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Narcissistic Malvolio in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

Updated on July 29, 2015

A Brief Synopsis

The Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is one of his most entertaining plays to watch or read. It is full of mistaken identifies, battles of wit, and unfriendly pranks. In addition, people and events are rarely what they at first appear to be. The story took place in Illyria; a location that Shakespeare likely chose for its mysteriousness and to convey the idea of a fictional location to his audience. It was to the shores of this mysterious country that a pair of shipwrecked twins, Viola and Sebastian, individually sought shelter while under the impression that the other had drowned during the storm that sunk their ship. It was here that Viola chose to hide her true identity and social status by disguising herself as a eunuch and seeking employment in the household of Duke Orsino, who governs Illyria. Meanwhile, Orsino pined for the hand of the beautiful countess Olivia. It was in Olivia’s household that much of the drama took place. Malvolio, Olivia’s steward and the main focus of this article, had managed to stir up the dislike of most of her household. As a result they plotted ways to seek their revenge on him. The purpose of this article is threefold: to describe the character of Malvolio, to examine the culture that surrounds him, and to determine how he could be seen as an antagonist to his culture.

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Malvolio

It is clear from the name that Shakespeare gave Malvolio’s character, which in Italian means "ill will," that he intended for him to be portrayed negatively. Malvolio’s position in Olivia’s household was as a steward, which was merely a servant. Maria, Olivia’s lady-in-waiting, described Malvolio as being "a kind of puritan" because he was morally strict. She went on to describe him as a "boot licker" because he would go out of his way to please Countess Olivia. She concluded that he was arrogant and that in his high opinion of himself he believed "all that look on him [must] love him." Olivia herself stated that Malvolio was "sick of self-love." In fact, when Maria went to find Sir Toby and Sir Andrew after she wrote a fraudulent love letter to Malvolio from Olivia, she stated that "he has been yonder i’ the sun practicing behavior to his own shadow this half hour." Even Olivia’s court jester, Feste, described Malvolio negatively. At one point in the story, he referred to him as the "nose" for all of the time that he spent nosing around in other people’s business. In addition to being arrogant and conceited, Malvolio fantasized about marrying Olivia and gaining superiority over the rest of the household. However, not all of Malvolio’s characteristics were bad. He was a mature servant that took his responsibilities seriously. Olivia described him as being sober and respectful, which is why she often desired his service, rather than the service of her more cheerful servants, while she was in mourning for her brother.


Illyrian Culture

The culture that surrounded Malvolio was often in contrast with his character and beliefs. There were strict rules that governed the social classes and penalties for over-stepping these rules. For example, people were expected to marry within their own social class. To clarify, marriage could only take place between two people of equal social status. For this reason, Olivia, as a countess, could never have married Malvolio without suffering from social ridicule. It is because of these strict social class rules that Viola chose to initially hide her true social rank and sex. In addition, the majority of the people in Olivia’s household enjoyed drinking, dancing and having a good time-- all activities that Malvolio condemned.


Outward Appearances

One of the few beliefs that Malvolio’s shared with the Illyrian culture was the emphasis on the importance of outward appearances. It was generally believed that a person’s outward appearance demonstrated their inner moral qualities. For example, while requesting the aid of the sea captain, Viola stated that she believed that she could trust him because she reasoned that his mind must be in agreement with his fair outward appearance. A second example, while pursuing the favor of Olivia, Sir Andrew commented to Sir Toby that perhaps he should have devoted more time to academic learning, instead of spending all of his time learning to fence and dance. The skills that he had spent time learning were, for the most part, only for social purposes. A third example, Maria implied that others looked down upon Sir Toby’s late hours, drinking, and partying. And a final example, when Orsino sent Viola (disguised as Cessario) to speak to Olivia on his behalf, he claimed that she would listen to her because of her youthful appearance. When she arrived at the household and viewed Olivia’s face for the first time, they briefly discussed her physical beauty.

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Day #24 of my "30 Hubs in 30 Days" Challenge.
Day #24 of my "30 Hubs in 30 Days" Challenge. | Source

An Antagonist

Malvolio was in many ways an antagonist to his surrounding culture. As mentioned previously, he was arrogant and held strict moral values for himself. The main problems were that his arrogance often interfered with his interactions with others and that he often tried to force his own strict morals on those around him. For example, in one of his first scenes in the play, he called Feste a fool and commented that he couldn’t see why Olivia bothered to keep him around. When Olivia instructed Malvolio to return "Orsino’s" ring to Cessario, he was extremely high handed and stuffy in his dealings with the servant. When Sir Toby and Sir Andrew informed Fabian of their plot, he easily agreed to go along with it because Malvolio had recently "tattled" on him and gotten him in trouble with Olivia. Perhaps the strongest example, during a confrontation with Sir Toby, Malvolio overstepped his social rank by criticizing Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria for their drinking and carrying on in the middle of the night. He scolded them for what he considered to be their loud, disorderly, and uncivilized behavior and threatened to report their actions to Olivia. Sir Toby appropriately replied, "Art [thou] any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" He then told Malvolio to go away and mind his own business.


Character Weaknesses

Malvolio’s two greatest weaknesses were his arrogance (and self love) and his fantasies of marrying Olivia and rising above his peers. It was the combination of these two weaknesses that made it so easy for the others to successfully perform their many pranks on him. This led him to declare that he had been greatly wronged and to vow that he would get his revenge on them. However, in reality he brought his troubles upon himself by behaving as he did towards the others in the household. Every single one of the characters that was involved in performing the pranks against him had at some point been subjected to Malvolio’s arrogant treatment.


Conclusion

In conclusion, after thoroughly examining the text to observe the character of Malvolio and his interaction with his surrounding culture, it is easy to conclude that Shakespeare intentionally portrayed Malvolio’s character negatively. If, for a moment, we take into consideration the society that Shakespeare himself lived in during the time period that he wrote this play, we can observe that followers of the Puritan religion were persecuting both he and his playhouse. Perhaps, for Shakespeare, the writing of this play was his own way of playing a prank on them in order to execute his own type of revenge for the trouble that they had been causing him. If this were the case, then Malvolio would basically be a personification of Shakespeare’s trouble with the Puritans, and his negative portrayal of Malvolio would be his harmless, not to mention amusing, way of getting even.


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