Friday, October 14, 2011

All's Well...eventually.

All's Wellies,

All's Well, even if it's a little late, eh?

All’s Well was a completely new play for me, as I have never seen it produced for the stage anywhere in Colorado, and I have faithfully been attending the Colorado Shakespeare Festival every year (except this one), and the Denver Center typically produces one Shakespeare offering every year. I, too, wonder why this play is not produced more often. There are some beautifully drawn, complex characters that would be entertaining indeed.

As always, I am curious and intrigued with Shakespeare’s depiction of his women. I am crazy about the Countess and her support of Helena. She asks that Helena speak honestly, and when Helena does, the Countess responds:

Why Helen, thou shalt have my leave and love,

Means and attendants, and my loving greetings

To those of mine in court. I’ll stay at home

And pray God’s blessing into thy attempt.

Be gone tomorrow; and be sure of this,

What I can help thee to, thou shalt not miss. (I.iii.253-258)

Perhaps the Countess reminds me of Constance in King John. Curiously, at this point in the play, we have not seen Bertram onstage, thus Helena doesn’t look foolish for loving him so, but I digress. When we do learn what an ass Bertram is, even his own mother supports Helena: “He was my son,/But I do wash his name out of my blood/And thou art all my child” (III.ii.68-70). The strength, integrity, and assertiveness of the women in this play make the roles of women a natural focus of study for my students.

Now, Helena. She perplexes me and I want to slap her for loving a cad like Bertram. But that aside, I adore her other qualities and applaud Shakespeare for creating a woman who is not only intelligent, but also resourceful, confident, and assertive. In fact, she strength eclipses that of Viola, who amidst her angst and yearning for Orsino, and the subsequent love triangle complications, submits to fate: “O time, thou must untangle this, not I./It is too hard a knot for me t'untie.” Helena informs us early on that she is a woman of action: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,/Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky/Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull/Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull” (I.i.223-226). Helena is not about to sit at home and wait for Bertram’s return. We see her confidence in action when she asserts that she can cure the King, and later her resourcefulness as she uses Bertram’s lust for Diana to entrap him in the same substitute bride motif we see in Measure for Measure. Helena=really great character, but one who falls for one who is unworthy of her. Sure, she might be trying to marry above her station, but who is going to argue with the approval of the Countess and the King? I didn’t discover any evidence to suggest that anything but love is her motivation. Silly girl.

In the high school English classroom, I would ask students to make thematic connections between this and other plays. For example, the aforementioned substitute bride motif, the “bride is dead” deception a la Much Ado About Nothing and A Winter’s Tale. I would also have them attempt to categorize this play: comedy? problem play? We would look at characters and language, as well as the subplot. I, for one, find Parolles tedious, whereas the subplots in Twelfth Night are so rich indeed. In most comparisons, All’s Well pales in language, wit, and overall experience, but characters Helena and the Countess, at least for me, redeem it.

...that ends well,


Thursday, June 16, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well - On the Road

Ernst writes:

I am sitting, early morning, in our Adirondack cabin, on the second beautiful day in a row.

I read the first act of All’s Well That Ends Well last night. I know I skim-read it once, but I am now looking at it with very different eyes. I am also reading it in our Rockwell Kent-illustrated edition (Cambridge version c. 1936) filled with statuesque figures of various characters in a sort of Roosevelt-era style (think: Rockefeller Center). Rockwell Kent lived in the Adirondacks, and some of his paintings with their geometric shapings and use of northern light are terrific.

What a pastiche of strange bits and pieces. Why did Shakespeare write it and when? (intentional fallacy, but Harold Bloom reminds us that such terms are dead). Was it a hurry-up job? Was it an earlier play re-written? Is it in any way satirical?

Some things I noticed:
  1. The play opens in prose—spoken by characters who would normally speak in blank verse.
  2. Helena’s “I do affect a sorrow, indeed, but I have it too” calls to mind Hamlet’s distinction between shows of sorrow and real sorrow.
  3. The Countess’s advice (“Love all, trust a few’) is clearly a variant on Polonius’s famous “advice’ (how frequently one used to see Polonius’ words published on school bulletin boards as the right way to behave).
  4. I don’t know what to make of Helena’s initial, somewhat over-the-top description of her love for Bertram. Parts of it sound a bit artificial to me, although her description of Parolles as one of St. Bertram’s “reliques” is very clever. (“Parolles” means “words” in—is it?—Italian—related to our word, ”palaver”?).
  5. The discussion beginning around I.i.107 (my book has no line numbers in the text) has, I believe, been called a “blot,” and is frequently left out of productions.It is certainly a strange bit, with its frank discussion of bodily sex, but it seems excessive. Just before it, Helena has told us that Parolles is a man of “superficial folly” and then proceeds to engage him in a lengthy dialogue that makes that point clear. It might be the sort of banter that goes on between Viola and Feste, except it is hard to see Parolles as a Feste-like figure (for me, at least). Did Shakespeare owe Robert Armin a favor? (That is if Armin took this role and not that of the Clown)
  6. End of I.i. Helena’s final monologue is rich, vaguely reminiscent of Edmund’s view of his father’s beliefs in cosmic fate in “Lear.” (Sonnet 15: “cheered and checked by that self-same sky.”
  7. There are, again, some rather rich musings on death and courtiers (a favorite Shakespeare concern) in Scene ii.
This is good stuff, but does its seriousness work--especially early on in a comedy?

