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.