Paul Dean – The Harrowing of Malvolio: The Theological Background of Twelfth Night, Act 4, Scene 2


The Harrowing of Malvolio: The Theological Background of Twelfth Night, Act 4, Scene 2

Paul Dean

Published in Connotations Vol. 7.2 (1997/98)


There is no need at this date to make a laborious case for Shakespeare's knowledge of the Harrowing of Hell play from the medieval mystery cycles. Over thirty years ago, Glynne Wickham showed that the Porter scene in Macbeth draws on the iconography of that episode.1) I wish to suggest that Act 4, scene 2 of Twelfth Night, in which Feste as Sir Topaz visits the imprisoned Malvolio, contains some oblique theological allusions which are partly to be understood in terms of the Harrowing and partly in terms of Reformation theological debate. I accept the view, now academically quite respectable, that Shakespeare was at least brought up as a Catholic,2) and will suggest that this may colour the tone of the later part of the scene.

It is an article of the Apostles' Creed, inserted by the fourth synod of Sirmium in the middle of the fourth century, that Christ descendit ad inferos. The translation of these words which was included in the English Prayer Book from 1549 onwards—"he descended into Hell"—misrepresents the Latin, which actually means "to the people in the lower place," that is, Limbo, the borderline state (limbus is Latin for "edge"), neither Hell nor Heaven, in which the holy souls of Old Testament times awaited their redeemer. (The mistaken translation is repeated in the fourth of the Thirty−nine Articles of the Church of England.) The crucial proof−text of this doctrine in the canonical New Testament is 1 Peter 3:18 which states that after his death Jesus preached "unto the spirits that are in prison," a text quoted by the Duke in Measure for Measure (2.3.1−5). The story is elaborated in apocryphal writings. For instance, in the fragmentary Gospel of Peter (not by the Apostle) the resurrection appearance of Jesus is [page 204] accompanied by a cross, and a voice is heard from the sky saying, "Hast thou preached unto them that sleep?" to which "an answer was heard from the cross, saying: Yea."3) The fullest surviving treatment occurs in the Gospel of Nicodemus (otherwise known as the Acts of Pilate), which exists in one Greek and two Latin texts and also in a Middle English version.4) In the Latin text the story of the visitation of Jesus to the infernal regions, his defeat of Satan, Death and Hell, and his liberation of the souls of patriarchs and prophets, is narrated by the two sons of Simeon, Karinus and Leucius, who have been raised from the dead for this purpose. Remarkably, although they can speak, they ask for paper in order to write their story down (we are irresistibly reminded of Malvolio's request to Feste). Naturally, the contrast between the darkness of Hell and the brightness of Christ's coming is stressed, similarly to the contrast in Twelfth Night 4.2, and interestingly Satan is called "the prince of Tartarus" (p. 130), which reminds us of Sir Toby's undertaking to follow his "most excellent devil of wit," Maria, "to the gates of Tartar" (2.5.195−96). Significantly, in the play which in so many ways anticipates Twelfth NightThe Comedy of Errors—Antipholus of Syracuse is said by his servant Dromio to be "in Tartar limbo, worse than hell" (4.2.32).

The Middle English poem has one or two touches which may or may not be significant in a Shakespearian context: for instance the couplet "Long is o and long is ay ⁄ Tille þat comeþ domesday" (MS Bodl. Digby 86, ll. 247−48), which reminds us of the play with the letters "M.O.A.I." in Twelfth Night (2.5.115−30). It is tempting to take "A" and "O" in the Middle English poem as Alpha and Omega, and at least one critic has detected the same symbolism in Maria's letter.5) It is also interesting that, while in the Digby MS of the Gospel of Nicodemus the keeper of Hell−gate calls himself a "zatewarde" (l. 132), in the Auchinleck MS he says, "Ich haue herd wordes hard ⁄ whi y no may be no steward" (ll. 145−46, my italics).6 There is, further, the enigmatic Syriac "Hymn of the Pearl" in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas; this has been connected, on rather flimsy evidence, with the Harrowing, but it mentions, among other items of interest to a reader of Twelfth Night, Egypt, a change of clothing, a pearl, and a magic letter, and contains these remarkable verses:

[page 205] But suddenly, when I saw the garment made like unto me as it had been in a mirror.
And I beheld upon it all myself [or saw it wholly in myself], and I knew and saw myself through it,
that we were divided asunder, being of one; and again were one in one shape.6)

—which cannot help reminding us of the meeting of Viola and Sebastian. There is no evidence that Shakespeare had read these apocryphal books, but it may be that he and they share some traditions whose origin and transmission are now lost to us. Certainly the correspondences are striking.

