Stephanie Chidester

Twelfth Night: A Motley Medley

(A portion of this essay was published in Midsummer Magazine, Summer 1991.)

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 orchestrates the folly of his cohorts; Maria, with her mischievous practical joking, resembles the spiteful court fools whose malicious capers brought ruin upon many an unwary courtier; Viola in her disguise is a "witty fool" not unlike Feste; Sir Andrew Aguecheek qualifies as a "natural" fool; and Olivia, Orsino, and Malvolio all suffer from melancholic folly, respectively derived from sorrow, unrequited love, and self-love.

Robert Armin brought his observations of actual fools to the role of Feste. David Wiles points out that when Armin played Carlo Buffone in Jonson's Every Man Out Of His Humour, he was "impersonating a real tavern fool by the name of Charles (i.e. 'Carlo') Chester (i.e. 'jester')" (147). Wiles also sees a connection between this role and that of Feste: "Carlo's most interesting routine is inspired by Armin's researches. Carlo plays the part of two courtiers simultaneously.... A cruder and better known example of the technique is of course Feste/Topas" (147). Thus it can be seen that Armin's research pervaded his roles and influenced Jonson's plays as well as Shakespeare's.

In Reality in a Looking Glass, a comprehensive historical study of fools and their roles in medieval and modern society, Anton C. Zijderveld describes and classifies the types of traditional medieval fools. Feste, the most obvious of Twelfth Night's fools, belongs to a class of jesters which, according to Zijderveld, "were ... in full command of their wits.... They played at being foolish, often with much wit and ingenuity" (92); as Feste himself proclaims, "I wear not motley in my brain" (1.5.56). He is the "allowed fool" who can criticize the two absolute rulers of the play—Olivia and Orsino—with impunity, and he does. He takes the liberty to prove Olivia a fool for her grief (1.5.56-71) and to chastise Orsino for his changeability (2.4.73-79). Feste is the only member of this society who can find fault with his superiors without endangering his position. When Malvolio rather nastily reproaches Olivia for enjoying Feste's jests, Olivia is quick to remind him of his place and to deliver some criticism of her own: she replies, "You are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite" (1.5.90-1). In this way Feste serves as an emotional and critical outlet for the subjects of absolute rulers. Zijderveld comments that the fool "is irreverent in the face of authority and tries his best to undermine the impression management that is staged by the powerful" (28). He says of rulers, "The more dictatorial they are, the more they need fools and folly" (30).

If the Lady Olivia needs fools and folly, she has them in abundance. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria form a society of fools, the sole aim of which is merry-making and the destruction of any impediment to their pleasure. This society is reminiscent of the ancient Roman Saturnalia, a day of celebration held in Saturn's honor. For this celebration the functions of normal society were halted and the regular order inverted: the slaves, one of whom was appointed lord of misrule, were freed for the day and exchanged social roles with their masters. Anne Barton notes the similarities between Epiphany—the Twelfth Night feast—and Saturnalia and explains, "It was perhaps inevitable that a celebration which initially was wholly pious should, with time, alter its complexion, attracting to itself in the process a good deal of the licence and even the specific customs of the pagan Saturnalia" (404). Lois Potter indicates that the Saturnalian customs which were adopted "permitted the licensed irreverence through disguisings, parodies of solemn events, reversals of roles between men and women, masters and servants, clergy and laity" (18). Accordingly, when Feste takes on the role of Sir Topas for the "mock exorcism of Malvolio," he "inverts the proper role of the priest" (18).

Sir Toby's society is "a grotesque inversion of the established hierarchy, a looking-glass image of the status quo" (Zijderveld 66), in which the drunken Sir Toby Belch serves as lord and master. Zijderveld writes that in the French city of Lyon there existed "some twenty different societies of fools in the sixteenth century, each having its own abbot, admiral, prince, king, court judge, or patriarch as Lord of Misrule" (73). Accordingly, Sir Toby is the leader of his friends' drunkenness, the advisor of Sir Andrew's wooing of Olivia, and the director of the duel between Sir Andrew and Viola/Cesario.

