Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

M.O.A.I. "What Should That Alphabetical Position Portend?" an Answer to the Metamorphic Malvolio

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

M.O.A.I. "What Should That Alphabetical Position Portend?" an Answer to the Metamorphic Malvolio

Article excerpt

Act 2, scene 5 - the "box-tree scene" - is the comic climax of Twelfth Night, yet despite its usually rapturous reception in the theater it contains a number of textual cruces which so far have eluded satisfactory explanation. In the scene, the posturing Malvolio stumbles across the love letter (forged by Maria) and, overlooked by Fabian, Toby, and Andrew, attempts to decode its cryptic message. As I wish to discuss the episode in detail, it will be necessary to quote a sizeable chunk:

SIR TOBY: O peace, and the spirit of humours intimate reading aloud to him.

MALVOLIO (taking up the letter): By my life, this is my lady's hand. These be her very c's, her us, and her t's, and thus makes she her great P's. It is in contempt of question her hand.

SIR ANDREW: Her c's, her us, and her t's? Why that?

MALVOLIO (reads): "To the unknown belov'd, this, and my good wishes." Her very phrases! By your leave, wax - soft, and the impressure her Lucrece, with which she uses to seal - 'tis my lady. To whom should this be?

He opens the letter

FABIAN: This wins him, liver and all.

MALVOLIO: "Jove knows I love,

But who?

Lips do not move,

No man must know."

"No man must know." What follows? The numbers altered. "No man must know." If this should be thee, Malvolio?

SIR TOBY: Marry, hang thee, brock.

MALVOLIO: "I may command where I adore,

But silence like a Lucrece knife

With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore.

M.O.A.I. doth sway my life."

FABIAN: A fustian riddle.

SIR TOBY: Excellent wench, say I.

MALVOLIO: "M.O.A.I. doth sway my life." Nay, but first let me see, let me see, let me see.

FABIAN: What dish o' poison has she dressed him!

SIR TOBY: And with what wing the staniel checks at it!

MALVOLIO: "I may command where I adore." Why, she may command me. I serve her, she is my lady. Why, this is evident to any formal opacity. There is no obstruction in this. And the end - what should that alphabetical position portend? If I could make that resemble something in me. Softly - "M.O.A.I."

SIR TOBY: O ay, make up that, he is now at a cold scent.

FABIAN: Sowter will cry upon't for all this, though it be as rank as a fox.

MALVOLIO: "M." Malvolio. "M" - why, that begins my name.

FABIAN: Did not I say he would work it out? The cur is excellent at faults.

MALVOLIO: "M." But then there is no consonancy in the sequel. That suffers under probation: "A" should follow, but "O" does.

FABIAN: And "O" shall end, I hope.

SIR TOBY: Ay, or I'll cudgel him, and make him cry "O!"

MALVOLIO: And then 'T' comes behind.

FABIAN: Ay, an you had any eye behind you you might see more detraction at your heels than fortunes before you.

MALVOLIO: "M.O.A.I." This simulation is not as the former; and yet to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for every one of these letters are in my name.(1)

Maria's mock love letter has caused frustration for generations of Shakespearean scholars. The New Variorum is full of responses which are as far-fetched as they are plenteous.(2) In respect of her c's, u's, t's, and P's, Steevens noticed that neither c nor P appear in the superscription of the letter, though he offered no explanation for their presence here. Malone proposed merely that "This was perhaps an oversight in Shakespeare," though he was silent as to why the playwright may have chosen these four letters, two of which do and two of which do not appear in the address. Ritson postulated that the letters do not appear because Malvolio has not read all of it out. He supplies the following which he suggests was "the usual custom of Shakespeare's age: 'To the Unknown belov'd, this, and my good wishes, with Care Present.'" W. A. Wright is skeptical, though: "If Ritson's supposition be correct, no more needs be said on the point; but I have grave doubts about it. …

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