Malvolio and the Eunuchs: Texts and Revels in Twelfth Night

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John Astington, University of Toronto

… a good practise in it to make the steward beleeue his Lady widdowe was in Loue wth him by counterfayting a lettr

John Manningham

He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:

But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.

1 Corinthians, 7, 32-3

Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.

But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.

1 Timothy, 5, 5-6

Fashionably enough, the central farcical scene of Twelfth Night concerns an act of reading. What Malvolio reads and how he reads it have significant connections both with other events in the play, and with the wider world of seventeenth-century English society. The letter he finds invites him to join the festive rituals of love—to disguise himself, to smile, and to become a wooer, on the expectation of ending the revelling with epithalamium and marriage. This model for human conduct—the argument of romantic comedy—is in fact endorsed by a secondary text hidden within the first, as we shall see. But Malvolio, reading the words eagerly in the light of his predisposition, sees no subtleties, let alone the gaping trap. The festival in which he has already begun to take part is not the affirmative and sustaining one he imagines, but a punitive, defaming, mocking ritual aimed at him, his pride, pretensions, and authority. His reading—or misreading—marks his entry to a festive world, and festivals, like texts, are ambiguous. Particularly his treatment at the hands of the plotters forms a suggestive inverse ritual to set against those patterns which are traced by the energies of misplaced and baffled erotic desire, eventually untangled and fulfilled.

In the last scene of the play Feste finally delivers Malvolio's letter, excusing himself with the observation that 'madman's epistles are no gospels'. One could say that Malvolio's mistake has been to fall into the trap of taking a mad epistle for gospel, but here Olivia is not to be diverted by Feste's attempt to superimpose a theatrical style on plain sense: Orsino's recognition that 'This savours not much of distraction' echoes her own. Earlier in the play, Toby has pre-empted another plain reader, Viola, by rewriting Sir Andrew's challenge and by avoiding committing it to paper: 'this letter, being so excellently ignorant, will breed no terror in the youth. He will find it comes from a clodpoll'. In the course of the play we have, then, two epistles which are gospels, in so far as their sense, or lack of it, is revealed in their style, and one which is dressed as a dish of poison, devilish and heretical.

Malvolio, if he is indeed a 'kind of puritan', should have had some experience in the interpretation of difficult or ambiguous writings, but he capitulates so absolutely to the apparent sense of a text that even Maria is amazed at his extreme folly: 'Yon gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado, for there is no Christian that means to be saved by believing rightly can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness.' Something has been wrong, clearly, with Malvolio's Puritan discipline, if he can fall so easily for 'some obscure epistles of love', taking the shadow for the substance in such an unguarded manner. In doing so, of course, he is unconsciously aping his betters, and it is the deluded Olivia who is readiest to understand...

(This entire section contains 7337 words.)

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and forgive him, pointedly comparing his case with hers twice in the play. Not that she is aware of her own delusion, however. She confidently assumes she is an accomplished reader of texts, and of bodies as texts, when she dismisses the first chapter of Orsino's heart, which Viola proposes asher gospel: 'O, I have read it. It is heresy.'

The revenge of foolery and holiday on Malvolio is motivated by his repressive and humourless sense of order, and by his self-conceit, but the terms of his humiliation are very deliberately chosen: not only is he made to transgress class barriers, but he is translated into a lover, about which role there is something deeply and fundamentally inappropriate. Malvolio's initial rule over the celibate, mourning household of Olivia is sterile and deathly. Sad and civil, he is customarily dressed in suits of solemn black, and he marks himself all too clearly as an enemy to the life of comic energy: his first line in the play invokes the pangs of death. Olivia's own brooding on death, however affected it may be, aligns her sympathetically with Malvolio's gloomy order: the entirely imaginary affection that Maria invents has at least a germ of plausibility about it. But Malvolio is valued by Olivia as a servant precisely because he appears to be passionless, 'Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow', a defender not only of wit, manners, and honesty, but of honesty in its sexual sense, a symbolic guardian at Olivia's gates. As a classically constructed blocking character, Malvolio inamorato is punished by the passion he apparently denies.

