Shakespeare seems preoccupied with madness and folly in Twelfth Night. The word "fool" and its variants ("foolery," "foolish," and so forth) appear eighty times in the play, and the word "folly" occurs seven times. There are, in addition, other means of indicating foolishness such as Maria's "Now, sir, thought is free" (1.3.67). As Feste suggests, "Foolery ... does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere" (3.1.39-40).
Robert Armin, who originated the role of Feste, was fascinated by fools and wrote Foole upon Foole, a book which treated this subject. David Wiles writes that Armin "was a pioneering realist in his study of how fools actually behaved. His stage fools were based on observation rather than on the recreation of an emblematic stage type" (158). He goes on to point out that "Armin's interest in fools allowed Shakespeare to tap one of the richest veins in the medieval dramatic tradition: the idea that the Vice reveals vice to be folly" (158). M. C. Bradbook notes that Armin did influence Shakespeare's writing. "From the time that Armin joined the company Shakespeare very noticeably began to give his clowns the catechism as a form of jesting.... Feste catechizes Olivia on why she grieves and proves her a fool for doing so; later, in the guise of the curate, he catechizes Malvolio" (228). Indeed, Shakespeare seems to have utilized this valuable resource for Twelfth Night, creating a broad spectrum of fools in this play.
The actions and words of almost all the play's characters fit the recognized behavior patterns of fools. Feste is, of course, an "allowed" or professional fool; Sir Toby Belch, like Falstaff, is a "Lord of Misrule" who orchest...
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Erasmus, Desiderius. In Praise of Folly. Trans. Hoyt Hopewell Hudson, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970.
Hotson, Leslie. Shakespeare's Motley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Potter, Lois. Twelfth Night: Text & Performance. London: Macmillan, 1985.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972.
Wiles, David. Shakespeare's Clown: Actor and text in the Elizabethan playhouse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Zijderveld, Anton J. Reality in a Looking-Glass: Rationality through an Analysis of Traditional Folly. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
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