Malvolio, Olivia’s steward in Twelfth Night, is self-important, pompous, and even a little puritanical (he is accused of being a ‘puritan’ by the other characters). But he is also alienated. Indeed, his alienation from the other characters – from Olivia’s affections and favours which he so craves, and from Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Fabian and their drunken and riotous antics – is his saving grace, and what prevents him from being an insufferable bore. We take delight in laughing at him when he dons yellow stockings and makes a fool of himself, believing his mistress wants him to dress in such a ridiculous fashion; but Shakespeare encourages to laugh as much at Malvolio’s human frailty and weakness as at his pomposity and delusions of grandeur. His (deluded) belief that Olivia may indeed favour him is only too understandable, especially in Twelfth Night, a play with no shortage of characters who have deluded beliefs about other characters’ affections. We enjoy seeing him taken down a peg or two, but Shakespeare wants our mockery to be gentle, rather than gleefully triumphant.
Indeed, this is the clever masterstroke of that key scene, II.5, in which Malvolio finds the letter (really written by Maria, Olivia’s gentlewoman, but imitating her mistress’ handwriting) in which Olivia supposedly declares, anonymously, her fondness for her steward, and Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Fabian all hide in the tree and watch as Malvolio prances his way about the place, his breast positively swelling with misplaced pride at the prospect of Olivia liking him. What makes the character of Malvolio, for all of his puritan qualities, hard to dislike completely is that he is, at least in part, right: Sir Toby is a drunkard who clearly overindulges, and Malvolio’s imagined delight in being able to tell his mistress’ uncle to cut back his drinking does carry more than a grain of sense. What’s more, while we laugh at Malvolio’s naivety in being taken in by the false letter, we should bear in mind that Sir Andrew Aguecheek, one of the men laughing at the trick being played on Malvolio, is himself deluded in thinking he has a chance with Olivia – his confidence having been encouraged, quite irresponsibly, by Sir Toby Belch.
Malvolio’s famous parting shot in V.1, that he’ll be ‘revenged on the whole pack of you’, reminds us that Twelfth Night is in many ways a carnivalesque play, in which usual rules and roles are suspended – but that the status quo will be resumed tomorrow. That said, the carnivalesque is often about servants becoming masters, or masters good-naturedly taking a joke from those below them in the social pecking order. Malvolio is only a steward, whereas Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, as their knighthoods imply, are of the aristocracy (Sir Toby is, after all, the countess Olivia’s uncle). Their treatment of Malvolio, even if he deserves to be ribbed a little for his pomposity, can hardly be unequivocally described as ‘punching up’, to use the contemporary parlance. As Sir Toby and the others see it, Malvolio does have too high an opinion of himself, but this is partly because he is only a steward: they think he thinks too much of himself, given his position in the social order.
If this is to launch too vigorous a defence of Malvolio (whose name, lest we forget, literally means ‘ill will’, playing off the ‘what you will’ of the play’s subtitle), it’s worth remembering that it is Maria, Olivia’s gentlewoman, who hatches the plan to teach Malvolio a lesson, and she leads the ruse throughout. Ultimately, Malvolio’s downfall is related to his personality more than the social position he occupies. And whilst his place in the social ladder is of significance, it is significant not least because Maria knows that, in tricking him into believing Olivia likes him, his pomposity will swell to new levels, thus revealing his true colours for all – Olivia included – to see. However, one of the things which make Shakespeare such a superlative playwright is that this isn’t the only way the character of Malvolio, and the play, can be spun: indeed, the 2012 Globe production with Mark Rylance as Olivia and Stephen Fry as Malvolio depicted Malvolio as motivated more by genuine love for his mistress than ambition for social advancement. When interpreted this way, Malvolio’s final line about being revenged upon the whole pack of them sounds like the cry of a wronged man whose emotions have been trampled on rather than the bitter and sinister threat of a power-hungry puritan. Malvolio is an outsider, however one interprets the play, after all.
Some notable actors to play the character of Malvolio over the centuries are Henry Irving, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Simon Russell Beale, and more recently Stephen Fry, in a much-publicised 2012 production at Shakespeare’s Globe.