Matthias Bauer – Count Malvolio, Machevill and Vice

Count Malvolio, Machevill and Vice

Matthias Bauer

Published in Connotations Vol. 1.3 (1991)

In this paper, Malvolio is seen, however tentatively, as being related to the "Machiavellian," whose crafty machinations are turned by Shakespeare into the silly antics of the bitter fool of Twelfth Night. 1) My point of departure is Inge Leimberg's and John Russell Brown's discussion of Maria's riddling letter in scene 2.5. 3) In her reading of "M.O.A.I." as the self-lover's anagrammatical confession of his wish to be like God, Professor Leimberg refers to the unholy alliance of mala voluntas, amor sui, and superbia in St. Augustine's De civitate Dei. 4) But, surely, that very title points to another, closely related concept clearly suggestive of Malvolio's dilemma, the civitas. To quote one of the passages referred to by Professor Leimberg:

Fecerunt itaque civitates duas amores duo, terrenam scilicet amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei, caelestum vero amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui. . . . Illi in principibus eius vel in eis quas subiugat nationibus dominandi libido dominatur . . . . 2)

To St. Augustine, self-love is the fundamental principle of the civitas terrena, the worldly state of politics and power, as opposed to the civitas Dei, which is founded upon the love of God. Thus, amor sui has political implications in the basic sense of the word: in his very solitude, the self-lover craves to be praised and honoured by others, entering upon a relationship of dominance and flattering submission, of adoration and command, with his fellow-sinners.


In a survey of Malvolio's "sin of self-love," his fantasies loom large. John Russell Brown stresses their lascivious nature (189-90), but [page 225] Malvolio's day-dreams of a compliant Olivia are only part of an overwhelming dream of omnipotence which finds its most succinct expression in 2.5.35, shortly before he is baited by Maria's fatal letter: "To be Count Malvolio!" 5) This merely political aim is what the self-lover finally lusts for. In the realm of Shakespeare's imaginary Illyria, he who wishes to be "Count" aspires to the position of sovereign or prince: it is Orsino, the ruler, who is repeatedly called by that title in the play. The retinue of which Malvolio dreams exceeds everything we may expect from the size of Olivia's household. When Count Malvolio asks for his kinsman Toby, no less than seven of his people, "with an obedient start, make out for him" (2.5.58-59).
First and foremost, Malvolio dreams of power over others. It is not just on the "day-bed" that he holds sway but also in the "state":

Having been three months married to her, sitting in my state-- . . .
Calling my officers about me . . .
And then to have the humour of state; and after a demure travel of regard,
telling them I know my place, as I would they should do theirs, . . . .
(2.5.44-46, 52-54)

Several meanings of "state" are implied here, combining the idea of "solemn pomp, appearance of greatness" (in ll. 44-45) 6) with the more ambiguously political "humour of state," which may refer to "class, rank" as well as to "government." 7) In any case, it is the "state" which is the object of Malvolio's "humour," here obviously denoting his "particular disposition, inclination, or liking" (OED , "humour," 6.). The connection between amor sui and politics becomes visible at this point. Hiram Haydn, discussing Renaissance views of "humour," quotes the earlier version of Every Man in his Humour (1601): "[humour] is a monster bred in a man by selfe loue, and affectation, and fed by folly." 8) Haydn regards this concept of "humour" as being similar to what Gabriel Harvey calls "[one's] owne singularity." 9) To Ben Jonson, around the year 1600, every man's humour as expressive of his self-love was quite distinct from humour as a mere affectation, expressed, for instance, by a fop's "yard of shooetye, or the Switzers knot / On his French garters." 10)

