The lonely fool:
The masks and cages of Shakespeare’s Feste
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The Fool is a stock character used by many playwrights, but in Twelfth Night,
Shakespeare diverges from the typical character of the jester to create
Feste, a man who is more than simply a Fool. He is an individual who
defies being put in the same category as any other person; he exists,
in some undefined way, outside of the frame, outside of the boundaries,
of the idyllic Illyria, entering scenes to observe and interact and
comment on those other inhabitants of the play, but he ultimately is
the only one who is untouched by the play’s “happy
ending,” in a positive or a negative sense. Geoffrey Bush
proposes that the reason the Fool, in general, is thus unaffected by
the ending of the comedy is because
the fool is not in progress towards himself, the fool is always himself, and he preserves what he is by ignoring a world rushing headlong toward weddings. The fool is a fact, and he is the only fact that cannot be governed by the comic dream. (qtd. in Willeford 174)Bush therefore suggests that the Fool lives in a state of perpetual stasis: he does not move, does not grow, and does not change, unlike the other characters in whose midst he walks. He is caught in a position of immobility, where he must observe others continuing on with their lives without being able to do so himself. But Bush does not take into account the idea that such stasis might be crippling to a Fool such as Feste, and that, trapped in a life that never changes, his words might begin to be touched by melancholy and hints of bitterness, dark undertones that result from the loneliness of a perpetual existence in such a confined cage.
Feste is constrained by his role as a Fool. He is defined by his title; he is a jester, a wit; his sole purpose is to be a “corrupter of words,” and to amuse those in whose service he is employed (III.i.36). As part of his function as an allowed Fool, Feste is permitted greater freedoms than virtually any other servant, and is given leave to use his wit and intelligence to suggest to others that it is they who are the fools, not he. And yet he is caged by these freedoms; they isolate him from others. He is “a professional entertainer, a shrewd wit,” and consequently is set apart from both Orsino and Olivia, who are his superiors, and servants like Malvolio or Maria. Thus he is “a loner, with few, if any, attachments of affection […] he is entrapped, or at the very least defined, by his role––a hired clown who sports his mask because it is the only sanctioned outlet for his insights” (Greif 77). Feste’s shrewdness permits him to see truths about people more clearly than anyone else in Twelfth Night, with the possible exception of Viola.
But his intelligence is crippling, because he can only express his observations in the maxims of the Fool; as anything else, he would be criticised for speaking truths that people do not want to hear. Consequently, he cannot escape his role; he is a jester, a clown, and as such will always be viewed in a particular light. This is a tragic situation for a man who is
probably the most intelligent character in the play, and [who] undoubtedly possesses the most capacious understanding. He has a mastery of music and song and of all the resources of language as well. Yet he is a mere jester. It is a ludicrous as well as a haunting sight to see Feste grossly habited in a fool’s garb. (Levin 156)In order to speak truth, Feste sacrifices the ability to do as he pleases; his words may be his own, but his actions are dictated by the moods of his mistress. He must perform to her liking, to please her, because he is ultimately still a servant, and fooling is his occupation. If he is unable to please Olivia, he may well be turned away, which for a man working to earn his bread might be “as good as a hanging” (I.iv.17-18). His freedom, then, is limited, if not mostly illusion, and indeed is limited only to speech; he has far less freedom in action.
Because Feste must jest to please, he “can have no real emotions of his own, and may only live in his quibbles” (Salingar 136). That is to say, what pleasure Feste gets out of life he must get from playing with words and twisting them to suit his purposes. His strength lies particularly in language, and it is in this way that he can, on occasion, escape from the cage he resides in. And yet even in his freedom of words, “to a degree, at least, Feste has ‘festered.’ His talents have not found a satisfactory outlet…and so have deteriorated” (Levin 156). Most of the people he interacts with on a daily basis are not nearly a match for his tongue. Olivia is mostly content to be amused. Until he meets Viola, Feste cannot truly banter wits with anyone, and with Viola, he is confesses that “who you are, and what you would, are out of my welkin” (III.i.57-8). This is not to be taken lightly; Feste is the master of words, and the tiredness he feels from a lack of challenge to his skills is briefly lifted during his encounter with Viola.
