“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 of the chief narrative. Malvolio enters, to fall prey 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 entrance through his “Jove. I thank thee. I will smile. I will make everything that thou wilt have me” (II. v. 174-75) as he struts offstage, he reduces himself by a series of gestures to a sap. After carefully reading the fancied missive that Maria has left to pin him down, he is wholly taken in. Believing that his mistress, the Countess Olivia, is in love with him, he announces:

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“Daylight and champian discovers not more. This is open. 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 very man. I do not now fool myself to let imagination jade, for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me.

“She did commend my yellow stockings of late; she did praise my leg being cross-gartered; and in this, she manifests herself to my love, and with a kind of injunction, thrust me to these habits of her liking. I thank my stars, I am happy. I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings and cross-gartered, even with the speed of putting on. Jove and my stars be praised.”

When he appears on stage, the Countess Olivia has sent for him because “he is sad and civil and suits good for a retainer with my lucks.” (III. iv. 4-5) Coming in wearing his yellow stockings, cross-gartered, smiling, and cross with his subordinates – doing everything exactly as the fancied letter bade him to be – he behaves so bizarrely and disturbingly (III. iv. 13-59) that Olivia becomes convinced that he has gone mad and she must restrain him for his own protection. (III. iv. 63-69) In many public performances, the audience all but cheers as Malvolio races to his downfall.

But is Malvolio genuinely such a funny figure? A ludicrous clown? A close scrutiny does not answer this question. In Acts I and II, there is very little in Malvolio’s role to foreshadow what comes later.

His first speech suggests perhaps a certain pedantry, but not even much of this: Olivia: “What think you of this fool, Malvolio? Doth he not mend?” Malvolio: “Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him. Infirmity that decays the wise doth ever make the better fool.”

Given that Malvolio is Countess Olivia’s steward, his speech seems appropriate to his role. As her steward, he would be the chief officer of her estate, generally expected to act in her position and having her authority over household affairs. (Black’s) His announcement that the presumptive Viola is at the gate and refuses to leave does not convey anything clownish. (I. v. 141-65)

He is taken aback by the youth’s audaciousness, but in response, in the one mention of the caption of the play, Olivia shows that she places her full confidence in him, saying he is to do “what you will” to deal with the impious youth. (III. v. 110-11: “If it be a suit from the Count, I am sick or not at home. What you will, to dismiss it.”; Cahill)

In Act II, he first “returns” the ring that Viola supposedly gave to the Countess Olivia, and his speeches in this scene seem reasonable. (II. ii. 1-16) In the following scene, he forecasts the conflict that will be his undoing when he clashes with Sir Toby Belch, Maria, and the Clown Feste.

However, even Maria opens the scene by questioning Sir Toby’s ongoing raucous behavior, and when the men took to singing their off-color songs, she returned, complaining about the exuberant way Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek were carrying on: “What a caterwauling do you keep here? If my lady has not called up her steward Malvolio and bid him turn you out of doors, never trust me.” (II. iii. 74-76)

When he arrives, Malvolio does little more than repeat and expand on Olivia’s commands, seemingly carrying out his duties as the Countess’s steward. “Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house?…Is there no respect of place, person, nor time in you?” (II.3.91-92)

He warns Sir Toby that Olivia has lost patience with his disorderly behavior, and that he must either stop or leave the house (III.3.99-104). When Toby calls to Maria for a cup of wine, he warns her not to provide him with the means of continued public violence (III.3.125-28).

Some critics see in his behavior a disdain for everyone below his rank (Peterson), but this is hardly the only possible interpretation of this scene. An equally valid interpretation would acknowledge that he is a good steward. By contrast, Sir Toby Belch has already shown that he is imposing on Olivia’s hospitality, condemning the fact that she mourns the death of her brother (I.3.1-2) and doing all that he can to take advantage of Andrew Aguecheek simply because he has money (I.3.21-22). Against this debauchery, Malvolio’s protestations can be read as nothing more than a reasonable attempt to impose order on a drunken satyr.

