All’s Well That Ends Well
By Dennis Abrams
Countess of Roussillon, a widow
Bertram, Count of Roussillon, the Countess’s son
Helena, a doctor’s daughter and the Countess’s servant
Lavatch, a clown in the Countess’s service
Reynaldo, the Countess’s steward
Parolles, a companion of Bertram
King of France
Lafeu, an old lord and friend of the Countess
First and Second Lords Dumaine, brothers
Duke of Florence
Widow Capilet and Diana, her daughter
Mariana, a friend of the widow.
Though considered by some (although not by me) to be the lost Love’s Labour’s Won, most scholars believe that All’s Well dates from 1604-05 – that is, after Othello – making it the last of the “problem plays.”
How is that date arrived at? There are a number of test of internal echoes, language, and metre – in the summary of Gary Taylor,
“In rare vocabulary, All’s Well is linked most closely (in descending order) to Measure, Troilus, Othello, and Coriolanus. The colloquialism-in-verse test puts it after Measure and Othello, and Oras’s pause tests locate it between Macbeth and Antony. Its metrical figure places it after Othello and before Lear; a more detailed analysis of the metrical characteristics of the text by Lowes puts the play in the period 1606-8. Brainerd’s statistical test (1980) would also place the play in that period. Fitch’s more reliable redaction of the ‘sense-pause- test puts All’s Well somewhere between Measure for Measure and Lear.”
(For those of you interested in reading more on the subject, click here.)
Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), a collection of tales told by a group of Florentines, passes on the basic story, though Shakespeare would have taken it from William Painter’s translation Palace of Pleasure (1566). He adds several characters.
Though only the Folio text (1623) survives, it is unusually messy and filled with errors, meaning it was possibly set from the dramatist’s foul papers (working drafts).
Act One: The King of France is dangerously ill and has summoned his ward Bertram (the son and heir of the late Count of Roussillon) to be with him during his last hours. As Bertram leaves his home in Roussillon, the Countess his mother notices that her gentlewoman Helena is upset, and realizes why – Helena is secretly in love with him. Giving Helena her blessing, the Countess encourages her to follow Bertram on the pretext of offering the medical skills that she has inherited from her father to the King.
Like Twelfth Night, All’s Well – though ostensibly a comedy – begins in mourning. The stage is filled with characters clad in black; bereavement hangs in the air. The King of France is near death and has command his young ward Bertram to attend him, while in the very first lines of the play Bertram’s own departure is likened by his widowed mother, the Countess of Roussillon, to ‘burying a second husband.’ Helena, too, is adjusting to the recent loss of her father – a man, moreover, whose medical expertise is now sorely missed at court. The Countess reflects that if only he were here, the King’s prognosis would be vastly improved. Noting that Helena’s father’s “skill…would have made nature immortal,” she plays wistfully with the reality of his loss:
Would for the King’s sake he were living. I think it would be the death of the King’s disease.
But once Bertram is gone, the subject of Helena’s own “sorrows” proves more complicated than her companions think. “I think not on my father,” she weeps. “My imagination/Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s.” Her description of him sounds strikingly (and oddly) like a remembrance:
‘Twas pretty, though 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.
Sounding somewhere between Hamlet and the anonymous maid in A Lover’s Complaint, Helena sighs that her heart is only too “capable of” (able to suck in) Bertram’s beauty. His departure for the social whirl of the French court might as well be from life itself; Helena is left behind, an “idolatrous” disciple, to “sanctify his relics.”
But as rich with religiosity as Helena’s words are, what happens next sounds as if it comes straight from a fairy tale. Under pressure, she “confesses” her love to Bertram’s mother, but instead of being appalled that her “gentlewoman” wants to marry her son, the Countess gives Helena her blessing and advises her to make haste for Paris.
A couple of things to keep in mind as we read the play:
1. During the nineteenth century, the play was only performed seventeen times in the UK, in large part because of Victorian attitudes towards Helena’s sexual and aggressiveness.
2. Critic Karl Elze wrote that we should see All’s Well as a kind of companion piece to The Taming of the Shrew: Bertram, like Kate is a wayward young animal being “tamed” to fit into his social role. As she is likened to a falcon in training, he is compared to a colt being broken.
