The play “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare is a romantic comedy, based on the themes of appearance vs reality, love as suffering and melancholy, and comedy.

For most of the second Act of the play, characters such as Sir Toby, who was introduced as a drunkard and a fool, and Sir Andrew, who is humiliated by Sir Toby for his vulnerable nature and folly, do not contribute much to the main plotline of the play.

Rather, these characters are introduced with the primary purpose of comedic relief for the audience.

Malvolio, who is countess Olivia’s loyal steward, has been portrayed as a grave character, who is loyal to the lady of the house. Act II Scene V, however, allows the audience to further examine Malvolio’s nature, both, through his own dialogues, and through other characters’ perception of Malvolio.

This scene, thus, portrays Malvolio as an interesting character who acts as comedic relief for the audience. Shakespeare has achieved this through the employment of devices and techniques such as metaphors, alliteration, personification, and dramatic and verbal irony.  

Malvolio is portrayed as a “puritan” from the point where the audience first introduced to him in Act I. This was because he took any light hearted conversations about him seriously, and he was portrayed as someone who was strongly opposed to entertainment and leisure. This was seen when Malvolio discouraged, and strongly forbid Sir Toby, Feste, Maria and Sir Andrew, reveling in Olivia’s household.

However, Act II scene V shed light on Malvolio’s true nature and personality. This is because the play proceeds to portray the fact that Malvolio engages in thoughts about a romantic relationship with Olivia, his mistress, which significantly contrasts the character of a puritan that Malvolio tries to put forward.

This is evident as Malvolio is thankful for his fate after reading the letter that he supposed was from Olivia. There is dramatic irony as Malvolio says that he would not let “imagination jade [him]”, because that is exactly what the audience recognizes him doing as he is unaware, and should be unsure of the fact that Olivia, herself had written this letter but Malvolio, quite ironically, immediately convinces himself that the letter was meant for him.

This is also verbal irony as it would be unquestionably inappropriate, from a puritan’s perspective, to be romantically involved with someone of a higher status.

The fact that Malvolio, while commenting on the letter, speaks in prose-, commonly used by characters who engage in light-hearted conversations also adds to the fact that he is opposing his own morals. The fact that Malvolio pretends to be against enjoyment and love, but goes against his own morals, portrays him as an interesting and complex character.

As Malvolio makes many assumptions while reading the letter seemingly written to him by Olivia, he understands the words of the letter to convey the idea that Olivia was in love with him.

Maria addressed the receiver of the letter by using the letters “M.O.A.I”. The fact that Malvolio immediately considered the letter was meant for him just because his name began with the letter, “M”, also portrays how he was ambitioned to interpret the letter to be addressed to him.

Malvolio also uses an exclamation as he finds that the letter is addressed towards him as he says “why, that begins my name!”.

This exclamation of joy and satisfaction justifies the fact that Malvolio manipulates a situation to suit his purpose, or what he wants/wishes, thus portraying him as a fascinating character.

The fact that Malvolio considers, and comes to a personal consensus to marry Olivia, who isn’t his true love portrays the significant difference between Malvolio and others who are romantically involved with Olivia. This is seen when Orsino (who claimed to love Olivia for her personality as well as appearance), from the point where he was first introduced, struggled to portray the truth in his love for Olivia.

In addition, Olivia loved Cesario passionately, for “his” appearance and wit. On the contrary, Malvolio agrees towards marrying Olivia solely to attain the position of a count in her household.

Thus, Orsino loves Olivia, and Olivia is interested in Cesario for the qualities they perceive are possessed by their lovers, while Malvolio goes against his own morals and pretends to be in love with Olivia to fulfill his own greed. This has been portrayed with the repetition of “will” as Malvolio promises to “baffle sir toby”, “wash off gross acquaintance” and to be “point device, the very man”.

The repetition of “will” shows a tone of definition and decisiveness, thus clearly portraying the reason why Malvolio was interested in Olivia in the first place.

Thus, the fact that Malvolio pretends to love Olivia and even marry her, just to attain a high status to be able to order Sir Toby, and gain high status, portrays him as an interesting character, while also portraying the significance of status in Elizabethan society.  

Therefore, Malvolio initially seems to be a secondary character, and his humiliation seems like nothing more than an amusing subplot to the fascinating love triangle developed among the primary characters. However, he becomes more interesting as the play progresses, and seems to be the most complex character in the play itself.

When Malvolio is first introduced, he seems to be a puritan, and a loyal, proper servant who opposes other people’s fun and entertainment. However, it is his true character, of one who pretends to be in love, when he is actually self-involved, that puts Sir Toby further against him.

Thus, the clever plan devised by Maria and Sir Toby, while adding to the humor and entertainment in the play, also unfolds a side of Malvolio that would otherwise remain hidden. This also portrays how a character who seems to be comprehensible might actually be complex, and one who seems to be against enjoyment and love might be in love himself.

Malvolio’s contrasting nature, from most other characters in the play and the fact that he proves to have more than one side to his personality of a puritan and a loyal servant, portrays him as a beguiling, yet complex character.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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