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Act II, Scene 3
In this very long scene, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are drinking at Olivia’s palace. Much of their repartee is disjointed and laden with proverbs, witticisms, and strange logic. Feste joins them and sings a song while Sir Toby and Sir Andrew join in. Maria appears to warn them that Olivia has asked Malvolio to turn them "Out of doors" because of the noise they are making. Just then Malvolio enters, very critical of their behavior. He accuses them of making "an alehouse" of Olivia's house and warns Sir Toby that if he does not mend his ways, Olivia will be obliged to "bid you farewell." Sir Toby makes fun of Malvolio and the clown undercuts Malvolio’s sternness by continuing to sing a song until Malvolio can do nothing but make weak threats that Olivia will hear about their unbecoming conduct. He finally leaves and much fun is made of him afterwards.
Sir Andrew would like to challenge Malvolio to a duel but Maria has other plans. She plans to make a fool of Malvolio by writing a letter to him in Olivia's handwriting. The letter will neither mention the name of the writer nor that of Malvolio, but an accurate portrayal of Malvolio will convince him that the letter is meant for him. Maria's plan is approved by Sir Toby who offers to deliver the letter. He praises Maria for her cunning and wit, and claims that she loves him. He also convinces Sir Andrew to send for more money by assuring him of his success with Olivia.
This scene contributes to the bawdy comedy of the subplot and it is difficult to simply read the boisterous play of words between Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and the Clown without visualizing the theatrics involved. The knights’ drunken humor is contrasted sharply with the dry, uptight Malvolio who is woken from his sleep by their rowdiness. Malvolio's character is presented in greater detail in this scene as being not only conceited, narrow- minded, and extremely pompous but also someone who is trying to maintain Olivia’s edict that the household remain in mourning. Although he attempts to do right by Olivia, he is perceived as stuffy and a spoilsport. His contempt of Sir Toby is evident even though Sir Toby is socially superior to him, as is his contempt for those who enjoy life and merriment. This attitude makes the characters of the subplot decide to plan and plot to ridicule him and thus teach him a lesson, which marks the beginning of the intrigue against Malvolio, and the rising action of the subplot.
Sir Toby and Maria play a major part in the intrigue against Malvolio, yet Maria, the more intelligent of the two, thinks up the perfect scheme which plays into Malvolio’s weaknesses, his great love for himself as well as his social strivings. Yet for all the shenanigans these characters get up to, they are not completely without their faults. Sir Toby is easy going and willing to enjoy life at the expense of others quite literally and he also is disrespectful of his niece’s mourning. Sir Andrew is a hanger-on who also thinks highly of himself yet does nothing but squander his money to a man who flatters his dull wit one minute and underscores it the next. Maria is also a member of the household and should be maintaining some discreetness yet she is lured by the infectious escapades of these characters who enjoy life’s pleasures.
In this scene, Shakespeare presents a very contrasting picture between fun-loving people such as Sir Toby and the more intolerant high-mindedness of Malvolio, which reveals the rigidity of social class. The conflict between them seems to be based on the question of what kind of behavior is expected from people of a certain social rank. Malvolio, though beneath Sir Toby in social rank thinks himself morally superior because of his impeccable conduct. Sir Toby replies to his threats that he will be thrown out because of his behavior with his own arsenal: his social status, "Art anymore than a steward?" Malvolio has clearly stepped out of bounds with his remonstrations and cannot do much but huff and puff since he wields no authority. Yet in contrast to Sir Toby his behavior is more respectful if not a little annoying to his mistress, Olivia. He is trying to maintain harmony at the palace, which is part of his job as steward. The stratification of Elizabethan society is clearly brought up in this conflict.