This encounter, however, does not occur until half-way through the play. Feste’s first appearance comes as he returns to Illyria from a long absence, an absence that has taken place at a time when Olivia was likely most in need of amusement to distract her from the deaths of her father and brother, so close together (I.iii.36-9). His absence threatens the security of his position as Olivia’s fool; he is, after all, still a servant, and subject to the same rules that govern the other servants. Unexplained absences were more than enough justification for being turned away, and it is only because he is able to use his skill with words to charm his way back into Olivia’s graces by proving that she herself is a fool, that he escapes punishment (I.v.66-72). Olivia would have been well within her rights as Feste’s mistress to dismiss him, but he has been an established figure in her life for so long that she is accustomed to his presence, takes him for granted, and would miss him if he were gone. Regardless, Feste puts his position at risk by taking such freedom as disappearing for so long; however, because “he is cut off from an independent life of his own by his traditional role,” and consequently “what he sees at the bottom of the well is ‘nothing,’” there is the suggestion that, because he sees his life going nowhere, he simply no longer cared what happened if Olivia dismissed him (Salingar 136).
This sort of melancholy points to a decrease in his interest in what occurs in his life. Had Olivia not been willing to be entertained, Feste might have found himself out wandering the lonely roads of the world outside of Illyria. And yet, as J.W. Draper points out, “Feste cannot be very young. …surely, he has no wish to be cast forth on an unfeeling world” (27). With this in mind, then, perhaps Feste ventured out on what would become a long absence trusting in Olivia to take him back. He has, after all, been with her for a long time, and is almost a part of her extended family. Even if Olivia had intended to turn Feste away, however, she likely would not have succeeded; he is extremely skilled at winning others over with words, and “shows considerable acumen in judging the aims and motives of those about him, and so keeps himself in the good graces of his betters, and lives most shrewdly by his wits. In the exercise of his profession, Feste [is] certainly no fool” (Draper 26). Indeed, a Fool cannot truly be foolish if he hopes to cater successfully to his mistress. Viola’s observations of Feste after her first encounter with him support this assertion:
This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,She recognises in Feste the ability to make his jests wisely, an ability that requires the talent of reading a person and knowing how best to make them smile, and on what subjects to hold one’s tongue. Feste, whose livelihood depends on keeping his mistress and others pleased with his witticisms, knows that as long as he is capable of teasing a smile out of Olivia he is in little danger of losing his position.
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. (III.i.60-65)
It is a strange irony that a man who makes his living keeping others amused and in good spirits might himself not be particularly happy. Twelfth Night is, in a number of ways, about disguises, pretending to be someone other than one’s true self: Viola disguises herself as a man; Malvolio dresses as he believes Olivia desires; and Feste cloaks himself in the garb of a curate. Karen Greif suggests that “all the characters in Twelfth Night are masqueraders,” but that “only Feste the jester keeps his mask from slipping” (61). We are allowed glimpses into the minds of nearly every character other than Feste, whose mask stays firmly in place. However, it is not difficult to believe that Feste’s role as jester is no more real than his role as Sir Topas, that the constant bantering wit hides a heart that is weighted down with years of plying the same tricks and making the same jokes. The closest Feste comes to revealing the “aching sadness at the very heart of his character” is during his bantering with Olivia after his return to her estate (63). In response to her bidding the fool be taken away, he says “‘Cucullus non facit monachum’: that’s as much to say as I wear not motley in my brain” (I.v.56-7). The actual translation is that “the cowl does not make the monk,” but either way, Feste’s point is clear: he is drawing Olivia’s attention to the fact that simply because he is called Fool does not mean that that is all he is. In other words, the title does not make the man.
