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Malvolio: A Comic Or A Tragic Figure? Essay Sample

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Malvolio: A Comic Or A Tragic Figure? Essay Sample

            In many productions of Twelfth Night, Act II, scene 5 represents a high point of the play, even though it deals with what is actually a sub-plot rather than the main story.  Malvolio enters, to fall prey to the snares set for him by Maria, Sir Toby Belch, and Fabian.

  From his “‘Tis but fortune, all is fortune” (II,v,24) as his entrance through his “Jove, I thank thee.  I will smile.  I will do everything that thou wilt have me” (II,v,174-75) as he struts off stage, he reduces himself by a series of gestures to a fool.  After carefully reading the fabricated letter that Maria has left to trap him, he is completely taken in.  Believing that his mistress the Countess Olivia is in love with him, he announces:

Daylight and champian discovers not more.  This is open.  I will be proud.  I will read politic authors.  I will baffle Sir Toby.  I will wash off gross acquaintance, I will be point devise, the very man.  I do not now fool myself to let imagination jade, for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me.

She did commend my yellow stockings of late; she did praise my leg being cross-garter’d; and in this she manifests herself to my love, and with a kind of injunction drive me to these habits of her liking.  I thank my stars.  I am happy.  I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings and cross-garter’d, even with the swiftness of putting on.  Jove and my stars be praised.


When he next appears on stage, the Countess Olivia has sent for him because “he is sad and civil and suits well for a servant with my fortunes.” (III,iv,4-5)  Coming in wearing his yellow stockings, cross-gartered, smiling, and cross with his underlings — doing everything precisely as the fabricated letter bade him to be, he behaves so bizarrely and troubling (III,iv,13-59) that Olivia becomes convinced that he has gone mad and she must be restrained for his own protection. (III,iv,63-69)  In many performances of Twelfth Night, the audience all but cheers as Malvolio races to his fall.

            But is Malvolio truly such a comic figure?  A farcical buffoon?   A close examination of Twelfth Night does not answer this question.  In Acts I and II, there is very little in Malvolio’s role to forecast what comes later.  His first speech suggests perhaps a certain pedantry, but not even much of this: Olivia: What think you of this fool, Malvolio?  Doth he not mend? Malvolio: Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him.  Infirmity that decays the wise doth ever make the better fool.


Given that Malvolio is Countess Olivia’s steward, his speech seems appropriate to his role.  As her steward, he would be the chief officer of her estate, generally expected to act in her stead and having her authority over household matters.  (Black’s)   His announcement that the very presumptuous Viola is at the gate and refuses to leave does not convey anything buffoonish.  (I,v,141-65)  He is taken aback by the youth’s audacity, but in response, in the one mention of the subtitle of the play, Olivia shows that she places her full confidence in him, saying he is to do “what you will” to deal with the impious youth. (III,v,110-11: “If it be a suit from the Count, I am sick or not at home. What you will, to dismiss it.”; Cahill)

            In Act II, he first “returns” the ring that Viola supposedly gave to the countess Olivia, and his speeches in this scene seem reasonable. (II,ii,1-16)   In the next scene, he forecasts the conflict that will be his undoing when he clashes with Sir Toby Belch, Maria, and the Clown Feste.  However, even Maria opened the scene by questioning Sir Toby’s ongoing rowdy behavior, and when the men took to singing their bawdy songs, she returned complaining about the riotous way Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek were holding forth: “What a caterwauling do you keep her?  If my lady have not call’d up her steward Malvolio and bit him turn you out of doors, never trust me.” (II,iii,74-76)

When he arrives, Malvolio does little more than repeat and expand on this, apparently carrying out his warrant from the countess.  “Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house? . . . Is there no respect of place, person, nor time in you.” (II,iii,91-92)  He warns Sir Toby that Olivia has lost patience with his disorderly conduct so that he must either quit his wild behavior or quit the house.  (III,iii,99-104)  When Toby calls to Maria for a stoup of wine, he warns her not to provide him with the means of continued riot. (III,iii,125-28)

  Some critics see in his behavior a contempt for everyone below his rank (Peterson), but this is hardly the only possible reading of this scene.  An equally sound reading would acknowledge that he is a good steward.  By contrast, Sir Toby Belch has already shown that he is imposing on Olivia’s hospitality, decrying the fact that she mourns the death of her brother (I,iii,1-2) and doing all that he can to take advantage of Andrew Aguecheek precisely because he has money.  (I,iii,21-22)  Against this debauch, Malvolio’s protestations can be read as no more than a reasonable attempt to impose order on a drunken lech.

