Malvolio makes a first impression worthy of his name, which lends itself to the adjectives malevolent and malicious. In our first encounter with him (Act I scene 5) he projects a persona not dissimilar to what we might expect given the name Malvolio. He is both spiteful and sarcastic as well as haughty and condescending. This is confirmed from his very first line ” I delight your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. ” This not only insults Feste but also is very disdainful of Olivia who is his mistress.
Moreover through turning up his nose at Feste’s jokes the audience could well perceive Malvolio as ill humoured and sombre, not someone we relate too or sympathise with. In all his initial scenes his portrayal is very much as someone “sick of self love”. He carries out a task requested of him by Olivia with distinct bad grace. He appears to consider it beneath him, that he would be “stooping” through the performance of this errand. He gives this impression of ungraciousness not only to the audience but also to other characters in the play Cesario/ Viola picks up on his rude manner referring to him as a “churlish messenger.
In fact he quite frequently displays this conceited attitude to others in the play, as it is what drives Sir Toby and Maria along with Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian to hatch the plot against him. Sir Toby is incensed when Malvolio comes to tell him and his company to end their “uncivil rule” or he would have to throw them out of the house. Sir Toby thinks that it is outrageous that Malvolio should tell him how to behave as he “is of her (Olivia’s) blood” and Malvolio is of much more humble a station “Art any more than a steward” and therefore should not treat him thus.
Sir Toby and his fellow hedonists (Maria, Sir Andrew and Feste) consider Malvolio to be acting conceited and overly proud which is what leads to the trick. However much we dislike Malvolio and all that he stands for being both a “a kind of puritan” and ” a time-pleaser” we can’t fail to see that Malvolio is perfectly reasonable in addressing Sir Toby and Sir Andrew calling them “my masters”. Furthermore he only went to put an end to their raucous behaviour because “my lady bade me. ” This could affect how sympathetic we feel towards Malvolio, as it is not really justified that they should make “sport” out of him.
After all he was only following orders. I would say that at this point Malvolio does deserve our sympathy, as it doesn’t seem justified that they feel the need to punish him. When hatching the plot Maria says “It is his (Malvolio’s) grounds of faith that all those who look upon him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work. ” This is confirmed even before he reads the letter as we find him revelling in a pretence that he is married to Olivia, his self-importance is unbelievable, to imagine that he should be the chosen husband of Olivia who is a countess when he is only a steward.
This behaviour of his cancels out any sympathy we might of felt towards him as it seems that Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste and now Fabian are justified in their desire to see him made a fool of. We can see for ourselves that he is overly pompous and it is clear how funny it would be to make him believe that Olivia was in love with him, especially now that we know he has feelings for her. With Malvolio’s reception of the letter we are only given confirmation of what we already think of him.
He does in fact have the vanity to consider, once he identifies the hand as Olivia’s, that it might be for him and that he is the object of Olivia’s love. Even though we can see how foolish he is going to look we still don’t feel much sympathy towards him, as he has been so arrogant throughout the scene that we feel he deserves it. If anything the audience are now eager to see him go to Olivia in the fashion Maria detailed in the letter. The most visual of course being the cross-gartered yellow stockings, which we know, are going to look ridiculous.
It is not until the end of Malvolio’s liaison with Olivia that the trick becomes more sinister and is looking as if it were a “dish o’ poison” as it is called earlier. To begin with watching Malvolio approaching Olivia believing she is in love with him is highly entertaining. Yet we realise the joke has gone too far when Sir Toby orders that they have Malvolio “in a dark room and bound. ” We no longer find this funny and instead are concerned for Malvolio, as we know he is not mad as Sir Toby is trying to convince everyone.
