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Thread: Treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night- Alters the comic genre?

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    Talking Treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night- Alters the comic genre?

    Interesting debate in Lit class,
    Is the character of Malvolio treated too cruelly for Twelfth Night to be classed as a comedy? Is it more sinister than we realise?

    I'd love to hear people's thoughts

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    It is not just Malvolio that muddles up the idea of Twelfth Night being a comedy. I do not have the time to go into detail here, so, if you are interested, here is a blog I wrote about the play which covers - among several tangents - Hamlet's corruption of Twlefth Night:

    http://drowningmybooks.wordpress.com...twelfth-night/
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

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    Registered User mona amon's Avatar
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    Malvolio and The Effecient Baxter

    Quote Originally Posted by Dione_dee View Post
    Interesting debate in Lit class,
    Is the character of Malvolio treated too cruelly for Twelfth Night to be classed as a comedy? Is it more sinister than we realise?

    I'd love to hear people's thoughts
    Funny, I was thinking about this just last night, while reading Summer Lightning by P G Wodehouse. This book, and many of the other Blandings novels, has a character known as the Efficient Baxter, who plays a sort of Malvolio role. His straight-laced conscientiousness always comes in the way of the more or less ignoble schemes of the other characters, and his gulling, humiliation, and routing from the castle greatly contribute to the comedy.

    I was struck by how I didn't feel the least bit sorry for poor Baxter, but remembered feeling quite sorry for Malvolio by the end of the play. Shakespeare cannot help humanizing the character, just as he could not help humanizing Evil Jew stereotype Shylock. Wodehouse too is ultimtely humane and cushions Baxter's fall by giving him a better paid post to return to, a place where his services are also better appreciated, so there is no bothersome pathos to spoil all the fun. Alas for Malvolio there's no happy ending, and he exits muttering dark threats of revenge.
    Last edited by mona amon; 12-04-2012 at 02:26 AM.
    Exit, pursued by a bear.

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    I found it interesting when we discussed how of the characters in the play, Malvolio is the only one that commits to moral fault, he does not decieve, lie, break oaths, etc etc, yet he is treated the worst of all.

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    Registered User neilgee's Avatar
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    I never really thought about this before, although it was mentioned when we studied this play at uni, think Mona is right in what she says about Shakespeare humanising Malvolio despite the plot not necessarily calling for that (as with Shylock) and I've seen a production of the play where you were certainly meant to feel sorry for M at the end. No, he doesn't do anything wrong apart from be over-ambitious, it is clear that the other characters who make a fool of him feel that he should be more like them, he doesn't fit in with the other servants or user type relatives like Sir Toby as he sees himself as something better than his station in life as a butler. The ending is so miserable for him that you can't help but feel the joke is not funny anymore. Great thread Dione Dee.
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    Stephen Fry recently made his official return to the West End stage as Malvolio, and is drawing great plaudits for his portrayal of him as sympathetic figure. I saw Fry on a Review show suggesting that Malvolio is, indeed, treated too cruelly.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2012...night-all-male

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    It's a brilliant topic to write about as the play combines tragic and comic elements, and discussing the balance between them is really interesting. I'm yet to see the production live, need to get to a showing soon!

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mona amon View Post
    Funny, I was thinking about this just last night, while reading Summer Lightning by P G Wodehouse. This book, and many of the other Blandings novels, has a character known as the Efficient Baxter, who plays a sort of Malvolio role. His straight-laced conscientiousness always comes in the way of the more or less ignoble schemes of the other characters, and his gulling, humiliation, and routing from the castle greatly contribute to the comedy.

    I was struck by how I didn't feel the least bit sorry for poor Baxter, but remembered feeling quite sorry for Malvolio by the end of the play. Shakespeare cannot help humanizing the character, just as he could not help humanizing Evil Jew stereotype Shylock. Wodehouse too is ultimtely humane and cushions Baxter's fall by giving him a better paid post to return to, a place where his services are also better appreciated, so there is no bothersome pathos to spoil all the fun. Alas for Malvolio there's no happy ending, and he exits muttering dark threats of revenge.
    I cannot agree that you are meant to sympathize with Malvolio at the end (or with Shylock for that mater at the end of his story) - but I suppose empathy is a personal reaction, so who I am to say? There is certainly the sting of a joke gone awry - adding to the tragic side of the play, but Malvolio is hardly the innocent victim. Feste does not allow us to forge that Malvolio would have so easily seen him 'gagged'. Beyond that, the satire of the Puritan (Malvolio) unable to contend with the urges he spends his life trying to supress (why he so readily falls for the trap) removes him from the position of innocent victim.
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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    I cannot agree that you are meant to sympathize with Malvolio at the end (or with Shylock for that mater at the end of his story)
    I think Shakespeare discovered what a lot of writers have discovered, and that's that "villains" are often more interesting than protagonists. When writers get invested in their villains they can end up humanizing them and thus making them more sympathetic than they would normally be. I think the question of whether we're meant to sympathize with them is less relevant than the questions of whether Shakespeare sympathized with them (I think he did) and the empirical observation that many audiences have sympathized with them. I can't really account for the latter if the former wasn't true.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    It's just a matter of cultural perceptions. We view certain people differently than they did in the 16-17th centuries.

