How does Shakespeare Present the Role of Feste in Twelfth Night?

In William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night the character of Feste is a solitary wit surrounded by fools. His occupation is that of Olivia’s paid fool, which she inherited from her father, ‘Feste the jester… a fool that the Lady Olivia’s father took much pleasure in. ‘ This long standing relationship may be the reason he seems to have a status higher than that of a servant within the household, and appears to leave and return at will without fear of punishment, ‘Tell me where thou hast been or my lady will hang thee… Let her hang me.
This may also be because of Elizabethan attitudes towards allowed fools, who had gained popularity due to their presence in many royal courts. Feste`s palpable intelligence is an integral part of his role, as he uses it to communicate the subtext of Shakespeare`s complicated plot to both the other characters and the audience. It is therefore ironic that the fool is so frequently said to be dishonest, ‘Y`are a dry fool: I`ll take no more of you. Besides, you grow dishonest,’ as throughout the play he does nothing but divulge truths.
His cleverness is immediately apparent upon his first appearance for several different reasons. If he were not a fool then he would have no other way of making money, thus his decision to ingratiate himself once more into Olivia’s good graces is a wise one, ‘To be turned away, is that not as good as a hanging to you? ‘ It would also be essential for him to be intelligent to play the role of fool, as he is paid for his acute observation disguised as witty remarks. The most obvious testament to Feste`s intelligence however is his ability to manipulate words.

