Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Twelfth Night, or What You Will Art and Culture Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
SIR ANDREW A mellifluous voice, as I am true knight. SIR TOBY BELCH A contagious breath. SIR ANDREW Very sweet and contagious, i' faith.
When Toby and Aguecheek say Feste's voice is "contagious," they mean it as a compliment because Feste's voice and his song are "catchy." ("Catch" also means "song.") We notice that Sir Andrew and Sir Toby Belch repeat some form of the word "contagious" three times in their response to Feste's performance of a song. What's up with that? To answer, we think it's time for a little history snack. There's a bit of an inside joke at work here.
In 16th century England, the bubonic plague was a bit of a problem, it being so contagious and deadly and all. Critics of the theater and other forms of public entertainment where large groups of people gathered in tight quarters worried about the spread of disease. Elizabethans thought the plague was contracted by breathing in strong odors. (We can imagine what a crowded playhouse smelled like – it being inhabited by those with questionable hygiene routines and no access to deodorant.) The plague was such a problem in Elizabethan England that theaters were often closed down during periods when the plague's death count got too high. Feste, a professional performer, is aligned with and somewhat representative of theatrical entertainment in the play. So, it's pretty funny that he's associated with the plague in this passage. The big joke, of course, is that if Feste was sick with the plague, then his "breath" and singing really would be contagious.
FABIAN I would exult, man: you know, he brought me out o' favour with my lady about a bear-baiting here. SIR TOBY BELCH To anger him we'll have the bear again; and we will fool him black and blue: shall we not, Sir Andrew? (2.5.2)
Here, Fabian and Toby discuss the elaborate and cruel prank they play on Malvolio. Toby compares the prank to a bear-baiting contest that promises to injure Malvolio, or make him "black and blue." (Bear-baiting is a cruel Elizabethan blood-sport that involves chaining a bear to an object before setting a pack of dogs upon it. It was a very popular form of "entertainment" that was held in the same districts as Shakespeare's plays. Both were associated with crude, lower-class patrons and critics of the theater often lumped the two activities together under one shameful umbrella.)
OK. So what? Well, Toby's right to compare the prank on Malvolio to a bear-baiting contest. Malvolio escapes without serious physical injury, but the joke, as Olivia points out in Act 5, is incredibly cruel – so much so that it casts a bit of a dark shadow over the "happy ending" of the play. On the other hand, there's also a sense of justice at work here since the judgmental Malvolio criticizes all forms of entertainment – bear-baiting, theatrical performances, revels, etc. The fact that the prank turns Malvolio into an unknowing participant in spectacle and foolery that is not unlike the theater (remember, Malvolio is tricked into wearing a costume and playing the "role" of suitor to Olivia) and is part of what makes the joke so fitting and delicious.
VIOLA 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, cheque at every feather That comes before his eye. This is a practise As full of labour as a wise man's art For folly that he wisely shows is fit; But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit. (3.1.14)
Here, Viola gives Feste (and Professional Fools everywhere) props for his artistic virtuosity. Despite being called "fool," Feste is a highly skilled performer, comedian, and musician with an incredible command of language and a shrewd mind. In fact, most critics say that Feste is the only "wise" person in the entire play, especially since he has a knack for sizing up the other characters and exposing the folly of their actions.