365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

278. Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”: a brief character analysis

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Have you ever watched the American version of the hit TV show “The Office”? If so, think about Dwight Schrute, and you will have a fairly good idea of who Malvolio from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” is. He is a man who takes himself and his job far too seriously, who feels the need to boss other characters around despite not actually being too far elevated in terms of rank, and who is easily duped in what can be seen as a very obvious prank.

“Twelfth Night” introduces Malvolio as an entirely aggravating killjoy of a character, who wants nothing more than for everyone to obey him and behave as well as he does. Of course, he mostly just annoys the other servants of Olivia’s house, and they soon decide that he should be taught a lesson. Maria says that she will write a letter in the hand of the lady Olivia declaring that she loves Malvolio, in order to trick him into making a fool out of himself.

The plan works. Malvolio reads the letter and believes not only that Olivia loves him, but that she wants him to treat his fellow servants with abuse, to smile and blow kisses to her, and to wear yellow stockings (when in reality Olivia cannot stand the color yellow). Malvolio obeys, believing he can win her affections this way. It is really quite sad, and even though the scene that ensues – which causes Olivia to think that he has absolutely lost his mind – is usually played for laughs, this is where Shakespeare’s darker side begins to come through.

Malvolio ends up being locked in a dark room by the other servants, who try to convince him that he is mad. Malvolio begs for paper and ink to write a letter to Olivia, and Feste, the play’s fool, impersonates a priest to try and further the cruel treatment. In the end, Malvolio is released, the plot is revealed, and he storms off, declaring his revenge will be found.

He is one of the most unexpectedly sympathetic characters Shakespeare created. Yes, he is basically the worst person to share a working environmentwith, but the cruelty he endures and the way his spirit breaks afterward (especially considering how he was led to believe he would find love) is truly painful. It is also worth noting that Malvolio is one of the few characters Shakespeare ever created whose loose ends are not tied up: he declares that he will seek revenge, but we never see it, nor do we know where he goes or ends up.

A challenge for any actor to play and any scholar to study, Malvolio remains one of the best characters in all of Shakespeare’s comedic canon.

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Written by Caroline Mincks

July 6, 2010 at 11:24 PM

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