    I'll quickly tackle Shylock, as he is the more obvious. Prior to 1945, it would be very difficult to find a general audience that would sympathize or be empathetic to Shylock. Certainly, in c. 1595 - when Jews had been expelled from England for about 300 years - there would be little reason to empathize with someone who is nothing more than a comic villain who gets what he deserves.

    As for Malvolio - he is a satirical portrayal of the Puritan, who was going out of style in the 17th century. Many would have recognized the Malvolio type and would have relished in his fall. Take away the "type" and Malvolio and Shylock are just people: then we may sympathize with them.

    As for Shakespeare's villains being more interesting than their protagonists: this is certainly true in Othello, and Measure For Measure - but I would not say it is a universal truth. Today, Shylock is more interesting than Antonio - but again, this is due to our cultural influences.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    The problem with using such cultural explanations is that they're inherently circular. They assume the conclusion that writers thought as their culture did for no other reason than that they were apart of that culture. The problem I have about such assumptions is that artists have been notorious for going against the assumptions of their cultures and in being the ones to point out various hypocrisies and other ways of observing reality. It's been noted before that Shakespeare's mind eternally worked in the mode of antithesis; no sooner would he think of one proposition then he would think (and put to work) its opposite. So why do culturalists think it blasphemous to suggest that perhaps Shakespeare was questioning the various assumptions of his society? Why is it impossible to hypothesize he found/saw the humanity in various dramatic archetypes like the evil Jew or the Puritan? Why is it impossible to state that, even if he, to a certain extent, played them to type, he also provided material that either played them against type, or, at least, provided material that would lead us to question our perception of those types? Again, it's simply an assumption that because most audiences wouldn't have sympathized with a Jew or a Puritan that Shakespeare wouldn't have.

    Like most great popular artists, I think Shakespeare was keenly aware of audience sympathies and expectations, but like most great artists, I also think he was keenly aware of the limitations and hypocrisies of those sympathies and expectations. So he could create a character like Shylock, and a play like Merchant, that presented a Jew as a villain, while questioning exactly what made him a villain or, indeed, what made him any different than the Christians around him. Similarly, he could present a satirical Puritan while putting him in a situation where some perceptive audience members couldn't help but feel sorry for him. One may chalk it up to our own cultural perceptions, but the very fact that these plays do support these different views from a different culture is evidence that Shakespeare probably didn't intend to only have them "read" by the typology of his own culture.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Malvolio is a fool and is treated as such. Other fools get a hard time of it- they trick Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well into thinking he is about to be executed.

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Shakespeare seemed to agree with Puck when it comes the issue of fools, meaning most "mortals" had very foolish tendencies. That doesn't make them less humanized or sympathetic, though.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    Registered User prendrelemick's Avatar
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    Perhaps the cultural differences are also at work when we asses Malvolio's "crime" To us his ambition to rise above his station by marrying a heiress is almost laudable.
    Not so to an Elizabethan audience. Rich hieresses were the reserve of the nobility rich or poor. ( eg Portia and Bassanio, to keep the Merchant of Venice comparison)

    Shakespeare himself was labeled an "upstart crow" becuse he didn't go to Uni, and this theme of the wrongness of commoners being en-nobled appears in other plays of his.

    Twelfth Night was the one night of the year where the social strata could be turned upside down, but that was only temporary, order was restored by the morning. Malvolio went too far and got what he diserved.
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 12-06-2012 at 06:04 AM.
    ay up

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by prendrelemick View Post
    Shakespeare himself was labeled an "upstart crow" becuse he didn't go to Uni, and this theme of the wrongness of commoners being en-nobled appears in other plays of his.
    His family was also considered to be "upstarts" because his father purchased a coat of arms in attempt to falsely climb to a higher social position. Ben Jonson, in one of this works, satirizes this act. Malvolio is reminiscent of characters found in Jonson's work: ergo, Shakespeare might have had his own personal vendetta in mind.

    But of course this relies on biographical details which is always shaky ground in Shakespeare.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

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