Friday, 23 September 2011

Shakespeare and Malvolio

I shall approach this subject tangentially. A few miles from Penrith in the Lake District, where I was brought up, there is a stately home called Dalemain. Its core is a late mediaeval house, the centre of an estate which was bought in the 17th century by a certain Sir Edward Hasell, whose descendants still own the property. Sir Edward Hasell owed his wealth to the fact that he was the steward to a great noblewoman, Lady Anne Clifford - in other words, he was an exact parallel to Malvolio in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night".

Living in the present age, we tend to think of Malvolio as "just a servant"; not the sort of person who could have bought himself a stately home; but in Shakespeare's day it would have been rather more complicated. Perhaps it would be best to think of Malvolio as a "servant" in the same way as the Prime Minister is a "servant" of the Queen (the word "minister" does actually mean "servant"). In the context of Shakespeare's England, Malvolio would probably have been the younger son of a landowning gentleman, and quite likely educated as a lawyer. As the Lady Olivia's steward, he would have run her household and acted as the managing director of her estates, which would probably have totalled hundreds of thousands of acres. It would have been a very responsible position: large sums of money would have passed through his hands and a great many people would have worked under him. In other words, it was a perfectly respectable occupation for an able and ambitious man; and if he played his cards carefully, Malvolio could expect to become a rich gentleman in his own right, like Sir Edward Hasell. At the same time, Shakespeare makes clear the ambiguous relationship between Malvolio and Lady Olivia's relatives and hangers-on, like Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew and Maria, and the disastrous impropriety of Malvolio imagining he could ever hope to marry the Lady Olivia. It would be almost as bad as the Prime Minister trying to get off with the Queen!

Another man in a position analagous to that of Malvolio was the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes; born in 1588, and so a generation younger than Shakespeare. Hobbes was the son of a minor clergyman from Wiltshire, but his talents were recognised at school and he was able to go to Oxford University. He then spent his life in the household of a great nobleman: William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire, as tutor and secretary. But Hobbes did not begin to put forward his revolutionary ideas until the 1630s, after Shakespeare's death, and the intellectual world he inhabited and helped to change was wholly different from the semi-mediaeval world of Shakespeare.

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