Loveable Knaves: The Humanity of Malvolio and Parolles
Malvolio and Parolles both appear as relatively unlikable characters due to their inflated egos, and convince themselves that they are socially greater than they are in reality. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio, a mere steward, behaves with utter scorn and haughtiness to the nobles whose conduct he attempts to regulate. But proper behavior is not his highest concern. One critic writes that Malvolio’s only goal is “to advance himself to the position of authority” that Olivia’s husband would hold (MacCary, 189). Another critic notes that in this quest for power, his arrogance extends even to his use of Jove to denote God (Mangan, 239). Although these traits make Malvolio somewhat despicable, he never resorts to deception in his attempt to achieve his aim, unlike other characters in the play. Furthermore, in his constant pursuit of social improvement, he attempts to instill order in an environment that threatens to descend into complete chaos. Similarly, in All’s Well That Ends Well, the dishonorable behavior of Parolles, including his hollow boasts and direct lies are frustrating at times. But he positively affects his environment by lightening the mood through his baseless views and threats. As each play progresses, the harmlessness and humanity of each character emerges, allowing the audience to move past their pretentiousness and sympathize with their audacious personalities.
Malvolio’s first words are spoken to criticize Feste, the fool whose company provides Olivia with intellectual stimulation. Olivia thinks he has become a better fool, and good-naturedly asks Malvolio what he thinks of Feste’s abilities. Not amused, Malvolio haughtily comments that Feste has merely become stupider as his wisdom continues to decay. He goes on to express his disapproving wonder that the lady of the house “takes delight in such a barren rascal,” (1.5.82) and accuses Feste of being useless as a clown unless people provide him with constant laughter and openings for lowly jokes. He is promptly chastised by Olivia, who comments that her steward is “sick of self-love” (1.5.90).
This pompous attitude becomes more vividly manifest in the next act, as Malvolio pursues Cesario to give him a ring on behalf of Olivia. He is able to catch up to Cesario, and offer him the ring, which Malvolio believes was left behind. But before relaying his lady’s message, he thinks of his own interests and complains, “you might have sav’d me my pains, to have taken it away yourself” (2.2.5-7). When Cesario refuses to take the ring, Malvolio, without any of the deference expected of a steward, impatiently insists that Cesario “peevishly threw it” (2.2.13) to Olivia, and should take it back. But unwilling to waste more of his precious time and energy, Malvolio tosses the ring on the ground, inviting Cesario to stoop in order to pick it up if he believes the ring to be worthwhile.
His arrogant impatience is exercised once more when Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are being boisterously drinking late into the night. After briefly acknowledging that he is in fact socially lower than Sir Toby and Sir Andrew by addressing them as his masters, he immediately undoes this recognition of reality by indignantly asking, “Are you Mad?” (2.3.86) Not content with this slight, he berates every aspect of their character, fuming, “Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night? Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house, that ye squeak out your cozier’s catches without a mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” (2.3.87-92)
After a bit of melodious revelry with Feste, Sir Toby confronts Malvolio, asking, “Art thou any more than a steward? Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous there shall be no cakes and ale?” (2.3.116-118) Then, ignoring Malvolio’s rude appeals, he asks for another glass of wine and bids Malvolio to leave and polish his steward’s chain, a reminder of his humble social status. When Sir Andrew proposes challenging Malvolio to a duel, Maria suggests that the steward would be more effectively defeated by exploiting his personality. Assessing his character, Maria states,
“The dev’l a puritan that he is, or any thing constantly but a time pleaser, an affectioned ass, that cons state without book, and utters it by great swarths; the best persuaded of himself, so cramm’d (as he thinks) with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work” (2.3.147-153).
Maria feels that she understands the pretension of Malvolio so well that her plan is guaranteed to be successful. Her predictions are proved correct as the scheme unfolds, deluding the socially low but emotionally lofty steward into thinking that the Countess is in love with him.
It is with great satisfaction that Sir Toby and Sir Andrew watch the gulling of Malvolio in Olivia’s garden. The steward makes himself the perfect object of their scorn even before he finds the forged letter, lengthily practicing his manners with his own shadow and recalling evidence for the possibility that Olivia might fancy him, citing her words and the “exalted respect” (2.5.27) with which she treats him. Taking the fantasy further, he exclaims, “To Be Count Malvolio!” (2.5.35) He imagines sitting in a “branch’d velvet gown,” (2.5.47-48) commanding his servants to bring Sir Toby before him. He relishes his thoughts of power, imagining a scenario,
“Seven of my people, with an obedient start, make out for him. I frown the while, and perchance wind up my watch, or play with my – some rich jewel. Toby approaches, and curtsies before me” (2.5.58-61).
