How would an actor prepare for the role of Malvolio in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare focusing on language and movement?
Set in Illyria, Twelfth Night is a comedy by William Shakespeare that revolves around love and mistaken identity. The name, “Twelfth Night” is usually considered to be a reference to the twelfth night of the Christmas celebration. In Shakespeare’s day, this holiday was celebrated as a festival in which everything was turned upside down—much like the upside-down, chaotic world of Illyria in the play. “Twelfth Night is about illusion, deception, disguises, madness, and the extraordinary things that love will cause [people] to do—and to see” (SparkNotes, 2010). Simply put, the play revolves around the confusing and impossible love triangle of Orsino – Duke of Illyria, Lady Olivia, and Viola, a young woman who ends up shipwrecked on Illyria, and disguises herself as a man, and calls herself Cesario. Orsino loves Olivia, who loves Cesario, who loves Orsino. Viola has a twin brother, who she believes drowned in the shipwreck, but he is actually alive. Interlinked with the main plot of the play, and just as important to the comedy is that subplot involving members of Olivia’s household (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. – “Twelfth Night”, 2010). There is Olivia’s rowdy drunkard uncle, Sir Toby, his foolish friend, Sir Andrew – who, on Sir Toby’s advice is hopelessly trying to court Olivia. There is also Olivia’s witty servant, Maria, the resident fool (or jester), Feste, and last but not least, Malvolio, the hypocritical head-servant of the household. Malvolio is a Puritan, yet a self-righteous character who seems to enjoy spoiling others’ fun. After Malvolio tells them off, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria and Feste decide to play a prank on Malvolio, leading him to believe that Olivia is in love with him. He is instructed to do a number of silly things to show his love to Olivia, which he does. The pranksters then lead Olivia to believe that Malvolio is mad and has been possessed by the devil, and she leaves them in charge to take care of him. They proceed to lock him up in a chamber and torment him. After a huge mess and confusion, in which Sebastian and Viola are repeatedly mistaken for each other, everything becomes clear to everyone once they see them together. Orsino and Viola agree to get married, as do Sebastian and Olivia. Finally, Malvolio is freed, and the prank is revealed. He angrily storms off and swears revenge upon everyone. They brush his threat off and go on with their celebrations, and the play ends on a happy note. As we can see, Malvolio does not play a major role in the main plot, but is important to the subplot. At first he appears to be stern and fun-despising, and generally wishes his world to be completely free of human sin (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. – “Malvolio”, 2010), which he considers drinking, singing and fun to be a part of. This is down to the fact that Malvolio was a Puritan, and they condemned swearing, drunkenness, and fornication (Gibson, 2002, p.69). This aspect of his personality is seen when he tells Sir Toby and Sir Andrew off for making noise late at night, “Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night?” (II.iii.83-85). In addition, he has a hidden side, which is his self-righteous belief that, as Maria puts it, “all that look on him love him” (II.iii.144-145). This proves to be his weakness, and is what allows him to so easily be made a fool of (Bloomfield, 2007). He has also got a remarkable ambition to rise above his social class, and “command the obedience of the people who just ridicule him in real life” (Friedlander, 2005), namely Sir Toby. This can be seen when he is daydreaming and talking to himself before finding the letter, “Saying, ‘Cousin Toby, my fortunes having cast me on your niece give me this prerogative of speech…’” (II.v.63-64). Incidentally, it is interesting to note that his name means “evil-wisher”...
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