Why This Play?:
I’ve got just a few plays to go to the finish line! So I put up a Twitter survey to see what should come next, and this was the front-runner. I was surprised, as I’ve yet to come across anyone who actively enjoys this play. Wondering if some non-literary friends voted and based it entirely on the title...? I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this strange problem play.
By all means, I didn’t think I would be so taken with a tale of a steadfast girl who loves a boy who does everything he can to avoid her. The love story central to the plot is supremely annoying, the tale of a girl who undervalues herself and a snobbish boy who’s hardly worth her while. But the women in this play utterly turned me around! They are loyal, courageous, and so supportive of one another. It’s all too easy to find tales of women in constant competition – this play made me think warmly on the beautiful ladies in my life who have given so much of themselves. Women are amazing!
So What Happens?:
It’s a sad time in Rossillion. The count has died (so has his super-star physician) and his wife the Countess is in mourning with her son Bertram (the newly appointed count). The Countess has since adopted the physician’s daughter, Helena. She’s not well born, but by all accounts she’s whip-smart, virtuous, and fair. Bertram is off to Paris in company of old Lord Lafew to serve the King of France…who also happens to be on his deathbed. He bids goodbye to his mother. Helena quietly nurses a broken heart, but not for her late father: she’s secretly in love with Bertram, while he’s taken no notice of her. Bertram has a smarmy hanger-on named Parolles. Helena knows him to be a “liar”, “fool”, and “coward” but she engages in banter with him about virginity. He urges her to give up her chastity as he exits for Paris to follow Bertram. Helena plans to head to Paris as well, on the guise of taking her father’s old medicines to treat the king.
The sickly King of France welcomes Bertram, reminiscing on his friendship with the new count’s father. Back in Rossillion, a clown called Lavatch begs the Countess to let him marry a servant named Isabel, as she’s pregnant. There is some good clowning dialogue and singing thrown in here as well. The house’s steward reveals to the Countess that he overheard Helena pining for Bertram. The Countess gets it; she was young once. She speaks to Helena, reminding her that she’s essentially the girl’s mother now. Helena flinches over the familial term; the last thing she wants to be is Bertram’s sister. She confesses her love to the Countess (understanding that her status is below Bertram’s) and says she also may have a treatment for the king. The Countess sends her to Paris with blessings to try to save him.
France is sending soldiers to be stationed in Italy, and the king sends out some troops. Bertram is not allowed to go; he’s too young. Lafew introduces Helena, who arrives with her treatment for the king. The king declines, saying his ailment is beyond hope. Helena counters that there’s no harm in trying her remedy. They strike a deal: if the treatment doesn’t work, she will go to her death, but if it does work then she can have her pick of husband from his attending lords (princes aside, of course). In Rossillion, Lavatch continues to pester the countess, so she sends him to Paris with a letter for Helena. Back to Paris, and the king is cured by Helena’s wonder drug! She surveys the lords and (duh) chooses Bertram, promising that she will live her life to serve him. Taken aback, Bertram initially balks, claiming he cannot take a wife born of her status. The king waves those concerns aside, assuring Bertram that he will provide money and title to Helena, while listing her virtues of wisdom and beauty. Bertram flat-out refuses to marry her; Helena (witness to this entire exchange) meekly asks the king to let the matter go. But the king is a man of his word, and he threatens Bertram. Subdued but still reluctant, Bertram agrees to a wedding that evening.
Lafew and Parolles chat about this exchange, Parolles deeply offended and rude when Lafew insinuates Parolles is Bertram’s servant. He puts on airs, which Lafew finds supremely annoying. Bertram returns from his wedding. Distressed, he tells his confidant Parolles that he won’t consummate his marriage. He’s going to write to his mother that he doesn’t love his wife, then run off to Italy and join up with the French army. Lafew warns Bertram that Parolles isn’t a true friend, but someone who only seeks to further his own interests (Bertram ignores him). Bertram bids a cold goodbye to Helena (who steadfastly claims she is unworthy and grateful to be connected to him), sending her back to Rossillion with a letter for his mother. He vows to Parolles that he won’t return home so long as Helena is still around.
The Duke of Florence is grateful for the French soldiers (including Bertram) that have come to help his army. Back in Rossillion, Bertram’s letter arrives. The Countess is aghast to read that her son has abandoned his new wife and has no plans to return home. In a fun-yet-horrifying parallel in the serving class B story, Lavatch has decided he’s no longer into Isabel and won’t marry her. Helena returns home with her own letter from Bertram. Distressed, she tells her mother-in-law that he claims he won’t come back to France until two things happen: Helena is in possession of a family ring that he always wears and she is pregnant with his child. The Countess sides with Helena; she’s furious with her son’s lack of honor. Alone, Helena fearfully reasons that she’s the cause of Bertram going to war, and thus in harm’s way. She determines to make a pilgrimage to Florence. The Countess finds a note indicating as such, and sends a message to Bertram that Helena is gone (all the while, praying they’ll both return home to be reunited).
