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Twelfth Night's "Notorious Abuse" of Malvolio: Shame, Humorality, and Early Modern Spectatorship

From: Shakespeare Bulletin
Volume 24, Number 3, Fall 2006
pp. 1-22 | 10.1353/shb.2006.0049

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In John Manningham's famous account of a 1602 performance of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, he recalls the play as being most concerned with the gulling of Malvolio:

A good practise in it to make the Steward beleeve his Lady widdowe was in Love with him, by counterfayting a letter, as from his Lady, in generall termes, telling him what shee liked best in him, and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparaile, &c., and then when he came to practise, making him beleeve they tooke him to be mad.

(48)

Here in his diary entry, Manningham inverts the main and sub-plots of Twelfth Night, ignoring Olivia's bereavement for her brother as well as the love triangle between Viola, Olivia, and Orsino to focus solely on Malvolio's duping. He describes the play not as a narrative about the limits of mourning or the pleasures of romantic love but about the calculated shaming of Shakespeare's "mad" steward. While Manningham's recounting certainly marks the play as engaged in comedic "good practise," his subsequent inclusion of the epigram "Quae mala cum multis patimur laeviora putantur" in his diary troubles a reading of his reaction as strictly goodhumored. The Latin, according to Michael Baird Saenger, translates in two possible ways depending upon which meaning one takes from the term "laeviora:" it can be punningly deciphered as either "Those evils which are suffered along with others are easier" or "Those evils we suffer in the presence of many appear still more foolish" (67). In its ambiguity, Manningham's epigram seems paradoxically to emphasize both a sympathetic connection with the stage and a less compassionate enjoyment to be found in Malvolio's public humiliation. Significantly, in both cases, Manningham remarks on the supposed "good practise" that is the steward's abuse, noting the abuse not in and of itself but rather as it relates to those who witness it. He complicates the hilarity of Malvolio's plight, in other words, by emphasizing the spectator's explicit relation to the steward's protracted "suffering" throughout the performance.

Following Manningham's account, I envision Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as a play wholly preoccupied with Malvolio's gulling and its profound impact on playgoers. Many spectators, more contemporary than Manningham, have likewise been provoked by the play's disconcerting amusement at Malvolio's expense. Peter Holland, for example, remarks on the difficulty of grappling with Malvolio's shame. He describes watching as the steward in Trevor Nunn's 1997 film version of the play endures "a final public humiliation [that] is all the more painful for being witnessed by the servants over whom he would normally have had authority" ("Dark Pleasures" np). Likewise, theatre reviewer D.J. R. Bruckner details a 2000 Gorilla Repertory Theatre Company production in which Malvolio's shame was its most prominent feature; Bruckner contends, not unlike Manningham, that the way in which "Malvolio . . . becomes the principal character" in the performance "cannot be ignored" (E1 22). He continues: "The fact that he is the only person in the play who is deliberately made a victim of fraud stands out much more clearly here than in most productions and leaves one with the distinct impression that the playfulness of all the other characters is not as innocent as one would like" (E1 22).

While both Holland and Bruckner attest to the prominence of Malvolio's shame in Twelfth Night, Times reviewer Ben Brantley articulates how that shame explicitly involves a theater audience. Brantley reflects on his own experience during a 2002 New Globe production of the play, explaining that as "a simulacrum of its Elizabethan prototype, with an open pit in which most viewers (the groundlings) stand, the Globe makes theatergoing a very public experience. The performers address their soliloquies in a complicitous spirit to the audience. 'You're a part of this, you know,' they seem to suggest" (E1). What disturbs Brantley most, however, is the way that the drama, and its theatrical space, "[make] you feel especially implicated when the play changes tone. You may experience vicarious guilt, for example, when the baiting of the steward Malvolio . . . slips into sadism, or when the hedonistic Sir Toby Belch...



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