Character and Function of Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

 Character and Function of Feste

We, who hate to be made fools of, flock to Twelfth Night to get the
pleasure of seeing imaginary people making fools of one another.
                    -Stevie Davis

‘Satire’, as Jonathan Swift said, ‘is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.’ Twelfth Night, of course, is not strictly a satire, but it does hold up a mirror in which, however, we are not expected or required to recognize our specific selves. The Fool, so central to the play’s art, conventionally carried an unflattering glass, which he would whip out and stick in front of people’s faces when they were least expecting it, in the wholesome cause of conferring self-knowledge on the victim. In excess of providing an inexhaustible fund of mirth. Feste’s Witticism functions in this way. 

Never caustic and mordant, in fact, Feste has an illimitable stock of mirth, wit, and humor. Voila rightly sums up:

This fellow’s wise enough to play the fool

With all his wisdom, Feste is the jester, the comic soul of the play. He has forged a link between the world of culture, refinement, and politeness. the world of Count Orsino and Olivia, and the coarse underworld of fun, wit, frivolity, and caprice. No respecter of persons, he pokes fun at the follies and foibles of the denizens of both the worlds. He unhesitatingly chides Olivia for her melancholy; with the same gusto he rebukes Orsino for his mawkish sentimentality. He criticizes Sir Andrew for his sickening nonsense. But nobody minds being children. It is he who makes the play sparkle. True, Feste has sized up all the characters in the play.

Feste is a philosopher, but a laughing philosopher, and not a weeping philosopher. Just because he is wise and even philosophical, Feste does not ignore his cap and bells. He is conscious of the fact that fun and laughter are the seasonings of life. It is fun that lends color and poetry to life and makes it worthwhile. Touchstone in As you Like lt and the Fool in King Lear is certainly wiser than Feste, but those two Fools have an encounter with persons, Wiser than themselves. Feste, on the other hand, is wiser than all the other characters in the play. He clearly understands the folly of the Duke and Olivia. He sees through the design of Maria against Malvolio. The plan of Maria to marry Sir Toby also does not escape his notice.

Feste is a versatile genius. As a professional entertainer, he does everything to please his audience. He caters to their requirements. The love-sick Duke is sustained by melancholy, and, therefore, Feste sings melancholy songs to feed his fancy. He sings ‘come away, Death’, but he is not, in any way, emotionally involved. Not for nothing, therefore, J.B. Priestly dubs him as ‘detached’, ‘observant’, and ‘critical. 

Music is Feste’s extraordinary gift. We have,’ says A.C. Bradley, another reason to like Feste. His voice is as melodious as the “sweet content” of his soul.’ In this, Feste stands alone among Shakespeare’s Fools.

True, Feste is an irreplaceable figure. He is responsible for part of the comic tone of the play due to his puns and jokes. Within the play, he plays his part as a clown entertaining other characters, but outside the play, he has a different role, which is to entertain the audience of the play and comment on the action for the public to follow every detail.

role of feste

Although we never feel sorry or sympathy for the other fools of Shakespeare our hearts are dilated with the most unbounded pity and sympathy for Feste. Towards the close of the play, when pairs of lovers have gone home to dream of the golden time and to live a colorful life, Feste is left alone on the stage. There is none to think of him. And then he sings a song, the last song in the play, and perhaps the last song on his lips, in which, for the first time, he is emotionally involved. He sings an old rude song about the stages of man’s life, in each of which the rain rains every day, a song once cheerful and rueful, and stoical and humourous; and this suits his mood. Leo Salingar in his essay, ‘The Design of Twelfth Night’ published in Shakespeare Quarterly rightly sums up,’ Feste is not only the most fully portrayed of Shakespeare’s fools, but he is also the most agile-minded of them.’


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