#50: The Question of Malvolio

Dear Friends,

A recent comment contained an excellent question:

“I couldn’t figure out the “purpose” of Malvolio in the play. His character and the sub-plot on him seems to me to be “filler” to make the play “the right length.” What am I missing?”

I have a few thoughts about this.  Here goes:

First of all, Shakespeare broke from traditional, Aristotelian ideas of climactic dramatic structure.  Rather than having one storyline which took place in one place and in one day, his plays were episodic in structure, frequently featuring multiple storylines and set in multiple locations over longer periods of time.

He also broke from traditional beliefs that a play was either a tragedy or a comedy — never a mix of both — by creating subplots that injected “comic relief” into a play.  Take for example, the seemingly superfluous “funny hat scene” between Osric and Hamlet right before the tragic, Jacobean ending in which virtually everybody dies.  Or the bizarre “Who’s knocking?” scene in Macbeth, featuring the clownish cameo of the Porter that takes place right before everyone finds out Duncan has been assassinated.  These scenes provide a moment of lightness right before darkness, which makes the darkness feel even darker.  Brilliant.

In a slightly different way, I think Malvolio’s traditional function has been as comic relief.  In fact, the earliest record of this show in performance is a journal entry by some Lord or other (can’t remember his name), who wrote in his journal, and I’m paraphrasing here: “Tonight we saw a fun play about twins, similar to Comedy of Errors or The Manaechmi, only this one featured a hilarious story about a steward who was tricked into thinking the lady of the house loved him.”  So from the beginning, the Malvolio story was the laugh riot.

I also think there’s a thematic similarity through all of the storylines in Twelfth Night: madness.  It’s mentioned something like 36 times in the play.  Everyone questions the sanity of themselves or each other, be it due to mistaken identity, or mistaken handwriting.

But back to the point about Malvolio providing comic relief, I think in many recent interpretations, that is less the case than it used to be.  Traditionally, Malvolio was always cast as a crusty old curmudgeon for whom no one could ever believe Olivia would fall, which made Malvolio a totally self-absorbed dunce for believing such a thing to be true.  But in recent interpretations, such as ours and the globally-touring Russian production directed by Declan Donnellan, Malvolio has been cast as an attractive young man, making the idea of Olivia desiring him much more plausible.  This, in turn, makes the joke much crueler, and his conclusion much more heatbreaking.  While this adds a great deal of complexity to that storyline, some may find that it confuses the structure of the play, leaving the audience wondering which story was the primary one.

Thanks for the great question!



2 Responses to “#50: The Question of Malvolio”

  1. February 8, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    I love the character of Malvolio, and Mark Dold almost stole the show. He was fantastic, and my son’s favorite character.

    How do you feel the play differs being set “modern” or contemporary instead of period?

  2. 2 actorsjourney
    February 9, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    it seems to me that one of the themes of the play is self-presentation and masks. disguise and deceit are omnipresent, and when it comes to malvolio, we see it manifest in two ways. first, there’s the puritan mask he puts on for the world, whereby he is told he’s full of self-love. he uses this mask to order folks around, and try to ascend to a higher station than the one to which he is born. (some are born great: not M.; some achieve greatness: M. tries and fails; some have greatness thrust upon ’em: M. is duped into believing this).

    once the gulling commences, malvolio is only too willing to drop his puritan mask and put on a bawdy one, which gets him no further in the world than the former. we see toby and maria feign ignorance and feste literally puts on a mask to mad malvolio further.

    contrast this with viola’s disguise, which gets her pretty far in the world. of course, it’s not until she drops the mask that she gets what she really wants, the Duke. there is her reward. but, malvolio’s story teaches us that there is also a price for putting on masks. when malvolio is broken, finally without the puritanism, without the yellow-stockings, when he is at his most real, we see the cost of disguise and deceit.

    ~matt daniels.

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