Malvolio, the steward of Olivia’s house in Twelfth Night , has been a problematic figure for many readers and critics. Charles Lamb, who with his wife wrote a book of narrative versions of the plays, saw Malvolio as a tragic figure:

“Malvolio is not essentially ludicrous. He becomes comic by accident. He is cold, austere, repelling; but dignified, consistent, and, for what appears, rather of an over-stretched morality. Maris describes him as a sort of Puritan; and he might have worn his gold chain with honour in one of our old round-head families . . . .But his morality and his manners are misplaced in Illyria. He is opposed to the proper levities of the piece, and falls in the unequal contest. Still his pride, or his gravity (call it which you will) is inherent, and native to the man, not mock or affected, which latter only are the fit objects to excite laughter. His quality is at the best unlovely, but neither buffoon nor contemptible. His bearing is lofty, a little above his station, but probably not much above his deserts . . . . His dialect on all occasions is that of a gentleman, and a man of education . . . His rebuke to the knight, and his sottish revellers, is sensible and spirited; and when we take into consideration the unprotected condition of his mistress, and the strict regard with which her state of real or dissembled mourning would draw the eyes of the world upon her house affairs, Malvolio might feel the honour of the family in some sort in his keeping.”

Lamb goes on to compare Malvolio to Don Quixote, for both, in Lamb?s view, make lunacy seem noble and somehow admirable: ?you were infected with the illusion, and did not wish that it should be removed! You had no room for laughter! If an unseasonable reflection of morality obtruded itself, it was a deep sense of the pitiable informity of man?s nature, that can lay him open to such frenzies ?Ebut in truth you rather admired than pitied the lunacy while it lasted ?Eyou felt that an hour of such mistake was worth an age with the eyes open.?E This is difficult to sustain, and I suspect that Elizabethan audiences would have laughed as heartily at Lamb as they doubtless did at Malvolio. Malvolio is certainly the villain of the play, condemned to be excluded from the final joy of the play because of his fundamental joylessness.

More on: Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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