Oh Oh Malvolio

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In our visitor centre there is a looped recording of great moments from shakespeare which plays as visitors wait to buy their tickets to Shakespeare’s Birthplace, everyone who works here probably knows it by heart whether they realise it or not!

But one line always stays with me as I pass through reception and on up the stairs to my office. And that is a line of Malvolio’s from Twelfth Night. You will remember the strand of that story about how Malvolio is tricked into believing the lady Olivia whom he stewards for is in love with him? Malvilo is directed (he thinks by her) to do all kinds of crazy things to please her – like wearing the famous yellow stockings.

In one scene Olivia thinking Malvolio’s wits have gone suggests he goes to bed (to rest), Malvolio thinking she is in love with him hears quite a different suggestion and replies “To bed! Ay, Sweetheart, and I’ll come to thee!”

Poor Malvolio! That little quote in which, in the recording, Malvolio’s voice is full of hope and dawning happiness always strikes me as terribly sad, knowing as I do that Malvolio’s dreams will come to nothing.

I know, you will tell me that I am not supposed to feel sorry for Malvolio because after all he is pompous, a kill joy and a party pooper. But oh the things he does for love.

If we see his behaviour as a vain attempt to impress Olivia it can take on a new more forgivable flavour.  Who has not done something a little foolish for love. Go on, admit it. Pause, think about it, what was it? Now consider what Malvolio does… he tries to protect his beloved, who is grieving for her brother from the inappropriately raucous behaviour of her cousin and his cronies… he puts on airs and graces that he hopes will impress her… he puts down people who he sees as competition for her regard… he smiles and he wears slightly inappropriate clothes all in a bid to get her attention. Is that so bad?  Is it even as bad as let’s say Orsino, who threatens to kill his rival, or Antonio who risks his own life for his beloved Sebastian? Actually isn’t Malvolio’s behaviour quite mild, quite human in it’s own way?

So please, next time you are in the theatre laughing at Malvolio in his yellow stockings and his false hope, pause and just think about the things we do for love and perhaps you will take a moment, as I do, to feel compassion for him. Unrequited love is bad enough but to believe for one glorious moment that that love is requited and to have that taken from you…. Poor Malvolio.

And that is the thought that usually accompanies me up the stairs to my office.

I ask our new followers on twitter which of Shakespeare’s characters they would most like to have dinner with.  Malvolio has never got a single invitation, so Malvolio, come on, let’s go for a pizza and share our lost hopes and over dessert I’ll help you plan your revenge!

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Robinanna neibauer

    As somebody who sympathizes with Shylock, who only lost because the law was biased against Jews, I feel bad for Malvolio as well. Those two were victims of merciless bullying, although at least, Malvolio wasn’t forced to convert to Catholic Christianity. As for Malvolio, I think his goal actually makes sense, for not only did it happen before, according to Malvolio, there are also many rags to riches stories today. Sadly, it was never real, it was just a cruel joke. I feel sorry for Malvolio when he is thanking God and smiling because I know it’s just a cruel joke. False hope is the worst torture. It was never funny, poor Malvolio.

  • Shakespeare was very clever at giving balance to his plays – often we are not sure where to sympathise – to me this is one of his hallmarks as a writer. ^liz

  • Great! Malvolio earns another friend ^liz

  • Well we could do with a scoop – do tell us more? ^liz

  • I agree and it is a balance which is often experimented with in productions. I have seen those that have Sir Toby et al seem so mean that reviewers have described that as sadistic. I have also seen them so harmless that it almost goes for nothing. But I have always liked Malvolio to be played as humanly flawed rather than as the pantomime fool. ^liz

  • Hilary Lister

    Liz, this is very interesting. However,the balance of the play is very tricky. If we feel overly compassionate towards Malvolio then the balance of the play is upset because we will see the gulling, especially later on in the play, as bullying and be alienated;rather than feeling amused as Shakespeare probably intended at taking pomposity down a peg or two ,which is what the play’s theme is because 12th Night was the night to ridicule authority I believe in the 16th century. It is possible to be amused without malice however and the comedy is all the warmer for it if we see some of Malvolio in ourselves so it is a tricky part to get right I think and very challenging to both actor and director to find the balance that allows us to laugh yet feel pity.

  • Globalvision_ofart

    It’s a century hidden secret. I have been out with Malvolio! 😉 ….and we still meet from time to time. Ikara

  • This is awesome – Makes me thing and gets the emotions working. Great post. I totally have compassion for this guy.

  • Liz, *great* post as always. 🙂

  • Having seen this comedy in Canada (where the actor brought the house down when he begged Olivia to use her riding crop on him) and elsewhere, I feel that S. provided balance: a snob (hubris) is brought down in such a way that he provokes our pity.
    My personal experience has been limited to the Gravedigger (Hamlet)and Biandello (…Shrew).

  • Christian Smith

    Shakespeare was well aware of Malvolio’s woes. He purposefully left his anger as a piece of unfinished business in this comedy. I think that it is issues like this that make the comedies much more profound than most people think. All the comedies have a lick of tragedy in them.

  • Interesting, thanks i will check it out. ^liz

  • Duncan

    Umm. They had a puppet Malvolio and err… can’t remember. But you could contact http://www.anotherwaytheatre.co.uk and ask them. I saw this at a genuine Victorian music hall called Hoxton Hall. Included 15m singalong at start! Site contains video of closing song “Oh What You Will”.

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  • Really! Can you remember any more of the words?
    And you are quite right Sir Andrew’s line is one of the saddest in the whole of Shakespeare’s cannon. ^liz

  • Duncan

    Funnily enough a recent music hall themed production of Twelfth Night included a specially written song entitled… Oh, Oh Malvolio!

    And spare a thought also for Sir Andrew “I was adored once too” Aguecheek!

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