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M.O.A.L "What should that alphabetical position portend?" An Answer to the Metamorphic Malvolio*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Peter J. Smith*
Nottingham Trent University


This paper is an attempt to answer the riddle set up by Malvolio's cryptic question which occurs in the box-tree scene (2.5) of Twelfth Night. The essay surveys a number of alternative solutions proposed by critics, editors, and actors. All are found, in their own ways, to be wanting: some are exposed as literal minded, too arcane, reliant upon language games that are unavailable to a theater audience or flawed by chronology. As the first step in decoding the puzzle, the paper rehearses a Renaissance view of semantics, according to which sense arises from utterances quintessentially — not, as modern linguistics would have it, approximately. Language, that is, is shown to signify inherently rather than conventionally. This linguistic veracity is shown to condemn Malvolio as he repeats an acrostic which he doesn't perceive, even while he utters it. The paper proposes that M.O.A.I. alludes to Sir John Harington's The Metamorphosis Of A Iax.

Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 1998

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I am indebted to Alan Brissenden who alerted me to his work on the history of As You Like It and to Catherine Burgass, Greg Walker, Roger Warren, and the anonymous Renaissance Quarterly referee who read drafts of this essay and made valuable suggestions. During 1997, earlier versions were presented at the Universities of Sheffield Hallam, Hawaii at Manoa, Tours, New South Wales, Newcasde, Monash, and La Trobe, and I am grateful to Steven Earnshaw, Philip Shaw, Andre1 Lascombes, Richard Madelaine, Mark Gaundett, Clive Probyn, and John Gillies respectively for their invitations and to members of the seminars. Finally, the publication of this piece by the Renaissance Society of America is fitting tribute to the intellectual vitality and cultural warmth of Richard J. Larschan, Jim Panos, Peg Panos, and my colleagues and students at the University of Massachusetts, 1996-97.


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