The use  of multiplicity in language- a technique derived primarily from Medieval morality and Terentian play-  was a defining aspect of Elizabethan drama; so much so that Jonas.A.Barish defines the period as an attempt to ‘jam a whole linguistic universe into a word or a phrase’  Its use is particularly apparent in the plays of Shakespeare, whose works are frequently characterised by modern Elizabethan critics by the ‘sense of great abundance’ created because they are so often  ‘multiple in meaning and irreducible to a single formulable argument’. This essay intends to use Act2, SC5 of Twelfth Night and Act3, Sc2 of Hamlet to explore how vastly affected a character is by their understanding of the multiplicitous nature of language.

Nothing in Twelfth night, be it gender, death or wisdom, is what it seems, and language is no exception; it is frequently used within the play used as a tool of misrepresentation or even active deception. The prime example be found in Act2 Sc5, where the power of multiplicitious language is used extensively by Maria in the letter she leaves for Malvolio.  She writes in a deliberately indeterminate diction in order to create an environment of possibility in which Malvolio can realise his innate desires and believe that he is the intended recipient of the letter.  This can be seen throughout the scene in extracts such as ‘In my stars I am above thee’ and ‘She that would alter services with thee’, but it is especially apparent in the cryptic hint to the identity of addressee in the line: I may command where I adore’. Despite its plethora of potential meanings, the deliberately indefinite nature of the addressee grants Malvolio the freedom and opportunity he needs to interpret himself as the subject of Olivia’s secret passion. This example demonstrates how Maria is able to use the inherent potential of her language’s multiplicity in order to allow Malvolio to reinforce his own delusion, for although Malvolio may seem at first glance to be capable of balancing his fanciful fantasies with the juxtaposing reality of his situation, his daydream of power and lust immediately preceding his discovery of the letter reveals his simplistic way of viewing the world through a singular disposition. He acts, and undoubtedly regards himself, as a figure of high authority and there are numerous examples in the scene and throughout the play of his attempts to be authoritative such as his self aggrandising pretension that he is worthy to marry into the nobility.   This righteous attitude can also be seen in the imposition of his own Puritan values upon the rest of the household, which is seen throughout the play in his dour behaviour and belief that a noble man should have an ‘an austere regard of control’. It is also referenced  at the beginning of Act2 Sc4; when Fabian tells Toby how Malvolio ‘brought me [Fabian] out of favour with my lady about a bear baiting here’, and these impositions indicate that Malvolio sees the situation through a simple, singular perspective- that of his morality and love of influence- rather than viewing it in relation to its context. Ultimately, it is this singular outlook that allows Maria’s multiplicitous suggestion to work so effectively on Malvolio as he is unable to recognise the alternative layers of reality that exist beside his own.

It is important to note however, that the letter does not have such infinite boundaries that Malvolio can use it to indulge any fantasy he wishes; infact it is actually quite rigorous in limiting the scope of its content.  It is, from Malvolio’s perspective at least, undeniably discursive about Olivia’s hidden desires and the means in which her hidden lover should convey his love to her; through stockings and smiles.  In some ways, this could be interpreted as a lack of multiplicity as it appears as if the letter is goading Malvolio along a predetermined path; the ‘cold scent’ mentioned by Toby.  Whilst this is in some ways a credible argument,  it is not necessarily the ends of the letter that are multiplicitous, instead it is the use of mulitplicitious means that give those ends the potential to be brought into actuality. Malvolio is left highly susceptible to these means of manipulation due to his simple perspective failing to notice that his views are being influenced by his views are being indirectly manipulated. An example of this can be seen in the structure of the letter, which uses two registers: verse- which was seen as a cultured, dignified means of expression, and thus represents Olivia-  and prose- a more standard form of address that often still indicates a simplistic level  of intelligence and wordcraft, and thus represents Malvolio. The shift from verse to prose infers the potential for social mobility, and creates the notion that the high and the low can be unified in harmony. That structure creates an overarching theme of potential within the letter, and is through this potential that Maria manipulates Malvolio as she uses multiplicity to guide the unrelated elements of Malvolio’s passions into this environment and then adds subtle signposts within the potential meanings of the text to bind these passions into a single coherent form.  Furthermore by having  the “Olivia” of the letter confirms this link Maria is simultaneously weakening Malvolio’s doubts and strengthening his conviction in his desires by assuring him his feelings are mutual and by removing Malvolio’s fear of failure.

February 3, 2018


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