Twelfth Night

Nuria Gisbert

‘Some are born great...'

“...some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

The traditional view of Malvolio is that of a ‘bubble of pomposity’ who brings about his own demise by criticising and insulting other characters - those he believes to be beneath him in terms of moral and social standing.[1]  Because he neither thinks nor does what he preaches, others find him repugnant, one of the reasons for their heavy-handed jokes at his expense. There are two sides to Malvolio: the unbending spoilsport Puritan who disapproves of everything except religion and high-minded morality; and the man of many vices, including arrogance, self-love, lasciviousness, a burning desire to improve his social status, and scheming ambition. Even the name chosen for him by Shakespeare holds negative connotations, meaning ‘ill-wishing’ in Italian.

Malvolio is isolated and friendless, as nobody else in the play shares his outspoken Puritanical and extremely straight-laced worldview. Consequently, he becomes an easy target for Maria and Sir Toby Belch’s scheming. They force him to humiliate himself publicly, then shame him further by locking him for days in a dark room to recover from his supposed episode of frantic ‘madness’. By the end of the play Malvolio has been so cruelly treated that it is difficult for the audience not to feel sorry for him, even if he is a vain and hypocritical snob. His punishment becomes complete with the demeaning exposure of his romantic feelings for Olivia; Malvolio’s deepest hopes and desires are utterly crushed at this point, as he is rejected by his beloved employer.[2]

The festive jests carried out against Malvolio correspond to the tradition of saturnalian mockery and revelry, exactly what was taking place at the Inns of Court at the time of year when the play was first staged there. As to the specific jokes played upon him, they are full of significance too. The yellow of daffodils, the colour of Malvolio’s comical stockings, was abhorred by Queen Elizabeth I (as well as Olivia); it was also the colour of the enemy’s flag (Spain), and symbolised cowardice, self-love, jealous husbands, and vice. Additionally, by 1600 ‘the fashion of cross garters was outmoded (...) worn chiefly by old men, Puritans, (and) pedants’, just like Malvolio. The harsh ‘sport’ played on the steward to castigate his self-conceit and constant control of others’ behaviour is, however, full of extreme malice and mercilessness. How should a sensible man take a joke such as this? [3] Is Malvolio a sensible man? By the end of the play, he is laughed out of court by most characters (except Olivia) as he angrily swears revenge on them all.

Malvolio is nevertheless a loyal, trustworthy, efficient, and conscientious steward to Olivia, and that in itself holds great moral and pragmatic value. He is also presumably a self-made man; probably originating from a humble background, he has raised himself to a position of relative importance within a noble household. Such virtues and talents are hardly appreciated by the other characters - most of them either despise him and/or wish him ill. Malvolio is often only trying to do his best in overseeing Olivia’s estate, including curbing Sir Toby’s excessive spending of his niece’s money, as well as his loud, nightly revelling and drinking. The steward is humourless, so does not have the wit to play cruel tricks on the other characters, even if he is often rude to them. His humiliating imprisonment as a presumed madman could be perceived as being stretched out for too long, being too harsh, and even uncomfortable to watch for modern audiences, who might feel emotional about Malvolio’s exposure to what is in fact psychological torture and bullying.

After all, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are not exactly the epitome of model behaviour: Sir Toby is a self-indulgent drunkard and a parasite on his niece, whilst Aguecheek is a silly and pompous fool. Nevertheless, however excessive we might nowadays feel Malvolio’s punishment is, judging by John Manningham’s comments above, contemporary audiences probably felt he was getting his just deserts for spoiling everyone’s fun! The play’s cruel satire and baiting of Malvolio points at him as the source of all evils at the Illyrian court. Ambivalently, the steward is also presented as a scapegoat for the aristocrats, who blame him for all of society’s misdeeds, and not once blame themselves for anything. Malvolio’s promise of future revenge can also be seen to offer a forewarning of the struggles to come: the English Civil War (1642-1660), where the Puritans’ triumph did in fact put an end to any frolicking and merrymaking, including the theatre[4].

From the mid 1700s onwards, Malvolio became an increasingly popular character for leading actors to play. Throughout the years, his ‘dark room’ scene has been portrayed in a variety of different styles, ranging from ominous tragedy to sheer farce. Modern productions have reassessed old traditional views of the character, and have come up with new readings of his personality. For example, in one particular production a heartbroken Malvolio stomped off the stage after his mortification, presumably intent on committing suicide. Another production gave his final lines such a malicious and threatening undertone that the play’s comic feel instantly changed. There has also been a trend to depict Illyria as a society in flux; the male-dominated, traditional, feudal society that licenses foolery being threatened by a more modern, diligent, and efficient society, characterised by the self-made and humourless Malvolio, intolerant of festivity and revelling.[5] Other critics still believe the play was written as a straight comedy and farce; a festive play for a festive occasion, ‘a kind of saturnalia to invoke the festive virtues and to exorcize the killjoy powers’ (personified by Malvolio).[6]

The Globe’s 2002 production of Twelfth Night featured actor Timothy Walker as Malvolio. Walker prepared himself thoroughly for the role, wanting to make sure the audience fully understood ‘Malvolio's desires and intentions’. During the rehearsal process, he noted the following insights into the steward’s character:

‘I have been thinking about Malvolio's pre-stage history and his social status. He is a very self-contradictory character. He seems to have a hidden agenda, due to which he is constantly striving for social promotion, an agenda which to a certain extent gets exposed by the play. Malvolio desperately wants to become a gentleman and he certainly considers himself to be of that class. It's a common thing; many people feel aware of their low social status whilst at the same time having a powerful sense of their own self-worth.

There are lots of give-away lines in the play that reveal Malvolio's lack of learning: Maria calls him an “undigested ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swathes…” His lack of understanding is because he wouldn’t have had the opportunity of a university education.

What Malvolio learns during the course of the play is widely open to interpretation. He learns that people often treat you very, very badly. He learns that he's a fool to have hoped for Olivia's love and to have believed that was possible. He learns that he can’t become part of the social elite. I’m not sure he learns much about himself. Instead, he learns how cruel other people are.

Malvolio lives within the confines of his own ego, but at the same time we find tenderness and vulnerability within him. That's the power of the role, what makes him a tragicomic character.'

Nuria Gisbert
Research Intern, Shakespeare's Globe 


[1] Rex Gibson (ed)., Twelfth Night (Cambridge School Shakespeare, CUP: Cambridge, 2005), p. 174.

[2] Emma Fielding, Twelfth Night: Actors on Shakespeare (Faber & Faber: London, 2002), pp. 29-32.

[3] Leslie Hotson, The First Night of Twelfth Night (Rupert Hart-Davis: London, 1954), pp. 93-118.

[4] Rex Gibson (ed)., Twelfth Night (Cambridge School Shakespeare, CUP: Cambridge, 2005).

[5] Rex Gibson (ed)., Twelfth Night (Cambridge School Shakespeare, CUP: Cambridge, 2005), pp. 175-76.

[6] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Penguin Books: London, 1995), p.10.