FESTE IN “TWELFTH NIGHT”
When I first read “Twelfth Night” there was a character that drew my attention because he was apparently placed away from the other characters. He was not, however, excluded from the action of the play though he was, in a way, distinct from the rest, as if playing under different rules or being moved by a different motivation. This character was the clown and servant of the Countess Olivia, Feste. I found him extremely interesting from the very beginning, which is not difficult since he stands out from the rest. The way he speaks is unusual, and so are his manners, acting too freely for a servant. Besides, due to the fact of being a licensed clown, he is allowed to criticize or ridicule other character’s behavior, and it is through this device that we get to a deeper understanding of the play and its figures. Feste provides the audience with an insight into the characters of the play and, at the same time, with a greater knowledge of himself.
In this paper I will analyze Feste’s uniqueness as a character and the importance of his role inside the play. I will examine those traits that make him move away from the other figures and try to sketch a portrayal of this clown Shakespeare presents us here. I am also very interested in the way Feste conforms to the norm of the archetypical fool of comedies and to what point he withdraws from it. At a first glance Feste may look just like the other fools we have come across in Elisabethan literature: a fool whose only task is to entertain his audience (usually nobles), a superficial clown who makes fun of everything but only looks at the cover of it. From our background information of what a clown is and what he represents within a comedy, we may wrongly expect Feste to be a jolly supporting character, rather flat and dispensable. However, his attitude is at times sadder, at times more melancholic (this is clearly patent throughout his songs) and, even, a little more malevolent than we may have anticipated. Again, Shakespeare’s greatness makes its appearance on stage and fools us by presenting something completely different from what we would expect, playing with the traditional concepts of theater and its characters.
Finally, I will compare Feste with Puck from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, who was the character I chose for my first paper. The fact that I had to set the first character against the second one was also one of the reasons why I decided to choose Feste. He reminded me of Puck in a subtle but strong way, overall in the way they both move away from our expectations of what their attitudes should be, setting a difference between themselves and the traditional stereotype of their characters. Both of them also depart from the image they deliver at the beginning of both plays, that is, a second look is required in order to distinguish their exceptional way of being. Feste is a jester and Puck a joker, and they resemble each other more than we may think, though differ at certain points. What I am most interested in is to what extent they are similar and in what aspects they are different, and whether this will lead them to end up as completely divergent characters.
2. FESTE THE CLOWN.
2.1. A foolish fool?
Following the Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles the word “fool” can mean: 1. “a silly person”; 2. “one who professionally counterfeits folly for the entertainment of others, a jester or clown”; 3. “one who has little or no reason or intellect”; 4. “one who is made to appear to be a fool”. (www.field-of-themes.com). Though Feste is more closely related to the second meaning of the word, Elisabethans were familiar with all of them and they would usually come across with characters who would play the part of the fool, and who could be said to have such characteristics as the ones given by the Oxford English Dictionary. Besides, “In the English literature, the two main ways which the fool could enter imaginative literature is that he could provide a topic, a theme for meditation, or he could turn into a stock character on the stage, a stylized comic figure” (www.field-of-themes.com). Feste is everything but a stock character. Stock characters are usually flat characters who do not undergo any kind of development throughout the play and whose presence, though patent in the play, is not essential to the story line nor to the action. Feste is a wise character, probably the wisest of the play, as Viola indicates after her first meeting with him: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool” (“Twelfth Night”, Act III, Scene 1, line 21). His wit is also manifest when Feste talks to himself, or rather to his wit, before encountering his lady Olivia who may turn him out for disappearing without permission: “Wit, and’t be thy will, put me into good fooling: 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 says Quinapalus, Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit” (TN, I: V, 21-25). “These lines indicate that Feste's presence is not merely comic relief through inane acts and show that the role of the fool requires much intelligence. Feste is also able to recognize and criticize the fools subject to foolery, the self-proclaimed wits who are not witty at all. Since it is their lack of self-knowledge what makes them fools.” (www.wowessays.com).
These examples show that Feste, differently from other fools or clowns depicted in the English literature, is witty and intelligent. He needs to be so in order to carry out his duty as a “licensed clown” and his function as a commentator in the play. Thus, he is able to visualize the foolishness in the rest of the characters, and criticize their actions, for instance when he mocks Olivia because she has been long mourning for a brother who is in heaven and refers to her as a “fool”:
“Clown: Good Madonna, why mourn’st thou?
Olivia: Good fool, for my brother’s death.
Clown: I think his soul is in hell, Madonna.
Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Clown: The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your
Brother’s soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.”
(TN, I: V, 21-27)
2.2. The “sad clown”.
There is another aspect which has
been long discussed and that I am interested in: the sadness in Feste, who has
been referred to as the “sad clown”, “the person intelligent enough to see
through any of the easy superficial solutions to life's pains but wise enough to
understand that there is little use in protesting the tribulations of human life
(since that leads to self-destructive tragic conclusions).
Feste is a rather melancholic clown, as may be inferred from his songs. From the information in the play we learn that he is probably a middle-age man, apparently he has been working in Olivia’s household for a long time, as it is mentioned by Curio: “A fool that the Lady Olivia’s father took much delight in.” (TN, II: IV, 24-25, p. 51)
The fact that he is not a young fellow any more may be the reason why he “sings a song that is a testament to carpe diem” (http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net)
“What is love? 'Tis not hereafter; / Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure: / In delay there lies not plenty;
Then, come kiss me, sweet and twenty, / Youth's a stuff will not endure.”
(TN, II: III, 1-6, p. 47)
The fact is that Feste’s claim for the enjoyment of the moment and youth conceals a bitter raison d’être, which is that time passes by inevitably. There is an ironic tone in his songs that provides the play with a bitter-sweet ending. The play is a comedy because it has a happy ending; actually it is Feste in one of his songs who foreshadows the happy ending:
“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;
Journeys end in lovers meeting, / Every wise man's son doth know.”
(TN, II: III, 25-30, p. 46)
“The ending is structurally comic in a
very conventional way (lovers reunited, villain no longer present, marriages
pending), but the ironic undertones of his presence, more than anything else,
inject a note of fragility into the proceedings, not enough to destroy the joy,
of course, but sufficiently strong to cast some shadows around the young
2.3. Feste: an omniscient presence.
There is an interesting interpretation about Feste’s presence within “Twelfth Night” that regards him as an omniscient figure who is able to peep at everyone and watch all the actions taking place even though he is not on stage. The best example to support this idea is found in Act 3, when the clown says to Viola, disguised as Cesario:
“Now Jove in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard.” (TN, III: I, 5-6, p. 63)
Although we are not completely sure
of Feste’s intention when remarking that Viola does not have a beard, it is very
possible that he did so because he knew, or at least suspected, that Cesario was
in fact a woman. Shakespeare may have wanted to provide Feste with a wider view
and knowledge of all the characters, since he is the one to carry out the
judgements on the other characters. . “In Trevor Nunn's film
adaptation, Ben Kingsley is constantly present in the scenes that reveal the
plot, from the very beginning where he watches Viola arrive in
This is just an interpretation very much subject to checking, however, I agree with some of the reasons which motivate it. Firstly, it is worth noting that Feste is not involved emotionally with any of the characters in the action. This is the fact which supports the idea commented a few paragraphs before that Feste is not a participant but rather a commentator of the action. This gives him the status of a character placed above the action. Secondly, he is in contact with all the characters in the play since he has access to both houses: Orsino’s and Olivia’s. In this way he knows everyone in the play and can infer more information about them than any other character. Finally, and in spite of interacting with all the characters, it is his ability to avoid attachment to them which allows him to become a critic of their actions. “It is (…) his licensed foolery that enables him to become a critic on the actions of others and allows his character to thrive. It is through this commentary that Feste can assert his true wit over the true foolishness of the other characters. His insightful dialogue provides criticism and interpretation of the central events of the comedy.” (www.wowessays.com)
3. FESTE AND PUCK: A JESTER AND A JOKER.
Both Feste and Puck are adjacent characters to the story whose function turns out to be essential for the action of the play. Though they are provided with a different hue, they both belong to the same color. I will focus here on the similarities held by these two charming and complicated characters and to what point they differ in what they resemble.
They are both under someone else’s orders, Olivia’s, in the case of Feste and Oberon’s in the case of Puck. However, both of them get into trouble with their masters just for the same reason: they act rather freely for a servant. Feste leaves without permission, blatantly ignoring his mistress rules. Puck mistakes Oberon’s orders and applies the juice to the wrong young boy, not caring about the mortals’ fate. They also reconcile with their masters later on, by using each their best strategy: Feste wittily holds a conversation with Olivia that makes her forget about his misdeed and Puck uses his management of magic to sort the situation out. They both love to play pranks on the rest of the characters and humor is their most important trait. Nevertheless, Feste proves to be a more malevolent or rather self-conscious figure than Puck. While Puck simply does not care about humans and plays pranks on them just for fun, Feste takes revenge on those characters he is not in good terms with, like for instance Malvolio. “Despite Feste's playful and outwardly frivolous nature (…) he has a very much darker and more mysterious side to him. Malvolio's insulting account to Olivia of Feste's defeat in a battle of wits by a village idiot obviously makes Feste angry and he joins in with a plot of revenge against the arrogant steward conducted chiefly by Maria and Sir Toby Belch.” (wikipedia.org). This is, from my point of view, the aspect in where both characters mainly withdraw from each other, that is, their inner motivation for their actions. In my paper about Puck I stated as one of my main points that "Shakespeare’s Puck is not a malevolent character but a prankish figure that misleads the “fool mortals” more by accident than on purpose (...) what motivates Puck to enjoy any messy situation he is involved in, is his necessity of having fun, and what leads him to fix it up is his inevitable sympathy for humans." However, Feste is more caustic and the reason for his unkind treatment of other characters is not motivated by his carelessness for them or even clumsiness (as in the case of Puck) but more by a conscious act of truth revelation, as he does with Malvolio. He is, as we have said, a very wise character, and since he has access to the rest of the characters, he is able to judge them and criticize them. The interesting point here is that, while on the one hand Puck was expected to be a malevolent figure, due to the traditional character Elisabethans were familiar with (let us remember that "all along the English tradition Puck has been regarded as a devil. In fact, Pouk was a traditional medieval term for the devil." (www.boldoutlaw.com), he ended up being rather a prankish figure than a devilish one within "A Midsummer Night's Dream". And on the other hand, Feste, whose nature was apparently more playful (due to his profession) becomes, along "Twelfth Night", a slightly tragic character provided with a dark side. However, even this trait may seem a difference between them, it is actually a parallelism of the way they develop into something distinct, or rather the contrary of what they seemed to be.
There is another similarity between these two characters which has to do with the way Shakespeare sets a contrast between them and the other figures. In "Twelfth Night", "Shakespeare's contrast of Feste's true wit with the unconscious and actual foolishness of the others is the focal contribution of his role to the factual insight of this play." (www.wowessays.com). On the other hand, the character of Puck serves the purpose of trivializing love affairs by contrasting his indifference towards those matters with the mix-ups and confusing situations that mortals undergo because of love. Let us not forget one of the main sentences by Puck in the play: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (MND, III: II, 28, p. 56). We may then conclude that, the ones playing the part of the fools or jesters, that is, those related to pranks and jokes, are not the ignorant characters, but rather serve the purpose of making the audience realize about the other characters' stupidity.
We may also compare these two characters with regard to their presence in the plays. I have dealt with the interpretation of Feste as an omniscient presence. Whether we support this interpretation or not, there are evidences in the play that prove that Feste knows more than would be expected if we take into account his appearances on stage. I have also said that he is in contact with both houses and, thus, knows all the characters surrounding him. Puck has also access to both worlds: the fairy world and the mortals' world. He is, actually, the only figure in the play to interact, either directly or indirectly (as he does with humans), with all the characters, whether they are fairies or mortals. Puck can be easily said to be an omniscient presence, as well as Oberon, since they are able to peep at the mortal's world. They are placed above the real world so they can see the action without being noticed. Besides, as happened with Feste, Puck does not involve himself emotionally with other characters in the play. He is, then, rather an observer than a participant of the action, in the same way that Feste was a commentator.
Finally, there is something that
joins them together and reveals the fact that both, Feste and Puck, have an
essential role in their respective plays: they are the last characters to speak.
Puck is responsible for the epilogue in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Feste
sings one of his songs right at the very end of “Twelfth Night”. Even though this does not necessarily
mean that they are the main characters of both plays, it is in fact, an evidence
of how unique and extraordinary they are. Their last speeches encode a message.
“Puck makes a speech
explaining his actions that serves to trivialize the play itself if it has
offended the audience.”
(libertyfund.org). “Feste's final
song lessens the hope of a completely happy ending. The purpose of this song,
which states the rain it raineth every day, insinuates that at any time the
happiness that now occupies the characters in
Through this paper I have analyzed the character of Feste and I have reached the conclusion that definitely he is an irreplaceable figure. He is responsible for part of the comic tone of the play due to his puns and jokes. Within the play he plays his part as a clown entertaining other characters, but outside the play, he has a different role, which is to entertain the audience of the play (us) and comment on the action for the public to follow every detail. He is the character who, at times, introduces a feeling of melancholy and even bitterness through his songs. He is a witty jester whose wisdom may be due to his age and his experience. He plays with words though knowing that words may lead to confusion, though that is exactly what he tries to do, to confuse and play pranks on the other characters using language wittily.
Feste is not a traditional clown, and his presence drains the comic tone of the play. He is the figure who presents reality just as it is, and tries to present mean just as they are. This is clearly seen in his last song, where he tries to be realistic about life, though some negativity is concealed regarding the future. He states that the world has been running for a long time, and nothing will change but continue just the way it has always been, and so it will happen with men.
Finally, the parallelism between Puck and Feste is evident; however, Puck and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are, in general, more optimistic and comic, while Feste and “Twelfth Night” leave us with a bitter-sweet end, in spite of being a comedy. I believe this may be caused by Shakespeare’s own feelings. He wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” between 1594 and 1597, and “Twelfth Night” between the years 1601 and 1608. This means he was younger when he wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and maybe his opinion about life and love was more romantic and, thus, more optimistic than a few years later. This could explain why there is such a difference at the end of these plays, being both of them comedies. I think Shakespeare’s view point in real life influenced his comedies and, in this way, we get two happy endings with different expectations.
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