Friday, 30 May 2014

What's Self Love Got to do With It? | Character Analysis of Malvolio

Nigel Hawthorne as
Olivia's pious steward is one of the most popular characters in Twelfth Night. But what is it about Malvolio that makes him so easy to laugh at?

Twelfth Night, written in around 1601, was penned for the winter festivities of 'Twelfth Night', which was a huge celebration with song, dance, drink, feasting and merriment. 

Moreover, festivals were a time of dressing up and role reversal: themes that are abundant within the play. In other words, Twelfth Night is (despite the sadness of the central plot), about misrule, letting loose and just having a good time - all things that Malvolio opposes.

Who is Malvolio?

Not a very pure Puritan, but a Puritan nonetheless
Malvolio is steward to Olivia and, therefore, handles the running of her household. He is described by Maria as “…a kind of puritan”(II.iii). 

Of course, the Puritans, who wanted to close the theatres and were vehemently opposed to any form of entertainment, including the winter festivals, such as Twelfth Night, were not exactly popular with those in Shakespeare’s audiences.

Therefore, by aligning Malvolio with the Puritans, Shakespeare is doing two things: firstly, he is setting Malvolio up as the perfect antagonist to the loose-living Toby Belch; and secondly, he is ensuring that the audience not only enjoys the subsequent torment of Malvolio, but also that it is complicit in those events. 

Shakespeare's Source for the Character of Malvolio

In recent times, scholars have suggested that the character of Malvolio may be based on a Yorkshire landowner and magistrate by the name of Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby. 

Hoby was a Puritan who, in 1600, set about suing his neighbours in what became a famous court case of the era. Apparently, some local men entered Hoby’s home, began to drink, play a rowdy game of cards, then proceeded to ridicule Puritanism. Things took an even darker turn when they talked of raping Hoby’s wife. 

Sir Hoby’s case against William Eure and several of his neighbours was successful, and the court awarded him damages.

Is Malvolio's chastising of Toby's partying inspired
by a real event?

Many Shakespearean scholars believe that this event may have inspired act II, scene iii of Twelfth Night, in which Malvolio is disturbed by the drunken singing and merriment of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste and Maria.

Is Malvolio a Power Hungry Villain?

Is it Olivia's good looks and charm Malvolio is leching
over or her power?
Of course, Puritan or not, Malvolio shows a less than pure facet of his character during act II, scene v, in which he fantasises about marrying Olivia. 

Shakespeare makes it clear, however, that Malvolio is not in love with Olivia, he is simply in love with the notion of social status and, above all, the ability to chastise Sir Toby for his loose morals and heavy drinking.

A Puritan stereotype was that they were power hungry, so Shakespeare is deliberately playing up to all of the received ideas about Puritanism. 

Again, it's clear that this is intended to illicit a specific response from his audience and, crucially, to add to the humour of the play. 

It's perhaps worth bearing in mind that, although the play is still very comical today, the Elizabethan audience would have appreciated a satirical nature to the humour. This is something that a 21st century audience, largely, misses out on.

How do Audiences React to Malvolio?

As already alluded to, Shakespeare’s audiences, then and now, find Malvolio haughty, unpleasant and with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Consequently, they're likely to thoroughly enjoy the mockery and later torment of him.

Do we feel sorry for the way Malvolio
is 'notoriously abused'?
However, modern audiences do tend to take a more sympathetic view of Malvolio than their Elizabethan counterparts. Although the unpleasantness in his character undoubtedly remains, there is something uncomfortable about watching his imprisonment and mock exorcism. 

Trying to make someone believe they are insane, even if it is to teach them a lesson they richly deserve, tends to make us a little uneasy.

Of course, there may have been an element of this discomfort within Elizabethan audiences too, which might be suggested in Olivia’s recognition that he has “...been most notoriously abused”(V.i).

However, the level of sympathy an audience feels for the character will naturally depend upon the way an actor plays the role and, importantly, how the play is directed. Subsequently, it could be the modern approach to directing and performing Twelfth Night that leads an audience to feel a little sorry for Malvolio.

If you'd like to know more about Twelfth Night, take a look at 'Who Loves Whom in Twelfth Night?

A version of this post was originally published, by the author, on

1 comment:

  1. i like the way you discuss the things you made it easy and in favor of readers.