Monday, October 5, 2009

"Nah-Nah-Nah-Boo-Boo!" in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

As my fellow classmates have pointed out, Twelfth Night has its fair share of controversial topics. However, on my second reading of Shakespeare's comedy, what jumped out at me more than anything else was the harassment throughout of Malvolio. Of course, he is not the most likeable character, and Shakespeare makes this so on purpose. But really his character shows a great deal of insight into human nature and ideas of what is humorous and entertaining in our world.

During my service experience last week, I experienced an interesting phenomenon, although not a surprising one. When I entered the classroom, the children were playing a memory game to learn homonyms. I was delighted to see they were very into the game, and were doing fairly well. However, one student went to the board and missed a very obvious right answer. The other children in the class were incensed! "It's right there!" one student shouted; "What are you STUPID?" cried another.

To say I was surprised would be a lie, but I was really disappointed in the students' behavior. Shouldn't they be supporting their fellow classmates, in order to win the game as a group, together? I realized then that this ease to tease that young children have reveals much about our deepest psychological ideas of entertainment. These students were almost enjoying taunting their fellow classmates, as well as noting obviously that they were smarter, or better, than their peers.

While reading Twelfth Night , I was of course entertained by Malvolio's foolishness. But his ultimate departure at the end of the play almost seems inappropriate with the happiness that usually comes with one of Shakespeare's comedies. The downfall of Malvolio is seen as something to jeer at, in sheer entertainment, while the happy couples get a fairytale ending.
Shakespeare understood that on some level, human beings can be entertained by the misfortunes of others. Whether this is in hopes of boosting one's own ego or in rejection of a "weak link," its true that at least the main characters, especially Maria and the rest of those in on the love note plot, got a kick out of Malvolio's embarassment. His departure at the end of the play and the letter he writes to Olivia show he has been a victim; he signs the letter as "the madly used Malvolio". Had Malvolio, the fool, been a little less bitter and less convinced to get his revenge, the audience would see him more as a victim than an antagonist. Shakespeare expertly disguises Malvolio's true function as a character by portraying him as a miserable character throughout. And to this day, hundreds of years after Twelfth Night was first performed, it is still comic in the same ways.

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