Who is the Proudest and Most Evil Character in “Twelfth Night”?

Afterword: Who is the Proudest and Most Evil Character in Twelfth Night?

When Maria writes a letter to fool Malvolio into making an ass of himself, she includes the letters M, O, A, I. Malvolio realizes that this is a puzzle, and he tries to solve the puzzle. He believes that the letters refer to himself because all of the letters are in his name.

Malvolio did not correctly solve the puzzle of M, O, A, I. True enough. But what is the correct solution to the puzzle? What if M, O, A, and I are — in part — an anagram? We certainly have seen Malvolio and the people spying on him when he finds the letter in Olivia’s garden talk about rearranging the letters. Malvolio tells us that A should go after M, and Fabian talks about O going at the end. What do we get when we rearrange the letters and put I at the beginning? I M A O. I am A and O. The O goes at the end, and the end is Omega. If the end is Omega, what is the beginning? The beginning is Alpha. Therefore, I am Alpha and Omega. This is Revelation 22:13: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” These are words — and letters — that apply to God, but Malvolio is applying them to himself. Revelation is the last book of the Bible. What appears at the beginning of the Bible; what is the first book of the Bible? Genesis. What is the most important part of Genesis? The Fall. The serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Eve — and Adam — ate the fruit, committing the sin of pride. They placed themselves before God and disobeyed the command of God. The sin of pride is regarding oneself as the center of the universe, as being more important than anything or anybody else. Pride is a deadly sin, and it is the foundation of the other deadly sins:

1) Pride.

I am the center of the universe, and I am better than other people. Quite simply, I am more important than other people.

2) Envy.

I am the center of the universe, so I ought to have it all, and if you have something I want, I envy you.

3) Wrath.

Because I am the center of the universe, everything ought to go my way, and when it does not, I get angry.

4) Sloth.

I am the center of the universe, so I don’t have to work at something. Either other people can do my work for me, or they can give me credit for work I have not done because if I had done the work, I would have done it excellently.

5) Avariciousness and Prodigality.

I am the center of the universe, so I deserve to have what I want. If I want money, I get money and never spend it, or if I want the things that money can buy, then I spend every dime I can make or borrow to get what I want. Either way, I deserve to have what I want.

6) Gluttony.

I am the center of the universe, so I deserve these two extra pieces of pie every night. This is my reward to myself for being so fabulous.

7) Lust.

I am the center of the universe, so my needs take precedence over the needs of everyone else. If I want to get laid, it’s OK if I lie to get someone in bed and never call in the days and weeks afterward. My sexual pleasure is more important than the hurt of someone who realizes that he or she has been used.

Malvolio’s name is Mal Volio — “I wish badly.” Proud people wish badly.

The rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden led to the first sin committed by human beings. Previously, an angel had committed the first sin by supernatural beings.

That proud supernatural being is Lucifer, who put himself before God and rebelled against him. Because of this sin, Lucifer is condemned to spend eternity shackled in the darkness of Hell. Adam and Eve committed the original sin of human beings. Lucifer committed the original sin of supernatural beings.

If Malvolio were a better person, he would solve the puzzle of I M A O correctly and he would realize that he is guilty of the sin of pride. He wants to marry Olivia, but he wants to marry her because doing so will improve his position in society. He does not want to marry Olivia because he can make her happy. He loves Olivia’s social standing and her wealth.

Malvolio regards himself as being more important than Olivia: I am the center of the universe, and I ought to marry Olivia because doing so will make ME happy. I am the center of the universe, and I ought to marry Olivia for her social standing and money. I am the center of the universe, and I ought to marry Olivia although I do not love her.

If Malvolio were a more intelligent person, he would realize that he on the verge of a fall just like Adam and Eve were when the serpent tempted them in the Garden of Eden or like Lucifer when he rebelled against God.

Malvolio is not morally good enough or intelligent enough to correctly solve Maria’s puzzle, and he believes the letter that Maria wrote and he will be punished for believing it just like Lucifer was punished. However, the people judging him and punishing him are not God.

