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Foolish Wit

As a wise fool once said, “Better a witty Fool than a foolish wit” (Twelfth Night Fool act:

1 Scene: 5). These wise words of William Shakespeare are applicable to both his comedies and

his tragedies. The characters in both genres portray similar human characteristics such as fear,

anger, love and infatuation. The difference between the protagonists in a romance and the

protagonists in a tragedy are the choices that they make; and the manner in which they handle the

consequences of their choices. Endless papers have been spent analyzing the lives of

Shakespeare‟s main characters, but not many take the time to consider the influence minor

characters have on the movement of the plot. Shakespeare incorporated many side plots into his

plays, his minor characters contribute to the movement of the play through their foolish actions

often times with tragic results. William Shakespeare‟s Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and King Lear

are three plays with a common theme of deceit. Three men in the plays allow themselves to be

tricked into a false sense of reality due to their over trusting nature. The results for Malvolio

from Twelfth Night, Edgar from King Lear, and Banquo from Macbeth, are tragic.

A person, who is easily beguiled, usually has a noticeable fault, such as pride; or is overly

trusting towards his fellow men. Shakespeare, regardless of the genre he was writing, would

enhance the faults of his characters to make them more obvious for his audience. The viewers

could easily decipher who was the protagonist, who was the antagonist, and who was the real

fool in the play. The audience left the productions in a state of catharsis, or knowing each

character got what he deserved in the end.

Malvolio in Twelfth Night is not well liked by his peers, especially Sir Toby Belch,

Maria, and Sir Andrew. Malvolio has a depressing nature. He enjoys the pains of others, and
allows himself to become prideful. He has hopes and dreams beyond his station; “To be Count

Malvolio!” (Malvolio act 2 scene: 5). He thinks so much of himself as a unique individual that

tricking him into believing Lady Olivia loves him, is beyond easy for Maria. “If I do not make

him a common recreation, do not think I have wit enough to lie straight in my bed.” (Maria act: 2

scene: 3) Malvolio is not killed like Banquo, or tortured like Edgar, he instead is taught a great

lesson of humility, a lesson that he leaves the play still refusing to acknowledge.

Edgar in King Lear is the legitimate son of Gloucester. Gloucester also had an

illegitimate son named Edmund. Edgar and Edmund are both loved equally by their father,

though Gloucester is constantly referring to Edmund as his bastard son. Edgar trusts and loves

his brother Edmund; he is naïve to the resentment that fills Edmund‟s heart. His love for his

brother overshadows the illogical claims Edmund gives Edgar, when he warns him of danger.

“At this instant so rageth in him that with the mischief of our person it would scarcely allay.”

(Edmund act: 1 scene: 2) Edgar believes Edmund; when he tells Edgar that their father is mad

enough to kill him. He does not take the time to consider that something is not right about

Edmund. His foolish and swift actions take him on a tragic road throughout the course of the

play. The true tragedy for Edmund lies in his inability to fix the mistakes of his father and

brother, and having to watch both of them die by various means.

Banquo in Macbeth is a character caught up in the wrong crowd. He is with Macbeth

when the three witches tell their predictions. In a moment of doubt, concerning the words spoken

to Macbeth, he asks for his own future to be given to him. “If you can look into the seeds of time

and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me” (Banquo act: 1 scene: 3).

Banquo foolishly delves himself deeper into the witches trickery, though he is a doubter the

entire time. It is his common sense and conscience that eventually get him murdered. Macbeth
attempts to keep Banquo close to him, because he knows that having Banquo‟s support in his

political interests is essential in his attempt to rise to power.

“Tis the time‟s plague when madmen lead the blind.” (Gloucester act: 4 scene: 1) This

quote from King Lear is a good sum of the mad happenings of all three plays. Some of the plays

are comedies and some are tragedies, though all consist of a plot wrapped up in the chaotic

movement of the characters interacting with each other. Some of the characters, are fools and

some are heroic. Three of them are heroic fools that allow themselves to be streamed along by

trusted friends and family members. When they try to correct the mistakes they made, they

always find, that going back to the way life was before is impossible. Mistakes cannot be

undone, but lessons can be taken from the mistakes made.

The men in the plays who are tricked are usually led on by main characters. Shakespeare

did not concentrate too much on the interactions between minor characters. He instead, used the

treatment major characters gave to minor ones, to describe the major character‟s personalities.

Were the dynamic characters respectful towards the lesser crowd? If yes, then the audience could

assume that particular character had a good natured spirit; and would attempt to positively

contribute to the outcome of the play. If the character was cruel and demeaning towards those

below him, then the audience could assume that the character was going to cause problems, or be

forced to learn a great lesson. There are many reasons for the three men being tricked.

As stated before Malvolio is not very popular amongst his peers, he is a boring,

depressing, bossy, know-it-all. Sir Toby especially dislikes him, because Malvolio thinks himself

better than sir Toby. “Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou are virtuous,

there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (Sir Toby act: 2 scene: 3) Sir Toby Belch loves to party,
Malvolio is stiff and negative, so of course Sir Toby and he will not get along. Sir Toby is on

shaky ground with his niece, who provides the alcohol, and Malvolio is her current favorite

companion. It is jealously on Sir Toby‟s part and arrogant pride on Malvolio‟s. “To challenge

him the field and then to break promise with him and make a fool of him” (Sir Andrew act: 2

scene: 3). It is Sir Andrew‟s subtle comment about tricking Malvolio to teach him a lesson that

starts the entire thing. Though this does get things started, Sir Andrew‟s plan to challenge

Malvolio to a duel then not to show up is faulty. Rather than make Malvolio look like a fool, Sir

Andrew would instead look like a coward. Shakespeare perhaps, makes both parties equally

foolish to keep a light hearted tone throughout the play, or too lessen the impact an upper class

man has on the lower class men.

