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Malvolio is Olivia's steward, and the central character of the first subplot. He is typically drawn as a Puritan-like figure who dresses in black, a symbol of solemnity. Shakespeare has endowed him with a number of commendable qualities. He is capable, trustworthy and loyal. Olivia depends upon him for the day-to-day affairs and the maintenance of discipline and decorum within her household. He has the authority to keep Sir Toby's boisterous nature in check as well. "Do you make an alehouse of my lady's house" (II, 3) he questions Sir Toby, informing him that Olivia has asked Sir Toby to mend his ways, failing which "she is very willing to bid you farewell" (II, 3). It is this authority along with Malvolio's desire to reform Sir Toby that irritates and angers Sir Toby. In fact, he is representative of the more serious side of life as opposed to the merrymaking of Sir Toby and his minions and the bon vivant approach of Feste. Olivia trusts Malvolio, and so entrusts him with the job of delivering the ring to Viola. He is intelligent, educated, and according to Olivia "sad and civil" (II, 4). In her time of grief and mourning, Malvolio "suits well for a servant with my fortunes" (III, 4).
His good qualities are overshadowed to a large extent by his vanity or conceit. "O you are sick of self love" (I, 5) declares a critical Olivia as she rises in defense of Feste. Coupled with and as a result of his conceit is his air of superiority. He is contemptuous of the other members of Olivia's household and regards them as "lighter people" and "idle shallow things". He treats Sir Toby as an inferior even though Sir Toby is socially superior. His opinion of Feste, and of jesters in general is harsh and rude. His haughty nature does not spare Olivia as well. His demand for an explanation from Olivia about the letter is extremely rude. Even when he is told that Maria is responsible for the letter, he does not offer any apology to Olivia. He is a grim person who takes life too seriously, and finds no joy or humor in it.
Yet despite his harsh indictment of the lighter side of life, one cannot help but feel sorry for Malvolio when he is locked up in the dark room. The scene arouses one's sympathy for him as he undergoes more suffering than he deserves. Though the scene is humorous there is also a touch of pathos and even Sir Toby balks at the outcome of his joke and attempts to bring it to an end. All sympathy is lost, however, when Malvolio is released at Olivia's order. His haughty and churlish behavior reflects the fact that he has not really learnt a lesson. He is still the intolerant and narrow- minded person that he was earlier.
His is a satirical character used by Shakespeare to critically comment on the attitudes and behavior of the Puritans - typified by Malvolio in the play. Malvolio however is no villain although he is objectionable and satirized more than any other character in the play. He is strongly disliked by almost all the characters associated with him, with the exception of Olivia. Yet he is not evil. His character is a satirical commentary on a social type rather than an individual.