Discuss the dramatic significance of Feste in Twelfth Night

Category: Twelfth Night
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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"Feste is an observer. He sees through people. Though he's a kind of entertainer, who will only perform for money, what he chooses to sing to people is intentionally relevant. People find the truth very hard to deal with: '...Peace, you rogue...here comes my lady'. This story shows people avoiding the truth at every level; Feste's insight" Ben Kingsley on Feste: Twelfth Night by Trevor Nunn

Fool. Clown. Words incessantly linked to someone who isn't taken seriously. This is the case with Feste. For example, 'fool' in King Lear was constantly being threatened with hangings and beatings, but this was only as he was a 'witty fool'. Again, with Feste in Twelfth Night, who also is threatened with hangings, due to his absence. Feste doesn't fear this threat, and in fact makes a joke of it; mocking Maria and using a sexual pun at the same time, e.g. 'many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage' This confidence comes from the fact that it wasn't their job to simply provide amusement, but to also make critical comments and provide advice, as Olivia asks him: 'What's a drunken man like, fool?' and since he is an 'allowed fool' he was able to say what he thinks, without fear of punishment: 'there's no slander in an allowed fool'.

Feste and Olivia have the most personal relationship, as Feste knew her father. Olivia uses Feste as a friend, advisor and joker. She says 'Take the fool away...y'are a dry fool', signalling she has no use for him as he cant amuse her, but accepts him when he is humorous, '...doth he not mend?'

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She seeks out 'What's a drunken man like fool?' and once answered, she immediately acts on it: 'Go thou and seek...'

Feste is connected only to Olivia's household. The audience are told 'Lady Olivia's father took much delight in him' and after a long journey, it is her household that he retreats to, and her reference to his 'fooling growing old' gives the impression of him being around for a long time-a time for which they have been friends.

Read this - Puns in the Importance

But he also has the ability to distance himself from everyone, such as 'living by the tabor': unsociable, and the way he speaks; 'I go...' 'I will', 'I can yield'- he doesn't need assistance. Moreover, he is constantly mocking people with puns and soliloquy-playing the part of the fool-but his interaction is again limited by the way he is always exiting scenes- 1:v, 3:i and 2:iv.

As well as being comic, Feste is probably the most perceptive character in the play. He comments on people in ways other characters over look, whether be their appearance or their 'mind'. For example, in Act ii: iv, he point blank tells Orsino what he thinks of him, saying his 'mind is very opal' and 'the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta' (a silk which changes colour). The joke here is Feste telling Orsino that he is very fickle and has a very changeable mood, so changeable that he should have matching clothes. These mood changes echoes lines, 'Enough; no more...' where Orsino sings to us of his love sickness.

Feste goes on to say that he is so changeable that he would sail around the world to justify purposeless busyness and courage. Feste hardly knows Orsino, who in turn scarcely knows Feste, but for Feste to cast this view shows his perceptiveness. This view is so accurate, that it leads Orsino to make Cesario go to Olivia's and tell her that his love is 'more noble than the world'.

Furthermore, he suspiciously notices Viola, and is the only one to start suspecting her, 'send thee a beard' he says, hinting that he knows of her 'such disguise'. Feste's perception was reinforced in Trevor Nunn's production of Twelfth Night, where- at the end of the play- Feste gives Viola a necklace, A necklace she abandoned in Act 1:ii -on the seacoast, showing he has always known of Viola's situation and was always playing along, again showing his nature.

Feste's Language:

The sophisticated way Feste speaks allows him to climb the social ladders of Illyria and be able to talk with Lord Orsino, Sir Toby and Fabian. Which becomes significant when he is able to get himself out of situations or even to make other people react, which may otherwise be tricky and use his language skills to make mockery. Such as the 'the more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brothers soul...' This scene is the first with Feste, and he has proved to the audience that he is nowhere near being a 'fool'. So far from it, in fact he has proven someone of a higher social status to be one! This echoes the quote 'there is no slander in an allowed fool': that- even though Olivia is in mourning for her brother and father- fools would be allowed to make these daring jokes.

However, Feste has proved two things here, the first is that he is not 'dry' and the second that he can provide the humour if is someone does 'minister occasion to him' or invites him to 'make that good'.

Another key figure of Feste's language is his uses of Latin. The few times he talks and refers in Latin are in the presence Olivia or Orsino, again proving his versatility of talking appropriately with people and it also demonstrating his education to the audience.

All his Latin sayings convey messages. For example, the first to Olivia: 'cucullus non facit monachum', referring to an overriding theme in the play; don't judge by outward appearances, prepares her for his foolery.

