There are several obvious differences between the “bad guy” characters of Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Macheath in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. A majority of the differences between these characters is based on the setting and circumstance each text presents and therefore the character must be judged accordingly. Such differences between these three male characters are almost too numerous to begin pointing out and it seems that the most appropriate way to explore these malcontents would be to examine the ways in which they are all similar.
To begin with, all three of these characters exhibit behavior that is condemned by their societies and they have tendencies toward any number of vices, pride being the most readily noticeable. Categorizing these men under the similar vice of pride provides grounds to begin comparing their similarities, but within this context, it should be understood that although they are guilty of behavior based on this pride, none of the three are completely “evil.” Often, these characters are represented sympathetically and the reader cannot help but feel sorry for them as they suffer their fates. While this is true to varying degrees with each character, there is hardly a moment at the end of either work that one feels a sense of utter disgust or hatred for these “bad guys” and strangely, this even includes Satan in Paradise Lost by John Milton. Satan, rather than being an object of disdain in Paradise Lost seems nearly heroic, especially at the beginning and by the end, the reader feels compelled to understand the outcast angel and thus not abhor him completely. Similarly, the character of Macheath in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, while undoubtedly a scoundrel, is not to be the object of the reader’s hatred and in fact, seems to be the most honorable male character is the entire play. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio is a “bad guy” because he is stiff and unyielding to the playfulness of other characters but does not make him a “bad” character; he is merely outside of the norms his society and is punished rather harshly for his prudishness.
Malvolio is not a “bad guy” in any traditional sense and in fact, he is a devoted servant to his household that wishes for the best for his young charge. The other characters despise him because he is a spoilsport and although he is a villain in the context of the lighthearted play for not partaking in the jolly antics of his fellows, in more broad terms, he is not at all a villain—he’s merely a misunderstood and serious man. In the context of the play, however, he is the shadow looming over the bright scenes depicting the romantic fun of the central characters. Before he is convinced of his mistress’ love, he darkens the mood by scolding the revelers in one of the important quotes from Twelfth Night saying, “Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night Do ye make an alehouse out of my lady’s house, that ye squeak out of your cozier’s catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” (II.iii.82-89) He desires to be taken seriously, to have power over the other characters, but is quite helpless in doing so and only succeeds in making himself the ultimate subject of their cruel pranks.
To the reader, his admonishing of his peers may dampen the mood and even the scenes in which he is wearing the ridiculous yellow stockings and parading about with vision of grandeur are humorous and match the overall tone of the play. In these scenes it is also possible to see the way in which his pride takes him over and the darker, more intimate nature of his true thoughts is exposed. Still, this seems like a natural reaction from a character invested so heavily in the maintenance of appearance and behavior and it is not surprising that the thought of power comes so easily to his mind. As the joke continues, however, and Feste enters his cell and attempts to convince Malvolio of his insanity, two aspects of character development are made clear. First of all, Feste emerges as the malevolent character as he delights in his role as priest in his cruel attempt at mental sabotage. As this thesis statement involving Twelfth Night suggests, secondly, Malvolio is exposed to be headstrong and does not believe his is crazy, but rather is confident in his sanity and is not fickle-minded like the other characters—especially those blinded by love. If Malvolio has any cruelty of evil in him, it is not expressed until his final lines, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” (V.i.374) and even though this is an ominous threat, the reader cannot help but feel he is justified in this promise rather than impulsive and vengeful. His pride, his greatest treasure and vice, has been wounded and he is understandably angry, thus making it impossible to think of him as a villain.
