Download Twelfth Night Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Act II, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Fabian: the servant to Olivia who is the third spectator to Malvolio’s humiliation

Summary
This scene is devoted exclusively to the devious comic plot. Sir Toby gathers Fabian, another servant, and Andrew to enjoy the exercise in shame that Maria is about to execute. Fabian seems to have a bone to pick with him, so he is interested in what will happen to Malvolio.

Maria has the whole trick worked out. They will hide in a box tree and observe as Malvolio picks up the falsified letter to read it. Olivia is on Malvolio’s mind when he enters. Sir Toby and Fabian believe that Malvolio’s arrogance makes him suitable game for the trap that’s been set. Malvolio fancies himself a suitor to Olivia.

Speaking aloud, Malvolio continues to let his imagination run wild over the prospect of loving Olivia and the accompanying self-aggrandizement. While doing so, Sir Toby, Fabian, and Andrew devilishly comment on his behavior. That they are sadistic in intention is evident in such remarks as “Pistol him, pistol him” and “O for a stonebow, to hit him in the eye.”

Eventually Malvolio sees the letter, which appears to him to be in Olivia’s handwriting. Though it is a love letter, it doesn’t completely mention Malvolio by name. Malvolio takes the declaration of love to be addressed to him because it identifies the beloved as “M,O,A,I,” four letters that can be found in Malvolio’s name. Furthermore, the phrase “I may command where I adore” leads him to believe that he is the man because he is her servant.

The letter goes on to suggest that fortune is now smiling on Malvolio. The letter also induces him to adopt peculiar behaviors. He is to be hostile with a kinsman, smile in Olivia’s presence, study political treatises for advice, and wear yellow stockings and cross-garters. Malvolio, convinced of the letter’s authenticity, resolves to follow all of its suggestions.

Sir Toby foreshadows his subsequent marriage to Maria in this scene. He is so intrigued by her skill in the trap that he cannot help feeling love for her: “I could marry this wench for this device.”

As yet, Malvolio has not humiliated himself before Olivia. The scheme will come to fruition when Malvolio confronts Olivia with smiles and yellow stockings, cross-gartered. So, for this devilish group, the best is yet to come.

Analysis
“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,” says Maurice Charney. Until the device of Maria’s letter, the play does not firmly emphasize Malvolio’s vanity and social-climbing. As has been shown, he properly carries out his duty for Olivia. Only through what other characters say of him may we feel justified in labeling him an “overweening rogue,” as Sir Toby does. His behavior, though, is quite proper.

What we should come to terms with is the relationship of this comic plot to the other plot. What it has in common, of course, is the theme of love. Malvolio is duped into believing that Olivia loves him, and he falls in love. This “symbolist drama,” as Ralph Berry terms it, becomes a perversion of Orsino’s love for Olivia. Malvolio may be likened to the Duke in the way that the letter ignites his passion for her. The letter, as a practical means of expression, reminds us of Cesario’s position in the total rendering of the love theme. But, since the letter is a trick, Malvolio’s love is a parody of the feelings and behavior of the Duke and Cesario. Olivia does not, nor will she, love Malvolio.

Perhaps the most glaring instance of perverseness is in the endings of the plots. Comedy prescribes a happy ending for the lovers in the romantic plot. Maria’s...

(The entire section is 987 words.)