            Further, Malvolio’s actions later in the play show him far more the victim of serious wrongdoing than anything comic.  There is a cruelty to Act IV, scene ii, in which, against repeated taunting and under strained circumstances, he manages a very credible defense of his sanity, tricked into believing that these people who have come to mock him are offering help. (IV,ii,21-122)  In Act V, when he is finally released and learns the truth of what has happened, he is not willing to overlook the many abuses that he has suffered.  To him these are not mere comic jests (V,i,326-77), but Olivia agrees, “He hath been most notoriously abused.” (V,i,378)  Even Count Orsino sees the justice of his claim.  (V,i,379)

            Thus, Malvolio is not merely a comic foil.  In the farcical scenes, Act II, scene 5 and Act III, scene 4, he shows that he can be a sycophantic schemer, but is this truly comic, or is this Malvolio’s flaw tragic?  He wants to be more than a steward.  But other characters in the play are ambitious.  Orsino courts Olivia.  Olivia wants to woo Cesario.  Andrew Aguecheek wants to woo Olivia.  Sir Toby Belch wants to take advantage of Sir Andrew.  Malvolio is arguably no more ambitious than any of these, although he proves singularly unskilled in his effort.  This want of skill and his gullibility upon finding Maria’s carefully crafted letter is his tragic flaw.  As Hamlet said:

So, oft it chances in particular men,

That for some vicious mole of nature in them,

As, in their birth–wherein they are not guilty,

Since nature cannot choose his origin–

By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,

Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,

Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens

The form of plausive manners, that these men,

Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,

Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,–

Their virtues else–be they as pure as grace,

As infinite as man may undergo–

Shall in the general censure take corruption

From that particular fault: the dram of eale

Doth all the noble substance of a doubt

To his own scandal.

                                                           Hamlet, I,iv,23-38

Up until his appearance in Act II, scene 5, Malvolio could have been seen arguably as a perfectly reasonable steward.  In that scene, he shows all of the flaws that have made him a figure of such comical, almost farcical presentation.  Yet it seems he is close to Hamlet’s model, having that vicious mole of ambition and a willingness to believe too easily the flattery of the letter Maria has prepared for him.  By that one defect, the general censure falls on him amid laughter.

            Indeed, the Malvolio subplot is in many ways a distorted mirror of the main plot, with errors, disguises, mistakes in identity, and ultimately a marriage.  (Cahill)  Some critics see Malvolio as “bad will.” (Peterson).  Puritanically too sure of himself, Malvolio makes too much of words, taking them too literally. But is his gravity a mask, patina of grave sobriety disguising his true intentions, as he fawns before sympathetic aristocrats, or is he sincerely trying to serve Olivia as best he can. (Peterson)  In the end, he is completely outdone by Toby and Maria, and he is one character left profoundly unhappy at the end of the play.  (V,i,377-79)

            Other comedies in like manner have played on a character’s ambition to make fun of him, but it is a fun tainted with malice.  For example, in Niccolo Machievelli’s La Mandragola, Nicia desperately wants an heir.  Callimacco and the rascally Ligurio convince him that they can provide him with an heir, if he will only allow his wife Lucrfezia to sleep with another man, who will then die as a side-effect of the pregnancy inducing drug, and Callimacco willingly volunteers.  In the end, Lucrezia is told of the plot, and finds it a fine jest, appreciating her young lover; Callimacco gets the sexual pleasure that he wanted; and the old and stupid Nicia (presumably) gets his heir he desperately wanted.

