Cakes and Ale

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Just got done with a matinee of Twelfth Night, with Stephen Fry as a somewhat un-malevolent Malvolio.

Interesting.  I’d remembered him as a straight-up satire of a Puritan, with the implication being, if you scratch these Puritans they’re just as vain as everybody else, and hypocritical to boot, but that’s not it, actually.  We’re told explicitly he’s not actually a Puritan; and the character who expresses anti-Puritan bigotry is the most complete idiot in the play, the cavalier, Sir Andrew:


Possess us, possess us; tell us something of him.


Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of puritan.


O, if I thought that I’ld beat him like a dog!


What, for being a puritan? thy exquisite reason,
dear knight?


I have no exquisite reason for’t, but I have reason
good enough.


The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing
constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass,
that cons state without book and utters it by great
swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so
crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is
his grounds of faith that all that look on him love
him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find
notable cause to work.

It’s not that Malvolio is a Puritan and therefore he doesn’t want anyone to have any fun.  It’s that he affects, inconstantly, to be a Puritan.  His “ground of faith”– and surely Shakespeare knew what he was doing in using this kind of phrase– is his own worthiness– the opposite of a Puritan’s ground of faith.  It’s a hypocrite, not a Puritan, who is the killjoy in this play.


3 responses to “Cakes and Ale

  1. I once played Malvolio in Chicago, a very amateur Shakespeare in the (Lincoln) Park production. With his yellow stockings cross-gartered, Malvolio seemed to me much more the fop than the killjoy. Certainly it was a joy to speak his fabulous nonsense.

  2. I’m not sure how much I’d pay to see that, but it would be a lot. I may never look at you the same way again… And happy new year to you, sir!

    • And also with thee, me dearie. Your favorite moment in the production I mention would probably have been when a drunk on a bicycle came pedalling through one of the scenes. Somehow it worked, of course.

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