Introduction to All’s Well That Ends Well
By Dennis Abrams
On the surface, it’s a simple tale of a poor physician’s daughter who finds her prince and succeeds in marrying him, but exposed along the way is the realization that fairy tale endings rarely mesh with human needs. Helen, the play’s questing daughter, needs only to convince the man of her dreams that she is, in fact worth marrying, but she ends up blackmailing him into it: a finale that the play’s deeply sardonic title renders profoundly disquieting and even upsetting.
Some have wondered whether All’s Well is an alternative title for the mysterious Love’s Labour’s Won, but although Helen does indeed “labour” to win her love, the play’s own deeply ambiguous “end” is worlds away from those of Shakespeare’s earlier, brighter, comedies. (Bringing to mind Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” and the fans who preferred his “earlier, funnier” films.) In fact, George Bernard Shaw compared the play to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for the way that the “sovereign charm” of Helen is set against “a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very mean figure.” Despite its more than considerable dramatic strength, All’s Well and its small cast are not often given the opportunity to win over audiences; nonetheless, a handful of productions from the mid-twentieth century on have demonstrated that this much neglected play has its own special intensity and charm.
From Marjorie Garber:
“’Who cannot be crushed with a plot?’ laments the braggart soldier Paroles in All’s Well That Ends Well, after a staged capture by his comrades results in his cowardly (and comical willingness to betray them, and then in his exposure and discomfiture. The scenario is reminiscent of Falstaff’s similar fiction-making in the tavern in Eastcheap in 1 Henry IV, although the wordy and well-named Paroles is a lesser figure (in all senses: less corpulent and less original and memorable). His combination of dismay and pique also closely resembles that of Malvolio, similarly gulled by unsympathetic peers and a clever plot (‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.’) But we might take Paroles’ complaint about being crushed with a plot as a key phrase for the whole of All’s Well, a play that is constructed like an elaborate mechanism and goes off with a bang in the powerful final scene. For the alternative to being ‘crushed’ is to have the plot work out to your advantage, despite all indications to the contrary – in effect, to have all end well. This is what happens to, and for, the play’s heroine, a young woman equipped with patience, ingenuity, and good sense, as well as a strong passion for an especially unlikable hero.
Classed for much of the twentieth century with the so-called problem plays or ‘dark comedies,’ All’s Wellhas not enjoyed, recently, the easy popularity with audiences of livelier and more romantic comedies, such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Yet it contains not one but two roles that would make an actress’s career (and have). Both Helena and the Countess are brilliant, complicated, strong women who, finding themselves in possible situations, emerge not only whole but triumphant. Helena is at least as ingenious as Rosalind, a much more crowd-pleasing heroine. And if Bertram seems like a cad compared to the smitten Orlando, he is not more so than Much Ado About Nothing’s Claudio. The real ‘problem’ here may be the other. Although other comedies present single fathers with power over their children (Leonato in Much Ado, Duke Senior in As You Like It), All’s Well is, in a way, the comic counterpart of Coriolanus, a tragedy that has encountered a wide range of responses because of its powerful mother, Volumnia, and its curiously immature war-hero son, Coriolanus.
All’s Well That Ends Well has both an authoritative mother and a clever, strong-willed heroine. If it ‘ends well’ for them and less well for Bertram, perhaps it is simply because the play validates their wishes, not his.
It is striking how often the phrase ‘all’s well that ends well,’ or some variant of it, actually appears in the text. Many of Shakespeare’s plays have similar bromides for their titles, such as As You Like It, or Twelfth Night or What You Will, or the original title of the play – All is True – listed in the Folio as The Life of Henry the Eight. This was a commonplace practice for plays in the period: Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody is one example. But despite one great scene in As You Like It that turns on the multiple use of the words ‘as’ and ‘if,’ no other Shakespeare play dallies with its name in the insistent way that All’s Well does. In the fourth act Helena, the plucky heroine, cautions another young woman that she may ‘suffer’ briefly in order to assist her friend that but that things will improve:
All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown.
What’er the course, the end is the renown.
