If Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is a thinly-veiled Puritan (see the earlier article in this series), so is Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Maria, in act two of Twelfth Night, describes Malvolio explicitly as “a kind of puritan,” and the critic Leslie Hotson has argued that Malvolio was modeled on the Puritan William Knollys, First Earl of Banbury, who was an object of ridicule in Elizabeth’s court for his besotted efforts to court a teenage girl, well under half his age, reflecting Malvolio’s preposterous efforts to woo Olivia.
In a ballad popular at the time at which Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night, Knollys is derided as “Party Beard…the clown,” a reference to his multicolored beard, which was white at the roots, yellow in the middle, and black at the ends. In the play, Maria refers to the color of Malvolio’s beard as something of which he is absurdly proud, and Malvolio is lampooned for his vainglorious and foolhardy efforts to woo a young lady in much the same way as Falstaff is lampooned in The Merry Wives of Windsor and in the way in which the ballad lampooned Knollys. It is likely, therefore, that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen Malvolio as a satirical representation of William Knollys.
There is, however, a dark side to the real life Malvolio, which would have made him a perfect subject for Shakespeare’s ridicule and scorn. As a member of the Puritan party in Elizabeth’s court, Knollys would have been an enemy of England’s beleaguered Catholics and a staunch critic of the theatre, connecting the one with the other.