William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - With references to the play and Becky Kemper's article "A Clown in the Dark House: Reclaiming the Humour in Malvolio's Downfall," I need to discuss the character and treatment of Malvolio with references to both Elizabethan and modern audiences.
A festive comedy, William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night exhibits dichotomies of character and of humor with its duality of identities and involuntary behavior, and its pairings of insults. It is important to note, also, that Shakespeare satirizes the comedy of humors held by his rival Ben Jonson as he uses the Feast of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Night after Christmas as the occasion for what renowned critic Harold Bloom calls
...an ambiguous comedy of revels that involves a practical joke upon the choleric Malvolio, a figure so Jonsonian as to suggest the choleric Ben himself.
In keeping with the dichotomies of character, Shakespeare opens his play with the words of the contrasting sanguine "to an insane degree" Duke Orsino who delivers a most exquisite speech,
If music be the food of love, play on
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die
That strain again, it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violet,
Stealing and giving odour.... (1.1-7)
Thus excessiveness is immediately introduced and it becomes apparent that Orsino is more in love with music, language, the concept of love, and even himself than he is with Olivia. His choleric counterpart, Malvolio, is also an opportunist and hyperbolist as he exchanges insults with Feste Act I, Scene 5. For instance, when Olivia asks Malvolio what he thinks of the fool, Malvolio replies,
Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool. (1.5.57)
I marvel that 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. (1.5.62-63)
So, as Becky Kemp writes in her article, mentioned above, "The direct correlation of the language between Act IV, Scene 2, in which Malvolio is belittled and Act I, Scene 5, in which Feste reveals a much more even playing field." (Kemp, 45). Further, Kemp states that there is no serious injury done to Malvolio, no mention of bondage or such. It is also important to consider that Malvolio represents the Puritan in this play, and it was the Puritans who tried to close the theatres. So, not only is Malvolio the target of satire at Jonson, he is also a target against the Puritans. This use of a character as a target for social issues is one that is yet prevalent today in modern drama and comedy shows. Kemp rightly concludes her article,
Feste’s and Malvolio’s competition for Olivia’s favor, Malvolio’s faults, and the clown’s civility and humor provide good starting points where modern equivalents can communicate the older resonances to create a production with humor and relevance for today’s audience.
Malvolio represents the social climber, the sycophant, who deserves to be put into his place. This is the object of satire: to ridicule those who are excessive. On the other hand, this excessive personality is one that greatly challenges actors and interpretation, and maintaining the appropriate level of humor is the delicate balance.