Shortly thereafter, encountering a setback, Helena reiterates the point: ‘All’s well that ends well yet.’ After the many reversals and revelations in the play’s last scene, the King of France, inviting the usual offstage explanations of plot details (‘Of that…more leisure shall express’), uses the same phrase in his closing couplet,
All yet seems well; and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.
Then, for good measure, he repeats the phrase one more time in the Epilogue that immediately follows, turning the notion of ‘ending well’ from the denouement of the plot to the audience’s applause for the play:
The King’s beggar now the play is done.
All is well ended if this suit be won;
That you express content…
Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts:
Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.
It is unusual for a play by Shakespeare to contain so many internal references to its own title, suggesting a certain self-consciousness about its identity as a fiction, and focusing attention upon the expectation both of interim suffering and of a happy outcome. Almost like Troilus and Cressida reciting their own future myths (‘[a]s true as Troilus,’ ‘[a]s false as Cressid,’) the repeated internal assurance that all’s well that ends well condition the audience to expect a satisfactory romance resolution, and permit the playwright to describe fairy-tale events, corrupt and even detestable characters, figures (like the Widow) who seem to emerge from the quite different genre of city comedy, and frank scenarios of sexual seduction, and to keep all of these comfortably under control until the disclosures of the last scene. They lighten the ‘problems’ of this ‘problem play.’”
“In proportion to its actual dramatic and literary merits, All’s Well That Ends Well remains Shakespeare’s most undervalued comedy, particularly when compared with such early works as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew. I have seen only one production of All’s Well That Ends Well, and the play, alas, continues its long history of unpopularity, so I am unlikely to see many more. Fundamentally, we seem to misunderstand All’s Well That Ends Well, from Samuel Johnson, master of all Shakespeare critics, down to the present. Like Dr. Johnson, we cannot abide Bertram, the caddish young nobleman whom the evidently admirable Helena loves. This is hardly the only unequal relationship in Shakespeare; generally his women choose inadequate men. But this does seem the most aggravating object choice in the plays. Bertram has no saving qualities, to call him a spoiled brat is not anachronistic. Dr. Johnson particularly resented the happy ending, with Bertram settling into supposed domestic bliss:
I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth, who married Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.
Shakespeare might have admired Johnson’s bitter irony of ‘dismissed to happiness.’ All’s Well That Ends Well is quite as rancid, in its courtly way, as Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure; even as the play’s title carries a sophisticated bitterness. Since Bertram is an empty-headed snob and nothing more, the drama’s interest centers on Helena, and on Parolles, the fake soldier whose name aptly means ‘words,’ and who receives a demolition more in Ben Jonson’s moral code than in Shakespeare’s. Many critics have disliked Parolles, but I cannot imagine why; he is a splendid scoundrel, perfectly transparent to anyone of good sense, which of course does not include Bertram. Parolles’s and Helena’s are the roles that matter most in this play. About all that a director can do with Bertram is to make him look like a juvenile Clark Gable, Trevor Nunn’s solution in the production I recall seeing. Shakespeare’s unpleasant young men are numerous, Bertram, as a vacuity, is authentically noxious.
Yeats, lamenting that his beloved Maud Gonne should have chosen to marry the gunman MacBride when she might have had Yeats, set down Shakespeare’s own principle concerning all of his glorious women who select dreadful or empty men.
‘Tis certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the horn of plenty is undone.
[MY NOTE: Nora Ephron had a collection of essays entitled “Crazy Salad”]
Since all of us know veritable instances of such Shakespearean mismatches, we should be delighted to turn to Shakespeare for insights into that ‘crazy salad.’ Portia happily settles for Bassanio, an amiable and perfectly useless fortune hunter, presumably because she thus implicitly gets back at her odd father, who imposed the casket ritual upon her, as she says:
O me the word ‘choose!’ I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father.
(The Merchant of Venice, I, ii, 22-25)
Julia, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is foolishly in love with Proteus, but a Protean lover comes in so many guises that a much wiser woman might make the same blunder. Hero, in Much Ado About Nothing, marries the feckless Claudio, but she is just too young to know that there is nothing to him. By Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has gone beautifully wild: the charming but zany Viola is delighted by the absurd Orsino, while Olivia snaps up Sebastian simply because he is Viola’s twin; as another zany, he is pleased to be so devoured. Helena clearly is quite another matter, and her High Romantic passion for Bertram seems both an ironic culmination of Shakespeare’s comic pairings and something well-nigh Keatsian:
Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s.
