Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Feste irritates Sebastian by mistaking him for Cesario while Sebastian tries to shake him off, eventually giving Feste some money. “These wise men that give fools money get themselves a good report — after fourteen years’ purchase” (IV.i.21-23). Sir Andrew comes on the scene and, also assuming he’s Cesario, punches Sebastian. He gets popped back and no doubt is surprised at Cesario’s sudden skill. Sebastian wonders, “Are all the people mad?” (IV.i.27). Olivia sees Toby about to fight the man whom she also thinks is Cesario and therefore banishes Toby from her household. Sebastian is pleasantly baffled as to why Olivia is so nice to him: “I am mad, or else this is a dream. / … / If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!” (IV.i.61-63). Thus the elder Ogburns detect a depiction of Oxford and Elizabeth in Sebastian and Olivia here (Ogburn and Ogburn 835).
Maria, the perpetual instigator, has Feste adopt the guise of a curate, Sir Topas, to visit and torment Malvolio, who is imprisoned in a dark house. Sir Toby remarks that “The knave counterfeits well” (IV.ii.19).
A note on the name “Topas”: this is one of many instances where Shakespeare shows his Chaucerianism (and I think there’s another in the last act of this play). In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Sir Thopas is the effeminate and dorky knight featured in the abysmal doggerel rendered by Chaucer’s own pilgrim persona when it is his turn to tell a tale. Sir Thopas is a fool, and Chaucer presents himself as another, absolutely incompetent with narrative verse (which, of course, is greatly ironic). So consider the application and implications for Shakespeare studies here. “Indeed Twelfth Night makes one wonder whether justice has been done to the indebtedness of Shakespeare to the spirit of his great predecessor as distinguished from his indebtedness to him as a source in the narrower sense” (Goddard, I 296). The ordeal of Campion in 1580-1581 may also be playing a part in this scene; he too was denied paper, pen, and ink during his imprisonment (and torture) (Anderson 155).
Malvolio insists on his sanity, but “Topas” tests him on the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis (see the Pythagoras notes on the odd but, I insist, crucial “tangent” in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XV).
Toby uncharacteristically says, “I would we were well rid of this knavery” (IV.ii.67-68). Toby is already in enough trouble with Olivia his niece, but he also apparent realizes that the joke has gone too far now. In theatrical comedy, a puritanical figure like Malvolio is bound to receive comic humiliation, but this is pretty severe and protracted, and scholars have noted that this play ends up having a rather vicious dark side partly because of this. “The revelers and practical jokers — Maria, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek — are the least sympathetic players in Twelfth Night, since their gulling of Malvolio passes into the domain of sadism” (Bloom 237). And the play “hardly shows us a defeated Malvolio. He retains dignity under great duress and proudly states his stoic refusal to surrender the soul to Pythagorean metempsychosis” (Bloom 243).
That Malvolio keeps his head during his confinement in darkness and does not lose his dignity when he charges his mistress with having done him notorious wrong is further proof of a kind of moral solidity in the man. … The Dark House in which Malvolio is incarcerated is in some respects the central symbol of the play, for the houses of Olivia and the Duke, for all their apparent brightness, are dark houses in a deeper sense. (Goddard, I 299)
On the other hand: “Some actors seek sympathy for Malvolio, but Shakespeare makes it clear that he ends no wiser and no better than he had begun” (Wells 183).
Feste returns to Malvolio as himself and offers what seems like a bit more baiting: “tell me true, are you not mad indeed, or do you but counterfeit?” (IV.ii.114). But Feste agrees to fetch him ink, paper, and light. He ends the scene by singing a cheeky song addressed to the Devil.
Sebastian wonders why Antonio didn’t appear at the Elephant, but he is more amazed at his fortune and the attentions of Olivia, even though everything seems like madness. Olivia arrives with a priest. Sebastian and Olivia go to wed in a private ceremony; the big public wedding will occur later. The wedding will take place at the “chantry,” “a place where Mass was sung daily for the souls of the dead” (Garber 517), and presumably where Olivia’s dead father and brother are lying.