[On the Character of Malvolio]
Malvolio is not essentially ludicrous. He becomes comic but by accident. He is cold austere, repelling; but dignified, consistent and, for what appears, rather of an over stretched morality. Maria describes him as a sort of Puritan; and he might have worn his gold chain with honor in one of our old Roundhead families, in the service of a Lambent, or a Lady Fairfax. But his morality and his manners are misplaced in Elyria. He is opposed to the proper levities of the piece, and falls in the unequal contest. Still his pride, or his gravity, (call it which you will) is inherent, and native to the man, not mock or affected, which latter only are the fit objects to excite laughter. His quality is at the best unlovely, but neither buffoon nor contemptible. His bearing is lofty, a little above his station, but probably not much above his deserts. We see no reason why he should not have been brave, honorable, accomplished. His careless committal of the ring to the ground (which he was commissioned to restore to Cesario) bespeaks a generosity of birth and feeling. His dialect on all occasions is that of a gentleman and a man of education. We must not confound him with the eternal old low steward of comedy. He is master of the household to a great Princess, a dignity probably conferred upon him for other respects than age or length of service. Olivia, at the first indication of his supposed madness, declares that she "would not have him miscarry for half of her dowry." Does this look as if the character was meant to appear little or insignificant? Once, indeed, she accuses him to his face‑‑of what?‑of being "sick of self‑love"‑but with a gentleness and considerateness which could not have been if she had not thought that this particular infirmity shaded some virtues. His rebuke to the knight, and his sottish revelers, is sensible and spirited; and when we take into consideration the unprotected condition of his mistress, and the strict regard with which her state of real or dissembled mourning would draw the eyes of the world upon her house affairs, Malvolio might feel the honor of the family in some sort in his keeping; as it appears not that Olivia had any more brothers or kinsmen, to look to it‑for Sir Toby had dropped all such nice respects at th buttery hatch. That Malvolio was meant to be represented as possessing estimable qualifies, the expression of the Duke, in his anxiety to have him reconciled, almost infers, "pursue him, and entreat him to a peace." Even in his abused state of chains and darkness, a sort of greatness seems never to desert him. He argues highly and well with the supposed Sir Topes, and philosophizes gallantly upon his straw. There must leave been some shadow of worth about the man; he must have been something mote than a mere vapor‑a thing of straw, or lack in office‑before Fabian and Maria could have ventured sending him upon a courting errand to Olivia' There was some consonancy (as he would say) in the undertaking, or the jest would have been too bold even far that house of misrule. Bensiey, accordingly, threw over the part an air of Spanish loftiness. He looked, spoke, and moved like an old Castilian, He was starch, spruce, opinionated, but his superstructure of pride seemed bottomed upon a sense of worth. There was something in it beyond the coxcomb. It was big and swelling, but you could not be sure that it was hollow. You might wish to see it taken down, but you felt that it was upon an elevation. He was magnificent from the outset; but when the decent sobrieties of the character began to give way, and the poison of self‑love in his conceit of the Countess’s affection, gradually to work, you would have thought that the hero of La Mancha in person stood before you. How be went smiting to himself! With what ineffable carelessness would he twirl his gold chain! What a dream it was! You were infected with the illusion and did not wish that it should be removed!.
You had no room for laughter! If an unseasonable reflection of morality obtruded itself, it was a deep sense of the pitiable infirmity of man’s nature, that can lay him open to such frenzies‑but in truth you rather admired than pitied the lunacy while it lasted‑you felt that an hour of such mistake was worth an age with the eyes open. Who world not wish to live but a day in the conceit of such a lady's love as Olivia? Why, the Duke would have given his principality but for a quarter of a minute, sleeping or waking, to have been so deluded. The man seemed to tred upon air, to taste manna, to walk with his head in the clouds, to mate Hyperion. O! shake not the castles of his pride‑endure yet for a season, bright moments of confidence‑"stand still ye watches of the element," that Malvolio may be still in fancy fair Olivia's lord‑but fate and retribution say no‑I hear the mischievous titter of Maria‑the witty taunts of Sir Toby‑the still more insupportable triumph of the foolish knight‑the counterfeit Sir Topas unmasked‑and "thus the whirligig of time,” as the true clown hath it, "brings in his revenges." I confess that I never saw the catastrophe of this character, while Bensley played it, without a kind of tragic interest.