Call me Malvolio. I was lately the steward of the house of the great and famed Countess Olivia of Illyria. You may have heard of her. I had charge of my Lady’s household retinue, the maids and men who clean, cook, and care for the house. I do my work exceedingly well, and the house would be entirely in disarray but for my control. Those in my charge regard me with due fear and reverence, like an austere and respected father.
I also supervised my Lady’s guests, her cousin Sir Toby Belch, his silly friend, Andrew Aguecheek, and my Lady’s sometime jester, Feste. I do not like them. Sir Toby is disorderly and often drunk, and Sir Andrew a foolish knight. I marvel that my Lady takes such delight in a barren rascal like Feste. I am proud of my station and my industry, but I despise these tricksters. I would they were gone and the house quiet.
I should tell you something about myself. You will discover it soon enough. My name, Malvolio, means “ill-will.” I do not know why my father and mother named me so. I imagine I wept and shrieked excessively as a small child. Despite my name, I bear no ill will to my parents, nor to anyone else neither, except those who like Toby, Andrew, and Feste deserve my odium. (I will henceforth refrain honoring them with the august title of “Sir.”) When you have read my testimony to the end, you will see clearly enough the sources of my loathing, and will, I am sure, judge me to be in the right.
Permit me, if you please, to illustrate by recalling a recent incident. I was comfortably lying on my bed in my quarters when I heard the most excruciating caterwauling from the larder. As I attended, I realized it was not, as I had first suspected, an animal in distress, but instead the sound of men singing, loudly and quite off-key. I donned my satin dressing gown and my silk slippers and descended the long flights of stairs to the basement.
My suspicions were confirmed. As I entered, I saw Toby, Andrew, and Feste singing and dancing about the kitchen, and even Olivia’s maid Maria was with them. I was in high dudgeon. I tried, as I do always, to retain an air of calm dignity, but I was very angry. “Are you mad?” I demanded. “Do you have any sense? You are making my Lady’s house into a tavern!”
Toby sneered and spoke in most disrespectful tones. “Do you think because you are virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
I was armed for this retort. I gathered myself to a great height and answered: “Sir Toby,” I said. “I must be round with you. My lady bade me tell you, that, though she receives you as her kinsman, she’s nothing allied to your disorders. If you can separate yourself and your misdemeanors, you are welcome to the house. If not, if it would please you to take leave of her, she is very willing to bid you farewell.” It was a well-formed speech. I had rehearsed it for weeks, looking for an opportunity to deliver it.
Gathering my robe around me, I made my exit, a splendid exit, I think, leaving the whole pack of them quaking at the ferocity of my rebuke. You can see, I trust, why I bear ill-will toward these hooligans. Anyone of sense would do the same.
My Lady’s house has been more than usually chaotic of late. The Count Orisino has long loved my Lady, but she resolutely refuses to see him. Last week, a very ill-mannered young page brought a message from Orsino. He treated me very badly and was very forward with my Lady, even offering her a ring from the Count. She rejected the gift, quite rightly so, and sent me to overtake the young man to return it. He denied he had given it, so I threw it to the ground in front of him. I thought it a very dignified gesture. You will excuse me if I felt some little ill-will toward that page, I am sure. But, Oh! How flushed my Lady looked when the page left her! Her beauty is more luminous in anger than in calm.
I admit, I too am a little in love with my Lady. It may appear unseemly, I a mere steward and she a great lady. But I am a gentleman, of good stock and blessed with the best education. I am not her inferior in mind, taste, or dignity. Were we to wed, it would not be unprecedented. You remember, doubtless, the famous scandal of the lady of the Strachy who married her yeoman of the wardrobe. My Lady once told me I am sick with self-love, but she said it very affectionately, with light dancing in her eyes.
