Explore and debate the function of Feste, the fool. To what extent does he offer honest insight to at least one other character, and to the audience?
A fool by definition is “a jester or clown, especially one retained in a royal or noble household”. Clowns and fools appear throughout the history of comic drama, and commonly, they can be categorised in two ways. There is the licensed fool, who has permission to joke about the world in which the play is set, create satire and poke fun at their society; or there is the natural fool who is often simple and of a lower class, who seemingly lacks any common sense or intelligence. In Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night, Feste is described by Curio as, “a fool that the Lady Olivia’s father took much delight in.” (2.4) One could say that this description puts him in the role of a jester who is retained in the noble household of Lady Olivia, yet it is difficult to place him in just one of the two categories because in many ways he falls under both. He is a licensed fool in the sense that he is given permission to poke fun at Malvolio who is otherwise a Puritan, thus fulfilling the intention of mocking his society, but he is the natural fool in the sense that he is clearly of a lower class. This allows him to reveal truths to the audience and sets him apart from Malvolio who we view very differently. Feste speaks in prose as opposed to blank verse, which singularly outlines his lowly position in social society as a jester, but arguably he is much more intelligent than we would initially presume. Not only does this fool know Latin, “Cuculus non facit Monachum” (1.5), but also, as remarked by Cesario, “This fellow’s wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit.” (3.1), Feste's penchant for accurately judging situations and other characters puts him in a position to point out the folly of those around him, whilst creating laughter in the audience. Feste is also able to stand outside the green world of Illyria, and look in. In this way, Feste seems to break down the barrier between the audience and the characters on stage, thus offering insight to the audience themselves.
Due to Feste’s position outside of the noble household; “In important respects, he is more than Shakespeare’s other fools, superior in mind to his superiors in rank.” Here, A.C Bradley (1972) argues that Feste has influential power over people of a higher ‘rank’ or social class though showing no affection, contrary to the expected behaviour of the hierarchical society of the day. I agree with this view, because after all, it is Feste who demonstrates the shallowness and self-indulgence of Olivia’s grief, “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.” (1.5). Here, Feste shows a remarkable display of confidence, and in doing so prepares us for the unseemly ‘haste’ with which Lady Olivia forgets her profound sadness, in falling for Cesario’s androgynous ‘perfections’, by the end of the same scene. Feste’s position of considerable strength as a respected outsider permits him to guide the Lady Olivia to be less self-indulgent. In doing so he offers us an honest insight into her somewhat shallow character.
J.M Gregson (1980) remarks that Feste “is a perceptive commentator upon events in the play, and the folly of humanity in general.” This further suggests, that from start to finish, Feste views his more exuberant companions with an ironic detachment, but from an outsider’s perspective. He does indeed comment, lightheartedly, on many of the events in the play through his speech and through his songs, thus reflecting the notion that the play is of a comical genre. At the end of Trevor Nunn’s cinematic adaptation of Twelfth Night, Feste looks into the camera so as to address the audience directly, whist expressing in song, “But that’s all one, our play is done, And we’ll strive to please you every day.” With the latter part of this...
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