Then, to Sir Toby’s further disgust, Malvolio imagines using his mandate as Count to command Sir Toby to become sober, adding an insult to Sir Andrew before he picks up the letter.
After this conceited fantasizing, the fact that Malvolio falls for the scheme is no surprise. Before he even reads anything that could possibly be construed as evidence, he excitedly speculates, “If this should be thee, Malvolio?” (2.5.100-101) As he reads on, he interprets everything as evidence pointing to him as the object of Olivia’s affection, and eagerly resolves to comply with all of the letter’s suggestions. These commands, such as casting off his lowly status, being impolite to servants, and speaking loudly, will not be hard to follow, as they appeal to his egocentric attitude.
The final command, that Malvolio smile in the presence of Olivia, is the only one that is unnatural, and contributes just as much to the schemers’ merriment as it does to the onset of Malvolio’s eventual torment. The sight of the usually serious and dour steward constantly beaming, coupled with his references to the letter, lead Olivia to believe that he has “midsummer madness” (3.4.56). Sir Toby takes advantage of this belief to advance the toying with Malvolio to a drastic new level, intending to have him bound him in a dark, locked room until the schemers no longer find pleasure in his incarceration.
It is at this point that Malvolio begins to appear as a sympathetic and even brave character. Although only confined for one night, he is resilient in the face of further attempts at deception. Feste, disguised as a clergyman, attempts to persuade Malvolio that the cell is in fact full of light, and that the darkness the prisoner experiences is that of ignorance. Despite this assertion, and the irrelevant and strange questions Feste asks in order to drive Malvolio insane, the steward steadfastly proclaims his sanity, saying, “I tell thee I am as well in my wits as any man in Illyria (4.2.106-107).
At the conclusion of the play, the scheme is revealed and Malvolio’s sanity is vindicated. After Fabian details the plot, Olivia cries out, “Alas, poor fool, how they have baffled thee!” (5.1.369) However, as Malvolio demonstrated in his cell, he is no mere fool. Instead, despite his pretensions of grandeur, he is an embodiment of order in an otherwise disorderly world. Although his approach may have been grating, his aim of restraining the wild behavior of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew is totally fitting of his position as a keeper of the house. Furthermore, it is understandable that a rule abiding person forced to deal with the likes of Sir Toby, a drunk who manipulates the slow-witted Sir Andrew for drinking money, might develop an inflated sense of self-worth. He would almost have to be extremely serious and proud to counter the extremely aimless merriment of Sir Toby and his friends.
Parolles, however, cannot be accused of being too serious and proper. His first appearance in the play comes as he engages in a vulgar conversation with Helena about the worthless nature of virginity. Even before Parolles has opened his mouth, Helena comments,
“I love him for his sake,
And yet I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, soly a coward;
Yet these fix’d evils sit so fit in him” (1.1.99-102).
Despite establishing the pretentious character of Parolles by assailing his integrity and intellect, Helena concedes that his faults are becoming of him as an integral part of his identity. In doing so, she supports the description of Parolles in the dramatis personae as a parasite, but also emphasizes that he his by no means a purely evil, dreadfully dangerous villain.
After Helena’s characterization of Parolles as a liar, his boasts of military triumph must be received with great skepticism. Proudly recalling his wartime experiences, he instructs the departing lords, “You shall find in the regiment of the Spinii one Captain Spurio, with his cicatrice, an emblem of war, here on his sinister cheek; it was this very sword entrench’d it” (2.1.41-45). Not content to merely bask in this supposed accomplishment, he speaks of psychologically spiting his alleged victim, adding, “Say to him I live, and observe his reports for me” (2.1.45).
Just as Parolles feels comfortable making grand declarations about his past glories, he is willing to present himself as eager to attain present honor. When Lafew, speaking to Parolles, refers to Bertram as, “Your lord and master,” (2.3.186) Parolles responds incredulously and takes great offense. He says that Lafew’s harsh use of the word could have bloody consequences, essentially challenging Lafew to a duel. But he quickly backs down, stating, “You are too old sir; let it satisfy you, you are too old” (2.3.196-97). It is quite apparent, however, that Parolles is scared of, not merciful to, his elder, who aggressively criticizes his retreating associate as a speaker of hollow words worthy of the “most egregious indignity” (2.3.216).
