Malvolio and his Imagination

In Shakespeare’s play, The Twelfth Night, we see the boundaries within identity and gender beginning to blend. Love moves quickly and forcefully in this play. The characters are swept up in its current without any grounding to stabilize themselves. One of the most notable characters who is swept away in this play is Malvolio. Malvolio is convinced that Olivia, the noble woman, is in love with him. This sends him off into his own imagination, dreaming of the future and how it will be. Misinformation fuels Malvolio’s desire for Olivia’s love. It is this illusion that he is caught in that he is unaware of.

He finds a love letter and assumes it is written by Olivia to him, though he has no evidence that this is the case. It is not addressed to him, and it is not signed from Olivia. The mysterious letters “M.O.A.I.” rack his brain as he tries to find some meaning in them. In Act II, Scene 5, he comments, “‘M.’ Malvolio—‘M’—why, that begins my name.” We can see that this is an example of the insane nature of human desire. It shows us that we try to make connections, draw conclusions to anything or anyone that we like, just so that we may feel complete.

The existence of a desire for social mobility is also apparent in this play so far. Malvolio, Olivia’s lead “servant,” dreams of becoming Count Malvolio. He plays with this idea in his mind as he ponders the supposed love Olivia has for him.

The following lines are examples of Malvolio’s daydreams:

Malvolio states, “To be Count Malvolio!” Here we see him imagining a future where he has reached a new, higher social status.

He also says, “There is example for’t: the Lady of the Strachey married the yeoman of the wardrobe” (line 33-34). Malvolio is comparing his situation to a situation that came before him. He is using this situation, of a Lady marrying her servant, to justify and give himself hope for his situation with Olivia. He uses it as a point of leverage so that he can keep his illusion going—though he is unaware that it is an illusion.

Malvolio again dreams, “Having been three months married to her, sitting in my state—”(line 38-39). Here we see how Malvolio is projecting himself far into the future, into some utopia vision of what he thinks will happen once he and Olivia openly express their love and start their life together. Malvolio’s imagination serves to further his own hope and disillusionment.


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