Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University




Viola's brother Sebastian is not drowned. He has been saved by, and is about to part company with, his newfound friend Antonio, worrying that his own ill fate may prove contagious. Before doing so, he reveals his identity and reports the death of his twin sister. "Sebastian abandons a pseudonym he has been using (why, we are not told)" (Asimov 580). Antonio claims to have enemies at Orsino's court but would risk such dangers for Sebastian.


Malvolio tries to deliver the ring to Cesario as Olivia requested. Naturally, Cesario (Viola) doesn't know what this is about. Malvolio gets haughty at her protestations and leaves. Viola wonders what all this means. "Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!" (II.ii.18). She ponders the Olivia situation.

Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy it is for the proper-false
In women's waxen hearts to set their forms!
But finally, Viola is determined to be rather irresponsibly passive:
O time, thou must untangle this, not I,
It is too hard a knot for me t' untie.


Sir Toby encourages Sir Andrew's continued carousing, claiming that staying up past midnight is essentially like the virtue of being up early. Toby calls for wine and Feste joins the partying: "Did you ever see the picture of 'we three'?" (II.iii.16-17) -- a reference to a clever renaissance image of two fools or asses' heads bearing the inscription "We Three," meaning that the viewer is implicated in a kind of triangulation (as the third ass).

The revellers sing "Hold Thy Peace." "That is to say, they are singing a song about not singing" (Garber 513). "O! the twelfth day of December" (II.iii.87) may be a parody of a ballad, "The Brave Lord Willoughby," which begins, "The fifteenth of July" (Ogburn and Ogburn 275), and Lord Willoughby, Oxford's brother-in-law, may be the inspiration for the character Sir Toby. Toby requests a song from Feste, and the fool sings "O Mistress Mine." [The musical line "Journeys end in lovers' meeting" (II.iii.43) is quoted by Sherlock Holmes to Colonel Moran in "The Adventure of the Empty House."] Then all three revellers sing a catch called "Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave." Maria tries to shut them all up, but fails. Then Malvolio tries to shut them all up, asking, "My masters, are you mad?" (II.iii.86); this accusation of madness will be turned against him eventually. "To Malvolio, 'madness' here is an aspect of morality, a breach of decorum, akin to bad manners" (Garber 524). Sir Toby objects, first uttering, "Sneck up!" (II.iii.94) -- simply a contraction for "His neck up!" (i.e., "Hang him!"), but it sounds a lot cruder! Toby then asks Malvolio, "Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" (II.iii.114-116). A reference to Malvolio's "chain" seems to be another reference to the chain Sir Christopher Hatton had received as a gift from Elizabeth, "of which he was inordinately proud" (Ogburn and Ogburn 287).

Malvolio obviously does not possess the infinitude of Falstaff or Hamlet, but he runs away from Shakespeare, and has a terrible poignance even though he is wickedly funny and is a sublime satire upon the moralizing Ben Jonson. (Bloom 227)
When Malvolio leaves, the others snipe about what an ass he is. Maria immediately vows to plot something against him, to "gull him into an ayword [?; an "ever" word?], and make him a common recreation" (II.iii.134-135). They call him a "puritan" (II.iii.143), and Maria says that, more precisely, he is "a time-pleaser, an affection'd ass" (II.iii.148), self-seeking, and with affectations. Andrew claims to want to beat Malvolio for being a Puritan, but Toby hestitates on that ground, perhaps because Toby is a depiction of Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby, from a family that leaned in the puritanical direction (Clark 372). Maria already has a plan to get back at Malvolio: in the forged handwriting of Olivia, to "drop in his way some obscure epistles of love" (II.iii.155-156).

Sir Toby is typically cast as an older man because directors link him with Falstaff -- but Sir Toby is no Falstaff either really. Malvolio is typically cast as an older man too, but this is due to the stereotype his attitude brings up. Just because Shakespeare is in the theater doesn't mean he is unreservedly on the side of revelry. The revelers are perhaps the least sympathetic characters here eventually, and the most sadistic. Maria has a mind but also a dangerous inwardness; she truly seems malicious and a bit of a social climber -- the very ambition she uses against Malvolio. "There is a cruel streak in her as there generally is in practical jokers" (Goddard, I 298). And although it's natural that the revellers react against Malvolio, "In their dislike of Malvolio they forget that he is merely carrying out Olivia's orders, in however annoying a manner" (Goddard, I 296).

The reference to Olivia as a "Cataian" (II.iii.75) may signify Elizabeth's investment in the Cathay Company venture, which "ended disastrously with the third Frobisher Expedition" (Clark 371; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 228, 275).


