Fools Tell All They Know or The Wisdom of Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Category: Twelfth Night, Wisdom
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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Almost all of Shakespeare's plays have a clown character. Clowns were popular and amusing, and were simple characters that the lower class audience members could relate to, amidst all the royal people plays were populated with. But the clowns in Shakespeare's plays served a dual purpose. Not only were they sources of comedy, but also sources of truth. Wisdom and advice are imparted through the lines of these figures of fun. The clowns reflected the true nature or intentions of the other, more "noble characters. They also foreshadow coming events. One of the most striking examples of this type of clown is the character of Feste in Twelfth Night. Feste dispenses advice and exposes truths to most of the major characters of the play. Though he is only a fool, he seems to be the only character in the play that truly has his wits about him.

Feste mirrors each of the main characters, revealing facets of their respective dispositions. He often shares knowledge about other characters of which they were not aware. For example, Feste is most closely related to Olivia. She is his patron and calls upon him to amuse her. But Feste does not entertain in the standard way of a clown. He realizes that Olivia is not in control of her emotions when it comes to love, and that she lacks control over her subordinates. He says, in an aside,

"Wit, an't be thy will, put me into good fooling!

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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.

For what say Quinapalus? -'Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.''' (1.5.29-31)

Feste knows what is going on with Olivia's predicament with Orsino, but still plays the fool. He expresses his feelings of apprehension for Olivia and her supposed wisdom. Feste thinks Olivia's actions are silly, and is not afraid to tell her so in indirect ways. When Olivia gets tired of Feste's obscure advice, she tells her attendants to take away the fool, and Feste returns, "The lady bade take the fool away, therefore I say again/take her away . . . I wear not motley in my brain/good madonna give me leave to prove you a fool" (1.5.45-6, 49-51). He continues by asking Olivia why she mourns for the loss of her brother. If she believes his souls to be in heaven, as she does, then there is no reason for sorrow. Feste uses a sort of quirky pragmatism to try and show Olivia how silly she is being, but is does not work, because Olivia refuses to think of his advice as anything but the ramblings of a fool. Though Feste does seem, in some ways, to be very educated no one takes his suggestions seriously.

Feste is the only character in the play that crosses into every world. He is privy to the secrets of Countess Olivia, he sings to and foretells the fate of Orsino, he guides Viola and Sebastian, Feste also ventures into the tavern world of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Fabian and Maria. Olivia bids him to enter this world by asking him to look after her kinsman, Sir Toby, who is a "drowned man," that is to say, drowned with drink. Feste takes a lighter view of Sir Toby stat of mind by saying he is mad with drink claiming, "He is but mad yet, Madonna, and the fool shall look to the madman. In the context of the play, Sir Toby plays more the part of the classic fool than Feste. He is merely a comic figure with no more depth to him than that of the stock drunkard. Feste is the genius of the play, but is not noble, and so does not really fit in anywhere. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew treat Feste as both a friend and a servant, paying him to sing, but requesting his company and help in their practical jokes. Feste reveals his foreknowledge about events to come in his song to Sir Toby,

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?

O stay and hear, your true love's coming

That can sing both high and low

Trip no further pretty sweeting

Journey's end in Lover's meeting

Every wise man's son doth know." (2.3.36-40)

Feste reveals to these two drunkards the plot of the entire play. Of course, they do not understand and simply praise Feste's singing ability, but, nevertheless, he has revealed his wisdom and knowledge about the other characters. Later in the play, they request that Feste dress up as a wise man to fool Malvolio into thinking he has lost his wits. Feste humbly obliges and does so, playing the part willingly and well. Shakespeare's characters love to disguise themselves; this theme is often important to the plot of his comedies, but in this case, the disguise takes an ironic turn. Feste, in dressing up as a wise man, reveals his true nature instead of concealing it. Though this scene is meant to be played for bald comedic value, the audience gets a glimpse of the true nature of the clown. Truly, though, Feste does not seem very interested in the torment of Malvolio, and ultimately provides him with means to resolve his unfair predicament. "Look then to be well edified when the fool delivers the madman," Feste says as he reads the letter that leads to Malvolio's release from captivity.

Feste is also aware of the fate that will befall Orsino. He is welcome3d to the music-loving court at Orsino's home, perhaps because he belongs to Olivia, and in this way, at least, Orsino can feel he has some sort of relationship with her. Feste quickly sees through Orsino's melancholy and wishes,

Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor

make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very

opal. I would have men of such constancy put to sea, that their

business might be everything, and their intent everywhere, for

that's it that always makes a good voyage of nothing." (2.4.72-6)

Feste knows exactly what Orsino is feeling, how his relationship with Olivia is shaping up, and what his final result will be. Orsino is fickle and shallow and Feste knows it. When Orsino and Feste meet again later in the play, Feste is resentful of his patronage, wishing "the worse for his friends," then calling Orsino his friend (5.1.10,22). Clearly, like the audience, Feste does not care for the Duke Orsino.

Feste reveals his wisdom most clearly in his conversations with Viola. Though he refers to her as "sir," he does so in a sarcastic way, as if he knows her secret. Viola also forces Feste to consider his own circumstances, and he meditates, "A sentence is but a chev'ril glove to a good wit-how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward," and Viola counters with, "Nay, that's certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton," (3.1.10-14).

Since Feste is an actor, Shakespeare is playing with the meaning of these lines in one of his favorite ways, by reminding the audience they are watching a play. These two are certainly the most charming characters of the play and their dialogue reveals as much. Both know a little about the other's true nature, and are not afraid to share their knowledge with each other. Feste prefers Viola (as Cesario) to Orsino as a suitor for his mistress, and so tries to help win her, and mistakenly, Sebastian, to Olivia's favor.

Feste seems to grow tired of his fool's role in the play. By Act three he declares, "Words are grown so false, I am lost to make reason with them," (3.1.22-3). He has an air of resignation in his lines towards the end of the play, ultimately leading up to his final epilogue. This song chronicles his life, in a melancholy way, ending with, " But that's all one, our play is done/ And we'll strive to please you every day." Feste's final words are riddled with melancholy; he is doomed to always play the fool, to never be free of the constraints of the play.

As a fool, Feste has all the necessary qualities: singing, impersonation, joke-telling. But, as a character, he is much more than a jester. He is the key to Twelfth Night. He gives the play depth and substance that other comedies do not contain. He weaves all the worlds of the play together with witty words and melancholy ballads. Feste is the binding element in an otherwise contrived and ordinary play.

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Fools Tell All They Know or The Wisdom of Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. (2017, Aug 27). Retrieved from

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