Discuss the Puritanism in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

“Twelfth Night” incorporates references to Puritans and certain radical religious reformers. Malvolio, in particular, exhibits traits disliked by Puritans, leading some critics to interpret his downfall as an attack on Puritanism and its followers. Several instances in the play support this viewpoint:

(a) In Act II, Scene 3, Maria initially describes Malvolio as “a kind of Puritan,” but quickly corrects herself, saying he is not a Puritan but a time-pleaser.

(b) In the same scene, when Maria mentions Malvolio’s Puritan-like behavior, Sir Andrew responds by saying he would beat him like a dog.

(c) In Act III, Scene 11, Sir Andrew expresses his disdain for politics, saying he would rather be a Brownist (a term associated with Puritans) than a politician.

(d) Malvolio’s character is characterized as unpleasant and somewhat Puritanical. He is solemn and serious, disapproving of Feste’s wit and causing Fabian embarrassment due to his disdain for bear-baiting. Sir Toby accuses him of being against merrymaking, as he banishes “cakes and ale.” Olivia describes him as self-absorbed, and he becomes the target of a cleverly devised scheme.

However, we must approach these critics’ claims with caution. It is essential to remember that when a playwright assigns a phrase to a character, it does not necessarily reflect the playwright’s own serious opinion. The views expressed by characters should not be confused with the dramatist’s own beliefs. In this case, Sir Andrew, a foolish and boastful character, threatens to beat Malvolio if he were a Puritan. However, his motive for such an action might stem from his perception that Puritans are meek and passive, making them easy targets. The satire may not be directed at Puritanism itself, but rather at Sir Andrew’s irrational hostility towards a group of earnest individuals known for their pursuit of freedom of thought and religion. Had Shakespeare intended to satirize Puritanism directly, he would have done so explicitly, as he does when he criticizes excessive indulgence in food and drink or playfully mocks the affected language of the Euphuists.

Orsino also expresses certain opinions in his speeches, but it would be incorrect to consider him the mouthpiece of Shakespeare’s own views. Similarly, Sir Andrew and Maria should not be seen as serious representatives of Shakespeare’s beliefs. The passages directly referring to Puritanism in the play appear to satirize both its critics and practitioners.

Moreover, upon closer examination of Malvolio’s character, it becomes evident that he does not embody the typical religious Puritan portrayed by other Elizabethan dramatists and satirists. Religious hypocrisy was the primary trait targeted in contemporary literature’s ridicule of Puritans, but Malvolio does not display such hypocrisy. There is no evidence to suggest that Shakespeare held an antagonistic stance toward Puritanism in a religious sense. The poet’s satire is aimed at those who exploit morality for personal gain, rather than at the Puritans themselves. Malvolio’s misfortune stems from his excessive vanity rather than any characteristically Puritan traits. He is a sentimental fool, but he does not embody the archetypal Puritan. In fact, when Malvolio attempts to fulfill his duties as a sensible man and a faithful steward by addressing the issue of raucous behavior in Olivia’s house, he becomes the target of revenge from the mischievous group. If doing one’s duty and attempting to curb drunken revelry can be considered Puritanical, then the play seems to praise rather than satirize Puritanism. On the other hand, Malvolio’s downfall can be attributed to his personal flaws, which are not inherently Puritan characteristics. He is not an insincere person who uses religious language to deceive others. Rather, he is a well-meaning but misguided individual whose excessive vanity leads him into the trap set by his enemies. He is a suitable subject for a practical joke, but not a villain. Throughout his works, Shakespeare demonstrates his impartiality as a philosopher and moralist, transcending specific ages, religions, parties, and professions.

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While it is true that during Elizabeth’s reign and the Stuart period, Puritans actively opposed sports, pastimes, and public theaters, Shakespeare’s works contain only a few references to them. These allusions generally reflect the playwright’s large-hearted and good-natured tolerance towards his bitter opponents, rather than a desire to lash out at their supposed vices. Shakespeare did not intend Malvolio to represent the religious Puritan caricatures prevalent in the works of his contemporaries. He satirizes the self-seeking, self-conceited, and self-righteous aspects associated with some Puritans. However, there is no evidence of his animosity towards Puritanism as a religious movement. Shakespeare’s sympathetic and broad understanding of human nature would have prevented him from harboring angry hostility towards a movement that, despite its flaws, sincerely aimed to achieve a noble and disciplined ideal.

In Shakespeare’s portrayal of Malvolio, we find a character who falls victim not to religious hypocrisy but to the excessive vanity of a weak individual. Shakespeare himself was not a Puritan; his works exhibit an appreciation for joy and humor that would be incompatible with ascetic doctrines. However, he possessed a generous spirit that prevented him from being biased against a movement that, despite its excesses, sought to achieve a higher ideal. The character of Malvolio, as a pompous moralizer, represents the self-seeking and self-righteous tendencies of certain Puritans. Shakespeare’s satire aims to amuse rather than condemn.

Shakespeare’s plays contain no sectarian or political bias, reflecting his role as a philosopher and moralist with impartiality. He transcends specific religious and political affiliations and remains a timeless figure whose works resonate with audiences of all backgrounds. Even in an era of political and religious turmoil, Shakespeare did not engage in partisan commentary. He preferred to make us smile at absurdities rather than delve into the disputes of the Puritans, the High Churchmen, or any other sect. His focus was on the human condition, promoting a wide range of human experiences and perspectives, without aligning himself with any particular group or ideology.

In conclusion, while “Twelfth Night” contains references to Puritans and certain radical religious reformers, it is important to approach these references with caution. The portrayal of Malvolio and the satirical elements in the play should not be mistaken as a direct attack on Puritanism or its followers. Shakespeare’s intention was not to condemn Puritanism as a religious movement but rather to satirize the self-seeking and self-righteous aspects associated with some individuals. His portrayal of Malvolio as a pompous character highlights the dangers of excessive vanity rather than religious hypocrisy.

Throughout his works, Shakespeare demonstrates his impartiality as a philosopher and moralist, transcending specific ages, religions, parties, and professions. He embraces a wide range of human experiences and perspectives, promoting understanding and tolerance. While Elizabethan dramatists and satirists often caricatured Puritans and engaged in sectarian humor, Shakespeare’s approach was characterized by a large-hearted tolerance and good-natured portrayal.

It is important to remember that the views expressed by characters in the play should not be confused with the playwright’s own beliefs. Shakespeare’s plays offer a reflection of human nature and the complexities of society, allowing for multiple interpretations and perspectives. Ultimately, his works continue to resonate with audiences from diverse backgrounds, emphasizing the universality of human experiences rather than promoting partisan or sectarian ideologies.



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