Today we’re going to take a look at Malvolio’s letter monologue from Act 2, Scene 5 of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. In this monologue we’ll find dramatic irony, comedy, character and, in a big way, text text text. This monologue is all about endurance. It is a long piece of text that poses a true challenge for the actor. There are ups, downs, rounds and abouts and it requires some serious skill to pull it off well, but with the right understanding, we reckon anyone can approach this beast of a piece. Let’s take a look.
Malvolio is head-servant to Olivia, a noble-woman who lives in Illyria alongside a number of other colourful characters. Notably in this instance Maria, another of Olivia’s servants, Fabian, another servant, Sir Toby Belch, another ‘noble’-man in Illyria and Sir Andrew Aguecheek his best friend and all around buffoon. Throughout the play Malvolio has been a thorn in their sides and so these four decide to hatch a plan to get their revenge and humiliate him. Knowing that Malvolio is secretly in love with Olivia, they forge a letter in her handwriting professing her ‘love’ for him and leave it for him to find. They hide and wait for him to find it. When he happens upon the letter this is what he says…
What employment have we here?
Now is the woodcock near the gin.
O peace, and the spirit of humours intimate
reading aloud to him.
By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very c’s, her u’s and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s. It is in contempt of question her hand.
Her c’s, her u’s and her t’s. Why that?
To the unknown beloved, this, and my good wishes. Her very phrases! By your leave, wax. Soft – and the impressure her Lucrece, with which she uses to seal. ’Tis my lady. To whom should this be? [Opens letter. ]
This wins him, liver and all.
Jove knows I love,
Lips, do not move,
No man must know.
‘No man must know.’ What follows? The numbers altered. ‘No man must know.’ If this should be thee, Malvolio?
Marry, hang thee, brock!
I may command where I adore,
But silence, like a Lucrece knife,
With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore.
M.O.A.I. doth sway my life.
A fustian riddle.
Excellent wench, say I.
M.O.A.I. doth sway my life. Nay, but first let me see, let me see, let me see.
What dish o’poison has she dressed him!
And with what wing the staniel checks at it!
I may command where I adore. Why,
she may command me. I serve her, she is my lady.
Why, this is evident to any formal capacity. There is
no obstruction in this. And the end – what should
that alphabetical position portend? If I could make
that resemble something in me! Softly – [reading] M.O.A.I.
O ay , make up that! He is now at a cold scent.
Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as
rank as a fox.
‘M.’ Malvolio. ‘M’ – why, that begins my name!
Did not I say he would work it out? The cur is excellent at faults.
‘M.’ But then there is no consonancy in the sequel. That suffers under probation: ‘A’ should follow, but ‘O’ does.
And ‘O’ shall end, I hope.
Ay, or I’ll cudgel him and make him cry ‘O!’
And then ‘I’ comes behind.
Ay , an you had any eye behind you, you might
see more detraction at your heels than fortunes before
M.O.A.I. This simulation is not as the former. And yet to crush this a little it would bow to me, for every one of these letters are in my name. Soft, here follows prose.
If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness. Some are
born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them . Thy fates open their hands: let thy bloodand spirit embrace them, and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be, cast thy humble slough and appear
fresh. Be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants. Let thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of singularity . She thus advises thee that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy yellow stockings and
wished to see thee ever cross-gartered – I say remember. Goto, thou art made if thou desir’st to be so; if not, let me see thee a steward still, the fellow of servants and not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell. She that would alterservices with thee, The Fortunate Unhappy.
Daylight and champaign discovers not more. This is open. I will be proud, I will read politic authors, I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross acquaintance, I will be point-device the very man. I do not now fool myself to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me. She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered, and in this she manifests herself to my love and with a kind of injunction drives me to these habits of her liking. I thank my stars, I am happy. I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings and cross-gartered even with the swiftness of putting on. Jove and my stars be praised! Here is yet a postscript.
