Summer/Fall 2005

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens before the play
  • Helena, the orphaned daughter of a physician, lives as the ward of the Countess of Rossillion.
  • Bertram, the Countess’s son returns home to assume the title Count of Rossillion upon the death of his father.
  • The King of France is ill.
Stuff that happens in the play
  • The Countess and Lord Lafew discuss the King’s
    poor health.
  • Bertram leaves Rossillion for the French court.
  • Helena expresses her secret love for Bertram.
  • Parolles, Bertram’s follower, discusses virginity with Helena.
  • Helena leaves for Paris to cure the King using one of her father’s remedies.
  • The Countess’s Clown jests about life at the King’s court.
  • The King recovers from his illness and grants Helena her choice of a husband from all the Lords at court. She selects Bertram; he refuses at first because “her breeding” is that of “a poor physician’s daughter,” but the King orders him to marry Helena.
  • After the wedding, Bertram declares that he will travel “to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” and leaves for Italy with Parolles. He sends a letter to Helena in which he vows not to accept her as his wife until she wears his ring and has conceived his child, which he declares will never happen. She vows to “steal away” from France.
  • In the Italian wars, the Duke of Florence makes Bertram a general; Bertram meets and plans to seduce a widow’s daughter named Diana.
  • Helena travels to Florence and also meets Diana.
  • Tricks, “deaths,” lies, and revelations ensue.
Notes from the Director
about all’s well that ends well

Shakespeare seems to me to have written only experimental plays – in his case, plays in which he tests audiences to see what he can get them to accept. All’s Well That Ends Well – which fails spectacularly to end well – may be the extreme example. At various times over its course, All’s Well signals us that the story it tells is one of seven standard kinds.

The Seven are these.

  1. Plots of the Griselda kind – secular saints’ lives – in which, like Chaucer’s Griselda, the tested heroine survives trials set by her genre-driven stick figures of opposition and in which the reason for opposition in the heroine’s low birth (“My friends were poor, but honest,” Helena says in 1.3).
  2. “Task” stories – like “Rumpelstiltskin” – in which a hero or heroine does apparently impossible tasks to win his/her love.
  3. Tales of the virtuous child and the stepmother who hates her/him (1.3).
  4. …young man led astry by an evil companion.
  5. …young man married against his will to an undesirable bride.
  6. Stories in which – in the happy ending – a benefactor of a king is given the king’s son or daughter in marriage.
  7. “Senex” plots in which “young folks beguile the old.” (“to beguile the old / folks, how the young folks lay their heads together” – The Taming of the Shrew 1.2.138-29) (here the old would be the King who make Bertram marry and the Countess who plays with her generic obligation to oppose Helen’s love).

The appropriate happy ending in each genre is a happy union of Helen and Bertram. But Shakespeare presses the promissory trappings of all the seven kinds of stories into a single narrative and then – as if he did not see that they are incompatible – marches doggedly to the happy ending appropriate to any one of them, but disconcertingly unsatisfying as a conclusion to the chimera of a play that All’s Well That Ends Well is.

Since Shakespeare seems determined to make audiences to All’s Well That Ends Well uncomfortable, it seems unreasonable to try to thwart him. The key to mounting the play as it asks to be mounted is, I think, to present the events of the play as if they were the simple stuff of a simple love story. And that means making sure that the actors do not let audiences see that, like their audiences, they – the men and women performing the play – see very well that the play does not elicit the morally and intellectually ordinary responses it seems to expect.

All’s Well That Ends Well is a great play and a play that is often hilariously funny, but it would be folly to pretend that the play is loveable or makes for an intellectually restful evening in the theater.

On the other hand, I love the play and would do anything legal to avoid missing a chance to see it performed.

My father had a pig called Sarah Bernhardt. She was the runt of the litter, but he adored her – went down to the pigpen every evening after supper and rubbed her stomach while she leaned against his leg and fell asleep at a forty-five degree angle. Sarah Bernhardt never achieved the particular success normal to pigs, but that didn’t matter. All’s Well That Ends Well is my Sarah Bernhardt.

Stephen Booth