The Importance of Getting the Joke


Shakespeare’s comedies often feature one character who, for one reason or another, just does not “get” the joke, which often leads to bad, even malignant behavior. In The Merchant of Venice, this figure is Shylock, in Measure for Measure it’s Angelo. In Twelfth Night, this figure is represented by the obsessively puritanical Malvolio, an insufferable bore. Shakespeare is the master of the bawdy puns and subtle innuendos, so it’s no surprise that he makes particular fun of a character with no demonstrable sense of humor or irony. This is exemplified wonderfully in Act II, scene v, where Toby, Andrew, Fabian, and Maria skewer the “overweening rogue” by writing him a false love letter from Olivia. Malvolio is keenly unaware of the stupidity and egotism of his attempts to divine the meaning of M.O.A.I. Even funnier is Malvolio’s puritanical ignorance of contemporary slang for the female genitalia, a term he unwittingly spells out!

Shakespeare’s plays often resonate with one another in crucial ways, and that is evident is this particular scene. Malvolio’s portrayal not only links him to Shakespeare’s other “comic-villains,” but also to the “rude-mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of the humor of that fantasy’s play-within-a-play was the sheer ineptitude of the players, an ineptitude of which Bottom, Peter, and the rest are painfully unaware. There is a certain kind of class awareness that is latent in this kind of humor, and an Elizabethan audience would have noticed this; The Globe Theater was attended by both the bourgeois and the poor (the groundlings, who could not afford seats). Malvolio’s preening and boasting, his sheer delusions of grandeur have a similar class element to them, albeit a less outrageous one. He is aware that Olivia is far above his station, as the false letter states, “In my stars, I am above thee” (II.v.125). And yet, his ego is such that he has no trouble imagining that an aristocrat would fall for him! Malvolio actually convinces himself that if he wears the garish clothes that the letter prescribes, he can attain class mobility, a notion whose insanity would have not been lost on the groundlings. In this way, Malvolio parallels with Bottom, except that the former is far less likeable than the latter.

The importance of getting the joke is further underlined by the following scene, the meeting between Viola and Feste. Their meeting is a plethora of puns and entendres, only these characters are fully aware of their humor; indeed, the fool, as illustrated in King Lear, is often the wisest or at least most knowing character in the play. The fool does not represent triviality but a high degree of verbal perception, a quality opposite to Malvolio’s obstructed mind. Given what will befall Malvolio (and Feste’s role in it), one must consider the importance of understanding humorous, joking language. And who better a teacher of that kind of language than Shakespeare?


3 thoughts on “The Importance of Getting the Joke

  1. jameskwapisz

    Shakespeare uses dramatic irony often, which makes the audience, and in some instances, some characters as well, aware of certain crucial details that can seriously alter the ignorant character/characters’ life/lives. In the case of Malvolio, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Fabian, and Maria are all playing a prank on Malvolio by accusing him of being insane; but think if this took place in real life. Malvolio would be the puppet for the higher class to toy with, and he could consequently be thrown into a mental asylum without actually being insane.

  2. Brian George

    Thanks for making connections between works. I think it is even more cutting (pardon recycling the pun) when Shakespeare uses Malvolio as a foil for puritanical culture in England. In addition to the class struggles you outlined, this is also a satire on the zeal of puritans in English culture, one that definitely (in the eyes of Shakespeare) “did not get it.” By using such a hyperbolic egotist, there is a level of absurdity here that gives just enough distance for a much simpler message to be broadcast: “narcissistic, overbearing, egotist puritans–what makes you think anyone else cares at all for the stringent virtues you wish to enforce on the rest of us?”

  3. alexsokolinski

    I think you offer great points about characters that just don’t get the jokes that are being played within Shakespeare’s works. I think that it is funny how Shakespeare offers up these characters as bait for the other players in the play to make fun of. Using Malvolio as an example, he was already in love with Olivia when the joke was played upon him. He was set up by Shakespeare to have his downfall in a comedic way. There are other players that ironically are unaware of how they are perceived such as Sir Toby. He states in Act 5 scene 1 that he”hate[s] a drunken rogue.” This is humorous to me because he doesn’t even understand that he is a drunk himself, and there are little comedic parts of the play that are similar to the unawareness of some of the players.


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