Thou canst not choose but know who I am. If thou entertain’st my love, let it appear in thy smiling – thy smiles
become thee well. Therefore in my presence still smile, dear, my sweet, I prithee.
Jove, I thank thee. I will smile, I will do everything that thou wilt have me.
Employment: Work, action
Wax: Wax seal used to seal a letter
Soft: Wait a minute, hold on
Sway: Guides, moves, commands
Slough: Public persona
Point–Device: Precisely, exactly, perfectly
MALVOLIO’S TEXT ONLY
What do we have here?
I swear on my life this is Olivia’s handwriting.
These are her C’s, her U’s, and her T’s and here she’s written one of her amazing P’s.
It is without a doubt her handwriting.
‘To my beloved who doesn’t know of my love, this and my best wishes.’
Those are things she says often! Excuse me for breaking your wax seal. But wait! This is her seal! This is definitely a letter from Olivia but who is it for?
“God knows I love.
I cannot say it.
No one can know.”
‘No one can know’?
But wait, the poetry has changed rhythm.
‘No one can know’
What if she’s talking about me?
“I may commande the person I love,
But silence like a sharp knife,
Cut’s my heart open and leaves a bloodless wound,
M.O.A.I rules my life”
‘M.O.A.I rules my life’, No, but first, let’s see, let’s see, let’s see.
‘I may command the one I love’, she may command me, I am her servant. That’s easy to figure out for anyone. There’s no doubt about that. But what do those letters at the end mean? If only I could figure out a way to match them to me. Wait! M.O.A.I!
M. But then the next letter is wrong. It should be ‘A’ first but it goes to ‘O’.
And then ‘I’ comes at the end.
M.O.A.I. The secret of this isn’t like the other one but at a stretch, I can make it work, because all of those letters are in my name. Wait a minute there’s more prose.
“If this should make its way to you, think about it well. By my birth I am of a higher class than you, but don’t be afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. Your fate is welcoming you with open arms. Let your body and spirit accept it. And to prepare yourself for the high life, cast off your servant’s appearance and appear new and fresh. Be rude to friends and mean to servants. Speak loudly and often about politics and make a habit of being unique and weird. The woman who sighs out of love for you says you should do this. Remember who it was that complimented your yellow stocking and asked you to always be cross gartered. Remember her, I say. Go now. You are now a gentleman should you choose to be, and if not, stay a servant, and a friend of other servants and unworthy of greatness. Farewell, signed: the one who would be your servant. The fortunate but sad.”
The sun in an open field couldn’t be clearer than this. This is undeniable. I will be proud, I will study politics, I will get back at Sir Toby, I will cast off my lowly friends, and I’ll be the perfect man! I know for certain now that I can’t be making this up. My lady Olivia is in love with me! She praised my yellow stockings a lot lately, and she complimented me being cross-gartered and in doing so has proven her love for me. I thank my lucky stars. I am happy! I will be proud, yellow stocking wearing and cross gartered as soon as I can. God and the stars be praised! Wait, there’s a postscript.
“You surely must know who I am. If you love me too, let it show in your smile, you have such a lovely smile. So when you see me, smile my sweet, I beg you.”
Thank you God! I will smile! I’ll do anything she asks!
Notes on Performance
So the first thing to keep in mind is character. Malvolio is characterised by his innate inability to take a joke. The more seriously the actor takes this scene, the funnier it becomes to the audience. So don’t play for laughs. Play off the fact that the cold hearted Malvolio thinks someone might be in love with him.
Secondly, and this will come as a no-brainer to some, but try not to just actually read the letter. Learn all of the text. Yes you should be playing it as you’re reading it for the first time but you should also know the text in the letter like you’d know any other monologue. Once you’ve mastered the text, you can manipulate it.
Lastly, you should work to physicalise this piece. It’s not the most interesting piece in the world if we’re just sitting and watching someone read a letter. Use your body to tell the story as well as your words.