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Malvolio Production Diary: First* Read, Part One

OK, starting my First* Read. Not actually my first read, but the beginning of real preparation for the part. I am modelling this more or less after the one in Oliver Ford Davies’ Playing Lear, for which he says in part: I keep asking questions, and try not to come to any conclusions. In particular, this time through, I'm trying to think about possibilities, particularly possibilities of relationships. I'm not at the moment looking for words and connections between words, although if anything leaps out at me I may make note of it. Mostly, the first read is to get into my head what happens when and with whom.

I,i establishes Orsino’s court. Orsino talks about Olivia, but doesn’t mention Malvolio at all. I,ii is Viola shipwrecked. Nothing there for me. I,iii is the first taste of Olivia’s household, and Malvolio doesn’t appear—in fact, reading it with an eye to playing the part, I noticed that he isn’t mentioned at all. When Maria warns Toby, it’s Your cousin, my lady, takes great exceptions to your ill hours. No warning about the lady’s steward. Nothing else there for me on first read. I,iv is back with Orsino. Again, Orsino sees no need to alert Cesario (Viola, that is, although I think I’ll try to get used to thinking of her as Cesario) about a peculiar fellow in charge of the household.

I,v is Malvolio’s first scene, but it doesn’t start with him; it starts with Maria warning Feste that Olivia is unhappy with him—again, not that Malvolio is angry, but that Olivia is. When Malvolio finally enters with Olivia, we are 325 lines into the play, about an eighth (I’m using the Folger throughline numbers) of the way in if there’s no cutting. And at that point, he’s just one of Olivia’s attendants and as I’ve been noting, we’ve heard a lot about her, but nothing about him, so this is Olivia’s entrance and only incidentally his. He stands around while Olivia banters with Feste, and then—only when invited—joins the conversation in order to disparage the Fool. Is he usually this quiet, or is this unusually humble? Olivia slaps him down (you are sick of self-love) quickly and then sends him to answer the door like a footman. What’s going on there? Whatever it is, Malvolio takes it quietly. When he comes back, some thirty lines later, he is longwinded again—and hasn’t done the obvious thing of setting the dogs on the importuning lad at the door, or otherwise getting rid of him. Why not? Evidently he wants to send the fellow in rather than away, and seems satisfied that Olivia agrees. Then he goes out again for a hundred and fifty lines, but is near enough to enter at once when Olivia calls. Has he been listening? How does Malvolio feel about Olivia’s endless mourning and the Duke’s suit? Yes, he wants to marry her himself, but he has got to know that’s unlikely—would Olivia marrying the Duke mean the loss of his job or a step up to a ducal estate? How long has Malvolio been running the household, anyway—long enough to remember the old Count, or is he relatively new—that will make a difference in how he looks on Olivia and her erratic behavior. At any rate, when she calls him back in it is to send him after Cesario. Isn’t this task also beneath him? He doesn’t immediately object, in the text. Madam, I will. And off he goes.

So, what have I got? Entrance, exit, entrance, exit, entrance, exit. Two things stand out to me at this point. One, that slap-down from Olivia. Second, that choice to (effectively) bring Cesario in to the house. Are they connected? I suspect so. There’s also clearly earlier antipathy between him and Feste. There’s a line here that will be repeated later (Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged) so that will be important, too. I suppose I need to decide if (for me) this is really one scene or three, to what extent whatever is happening offstage is a big deal. If I call it one scene, it’s clearly the first Olivia Court scene; if it’s three, it’s the Feste fight, the Cesario entrance, and then being sent after him.

The relationships that will be important later are with Feste and Olivia. He clearly has earlier antipathy with Feste, tho’ it’s Maria that seems to be the force behind his comeuppance later. How long have they all been in the household together? Who was there first and who longest? Did any of them know Olivia as a child? All those relationships ought to be set up by the end of this scene, I think, although there’s not much there in the text to work with.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.