Feste and Fabian: Plots and Complots

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3119

Act II, scene v of Twelfth Night opens with Sir Toby's injunction to a character we have never seen before: "Come thy ways, Signor Fabian" (II.v.1). Fabian's reply indicates that he not only knows of the intended "sport," but that he too has a grudge against Malvolio: "You know he brought me out o' favour with my lady about a bear-baiting here" (II.v.6-7). By Maria's entrance, it becomes clear that it is to be Fabian, and not Feste, who is to hide in the box-tree with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in order to observe Malvolio's antics over the letter; indeed that Feste will not appear in the scene at all. The sudden and unexpected appearance of Fabian in the famous "box-tree" scene is one of the intriguing elements of Twelfth Night. His appearance is intriguing because he has apparently replaced Feste in Sir Toby and Maria's plot against Malvolio. Yet in Act II scene iii, where the idea for the letter is conceived, Maria quite clearly suggests, "the fool make a third" (II.iii.167-68). Why does Shakespeare suddenly replace "the fool" with Fabian with no warning? The answer to this question lies in the character of Feste. Examining Fabian's role in the Sir Toby-Maria plot against Malvolio gives us a greater understanding of Feste and his overall function within the play.

I would like to look briefly at who Feste is, before addressing the question of Fabian, in order to establish the social and intellectual differences between the two characters. The list of characters describes Feste as "the clown, [Olivia's] jester" 1, yet throughout the play he is referred to as "the fool." These terms may have been interchangeable but the Oxford English Dictionary defines a clown as "a fool or jester as a stage character, or (in Shakespeare) a retainer of a court or great house" 2 and a fool as "one who professionally counterfeits folly for the entertainment of others." 3 Whilst these definitions are certainly close, it is interesting to note that a "fool" is not necessarily attached to a house or court. We are also told that Feste is "a fool that the lady Olivia's father took much delight in" (II.iv.11-12), but are given the impression that he has been absent from Olivia's house for sometime: "Nay, [either] tell me where thou hast been…. My lady will hang thee for thy absence" (I.v.1-3). Feste appears to be more of a "free spirit" since he doesn't appear to be part of Olivia's permanent household and we are given the impression of a passing itinerant who doesn't entirely belong in Illyria.

Feste is a lone character; a commentator and an analyst who in many respects provides a link between the audience and the action of the play. Trevor Nunn's 1996 film of the play makes all three of these points very strongly. Ben Kingsley's Feste hovers on the fringes of the Edwardian society in which the film is set. He is an itinerant musician, a traveller with license to appear at Olivia's home and Orsino's palace. Trevor Nunn comments:

The image of a traveller… seemed to me to provide what Malvolio would revile, what Sir Toby would relate to, what Olivia would forgive, what Maria would scold, and that by which Viola would feel threatened, Sebastian pestered and Orsino disturbed. 4

The welcome extended to him by Olivia suggests long acquaintance; he has known her since she was a small child and shrewdly reads the truth behind her actions and her moods. Yet despite this intimacy with Olivia, Feste remains an outsider throughout the film. His...

(This entire section contains 3119 words.)

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quiet departure from the scene of midnight revels immediately expunges him from the possibility of becoming part of the gulling of Malvolio (interestingly, Maria's line, "let the fool make a third" (II.iii.167-68) is cut), and his ability to disturb Orsino, Sebastian and Viola with his penetrating questions and perceptive observations gives him the quality of an "otherworldly" visitor. This impression is given credence by the fact that Feste is the only character that makes direct eye contact with the camera; we later realize that it is his voice that has spoken the "prologue" at the beginning of the film. In effect, the film makes him a storyteller and we watch the story through his eyes.

