Beyond Comedy - The Tragic Fall of Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

27 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Comedy and Tragedy in Shakespeare and Twelfth Night
2.1. Shakespeare’s Literary Work
2.2. Tragedy Versus Comedy
2.3. Twelfth Night

3. Malvolio’s Fall?!
3.1 The Character of Malvolio
3.2 The Play Within the Play
3.3. Cruel Punishment

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

What kind of play is Twelfth Night ? This question has probably been raised by many readers of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night and has moreover become a central aspect of discussion for numerous critics. It is thus not surprising to find several approaches of defining the tone, style or genre of the play in annotated editions, essays and study books. (cf. Cambridge School Shakespeare, Longman Study Texts) Although there are many ways of interpreting Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night I want to spotlight one distinctive perspective, as it somewhat resembles the initial platform for this essay.

“A very amusing and charming play, sunny and always enjoyable. Filled with innocent laughter and preposterous situations, it has a happy ending which restores harmony […]. All the characters are likeable and funny […] even Malvolio has his comic appeal, especially when he gets what he deserves at the play’s end. The whole play is simply a delightful entertainment which must never be taken seriously.” (Gibson 1993, 156)

Following this interpretation of Twelfth Night however, the reader will miss much of the content that lies behind the comic apparel. Twelfth Night is not always enjoyable, as it often manages to shift the attention from the light play of love and illusion towards the more serious and worrying fate of characters like Malvolio. At yet another point in his review Gibson offers a more suitable angle to Twelfth Night: “An upsetting play which seems light and amusing on the surface yet has dark and harsh depths. It is an uneasy play about outsiders who lose” (157). According to this quote, I argue that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is more than just a pure comedy and even has tragic elements to it. Malvolio’s function is not simply to serve as the embodiment of a self-centred and self-loving man, who needs to be taught a lesson, but he is the victim of a cruel prank, which eventually leads to his collapse in person as well as in reputation.

Thus it will be the main focus of this paper to rethink Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a play beyond comedy. It shall be discussed whether a classification as the one quoted earlier, grasps the whole meaning of the play or whether there are more layers to it - even underlying tragedies. With regard to David Willbern and his essay Malvolio ’ s Fall (1978) emphasis will be put on the character of Malvolio and the question, if there is anything like a tragic fall in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Preceding this question the following section will serve to provide for a general introduction to Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies and their corresponding characteristics. On this basis, the play shall then be revised using Malvolio as the central object of analysis yet always in context of the whole play. The final section will then give the opportunity to come to a conclusion and hint at further research questions.

2. Comedy and Tragedy in Shakespeare and Twelfth Night

The following section is intended to fulfil more or less three functions: First of all, it should give a general introduction to Shakespeare’s writing, in order to arrange and classify Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night not only timewise but also regarding its assigned genre. It goes without saying that such a categorization makes no claim to be complete, but rather points out main cornerstones that are of significance to the production of Twelfth Night. In this context, however, it seems beneficial to also consider Shakespeare’s social and cultural background, as his upbringing and education as well as his social and political interests must have been of great influence to his literary work.

It is widely known that Shakespeare’s plays have been divided into three groups: the tragedies, the comedies and the histories. It should not come as a surprise that Twelfth Night has been appointed a comedy. Yet, as the initial question of this paper revolves around the matter, what kind of play Twelfth Night actually is, this early label needs to be revised. Thus, the second aim of this section is to analyse and question this original distinction as it is known from the First Folio.

Thirdly, the main characteristic features of this play shall be distinguished. Eventually, this will lead to a better understanding of the play from a theoretical perspective and will furthermore offer suggestions on how to read and understand the action in Twelfth Night. With this last step completed, the following section will then implement these theoretical considerations against the background of Malvolio’s fate.

