A Fool such as I: Feste the Fool in Twelfth Night

“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool

And to do that well craves a kind of wit (3,i,24-5)


In one of my favorite scenes in Twelfth Night, Feste, a jester employed by the household of the Countess Olivia and usually referred to as the Fool, returns from an unexplained absence.

“Take the fool away,” says Olivia.

But the Fool, knowing she needs to placate her boss, proposes the kind of game she knows will engage her because, after all, she has known her since she was born. She suggests that Olivia is in fact the fool: “Do you not hear, sir?” she says to the attendant servant Malvolio, “Take away the lady.”

The Lady responds with an acknowledgement of the game but she delivers it with a reprimand: “Go to, you’re a dry fool. I’ll no more of you. Besides, you grow dishonest.” And by “dishonest”, in Elizabethan English, she means unreliable because he has not been around for a while.

Feste replies: “Two faults, Madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend. For give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry … If that this simple syllogism will serve, so. If it will not, what remedy? The lady bade take away the Fool: therefore, I say again, take her away.” He goes on, via a little dabbling in Latin (“cucullus non facit monachum” – or “the hood does not make the monk”), to claim that he will prove her to be a fool:

Feste: Good Madonna, give me leave to prove you a Fool.

Olivia: Can you do it?

Feste: Dexteriously, good Madonna.

Olivia: Make your proof.

Feste: I must catechize you for it, Madonna. Good my mouse of virtue, answer me.

And so it goes. Feste is close to Olivia. She would have been an interesting, neutral and probably quite liberal companion at times during the childhood of the young noblewoman, and that closeness and affection are evident in the playful endearment “my mouse of virtue”. Throughout Twelfth Night the relationship between Feste and  Olivia is a kind of emotional bedrock. Feste knows his Lady well enough to be able to joust with her about her dead brother, and later in the play he challenges her in a way that does not undermine but supports her.

The tradition in which noble households employed a Fool, or a jester, as a kind of TikTok or Instagram, lasted through the medieval and tudor periods to the middle of the 17th century in England – longer in some European countries. Fools were originally entertainers, making jokes, singing and clowning. And almost all fools were men, though there are a few examples of women as fools, for example La Jardinière who was jester to Catherine de Médicis in the 16th century, and Astaude du Puy who was jester to Henrietta Maria, Wife to Charles 1 of France in the 17th century; some historians include Jane the Fool, who served Ann Boleyn, Princess Mary and Katherine Parr. So if you experienced a jolt when I used the pronoun “she” when I was referring to Feste at the top of this article (as I do), the reason is that in Curtain’s production this year Feste is played by a woman. Of the streamable productions mentioned in my blog on Editions and Resources for this production, only one has a female Feste, played by Doon Mackichan, who matches the female Malvolia played by Tamsin Greig in the National Theatre production of 2017.

The historical Fools may well have been close to their families of employment, rather in the way childminders are now. But the tradition took on a wider and more complex significance in literature, notably in the work of William Shakespeare. We can see that in the familiarity, at times quite intimate, between Feste and Olivia. Feste frequently calls her Madonna, or Good Madonna, and he uses the epithet as a kind of cord bringing her closer or turning her sideways, opening her up or drawing her attention. “Madonna” literally means “My Lady”, but in Elizabethan England as now it will have referred to an ideal Lady along the lines of the Virgin Mary; Feste’s reverence for Olivia is evident in the way he addresses her. 

The nature of the Fool in Shakespeare evolved. Shakespeare’s sophistication as a writer developed, allowing him to treat a wide range of themes and deal with multiple character traits deftly in a single character or exchange between characters. And during the rich and dynamic period in which Shakespeare’s plays were written and first performed there was an efflorescence of actors as Fools, who brought with them their own kinds of foolery and influenced Shakespeare in the way he wrote their parts. At least one of them, it seems, caused offence by over-stepping the mark. In Hamlet, when introducing the play-within-a-play to the small troupe of players, the eponymous prince gives this advice:

…let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the Fool that uses it. (Hamlet, 3,ii,38-9)

Theater historians wonder whether Shakespeare was directing his words at one of the regular fool-actors of the 1590s, and of course they tend to point their finger at Will Kemp, who was very popular, known for his ability to get a laugh out of the audience, and whose talent was grounded in physical strength and dexterity. He played Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Falstaff in Henry IV and Merry Wives; I don’t include Falstaff in a list of Shakespeare’s Fools, but there are critics and historians who do.

