Twelfth Night: Is Marvolio a Victim We Sympathise With or a Comic Target?

Updated on April 18, 2018

The character Malvolio in Shakespeare’s comedic play ‘Twelfth Night’ is interesting in the sense of how we are supposed to perceive him as – do we laugh or feel saddened? Many critics agree that Malvolio, and more specifically how his character develops through the treatment of him by other characters, makes him one of the most complex and profound characters in the play. There are many points to be said on both sides of this argument.

Typical of Shakespearean comedy – the characters leave their normal society and venture to a place where they are not governed by normality and the rules don’t seem to apply. This is called the ‘Green World’, this can be a literal place to uphold the ‘topsy-turvy’ nature but also just a metaphoric one. In the case of ‘Twelfth Night’ it is a metaphoric one; the characters do not leave to another place as the ‘normal’ world turns into this green world. Where the status quo seems to have disappeared.“The basic formula for comedy has had more to do with conventions and plot” (Depaul University Chicago) – it is these things that are turned upside down to make the play comedic. It is Malvolio; the only character that does not play into this mad festivity nor succumbs to the Lord of Misrule in ‘Twelfth Night’ Malvolio tries to put an end to it – to create order. Why would an audience appreciate someone ending the fun just like many puritans did during those times? An example of this would be in Act 2 Scene 3 where he abruptly interrupts Sir Toby and Andrew from their merriment – “...If you can separate yourself and your misdemeanours.” From this perspective and from the characters in the play – he isn’t a character to be sympathised with. Especially due to his puritan qualities that would increase this lack of sympathy. He deserves what he gets for not engaging with the festivities and is presented as a killjoy. As Ian Johnston says about comedy “The comic vision celebrates the individual’s participation in a community as the most important part of life.” If we take this interpretation to be true by definition Malvolio will experience the opposite. Also, remembering it is a play – this interruption would gladly bring in audience participation and would in this case be a target for negativity.

Structurally in Act 2 Scene 3 the repartee between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew is in full flow, their drunken happiness is at a fast pace. Constructed by Shakespeare to deliver the full effect of the fun happening here – it’s very much a fast flowing double act upon which a character delivers a punch line. As soon as Malvolio enters the pace is disrupted. For most of his speech is at a lot larger length and almost puts a wedge between the merriment which comes across as a great annoyance. Shakespeare has made Malvolio’s language here very condescending. As he first arrives he announces: “My masters, are you mad? Or what are you? Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, nut to gabble like tinkers at this time of night?”

On the other hand, Malvolio could be a character constructed by Shakespeare to offer sympathy. From one perspective he is just a formal (although formality could be another aspect to target), earnest man trying to do what’s right. After all, it isn’t like it’s not justified – Sir Toby and Andrew are drunkenly being loud and disorderly in the night. He offers a serious contrast and heightens how silly some other characters are, he doesn’t accept any “means for this uncivil rule”. In his eyes, everyone is mad and he gets attacked for it. The prank that then unfolds upon him is far too harsh for me to warrant anything but sympathy. Many others would argue that it’s humorous that such a man is being played about emotional and physically in silly ways. Another interpretation of mine is that Shakespeare developed this character so you feel or supposed to feel sympathy because he just can’t simply seem to join in with the fun. I pity the character because he cannot find or experience such joy in life.

Contextually this character is clearly supposed to be an elaborate attack on the puritan movement – Malvolio is a character constructed to epitomise that through his obvious snooty and earnest manner. A person who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of fun or merriment. In Shakespearean times Puritanism was very much in the people’s conscious and many would quite rightly disagree with it. So to have such a person on stages go through such silliness and mockery would obviously bring about a lot of laughter and satisfaction. To a Shakespearean audience Malvolio is to be mocked and scorned at every opportunity some would gather from the context.

On the other hand, from a modern perspective – Malvolio is a character we are more likely sympathise with because I certainly feel for him. Rather than a comic target we see a man blindingly believe he is in love, humiliates himself and also gets locked away. With Puritanism not a concept we think about every day we could easily believe this to be a character to whom we do feel sorry for. That’s the difference between a modern audience and an Elizabethan one; we have no strong feelings towards his type of character or have lived through a Puritan rule where many ‘fun’ things were banned such as the theatre. Shakespeare might have placed him in ‘Twelfth Night’ to offer some little sense of order and sanity to the prevailing madness. The dramatic irony we see in his prank could add to the argument he is a comic target, but, it could be argued the other way. It’s a stark reminder of humanity’s cruelty at others expenses, exposing human folly.

Comedy offers a happy ending once story arcs are completed, but with Malvolio’s prank there is no such end, he goes slightly mental as the situation unfolds and the way these actions are characterised seem more than just simply ‘keeping with the festive attitude’. Indeed, Malvolio is the only character not to be given closure as such with his last angry words of the play – “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” reminding the audience not quite everyone is happy, not everyone had a good time. Emphasising perhaps he isn’t part of the group and is an isolated individual. I definitely think this final line could be interpreted as a little sad message from Shakespeare on behalf of the character. Certainly his last explosive line suggests not included into the "happy ending" of this comedy, leaving us with the impression that, in spite of his faults and arrogance, he is a character who has suffered in a manner that is undeserving of his wrongs. As Penny Gay says about the comedy genre “Comedy while delighting in the events of a briefly topsy-turvy world, is ultimately conservative: its mission is to revitalise the social status quo by reincorporating the energies of the outlandish, through the institution of marriage.” It’s this that does not happen to Malvolio, primarily because he doesn’t ‘delight’ in the topsy-turvy world. Though this aspect, as said before is one reason we can gather he is a comic target it’s this overall summation of comedy that allows us to recognise he maybe a character to sympathise with. His lack of returning to the re-ordered society/status quo is an empty feeling that clashes with the other characters; it’s this lack of fulfilment that leaves me with an almost hollow sympathetic feel towards him. That’s my perspective but I think the previous quote about comedy re-iterates that feeling could be expressed generally.

In conclusion, I believe the character Malvolio was a character created by Shakespeare to make people think. To bring in concepts that would otherwise been lost without this type of character in the play. But is he a character to be sympathised with or made to be a comic target? Although we can sympathise from his later treatment and bitter last words I believe he is predominantly a character that’s a target. Due to the amount of relative contextual backgrounds and the direction Shakespeare took with the introduction of the character through language and comic situations (Act 2 Scene 3). I believe the character was mainly created for mockery and much satirical laughter within the play and the concept of sympathy to swept aside somewhat.


-Depaul University, Chicago

- Ian Johnston: Malaspina University College, British Columbia

- Penny Gay: Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies (2008)


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    © 2018 Raphael Kiyani


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