Twelfth Night | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Twelfth Night | Act 4, Scene 2 | Summary



Maria asks the Fool to dress as the hermit Sir Topas and speak with Malvolio, who is locked up because he is supposedly mad. As Sir Topas, the Fool toys with Malvolio, asking him nonsense questions and claiming his answers show insanity or demonic possession. Then, at Sir Toby's suggestion, the Fool visits Malvolio as himself; he comforts him with a song, and offers to help. Sir Toby says, "I am now so far in offense with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this sport ... " The Fool agrees to deliver a letter to Olivia from Malvolio, protesting his unjust imprisonment and asserting that Malvolio is in his right mind.


The joke played on Malvolio has gone further than the tricksters intended: he is now locked up and has been declared insane. Maria and the Fool seem ready to drive him to an actual point of insanity. The Fool suggests Malvolio should believe heretical and clearly illogical ideas—for example, that his grandmother's soul could reside in a bird. The Fool also tells Malvolio not to complain about how dark the room is when it is filled with barricaded windows. Of course barricades keep the room dark, but Malvolio is so desperate to get out that he doesn't even argue.

Sir Toby is the one who changes the tone. He says he can't afford to keep the joke going because he is in so much trouble with Olivia—evidently a reference to Olivia's scolding him when she sees him fighting with Sebastian (who she thinks is Cesario). The Fool helps Malvolio write a letter of explanation to Olivia. Unfortunately the letter will not be delivered immediately, so Malvolio will languish in his prison a while longer.

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