By the beginning of the box-tree scene, the treasons have already been planted in his mind, which is running on marriage: 'Having been three months married to her, sitting in my state— … Calling my officers about me, in my branched velvet gown, having come from a day-bed where I have left Olivia sleeping.' Dreams of power and luxury, therefore, accompany the relatively sober, yet preposterous 'married to her'; indeed the fantasy of high social rank runs slightly ahead of dreams of sexual indulgence. Married in his mind, he encounters the fateful epistle, the very letters of which drip with concupiscence.1The style of the text he reads is a clever mixture of obliquity and directness, fustian riddles, grandiloquence, and minor rhetorical flourishes with a rather dated air. The prose begins with a clear warning—'If this fall into thy hand, revolve'—and immediately passes to an apparently clear statement—'In my stars I am above thee'—followed by a fugal development on the theme of greatness, which Malvolio is naturally disposed to hear with pleasure. Within the famous tripartite clause, thrice repeated in the course of the play, there lurks, perhaps, another warning for the truly virtuous. That is to say that the construction of this part of the epistle is remarkably close to gospel. In the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew, Christ has been drawn by the Pharisees into a discussion of divorce and marriage. The complexities of morality and law lead the disciples to think that perhaps 'it is not good to marry'. In the King James Bible, Christ replies as follows:

  • But hee said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying saue they to whom it is given.
  • For there are some Eunuches, which were so borne from their mothers wombe: and there are some Eunuches, which were made Eunuches of men: and there be Eunuches, which haue made themselues Eunuches for the kingdome of heauens sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receiue it.

Christ's words, he twice warns, are not to be understood by everyone, and the terms of his analogy are in many respects puzzling, but the evident centre of his meaning is that true greatness is not of this world, and that sexuality may be a bar to finding it. If Maria has intended this gospel text to serve as an allusive reflection beneath the surface of her epistle, the sense of the phrases begins to shimmer with opposites and distinctions: physical loss and spiritual gain, greatness and littleness (deficiency), fertility and sterility.

Malvolio has been offered an oblique warning about the futility of his marriage, if not a veiled insult, but fails to catch either. He would not, however, have known the gospel in the Authorized Version, and any kind of Puritan would have been most likely to be familiar with the Geneva Bible. The 1560 text translates the crucial verse in Matthew in a slightly different way:

For there are some chaste, which were so borne of (their) mothers bellie: and there be some chaste, which be made chaste by men: and there be some chaste, which haue made them selues chaste for the kingdome of heauen.2

The effect of 'chaste' is a good deal blander, and implies choice rather than compulsion or accident, although the second clause becomes puzzling in this respect. But the marginal glosses, a chief feature of the Calvinist bibles, leave the reader in no doubt over the sense in the first instance: 'the worde signifieth (gelded) and they were so made because they shuld, kepe the chambers of noble women: for they were iudged chaste.' Malvolio, keeper of the chamber to Olivia, certainly wishes to be judged chaste, but is far from deeming himself unable to marry, from recognizing his own incapacity. The gloss on those that make themselves chaste, or who achieve chasteness, might we say, explains the phrase as a positive effect of grace, and of an effort of free will rather than negative self-abnegation or mutilation: Christ's phrase refers to those 'Which haue the gift of c tin ce, & vse it to serue God with more free libertie.' And perhaps because the connection between chastity and godliness has an unfortunately Papist slant, the final sentence of the verse, Christ's second caveat, receives the following gloss: 'This gift is not commune for all men, but is verie rare, and giv to fewe: therefore men may not rashly absteine from marriage.' The Puritan reading of the text, finally, is to endorse the argument of comedy. This is made particularly clear in Calvin's own commentary on these verses. Speaking of the disciples' uncertainty, he writes, perhaps rather surprisingly:

But why do they not think on their side how hard was the bondage of their wives? Simply because they are thinking only of themselves and their own convenience and are not motivated by the mind of the flesh that they forget others and want only themselves to be considered. Their ungodly ingratitude betrays itself that they reject this wonderful gift of God out of fear of one inconvenience or out of boredom. According to them it would be better to flee marriage altogether than to tie oneself to a perpetual bond of fellowship. But if God instituted marriage for the common welfare of the human race, it is not to be rejected because it carries with it some things which are less agreeable.3

The world must be peopled, and the will of God followed. Malvolio may therefore have some sense of the buried text, but without necessarily reading it as being directed against marriage; God, or 'Jove', as he may have more innocuously become by the time of the Folio text, seems to be overseeing the whole affair, including the interpretative spirit with which the sense of the words is received. Malvolio's reading of the letter, which he imagines to be free of 'imagination', could therefore be said to be a parody of the tendency of Puritan interpretation to read ambiguous texts in the direction of a theological programme, or to invoke the will of God to endorse personal predilections.

