Class and Social Mobility in Twelfth Night

Keir Elam terms Twelfth Night as ‘Shakespeare’s most class conscious play, at center of which is the ‘drive towards social mobility that characterized early seventeenth century England’. This class angle becomes evident through the entire populace of serving class characters in the play- Valentine and Curio (gentlemen attending Orsino), Malvolio (a steward), Fabian (a member of Olivia’s household), Feste (the jester), Maria (a gentlewoman attending Olivia) and Viola herself in the role of Cesario (a gentleman attending Orsino). Twelfth Night is one of the few plays of Shakespeare to have servants in well defined and clearly delineated roles and characters. The social dynamics of the text are played out not only in the relationship between the serving and the served class, but within different members of the serving class themselves.

The first instance of this is Valentine’s insecurity and skepticism over Cesario’s advanced position within the Orsino household. In a household where a servant’s worth is measured by his master’s confidence, Valentine is right is viewing Cesario as a threat to his own position. This sense of being jealous and threatened by a rival simmers in Valentine’s words when he remarks to Cesario,

“If the duke continues these favours towards you, Cesario, you are like to be much advanced; he hath known you but three days, and already you are no stranger.”

These words ring true when the very next moment, the Duke orders Valentine and Curio to stand apart while he may talk to Cesario in confidence. It is Cesario who holds the key to the secrets of the Duke’s soul and is entrusted with the special responsibility of wooing Olivia on his behalf. The blurring of social lines becomes apparent when Olivia falls in love with Cesario who is carrying out the Duke’s task. Though beneath her social standing, Olivia is quick to note that Orsino’s page seems to be a ‘gentleman’ in his physical appearance, his actions and spirit. Even the facetious Toby is prudent enough to assess that ‘the behavior of the young gentleman gives him out to be of good capacity and breeding’. Like Olivia, Orsino himself cannot resist noticing Cesario’s charms and is explicit in his words of appreciation for him.

Malvolio occupies a special standing in terms of the general desire towards social mobility and class transgression in the play since the social desires of all the characters get displaced and deflected onto him. He has a central place in Olivia’s household as she has given him the authority to admonish anyone who disregards propriety of place, person or time. He is bold in Olivia’s presence and can muster the courage to rebuke her for laughing at Feste’s dull jokes. He is confident enough to reprimand Toby for ‘gabbling like tinkers’ and lacking ‘wit, manners, and honesty’. The authority that he derives from Olivia gives him power over her own kin. What we saw in the case of Cesario holds true in Malvolio’s case too; since his sense of supremacy in Olivia’s household threatens not just the other servants (who then plan to avenge themselves on him) but a member of Olivia’ own family-Toby himself. Although Toby is his social superior, yet his sense of acting beyond his class makes Toby hit at the heart of the very matter through his question addressed to Malvolio – “Art any more than a steward?”

Though no more than a steward, yet Malvolio’s desire to move and rise beyond his class is reflected in his dreams of marrying his mistress Olivia and becoming a ‘Count’. He nurses the same desire for respect, decorum and propriety as his aristocratic superiors. He even has precedents to quote from his own contemporary world- Lady of Strachy marrying her yeoman-to lend credence to his social aspirations. It is unfortunate that he is punished brutally for his so called ‘social transgressions’ through Maria’s wicked plot when others like Maria herself nurse the same social aspirations. Elliot Krieger comments on the difference between Malvolio’s and Maria’s aspiration by stating that

“Maria’s aspiration grows out of and depends upon the quality of work that she performs; she rises in class as a reward for her service [specifically the trick she plays on Malvolio which leads to Toby remarking that he could marry the wench for this device]…while Malvolio thinks of aspiration as a sudden elevation, a jump in class status that will occur because of the intervention of fortune.”

He frequently thanks ‘Jove (The King of Gods)’ and his ‘stars (destiny)’ for his good fortune and remarks that ‘Jove, not I, is the doer of this’. His comments attribute class mobility as something occurring despite him, or his efforts or intervention. He is removed of all social agencies and his movement across class barriers becomes merely a product of his fate.

The entire world of Twelfth Night is dominated by masters smitten by their servants and servants smitten by their masters. It is controlled by characters who strive to move forward and straddle the class divide. Viola, Sebastian and Maria- all manage to marry beyond their class. Only Malvolio remains at the play’s end to bear the brunt of everyone’s dreams of social advancement.

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