Man’s innate foolishness as a comic device, replacing the common use of satire, is the fuel and lifeblood of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. No character can remain unscathed or unaffected by the vice, and even some foolishness proves a wisdom when outwitting knowledgeable counterparts. Indeed, Shakespeare’s clown, Feste, shows it best in his first revealing aside when he quotes the fantastical Quinapalus, citing it is “Better [to be] a witty fool than a foolish wit” (1.5.32-33). The foolish Feste displays this wittiness as what may be the subtle and rare instance of commentary in an otherwise irrelevant play, for at the curtain’s fall, it is Fest who has the last laugh.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has been criticized primarily for its seeming irrelevance. Samuel Johnson, though much in favor of its easy elegance and humor, concluded that it “fails the test of irrelevance” in its ability to do little more than excite one to laugh. But Johnson did love the comedies of Shakespeare in general which adds to his negative view of Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. It is, then, not a critique of comedies in general, but of the particular play at hand, for as a general rule, Shakespeare’s comedies are more enjoyable.
In tragedy [Shakespeare] often writes, with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his comic scenes he seems to produce, without labor, what no labor can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comic; but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct. (This quote, it should be noted, could also be applied to Dickens.)
While at face value an agreement with Johnson on this matter seems inevitable, the other side of the coin must be examined. Is it Shakespeare’s natural ability when writing comedies or the audience’s natural feeling of relation to comedy? “Man is a giddy thing” says Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. The reader of both a Dickens or Shakespeare tragedy may feel that the great writers labored and trudged through such psychological depths of sorrow not because of Dickens’s or Shakespeare’s unnatural ability to be tragic but because of our inner longing to laugh at the absurdity of human nature and all that goes on around us. Man does not ask for commentary instinctively. It is given to him. But he requires some escape from the tragedy of life. The commentary of this play is the absence of commentary: to laugh at fools because they act foolish; To laugh at the Power of Love on otherwise rational individuals. It may just be the reader’s natural inclination to giddiness that creates a more instinctive desire to have a pint with Feste over Macbeth. And by the end of the Twelfth Night, that is exactly what the audience longs to do.
This play may be one of the more musical of Shakespeare’s plays I have read. Fittingly, I discovered Dick Swiveller only weeks before I ran into this play which begins and ends on a musical note. Orsino commences with a request for more music that will fill him up with so much love that he will grow weary of it and stop loving. Eventually calling for a cease in the music. Feste and the other fools carry out the musical theme throughout the rest of the play, and it is Feste who finishes the play with fitting words enough: “But that’s all one, our play is done / And we’ll strive to please you every day” (5.1.403-04). The play’s lead fool is in many ways the hero of the whole thing — the one at least who understands best that the world of Twelfth Night is the world of Hedonism. To “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” seems an apt enough theme for this play.
Perhaps the second route that must be taken when commenting on these plays is found in contrasts. If Feste is the one character who appears the most level-headed, what characters are given in contrast? It is easy to say Malvolio is Feste’s main antithesis, for laughing and smiling are foreign to him, but this almost becomes too easy. Malvolio, whose name means “ill will” if not overt enough, in my opinion functions almost as the stereotypical dim-witted character all about work with no play. It is the other “wise” characters who better display our purpose because they are not so overt. Orsino and Olivia display this best.
Orsino, to begin, suffers the entire play with a deep and unquenchable love for Olivia, who, wisely enough, rejects this love (though we find her pretenses for doing so to be shaky at best). I argue that oftentimes Shakespeare pokes fun at the star-crossed lovers typical to medieval times and Petrarchan Poetry. Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing are good examples of this. Maybe all of Shakespeare’s lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream play this role as well. But Orsino as a Duke in this role brings added humor to his capricious love. Love certainly is a fickle feeling, and this play demonstrates its fickleness quite well. Orsino sends the better part of five acts madly in love with Olivia whom he discards as a lover with hardly a second though, transferring that love to Viola, a character who only lines earlier was believed to be a young man. I am not so sure homosexual commentary is at play here (many believing Shakespeare to have been such). If at other times Shakespeare is merely commenting on love’s fickleness (such as when Romeo falls for Juliet minutes after pining for another woman), it may not be a stretch to assert the same thing is occurring here. Perhaps the best way in Shakespeare’s day to display such mutable nature in humans was to have Orsino love a young woman whom he just believed to be a young boy.
