Toby, Andrew, and Fabian conceal themselves in a box tree while Maria plants the forged letter where Malvolio will find it. Malvolio enters the scene, imagining how he would chastise Sir Toby and his friends if given the chance, when he spies the letter on the ground. He reads it and falls instantly for the prank, which dictates that he should alter his behavior and appearance to win the favor of Olivia. Malvolio exits, determined to do whatever it takes to impress his love, and Toby, Andrew, and Fabian come out of hiding to congratulate Maria for her ingenuity. All four of them leave to watch Malvolio make a fool of himself in front of Olivia.
Close Reading Analysis:
- Discussion Points:
Characterization of Malvolio:
When Maria enters the scene, she claims that Malvolio has been yonder i’ the sun practicing behavior to his own shadow this half hour (Lines 15-17). A few lines later, she declares that Malvolio is the trout that must be caught with tickling (Lines 21-22), in other words, he must be stroked or gently flattered into this prank. How do these details about Malvolio further establish his character and its flaws? What makes him such a great target for a prank? What caution might Shakespeare be offering his audience here?
Lines 144-145: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em. A very famous line, yet it’s funny to see such a line (which seems more typical of a heroic character like Henry V or Julius Caesar or Othello) be associated with Malvolio of all people. The audience realizes that it is absurd for him to believe that greatness is his destiny.
Lines 149-157: Read these lines carefully and list the instructions Olivia’s letter specifies. What is Malvolio to do to demonstrate his affection? What should he wear? How should he act? Also note the post script in Lines 174-178.
Malvolio’s reaction to the letter:
Lines 164-166: I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me, for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me. Note that Shakespeare even uses the word fool to emphasize just what a fool Malvolio is! Here is yet another instance of dramatic irony, in which the audience clearly recognizes something the character cannot see.
Ability to Recognize One’s Own Folly: Once again, we see a character taking himself far too seriously in this scene. Malvolio can’t get enough of his own shadow, and when he wanders into the garden (and right into Maria’s trap), his own self-important musings blind him to the joke being played on him. He actually believes that Olivia might have feelings for him and considers marrying her…even becoming Count Malvolio! It is this self-aggrandizing attitude that allows Malvolio to believe the contents of Maria’s forged love note and ultimately leads to his humiliation. He sees what he wants to see because he is blinded by pride, and he is a ripe target for the prank because he is utterly unable to recognize his folly, let alone laugh at himself.
Levels of Love: We see a couple instances of this theme in scene five. First, we have Malvolio musing on marrying Olivia, quite above his own station, and rationalizing the match with reference to “the Lady of the Strachy [marrying] the yeoman of the wardrobe” (Lines 39-40).
Later, we hear Sir Toby exclaim of Maria, I could marry this wench for this device…And ask no other dowry with her but such another jest (Lines 183, 185-6). He also refers to her as thou most excellent devil of wit (Lines 207-8).
Considering these two couples—Malvolio and Olivia / Sir Toby and Maria—which seems the better match and why? Does Sir Toby’s admiration for Maria seem enough to base a marriage upon, or is he being facetious? Can you picture the two married? How would such a relationship play out? Social vs. intellectual?
- Literary Devices:
allusion: (Lines 145-146) Thy Fates open their hands… —reference to the Three Fates of Greek mythology, who each had jobs spinning the thread of life, measuring it, and cutting it, respectively.
oxymoron:“The Fortunate Unhappy”—Olivia “signs” her letter thus (we know it is really Maria who wrote the letter)
Shakespeare famously wrote, Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em. Support this quote with one example of each of these circumstances from history, current events, or personal experience.
1.VIDEO Watch the entire scene from Twelfth Night Act 2 Sc 5 QuickTime Video.
2. Shakespearean insults—In Lines 4 and 5 at the opening of the scene, Sir Toby refers to Malvolio as a “niggardly, rascally sheep-biter.” Note that “niggardly,” despite the sound of it, actually means stingy or tight-fisted, and “sheep-biter” refers to a sneaky dog. This won’t be the last insult hurled at Malvolio, and indeed Shakespeare is a master of clever name-calling. Have your students search out Shakespearean insults online. Also have them visit a “Shakespearean insult generator” online. Then ask them to share what they have found. You could also turn this into an art project by having students translate the descriptive insults into actual drawings.