An improbable fiction
Get him to say his prayers, good Sir Toby, get him to pray.
My prayers, minx!
No; I warrant you, he will not hear of godliness.
Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things, I am
not of your element. You shall know more hereafter. [Exit]
Fabian:Twelfth Night Act 3, scene 4, 118–128
If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an
Irritated by Malvolio's killjoy interference with their reveling, Maria, Sir Toby Belch, and their crew have taken revenge by duping Malvolio into absolutely mad behavior [see LAUGH ONESELF INTO STITCHES]. The lady of the house, Olivia, spurns Malvolio's new fashions and his provocative advances as "midsummer madness" and puts him in the care of his enemies, who here continue to torment him. The conspirator Fabian, awed at the improbable ease with which Malvolio swallowed the bait, compares recent events to a bad play. (This isn't the first or last time Shakespeare has a character call attention to his status as part of a fiction, though this is one of the most famous instances.) The reason an "improbable fiction" is to be condemned has mostly to do with the critical dogma of the age, inherited from Aristotle. Probability—the sense that what goes on on stage could actually be taking place in real life—was supposed to be the sine qua non of comic drama. Fabian, Shakespeare, and everyone in the audience, however, know that Malvolio's improbable gullibility makes for satisfying entertainment, Aristotle or no Aristotle.