t love me so?

    Or see a modern travest by Michael Frayn. See merely one illustration: at the beginning of Act III. Lloyd has to pay for flowers several times over. to where his hard currency is wholly spent on flowers that he can ne’er acquire to the right individual. If this drama were done in a serious tone. would it be anything other than a calamity?

    Our laughter is ever the laughter of a group. A adult male who was one time asked why he did non cry at a discourse. when everybody else was casting cryings. replied: “I don’t belong to the parish! ” However self-generated it seems. laughter ever implies a sort of secret freemasonry. or even complicity. with other laughers. existent or fanciful.

    This is competently illustrated in Act II. scene 5. Sir Toby. Fabian. and Andrew maintain up their interstitial raillery as Malvolio foremost goes through his fanciful interview with Sir Toby as Count Malvolio. and so as he surveies the missive Maria has left for him. The audience joins in the confederacy against Malvolio. sharing the laughter with the plotters on phase. Indeed. 1 wonders how different this scene would be without the raillery of Malvolio’s undoes.

    The conspirative facet of the missive scene and of the keep scene. Act IV. scene two. is clear. Whether Malvolio is the black character that astringent critics make him out to be or non. it is wholly natural for his subsidiaries to desire to see him convey down. He outranks Maria. Toby. and Fabian socially. but they wholly outwit him. taking advantage of his failings to convey him low.

    Bergson contended that laughter is a societal phenomenon. portion of a community activity. Yet. it is besides something that to certain demands of life. At the same clip. society holds suspended over each single member. if non the menace of rectification. at all events the chance of a snubbing. which. although it is little. is none the lupus erythematosus dreaded. Such must be the map of laughter. Always instead mortifying for the one against whom it is directed. laughter is. truly and genuinely. a sort of societal ‘ragging. ’

    In laughter we ever find an sneaking purpose to mortify. and accordingly to rectify our neighbour. if non in his will. at least in his title. This is the ground a comedy is far more similar existent life than a play is.

    This is clearly applicable to Malvolio’s state of affairs. Indeed. Maria. Sir Toby. and Andrew Aguecheek go Bergson one better. There is nil sneaking about their purpose to mortify their neighbour. They are rather unfastened about desiring to mortify him.

    Mare: My intent is so a Equus caballus of that colour.

    Andrew: And your Equus caballus now would do him as buttocks.

    Mares: Ass. I doubt non.

    Andrew: O. ‘twill be admirable.

    What rectification is involved in this is questionable. They intend. and they carry out a societal ragging on Malvolio. and as they have him locked off as a lunatic. they revel in the agony that they have inflicted on him.

    Along similar if more elaborate lines. Sigmund Freud in his grounds that we repress certain behavioural urges in most facets of life. This repression leads to a physique up or accretion of psychic energy. When we are eventually able to besiege the assorted inhibitory inclinations. we express the ensuing release of energy in laughter. Laughter becomes a release valve by which we express urges that are otherwise out. ( Freud. 293 )

    Surely Maria and Sir Toby Belch chafe under Malvolio’s control. On some degree. doubtless. they would wish to cover with him merely and straight: they would wish to kill him. For better or worse. they can non make this. But they can hold a enormous gag at his disbursal in mortifying him with Olivia.

    In the same sense. the audience chafes with them at Malvolio’s actions. Humiliation is a really natural human feeling. and it breeds the desire to convey down the 1 who has caused it. Because of this. at least on some degree. the audience. articulation Maria and Sir Toby desiring Malvolio brought down.

    For Tragedy is an imitation. non of work forces. but of an action and of life. and life consists in action. and its terminal is a manner of action. non a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities. but it is by their actions that they are happy or the contrary. Dramatic action. therefore. is non with a position to the representation of character: character comes in every bit subordinate to the actions. Hence the incidents and the secret plan are the terminal of a calamity ; and the terminal is the main thing of all.