Malvolio combines, so to speak, both kinds of humour when he indulges in the most affected kind of dress in order to feed the [page 226] monster of his self-love. Maria's letter reflects Malvolio's own desire to have the "humour of state" when it commands him, "Let thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of singularity" (2.5.150-51). The letter scene is characterized throughout by terms belonging to the political sphere. The fictitious writer points out that she may very well "command" her addressee to become her sovereign or master. In his fantasy of power, Malvolio is tempted to "crush" the very letters of the alphabet and make them "bow" to him (140-41). The prose part of the letter, in particular, bluntly aims at Malvolio's political ambition. It makes him believe that "greatness" may lie in wait for him, a term which implies high rank and political dominance: 11) "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon'em" (2.5.145-46). Malvolio wants to be "made," to be elevated from the level of a "fellow of servants" (156) to political power and, in order to attain this goal, is resolved to "read politic authors" (161-62). Which authors does he read? 12)

He might, for instance, share Harvey's opinion about the "most inspiring authors" and read "Machiavellus in politicis." 13) The word which Malvolio uses, "politic," may already point in this direction. Politic, as Napoleone Orsini has shown, 14) was often used at the time as a synonym of "Machiavellian." Shakespeare's Sonnet 124 provides a context for Malvolio as a political time-server which is just as revealing as Sonnet 62 is for his "sin of self-love." Malvolio's love for Olivia is but "the child of state" and "fortune's bastard" (ll. 1-2); both "smiling pomp" and "thrallèd discontent" (6-7) characterize this "fool of time," who is a Puritan out of "policy, that heretic" (9). But, just as Malvolio fails to attain the final self-knowledge achieved by the speaker of Sonnet 62, he similarly fails to become "politic" in that original true sense of belonging to the civitas Dei, 15) in which it is just another word for the constancy of mutual love: "But all alone stands hugely politic, / That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with show'rs" (11-12). 16) Malvolio is "politic" only in the sense expressed by Shakespeare's Host of the Garter: "Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavell?" (Merry Wives 3.1.92-93). In Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew seems to have a vague idea about the derogatory meaning of politic when he declares: ". . . policy I hate: I had as lief be a Brownist as a polititian" (3.2.30-31). More difficult to determine, however, is the [page 227] sense in which that somewhat anarchic triumvirate of Feste, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew call themselves "politicians" (2.3.76). They are playing the roles of Machiavellian plotters who, in the little commonwealth of Olivia's household, try to oust Malvolio from his position of influence by serving him Maria's "dish o'poison" (2.5.114). 17)

In Machiavelli, Malvolio could learn more about that famous distinction between greatness by birth, or achieved through one's own ability, or as a result of one's good fortune. This is what Il Principe has to say about the principati nuovi as opposed to the principati ereditari:

E perché questo evento, di diventare di privato principe, presuppone o virtù o fortuna . . . . 18)

Machiavelli then goes on to describe those who come to power per propria virtù, whereas the next chapter (7) is devoted to those who become princes colle armi et fortuna di altri. It seems more than just a coincidence that the fate of the Orsini family plays an important role in this chapter. They were the antagonists of Cesare Borgia, who serves as Machiavelli's most prominent example of a man who has greatness thrust upon him, cleverly succeeds in keeping it, but is finally overcome through "una estraordinaria ed estreme malignità di fortuna" (109). With respect to Twelfth Night, the relation of Cesare and Cesario is clearly a case of lucus a non lucendo, but does it come as a suprise that the innocent young heroine assumes the name of an arch-villain when she finds herself in Illyria instead of Elysium? Her conqueror's name becomes part of her disguise in a fallen world, where, to give just one example provided by Maria's letter, the name of chaste Lucrece is invoked by a lady of noble birth evincing her inordinate desire to marry a "fellow of servants." 19)


What makes us discern the grimace of the Machiavellian behind the comic mask is, apart from Malvolio's "political" ambition, the stress laid on Fortune, as well as the conspicuous animal imagery.

