Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Act 2, Scene 5 | Summary



Sir Toby, Maria, and Sir Andrew are ready to play their trick on Malvolio. They have also invited Fabian, one of Olivia's servants. Fabian has reasons to resent Malvolio. They drop the letter in the garden where Malvolio will most probably see it, and they hide to observe him.

Malvolio enters the garden, daydreaming. He claims Maria is in love with him, but his real fantasy is to be married to Olivia. He describes the life he imagines with her in some detail, including the way he would humiliate "my kinsman Toby." In the meantime the hidden characters are frequently laughing and bursting in with comic asides and objections to what Malvolio says, thereby providing much humor for the audience.

Malvolio picks up and reads the letter and is immediately convinced it is from Olivia. The letter is phrased carefully and obliquely, but Malvolio immediately interprets it to be about himself. It ends with a request to appear before Olivia in yellow stockings, cross-gartered, and smiling. After Malvolio dashes off, Maria anticipates his first approach to Olivia: "He will come to her in yellow stockings, and 'tis a color she abhors, and cross-gartered, a fashion she detests."


Shakespeare included minimal, if any, stage directions for his plays. Usually rendered in italics in printed texts, stage directions describe the locations or movements of characters on stage. For example, at the start of Act 2, Scene 5, the directions only indicate "Enter Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian." Because very few copies of Shakespeare's acting scripts have survived, a modern reader must use his or her imagination to visualize what might be happening on stage based on the text.

A scene such as this really calls for imaginative staging. Several characters are attempting to hide; the audience can see and hear them, but Malvolio cannot. Shakespeare often made use of the theatrical device of characters eavesdropping on other characters, perhaps most humorously in Much Ado About Nothing. Although Malvolio is talking to himself, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Fabian talk at least twice as much as he does, usually telling one another to be quiet. The constant repetition of the word "Peace" echoes the "Hold Thy Peace" round which they sang the night before—the song which got them in trouble with Malvolio in the first place.

Maria's letter falls on fertile ground. Before he ever sees the letter, Malvolio imagines himself as a count married to Olivia and controlling the people around him. When he reads the letter, Malvolio says, "If I could make that resemble something in me!" He wants earnestly to make it about himself.

Maria wants to embarrass Malvolio, but not do him any permanent damage. She asks him to dress in an inappropriate way (bright yellow stockings "cross-gartered") for someone of his age and social position. Men in Shakespeare's time wore hose—a cross between long socks and tights—cross-gartered, or "crossed" and tied at the knee. Some experts have suggested cross-gartering was old-fashioned even by the time of Twelfth Night, while others speculate that it might have been the latest fashion for dashing young gentlemen. In either case, a steward would be expected to dress simply, in dark colors. Bright yellow stockings in a flashy or outmoded style are wildly inappropriate to Malvolio's social station. Even worse for Malvolio, the letter asks him to smile. Malvolio is known as an extremely somber man, so a smile on his face would be sure to look false and strange. Olivia may laugh at him, which would certainly hurt his pride—a reasonable revenge after the way he threatened to tattle on the tricksters.

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