Shakespeare’s Fool: Feste in Twelfth Night

This is an essay by Anjali Amit.

Twelfth Night is a play populated by confused characters. Orsino imagines himself in love with Olivia; what he really loves is the idea of being in love. Olivia thinks she cannot love because she is in mourning for her brother, yet falls head over heels in love with a woman disguised as a man. Viola dresses as a man. There are many instances of foolishness and foolery in the play, but only one sanctioned Fool. Feste occupies that position, if a Fool, the ultimate outsider, can be said to have a position.

Does he have a position? He belongs to Olivia’s household. Duke Orsino’s serving man informs him that Feste was “a fool that the lady Olivia’s father took much delight in.” So he is not a Johnny-come-lately. Maria leads us to believe that he is a paid retainer who could be laid off.

You will be hanged for being so long absent; or, to be turned away, is not that as good a hanging to you?

That does not faze him. Unlike Malvolio he is secure in  his station in life.

Let her hang me: he that is well hanged in this world need fear no colors.

He knows what is expected of him. The great households need entertainment, and Feste is ready. He bandies words with Olivia,  calls Olivia a fool to her face, understanding that he would not be misunderstood. He is secure in the knowledge that his position gives him the license to speak thus.

Indeed, Olivia enjoys his badinage. When Feste’s logic proves her a fool she turns to her steward and asks: “What do you think of this fool Malvolio? doth he not mend?”

He is not above exchanging witticisms with the ‘downstairs’ crowd. 

Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Begin, fool: it begins ‘Hold thy peace.’

Feste: I shall never begin if I hold my peace.

He pins Sir Toby exactly:

He is but mad yet, madonna; and the fool shall look to the madman.

If that were all he did he would still be an interesting character. Shakespeare however, was not content with merely continuing tradition. He took the role of the Fool and deepened and enriched it, so that he who used to be just an entertainer became also a philosopher and a commentator on his society.

Many of the plays have a Fool. It speaks volumes for Shakespeare’s craft that he is able to bestow on each a different character. Touchstone in As You like It is cruder than Feste, Sir Falstaff, the most vividly portrayed of Shakespearean Fools, is a blend of crudity and philosophical courage, the Fool in King Lear is all philosopher.

Feste’s role is that of a commentator and connector. He is an outsider to the world inhabited by Orsino’s court and Olivia’s household, and so free to comment on the foibles of the characters who inhabit those worlds. This is what he declares of the Duke:

Now the melancholy god protect thee; and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal. 

To Malvolio he says: …you are mad indeed, if you be no better in your wits than a fool.

If there is foolishness ‘upstairs’ there is foolery ‘downstairs’. Feste wanders between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, plot and sub-plot, and becomes the bridge that reveals the social mores to both: the characters in the play and its audience:

These wise men that give fools money get themselves a good report — after fourteen years purchase.

and:

would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown.

But all is not just empty word play. Feste may not have a position but he has heart. He cares for his mistress, and in proving her a fool his aim is to show her that blindly following convention can make one less than human. He holds up our excesses to enquiry. Fools are sanctioned to do so.

The strongest commentary Feste offers on his world is that he is there. Authority that allows itself to be mocked is confident of itself. A shaky authority holds rigidly to its rules. Malvolio rails against Feste, Olivia loves and protects him.

There is though, a touch of sadness to the merry fool. His songs reveal a melancholy beat. Exeunt all, except the Clown, is the stage direction for the last scene. Alone, he sings his final song:

A great while ago the world begun,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

The striving to please is done for the day. The cast has already departed, the audience also leaves.The outsider is alone again.

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Anjali Amit does not subscribe to the ‘eat to live or live to eat’ debate. She reads to live. Occasionally she writes stories for children, and has been known to create a crossword or two.

Photo: Some rights reserved by jmmcdgll.

2 Replies to “Shakespeare’s Fool: Feste in Twelfth Night”

    1. So true. That careful choosing of words is what gives the plays the depth and richness they possess. Shakespeare’s plays have been categorized into comedies, tragedies and histories, but this richness of plot and construction lifts them out of their tightly labeled boxes into a depiction of life in all its complexity.

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