Bertram is stoked to be free from his familial duties and in another country with his friends. His new army buddies tell him Parolles is a lame hanger-on. They laughingly devise a little plan to send him on a bogus mission, then to kidnap and tease him (and prove he’s not exactly loyal to anyone but himself). A local landlady, known as the Widow, and some of her friends caution her daughter Diana about the advances of the French soldiers, particularly Bertram. Diana resolves to keep her distance. Helena wanders into Florence and meets the ladies, hearing of Bertram’s interest in Diana. She acquaints the Widow of her sad tale of abandonment, and convinces the Widow to allow Diana to set up a sexual rendezvous with Bertram…only to have Helena secretly there in her stead. In a fervor of female solidarity, the Widow and Diana are all in. Meanwhile, Parolles is thinking up ways to make his non-mission seem valiant (i.e. fake wounds) when the French army captures him. To confuse him and keep their identities hidden, they speak nonsense language; he believes he’s at the mercy of unknown enemies. Parolles instantly starts to spill all the secrets of the French army, both tactical and personal.
Bertram attempts to charm Diana, to the point of being overbearing. Diana modestly resists, claiming that he needs to uphold his marriage vows. He disregards her protestations, pleading for one night together, making all sorts of promises. Diana requests his ancestral ring, pointing out that her virginity is similarly a priceless treasure. Bertram gives her his ring, and Diana arranges for him to visit her bedchamber (under conditions of darkness and no speaking) to consummate their love. She promises to present him with a different ring then. Alone later, Diana marvels that her mama was right all along about what Bertram wanted from her. A couple of French lords let slip an interesting rumor: Helena is supposedly dead, which would leave Bertram free to return home.
The French lords bring a glowing Bertram (he’s still on cloud nine from his tryst) to see their “prisoner”. A frightened, blindfolded Parolles looks to save his neck from his “captors”. He gossips about the French lords…and even reviles his buddy Bertram. They tell him he’s sentenced to death, then removing his blindfold as he cowers. Parolles is shocked at the trick but is unable to smooth talk his way out of the situation. Elsewhere, the women convene to talk next steps in their plan. Helena’s marriage has been consummated…now to make her husband aware of that fact. The Widow and Diana agree to travel to Rossillion with Helena to back her story. In Rossillion, the Countess and Lafew prepare for Bertram’s return. The Countess is still sad about spurned adopted daughter Helena, but she agrees to Lafew’s idea to marry Bertram off to his daughter.
Everyone’s heading back to Rossillion! Helena leads the ladies, ever thankful for their help in her plot to win over her husband. She recognizes one of the king’s servants and implores him to carry a letter to the king ahead of them (what with – surprise! – pregnancy making her travel slowly). Parolles is back in Rossillion, chastened after his army ordeal. Lafew senses this, and decides to cut the dude a break (no more derision). The king is there to welcome Bertram home. Bertram is repentant for his abandonment, claiming Helena a woman worthy of love…and the king forgives him. They agree that Bertram should now marry again. Lafew asks for a token of engagement to present to his daughter, and Bertram hands over the ring in his possession. [Don’t get lost now: it’s the king’s old ring that he had given to Helena for healing him. She then gave it to Diana, who exchanged it with Bertram for his family ring.] The king immediately recognizes it as his own that he gave Helena as a sign that she could always count on him for help. Bertram swears it’s not from Helena, and makes up some story about it being thrown to him by a grateful Florentine. The king rages that Helena swore she’d only give up the ring to her husband in bed, so foul play must be afoot. Guards surround Bertram.
Helena’s letter arrives for the king! Only it’s actually from Diana, informing his majesty that Bertram seduced her, promised to marry her, exchanged rings, and then left. She’s coming to Rossillion to seek justice. With that news, Lafew cancels the engagement. Then Diana and her mother show up! Bertram states she has no claim on him, insinuating she’s a common whore. In rapid succession, Diana presents Bertram’s family ring (maybe she IS his wife!), she then recognizes “her” ring in the king’s possession, Bertram insists they had no-strings-attached sex, and Parolles reveals that Bertram did promise to marry Diana if she slept with him. Only now Diana claims she never gave the ring to Bertram – confused and frustrated with the changing stories, the king has her arrested. Then!! The Widow brings forth Helena!! Everyone is astounded that a) she’s alive, and b) she’s pregnant. Bertram immediately asks for her pardon, and she points out the conditions of his earlier letter: she has his family ring (from Diana) and she is carrying his child. Bertram promises to love her. The king is excited to hear the story of how all these youngsters set things right, and sensing Diana’s key role in reconciling the married couple, comes full circle to tell her that she can choose a husband.
