Twelfth Night in a Nutshell

If Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is a thinly-veiled Puritan (see the earlier article in this series), so is Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Maria, in act two of Twelfth Night, describes Malvolio explicitly as “a kind of puritan,” and the critic Leslie Hotson has argued that Malvolio was modeled on the Puritan William Knollys, First Earl of Banbury, who was an object of ridicule in Elizabeth’s court for his besotted efforts to court a teenage girl, well under half his age, reflecting Malvolio’s preposterous efforts to woo Olivia. 

In a ballad popular at the time at which Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night, Knollys is derided as “Party Beard…the clown,” a reference to his multicolored beard, which was white at the roots, yellow in the middle, and black at the ends. In the play, Maria refers to the color of Malvolio’s beard as something of which he is absurdly proud, and Malvolio is lampooned for his vainglorious and foolhardy efforts to woo a young lady in much the same way as Falstaff is lampooned in The Merry Wives of Windsor and in the way in which the ballad lampooned Knollys. It is likely, therefore, that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen Malvolio as a satirical representation of William Knollys.  

There is, however, a dark side to the real life Malvolio, which would have made him a perfect subject for Shakespeare’s ridicule and scorn. As a member of the Puritan party in Elizabeth’s court, Knollys would have been an enemy of England’s beleaguered Catholics and a staunch critic of the theatre, connecting the one with the other. 

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The fact that the Puritans considered the theatre to be a dangerous disseminator of papist ideas can be gleaned from a sermon by the Puritan preacher William Crashaw, delivered at St. Paul’s Cross in London in 1608: “The ungodly plays and interludes so rife in this nation: what are they but a bastard of Babylon [a euphemism for Rome in puritanical Biblespeak], a daughter of error and confusion; a hellish device—the devil’s own recreation to mock at holy things—by him delivered to the heathen and by them to the Papists, and from them to us?”

Astonishingly, this attack on “papist plays” by the puritanical Crashaw is noteworthy as being one of the pithiest putdowns of Western civilization ever made. In one terse, bombastic sentence the entire legacy of the West is dismissed as being a contagious disease, passed from the devil to the Greeks, and then to the Romans and the Catholics until finally, via Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights, it had contaminated modern England. 

Two years later, in February 1610, Crashaw was again equating Shakespeare and his ilk to the devil in a sermon he preached to the Lord Governor of Virginia. On this occasion he fulminated that the greatest threat to the newly founded colony was to be found in Catholicism and the evils of the theatre: “We confess this action hath three great enemies: but who be they? even the Devil, Papists, and Players.” Ironically, William Crashaw’s son, Richard, one of the greatest of the metaphysical poets, would become a Catholic and would die in lonely exile in Italy in 1649. 

Another dark and malevolent aspect of the Puritans, which explains Shakespeare’s dark and malevolent portrayal of Malvolio, is the manner in which they were directly responsible for the persecution of England’s Catholics, including members of Shakespeare’s own family. In July 1586, Sir Francis Knollys, father of Sir William, urged the banishment of all recusant Catholics and the exclusion from public office of all who married recusants. Shakespeare’s father had been forced from public office for his recusancy in 1576 and was fined for his recusancy in 1592. 

Such malevolence on the part of England’s Puritans must have animated Shakespeare’s imagination as he depicted the malevolence of Malvolio, whose very name, it should be remembered, means ill-will, or wicked-will. It is for this reason that we make a major error in our reading of either The Merchant of Venice or Twelfth Night if we allow ourselves to sympathize with the plays’ villains. This is made clear by the Shakespeare scholar Oscar James Campbell:

Malvolio is given the usual Elizabethan treatment for an insane man: he is bound and cast into a dark prison. This has seemed so brutal to many actors that they have often presented him as the pathetic victim of cruel horseplay. That was certainly not Shakespeare’s intention. When at the end of the play Malvolio frantically rushes offstage, shouting, “I’ll be revenged of the whole pack of you,” Shakespeare expected his audiences to follow him with the scornful laughter that he…thought it was the business of comical satire to arouse.

It is, therefore, in the context of such comical satire that we need to see the play, at least if we have any desire to see it as Shakespeare and his audience saw it. We should see the malevolence of Malvolio and Shylock as we would see the malevolence of Hitler or Stalin. And this is not merely hyperbole. Shakespeare had seen the tyranny of the Puritans at work in his own life and in the lives of his family, and he feared what would happen if they ever came to power as the dominant force in the state. In this fear he was justified and vindicated by history. Within fifty years of Shakespeare’s writing of Twelfth Night, the Puritans stormed to power, killing the King, closing the theatres, and even banning the celebration of Christmas. In a tragic example of life following art, Malvolio would finally get the revenge he had promised.

Editor’s Note: This is the sixteenth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: Olivia’s House – Olivia, Maria and Malvolio by Thomas Ryder]


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