The Harrowing was selected early for dramatic representation; the earliest surviving play on the subject—which is also the earliest known liturgical play—dates from the eighth century,7) and it is included in all the extant mystery cycles.8) At Chester the pageant was presented by the Cooks and Innkeepers, at York by the Saddlers. The Chester assignment shows an ingenious grim humour, since the cooking−pot or cauldron is a common feature of the iconography of Hell, the "Devil's kitchen" (the popular imagining of the story must have blurred the distinction between Hades and Limbo).9) The reformist dramatist, and Bishop of Ossory, John Bale, by his own account, wrote a play on the Harrowing, now lost, which apparently drew on the popular iconography of the event.10) The basic pattern in all the cycles is the same: Jesus approaches the gates of Hell, demanding entrance; the initial incredulity and scorn of the devils gives way to fear and terror, and, in Satan's case, to indignation at this invasion of his territory; Jesus enters unopposed and preaches salvation to the patriarchs, who acclaim him and are then led off to Heaven.

There are other liturgical reasons why the Harrowing of Hell should be relevant to a play entitled Twelfth Night. "A silly play," wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary for 6 January 1663, "and not relating at all to the name or day."11) He could not have been more mistaken. The appropriateness of the feast of the Epiphany to the play has been demonstrated by a number of critics.12) The lessons appointed for the feast—from Isaiah 60, Ephesians 3 and Matthew 2, but especially the first two—have strong thematic connections with the play in their emphasis on the dispersal of darkness (and "mist" in Isaiah) by light. This, which reads like a metaphor for [page 206] intellectual and spiritual illumination, is echoed in Feste's "There is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog" (4.2.43−45) and in Malvolio's requests for light. The "Egyptians in their fog" is a reference to one of the plagues in the book of Exodus (10:21−23), and the Exodus was established as a type of the Harrowing of Hell. In the Epistle passage from Ephesians, St Paul writes as "a prisoner of Jesus Christ";13) this connects with Malvolio's imprisonment, and the fact that the Epistle is sent to the Ephesian church is particularly noteworthy, given that Ephesus is the location of The Comedy of Errors, which, as I mentioned earlier, is extensively drawn on in Twelfth Night.14) Furthermore, if one looks beyond the feast of the Epiphany itself to its subsequent season, one finds repeatedly that the liturgical readings strike familiar notes. For the First Sunday after Epiphany the Epistle is from Romans 12, in which St Paul warns his readers "that no man stand high in his own conceit, more than it becometh him to esteem of him self: but so judge of him self, that he be gentle and sober"; for the Second Sunday, from the same chapter, "Bless them which persecute you: bless, I say, and curse not"; for the Third Sunday, from the same chapter, "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath. For it is written: vengeance is mine, I will reward, saith the Lord."15) All these are pieces of advice which the proud and vengeful Malvolio might well have taken to heart.

What is the connection between the feast of the Epiphany and the Harrowing? Here we must look, not to scripture or doctrine but to tradition and social custom. The festive dimensions of Twelfth Night have been thoroughly investigated by C. L. Barber and, more recently, François Laroque,16) and we now take for granted the play's subtext of festive licence, the anarchic reign of lords of misrule, and the battle of Carnival and Lent. In pre−Reformation England Epiphany or Twelfth Night marked the conclusion of the Yuletide revels, although their "festive emblems and decorations (ivy, holly and the Yule log) were not taken out of the houses until Candlemas,"17) that is to say 2 February—interestingly, the date on which the only recorded production of Twelfth Night in Shakespeare's lifetime occurred.18) Laroque observes:

[page 207] Twelfth Night does convey the general atmosphere of the "misrule" that was latent during the Christmas cycle of festivities and that made it possible to turn the world upside−down. That is why the themes and images connected with the idea of reversal are so important to the play… . This was indeed a crossroads in the year, when night won out over day and the interplay of misunderstandings brought forth a comedy of errors and metamorphoses.19)

In such a context, we would not look to Shakespeare for a straightforward allegory of the Harrowing of Hell, but rather for a kind of parody of it, and that is what we are given, together with a parody of an exorcism, the ritual which re−enacted the incursion into diabolical territory of the saving power of Christ.