I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away; ‘twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself;
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. ‘Twas pretty, though it a plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart’s table – heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour.
But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.
Keats’s great, final sonnet, ‘Bright star, would I were as steadfast as thou art,’ echoes Helena’s devotion to her ‘bright particular star,’ and the pathos of Keats’ poem can be said to catch Shakespeare’s irony. But Helena’s ironies here are directed only against her own ‘idolatrous fancy,’ her Petrarchan worship of the young nobleman with whom she has been raised. By ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’ here both she and Shakespeare mean a negative facility, one that consciously self-deceives.
Shakespeare sees to it that we are moved (as Keats was) by Helena’s capacity for love, while still apprehending that this splendid woman has eaten a crazy salad with her meat. Bertram is ‘above’ her in social rank, and perhaps in good looks; otherwise she in fact is the ‘bright particular star’ and Bertram is only a touch better than Parolles, since Bertram’s only accomplishments are military, while Parolles is a mere braggart soldier, an impostor, a liar, a leech, considerably more interesting than the warring and whoring Bertram. The initial question of All’s Well That Ends Well thus is: How can Helena be so massively wrong? You can salvage her bad judgment only by arguing that Bertram is immature, and will change, but Shakespeare indicates otherwise: this spoiled cad will grow up to be even more of a monster, despite his mother, his wife, and his king; almost, indeed, to spite them. The stubborn Helena triumphs, but only at her own expense, as the audience surely is compelled to conclude. With his uncanny mastery at representing women at least as persuasively as men, Shakespeare transforms the question into the much more interesting: Who is Helena?
We are told a great deal about Helena’s late father, a distinguished physician and friend of the king’s, but nowhere in the play do I recall any reference to Helena’s actual mother. The Countess, Bertram’s mother, ahs raised Helena as her foster child, and the love between the wretch’s mother and Helena is the most admirable sentiment in the play. Shakespeare is very efficient at suppressing parents when they are, for his purposes, irrelevant. Of the mother of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, we are told nothing, almost as though Lear’s queen is as null as, say, Lady Macbeth’s first husband or Iago’s mother (even Iago presumably had one). I am not about to gratify formalists and materialists alike by speculating about Helena’s childhood, let alone Iago’s! But it is important to note Helena’s love for the dowager Countess of Roussillon, protector of the orphaned Helena. Freud, Shakespearean in this also, divided object choices into two types, narcissistic and propped-against, and Helena’s choice of Bertram participates strongly in both modes. Narcissistically Bertram, an earliest playfellow, is what Helena longed to be, the authentic child of her foster mother, while in the leaning-against mode, Bertram would have symbolized both lost fathers, his and hers. Helena’s love therefore is overdetermined to a degree unusual even in Shakespeare, where the contingency of sexual passion is almost always established for us. It does not matter who Bertram inwardly is, or what he does: Helena is locked into loving him.
We therefore should begin apprehending All’s Well That Ends Well by seeing that Helena’s judgment is neither unsound nor sound, it is not a question of judgment at all. Helena, so long as she lives, will be in love with Bertram, because that is her selfsame identity, what she has been always. Shakespeare, who most certainly was unhappily married, shows us that marriage hardly is a matter of choice. I delight always in telling my students that the happiest marriage in all of Shakespeare is that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who suit one another so admirably! Why do Othello and Desdemona marry, in a mismatch that gives Iago his terrible opportunity? We no more can answer that definitely than we can choose among Iago’s many motives for his malignity. Something seems to be missing in both Othello’s and Desdemona’s accounts of their love, but that something is fundamental to the nature of marriage, the most peculiar of human institutions, both in and out of Shakespeare. Marriage, Shakespeare always implies, is where we are written, and not where we write.”
So…excited about this play? I am – it’s not a play I know well, and I’m anxious to see how it reads now that I (and we) have spent more than a year and a half immersed in Shakespeare.
Our next reading: All’s Well That Ends Well, Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning