Malvolio’s first characterization in the play is in the words of Olivia who describes him as one ‘sick of self- love’ and with a ‘distempered appetite’. His surly temper is witnessed throughout the play as he launches a tirade against Olivia for laughing at a fool’s jests or upbraids Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for their drunken misdemeanours. His name itself connotes ‘malice’ or ‘ill-will’. Malvolio’s general attitude of being against revelry of any sort characterizes him as a ‘kind of puritan’ who is in opposition to the general holiday atmosphere of the play. However, it is more his sense of self-superiority than any stern religious beliefs that is under attack in the play.
This sense of self-love and superiority to others proves to be true when we see Malvolio day- dreaming about Olivia’s love for him even before he reads Maria’s forged letter. He envisions being ‘Count Malvolio’, calling and commanding officers around him, dressing in a ‘branched velvet gown’, ensuring people regard their station, adopting the manner of high rank and admonishing Toby for wiling away his time. Reading Maria’s letter only strengthens his conviction that Olivia loves him; he misreads every gesture as borne out of love and resolves that nothing can come between him and the ‘full prospect of his hopes’.
While claims about Malvolio’s narcissism might be true, they still do not merit the harsh treatment meted out to him in Act 4 Scene 2 of the play. The gulling of Malvolio is taken to an extreme in his binding and imprisonment in a dark room. He becomes the ‘bear’ who is baited for the sport of Toby, Andrew, Maria, Fabian, others and the audience itself. Toby self-confessedly takes a certain voyeuristic pleasure in entrapping him for their ‘pleasure and his penance’. He is confined in a dark room, forced out of his wits and in his own words ‘abused notoriously’. When the truth of his deception and entrapment is revealed at the end, Olivia can only promise that he will be both the ‘plaintiff and the judge’ of his case.
In reality, Malvolio is made a scapegoat for desires that other characters in the play also profess. He is criticized for the same attitudes and desires that are condoned in other characters. While hyperbolic love exhibited by Orsino and Olivia is treated as normal, Malvolio is punished for displaying the same. While Maria’s desire for social mobility is rewarded through her marriage to Toby, Malvolio is disciplined for even harbouring thoughts about the same. Melvin Sieden remarks that “Malvolio undergoes a sacrificial comic death so that (others) may live unscathed”. D. Cohen in his essay ‘The Madding of Malvolio’ elaborates further on the traits that single Malvolio out as a character easy to scapegoat.
“Of all the characters in the play, he is the most alone and friendless and without perceptible roots or ties in any social or political grouping…he is the easiest to scapegoat simply because of his lack of a crucial social link to the community.”
The gulling of Malvolio brings various characters in the play together in their antipathy and aversion for him. There is no one who cares about him enough to rescues him, like Antonio coming to Sebastian’s refuge. This makes him a ‘tragic figure’ in a comic play that is left to nurse his own revenge on the ‘whole pack’ for making him ‘the most notorious geck and gull that e’er invention played on’.