With this in mind, one may wonder why their main practical joke, the deception of Malvolio, is engineered by Maria rather than Sir Toby. One possible explanation for this is that Maria is modeled on the malicious court fools, some of whom were women. In fact, she strongly resembles Mathurine, the female fool of the French kings Henri III (1574-89), Henri IV (1589-1610), and Louis XIII (1610-43). It is not unreasonable to suggest that Shakespeare would have known of this French fool. In Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare uses the political maneuverings and court occurrences of Henri III and Henri of Navarre (the future Henri IV) as the basis for his plot, demonstrating his knowledge of French affairs (David xxix). Also, as a man of the theatre, Shakespeare would have been interested in the actions of fools, and as an associate of Robert Armin, he would have been familiar with their activities.1

Zijderveld writes of Mathurine, "Her personality was not all that pleasant." He goes on to say that "She was as malicious as an old ape" (96). Just as Maria loathes Malvolio's austere Puritan behavior, Mathurine particularly "hated the morally strict and stern Protestants" (96). Yet another parallel between Maria and Mathurine is that both of them are associated with the Amazons. Sir Toby names Maria "Penthesilea," queen of the Amazons (2.3.177), and Mathurine "often wore ... the outfit of an Amazon" (96). Another characteristic of fools which Maria exhibits is her smallness. Viola mockingly says, "Some mollification for your giant, sweet lady" (1.5.203-4) after Maria, with a sailing metaphor, has urged Viola to get on with her business. According to Zijderveld, "midgets and dwarfs occupied a very special position" among fools, and they were valued by their owners (97).

Viola is another type of female fool and also has much in common with the French fool Mathurine. Feste commends her for her skill at word-play, exclaiming, "A sentence is but a chev'ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!" (3.1.11-13). Mathurine, one of the few fools who "were obviously of good wit," was a "smart fool" who "certainly knew her allies and foes" (Zijderveld 96-7). Viola's cross-dressing also fits in with the behavior of Mathurine, who was sometimes seen dressed as "a military officer with a huge sabre" (96). Indeed, this sort of sexual ambiguity was not uncommon among medieval fools: "They are never clearly male or female, but engage happily in transvestism" (4).

Maria calls Sir Andrew a "natural" throughout the play, a title which he thoroughly deserves. In Erasmus's In Praise of Folly—which "Shakespeare may well have read at school" (Levi 80)—the personified Folly characterizes the natural fool as "that class of men whom we generally call morons, fools, halfwits, and zanies" (47).2 Even Andrew recognizes that people think him a fool at 2.5.82 after Malvolio refers to "a foolish knight." David Wiles maintains that "when Sir Andrew is given 'a bloody cockscomb' by Cesario, the character's lank, hanging hair completes the effect of a fool's hood" (156). According to Sir Toby, Andrew "speaks three or four languages .... and hath all the good gifts of nature" (1.3.26-8), yet Andrew does not know the meaning of the word "accost" (1.3.58) nor of "pourquoi" (1.3.90). Andrew says, "I would I had bestowed that time in tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bearbaiting" (1.3.90-92), yet we find later on that, as Maria predicts, he is a coward and cannot fence well at all. In short, "many do call" (2.5.82) Sir Andrew fool, and they are right; he is all folly and no wit, unlike Feste, Toby, and Maria, who are deliberate in their foolery, beneath which exists a layer of wisdom.3

Olivia and Orsino are also unintentionally foolish, though less obtuse than Sir Andrew. Both are melancholic, and from this disorder arises folly; Zijderveld includes in his detailing of the spectrum of folly a kind of fool called "melancholicus" (35). It is easy to identify the types of melancholy from which the Countess and Duke suffer. Olivia's is clearly derived from her excessive grief over her brother's death; she tells Valentine that she will mourn for seven years. Orsino's melancholy finds its origin in his obsessive, unrequited love for Olivia; he enacts the role of the despised courtly lover, surfeiting himself with music, bowers of flowers, and self-pity—indeed, he seems more in love with love itself than with Olivia.

Robert Burton's "wisdom," Douglas Bush suggests, is "like Shakespeare's" (298), and so it should be since Burton's treatise on psychology and humours drew on materials contemporary with Shakespeare and was published only seven years after the Bard's death. In the Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton calls grief "the mother and daughter of melancholy, her epitome, and chief cause.... Sorrow, saith Plutarch to Apollonius, is a cause of madness, a cause of many other incurable diseases" (225). Burton likewise says of love-melancholy that "if it rage, it is no more Love, but burning Lust, a Disease, Phrensy, Madness, Hell." (651).

