It is now a commonplace notion that Malvolio's reading of Maria's letter in 2.5 of Twelfth Night satirizes the Puritans' approach to interpreting the Bible. (1) The play's first audiences seem to have appreciated the joke: in his diary of a Candlemas performance at the Middle Temple on 2 February 1601, John Manningham singled out the gulling of Malvolio as "a good practise" (Bruce 18). While perhaps more sympathetic, modern critics still routinely attribute Malvolio's interpretation of Maria's letter to "his complete isolation from reality" (Greif 270). In his introduction to the play, David Bevington offers the standard view of Malvolio as a solipsistic reader who "tortures the text to make it yield a suitable meaning, much in the style of Puritan theologizing" (336).
Without question, Malvolio has his flaws: he "taste[s] with a distempered appetite" and is, as Olivia says, "sick of self-love" (1.5.90-91). (2) It is this self-love that leads him--so goes the argument--to identify himself as the letter's addressee. Malvolio is austere, a killjoy of others' fun, and an egregiously bad reader who deserves, in the eyes of Toby and his cohort, imprisonment and a mock exorcism that borders on psychological and physical torture. They punish him not only for his hostile sobriety, but also and more immediately for his reading of Maria's letter, an act that his detractors--characters and some critics alike--consider misreading on a grand, even delusional, scale (Garber 530; Bloom 238). This consensus on Malvolio's alleged misreading is in need of serious revision: his hermeneutic, far from being the mark of Puritan excess, is remarkably astute.
Malvolio is an outsider in Olivia's household, identified by Maria as being "sometimes a kind of Puritan" (2.3.140). His detractors attack him for reading as a Puritan would, yet Shakespeare takes pains to rehabilitate Malvolio's reading. First, while his reading may seem to fulfill the stereotype or caricature of Puritan exegesis, Malvolio is in reality a shrewd interpreter of the kind of language that Olivia, were she really in love with him, would (and later most certainly does) use. Maria wrote the letter, but its style is Olivia's. Second, Malvolio reads as a textual pragmatist who does not believe that texts are self-interpreting; they cannot, in other words, be understood apart from social contexts, including oral ones, available to corroborate or invalidate his reading of the letter. He repeatedly makes use of those contexts. Malvolio has been much maligned for believing he is the letter's addressee, but this is scarcely a mistake: it is written specifically for him and to him in everything but the use of his name--and Maria virtually dangles that before him, too.
Moreover, Shakespeare uses Malvolio's reading as a way of touching on the Reformation dispute over hermeneutics--"the art of understanding texts" (Gadamer 164) (3)--yet at the same time he expands the notion of textuality to include the "text" of the body. Once Shakespeare establishes that people can also be "read" or interpreted, he suggests a striking parallel between Malvolio's reading of the letter and Sebastian's and Viola's "reading" of each other's identity in the play's recognition scene. While brother and sister reunite and marry others, Malvolio is excluded and purports to seek revenge. But the difference in their respective ends owes nothing to the respective quality of their readings--they are nearly identical--and everything to a misreading of Malvolio as one who pursues "perverse fantasies" in lieu of a careful hermeneutic.
REFORMATION HERMENEUTICS, REFORMATION VIOLENCE
The writing and reading of letters is a prominent feature of Twelfth Night's design. At Toby's exhortation to "taunt [Cesario] with the license of ink" (3.2.44-45), Sir Andrew writes a letter so inept--"excellently ignorant" (3.4.188)--that Toby ignores it and improvises a challenge by way of mouth. …