An important dramatic character, The Fool was an intrinsic element of Elizabethan drama. It was not a new invention, but a tradition dating back to the Greek and Roman times. However, the fool’s stature rose rapidly in eminence during the Elizabethan period. Fools or Jesters were employed by royal courts as entertainers, but also acted as commentators who often mouthed words of insight and wisdom. Their importance is also reflected in the literature of the period. Shakespeare employed the character of the fool in twenty-two of his plays. Actors such as Robert Armin and William Kemp became renowned for their performance as fools in Shakespearean plays.
The ‘Fool’ could usually be categorized into two types- ‘The Witty Fool’ (one wise enough to know his folly, and through it, dispensing words of erudition) and ‘The Natural Fool’ (one who produces laughter through his stupidity/ ignorance). Emma Osborne highlights the difference between the two categories and states that “the natural fool contrastingly lacks what the licensed fool has in perception, and is an idiot without the ability to see beyond the obvious”. While both have the ‘comedic purpose of making you laugh, but they do this differently’: one does it through ‘wit and intelligence’; the other through ‘stupidity’.
Feste in Twelfth Night belongs to the ‘Witty Fool’ category. He is a paid professional court jester who is a regular in Olivia’s household but also frequents Orsino’s court for performances. His tendency to constantly ‘scrounge for tips’ makes him a sympathetic character; dependent for money on his employers. A. C. Bradley praises the character of Feste for possessing ‘intellectual agility’ and a swift ‘insight into character and into practical situations’. Leo Salingar appreciates him for being ‘exceptionally imaginative and sophisticated’. He is both a character and a commentator who acts as an intermediary between the audience and the playwright. He speaks his mind freely about the other characters in the play, while also performing a comic function. He is subversive in his attitude to his superiors, and fearlessly tells Olivia that she is a ‘fool’ for mourning her brother’s death when she knows that he is resting in heaven. Gwynne Blakemore Evans sums up Feste’s character as ‘a wise fool, a man in complete intellectual and emotional control of himself, who operates throughout the comedy as a truth teller’.
Apart from entertaining with his wit, Feste also charms the characters and the spectators with his musical ability. An analysis of four songs sung by Feste in the play will give us greater insight into his character. His first song reflects on the transience of youth; his second song contemplates the grief of unrequited love; his third song links himself to the traditional figure of ‘Vice’ in the morality plays; and his last song comments on the temporality of life (For further analysis, see ‘The Ending of Twelfth Night’). His songs inject a dose of melancholy strain in this comic play and remind the audience of the harsher issues existing outside the make-belief world of love and fantasy. What Joan Hartwig says about Feste’s last song can be said in general about his entire oeuvre of music in the play – ‘the pessimistic excess’ of Feste’s music ‘balances the optimistic excesses of the romance world of Illyria’.
Feste’s participation in the savage treatment meted out to Malvolio lends him a dark aspect in the play. His impersonation as Sir Topas- the curate is intended to drive Malvolio out of his wits and convince him of the ‘darkness of his ignorance’. Maurice Charney states that he speaks in a ‘mock-theological style, imitating the close analytic reasoning of scholastic texts’, and thereby satirizes ‘pretentious learning’. However, he also exonerates himself by switching back to his role as a jester and fetching ink and paper for Malvolio so that he can write a letter explaining his ordeal to Olivia.
The most accurate assessment of Feste’s character is provided by Viola in the play when she analyzes foolery as an art that requires study and practice as any wise man’s art. Feste’s skill as a jester requires constant observation of people around him; their moods and temperaments. A fool should have the ability to discern when, where and whom to direct his jests at. He should be patient enough not to get distracted like the untrained hawk that perceives everything in its sight; but sift through the suitability of material that life offers him on an everyday basis.
“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well 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 folly that he wisely shows is fit.
But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.”