How is Feste characterized in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?
As the play's court jester, Feste is characterized as both a witty and wise person. One of Feste's functions is to illustrate the merry, festive themes of Twelfth Night that are associated with the play's title. The play's title refers to the holiday celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas known as Epiphany. Hence, Feste's name is a derivative of the word festival and his jokes and witticisms are characteristic of the holiday.
However, more importantly, Feste also functions as the play's wise observer, and as a wise observer, he also illustrates the theme of foolish human nature . Literary critics...
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In Twelfth Night, Feste is characterized as the most peculiar character. Whereas the motives and feelings of other leading characters are always clear, Feste is more mysterious; the audience is not meant to truly empathize with or understand him. Many parts of the text contribute to the mystery of Feste, including his singing, his gender ambiguity, his unexpected wisdom, and his non-allegiance towards any side in all instances of conflict. (See references for full text PDF.)
Shakespearean plays don’t always use singing, but when they do, it is generally used sparingly. It is a notable tool in theatre, as it allows for each performance to stand out since the same tune is seldom used twice among different productions. Traditionally, plays use singing for scene changes so that the transition is more fluid; Twelfth Night is unique in that Feste sings within the context of the scene. The most significant scene including Feste’s singing is the final one—the play ends with his longest song. Once all conflict is resolved and the other characters have left the stage, Feste alone sings a strangely sorrowful tune considering the play has had a light and humorous tone until now. Each verse of Feste’s songs includes the lines, “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, / …For the rain it raineth every day” (5.1.412-431). Reference to stormy weather and rain is an unexpected way for the comedy to end. The implication is that though the other characters are happy at the play’s end, Feste must know something that the others don’t considering his takeaway is so different in tone. Equally eerie is the fact that he sings his song alone—if he does know something the others don’t, he isn’t willing to share with them, contributing to Feste’s mystery.
Another of the Fool’s notable qualities is his potential for gender fluidity. Where most characters, both in this particular play and in literature as a whole, are identified by their gender, Feste is not. Olivia, for example, couldn’t be a man. She can briefly be summarized as “a woman in mourning who falls in love with a woman unknowingly.” Her gender is necessary for the plot to work the way it does, and the fact that she is a woman could not be altered without changing the play significantly. Viola, likewise, can be described as “a woman dressing as a man.” Her gender is part of her role. Feste, however, is simply “the fool”—even his name, Feste, does not favor the masculine or the feminine. It is an option for directors to cast women for the role of Feste; one 2019 performance, done by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston, cast actress Rachel Belleman for the role (see references). Feste being a woman made no discernible difference to the text, plot, or themes.
Feste also doesn't take sides in conflict. Although he plays a part in Malvolio’s deception along with the others, his motives seem distinctly different. While Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian have malicious intentions, Feste seems to simply be along for the fun of it. He harbors no ill will towards Malvolio; unlike the others, he is not easily offended considering he doesn’t take himself seriously enough to feel disrespected, being the fool. The others understand his detachment from the mischief, and he is not identified as a guilty party in the end when the truth is revealed to Olivia. When Fabian tells all in the last scene, he admits to everyone’s part in the plot except for Feste’s:
“…Most freely I confess, myself and Toby
Set this device against Malvolio here,
Upon some stubborn and uncourteous parts
We had conceived against him: Maria writ
The letter at Sir Toby's great importance;
In recompense whereof he hath married her.” (5.1.382-387)
Feste’s part is ignored by the others, and it isn’t until the Fool himself admits to his own role that he is considered part of the plot at all:
“…I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir;
but that's all one. 'By the Lord, fool, I am not mad.'
But do you remember?” (5.1.395-397)
Feste says, “But do you remember?” here as though anticipating that the others had not only forgotten his role in the plot, but might not recall it even when reminded of it. In any story with conflict, characters can be defined by which sides they take; it reveals character to choose one side over another. It is also worth noting how Feste freely travels between Orsino’s home and Olivia’s home without being questioned, and both seem to consider the Fool to be theirs. Feste’s general non-allegiance to anyone adds to his mystery. Furthermore, it proves that he is not meant to be empathized with, considering that the audience, one way or another, has certainly taken sides when it comes to the conflicts present in the play. The fact that Feste is a neutral party strikes the audience and characters as strange.
Lastly, Feste has a social power that few others share. While he has no legal or financial power, he is able to criticize Olivia in ways that no one else could get away with. Where Maria, another character in service to Olivia, is always respectful toward her Lady, the Fool is rude without consequence. When Olivia and Feste enter a scene five of act one together, she grows bothered by his paradoxes. She then says to her attendants: “Take the fool away” to which Feste wisecracks, “Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the lady,” implying that Olivia has been the fool all along (1.5.36-37). Olivia follows this by trying to send him away, to which Feste disobeys and instead continues to spout paradoxes at her in response. In a setting where social hierarchy is to be respected, Feste breaks social conventions by disrespecting Olivia without consequence.
Twelfth Night’s Fool is far from an ordinary character. Unlike most characters at the close of a story, even as the play closes, audiences have a hard time pinning down Feste’s motives or genuine feelings. The Fool is more like an abstract entity than a man; this is a trend in Shakespeare’s works, where fools exist to call out other characters as Feste does Olivia, or add charm to performances through variety in songs or casting choices. When there is a fool in literature, it is always vital to pay attention to the actions of these unusual figures.