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An Attitude to The Male Characters in Twelfth Night

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The male characters in Twelfth Night are utterly unlikeable or utterly ridiculous; it is impossible for the audience to feel any sympathy for them

There may be moments within the play’s narrative where certain male members of Shakespeare’s cast are perceived as unlikeable and ridiculous. However, arguably it is indeed ridiculous in it’s self to say that this is the case all of the time and for all of the male characters. As well as this it is important to consider the various different versions of Twelfth Night which are available for of course it is possible that an audience would feel sorry for a character in one version and not in another depending on how sympathetically the role is played. Finally, the theme of disguise plays a huge part in the analysis of these characters for if they are playing a part or hidden under a disguise perhaps it is not even viable to say that they are utterly unlikeable for we don’t even know their true identities.

Shakespeare’s Malvolio is a complex character disliked by the majority of the remaining roles and conceivably deemed ridiculous and unlikeable by the play’s audience. It appears that the character takes on the part of the stern superior who lords over Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew in a condescending, supercilious manor. It is this patronizing persona which seems to render him unlikeable and certainly detract from the audience’s opinion of him, including one critic who refers to him as ‘a minor and pompous character.’ My masters are you mad? Or what are you?/ Have you no wit, manors nor honesty…’ Here, we see how the character proceeds to tell his ‘masters’ off for making ‘an alehouse of [his] lady’s house.’ The word ‘masters’ here appears to allure to his patronizing tone for although we see that these are his superiors, the repetition of rhetorical questions seems to create a tone of mockery which parallel to the syndetic list of insults provides him with an air of pride which makes it no surprise that his comrades are no friends of his. Interestingly, we can deduce from his speech that Malvolio’s intent is to defend his ‘ladies’ honour and yet Shakespeare’s presentation of their relationship does not appear friendly either. Indeed, Olivia scorns him expressing, ‘O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with distempered appetite.’ The imagery of appetite and sickness implies her distaste for Malvolio and his self obsession and once again advert to the other character’s hatred towards him. A hatred, which indeed could cause either mirrored hatred or sympathy for the character’s obvious loneliness amongst Shakespeare’s viewership. We see then that Malvolio could be deemed as utterly unlikeable for it appears he is utterly disliked by the other characters. However, arguably some audiences may sympathise with this solidarity and see that he is a well meaning individual.

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As well as appearing unlikeable, conceivably Malvolio is utterly ridiculous as well in the way that he falls for the tricks and lies of the drunkard jokers Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew and the flirtatious maid Maria. However, potentially it is this ridiculousness which provides an opportunity for sympathy, arguably making sympathy for this character possible. Although some may argue that Malvolio is deserved of his poor treatment it would be difficult to feel no empathy for this character due to his circumstances. ‘He will come to her in yellow stockings, and ‘tis a colour she abhors, and cross gartered, a fashion she detests.’ We can infer that the intentions of Maria here are to maliciously humiliate Malvolio by presenting him as a fool dressed in a garish ‘yellow’ a colour used specifically to offend his mourning mistress who eventually imprisons Malvolio: ‘What, ho, I say! peace in this prison!’ and has him labelled a ‘lunatic’. The exclamatory language here, emphasizes the excitement of the characters, whose plan has fallen into place, highlighting their evil intent and potentially causing the audience to sympathies with him, indeed one critic expressed ‘Malvolio is not essentially ridiculous.’ We see then that it is not impossible for an audience to hold sympathy for the character for despite any dislike they may have for him certainly; his mistreatment is at least a little in excess. Finally, it appears that the character may be perceived differently depending on how he is presented. For example, in the Tim Carroll version of Twelfth Night Malvolio is played by the popular actor Stephen Fry who plays the role in a comical manor which indeed is more sympathetic that the stern portrayal in the Kenneth Branagh production where one critic writes: ‘Richard Briers [plays] an unforgettably mean-spirited Malvolio.’ We see then that depending on the version of the play and the cast chosen the character Malvolio can be sympathized with or not, seen as unlikeable and ridiculous or not and so we see that the presentation of these male characters is not set in stone.

Feste, is a character presented by Shakespeare as the clown, arguably utterly ridiculous but not utterly unlikeable. However, Feste seems to hide behind a ‘mask’ and plays the persona which his environment requires from him and so it is difficult to say whether his true character is unlikeable or not, for we as a viewership do not get to see him. The character Olivia however, seems to see through this mask: ‘the fellow is wise enough to play the fool’. Here, the word ‘wise’ highlights the true nature of his character an adjective which perhaps suggests that his true self would not be unlikeable to an audience but perhaps admired or found humorous. Indeed, one critic referred to him as ‘bawdy, witty and wise.’ These adjectives show the antithesis of an ‘utterly unlikeable character.’ On the other hand, another critic wrote when referring to him: ‘Putting on an official costume does not necessarily make one virtuous’ which implies that just because Feste plays the part of a likeable joker, does not mean he is funny or even well liked, certainly the remaining characters are fond of his ‘gown’ but are not familiar with his true nature. We see then that Feste’s character draws upon the theme of disguise a disguise which contrasts with the statement under investigation for he appears indeed, likeable yet ridiculous. His true nature on the other hand is under question for it is difficult to say whether his true identity is unlikeable and/or ludicrous.

To conclude, by using the characters Feste and Malvolio Shakespeare presents ideas of disguise and humour which causes the audience to question their feeling towards them. Some may indeed argue that all male characters featured throughout the play are utterly unlikeable and utterly ridiculous however, this may be a narrow view for arguably these characters are far too complex to be utterly anything. Certainly, in this comedic play there are elements within each character which could be deemed ridiculous but conceivably it is down to each individual to decide if a character is unlikeable or not. The characters Malvolio and Feste however, are perceived differently from different critics perhaps depending on the presentation of them in different versions.


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