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William Shakespeare used a unique device to explain how foolishness is an
unavoidable part of everyday life. He employed many specific examples of
foolishness in his comedy titled Twelfth Night. Each of the characters he
created were all foolish in one way or another. Not only do the characters
entertain the audience, but also educate the audience as they portray mankind
avoiding obvious truth.
Shakespeare takes a humorous approach to expose the ways we fall prey to
pride, vanity and self-deception. As the story unfolds, the characters
discover their faults before they can do any real harm to themselves or anyone
else. Fortunately, only embarrassment or humiliation are the result.
Combinations of comedy, personality and irony are all qualities each character
reveals to exhibit the many types of fools we can all be.
The most common type of fool in society is usually the simpleton, or a
"natural" fool. Sir Andrew Aguecheek is an excellent example. Although Sir
Andrew is funny, it is not intentional. His faults include a lack of wit, a
tendency to be easily amused, and the opportunity to be manipulated by others
to be accepted. His foolishness is revealed innocently, as he considers
himself a gentleman.
His attempts to flirt with Maria by showing how clever he is fail when Sir
Toby advises him to accost, in other words, to woo her. Sir Andrew thinks
"accost" is her name as he addresses her, "Good Mistress Mary Accost-" (I, III,
54). After his embarrassing introduction to Maria, Sir Andrew tries to salvage
his dignity by laughing at himself as he says, "Methinks sometimes I have no
more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has. But I am a great eater of
beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit" (I, III, 83-86). It is clear
that Sir Andrew is easily taken advantage of at his expense.
Another way foolishness is exposed, is through love. For example, Malvolio
loves nobody but himself. Although he is Olivia's household servant, he
considers himself better than others. It is his vanity, arrogance, and pride
that causes Malvolio to act foolishly. Olivia says, "O, you are sick of self
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love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite" (I, V, 89-90). Even
though Olivia values him as a servant, she acknowledges his vanity.
Malvolio is also jealous of anyone that considers themselves clever. This
is evident during his power-struggle with Sir Toby as he attempts to spoil any
fun or enjoyment in Olivia's household. Sir Toby questions, "Art any more than
a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more
cakes and ale" (II, III, 113-15)? Here Sir Toby confronts him by attacking
Malvolio's view of self importance, and asking if everyone must act like him.
Malvolio is much more successful at fooling himself than he is at deceiving
others. This self-deception makes him the perfect target for Maria and Sir
Toby's joke. They forge a letter which leads Malvolio to believe that he may
obtain the social status he dreams of. The letter appeals to Malvolio's true
nature as he claims, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon 'em" (II,V, 149-50). He is ignorant to the fact
that he makes a complete fool of himself as he acts out the absurd instructions.
It was simple human nature that caused Malvolio's humiliation. He wanted
to believe the letter would allow him to better himself. Therefore, he
considered it permission to show the way he truly feels. Unlike the other
characters, he simply cannot recognize his own faults or laugh at himself.
Malvolio vows, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" (V,I, 401)! As long
as he clings to his embarrassment and anger, he will not forgive and forget.
Shakespeare did not forget to include accepted foolishness by inventing a
clown. Feste is Olivia's jester, and is expected to entertain the other
characters with jokes, puns and songs. Ironically, Feste is intelligent and
points out their foolishness with well phrased jests. Viola realizes that his
witty comments are not just random humor as she informs the audience:
This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,
And not do that well craves a kind of wit.
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, check at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice
As full of labor as a wise man's art:
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit. (III,I, 61-69)
She is commenting how skillfully he can see through people, and mock their
As an entertainer, Feste will only perform for money. And what he chooses
is intentionally relevant and disturbing to the other characters, as they find
his truthful observations hard to deal with. His accurate perspective keeps
the audience aware of how foolish the characters actually behave. Feste
comments, "Better a witty Fool than a Foolish wit" (I,V, 34). This statement
defends his humorous philosophy.
Through his comedy Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare is teaching us a
lesson about the truth. Shakespeare warns us of the dangers of self-love,
pride, vanity, arrogance, and deceit. He illustrates the importance of being
truthful with ourselves and others. Finally he suggests that laughter can
William Shakespeare explained the truth about foolishness, and the danger
of taking yourself too seriously. As Feste notes, "Foolery, sir, does walk
about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere" (III,I, 40-1). Nobody is
exempt from looking foolish at some time or other. Learn to laugh at yourself,
before others do.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Grief, Karen. "Plays and Playing in Twelfth Night". Bloom (47-60).
Nevo, Ruth. Comic Transformations in Shakespeare. London: Methuen & Co., 1980.
Osborne, Laurie E. The Trick of Singularity: Twelfth Night and the Performance Editions. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1996.
Shakespeare, William. The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night. Ed. J. M. Lothian and T.W. Craik. UK: Methuen & Co., 1975.