Twelfth Night. To what extent is Malvolio portrayed as the anti-comedic figure in Twelfth Night? Throughout history standards of traditional comedic plots and characters have rarely been subverted or questioned. However, Shakespeare can be seen to present a character that to an extent subverts the conventional behaviour of a comedic ‘villain’ through the character of Malvolio. This construct contributes to the comedic value of the play in compliance to genre, yet can also be found to entice great tragedy through a darker, more villainous character. Therefore by exploring the ways in which Shakespeare has presented this character in relation to the demands of the genre and relation to modern and contextual audiences, Malvolio may be perceived in different lights.
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The primary link to a villainous character is through Shakespeare’s use of name, Malvolio is a direct translation from Italian meaning “ill will”, immediately alluding to his “distempered appetite” and cold, austere character. To reinforce the negativity surrounding Malvolio, he is often juxtaposed with more light-hearted characters such as Sir Toby or Sir Andrew to create contrasts between values, attitudes and language used by the contradicting characters. Through this visible theatrical device, Shakespeare is extending this contrast on to his juxtaposition of conventional, almost farcical comedic characters with the unconventional puritanical behaviour of Malvolio. “Is there no respect of place, persons nor time in you?” Malvolio asks. “We did keep time, sir, in our catches. Sneck up!” remarks Toby. In Act 2 Scene 3 the juxtaposition of opposing characters is clearly seen through Malvolio’s derogatory tone, and Sir Toby’s childish remarks.
Malvolio is “A kind of puritan” this quote in itself shows how opposed he is to festivity, laughter and most importantly, comedy. Shakespeare conveyed his feelings about Puritanism through the character of Malvolio, highlighting the worst characteristics of the Puritans within him. The Puritans were a group of English Protestants in the 16th century who wanted to return the faith to its purest state and this included no revelry of any sort including laughter, music and theatre. Puritanism was a contemporary social movement in this time, and the majority of his audience would probably agree with Shakespeare’s critique of the Puritans. In Twelfth Night many of the characters seem to be set against everything the Puritans stood for as they drink, sing and dance, despite only being a steward to Olivia, Malvolio is discourteous and snobbish toward anyone of higher status than him. This “Holier than thou” attitude mirrors the common view of Puritans during Shakespeare’s time. Malvolio’s anti-comedic behaviour surfaces when he tries to control the harmless revellers Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. “Are you mad or what are you? Have you no wit, manners nor honesty but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night?” (Act 2 Scene 3). Malvolio is so pompous and “Sick of self love” that he believes he can speak to men of higher social status in this way; it would seem that because they are drunk, (which goes against Puritan rules) Malvolio thinks himself better and more righteous than Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Malvolio then goes on to threaten Maria because she provides the men with more wine. In Malvolio we can see the worst features of puritanical nature, the self-centred, self-righteous, rigidly moral and hugely pompous attitude that Shakespeare describes at length in Malvolio’s dark character. He challenges the very spirit of comedy and this is his downfall.
Anti comedic figures are necessary mechanics to comedy, “The River of comedy must be impeded before it reaches the sea, the happy ending.”- Dr Robert Spearwood. This seems to hold true for Malvolio in Twelfth Night, without Malvolio the play would lose its elements of risk and danger, Malvolio’s character has undercurrents of tragic potential which adds the crucial flirtation between comedy and tragedy. The critical author Charles Lamb also saw Malvolio as a tragic, anti-comedic character. “Malvolio is not essentially ludicrous. He becomes comic by accident. He is cold, austere, repelling; but dignified, consistent, and, for what appears, rather of an over-stretched morality.” Lamb put forward the idea that Malvolio is mainly a tragic character and a comedic character to a lesser extent.
Another tool employed by Shakespeare to reveal Malvolio is through his language. In Act 2 Scene 5 Malvolio repeatedly uses personal pronouns which further highlight Malvolio’s hubris. “Calling my officers about me, in my branched velvet gown…to ask for my kinsman Toby.” This shows Malvolio’s supremely high opinion of himself and could further portray Malvolio as the anti-comedic character. Additionally after being taken to the “dark house” and presumed insane in Act 4 Scene 2, he is deeply humiliated as he begs Feste to help him “Good Sir Topas! Do not think I am mad. They have laid me here in hideous darkness…there never was a man thus abused” Malvolio’s imprisonment is a metaphor for his own language and behaviour as he continually alienates himself from the other characters of Twelfth Night with his use of personal pronouns and his snobbish behaviour. Alternatively however this quote could portray Malvolio as the tragic character in Twelfth Night as the audience could be sympathetic with him being “kept in a dark house” having fallen for Feste’s cunning trap. This leaves the audience highly conflicted as Malvolio is the antagonist yet his predicament forces the audience to sympathise with him.
But while Malvolio may have no use for Feste’s comedy, comedy has apt use for Malvolio. Depending on interpretation one could find Malvolio’s fall from grace highly entertaining and humorous, such as Act 2 Scene 5 in which Malvolio is betrayed into practicing his comical behaviour on stage which -depending on production- could give rise to much laughter. Additionally When Malvolio falls into Maria’s trap and dons yellow cross-garters, the first seemingly serious, rigid man appears entirely ridiculous as his intentions “to be Count Malvolio.” Become increasingly transparent. However, to be a Count is not the only intention of Malvolio as he desperately wishes to bed Lady Olivia. He even dreams of “having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping.” His desires then become even clearer when he instantaneously jumps to conclusions with Lady Olivia. “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” Lady Olivia asks. “To bed? Ay, sweet heart, and I’ll come to thee!” this confusion and incongruity makes for great humour and comedy. Supporting this Michael Ratcliffe reviewed Anthony Sher’s Malvolio in the Observer (1987) and said “A mad holy man on the run, a corseted hysteric with gobstopper eyes” this shows how important interpretation and production is to whether Malvolio is considered Anti-comedic, Comedic, or a tragic character.
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Alternatively Trevor Nunn’s film adaption of Twelfth Night depicts Malvolio as a tragic character, emphasized by his escape from the “dark house” whereby he is brought before all the main characters of the play bedraggled, dishevelled and unwashed only to be further humiliated when Feste uses his own words against him. “Why, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Nunn is found to successfully ignite sympathy within the audience which may also be recognised in Shakespeare’s original script. The play’s conclusion shows a deeply humiliated Malvolio as he then vows in his last haunting, memorable, resonant line. “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you!” Some Shakespeare critics believe that he has good reason to utter this. Although Malvolio is a Puritan by nature who consistently impedes the revelry of the likes of Sir Toby, Toby himself is not innocent by any means either. Malvolio is a very complicated character who deserves both our derision and our sympathies as well.
Audiences may differ in their opinion toward Malvolio as production has a colossal effect on whether Malvolio is a tragic, comedic or anti-comedic figure. It is undeniable that some of the greatest humour in the play is brought from Malvolio’s ridiculous scenes but it is equally true that some of Twelfth Night’s great tragedy is brought forth by Malvolio’s fall from grace, however Malvolio leaves behind a puritan threat to the comedic community and that is why in my view he is certainly the anti-comedic villain of the play, condemned to be excluded from final harmony after the community unites to dispel the character that threatens comedy itself.
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