Sunday, May 30, 2010

Twelfth Night - Sympathy for Malvolio

It's Shakespearean karma. I'm reading Twelfth Night again as I prepare for the Folger workshop. The play has now achieved "desert island" status in my life. I might as well have it tattooed on my person.

So I've been musing about Gil's question regarding the anagrammatic names (Viola, Olivia, Malvolio), but drawing a blank. If, for example, all the lovers' names are anagrams, why isn't Orsino included? One could joke that Orsino is an anagram of "orison," indicating that the duke can only pray for Olivia's love.

All this led me to consider another moment of word play -- Malvolio's comment about Maria's forgery:

"By my life, this is my lady's hand! These be here very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus makes she her great P's. It is in contempt of question her hand" (2.5.88-91).

The prevailing trend among my students is to assume that this passage is a dirty joke (especially if you gloss Malvolio's "and" as " 'n' "). And Andrew Aguecheek's repeating Malvolio's observation, because it's not clear what it means, enhances the idea that it's a dirty joke, as if he were saying "get it?" In addition, there is a homophonic echo a few words later: "contempt."

But here's the mystery. What is Malvolio reading? Ostensibly, it is the address on the exterior of the envelope or letter: "To the unknown beloved, this and my good wishes." Scanning this salutation, where do we find the letters "c" and "p"? Remember, the letter is sealed, and no names appear on it, or else Malvolio wouldn't be puzzling out who wrote it and to whom it is writ.

Chew on that for a bit. Next, let's assume that it is indeed a dirty joke, referring to a c-word or some Elizabethan variant. Malvolio does not make the joke; he's merely its conduit. His innocence rests on the apparent randomness of the key letters that identify Olivia's handwriting and on his established Puritanism. Such a joke wouldn't even occur to him. Thus the scene presents us with a brief comic duo in which Malvolio is the straight man or stooge and Shakespeare is the funny man, puncturing Malvolio's self-importance by getting him to mouth the lowest of low-brow humor. If it is dirty, we laugh both because its source is unexpected and at its unexpected source, the same way we laugh at Moe when Bart Simpson's prank phone call gets him to ask if "Jacques Strap" or "Mike Rotch" is in the bar.

So, when Cindy asks if it is possible for Malvolio's character to elicit sympathy, I think it is. Yes, we want him to fall. His self-importance, his pomposity, is irritating (although his attempt to move beyond his station, I think, no longer resonates with us), and we enjoy the comeuppance. But as with Shylock in Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare has endowed the Malvolio story with moments that dissuade the audience from merely dismissing him as a villain and also from taking pure pleasure in his humiliation. He is more than just the butt of jokes. First, his captivity when he is accused of insanity has never seemed to me to be fair, a punishment that did not fit the crime. While Feste's Sir Topaz continues the mockery, the scene's emphasis seems to be on Malvolio's suffering.

Second, Shakespeare gives Malvolio a moment -- "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" -- unusual in a comedy and for a character meant simply to suffer the slings and arrows of comedic characterization. Olivia nails home the point, commenting: "He has been most notoriously abused." The double adverb there is significant. I wonder if we hear both these moments differently than Shakespeare's contemporary audience would have. We are raised in a culture steeped in the traditions of Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie, one that suggests that nothing stands in our way as we climb whatever ladder we choose. We also believe in fair play (although we don't necessarily practice it). We are more than willing to watch pompous people get their just desserts, usually in the form of being laughed at, but we don't like abuse, in any form. In the mocking of Malvolio, Olivia's people go too far.

In his final words to them, Malvolio may merely confirm his name -- ill will. For the rest of us, he seems to have suffered the unkindest c-u-t in the Play.


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