Orsino is not the only culprit to love here, however. Viola’s infatuation with Orsino is grounded on thin ice. Orsino puts heart above mind and cannot function in the play except to pine and grovel at Olivia’s feet, not the type of man any woman should probably care to love. And, of course, Olivia and Sebastian are no better. Sebastian doesn’t give a second thought, doesn’t give a thought, to marrying Olivia whom he just met. And Olivia appears to put on a false face of mourning only to discard it immediately after meeting Viola disguised as Cesario. It matters not so much in my mind that Oliva feels for a “woman” but that she feels for anyone at all after “she hath abjured the sight / And company of men” (1.2.36-37). That “Cesario” is actually a woman does not necessarily advocate for a homosexual relationship (though I suppose that could be intended) but rather takes the fickleness of love one step further — as if to say it is not any specific individual but some vague desire to love for love’s sake an unattainable Beloved.
But love’s mutability is secondary in the novel, almost becoming the subplot to what is probably the real subplot — Feste and company. The farce occurring with these four characters (Feste, Fabian, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew) is nearly past any sort of commentary. Much like Sam Weller provides a witty evaluation of all that Mr. Pickwick does and says, so Feste rights the ship of many characters who proclaim his foolishness. The best instance of this might come in Feste’s opening lines with Olivia. In her drive for a chaste and celibate life, Feste makes her the fool stating, “As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so beauty’s a flower. The lady bade take away the fool, therefore I say again, take her away” (1.5.46-48). Here Feste has turned the tables on Olivia presenting her paradox she has created: letting her beauty pass away unnoticed by a lover or being unfaithful to her wedded chastity. After more bantering, Feste again makes Olivia feel foolish for mourning a brother she believes to be happily in heaven. She begins to see Feste’s wit. As in keeping in line with the rest of the play, Feste displays his ability to embrace a wide perspective through music.
Come away, come away death, And in sad cypress let me be laid. Fie away, fie away breath, I am slain by a fair cruel maid. My shroud of white, stuck all with yew, O prepare it. My part of death no one so true Did share it. Not a flower, not a flower sweet On my black coffin let there be strewn. Not a friend, not a friend greet My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown. A thousand thousand sighs to save, Lay me O where Sad true lover never find my grave, To weep there.
Feste displays in this and in other areas throughout the play, the ability to remember that beauty decays and everything ends. This is a peculiar perspective to have from someone who in the play is supposed to be a fool. In his own brilliance, Shakespeare turns the fool into the wise sage who can see past all that is occurring within to the broader context of life outside of it. Much like the lower class can view life with this perspective because they have less clouding their view, so Feste is the one in this play who can see beyond even the rational characters. Probably because he is not so smitten with love.
Yet Feste appears to understand love in Shakespeare’s terms best. It is not some high virtue or existential feeling that takes one from the troubles of the world. Rather, its beauty opens our eyes to decay around us (via contrast). It is not, on the other hand, a serious, puritanical love of duty and obligation as displayed by Malvolio. Rather love is a fleeting emotion subject to capriciousness and decay that demands both a somberness and accepted giddiness. We should take love seriously yet laugh with it. Feste explains this best in song.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter, Present mirth hath present laughter. What’s to come is still unsure. In delay there lies no plenty, Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty. Youth’s a stuff will not endure (2.3.45-50).
As is typical with love, this blog is a fickle business. Two subjects on which the Compiler of these musings feels highly insufficient have now informally been discussed: Shakespeare and love. Though the Compiler of these ruminations is certainly growing in both his appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare, the same most certainly can not be said of his understanding of love. Thus, as a perpetual disclaimer on such weighty subjects, the prior argument and any such notions discussed on the points and complexities of love are hereby mere attempts at what Shakespeare himself was stating about that fickle feeling. That love is fickle, however, is a point on which this Compiler of Thoughts renders wholly unarguable both in his observations of humanity and common experiences. In light of this, it should be noted that any such direct commentary on such a weighty concept will for the time being remain wholly inadequate. Love, indeed, creates fools of men and fools wise.
Love; it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be How glad I was to be myself
And use my heart once more
How glad I was to be a man
And love that girl that I adore