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The character Malvolio (meaning literally “I mean ill will) is immediately affected by the implications of his name. His personage is implied directly to be one of negative and somewhat disagreeable nature, which is continued and supported throughout the play, leading to his downfall and mockery which both initially seem to be thoroughly deserved, due to his numerous defects of personality. The first evidence of Malvolio’s undesirable disposition comes with his own first appearance in the play during which he makes a point of insulting the wit and intelligence of Feste “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal”. Through doing this he shows himself to be man who condescends to those that he believes to be lower than him in any way, by acting on his own personal belief of superiority, and this later becomes a major player in his downfall. Initial impressions are supported by further vices in Malvolio’s general character and these lead to further aversion to him.
He shows himself to be a strict puritan and this is also suggested by the opinion of Maria “The devil a puritan that he is”. He denies himself indulgences and pleasure whilst at the same time begrudging these things of others. He makes a point of taking the moral high ground over Maria, Feste and more importantly, his social superior Sir Toby, when he scorns them for their revelries and “disorders”. This in turn adds to their desire to avenge him and bring him from his level of false authority, back to his true social class of a mere steward at which he is unable to give out orders, but only to receive them. Although he is a man of supposed purity and self-denial in practise, his aspirations are such that he becomes hypocritical.
In turn he makes his character one of further malevolence. He secretly longs for the life of a man higher in social status and fancies that through the love of Olivia, he could become such a person “having come from my day bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping “. At the same time he has great, worldly ambitions which are strictly against the puritan philosophy. This longing for new superiority and strong belief that he will gain it, causes him to be open for trickery and thus provides the starting point of the punishment and humiliation through which he later suffers.
In order to try at pleasing Olivia and through doing so attempting at gaining her admiration and love, he carries out deeds at the expense of others. Malvolio is in many ways a “time pleaser” and he shows this when in the ways of a sycophant, he reports to Olivia the “misdemeanours” of his superior Sir Toby “this uncivil rule; she shall know of it by this hand”. Thus he does well in conjuring up further resentment from Sir Toby and the servants, while making his punishment both more justified and more craved by those that he wrongs. A further hypocrisy of Malvolio and yet another vice opposing his puritan philosophy, is his extreme vanity.
He places himself on a pedestal above all but Olivia, through purposely using language above his station, seemingly memorised from books “an affectioned ass, who cons state without book and utters it in great swarthes”. He also makes an effort to pride himself on his physical appearance “should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion” which he seems to assume is one to be admired. He is generally proud about all aspects of himself, to such an extent that he is greatly bordering on superciliousness. Overall, with taking into consideration the negative and truly objectionable aspects of Malvolio, it can be seen that he does in fact need to be taught a lesson about the downfalls of his disdainful ways. The fact that he is so totally self satisfied, means that convincing him of another’s love (i.e. Olivia’s) is easy to achieve “it is hisfaith that alllove him and on that vice will my revengework”.
The letter written by Maria in “her lady’s hand” refers subliminally to each of Malvolio’s character weaknesses and thus ensures that he is fooled by its meanings. His vanity and value of appearance are both fed by the order to wear “yellow stockingsever cross gartered”, while his lack of humour and puritan philosophies are tormented by the request for continuous smiles which apparently “become him well”. He finds his quest for excellence fulfilled by Olivia’s supposed declaration that “he will have greatness thrust upon him”, and his own superiority and haughtiness are fed by the suggestion that he be “surly with the servants”, thus putting himself “into the trick of singularity”. Simply through succumbing to such a prank and carrying out the orders of the letter, Malvolio is being punished to an appropriate extent. Through believing and acting on them he shows himself to be obtuse, gullible and ironically, lacking in the superiority of mind that he so adamantly believes he possesses. Thus he lets the servants and Sir Toby achieve their aim.
The conspiracy, having accomplished its purpose in secretly humiliating Malvolio, should have then been revealed to him and brought to an end. However it seems that out of sheer cruelty and selfish fun, the pranksters continue the mockery. They take its maliciousness to a further degree, convincing Olivia and other onlookers that Malvolio’s bizarre behaviour is caused by his insanity rather than their own actions. At the same time they attempt to convince him of this through imprisoning him and twisting his words into those of a lunatic, “you speak ill of the devilhow he takes it to heart”. The extremity of their prank reaches its peak when Malvolio, locked in a prison begs for the aid of the priest “sir Topaz” (an impersonation by Feste).
At this point Malvolio has lost all sense of human dignity and basic pride while at the hands of such malignant torment, and it is clear that the joke has lost its mere foolery, becoming something more sinister and torturous. Sir Toby himself has this realisation, that such maltreatment of a person is beyond mere revelry, “I cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot”. Malvolio suffers a great injustice at the hands of his tormentors and is “notoriously abused” beyond the brink of mere teasing. He does not deserve his latter treatment, as his only crime is his undesirable character and the fact that he wronged his peers with words alone.
Ironically, after having been released from his cell it becomes clear that his ways have not improved in the slightest and that he is now filled with resentment for his abusers, as well as for Olivia. He departs at the end, promising to be “revenged on the whole pack of them”. No rewards are gained and no lessons learnt from his great, unnecessary suffering.