The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together
All’s well that ends well is another problem play, though it’s more comedic than Measure for Measure or Troilus and Cressida – a traditional comedy in appearances, but with a resolution that will leave something of an aftertaste. Like in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, in this play the women are the dynamos of the story, strong and interesting, while the young men get played by them. The usual comedy elements are here – concealed identities, clowns, gobby servants. Shakespeare recycles the bed trick from Measure for Measure here (what can I say? the audience must have liked it), but turns it around – the sweet virginal Helena swaps places with another girl, not to protect her own virtue, but rather to be rid of it – and also does another version of the cruel prank Malvolio is subjected to earlier.
Although this play has been performed fairly regularly in the recent years (I think the RSC has staged it twice in about ten years), All’s Well has never been hugely popular – while it’s a pretty good play, it’s subject matter has apparently been too coarse, its outlook on love too pragmatical (or cynical), and while the internal logic works, the plot is almost too fantastical for audiences to completely be able to suspend belief. There’s a lot of talk about virginity (a poor girl’s only treasure, to be traded accordingly) and some rather crude innuendo – the more puritanical audiences would not have been pleased.
Helena, whose father was a lowly country doctor, has grown up in the household of the Dowager Countess of Roussillon, and is in love with the Countess’ son, Bertram. Bertram cares for her as a sister, but doesn’t see her as wife-material (did I mention that she’s a daughter of a country doctor?). The Countess however gives Helena her blessing, sending her off to pursue Bertram, who has gone to serve the King of France. The King has been struck down by a mystery illness no one can cure; Helena uses medicines she has inherited from her father to bring the King back to health, and in return, he gives her the reward of her choosing – any man of her own choice as her husband. Helena of course names Bertram, who is all eww about it, but the King’s command is the King’s command, and marry they do. Bertram bolts off, and in a letter he sends to Helena declares that he will not consider her as his wife until she’s pregnant with his child and wearing his ring. Helena decides that her best course of action is to disappear; she disguises herself as a pilgrim and goes to Italy, where Bertram is busy being a good soldier and trying to seduce one Diana. Revealing her identity to Diana’s mother, Helena devices a bed-trick – Diana must give into Bertram’s advances, but in the crucial moment she will take her place, in order to consummate her marriage to Bertram.
This mad scheme, amazingly enough, works out.
Helena has sex with Bertram, while Diana obtains the ring by swapping it to one given to her by Helena. After the deed, Helena (who has by now faked her own death) flees back to France with Diana. Bertram returns to the court too, and is pardoned by the King. The Countess’ friend Lafeu has offered his daughter as Bertram’s new bride, and he offers the ring he got from Diana as an engagement ring to Lafeu’s daughter. What he doesn’t know is that the King himself gave the ring to Helena, and now he is arrested for her murder. A letter arrives from Diana, revealing that Bertram has offered to marry her. He denies any such promise, and calls her a whore. At this dramatic junction of the narrative, Helena reappears, pregnant with Bertram’s son. She has managed to fulfill her end of his “offer”, and no he has no option but to fulfill his, and accept her as his wife.
The side plot concerns the pompous servant Paroles, this storyline bearing distinct echoes of those of both Falstaff and Malvolio.
It’s a mostly comedic plot, but the problematic elements are obvious – Helena essentially forces Bertram into marriage, but he’s hardly a character to sympathise with or pity. He’s willing to seduce Diana, make her all kinds of empty promises and call her whore in front of the King. He agrees to marry Lafeu’s without even meeting her, grasping at her noble birth and fortune. He agrees to the marriage with Helena because she outplays him, leaving him no option. The two big scholarly questions are why someone like Helena would so obsessively love such a wretched man, and why does Bertram profess to love Helena in the end? Especially the first question has often been answered on stage by casting a particularly conventionally attractive man as Bertram – much talk of sex is made in this play, so why not make it obvious? Bertram simply is someone highly shaggable, and Helena is blindly infatuated by his charms. The question is, what kind of marriage will she have with him in the end?
