In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste’s role in this Illyrian comedy is significant because in Illyria, the fool is not so much a critic of his environment as a ringleader, capable of transcending the traditional hierarchy of the classes and to lead them on as he sees fit. His ability to interact with common and noble with equal ease makes Feste significant as a character. As a clown employed by Olivias late father, Feste is “an allowed fool”(Act I. Scene v) meaning he is granted the means to speak the truth of the people around him.
In one of the humorous scenes, and the best situation of Feste as a traditional fool, he dresses up as Sir Topaz, the curate and visits the imprisoned Malvolio with the other fools, Maria and Sir Toby. There he uses his humor to abuse Malvolio who is still unaware that he is actually talking to the clown than to the real Sir Topas.
Feste, while disguised as Sir Topaz, calls Malvolio a “lunatic”, and “satan”(Act IV. scene ii) and confuses him by wittingly making him a fool. Throughout the play, Malvolio has always been the person who intentionally spoils the pleasure of other people. This allows the audience to accept such behavior as just and acceptable despite in most circumstances such actions would be condemnable.
One of the major contrasts between the film version created in 1998 was its treatment of this scene. While keeping the language intact, the scene is treated in a serious and dark fashion, but still with the same outcome of breaking Malvolios dignity to an extent as well as to expose his own foolishness. It is a different and more harsh response considering the fact that the play is unabashedly a comedy, yet the effect is similar when compared to the film version.
Feste, however, is primarily known as not only a comedian, but rather bearer of truth in the comedy. Although he does not make any profound remarks, he seems to be the wisest person within all the characters in the comedy. Viola remarks this by saying “This fellow’s wise enough to play the fool.” In a play where many of the characters have succumbed to varying levels of foolishness in their actions and long departed from what would be considered normal, Festes witty barbs present a sensibility that has been lost by those around them.
The humor lies in this truthfulness. In one example he proves Olivia to be a true fool by asking her what she was mourning about. While the answer is obviously the death of her beloved brother, the point Feste tried to make was why was Olivia mourning for a person whose soul is in heaven?
Feste: Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?
Olivia: Good Fool, for my brother’s death.
Feste: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Feste: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brothers soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.
With mourning of a loved one being considered a perfectly acceptable act, particularly with customs of the time in Western Europe, Feste takes a position of bringing a sensibility to his words that while logical, would not be immediately seen as such. However it is this truth that prevents Olivia from retaliating as she is caught in her own folly.
In Twelfth Night, the definition of a fool is greatly challenged. While Feste is the easily the most recognizable fool, and hardly acts alone, his uncanny wit and unconventional approach to other characters that makes him the most memorable and important of the three fools.