Check This Out:
I love finding repeating character names in Shakespeare’s plays and making connections between their personalities or stories. It’s not a huge leap to see that Helenas just don’t have good taste in men.
As an experiment, I decided to rent a production of All’s Well that was performed by the Shakespeare’s Globe in recent years. You can do so through Globe Player online. Rental typically runs £5.99 (about $7.72). A little expensive for a rental, but like I said, done for the sake of experimentation. And for those of us who live 5300 miles away from London, this is such a fun way to experience the Globe – and the directors are adept at translating the stage to film. I really enjoyed getting to see panning shots of the audience and their reactions (and interactions with the actors). I highly recommend my friends outside of the UK check out this service, particularly as a means of watching those less-produced plays that can be hard to track down on DVD.
At a local library sale, I discovered an amazing treasure: a battered copy of George Bernard Shaw’s thoughts on Shakespeare. Shaw was a theatre critic in addition to writing his own plays, and he famously railed on many of the plays. My particular favorite was his reworking of the ending of Cymbeline, which I wrote about over a year ago. He refers to Bertram succinctly: “…a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very fine mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his life.” Not one to mince words, is he?
Thoughts & Themes:
Interesting thing about this title: it is word-for-word spoken by Helena twice during the play and paraphrased later by the king. This is really the only time a (non-character name) title of a play is spoken so often within the play’s text. This phrase serves as her mantra, spurring Helena and her helpers to her happy ending by the varying stratagems she devises to get there. And it absolutely begs the question: do the ends justify the means? Much like Measure for Measure, you have a bed trick – the strange business of a women duping a man into thinking he’s sleeping with one person when it’s really someone else entirely (which in 2017, reprehensibly goes against everything we recognize about sexual consent). In the play (written in the early 1600s), this is shrugged off as a clever move, a technicality to solidify a marriage. Yet in this play, Helena is able to get several people on board with this plot, and it ultimately gets her what she wants.
But before we get to that, we definitely have to discuss the problem of Bertram. He’s one of the…well, least admired characters in the canon, to put it mildly. He’s a weasel (but not a charming/funny one like his buddy Parolles or other plays’ characters like Autolycus or Pompey). He’s petulant and bratty, he’s a liar who doesn’t fully own up to his actions, and he runs away from his problems rather than confronting them. Yet, let’s consider for a moment. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about how he empathized with Bertram: this is basically a young man (very young, as he’s a ward of the king) who has been thrust into a lot of adult responsibility without any input of his own. We don’t know how suddenly his father died, but he’s now a count. He’s suddenly told that he’s being married off to his adopted sister. Despite these responsibilities, the king tells him he’s too young to join the army. That’s a lot for any 18-19(?)-year-old boy to process. He hasn’t had a hand in any major decision in his life, despite all his privilege. Running off to Florence is, perhaps, a desperate grab for freedom in addition to escaping the wife he doesn’t want. Note: I’m not excusing Bertram’s behavior, just trying to get a grasp on it. We don’t necessarily get to see what’s so special about this dude that makes Helena love him so; it’s just important that she does.
The thing that makes the “problem plays” so very interesting is their ambiguous claims of right/wrong and the main characters defined by both good and bad qualities to showcase that. We technically have a happy ending here: no one dies, spouses are reunited, and all characters are in better social standing (or most appropriate standing, in the case of Parolles) by the play’s end. A lot of dubious plotting has to occur to course-correct and set these characters on their proper paths. Helena may have highly questionable taste in men, but the audience has to give her credit for being tenacious and clever enough to get what she wants in the end (even if we don’t agree with her methods or with her end goal). And I find that despite all the questionable behavior and motivations of our heroine and her beloved, we have one clear and shining through-line that drives the marriage plot: the power of women.