            Arms and the Man deflates the romantic idealization of the daring military officer and the woman who adores him as Sergius is shown to be a military fool, while the chocolate cream soldier Bluntschli is far his superior.

            In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde plays with matters of disguise and mistaken identity in a light satirical farce.  Yet there is a dark tone about it.  Jack was found as an abandoned infant in Victoria Station.  Wilde manages to make everything work out wittily in the end, but there is still a grimness to the play.  And consider the depth of emotion involved in the attachment to the name “Ernest”:

                                                Gwendolen:  The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.

            Jack. You really love me, Gwendolen?

            Gwendolen. Passionately!

            Jack. Darling! You don’t know how happy you’ve made me.

            Gwendolen. My own Ernest!

                                                Jack. But you don’t really mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernest?

            Gwendolen. But your name is Ernest.

                                                Jack. Yes, I know it is. But supposing it was something else? Do you mean to say you couldn’t love me then?

                                                                                   Act I, p. 10.

            Or consider a modern farce, Noises Off, by Michael Frayn.  Consider just one example:  at the beginning of Act III, Lloyd has to pay for flowers several times over, to where his cash is entirely spent on flowers that he can never get to the right person.  If this play were done in a serious tone, would it be anything other than a tragedy?

            Many explanations can be offered for why we laugh at Malvolio’s undoing.  Henri Bergson, in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, offers several important insights.  First, he notes that laughter is very often a matter of being in or out of a group.  “

Our laughter is always the laughter of a group. * * * A man who was once asked why he did not weep at a sermon, when everybody else was shedding tears, replied: “I don’t belong to the parish!”  However spontaneous it seems, laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary.

This is aptly illustrated in Act II, scene 5.  Sir Toby, Fabian, and Andrew keep up their interstitial banter as Malvolio first goes through his imaginary interview with Sir Toby as Count Malvolio, and then as he studies the letter Maria has left for him.  The audience joins in the conspiracy against Malvolio, sharing the laughter with the conspirators on stage.  Indeed, one wonders how different this scene would be without the banter of Malvolio’s undoes.

            The conspiratorial aspect of the letter scene and of the dungeon scene, Act IV, scene ii, is clear.  Whether Malvolio is the bleak character that acerbic critics make him out to be or not, it is entirely natural for his subordinates to want to see him brought down.  He outranks Maria, Toby, and Fabian socially, but they completely outwit him, taking advantage of his weaknesses to bring him low.

            Bergson contended that laughter is a social phenomenon, part of a community activity.  Yet, it is also something that to certain requirements of life.  At the same time, society holds suspended over each individual member, if not the threat of correction, at all events the prospect of a snubbing, which, although it is slight, is none the less dreaded.  Such must be the function of laughter.  Always rather humiliating for the one against whom it is directed, laughter is, really and truly, a kind of social ‘ragging.’

            * * *

In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbor, if not in his will, at least in his deed.  This is the reason a comedy is far more like real life than a drama is.

            This is clearly applicable to Malvolio’s situation.  Indeed, Maria, Sir Toby, and Andrew Aguecheek go Bergson one better.  There is nothing unavowed about their intent to humiliate their neighbor.  They are quite open about wanting to humiliate him.

            Maria:  My purpose is indeed a horse of that color.

            Andrew: And your horse now would make him as ass.

            Maria: Ass, I doubt not.

            Andrew: O, ‘twill be admirable.


What correction is involved in this is questionable.   They intend, and they carry out a social ragging on Malvolio, and as they have him locked away as a madman, they revel in the suffering that they have inflicted on him.

            Along similar if more detailed lines, Sigmund Freud in his Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious reasons that we repress certain behavioral impulses in most aspects of life.  This repression leads to a build up or accumulation of psychic energy.  When we are finally able to circumvent the various repressive tendencies, we express the resulting release of energy in laughter.  Laughter becomes a release valve by which we express impulses that are otherwise forbidden.  (Freud, 293)

            Certainly Maria and Sir Toby Belch chafe under Malvolio’s control.  On some level, undoubtedly, they would like to deal with him simply and directly: they would like to kill him.  For better or worse, they cannot do this.  But they can have a tremendous joke at his expense in humiliating him with Olivia.