Maria also thinks the trick should be brought to an end “lest the device take air and taint. ” We are suddenly aware that Malvolio has been, as Olivia says later in the play, “notoriously wronged” and feel that perhaps we should feel sympathetic towards him. There is now a distinct change in the nature of the trick. Before it was seemingly harmless and jovial whereas when we see Malvolio imprisoned it is far more sinister. The way Feste tries to “face (Malvolio) out of his wits” just deepens our sympathies for him because I think that as an audience we can see that it’s cruel and unfair of Feste to do so.
When we “see him delivered” from his confinement as a supposed lunatic we join Olivia in her sympathy towards Malvolio “Alas poor fool, how they have baffled thee. ” This is affectionate on Olivia’s part and we can see that she is and has been genuinely concerned for him. The fact that Olivia openly respects and trusts Malvolio suggests several characteristics that could lead us to warm towards Malvolio a little more. He is clearly a reliable and trustworthy steward who’s loyalty to Olivia never wavers. Unfortunately these redeeming features are brusquely discarded by Malvolio when he says; “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.
This seems surly and unnecessary given that everyone has admitted their part in the trick, confessed their apologies and that most people, especially Olivia are being most sympathetic to his ordeal. As an audience we now seem to regret feeling sorry for him, as it appears that he is after all an arrogant man without even the grace to accept the apologies made and forgive people. This last line of Malvolio’s was quite probably a calculated move by Shakespeare. Malvolio is associated throughout the play with puritans, a group of people who believed in living their lives in a strict and austere way.
They disapproved of entertainment such as music and the theatre. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that Malvolio is often referred to as a “kind of puritan” and that at the time Twelfth night was written many puritan movements were attempting to close down theatres. It appears to me that Shakespeare was trying to make a stand against puritans and through the creation of Malvolio he had the means to do so. By making a fool of Malvolio and getting audiences to mock him he was figuratively mocking the puritan movements.
His point is embodied in Sir Toby’s line “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? ” It seems that Shakespeare did not intend for an audience to feel sympathetic towards Malvolio and by making his final line disagreeable and rude it drives all thoughts of sympathy from an audience’s mind. Convincing them that Malvolio shouldn’t be supported and that he is a figure to be ridiculed nothing more. This of course isn’t relevant to a modern audience and the way we feel towards Malvolio is much more dependent on the manner in which Sir Toby is portrayed.
Sir Toby could be perceived as a jovial fun-loving character someone who we would find entertaining therefore it is easy to relate to them, if this were the case we would be less sympathetic towards Malvolio. It would be shortsighted to say this was the only possible interpretation of Sir Toby’s character. There is considerable scope within the text to play Sir Toby in a fashion that puts a darker perspective on his character. There is evidentiary support that Sir Toby is a manipulative and selfish man. We can’t ignore his appalling treatment of Sir Andrew Aguecheek who is “a dear mannekin” to Sir Toby.
He constantly uses Sir Andrew for his own amusement and is well aware of what he does. When he sets up the dual between Sir Andrew and Cesario he says, “I’ll ride your horse as well as I ride you. ” Furthermore Sir Toby only wants to see an end to the trick when it seems his welfare might be threatened ” I would we were well rid of this knavery… for I am now so far in offence with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this sport. ” I believe a modern audience would be likely to recognise that Sir Toby is not as wholesome as they might have first imagined.
Today we would be far more likely to condemn Sir Toby and feel more sympathetic towards Malvolio than a Shakespearean audience. Given this I would conclude that Malvolio does indeed deserve our sympathy. “He hath been notoriously abused. ” There wasn’t any fair reason for him to be “Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest, and made the most notorious geck and gull that e’er invention played on. ” This accounted for I don’t think that by the end of Twelfth Night we feel as sympathetic towards Malvolio as we should.
With his declaration that “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” it is easy to forget how badly he has been treated and we are reminded of why he is such a disagreeable character. If we considered it rationally he has every right to feel angry and vengeful after what he has been subjected to. Alas, as is often the case, we do not feel sympathetic towards the person who really does deserve it and our final feelings towards Malvolio are that he will not change and that our sympathies are wasted upon such an ungracious character.