3. No other heroine in Shakespearean comedy goes after the man she wants without some sort of attachment being first initiated by the man. Even Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose pursuit of the ever-so-unwilling Demetrius as well as her name links her with the Helena of All’s Well, is trying to win back the man who initially courted her. It’s Helena alone who makes her beloved a sexual object.
From Marjorie Garber:
“All’s Well is generally regarded as an early Jacobean play, probably written in the period between Hamlet and Measure for Measure [MY NOTE: Or not], with both of which it has obvious thematic and tonal affinities: the deaths of fathers and the circumstances of a court in mourning; meditations on virginity; clowns, fools, and knaves with downright views about human life, venality, and sex. As G.K. Hunter points out in the 1959 Arden edition of All’s Well, both Hamlet and All’s Well begin with plans for the education of a brash young courtier in Paris (Laertes, Bertram), and address the question of stepparents. All’s Well and Measure for Measure are even more closely bound, by their use of the bed trick, their climatic scenes of ‘rebirth’ and restoration, and their inclusion of extensive discussions of virginity (Helena, Isabella) and a pregnant woman (Helena, Juliet) in the plot. The element of female disguise in these two plays is managed through the bed-trick substitution, rather than, as in the earlier ‘festive’ comedies of the Elizabethan period, through the cross-dressing of the heroine. Both Measure for Measure and All’s Well include as plot devices of Catholic religious practice (Isabella as a novice in the Order of Saint Clare; Helena as a pilgrim bound for the shrine of ‘Saint Jaques le Grand’).
Some dilemmas that face the heroines of the ‘festive’ comedies also confront Helena: her mourning for her dead father and her resourceful decision to act on her own by going to the King’s court to cure him may remind audiences of three other orphaned daughters: the mourning Olivia and the resourceful Viola of Twelfth Night, or the empowered Portia of The Merchant of Venice (In Merchant Portia and Nerissa play a ring trick that allows them to pretend to have played a bed trick.) The apparent death of Helena and her ‘miraculous’ appearance is a device used both in Measure for Measure (where it is a young man, Claudio, who is supposed dead and then reborn) and in Much Ado About Nothing (in which the slandered Hero is said to have died, and her repentant lover, another Claudio, agrees, as will Bertram in All’s Well, to marry a ‘new’ wife who will turn out to be the former one). But the denouements of these two mature and complicated ‘comedies’ also involve some elements that would become more familiar in the later romances, especially the question of the reunion of husband and wife, the wonder-working doctor, and again, the key themes of ‘rebirth’ and succession.
In All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena, the daughter of a celebrated physician, Gerard de Narbonne, has been living under the protection of the Countess of Roussillon since her father’s death. Helena is secretly in love with the Countess’s son, Bertram, who has just succeeded to the title at the death of his father. Bertram is about to take leave o f his mother and join the court of the King of France, accompanied by Lafew, an old and loyal lord and counselor. The King, who is by law Bertram’s ‘father’ (Bertram, still a minor, is his ward), is suffering from a life-threatening ailment, and has ‘abandoned his physicians.’ The play thus begins with many mentions of death and dying, and also with some hope for the future.
The Countess’s first words, the play’s opening line, set the tone: ‘In delivering my son from me I bury a second husband.’ From the first, childbirth and death are intermingled, as they will be at the denouement, when Bertram discovers that the wife he has rejected, and whose death has been announced, is not only alive but pregnant with his child: ‘Dead thou she be she feels her young one kick./So there’s my riddle; one that’s dead is quick.’ (5.3.299-300)
It is characteristic of other Shakespearean genres like history and tragedy to emphasize a discrepancy between the generations, whether by underscoring the impotence of the aging elders (Richard II, King Lear) or by stressing the natural rebelliousness of the young (Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV Part 1). But one of the things that makes All’s Well a curious kind of comedy is its insistence on this age gap. The play begins with a king whose infirmities are not only acknowledged but clinically described, and his female counterpart, the Countess, wields sway over her son, Bertram, in a way that deprives him of much agency. If he were more likeable, and she less elegant and majestic, it would be easy not only to see his side but also to take it.
