All’s Well

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.

14 thoughts on “All’s Well

  1. What a fascinating article! Is it churlish? I don’t think it is. You make a good point at the beginning. It’s a play that is not staged very often. Many people haven’t read the play. So don’t directors have a duty to the audience — if they are going to stage the play at all — to stage the play Shakespeare wrote? It’s not like adapting a book into a movie; most books aren’t written to be filmed.

    But it’s hard to be dogmatic. There’s a reason why it’s not often staged. In England some Shakespearian actors take a very hard line and expect the audience to read the plays before they come to a performance, just to make sure they don’t have a problem with the language. But directors still mangle the meaning by tinkering with the settings and suggesting things which are definitely not in the text. Perhaps they take the view that only purists will be offended and purists have their own version of the play in their head anyway.

    There seems to be a long tradition of this particular play being enlivened by extraneous frivolity and there is no record of it being staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime, so perhaps it was one that even Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t like. If you and the canon clickers loved it then all’s well that ends well, isn’t it?

  2. I’m glad it was delightful, but I don’t think it’s churlish to point out the changes. I mean, there’s more Shakespeare comedies to choose from if you’re looking for “growth”.

    I think it was the fistula.

  3. Good point, BL. And maybe it’s just that silly, wrongheaded people end up loving and being loved the same as anybody else (perhaps more so as love is hardly rational).Love isn’t a meritocracy or a competition, which is something that girls in particular are brought up to forget. Good for Shakespeare!

  4. Joseph — so nice to see you here! You raise an interesting question of what the director owes the audience. A play — like a screenplay — is a different creature than a novel in this particular way: the playwright doesn’t have the last word. That’s as it should be with an art that’s more collaborative than fiction. Maybe that’s why I write fiction! But then again, your book becomes whatever your reader decides it is. I agree with your all’s well point — the director’s duty is not to educate, but to entertain, and if that meant taking a play and making it into something different, but delightful, then that’s just fine by me.

    Sumanan — welcome! I admire your project and agree — at some point, reading a little Shakespeare is well worth the time you put into it. xo

    Dear Marie — have I mentioned, like a million times, that I adore you?

    Litlove, that love is neither a meritocracy nor a competition is the reason we’ve survived as a race, don’t you think? I’m glad it is this way, and that it has ever been so.

  5. What a very alert audience you are to have caught the dissonance between the character’s speeches and the actor’s delivery! I loved your synopsis, Bloglily, and hope to see a production someday, now that you’ve alerted me what to look for to enliven my viewing. For now, I’m off to google fistula.

  6. Anyone who googles fistula and is grossed out deserves it because you warned them, in your polite bloglilly way. I enjoyed reading this post. I wonder what the average length of time is to ocmplete the canon clicker checklist?

  7. Cam, I believe the answer to your question is “a lifetime.” As for being grossed out, that is what the internet is for, right? (And thanks to the internet, I happen to know you’re making pickles, and sleeping with your mortar & pestle, which sounds fine to me.)

    David, I am a geek. That’s all there is to it. I hope your googling was rewarding. xoxo

  8. What interests me here is our general understanding of the word “redemption” itself. Today, it carries religious overtones and implies personal transformation. In fact, even in the Judeo-Christian tradition redemption was originally understood somewhat differently. The dictionaries agree on redemption as:

    The recovery of something pawned or mortgaged.

    The payment of an obligation, as a government’s payment of the value of its bonds.

    Deliverance upon payment of ransom; rescue.

    When I was a kid and took the books of Green Stamps down to the Green Stamp Store to “redeem” them, I was involved in a transaction that didn’t necessarily affect me one way or another, and certainly didn’t imply any personal change.

    With this definition in mind, your statement makes perfect sense: “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…”

    Re: the play, it’s a bit chicken-and-eggish. Did the director change the thrust of the drama to conform to his vision, or did changes in our language which have conflated “redemption” and “change” make it impossible for him to do otherwise?

    In any event, it seems clear that, for Shakespeare, redemption as transaction is perfectly acceptable, while redemption as transformation has become our preference.

    Really intersting post. It’s been a while since I spent time in the middle of the night pondering linquistic change ;^)

  9. Tnis is a brilliant post, BL, and I really, really want to see this play and to read it, too. You are such a wonderful audience and so attuned to subtleties. This is why we all love you so much!

  10. M and I go to Ashland every year. We were there last month and saw “Paradise Lost.” Clifford Odets combined with the reality of the U.S. economy combined with my sinking feeling that I should have seen “Equivocation” instead. What was I thinking? There’s always next year.

  11. Hi BL! Just got back from Norway. Finally catching up on my fav blogs. All’s Well…for me. But that play: I had a teacher in high school who at the mention of it would wave his hand and snort: “You can skip that one.” Your post makes me want to pull out my Billy S. anthology and read it.

  12. I love the flexibility of Shakespeare, like you talk about here – he was really a little ambiguous in certain ones, which makes it fun to see all the different versions. He’s really a very elastic thinker. And lucky you, getting to compare live performances!

  13. Dear Ella, I don’t know a lot about theater, but I do think it’s an art form that has to be flexible, as you say. It comes to life through so many people — actors, director, set, lighting — and is never the same.

    Mari! I’m glad it was a good trip. As for your teacher, I think that’s the prevailing feeling about All’s Well, but it’s still a terrific and interesting play. I’d read it, if I had a collected Billy in the house.

    Tai — I didn’t know that! The new artistic director is wonderful, I think, and the festival is going to be more & more interesting as the years go by.

    Hi Sandi — it’s fun to be part of an audience; I loved how crowded all the plays were, and how attentive people were, and also, I’m kicking myself for not acquiring even one piece of Shakespeare kitsch.

    Dear Ms. Shoreacres, Thank you for this really interesting and wonderful meditation on language!!! It’s given me several things to think about: whether we redefine words to suit our notions of what it means to be human, and whether it’s possible/desirable to be loved without being changed one bit, and whether that’s the way it is to be an adult — to go through life pretty much unchanged. What a wonderful reader you are.

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