I tracked down and watched the BBC version of All’s Well That Ends Well, and it was the best of the productions I’ve watched so far (ok, equally so with Measure for Measure, but I’m going to write this piece under the pretence that I’ve neither seen nor read Measure for Measure – and then write a piece straight after on that play, which I’ll then post in two-days’ time).
The viewing brought out in particular the character of Parolles, which I largely missed when reading it. For I never saw that Parolles was a fraud: that he was a lower class man pretending to be a courtier; and that this is behind everything that happens to him. He at first apes the other courtiers; but he is, as it were, “found out” by the wise old courtier Lafew – discovered as a man of humble origin (in a section I didn’t really understand or pay enough attention to while reading it); or at least, discovered for being not what he purports to be. This same sense in his being a “low” character then comes out, but differently, in the section in which Bertram and his aristocratic friends deceive and torture him to prove his cowardice (a scene straight from comedy, which is about as dark and disturbing as you can get). Until, stripped of all his illusions and airs and trappings of wealth, he comes back to Lafew as a poor, humble penitent – and is forgiven and redeemed in that way people are in late Shakespearean comedies.
And of course, all the while, these scenes are a counter-point to the main plot of the play, in which the priggish Bertram refuses to marry – or at least consummate his enforced marriage with – his low-born wife, Helena, because it is a humiliation to him. So perhaps we remember the words of the king from the play’s beginning, contrasting Bertram’s father with the youthful aristocrats of today (and, one feels – in Shakespeare’s setting of the scene – Bertram first of all):
Who were below him / He us’d as creatures of another place, / And bow’d his eminent top to their low ranks, / Making them proud of his humility / In their poor praise he humbled. Such a man / Might be a copy to these younger times; / Which, followed well, would demonstrate them now / But goers backward.
But they don’t copy him, sadly: they seek after wine, women, and war – and have only contempt for their lessers. So it’s nice that Parolles is given the opportunity at the end to avenge himself on Bertram; and one smiles perhaps, when after he’s been humiliated and tortured and – put in fear of his life – his cowardice proved, he only remarks:
Who cannot be crush’d with a plot?
For the plot which will destroy Bertram, we are aware, and bring him back to his humiliating engagement, already by that time has him in its jaws.