[page 228] Maria never openly pretends in her letter that it has been written by Olivia; it is only Malvolio who thinks so. The disguise which Maria assumes is no lesser personage than Lady Fortune herself. "The Fortunate Unhappy" (159) who signs the letter may only hint at this, but the epistle itself makes it quite obvious: the writer lures Malvolio into aspiring for Olivia's hand by emphasizing his being "worthy to touch Fortune's fingers" (156-57). Malvolio is a ready believer in this goddess, as has been evinced by his very first words upon entering the scene: "'Tis but fortune, all is fortune" (23). The many allusions to Malvolio's favourite goddess seem to confirm this credo. She who is in her stars above him (143-44) and has power over the proverbial wheel ("revolve," 143), as well as over the Fates themselves (146), gives him an opportunity to court her and become, as her husband, the ruling deity whom he has been worshipping all along. Malvolio fails to "see more detraction at [his] heels than fortunes before" him (137-38); instead, he thanks and praises his stars (170-71, 173-74).

The connection made in Maria's letter between the image of fortune as a lady who has to be courted (but who also wants to change places with him and become his servant) and the theme of political ambition is clearly resonant of one of the most famous passages of Il Principe, which may have been known even to those who read neither the original nor one of the early translations:

perché la fortuna è donna: ed è necessario, volendola tenere sotto, batterla
et urtarla. . . . e però sempre, come donna, è amica de' giovani, perché sono
meno respettivi, più feroci, e con più audacia la comandano. (Ch. 25, 190)

Those who regard this recommendation as being too physically aggressive for Malvolio should take into account Machiavelli's corresponding statement in the Discorsi , where it is Lady Fortune who plays the active part, choosing a man who is able to see that she plans to do great things with him. This is exactly the position in which Malvolio imagines himself to be:

Fa bene la fortuna questo, che la elegge uno uomo, quando la voglia
condurre cose grandi, che sia di tanto spirito e di tanta virtù che ei conosca
quelle occasioni che la gli porge. 20)

In Twelfth Night, Fortune's power is not confined to Malvolio's attempt at establishing himself in a privileged position with this goddess. In [page 229] contrast, Viola and Sebastian, at the beginning and towards the end of the play, emphasize the fact that fortune remains inscrutable both in adversity and happiness. In her misfortune, Viola literally clutches at the straw of "chance":

Viola      Perchance he is not drown'd: what think you, sailors?
Captain   It is perchance that you yourself were sav'd.
Viola     O my poor brother! and so perchance may he be.
Captain  True, madam, and to comfort you with chance,
           Assure yourself . . . (1.2.5-9)

Sebastian, in scene 4.3, expresses his surprise at the marvellous good fortune he has met with, using a metaphor reminiscent of Machiavelli's image of fortune as an impetuous flooded river: 21)

Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes,
. . . . (4.3.11-13)

It is a splendid stroke of dramatic irony that Olivia here appears in the very role Malvolio conceived for her, instigated by Maria's letter. But, as befits a Lady Fortune proper, in her wilfulness she chooses a man who never dreamt of attaining her. 22)

The idea that the courtship of Fortune can be politically decisive, however, is taken up again by Shakespeare in a far more serious context. It is central to Prospero's attempt to regain his dukedom, from which he has been expelled by his truly Machiavellian brother. He knows that "bountiful Fortune," his "dear lady," has brought his enemies into his power, and, if he fails to "court" the influence of the star whom she governs, his "fortunes / Will ever after droop" (1.2.178-84).

Animal imagery provides us with another hint that the caricature of a Machiavellian is to be discovered in the figure of Malvolio. Machiavelli's teachings have been identified with the famous animal comparison he makes in Chapter 18 of Il Principe, though it is in fact a political saying which goes back to antiquity: 23)

Pertanto, a uno principe è necessario sapere bene usare la bestia e l'uomo.
. . . Sendo dunque uno principe necessitato sapere bene usare la bestia, debbe
[page 230] di quelle pigliare la golpe e il lione; perché il lione non si defende da' lacci,
la golpe non si defende da' lupi. (156)

