Malvolio initially seems to be a minor character, and his humiliation seems little more than an amusing subplot to the Viola-Olivia-Orsino- love triangle. But he becomes more interesting as the play progresses, and most critics have judged him one of the most complex and fascinating characters in Twelfth Night. When we first meet Malvolio, he seems to be a simple type—a puritan, a stiff and proper servant who likes nothing better than to spoil other people’s fun. It is this dour, fun-despising side that earns him the enmity of the zany, drunken Sir Toby and the clever Maria, who together engineer his downfall. But they do so by playing on a side of Malvolio that might have otherwise remained hidden—his self-regard and his remarkable ambitions, which extend to marrying Olivia and becoming, as he puts it, “Count Malvolio” (II.v.30).
When he finds the forged letter from Olivia (actually penned by Maria) that seems to offer hope to his ambitions, Malvolio undergoes his first transformation—from a stiff and wooden embodiment of priggish propriety into an personification of the power of self--delusion. He is ridiculous in these scenes, as he capers around in the yellow stockings and crossed garters that he thinks will please Olivia, but he also becomes pitiable. He may deserve his come-uppance, but there is an uncomfortable universality to his experience. Malvolio’s misfortune is a cautionary tale of ambition overcoming good sense, and the audience winces at the way he adapts every event—including Olivia’s confused assumption that he must be mad—to fit his rosy picture of his glorious future as a nobleman. Earlier, he embodies stiff joylessness; now he is joyful, but in pursuit of a dream that everyone, except him, knows is false.
Our pity for Malvolio only increases when the vindictive Maria and Toby confine him to a dark room in Act IV. As he desperately protests that he is not mad, Malvolio begins to seem more of a victim than a victimizer. It is as if the unfortunate steward, as the embodiment of order and sobriety, must be sacrificed so that the rest of the characters can indulge in the hearty spirit that suffuses Twelfth Night. As he is sacrificed, Malvolio begins to earn our respect. It is too much to call him a tragic figure, however—after all, he is only being asked to endure a single night in darkness, hardly a fate comparable to the sufferings of King Lear or Hamlet. But there is a kind of nobility, however limited, in the way that the deluded steward stubbornly clings to his sanity, even in the face of Feste’s insistence that he is mad. Malvolio remains true to himself, despite everything: he knows that he is sane, and he will not allow anything to destroy this knowledge.
Malvolio (and the audience) must be content with this self-knowledge, because the play allows Malvolio no real recompense for his sufferings. At the close of the play, he is brought out of the darkness into a celebration in which he has no part, and where no one seems willing to offer him a real apology. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” he snarls, stalking out of the festivities (V.i.365). His exit strikes a jarring note in an otherwise joyful comedy. Malvolio has no real place in the anarchic world of Twelfth Night, except to suggest that, even in the best of worlds, someone must suffer while everyone else is happy.