Twelfth Night

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Malvolio Character Analysis

The steward in charge of the servants at Olivia's house. A stuck-up killjoy, Malvolio annoys the other members of the household by constantly condescending to and scolding them. In revenge, Maria, Sir Toby, and others play a prank on Malvolio that adds comic relief to Twelfth Night, but also reveals Malvolio's ambition, arrogance, and self-love. The play provides a happy ending for all of the characters except Malvolio, reminding the audience that not all love is fulfilled.

Malvolio Quotes in Twelfth Night

The Twelfth Night quotes below are all either spoken by Malvolio or refer to Malvolio. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Desire and Love Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Twelfth Night published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
He is very well-favored and he speaks very shrewishly; one would think his mother's milk were scarce out of him.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Viola (Cesario)
Related Symbols: Costumes
Page Number: 1.5.159-161
Explanation and Analysis:

Disguised as a man (Cesario), Viola visits Olivia in order to woo her for Duke Orsino. Olivia's steward, Malvolio, tells Olivia that there is a young man at the door. Olivia asks Malvolio to describe him and he responds with this quote. Here, he tells Olivia that her visitor (Viola) is "well-favored" or attractive, and speaks in a high-pitched voice ("shrewishly") as if he were a child. 

In this moment, Malvolio notes the gender ambiguity of Cesario without realizing he is in fact a woman. He writes off Cesario's femininity as a product of youth. This is a comedic moment for the audience; we know Cesario is actually Viola but no one else does. 

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Act 2, scene 5 Quotes
Now is the woodcock near the gin.
Related Characters: Fabian (speaker), Malvolio
Related Symbols: Hunting
Page Number: 2.5.85
Explanation and Analysis:

Because of his self-righteous behavior towards the other servants, Maria decides to play a prank on Malvolio. She writes a love letter to him from an anonymous lover, but does so in Olivia's handwriting, and she riddles the letter with obvious clues that point toward Olivia as the author. Here Malvolio finds the letter, and Maria and the other servants hide in a tree to watch him read it. Fabian says then says this line in hiding, calling Malvolio a "woodcock." During Shakespeare's time the woodcock was known to be a particularly stupid breed of bird, and easy to catch in a "gin" or trap. Thus by calling him this, he is making fun of Malvolio's ignorance and stupidity. As with all disguises in Twelfth NIght, whether shielding themselves behind a tree or behind a letter, they help characters tell each other what they really feel and think.

I may command where I adore.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker)
Page Number: 2.5.107
Explanation and Analysis:

In an effort to embarass Malvolio, Maria writes a letter in Olivia's handwriting, telling him that she is in love with him. The letter is only signed with what seems to be the letters of an initial. Here, Malvolio reads lines of the letter aloud, which he will later deconstruct, in order to find out if it was Olivia that wrote it. This line is the first major hint that it could be Olivia. The person who wrote the letter both commands and loves the same person, suggesting that it is a master who loves her servant (Malvolio).

The love letter is a symbol of the performative nature of love seen throughout Twelfth Night. Characters feel that the only way to properly share their love or express it is through extreme and over-the-top behavior, whether that be song, poems, laments, or letters. So, while this letter comes at a surprise for Malvolio, he is not put off or shocked that someone would express their love in this way. This is also another moment of deception in the play, as Maria uses deception as a mechanism to embarrass and punish Malvolio for his mistreatment of other servants and his self-righteousness. 

Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.
Related Characters: Olivia (speaker), Malvolio (speaker)
Page Number: 2.5.148-150
Explanation and Analysis:
Malvolio reads the love letter that he thinks is from Olivia, as Maria, its true author, hides in a tree with Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, watching Malvolio embarrass himself. This iconic quote happens toward the end of the letter as an attempt to reveal who the author could be. Malvolio interprets this section to mean that he is one who could "achieve" greatness by marrying the noble-born Olivia (one who was "born great"). Thus the joke being played on Malvolio isn't just getting him to think someone loves him, but also getting him to attempt to rise above his station—flattering his arrogance and sense of superiority. Maria is trying to lift Malvolio up in order to ultimately persuade him to embarrass himself in front of the whole court and Olivia herself. Here we see both the power of words and just how far the performance of love can go in Twelfth Night. Malvolio becomes smitten by his secret admirer simply from her hyperbolic and romantic words. 
Act 3, scene 4 Quotes
Why, this is very midsummer madness.
Related Characters: Olivia (speaker), Malvolio
Page Number: 3.4.61
Explanation and Analysis:

Malvolio is love stricken with Olivia, and thinks that she has written him a love letter with instructions for how he should dress and comport himself (the letter was actually written by Maria). Here Malvolio enters, wearing yellow cross-gartered stockings and grinning from ear to ear (as the letter told him to do). Olivia, confused, asks Malvolio to stop, but he won't. Convinced her steward has gone mad, she then says this line. During Shakespeare's time the summer moon was thought to be a major influence on madness and insanity. Thus, having a "midsummer madness" was considered a kind of temporary insanity. Here Shakespeare shows us how easy it is to confuse love and desire with lunacy, as well as how easy it is for an individual to become a fool in the name of love. 

Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things; I am not of your element.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste, Fabian
Page Number: 3.4.132-133
Explanation and Analysis:

Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian have entered the scene, all pretending to be concerned about Malvolio's state of mind (although they all know that he has in fact become the subject of a cruel joke). They express their concerns and Malvolio responds with this quote, telling them that they don't understand what he is going through. This shows that Malvolio is still as rude and arrogant as he was at the beginning of the play, and now even more so because of his sense of confidence in Olivia's love, and the letter's instructions to look down upon and criticize the other servants. The word "element" denotes social class, and as it is used here, Malvolio suggests that the other staff members are shallow and lazy, and that he is above them in both social and intellectual rank. The irony is that while he is behaving this way, he has also succumbed to Maria's trick and is currently dressed outrageously in his yellow stockings. He looks like a fool, and yet lectures the other servants on their own foolishness. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Why have you suffered me to be imprisoned,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e'er invention played on? Tell me why.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Olivia
Page Number: 5.1.363-366
Explanation and Analysis:

Malvolio continues to be called mad and is mocked by the members of the court—even locked in a dark room (a traditional "treatment" for mental illness at the time). During this moment, Malvolio finally confronts Olivia about the writing of the love letter. After this speech, Olivia discovers that it was in fact Maria who wrote the letter, forging her handwriting, and the Fool who was in fact the "priest" visiting Malvolio.

Malvolio's plotline makes clear the connection between love and madness, and emphasizes the nature of revelry and wildness in the environment of Twelfth Night. At the same time, it also introduces some more troubling elements to the comedy—Malvolio is certainly arrogant, dull, and hates any kind of fun, but the punishment he suffers seems to far outweigh his "crimes," and the glee the other characters derive from his suffering often feels downright cruel. While the final revelation of the play's "disguises" is a cause for happiness among most of the characters, for Malvolio it only shows him how thoroughly he has been tricked and how cruelly he has been treated—and, as he says here, for seemingly no good reason.

I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you.
Related Characters: Malvolio (speaker), Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste, Fabian
Page Number: 5.1.401
Explanation and Analysis:

By the end of the play all of the disguises have been taken off and the deception has been revealed. While disguising oneself has worked in favor for Viola and even Olivia (who marries Sebastian), Malvolio realizes how thoroughly and cruelly he has been tricked, and remains a single negative voice among the happy lovers. In his last moments on stage, Malvolio says this line to the others and storms off, threatening to take revenge on those who embarrassed him.

Malvolio's unresolved plot-line is the only thing disrupting the otherwise traditional comic ending to the play (i.e., everyone is happy, and everyone gets married). While love has worked out well for all the other main characters, Malvolio's love for Olivia ends up wholly unrequited, and his attempts to better his class situation are presented as foolish and laughable. He is undeniably an unlikeable character, but Shakespeare also uses his story to show how love can be cruel as well as pleasurable, and to remind the audience that the harsher realities of class and station remain in place in spite of the happy ending.

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Malvolio Character Timeline in Twelfth Night

The timeline below shows where the character Malvolio appears in Twelfth Night. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 5
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Melancholy Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Olivia enters, wearing mourning clothes and attended by her steward, Malvolio. Olivia first instructs her attendants to send Feste away, but he teases her into better... (full context)
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Gender and Sexual Identity Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Malvolio returns and informs Olivia that the young man outside will not leave. Olivia asks what... (full context)
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
...thy face, thy limbs" (1.5.269) —and describes them as a "blazon." Thinking fast, Olivia summons Malvolio and gives him a ring, which, she lies, Cesario left behind on Orsino's behalf. She... (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Malvolio catches up with Cesario. He gives Cesario the ring from Olivia and explains that Olivia... (full context)
Act 2, scene 3
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
...when Maria shows up. Maria warns them that if they aren't quiet, Olivia will have Malvolio throw them out of the house. Sir Toby responds that he is Olivia's relative and... (full context)
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Melancholy Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Malvolio enters and berates the group for treating his "lady's house" like an "ale-house" (2.3.83-4). Sir... (full context)
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Maria then says she has a great idea for a prank on Malvolio. She boasts that she can imitate Olivia's handwriting perfectly, and will drop in Malvolio's way... (full context)
Act 2, scene 5
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Malvolio enters, talking to himself. As it happens, he already believes that Olivia fancies him. Hiding... (full context)
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Melancholy Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
...thinking up this prank. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria then rush off to watch Malvolio make a fool of himself. (full context)
Act 3, scene 2
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Maria arrives, and tells Sir Toby and Fabian that Malvolio is doing everything instructed in Maria's letter, and making himself entirely ridiculous in the process.... (full context)
Act 3, scene 4
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Melancholy Theme Icon
Madness Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
...woo Cesario, who has agreed to come back yet again. She asks Maria to bring Malvolio to advise her, as his melancholy mood will better match her own. Maria replies that... (full context)
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Madness Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Malvolio enters wearing yellow cross-gartered stockings, smiling idiotically. Olivia scolds him for this behavior. However, he... (full context)
Madness Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Maria enters with Sir Toby and Fabian. All three pretend to be worried about Malvolio. Maria implies to Malvolio that he is acting crazily and reminds him that Olivia wanted... (full context)
Act 4, scene 2
Madness Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Back at Olivia's house, Maria and Toby have locked Malvolio in a dark chamber to cure his "madness." Outside the chamber, Maria instructs Feste to... (full context)
Madness Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
"Sir Topas" goes to the door of Malvolio's cell. Malvolio tries desperately to enlist him as an ally; Sir Topas parries his every... (full context)
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Sir Toby, amused, mocks Malvolio's desperate cries. But he confides in Maria that they must find a way out of... (full context)
Madness Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Back in his clown personality, Feste returns to Malvolio's cell. Malvolio begs Feste to bring him a candle, pen, ink, and paper, so that... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
Desire and Love Theme Icon
Madness Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
...detail—which reminds her that, distracted by her own "frenzy," (5.1.273), she has completely forgotten about Malvolio. At this moment, Feste enters, holding Malvolio's letter. The letter warns Olivia that Malvolio will... (full context)
Melancholy Theme Icon
Deception, Disguise, and Performance Theme Icon
Class, Masters, and Servants Theme Icon
Malvolio enters with Fabian. Fuming, he presents Olivia with Maria's trick letter. After a quick examination,... (full context)