When it comes to being both beast and man, Malvolio undoubtedly fulfils Machiavelli's requirement for a prince. He takes the first place in Audrey Yolder's list of animal comparisons in Twelfth Night. 24) Unfortunately, however, there is little that qualifies him for Machia­velli's choice of animals representing strength and craftiness. Maria speaks the plain truth when she calls him "an affectioned ass," the heraldic animal of the self-lover. 25) There is, of course, the famous Aesopian story of the ass who succeeded in dressing up as a lion, but then everybody knows what happened to him. His ears sticking out too visibly from his disguise, he ended up in ridicule and ignominy. 26) As regards the second animal Machiavelli recommends, Malvolio is rather like "sowter", a "cur" who is "excellent at faults" but unable to get the wind of Maria's trap, "though it be as rank as a fox" (124-25). Feste, in his witty repartee to Malvolio in 1.5.76-79, brings together the fox and the fool, leaving no doubt as to which epithet is the right one for Malvolio. The fox, to whom a sovereign should be similar because he is able to avoid the snares set for him by his enemies, has an exact opposite in the animal kingdom among the birds. Malvolio is compared twice to a bird that is proverbially stupid enough to be caught easily in any snare or net. "Now is the woodcock near the gin," says Fabian when Malvolio stoops to pick up the letter (2.5.84), and Feste will only regard him as sane if he believes that his grandam's soul inhabits a woodcock (4.2.59-61). 27) Thus, Malvolio's beast-like nature, while serving, by contrast, as another hint to his favourite political author, falls rather short of that sly and powerful animal character which the principe is taught to assume.


Perhaps the most obvious pointer to the kinship of Machiavelli and Malvolio is the name. Setting aside a certain similarity in the spelling, 28) there is a structural similarity between the names as regards their telling character.

[page 231] According to Edward Meyer, Machiavelli's name was spelt "in over a hundred different ways" in 16th- and 17th-century England. 29) Thus, it easily lent itself to abuse when regarded as a verbal phrase with sinister meaning. Both "make" and "match," for instance, could be followed by "evil" or "vile." Those who believe in Machiavelli's doctrine disclose themselves as "-villians" or rather "-villains." 30) Just one telling example among the many given by Meyer may be quoted; it is from John Davies' Paper's Complaint:

A villaine vile, that sure in hell doth hang,
Hight Mach-evill that evill none can match,
. . . .
Now not a Groome (whose wits erst soard no hyer
Then how to pile the Logs on his Lords fire)
But playes the Machiavillian (with a pox)
And in a Sheep-skin clad, the Woolfe or Fox. 31)

Malvolio's name is similarly composed of two telling parts, combining an "evil" or "ill" element with an italianized "will," both of which can be found in the latter part of Machiavelli's anglicized name. In the sense of "ill-will," Malvolio's name was taken over by Marston in The Malcontent, where Malevole's mala voluntas is part of his Machia­vellian disguise. He is contrasted with Mendoza, the true Machiavellian villain of the play, who characterizes himself in a line that echoes Malvolio's aspirations: "We that are great, our sole self-good still moves us." 32)

As ominous names, both "Machevill" and "Malvolio" are phrasal composites which follow the pattern demonstrated by those witty corrupters of words in Love's Labour's Lost who comment upon Holofernes' performance as one of the Nine Worthies. He never gets beyond saying "Judas I am, ycleped Maccabaeus" (5.2.593), for his audience at once cut him short by insisting that "Judas Maccabaeus clipt is plain Judas" (594). The jesters are sure that he is just waiting for "the latter end of his name," i.e. "the ass to the Jude" (521-22). The joke here of course is that this latter end is actually not "-as(s)" but "Maccabaeus" or rather "make-abuse." Thus the pedant remains on stage for the simple purpose that abuse can be "made" of his name.

Last but not least, there is another strong contemporary reason for assuming that Malvolio's name echoes "Machiavelli." In his Pierce [page 232] Penniless (1592), a work concerned with the ways of attaining influence and wealth, Thomas Nashe is undoubtedly referring to Machiavelli when he addresses Envy: "Enuie, awake, for thou must appear before Nicalao Maleuolo, great Muster maister of hell." 33) In a later passage, under the heading of "hypocrisy," Nashe links Machiavellianism and Puritanism (220). The context here is also relevant to the figure of Malvolio: Nashe discusses the view that the devil is in fact "a pestilent humour in a man, of pleasure, profit, or policie," manifesting itself in "that hateful sinne of self-love" (220).


