For Shakespeare, the genres of comedy and tragedy are a mere death apart. While it seems rather humorous, albeit darkly so, to consider death as the distinction between the two genres, it also suggests the rather thin line between social experimentation and social collapse. Indeed, the similarities between the two genres are so strong that Shakespeare can transplant one of the most comic figures of Twelfth Night, that of Feste, the wise fool, straight into the intrigues of King Lear with very little character adjustment. Both Twelfth Night’s Feste and King Lear’s Feste, or Fool, as he is referred to in the cast list, serve nobles who have chosen to cast aside social conventions. Similarly, both Festes functions as dual voices of reason and subversion, questioning society while also criticizing their master/mistress. However, while Twelfth Night’s Feste literally has the last word in the play, King Lear’s Feste disappears mysteriously after Act Three.
To some extent, Shakespeare’s reuse of the Feste role emphasizes the subversive quality of both genres. As noted in the class discussion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespearean comedy begins with a disturbance or a breach in social order, turning the world of the play upside down (or perhaps inside out as in the case for both Viola in Twelfth Night and Nick Bottom in A Midsummer). This is also true in tragedy in which the protagonists, driven by hubris, challenge their societies. In both plays, the Feste character works to emphasize the social disruption in the play. Each is quick to point out the hypocrisy of his mistress/master, noting the way they flaunt social conventions while simultaneously holding others to these standards. In Twelfth Night, Feste criticizes Olivia’s prolonged mourning for her brother, remarking, “I think his soul is in hell” (1.5.59). When Olivia argues that he is in heaven, Feste indicates that her mourning must be for something else than for it is “more the fool, madonna, to mourn for [her] brother’s soul, being [as it is] in heaven” (1.5.61-62). Feste’s remarks suggest that Olivia’s prolonged mourning is in part motivated by her desire to rule herself rather than allowing a husband to manage affairs for her. Similarly, in King Lear, the Fool is one of the first to recognize what a horrible decision Lear has made by abdicating the throne, calling the King a fool himself: “All thy other titles thou has given away: that [i.e. the title of a fool] though wast born with” (1.4.130-1).
Furthermore, Twelfth Night’s Feste and King Lear’s Fool are faced with resolving the subsequent chaos, bringing the world back into its “proper” order. This resolution is necessary in both comedy and tragedy. The key difference, of course, is that in comedy, the characters can be seen not so much as challenging social order, but experimenting with it. The audience never doubts that Viola will eventually set aside her manly disguise or that Olivia will come out of her self-enacted seclusion. (Spoiler Alert!) Indeed, by the end of Twelfth Night, Olivia has wedded Sebastian, thereby displacing her unwittingly homosexual passion to a more socially acceptable substitute, and Viola has returned to her “maiden weeds” (5.1.248) in order to marry Orsino. In both plays, Feste/Fool acts as an important go-between, attempting to coax the characters back towards reason or “order.” We see him teasing Viola about her effeminateness, playfully suggesting that “Jove in his next commodity of hair [might] send thee a beard” (3.1.39). Later, he resolves Toby and Maria’s prank on Malvolio, explaining it all to Olivia and bringing the whole comic mess to end.
However, while Feste’s playful cajoling and deception will eventually lead the Twelfth Night cast to put aside their experimentation and return to the status quo, the Fool in King Lear cannot be so lucky. Despite his unprecedented freedom of speech (a feature shared by both Festes), the Fool is not able to lead Lear out of his self-deception. Pushed on by Lear’s pride, the Fool and the King find themselves exiled to the wilderness, marooned in the chaos that Lear has created. Lear’s social experiment has collapsed, and the Fool and Lear can no longer be successfully reintegrated into society. The Fool’s disappearance suggests that without the context of society, even a voice of reason as subversive as the Fool’s is useless. Ironically, the Fool’s removal from the play indicates the play has become more, not less, subversive. Indeed, it is a level of subversion from which there is no coming back. Only death can return the world to its former order.