Godliness may render a man unfit for marriage, but the Geneva glosses also warn that 'Some by nature are vnable to marie, and some by arte'; 'The worde Eunuche is a generali word, and hath diuers kindes under it, as gelded men and bursten men.' By extension, one might say that the metaphoric application of physiological circumstances, Christ's starting point, hath divers kinds under it.4 Malvolio' spiritual sterility renders him unfit for comic marriage, whatever his physical potency may be. More importantly to the rituals of comedy, the gulling which is initiated in the box-tree scene is an extended episode of humiliation. Induced to declare himself no eunuch by nature, Malvolio then puts himself at risk of being made one by art. His self-exposure, capture, imprisonment, and binding—the entire course of his 'bafflement'—is not only the well-recognized expulsion of repressive order from festival and holiday, but an act of sexual degradation—a displaced gelding, through which Malvolio is emasculated by the laughter of the sexually united pairs:

                       Maria writ The letter, at Sir Toby's great importance, In recompense whereof he hath married her.                         (Twelfth Night, 5.1.359-61)

Yet however absurd the holy duty of marriage may seem in Malvolio's case—and it is not so much that the world has no need of more Malvolios as that he is contemplating marriage with the wrong person and for entirely the wrong reasons—it is extremely important to the play as a whole. 'If anyone imagines', says Calvin, 'that it is to his advantage to be without a wife and so without further consideration decides to be celibate, he is very much in error. For God, who declared that it was good that the woman should be the help meet for the man, will exact punishment for contempt of his ordinance. Men arrogate too much to themselves when they try to exempt themselves from their heavenly calling.' 5 The solemnity of God's punishment may be out of place in a comedy, as may the name of God itself, but the sense of 'heavenly calling' in sexual union is precisely in key with the magical happiness towards which the romantic comedies move. Resistance against this movement, or surprised acquiescence in it, is generally expressed with reference to purely natural or pagan forces, as when Viola speaks to Olivia about her beauty.

Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive If you will lead these graces to the grave And leave the world no copy.                                         (1.5.230-2)

Or when, at the end of the same scene, Olivia gives in to something beyond her own power to resist:

Fate, show thy force. Our selves we do not owe. What is decreed must be; and be this so.                                      (1.5.300-1)

It is Olivia who most resists her obligation to marry by taking on a vow to what she imagines are higher things. Her withdrawal from the world is cast in the language of religious observance.

… like a cloistress she will veilèd walk, And water once a day her chamber round With eye-offending brine—                                         (1.1.27-9)

But the form of the observance, as Feste points out, is really without a religious object, an empty fetish like that of abjuring the sight and company of men, 'as if celibacy contained some meritorious service—just as the Papists imagine it is an angelic state. But all Christ intended', Calvin says of making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake, 'was that the unmarried should set the aim before them of being more ready for the exercises of religion if they are freed from all cares. It is foolish to imagine that celibacy is a virtue, for this is no more pleasing to God in itself than fasting is, nor does it deserve to be reckoned among the duties required of us.' 6 The 'divinity' the disguised Viola brings to Olivia shows her the vanity of withdrawing from the world. False and true divinity continue to pursue each other, with ironic effect, throughout the play. Immediately following the scene in which a false priest catechizes the desperate Malvolio, Olivia marries the dream she has loved since the fifth scene of Act 1.

                    If you mean well Now go with me, and with this holy man, Into the chantry by. There before him, And underneath that consecrated roof, Plight me the full assurance of your faith, That my most jealous and too doubtful soul May live at peace.                                     (4.3.22-8)

The wonderful gift of God is celebrated in a religious ceremony which the seemingly arbitrary forces of nature, imagination, and sheer chance have helped bring about. The 'peace' Olivia looks forward to is precisely what has eluded Malvolio at the end of the play—but his symbolic and structural roles are very different from hers.

Viola's loss of a brother does not lead her to a cloistered withdrawal from the world, but she does pursue concealment, and specifically proposes a disguise which will remove her from the responsibilities of sexuality: 'Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.' She makes herself a eunuch not for the kingdom of heaven's sake but to gain some advantage over the forces of time and occasion, both of which eventually give her the peace they give Olivia. The exotic nature of Viola's proposed role, however, is unlikely to render her unobtrusive: in a Christian climate the eunuch was both freakish and foreign, specifically Turkish, as the Captain recognizes in his acknowledgment of Viola's request. Eunuchs might be fascinating in themselves as human types, but certainly by virtue of being involved in the mythologized fantasy world of Turkish sexuality. No more is made of the oddity of Viola's disguise—she is no Castrucchio, as Orsino's IIlyria is not Volpone's Venice—but she retains a troublingly provocative physical presence, constantly drawing attention to her appearance from Orsino, Malvolio, Feste, and chiefly from Olivia. Disguise, and hence denial of sexual identity in her case, is a 'wickedness' as much as it is creative and liberating. It liberates, in fact, only for so long, and time first draws the knot of confusions tighter before untangling it. Olivia's claim on her as a husband, which she is able to corroborate with priestly authority, threatens first Viola's death and then the loss of the man she loves. So, once the appearance of Sebastian has begun to resolve the paradoxes, we have Viola's insistence, echoed by Orsino, that she resume her own clothes: 'Do not embrace me' she tells her brother, and the prohibition is implicitly extended to her future husband. As she is a man—or a eunuch—she is not ready to give herself to anyone.

Viola's superfluous disguise in Act 5 is matched by that of the humiliated Malvolio, still wearing the ludicrous costume he has been gulled into assuming by his reading of the letter—point devise, the very man. The 'notable shame' he has undergone has included his parading in the clothes and demeanour of an aspiring lover—a sexual role quite out of keeping with his peevish, repressed, sterile self-regard. One of the roles of festival customs, modern social historians agree, was to enforce communal order as much as temporarily to subvert it. David Underdown has described the clash in seventeenth-century English society between the cohesive function of festival and the godly order of those with a new vision of and programme for social organization:

The division in the English body politic which erupted in civil war in 1642 can be traced in part to the earlier emergence of two quite different constellations of social, political, and cultural forces, involving diametrically opposite responses to the problems of the time. On the one side stood those who put their trust in the traditional conception of the harmonious, vertically integrated society—a society in which the old bonds of paternalism, deference, and good neighbourliness were expressed in familiar religious and communal rituals—and wished to strengthen and preserve it. On the other stood those—mostly among the gentry and middling sort of the new parish élites—who wished to emphasize the moral and cultural distinctions which marked them off from their poorer, less disciplined neighbours, and to use their power to reform society according to their own principles of order and godliness. 7

The church ale—at which cakes and ale were the traditional fare—was one typical site of this conflict. An ancient parish tradition—a kind of communal picnic with drinking, as well as piping, dancing, and sometimes dramatic activity—its function was to bring the parishioners together in a festive money-raising activity to support the parish's charitable works. To the Puritan eye this praise-worthy end was entirely vitiated by the displays of un-righteousness the feast gave rise to. From about the time of Twelfth Night onwards there are numerous instances from across the country of festal customs being used against local Malvolios, in the course of which the representatives of authority were both mocked and, in extreme cases, physically assaulted.

Violence is in fact an entirely traditional ingredient of many forms of game and festival, and hence could give further cause to the godly to suppress festive customs. The liminal and group-bonding functions of football games with neighbouring villages, for example, are noted by Underdown: ''Tis no festival unless there be some fightings' is a contemporary saying he quotes (p. 96). Personal or communal rivalries and disputes could therefore be sorted out—more or less symbolically—under the cover of festival licence. In Twelfth Night it is Sir Toby who is the lord of violent misrule, and he is perhaps not uncharacteristic of enthusiastic seventeenth-century revellers in that during his final appearance in the play he is both drunk and bleeding. The particular contest he has just lost, begun in jest and ended in earnest, is with a young stranger over his apparent sexual invasion into territory Toby may regard as his to defend, if not to bestow. However ironically, he has promised Olivia to Sir Andrew, and his oath to his gull earlier in the play is made on the physical manifestations of his own manliness: 'If thou hast her not i'th' end, call me cut' (2.3.180-1). Once Cesario shows some fighting spirit, male prowess is at stake: 'Come, my young soldier, put up your iron. You are well fleshed … Nay then, I must have an ounce or two of this malapert blood from you' (4.1.37-43).

Malvolio's heated imaginings about Olivia in the letter scene give rise to a string of violent stage-whispers from the box-tree—'O for a stone-bow to hit him in the eye!'; 'Fire and brimstone!'; 'Bolts and shackles!' (a premonition of Malvolio's punishment); 'Shall this fellow live?'; ' … does not Toby take you a blow o' the lips, then?'; 'Out scab'; 'Marry, hang thee brock'; ' … I'll cudgel him, and make him cry "O!"' After this, Malvolio is perhaps lucky to undergo the relatively lenient treatment he gets, although it is certainly a fairly frequent tendency in modern stagings of the play to emphasize the physical punishment in the revellers' teasing of him in 3.4, and since the eighteenth century the pain and privation of the dark house scene have often been stressed, to the degree that Malvolio has seemed on the edge of being mad indeed. His binding—promised by Sir Toby in 3.4—is not usually seen. He leaves the stage free, and while on Shakespeare's stage he may have been entirely invisible in 4.2, these days we tend to see an anguished face and beseeching, clutching hands as he pleads with Sir Topas and Feste. In any event, in fictional terms he must be free enough to write his letter, and when he re-emerges into the world of light he doesn't usually bear about him signs of his bondage (the far commoner stage tradition is for him to have straw sticking to his hair and clothes). Yet he is still dressed in his lover's garb, as I noted above, usually sadly muddied and ripped in performance, to signal the trials of constancy. The absurd costume, Maria's fantastical invention, includes the restricting bonds of the cross garters, which soon after he has put them on are already making him 'sad':