To turn now to 4.2 itself, we should note that the tone of the scene is by no means easy to determine. Warren and Wells describe it as an "extraordinary episode" and infer from the Folio stage direction "Malvolio within" that Malvolio was placed under the stage, the traditional location for Hell (as in Doctor Faustus and, less certainly, Hamlet). Perhaps he was under the trapdoor on which the cauldron in The Jew of Malta or Macbeth must have stood. Warren and Wells are willing to allow an element of sadistic cruelty and torment to the scene.20) By contrast, J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik in their edition detect a slackening of intensity at this point,21) while Joost Daalder in a recent article finds the scene merely farcical, adopting the view that Elizabethan audiences would have found Malvolio's insanity amusing.22) However that may be, he is clearly not amused, but rather distressed. Perhaps the most subtle reading comes from Alexander Leggatt, who contends that "Malvolio in his dark room is the play's most vivid image of the trapped isolated self… . Egotism and loveless solitude are a kind of damnation, and the imprisoned Malvolio is our clearest image of this."23)

Glancing at Shakespeare's treatment of a parallel sequence in The Comedy of Errors may be of assistance here. The originally comic mistakes of identity in the earlier play result in a degree of psychological disorientation and estrangement on the part of Antipholus of Ephesus which darkens the tone considerably. Ephesus, more blatantly but no less truly than Illyria, is "full of cozenage, ⁄ As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, ⁄ [page 208] Dark−working sorcerers that change the mind" (1.2.97−99),24) a place where people "wander in illusions" (4.3.43). Eventually Antipholus concludes that he has been bewitched. Thereafter he increasingly resembles Malvolio. His companions, thinking him mad and possessed, attempt to pacify him (4.4.48−60); the more he declares "I am not mad" (4.4.59) the more this is taken as proof of his insanity, and Pinch's suggestion that he and his servant Dromio "must be bound and laid in some dark room" (4.4.95) is followed, as he later complains in seeking redress from the Duke (5.1.246−54).

Shakespeare's adaptations of this sequence of events in Twelfth Night are revealing. Antipholus's friends sincerely believe him to be insane and undertake what they assume is the standard treatment in such cases, whereas Toby, Maria, Fabian and Feste deliberately set out to "make [Malvolio] mad indeed" (3.4.128). Furthermore, Malvolio, unlike Antipholus, has no companion in his incarceration, and is tormented by a visitor who makes light of (and brings light, but no illumination, to) his predicament. (Is Feste, then, a kind of Lucifer—the light−bearer?25)) Shakespeare, then, recast his original idea in such a way as to make the supposed madman's plight more stark and desperate. The callousness with which Malvolio is treated is underlined by the detached attitude taken by the tricksters. Sir Toby envisages the imprisonment as a "pastime" and a "device" (3.4.133−34), and his unease as "this knavery" and "this sport" (4.2.68, 70) proceeds is due not to moral scruples but results from a selfish anxiety not to get into further trouble with Olivia. At the end of the play Feste describes the encounter as an "interlude" (5.1.63)—a game which is also his revenge for Malvolio's contemptuous treatment of him. This gives it a more personal and pointed character, heightened by the absence of Sir Toby and Maria for much of the scene.

This is not to say, of course, that Malvolio is entirely correct in believing himself to be sane. The "self−love" of which Olivia accuses him (1.5.85) is a severe limitation, isolating him in the world of his own mind; his physical imprisonment, as Leggatt's comments, quoted above, imply, is merely the symbol of his psychological and spiritual imprisonment. He becomes narcissistically enslaved to his own image, as constructed in [page 209] Maria's letter, "practising behaviour to his own shadow" (2.5.14−15).26) He is no more "free" than Orsino, Olivia, or Viola, all of whom are to varying extents trapped by their own idées fixes; and no more temperate than the revellers whom he detests. He speaks the simple truth when he tells Feste "I am no more mad than you are" (4.2.48−49), although he might equally have said "no less." Irrational extremism is one of Shakespeare's targets in this comedy. Malvolio is not the only character whose "devils" require to be exorcised: arguably he is the only character for whom the attempted exorcism fails. Orsino hopes to "entreat him to a peace" (5.1.370), but there is no certainty that he will be softened. As Marion Bodwell Smith well says, at the end of the play he "only knows that he has been made a fool of, not that he has been a fool."27)

