Unhappy Malvio From Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”
- Pages: 7
- Word count: 1563
- Category: Trifles
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All of humanity strives for happiness. However, not all pursuits of happiness are equally successful. At the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, unlike most of the other characters, Malvolio remains unhappy. Blaise Pascal’s Pensees give insight as to why Malvolio struggles to attain happiness which Malvolio views as a state of certainty, straight-laced order, and control. In a world where revelry reins and order is dismissed, Malvolio struggles to find his place and unsuccessfully takes it upon himself to make the world in which he finds himself conform to his idea of how it should be. Blaise Pascal would argue that Malvolio’s unhappiness stems from internal flaws that foster a fervent desire to dominate beyond his station and put order into a world he views as being devoid of it.
A factor contributing greatly to Malvolio’s unhappiness is that he does not have a coherent understanding of himself. Pascal would describe Malvolio’s problem as vanity and the inability to recognize his own wretchedness. In regards to vanity, Pascal says, that “Man must not think he is on a level with either beasts or angels, and he must not be ignorant of those levels, but should know both”(Pascal,154). Essentially, humans are complex and cannot be considered solely great nor solely wretched. One must understand that both coexist within each person. Malvolio’s problem is that he believes that his virtue makes him great and that all other people who simply pursue pleasure must therefore be wretched. Malvolio’s self-righteous attitude can be seen in his accusation of the revelers being “idle, shallow things” and claiming that he is “not of [their] element”(Shakespeare, 3.4.117-118). Malvolio thinks of himself so highly and ignores his own faults, which result in his inability to see what connects him to everyone around him. He is unhappy because he fails to understand the complexity of his own being which cannot be considered wholly great.
Tyranny is another of Malvolio’s character flaws. Pascal defines tyranny as the “desire to dominate, beyond one’s station”(Pascal, 92). Malvolio is a steward and as such his prime objective is to to keep order in Olivia’s household. Olivia becomes the mistress of the household upon the death of her brother, but does not seem interested in exercising her power. She instead delegates many of her own responsibilities to her steward. Malvolio consistently tries to control the debauchery of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek but finds this difficult to do since everyone around him seems more interested in misrule. Malvolio boldly confronts the revelers about their misconduct and Sir Toby retorts, “Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ales?”(Shakespeare, 2.3.106-107). Here Sir Toby puts Malvolio in his place reminding him that Malvolio is just a steward and has no right to impose his opinions on his superiors. Clearly, Malvolio is confused about what his appropriate role is. He oversteps boundaries and tries to do more than what is proper for his station.
When alone he muses, ‘To be Count Malvolio!’ (Shakespeare, 2.5.35). His fantasy reveals his desire to be more than a steward by overturning an established hierarchy. Lacking a firm sense of his place on the social spectrum, he frustratedly tries to amend his world by fulminating at the disorder and fantasizing about becoming in social status what he feels he has already become in authority. However, his desire to dominate goes unfulfilled yielding him more unhappiness. He wants to be more than a steward but will never obtain a higher position in society since his desire is but a pipedream.
Malvolio’s inappropriate desires reveal a third character flaw, insincerity. According to Pascal, “Mankind is…nothing but disguise, lies, and hypocrisy, both as individuals and with regard to others”(Pascal, 743). People consistently posture in order to portray themselves a certain way to others and sometimes even to themselves. Most of the characters in Twelfth Night are to some degree insincere. However, most of them still have a fairly happy ending. Malvolio’s insincerity is different in that in being insincere he suffers from self-deception which contributes to his unhappiness. Malvolio fronts that he is virtuous and free of the vices that the other characters delight in. This can be seen in his questioning of Sir Toby who he censures by asking, “Have you no wits, manners, nor honesty?” (Shakespeare, 2.3.83). In asking this, Malvolio insinuates that these are things Sir Toby lacks, but he has. Malvolio’s innermost thoughts and desires, however, prove otherwise.