Though physical humor and music were hallmarks of the Fool in the earlier plays, the humor of Shakespeare’s Fools became more verbal (for example, the malapropisms of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing) and ultimately philosophical. Twelfth Night’s Feste is a much-discussed example of the philosophical fool, along with poor Tom in King Lear; and Robert Armin, who appeared in many of Shakespeare’s later plays, performed them both. An interesting article on the men who performed as Shakespeare’s fools can be found in the British Library’s online article “Shakespeare’s Fools” by Eric Rasmussen and Ian deJong: https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeares-fools

Feste is one of the complex fools, a great character who has been used in different ways by different directors. In Trevor Nunn’s film of the play (1996), Ben Kingsley plays the omniscient Fool, aware of everyone’s secrets and given to a melancholy commentary on the behavior and speech of the other characters; there is something a little existential about the way he is played. Tommy Steele, in the 1970 TV version with Joan Plowright, Alec Guiness and Ralph Richardson, does little more than make a few jokes and play music, which in its way is okay since this is one of the more substantially musical of Shakespeare’s plays. And Doon Mackichan in Simon Godwin’s production for the National Theatre in London combines wise-cracking and music as a way of amplifying the zany fluidity of the central plots – the love between the two central women, and the household’s rebellion against Malvolia who simply can’t stop herself from adjusting the furniture.

In any decent production Feste is a kind of amplifier. She does not initiate actions or thoughts or speech, but draws attention to their themes and meanings and joins the other characters in carrying plots through to their ultimate consequences. She engages with the other characters, turns the gain control on their words, comments on their actions, and draws a line of mascara beneath their quirks and quibbles. Indeed, she ironically draws attention to herself in this way, playing with one of the key jokes about late Shakespearean Fools, the fluid boundaries between foolery, madness, truth and deception. In her relationships with Olivia, Viola (as Cesario, a secret of identity that Feste seems to know) and Orsino she toys with their status using their honorifics, by drawing out their pronunciation or using them like punctuation points.

For example, when Viola, in the guise of Cesario, meets Feste on her way to Olivia, and asks if she is not Olivia’s Fool, Feste is playful yet cleverly accurate in her reply:

No, indeed, sir, the Lady Olivia has no folly. She will keep no fool, sir, til she be married, and fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to herrings – the husband’s the bigger. I am indeed not her Fool, but her corrupter of words. (3,i,30-35)

One of the things I find most interesting about an exchange like this is that it is not merely an example of banter between the Fool and the characters but an arrow of truth, indicating also a kind of darkness that pervades Twelfth Night, perhaps as a result of its place in a social world consumed by pestilence.

As part of her sly pursuit of the truth Feste plays with the role of being a philosopher – a kind of decoy, as it happens. She plays with logic: “If that this simple syllogism will serve, so”, she says to Olivia, who proceeds with a quasi logical debate about who’s the fool. She continues in the same vein with Orsino, in an exchange that touches on the relationships in the play which are not always as they appear on the surface, harboring a somewhat sinister thread of tension and menace:

Feste: Truly sir, the better for my foes and the worse for my friends.

Orsino: Just the contrary: the better for thy friends.

Feste: No, sir, the worse.

Orsino: How can that be?

Feste: Marry, sir, they praise me and make an ass of me. Now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass; so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself, and by my friends I am abused. So, if your four negatives make your two affirmatives, why then the worse for my friends and the better for my foes. (5,i,11-22)

In a similar vein, Feste plays with the theme of disguise and appearance throughout the play. For example when she meets Sebastian, thinking perhaps that he might be Cesario, she says:

No, I do not know you, nor I am not sent to you by my Lady, to bid you come speak with her, nor your name is not Master Cesario, nor this is not my nose neither. Nothing that is so is so. (4,i,5-9) 

And later, when she is talking to Sir Toby and Maria just before appearing to the imprisoned Malvolio as the parson Sir Topaz, she quips: “For, as the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, ‘That that is, is’; so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for, what is ‘that’ but ‘that,’ and ‘is’ but ‘is’? (4,ii,12-16)