Another Latin reference is to Orisino in Act 5. 'Primo, secundo, terito is a good play...' although simply begging for a third coin he does it in such a manner, that he deserves it.

Feste's songs do hold a dramatic function, which change depending on the scene: they hold meaning and are sung for a reason. Such as when Feste asks, 'would you have a love song or a song of good life?' The choice reflects the audiences' and the characters' mood at this current moment in the play, or as he said in his final song '...And we'll strive to please you every day.'

Feste's songs seem to have a significant meaning, either used to create dramatic effects or represent/ echo his feelings about a situation in a scene. In Act 2, Feste sings 'Come away, Come away, death...', a melancholy song to Orsino about a lover who dies for love, which echoes Orsino's mood and his situation. The listener can read into this as Orsino being the lover and Olivia being the 'maid', making sense as the lover is 'slain'.

The words that are used mirror what Orsino has already said, such as 'My part...share it' hold similar meaning to that in 'If music be the food of love...'

Orsino then immediately acts on the song and tells Viola/ Cesario to go to Olivia's.

This is one example of the role of Feste; do we value what he says or laugh at what he says? Orsino valued what he said (we know this as he sends Viola to go to Olivia and tell her 'that nature pranks her in attracts my soul not her money').

However, after the song is finished, Feste casts a point blank insight of Orsino, which creates tension, especially with the use of words like 'corpse', 'pain' and '...bones shall be thrown'; words that are associated with death. Causing a melancholy atmosphere in the scene. It's as if the song(s) introduced the sadness, and set the way for Orsino and Viola to discuss love, 'Our shows...will' and 'pang of heart'.

Here's a good example of the dramatic significance of Feste- creating tension. With the next scene starting in comedy, the drama in each scene seems heightened due to the immense contrast. Feste's appearance in the play is held off until act 1:iv. His contribution to the play is revealed through: "Wit, an't be thy will...a foolish wit". Indicating Feste's presence is not merely comic relief through foolish acts and show that the role of the fool requires much intelligence, or being a 'wise man', 'a church man' or someone has all their wits about them: 'I wear not motley in my brain'.

Feste's most significant song comes at the end. He is left alone on stage to sing it- that seems unusual as he's always sung for people. The situation might echo his actual feelings present in the song: loneliness, toleration, and rejection.

In Trevor Nunn's version, the song was evidently melancholy which I felt this was a good insight as it draws a logical link to pathetic fallacy: 'the rain it raineth every day' and 'wind'.

The sense of journey through the song is reinforced with links of Viola and Sebastian's journey- which ends in 'lovers meeting'

The meaning of this epilogue suggests that every person goes through life, with its vicissitudes, but he/she must remember that 'it raineth every day' or there is always unpredictability.

Feste's contribution to the themes of love is essential to the understanding of the play's messages. The clown's most profound comments often take the form of song: 'O mistress mine, where are you roaming?...Youth's a stuff will not endure.'

It's in this song where we could possibly see Feste uncovering Viola and dictating the whole play. 'Trip no further, pretty sweeting;' where the 'pretty sweeting' may be Viola, and the 'wise man's son' is Feste. If this is so, then it suggests that Viola-Orsino may end up as 'lovers'.

This song is performed due to the requests of Sir Toby for a "love-song", which plays on the events of Twelfth Night itself by echoing the cheerfulness of this play and how the uncertainty of 'what's to come' shouldn't be a negative prospect as 'in delay there lies no plenty'. Feste foresees events that will occur later in the play, when he speaks of journeys ending "in lovers meeting," he hints at the resolution in which characters are married.

At the end of the play, Shakespeare provides an epilogue, like other plays, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and All's Well That Ends Well. However, unlike these, Feste sings it. The song is about Feste growing up, about being tolerating in childhood, rejected in adult hood, unsuccessful in marriage and drunk in old age...but nothing really matters, the actors will always try and please- talking directly to the audience.

A slight re-iteration of the song: 'What is love...youth's a stuff will not endure', telling the audience that we should enjoy the present because the futures is as unpredictable as the weather: it could be good e.g. Viola-Orsino and Sebastian-Olivia, or it could be terrible e.g. Malvolio.

Feste's ability to gain gender specific favour is distinct when encouraging Sir Toby to indulge in ridiculing Malvolio: 'O no, no, no, no, you dare not' (where an Elizabethan audience would of received 'no, no, no, no' and 'yes, yes') -no matter their social status. The reiterating it: 'four negatives makes your two affirmatives'. His sexual puns, such as 'he that is well hung...' would have gone down well with the men too.