Duke Orsino wants to hear music again:

Give me some music. Now good morrow, friends.
Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night;
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times.
Come, but one verse.
But something seems wonky: "He is not here, so please your lordship, that should sing it." "Who was it?" "Feste the jester, my lord, a fool that the Lady Olivia's father took much delight in" (II.iv.8-12). This is the only instance of Feste being mentioned by name in the entire play. And note that this takes place in a prose moment jammed between Orsino's verse passages. The oddity suggests revision patching, after Feste was brought in to usurp Viola's original function as singer at Orsino's estate.

Orsino and Cesario (Viola) discuss constancy and women, and the Duke is rather inconsistent even in the discussion. He gives reasons why the woman in a relationship should be younger than the man. He also wistfully remarks, "women are as roses, whose fair flow'r / Being once display'd, doth fall that very hour" (II.iv.38-39), to which Viola responds, "And so they are; alas, that they are so! / To die, even when they to perfection grow!" (II.iv.40-41).

Feste enters and sings a melancholic song, "Come Away, Come Away, Death," that doesn't quite match what Orsino raves about it. One notes that Feste's "songs are all plaintive and in a minor key" (Goddard, I 301). Then Viola counters Orsino's insistence on women's inconstancy with the cloaked story of herself, pining but true and constant in her affections: "My father had a daughter lov'd a man / As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, / I should your lordship" (II.iv.107-109). Her history is "A blank" (II.iv.110); she concealed her love "like a worm i' th' bud" (II.iv.111), and, Cesario implies, pined herself to death.

Viola's parable of her imaginary sister who 'never told her love' creates a temporary suspension of the flow of time in the play as she looks backward to an imagined past which is at the same time an image of the future that she fears for herself, for she cannot tell whether her imaginary sister died of her grief.... (Wells 182)
Anyway, back to wooing Olivia.


A previously unseen character named Fabian (seemingly from an earlier stratum of this play and incompletely cancelled, since Maria had called for Feste to be the third person present) also has a grudge against Malvolio. The latter ratted him out to Olivia regarding his enthusiasm for bear-baiting -- a "sport" for moron spectators, much like any, except particularly cruel to the animals. In 1575, "thirteen bears were baited with the Queen an interested spectator. This 'amusement' was not finally outlawed in England until 1835" (Asimov 583). The reference may also serve as "a reminder that Lord Oxford frequently arranged entertainments for the Queen" (Clark 373), but the elder Ogburns detect a reference to Oxford's "baiting" of Burghley in other theatrical depictions (Ogburn and Ogburn 273). Sir Toby calls Malvolio a "niggardly rascally sheep-biter" (II.v.5) -- another oblique reference to Sir Christopher Hatton, who was given the nickname Mutton by Elizabeth (Clark 372). (He wrote self-servingly and against Oxford, claiming metaphorically that the sheep has no teeth to bite -- in other words, he, Hatton, is harmless. In the "sheep-biting" reference, Oxford suggests he is a wolf in sheep's clothing.) Hatton's letters to Elizabeth are rightly considered "cloying," "even allowing for the unctuous flattery Elizabeth demanded and received" (Ogburn and Ogburn 272).

Maria -- probably a depiction, like Kate in Taming, of Mary Vere (Farina 85), ultimately paired with Sir Toby as Peregrine Bertie (Clark 368) -- has written an intriguing letter and laid it in Malvolio's path. Fabian, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew eavesdrop on Malvolio's arrogant ruminations. He thinks Maria fancies him, and he harbors delusions of grandeur -- his "dream of socio-erotic greatness" (Bloom 238) -- "To be Count Malvolio!" (II.v.35) and able to send for Sir Toby, to chastise him, and while waiting for him to be brought in, "I frown the while, and perchance wind up my watch, or play with my -- some rich jewel" (II.v.59-60). What was he going to say? "Bell"? [E.T. Clark deduces from other plays such as The Comedy of Errors that Oxford found an easy mark for mockery of Hatton in referring to his fondness for a gold bell and chain received from the Queen as an award for a tournament victory (Clark 18-19).]

And -- risibly to an early modern audience -- he misunderstands the structure of the English peerage, wrongly anticipating that marrying a countess would make him a count. (The rank of "count" -- originally denoting a feudal lordship over a "county" -- was equivalent to the English "earl," below a marquis but above a viscount.) According to the British system of peerage, if Olivia were to marry another peer, or titleholder, she would lose her courtesy title (derived from her father) and gain whatever title she would have as the wife of a peer. Should she marry a commoner, like Malvolio or Sebastian, she would retain her courtesy title, but would substitute her new surname for her maiden name ("the Lady Malvolio"? Is "Malvolio" his fist name or his last name?). Her commoner husband would certainly not accede to her father's, or brother's, title. (Garber 529)