This does make some obstruction in the blood, this cross-gartering, but what of that? (3.4.19-21)

The Grocer's Wife from The Knight of the Burning Pestle could tell him; there are dangers in putting on silly costumes: 'I'll see no more else indeed, la: and I pray you let the youths understand so much by word of mouth: for I tell you truly, I'm afraid o' my boy. Come, come, George, let's be merry and wise. The child's a fatherless child; and say they should put him into a strait pair of gaskins, 'twere worse than knot-grass; he would never grow after it' (2.92-8).8 The innocently lubricious sense of 'grow', typical of the Wife's chatter, alerts us to one element of Malvolio's shaming: his binding is a symbolic sign of his impotence, of his having been made a festival eunuch. I think he should keep his cross garters obediently tied until he finally hobbles off to seek revenge.

I want to return to the rituals of sexual humiliation, but first to explore a second violent festive practice which has frequently been noted in commentary on the play, as seeming in some way to stand for the treatment of Malvolio. The previously unannounced Fabian enters the play in 2.5 as a further resentful victim of Malvolio's war on holiday pastimes: he has been 'brought … out o' favour with my lady about a bear-baiting here'. 'To anger him', Toby replies, 'we'll have the bear again, and we will fool him black and blue'. Once again the promised violence happens only symbolically—Malvolio is not beaten up as is Captain Otter (as bear) by his wife (as dog) in Jonson's Epicoene—but we are reminded at this moment of the strong connections between festival and brutal punishment, and the evident need to give vent to disruptive and aggressive tendencies even in the midst of celebrations which affirmed the strength and mutual support of the community. Malvolio's bearishness remains in that he sees his tormentors as a 'pack'—hounds rather than people—at the end of the play.9 The violent accompaniments of festive activity are everywhere apparent in the social world surveyed by David Underdown: bear and bull baitings are the invariable entertainments at church ales. While one may have been attendant on feasting—the bull was baited before being butchered—the other patently was not. That the actual torturing of animals, whatever symbolic function it may have been recognized to carry, could itself take a symbolic form in festival is proved by an intriguing reference Underdown cites from Somerset in 1603, involving some trouble while someone was 'playing Christmas sports in a bear's skin' (p. 60). Such a winter-time activity—very reminiscent of Lanthorn Leatherhead's reported feats in Batholomew Fair (3.4. 126-28)—may have as much to do with The Winter's Tale as with Twelfth Night, but the ritualized hunting that is expressed in animal baiting, and the deliberate arousal, in the case of cock-fighting, for example, of competitive sexual aggression in the animals, reveal an ambivalent fascination with purely physical power and instinctive drive as forces which must be celebrated, yet punished.10 Jonson, once again, more directly incorporates festive baitings and huntings into his comic structure, and his plays are to that extent crueller than Shakespeare's. Volpone's direct address to the audience following his sentence by the court—"This is called mortifying of a fox'—reminds us of the festive custom of hunting a fox or other small animal indoors, within the hall at a feast, frequently involving killing it by driving it into the fire. One of the fox's sins in Volpone, of course, is lust. The totemic sexual rituals associated with hunting and killing the stag, however, are clear enough in Shakespeare's work. The festive song in As You Like It is an anthem of male prowess and anxiety—the lusty horn is given to the victor as a sign that he is a potential victim of forces which lie outside his direct control. Falstaff's ritual punishment for lust at the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor is suffered in the disguise of a male deer—he is symbolically pinched and burnt, rather than actually butchered and cooked. Falstaff's dis-horning, George Turberville tells us, exactly follows the English practice of dismembering the stag after the kill; following the removal of one sign of the deer's maleness, 'before that you go about to take off his skynne, the fyrst thing that must be taken from him, are his stones which hunters call his doulcettes'. These form part of 'the dayntie morselles which appertayne to the Prince or chief personage on field'. 11 In Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster the cowardly and lustful Pharamond has paid the woodmen for the dowcets and head of a slain deer (4.2)—that he evidently needs them as aphrodisiacs hardly commends his unassisted sexual powers. Following the scenes of actual hunting in the fourth act, Pharamond becomes the human quarry of a popular riot in the fifth, when the citizens, like Laertes' Danish supporters, mutiny to reinstate Philaster. The language with which they threaten him deliberately recalls the hunting terms of Act 4, and his proposed punishment mockingly strips him of manhood.