This ensures he keeps his job in Olivia’s household, as when she asks for the fool to be taken away because he is dry, Feste twists her words around and returns them in the form of a pun, ‘Give the dry fool a drink, then is the fool not dry? ‘ His craftiness amuses Olivia, who allows him to stay. His way with words also allows him to voice his opinions on other characters without fear of retribution. Whilst engaged in idle banter Feste shares his observation of Malvolio and Sir Toby, ‘Sir Toby will be sworn that I am no fox, but he will not pass his word for twopence that you are no fool.
This shows that although Toby is foolish as he cannot perceive Feste`s intellect, Malvolio`s idiocy is so apparent that even a fool such as Toby can see it. Feste later reaffirms his belief that Sir Toby is a fool and also shares his view of Sir Andrew. He greets the pair with the line, ‘Did you never see the picture of We Three? ‘ The painting shows only two fools whilst implying that the viewer is the third, and this comparison suggests he perceives Toby and Andrew to be fools as well as himself. It is in this way that he contributes to the underlying theme of deception that runs through the play.
He deliberately presents himself to others as a mere fool, and despite the fact he is obviously much more than that, he is so proficient at this ruse that the only character to see through it is Viola, ‘This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, And to do that well, craves a kind of wit. ‘ It may be because he not only accepts his role as a fool but uses it to his advantage, accordingly gaining perspective from this self knowledge, that he can differ from the other characters and deceive others instead of himself.
Perhaps it is because Feste`s intellect is so bountiful that he is taken beyond the role of simply a character. Through it he acquires the role of a somewhat omniscient narrator, infesting both the audience and the other characters with a heightened awareness of what is happening around and within them. This is shown during a conversation with Viola, where as thanks for a coin Feste states, ‘Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard. ‘ This shows his awareness of her disguise, both to the audience and to Viola herself.
It also shows he must at least be extremely discerning, to deduce such a thing from simply observing the meetings between Orsino and Viola and Olivia and Viola. The primary way he communicates his cryptic messages however is through song. The clown sings no fewer than seven songs throughout the play, and although the other characters see them as nothing more than a convenient source of entertainment, many have an underlying foresight far beyond the grasp of a mere jester. Feste sings his first song upon Sir Toby and Sir Andrews requests for a love song.
The first verse appears to be about Olivia, and demonstrates Feste`s keen perception of the other characters and his uncanny knowledge of future events, ‘O mistress mine, where are you roaming? ‘ This shows Feste`s knowledge of Olivia’s roaming heart, searching for its true love. ‘O stay and hear, your true loves coming. ‘ This line perfectly foreshadows future events, as Olivia finds love not whilst searching for it, but by it finding her in the form of Sebastian.
Feste then proceeds to encapsulate the plays plot within one line of his song, ‘Journeys end in lovers meeting. This suggests that he may be ubiquitous, as his knowledge is not only of the future, but of the past events as well. It could however just be referring to the metaphorical journeys the characters have been on in their search for love, not the literal journey Viola and Sebastian have undertaken to Illyria. The second verse of his song appears to be addressed to Sir Toby, regarding his thus far secret love for Maria.
It shows Feste`s knowledge of their hesitance towards love, ‘What’s to come is still unsure. Entwined with the advice Feste appears to have also interwoven a philosophy for life, ‘Present mirth hath present laughter,’ can be interpreted as carpe diem, fitting counsel for Sir Toby who needs to act upon his love before it is too late, ‘Youth`s a stuff will not endure. ‘ Another of Feste`s songs that has more to it than what appears at first glance is that which he sings at the Duke`s court for Orsino and Viola. Feste tells the sad tale of a boy that died for love, ‘I am slain be a fair cruel maid. ‘ It is a song that Viola and Orsino, both suffering from the pain of unrequited love, can relate to.
The songs ‘fair cruel maid’ for Orsino is Olivia, who knows of his love but does not return it. Viola`s ‘cruel maid’ is Orsino himself, who cannot return her love as he does not know of it and believes her to be a man. The one event that does not concur with the omniscient portrayal of Feste is the arrival of Sebastian. Feste appears to truly believe that Sebastian is Cesario, to the extent that he becomes frustrated and resorts to sarcasm as a defence,’ your name is not Master Cesario; nor this is not my nose either.
This scene suggests that Feste is not as all knowing as he can appear, and is perhaps only a highly perceptive individual, a trait born of his considerable intelligence. Feste is presented as one of the more developed characters in the play, and his multifaceted personality shows in his tormenting of Malvolio. Prior to this Feste`s purpose has been to traverse between the main plot and the subplot (the only character to do so) and though he has passively influenced the events, he has remained very much an observer rather than an actual participant.
The exception to this is his imitating Sir Topas to distress Malvolio, ‘I prithee put on this gown, and this beard; make him believe thou art Sir Topas the curate,’ although his reasons for agreeing to Maria`s request are not entirely clear. He may have done it simply because he is clever enough to know nothing bad will happen to him because of it. He would probably also have recognized that Malvolio is not popular currently with Olivia, ‘O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite,’ and hence making him suffer would put Feste in a favourable position within the household.
It may also be because he is clearly used to his abilities as a fool endearing him to others, and although the other characters do become annoyed and tired of him at times, Malvolio is the only one that appears to actively dislike him, ‘I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. ‘ Whatever his reasons are this scene illustrates the more unsavoury aspects of Feste`s personality, but at the same time it also offers a contrast between how Feste and Malvolio are presented.
Due to Malvolio`s self concerned and unpleasant behaviour it seems justifiable that he should be a rather one dimensional character, hampered by his own contemptible qualities. It is for this reason Feste`s superior attitude and actions towards him are understandable, and instead of serving to make the reader dislike Feste, it causes them to empathise with him as it shows his more human side that had previously been hidden beneath his sharp wit. In the style of a true narrator the last word (or indeed words) of Twelfth Night belong to Feste, who merges his dual roles, and delivers them in song format.
It appears to be a rather dismal song for a clown, as it suggests that every day brings misery, ‘For the rain it raineth every day. ‘ This may be because the other characters have gone, leaving him alone with the audience, to whom he can deliver a last message. Feste`s final lesson appears to suggest that life is plagued with misery, therefore, like the characters in Twelfth Night, you should embrace happiness in whatever form it takes because it may not last.
Shakespeare presents the role of Feste as a paradox: the wisest character of the play is the paid fool. Throughout Twelfth Night Feste directs, entertains and criticizes the other characters through his revealing songs and witty wordplay, and at the same time makes them reflect on their current circumstances. This is a similar relationship that Shakespeare, as a playwright, would have had with his audience, and it creates a parallel between the writer and his creation.

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