|Illustration by Rockwell Kent. (Helena: But, O strange men! That can such sweet use make of what they hate. All's Well That Ends Well, Act 4, Scene 4) |
Introduction, by G.K. Hunter
_____All's Well That Ends Well is one of the plays that we know only because it was among those collected for the First Folio -- no publications of it seem to have appeared during Shakespeare's life. There has been some debate about whether it was set from Shakespeare's original manuscript or from a prompt copy prepared for a performance. There are some inconsistencies in the names of characters and the abbreviations used for them that suggest the source is a manuscript: "It looks as if Shakespeare was finding out, in the course of composition, what to call these characters; if this inference is correct then the MS. behind F [the Folio text] must represent a stage at which the play was still being composed." Some of the abbreviations of character names also suggest that either Shakespeare or the compiler of the prompt copy used the names of the actors rather than those of the characters in the source manuscript.
There is no record of the play's existence before the publication of the Folio, so the date of the play remains unfixed. In 1764, it was suggested that All's Well That Ends Well is the lost play Love's Labour's Won that was referred to by Francis Meres in 1598. But most scholars reject this identification: "The play's affinities with Hamlet and with Measure for Measure, its sombre tone, the maturity of the character-drawing and of much of the verse place it clearly in the later part of Shakespeare's output." The character of the clown, Lavatch, is also more consistent with the clowns such as Touchstone and Feste that were played by Robert Armin than with the clowns such as Dogberry that were played by Will Kempe in earlier plays. Armin replaced Kempe in the company about 1599.
Among the play's affinities to Hamlet, "Laertes is in many ways a parallel figure to Bertram," in that both receive advice before departing for Paris. "J[ohn] L[ivingston] Lowes refers to 'lines which compress into half the space and embody in maturer phrase and rhythm Polonius' advice to Laertes', and the impression of the present writer is the same -- that we find in All's Well versions of these ideas which are likely to be later than those in Hamlet." The similarities with Measure for Measure run throughout the play, and could "be due to nothing more than the chance similarity of their sources; but it is not probable that plot, characterization, themes, vocabulary, even the tangles, perplexities, and perversities of treatment should be shared."
Measure for Measure is generally regarded as the better play, expressing "more easily and effectively what All's Well seems to be aiming at." But "this in itself would not, of course, make it later, since achievements disintegrate as well as build up.... If All's Well is earlier than Measure for Measure it cannot be later than 1604 -- the date normally assigned to Measure for Measure.... A tentative dating of All's Well 1603-4 is therefore the outcome of this inquiry."
The source of the main plot is a story told on the third day in Boccaccio's Decameron, which was translated by William Painter in Palace of Pleasure. There was also a French translation by Antoine le Maçon available to Shakespeare, but "it seems unlikely that Shakespeare would use a French rather than an English version." As usual, Shakespeare made many changes and additions to the story told in the source.
"All's Well That Ends Well is not a play that is often read or performed, and on the rare occasions when it is seen or heard it does not seem to give much general pleasure." Part of the problem is the uneasy imposition of Shakespeare's characteristic psychological realism upon material that has its roots in folk- and fairy-tales.
W.W. Lawrence ... points out that the plot is ... a combination of two traditional episodes: (1) "the healing of the king", (2) "the fulfilment of the tasks". In folk-tales of the first type a poor or despised person gains a desired end by knowing the secret of a king's illness and by curing him. In tales of the second type a person (often a wife) is set a series of apparently impossible tasks to be performed before she can live happily; against all probability she performs these tasks and claims the reward, which is then granted.The problem Shakespeare runs into in combining these two types of stories is keeping the characters consistent between them. This is especially true in the case of Helena, whose conduct in the second half of the play seems to many to be inconsistent with her conduct in the first half. Hunter rejects the notion that Helena's character changes, however: "In the second half of All's Well, Helena is a 'clever wench' only in the sense in which Griselda is -- clever enough to be virtuous, pious, and patient till Destiny and Justice work things out for her."
