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
- 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
Problem, schroblem, it’s just a play
Editors, publishers, and name-callers of all sorts often lump together All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida and call this trio: “Shakespeare’s Problem Plays.” What’s odd about this label is that it was invented in the 19th century to describe Ibsen’s plays that contain a central problem, a moral dilemma. Because it became a popular term, it got applied to these Shakespeare plays that present a “problem” for genre labelers. Is All’s Well really a Problem Play?
Shakespeare appears never to have sought publication for any of his plays during his life. Seven years after his death, two of his fellow actors published the First Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays and listed them under three labels in the table of contents: Comedies, Histories, Tragedies. Both All’s Well and Measure appear in the “Comedies” section while Troilus seems to have been a late addition, hastily added to the “Tragedies” section (even though an earlier quarto edition called Troilus a “History”). Many of Shakespeare’s plays are difficult to label accurately because he was a notorious genre buster, putting a lot of humor in this tragedies (see the first half of Romeo and Juliet for one of many example) and much drama in some of his comedies (see Much Ado About Nothing as a great example). Because Shakespeare mixed genre and tone in so many of his plays and most of them don’t neatly fit into these three table of contents categories, can’t most of them be considered “Problem Plays”? From the other angle, are any of them really Problem Plays?
In All’s Well, when Helena cures the King, chooses Berrtram for her husband, and then receives Bertram’s rejection, she has a prickly difficulty, but not really a moral dilemma. Shakespeare spends more time developing Helena (and helping us get inside her head and heart, where we enthusiastically root for her) than he does with Bertram. But one of the staging issues with Betram is that if we go too far in highlighting his faults, we risk crippling how much we care about Helena. If Bertram is despicably unlikeable, how can we root for our heroine when she loves so big of a jerk? Maybe that’s the real problem of All’s Well: not white-washing Bertram’s flaws and simultaneously letting him be (almost) worthy (enough) of Helena’s love.
But these issues are not exclusive to All’s Well. Shakespeare spends a lot more time developing Rosalind than he does Orlando in As You Like It. Do we always want the love-sick and in-love-with-melodrama Orsino to end up with our Viola in Twelfth Night? Demetrius is still under the spell of love juice for the wedding finale of Midsummer. The ladies leave the men in Love’s Labour’s Lost before they reach their happy ending. Because I think Kate learns how to be truly free in words from Petruchio in Shrew, I think they may be the only happily married and well-matched couple at the end of a Shakespeare play. When we dig around these plays and look at them individually, look at them with Shakespeare’s other plays, and look at them with plays by his contemporaries, are any of these comedies “typical”? Once again I ask: are they all Problem Plays or are none of them Problem Plays?
As I prepare to direct All’s Well, I’m fixated on the possible questions Shakespeare might be asking:
what if the road to happily ever after is an uphill climb that never levels off?
what happens when the love of our life rejects us?
how far are we willing to go to get the love we want?
what happens when we’re too stupid to see the love we could have in our own backyard?
how many follies can be exposed and explored under the banner “the pursuit of love”?
I think the only Problems with All’s Well are that (like most of Shakespeare’s plays) the play is complicated, it has complex characters/situations, and it doesn’t wrap up neatly at the end. The situations are messy, the solutions to the conflicts are not easy, and we don’t really know where the story is going if all we know about the play beforehand is its title. It’s complicated, but it’s not hard to follow. It’s messy, but we can see our selves and our friends in it. And it’s really funny.
No easy answers. No stock solutions. Many problems. No Problems.