From antiquity, princes and great men were regarded as particularly prone to self-love, a vice nourished by flatterers. In Plutarch's Moralia , for instance, the power of those who gratify somebody's self-conceit is "greatest . . . with those who seem to be the greatest personages." 34) Self-love is the tertium comparationis between Malvolio, with his petty ambition for "greatness," and the figure of the political upstart, greedy for power, who was called by the name of "Machevillian." Machevill, who speaks the Prologue in The Jew of Malta, says of the protagonist, Barabas, that he "favours" him (l. 35). The arch-politician and evil-maker is approved by him whose motto openly declares his self-love: Ego mihimet sum semper proximus (1.1.188). 35) Self-love to the degree of making a god of oneself, the very sin Malvolio commits when he regards himself as "A & O," was commonly seen to be a typical feature of the Machiavellian. 36)

Shakespeare provides us with the best example. Besides Malvolio, there is one other character in his plays who is "sick of self-love," though, characteristically, he does not think that all who look on him love him but quite the opposite. 37) It is his imagined lovelessness which urges Richard III to aspire after the crown, driven by a self-love which is but another name for self-hate:

Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself. (5.3.188-91) 38)

[page 233] Richard III is the only character in Shakespeare who openly espouses Machiavellian precepts, striving to outdo his master:

I can add colours to the chamelion,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school. 39)

Richard and Malvolio are as different as "tragedy" and comedy, as the relentless villain who makes the audience shudder and the man with whom any groom can identify, laughing at his too familiar vice. And yet, we may be reminded, for instance, by Thomas Mann's "Bruder Hitler" of the Everyman who hides even in Richard's disguise. The comparison of Malvolio and Richard brings to the fore both the latent dangerousness (political and otherwise) of him who vainly regards himself as most lovable and the miserable banality of him who thinks he must command because he cannot be loved.

Two points shall be shown where "extremes meet," and a hidden relationship becomes visible between the tyrant-king and the day-dreaming steward. Firstly, the false smile is a badge worn by both, one of the most ugly marks Shakespeare has to bestow upon a character. 40) The "smiling damned villain" (Hamlet 1.5.106) hides his unscrupulous ambition behind the deceitful mask of joviality. Richard makes no secret of this in 3 Henry VI:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile . . . (3.2.182)

In Richard III, he brings this quality to perfection when he pretends that he "cannot flatter, and look fair, / Smile in men's faces . . ." (1.3.47-48). 41) If the smile of a man who pretends that he cannot fawn is the epitome of Machiavellian villainy, Malvolio again appears as a grotesque mirror-image of the crafty politician. On the one hand, there is the sinister man who smiles a crafty smile only in order to hide it when convenient and appear as a man who loathes time-pleasers. In comic distortion, on the other hand, inscrutability becomes absurdity. There appears the image of a man who cannot laugh at the fool (1.5.85-87) but who wants to quench his "familiar smile with a austere regard of control" (2.5.66-67) once he has become ruler, and who, immediately afterwards, finds he must "smile his face into more [page 234] lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies" (3.2.75-76), merely because Lady Fortune seems to take delight in it. 42) But alas, Malvolio, whose Puritan demeanour is but a "time-pleasing" attitude (2.3.146-47), 43) fails to please the one who would make him a favourite with everybody (3.4.22-23).