Edgar as stated before is a virtuous son, very beloved of his father. He will inherit the

majority of his father‟s fortunes, including his title as Sir Gloucester, upon his father‟s death. The

audience does not get any sense of a contemptuous spirit with the character Edgar. When he is

tricked he mourns for his father‟s belief in his son‟s treachery. “Who is„t can say „I am at the

worst‟? I am worse than e‟er I was” (Edmund act: 4 scene: 1). Edgar allows Edmund to lead him

on, as a result he must go into hiding.

Edmund shows his true colors early on, he resents being a bastard and harbors no love

for his father. “Edmund the base shall top th‟ legitimate” (Edmund act 1 scene 2). He simply

wants to inherit all of his father‟s wealth himself. “Well then legitimate Edgar, I must have your

land” (Edmund act 1 scene: 2). He loves his father in public, but plots against him in private.

“That which my father loses, no less then all…the younger rises when the old doth fall”

(Edmund act: 3 scene: 3). Shakespeare often has Edmund in particular, continuously talk things

out to himself. This method is used by many play writes to move the plot along, by means of
their characters thoughts. Characters will tell the audience what has just taken place, or will plot

out loud to themselves. This method of self discussion works well with this particular character.

The audience sees Edmund lovingly warn his brother of danger, and treat his father kindly and

with respect, and then sees him lie about Edgar‟s actions and turn his father in for treachery. We

can see the conflict in Edmund by his talking to himself. Rather than having Edmund be just

another criminal in a play, he is a complex character who chooses to betray his family.

“Your children will be kings” (Macbeth act: 1 scene: 3). This simple statement by

Macbeth to Banquo is repeating the 3 witches prophecy, that Banquo‟s descendants will inherit

the kingdom of Scotland. Macbeth had just received news that he would become Thane of

Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. Both men were in slight shock, but it must have been

difficult for Macbeth, who had just learned that he would be king, to hear that his descendants

would not inherit the throne, but it would instead be given to another.

Macbeth, initially, chooses not to dwell on this; instead he and Banquo are questioning

the legitimacy of the prophecy. “He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor” (Ross act: 1

scene 3). Ross has just given Macbeth and Banquo a foundation to grip onto, concerning the

previous statement‟s from the witches. They begin to question the possibilities of their futures.

“What, can the devil speak true?” (Banquo act: 1 scene: 3) Banquo acknowledges that the

witches speak truth, but he still sees them as witches. “The greatest is behind” (Macbeth act: 1

scene: 3) Rather than contemplate his knew title, Macbeth instantly looks towards his other

possible future; his chance to be all powerful over Scotland. These two men‟s thought processes

create a huge a dividing line between the two of them. In the very first act the audience can get

an understanding of what is to come concerning the relationship between Macbeth and Banquo.
Macbeth attempts to rein Banquo in by reminding him of his half of the prophecy. “Do

you not hope your children shall be kings?” (Macbeth act: 1 scene: 3) “And oftentimes to win us

to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths.” (Banquo act: 1 scene: 3) Banquo

continues to express his doubt, and attempts to warn Macbeth about losing himself in dreams of

power. When Macbeth kills King Duncan he begins to worry about Banquo, he knows that

Banquo knows what he has done. Banquo goes along with Macbeth becoming the new king, but

he disagrees with Macbeth‟s methods. Macbeth begins to grow paranoid of Banquo‟s influence

in the circle of nobles. He plans to eliminate Banquo from the picture, an attempt to stop the true

murderer of King Duncan from being discovered.

“Alas poor fool, how they have baffled thee!” (Lady Olivia act: 5 scene: 1). So many

people choose to be unobservant and allow themselves to be tricked into a false sense of reality.

Shakespeare understood the workings of mankind, he showed cruel jokes and harmless jokes, he

wrote in deceitful plot lines and vengeful characters. Various methods are taken to trick

Malvolio, Edgar and Banquo.

Malvolio gets what he deserves, that is all there is to say. Lady Olivia is rather upset

when she learns what happened. “He hath been notoriously abused” (Lady Olivia act: 5 scene:

1). She believes Malvolio is foolish for ever thinking she could love him. Maria came up with a

brilliant plan to trick Malvolio. “I‟ll drop in his way some obscure epistles of love.” (Maria act: 2

scene: 3). Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria come up with a plan to trick Malvolio into thinking that

Lady Olivia is desperately in love with him. In the letters they encourage him to act in a

ridiculous manner and to behave condescendingly towards those above his station. This of course

ends terribly for Malvolio; he is put in a crazy house and mentally tortured. The others take

delight in his sufferings.

Edgar is led on by his brother Edmund. Edmund approaches Edgar under the pretenses of

questions, concerning Edgar offending their father. “Forbear his presence till some little time

hath qualified the heat of his displeasure” (Edmund act: 1 scene: 2) Edgar believes him and even

participates in running away. Edmund for a while believes that he has succeeded in his plans, he

watches his brother run away, and he watches his father‟s eyes get ripped out. In the end Edgar

repents for his hasty faith in Edmund, he holds his father as he dies, and he receives the news of

Edmund‟s death; Edgar is left alone in the world.

Banquo does not take a huge part in the play. His role is to be the character that is a

constant threat to Macbeth. Macbeth becomes more and more paranoid of Banquo‟s influence

that he eventually has him killed. The result for Macbeth is mental torture and later physical


All three men in these plays were important to their society. They had influence and for

the most part their opinions were highly valued. The foolish actions that led to them being

beguiled are continuous mistakes that mankind today make. Shakespeare‟s purpose in writing

these faults was to highlight the foolish wit of Mankind.