From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 16. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.
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. . . .
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."
Weiss: Wit, Humor, and Shakespeare.