Gods keep me from these hell-hounds.


Shall's geld him, Captain?


No, you shall spare his dowcets, my dear donsels; as you respect the ladies let them flourish. The curses of a longing woman kills as speedy as a plague, boys.


I'll have a leg, that's certain.


I'll have an arm.


He had no horns, sir, had he?


No, sir, he's a pollard; what wouldst thou do with horns?


O, if he had, I would have made rare hafts and whistles of'em; but his shin bones if they be sound shall serve me. (5.4.53-74)12

Symbolic hunting therefore carries within it a potential for sexual shaming and degradation. Pharamond and Falstaff are both punished for lust by public exposure, and Malvolio's treatment clearly has something of a similar purpose, although it certainly lacks the direct physical violence the two former figures suffer. At least this is so in the text; there is a theatrical tradition of varying degrees of physical torture of Malvolio by Feste in 4.2. Malvolio's punishment is to be 'propertied', but largely to be forgotten, removed, and 'baffled' until his incandescent entry into Act 5. He is certainly punished for excess, but punished by deprivation, and his physical powerlessness in the dark house is perhaps to remind him of his unsuitability for the preposterous role he has taken on. A born eunuch, in Christ's terms, he is absurdly unfitted for the position of comic wooer and bridegroom.

The impotent lover, in body, mind, and social conduct, is a stock figure of erotic comedy. The absurdly enamoured father, the old man, the stupid heir, the pretentious braggart, the rake, all are variant threats to the union of the true lovers, and they must be outwitted, exposed, or otherwise removed in the course of the plot. In Jonson's Bartholomew Fair the egregious ninny Cokes, the contracted bridegroom of the witty but powerless Grace Wellborn, loses his fiancée to Quarlous in the liberating chaos of a festival atmosphere. He also loses his money, but in having his purse cut—twice—he is symbolically gelded of the manhood he so ineptly represents. He half recognizes what has happened to him in the words he addresses—mistakenly—to Overdo: 'Cannot a man's purse be at quiet for you, i' the master's pocket, but you must entice it forth, and debauch it?' (3.5.213-14), while Wasp scornfully tells his charge 'now you ha' got the trick of losing, you'd lose your breech, an't 'twere loose' (ibid. 221-3).13 Cokes, though he hardly cares in the regressively childish festive world he has entered, is symbolically shamed and neutered. His fascination with the puppets, babies, and trash is a complete identification—he, like the puppet Dionysius, has no sex. It is Jonson's disciple Richard Brome who writes the frankest version of what appears to be a submerged theme of festival and comedy when in his 1639-40 play The Court Beggar a doctor is held down across a table and threatened with castration at the hands of a 'Sowgelder' (4.2). His protests remind the audience of the dangerous uproar of popular holidays:

You dare not use this violence upon me More rude than rage of Prentices.l4

The gelding turns out to be a 'counterfeit plot'—partly a deliberate degradation in revenge for the doctor's prior actions, and partly to scare him into confessing that the patient he is attending is, like Antonio in The Changeling, a sham madman. The scene could therefore be taken simply as a particularly risqué piece of farce used to enliven a rather creakily episodic plot, yet the larger question remains of why this particular action may have occurred to Brome as being suitable to a comedy filled with spurious and defective wooers.15

Nothing quite so specifically humiliating or violent turns up in the court records of pre-Restoration England, although there is a good deal of material connected with disorders and outrages arising from popular rituals of sexual control.16 The usual individual target for the community to direct its displeasure over aberrant sexual conduct was likely to be a woman; the whore, the adultress, the scold, all suffered ritual mockery, exposure, and varyingly violent degrees of punishment. Yet the ceremonies which marked such disapproval—ridings, parades, rhymes, lampoons, duckings, and so forth—were by no means directed at women alone. The man who suffered himself to be cuckolded or beaten was likely to be a target of mockery as an unmanly man, a man who couldn't wear the breeches. One particularly widespread custom, which has a literary record that stretches at least from Samuel Butler to Thomas Hardy, was the skimmington, a wild processional ride involving disguise, rough music, and, as Martin Ingram has written, 'mocking laughter, sometimes light-hearted, but often taking the form of hostile derision which The ritual could, into physical occasion, escalate violence'.17 The ritual is clearly related to symbolic hunting, and indeed could feature participants dressed in horns or animal skins. If the custom arose to mock unconventional sexuality or deviant behaviour within a marriage its scope could be far wider, as Ingram explains:

