Comic cruelty in twelfth night

In a Shakespearean comic setting where chaos, asininity, and insolence reign, the very qualities of comic irreverence become virtues. A comic hero or side character who relentlessly pranks stooges and straight men for the audience’s enjoyment is likely to win the viewer’s appreciation. Yet it is not just the straight man’s suffering — or even the comic effect itself — which drives this audience reaction. Rather, the classic traits of charm, guile, wit, and stark honesty with which Shakespeare’s jesters and pranksters are all more or less infused come to the fore as eminent values in his several of his plays. One non-comic example: King Lear’s Fool, whose antics serve a didactic purpose for the guileless Lear, is maltreated for his insolence and forthrightness, yet is ultimately vindicated when his foreboding proves correct. In the ensemble of Twelfth Night, the boisterously comic characters of Feste, a protected fool, and Sir Toby, an playful alcoholic, embody these traits as their general mischief both succeeds to great comic effect and ultimately goes unpunished. These two men thus enjoy a great license, one which appears to mirror the atmosphere of freedom that characterized the historic Twelfth Night holiday: drunkenness, merrymaking, and a reversal of rank and order. Sir Toby, ostensibly a nobleman, acts like a churl throughout the play. Similarly Feste, who secures his license as a fool at the play’s outset, frequently taunts and speaks frankly to those above his own servile rank. On the opposite end of this reversal is the diligent steward Malvolio, a stern Puritan who is characterized entirely by his humorless demeanor. His name appears to be a derivative of Latin malus, “ bad/mean,” and velle, an irregular verb meaning “ to desire/will” (compare with other descriptive names “ Feste,” “ Belch” and “ Aguecheek”). Malvolio desires to advance his rank to a County by marrying his master Olivia, for whom he, like several other male characters in the play, pines away. The victim of a prank by Sir Toby and the fool, Malvolio believes over the course of the play that he has at last an opportunity to secure Olivia’s love, only to be cruelly humiliated before the audience and the rest of the cast. Malvolio enters in Act I, scene v, where Feste, who apparently had been impermissibly absent from the household for some time, uses his wit to convince the still-mourning Olivia not to fire him. Instead of flattering Olivia, as many of her suitors attempt to do, he tries to prove her a “ fool” herself, thus regaining her trust in him as an honest and reliable “ allowed fool.” Malvolio takes part in this intercourse and comes out strongly against Feste, calling him a weakling and an unintelligent man despite the wit he exhibits, and urging his removal. Malvolio’s initial appearance establishes himself as a responsible steward and an antagonist to not only the insolent Feste but also to the cleverness and repartee that characterizes much of the play’s humorous dialogue. Malvolio’s servility is his primary use in the next few scenes, yet the fact that he does not share in the audience’s delight at Feste’s antics establishes a distance between his attitude and that of the viewer watching this comedy. In Act II, scene iii, Sir Toby and his profligate moron friend Sir Andrew are up late in Olivia’s house drinking, bantering, and singing loudly with Feste. Maria, a servant, enters and respectfully urges them to keep quiet for their own sake. Presently Malvolio enters and castigates them, threatening to have Toby and Andrew evicted. Feste and Sir Toby respond by making up a satirical ditty to taunt Malvolio, which they sing antiphonally while Malvolio interjects coldly. Malvolio exits essentially threatening to tattle to Olivia on the lot of them, including Maria. This provides the impetus for the group to scheme against him for ruining their fun. In this dialogue, there are two basic conflicts. The most overt is the tension between the loud guests and the owner of the home. In this respect, Malvolio is faithful to Olivia (although she has not complained) and ostensibly standing up for her peace; the men, meanwhile, come off as very disrespectful. The second is a broadly religious conflict injected by Sir Toby, as he suggests, “ Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (102-104) Malvolio’s personal morality here is conflated with moralizing, as Toby accuses him of wanting to spoil their fun by the imposition of Puritan beliefs. After Malvolio leaves, Maria discusses his personality on an intimate level (that is, from her prior knowledge of the man), suggesting that Malvolio is haughty, pretentious, and obsequious. The group agrees to prank Malvolio by playing off his vanity and opportunism. Between these two scenes an interesting comic motif arises. Malvolio, in spoiling the fun of Feste and, later, the group of men, as well seems to spoil the audience’s fun. While Malvolio’s motivation to protect Olivia seems valid, Sir Toby’s argument that Malvolio is a spoilsport for the sake of it, gets more traction when one considers that if Malvolio had his way, the entertaining songs and witty palaver of the men would end — in short, this wouldn’t be a very funny play. The audience’s anticipation of seeing Malvolio