Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night plays upon the theme of appearance versus reality to depict the difference between the lower class “fools” and the upper class of “wit”. Although Shakespeare sets up a number of literal disguised characters (such as Viola, dressed up as a man) he also portrays many of the characters as untrue to their supposed societal appearances and roles. This idea of appearance versus reality therefore works towards establishing the difference between the foolish and the wise, proving that both can be found in unexpected characters, that most of the nobility represents the foolish while the lower class represents the wise. Shakespeare, through Twelfth Night, is therefore laughing along with the lowerclassmen at those members of high societal class who simply take life too seriously, who take on the role of the fool. The play is basically a precursor to the controversial works of modern day comedians and their mockery of the members of high political and social standings.
The nobility of the play partake in dialogue and action (or lack of action) that expose their foolish, irrational, melodramatic nature, or the reality behind their glamorous appearances. Olivia is introduced as a character that cannot get over the tragedy of the death of her brother and therefore is in a constant state of mourning, black veil and all. Although the death of a brother may seem a reasonable excuse to avoid the love of Orsino, Olivia readily promotes the love of Viola’s disguised character of Cesario; she puts on a dramatic air of mourning and then readily disposes of this air only to be deceived into loving a woman dressed up as a young man. Her marriage to Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, further proves her inability to distinguish reality from appearance, for she does not even marry the “man” she claims to love. Orsino, the other character of high status in the play, is also fooled into believing Viola’s disguise of a male servant. However, Orsino is foolish in another sense in that he claims to love Olivia tremendously and yet does not attempt to woo her in person and later easily dismisses his love. Both Orsino and Olivia are examples of members of high class who cannot see truth because of their tendencies to act in a melodramatic, unrealistic manner. They are simply two noble beings that, despite their profound exclamations of love and despair, cannot bring themselves to act and are fully dependent on servants and members of the lower class; their distinguished appearances do not match their actual, somewhat pathetic characteristics.
Maria and Feste the Clown are the most profound examples in the play of those with a foolish appearance but wise nature. As the servant to Olivia, Maria appears to be a tiny, humble housemaid but actually proves herself to be a woman of trickery and wit. Her deception of Malvolio and her quick remarks upon the nature of the noble class establish her as a character that, like Shakespeare, can laugh at and mock the society that takes life too seriously, the society that turns love and life into a work of drama. Feste the Clown, the literal fool (through appearance), actually represents the figure of wisdom, or the only character that outright tells the truth. His perception of the reality behind the disguises and the appearances allows for him to provide a fitting differentiation between the foolish and the wise, a definition that basically sums up Shakespeare’s take on the characters of the play and on the members of his own society: “Wit, an’t be thy will, put me into good fooling! Those wits, that think they have thee, do very oft prove fools; and I, that am sure I lack thee, may pass for a wise man; for what says Quinapalus? ‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit’” (Act I, Scene V). Despite what may seem proper, these two lower class characters allow for truth and wit to exist amongst the mockery of the noble class and allow to shine through Shakespeare’s true opinion of this society of appearances.