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Jesters Clowns Buffons In Twelth Night Essay

, Research Paper

A fool can be defined in many meanings according to the

Oxford English Dictionary On Historical Principles. The word

could mean “a silly person”, or “one who professionally

counterfeits folly for the entertainment of others, a jester,

clown” or “one who has little or no reason or intellect” or

“one who is made to appear to be a fool” (word originated from

North Frisian). In english literature, the two main ways which

the fool could enter imaginative literature is that “He could

provide a topic, a theme for mediation, or he could turn into a

stock character on the stage, a stylized comic figure”. In

William Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, Feste the clown is

not the only fool who is subject to foolery. He and many other

characters combine their silly acts and wits to invade other

characters that “evade reality or rather realize a dream”, while

“our sympathies go out to those”. “It is natural that the fool

should be a prominent & attractive figure and make an important

contribution to the action” in forming the confusion and the

humor in an Elizabethan drama. In Twelfth Night, the clown and

the fools are the ones who combine humor & wit to make the comedy


Clowns, jesters, and Buffoons are usually regarded as fools.

Their differences could be of how they dress, act or portrayed in

society. A clown for example, “was understood to be a country

bumpkin or ‘cloun’”. In Elizabethan usage, the word ‘clown’ is

ambiguous “meaning both countryman and principal comedian”.

Another meaning given to it in the 1600 is “a fool or jester”.

As for a buffoon, it is defined as “a man whose profession is to

make low jests and antics postures; a clown, jester, fool”.

The buffoon is a fool because “although he exploits his own

weaknesses instead of being exploited by others….he resembles

other comic fools”. This is similar to the definition of a

‘Jester’ who is also known as a “buffoon, or a merry andrew. One

maintained in a prince’s court or nobleman’s household”. As

you can see, the buffoon, jester and the clown are all depicted

as fools and are related & tied to each other in some sort of

way. They relatively have the same objectives in their roles but

in appearance wise (clothes, physical features) they may be

different. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste’s role in this

Illyrian comedy is significant because “Illyria is a country

permeated with the spirit of the Feast of Fools, where identities

are confused, ‘uncivil rule’ applauded…and no harm is done”.

“In Illyria therefore the fool is not so much a critic of his

environment as a ringleader, a merry-companion, a Lord of

Misrule. Being equally welcome above and below stairs..” makes

Feste significant as a character. In Twelfth Night, Feste plays

the role of a humble clown employed by Olivia’s father playing

the licensed fool of their household. We learn this in Olivia’s

statement stating that Feste is “an allowed fool”(I.v.93) meaning

he is licensed, privileged critic to speak the truth of the

people around him. We also learn in a statement by Curio to the

Duke that Feste is employed by Olivia’s father. “Feste the

jester… a fool that the Lady Olivia’s father took much pleasure


Feste is more of the comic truth of the comedy. Although he

does not make any profound remarks, he seems to be the wisest

person within all the characters in the comedy. Viola remarks

this by saying “This fellow’s wise enough to play the

fool”(III.i.61). Since Feste is a licensed fool, his main role

in Twelfth Night is to speak the truth. This is where the humor

lies, his truthfulness. In one example he proves Olivia to be a

true fool by asking her what she was mourning about. The point

Feste tried to make was why was Olivia mourning for a person

who’s soul is in heaven?

“ClOWN Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

OLIVIA Good Fool, for my brother’s death.

ClOWN I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

OLIVIA I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

CLOWN The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your

brother’s soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool,


Adding to the humor of the comedy, Feste, dresses up as Sir

Topaz, the curate and visits the imprisoned Malvolio with Maria

and Sir Toby. There he uses his humor to abuse Malvolio

who is still unaware that he is actually talking to the clown

than to the real Sir Topas. Feste (disguised as Sir Topaz)

calls Malvolio a “lunatic” (IV.ii.23), “satan”(IV.ii.32) and

confuses him by wittingly making him a fool.

Throughout the play, Malvolio has always been the person who

intentionally spoils the pleasure of other people(killjoy). He

is Feste’s worst nightmare in the play, but in the end is

triumphed over by Feste completely and is the only character to

show a negative attitude and a dignity reversed.

“MALVOLIO: I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of

you!” (V.i.378) At the end of the comedy, Feste, “is given the

last word and is left in possession of the stage”.

Maria, Olivia’s companion is another person who seems

enthusiastic in playing pranks on other people. In Twelfth

Night, she plays the unsuspecting role of a behind the scene

fool who gives ideas to Feste, Sir Andrew & Sir Toby to

assist her in her plans. In two incidents, she remains quiet

while her plans are carried out by either the Knights or the


Part of the humor that lies in this comedy is that Maria’s

pranks are harsh & cruel, using love and power (status of Olivia)

to attack Malvolio, steward of Olivia, who is “….sick of self

love”(I.v.90). For this, Malvolio’s greed for power ends

himself locked up in a dark cell and is accused of being mad.

She also prepares Feste to disguise as Sir Topaz. This is seen

in the quote: “Nay,I prithee put on this gown and this beard;

make him believe thou are Sir Topas the curate; do it quickly.

I’ll call Sir Toby the whilst.” (IV.ii.1,2,3) Combined with other

fools, Maria helps make Twelfth Night a hilariously funny comedy.

Lastly, Sir Toby Belch is another fool in Twelfth Night.

His role is helping “on the game of make-believe”. Always

convincing & encouraging the rich Sir Andrew Aguecheek that he

has a chance of winning Lady Olivia’s love. He is similar to

Feste, except he plays the role of a knight and is Olivia’s

kinsman. His role is similar to a fool because he depicts many

pranks of a fool. For example in Act II scene iii, while he was

drunk he sings along with Feste when Malvolio barges in to shut

them up. Whenever there is a prank, Maria invites Sir Toby to

participate. One such prank was to assist Maria’s fake

letter to make Malvolio think Olivia is in love with

him. Sir Toby’s make-believe scheme works convincingly on

Malvolio. Another prank was to accompany the disguised Feste

(Sir Topaz) into the dark cell where Malvolio was imprisoned.

This accompaniment was probably to assure Malvolio that the real

Sir Topaz is visiting him. Yet it is another make-believe scheme

of Sir Toby.

In Twelfth Night, the fools are the ones that control the

comedy and humor in the play. They assist in the make believe

game and fool around with characters who “evade reality or rather

realize a dream”. In Twelfth Night, Feste, Maria and Sir Toby

are the fools that make the comedy work in many senses. They

create the confusion through humor and it all works out in the

end to make William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a really funny

Elizabethan play.


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