British Literature I
March 6 2013 The Truth of Malvolio’s Shaming As spectators in the audience we are given the unique ability to view the whole of Mavolio’s character. It is our knowing his character in its entirety that makes us feel whether or not these games played against him are acceptable or not.
The initiating issue is Malvolio’s pompous attitude and Puritan views. At the beginning of the play the audience is enlightened to his being a great show off and “time-pleaser” (Shakespeare 2.3 136) by Maria. He speaks in over eloquent phrases, and thinks extremely highly of himself. He is under the impression he has everyone else fooled to his being very accomplished at living this seemingly higher than thou life. As Maria lays out a plan to make a fool out of this haughty man we feel somewhat satisfied. The thought of making it known that he is not so high above the rest of us almost feels like a duty to society. At the time this play was originally put on Puritan ideals were warring with those of the Catholic Church. Puritans looked down on any theatrical performances so the audience would very likely have been full of people wanting to show a Puritan as a fool.
As he reads what he believes to be a love letter from Olivia he allows more of his true self to surface. The Puritan values he so keenly thrusts upon everyone around him suddenly fall away. Assuming he is alone he plays out his fantasies and longings for Olivia. Grand ideas of love, social climbing, flamboyant dress, and power over his present superiors show how he has simply been performing for those that are watching. His true nature is not one of a rigidly religious and proper gentleman. "he has been revealed," as Emma Fielding states, "to be a man of seething, overwhelming passions, all the stronger for being concealed" (Fielding) As we look upon this scene we have a need for further justice to be served. This man now blatantly shows he is in fact the epitome of what he proclaims to be against. Do we feel he is humiliated as we watch his inner most secrets poured out for Sir Toby and Sir Andrew? Not completely so, for he has no idea he has been found out. As an audience we feel his being spied on is comical in a “serves him right” kind of way but there still lacks a certain quality a public humiliation would bring.
Yet another face of Mavolio shows as he obliges each and every compliment “Olivia” gives in the letter. Here at first he seems nothing more than an over eager and vulnerable youth. When watching his folly in front of the person he prizes most it seems he has come close to an appropriate level of humiliation. One almost feels ashamed for taking such fun from his gullible approach. If it were not for him prancing around in his yellow stockings refusing to listen to the reproach in the Countesses’ words this may have been enough to satisfy the audience’s need for his punishment. But as he continues to believe himself a viable match for someone of her station he brings our thoughts back to the fact that he is “an affectioned ass” (Shakespeare 2.3 136) and we continue to feel ill at ease with him. This fuels the desire to see him completely ruined.
We are intrigued as the plot moves on to Mavolio’s imprisonment. Here is where it matters most on how it would be played on the stage. In reading the script as it is written in The Norton Anthology there is not much description on the physical treatment of the fool other than having him put “in a dark room and bound.” (Shakespeare 3.4 131) Would there have been vigorous torture portrayed as well? Did they push him around just enough to scare and lightly bruise him? Was he stripped of his clothing? Considering Mavolio’s comment “They…