Turning to Fabian, it is harder to define exactly who he is in the social world of the play. Actors playing Fabian have found him a difficult character to play since he has no stated function in Olivia's household, and is given little opportunity to develop a distinct character in the play. Directors have also found Fabian a problem in terms of introducing him and fitting him into the fabric of the play. Bill Alexander felt that he had partially solved the problem of how to fit Fabian into the play in his 1987 production at Stratford-upon-Avon by making him "a kind of under-steward to Malvolio… it gives him a potential aspiration and a relationship to Malvolio – a reason why he should join in a plot against Malvolio." 5 Describing the effectiveness of this solution, Alexander comments that:

I think it helps… to introduce him [Fabian] silently into the earlier scenes: for instance, when Olivia and Malvolio first appear, he was clearly one down the pecking order from Malvolio – he did what Malvolio told him to physically, and he hung around and was dressed in a way that suggested a sort of second-in-command. 6

Alexander's comment takes us to Fabian's grudge against Malvolio over the "bear-baiting," which seems to me to provide a strong clue about Shakespeare's reasons for replacing Feste with Fabian in the "box-tree" scene. Fabian's comment not only provides us with evidence about his connection with Olivia's household, it clearly, and more importantly, allies Fabian with Sir Toby and identifies him with Sir Toby's world of "cakes and ale." This is a world, which Feste, for reasons we shall examine, is never a complete part of; he lives on the fringe of the Illyrian worlds and effectively becomes a kind of Greek chorus, a link between the audience and the world of the play. Fabian however, is "all-Illyrian" and therefore practically useful to Sir Toby in ways that Feste can never be.

Critics have described Fabian's sudden appearance as both "crude" and "clumsy," arguing that his abrupt introduction "contrasts strikingly with the theatrical expertise of the play so far." 7 Certainly the theatricality of Fabian's first entrance seems somewhat contrived and clumsy as Sir Toby initiates Fabian into the plot and introduces him to the audience. The pace of this very comic and theatrically accomplished scene lags somewhat in its opening moments as we register Fabian's presence and Feste's absence. Warren and Wells note that it is at this point the "difficulties" of the second half of the play begin. The first half of the play has a tight theatrical structure and moves smoothly through the introduction of the major characters and their situations. The second half however, falters slightly around the middle of the play, "especially in the very long 3.4." 8 Warren and Wells attribute this faltering of the dramatic rhythm to Fabian, partly because of his verbosity in this later scene:

Fabian not only plays a major part in spurring Sir Andrew on to challenge Viola, he does so at length and in a very elaborate, even laboured, style, with formally balanced phrases and contrived comparisons… not like the utterance of a dramatic utterance but like a set speech… Shakespeare is cranking the dual plot into action…. 9

The idea that Fabian's appearance occurs as the secondary plot is starting to unfold is also helpful for examining the reasons behind why he replaces Feste. The gulling of Malvolio is the brainchild of Maria and Sir Toby and Feste has had no part in developing it. Looking ahead to the theatricality of the box-tree scene, Sir Toby clearly needs an accomplice to exploit the humour of this scene; Sir Andrew is included by association, but he does not have the wit necessary to carry the comedy; Maria has written the letter and her part is effectively played, so a third character is needed to offset Sir Toby's boisterous humour. When the idea for the plot is raised in Act II scene iii, Feste is present. Many productions show him leaving soon after Malvolio's exit because he says nothing further in the scene. However there is no stage direction to imply that he exits before the others so that Maria's suggestion that "the fool make a third" (II.iii.167-68) is made in his hearing.

Sir Toby instantly applauds Maria's proposal in a typically boisterous and enthusiastic way. She includes Feste in the plot at that stage, much in the way that she makes Sir Andrew the implicit "second": he is still present and he has been part of the midnight high-jinks interrupted by Malvolio. It is not because either of them are obvious choices; Sir Andrew is a visitor to the house and has no long-standing personal grudge against Malvolio, and Feste is not the obvious "third" in terms of character or motive. Maria's idea for the gulling of Malvolio is a prank reminiscent of playground humour, earthily and bawdily comic, but is hardly in keeping with the analytical and intellectual wit we have seen from Feste. The Elizabethan Fool held a special position in royal or noble households and was given license to speak his mind without punishment. As Olivia rather impatiently tells Malvolio, "there's no slander in an allowed fool" (I.v.89-90). It seems unlikely that a Fool who values and promotes his position as a professional in his trade would achieve any degree of professional satisfaction from a prank such as this.

