When commenting on William Shakespeare’s comedies, critics often make a distinction between “comedies of delight” and “comedies of laughter.” “Comedies of delight” are those which arouse joy, pleasure, delight, and happiness, partly by displaying all those qualities themselves. “Comedies of laughter” are those in which we tend to laugh at the characters rather than with them. In Shakespeare’s era, the great master of comedies of laughter – especially scornful laughter – was Ben Jonson. Shakespeare’s greatest comedies are more often considered comedies of delight.
Among the plays by Shakespeare that do reflect the traits associated with “comedies of laughter” is Twelfth Night. The character in that play who is particularly the object of scorn and laughter, not only from other characters but also from most audiences, is Malvolio. His very name means “ill will,” and his Puritanical personality makes him one of the least likeable characters in Shakespearean comedy. Both Shakespeare and other characters in the play have fun at Malvolio’s expense, partly because Malvolio seems to deserve a certain amount of derision. He is not a character like Bottom, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who is both laughed at and lovable, nor is he like Sir John Falstaff, who also often exhibits both of those traits.
Shakespeare deliberately makes Malvolio a less appealing character. Consider, for instance, his contempt for the fool, Feste, early in the play:
Malvolio. I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a
barren rascal: I saw him put down the other day
with an ordinary fool that has no more brain
than a stone. Look you now, he's out of his guard
already; unless you laugh and minister occasion to
him, he is gagged. I protest, I take these wise men,
that crow so at these set kind of fools, no better
than the fools' zanies.
Ironically, it will be Malvolio himself who will later seem the truly foolish character in this play. Yet even he is far more attractive than some of Jonson’s characters, such as the various greedy characters in Volpone or The Alchemist or the Puritans in Bartholomew Fair.
By the end of Twelfth Night, Malvolio seems even more full of ill will than ever; his last words are “I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” We are more likely to laugh at Malvolio than with him.
Something extra: Malvolio is described by Maria at one point as a "Puritan." Puritans were often derided in the comedies of Shakespeare's era, partly because Puritans were so often hostile to the theater. Yet when Maria gives the matter a bit more thought, thisis how she describes Malvolio:
Marie.The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing 845
constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass,
that cons state without book and utters it by great
swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so
crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is
his grounds of faith that all that look on him love 850
him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find
notable cause to work.
This is the kind of phrasing we are more accustomed to finding in Jonson's comedies than in Shakespeare's.