To what extent is Malvolio a central character in the play Twelfth Night?

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Malvolio is indeed a central character in Twelfth Night, in large part because he is the closest thing the play has to an antagonist. Although the protagonist, Viola , is not in direct conflict with Malvolio, the Elizabethan audience would likely have positioned themselves against Malvolio, given...

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Malvolio is indeed a central character in Twelfth Night, in large part because he is the closest thing the play has to an antagonist. Although the protagonist, Viola, is not in direct conflict with Malvolio, the Elizabethan audience would likely have positioned themselves against Malvolio, given his pretentious and often self-important manner.

Consider act 2, scene 5, in which Malvolio discovers the letter that Maria wrote. Of course, Malvolio thinks that the letter was written by his beloved Olivia, which creates the comedy in the scene. As Malvolio reads the letter, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew berate him with amusing insults. Malvolio's pomposity make him an easy target for mockery—at the hands of other characters and the audience alike.

In this lighthearted comedy, there is no evil demon, corrupt king, or brawny villain. As a result, Malvolio is arguably the only character that the audience can openly root against. Malvolio's antagonism does not compare to that of Shakespeare's true villains, such as Iago from Othello, but his presence nonetheless introduces a dramatically fruitful tension and helps to satisfy the audience's desire for conflict. For this reason, Malvolio is a central character.

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