An improbable fiction
Get him to say his prayers, good Sir Toby, get him to
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.
If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as
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.