Helena’s profound sadness, upon hearing of Bertram’s departure for the King’s court, motivates her to follow him. She determines to go to the court, cure the King with the help of the medical knowledge she has inherited from her father, and ask as her reward that she be married to Bertram. All unfolds as she intends, but the proud and callow Bertram spurns her as too lowborn for him, and even when motivated to go through with the marriage (since to reject it would lose him the care and regard of the King), he swears that he ‘will not bed her.’ (2.3.254)
Bertram’s concern with social status and his disdain for the idea of marriage with a doctor’s daughter seem more culpable in our time than it would have been in his. We are told that Helena’s father was a famous doctor, but doctors in general in early modern England were ‘middling,’ competing for social and professional status and for the patronage of the elite. And marriage, as we have seen in virtually every play by Shakespeare, was a social and cultural institution, biding family to family, house to house, country to country. Shakespeare’s lovers appeal to us as much as they do in part because they seem to have the energy of their own passions; they choose partners with eager single-mindedness, and pursue their loves until, with good fortune (and a smiling playwright), they end in the promise of marriage. From Romeo and Juliet to Rosalind and Orlando, these lovers commit themselves to the fulfillment of individual choice, often against the strong resistance of their families Although we should note that, without exception, these marriages, however emotionally transgressive in the short run (a Montague loves a Capulet; Portia seeks to outwit her father’s test of the caskets), wind up pairing social equals. [MY NOTE: Although, as Bloom argues, despite being social equals, the women nearly always end up marrying beneath themselves, marrying men not quite worthy.] Even – or especially – in the late romances, when a prince falls in love with a shepherdess or with a young woman shipwrecked on an island, by the play’s end we are assured that the shepherdess is a princess in her own right, and that the shipwreck victim is a duke’s daughter, and that both are heirs of wealth as well as power. Poor Bertram, then, that we should judge him so harshly for not wanting to marry the clever girl from the ‘middling’ classes whom his mother has chosen for him. Yet the play does not go out of its way to make him a charmer.
In one of several letters that help to mobilize the plot, Bertram writes to Helena listing the impossible conditions upon which he would regard himself as really married to her:
‘When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father too, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never.’”
(3.2.55-58 emphasis added)
He then flees to Florence to fight in the wars. Helena leaves the French court and becomes a pilgrim, heading for the shrine of Saint Jaques (presumably in Santiago de Compostela, Spain), but passing through Florence on her way (somewhat in defiance of ordinary geography)…
Shakespeare’s main source here was a story told in Boccaccio’s Decameron (the ninth novel of the third day), probably as mediated through the English translation by William Painter in his Palace of Pleasure (1566, 1567, and 1575). Some details are altered, some added, as was the playwright’s usual practice with sources. The Helena-Bertram plot is augmented by the addition of the strong figure of the Countess, Bertram’s mother, who adores Helena and already treats her as a daughter; by the good old counselor Lafew, again a figure of virtue and steadfastness; and on the other side, by Paroles, described forthrightly by Helena before his first appearance as ‘a notorious liar,’ ‘a great way fool,’ and ‘solely a coward,’ and by Lafew as an idle dandy, a man whose ‘soul…is in his clothes.’ (2.5.40). In contrast to his ‘follower’ Paroles, even Bertram might be thought to have a few good points, although few critics have admired him unreservedly, despite his ‘arched brows, his hawking eye, [and] his curls’; the description is the love-struck Helena’s. William Hazlitt, who found the play as a whole ‘one of the most pleasing of our author’s comedies,’ offered a balance assessment of Bertram’s ‘willful stubbornness and youthful petulance,’ in his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays.”
And for your weekend bonus…Hazlitt on All’s Well That Ends Well:
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL is one of the most pleasing of our author’s comedies. The interest is however more of a serious than of a comic nature. The character of Helen is one of great sweetness and delicacy. She is placed in circumstances of the most critical kind, and has to court her husband both as a virgin and a wife: yet the most scrupulous nicety of female modesty is not once violated. There is not one thought or action that ought to bring a blush into her cheeks, or that for a moment lessens her in our esteem. Perhaps the romantic attachment of a beautiful and virtuous girl to one placed above her hopes by the circumstances of birth and fortune, was never so exquisitely expressed as in the reflections which she utters when young Roussillon leaves his mother’s house, under whose protection she has been brought up with him, to repair to the French king’s court.
