One of the more interesting passages in Twelfth Night occurs when Malvolio reads the letter that is supposedly from Olivia. It shows what a man is willing to put himself through to impress a woman. When a man is faced with the possibility of having a relationship with a desirable woman all thought and reason is meaningless. Malvolio is a prime example, wearing yellow stockings cross-gartered, treating an associate with complete disrespect, and acting almost insanely cheerful when in Olivia’s presence.
The letter was written in a manner that makes it easy for Malvolio to ignore the obvious fact that Olivia doesn’t like him, and believe all that is written. In writing the letter Toby, Fabian and Andrew were sure to play on all of Malvolio’s emotions; instead of trying to fool Malvolio; they let Malvolio fool himself. The letter was written, in Malvolio’s mind, as if it was written to him. That was the intent of the three fools, but Malvolio exaggerated every sentence with his own inflated ego. As he reads on, his head fills with more crazy ideas and he lends himself better to be fooled.
Anything could have been written at the end of the letter and it is certain that Malvolio would, in his mind, alter it to make it refer to himself. It is easy to tell what Malvolio is feeling while he reads the fraudulent letter; some parts affect him in a greater, more obvious way than others. The phrase, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them;” has the greatest impact on Malvolio. When he reads this he begins to believe that it is plausible for a woman as great as Olivia to have taken a liking for a man of far lesser status, of which he is.
Malvolio has always believed that he was great, and that he was worthy of Olivia’s love, yet he never thought that Olivia shared this belief. This particular quote gives Malvolio the inspiration that he needs to make an attempt to win Olivia’s heart. It seems very unlikely that three people of mediocre intelligence, at best, could write such a masterfully deceptive letter. It would have taken hours to come up with all of the slight implications that were used to send Malvolio into an egotistical overload, it isn’t likely that they could have done this in such a short period of time.
When the play is looked at as a whole it may seem like a minor detail, but Shakespeare used it to add effect. Much like Toby, Fabian and Andrew’s letter, Shakespeare used the perfect words and phrases in the “Letter Scene” to create certain emotions within the reader. Although implausible when looked at in depth, the letter is one of the more important parts of the play. The “Letter Scene” fits perfectly in with the main theme of the play, disguises. When Toby, Fabian and Andrew write a letter signing it with Olivia’s name, they are in a way disguising themselves.
At first thought disguises are masks or costumes that one might use to cover one’s true identity, but that is merely one instance which disguise is used. By signing Olivia’s name to their letter, the three fools are masking their thoughts with Olivia’s name. They are pretending that how they want Malvolio to think that Olivia feels about him is how Olivia actually feels about him. In a less apparent way, Malvolio disguises himself to be what he has been told that Olivia wants. Malvolio covers his true thoughts and preferences to make himself appear more desirable to Olivia.
In doing so, he actually makes himself appear repulsively annoying to her. Malvolio’s inability to show his true feelings to Olivia without hiding behind the mask that Toby, Fabian and Andrew created shows that he is not only insecure, but also very gullible. Malvolio had feelings for Olivia before he ever received the letter, which is why he fell for the three fools’ trickery so easily. Malvolio let his unrealistic hidden desires get the best of him, if he had been thinking straight he wouldn’t have made such a fool of himself.
The “Letter scene” was used to prove several different points, all of which fit into the larger scheme of the play. Malvolio’s overconfidence and self-infatuation make him more vulnerable to be tricked than many of the other characters; it is difficult to think realistically about a situation if you are unable to think realistically about your own greatness. Malvolio should have realized that if he were truly as great as he thought that he was, Olivia wouldn’t have requested that he make so many changes.
He should have been clued into the fraudulence of the letter when changes were first suggested to him. Malvolio is a typical male; when he is told that a desirable woman likes him, he forgets about everything else and begins to think unrealistically. No one wants to think that something good happening to him isn’t real, but lying to yourself will only bring about more trouble. No one should ever disguise himself to make someone else happy, nor should they to make some one else look foolish.