Mirror, Mirror: Viola & Feste

Viola & Feste are both characters that serve as mirrors to each of the characters in the show with whom they interact. Viola shows characters what they want to see, or how they’d like to see themselves, while Feste shows each character how they act by mocking them and showing their foolery.

When Viola and Olivia meet for the first time, Olivia is cold-shouldered, unamenable, and as Cesario puts it: “I see you what you are, you are too proud; But if you were the devil, you are fair.” (Act 1, Scene 5) All of this attitude is caused by the death of Olivia’s brother, which echoes Viola’s loss of her own brother. Upon meeting Olivia in this cold, unloving state, Viola begins to take on her harsh, blunt attitude. Where Orsino is simply in love with a far off maid and pining uselessly, Cesario may speak plainly, honestly, with eyes unblinded by love for Olivia. This blunt, cold, un-loving demeanor that Viola mimics in Olivia actually causes Olivia to fall in love with Cesario. The same occurs in reverse with Cesario and Orsino. Viola has great affections for the Duke, and heart full of pining unrequited love the same as the Duke. Orsino takes great liking to Cesario because of what he believes he sees in Cesario: a mirror. “Cesario, thou knows’t no less but all. I have unclasped to thee the book even of my secret soul.” (Act 1, Scene 4)

Feste, turn for turn, makes a fool out of Maria, Olivia, and Malvolio, using their own words against them to show them their foolery. “Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools; and I that am sure I lack thee, may pass for a wise man.” (Act 1, Scene 5) He even demonstrates to Olivia that she is a fool for mourning her brother, who is in heaven.

In Act 3, Scene 1, The two mirrors meet and have an interesting interaction. Feste is engaging in his usually foolery and play with words, “No such matter, sir. I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.” In normal circumstances, Feste most likely expects to be written off as a fool, or ignored. However Viola, as Cesario, mimics the wit of Feste to a tee: “So thou mayst say the king lies by a beggar, if a beggar dwells near him; or the church stand by thy tabor, if they tabor stand by the church” This delights Feste, and the mirrors discuss the tricky situation of words, how they turn false, and Feste says he is “loath to prove reason with them.” Viola and Feste stand toe to toe in a battle of wit and words, and Viola renders the best explanation of Feste, and the wisdom of the fool:

“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit. He must observe their mode 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 folly that he wisely shows is fit, But wise men, folly fall’n, quite taint their wit.” (Act 3, Scene 1)

Those who fashion themselves wise, learned, whatnot, are most often not anything they say to be, because they only claim to be wise or learned. True wisdom comes from the characters who have no pretension to knowledge or wit; Viola, while very witty, is most wise because she understands the befuddling and confusing nature of her situation, “to time” she must commit the undoing of this mess of love, she must simply “play along”. Feste much the same takes foolery, folly, nonsense and confusion as his bread and butter, and together, both of these characters are wisest for reflecting the people they encounter.

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4 thoughts on “Mirror, Mirror: Viola & Feste

  1. tarabutler93

    I found your analysis insightful and was intrigued by the topic as I had never considered this idea when reading the play. The evidence you use to support your claim is persuasive and well-researched. I agree that to mirror the personality of another is a clever characteristic to possess.

    Reply
  2. Courtney Ann

    Really interesting blog post comparing bot Viola and Feste who are bound to play roles that seem to be reflecting each other in the way that their characters are the complete opposite of who they actually are despite what society labels them as. The use of disguises definitely make these tho characters within Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night expand beyond what society perceives them as and allows them to jump into class systems that are basically unreachable within their daily lives.

    Reply
  3. brendantanner

    I never thought of the characters as mirrors before, and after reading this it makes a lot of sense. When I was reading through I just wrote Feste off as an ass, but the idea of using him as a figure that shows the characters how foolish they are being while in the guise of a fool himself is pretty great.

    Reply
  4. timothyjknapp

    I didn’t think very extensively about the dynamic between Viola and Feste when reading, but you made a lot of really interesting observations. I was entertained by the scene that Feste and Viola sort of trade puns, and Feste is caught off guard that someone can sort of get on his level. It was extremely telling of Viola’s character, and the way she can fit into any situation. It shows the plausibility of her being able to pass as a man, considering she’s very good with words and sort of adapting to her audience. This is interesting to think about in terms of the dynamic between Viola and Feste that you’ve pointed out, because Feste is not a very dynamic character. He doesn’t change in different situations like Viola does.

    Reply

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