In the play, Malvolio is defined as a Puritan. He despises all manner of fun and games, and wishes his world to be completely free of human sin. This leads to major conflicts with characters such as Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria, mistress of the household. He proves himself to be something of a hypocrite when alone however, fantasizing himself luxuriating on a day-bed while wearing a "branched velvet gown."
Much of the play's humour comes from Maria, Feste, Toby Belch, and Andrew Aguecheek tormenting Malvolio with drinking, joking, and singing. Then, a nasty trick is played on him by fooling him into thinking that Olivia is in love with him by writing a letter in her handwriting. This letter also makes him wear yellow stockings and cross garters. He must also smile because it has said in the letter that his smile is 'most becoming' when in fact it just makes him look ugly. When Malvolio is imprisoned for being a supposed lunatic after acting out the instructions in the letter, Feste visits him both as himself and in the guise of "Sir Topas," and torments Malvolio by making him swear to heretical texts, for example, Pythagorean precepts.
The role was first played by Richard Burbage at the Globe Theatre. John Westland Marston notes that the actors of his time often played the role with "contemptuous superiority"; by contrast his favorite Malvolio, William Ferrin, performed it with "lofty condescension." Other actors famed for their performance of Malvolio include Henry Irving, E. H. Sothern, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Henry Ainley, John Gielgud, Simon Russell Beale, Maurice Evans, and Richard Briers.
The lines would later be repeated by Feste in the final scene of the play as he mocks Malvolio who afterward storms off.