    Tragedy is an imitation non merely of a complete action. but of events animating fright or commiseration. Such an consequence is best produced when the events come on us by surprise ; and the consequence is heightened when. at the same clip. they follows as cause and consequence. The tragic admiration will so be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident ; for even happenstances are most dramatic when they have an air of design.

    If we take these three citations as sketching the demand of a calamity. and so measure Malvolio’s narrative in visible radiation of them. his is a tragic narrative. While the audience can see the events coming. as he argues with Sir Toby in Act II. scene three. but he has no thought that Maria is plotting with Sir Toby to convey him down. The missive follows as a affair of cause and consequence. Maria writes the missive and leaves it where he will falter across it. so that the consequence is. as Aristotle suggests. heightened. Further. this is non a affair of happenstance. but of human action.

    It is the actions which bring about the calamity. Malvolio’s qualities may be capable to debate and treatment. but his actions have a lucidity. He reads the missive. He takes the advice that it calls on him to take. He appears cross-gartered. in xanthous stockings. making everything that the missive suggests non recognizing that it is everything that Olivia despises. His character arguably shapes his actions. but it is merely through his actions that we learn about his character.

    Do we experience fear and commiseration over what happens to Malvolio? Surely. the drama suggests that Olivia and Orsino do experience a certain commiseration for him. ( V. i. 377-78 ) Further. his destiny evokes at least a tenseness. He was the steward. the good retainer sent by Olivia to seek to harness in her raucous kinsman.

    Given the manner that Sir Toby Belch had been acting. even Maria found him about untenable. but when she chided him over his behaviour. he found one alibi after another for what he was making. “He’s a coward and a coistrel that will non imbibe to my niece till his encephalons turn o’ th’ toe like a parish top. ” ( I. iii. 41-43 ) Should a good steward non react to this kind of wild behaviour? Yet in making so. he is brought down. In anyone who considers this. there must be a certain component of apprehensiveness.

    This Malvolio is a complex figure. He has about him elements of the comedian. about the ludicrous. and yet there is besides a profoundly tragic facet to the manner that he is brought down. Indeed. portion of the illustriousness of the function of Malvolio in tis that he is non simply a dandified stick-figure. He is a character who embodies so many human facets that decently portraying and understanding him requires that we understand a great trade about humanity.


    1. Aristotle. “Poetics. ”Introduction to AristotleIngram Bywater. trans. ( New York. New York: Modern Library 1947 ) .
    2. Bergson. Henri.Laugh: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic( New York. New York: MacMillan. 1911 ) .
    3. Black’s Law Dictionary4th rpm erectile dysfunction. ( St. Paul. Gopher state: West Publishing co. . 1968 ) .
    4. Cahill. Edward. “The Problem of Malvolio. ”Find Articles. Originally published inCollege Literature. ( Jun 1996 ) 2006. accessed Dec. 7. 2006. Available at & lt ; hypertext transfer protocol: //findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_qa3709/is_199606/ai_n8740823/pg_1 & gt ; . Internet.
    5. Frayn. Michael.Noises Off. ( London. England: Methuen. 1982 ) .
    6. Freud. Sigmund.Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious( New York. New York: W. W. Norton. 1989 ) .
    7. Machievelli. Niccolo. “La Mandragola”Eight Great ComediesBarnet Sylvan. erectile dysfunction. ( New York. New York: New American Library. 1958 ) .
    8. Peterson. Mark. “Reading Puritans and the Bard: The Case for Brushing up Your Shakespeare. ”Common Topographic point. Oct. 23006. accessed December 7. 2006. Available at & lt ; hypertext transfer protocol: //www. common-place. org/vol-07/no-01/reading/ & gt ; Internet.
    9. Shakespeare. William.Hamlet. ( New Haven Connecticut: Yale University Press. 1922 ) .
    10. Shakespeare. William.Twelfth Night. ( New Haven Connecticut: Yale University Press. 1922 ) .
    11. Shaw. George Bernard.Weaponries and the Man. ( New York. New York: Dover Publications. 1990 ) .
    12. Wilde. Oscar.The Importance of Being Earnest. ( New York. New York: Dover Publications. 1990 )

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