Malvolio: The Puritan Plays the Fool
Initially, the salient fool in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night appears to be Feste — a licensed jester. Yet upon further examination, we see that Shakespeare merely uses Feste as a critic of the comedic disarray in Illyria, which parallels the festival Twelfth Night. The nature of the play turns both the class structure and moral values on their head, producing a comedy where even the disciplined Puritan Malvolio is mocked for his social position. His restrained and harsh nature makes him an attractive target for the pranks of others,therefore Malvolio is not only a victim of comedy but a true fool.
Shakespeare presents ambition as Malvolio’s hamartia; this quality ostrcises him from the group of other characters in the play due to his strong belief in his exalted position. Alienation makes Malvolio susceptible to the pranks of others and thus he is presented as the real fool. Malvolio enters Act 2 Scene 5 expressing a sanguine soliloquy which concludes with the rhetorical question “What should I think on’t?,” suggesting to the audience that he is lost in a fantasy, this interpretation is strengthened by the nature of the soliloquy as this is the action of speaking one’s thoughts regardless of who hears. The lexical field of personal pronouns such as “me” and “my” within the soliloquy magnifies his egotistical nature and is particularly effective in presenting Malvolio’s only interest in being his status and marriage to Olivia. Additionally, the disparity between “Count Malvolio’s” soliloquy and the preceding conversation involving Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria is tacit in illustrating Malvolio as foolish. Maria animalizes Malvolio, calling him “the trout that must be caught with tickling”, showing how the other characters perceive him as being witless and easily tamable. It is clear to see that whilst the others mock Malvolio, he is blatantly unaware of this and is therefore made into the laughing stock of the scene. This scene would be particularly constructive in generating laughter from an Elizabethan audience, since an they would have had more of a defined and impermeable class system.
Malvolio’s desire to marry into a higher class would have been deemed controversial within his era, an act of sheer folly which would have been laughed at as interclass marriages were rare and unadvised. With this in mind, Malvolio’s thoughts regarding his position can be said to be nothing less than outrageous and this absurdity leads us to conclude that Malvolio is truly foolish. As well as ostricising Malvolio from the rest of the play’s characters, Shakespeare also juxtaposes Malvolio with Feste, the other recognizable fool . It is especially effective because it allows us to view them as fools in different ways. Feste is the licensed fool- this was the role of someone that was hired in Elizabethan times by the household to entertain its inhabitants. From the very beginning of the play we note even the contrast of their names, “Malvolio” meaning “ill will” and “Feste” congruent with the play’s title “Twelfth Night” meaning “festivity and joyful”. Even in Malvolio’s name, we see that he is divergent not only with Feste, but the context of the Twelfth Night festivity and merry-making, therefore it is understandable that she should be the target of comedy and mockery. Both Malvio and Feste are critical of other characters in the play, in this way they could be seen as alike. Philip Sidney states in The Defence of Poetry that “comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life” which could be interpreted as comedy being a critical device of both the characters and general population of the time. Feste achieves this comedy through his wit and mockery of other characters, thus he is an outsider in the play who is used to verbalize the idiotic and pernicious actions of the other characters. Feste’s lines are littered with cheek and charm in Act1 Scene5 when he lambastes Olivia for the mourning of her brother. He speaks in prose when he asks “Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?” displaying a casual tone despite the nature of the matter being serious. By addressing her as “madonna” we see that his tone is playful, almost too bold for his social position. The audience sees that Feste has the upperhand in the conversation and so Shakespeare fosters critical comedy though Feste mocking Olivia for her lack of intelligence.
Conversely, Shakespeare creates this same comedy using Malvolio’s own foolishness to mock the folly of the wider audience, which substantially differs from the role of Feste. Malvolio enters Act 2 Scene 3 angry with an accusative tone in his voice when he interrogates Sir Toby and Sir Andrew with “Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty…” which is profoundly ironic as it is Malvolio who possesses none of these qualities. By listing his slanders, Malvolio quantifies them, making his tone all the more abrasive which is haughty considering that his status makes him subordinate to the others. Malvolio is lampooned for this behaviour as it is out of place and arrogant. Moreover, unlike Feste, Malvolio’s social status and well-being decline as a result of this cruel behaviour, presenting himself as a fool once more. Whilst Feste retains his position as the critic throughout the play, Malvolio on the other hand receives “special care” locked and tortured in a dark room as recompense for his censorious behaviour to the others. Certainly, there is merit to Philip Sidney’s statement, however it is the role of the real fool in the play to mock society through their own folly and this is evidently the role of Malvolio. Shakespeare uses Malvolio’s religious position as a “kind of puritan” to present him as an unfortunate natural fool, yet a different interpretation could be that Shakespeare also conceals his own opinion of Puritanism through characters in Twelfth Night. Religious tensions that existed at the time between the Puritans and Catholics were particularly prevalent, despite this Shakespeare was able to give his opinion on the follies of larger society and religion through the voices of his characters.
Malvolio is often relied upon by Olivia for his somber Puritan nature, claiming that he is “sad and civil” which is apt when we consider that she is in mourning. However, audience anticipation is increased when Maria announces in Act 3 Scene 4 that Malvolio is somewhat deranged. Upon arrival — and appearingly upon instruction from Olivia — Malvolio is dressed in “yellow stockings, cross gartered” which would look aesthetically distasteful and bizarre on stage. It is ironic that this clothing should contrast with the black attire of a Puritan. Furthermore his clothing could be likened to a Jester’s motley which is jocular as we see that Malvolio is now also the visual representation of the fool. His entrance proceeds with a conversation between him and Olivia riddled with sexual obfuscation on Malvolio’s part. Self-assured, he declares “To bed! ay, sweetheart; and ill come to thee” which shows a complete disregard for his previous strict Puritan beliefs as sex before marriage would have been extremely injudicious. It is foolish of Malvolio to neglect the fundamental morals which he stands by as this lunacy achieves him nothing but unrequited love. As Malvolio commences with his adage “some are born great…” his lines are cut short by Olivia’s constant questions, making the flow of conversation disjointed and awkward, letting the audience cringe at the senselessness of Malvolio’s advances. Act 4 Scene 1 in the play provides a significant structural turning point where we see Malvolio transform from a mere fool to a victim of Shakespeare’s comedy. After Feste and Sir Toby torture Malvolio the supposed “lunatic,” we see that he becomes truly broken as he pleads with Feste, repeatedly calling him “good Sir Topas” in a desperate bid for sympathy. The title is significant as we finally see Malvolio address someone in a formal and complimentary manner, which makes us sympathise him rather than brand him a fool. Oddly enough, it was popular in Elizabethen England to torture those who may have been mentally ill, as it was believed that they were possesed by evil spirits.
While a modern day audience might view Malvolio as a victim of a cruel dupe, an audience of the time would be desensitized to this barbarity. Malvolio would yet again be deemed the real fool as we see him strain under the oppressive nature of others. There are various opinions as to who is the real fool of the play, some critics argue that the comedy is contingent upon all of the characters being outfoxed by one another, with no true fool. Another interpretation is that it is the audience and wider public that are made to look foolish, with Twelfth Night constructed as a satirical jeer at society’s customs and beliefs. Although these arguments are reasonably strong, Malvolio is irrefutably the most conspicuous fool. He is not only deceived by others, but is also the epitome of hypocrisy, criticising characters such as Sir Toby for immoral behaviour but acting impulsively and recklessly in his pursuit of Olivia. For this reason, Malvolio can be deemed the real fool of Twelfth Night.
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