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Act II, Scene 5
The scene shifts back to the subplot where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian (another of Olivia’s servants) wait for Maria who comes on to the scene and asks them to hide in the shrubbery. She throws the letter on the ground and leaves just as Malvolio enters. He has been 'practicing behavior' with his own shadow and now talks to himself about Maria's observation that Olivia is attracted to him. He imagines himself married to Olivia and pretends to be imperious with the servants and Sir Toby after the marriage when he shall be Count Malvolio. He is critical of Sir Toby's drinking and of his friendship with Sir Andrew. Throughout this scene, comments are given from the observers in the bushes.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, he finally spots the letter and mistaking the handwriting for that of Olivia's, he claims that the alphabet letters mentioned refer to his name. The letter instructs him to accept the "greatness" thrust upon him, to be "surely" with the servants, and harsh with Sir Toby. It advises him to discuss matters of importance seriously and to wear yellow stockings and cross garters. The letter is signed 'The Fortunate Unhappy.' The postscript of the letter advises Malvolio to show his acceptance of the writer's love by smiling constantly. Malvolio recollects that Olivia had praised his yellow stockings and cross garters which further convinces him that Olivia has written the letter. He decides to follow all the instructions mentioned in the letter and leaves.
Afterwards, Sir Toby is so impressed by Maria's scheme that he proposes to her. Maria advises Sir Toby to proceed towards Olivia and observe her reaction when she sees a smiling Malvolio wearing yellow stockings and cross garters.
This scene is the climax of the subplot and one of the finest examples of Shakespearean humor: the gulling of Malvolio. The scene is set to not only include Malvolio’s duping but also a commentary from the dupers. Hidden in a shrub (another disguise in the play), Maria, Toby and Fabian all make derogatory comments at Malvolio’s expense as he reveals himself to be the conceited buffoon that he is.
Maria's observant nature allows her to write down instructions in the letter, which will make Malvolio look foolish, both in fashion and behavior. His vanity and ego allow him to believe that Olivia has actually written the letter and that she does love him. Each sentence evokes a fantasy which Malvolio harbors: having jurisdiction over the servants, putting Sir Toby in his place, going up the social ladder. Malvolio's hypocritical attitude is evident when he dreams of a life of ease and comfort as Count Malvolio. His dislike of fun and gaiety are typically Puritan, as are his serious attitude and somber dress. It is for this reason that he is asked to dress in an "unPuritan like manner" which he will do because he is ambitious and desires power, wealth, and love.
The intrigue also reveals the deep dislike of the other characters for Malvolio. All of them harbor a personal vendetta against him whether it’s because he has snitched to Olivia about an unbecoming pastime, such as Fabian’s bearbaiting or Sir Toby’s drinking or because he is unbearably sanctimonious despite his pious disguise. The intrigue is a means of humiliating Malvolio and putting him in his place. His character feeds into the scheme perfectly yet there is a dark humor at work, which is characteristic of Shakespeare’s later comedies. Although it is difficult to sympathize with Malvolio, he is deeply faithful to Olivia and attempts to maintain order in the palace and he is not inherently cruel. Again class rank seems to factor into the purpose behind this prank. All the characters involved want Malvolio to remember his rank, that he is a steward who is no better than they. By conning him into wearing yellow, a color of the lowliest servants and one that Olivia deplores, as well as wearing cross- garters, another sign of the lowest rank of servants, they are literally bringing him down in the world. The mandate to smile constantly will also shed his austere, refined disguise that he has carefully manicured and make him look like a fool. Being the butt of this joke will completely mortify Malvolio as well as strip him of his current disguise.