There are important differences in Malvolio’s sin and the sin of Adam and Eve and of Lucifer:

1) Adam and Eve actually ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and Lucifer actually led a rebellion of some angels against God. Malvolio wants to marry Olivia although he does not love her — he does respect her — because it will improve his social status. However, he does not actually marry Olivia. Motive is important in judging, but so are consequences.

2) God judges Adam and Eve and Lucifer. Who judges Malvolio? Mainly Maria and Sir Toby. We do have evidence that Malvolio is proud from Olivia, who tries to make peace between Malvolio and Feste after Malvolio criticizes Feste after he returns from a long absence. She tells Malvolio that he is “sick of [from] self-love. But Olivia is not judging Malvolio in order to punish him. She is trying to make peace between Malvolio and Feste.

3) God judges sinners, and God punishes them. God gives people free will, and he judges them after they die and then either rewards or punishes them. If a sinful human being repents before dying, even with his or her last breath, that person will be rewarded with Paradise. Maria and Sir Toby judge Malvolio and punish him by treating him as if he were insane.

Maria writes M, O, A, I in her letter, but to whom do those letters most apply? Malvolio, or Maria? They apply to Maria more than they apply to Malvolio.

Maria thinks this: I am the center of the universe, and therefore I can judge and sentence Malvolio however I see fit. I am greater than God because I am able to judge Malvolio now instead of giving him a chance to repent before his death.

As I see it, Maria and Sir Toby are the most evil characters in the play. What punishment do they sentence Malvolio to undergo? They sentence Malvolio to be bound and placed in a room that is as dark as Hell. (In actual performance, the binding apparently does not take place, as we know because Malvolio is able to write a letter to Olivia. Also, it allows actors more freedom of movement.) How is Lucifer punished? He is bound and placed in Hell, which is in eternal darkness. Only God can justly judge a person and justly give such a punishment.

Maria is the person most responsible for judging Malvolio. Sir Toby participates in the fooling of Malvolio, but he lacks a good brain. Maria is more intelligent than Sir Toby, who is more intelligent than Sir Andrew, who allows himself to be manipulated by Sir Toby. Fabian and Feste play roles in the fooling of Malvolio, but they at least admit to Olivia the roles that they played. Their ‘confessions’ are problematic, however, as Fabian wants to avoid getting in trouble with Olivia and Feste states that one reason for him to be involved in the practical joke is revenge for the time that Malvolio criticized him in front of Olivia.

Malvolio’s greatest sin is wanting to marry Olivia although his reason is to advance his social standing — we have no indication that Malvolio feels romantic love for her.

Some ‘sins’ are not sins. Sir Toby is angry at Malvolio for wanting to stop the late-night party, but Malvolio works for Olivia and his job as steward is to help run the household and to carry out her orders, which include trying to keep Sir Toby from partying and keeping her from sleeping. Sir Toby shows pride because he thinks that a mere servant such as Malvolio ought not to tell him — a knight! — not to party so much.

Malvolio also lacks diplomacy. He criticizes Feste in front of Olivia. If he were more intelligent, he would realize that Olivia enjoys Feste’s foolery and therefore Feste is providing good value for his room and board and whatever stipend he may get.

Malvolio appears to be a very competent steward and may be a bit of a workaholic. He walks in Olivia’s garden, which ought to be a source of pleasure and entertainment, but he does such things as practice his courtly gestures, something that would make him a better steward.

Many of Malvolio’s faults are not sins. We think that Feste is a fine fool and that Malvolio is missing out by not appreciating his foolery. We think that there is a time for work and a time for play, but Malvolio appears not to take much time to play — the most fun he has in the play is imagining what he would do if he and Olivia were married. One thing that he would do is to rebuke Sir Toby — if anyone ever needed to be rebuked, that person is Sir Toby.

When it comes to fun, everyone needs to have some fun, but the amount that is appropriate varies with age. Young children should spend most of their free time playing. College students should spend a lot of time studying but still have fun on the weekend. Older people such as Malvolio — and Sir Toby — definitely should have fun, but they should also be productive. For workers such as Malvolio, chances are that they have little time for fun. Sir Toby basically sponges off his niece and suckers such as Sir Andrew; he contributes little to anyone. Feste’s job is providing fun for others, and that is a difficult job indeed.

