At first glance, Malvolio is a character easy to feel no sympathy for and perhaps even despise. A steward for Countess Olivia, he is shown to be uptight and pompous, and it is widely speculated he is meant to symbolize the growing puritan movement during Shakespeare’s time. This is even hinted at during the play by Maria, a handmaiden for Olivia, when she states, “Marry, sir, sometimes he is kind of a Puritan,” (II. iii. 151). Puritans held low opinions of the theatre, and thus many believe that Shakespeare therefor intended Malvolio to simply be made fun of and cast aside. However, the acts of the play create just enough sympathy for the man that makes one wonder if Shakespeare truly intended for Malvolio to just be laughed at.
The method behind Sir Toby and his gang’s prank behind Malvolio helps show some of this sympathy. Malvolio goes completely out of his element with the outlandish clothing he wears and the way he changes his demeanor. He changes himself because that is how he is made to think he will win Olivia’s love. This brings a very relatable aspect to his character and directly contrasts attempts to dehumanize him.
The lengths that the prank on Malvolio go also stirs up sympathy for him. Not only is he humiliated in front of the woman he loves, but he is also thrown into a dark, cell-like room wherein he is confronted by different characters. Festus, for example, disguises himself as Sir Topas and speaks with Malvolio in order to further degrade him. He even attempts to strip his religion from him when he speaks to Malvolio about the soul. Malvolio is shown to not belief that one’s soul might transfer into another animal upon death and therefor disagrees with Pythagoras’ opinion. Upon hearing this, Festus declares, “ Thou shalt hold the opinion of/ Pythatgoras ere I will allow of thy wits,” (IV. ii. 62-63). Malvolio is treated so badly that even Olivia herself is shown to feel sympathy for him at the end of the play. After he storms off, she remarks, “ He hath been most notoriously abus’d,” (V.i. 398). Here she is stating that his treatment can be known as nothing more than abuse.
Even more sympathy is felt for Malvolio when looking at the characters who are behind his prank. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are shown to be drunkards and never really given a redeeming quality throughout the play. Sir Toby is even shown trying to prank Viola and Sir Andrew into fighting each other. Sir Andrew is shown as dimwitted and constantly being used by Sir Toby. Maria and Festus have some excuse, as Malvolio is shown to belittle them during the beginning acts of the play. Still, the fact that Malvolio is pranked as badly as he is by a drunkard and a few annoyed servants instead of a more important character creates doubt if he really deserved it.
Malvolio is certainty shown to have his faults, and being depicted as a Puritan would have no doubt brought feelings of disdain from the theatre crowd. However, Shakespeare leaves just enough room to feel sympathy for the man. He’s shown to have human emotions as well as the drive to act on them. His treatment is also bad enough to be remarked upon by one of the two highest upper class characters in the play. This sympathy is perhaps merely felt due to the difference in time periods between now and Shakespeare’s day. Perhaps, however, Shakespeare was trying to poke fun at Puritan’s uptightness while acknowledging that somewhere trapped deep down is a person with desires like everybody else.