Malvolio and the Countess, 1859 engraving
|Play||The Twelfth Night|
In the play, Malvolio is defined as a kind of Puritan. He despises all manner of fun and games, and wishes his world to be completely free of human sin, yet he behaves very foolishly against his stoic nature when he believes that Olivia loves him. This leads to major conflicts with characters such as Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria, mistress of the household.
Much of the play's humour comes from Maria, Feste, Toby Belch, and Andrew Aguecheek tormenting Malvolio with drinking, joking, and singing. Later in the play, Maria devises a way to have revenge upon Malvolio, and proposes it to Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste. Maria composes a love letter in Olivia's handwriting, and leaves it so Malvolio will find it. Beforehand, Malvolio had been wishing to marry Olivia. The letter convinces Malvolio that Olivia loves him, and leads Malvolio to think that Olivia wishes him to smile, wear yellow stockings and cross garters. Olivia is in mourning for her brother's death, and finds smiling offensive, and yellow is "a colour she abhors, and cross garters a fashion she detests", according to Maria. When Malvolio is imprisoned for being a supposed lunatic after acting out the instructions in the letter, Feste visits him both as himself and in the guise of "Sir Topas the curate", and torments Malvolio by making him swear to heretical texts, for example, Pythagorean precepts. At the end of the play he vows, "I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you" for his public humiliation, and Olivia acknowledges that he has "been most notoriously abused."
The role was first played by Richard Burbage at the Globe Theatre. John Westland Marston notes that the actors of his time often played the role with "contemptuous superiority"; by contrast his favourite Malvolio, William Ferrin, performed it with "lofty condescension". Other actors famed for their performance of Malvolio include Sir Alec Guinness, Henry Irving, E. H. Sothern, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Henry Ainley, Sir John Gielgud, Simon Russell Beale, Maurice Evans, Ken Dodd, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Derek Jacobi. Richard Wilson took on the role for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2009 production. In 2012, Stephen Fry assumed the role at Shakespeare's Globe.
Some Shakespearean scholars hypothesize that the character Malvolio was inspired by Puritan landowner Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby, who was involved in a well known court case against many of his Yorkshire neighbours in the 1600s. Hoby sued his neighbours when they came uninvited to his house, drank, played cards, mocked his religion, and threatened to rape his wife. Hoby won damages in the case, which may have influenced the scene in Twelfth Night when Malvolio interrupts Sir Toby's late-night reveling.
- "[S]ome are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." (Act II, Scene v; although Malvolio says this, he does so while reading from the letter that Maria wrote).
- "My masters, are you mad?"
The lines would later be repeated, with a slight alteration, by Feste in the final scene of the play as he mocks Malvolio, who afterward storms off.