Furthermore, Malvolio’s actions later in the play show him to be far more the victim of serious wrongdoing than anything funny. There is a cruelty to Act IV, Scene 2, in which, against repeated mockery and under duress, he manages a very convincing defense of his sanity, tricked into believing that those who have come to mock him are offering help (IV.2.21-122).

In Act V, when he is finally released and learns the truth of what has happened, he is not willing to overlook the many abuses that he has suffered. To him, these are not mere funny jokes (V.1.326-77), but Olivia agrees, “He hath been most notoriously abused” (V.1.378). Even Count Orsino sees the justice of his claim (V.1.379).

Therefore, Malvolio is not simply a funny foil. In the comedic scenes, Act II, Scene 5 and Act III, Scene 4, he shows that he can be a sycophantic plotter, but is this truly funny, or is this Malvolio’s tragic flaw? He wants to be more than a steward, but other characters in the play are ambitious as well.

Orsino courts Olivia, Olivia wants to court Cesario, Andrew Aguecheek wants to court Olivia, and Sir Toby Belch wants to take advantage of Sir Andrew. Malvolio is arguably no more ambitious than any of these characters, although he proves singularly unskilled in his attempt. This lack of accomplishment and his gullibility upon finding Maria’s carefully crafted letter is his tragic flaw. As Hamlet said:

“So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin,
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens
The form of plausive manners—that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,—
Their virtues else—be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo—
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.”

Up until his appearance in Act II, Scene 5, Malvolio could have been seen arguably as a perfectly reasonable steward. In that scene, he shows all of the flaws that have made him a figure of such comedy, almost ludicrous presentation.

Yet it seems he is close to Hamlet’s model, having that vicious mole of ambition and a willingness to believe too easily the flattery of the letter Maria has prepared for him. By that one flaw, the general censure 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 too certain of himself.

Malvolio makes too much of words, taking them too 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 truly seeking to serve Olivia as best he can (Peterson)? In the end, 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 a similar mode have played on a character’s aspiration to make fun of him, but it is a merriment tainted with maliciousness. For example, in Niccolo Machiavelli’s “Mandragola,” Nicia desperately wants an inheritor.

Callimacco and the rascally Ligurio convince him that they can provide him with an inheritor, if he will only let his wife Lucrezia to sleep with another man, who will then die as a side-effect of the pregnancy inducing drug, and Callimacco willingly volunteers.

In the end, Lucrezia is told of the secret plan and finds it a fine joke, appreciating her young lover; Callimacco gets the sexual pleasure he wanted; and the old and stupid Nicia (presumably) gets his inheritor he desperately wanted.

Oscar Wilde plays with matters of camouflage and misguided identity 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 make everything work out wittily in the end, but there is still a ghastliness to the drama. And consider the depth of emotion involved in the attachment to the name “Ernest”:

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

Jack. You really love me, Gwendolen?

Gwendolen. Passionately!

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

Gwendolen. My own Ernest!

Jack. But you don’t really mean to say 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 mean to say you couldn’t love me then?

Or, see a modern travesty by Michael Frayn. See just one example: at the beginning of Act III, Lloyd has to pay for flowers several times over, until his hard cash is wholly spent on flowers that he can never get to the right person. If this play were done in a serious tone, would it be anything other than a tragedy?

Our laughter is always the laughter of a group. A man who was once asked why he did not cry at a speech when everybody else was shedding tears replied, “I don’t belong to the parish!” However spontaneous it seems, laughter always implies a sort of secret freemasonry or even complicity with other laughers, real or imagined.

This is competently illustrated in Act II, scene 5. Sir Toby, Fabian, and Andrew maintain their interstitial raillery as Malvolio first goes through his fanciful interview with Sir Toby as Count Malvolio and then as he studies the letter Maria has left for him. The audience joins in the conspiracy against Malvolio, sharing the laughter with the plotters on stage. Indeed, one wonders how different this scene would be without the raillery of Malvolio’s undoers.