If Feste remains onstage as the text indicates, then the problem arises of how to explain his silence after Maria's suggestion that he become "a third" in the gulling plot. He says nothing and his silence is frequently taken for complicity. This compounds our surprise (and chagrin) at the appearance of Fabian in Act II scene v – we are expecting the subtle wit and intellectual humour of the Fool and instead we are given a characterless nobody. If, however, we consider the staging of the "midnight revels" scene and the theatrical possibilities inherent in stage silences then plausible alternatives for Feste's silence become evident, in-line with his character. His silence in this scene gives him the opportunity of physically rather than verbally disassociating himself with Maria's plan, and indeed this does occur in performance. Warren and Wells observe that:

His [Feste's] silence may make dramatic points. Peter Hall's 1958 production… let Feste 'feign sleep, head on arm, at a table. As the others went out he raised his head and stared thoughtfully after them…' this Feste was a detached observer. The Feste of Hall's 1991 version made this detachment more specific: after Malvolio's exit, he lay stretched on a seat, and when Maria said let the fool make a third, he simply waved a dismissive hand; Fabian was clearly needed to make a third here. 10

A "dismissive" gesture from Feste here makes the point clearly; he is "out," and Sir Toby and Maria will need to find someone else to fill the place. Therefore a new character is needed and Fabian's later appearance is explained.

Removing Feste from the gulling of Malvolio returns the focus of the gulling plot to the worlds within the play. Illyria is almost a parallel universe: Orsino, Olivia, Viola, and Sebastian belong to the world of courtly and romantic love; Sir Toby to the world of "cakes and ale" and the spirit of Twelfth Night. The gulling of Malvolio belongs firmly in Sir Toby's world and Sir Toby's accomplices need, by association, also to be part of that world. Fabian, with his second line referring to the "bear-baiting," establishes himself as an integral part of the "Sir Toby world" in which gaming, drinking, duelling, and sports such as "bear-baiting" reflect the world of Elizabethan England. Whilst Feste is able to play the role of Fool with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in Act II scene iii and join their drunken banter, he remains removed from their world, hence his sudden silence toward the end of this scene.

Sir Toby's hasty acceptance of Fabian's involvement with the plot against Malvolio at the beginning of Act II scene v suggests a familiarity between them that does not exist with Feste. Whilst Sir Toby addresses Feste in familiar terms, Feste always refers to him as "Sir Toby," maintaining a personal distance. Sir Toby refers to Fabian as "Signor," possibly ironically, but equally possibly suggesting that Fabian has the status of a gentleman. Fabian himself seems on easy terms with Sir Toby, addressing him familiarly as "man" ("I would exult, man" (II.v.6)) and their collusion in both this scene, and the later duel scene with Sir Andrew and Viola serves to sideline Sir Andrew and instate Fabian as fellow-conspirator in the Sir Toby-Maria jest against Malvolio. Feste however, seems to exist on the fringes of both worlds, able to interact with both, but never becoming a part of them. He moves easily from the gentle catechism of Olivia, to the riotous midnight revels with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria, to the melancholic mood of Orsino's court. In acknowledging this it is therefore impossible to see him playing an active part in the gulling of Malvolio or taking delight in the burlesque duel between Sir Andrew and Viola-Cesario.

Feste does, of course, have his own agenda in relation to Malvolio, and we see his contribution to the downfall of Malvolio in the often-troublesome "dark house" scene in Act IV scene ii. Sir Toby's treatment of Malvolio in confining him in the dark house often seems vindictive and unnecessarily cruel, yet it is Feste who prolongs the scene and taunts Malvolio still further. Sir Toby admits to Feste that it has been a "sport" to humiliate Malvolio in this way; it is at his suggestion that Feste impersonates Sir Topas the curate in order to further "baffle" Malvolio's wits, but he leaves Feste to his own devices and does not stay to witness the "knavery." The scene becomes troublesome when we suspect that Feste goes beyond the role of impartial observer that he has hitherto represented, and becomes actively and primarily involved in the degradation of Malvolio.

