Monday, March 18, 2024

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 15: All’s Well That Ends Well

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 15: All’s Well That Ends Well, first broadcast January 4th, 1981
  • Possibly written: 1602, possibly his 25th play
  • What’s it about? Helena, the ward of a countess, falls in love with the countess’s son Bertram, who despises her. She saves the life of the king and asks only that he order Bertram to marry her, which he does, but Betram flees to fight in a war. She follows and tricks Bertram into impregnating her, at which point he finally begrudgingly says he loves her.
  • Most famous dialogue: None. If I had to pick one, I’d say “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”
  • Sources: The play is based on the tale of Giletta di Narbona (tale nine of day three) of Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”.
  • Best insults:
    • That vile rascal, that jack-an-apes with scarfs.
    • A most notable coward, an infinite and hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality worthy of your lordship’s entertainment.
    • A snipt-taffeta fellow there whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbaked and doughy youth of a nation in his colour.
    • But the biggest insult seems to be “physician’s daughter”, which apparently at the time was quite a lowly thing to be.
  • Best words: adoptious, misprison, moiety, armipotent
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw a fine production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre that made a brilliant decision I’ll address below.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: No names or faces I recognized.
How’s the cast?
  • Glum. Angela Down as Helena is basically just bummed that Bertram doesn’t love her, and Ian Charleston as Betram takes little more joy from his philandering then he does from his forced marriage. Nobody told either that this was supposed to be a comedy. The one time Down perks up is when Peter Jeffrey as Parolles is flirting with her. Marry him, girl! Even with Parolles being totally degraded by the end of the play, he seems a better prospect than Bertram.
How’s the direction by Elijah Moshinsky?
  • Picking up from last episode, Moshinsky continues Miller’s project of recreating the work of famous painters. There’s more Vermeer here and also Rembrandt and Georges de La Tour. The result is one of the most beautiful episodes. But the tone is more problematic than playful. He does get good milage out of the one truly funny scene in the play, the scene where Parolles is kidnapped by his own compatriots speaking pseudo-Italian gibberish.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: If Your Characters Refuse to Fall in Love With Each Other, Don’t Force It

How do you solve a problem like “All’s Well That Ends Well”? Since the term “problem play” was coined by critic F. S. Boas, there’s been much debate about which plays fall under that definition, but this one is on everybody’s list. The “problem”, of course, is that it’s a romantic comedy that’s not very funny and not at all romantic.

The primary distinction that makes a Shakespeare play a comedy rather than a tragedy is whether or not there’s a happy ending. This play is supposedly a comedy which means the ending is supposedly happy, but does anybody believe that this marriage will be anything other than a horror show? Was any husband dragooned into marriage so unwillingly?

If actors want to play this as a true love match with a happy ending, they get no favors from Shakespeare, who gives the two nothing happy to play together. The only remaining option is to play it downbeat, either playing his forced profession of love as insincere or go so far as the justify it by playing him gay and secretly in love with Parolles (If so, that’s an even more sadistic love than he has with Helena, if such a thing is possible!)

In the uncharitable reading, Shakespeare wanted us to buy Betram’s final abrupt-180 declaration of love, and simply fails to convince us. If you’re going to give Shakespeare more credit than that, you have to make it clear something else is going on. The Chicago production I saw had what I thought was a brilliant solution. Helena reveals to Betram that she’s tricked him into impregnating her. He then gets down on one knee and says “I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” to her belly! He’s not going to love Helena, he’s going to love the baby. Not necessarily a happy ending, but no truly happy ending would be supported by the text. At least this ending is believable and explains his reversal. And marriages, after all, have subsisted on less.

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