Maria is Olivia’s waiting-gentlewoman. Clever and bold, her witty repartee and propensity for practical jokes characterize her as an embodiment of the play’s tone: unruly, light-hearted, and irreverent. She demonstrates her intelligence by exchanging quips with Sir Toby that go over the head of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and she proves herself to be mischievous and calculating by engineering a plot against Malvolio that feeds into the very egotism it also punishes him for.
Maria and Malvolio are not so different. They are both lower-class servants in Olivia’s household, and disapprove of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s disruptive drinking. However, while initially Maria and Sir Toby seem to be at odds when Maria arrives to admonish him on behalf of Olivia, they ultimately come together in service of a common goal: to manipulate and humiliate Malvolio. Malvolio wishes to marry Olivia and improve his social rank, but only winds up disgraced as the result of their prank, which provides much of the play’s comedy even as it borders on cruel. Maria, in contrast to Malvolio, ultimately elevates her station by endearing herself to Sir Toby, who is so impressed with her sharp wit that he marries her. Maria’s anarchic nature aligns with the spirit of the play, which is perhaps why Maria succeeds where Malvolio—whose arrogance and humorlessness are Twelfth Night’s antithesis—fails.