2.1. Shakespeare’s Literary Work

From today’s perspective William Shakespeare is one if not the greatest playwright and author of English literature. Starting in the early 1590s Shakespeare composed numerous plays, sonnets and poems, few of which were already published during his lifetime. Even though, as Greenblatt (cf. 2010, 1) points out, there have not been any copyright arrangements for publishing literary work and it was more of routine habit to include the author’s name than of a legal obligation, Shakespeare managed to make a name for himself. After seven of Shakespeare’s plays were published and printed in quartos by 1597, yet without providing for the author’s name, his name then began to appear more often and “had evidently begun to sell plays” (Greenblatt 2010, 1). Although Shakespeare is said to already have had a good reputation as a love poet as well as dramatist, his greatest achievement did not come until 1623, when the First Folio was published, including 18 of his plays, some of which were then still unknown to the audience. (cf. Greenblatt 2010, 2)

Shakespeare, born in 1564, was raised in a rather wealthy family and could therefore profit from an excellent school education. David Bevington states that this extensive and classical education is frequently reflected in his early works:

“[…] familiar quotations from Ovid, Juvenal, Virgil, Horace, and the like, combined with a wide but amateur familiarity with classical myth […]. The author of the early plays is acquainted with the best-known dramas of Plautus and Seneca and understands how neoclassical dramaturgy can bring them up to date in the world of Renaissance.” (Bevington 1999, 12)

Even though the style of his plays has changed over the years, the topics Shakespeare chose remained rather constant and were mostly of relevance to every human being. They included, as Bevington aptly summarizes, “ love, friendship, personal ambition, jealousy, loyalty, desertion, betrayal, revenge, fear of abandonment, anxiety about aging, concern about immortality, pride and humility” (1999, 17). William Shakespeare, who grew up in the aftermath of the Reformation and thus took part in re-inventing an English culture, also made this a topic of his plays. He focused on what it was like to grow up in Elizabethan times. Norman Jones (1999, 41) therefore describes Shakespeare’s age as “one of the most culturally productive in English history [since] crisis and confusion gave point to the nation’s dialogue with itself about what it was and how it ought to live”.

Whereas Shakespeare’s early writing of the 1590s was dominated by delightful, entertaining comedies, such as The Comedy of Errors (1594), A Midsummer Night ’ s Dream (1595) or Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Shakespeare’s focus seems to shift towards tragedy with the turn of the century. While these early comedies usually found an ending in the resolution of a happily married couple, the later Shakespeare addresses rather complex conflicts and serious topics. Bevington (1999, 18) states:

“As Shakespeare investigates new and experimental genres during this transitional period around the turn of the century, then, he moves imaginatively and creatively into a more troubled phase of the human life cycle. Courtship and success give way to impasse, disillusionment, melancholy, bitterness, self-destructive behaviour, self-hatred, and tragic failure.”

Although Shakespeare still produced comedies during that time, those stand in sharp contrast to the light and early ones. They were rather troubling and almost stand in line with the sad tragedies after 1600: Othello (1603-04), Macbeth (1606) or King Lear (1605-06). It cannot be said for sure why Shakespeare turned from the entertaining comedies towards the troubling tragedies. It might have been because of his individual suffering due to his father’s and son’s death or because tragedies became simply more popular in the aftermath of Elizabeth’s reign. Some critics support the thesis that Shakespeare had indeed personal reason to write such tragedies: “The painful subject [of ungrateful daughters] bespeaks an absorption in the agony of aging and of seeking desperately for philosophical calm in the face of approaching death.” (Bevington 1999, 19)

Yet, as this paper is meant to focus on Twelfth Night, no further suppositions will be made. What remains is an outstanding literary achievement that covers a whole range of literary genres from poems, over sonnets to plays. Before we can finally shift the focus to Twelfth Night in detail, it might prove useful to understand the structure of Shakespeare’s plays better.

2.2. Tragedy Versus Comedy

With the publishing of the First Folio, seven years after William Shakespeare’s death in1616, a distinct classification of his plays became known. The publishers, known to be close friends and colleagues of Shakespeare, decided to divide his work into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Yet, what they did not take into account was that Shakespeare barely kept within limits of these distinct forms. (cf. Wells 2010, 104) Shakespeare nearly always mixed typical features of each genre, including comedic effects in tragedies and tragic moments in comedies. He was a writer that enjoyed to experiment with the traditional forms, one that liked to test boundaries. Moreover, it was due to the ever-growing audiences and increasing interest in theatre that the demand for something new and even more ambitious developed. (cf. Wells 2010, 107): Therefore, plays not only became more complex in length, but also elaborated in structure and style, for example by paralleling several plots or by combining verse and prose.