While female domination and immorality were the characteristic pretexts for ridings, there were other occasions. A simple form of riding was sometimes used in a holiday context in 'trick or treat' games, and to punish people who refused to join in the festivities or who in other ways offended the holiday spirit. At Chichester in 1586, a game of 'tables' on New Year's Eve was rudely interrupted when 'William Brunne who then played the part of a lord of misrule came in … and said that that game was no Christmas game and so perforce took [one of the players] … from thence and made him ride on a staff to the High Cross.' The use of ridings to punish people who would not give money to Lords of Misrule on holidays was denounced by Philip Stubbes. Unfortunately, when refusal to take part in festivities (or, worse still, attempts to suppress such festivities) were based on Puritan principles, such ridings were apt to become distinctly less lighthearted and more elaborate. John Hole, the Puritan constable of Wells, discovered this to his cost in 1607. Hole and his associates tried to suppress the city's May games, which had been organised on a particularly grand scale that year in order to raise money for the repair of St Cuthbert's church. Hole's interference raised a storm of opposition, and he and his friends were savagely derided in a series of spectacular ridings performed before thousands of people. (Ingram, pp., 170-1)

The John Hole case, which was surveyed by C. J. Sisson in Lost Plays of Shakespeare's Age as long ago as 1936, is particulary suggestive about the treatment given Malvolio by the revellers of Twelfth Night. Hole, like Malvolio, set out to oppose holiday revels on principle; the revellers' revenge was character assassination, as Hole was accused of adultery with another godly objector to the festival, the delightfully named Mrs Yard. None of the surviving lampooning verses make what one would think to be the obvious jokes about hole and yard (suitably inverted in good festival fashion), but Hole is simultaneously accused of lechery and impotence, like Malvolio doubly mocked for sexual ambition and incapacity. Particularly the exposure of the Wells killjoys by theatricalizing them—staging them in disguises and caricatured paintings—by making them join, in effigy at least, the very celebrations they have tried to stop, reveals a direct relationship between festive rituals and the comic structure of such plays as Twelfth Night. In the play Malvolio is more subtly tricked into staging himself as a parodic festival figure—a grotesquely inept embodiment of the energy celebrated in holidays, and as such a betsy, a guy, a Jack-a-Lent, a cockshot man, at whom people can hardly forbear hurling things. Death, darkness, sterility, and ill luck are heaped on his back, and laughed out of the play.

His scapegoat function has frequently been remarked on, but one theoretical defence of festive customs, presumably including the shaming rituals, was that they were restorative and socially cohesive. The exhibition of conflict or aberrance under the special conditions of holiday licence would lead, with luck, to resolution and rehabilitation. Thus those accused as rioters at Rangeworthy near Bristol in 1611 defended themselves by pointing out that communal feasting was for 'the refreshing of the minds and spirits of the country people, being inured and tired with husbandry and continual labour … for preservation of mutual amity, acquaintance, and love … and allaying of strifes, discords and debates between neighbour and neighbour'. This sounds remarkably like the spirit of Fabian's plea to Olivia not to let retributive justice inappropriately be applied to holiday jests:

            Good madam, hear me speak, And let no quarrel nor no brawl to come Taint the condition of this present hour, Which I have wondered at. In hope it shall not, Most freely I confess myself and Toby Set this device against Malvolio here

How with a sportful malice it was followed May rather pluck on laughter than revenge If that the injuries be justly weighed That have on both sides passed.                                     (5.1.352-65)

But the victims of the Rangeworthy riot, a Puritan constable and his followers who were beaten when they tried to arrest musicians and dancers, did pursue their case through the courts, and hence we happen to know about the incident. David Underdown holds up this obscure rural scuffle as an emblem of a changing world: 'The Rangeworthy revel is thus a classic example of Jacobean cultural conflict. Rituals appropriate to a traditional society, enshrining ancient values of custom and good neighbourhood, were attacked by people in authority who put individual piety, sobriety, and hard work above the older co-operative virtues' (p. 63).

Malvolio refuses Fabian's open hand. He has, after all, been most notoriously abused, and excluded from achieving greatness in any sense. Donald Sinden's entertaining account of playing the part ends with his invocation of the bitterness of Malvolio's humiliation and disappointment. There is nothing for him following his exit, Sinden suggests, save suicide.18 Yet surely only a particularly sensitive, late-Romantic Malvolio would be snuffed out by a device. I think the seventeenth-century man is heading for his lawyer, and Star Chamber.

