A few weeks ago, I went to Ashland with some friends and, in what can only be described as a frenzy of playgoing, we saw — over a two day period — a musical (the Music Man), a brand new play about Shakespeare and the Bush administration (Equivocation), and a production of All’s Well That Ends Well that was terrific, but wasn’t actually the play Shakespeare wrote.
This last thing is what I want to talk about today, because I’m still turning over in my head what happened between the time Shakespeare wrote All’s Well That Ends Well and a couple weeks ago, when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged it. If all goes well, I’ll actually have a point at the end of this post, and if all doesn’t go well, at least you will know the plot of a lesser-known Shakespearean comedy, which I figure is good value, given that this is, after all, a blog.
Many people (including me) don’t know the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well. This is because it’s a comedy that’s not staged very often, probably because the plot — if believed — isn’t all that comic. Also, very few people read Shakespeare and so why should anybody know the plots of the plays, although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the closer you get to Ashland, Oregon, the less true this is. Ashland was teeming with Shakespeare groupies. Everywhere you looked, there they were, proclaiming their love of Will in t-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, hats, and key chains. In fact, so deep does bardolatry run in Ashland, that it has spawned an entire category of theater-goers, people known as “canon clickers.” A little like a train spotter, the canon clicker is unable to die until he has seen one of each — in the case of the canon clicker, that would be a performance of every play in the canon. The festival’s director received two cases of wine this year from a canon clicker because they staged Henry VIII, which is a bad play to stage, but did enable some guy to go to his grave a happy man.
Anyway, the plot. The play’s heroine is named Helena. She’s the daughter of a renowned, and lately dead, doctor. Her guardian is the countess of some French-sounding place, and the countess has a son, Bertram, who ALSO has a guardian, in this case, the King of France. So, there you have it, your lovers are clear from the get-go.
Helena loves Bertram. Bertram is an ass, and does NOT love Helena, because her father was only a doctor. (Clearly, he is not living in the United States in the present time, when doctor’s daughters in comedies generally are perceived of — or were until we elected Obama and ruined our fully functional health care system, if you believe the crazy republicans, which of course, none of us do! — as in high demand. Lots of money there, right?)
Helena is not put off by the fact that Bertram is an ass. She, it turns out, is incredibly resourceful, has made up her mind to have him, and she has a chest full of cures that were left by her father and, apparently, she hasn’t given a thought to them (although they could have cured half of France if she’d been thinking about it) until she decides she wants Bertram for her own.
The King of France, it turns out, is very, very sick. He has an illness Shakespeare calls a “fistula,” which I love because it’s very specific and really disgusting, which you too can discover simply by googling “fistula” (this is what the internet was invented to do, by the way). Anyway, Helena offers to cure the King in return for being able to choose a husband. The King agrees, is cured, and Helena picks Bertram. Bertram is not at all happy to be chosen, but he caves, in an ill-tempered way, and off he goes to the Tuscan Wars (conveniently invented by Shakespeare to allow Bertram to flounce off the stage in an Italian kind of way, and also to participate in a very funny subplot I won’t go into here). Before Bertram flounces off he taunts Helena with how much he hates her — he tells her he won’t treat her as a wife until she gets the ring from his hand and herself with child by him, which isn’t ever going to happen, so there. Now, this is classic comedic bad behavior, which we have little trouble seeing as bad behavior, although of course in real life, what’s wrong with being unhappy about an arranged marriage? But we’re led to believe by the play that Bertram is an ass, and so it’s hard to work up a head of steam about his predicament.
As I was saying, off he goes. Helena, being Helena, packs up her stuff, and goes after him. On the outskirts of Florence, she meets a lady who houses pilgrims and has a beautiful daughter named Diana and immediately offers Helena refuge. Bertram has been wooing Diana (who resists him, of course, because she’s not that kind of girl, and she knows an ass when sees one). Helena convinces Diana (well, actually, she pays her three bags of gold) to pretend to give in to Bertram’s desire to sleep with her, but only if Bertram will give her his ring. They perform what I have recently learned is a literary plot device called the “bed trick,” where a man thinks he is sleeping with one woman (usually someone he isn’t supposed to be sleeping with, like Diana) but in the dark, this woman is replaced by another woman (the one he IS supposed to sleep with, Helena). And that usually works out, believe it or not, which is because in the dark all women are alike to men, something I think might actually be sort of true.
Eventually, everyone gets back to the countess’s palace, Bertram is confronted with his caddish behavior, Helena reveals that she is pregnant and has the ring, and Bertram basically gives in and grumpily agrees to acknowledge her as his wife.
Okay, then. I defy anyone to read this play and find in it any hint of growth on Bertram’s part. He’s caddish and grumpy from beginning to end. And I sort of liked that, because really, isn’t it worth saying that we love who we love, even if they’re not always such fine fish? (Bertram is handsome, good at wars, and going to inherit a dukedom — worse men exist.) And that women will go to great lengths to get the men they have decided they love? And that men are lucky they do, because things usually turn out well for men when women look past their flaws to their better selves, which we all have, even if they aren’t on display at the moment (a truth that turns out to be equally applicable to women)? All these things are true, worth saying, and basically the point of All’s Well That Ends Well. (The title, of course, is another way of saying “the ends justify the means” — Helena’s trickery, though troubling, ends in the marriage she wants.)
So. If you are still reading, and many of you probably gave up at the fistula part, here’s the thing. In Ashland, the play was staged in such a way that you were led to believe that Bertram loved Helena from the very start, but he didn’t know it. Since this isn’t in the text, you see in the way he looks at her, and holds her hand, even, these nascent feelings of love. And we also see him changing, again through non-verbal cues, becoming ashamed of his behavior, until at the end, he behaves as though he embraces his marriage with a full heart, when really, if you read what he says on the page, his heart is hardly full. I think if Shakespeare wanted Bertram to grow and change, he would have given him and Helena a lot of lovely speeches where he does just that. The person who wanted Bertram to grow and change is the play’s director and, of course, us, the people the director staged this play to delight. (It WAS delightful, by the way.)
My point is a small one, but it is a point: apparently, the requirement that characters change and are redeemed is one that has made it impossible for this play to be what it really is. I think modern cinematic romantic comedy is responsible for this staging — in romantic comedy, the lovers who begin the film are stubborn, wrong-headed, silly, headed in the wrong direction, as romantic comedy lovers general are, and they are NEVER the same as the lovers who end the film by recognizing their true love, being chastened by their bad behavior, redeemed into being their finer selves by the power of love. Shakespeare’s point is indeed that we are redeemed by love; it’s just that he also seems to be saying that we don’t actually change that much sometimes during courtship, that love is truly blind, and yet so generous as to be given to us in spite of our churlishness and bad behavior. This is a powerful point, tricky and unattractive though it might seem at first glance. But that’s why we read Shakespeare — to have our thinking challenged, which is certainly what this play does and what this production, though an entertaining and wonderful romantic comedy, does not.
This doesn’t mean that the play wasn’t terrific — it was, featuring as it did, wonderful actors, lovely costumes, and a plot that was entertaining and interesting — it just wasn’t the All’s Well that Ends Well that Shakespeare wrote. No harm in that, in the end. It seems churlish to fault a production for not being faithful to its source, the way people get mad at movies because they’re not like the book. In the end, I was entertained for the two hours I spent in the theater, and that is more than enough for me.