Feste can use word play, or puns, at specific points in the play to make the audience laugh or even add to the tension so far. A good example is in Feste's first scene: 'he that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colours'. The first interpretation of this pun is the word 'colours' which can mean enemy or war. So, logically, someone who is already dead can't fear.

However, an Elizabethan audience could have heard it as 'collars' (hangmen's nooses) so they don't fear them. The Elizabethans enjoyed such punning jokes, and with Maria threatening Feste with death, and then Feste making the whole audience laugh, the dramatic significance of Feste is apparent.

The role of Feste:

Feste's intuition is comparable only to the perception of Viola. As both characters are involved in both houses (Orsino's and Olivia's) they rival each other in their knowledge and putting their wits against each other. Namely Act 3:i, where, they both delight in using word play, 'a sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit-' and later Viola saying 'I understand you sir', showing him that she is just as clever. Viola seems to be the only character that recognises Feste's true intelligence: "This fellow is wise enough to play the fool...quite taint their wit". Exhibiting Viola's awareness of Feste's ability to read people in order to say the right thing at the right time. Through this keen observation by Viola, she is acknowledging that may seen through her own disguise. Although Feste never openly claims to know of Viola's deceptive dress, it is indicated that he might be on to her: "Now Jove...send thee a beard".

Feste's ability to control the audience becomes apparent wherever Shakespeare wanted to portray thoughts or morals, as he would make Feste tell the audience puns or songs. In Act 1:v, he says: "many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage" communicates as if you are well 'hung' then you need not love, and if we look back, to Act 1, the Latin quote refers directly to how Shakespeare felt- therefore reinforcing Shakespeare's values. Therefore, it is possible that Feste was the voice of Shakespeare, and if Shakespeare wanted to make the audience happy, for dramatic effect or other, then he might use Feste to sing a song,

When Feste says lines 359-354 in Act 5:i, he quotes the things that Malvolio has said, and a feeling of 'what goes around comes around' is created. The putting down of Malvolio would of been particularly enjoyed by the audience, because of his puritan no-fun nature, and therefore have a very comical affect for them.

The plot in Twelfth Night is convoluted. So fools might of been used in this play; to underline and reinforce important parts of the plot for the audience, and make their songs and folly draw parallels to the play. In Twelfth Night, Feste sings to Malvolio '...She loves another'. Feste has seen through Malvolio and knows of his affection for Olivia, and crudely tells him there is no likelihood for him, moreover, he already must know of Olivia's affections for Viola.

The fool in 'King Lear' informs King Lear of the goings behind his back, where he is oblivious to them, but even though he is informing the king, the audience may of also received the message.


The 'Twelfth Night' was known as the "Feast of Fools", which is very similar to "Feste the Fool". Making it extremely significant, as the Feast of Fools was a time where a "Lord of Ridicule" was appointed. An Elizabethan audience would of received this (intentional) similarity and therefore see Feste as this Lord of Ridicule.

If Feste were this lord, then he would become the master of the household, for this short holiday period, and organise dances, folly, pranks and deceptions, in order to entertain the rest of the household. If which case, it would explain Feste's songs, drunkenness and of course dressing up as Sir Topas- all roles similar to that of a fool.

Ironically, Feste is the only person not to be seen as the fool. Olivia is the fool, as she has fallen in love with a woman, Orisino is seen the fool, because Viola has tricked him into thinking she is a man. Sir Andrew comes across as the fool because of his foolish remarks, like taking the word 'ass' literally and believing 'Pigrogromitus'. Malvolio is the fool for dressing up in 'yellow...cross-gartered' stockings

In conclusion, what makes the audience happy is the same thing as that which makes them sad, and Feste accomplishes this flawlessly. With his irony, puns, soliloquy, his songs and criticisms- he directs the play in a moving omniscient manner.

Related Questions

on Discuss the dramatic significance of Feste in Twelfth Night

What is the dramatic significance of Feste?
Feste is a key character in Twelfth Night, as he provides comic relief and serves as a foil to the other characters. He is also a source of wisdom, offering insight into the characters' motivations and relationships. His presence helps to create a sense of balance and harmony in the play, and his songs and jokes often provide a much-needed break from the drama.
What are the dramatic elements in the twelfth night?
The dramatic elements in Twelfth Night include a comedic plot, mistaken identity, love triangles, and a happy ending. Additionally, the play features a variety of characters with distinct personalities and motivations, as well as a range of comedic and dramatic scenes.

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Discuss the dramatic significance of Feste in Twelfth Night. (2017, Aug 27). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/discuss-dramatic-significance-feste-twelfth-night/

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