Sir Toby's aversion to Malvolio, as we have seen, is because he represents a Puritan threat to the celebration of festivities such as Twelfth Night. Feste's involvement is harder to explain. He has a much more personal axe to grind, and in Act V scene we are given his explanation: "…but do you remember, Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal, an you smile not, he's gagged…" (V.i.370-72), as he reminds Olivia of the moment in Act I scene v, when Malvolio denigrates both Feste and his wit. The line suggests that Feste's professional pride has been abused by Malvolio's comments and that the nonsensical catechism of Malvolio in the "dark house" scene is his way of proving Malvolio to be a fool. His final comment to Olivia seems to suggest that his motives were not sinister, and that he regards the "Sir Topas" episode as a consequence of Malvolio's unpleasantness: "…thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges" (V.i.373). As John Caird comments,

…what Feste is saying to Malvolio is, 'Do you remember, you who were so pompous… Now look who the joke's on. Thus, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. I didn't.' Feste doesn't actually do anything. 11

Theatrical interpretations of both this and the "dark house" scene itself vary considerably, with directors portraying Feste at both ends of the revenger-joker spectrum.

In posing the question of the reasons behind Feste's treatment of Malvolio in the "dark house" scene, it is useful to contrast Fabian's function in the play with Feste's function. Fabian, as we have seen, is a useful adjunct to Sir Toby's tremendous energy in the gulling of Malvolio. He is the crucial accomplice in the "box-tree" and the "duel" scene, and he does this successfully because he is an unremarkable character who does nothing to detract the focus from Sir Toby. Feste, on the other hand is a remarkable character, and to expend his energies as Sir Toby's back-up man would detract considerably from his complexity and versatility as a character. Feste describes himself to Viola-Cesario as Olivia's "corrupter of words" (III.i.34-5) and he plays with and distorts language much as the play itself plays with and distorts concepts of gender. Shakespeare uses distortion of gender to reveal truths about the nature of love, and he uses Feste to distort language to reveal psychological truths about the other characters.

In Trevor Nunn's film, Ben Kingsley's Feste highlights the character's function as an analyst: he analyses Olivia's grief, analyses Orsino, analyses Malvolio, even analyses Viola. Rather in the manner of a psychological clairvoyant, he is able to see truths that the other characters cannot see, and through his Fool's "toolbox" of wit and language distortion, he forces the main protagonists to see truths about themselves. He takes Olivia through a mock catechism to reveal to her the absurdity of her elaborate mourning regime, and proving her a "fool." This routine is repeated in the "dark house" scene with Malvolio in which Feste, as "Sir Topaz" attempts to restore the apparently mad Malvolio to his right mind through a catechism on a series of contemporary Elizabethan religious issues, and in doing so, proves Malvolio to be the real "fool" of the play. For this reason, it seems preferable to accept John Caird's interpretation of Feste's final comment since it becomes the way in which Feste attempts to show Malvolio the truth about himself. Thus, Feste's function as comentator and analyst is fulfilled, and his final song to the audience provides the link between the world of the play and the audience's world in the "wind and rain" of reality.


1. Oxford Shakespeare, p. 692.

2. OED, sense 3.

3. OED, sense 2.a.

4. Nunn, intro.

5. Billington, p. 103.

6. Ibid.

7. Warren and Wells, p. 53.

8. Ibid. p. 52.

9. Ibid. p. 53.

10. Warren and Wells, p. 130.

11. Billington, p. 66.


The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Billington, Michaels, ed. Directors Shakespeare: Approaches to Twelfth Night. London: Nick Hern Books, 1990.

Brockbank, Philip. Players of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, vol. 1, 1988.

Jackson, Russell and Robert Smallwood. Players of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, vol. 2, 1988.

Nunn, Trevor. Twelfth Night. London: Methuen Drama, 1996.

Warren, Roger and Stanley Wells, eds. Twelfth Night. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Wells, Stanley, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.


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