“Helena. Oh, were that all–I think not on my father,
The interest excited by this beautiful picture of a fond and innocent heart is kept up afterwards by her resolution to follow him to France, the success of her experiment in restoring the king’s health, her demanding Bertram in marriage as a recompense, his leaving her in disdain, her interview with him afterwards disguised as Diana, a young lady whom he importunes with his secret addresses, and their final reconciliation when the consequences of her stratagem and the proofs of her love are fully made known. The persevering gratitude of the French king to his benefactress, who cures him of a languishing distemper by a prescription hereditary in her family, the indulgent kindness of the Countess, whose pride of birth yields, almost without a struggle, to her affection for Helen, the honesty and uprightness of the good old lord Lafeu, make very interesting parts of the picture. The wilful stubbornness and youthful petulance of Bertram are also very admirably described. The comic part of the play turns on the folly, boasting, and cowardice of Parolles, a parasite and hanger-on of Bertram’s, the detection of whose false pretensions to bravery and honour forms a very amusing episode. He is first found out by the old lord Lafeu, who says, “The soul of this man is in his clothes,” and it is proved afterwards that his heart is in his tongue, and that both are false and hollow. The adventure of “the bringing off of his drum” has become proverbial as a satire on all ridiculous and blustering undertakings which the person never means to perform: nor can any thing be more severe than what one of the bye-standers remarks upon what Parolles says of himself, “Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?” Yet Parolles himself gives the best solution of the difficulty afterwards when he is thankful to escape with his life and the loss of character; for, so that he can live on, he is by no means squeamish about the loss of pretensions, to which he had sense enough to know he had no real claim, and which he had assumed only as a means to live.
“Parolles. Yet I am thankful: if my heart were great,
The story of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, and of several others of Shakespear’s plays, is taken from Boccacio. The poet has dramatised the original novel with great skill and comic spirit, and has preserved all the beauty of character and sentiment without improving upon it, which was impossible. There is indeed in Boccacio’s serious pieces a truth, a pathos, and an exquisite refinement of sentiment, which is hardly to be met with in any other prose writer whatever. Justice has not been done him by the world. He has in general passed for a mere narrator of lascivious tales or idle jests. This character probably originated in his obnoxious attacks on he monks, and has been kept up by the grossness of mankind, who revenged their own want of refinement on Boccacio, and only saw in his writings what suited the coarseness of their own tastes. But the truth is, that he has carried sentiment of every kind to its very highest purity and perfection. By sentiment we would here understand the habitual workings of some one powerful feeling, where the heart reposes almost entirely upon itself, without the violent excitement of opposing duties or untoward circumstances. In this way, nothing ever came up to the story of Frederigo Alberigi and his Falcon. The perseverance in attachment, the spirit of gallantry and generosity displayed in it, has no parallel in the history of heroical sacrifices. The feeling is so unconscious too, and involuntary, is brought out in such small, unlooked-for, and unostentatious circumstances, as to show it to have been woven into the very nature and soul of the author. The story of Isabella is scarcely less fine, and is more affecting in the circumstances and in the catastrophe. Dryden has done justice to the impassioned eloquence of the Tancred and Sigismunda; but has not given an adequate idea of the wild preternatural interest of the story of Honoria. Cimon and Iphigene is by no means one of the best, notwithstanding the popularity of the subject. The proof of unalterable affection given in the story of Jeronymo, and the simple touches of nature and picturesque beauty in the story of the two holiday lovers, who were poisoned by tasting of a leaf in the garden at Florence, are perfect master-pieces. The epithet of Divine was well bestowed on this great painter of the human heart. The invention implied in his different tales is immense: but we are not to infer that it is all his own. He probably availed himself of all the common traditions which were floating in his time, and which he was the first to appropriate. Homer appears the most original of all authors–probably for no other reason than that we can trace the plagiarism no farther. Boccacio has furnished subjects to numberless writers since his time, both dramatic and narrative. The story of Griselda is borrowed from his Decameron by Chaucer; as is the Knight’s Tale (Palamon and Arcite) from his poem of the Theseid.
Our next reading: All’s Well That Ends Well, Act Two
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.