Shakespearean Study: Feste as Jungian Archetype the Trickster

Feste, from Shakespeare’s twelfth night, is a complicated character who speaks in riddles, pulls pranks, sings songs, all in a paradoxical kind of way. Feste isn’t the only character of his type. Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, has made a theory about how cross cultural themes in different stories are embodied in characters in what he calls archetypes. Feste, fits the archetype called the trickster. In this paper we’ll explore how Feste fits into the archetype called the trickster.

The first thing that needs to be established to compare Feste to the trickster is to define what the trickster is, Carl Jung explains in the example of Mercurius:

A curious combination of typical trickster motifs can be found in the alchemical figure of Mercurius; for instance, his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and last but not least—his approximation to the figure of a savior. (Jung, 255)

The trickster has a combination of all these traits fondness for jokes, pranks, shape-shifter, dual nature, exposure to all kinds of tortures, and a linking to a savior figure. Feste bears many of these motifs to varying degrees and to different ends.

The very first motif that we encounter in Feste is his fondness for jokes. In the first scene we encounter Feste he tells a joke. Maria, the maid, asks Feste where he’s been. Maria says the lady will “hang thee for thy absence.” (1.5.3). Feste Responds, “Let her hang me. He that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colours.” (1.5.4-5) Feste, although under the authority of a noble, acts as if it matters very little to him. He acts out of accordance of what is expected of a servant. He is leaves of his own accord and returns when he wishes. This contempt for authority characterizes most of his humor. Though he is dubbed a fool, he sees the foolishness of everything.

His humor is his way of taking down people’s high standing. Festes’ use of jokes is to expose the inherit foolishness of things. It is very apparent in his exchange with Olivia. Olivia says to “Take the fool away.”(1.5.33). Feste responds “Do you hear, fellows? Take away the lady.” (1.5.34). The lady who Feste serves he thinks is foolish, but in a very specific way. Here he undermines her authority, but he is also revealing a truth about her. It is elaborated in a later exchange.

Olivia is mourning for the loss of her brother. Feste sees she’s in mourning and asks “Good Madonna, why mournest thou?” (1.5.57). Olivia responds, “Good fool, for my brother’s death” (1.5.58). Feste answers back, “I think his soul is in hell, Madonna.” (1.5.59) this is something no servant would ever say to their lord or lady. The purpose though is not just to offend or to undermine authority, but to show a flaw in Olivia’s mourning. Her brother has been dead for a few years and her continual mourning is outlandish to say the least. A servant of a lady merely goes along with her will. This unquestioning autocratic use of power is an enabling tautology in which her mourning continues as long as no one says anything to the effect of its foolishness.

Olivia of course doesn’t get it, she responds to Feste in this way, “I know his soul is in heaven, fool.” (1.5.60). Feste drives his point home with this statement, “The more foo, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven, take away the fool, gentlemen.” (1.5. 61-62). Feste points out the stupidity of mourning a dead person who is in heaven. So why mourn the person if he is in a blissfully eternal state? The statement goes over Olivia’s head and she answers to her servant Malvolio, “What think you of this fool, Malvolio? Doth he not mend?” (1.5.63-64). Malvolio doesn’t get it either and responds “Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him. Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.” (1.5.65-66). Malvolio obediently agrees with the lady thusly enabling mournful tautology, which only further keeps her from achieving happiness.

This happiness is kept away by her mourning, so the most reasonable person in this exchange is Feste. Paradoxically his Joking unveils a truth no one can see, due to an uncritical obedience to servitude and an irrational ritual of mourning. The paradox posed here is that the person thought foolish is the most reasonable and the persons thought most reasonable are foolish. Yet because of their foolishness can’t see the reason posed by Feste’s joking. The difference here with Shakespeare’s use of the trickster is that Feste is the one that should be trusted, since he can see through everyone’s foolishness, where as a traditional trickster is not to be trusted.

This trust by exposition of truth is further developed in his pranking. Feste’s pranking differs from the traditional view of the Trickster in that it has a purpose. To understand, we must explain the person being pranked, Malvolio.

The motivation for the prank comes in the scene where Malvolio breaks up Feste’s fun. Feste, Toby, Andrew and Maria are drinking and singing and having a good time. The trouble is they’re being too loud. Malvolio enters the room and says.