There is more to Feste than fooling, but that is all most people see. He “has been over the garden wall into some such world as the Vienna of Measure for Measure [a world that is not as pleasant as Illyria]. He never tells where he has been, gives no details. But he has an air of knowing more of life than anyone else––too much, in fact” (Levin 154-5). Unlike the others that move about Illyria, Feste is world-weary, worn down with knowledge of things that do not trouble anyone else, as occupied as they are with love and games of love. This has taken a toll on his fooling; he shows an “awareness that for some listeners his fooling [has] indeed grown old” (Greif 63). His first scene shows this awareness, as he sees Olivia approaching and cries “Wit, and’t be thy will, put me into good fooling!” (I.v.32-3). It seems he fears that, especially after having been away for so long, his ability to jest and make Olivia laugh, particularly as he is out of favour, may not come as readily as it has in the past. Malvolio undoubtedly hits a nerve when he says “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. Look you now, he’s out of his guard already. Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagg’d” (I.v.83-88). Certainly, nothing is heard in retort from Feste, which is very much unlike his usually sharp repartee, and indicates that there is some truth to Malvolio’s comment: Feste has grown tired. Indeed, Feste fixates on getting his revenge on the steward, right up until the end of the play, which suggests he took Malvolio’s attacks to heart.
The accusation of barrenness by one, however mean-spirited, means that there are likely others who have perceived his skills as failing, which does not bode well for his position: there is no need for a Fool who cannot provide good fooling. In return for the darts Malvolio throws at him, Feste “tries to make Malvolio feel equally barren,” and he crows over his defeat at the end of the play (Levin 157). Despite this victory over the killjoy, Feste already sees Olivia moving away from him, and “there is a persistent hint…that his enigmas glance at himself as well as others, and that he feels his own position to be insecure” (Salingar 136). The topsy-turvy, carnival-esque world is righting itself, and Feste does not know where he will stand in resulting new world. Olivia has married Sebastian, and Feste is abruptly no longer the most significant male in her life, and thus is in a potentially dangerous position. Furthermore, she has expressed frustration with his fooling; she quickly grew tired of his “mad” reading of Malvolio’s letter (V.i.291-301). At the very end of the play, Olivia leaves with the other lovers, without a backward glance at Feste, who is left alone on stage.
It is significantly symbolic that Feste is the only one left at the end of the play. He does not belong with the lovers, but neither does he belong with Sir Toby and Maria, Sir Andrew, or Malvolio. He is a separate entity, and “lives in two planes of being, like so many clever people, an outward façade of professional raillery, and a serious inner urge for the good things of the great world to which he was not born” (Draper 30). He balances between the world of the servants and the world of the masters, belonging to both and so unable to truly belong to either. He is the only person of any significance who is not pursued or does not pursue someone else in a romantic sense at some point during the play. Orsino, Sir Andrew, and Malvolio pursue Olivia; Olivia pursues Cesario (both Viola and Sebastian); Viola indirectly pursues Orsino; Sir Toby and Maria pursue each other. Of the remaining characters, only Antonio is of any significance, and he arguably pursues Sebastian, if not in a romantic sense, then certainly after some form of love. Feste alone, then, is isolated from any relationship of a romantic sort. There is a passing mention from Sir Andrew that indicates that Feste might have a mistress, but Feste’s response, as to be expected from a Fool, can be interpreted either flippantly or seriously, and thus leaves us in doubt as to whether or not he actually has a woman (II.iii.25-27). The songs Feste sings of love are not light or happy songs, suggesting the possibility that Feste might have once been in love and then jilted.
