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Feste and Fabian: Plots and Complots

(Shakespeare for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 3,119 words.)