Monday, December 14, 2009

Shakespeare's Complicated Killjoys


Note: This is an essay I wrote this semester on "Shylock and Malvolio as Complicated Killjoys" in the plays The Merchant of Venice (MV) and Twelfth Night (TN), respectively. I received a 95, but can not be held responsible if you plagiarize and receive a failing grade for your efforts. I post this for your enjoyment and intellectual stimulation alone.

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The Complicated Killjoy

In Shakespeare’s plays, the killjoy serves as a foil against which the joy of merry making and festivity can shine. In the playwright’s comedies this negative character must be purged or put down before the celebration of love can be fully enjoyed. This is an interesting device and a necessary one in Shakespeare’s festive comedies. It has its origins in the seasonal preparations and rituals for various religious festivals, including Christmas and Easter. Prior to the celebration of such holidays there is a period of fasting or contemplation so that, one may assume, the holy day can be appreciated that much more. Before Easter, for example, comes Lent. Advent precedes the Twelve Days of Christmas. Humans have within them, it seems, a natural capacity to break from the routine and release themselves in ritual celebrations. Even pagans have May Day (the advent of spring) and Midsummer’s Eve (the summer solstice) among other holidays.

Both The Merchant of Venice (MV) and Twelfth Night (TN) are comedies and feature the killjoys Shylock and Malvolio, respectively. Each serves as a hindrance to celebration and must be removed in order for the festivities to proceed; and their role is readily identifiable. Their names and backgrounds are clear indications to the audience that these characters are going to “get what’s coming to them” in the end. Shylock is a Jew and even his name conjures up the image of a shyster, which is derived from the Old High German term scheisser, meaning “one who defecates” (Dictionary.com). Of course, Jews were on the receiving end of all kinds of prejudicial mistreatment during the Elizabethan age and anti-Semitism was an accepted cultural attitude and practice. Elizabethan England was also anti-Puritan. An uneasy balance existed between the Church of England and Catholicism, but there was very little tolerance for the Puritan cause, represented by Malvolio. His name, too, is meant to bring to mind “ill will” and unsympathetic feelings for his character. These two easily identifiable killjoys serve as dramatic devices that, once purged of their power, give way to the happy endings that Shakespeare’s audiences had come (and paid their money) to expect.

Yet Shylock and Malvolio are a bit more complicated in their characterization than is typical of simple “straw-men” antagonists. While not tragic figures like Hamlet or King Lear (in terms of their sufferings) both characters elicit some sympathy in that their eventual punishment seems excessive. Shylock is publically humiliated by Portia (posing as a lawyer) in a wonderfully executed reversal of technical legalities in the court room scene (MV 4.1). Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio and “the law allows it” (4.1.302), but Portia surprises him: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood” (4.1.305). Denied his bond, Shylock bargains for but ends up losing even his initial principle. In the world of “an eye for an eye” this seems a fair punishment, but in anti-Semitic Elizabethan theater Shylock is forcibly converted to the Christian faith to the delight of the audience. This extra dramatic action of “kick ’em when they’re down” prompts me to wonder if Shakespeare is simply echoing popular sentiment or is commenting on the excessive prejudice of his day. Is this the playwright’s attempt to complicate the character of Shylock and so deny the audience of a simple whipping boy? I’m inclined to believe it is. While Shakespeare was obviously a product of his times, his use of the killjoy seems to carry with it a deeper significance than mere entertainment.

So, too, Malvolio’s demise is a bit unwarranted. He is imprisoned (TN 4.2) without proper trial or authority by Toby simply because Toby resents his arrogance and position as household steward. In my opinion, the wonderfully comedic prank that Toby and Maria played on Malvolio was enough to “purge” the Puritan of his position as killjoy. Believing the letter that Maria wrote was written by Olivia and intended for him (2.5) leads to hilarious results. The prim and proper sourpuss is forced to play the harlequin (like a smiling jester with yellow stockings and cross garters) in penance, if you will, for his arrogance and presumption that he might one day be “Count Malvolio” (2.5.35). When Olivia sees him thusly dressed, she thinks him mad. The audience rightly laughs at this humbling reversal and it seems retribution is served. Yet at the end of the play when all is revealed, Malvolio is utterly defeated and declares as he exits, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” (5.1.380). His attitude is strangely subduing at this point and causes the audience to consider if he was unjustifiably wronged. Again, Shakespeare isn’t simply employing a one dimensional character to poke fun at; Malvolio has a certain depth to him that complicates his role as a killjoy.

In fact, both Shylock and Malvolio display (and represent) certain admirable qualities that the audience should appreciate. Shylock is frugal (in words and in money) and canny; he’s wise in the ways of the world. He also represents the abused and downtrodden. He rightly rebukes Antonio for a recent insult – “You called me dog” (MV 1.3.125) – when Antonio returns and seeks to borrow money from him. Despite these qualities, however, I agree with most readers that Shylock is more villain than innocent. He even describes himself as anti-social and anti-Christian – “I hate him for he is a Christian” (1.3.39) – in a social and decidedly Christian cultural setting. Malvolio, on the other hand, displays more typically respectable qualities that a Christian nation should admire. He’s orderly, sober, composed, proper, competent, and loyal. He embodies the characteristics of the elite and royal class. His fall, then, is as much a commentary on the common person’s relationship with the nobility as it is their resistance to Puritan ideals. Still, the audience can’t help but admire Malvolio’s insistence on clinging to his sanity in the midst of his abuse. He says, somewhat ironically to the clown who is verbally torturing him, “I am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art” (TN 4.2.91). These examples demonstrate again that we have somewhat complicated killjoys and not mere rogues in need of a comeuppance.

These added dimensions to the roles that Shylock and Malvolio play not only complicate their characters, they also affect the comic tone of their respective plays. Instead of light comedic drama written to simply entertain the masses, Shakespeare presents us with festive comedies that explore the nature of ritual, the role of sacrifice, and the importance of celebration. If the killjoy was just a device to mock and forget about, then their role would be a shallow one. Based on the lingering doubt, though, of Shylock’s and Malvolio’s punishment and possible discomfort over the excessive retribution they received, Shakespeare leaves us with thoughtful comedies that, obvious to us now four hundred years later, give audiences timeless explorations of human nature and interactions.

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Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Signet Classic Edition. 1987.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Signet Classic Edition. 1998.
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