Thus, none of Shakespeare’s plays is straightforward or clear to define. Most of his plays will have both tragic and comic features, yet in different relation to each other. It is herein, in this categorization, Wells (2010, 105) states, that there has been the demand “to create a proliferation of subdivisions”. Thus, further attempts to distinct the comedies have been made. Some have been declared early comedies or Romantic comedies others were said to be problem plays or problem comedies and also the contemporary terms of Romances and Tragicomedies stems from these subdivisions. There has never been complete agreement on the classification in the First Folio, and different critics will hold different views on whether to call one play a comedy or a tragicomedy. There is, as Wells describes it, a certain “degree of arbitrariness about the categories” (106): A play can be a historical play and at the same time a tragedy. The situation seems to become even more complicated concerning the so-called tragicomedies, as no general understanding on what a tragicomedy is, exists. To Neill this classification offers no distinctive place for Shakespeare’s uncomfortably “dark comedies or tragic satires of his middle period, nor for the tragicomic romances of his last phase” (Neill 2010, 122). Yet, Critics insist on distinguishing between comedies and tragicomedies.

Reading a comedy, one expects a piece of literary work that entertains the reader and causes laughter. However, as mentioned above only few of Shakespeare’s comedies really aim at a pure entertainment of this type. Whereas almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies feature general elements of humour, entertainment and festivity, mainly in form of songs and dances, plays-within-plays, puns and wordplay, and sometimes even bawdy (cf. Wells 2010, 107), the majority of them also have a more serious note to them as well. Even though all comedies aim at entertainment and laughter “they do so in varying degrees, and the uses to which [Shakespeare] put the form and conventions of comedy deepened in seriousness as his career advanced” (Wells 2010, 108). With this style of writing, Shakespeare as well as other writers of his time had a tendency to go against the traditional rules of composing a tragedy. Accordingly, Sir Philip Sidney dismissed his contemporary playwrights to only be capable “of a mongrel tragi-comedy, whose indecorous yoking of tears with laughter flouted the practice of the ancients by ‘mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter so carrieth it, but thrust in clowns by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency nor discretion”. (Neill 2010, 128)

Although, Sir Philip Sidney has lived before Shakespeare’s days, Neill points out that it is rather unlikely to assume that he would have thought differently about Shakespeare’s writing. Regarding Shakespeare a tragedy can roughly be described as a play that is concerned with death or the fall of the superior. (cf. Neill 2010, 121) It usually ends with a massive catastrophe, involving death and separation. Spens even more precisely states that this catastrophe “must not be the result of mere accident, but must be brought about by some essential trait in the character of the hero” (Spens 1922).

As hinted at before, there is no real critical agreement on what a tragicomedy is or on what to call these Shakespearean plays that seem to be both: tragedy and comedy. In her essay on Shakespeare’s tragicomedies, Dillon offers two definitions for this genre. First of all, she refers to Guarini, who defined tragicomedy as “mixed … not so grand that it rises to the tragic nor so humble that it approaches the comic” (in Dillon 2010, 170) and secondly she quotes, Fletcher, who wrote that a “tragicomedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants death, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy” (ibid). However, both of these quotations would allow for many other plays to be classified as tragicomedies, certainly more than the group of the four late plays by Shakespeare that is usually meant, when talking about tragicomedies.

Having considered comedies, tragedies and tragicomedies - histories have been left out, as there is a comparably strong consensus on their body - it now needs to be determined on how to assign Twelfth Night.


Excerpt out of 27 pages


Beyond Comedy - The Tragic Fall of Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institut für Fremdsprachliche Philologien)
Shakespeare's Comedies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
540 KB
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Malvolio, Puritan, Comedy ´
Quote paper
Nadja Grebe (Author), 2012, Beyond Comedy - The Tragic Fall of Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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