The conspiratorial aspect of the letter 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 not, it is entirely natural for his subordinates to want to see him brought down. He outranks Maria, Toby, and Fabian socially, but they entirely outwit him, taking advantage of his weaknesses to bring him low.

Bergson contended that laughter is a social phenomenon, part of a community activity. Yet it is also something that responds to certain demands of life. At the same time, society holds suspended over each individual member, if not the threat of correction, at all events the chance of a snubbing, which, although it is small, is no less dreaded.

Such must be the function of laughter. Always rather mortifying for the one against whom it is directed, laughter is truly and genuinely a sort of social “ragging.”

In laughter, we always find a sneaking purpose to humiliate, and accordingly, to rectify our neighbor, if not in his will, at least in his title. This is the reason a comedy is far more like real life than a play is.

This is clearly applicable to Malvolio’s situation. Indeed, Maria, Sir Toby, and Andrew Aguecheek go Bergson one better. There is nothing sneaky about their intent to mortify their neighbor. They are quite open about wanting to mortify him.

Maria: “My intent is so a horse of that color.”

Andrew: “And your horse now would make him an ass.”

Maria: “Ass. I doubt not.”

Andrew: “Oh, ’twill be admirable.”

What correction is involved in this is questionable. They intend and carry out a social ragging on Malvolio, and as they have him locked up as a lunatic, they revel in the agony that they have inflicted on him.

Along similar, if more elaborate, lines, Sigmund Freud grounds that we repress certain behavioral urges in most aspects of life. This repression leads to a buildup or accumulation of psychic energy. When we are finally able to besiege the various inhibitory inclinations, we express the resulting release of energy in laughter. Laughter becomes a release valve by which we express urges that are otherwise out. (Freud, 293)

Certainly, Maria and Sir Toby Belch chafe under Malvolio’s control. On some level, undoubtedly, they would like to deal with him justly and directly: they would like to kill him. For better or worse, they cannot do this. But they can have an enormous gag at his expense by mortifying him with Olivia.

In the same sense, the audience chafes with them at Malvolio’s actions. Humiliation is a very natural human feeling, and it breeds the desire to bring down the one who has caused it. Because of this, at least on some level, the audience joins Maria and Sir Toby in wanting Malvolio brought down.

“For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.

Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subordinate to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.”

“Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.”

If we take these three citations as outlining the requirements of a tragedy and then evaluate Malvolio’s story in light of them, his is a tragic story. While the audience can see the events coming, as he argues with Sir Toby in Act II, Scene 3, he has no idea that Maria is plotting with Sir Toby to bring him down.

The letter follows as a matter of cause and effect. Maria writes the letter and leaves it where he will stumble across it, so that the effect is, as Aristotle suggests, heightened. Furthermore, this is not a matter of coincidence, but of human action.

It is the actions which bring about the tragedy. Malvolio’s qualities may be subject to debate and discussion, but his actions have a clarity. He reads the letter. He takes the advice that it calls on him to take. He appears cross-gartered, in yellow stockings, doing everything that the letter suggests, not realizing that it is everything that Olivia despises. His character arguably shapes his actions, but it is only 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) Furthermore, 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 behavior, he found one alibi after another for what he was doing. “He’s a coward and a coistrel that will not imbibe to my niece till his encephalons turn o’ th’ toe like a parish top.” (I. iii. 41-43) Should a good steward not react to this kind of wild behavior? Yet in doing so, he is brought down. Anyone who considers this must have a certain component of apprehensiveness.

This Malvolio is a complex figure. He has about him elements of the comedian, the ludicrous, and yet there is also a deeply tragic facet to the manner in which he is brought down. Indeed, part of the illustriousness of the role of Malvolio is that he is not simply a dandified stick-figure. He is a character who embodies so many human facets that properly portraying and understanding him requires that we understand a great deal about humanity.


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“Twelfth Night” Malvolio: A Comic Or A Tragic Figure?. (2018, Jun 23). Retrieved from


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