            In the same sense, the audience chafes with them at Malvolio’s actions.  Humiliation is a very natural human feeling, and it breeds the desire to bring down the one who has caused it. Because of this, at least on some level, the audience, join Maria and Sir Toby wanting Malvolio brought down.

            Can Malvolio be classified as a tragic figure?  Of tragedy, Aristotle in his Poetics offers certain observations:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; * * * through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

                                                                                   (Poetics, VI, 1449b)

For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.  Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.  Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions.  Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.

                                                                                   (Poetics, VI, 1450a)

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity.  Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect.  The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.

                                                                                   (Poetics, IX, 1452a)

            If we take these three quotations as outlining the requirement of a tragedy, and then evaluate Malvolio’s story in light of them, his is a tragic story.  While the audience can see the events coming, as he argues with Sir Toby in Act II, scene iii, but he has no idea that Maria is plotting with Sir Toby to bring him down.  The letter follows as a matter of cause and effect.  Maria writes the letter and leaves it where he will stumble across it, so that the effect is, as Aristotle suggests, heightened.  Further, this is not a matter of coincidence, but of human action.

            It is the actions which bring about the tragedy.  Malvolio’s qualities may be subject to debate and discussion, but his actions have a clarity.  He reads the letter.  He takes the advice that it calls on him to take.  He appears cross-gartered, in yellow stockings, doing everything that the letter suggests not realizing that it is everything that Olivia despises.  His character arguably shapes his actions, but it is only through his actions that we learn about his character.

            Do we feel fear and pity over what happens to Malvolio? Certainly, the play suggests that Olivia and Orsino do feel a certain pity for him. (V,i, 377-78)   Further, his fate evokes at least a tension.  He was the steward, the good servant sent by Olivia to try to rein in her rowdy kinsman.

  Given the way that Sir Toby Belch had been behaving, even Maria found him almost indefensible, but when she chided him over his behavior, he found one excuse after another for what he was doing.  “He’s a coward and a coistrel that will not drink to my niece till his brains turn o’ th’ toe like a parish top.”  (I,iii,41-43) Should a good steward not respond to this sort of wild behavior?  Yet in doing so, he is brought down.  In anyone who considers this, there must be a certain element of apprehension.

            This Malvolio is a complex figure.  He has about him elements of the comic, almost the farcical, and yet there is also a deeply tragic aspect to the way that he is brought down.  Indeed, part of the greatness of the role of Malvolio in Twelfth Night is that he is not merely a foppish stick-figure.  He is a character who embodies so many human aspects that properly portraying and understanding him requires that we understand a great deal about humanity.


Aristotle, “Poetics.” Introduction to Aristotle Ingram Bywater, trans. (New York, New York: Modern Library 1947).

Bergson, Henri.  Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (New York, New York: MacMillan, 1911).

Black’s Law Dictionary 4th rev ed. (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing co., 1968).

Cahill, Edward.  “The Problem of Malvolio.”  Find Articles.   Originally published in College Literature.  (Jun 1996) 2006, accessed Dec. 7, 2006.   Available at <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3709/is_199606/ai_n8740823/pg_1>.  Internet.

Frayn, Michael.  Noises Off. (London, England: Methuen, 1982).

Freud, Sigmund.  Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious (New York, New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).

Machievelli, Niccolo, “La Mandragola” Eight Great Comedies Barnet Sylvan, ed. (New York, New York: New American Library, 1958).

Peterson, Mark.  “Reading Puritans and the Bard:  The Case for Brushing up Your Shakespeare.” Common Place.  Oct. 23006, accessed December 7, 2006.  Available at <http://www.common-place.org/vol-07/no-01/reading/> Internet.

Shakespeare, William.  Hamlet.  (New Haven Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1922).

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night.  (New Haven Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1922).

Shaw, George Bernard.  Arms and the Man.  (New York, New York: Dover Publications, 1990).

Wilde, Oscar.  The Importance of Being Earnest.  (New York, New York:  Dover Publications, 1990)

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