All or most of Shakespeare’s plays contain playfulness and foolishness and within ‘Twelfth Night’ there are many examples of this. All these examples of folly add to the overall humour of the play. Throughout ‘Twelfth Night’ the theme of foolishness links the plot, characters and scenes in the play. In Shakespeare’s day, people wanted to go to the theatre and be able to laugh. They loved all plays with an element of comedy, even Shakepeare’s tragedies have elements of comedy in them. In Romeo and Juliet there are characters seen as crazy or foolish such as Mercutio.
First of all there’s Malvolio, one of the main characters. Proud and pompous, he is easily ridiculed as he is lead into dreadful humiliation at the hands of Fabian, Maria, Sir Toby, Feste and Sir Andrew. All the formentioned people make Malvolio look foolish when Maria writes a letter to Malvolio expressing her love for him and signing it from Olivia. Malvolio falls into the trap and begins to believe that Olivia is madly in love with him. The letter says: ‘Remember who commanded thy yellow stockings and wished to see thee ever cross gartered.’ This causes Malvolio to dress in yellow stockings and cross garters to impress and try to woo his lady. On stage this is a very amusing scene to watch as Malvolio comes on wearing this ridiculous outfit — very memorable.
The letter also says: ‘If thou entertain’st my love, let it appear in thy smiling thy smiles become thee well. Therefore in my presence still smile, dear my sweet I prithee.’ This causes Malvolio to keep a smile on his face constantly. Not only has Malvolio a rather unattractive smile but since Olivia’s brother had recently died, Olivia wants everyone to act mournful around her. She insists on wearing black with a veil over her face. When Malvolio appears with yellow clothing and a huge smile on his face he inevitably looks foolish. Olivia supposes that Malvolio is mad, subject to the heat affecting the brain – ‘Midsummer Madness.’ Malvolio would not have looked so foolish if he had not had certain qualities. His over sensitive nature, pretentiousness, self-centred character and self importance make it simple for the servants and the others involved in the trick to take advantage of these faults and cut Malvolio down to size.
The difference in class between Olivia and Malvolio also adds to the humour and the foolery because in Shakepeare’s day there would be no possibility of any sort of romance between Malvolio and Olivia, Malvolio being a mere steward and Olivia being a wealthy countess, the status contrast is simply too immense. When Malvolio reads the letter, Malvolio begins to fall in love with the idea of being in love .
Another character within Twelfth Night who adds to the theme of foolishness is obviously the fool – a professional jester. Feste has a very important role. He is constantly acting foolishly as his job is to solace and entertain his fellowmates. Although he acts like a clown through most of the play, he is probably one of the most sensible and wise characters in the play. In Act 3, Viola says: ‘This fellow is wise enough to play the fool and to do that well, craves a kind of wit.’ This is an accurate depiction on Feste. He often outsmarts the other characters in the play using his quickwits most of all Malvolio and Olivia. Many other characters are the ‘real fools’ such as Sir Toby Belch — an ironic surname due to his tendency to drink heavily, Sebastian for marrying Olivia when he barely knew her.
Overall, Viola is quite sensible. Although dressed like a man, in those days there would be no way that she would be able to obtain service with Orsino as a woman, so her disguise was quite an ingenious idea. When talking to higher status characters, especially Olivia, Feste almost reverses the roles talking down to Olivia as shown in a conversation on page 17. Other characters cannot talk to Olivia in the same way as Feste, as everyone must look up to her and respect her. Olivia tells Malvolio to ‘Take the fool away’ and Feste answers ‘Do you not hear fellows? Take away the lady.’ Feste also often mocks Olivia as he is the only character who can do so. The first example of this is Feste telling Olivia she is being foolish, her brother has died and she is in mourning this is the first mention of foolishness in the play:
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 brother’s soul, being in heaven.
There are many other times during the play when aspects of folly come into the characters’ speeches. Feste in Act 1 says: ‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’
There are many other examples of role swapping and disguises that also add to the humour of the play. It also makes characters look foolish and humiliates them. The prime example of role swapping is Viola dressing as a man and changing her identity to become a man called Caesario. This causes much confusion leading to characters being foiled and being made to look foolish. Not only did everyone believe that Viola was in fact a man but Olivia actually falls in love with her and not surprisingly feels humiliated and foolish when she discovers that Caesario is actually a woman. Olivia does look foolish although no-one can mock her due to her high status and most people look up to her with respect.
The language used in the play is not strictly foolish although many of the names are ‘fooled with’ as Viola, Olivia and Malvolio, the main characters, all have names containing the same letters (v,o,l,a and i). Malvolio means ‘ill wishing’ very fitting to his character. There are other character’s names which are amusing such as Sir Toby Belch – ironic as he is a heavy drinker. Aguecheek is a ridiculous name…. And Orsino is named so because Don Virgino Orsino – an Italian Nobleman was the guest of honour at the opening night of Twelfth Night so Shakespeare named the Duke in his play after him.
Twelfth Night was once a day of great merrymaking to mark the end of the Christmas festivities. It was the feast of fools and even now, the Christmas season is a time where we all seek entertainment in the form of amusement and folly. Although written all those years ago, Twelfth Night is still relevant today. A twentieth century audience still enjoy this play today as people still love to laugh and have a good time some of the jokes, although obscure are still found amusing today. Even now we love to see people make fools of themselves and the characters we don’t like to be served with just retribution.
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