Can a person judge whether another person is really having fun? You may attend a play that you enjoy. You notice a critic who is not laughing with the audience, but who is watching the play intently. You think that the play will receive a mediocre review at best, but the next day you read the critic’s review and find out that he or she was having the time of his or her life. (My idea of a good time is sitting on the couch and reading a good book — Sir Toby would probably walk in on me and ask, “Where are the cakes and ale?”)

One fault that Malvolio has is an inability to appreciate satire. That is one reason he criticizes Feste. If an inability to appreciate good and real satire — some so-called “satire” is not satire — were a sin, however, many people we consider to be good would go to Hell.

Malvolio does show one sin — understandably — at the end of the play: anger. He vows to get revenge “on the whole pack of you.” We are not told to whom he says it, but my guess is to Fabian and Feste, who have confessed their part in the cruel practical joke but who have not expressed remorse for what they did — remorse is an important part of religious confession. Malvolio’s anger is a direct result of the cruel practical joke and its aftermath. By thinking up and performing the practical joke, Maria has given Malvolio an opportunity to sin. We are horrified that Lady Macbeth leads her husband to sin. Maria’s sin is not as bad as that of Lady Macbeth’s because a steward, even if he were to turn evil, cannot cause as much damage as a Thane or a King.

Malvolio has sinned in his desire to marry Olivia simply in order to improve his social standing — we have no evidence that he loves Olivia. He does not repent that sin. We can note that Lucifer also not repent his sin. None of the sinners in the Inferno repent. But Malvolio is not yet dead, and he has time to repent.

Anyone who sees Twelfth Night thinks that Malvolio is treated way too harshly for whatever faults he has. Shakespeare understood human nature, and he had to have known that this is the way that we would feel. Therefore, this is the feeling that he wanted us to have: He wanted us to sympathize with Malvolio. Usually, Malvolio is seen as the bad guy in the play, but I think that, despite Malvolio’s faults, Sir Toby and Maria are much more evil than Malvolio, with Maria being the most evil — and the proudest — of all.

Perhaps actors are not playing Malvolio correctly if they cry and scream when Malvolio is locked in the dark room. Perhaps he maintains his dignity while he is in the dark room. If he did, that would prevent the cringing that the audience feels when the actor playing Malvolio cries and suffers. Audiences, in my opinion, should feel sympathy for Malvolio when he is imprisoned, but they should not cringe. (When the actor playing Malvolio cries and screams, I feel that the actor is saying, “Hey, everybody! Look at me! I’m acting!) And although Malvolio is angry, perhaps when he says at the end of the play that he will be revenged on “the whole pack of you,” perhaps he says that only to Feste and Fabian — the other members of the pack are Sir Toby and Maria, who are not present. Perhaps he says this calmly and coldly and not furiously. His anger may be a controlled anger. What happens to Malvolio after the end of the play? We don’t know, but one possibility is that he goes to his room in Olivia’s house, freshens up, and then tries to decide on the proper punishments for those who mistreated him. Olivia told him that he would be prosecutor and judge. No doubt he found them guilty and as judge he must decide on the proper punishments: ones that are severe enough to satisfy him but not so severe that Olivia changes her mind about letting him be judge.

By the way, in Dante’s Inferno, we find out what is at the center of the universe. Dante believed that the earth was at the center of the universe. The Inferno, aka Hell, goes all the way down to the center of the Earth, which is where Lucifer is imprisoned. Dante and his guide, Virgil, need to travel up to the Earth’s surface on the other side of the entrance of Hell so that they can reach the Island of Purgatory, so they climb down Lucifer’s body to reach a passageway leading to Purgatory. At Lucifer’s midpoint, they turn around and reverse direction because they have reached the center of the Earth and are no longer going down but are heading up again. What is the exact center of the universe? It is located in Lucifer’s rectum.

One final point: All of sin is based on pride, and all of us have sinned. All of us have at one time or another considered ourselves to be the center of the universe.

Recommended Reading

Inge Leimberg, “‘M.O.A.I.’ Trying to Share the Joke in Twelfth Night 2.5 (A Critical Hypothesis).” Connotations 1.1 (1991): 78-95. Web.


William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or, What You Will: A Retelling in Prose

is available here




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