Another block to the unity of the play is the subplot concerning Parolles: "the Bertram story could progress without the Parolles story; but in a more vitally organic sense they are interdependent -- the Bertram story would not mean the same without the Parolles story. There is continual parody of the one by the other. Parolles and Helena are arranged on either side of Bertram, placed rather like the Good and Evil Angels in a Morality." The introduction of the Parolles story echoes what happens throughout the play: the juxtaposition of "extreme romantic conventions with down-to-earth and critical realism.... The court is not merely the conventional court of Romance; it is far more real than that of Leontes or Theseus or the Duke of Milan, and recalls ... the world of Henry IV. Indeed it is too realistic politically for the magic Helena practices there."
The role of the clown, Lavatch, also serves as a realistic element:
Lavatch has obvious similarities to Touchstone; both undoubtedly play "wise fool" roles designed for Robert Armin, but the differences are just as important. The relationship between Touchstone and Rosalind makes it clear that the satiric wit of the clown is directed from much the same point as the joyous wit of the heroine. Lavatch is as contemptuous of Parolles as Touchstone is of Jaques, but his view does not ally itself in this play to the witty common-sense of the heroine; no central, acceptable, and unified viewpoint is left defined in the midst of the follies and excesses of the rest of the play. The pretensions of the good no less than those of the wicked or foolish are exposed here (as in Troilus and Cressida) to continuous criticism.... Lavatch ... sees courtliness as a verbal trick, war as a shirking of responsibility, greatness as an obedience to the devil.Lavatch also reinforces the theological implications of the play, summed up by E.I. Fripp: "The King, the Countess, Lafeu, the brother Lords, Diana, and above all Helena, are unaffectedly pious" and Helena's role is to set Bertram's "foot on the path of Christian virtue."
In addition to good and evil, there are other antithetical forces at work in the play: "One of the most important of these ... is that of youth and age. In Paris and Rossillon we are in an old folk's world -- however gracious -- settled, confining, backward-looking to the courtesy and generosity of the dead and departed." And "Against France, the ailing kingdom of feudal courtoisie, is set Italy, the Renaissance land of opportunity, of opportunities which are ethically dubious it cannot be denied, but where the young can contrive a new relationship by a more naked and unprotected strife than is possible in France." In the last plays, such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, "youth redeems age; here youth has enough to do to find its own diminished world."
"Bertram and Helena, the two principals, are parallel figures, both being orphans and wards, so that a comparison between them is natural." Helena's education has instilled virtue in her. "Bertram, on the other hand, has the nobility of his inheritance stressed throughout the first two scenes at the expense of his achievement ... in such a way to suggest a real gap between them, and [a] failure to improve inheritance into virtue." "Nobility" is only a word if not backed up with virtue. The character of Parolles, whose name means "words," emphasizes the theme: "Words only acquire sanction when they are backed by actions or at least by faith in their meaning." Helena rescues Bertram by her action: "by saving the ring she can be said, in a symbolic sense at least, to save family honour, and by revealing the role she has played she restores meaning to the words that Bertram has sworn."
The words "virtue", "honour", "nature", "fortune", and their derivatives, appear continually in the play; more important than mere recurrence, however, is the variety of meaning that is wrung out of them; "virtue" is military virtus, the achievement of a virtuoso, chastity, as well as moral perfection; "honour" is military fame, it is blue blood it is chastity, it is civil reputation; "fortune" is the governor of social distinction no less than of individual fate; "nature" is the author of love as well as the destroyer of virginity, the preserver of social order as well as the prompter of revolt.But making all these themes work within a drama is the problem. Hunter sums up the difficulties presented by the play: "Critical realism accompanies fairy-tale, satire shadows spirituality, complex moral perceptions deny us a simplicity of approach, complex intellectual interests demand an analytical and detached attitude toward the characters."
One of the major stumbling blocks, especially for today's readers and watchers of the play, is Helena's "bed-trick." Hunter asserts that it would have been less of a problem for Shakespeare's contemporaries who "saw matrimony as a matter of social convenience rather than personal emotion." In other words, what's love got to do with it? The same stratagem is used in Measure for Measure, and at least nineteen other plays of the period. "It is obvious that the trick is not one that would, ipso facto, shock an Elizabethan, but ... the fact is that elements in this play fight strongly against any facile acceptance of the bed-trick."
