Sunday, October 4, 2009

Playing the Fool

The first definition in the dictionary of the word fool is " a silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgment or sense." In terms of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, this definition fits for most characters, except for the character whose name, ironically enough, is "The Fool." It seems that throughout the play, the other characters' vices are painfully obvious, but the Fool is the only one who doesn't buy into the very superficial notion of love presented by the other characters. He simply sits back and observes, making jokes and singing, but sometimes offering pearls of wisdom hidden under his jest.

Viola is the only character who recognizes the fool as a truly reputable character, saying, "This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,/ And to 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 practise/ As full fo 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." She recognizes that the Fool actually must be intelligent to do his job as an entertainer. There is a definite art to being a fool, which requires much attention to one's audience. Viola has this epiphany after the fool lets on a little bit of insight about marriage. When she asks him if he is Lady Olivia's fool, the Fool's response is, "No, indeed, sir; the Lady Olivia has no folly. She will keep no fool til she be married, and fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to herrings; the husband's the bigger: I am indeed not her fool..." he explains. The deeper wisdom behind the Fool's joking language is that getting married is not a good choice in Illyria. This is because everyone is overly superficial and preoccupied with outward appearances. We see this with Count Orsino, who constantly talks about how much he loves Olivia's beauty. He quickly forgets about this, however, when he realizes Viola is a girl. "Cesario, come,/ For so you shall be, while you are a man./ But when in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino's mistress and his fancy queen," which basically means that once Viola looks good, he will marry her. This exposes the fickleness of the marriages in Twelfth Night, by the observations of the Fool.

The Fool is ironically also the first to catch on that Cesario was a fraudulent personality adopted by Viola in his conversation with Sebastian. He says, "No, I do not know you, nor I am not sent to you by my lady, to bid you come speak with her, nor your name is not Master Cesario, nor this is not my nose neither. Nothing that is so is so." The Fool understands that it is important to take everything with a grain of salt. His wisdom is buried beneath his clever wordplay, but the other characters usually just see it as nonsense. They are too foolish to realize how in tune the Fool is to everything that is transpiring in the play.

Another interesting thing about the Fool is his role as the wallflower. As the chaotic nature of the play picks up even more toward the end, the Fool witnesses all of the miscommunications, and also realizes how fickle the characters are. "I would not be in some of your coats for two pense," he says. He is merely an observer--he has no emotional ties to the characters, he just makes a joke of it all. It could be argued that this is the smartest route when it comes to love, because this way, it is nearly impossible to get hurt. If you act like the Fool and stay on the sidelines, maybe you will be safe from vascillating, unstable lovers. In fact, this could be the least foolish way to act.

The Fool recognizes that foolishness is everywhere--he says, "Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun." Maybe by avoiding seriousness in the way that he does, he protects himself from the kind of foolishness that is superficial love, which is always fleeting. This is certainly not the lifestyle choice of someone who lacks judgment or sense, but a person who sees it best to keep himself away from potentially hurtful situations. A person that protects him or herself from pain is never foolish, but always on guard, fighting for the preservation of his or her heart. Given the needy personalities of the other characters in Twelfth Night, I find the Fool's ability to stand on his own without a mate to be very admirable.

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