Twelfth Night: Bare, Unadulterated Cruelty

South of the River Thames, sat the entertainments for the Elizabethan residents of London. Circular walls with some seats raised around the edges for the spectators. The Puritans (like Malvolio) hated what was going on in these dens of iniquity.

Am I talking about the Globe, the Swan, the Rose, or the Hope theaters?


I’m talking about the bear- and bull-baiting arenas.

In the middle of each of these circular pits was a post driven into the ground. The animal to be baited would be chained to the post, either by the neck of a leg. Then a group of trained hunting dogs would be set loose to attack and torment, to “worry,” the baited beast. If the bear or bull injured an attack dog (or it became tired), it would be replaced. Defeat was death, victory (for the baited animal, at least) mere survival.

And this was entertainment.

So it should come to no surprise that an entertainment like Twelfth Night has a few bear-baiting references.

When Sir Andrew admits to not knowing what “pourquoi” means, he laments, “I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear-baiting” (I.ii.87-9). Fencing, dancing, bear-baiting. In the world of Twelfth Night, the tormenting of an animal is but a recreation.

Later, Fabian complains to Sir Toby that Malvolio “brought me out o’ favor with my lady about a bear-baiting here” (II.v.6-7). Sir Toby responds that they’ll have their revenge upon the steward: “To anger him we’ll have the bear again, and we’ll fool him black and blue” (II.v.8-9). Malvolio will be the bear and Toby, Fabian, and Andrew will be the dogs.

Malvolio will not be the only one who feels tormented, though. Olivia feels the same way, only her “worrying” is at the hands of Cesario, as she tells the young (wo)man,

                      What might you think?
Have you not set mine honor at the stake
And baited it with all th’ unmuzzled thoughts
That tyrannous heart can think?
  • III.i.116-9

Only to be baited, there have to be dogs attacking . Cesario, however, is no such attacker, as (s)he tells the countess, “I pity you” (III.i.122).

Malvolio, on the other hand, has no such pity coming his way, as Maria tells Sir Toby, “I have dogged (Malvolio) like his murderer” (III.ii.71-2). Malvolio should expect no pity, and he gets none. Toby calls for Malvolio to be put

in a dark room and bound… for our pleasure… till our very pastime, tired out of breath, prompt us to have mercy on him
  • III.iv.129, 131-33

His tormentors may be prompted to have mercy on him, but will they act upon it? The entirety of Act Four, Scene Two–the tormenting of Malvolio–is one extended dramatic analog to a bear-baiting session, at the end of which the cruelest dog, Sir Toby, states,

I would we were well rid of this knavery. If he may be conveniently delivered, I would he were; for I am no so far in offense with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot.
  • IV.ii.66-70

While deliver could mean “to set free” (“deliver, v.; I.1.a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 8 February 2015.) in Shakespeare’s day, it also meant “to get rid of… to dispatch” (“deliver, v.; II.6.a” OED Online), and I’d argue that it’s this second meaning that Sir Toby employs, as Malvolio is still in captivity when Olivia calls for him in Act Five. Toby wants to be “rid of” Malvolio, and death is as good an end to this “sport” as any other.

At the end of the play, Olivia–she who had earlier felt tormented but who was pitied by what she thought was her attacker–grants Malvolio the ability to be both “plaintiff and the judge” (V.i.348) in his reversal of the baiting. Malvolio has survived, a victory in itself for the bear. But more is promised.

One variation of bear-baiting was the release of the bear from the post, so that he could chase the dogs for the further entertainment of the crowd, and Malvolio promises revenge on the “whole pack of you” (V.i.371). Everyone is a dog to the formerly baited bear, and he’ll have his revenge.

We won’t see it on stage, but it’s coming… if Twelfth Night is the social order turned upside-down, is Malvolio’s revenge to come the righting of that order? Or is it a prophecy and a preview of the English Civil War, the beheading of Charles I, and the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell?

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