29 November 2013. The role of clowns in Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale: Clowning or the presence of fools is widely recognized as a persistent and very powerful feature of Shakespeare’s work known today…
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These fools are not used for entertainment purpose alone and suggesting that they were frequently employed by Shakespeare to provide a comedic relief to the audience from dark heaviness of the main action is empty mockery. However, this much is also true that in most Shakespearean plays it seems as if the scenes of clowns are almost strategically placed after particularly violent or dark scenes. The purpose of this essay is to contemplate the role of clowns in two very popular comedies by Shakespeare namely Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale to analyze if clowning is employed merely for comic relief or it also works to convey the message of the dramas. Feste is the name of clown who appears in Twelfth Night and is especially favored by Olivia who is the very beautiful countess and has given Feste full authority to cross boundaries and say whatever he likes (LitCharts) understanding his knack for humor and intellect. But, is Feste used by Shakespeare to make jokes alone which have no deep meaning to them or convey no meaning as suggested by some critics that clowns are mainly used to provide comic relief? The answer is a clear no because in the beginning of the play when Olivia is introduced terrifically grieving over her dead brother and displaying no signs of moving on with life, Feste makes a very bold gesture by telling Olivia to quite her mopping attitude which has actually become quite ridiculous. He does not only make silly or shallow remarks about the way she cries or stays melancholic, but illustrates a very important message of life by claiming that it is not him but Olivia who is acting like the real fool wasting all her energy in mourning instead of concentrating on her life. This critically important statement is made by no other character but Feste which suggests that the role of clowns is used by Shakespeare in his plays to both calm the readers and highlight the weaknesses of other characters which are otherwise untouchable and cannot be reproached by anyone. In addition to that, he also thinks that witty criticism is his prized prerogative. So, he is frequently seen driving others mad particularly Olivia’s greedy and wasteful uncle Toby Belch who is one of the favorite targets of Feste. Given the nature of his brilliant criticism and the way he digs with acute intelligence into dark aspects of other serious-natured characters, this much is obvious that Feste is no ordinary fool but an exceptionally smart jester who is a genius with punning. Viola (Cesario), another heroine of the play, describes Feste as the wisest cat in the play. Why would Feste be described as the wisest cat in town were his job cracking jokes alone as assumed by some critics to provide comedic relief from tension of the main plot? In fact, he is described in this manner by others because his intellect of smart wordplay is secret to none and everybody, even those who resent him like Olivia’s uncle, acknowledge the brainpower of this enormously powerful Shakespearean clown. He not only picks on the clear weaknesses of others around him, but also has a real talent for shrewdly observing grave or serious situations (Geraghty). He makes people laugh over his wise puns and also makes a good living out of it. He accurately measures the ridiculousness of the starting scene where Olivia is dressed up like a nun for grieving purpose and mockingly characterizes her silly attitude as plain unnecessary and stupid
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