As I was reading Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I thought again about how literature can hold up a mirror about what and we laugh at. In particular, I was struck by the difference between the jokes made about Cesario/Viola and those jokes made about Malvolio. The jokes that mock Viola are good-natured and accidental. Some of the jokes are even made by Viola, which makes the humor comfortable and easy to laugh at. It was far less easy for me to laugh along with Maria, Toby, and Andrew as they mocked Malvolio. There are many differences between the two forms of mockery including, importantly, that Malvolio is not included in the joke. He is the butt of the joke without being allowed to join into the humor. As I thought about it further, the prank played against Malvolio becomes even less humorous because he truly believes in it and becomes hopeful that he can rise in power through a marriage to Olivia. Malvolio’s genuine excitement and interest become the running joke of the play.
As the play continues, however, it is Malvolio’s desperate actions in response to the bait that become uncomfortable and upsetting to watch. As a reader, I wanted to ask him to stop because he was making a fool of himself and making me uncomfortable in the process. Part of this discomfort comes from realizing how easily we laugh at other’s genuine interests and difficulties but a second part comes from Malvolio’s self-awareness. By the end of the play, I felt an uncomfortable mix of pity and annoyance with Malvolio.
In thinking about the play’s connection to my service experience, I thought about this uncomfortable mix of emotions. What it led me to reflect on was the role of humor at the expense of people with disabilities and how long we can laugh until pity or annoyance makes the joke less funny. I am in a special education classroom where all of the children are enthusiastic happy students. They are wonderful to work with and they sometimes miss the jokes that others make. Often it doesn’t matter but when the joke involves a student who doesn’t understand the joke, it quickly becomes uncomfortable if the other person continues the joke, particularly if the student attempts to participate in the joke without understanding. On one occasion, the teacher had to stop a child from going along with a joke at his expense. She explained what the other student meant and told him not to listen to what he said. The student stopped and returned to his desk embarrassed. While the joke was initially funny, when the person it involves doesn’t understand it, the joke becomes a mockery and leaves me wondering what we are really laughing at. Of course this happens to everyone sometimes but the level of humiliation Malvolio is subjected to is extreme and did remind me of how children with special needs are sometimes treated by peers. This mirror reflecting my own standards for what is funny and what is pitiful reflect my real world understandings of the same concepts.
I want to be clear that I am not comparing the unlikeable Malvolio to children in special education classrooms. Rather, I’m comparing how we differentiate between humor and mockery. This difference is clear in both situations however because in both cases the person being mocked is attempting to be a part of society in a particular way and is being shut out. These themes go back to who we laugh at from the Canterbury Tales as well as who is considered other from Lysistrata. Shakespeare has a wide range of humor and it works in many different ways but it is remarkable how true the commentary remains even across centuries.