Oh, to be Count Malvolio! I can see it in my mind’s eye. Calling my officers about me, in my branched velvet gown, having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping. I call for Toby, and seven of my people, with an obedient start, make out for him. I frown the while, and perchance wind up my watch, or play with my – some rich jewel. Toby approaches and courtesies there to me. I extend my hand to him, quenching my familiar smile with an austere regard of control, and say, "Cousin Toby, my fortunes having case me on your niece give me this prerogative of speech. You must amend your drunkenness!" If only I were Count, I would bring order to my Lady’s house.
Maria once told me my Lady did affect me, and I myself have heard her say that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion. My lady uses me with a more exalted respect than anyone else that follows her. I am her favorite, and might yet become her husband. It is no airy dream but a well-founded hope, that she should be a precious jewel to adorn my life.
So I was not altogether surprised a few days ago when, strolling through the garden of an afternoon, I spied a letter address to “My unknown beloved.” The paper smelled of my lady’s perfume and it was doubtless written in her hand. I unfolded it and discovered it contained a love letter. As I sat down on a bench to read it, I heard a rustle in the box tree behind me, apparently the fluttering of a bird. It began with a poem:
It was breathtaking, and verily I trembled with some considerable bliss. “I may command where I adore.” Why, she may command me. “M” – that is the first letter of my name, Mmmalvolio. And every one of the other letters also appears within my name – O, A, I! My Lady knows I am clever in solving enigmas and puzzles, and for someone of my refined skill the code was as obvious as the sun in a cloudless sky: “Malvolio doth sway my life.” I ask you, dear, sympathetic reader, knowing my Lady’s favor to me, what else could I have concluded?
I read on. “In m stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” I remember exactly my emotions at that moment, and will never forget them. “Oh, my Lady. Oh, Olivia!” I cried. “I am not afraid of greatness! I will accept its thrusting. Nay, I run to meet it!”
I noticed a postscript, which gave instructions to my Lady’s beloved, to me. “Remember who commended thy yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever cross-gartered. If thou entertainest my love, let it appear in thy smiling; thy smiles become thee well; therefore in my presence still smile, dear my sweet, I prithee.”
I had, as I had long suspected, won the heart of my lady Olivia. I rose from the bench and danced a joyous but dignified jig around the fountain, impressive to anyone who might at that moment have observed me in mid-gambol. I wished to shout, but instead I whispered, with, I should say, great resolution: “I will wear yellow stockings! I will go cross-gartered. I will smile and smile and smile.” I thought I heard laughter from the box-tree, but when I examined it, no one was there. I believe ‘twas Jove laughing with me from high Olympus, himself gay at my good fortune.
The next day, I presented myself to my Lady in just the matter she commanded. My stockings were yellow as spring daffodils, my garters crossed and tight across my legs. I am no longer a young man, but I believe my legs are still as shapely as any page’s. I practiced before my glass until my smile was radiant, while duly shaded with a touch of grandeur.
When I entered, my Lady feigned surprise. “What is the matter with thee?” she shouted, and scurried behind a divan. I have consulted many learned books about the gentler sex, and so was prepared for this. She intended, I knew, to heat my love by first affecting to reject it. I was not fooled, but instead drew near, so she could examine my stockinged legs more closely. She pretended to be alarmed, but her words spoke her desire: “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” Now it was my turn to be amazed. I knew she loved me, but I did not expect her to be so bold so rapidly. Before I could respond, my Lady rushed from the room, on the excuse that she went to meet Orsino’s page boy. That again was part of the love game she was playing. I discerned that she was overcome with pleasure and went to seek a quiet place to rejoice that I returned her love.
It was then that my nightmare began. Toby and Maria suddenly accosted me, along with a ruffian gardener named Fabian. “He has gone mad,” Toby said. “He is possessed by a legion of demons.” I swept them away with my hand. “Go off. I am not of your element. I discard you. You shall know more hereafter.”
I tried to depart, but Fabian leapt upon me from behind, pinned my arms to my sides, and tied me with strong robes. Someone put a sack over my head, and they pushed and pulled me I know not where. I felt someone shove me through a doorway and he removed the sack. Still all was black. I was in a room dark as hell. Groping along the wall, I found the door and attempted to open it, but it was locked tight. I began to cry out but there was no answer. Soon I tired of shouting, and sank to the floor, into what I was sure was filth and mud.
