The Role of the Fool: Feste’s Significance

January 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the Feste’s role might originally appear to be as a minor character, but in actuality his role is of principal significance. Because the action of the play occurs during the revelry of the holiday season, the clown is used as a self-contained commentator on the actions of the other characters. Shakespeare’s contrast of Feste’s true wit (used to act foolish) with the true and unconscious foolishness of others is central to his role’s contribution to the play through true insight. Feste’s appearance in the play is held off until the fifth scene of act I. In this scene the reader is introduced to the clown through a conversation with Maria. It is in this scene that his contribution to the play is revealed through and aside: “Wit, an’t be thy will, put me in good fooling! Those wits that think they have thee, do very oft prove fools, and I that am sure lack thee may pass for a wise man”Ö”Better a witty fool than a foolish wit” (1.5:29-33). These lines indicate that Feste’s presence is not merely comic relief through inane acts and show that the role of the fool requires much intelligence. Feste is also able to recognize that self-proclaimed wits are usually not witty at all and it is this lack of self-knowledge that makes them fools. This subject of self-knowledge (or lack thereof) is pervasive throughout the comedy as it contributes to the motif of love as folly. Feste’s contribution to the disclosure of underlying themes of love is essential to the understanding of the play’s messages. The clown’s most profound comments often take the form of song:O mistress mine, where are you roaming?O stay and hear, your true love’s coming,That can sing both high and low.Trip no further, pretty sweeting,Journeys end in lovers meeting, Every wise man’s son doth know.What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter, Present mirth hath present laughter.What’s to come is still unsure.In delay there lies no plenty, Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.Youth’s a stuff will not endure. (2.3:37-50)This song is performed due to the requests of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for a “love-song.” The song plays on the events of Twelfth Night itself. Clearly the song echoes the merriment of this season and how the uncertainty of “what’s to come” shouldn’t be prohibitive, but rather a driving force to take life as it comes and live life to its fullest present possibilities. Feste also foreshadows events that will occur later in the play. When he speaks of journeys ending “in lovers meeting,” he hints at the resolution in which several characters are married. This scene, with the clown’s first song, because it involves dialogue between Feste and Sir Andrew, is quite ironic. It is ironic because the licensed fool is actually no fool at all and the true fool, Sir Andrew, is the character who provides most of the comedy through his idiocy. It is this interaction that reveals two kinds of fools, the conscious and the unconscious fool. In Twelfth Night it is essentially the unknowing fools that provide the actual comedy, while the wise Feste adds insight to greater meaning of the play. It is by his acting like a fool that Feste gains the privilege to speak the truth of the people around him. Through these truths, which are directed jokingly at another, Feste’s keen perception of others is disclosed. Feste’s intuition is comparable only to the perception of Viola. Because both characters are the only ones who are involved in both houses, Orsino’s and Olivia’s, they rival each other in their respective knowledge of the events that are taking place at the two settings. Apparently, Viola is the only character who recognizes Feste’s true intelligence: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that craves a kind of wit. He must observe their mood on whom he jests, the quality of persons, and the time, and, like the haggard, check at every feather that comes before his eye. This is a practice as full of labor as a wise man’s art, for that he wisely shows is fit, but wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit” (3.1:59-67). This shows Viola’s awareness of Feste and his ability to read people in order to say the right thing at the right time. Through this keen observation by Viola, she is perhaps acknowledging that the clown might even have the ability to see through her own disguise. Although Feste never openly claims to know of Viola’s deceptive dress, it is indicated that he might be on to her: “Now Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard” (3.1:43-44).It is not only Feste’s insights on the greater reality of the play’s events that make him an important character but his ability to stay detached from the emotional and self-motivated acts of the others. While most of the other characters are distressed because of their loss of love or want of love, Feste remains self-contained, seemingly driven only by his financial needs. Because he relies on monetary compensation from others he must act in a way that ensures gratuity. It is because the clown is not involved emotionally in the central action that he becomes less of a participant and more of a commentator. Therefore it is not surprising that Shakespeare assigns Feste the final lines in the comedy.Feste precedes his song with by enraging Malvolio by mocking him. It suggests that because Malvolio is a self-involved unlikable character he should be burdened by such despicable qualities. These comments further enrage Malvolio and instead of learning something from the insights of Feste he becomes more egotistical than before. This further shows the foolishness of those who hold themselves to a higher level than a “fool” but accordingly act as such. This outrage by Malvolio is quite pleasing to the audience because of the nature of his character. Along with the indictment of Malvolio are other happy endings in the form of marriages. Although these events are delightfully optimistic, Feste’s final song lessens the hope of a completely happy ending. The refrain of this song, which states “the rain it raineth every day,” insinuates that at any time the happiness that now occupies the characters in Illyria could at any time be swept away. The song as a whole seems to show maturation from innocence to experience and through this development was a continuum of “the wind and the rain.” With this song, Feste seems to suggest that even as a person goes through life, with its ups and downs, he or she must remember that at any time one can end up in an unfamiliar place with a completely different life.Feste’s role as a fool, in both Olivia and Orsino’s houses, makes him accessible to all character’s in the play. But it is his ability to avoid attachment to other characters and his licensed foolery that enables him to become a commentator on the actions of others and allows his character to thrive. It is through this commentary that Feste can assert his true wit over the true foolishness of the other characters. His insightful dialogue provides criticism and interpretation of the central events of the comedy. While Feste’s role as the fool should imply a lack of intelligence, it is exactly the opposite, leaving the foolishness to other characters.

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