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all's well that ends well

10 october 2015

All's Well That Ends Well is not a well-known play, and I must say that's because it's not a very good play. I've read it several times – I vaguely remember writing a paper about it in a graduate course – but I can't say I have much affection for it. It has a good line or two: "That I should love a bright particular star," "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie." And it's got two energetic flareups of comic business involving a character named Parolles, usually considered the best part for an actor.

The main problem with All's Well That Ends Well (and it is of course a "problem play") is that we can't sympathize with its heroine's strongest desire. Helena wants to marry Bertram, her sort-of-foster-brother. Now, when a heroine in a Shakespeare comedy sets her cap for a young man, he usually has something going for him. Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing is high-verbal. So is Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost. Orlando, in As You Like It, may be moonstruck and dense, but he is loyal to old shepherds, and a good wrestler.

Bertram is a complete shitheel. He won't initially marry Helena because she's not good enough for him. To be somewhat fair, she never even tells him she likes him; the King of France owes her a favor, so she gets the King to order Bertram to marry her. (This may be another reason why we can't sympathize with Helena.) When he has to marry her anyway, he leaves her immediately, saying "I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her." (He's not even high-verbal.) No sooner is he at the Tuscan wars than he starts hitting on a local virgin named Diana.

Helena, who's been stalking Bertram across Europe, explains to Diana that Bertram will jump anything that moves (again we ask, why is she interested in this guy?) It's a piece of cake for Diana to get Bertram's treasured family ring and give it to Helena. It's even easier to get Bertram into bed with Helena under the impression that she's Diana. I mean, I know it was dark in early-modern Europe, but that's positively indiscriminate.

In one of the more labored sort-it-all-out final acts in the Shakespeare canon, Diana shows up at the French court to complain about what a player Bertram is. He immediately explains that Diana is a hooker who'd been chasing him around the camps. Helena shows up – she was supposedly dead or something – and explains what went on in Tuscany. On the basis of very little evidence, Bertram gives up and agrees to live with Helena. They're reconciled for about one iambic pentameter line before she's threatening to divorce him if he messes up. The play is over shortly thereafter.

Problem play, in other words. But where Isabella in another problem play, Measure for Measure, has integrity and admirable goals throughout, Helena just seems bent on ending up in a destructive relationship. Now, that does happen. Otherwise intelligent, resourceful, creative people – of either sex – can direct all their energies toward pursuit of exactly the wrong partner. The problem is really that All's Well is structured "like an old play." The "well" that concludes the action is the boy and girl taking hands. But that joining together does not bode well at all.

The play is interesting enough, at any rate. Its language is thick and at times obscure. You get the feeling that Shakespeare might have been writing a lot of sonnets at the time that he was working on All's Well. The dialogue between the "gentles" proceeds by sonnet-like contrarieties, Helena and the King being the most adept at these ornate exchanges. When Helena sets off after Bertram, she even explains her departure by sending a letter written in the form of a sonnet (Act 3, Scene 4).

As I said above, the best scenes in the play involve the cowardly braggart Parolles. In one, a French courtier named Lafeu. Act 2, Scene 3 has an interesting construction. As it begins, Lafeu and Parolles are bantering easily enough. In the middle, Bertram first refuses Helena, then agrees very grudgingly to marry her. After Bertram and Helena clear off, Lafeu suddenly lays into Parolles with amazing verbal abuse, and keeps up the attack for the rest of the play. In Tuscany, a group of other French nobles conceive an equal dislike to Parolles, and have him ambushed and terrorized by a bunch of disguised pranksters speaking gibberish. Parolles is somewhere between Armado (from Love's Labour's Lost) and Falstaff. He's an idiot, one of those pretentious fools Shakespeare's characters love to tease, but he also sort of knows his idiocy and protests that he doesn't quite deserve the teasing, being not that much more of an idiot than everybody else in his play.

Shakespeare, William. All's Well That Ends Well. 1623. Edited by Arthur E. Case. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926.