My masters, are you mad? Or what are you? Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night? Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house, that ye squeak out your coziers’ catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you? (2.3.78-83)

Rather than join in the festivities he breaks it up to the consternation of everyone involved. Malvolio here represents a certain attitude of life called puritanism. Puritans are a group of Christians that have a firm dislike of anything worldly. Worldly in this sense meaning everything thought to be fun by the majority of people like theater, cakes, and beer. It’s also a sensibility that looks down on anyone who participates in these activities. He is identified as person of this kind of thinking by Maria.

The dev’l a puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleasser, an affectioned ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swathers; the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his gorunds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work. (2.3.131-136)

The reason for this prank goes further than just maliciousness against a party pooper. It’s an attack on puritanism. The reason for that is that it gets in the way of the type of fun that comes from Feste. Here he exposes puritanism for the foolishness that it is.

The prank proceeds with Maria writing a letter in the handwriting of Olivia, telling of the love that Olivia has of Malvolio. Malvolio falls for the trap, he is told to wear yellow stockings for Olvia. He does so and is found to be foolish in Olivia’s eyes. Puritanism here looks like the same kind of foolishness that worldliness looks like in puritanism’s eyes, Feste’s own reversal of the moral hierarchy where the puritans are supposed to be on top.

Feste further tortures the puritan view by exposing it to torture. The twist on the trickster archtype here is Feste himself is not exposed to torture like Mercurious. Instead he uses torture to inflict punishment on Malvolio. It is in the scene where Malvolio is caged that we see this motif play out, but there is also another motif in this scene that of the shapeshifter. Feste disguises himself as a priest to interrogate Malvolio torturing him by assailing his conscience with guilt. He says “Madman, thou errest. I say there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.” (4.2.37-39). Malvolio responds with “I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say there was never man thus abused. I am no mad than you are.” (4.2.40-43). The abuse here is to punish Malvolio for attitude toward worldly fun. He is judgemental of anyone having said fun, but when it is offered to him he goes headlong. This denial is a vain hypocrisy which Feste exposes to the humiliation of Malvolio.

Besides having fun and pulling pranks, Feste’s second nature is one of Melancholy. This curious trait creates a paradox within his dual nature. Melancholy doesn’t necessarily go with carefree joking and pranks. Feste’s singing captures this melancholy perfectly.

O mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear, your true love’s coming, That can sing both high and low. Trip no further, pretty sweeting. Journeys end in lovers meeting, Every wise man’s son doth know. (2.3.35-40)

The song which is being sung with a crowd of people in high spirits, but all they get is this mournful song. It starts out with a search for a lover and ends with an idea of love that is temporary.

What is love?’ Tis not hereafter, Present mirth hat present laughter. What’s to come is still unsure. In delay there lies no plenty, Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty. Youth’s stuff will not endure. (2.3.43-48)

Why is Feste singing a sad song at a party, when he should be singing something happy? The answer is the same that lies within his joking. The jokes themselves do not exist to just make people laugh, but to think and to expose truth by pointing out folly. This pointing out of Folly however brings about this notion of life as absurd. If every human endeavor is foolish, then it brings about a certain melancholy about the state of life. Love is present for a moment and then it is gone.

This melancholy and truth in the foolishness of human behavior approximates Feste to a figure of the savior. Feste isn’t a savior figure per say, but he is close to the ideas that save people. The thing to be saved from is boredom, loneliness, mournfulness. He then brings us into a sort of joy that wouldn’t be achieved if it were not for his ability to point out foolishness.

Well held out, I’faith! 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. (4.1.4-7)

Nothing that is so is so. Everyone is wearing disguises to hide from one another. Viola is wearing a disguise to hide from Orsino, she is in love with him but can’t tell him. Olivia is in love with Viola disguised as Cesario. In the end though Oliva falls in love with a disguise and marries Sebastion who looks a lot like Cesario. Orsino is quasi-homoerotically attached to Cesario, but ends up with Viola after finding out that she was disguised the entire time. This is a grand foolishness which Feste has been pointing out the entire time. He becomes a savior in a sense in that he understands what is keeping them from happiness.

Feste is a unique take on the Trickster. He fits all the categories by and large, but with special variance. He has a fondness for jokes, pulls pranks, shape-shifts, has a dual nature, has exposure to all kinds of tortures, and a linking to a savior figure. He fits categorically as a trickster, but one who uses his powers to point out foolishness rather than to be malicious.

MLA Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr. Twelfth Night. The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition: Volume 1: Early Plays and Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Jung, Charles Gustav., and Herbert Edward Read. The Archtypes and the Collective Unconscious. S.l.: S.n., 1959. Print.


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