Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio

Friday, December 19, 2014

Shakespeare & Twelfth Night's Malvolio

Did William Shakespeare play the role of Malvolio when Twelfth Night was first performed, in 1602?

Yes, he may have, according to Katherine Duncan-Jones, in her excellent book Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes From His Life.

Stephen Fry as Malvolio

She makes a persuasive point that when Malvolio wears the cross-gartered stockings, it may have been Shakespeare’s way of making fun of himself.

I think she is right, and there is more to this puzzle which I would like to contribute and support her thesis.

First, she discusses Shakespeare’s coat-of-arms, which he purchased in the late 1590’s. He bought this in the attempt to become a gentleman, and elevate his family to gentle status. By the time Twelfth Night was performed, Shakespeare's purchase backfired, and rather than improving his reputation, it had hurt his reputation.

Here is an image of what the coat of arms looked like:

 She describes this coat of arms in great detail: the gold-yellow of the shield, the spear on the black stripe running diagonally across the shield, and Shakespeare’s motto “Non Sanz Droict” which means “not without right.”

 The falcon on top has its wings open, which is called “shaking” — a term in falconry referring to the moment immediately before the bird takes flight. So, the falcon is shaking and holding a spear: Shakespeare.

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend and rival playwright, mocked Shakespeare’s attempt to climb the social ladder. Jonson made fun of the yellow/gold color on Shakespeare’s coat of arms when he created a character in his Every Man out of His Humour play who has a family crest with the motto “Not without mustard.” 

According to Katherine Duncan-Jones, Shakespeare took the insult, and may have turned it into an opportunity to make fun of himself.

Shakespeare may have done this when he has Malvolio tricked into wearing yellow stockings, which would resemble the yellow on the shield of Shakespeare’s coat of arms, and the black garters which would resemble the stripe on the shield.

Stephen Fry wearing the stockings and garters, with Mark Rylance

If Shakespeare himself was on stage, as Malvolio, and wearing the cross-gartered stockings, there is every reason to believe that the Elizabethan audience would have understood the joke, and laughed at this “exquisitely ridiculous” effect, as she describes it.

Her point is very persuasive, and it is fun to imagine that Ben Jonson himself would have been in that audience, and would have found the joke very witty, and would have found Shakespeare’s self-deprecation very entertaining.

But there may be even more evidence to support her idea. 

Let’s look at the name Malvolio. 

According to the Arden edition of Twelfth Night, the name may come from the Italian malvoglio which means “I dislike.” The expression “mala voglia” means “ill will.”

The Italian word “male” means “evil, bad, hurt, wrong, harm, ill.”

But what if there is another meaning for the name Malvolio? It is impossible to decipher every last meaning, and discover every last nuance of the name, but there might just be one more facet to the name Malvolio.

What if Shakespeare chose the name Malvolio to mean “bad flight?”

“Mal” for bad, and “vol” for flight. The Italian word “volare” means “flying.” The French word for “flight” is “vol.” The Latin word for “winged creature” is “volucris.”

It seems that Shakespeare is adding another dimension, another facet to the name Malvolio, something having to do with birds and flight. But why?

Well, Katherine Duncan-Jones has already supplied the answer. The falcon whose wings are “shaking.” 

If she is correct that Shakespeare is making fun of his own coat of arms when Malvolio is wearing the cross-gartered stockings, then it is entirely plausible that he is making fun of the falcon on that same coat of arms in the choice of the name, Malvolio.

If this is true, then Malvolio may also be loosely translated to mean “a bird that can’t fly,” “a hurt bird,” “a bird that has been wronged,” and so on.

Right away, the image of Malvolio in prison comes to mind:

Malvolio in prison

There is even more evidence to support this new translation. 

Fabian speaks of Malvolio’s arrogance: “Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him: how he jets under his advanced plumes!” which can roughly be translated as “look how he acts like a proud strutting peacock.” “Advance” would perfectly describe the purpose of Shakespeare’s coat of arms, he was trying to advance himself and his family.

More importantly, the word “gull” is used five times in the play, almost exclusively in reference to Malvolio. 

Shakespeare only used the word "gull" 11 times in all of his plays, so the fact that he uses this word so much in Twelfth Night seems to have been done for a specific purpose.  

The word “gull” means “a dupe,” “a fool,” “a simpleton” and an “unfledged bird” — a young bird whose wings are undeveloped and cannot fly.

1. Maria says to Sir Toby: “For Monsieur Malvolio, let me alone with him. If I do not gull him into a nayword, and make him a common recreation, do not think I have wit enough to lie straight in my bed. I know I can do it.” (2.3.129-32).

2. Fabian says of Maria, who has written the letter to deceive and ensnare Malvolio, as she enters: “Here comes my noble gull-catcher.” (2.5.180)

3. At the end of Act 3 Scene 2, Maria and Sir Toby discuss the plan even further. Notice how Toby refers to Maria as a wren, or a “songbird” and how the word “gull” is inserted into the very plotting of the cross-garters and yellow stockings:


Look, where the youngest wren of nine comes.

If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself
into stitches, follow me. Yond gull Malvolio is
turned heathen, a very renegado; for there is no
Christian, that means to be saved by believing
rightly, can ever believe such impossible passages
of grossness. He's in yellow stockings.

And cross-gartered?

Paul Chahidi as Maria and Colin Hurley as Sir Toby

4. Later, after he has been wounded, Sir Toby refers to himself as a gull: “Will you help? an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull!” (5.1.203-4)

5. When Malvolio confronts Olivia at the end, for the first time he describes himself as a “gull.” 

Madam, you have done me wrong,
Notorious wrong.

Have I, Malvolio? no.

Lady, you have. Pray you, peruse that letter.
You must not now deny it is your hand:
Write from it, if you can, in hand or phrase;
Or say 'tis not your seal, nor your invention:
You can say none of this: well, grant it then
And tell me, in the modesty of honour,
Why you have given me such clear lights of favour,
Bade me come smiling and cross-garter'd to you,
To put on yellow stockings and to frown
Upon Sir Toby and the lighter people;
And, acting this in an obedient hope,
Why have you suffer'd me to be imprison'd,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e'er invention play'd on? tell me why.

Why would Shakespeare choose "gull?" Why that particular word? Katherine Duncan-Jones, later in her same book, mentions that Ben Jonson's plays are full of "gulls" -- like the Town Gull and the Country Gull characters in his Every Man In His Humour play from 1598.

Finally, the last piece of evidence is the fact that Shakespeare had already compared himself to a bird, a cormorant or shag, in his previous Merchant of Venice play, written around 1596. I wrote more about that here.

In Conclusion, this evidence supports the idea that Shakespeare was making fun not only of the coat of arms, but the falcon as well.

Therefore, this evidence also supports Katherine Duncan-Jones’s idea that Shakespeare may have been the actor to portray Malvolio on stage in 1602.

It makes a great deal of sense that Shakespeare is poking fun at his own foolish arrogance, his own immature ambitious desire for advancement. Perhaps Shakespeare came to realize that his falcon’s wings are undeveloped, and not ready to fly. No matter how much they are “shaking."


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