The second point of connection between Richard and Malvolio can be seen in the outcome of their self-loving enterprises. According to the medical authorities cited by Robert Burton, self-love leads to melancholy and madness. 44) Thus, when Feste and his friends treat him who believes he is a "made" man (2.5.154) as a madman and "have him in a dark room and bound" (3.4.136-37), they act, so to speak, along the lines of preventive medicine. More seriously, Feste makes us realize that the dark room is a visible sign of Malvolio's blindness and encapsulation, which are caused by his self-centred desires (cf. 4.2.43-45). "Obstruction" is the word Feste uses here (4.2.40), referring to Malvolio's claim that there is no "obstruction" in the meaning of the letter (2.5.119). A closely related word, "obstacle," is used by Malvolio when he boasts of his literally unscrupulous expectations:

. . . no dram of a scruple, no scruple of a scruple, no obstacle, no incredulous
or unsafe circumstance--what can be said?--nothing that can be can come
between me and the full prospect of my hopes. (3.4.79-83)

It seems remarkable that both "obstruction" and "obstacle" are extremely rare words in Shakespeare, the first being typical of Twelfth Night, 45) while the second is used as a noun only in Twelfth Night and Richard III. 46) In Richard III, conscience "fills a man full of obstacles" (1.4.133); Richard, however, has already cut these obstacles away when he pretends to be too humble for the crown:

First, if all obstacles were cut away,
And that my path were even to the crown
As the ripe revenue and due of birth,
Yet so much is my poverty of spirit,
So mighty and so many my defects,
That I would rather hide me from my greatness--

Richard's self-loving ambition for "greatness," like Malvolio's, will lead him to the hell of utter solitude and isolation. His famous "I am [page 235] myself alone" (3 Henry VI , 5.6.83) is equally appropriate to Malvolio in his dark cell. In his monologue in Richard III 5.3.178-204, Richard sees the obstacles which he has cut away start up again in grotesque liveliness. Verging on madness, he is a prisoner to his own self and accused by his own deeds before the court of conscience. 47)


A common dramatic ancestor of both Richard III and Malvolio is the figure of the Vice, upon whom the more recent properties of the "Machevillian" were loaded by Elizabethan playwrights. 48) This old allegorical figure of the sardonic intriguer who tries to bring about the ruin of Humanum Genus found his way into both tragedy and comedy in the latter part of the 16th century. 49) Whereas Richard III compares himself to the Vice, 50) the relationship seems more concealed in the case of Malvolio. Bernard Spivack recognized some resemblance in the "theme of sullen negation" taking form "in the puritan rigor of Malvolio, whose name implies what his behavior confirms" (411). More specifically, a close verbal analysis will reveal that the Vice is quite important for Malvolio's role as a reflection and persiflage of the political upstart.

It is Feste who brings the Vice into play in Twelfth Night. Having payed a visit to Malvolio in his dark room under the disguise of Sir Topas, he takes leave with a song, assuming quite a different character:

I am gone, sir, and anon, sir,
          I'll be with you again,
In a trice, like to the old Vice,
          Your need to sustain;
Who, with dagger and lath, in his rage and his wrath,
           Cries, 'Ah, ha!'to the devil:
Like a mad lad, 'Pare thy nails, dad.
           Adieu, goodman devil!' (4.2.125-32)

Feste here compares himself to the Vice and calls him a madman who serves the devil Malvolio. (It is quite in keeping with the traditional Vice figure that he maltreats his "master," the devil. 51)) Feste's role- [page 236] playing indicates in what sense the word "Vice" could be understood. Even though modern etymology may not confirm this, 52) Feste's song stresses the meaning of Vice as a derivative of vicarius (vice), i.e. the Vice being the devil's deputy. 53) The Vice is, of course, a promoter of vices but this does not mean that, for Elizabethans, vitium had exclusive rights to the etymology. (The Duke in Measure for Measure, for example, puns on both meanings when he speaks of his deputy's sin: "When vice makes mercy . . . ," 4.2.110. 54)) Correspondingly, the prefix "vice-" (as in viceroy, vicegerent etc.) could have negative connotations. 55) Feste's playing the role of Vice to the devil Malvolio goes together with his playing minister to a man who has fatally admitted that he is "as well in [his] wits" as the fool (4.2.91). What the fool actually does here is hold up a mirror to Malvolio, to whom he presents himself in the roles of Puritan minister, 56) "mad lad" and Vice.

