Probably one of my favorite things about Shakespeare’s plays are the “fools” that show up in many of his works. There is usually more than one—there’s the jester type character, who usually proves he isn’t a fool at all, and some other character whose foolishness is revealed when he or she interacts with the jester-fool, or even another character. Early on in the play, in Act I, scene v, was my first indication that I was going to like this clown; after he tells Olivia that he thinks her brother’s soul is in hell and she insists that she knows his soul is in heaven, he says to her, “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven.” He then tells her men to “take away the fool,” turning her own words against her.
This is just one of many instances in which the clown makes a fool of other characters. He has private conversations with most of the main characters. In his scene with Viola, he sees through her disguise, and says to her, “Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard!” Viola even remarks after his exit, “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool.”
He also has a private conversation with Malvolio in which he pretends to be “Sir Topas” and tricks him, revealing himself as the clown much later. Although Malvolio insists that he is not mad, the clown’s response is, “ Nay, I’ll ne’er believe a madman til I see his brains.”
I think the point of the fool character in all of these works is to expose who really is a fool and who is not; the one who goes by the name “fool” is rarely so, and often those with titles, knights, and dukes are the most foolish. At the beginning of act five, he speaks briefly with the Duke. The Duke says he is “the better for my foes and the worse for my friends,” but the clown says that the contrary is true. He says, “my foes tell me plainly I am an ass: so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself; and by friends I am abused: so that, conclusions to be as kisses, if your four negatives make your two affirmatives, why then, the worse for my friends, and the better for my foes.” This quote, I think, has a lot to do with the “truth” we’ve been discussing in class. The clown says he’d rather hear the truth from his enemies than flattery from his friends, but this is not the case with every character in the play. In fact, in the scene in which Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are eavesdropping on Malvolio, he mentions that one is a drunk and the other a fool, and neither of them are happy to have overheard his true opinions of them, and they are supposedly friends.
In the end, it’s the clown who gets the last word. Interesting to note that his song ends with the phrase, “and we’ll strive to please you every day.” In a way, this is his job description, and it’s interesting to see that he does it in such a way that he pleases himself by pointing out the follies of those he is working for. I like the fool usually because he is the funniest and the smartest—having no personal interest in the matter (except for maybe hoping he’ll keep his job, though in the beginning Olivia made it clear she didn’t want him and yet he stayed), he simply mocks what he sees with an unbiased yet critical eye. Though nameless, he appears perhaps most often in the play, and is definitely a crucial character.