Sunday, 19 March 2023

Wisdom and Folly in William Shakespeare and the Book of Proverbs (2) CECILY CLARK

A presentation to the Spiritual Reading Group given on the 15th of March on Powerpoint via Zoom by Cecily Clark. 

 Continued from (1)

‘Twelfth Night’ is a romantic comedy. The twins Sebastian and Viola are separated in a shipwreck and find themselves on an island called Illyria. Orsino is in love with Olivia but rejects his advances. He sends Cesario (really Viola) with love letters to woo Olivia on his behalf. Unfortunately for the Duke, Olivia is taken in by Cesario’s disguise and falls in love with him. Sebastian arrives, causing a flood of mistaken identity and marries Olivia. Viola then reveals she is a girl and marries Orsino. 

In Act 1, Scene 5 Antonio is brought to talk with Orsino an upon seeing Cesario, accuses him of betrayal. Sebastian arrives and apologizes for fighting with Sir Toby. The twins discover they are both alive. Orsino’s fool, Feste brings a letter from Malvolio, and on his release, Maria’s letter is revealed as fraudulent. Feste is a character of Wisdom in Shakespeare. 

Feste: 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.’

[Enter Olivia with Malvolio]

God bless thee, lady!

Olivia: Take the fool away!

Feste: Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the lady!

Olivia: Go to, you’re a dry fool; I’ll no more of you:

besides, you grow dishonest.


In summary, Feste is a Wisdom figure in ‘Twelfth Night’ as:

He refers to Olivia, a wealthy, beautiful and noble Illyrian lady, as a fool; in so doing he is sending up the class system.

He challenges what Wisdom and Folly really are; people who consider themselves wise because of their social standing but lack insight or substance are shown to be foolish.

People who may not have social status can have more insight and substance and can be considered to have more wisdom. 

The biblical view of Wisdom in Folly:

“True wisdom comes only from God, and is virtually opposed to the worldly wisdom which man uses to justify his own fallen nature.” (French)

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world, to confound the things which are mighty.” (1 Corinthians 1:20) 

‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written between 1596 and 1598. A merchant in Venice (Antonio) defaults on a large loan provided by a Jewish moneylender (Shylock). Antonio, who is antisemitic, takes a loan from Shylock to help his friend to court Portia. As Antonio is unable to repay the loan, Shylock mercilessly demands a pound of his flesh. The heiress Portia, now the wife of Antonio’s friend, dresses as a lawyer and saves Antonio. 

In Act 4, Scene 1 Antonio and Shylock come face to face in a courtroom in Venice. Antonio has failed to pay back the money on time and according to the terms of their agreement, Shylock is now entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock insists on this pound of flesh and insists that if the Duke refuses him it will make a mockery of Venice and its entire justice system. The Duke insists that the court hear the opinion of a young and learned lawyer named Balthazar. Portia enters disguised as Balthazar and tells Shylock that Venetian law is on his side but begs him to show mercy in her ‘mercy’ speech. Portia’s speech:


Characteristics of Wisdom in the character of Portia:

Delivers the value of Godly Wisdom in the notion of Mercy.

Mercy is not forced.

Mercy is from God.

Explains that earthly power can create fear whereas Mercy is from heaven and is necessary for all people.

Earthly power is temporal whereas power that displays Mercy reveals Godly Wisdom. 

Then there is a character of Folly in Proverbs 9:13-18

Lady Folly:

1.     The woman Folly is loud; she is undisciplined and without knowledge.

2.     She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city,

3.      Calling out to those who pass by, who g straight on their way

4.     “Let all who are simple come in here!” she says to those who lack judgement.

5.     “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!”

6.     But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave. 

There are other personifications of Wisdom and Folly in Proverbs. Wisdom is the wife of noble character (Proverbs 31). She can be both literal and representative of the faithfulness of God’s people to Him. Folly is seen in the adulteress and harlot (Proverbs 7). Biblical harlotry represents people’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh, e.g. Jerusalem as an adulteress wife (Ezekiel 16), Hosea marrying the prostitute Gomer (Hosea), and the harlot of Babylon (Revelation 7). 

Other characters of Folly in Shakespeare include the tragic heroes, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. The word ‘tragic flaw’ is from the Greek idea of hamartia, used by the philosopher Aristotle in the Poetics. A ‘tragic flaw’ in Shakespeare is a character or personality trait of a protagonist that leads to his or her downfall. This ‘folly’ leads to death whereas in Proverbs wisdom leads to life, but folly also leads to death in Proverbs. Villains are characters of Folly, e.g. Iago, Richard III, Claudius, Proteus, Regan, Lady Macbeth, and Angelo. As well as lovesick lovers like Malvolio, whose words and actions are socially inappropriate and socially challenged. 

Tragic heroes display Folly. It is as though the tragic heroes were destined to fail because of their tragic flaws; this displays the notion of Fate. Hamlet’s flaw was procrastination and he was killed by Claudius. Othello’s flaw was that he had internalized the prejudices of those who surrounded him and as a result of his jealousy murders Desdemona then kills himself. Macbeth’s flaw was ambition and he was killed by Macduff. King Lear’s flaw was that that he valued appearances above reality and he died from grief at the loss of his beloved daughter.

 The tragic characters are controlled by Fate. Philosophy on the concepts of destiny and fate has existed since the Hellenistic period with groups such as the Stoics and Epicurians. In Greek mythology, the Fates were divine beings who personified the birth, life, and death of humankind. The Ancient Greeks believed that the actions of humans were predestined. Even though humans had free will, the Fates knew their ultimate choices and actions. Hamlet will say to the ghost of his father: “Haste me to know’t; that I, with wings as swift as meditation or the thought of love, may sweep to my revenge.” (Act 1, Scene 5) 

Conclusions about Wisdom and Folly in Shakespeare and Proverbs:

Central to Wisdom in Proverbs is the fear of the Lord, which leads to life, rather than fearing man.

Folly in Proverbs is when people don’t fear God or his ways.

Shakespeare appears to be a Renaissance Humanist where man takes centre stage rather than God.

While Shakespeare’s works reveal that he has been immersed in the Bible, scholars say his faith is elusive.

I believe he saw himself as having Wisdom in his own insights about human nature, the human condition and in creating plays with spectacular word plays.

He also seems to see paradox and contradictions in many people and situations.

In the Book of Proverbs and the Bible in general, God gives us hope even when we fail, through his grace and through redemption.

Shakespeare reflects something closer to Fate, which leaves one with less hope.


What can we learn from Proverbs and Shakespeare about facing “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”? 

From Shakespeare:

A wealth of wise words.

We can learn about human personalities and behaviour and the consequences of actions and thoughts on people.

The role of the artist creatively communicating Wisdom and Folly through drama.


From Proverbs:

We can learn to honour God and his guidance for our lives; this helps us to reap health, life and His protection.

We can learn to care more about what God thinks about us than people, following Him more than people.

“There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off. (Proverbs 23:18)


© Cecily Clark 2023




Siri M. Brudevold. The wisdom in folly : an examination of Shakespeare’s fools in Twelfth Night and King Lear. Scripps Senior Theses, 2015:   

Carolyn French. Shakespeare's "Folly": King Lear.

 Darryl J. Gless, Shakespeare, biblical interpretation, and the elusiveness of meaning.

 Emily Gray. The Bard and the Word : the influence of the Bible on the writings of William Shakespeare. Thesis at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 2018:

 Martin Lings. Shakespeare's window into the soul: the mystical wisdom in Shakespeare's characters. 

Peter Milward. Shakespeare's religious background. 

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