When fantasizing about the life he would like to lead he relishes the idea of, “calling [his] officers about [him], in [his] branched velvet gown; having come from a daybed, where [he has] left Olivia sleeping”(Shakespeare, 2.5.44-46). Here Malvolio expresses a desire for things that he would never allow himself to outwardly show that he desires. Lusting for power, materialistic objects, and a women is not proper for a virtuous man to do. Malvolio is ensnared by his desires but, blinded by vanity, does not realize this is so. His desires subconsciously direct his actions toward his own demise. Although he thinks his actions may appear to be virtuous, his thoughts reveal his true disposition. He is not what he portrays himself to be.
Finding himself in a world where disorder and iniquity prevail, Malvolio fantasizes about restoring order to Illyria. Feeling powerless in his role as steward, he allows himself to imagine marrying Olivia and rising to a social rank that would permit him to establish rules and proper order. Pascal discusses the power of one’s imagination when he says, “Imagination has those it makes happy and unhappy … it makes reason believe, doubt, deny”(Pascal, 78). According to Pascal, imagination has the capacity to deceive reason. Malvolio’s imagination is so vivid that upon finding Maria’s letter he is able to convince himself that there exists a possibility that Olivia likes him and that he will rise to the top of society. Malvolio’s reading of the letter demonstrates his attempt to crush himself into the identity of ‘the unknown beloved” when he is presented with the riddle, ‘M.O.A.I. doth sway my life’ (Shakespeare, 2.5.132, 87, 106).
Malvolio’s endeavor to ‘make that resemble something in [him]’ shows how his preexisting fantasies fuel his imagination further (Shakespeare, 2.5.114-115). While under the impression that his secret desires are attainable, he experiences happiness that quickly comes to an end when he realizes that what he wished were true is actually not. His overactive imagination makes him forgo reason. Malvolio’s imagination brings him delight until he realizes he has fooled himself. His unhappiness is therefore also the result of letting his imagination convince him that his desire to be more than he could ever be seem reasonable and within the realm of possibility.
Some may argue Malvolio’s unhappiness is rooted less in his own flaws than it is the direct result of the mistreatment he receives from Sir Toby and his comrades. The scheme they construct is concedingly cruel and plays on many of Malvolio’s vulnerabilities. It is extreme to try to convince others of a sane man’s lunacy. Such psychological torture surely affects Malvolio who feels “there was never a man so notoriously abused”(Shakespeare, 4.2.87-88). However, the effect the plot against Malvolio has can only be credited to Malvolio himself. His vain, tyrannous, and imaginative disposition makes him the perfect target for the prank. What the revelers view as a simple “pluck on laughter”, Malvolio perceives as the ultimate injustice (Shakespeare, 5.1.360). He is incapable of taking the situation lightheartedly because he takes all things too seriously. For example when conversing with Olivia about Feste the clown he says, “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal… I take these wise men, that crow so at these set kind of fool, no better than the fools’ zanies” (Shakespeare, 1.5.79-85).
These lines show that Malvolio does not care for anything frivolous nor fun. He is often insulted by being called a puritan. Ironically, like a puritan, he is against revelry and in all things he takes a serious stance. That is why his response to figuring out the scheme is such that he swears that he will seek revenge. He, unlike the revelers, finds no humor in the act. He is angry and wounded but this end is brought unto him by none other than himself. Malvolio’s internal flaws get the best of him. The letter is effective because it plays on his desires and aspirations to climb the social ladder. It is his own self-deluding vanity, desire to dominate, and imagination that make the scheme able to yield unhappiness.
Ultimately, Pascal would say that Malvolio’s unhappiness is the result of many internal flaws. Malvolio’s superiority complex alienates him from everyone else in Illyria. By not understanding himself completely he becomes uncertain of his proper role in society. Because he is so vain and considers himself to be virtuous, he begins to believe that he merits a higher social status. His overactive imagination allows his fantastical thoughts to seem possible. Malvolio tries to impose his view of the world on others who will never accept it. His desires and flaws are so apparent that they can be used against him by others who are content with the disordered order of the world. He is filled with desires and an idea of stringent order that simply cannot be in a world of revelry and established disorder.