The fact that it is Malvolio who is actually the Vice is underlined by his "vice" of self-love being is the target of all the revenge taken on him (2.3.152-53). Malvolio, to apply Heywood's definition of the Vice in his Play of Love, is "nother louer nor beloued." 57) In addition, in scenes 3.4 and 4.2 the merry avengers stress that he has become possessed by the devil, who speaks in him and makes an instrument of him. 58) When Malvolio is called upon to "defy the devil" and "consider, he's an enemy to mankind" (3.4.98-99), he is assigned the roles both of Everyman and of the devil's representative, his Vice. It belongs to the comic effect of Feste's role-playing in 4.2 that, as "curate" and "minister" (both words imply the vicarious function of the clergyman), and as "Vice," this ingenious corrupter of words simply translates Malvolio's own function of "steward."

A steward is of course a majordomo, but then the word also means "deputy-governor, vice-gerent" (OED 4.), or, more generally, "one who manages the affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer" (OED 5.). Malvolio wants to exchange his position of housekeeper for the highest order of stewardship and become a count or prince. Like Falstaff, at the death of King Henry IV, he sees himself in the role of "Fortune's steward" (2 Henry IV, 5.3.126) and is similarly disappointed. 59) Baldassare Castiglione, in his Cortegiano (written at the same time as Il Principe and to some extent its idealistic counterpart), describes [page 237] the kind of stewardship Malvolio never attains. Thus we read in Sir Thomas Hoby's translation:

It is God therefore that hath appointed the people under the custody of
princes, which ought to have a diligent care over them, that they may make
him an account of it, as good stewardes doe their Lorde, . . . . 60)

Shakespeare himself formulates this idea of the stewardship of the prince when he has Richard II demand of Bollingbroke, "show us the hand of God / That hath dismiss'd us from our stewardship" (Richard II 3.3.77-78). At a later time, when the conflict about the Stewart monarchy and the divine rights of kings began to escalate, the concept of the king as God's steward could be emphasized in order to remind the king of his God-given limitations. 61)

Sir Toby's disdainful "Art any more than a steward?" (2.3.114), together with Maria's letter, incites Malvolio's desire not to be seen as "a steward still, the fellow of servants" (2.5.155-56). The word which names Malvolio's function characterizes both his great political ambition to become a divine representative, a "god on earth" (Richard II 5.3.134), and his downfall to the very bottom of the ladder, to the level of acting as Vice to the Devil himself.

At the end of the play, Malvolio, who had been told by Lady Fortune to "revolve," has come full circle: when "the whirligig of time" has brought in his revenges (5.1.375-76), Malvolio is back to his old position of steward and fellow of servants in the diminutive civitas terrena of Olivia's household. There, an equilibrium of powers is maintained by the Duke, who demands to "entreat him to a peace" (5.1.379). Orsino, in his turn, has undergone a process in which his self-willed fantasy of conquest is replaced by the acceptance of a sovereign who rules his fancy. In the first scene of the play, Orsino speaks of his love as a fancy, "So full of shapes . . . / That it alone is high fantastical" (1.1.14-15). He compares himself to the hunter Actaeon (19-23), and, though he sees Olivia in the role of unattainable Diana, he yet dreams of the moment "when liver, brain, and heart, / These sovereign thrones, ar all supplied, and fill'd / Her sweet perfections with one self king!" (1.1.37-39). His own self is the imagined king here, but his hopes for sovereignty are thwarted. Like [page 238] Actaeon, Orsino the hunter will become the hunted--but not, as he thinks at the beginning, by his own desires (22-23). The conqueror will be conquered by a Cesario who, in the final scene of the play, turns out to be the true sovereign of his own "liver, brain, and heart." The "one self king" at the beginning comes to be replaced by Orsino's "fancy's Queen" at the end. Thus, Malvolio's counting himself among the elect, his frustrated "Machevillian" ambition to become godlike, is put into a perspective of self-love being overcome by those who truly deserve to touch Fortune's fingers.

Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität