In the Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, the function of Feste the clown appears inconsequential, but in actuality his role has immense significance in the overall educational development of the other characters. During the seasonal holiday revelry in which this play takes place, the clown is used as an independent observer that exploits the asinine actions and the faults of the other characters.
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. Feste doesn’t make his appearance in the play until the fifth scene of act I. It is during his conversation with Maria that introduces him to the reader and unveils the fool purpose and contribution to the play, which is revealed through an aside:
“Wit, an’t be thy will, put me in good fooling! Those wits that think they have thee, do very oft prove fools, and I that am sure lack thee may pass for a wise man. For what says Quinapalus? Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”(1.5:32-36)
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 that makes them fools. This subject of self-knowledge or lack thereof is pervasive throughout the comedy as it contributes to the image of love as folly. Feste’s contribution to the revelation of the underlying theme of love is essential to the understanding of the play’s messages. The clown’s most profound comments often take the form of a song:
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.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter,
Present mirth hath present laughter.
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure. (2.3:39-52)
This song is performed at the ardent requests from Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for a “love-song.” The song depicts the events of Twelfth Night itself. Feste clearly foreshadows the events that will occur later in the play. When he speaks of journeys ending “in lovers meeting,” he hints at the resolution in which several characters are married. The song also echoes the merriment of the season and how the uncertainty of “what’s to come” shouldn’t be disquieting, but instead a driving force to take life as it comes and to live life to the fullest possibilities.
In the scene with the clown’s first song, since it involves dialogue between Feste and Sir Andrew, is quite ironic. It is ironic because the licensed fool is actually no fool at all and the true fool, Sir Andrew, is the character who provides most of the entertaining comedy through his idiocy. It is this interaction that reveals two kinds of fools, the conscious and the unconscious fool. In Twelfth Night it is the unknowing fools that provide the actual comedy, while the wise Feste adds insight to the greater meaning of the play. It is by his acting like a fool that Feste gains the privilege to speak the truth of the people around him.
Through these truths, which are directed jokingly at another, Feste’s keen perception of others emerges. Feste’s intuitions and insights are comparable only to the perceptions of Viola. Both characters are the only ones who are involved in both houses, Orsino’s and Olivia’s, they rival each other in their respective knowledge of the events that are taking place at the two settings. Strangely, Viola is the only character who recognizes Feste’s true intelligence:
“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that craves a kind of wit. He must observe their mood 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 that he wisely shows is fit, but wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit” (3.1:62-70).
This shows Viola’s awareness of Feste and his ability to read people in order to say the right thing at the right time. Through this keen observation by Viola, she is perhaps conceding the fact that the clown might even have the ability to see through her own disguise. Although Feste never openly claims to know of Viola’s deception, it is indicated that he might be on to her: “Now Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard” (3.1:47-48). It is not only Feste’s insight on the reality of the play’s events that make him an important character but his ability to stay detached from the emotional and self-motivated acts of the others.
While most of the other characters are distressed because of their loss of love or want of love, Feste remains self-contained, seemingly driven only by his financial needs. Since he relies on monetary compensation from others, he must act in a way that ensures a benefit. It is because the clown is not involved emotionally in the innermost action that he is less of a participant and more of a commentator.
Therefore it seems befitting that Shakespeare assigns Feste the final lines in the comedy. Feste precedes his song by mocking the enraged, mistreated, self-indulged, arrogant, and misguided Malvolio. It suggests that because Malvolio is a self-involved unlikable character that is unwilling to change that he should be burdened by his despicable qualities. These comments further enrage Malvolio and instead of learning something from the insights of Feste he becomes more egotistical than before.
This further shows the foolishness of those who hold themselves upon a higher level than a “fool” but accordingly act as such. Along with the condemnation of Malvolio are other happy endings in the form of marriages. Although these events are optimistic, 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 Illyria could at any time be swept away.
With this song, Feste seems to suggest that even as a person goes through life, with its various ups and downs, he or she must remember that at any time one can end up in an unfamiliar place with a completely different life. Feste’s role as a fool, in both Olivia and Orsino’s houses, makes him accessible to all character’s in the play.
But it is his ability to avoid attachment to other characters and 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. While Feste’s role as the fool should imply a lack of intelligence, it is exactly the opposite.