By act 3, scene 4 the audience is familiar with the characters and the audience is also aware of the plot to trick Malvolio. They are therefore looking forward to being entertained. There is further amusement at the end of the scene when Sir Toby arranges a duel between Cesario and Sir Andrew. All of the characters play a part in the comic effect of the scene. The characters work with each other and set up joke, contributing to the comical effect of the scene. Shakespeare starts building up the comic effects early in the play. Malvolio is written as a Puritanical character that is despised by most of the other characters. The audience is prepared to laugh at Malvolio’s expense, as in Act 1, Scene 5, when Olivia says:Order now
“O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite.”
This is further built on in Act 2, Scene 3, when Malvolio addresses Sir Toby and his friends:
“My masters are you mad? Or what are you?”
In Elizabethan times, servants would not address their superiors in this manner. This can be interpreted as Malvolio’s disrespect for his superiors and his ‘distempered’ view of these figures that do not match up to his ideals. The way Malvolio scorns Sir Toby makes the audience dislike Malvolio and side with Sir Toby and his companions when Maria comes up with the idea to trick Malvolio. Furthermore, when Malvolio enters in Act 2 Scene 5 he says,
“‘Tis but fortune; all is fortune. Maria once told me; and I have heard herself thus near that, should she fancy, I be one of my complexion.”
Sir Toby and friends, listen to his vanity to in disgust. In this he demonstrates how important he thinks he is. He is also fantasising about power, in particular, the power he would gain were he to marry Olivia. This speech makes the audience empathise with Sir Toby and they see that Malvolio is not a charismatic or likeable person. This further prepares them for his downfall. The letter itself is the final preparation, as it instantly fools Malvolio into thinking Olivia loves him. The audience is now prepared for the next scene. They look forward to what is going to happen.
Near the opening of Act 3, Scene 4, Olivia says to Maria,
“Where is Malvolio? He is sad and civil.”
The audience knows what is about to happen, so when Malvolio walks in wearing ridiculous yellow stockings that are ‘cross-gartered’ it has many comical effects, as it is so out of character. Olivia has sent for him, as he is ‘sad and civil’, but when he appears smiling wearing yellow stockings, which have been ‘cross gartered’, he is not quiet and subdued as she wishes. Furthermore, he goes on to misinterpret Olivia, when she says,
“Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio.”
He misinterprets it as an ‘invitation’ whereas in reality, it is a comment of concern, so it is comical as he was sent for, as he was sad and civil, but when he appears he is neither. Finally, from Maria, it is learned earlier in the play that Olivia hates the colour yellow, so this also adds to the humour.
Olivia sends for Sir Toby to come and look after Malvolio, as she believes him to be mad. Before Sir Toby arrives, Malvolio has a soliloquy, where he is convincing himself that Olivia loves him. He picks up every detail that concurs with his view and interprets them as good signs.
“O, ho, do you come near me now? No worse man than Sir Toby to look to me? This concurs directly with the letter: she sends him on purpose, that I may appear stubborn to him; for she incites me to be that in the letter.”
He takes further proof that Olivia loves him when she refers to him as ‘fellow’,
“And when she went away now, ‘Let this fellow be looked to’. ‘Fellow’ not ‘Malvolio’ nor after my degree but ‘fellow’.”
He believes that when Olivia referred to him as ‘fellow’, it showed her warmth towards him even though she was just speaking casually of him. The audience will be laughing at Malvolio’s ignorance to the plot and also his delusions of grandeur and his vanity,
He thinks that it is a test for him that Olivia has sent for Sir Toby to look after him. He thinks she has given Sir Toby to him so he can exercise his ‘new power’. As this is not the case, Sir Toby and his companions imprison Malvolio, pretending that he has been possessed by the devil.
“No, I warrant you, he will not hear of godliness.”
Sir Toby knows exactly what is happening and knows that Malvolio is not mad or possessed. Sir Toby is imprisoning Malvolio to get his own back. There are also two lines here which get a laugh from an audience, as Fabian says;
“If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction.”
This is irony, as it is being played out on a stage, but the audience appreciates the joke
Another interesting point is that earlier in the play, when Malvolio was scorning Sir Toby, he accused him of being mad. Now the tables have turned and Malvolio is accused of being mad.
“Come, we’ll have him in a dark room and bound. My niece is already in the belief that he’s mad.”
Today, this may seem quite a harsh practical joke, but the Elizabethan people were less sympathetic and would have thought that Malvolio got what he deserved.
Another comical part in this scene is the duel between Cesario and Sir Andrew. Olivia is in love with Cesario and Sir Andrew wants Olivia to love him. Sir Toby persuades Sir Andrew into challenging Cesario to a duel. Sir Andrew is not very clever and writes a ‘threatening’ letter to Cesario. Fabian and Sir Toby pretend that the letter is very good, but in reality it is poor. Sir Toby then proceeds to play Sir Andrew and Cesario off against each other. Both duellists are told that the other is a deadly killer. Neither of them is a fighter so neither really wants to fight the other, the audience is amused by this situation. Before the duel commences, Antonio disrupts it. Here there is further comedy as Antonio mistakes Cesario for Sebastian
There are references in this play to the ‘Feast of Fools’ that was around during Shakespeare’s period. The ‘Feast of Fools’ was a tradition that took place around Christmas time. For one day, the lowliest or youngest member of a household was placed in charge and given the title of ‘Lord of Misrule’ Servants gave orders and their masters waited at the table. Ridiculous punishments were awarded and practical jokes were played.
The Twelfth Night is full of references to this feast, including the title, The Twelfth Night, which refers to the Twelfth day of Christmas in which the ‘Feast of Fools’ usually took place. Other references include unjust punishments (imprisoning Malvolio), practical jokes (Tricking Malvolio into thinking Olivia loved him), disguises (Viola disguises herself as Cesario) and fools being allowed to say what they like (Feste). Sir Toby is cast as the ‘Lord of Misrule’ who orchestrates the practical joke.
Malvolio is made to look stupid for this scene so the comedy is in the contrast with his normal, very solemn, formal self. The way in which the plotting characters react to Malvolio whilst pretending that he is mad is also comical, as they are talking about Malvolio being mad, even though he is not. They are laughing with each other and at Malvolio without arousing his suspicions. The duel is also comical, as Sir Toby and Fabian proceed to play two cowards off against each other. Shakespeare achieves the comic effects by including the audience in the joke, so that they can anticipate the results.