Hours passed, and I had time to consider. My Lady gave me such clear lights of favor. She told me to come smiling and cross gartered, to wear yellow stockings and be belligerent toward her cousin and his light friends. Now, after raising my hopes, she allowed me to be imprisoned, kept in a dark house, made a notorious geek and gull. Why? Why, my Lady? Why, dearest, dearest Olivia? I felt no ill-will toward my Lady. Surely there was some mistake, or she was ignorant of my mistreatment. But if I now hated Toby and Maria and Fabian with a hate hotter than hell, can you, dear, patient, sympathetic reader, impugn me?
While I sat in the dark filled with these thoughts, I heard a voice outside the door. I called and discovered it was Sir Topas the priest passing by. “Good Sir Topas,” I pleaded. “Do not think me mad. They have laid me here in hideous darkness. Go to my Lady and ask her to release me.” He spoke of demons and rebuked me for my obsession with ladies, then told me my cells was as bright as day. He would make me mad, for I know it is dark as blackest pitch.
Soon after, that scoundrel Feste happened by my cell, whistling. I cried to him, and he agreed to bring me paper and pencil so I could write to my Lady. I put into the letter all the vinegar and pepper I could muster: “By the Lord, madam, you wrong me, and the world shall know it. Though you have put me into darkness and given your drunken cousin rule over me, yet have I the benefit of my senses as well as your ladyship. I have your own letter that induced me to the semblance I put on. Think of me as you please. I leave my duty a little unthought of and speak out of my injury.” I signed it, cleverly I thought, “THE MADLY-USED MALVOLIO.” Do you see? Not “mad” but “madly used.”
I do not know how long I remained in that prison. When someone at length opened the door, the light blinded me. I rose stiffly and let him steady me and lead me into my Lady’s hall. Everyone was there – my Lady Olivia, Orsino, two young page boys, Toby with a bloody head and Andrew with a bleeding nose, a leathery young man who looked as if he had just come from a long sea voyage. They were smiling in their giddy way, as if I had stumbled into a wedding, all unprepared in my torn jacket and soiled yellow stockings.
“You have wronged me!” I shouted at Olivia. She denied it, but with a dramatic flourish I produced the love letter I found in the garden. “Can you deny this is your hand? Why have you treated me thus? No man has been so viciously wronged!”
She said, sadly I think, “Alas, Malvolio, this is not my writing.”
It was then that Fabian stepped forward. “I can explain,” he said. “Maria and Toby were angry with Malvolio for shouting at them in the kitchen one night. Maria wrote the letter and left it in the garden for Malvolio to find. We tricked him into thinking you were in love with him, my Lady.”
“Oh, poor fool,” Olivia said. “How they have baffled you.”
She said it very affectionately and kindly, and I again marked her beauty. I was sure she still loved me. But I was outraged, as I had right to be. Looking sternly from one to the other, I said, in a deliberately sinister tone, “I will be revenged, on the whole pack of you.” Then I turned my back on all of them and strode in a stately manner from the room. I am sure they were all quite frightened, for it was one of the fiercest things I have ever said.
I left my Lady’s house that day and went looking for other employment. I am sure I will find it. I am an exceedingly good steward, a man of good judgment and wide experience and knowledge. I will find a great house and a great lord or lady to serve, greater I hope than either my Lady or the Count Orsino. That will be my least revenge. But I hope for better. I am not a man to be trifled with. I am a steward of a great house, a servant of a great Lady, and I will not be baffled. From now to the end of my days, it will be my business, and the business of the universe, to avenge me on my adversaries. That, or I shall conclude the world is itself a prison cell.
Note on provenance: At the beginning of 2020, I decided to write a story every month for my grandchildren. I started with 5-page retellings of Shakespeare plays. When I attempted Twelfth Night, I found I could fit it on five pages only by leaving out Malvolio, so I wrote a separate story about him, which turned out to be non-grandchildrenly in tone.
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.