Twelfth Night Analysis of Fools by Shakespeare
A fool can be defined in many meanings according to the Oxford English Dictionary On Historical Principles. The word could mean “a silly person”, or “one who professionally counterfeits folly for the entertainment of others, a jester, clown” or “one who has little or no reason or intellect” or “one who is made to appear to be a fool” (the word originated from North Frisian). In English literature, the two main ways in which the fool could enter imaginative literature is that “He could provide a topic, a theme for mediation, or he could turn into a stock character on the stage, a stylized comic figure”. In William Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, Feste the clown is not the only fool who is subject to foolery. He and many other characters combine their silly acts and wits to invade other characters that “evade reality or rather realize a dream”, while “our sympathies go out to those”. “It is natural that the fool should be a prominent & attractive figure and make an important contribution to the action” informing the confusion and the humour in an Elizabethan drama. In Twelfth Night, the clown and the fools are the ones who combine humour & wit to make the comedy work.
Clowns, jesters, and Buffoons are usually regarded as fools. Their differences could be of how they dress, act or portrayed in society. A clown for example, “was understood to be a country bumpkin or “cloun”. In Elizabethan usage, the word ‘clown’ is ambiguous “meaning both countryman and principal comedian”. Another meaning given to it in 1600 is “a fool or jester”. As for a buffoon, it is defined as “a man whose profession is to make low jests and antics postures; a clown, jester, fool”. The buffoon is a fool because “although he exploits his own weaknesses instead of being exploited by others….he resembles other comic fools”. This is similar to the definition of a ‘Jester’ who is also known as a “buffoon, or a merry-andrew. One maintained in a prince’s court or nobleman’s household”. As you can see, the buffoon, jester and the clown are all depicted as fools and are related & tied to each other in some sort of way.
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The relatively have the same objectives in their roles but appearance-wise (clothes, physical features) they may be different. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste’s role in this Illyrian comedy is significant because “Illyria is a country permeated with the spirit of the Feast of Fools, where identities are confused, ‘uncivil rule’ applauded…and no harm is done”. “In Illyria therefore the fool is not so much a critic of his environment as a ringleader, a merry-companion, a Lord of Misrule. Being equally welcome above and below stairs..” makes Feste significant as a character.
In the Twelfth Night, Feste plays the role of a humble clown employed by Olivia’s father playing the licensed fool of their household. We learn this in Olivia’s statement stating that Feste is “an allowed fool”(I.v.93) meaning he is a licensed, privileged critic to speak the truth of the people around him. We also learn in a statement by Curio to the Duke that Feste is employed by Olivia’s father. “Feste the jester… a fool that the Lady Olivia’s father took much pleasure in”(II.iv.11).
Feste is more of the comic truth of the comedy. Although he does not make any profound remarks, he seems to be the wisest person among all the characters in the comedy. Viola remarks this by saying “This fellow’s wise enough to play the fool”(III.i.61). Since Feste is a licensed fool, his main role in Twelfth Night is to speak the truth. This is where the humour lies, his truthfulness. In one example he proves Olivia to be a true fool by asking her what she was mourning about. The point Feste tried to make was why was Olivia mourning for a person who’s soul is in heaven?
“CLOWN Good madonna, why mourn’st thou? OLIVIA Good fool, for my brother’s death. CLOWN, I think his soul is in hell, madonna. OLIVIA I know his soul is in heaven, fool. CLOWN The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.
Adding to the humour of the comedy, Feste dresses up as Sir Topaz, the curate and visits the imprisoned Malvolio with Maria and Sir Toby. There he uses his humour to abuse Malvolio who is still unaware that he is actually talking to the clown than to the real Sir Topas. Feste (disguised as Sir Topaz) calls Malvolio a “lunatic” (IV.ii.23), “satan”(IV.ii.32) and confuses him by wittingly making him a fool.
Throughout the play, Malvolio has always been the person who intentionally spoils the pleasure of other people(killjoy). He is Feste’s worst nightmare in the play, but in the end, is triumphed over by Feste completely and is the only character to show a negative attitude and a dignity reversed.
“MALVOLIO: I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” (V.i.378) At the end of the comedy, Feste, “is given the last word and is left in possession of the stage”.
Maria, Olivia’s companion is another person who seems enthusiastic about playing pranks on other people. In the Twelfth Night, she plays the unsuspecting role of a behind the scene fool who gives ideas to Feste, Sir Andrew & Sir Toby to assist her in her plans. In two incidents, she remains quiet while her plans are carried out by either the Knights or the Clown.
Part of the humour that lies in this comedy is that Maria’s pranks are harsh & cruel, using love and power (status of Olivia) to attack Malvolio, steward of Olivia, who is “….sick of self love”(I.v.90). For this, Malvolio’s greed for power ends him locked up in a dark cell and is accused of being mad. She also prepares Feste to disguise as Sir Topaz. This is seen in the quote: “Nay, I prythee put on this gown and this beard; make him believe thou are Sir Topas the curate; do it quickly. I’ll call Sir Toby the whilst.” (IV.ii.1,2,3) Combined with other fools, Maria helps make Twelfth Night a hilariously funny comedy.
Lastly, Sir Toby Belch is another fool in Twelfth Night. His role is helping “on the game of make-believe”. Always convincing & encouraging the rich Sir Andrew Aguecheek that he has a chance of winning Lady Olivia’s love. He is similar to Feste, except he plays the role of a knight and is Olivia’s kinsman. His role is similar to a fool because he depicts many pranks of a fool. For example in Act II scene iii, while he was drunk he sings along with Feste when Malvolio barges in to shut them up. Whenever there is a prank, Maria invites Sir Toby to participate.
One such prank was to assist Maria’s fake letter to make Malvolio think Olivia is in love with him. Sir Toby’s make-believe scheme works convincingly on Malvolio. Another prank was to accompany the disguised Feste (Sir Topaz) into the dark cell where Malvolio was imprisoned. This accompaniment was probably to assure Malvolio that the real Sir Topaz is visiting him. Yet it is another make-believe scheme of Sir Toby.
In the Twelfth Night, the fools are the ones that control the comedy and humour in the play. They assist in the make-believe game and fool around with characters who “evade reality or rather realize a dream”. In the Twelfth Night, Feste, Maria and Sir Toby are the fools that make the comedy work in many senses. They create confusion through humour and it all works out in the end to make William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a really funny Elizabethan play.
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