Malvolio initially seems to be a minor character, and the trick played on him seems little more than an amusing subplot to the Viola-Orsino-Olivia love triangle. But he becomes more interesting as the play develops into one of the most complex characters in "Twelfth Night". When we first meet Malvolio, he seems to be a simple type--a puritan, a stiff and proper servant who likes to spoil other people's fun. It is this dour, fun-despising side that earns him the hate of the loopy Sir Toby and the clever Maria, who together create a trick to play on him. But they do so by playing on a side of Malvolio that might have otherwise remained disguised--his self-regard and his ideas above his station, which extend to marrying Olivia and becoming, as he puts it, "Count Malvolio" (II, v, 30).
Malvolio works as a steward in the household of the countess Olivia, a powerful unmarried woman in Illyria.
Olivia finds that Malvolio is useful in protecting her from unwanted suitors and for enforcing discipline among the hangers-on who cavort around her property. At the same time, Olivia recognises his serious flaws: when she witnesses him arguing with the play's fool Feste, she gives a direct analysis of his character: "You are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon bullets" (I.v.85-88).
Playwrights in Elizabethan times often had a Puritan as one of their characters just for an easy laugh. Making fun of Puritans in the theatre at that time was a kind of cheap sport since the Puritans were unpopular with the audience as well as among those who supported the theatre. The Puritans on...