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Malvolio Production Diary: Words, words, words (and sentences)

For a second read-through of the text, I’m going to try to concentrate on the word choices, sentence structures, things like that. Still looking for more questions than answers; I don’t want to meet the director on Sunday knowing how I want to play the part, but I want to have enough in place so when we start to narrow options, I can put decisions into practice.

One of my habits in preparation is to plug my lines into a word frequency chart and see what happens. It’s not a terribly long part, some 2,200 words or so. First-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) turn up a lot: 156 instances. That’s 7%, which is Donald Trump territory. There are 16 instances of fool, most of which, however, are in the torture scene where I am trying to get Feste’s attention. Still. There are 16 ladys, 3 madams and 19 sirs. Although again, a lot of the sir instances are in the torture scene when I am trying to get Feste’s attention (addressing him as Sir Topas). Still, those titles perhaps indicates something about Malvolio’s class awareness. The only other interesting thing that turns up is that he says hand 12 times: five of those refer to handwriting, twice in swearing by this hand (he also swears by my life) and the rest are Schenectady for his person (the letter falls into his hand, etc). It’s possible, and I will have to feel how this works out, that there is something there in Malvolio thinking of himself as his hands—not his heart, not his head, not his dick, but his hand. How would that affect his gestures, his movements? Historically, Malvolio often carries a wand of office (no, really, check out the pictures) which is taken from him when he goes mad; is there something else he should be doing with his hands? It will depend on the setting, of course. Hands, rings. Hm.

Looking at my first scene (I,v), I see that he speaks quite plainly. I mean, yes, he speaks in prose rather than verse, but also he speaks in short, common words: I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. He’s not crude, but he’s not flowery or pretentious in his sentences or word choices: Madam, yond young fellow swears he will speak with you. He does seem to repeat himself. There are only a couple of places where he uses a longer word instead of a shorter one: fortified instead of guarded, supporter instead of prop, minister occasion rather than give it. He is addressing Olivia; I will see if it changes when he addresses others.

He is talking with Cesario in II,ii; he is a little (not much) more florid. He throws in a moreover and says desperate assurance, calls him peevish. Still, mostly short words, mostly very plain: If it be worth stooping for, there it lies in your eye; if not, be it his that finds it. If he is pretentious, it’s not with polysyllables.

The next Malvolio scene is the carousal, talking with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and the class thing comes up right away: gabble like tinkers, ale-house, coziers’ catches. There are a couple of odd words (misdemeanor instead of, well, misbehavior or drunkenness or something; mitigation instead of, um, chill) but still mostly short words, plainly spoken: an it you please you to take leave of her, she is very willing to bid you farewell.

In talking to himself, before the letter scene, imagining himself Count Malvolio, he gets a bit more longwinded: you waste the treasure of your time rather than just wasting time. Once he gets reading, though (and leaving aside the text of the letter itself) his language gets more pretentious and bizarre: Why, this is evident to any formal capacity; there is no obstruction in this. and This simulation is not as the former. There’s still some of that in III,iv (This does make some obstruction in the blood instead of it’s a bit tight) but almost everything he says to Olivia is a quote, rather than his own words. After she leaves, he talks to himself, and again gets a bit long-winded: no dram of a scruple, no scruple of a scruple and so forth. When people come in, it’s back to short words: Go off. Do you know what you say? Go hang yourselves.

The torture scene (IV,ii) is complicated. Mostly, still, it’s short words and simple sentences: never was man thus wronged. I say to you this house is dark. I am no more mad than you are. Help me to some light and some paper. When asked about Pythagoras, his sentences get a little longer: I think nobly of the soul and no way approve his opinion. But that’s too short a bit to make much of the switch. Or is it? Well, and anyway, the important thing is that he doesn’t either rant or ramble. He speaks clearly and simply. The most flowery he gets is his cry there was never man so notoriously abused. That, though is followed up with I am as well in my wits, Fool, as thou art. How much simpler could it be?

And then he comes back in, released, and speaks in prose. Still, there’s a simplicity to the language and sentence structure (Why you have given me such clear lights of favor?) that is very different, from, say, Antonio earlier in the scene ( His life I gave him and did thereto add my love, without retention or restraint, all his in dedication) or certainly the ever-poetic Orsino (I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love, To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.)

It had been tickling me to play Malvolio as a foreigner, with a strong accent (a Vienna accent, for some reason, is what I hear in my head) to make his lines ridiculous. There was a tradition, evidently dating back to Samuel Phelps in 1857, of playing Malvolio as a Spaniard. There are some reasons it might play (and other reasons why it mightn’t) but mostly this examination seems to work against that. Well, probably. But except when he is talking to himself his dialogue is not ridiculous at all. He’s stern and unlikeable, and when we are told he is sick of self-love or that he is an affectioned ass it doesn’t seem unfair at all, but he isn’t except when he is talking to himself prone to prolixity or malaprops or circumlocution. When he believes himself alone, he seems to be an entirely different person. But who isn’t?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.