In the case of Twelfth Night, Malvolio is not the ultimate “bad guy” because there are clearly others that were responsible for worse behavior. Feste takes great joy in baiting the imprisoned man and the young lovers are ridiculous and insensitive to Malvolio’s feelings when the joke is arranged. In such circumstances, the “bad guy” behavior Malvolio seems justified when he vows revenge because all of the other characters have been equally as evil. Malvolio’s society (which is comprised of those represented in the play) is bad therefore he reacts with equal villainy by resorting to vengefulness in the end. This is the same basic situation in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera because the main villain, Macheath, is only reacting to a society that is full of other villains. The problem in the case is that Macheath, a shameless highway robber and low-life is more honest than any of the other male characters the reader is introduced to. He freely admits to stealing and gaming, “The road indeed hath done me justice, but the gaming table hath been my ruin” (2.4 just before Air 24) and even though the reader recognizes that he does not live a “clean” life, he is more honest and sincere than many of the other characters and had eloquent words that address this. To one of his fellow thieves he warns in one of the important quotes from Beggar’s Opera, “Have an eye upon the moneylenders. A rouleau or two would prove a pretty sort of an expedition” ending with the blunt ironic quotation, “I hate extortion” (3.4)” Through such insights on his character, one cannot see him as a “bad guy” but rather a man that is forced, because of the play’s satirical representation of the other characters (who are part of a highly corrupt legal system) to play the game. In order to survive, he must play such a game on the terms of corruption, thus he can only be seen as responding to circumstance as opposed to being simply a “bad guy.
Unlike any of the other male characters in The Beggar’s Opera, Macheath exhibits that he has a sense of integrity and honesty. In his eloquent and seductive speech to Polly he openly addresses his status as a villain while at the same time negates any negative connotations this might invoke for the reader by softening his speech with eloquent romantic promises. He says, “Suspect my honor, my courage, suspect anything but my love. May my pistols misfire, and my mare slip her shoulder while I am pursued, if I ever forsake thee” (1.13) and the reader cannot help but be drawn in because he is honest about his crimes yet expresses a deep sense of truth—albeit one that is being employed as a seduction technique. It is easy for the reader to fall in love with Macheath and ignore his crimes and consider them necessary acts in a world of preexisting corruption and vice. His crimes are even slightly romanticized and the reader is drawn in by his “bad guy” appeal in much the same way he or she is likely to be by the descriptions of Satan in Paradise Lost. Like Macheath, Satan is glamorous, dangerous and heroic. The question becomes why Milton and Gay wished to make their villains so appealing? The only answer to the question would be that Gay wishes to see Macheath as a romanticized rebel against the corruption of the day—a man who lives on the edge and proves a point about society. The answer in the case of Paradise Lost is quite different. Satan is represented as being glamorous so the reader can see how easy it is to be sucked into his appeal.
Like Macheath, Satan is the anti-hero; the complex character whom the reader is fascinated with, taken in by, swept away with. It should also be noted that, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Satan is misunderstood by his peers and must be completely outcast before his true evil side is revealed. Overall, throughout Paradise Lost Satan remains the most interesting and engaging figure. He is portrayed as dashing and heroic, not unlike Macheath in Book I as the narrator describes him in full detail and says, in one of the important quotes from Paradise Lost, “Th’ Infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile / Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived / The mother of mankind, what time his pride / Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring / To set himself in glory above his peers / He trusted to have equaled the Most High” (I. 35-40). Although the use of language throughout the whole of Paradise Lost is grandiose and reminiscent of a more glorious age, one cannot deny that this description invokes a deep sense of respect for the dark angel and the term “rebel angels” has a certain appeal similar to the “bad boy” image of Macheath but with the same tragic sad tragic undertones of Malvolio. The narrator laments Satan’s “sad exclusion from the doors of bliss” (3.525) and cannot help but feel pity for the misunderstood anti-hero who inhabits a constant hell of his own existence. A Satan that is idealized in the beginning yet more fully realized later when he sadly states, “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; / And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threatening to devour me open wide” (5.75-77).
As the thesis statement for this character comparison suggests, both Macheath and Malvolio have startling similarities to Satan. They are all outcast because of some deviation of their character yet even so; their flaws make them more potent figures in their respective texts, and allow them to be more fully developed since they are not simply “good” or “bad.” Milton’s Satan embodies the best of both other characters; he possesses the dashing charm and commitment to a personal set of ideals (even if they go against that which is deemed right by society) and Malvolio’s martyrdom in the sense that Malvolio is the victim of his refusal to join in the games of his society and eventually, in response to such exclusion, he snaps and resorts to (for him) complete evil by vowing revenge. As a whole it can be fairly stated that although all three of these characters represent undesirable traits in any person or society, their complexity and appeal is linked such flaws, thus making more rounded, admirable, and pitiable.