Character of Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
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Character of Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night we encounter several interesting
characters. The character I found to be most interesting and most different from the
others was Malvolio.
Malvolio is the servant of Olivia. Although he belongs to the servant class, he
believes strongly that he is better than the individuals that he serves. Malvolio often
takes it upon himself to try to discipline others when Olivia is not around. For example
he even takes it upon himself to discipline Sir Toby, his social superior. Malvolio
appears to be a dedicated worker. Most of the time Olivia seems to appreciate the solemn
dignity with which he carries out his duties, however, the others find him arrogant and
regard him as an enemy.
Malvolio, like Rosalind in As You Like It is in disguise. He pretends to be a
Puritan. He dresses in black and never laughs. Throughout the movie we never see a
smile on his face. This however, is merely a disguise that he assumes, that allows him to
criticize others. Under his black garments, lies a heart filled with vanity. He often
daydreams that Olivia will marry him and as a result he will become her equal. He
imagines himself wearing fine clothes and jewelry. He would then have command of the
household, and he would then be able to get revenge on those who haven’t treated him
I find it ironic that Malvolio is more successful at fooling himself than he is at
deceiving others. The other members of the household see through Malvolio’s
hypocritical nature. Even Olivia, who seems to value Malvolio as a servant, says he is
“sick of self love”, Act 1, Scene I, line 92). Though others can see through him,
Malvolio fools himself completely. Maria says, he believes that “all that look on him
love him”(Act II, sc.iii, l.152). He is sure that some accident of luck has caused a man as
fine as him to be born a servant rather than a master. He believes that fortune will
eventually correct that mistake. Malvolio's self deception makes him the perfect target for
Maria and Sir Toby's joke. Maria's letter is only able to convince him that Olivia loves
him because that's what he wants to believe.
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When the letter tells him to act proud and
haughty, it only gives him permission to show how he already feels. His own pride
causes him to act as foolishly as he does. Malvolio's real downfall however, is not caused
by foolishness. Nearly everybody in this play is foolish at one time or another. Unlike the
others, however, Malvolio simply cannot laugh at himself, cannot
recognize his faults. Therefore, he has no part in the healing that occurs at the end of the
play. While the others are all laughing at themselves and forgiving each other, Malvolio
clings to his anger. When he makes his final exit, he vows to take revenge on
In Conclusion, from viewing the play I had a better understanding of the plot. I
did however notice when trying to follow the movie with the play itself, that it was a little
off. They first scene in the play is not acted until ten minutes into the movie. In the
beginning of the play I felt like I was watching a remake of Titanic because everyone was
jumping into the water. I also noticed that while I understood the purpose of Viola’s
disguise, she didn’t look too masculine to me. I thought the power struggle between
Malvolio and Sir Toby was very entertaining. It was portrayed in a light, flimsy manner.
Overall the film wasn’t too bad to watch and I thought Helene Bonham Carter was
fabulous in her role as Olivia.
Malvolio is the steward (head servant) to Lady Olivia. He's a big time hater and criticizes just about everything – Toby's partying lifestyle, Feste's licensed fooling, and all other forms of fun. His party-pooper ways and constant tattle-telling place a big giant bulls-eye on his back – he's just asking for trouble. And that's exactly what he gets when he's duped into behaving like a "madman" to win the favor of Lady Olivia.
Maria says that "sometimes he is a kind of puritan" (2.3.139), which aligns Malvolio with the religious group despised for its opposition to the theater, winter festivals, and other forms of entertainment (just about everything Twelfth Night celebrates). Malvolio's not a Puritan, per se, but the fact that the play aligns him with the sect and goes out of its way to stage his humiliation makes Malvolio's disgrace an important part of the play's rebellious, nose-thumbing spirit.
Puritans were also accused of being power hungry and Malvolio's secret social ambitions fit the bill. When we catch Malvolio daydreaming about marrying Countess Olivia, we learn that his desire has less to do with love than it has to do with his aspirations for social power. What does Malvolio's power fantasy look like? Well, it involves wearing fancy clothes, bossing around the servants, and playing moral cop to Sir Toby's bad guy. Malvolio seems to be punished as much for his moral haughtiness as for his social climbing fantasies, which makes him central to the play's concern with the dangers of social ambition.
Modern audiences often find Malvolio to be a sympathetic figure. Sure, he's annoying and he gets what he deserves when Toby and company lock him up in a dark room and perform a mock exorcism, but Malvolio's circumstances make us uncomfortably aware of the sheer cruelty of treating a person like a madman for a few laughs. In fact, the play raises the point that the trick is like a bear-baiting, an Elizabethan blood-sport that involved chaining a bear to a post and setting a pack of dogs on it. In this sense, Malvolio's comeuppance is a bit like what happens to Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew. Malvolio and Sly are both abused for the entertainment of others – including Shakespeare's audience, which finds itself in cahoots with the pranksters.