Feste recognizes Olivia's folly, "dexteriously" proving her a fool for mourning for her brother's soul, which is in heaven (1.5.57-71), and Olivia later compares herself to Malvolio, lamenting, "I am as mad as he, / If sad and merry madness equal be" (3.4.13-14). As Juliet Dusinberre writes, "The texture of the play is thick with references to Olivia's folly" (47-8). Feste also pinpoints Orsino's ailment, proclaiming, "Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal" (2.4.73-5). Erasmus writes, "A man who is deceived not only in his senses but in the judgement of his mind ... is bound to be considered close to madness" (52). Olivia and Orsino, whose reactions are out of proportion with their troubles and who lack temperance in sorrow and love, certainly fit this description.

Malvolio's melancholic folly originates in his self-love. In In Praise of Folly, Folly asks, "What is so foolish as to be satisfied with yourself? Or to admire yourself?" (29). Burton calls self-love a "delectable frenzy, most irrefragable passion, this delightful illusion, this acceptable disease" (253). Malvolio certainly thinks highly of himself, fantasizing about marrying Olivia at 2.5.23-81 and grouping himself with the truly wise men who despise all kinds of folly at 1.5.82-89. Erasmus's Folly, however, has this to say about these supposedly wise men: "Even those who arrogate to themselves the part and name of wise men cannot conceal me, though they walk about 'like apes in scarlet or asses in lion-skins'.... Although they are wholly of my party, in public they are so ashamed of my name that they toss it up at others as a great reproach" (10). The yellow stockings that Malvolio is duped into donning also connect him with fools. Robert Goldsmith writes in his Wise Fools in Shakespeare, "Natural fools and idiots often wore long, yellow gowns" (3), and Shakespeare and Fletcher mention "a long motley coat guarded with yellow" (16) in their Prologue to The Life of King Henry the Eighth.

Malvolio is also the only modern man in an essentially medieval society. He is the prototypical Puritan who threatens to wipe out folly altogether, in himself and in everyone else; he represents the "rational man" who "is too one-dimensional to be able really to understand the fool" (Zijderveld 27). He stands, as a result, in direct opposition to Feste, the traditional medieval fool who strives to bring out the foolishness in all his acquaintances. M. C. Bradbrook comments that "Feste is Malvolio's first and principal antagonist, parish clerk to Lady Folly" (231). That they despise one another is evidenced in Malvolio's insult, "I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone" (1.5.83-5). Feste's enjoyment of his revenge on Malvolio demonstrates that he returns a full measure of antipathy.

Twelfth Night becomes, in effect, a looking-glass for Shakespeare's society and our own. The play takes us from the routine of ordinary life to the realm of folly. As Zijderveld speculates, "If one follows the fool into the reality of his looking-glass, if one adapts to his 'language', his 'logic', his kind of 'reason', the routine and 'normal' reality of everyday life, with its structures and hierarchies, begins to look genuinely foolish" (27). Shakespeare shows us the reflection of ourselves and our society in the distorted mirror of Twelfth Night, and as a result, we reach a heightened awareness of our own shortcomings and absurdities. Paradoxically, we learn by laughing, passing beyond seriousness to wisdom.


1Queen Elizabeth was certainly familiar with European fools. David Wiles indicates that she "followed in the tradition of the sixteenth-century courts of Paris, Mantua and Ferrara when she kept a dwarf in her court from 1578 to the end of her reign" (150). [Return to text.]

2The possibility of Shakespeare having read In Praise of Folly seems great since the work was written in Thomas More's home, Erasmus was well known to many Oxford and Cambridge scholars (Coulton 664-6), and at least one of the masters (Simon Hunt) at Shakespeare's grammar school during his time there was an Oxford man (Speaight 10-11). [Return to text.]

3Leslie Hotson comments that "Set beside the brain of Feste, the little wit of Aguecheek shrinks further into imbecility" (91). [Return to text.]


Barton, Anne. Introduction to Twelfth Night. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. 403-407.

Bradbrook, M. C. "Robert Armin and Twelfth Night." Twelfth Night: A Casebook. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1972. 222-43.

Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Ed. Floyd Dell, New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1927.

David, R. W., ed. The Arden Shakespeare: Love's Labour's Lost. London: Methuen, 1951.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1975.

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.

Copyright 1997 by Stephanie Chidester. All Rights Reserved.