We are also more likely to condemn Bertram, who is required by the plot "to be high-spirited, but faulty, rash and hasty, but admirable." Our admiration is harder to earn: "Time has diminished the respect we feel for blue blood as a good in itself, and has diminished also our sense of soldiership as involving 'virtue' in its original meaning." We also tend to overlook the fact that he is immature, with the correlative implication that there's time for him to improve as he ages. Hunter compares him to Coriolanus, "another of Shakespeare's immature orphan heroes.... In both we see the same petulant wilfulness coupled to military prowess, the same scorn for unaristocratic virtues, and the same sense of duty to a noble mother." But Coriolanus is the central figure of a play which is about his "personal tragedy," whereas Bertram is not the central character of All's Well. "In such a context Bertram cannot be given the psychological depth of Coriolanus; what he is given is an extremely realistic surface, and at the level of Jonsonian caricature he is a brilliant success." On the other hand, Shakespeare is not Jonson, and when "the different kind of reality in Helena is juxtaposed against him, the superstructure of meaning becomes too heavy for the basis of character and the whole topples dangerously near incoherence."
Parolles is another figure who doesn't quite fit in the play, although Charles I wrote his name by the title of the play in his copy of the second folio. "Charles's view that Parolles is the central attraction of All's Well (and that Malvolio is the central attraction of Twelfth Night) is not unreasonable; such theatrical success as the play has enjoyed has largely depended on Parolles." That he has been "regarded as a watered-down Falstaff" has worked against him. "There is no temptation to feel for Parolles ... as we do for example for Falstaff or Shylock, a sense that Fate has been unjust, for there is no psychological depth to his follies; the follies are the character." Again, he is a Jonsonian figure who doesn't work in the context of Shakespearean realism.
Helena is the most "Shakespearean" character in the play, at the same time that she is "undoubtedly, in some ways, a fairy-tale heroine, with a background of spiritual or magical power.... Her roles is a complex one, but there is an absence of adequate external correlatives to justify this complexity." She is "an isolated complex individual" and the "disproportion" of her complexity in a fairy-tale plot "throws the play out of gear, as the Romantic view of Shylock throws The Merchant of Venice out of gear." Hunter concludes, "To reconcile the different levels of reality we can see in Helena, Bertram and Parolles, in Countess, King, and Lafew is perhaps impossible without too great a sacrifice of all that is worthwhile in the play." Shakespeare would juxtapose several levels of reality more successful in other plays, such as The Tempest and The Winter's Tale:
Certainly, if we compare the use of Trinculo and Autolycus and consider the relation of their realism to the fairy-tale princesses of their plays we can see a direction of advance, which achieves a reconciliation of the jarring elements of All's Well by presenting them in a new poetic dimension.One way to unify the elements of All's Well might be to call it "a satire and consider it a satiric onslaught on the aristocratic vices of Bertram (shadowed by Parolles). On this reading the King, the Countess, and Lafew would be essentially normative characters, Lavatch a satiric commentator, and Helena the main agent in Bertram's exposure." But Helena can't be simplified to a mere functional role. "With her the detachment essential to Jonsonian comedy is not only not achieved; it is never attempted."
Any attempt to find a unifying intent behind the play has to deal with "the central dilemma -- why, when reconciliation is aimed at, Bertram is made so unpleasant." As in Measure for Measure, "Shakespeare seems to aim at emphasizing the virtue of forgiveness; the greater the crime to be forgiven, the virtue of the person forgiving." In this light, Shakespeare is stumbling in both plays toward something he finally mastered in The Winter's Tale.
Unfortunately, All's Well doesn't provide us even the compensatory virtue of Shakespearean verse. "This is not a play which is rewarding to those who look to Shakespeare for a luminous tissue of striking images.... There is a general failure in All's Well to establish a medium in verse which will convey effectively the whole tone of the play (as is done, for example, in Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus)."