Feste's opening words as Sir Topaz, "What ho, I say, peace in this prison" (4.2.19), echo, as has often been noted, the formula for the Visitation of the Sick, and also recall the fact that the blessing of houses was traditional at Epiphany.28) Feste is disguising his voice (cf. "to him in thine own voice," 66), and Malvolio is initially perplexed: "Who calls there?" (21). In character, Feste utters an exorcism formula—"Out, hyperbolical fiend" (26), pretending to address, not Malvolio, but the "dishonest Satan" (32) who possesses him.29) He sets out to "prove" Malvolio's insanity by disturbing his confidence in the evidence of his senses, denying the darkness of the prison; then, when invited to engage in logical dispute, puts the question "What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wildfowl?" (50). Lothian and Craik note the link with Doctor Faustus, 5.2.107,30) and whilst it would be unreasonable to put too much weight on a glancing allusion, given Faustus's subject of enslavement to devils it cannot be wholly ignored. There is also an Ovidian reference, as Jonathan Bate has noted: instead of the "constant question" (49) of "formal rational discourse" which Malvolio requested, he is offered "a question that leads to the inconsistencies of Pythagorean metempsychosis,"31) a question, in other words, about a form of dualism, aptly posed to one who is "sometimes … a kind of puritan … . The dev'l a puritan that he is" (2.3.130, 136). In that connection we should consider the possibility that, when Sir Toby accuses Malvolio of opposition to "cakes and ale" (2.3.108) [page 210] Shakespeare may be glancing at Puritan opposition to the Catholic understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice.32) Equally, Feste's Pythagorean question probes Malvolio's reluctance to admit the scholastic distinction between essence and accidence upon which the doctrine of transubstantiation rested.33)

In the second "visitation" of 4.2, when Feste appears in propria persona, Shakespeare evokes the world of Reformation controversy. Feste enters singing a song, "Hey Robin, jolly Robin, tell me how thy lady does," which is based on a poem by Wyatt which also exists in a shorter, probably earlier, version in the so−called Henry VIII's MS.34) Like the lady in the song, Olivia is "unkind" and "loves another"; this lady may also be England, whose attachment to the Protestant religion has resulted in spiritual darkness. (Compare Bale's use of the character Widow England for the opposite polemical point in his King John.) Feigning sudden recognition of Malvolio, Feste asks pityingly, "Alas sir, how fell you besides your five wits?" (86). As Lothian and Craik note in the New Arden edition, Five Wits was a character in the play Everyman (c. 1495). His function there is to insist on the sacred character and spiritual power of the priest, and to expound the Catholic doctrine that there are seven sacraments, rather than the two which Protestantism taught. In the ensuing dialogue Malvolio, the Puritan, is made to ask repeatedly for "a candle," "some light," "light" again (82, 106, 111), so that he may communicate with "my lady" (111, picking up the phrase from the song), who was "Madonna" to Feste (1.5.38−65) when he "catechized" her as he has catechized Malvolio. Malvolio is effectively driven to confess that he is in spiritual as well as physical darkness, and Feste makes his final exit with a piece of doggerel typical of a morality Vice, in which he addresses Malvolio as "goodman devil" (132). The Folio draws increased attention to the contradiction by printing two words, "good man," but according to OED the word can also mean the head of an establishment (so a kind of steward—with reference to "stews" as a brothel?) and the keeper of a prison. All this suggests how the puritan has been unmasked for the fiendish hypocrite that he really is.

The "harrowing" depicted in this scene does not correspond point by point to that of medieval tradition. Shakespeare is characteristically elusive [page 211] and allusive, working on several levels simultaneously. He presents Malvolio as a soul enslaved to spiritual darkness, who fails to recognise his visitor's true character, while Feste's ministrations only add to his victim's confusion and bewilderment. The tradition of the Harrowing is turned upside−down, not to deny that its liberation is possible, but perhaps to suggest that those who make themselves outcasts set in motion their own exclusion from paradisal harmony. The name "Malvolio" may then suggest not only ill−will but mistaken faith. After all, when his letter is finally delivered to Olivia, Feste warns that "a madman's epistles are no gospels" (5.1.281).35)

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