Monday, December 2, 2013

Malvolio and the Latest Twitter Hoax

Does Maria make a fool of Malvolio, or does he do it to himself?
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Maybe you read about this Thanksgiving weekend’s viral entertainment; if not, here’s the short version. On a delayed flight, a woman took the inconvenience personally and complained loudly. Her fellow passenger decided to pass the time by calling her out on her egotism and goading her via a set of notes. He also publicized his actions via social media. You can read it here.

As memes go, it’s kind of implausible (in fact, skeptics have already started to debunk the story). Still, many readers and viewers have applauded the passenger’s behavior, contending that the woman deserved it for her rudeness.  But I found the whole situation ugly. Even putting aside issues of gender, age, race, and social station (some of which were explicit factors in the targeting, others implicit), I recoiled from the punitive quality of the humiliation.

Shakespeare fans will recognize the scenario as a gulling. In the Shakespearean and Restoration eras, English audiences particularly enjoyed a comic plot which saw ill-mannered character tricked into humiliating themselves. The most famous target is Malvolio, while the Beatrice/Benedick subplot features gulling at its most benign. But once you look for the device, you’ll start to notice some sort of trick or dupe in nearly every one of Shakespeare’s plays.

In the case of Twelfth Night, productions often mitigate Malvolio’s humiliation or apologize for it by making his exit sympathetic. While I do think Shakespeare applies the device with a touch of ambiguity, for the sake of artistic complexity, it’s only a touch. Like Shylock, Malvolio is meant to get punished and banished from the stage; that’s part of the comedy, in an archetypal sense. But those productions are uncomfortable with the abuse of Malvolio.

And so am I. I have a lot of trouble with gulling as a device and (depending on the play and production) I don’t like Shakespeare when he uses it. I recoil inwardly when Titania learns that she’s spent the night with a beast. I had the same reaction to the Thanksgiving Gulling of 2013. It was ugly behavior on both players’ parts. But I suppose it should hearten directors to see that audiences can enjoy a gulling with as much cruel humor today as they could 400 years ago.


Someone on my Facebook feed has pointed out that the perpetrator of the airline gulling produces a reality TV show. That makes sense, and links directly the pleasure of watching the upstart of Shakespearean drama get his comeuppance and that of watching the fools of reality TV humiliate themselves.

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