Is Malvolio a character to condemn or sympathise with in "Twelfth Night"?the way Maria and Sir Toby plan to deceive Malvolio in the book
Like characters such as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Malvolio is very likely perceived differently by modern audiences than he was by Elizabethan ones. It's almost certain that Shakespeare's own audiences (and the actor playing Malvolio) saw him completely as a figure of comic fun. Understanding that this was a society in which some of the main alternatives to theater-going for amusement were bear- and bull-baiting rings and public executions, we have no reason to think that most of the viewers of Twelfth Night would have been inclined to feel sorry for him in any way.
However, modern audiences usually feel differently. A line is crossed when Malvolio is incarcerated in the dark house (where mad people were routinely confined) and tormented by the faux Sir Topas. At this point, for modern audiences, the punishment no longer fits the crime. As the other commenters have pointed out, Malvolio does not share in the happy ending (as odd as that ending is) and elicits at least some sympathy by then.
Again, we ask ourselves—what was actually in Shakespeare's mind? We can guess he despised the Puritans, so Malvolio likely started as a very unsympathetic character. But Shakespeare's genius could never stop there. So he ultimately creates a person who is much more complex than a simple stereotype, one that actors continue to enjoy exploring and investigating.
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. Certainly, as the play begins and we are introduced to Malvolio, he is a figure to poke fun at with his serious, "Puritan" attitudes to service and life. Certainly Feste, who could be said to be the force of chaos in the play, thinks so, with his confrontation with Malvolio. This feeling of amusement continues as Malvolio is gulled and with the famous "yellow stocking" scene, which is a sure crowd-pleaser. However, what becomes definitely more dubious is the treatment of Malvolio when he is locked up and Feste, disguised as Sir Topas, tries to convince him he is mad. This is where the audience begins to feel sympathy for him and we begin to feel the joke has gone on too far. Certainly his last explosive line in the play suggests that he is not re-admitted 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 disproportionate to his crimes.
The above commentator rightly argues for Shakespeare’s greatness in handling the character of Malvolio. However, Maurice Charney’s interpretation also needs to be considered in this regard. While commenting about Malvolio’s gulling Charney notes: “Whether Malvolio has been most notoriously abused, or whether he is the well-deserving victim of a practical joke that explodes his vanity, social-climbing, and pretentiousness is the point at issue.” Malvolio’s gulling in Act II, Sc. v does not evoke readers’ sympathy. The sympathy is aroused when he is imprisoned by Toby and harassed by Feste. His gulling in Act II, Sc. v “explodes his vanity, social climbing, and pretentiousness”, but when he is imprisoned and further harassed, it reveals nothing. Shakespeare has probably done it only for initiating a kind of sympathetic sensation for the character. Malvolio thus emerges as the only character in the play for whom the readers laugh at first and sympathise at the end.
Malvolio's name suggests that he is a person of ill will and his getting a comeuppance certainly seems well deserved. Shakespeare however does write the punishment of Malvolio in such a way that he becomes so pathetic we can't at some point help feeling sorry for him. That, perhaps, is an illustration of Shakespeare's genius.