The main thing that endeared this play to me: the bonds between the strong and capable women of All’s Well That Ends Well. Here we have women helping other women to right the wrongs they have endured because of cruel, thoughtless men. Here we witness some of Shakespeare’s finest examples of sisterhood. In Twelfth Night, I looked at charting new courses to strike new friendships. All’s Well That Ends Well has its share of new friends as well, but I was most struck with the varying levels of female camaraderie we see here – mothers, daughters, friends, confidantes, mentors. Diana is a total badass, willing to stand up in front of the king to reveal Bertram’s dishonor. The Countess, throughout the whole play, displays marvelous insight and judgment of character, trying to guide the lovers to honesty (Helena admitting her romantic feelings) and better behavior (Bertram honoring his marriage vows). And even though we see two young women pitted against one another as rivals for the same man’s affections (like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Two Gentlemen of Verona), they brush contention aside and opt to help one another teach Bertram a lesson in fidelity and honesty. In being kind to each other, these women are rewarded for their forthright behavior. Helena finally receives recognition as a wife, the Countess gets her family back, the Widow gets paid for helping out, and Diana (circling back to Act II) gets her pick of husband from the men at court.
I’ve certainly had my arguments and rivalries with other women. I’ve been victim of the mean girls and been a mean girl myself. But I’m happy to look at many ladies in my life now and those from my past and point to their remarkable examples of support, strength, teaching, and kindness. Cheers to the good, strong women who have shown me so much (certainly not a complete list):
My seventh grade teacher – She encouraged my writing and shot down stupid teenage boy antics with a withering glance. She was fair and kind but with little patience for kids acting the fool. She also had a slight, soft Southern accent that reminded me of my family.
The officially-assigned mentor in my first job out of college – This lady managed her family (4 boys!), was a top sales-woman, took no prisoners and stood her ground when she thought she was right. She emphasized the importance of gratitude to any support staff you work with (in sales, it was customer service and underwriters or administrative workers).
My old office friend from that same sales job – We were both 22 and trying to figure out how to be taken seriously in the office. We were in different positions, but tried so hard to help each other out rather than compete for help and resources of everyone else on our team. She showed me the power of helping a work friend without competing; if she did me a favor I learned to pay her right back.
The head of HR at my former employer – She was my old boss (since retired) who always held it together. With all the nonsense that job can entail, I never once saw her lose her cool. She made the hard decisions when they needed to happen. She also showed me that women don’t always have to work to please everyone, they just need to strive for fairness.
Professor of the Victorian Novel class I took in college – This was my first real experience seeing a pregnant woman on the job. She always had her notes, never forgot anything, was tough on essay grading, and showed absolute enthusiasm for the literature she taught. She was also a great dresser, even in maternity clothes. I love that in my early 20s I got to see a mama-to-be doing so well at her job, knowing full well she’d be returning to keep it up
My former “work wife” – This glorious woman is 35 years older than me; she had a son the same age as me. She took me under her wing and would explain the insane inner workings and dramatic histories of our organization (very helpful when you’re in HR!). We bonded over cooking and home décor, and she gave such lovely advice about working and raising kids when I was a new mama.
My amazing friend since college orientation – This lady is loyal to the end, a total go-getter, and general badass. She’s great at her job, and has successfully gone into business for herself. She is a wonderful friend to everyone in her life: supportive, makes time to be with you, travels to see people. I admire her because of everyone I know, she is the person who is always consistently true to herself.
Women friends online – I have been very lucky to connect with talented and kind people through a mutual love of Shakespeare (or making lists). I see women being advocates for their own children, teachers fighting hard for all of their students to be treated fairly and equally, and ladies who struggle with their own insecurities but open up so others who feel the same will know they’re not alone. These women are so good at making sure others feel seen and heard. Thank you for encouraging my writing and for sharing your own!
My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law: These three women are so different, but each show so much love. Thy show me so many ways to exert patience, protection, and pride -- all the qualities of good mothering. And none of them would let my kids get away with nonsense. Glad to have them on my side and as beautiful examples for my kids.
My mother – The phrase “steel magnolia” was (more-or-less) invented for my mama. She is one of the strongest people I know but has always been an example of femininity. She gave me my love of reading. She reminds me that one of the most important parts of parenting is tending to your marriage. She has shown me the beauty of having girlfriends but also enjoying time to yourself. She challenged me, from a young age, to have facts and learn about the stances I take on issues (not to just blindly parrot someone else).
Special shout outs to so many others: old sorority sisters who have grown up so much since our crazy antics, lovely mama friends I’ve made through my kids, my funny and caring old roommates (my first adult friends beyond college), the accomplished and smart women in my book club, funny co-workers who commiserated and mentored, writers I’ve admired whose words I’ve memorized, Shakespearean characters I’ve emulated. I am grateful for you all, and I’d help any of you by pretending I slept with your husbands to legitimize your marriage. (That may only be a compliment to the Shakespeare nerds!)
I've had some ideas swirling in my head about forgiveness and the Romance plays lately...so I'll dive into another romance to test my burgeoning theory. Pericles, up next time!