All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare

I shall pass over Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (even the dreadful Adrian Noble film of the latter), and go on to All’s Well That Ends Well, which has no easily available film version – which is a pity, because I’ve found it useful so far, as well as to read them, to see each work performed.

The only line from the introduction I read beforehand was that which said All’s Well worked neither in its written form nor on the stage. It should be no surprise, therefore, to discover that by and large I enjoyed it. It’s true, I found the first two acts a bit hard-going. The humour, such as there is in Shakespeare anyway, is in this play remarkably obscure – as if it were all based on puns which no longer exist. The plot seemed to be going nowhere; to be uninteresting. I was, at this point, of the opinion too that the play was a failure:- my explanation: that no one had dressed up in disguise (see the previous four comedies). Was this play indeed a comedy? Some scenes seemed like they might be somewhat of that ilk – there is a clown; there is a fop called Parolles, who certainly seem comic types – but the tone is difficult.

But then acts three to five I found much more appealing, and they improve as the play moves along. There are finally some good scenes, starting from the scene in which the blindfold Parolles betrays his own companions to themselves and culminating in a nice deus ex machina ending (very similar to The Winter’s Tale) – a deus ex machina for the characters, that is, since we know it’s coming all along. A comedy, then, in that it’s got a happy ending – which, given the title, isn’t to give away too much, but – as the title also implies – not necessarily a comedy throughout its every scene. Indeed, one fears it could so easily at any moment tip into tragedy – which is perhaps true of any of Shakespeare’s comedies, if it weren’t for the mood; – or perhaps we should rather say, in which some of the characters feel it has already slipped into tragedy. There is a sombreness that isn’t in the earlier comedies, a darkness (though the later Malvolio parts of Twelfth Night, of which the trick and treatment of Parolles is reminiscent, are perhaps of the same kind); some of the characters in it really aren’t nice people, and – as in The Magnificent Ambersons – perhaps you feel it’s an injustice the hero gets the girl.

Next up: Measure for Measure.

I finally abandoned my server’s uploader in favour of once again Filezilla (I don’t know why I ever switched), so have been able to start uploading Books Read and Films Seen again. September, for books, was the weakest month on record – 3 books and only 1 (150 page) novel. I have not read a novel since either – I am struggling with them; but indulging much in plays and short stories instead – of which latter I’m reading unusually and by chance four collections of the highest quality, variously by Kipling, Dylan Thomas, Gyula Krúdy and Jorge Luis Borges (not forgetting, of course, Adolfo Bioy Casares), of which, perhaps, more anon.


5 thoughts on “All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare

  1. You’re on a theater reading rampage all right! One way to sock it to the modern novel, I guess, esp. if you care to share some of those short story reviews/thoughts with us one of these days…

  2. A curious play, either in the study or in the theatre (I saw a fine production at the National Theatre a few years ago). There are certain thematic links both to earlier comedies and to the very late plays, and it’s tempting to see this one as a sort of transitional work between As You Like It on the one hand, and Cymbeline on the other. It’s not as good as either, mind you. The BBC Shakespeare production of this play (from the series they did in the late 70s/early 80s), featuring Angela Down as Helena, was one of their best.

  3. Yes, I’m into plays at the moment – not just Shakespeare (I’ve read 2 by another playwright). Will definitely get to short stories at some point (esp. Borges).

    AOG: I read your review after posting mine, and it seems we liked opposite parts – you favoured Acts 1 and 2. I need to go back and read them again; I found them in the main uninteresting, and without good characters; and was put off by the “comic” sections. Maybe they fit in better having read the whole play (I noticed, flicking back, the section between Helena and Parolles re virginity might well be of some importance).

    What you say about Helena is interesting too: she does appear to enchant all the other characters in the play, except the one she wants to enchant. Perhaps she might be played as an otherworldly presence. And the stuff about fairy-tales, of course.

    Still had no sympathy for Bertram though.

  4. AOG: I expect we saw the same production, and a pretty good one it was. The unreality of the ending was dealt with by making it clear that Bertram is only feigning his sudden love-conversion, and that he is marrying Helena only because he has no choice (similar to the way Complicite handled the ending of Measure for Measure, where the Duke announces his marriage to Isabella). It’s a clever approach, but one could equally argue the validity of playing it straight, as being more in keeping with the fairy-tale elements (that would probably be difficult to pull off, though).

    The weakness was the inadequacy of the actors playing the leading roles (particularly Helena). Several times, I’ve seen Renaissance plays let down by young performers speaking very slowly and very loudly, as if their laboured over-insistence on vocal clarity is compensating for a deficiency in understanding of the lines they’re speaking. Bertram was played very much as the arrogant callow brat – fair enough, but I think you need an element of human sympathy there to contrast with the sometimes almost inhuman virtue of the heroine. A fine balance: Bertram can’t simply be a straightforward shit, as the situation would be rendered wholly implausible and unengaging; the actor, therefore, has to aim for a rounded, ‘realistic’ characterisation (though the aim can’t be too square, of course; it’s Shakespeare, not Chekhov). At the same time, in Helena’s case, the slightest whiff of an attempt at psychological realism would be disastrous because her role would make a nonsense of it. Tricky parts; perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on the players.

  5. I was actually thinking along those lines reading it: Bertram only professes to love Helena from the point when he discovers she’s dead – a sense of guilt, or a mere convenient pretence – a pretence which is exposed (or threatens to be so) when he discovers she’s actually still alive (and not merely that, but that he’s also inadvertently had sex with her) – and then has to concede to marry her. So the title of the play would then become slightly ironic (a bit like As You Like It – at least, insofar as I choose to understand it).

    I will try other local libraries for the BBC version. It wasn’t in my usual one.

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