To return, finally, to texts, it is worth noting that mock preaching was a recurrent element in popular revels, particularly those with a satiric thrust against a local community figure. Such was the play which Sir Edward Dymock had performed at his house in Kyme, Lincolnshire, in August 1601, and which guyed Henry, Earl of Lincoln. Following the play proper one John Cradock preached a mock sermon in a black gown and cap; a witness said that he wore 'A counterfeat beard, and standing in a pulpitt fixed to the maypole on kyme greene, havinge a pott of ale or beare hanginge by him in steade of a hower glasse.' The costume sounds remarkably like that of Sir Topas, but the performance was evidently a good deal more elaborate, though entirely in key with Feste's excellent fooling. Cradock 'did represent the person of a Minister or Priests, and did … utter … "The Marcie of Musterd Seed and the blessing of Bullbeefe and the peace of Pottelucke be with you all. Amen."' 19 Cradock's spoof text for the sermon, from 'The 22 chapter of the book of Hitroclites', led to a series of improbable romance tales and jests, possibly with further parodie reference to the formulae of the liturgy and scripture. Some years later in Wiltshire a drunken revel included the preaching from the pulpit within the parish church of a mock sermon on the text of 'the one and twentieth chapter of Maud Butcher and the seventh verse' (Ingram, p. 166). Mockery of ecclesiastical authority and liturgical frameworks for mock heroics may be thought particularly Rabelaisian revels, but they were evidently equally English, and survived to the years when they might be employed to deride Puritan earnestness. If they did not appear overtly in plays licensed for the public stage, that should not surprise us. The subtler parodic text Maria includes in the spurious letter is at once a test of Malvolio's reading, a word to the wary, and a libel on his sexuality; as such it lies entirely within the English festival tradition.


1 A further interpretation of Malvolio's chosen letters has been suggested by Leah Scragg: '"Her C's, her U's, and her T's: Why That?"; A New Reply for Sir Andrew Aguecheek', RES 42 (1991), 1-16. Her suggestion that the line may have some reference to cutpurses has an interesting incidental bearing on my argument in this essay: see below.

2 This translation is superseded by the 1582 (et seq.) Geneva New Testament, which gives the word as 'eunuches', and in every other respect is very close to the King James version. The Bishops' Bible (1568) uses 'chaste'.

3A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, trans, T. H. L. Parker (Edinburgh, 1972), p. 248.

4 That the text was read literally as well as metaphorically is demonstrated by its citation in the discussions over the Essex divorce case in 1614. George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, quoted the passage as clear 'warrant' for annulment of marriage. King James, arguing against too narrow a definition of 'inability', denied that Christ's categories of male impotence were prescriptive. See The Narrative History of King James (London, 1651), pp. 95, 102. I am grateful to Professor Leslie Thomson for drawing my attention to this material.

5Harmony, p. 249.

6Harmony, p. 249.

7Revel, Riot and Revolution (Oxford, 1985), p. 40.

8 Francis Beaumont. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, ed. S. P. Zitner (Manchester, 1984).

9 See, e.g., Ralph Berry, "Twelfth Night": The Experience of the Audience', Shakespeare Survey 34 (1981), 111-19.

10 See, François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 47-8.

11The Noble Arte of Venerie (London, 1575), p. 127.

12 Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Philaster, ed. A. Gurr (London, 1969).

13 Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, ed. E. A. Horsman (London, 1960).

14The Dramatic Works of Richard Brome, 3 vols. (London, 1873), vol. 1.

15 For a political reading of the play see Martin Butler, Theatre and Crisis 1632-1642 (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 220-8. The aberrant sexual behaviour in the play might be said to be a further manifestation of the madness and corruption Butler locates as its organizing themes.

16 An incident related in a letter by Robert Gell to Sir Martin Stuteville in July 1628 concerns violent revenge for rape at the siege of La Rochelle. Ten men of the town dressed up as women to lure the guilty soldiers of the besieging army, who then 'were so received that all to save their lives yielded unto ye young men, and went into the town, where, beeing most severely and barbarously punished, they were sent back to glory in the camp of their exploit, for which they were never again fitted'. The Autobiography and Correspondence of Sir Simonds D'Ewes, Bart., ed. J. O. Halliwell, 2 vols. (London, 1845), vol. 2, p. 201.

17 'Ridings, Rough Music and Mocking Rhymes in Early Modern England', in Popular Culture in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. B. Reay (London, 1985), pp. 166-97: p. 168.

18Players of Shakespeare, ed. P. Brockbank (Cambridge, 1985), p. 66.

19 N. J. O'Conor, Godes Peace and the Queenes (Cambridge, Mass., 1934), pp. 108-26: pp. 119-20. The Dymock episode is discussed at length by C. L. Barber: Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), chapter 3.

Source: "Malvolio and the Eunuchs: Texts and Revels in Twelfth Night," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 46, 1994, pp. 23-34.


Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night


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