pranked, then, is driven less by enmity towards a villain, but rather the desire for further amusement. It is important to note that up to this point, Malvolio is probably the least interesting character in the play. The primary romantic plot is driven by comic misunderstandings and silly melodrama, which makes the main characters amusing while humanizing them. Malvolio speaks more plainly than anyone else, and seems to be nothing more than a minor functionary in the play — thus, there is little emotional investment in him. Malvolio’s role is expanded, and his personality fleshed out, when he falls into the pranksters’ trap. In Act II, scene v, Malvolio soliloquizes at length (albeit with the other characters on stage in hiding), giving the audience an opportunity to read his inner thoughts. Like Orsino, Viola, Olivia, et al, he is in unrequited love, yet he expresses himself more rationally, preferring daydreaming to brazen action or a surfeit of music. “‘ Tis but fortune, all is fortune,” he sighs, contemplating the idea that Olivia could marry him (20). He fantasizes about becoming her Count, planning not to exploit Olivia’s inheritance, but to conduct himself austerely — even in his greatest fantasy, he thinks of himself frowning. He envisions his revenge on Sir Toby, drawing the sequence out until anticlimactically revealing that he simply wants to ask Toby to “ amend” his drunkenness and leave the loutish Sir Andrew, who is being duped anyhow. This is an oddly humanizing sequence, as Malvolio’s simple, albeit improbable, fantasy contrasts with the cruel trick about to be played on him. Malvolio’s desires reveal him to be a sad sack, and although the hiding men make sarcastic asides, the audience must inevitably pity the steward. This situation is almost a comic reversal, where an mean action has been put in effect against a supposed antagonist who is actually revealed to be quite pathetic. It is almost enough for one to wish that the men would have a change of heart and call the prank off, simply by the realization of how pitiable Malvolio is. The forged love letter which follows is almost too much, playing off Malvolio’s vanity and simple hope and leading him to make a buffoon of himself. The fact that when we next see Malvolio, he has entirely turned around his personality illustrates less his capacity to put on airs, but more his ability to appear friendly and vivacious towards Olivia, despite his increased haughtiness to the servants. Malvolio’s monologue in Act III, scene iv heightens the pathetic aspect of this entire situation, as he is actually pleased with the very bemused reaction he receives from Olivia — clinging to it, even. More importantly, though, Malvolio is actually funny in these scenes, albeit because of dramatic irony. His dialogue with Olivia here is the only part of the play where he’s the one getting laughs, and someone else is acting the fool’s “ zany.” After that, Malvolio reverts to a poor disposition, particularly during his confinement and humiliating verbal torture by Feste. The turnaround in that scene is remarkable: Malvolio must now actually prove he’s the austere Puritan servant he was earlier. In his abstract comic function, Malvolio is essentially an objectified grotesque, a prig who gets his comeuppance. Yet Malvolio’s unfair imprisonment in an extremely dark room — something dungeon-like and perhaps reminiscent of the princes locked in the Tower in Richard III, albeit with a comic ending — is difficult to justify solely on the basis of his actions. While Malvolio is self-important and rather comically deluded in lovesickness (though the same is true of half the cast), his low rank doesn’t seem to befit such torture and humiliation (compare with any number of popular comedies in the past two centuries that show upper crust elitists getting their comeuppance at the hands of the lower class). Moreover, Malvolio attends to Olivia very faithfully, and his actions for much of the first half of the play, while dull, can be viewed entirely in terms of his strong sense of duty, a quality which is actually quite admirable and moral. Yet in a play — which takes its name from a holiday that suggests drastic social mobility — where guileful ambition results in success for the lead characters, Malvolio’s relatively honest ambition goes punished, entirely for comic purposes. The ensemble ending of the play proves Malvolio to be the only major loser, and the cruelty shown by Feste and Sir Toby is written off as an acceptable level of comic misbehavior, even if it is unjustified in the context of Malvolio’s character. The only moral of this comic plot, then, is that Feste and Sir Toby ought to be appreciated for their mischievous talents — if only for the laughs the audience is provided. And although some of Malvolio’s traits are presented in a more heroic light elsewhere in the Shakespeare canon (hard work and diligent servitude are appreciated in some of Shakespeare’s pastorals), here they are made into an object of ridicule and mistreatment for the sake of laughter. Hence in a setting of joviality and licentious fun, the play and the holiday Twelfth Night, ambition, hotheadedness, drunkenness, guile and melodrama go unpunished – yet simply being boring is enough to land one in the dark for a night.