The humor in the play of Twelfth Night resides in the contriving to make one vice ridiculous by other
vices which are also absurd. Not one of the comic characters, taken separately, provides the peculiar element of humor. It transpires during the impartial interplay of the silliness of Aguecheek, the drunken
techiness of Sir Toby, the spite of Fabian, the mischievousness of Maria, and the immeasurable conceit
of Malvolio, who appeared not like a human being, but "as if he were his own statue erected by national subscription." All these vices betray themselves with such an infantile simplicity, and help each other to construct
so delightful a plot, that we feel, with the clown, perfectly content to see "foolery walk about the orb like
the sun." It is so difficult to discriminate between follies when they protect themselves by being so amusing,
that we say with Viola, --
"I hate ingratitude more in a man,
Than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
Or any taint of vice, whose strong corruption
Inhabits our frail blood."
We always have, as she did, some vice which we hate worse than others. The one that is damned is generally the only one which would put us to discomfort to practise. But humor can make for a time only those vices companionable which turn a man into his own worst enemy and raise no tragic threat against the State.
Malvolio, the steward of Olivia's household, is prized
by that lady for his grave and punctilious disposition.
He discharges his office carefully and in a tone of some
superiority, for his mind is above his estate. At some
time in his life he has read cultivated books, knows the
theory of Pythagoras concerning the transmigration of
the soul, but thinks more nobly of the soul and no way
approves that opinion.
His gentility, though a little rusted and obsolete, is like a Sunday suit which nobody
thinks of rallying. He wears it well, and his mistress cannot afford to treat him exactly as a servant; in fact,
she has occasionally dropped good-natured phrases which he has interpreted into a special partiality: for Quixotic
conceits can riot about inside of his stiff demeanor. This proneness to fantasy increases the touchiness of a
man of reserve. He can never take a joke, and his climate is too inclement to shelter humor.
Souls must be at blood-heat, and brains must expand with it like a blossom, before humor will fructify. He wonders how Olivia can tolerate the clown. "I protest," he says, "I take these wise men, that crow so at these set kind of
fools, to be no better than the fools' zanies." Olivia hits the difficulty when she replies, "Oh, you are sick
of self-love, and taste with a distempered appetite."
Perhaps he thinks nobly of the soul because he so profoundly respects his own, and carries it upon stilts
over the heads of the servants and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Imagine this saturnine and self-involved man obliged
to consort daily with Sir Toby, who brings his hand to the buttery-bar before breakfast, and who hates going
to bed "as an unfilled can," unless no more drink is forthcoming; an irascible fellow, too, and all the more
tindery because continually dry. He has Sir Andrew Aguecheek for a boon companion, who says of himself
that sometimes he has no more wit than a Christian, or than an ordinary man.
When he is not in liquor he is fuddled with inanity, and chirps and skips about, deluding himself with the notion that Olivia will receive his addresses. Sir Toby, to borrow money of him, fosters
the notion, and flatters his poor tricks. Then there is
that picador of a clown, who plants in Malvolio's thin
skin a perfect quickset of barbed quips, and sends him lowering around the mansion which these roisterers
have turned into a tavern. The other servant, Fabian, has a grudge against him for interfering with a bear-baiting he was interested in; for Malvolio was one of those Puritans who frowned upon that sport, as Macaulay said, not because it worried the bear but because it amused the men.
The steward was right when he informed this precious set that they were idle, shallow
things, and he was not of their element. No doubt he is the best man of the lot. But he interrupts their carousing at midnight in such a sour and lofty way that we are entertained to hear their drunken chaffing, and
we call to Maria for another stoup, though they have had
too much already; but a fresh exposition of dryness
always sets in when such a virtue as Malvolio's tries to
wither us. However, he becomes the object of their
animosity, and they work in his distemper to make him
There is no humor in seeing Malvolio fall so easily a
prey to their device. When a man becomes the cause
of his own mortification, it is simply comic. But the intrigue becomes humorous when his vice shows disgust
at theirs, and theirs becomes indignant at his, and they are delighted to see it well ventilated. For so do we
revenge ourselves upon each other, using not our strength which would be tragic, but our weaknesses. Then impartial justice is obliged to smile to see these counterplots of folly further its great plan. What economy it is to have individuals so contrived that they can baffle, mortify, and school each other without importing the constable! We are self-acting arrangements to relieve the universe from tax and keep its hilarity replenished. In this genial manner " the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." Even if we do not
lie in wait for each other, the knowledge of mutual frailties gives our whole life a sub-taste of humor; and
that leaves respect upon the tongue.
Sebastian says to the clown: "I prithee vent thy folly somewhere else." Mankind makes the clown's
answer: "Vent my folly! He has heard that word of some great man, and now applies it to a fool. Vent my
folly! I am afraid this great lubberly world will prove a cockney." No fear of that, my "corrupter of words;"
so long as perfect discretion is unknown upon the earth, we are all cosmopolites of infirmity and speak the great
language of smiles.
But the play does not let Malvolio drop softly on his feet. There is a faint grudge provoked by the ill-tempered quality of his conceit, and Shakespeare indicates this trait of our nature. The clown, who remembers how the steward used to twit Olivia's contentment at his sallies, and to deprecate it in a lofty way, now mimics
his phrases and manner to sting him with a last fluttering dart. Malvolio's pride is already too deeply wounded, for he has indeed been "notoriously abused." There is no relenting in such a man on account of the fun, for
that is a crime in the eyes of a Puritan, to be punished for God's sake. His temper acquires sombreness from
his belief that total depravity is a good doctrine if you can only live up to it. But when this crime of fun is
perpetrated against the anointed self-esteem of the Puritan himself, it is plain he will be revenged on the whole
pack of them unless they proceed to make a sop of deference to touch his hurt with, and a pipe out of his
own egotism for sounding a truce.
Shakespeare delighted to mark the transition of a virtue to a vice; that elusive moment, as of a point of passage
from one species to another, discovered and put into a flash from the light of humor. Malvolio's grave and
self-respecting temperament is an excellence. No decent man thinks meanly of himself, and the indecent ones
cannot afford the disparagement. The pretence of it is a warning to us to expect mischief, a notice put up,
"This is a private way; dangerous passing." Whatever gift a man has becomes a divine permission for
self-consideration. Modesty is the humanity of a great mind, a vapor which the sun instinctively gathers to
make itself tolerable.
How to cite this article:
Weiss, John. Wit, Humor and Shakespeare. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1889. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2012. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/characters/malvoliobio.html >.