Even if that was not the case, it is not difficult to believe that Feste simply struggles with melancholy and bitterness when it comes to romantic relationships: he is surrounded by people who seek after love, while he is only a Fool, and Fools are sexless. The song he sings for Orsino is not a “silly” song that “dallies with the innocence of love,” as Orsino leads us to believe (II.iv.46-47). It is made of much darker stuff. Feste sings of death, of being “slain by a fair cruel maid,” neither of which are what we expect a man who fancies himself as in love as Orsino does would request (II.iv.51-54). It, along with the other three songs Feste sings, give us an inkling of the Feste that lies beneath the mask. The song he chooses as he goes to visit Malvolio in prison speaks of an unkind lady, who “loves another,” perhaps hinting towards the idea of Feste having been jilted by a woman he loved, or having the woman he loved not return his affections (according to Greif, there have been productions of Twelfth Night that suggest Feste has an unrequited love for Olivia, thus explaining his dislike of Malvolio (66)) (IV.ii.75, 79). The song he addresses to the audience at the end of the play contains a stanza with the lines “But when I came, alas, to wive,… By swaggering could I never thrive” (V.i.397-9). Here, as there is no indication that Feste is physically intimidating, “swaggering” may be interpreted in a verbal sense, that his way of showing off is to swagger with words, and that he was never successful in attracting women in that way. The last song occurs earlier in the play, and is perhaps the more famous of Feste’s songs. The first stanza is innocuous enough, but the second stanza is less charming:
What is love? ’Tis not hereafter;He implies that love is only a fleeting thing, because what the future holds is uncertain, and that if one wants a chance at love, it is best to seize it while still young, because youth does not last forever. The implication, of course, is that once youth has vanished, as his has, that the chances of finding love are slim.
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. (II.iii.47-52)
This idea of time marching inexorably on is one that weaves its way throughout Twelfth Night. Olivia, while talking to Viola, says that “the clock upbraids [her] with the waste of time” (III.i.130); one of the officers who arrests Antonio exclaims, “the time goes by, away!” (III.iv.364); Orsino asks Viola (as Cesario), “what wilt thou be/When time hath sow’d a grizzle on thy case?” (V.i.164-5); and Feste, having gotten back at Malvolio, says, “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges” (V.i.376-7). There is a preoccupation with time, and time floating by. For Feste in particular, there is an awareness of the movement of time; as per Bush’s statement that a Fool is always himself, Feste is fixed in one place. His duty is to others, not to himself, so he is unable to grow or change like everyone else. Instead, he must observe those around him flowing fluidly on in their lives, as he grows older but remains firmly fixed in his unchanging position as Fool. He is static, unlike the rest of Illyria, and as such will always be alone. Even his final song, which he sings while solus on stage, emphasises the loneliness of his life:
But when I came to man’s estate,Knave once was synonymous with clown; in a sense, Feste implies that he has been shut out of the society of Orsino and Olivia, and likewise, he has been shut out of the realm of women, at least in the romantic sense. He lives his life alone, hovering between master and servant, celibacy and matrimony. Greif points out that the repeated lines emphasise that
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came, alas, to wive,
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day. (V.i.393-400)
the reality of wind and rain wins out, the monotony of everyday. The passing of time is painful [for everyone, but particularly for Feste, as he does not travel through it as others do], may even seem unendurable, but there is nothing for it but resignation, the wise acceptance of the Fool. (72)The Fool may be trapped in a lonely existence, but Feste is wise enough to bow his head and endure it, for there is no use in struggling against what he cannot change.
A Fool is a curious character, and it would have been easy for Shakespeare to cast Feste in the role of the traditional fool, of the one-dimensional sort that speaks riddles, holds a sceptre, wears a jester cap, and falls into the vulgar to achieve laughs from his audience. The fact that he did not suggests that he was trying to produce a character that reflected multiple aspects of humanity. People go to the theatre to see characters that they can recognise in their friends, their neighbours, or their family, and the sadness and melancholy that bleed through Feste’s jests give him a realness that is difficult to deny. He knows a great deal and is wise in the ways of the world; despite his loneliness, Feste is still able to produce a smile for his mistress, and we expect that of him. After all, “we have searched for our answers in the play’s mirror; and the image cast back has been that of a wryly smiling, somewhat weary jester, one of life’s privileged spies into the mystery of things” (Greif 61).
Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Works ReferencedDraper, J.W. “Et in Illyria Feste.” Shakespeare Association
Bulletin 17 (January 1942): 25-32.Greif, Karen. “Review: A Star is Born: Feste on the Modern
Stage.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (Spring 1988): 61-78.Levin, Richard A. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy.
Newark: U of Delaware P; London: Associated U P, 1985.Salingar, L.G. “The Design of Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare
Quarterly 9 (Spring 1958): 117-139.Willeford, William. The Fool and his Scepter: A Study in Clowns
and Jesters and Their Audience. Northwestern U P, 1969.