Who’s fooling who?

Shakespeare is known for his infatuation with the large festivals that took place during his time, which often mixed up social order. Also, famous to Shakespeare, characters of the lowest class are often the most knowledgeable (I vaguely remember this from the grave-diggers in Hamlet). Feste, known as the clown/Olivia’s jester, is ironically the most verbally sound and intelligent person in the play; he’s also one of the few characters who has any clue of what is happening in the world around him. In reading Twelfth Night we cannot help but think that Shakespeare is attempting to throw all prior stigmas concerning social standing out the window entirely. The true fools lie within the nobility of Illyria.

At the start of Act 3 we get a scene of Viola (dressed as Cesario) interacting with Feste. After a bit of witty conversation concerning the integrity of words, Feste states he is not Olivia’s fool: “…she will keep no fool, sir, till she be married” (3.1.28). Not only is Feste poking fun at the sanctity of marriage, but this is also alluding to Olivia’s love for Cesario (who of course is actually Viola, a woman). Feste also mentions that Olivia and Duke Orsino are equally comparable fools, which is proved by Orsino’s over-the-top wishes to marry Olivia when meanwhile he has never spoken to the woman in his life. Both Orsino and Olivia are in love based solely upon appearance–“foolish” occurrences–and a man dressed as a clown appears to be the only voice of reason in the matter. Viola also plays the fool in emptying out her pockets for Feste in the same scene; she awards Feste for his humor and “well” ability to beg. She comments on Feste’s exit as follows: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool / And to do that well craves a kind of wit / He must observe their mood on whom he jests” (3.1.53). Feste is aware of his surroundings–he knows Viola is traveling back and forth from Orsino to Olivia without being told so, and he can read human emotion well enough to use his skills to make profit.

Feste further toys with Malvolio in Act 4.2, who is now entrapped “in a dark room and bound” after Maria (a lower ranking member of Olivia’s court) writes him a letter imitating Olivia’s handwriting. The letter led Malvolio to dress up in ridiculous yellow tights in order to supposedly please Olivia; he ended up appearing like more of a court jester than Feste. Malvolio’s strange behavior caused Olivia to regard him as a madman. In this Act, Feste dresses up as Sir Topas to frighten Malvolio. Feste even acts out two separate voices and talks to himself–perhaps traits of a true madman–yet all of his ingenious efforts are all just tricks to confuse Malvolio, who is perfectly sane, and a perfect fool.

In addition, two of my favorite fools, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who act as the dead-beat drunkards of Olivia’s court, have advised yet another ill-witted plan. Sir Andrew writes a letter to Ceasario (Viola), challenging the man to a duel. Meanwhile, Sir Toby throws out the letter because he knows Ceasario will read it and think Sir Andrew is a “clodpoll” or “blockhead” (3.4.168). Next, Sir Toby and Fabian trick Ceasario into thinking Sir Andrew is a valiant fighter, while telling Sir Andrew that Ceasario is an expert at fencing. Meanwhile, Viola and Sir Andrew are both completely inexperienced fighters yet are now terrified of each other. In this instance, Sir Andrew is tricked by his own friends. Viola also drops the ball through not initially realizing that Antonio has mistaken her for her twin brother, Sebastian. Sebastian is the only one who successfully fools Feste (at the beginning of Act 4); Olivia mistakes Sebastain for Ceasario, and Sebastian agrees to marry Olivia by Act 4.3. Sebastain, however, is completely unaware that he is most certainly not the person Olivia wishes to marry. By the end of Act 4, everything in this comedy is in complete chaos. Very few characters have a concrete grasp of what is going on, and the ones who think they know are sadly mistaken. Overall, though, the play thus far has made the biggest fools out of the nobility, leaving the lower ranking members to play tricks on the higher-ups and wield fierce rhetoric.


2 thoughts on “Who’s fooling who?

  1. David Young

    “In reading Twelfth Night we cannot help but think that Shakespeare is attempting to throw all prior stigmas concerning social standing out the window entirely. The true fools lie within the nobility of Illyria.” I think you’re on point with this statement, this nicely sums up everything else. I also didn’t think of it quite like that until I read your post. The true fools truly are in the nobility. I might add that other fools can be found serving the foolish nobility. In my mind there are only a few people in the play who are not fools, namely Feste and Viola. By reputation Feste is a fool but it is only an act the convinces everyone else, except Viola. This gives him an advantage over just about everyone else. The nobility expect him to be a fool when in fact he is far from it, allowing him to potentially run circles around them in all areas. Viola I would also discount as a fool since she herself is fooling everyone, even Feste. The only person who manages to lead her astray is Sir Toby and she can’t really be blamed for that.

  2. coleenhiggins

    It is ironic that the one whose job it is to play the fool and entertain is the one who is the wisest and imparts the most knowledge without anyone realizing. It would seem that the nobility are all too wrapped up in their love triangles to pay any mind to Feste. As an observer, Feste has a good sense of what all the other characters are like in order to play a good jest on them. By getting to know everyone in this way he is able to reveal truths that the others would overlook.


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