With most characters in the play Feste adjusts her levels and angles of address and debate to suit people and circumstances. She rarely makes a comment that can be taken as offensive or overly personal. The one exception is Malvolio. Early in the play, when Olivia and Feste are bantering with thoughts about who is more the Fool, Olivia asks Malvolio what he thinks of Feste. After a brief exchange of insults Malvolio says: “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. Look you now, he’s out of his guard already. Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged.” (1,v,80-85) Those words have stung Feste, who holds on to them and in the last moments of the play quotes them to explain why Malvolio’s punishment has been so steep.

But the animosity is not just personal. Feste is very protective of the good Madonna, his mistress Olivia. So she takes exception to Malvolio’s creepy designs on her and his upstart presumption that he will rise from the ranks of servitude, as it were, and enter the aristocracy as Olivia’s count. I would like to think that Shakespeare was resistant to the claims of the Elizabethan social order, that he was somehow as opposed then as I am now to aristocratic privilege. But in this case he was not. Feste is incensed by this social- climbing aspect of Malvolio’s demeanour. She also appears to agree with Maria in judging Malvolio to be “some kind of Puritan”. The steward’s attempt to impose a moral order on Sir Toby, Andrew Aguecheek and the rest of the gang rubs all of them up the wrong way, and though Feste doesn’t find it an altogether pleasant task she takes on the role of Malvolio’s torturer.

One of my favorite stories in the world of literature is Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. First published in 1837, it’s essentially a tale of innocence and hypocrisy, sycophancy and truth (wouldn’t it be good to have a version for the Trumpian present?) The emperor is a vain and foolish man who longs for clothes that will astound a public that he wants to adore him. He is tricked by a pair of fraudulent weavers who tell him that they have invented a cloth that is invisible to stupid people, and present him with a robe that they claim is made from it. Of course the cloth is in fact no cloth at all but the footmen who drape the emperor do not want to be thought idiots so they join in with the charade. When he goes out among the people, no one wants to be thought stupid – they all fear the executioner’s blade – and praise the quality of his new clothes despite the embarrassing evidence of his naked self. However, a young boy who is unimpressed with unscientific conspiracy theories and false claims is the exception. He points to the naked emperor and calls him out, and in the words of Frank Loesser and Danny Kaye he says “The king is in the altogether…”, thus levelling the moral altitude of the story. The Fool in Twelfth Night – like the fool in Lear – is like the boy. Knowingly, Feste points to the way we might find the truth through the barriers of disguise and deception- third party and self deception – that take place in the play.

Feste offers a sardonic commentary on the action of the play. She is, as Olivia describes him in Act 1, an “allowed Fool” for whom the ordinary rules of discourse do not apply. She has interesting and rich relationships with each of the main characters – from Olivia and Orsino to Cesario/Viola and Maria – and also, in a series of addresses and asides, with the audience. She moves apparently seamlessly between the world of the play and the real world. She can be everywhere, an observer or a catalyst, invisible or visible, permitted but not feared. In that wonderful scene where she meets Viola, dressed as Cesario, who is on her way to meet Olivia to find the truth behind the ring, Feste says:

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere. (3,i,37)

The Fool is a remarkable tool for a playwright and as he did with so many tools Shakespeare makes the most of her. She is in some ways like a modern psychoanalyst, drawing out the truth that lives in the things that people say. Feste is one of the most complex and rich of Shakespearean Fools. And she is knowledgeable. In one of her songs, “Come Away Death” she is able to throw back at Orsino the memes and formal techniques of the inflated love sonnets the Duke is so fond of. And she banters with an apparent stranger whom she believes to be an enigmatic Cesario (who is in fact the brother Sebastian) who uses a word that would have only recently been introduced to the English language, “vent”, from the French word meaning “wind” or “:exclaim”. Feste plays with the word, and I will finish this brief blog with this wonderful illustration:

Sebastian: I prithee vent thy folly somewhere else. Thou know’st not me.

Feste: Vent my folly! He has that word of some great man and now applies it to a fool. Vent my folly! … I prithee now, tell me what I shall vent to my lady. Shall I vent to her that thou art coming? (4,i,10-15)