"The Truth About Foolishness" in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
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 play 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 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 faults.
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 overcome foolishness.
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.
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