Or: If Music Be the Food of Love, Bugger Off

William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, though centered on the cross-dressing, twin romantic plot of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino, also has the subplot of a prudish, proud steward who invites the good-natured dislike of characters both onstage and in the audience. Malvolio, servant of and would-be suitor to Olivia, never fails to irritate other members of her household with his self-righteousness; consequently, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, and Feste conspire to undo him. That undoing can set Malvolio up as both tragic and comic, depending on the degree of malevolence with which he acts. Malvolio's character can generate pity as well as disdain--the interpretation of his 'love' for Olivia ultimately decides which will prevail.

A Right Bastard

According to Aristotle's Poetics, Malvolio at least partially fulfills the requirements of a comic character because of his definite flaws.

'Comedy,' Aristotle writes, 'sets out to imitate men who are worse than average'.

Malvolio certainly qualifies. The overbearing pride and disdain with which he regards everyone except Olivia renders him egotistical and priggish right from the beginning. His first words of the play belittle the entirely enjoyable Feste, who has engaged Olivia in some harmless railing:

'Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool,' he says (I.v.74-5).

Such stiff-backed replies make him unpopular with Feste, Olivia, and the reader, who has thus far enjoyed Feste's witticisms and word-play as much as they have.

'O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste/ with a distemper'd tongue,' she tells him (I.v.89-90).

Neither she nor Feste takes Malvolio seriously; he performs that function well enough for all. His late-night encounter with Sirs Toby and Andrew reveals even more of his indignation, contrasted with their agreeable drunken foolery. Though obnoxious, at least they can laugh at themselves:

'Tis not the first time I have constrain'd one to / call me knave,' Sir Andrew says to Feste (II.iii.65).

The reader laughs with them, part of the festivities until Malvolio closes them with such tones of superiority that one cannot help resent him. He even goes so far as to propose tattling on Maria for her apparent complicity.

'Mistress Mary, if you prized my lady's favour at any thing more than contempt, you would not give means for this uncivil rule: she shall know of it, by this hand' (II.iii.117-20).

She had come to quiet them herself, or at least warn them of Malvolio's assured presence. Therefore, when she devises a plot for revenge, the reader feels happily complicit, as yet having no reason to think of Malvolio as anything but completely malevolent. He is thus far only comic in that he lacks the potential to be otherwise; the embarrassments Maria and company will soon make him feel appear just.

But Then Again

The plot, however, has the ability to humanize Malvolio by playing on his potential to love. Genuine, unrequited love deserves audience sympathies; one who truly loves cannot be totally without redeeming qualities. Malvolio may have a heart, with which an audience will identify, or he may continue in a vein of self-serving arrogance and social aspirations.

The text alone gives no indication; the decision rests in the mind of the reader or director. Following Maria's planting of the forged letter, Malvolio enters and reveals his dreams of a match with Olivia.

'Maria once told me she did affect me: and I have heard herself come thus near, that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion. Besides, she uses me with a more exalted respect than any one else that follows her (II.v.24-7).

His desire to marry is real enough, but the motives remain unclear. An anxious, heartfelt delivery of the lines would indicate love for Olivia; a calculating, snide one speaks to love of her position.

He imagines himself as 'Count Malvolio,' calling 'his officers about him, in his brancht velvet gown, having come from a day-bed' (II.v.36, 48-9).

The attention he pays to his imagined material and social gain outstrips any he pays to his bride. Moreover, he goes on in his fantasy to criticize smugly Sir Toby and Sir Andrew from the new vantage of his higher social rung. The daydream has less and less to do with Olivia, further devaluing his character and whetting the audience's appetite for revenge. As such, the character is comic by default, because a total villain by Aristotelian definition cannot be tragic.

'An utterly worthless man should not undergo a fall from good fortune to misfortune, for a tragedy thus constructed might arouse compassion but neither pity nor fear,' which an ideal tragedy must.

As long as the audience desires to see Malvolio punished, it will remain willing to laugh at any misery he encounters. The worse Malvolio is played, the more comical he becomes. His vow of revenge at the end is merely a laughable attempt to maintain whatever dignity he thinks he has left as he storms offstage.

But Then Again Again

The same vow has a different tone, though, when spoken by a Malvolio whom the quality of love has redeemed. The tragic elements of his character and role can be emphasized as well as the comic. One cannot question his devotion to Olivia, and the distinctly different treatment she receives from him.

He knows his lady's hand, 'her very C's, her U's, and her T's,' (II.v.88) and behaves around her as any willing lap-dog would.

When he finally picks up the false note, the excitement with which he reads it might uncover sincere feelings of affection that a merely imagined scenario would not elicit.

'I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me' (II.v.164-66).

Malvolio could easily apply to this passage the tone required to cause the audience to identify with him; honest love arouses pity for even the most superficially distasteful characters. Moreover, in such a light, one can see ample reason to reproach Andrew and Toby. Neither is exceptionally bright, and behave as children spiteful after a reprimanding. The audience accepts their behavior because it inspires laughter; class clowns are loved, but seldom respected.

To prey upon Malvolio's love, if it is genuine, now appears cruel. The misery he endures when locked up in the darkness as a madman rallies the audience to his support, because he suffers for love--a highly identifiable circumstance.

Sending him to Olivia in yellow cross-gartered stockings, with ridiculously broad smile and repulsively proud stance might have sufficed to teach him a lesson. They go too far by having him imprisoned, where he complains of the 'hideous darkness' to a taunting Feste (IV.ii.32), who outsmarts him with the same variety of word-play for which Malvolio once labeled him a 'barren rascal' (I.v.82). Soon, however, even Feste feels pity for him, which he demonstrates by agreeing to deliver Malvolio's letter to Olivia, thus ending the practical joke and bringing Malvolio to a more painful truth.

Confronting Olivia, Malvolio finds out that she feels no love for him, that he was vainly 'acting--in an obedient hope' (V.i.339). The vow of revenge, still a prideful attempt to retain dignity, has a darker, more wrenching tone. Toby, Andrew, and Maria never receive their due punishment, and Malvolio exits the stage a tragic character.

Well, That's Why They Have TWO Drama Masks

Malvolio's potential to play both comic and tragic roles makes his character one of the most interesting in the play. The audience can laugh or cry with and at him, in any combination during a single performance. Baseness makes him comic, and pity confirms his tragedy. The true depth of his love for Olivia can bring an audience down on either side, or balance it between them.

Go Read Twelfth Night!
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Head Press, 1990.
Aristotle. Poetics. Hill and Wang. New York, NY 1995.
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