Shakespeare’s Use of Subplot in Twelfth Night
In English Renaissance drama, the relation between plot and subplot is often complementary. The main action can be explained, emphasized, or contrasted by the subplot. William Shakespeare used this device well in his comedy on merriment, love, and mistaken identity, Twelfth Night. The main plot follows the love triangle of Olivia, Orsino, and Viola, while the subplot follows the hilarious Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria in addition to their misadventures with Malvolio, Sebastian, and eventually the love triangle of the main plot. Shakespeare uses this mirror-like main-plot-to-subplot relationship to enlarge the main points of his play, and develop the thematic and dramatic significance of the subplot.
Twelfth Night consists of many love triangles, however many of the characters who are tangled up in the web of love are blind to see that their emotions and feelings towards other characters are untrue. They are being deceived by themselves and/or the others around them. There are certain instances in the play where the emotion of love is true, and the two people involved feel very strongly toward one another. Viola’s love for Orsino is a great example of true love.
In the subplot, the gulling of Malvolio is linked to the main plot thematically in the obvious sense that it deals with a variety of love, namely self-love, a general preoccupation with self-interest, and a refusal to see anyone as important other than oneself. Such preoccupation, as in the case of Malvolio, leads to a misconception of the world and a total vulnerability to being manipulated into betraying oneself, as Malvolio does, by trusting that one’s desires match the reality of the situation. Malvolio is punished—and is relatively easy to punish—because he is so wrapped up in his own importance that he sees no value in anything else or anyone other than himself, and his conceit about himself, along with his secret desire for social advancement and power, make him easy to tempt into ridiculous behaviour (Johnston n.pag).
Malvolio suffers from self-deception, he feels that Olivia loves him and that is why she agrees with him in everything he does including insulting not only the other servants but also even her relative Sir Toby and his guest Sir Andrew. According to Malvolio, it is love that makes his commands as if they were her own and his opinions taken into consideration. But according to reality, this is the position that was always given to any household steward in the Elizabethan period and not only to Malvolio, as it is pointed by Clare Byrne: “an Elizabethan household steward was a gentleman of considerable importance, occupying a very responsible position, which gave him the exercise of very considerable power” (204). As a result, the audience is made aware of the theme of appearance and reality.
Malvolio, in other words, is a kill-joy, a person with no sense of humour and with no place in his scheme of things for anything other than what he thinks is important. Everyone (other than Malvolio) recognizes this. Olivia tells him he is “sick of self-love” (I.v.1089), and Sir Toby famously roars at him later, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (II.iii.1098). This quality makes Malvolio the character most at odds with the comic nature of the play.