Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Hypocrisy: What You Will

Twelfth Night is a play which can be dissected in any number of ways, focusing on any number of characters or themes, any of which could somehow be found relevant to the 21st century. But one of the less discussed, yet notable aspects of the play, is the portrayal and 'arc' of the character of Malvolio.
Malvolio is depicted as a typical puritan, in the eyes of Shakespeare, as a 16th century religious fanatic, opposing all that he considers sinful, which is quite nearly everything. It is worth noting that playwrights in this time were particularly hostile to puritans, as they often spoke out against the theaters, preventing them from entertaining within the inner city of London, and generally depicting them as pits of pestilence and sin. As a result, one such as Malvolio is certainly considered unwelcome within a Shakespearean play. True to the 'artistic' interpretation of a puritan, Malvolio is not only blatantly against the most minute things, but is also a hypocrite. He opposes lust, and those who lust, yet he lusts after Olivia. Granted, he feels this only after he has been tricked into thinking that Olivia has fallen for him, but demonstrates his hypocrisy as he becomes infatuated with her.

This subplot is not directly related to the main plot, but the theme of hypocrisy runs through the play. One of the interesting ideas to consider, however, is whether or not it truly matters. The original title for the play was "What You Will". While this could have referred to many aspects of the play, one must consider if there is a deeper interpretation of hypocrisy hidden within the Malvolio subplot. Malvolio might be revealed to have been hypocritical in regards to his puritan beliefs, but what difference would that really make to his behavior? He may have said one thing, and felt another, but his deception was for himself and his image; the fact that he secretly did not follow puritan tenants did not impact anyone until he was directly tricked into acting upon them. Had Malvolio never been targeted by the other members of the household, his hypocrisy would have had no discernible impact on their lives. The irony is that unlike the puritans in Shakespeare's time, while Malvolio may have been pompous and disdainful to his fellows, his actions were not necessarily based out of hypocritical nature, and ultimately did not have the power to truly impact many of them. The title "What You Will" refers to the idea that one should think and act in the way that they choose, and if Malvolio chooses to be a hypocrite, whether he admits it or not, then one could argue that Malvolio has every right to be a hypocrite as any other character in the play has a right to act the way they want to. One of the enduring tenants of the evolving modern culture is the same idea, that one should do "What they will" but this tenant must apply to those with whom one disagrees, even the hypocrites.

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