10 February 2014
Merry Madness: Malvolio, Gender Confusion and Disguise
Once again in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, we see humor being used as an essential literary device. One of the play’s two major plotlines features Malvolio—Olivia’s butler—as the protagonist of his own plot. Malvolio is a “fool”; specifically what Shakespeare refers to as an “Armin fool”, a sad fool. At first glance Malvolio’s character appears to be one-dimensional but upon further inspection, he proves to be quite complex; Malvolio’s character has a dual presence as both Puritan and cavalier. In addition, Malvolio is described by the other characters within the play as “stiff”--a party-pooper--a quality that ultimately provokes Maria and Sir Toby to devise his downfall; they play on a side of Malvolio that may have otherwise remained hidden. More specifically, Malvolio possesses a false sense of self-worth, a flaw that fuels his pursuit of chasing an unattainable dream: to become a member of the nobility (i.e. when he refers to himself as “Count Mal” II.V.30). As we watch Malvolio’s ambition overcome his ability to exercise good reason, he becomes a character of pity. Shakespeare highlights this notion by use of dramatic irony; everyone else is aware of his delusions, except for he himself. It is also important to note that Malvolio—the “victim” of the prank-- is a Puritan. During Shakespeare’s time, the Puritans were the first members of the middle class in England to assume positions of authority and to acquire wealth. However, the Puritans despised the theater, so—naturally--Shakespeare despised them. Thus, Shakespeare contrives a wonderful joke around Malvolio, one that is dependent of Malvolvio’s comic flaw--being a Puritan—and the (Puritan) belief that he will be “saved” and therefore God (providence) will provide for him.
In addition to the humor that surrounds Malvolio’s plot, Shakespeare constructs his second of the play’s two major plots in a similar fashion. Viola, a shipwrecked heroin, must adopt a disguise—specifically-- she must assume a male identity in order to remain alive. However, despite the seriousness of her condition—her life depends on the success of her disguise-- there is still something extremely hilarious about the “merry madness” that goes on within the confines of Illyria. Namely, Viola’s disguise catalyzes a series of deceptive acts, character miscommunications, and most controversially: it introduces Illyria’s homosexual antics. These homosexual undertones become evident while observing the relationships between Antonio and Sebastian, Viola and Olivia, and Cesario (Viola) and Duke Orsino. Despite their convincing disguises, all of the characters interestingly favor the gender ambiguous characteristics present with their respective lovers. For example, Olivia falls in love with Cesario because of “his” soft or feminine features, thus suggesting that perhaps Olivia desires the female form.
Due to the homosexual presence within the play, Twelfth Night has landed itself on the banned books list; deeming the homosexual content inappropriate. This reason for banning Twelfth Night is extremely problematic, especially with the recent uprising and full-scale social movement advocating for gay rights. Banning Twelfth Night in schools for this content would make explicit our country’s disapproval and oppression of a minority group and would even go as far as to promote homophobia.
In regards to doing service at Tunbridge, I can certainly foresee this type of message being extremely detrimental to the classroom climate, as well as greatly affecting the wellbeing of individual students. Specifically, I recently found out that one of the boys in our class has two fathers. Although I have not met his fathers (they both work full-time) the teachers that I work with only have wonderful things to say about them. In this sense, then, it would be highly inappropriate to ridicule these two fathers and potentially victimize an innocent child based off of insensitive and outdated societal conventions. Similar to the questions that were asked while reading texts by Twain and Chaucer, Shakespeare is also addressing subject matter that is often avoided by his audiences. Through his literature, Shakespeare is prompting his audience to confront uncomfortable subject matters.
Somewhat unrelated, but in keeping with the gender/disguise motif, I found it interesting that during the time that these plays were performed, young male actors played the role of Shakespeare’s women characters. Therefore, on stage––a character such as Viola, would be played by a male actor playing the role of a woman––who is disguised as a man. Shakespeare intentionally chooses young men to play these female characters, namely—because of their high-pitched voices and seemingly feminine features; the same reasons Viola is able to pass as a young man. These young male actors are aptly fitted to play women because their inherent qualities (off stage) allow for a natural performance on stage.