The empty statements that Parolles makes to Lafew have no tangible consequences, but his next string of such utterances is quite different. After a Lord speaking to Bertram denounces Parolles as, “a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, and hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality worthy of your lordship’s entertainment,” (3.4.7-12) the men decide to test his character. By discussing the honor that could be gained, they easily bate him into volunteering to retrieve a drum lost on the battlefield. Parolles vows to recover the drum, or die in the process.
He of course has no intention to do such a thing, lamenting that his heart is fearful, “not daring the reports of my tongue” (4.1.30-31). The Lords eavesdrop as he asks himself, “What the devil should move me to undertake the recovery of this drum, being not ignorant of the impossibility, and knowing I had no such purpose?” (4.1.34-36) Although he has lied to his compatriots and continues to scheme, his admission of his failings leads to an admirable sense of self-awareness, recognized by a Lord, who wonders, “Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?” (4.1.45-45) Recognizing that he is a coward, he wastes no time in begging for his life and offering to reveal military secrets to the Lords, disguised as enemy troops. He is also willing to divulge information about the characters of his countrymen, and bluntly details the shortcomings of Bertram. He notes the Duke’s lasciviousness, and assaults his honesty, stating, “He professes not keeping of oaths; in breaking ’em he is stronger than Hercules” (4.3.251-253). Bertram’s defensive reaction to these claims makes Parolles appear more sympathetic. Whereas Parolles directly confronted his own dishonesty, Bertram avoids such thoughts by merely cursing Parolles, bitterly sniping, “A pox upon him for me, he’s more and more a cat” (4.3.263-264).
Parolles expresses no such sourness when, as he begs for his life, the ruse is revealed. Instead, although he recognizes the crushing implications of what has just unfolded, he is movingly optimistic, observing,
“Yet I am thankful. If my heart were great,
‘Twould burst at this. Captain I’ll be no more,
But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft
As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live. Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this; for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.
Rust sword, cool blushes, and Parolles live
Safest in shame! Being fool’d by fool’ry thrive!
There’s a place and means for every man alive” (4.3.330-339).
Blaming nobody by himself for his present circumstances, he determines through self-awareness to make peace with himself by leaving behind unnatural weapons and a deceiving faÃ§ade. Later, successfully abandoning all pretension, he is able to win the mercy of Lafew through humble begging.
This about face elicits more sympathy than the constancy of Malvolio. But given each character’s circumstances, each acted in ways that accentuated their humanity in the midst of unfavorable conditions. The steadfastness of Malvolio allowed him to maintain and prove his sanity through a time during which any wavering would have been disastrous. Parolles, meanwhile, had no choice but to forsake his pretension, but does choose to do so sincerely and completely with an eye to a future in which the positive effects of that choice will be reaped.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare plays with ideas of sight and reality. Sight, eyes, and the gaze become crucial themes in this seemingly light-hearted play. They appear constantly […]
William Shakespeare frequently used his literary works to make statements on social issues. A Midsummer Night’s Dream obviously addresses the conflict between men and women by portraying several relationships, father […]
As members of a patriarchal society, the women in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are obligated to be subservient to the men. Power is only extended to women in the fictional […]
In a fine example of Shakespearean irony, scholars have suggested that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was originally written as entertainment for an aristocratic wedding. The Lord Chamberlain’s Players provided the […]
The character Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, is most often associated with the mischievous little hobgoblin fairy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even before Shakespeare’s interpretation of Puck though, the […]
Shakespeare anticipates the Freudian concept of the dream as egoistic wish-fulfillment through the chaotic and mimetic desires of his characters in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The play also utilizes a […]
In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the minor character Hippolyta functions in three ways. Her first role in the play is as an example of mature love in juxtaposition […]
Almost completely opposite the beautiful, grave, and love-struck young Athenian nobles are the awkward, ridiculous, and deeply confused Mechanicals, around whom a great deal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s most […]
“I already know a thing or two. I know it’s not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of […]
Malvolio and Parolles both appear as relatively unlikable characters due to their inflated egos, and convince themselves that they are socially greater than they are in reality. In Twelfth Night, […]