27. All’s Well That Ends Well
As has often been the case during my work through of Shakespeare’s plays, the ones that I’m most looking forward to reading have been a disappointment and those that I’m indifferent towards have actually been the most enjoyable.
I was in a student production of All’s Well That Ends Well, where I played the sickly and then miraculously cured King. I remember enjoying playing the part but (for my sins) not being especially engaged with the rest of the production. (To be fair, it was a very busy year!)
So, coming back to it was an enjoyable surprise. I genuinely really like this play. I think it is funny whilst at the same time being morally complex. It has some brilliantly self-conflicted characters, who we can sympathise with and yet still question the ethics of their behaviour. It is problematic, strange and at times a little clunky, but this is what makes it oddly fascinating.
The play’s quirky charm is epitomised by the character of Helen, the daughter of a well-renowned doctor and ward of a Countess. She is incredibly intelligent, mild-mannered, and attractive. All very good qualities. Yet, she’s almost obsessively in love with Bertram (the Countess’ son). Her desire to marry him, despite the fact that he clearly has no love for her at all, is frankly creepy! She strikes a deal with the King, that if she manages to cure him, she can marry any nobleman. She succeeds and picks Bertram as her husband. He very publicly shows his anger with the situation and vows never to consummate the marriage. Even after this, she still wants to be with him! She works with a widow and her daughter (Diana), to perform a ‘bed-trick’ and gets Bertram to sleep with her (thinking he’s with Diana). In many ways, we should hate her! She’s scheming, obsessive and (essentially) a rapist! Yet, you can’t help feeling sorry for her. An only child, with no parents, desperately in love with a man, who is determined to run away from all responsibility or duty. It’s complex and weird and deeply interesting!
I also find the character of the King incredibly funny. At the start, he is convinced he is at death’s door and seems to revel in his sickliness. Helen manages to cure him – one suspects because there was never really anything much wrong with him in the first place! – and he becomes incredibly active and forthright. He has a comically changing mood. One of my favourite lines in all of Shakespeare is when he suddenly says, ‘Take her away. I do not like her now.’ And, to top it all, at the end of the play, he decides that Diana has carried herself admirable and so offers her a free choice of man to be her husband! So, after all the chaos caused by offering Helen a free choice, the King has learnt nothing and gives another low-born woman the same offer! It’s almost like the play is about to repeat itself.
The King is at the heart of a couple of scenes which I think are brilliantly constructed. Two pivotal scenes, first when Bertram is forced to marry Helen and second when the ‘bed-trick’ is revealed and Bertram is forced to accept Helen as his wife. Both put incredibly private details and intimate feelings in a completely public environment. This tussle between inner emotion and the need to maintain external appearances is a dream to stage. There’s so much internal conflict going on across the stage that the scenes cannot help but be bubbling away with energy and friction.
Added to this, you have a good crop of comic characters in the background. The foppish friend of Bertram, Parolles, is ‘kidnapped’ at one point by his own friends and interrogated to prove to Bertram that he is actually a complete coward with no loyalty or conscience. Lots of questions of honour and fidelity are raised throughout.
All in all, I feel a strange magnetic pull towards this play. It is probably the first one I have read this year where I have felt an urge to work on it that goes way beyond intellectual interest. It feels like I have some deep fascination with the play that needs to be explored. I’m both repelled by the characters and sympathetic towards them. I find the play creepy and weird, yet oddly satisfying. In short, I would really like to direct this play!