Is it any good?
It’s bonkers, but in a (mostly) good way.
The basic story of a woman, Gillette of Narbonne, who cures the King of France and chooses Bertrand of Roussillon as her husband comes from Boccaccio’s Decamerone (day 3, story 9). An operetta based on the story was composed Edmond Audran in 1957.
What say thou?
Yes, the title of the play is the origin of the phrase and all its derivatives. This is not a hugely quotable play, but has few nice lines to it:
Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
My eyes smell onions.
No legacy is so rich as honesty.
Good without evil is like light without darkness which in turn is like righteousness whith out hope.
My favourite dialogue/speech is however this Act 1 exchange between Helena and Parolles.
Bless our poor virginity from underminers and
blowers up! Is there no military policy, how
virgins might blow up men?
Virginity being blown down, man will quicklier be
blown up: marry, in blowing him down again, with
the breach yourselves made, you lose your city. It
is not politic in the commonwealth of nature to
preserve virginity. Loss of virginity is rational
increase and there was never virgin got till
virginity was first lost. That you were made of is
metal to make virgins. Virginity by being once lost
may be ten times found; by being ever kept, it is
ever lost: ’tis too cold a companion; away with ‘t!
I will stand for ‘t a little, though therefore I die a virgin.
There’s little can be said in ‘t; ’tis against the
rule of nature. To speak on the part of virginity,
is to accuse your mothers; which is most infallible
disobedience. He that hangs himself is a virgin:
virginity murders itself and should be buried in
highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate
offendress against nature. Virginity breeds mites,
much like a cheese; consumes itself to the very
paring, and so dies with feeding his own stomach.
Besides, virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of
self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the
canon. Keep it not; you cannot choose but loose
by’t: out with ‘t! within ten year it will make
itself ten, which is a goodly increase; and the
principal itself not much the worse: away with ‘t!
How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?
Let me see: marry, ill, to like him that ne’er it
likes. ‘Tis a commodity will lose the gloss with
lying; the longer kept, the less worth: off with ‘t
while ’tis vendible; answer the time of request.
Virginity, like an old courtier, wears her cap out
of fashion: richly suited, but unsuitable: just
like the brooch and the tooth-pick, which wear not
now. Your date is better in your pie and your
porridge than in your cheek; and your virginity,
your old virginity, is like one of our French
withered pears, it looks ill, it eats drily; marry,
’tis a withered pear; it was formerly better;
marry, yet ’tis a withered pear: will you anything with it?
Since I’m a sucker for a grande dame, I’ll say the Countess of Roussillon. How can such a woman have such a son though?!?
Globe on Screen production from 2013, with (below) Janie Dee (who is applauded for just walking in) playing the Countess, and Sam Crane and Ellie Pierce respectively Bertram and Helena.
As an aside – this week the Globe made headlines for announcing that the artistic director Emma Rice is to leave in early 2018; she was appointed only in April this year. Controversy saw her in, and is see her out as well – the Globe didn’t make on bones on why they are letting her go. Her vision is too far removed from Globe’s vision – when she arrived, she gave a good impression of not much liking Shakespeare, and to the horror of purists, she installed light and sound systems. Of the two productions directed by her – the hip hop Cymbeline (renamed Imogen by her) and Midsummer Night’s Dream – I only saw the latter. It was riotously entertaining, even if some of her directorial choices worked better than others; my big peeve was the use of microphones on the actors – there was a single speaker, so the voices of the performers lost all sense of depth, dimension and volume. While Globe’s decision to stick to what they know has angered a lot of people, I think there’s an argument for it – what Emma Rice does, she does very well, but it isn’t really unique. Modernised, retold Shakespeare is performed every day all over the world – Rice’s Cymbeline was first staged already ten years ago, for example. Well executed period Shakespeare is something of a rarity in professional theatre, and the quality of Globe’s productions has made it rather special. I also find the idea that Shakespeare somehow is “relevant to the wider audiences” only if it’s reimagined, retold, and repackaged both a bit sad and a bit condescending.