Malvolio – a character to criticize or sympathize with?

At first, the trick being played on Malvolio by Maria, Toby, and Andrew seems hilarious and genius yet also pretty harmless – a forged letter intended for Malvolio and written to humiliate him in front of Olivia.  Malvolio initially appears to be quite a simple character. He is a rigid puritan man who plays the role of Olivia’s servant and thrives on spoiling Toby and Andrews’ good time. His storyline is a comical and entertaining subplot to the main story of Viola, Olivia, and Duke Orsino. But was this joke taken too far?

By Act 4 scene 2 of the play, the trick begins to seem a bit cruel and sympathy is prompted when Malvolio is being told that he is possessed and is held captive in a small, dark cell where Feste harasses him. So where do we as an audience draw the line between a joke that is funny or just plain cruel? I realize Malvolio might be a bit of a stiff and surely an annoyance but I do not believe his actions were deserving of this prank.

Malvolio’s name means “ill will” in Latin and some might suggest that he is a person of animosity and bitterness therefore his punishment is justified. Yet because of the way Shakespeare writes Malvolio’s retribution, it makes him seem so pitiful and tortured thus causing the audience to really feel for him.

I think Shakespeare as well as many other playwrights have noticed that every good story needs a villain just as much as they need a protagonist. These villain type characters can end up improving their character and become more civilized hence allowing for the audience to feel sympathetic for them.


4 thoughts on “Malvolio – a character to criticize or sympathize with?

  1. Samantha Meyer

    While I understand what you mean by having sympathy for Malvolio because of how cruel the trick they play on him is, at the same time I found it very hard to feel bad for him because of how seriously he took himself. Had he taken the letter with a little bit of skepticism rather than being so full of himself, he wouldn’t have fallen so deeply into the trap. While Shakespeare does use Malvolio as his villain character, I think that he also uses Malvolio as a cautionary tale for his viewers. I think he is using Malvolio as a way to tell his audience that you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously, or else people will take advantage of you. In that way, I am understanding of why Shakespeare makes Malvolio go through such a harsh prank and makes the prank last so long and be so cruel.

  2. caitgee7

    I think this is a good idea to explore. From the play and the clip we watched in class, at first it is so difficult to sympathize with Malvolio’s character. He is so egotistical, party-crasher, love-sick with someone out of his leave, and the list goes on and on. He is so full of himself, and in comparison of the other characters seems to be more solemn. He doesn’t like to party, but maybe he’s just into different taste. Also, he is so desperately in love with Olivia that he will act foolishly and twist words to fit his believe. The more I consider it, despite his arrogance, he should be sympathized with even from the beginning. As the professor alluded to, I’m guessing he doesn’t end up with the one he loves. He is a joke in this play, also the tragedy in this comedy.

  3. alyssakaplan1

    I do agree with you, in that at first the prank was hilarious. But once they put him in a room and convinced him that he was possessed by the devil they took it way too far. But at the same time, Malvolio’s ego is so big, so if it hadn’t been, I feel like none of this would have happened to him. Regardless though, it was taken too far. It should have been stopped after he tried to “woo” Olivia by wearing his hideous yellow stockings.


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