This essay will explore the notion that Feste is the wisest character in the play. The definition of wise is “having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgment: a wise precaution.” Feste is the epitome of irony, I think a modern day audience would the audience may believe a ‘fool’ to be purely someone to make you laugh and be an idiot. However Feste is very much the opposite; he fits the definition of wise, he speaks profoundly, questions high class characters such as Olivia and almost undermines her with his wit. He is very melancholic, especially about love whereas everybody else is almost controlled by it and the audience may see him to be wise because he avoids love to stay happy.
Feste is a ‘licenced fool’ in “Twelfth Night” and this means that he is allowed to judge people whereas others would be punished for doing so therefore this gives him some power as he is allowed to speak the truth. Olivia, in Act 1, Scene 5, says “there is no slander in an allowed fool.” This suggests to me that Olivia doesn’t see him as a fool or a jester, she sees him as someone who will speak the truth because he is ‘allowed’ to judge people not to be cruel but to offer advice and this suggests that Olivia sees Feste as being wise otherwise she would not come to him to ask for his help or listen to what he says. Alan S. Downer of ‘College English’ says that ''Feste is disguised both in costume and in behavior . . . .His disguise, like Viola's, is a kind of protection; he is an allowed fool and may speak frankly what other men, in other disguises, must say only to themselves.'' And supports the idea that he is an licenced fool and is allowed to ‘speak frankly’ to anyone, he Downer suggests that there are other men in disguises however although they are in disguise even they cannot express the whole truth only Feste can.
Feste outwits the higher class characters in this play and therefore he could appear more intelligent than them as he has the knowledge and wit to do so, for example he undermines Olivia with his wit in Act 1 Scene 5, “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 you brother's soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen”.
The point Feste is trying to make is that Olivia is a true fool as she is mourning for her brother who is in heaven and not hell. The form of “Twelfth Night” includes many puns and this is used to make Feste appear wise, in this instance he uses a clever pun to make his point as Feste does throughout the play, sometimes to make people laugh to earn money. This also shows that Feste thinks about things the way many people do not, most people would mourn a loved one who they hope is in heaven. Shakespeare has Feste urge the audience to think about this notion and reflect upon it. However some may argue that Feste is being insensitive, not caring about upsetting Olivia as her brother has just died and she wants time to mourn. This could be an argument that Feste is not very wise or he may have thought about Olivia’s emotional state before proving his point.
Feste counsels Olivia throughout the play, she often comes to Feste for his advice, this suggests that she thinks of him as being wise as she is seen to have good judgement as she is a high class character.
“Olivia: What's a drunken man like, fool?
Feste: Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool; the second mads him; and a third drowns him.”
Shakespeare uses the metaphor to describe a drunken man as a drowned man, one may believe that the word ‘drowned’ was used because Feste knows the dangers of drinking and that it could literally kill you. The metaphor is very profound and it is interesting that he uses the word ‘fool’ to describe a drunken man as he is a fool himself and this raises the idea that Feste doesn’t see himself as a fool and is aware of his own knowledge. This is supported in Act 3 Scene 1 when Viola enquires he is Olivia’s fool, he responds stating that he is no fool, “fools are as like husbands as pilchers are to herrings-the husband’s the bigger” Feste uses this simile to compare pilchers to herring and husbands to fools and then liken the pairs to each other, this could be Feste’s way of saying that love and marriage makes fools of people and this theme runs throughout the play and suggests that Feste is wise as he stays out of relationships in order to not get emotionally hurt. Olivia would rather speak to the fool rather than a ‘Discreet Man’ because she may believe that he will be more truthful because he is an ‘allowed fool’ and therefore she will receive a more intelligent answer with more meaning suggesting that he is indeed wise.
Trevor Nunn’s film adaptation of ‘Twelfth Night or what you will’ (1996) may suggest that Feste knew throughout the play that Viola was in fact a women, in the beginning of the film Feste is sat upon a rock and watches over the scene of the beach where Viola plans to disguise herself as Cesario. This could be an argument for Feste being the wisest character as he is the only person who was smart enough to work out that she was in disguise. Also, Feste in this interpretation is omniscient and almost knows all and this portrays his wise and a god-like figure. However, this portrayal of Feste as having prior knowledge is perhaps not supported in the Nunn adaptation of Orsino and Viola in the barn scene. Feste sing a melancholic song and the two lovers almost kiss, Feste appears alarmed by this and therefore maybe he did not know about Viola’s disguise otherwise he would not have been so surprised.
There is evidence in Shakespeare’s play that Feste is aware that Viola is a woman, "Now Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard," This displays Festes’ knowledge as it suggests that he again knows about Viola’s true identity however is wise enough to express this to Viola in such a way that it is not too obvious. Feste is not emotionally attached to any of the characters and this could be another reason that he knows of Viola’s deceit and this closely relates to Nunn’s representation. The idea of Feste being an omniscient presence means that he is able to read people’s personalities and therefore suit his jokes to their character which will result in him making more money. An example of this is he knows that he can make jokes about Malvolio, “Sir Topaz the curate, who comes to visit Malvolio, the lunatic”, and there will be no repercussions as he realises that Olivia does not hold Malvolio in a high place of her concern.
Feste’s songs are very melancholy about love and they all have the moral that love will eventually kill you and you should avoid it. This is yet another reason that Feste appears to be the wisest character in the play as everyone else is very foolish when it comes to love. Other characters are besotted with the idea of being in love and this ends up ruling their lives and become depressed like Orsino if your love is unrequited. Feste could be seen as wise for not becoming involved in love because he will never experience any repercussions from it like other character. In one particular song he talks about being, “slain by a fair cruel maid.”, the tone of this song is extremely negative and uses metaphors of being killed to describe that love will emotionally ruin your life. The definition of the word slain is to ‘kill someone violently’; the fact that it is violent makes the tone even more pessimistic and makes the audience think of love as being brutal. In the song there is use of words such as ‘black’ and ‘dark’, the connotations of these words are of death and again add to the negative message However it could be argued that Feste is not very because he is melancholy about love and he will never experience being in love which could be considered by some to be one of the most fulfilling experience of a person’s life.
However it could be argued that Viola is the wisest character in the play as she realises that she has to dress up as a man in order to stay safe in Illyria. Viola was shipwrecked and she being a woman would not be safe on her own. “Though shalt present me as a eunuch to him.” She also thinks her plan through, she knows her feminine voice would raise suspicion therefore she says she is a ‘eunuch’ to explain her high pitched voice. Viola seems to know how to get what she needs by flattering the Sea Captain, repeatedly giving and offering him money. “For saying so there is gold.” However she could be seen as being foolish because she relies very much on her outward appearances which can be deceptive and if she was wise she would realise this and understand that you should not always trust someone solely based on how they look. Also she did not think he disguise through as she did not prepare herself for a situation such as falling in love with Orsino however not being able to act upon it because of her appearance.
However, overall Feste seems to be the wisest character in the play. His character is very significant to the plot which is shown at the end of the play as Feste is attributed with the last word in the form of his song. At the end of the play the song has a theme of wisdom of life and that individuals do not matter. Whether it successful or a failure, your life will not be how you want it to be and “the rain it raineth every day,” and that is the circle of life and it has been the same since the beginning of time.