Then, to the delight of the others hidden "behind an ornamental shrub" (Garber 525), Malvolio discovers the letter and recognizes what he thinks is Olivia's handwriting: "These be her very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus she makes her great P's" (II.v.86-88). Clark detects the letters involved in "Count," Simier's title, and "Prince," Alençon's title (Clark 373; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 287). But the more accessible indication is cruder. "'Great P's' may be, to Malvolio's mind, capital letters, but to a grosser imagination they are floods of urine" (Garber 526). The envelope is sealed shut with wax, "And the impressure her Lucrece, with which she uses to seal" (II.v.92-93). He opens it anyway, breaking the seal (raping Lucrece?), and reads with excitement what seems to be a confession of love from Olivia: "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" (II.v.104-107). That last part Fabian calls "a fustian [nonsensical] riddle" (II.v.108), and Toby is impressed with Maria, but his aside may suggest that he has an idea of what the cryptogram really means. Malvolio ponders the M. O. A. I., deciding only that all those letters are in his name. The puzzlement gives time for the hidden revellers to make clever comments, but otherwise the sequence is indeed baffling. Alas, it does seem like an in-joke, now perhaps inaccessible. At least it draws our attention to the names and the spellings, and many have pointed out the "anagrammatic relation" of Olivia, Viola, Malvolio, suggesting that these characters somehow "mirror" each other (Garber 511). "Viola" is contained within "Olivia" is contained within "Malvolio." See below for a bibliography of "M.O.A.I." speculations.

A famous line also comes from this letter: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em" (II.v.145-146). This is the part I don't think makes any sense, which is part of the joke, but everybody gets all sanctimonious about Shakespeare and quotes this as if it's a penetrating assessment of life. How can one have greatness thrust upon one? How is that different from achieving it? What does "greatness" mean if this threefold principle is supposed to work?

The letter advises Malvolio to lord his upward mobility over everyone else and to blab about politics. It ends with hopes that Malvolio will smile persistently and wear yellow stockings cross-gartered (a particularly ludicrous and gaudy fashion faux-pas -- I guess parallel now to getting done up in one's disco clothes?). And finally the document is signed, "The Fortunate Unhappy." Oxymorons in love were certainly fashionable, but this one is particularly ungainly. It does tie Malvolio and this play to the feud between Sir Christopher Hatton and the Earl of Oxford, though, as a translation of Si fortunatus infoelix, a signature on numerous poems in the 1570s collection of Elizabethan court poetry, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (Clark 367; Ogburn and Ogburn 270; Anderson 154). Hatton's letters to Elizabeth "would have seemed to a spirited younger man fatuous and absurd" (Ogburn and Ogburn 272).

The others in hiding are delighted that Malvolio has fallen for this ruse. "Malvolio is more the victim of his own psychic propensities than he is Maria's gull. His dream of socio-erotic greatness -- 'To be Count Malvolio!' -- is one of Shakespeare's supreme inventions, permanently disturbing as a study in self-deception, and in the spirit's sickness" (Bloom 238). Sir Toby says he could marry Maria for such a joke. They await more laughs at Malvolio's expense, especially since Olivia hates the fashion recommended in the letter and is in no mood for someone smiling like an idiot.

M.O.A.I. -- Works Consulted

Bauer, Matthias. "A Note in Reply to Alastair Fowler." Connotations 2.3 (1992): 271-274.

Brown, John Russell. "More About Laughing at 'M.O.A.I.' (A Response to Inge Leimberg)." Connotations 1.2 (1991): 187-190. Brown points out problems with Leimberg's notion, such as the contraction "I'm" and no designation for the "&."

Fowler, Alastair. "Maria's Riddle." Connotations 2.3 (1992): 269-270.

Hotson, Leslie. The First Night of "Twelfth Night." London: R. Hart-Davis, 1954. 166. Mare, Orbis, Aer, and Ignis are the four elements; but the significance of this?

Leimberg, Inge. "Maria's Theology and Other Questions (An Answer to John Russell Brown)." Connotations 1.2 (1991): 191-196.

Leimberg, Inge. "'M.O.A.I.' Trying to Share the Joke in Twelfth Night 2.5 (A Critical Hypothesis)." Connotations 1.1 (1991): 78-95. Leimberg thinks it's an anagram for "I'm A & O" = I am Alpha and Omega -- an indication of Malvolio's "self-love."

Malcolm, Sundra G. "M.O.A.I. Unriddled: Anatomy of an Oxfordian Reading." Shakespeare Matters 7.1 (Fall 2007): 24-25. Malcolm derives an I A M O repositioning, signifying "I am O" or Oxford.

Smith, Peter J. "M.O.A.I. 'What Should That Alphabetical Position Portend?' An Answer to the Metamorphic Malvolio." Renaissance Quarterly 51.4 (Winter 1998): 1199-1224. Smith reviews the others and argues instead for an allusion to a late 16th-century satirical tract on the toilet: The Metamorphosis Of A Iax.


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