There’s more, but we want to get out into this beautiful day before driving back down to Kingston.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part M

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all.
... What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear'd
Than they in fearing.
What drink'st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison'd flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think'st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command'st the beggar's knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play'st so subtly with a king's repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium.
(Henry V 4.1.230-274)

In this soliloquy, the fact that it is Henry V speaking changes the mood of the passage, especially when he says, “Upon the King! let us our lives, our souls/Our debts, our careful wives/Our children, and our sins lay on the King!/We must bear all.” Because the King says this, it can be inferred that he is saying it with a somewhat ironic tone. He appears to be overwhelmed with his duties and laments his people thinking they should lay all of their burdens upon him. As the King, he has personal knowledge and experience with what he goes on to talk about and he uses sleep to show how his duties affect him: he is so tired by night that he doesn’t wake at all in the night.

The speech is perhaps motivated by Henry’s recently becoming King and becoming overwhelmed with all his duties. He is obviously in despair over the fact that he is no different from anyone else except for the ceremonies he has that come with the title of King, yet he has the burdens of his people thrust upon him. He mentions that he sleeps as well as a starving, exhausted slave due to all the work he must do as King. The novelty of being named King may have worn off at this point, and now the King just laments all the work he has to do and explains how he feels that all his citizens put all their needs in his hands.

He mentions all the perks people generally think that kings get, such as his "imperial crown" and gold and pearl "intertissued robe," and says that this is all just ceremony and that there are no real benefits. He uses this speech to complain about the position he has been given, even comparing himself to a slave. His use of mythology in the speech, mentioning Phoebus and Elysium, show that he is well educated but more importantly show the feeling that although King Henry V does not think the king gets any benefits, he does see that kings do have power and honor associated with their names. Perhaps this shows that his disapproval of the role of King is fleeting in the chaos of his first months on the throne, or that it does not truthfully represent what he believes. By implying that at night he sleeps in Elysium, King Henry V says that he is honorable. Either he believes this honor stems from his role of King, or from the work he has to do in supporting his people, although his earlier statements discount both of these ideas when he says that he is just like a commoner.

The King is still young at this point, so he probably does not know exactly what he believes and is impulsive in his thoughts and actions.

Rachel Kinney (SPA '12)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part L

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopp'd off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, "We died at such a place" -- some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it.
(Henry V 4.1.134-145)

Williams' speech, in Henry V, illustrates both the violent nature of war and the human cost of honor. Williams outright states, "If the cause be not good, then the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make." The issue of tactics and strategy -- good or bad -- in the fighting does not come up. Rather, the issue stands on whether or not the reason for fighting was at all sound. It brings to mind the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven, or the divine right of kingship. The king remains in the right only if the heavenly powers favor him.

However, in the case of 1 Henry IV, honor comes into play where divine favor might have in another story. Is the king right in taking his cause to the battlefield? If he is not, then his soldiers will have died in vain and the king will have to pay "a heavy reckoning," making everything right again in the eyes of heaven and his troops alike.

Williams also uses the image of severed body parts -- arms, legs, and heads -- all crying out that they were killed, but not the wounded soldiers themselves. In death, the common soldiers are reduced to the sum of their injuries -- their body parts. No longer alive, they become meat in the eyes of the survivors and the king. The parts shall "join together at a later day" to state the way they died and what they left behind. And if it is an unjust way to die, then they will haunt the king. Unjust deaths tend to do that in Shakespeare. Consider Hamlet and Macbeth. The ghosts of unjustly killed men tend to stick around and taunt those responsible, or give advice to those who can arrange the downfall of the responsible party.

"I am afeard that there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?" Williams asks, exposing the realistic side to the play's romantic notion of fighting. Though a common soldier himself, Williams does a bit of philosophical musing over whether or not the soldiers who died in the fighting actually died a "good" -- or just -- death, for they have little to bargain with when heaven comes rolling around, only blood, both theirs and some belonging to others spilled by their hands. Their "argument" is their ticket into heaven and while a loyal soldier may be willing to go downstairs for the sake of fighting for his king's good cause -- murder being against the Ten Commandments and what not -- the same cannot be said if the king's cause is not just. No one wants to be told that they fought for a bad cause. Soldiers cannot "charitably dispose of anything" with their hands so dirtied. They cannot say they are innocent upon reaching the afterlife, whatever form it happens to take. The dead ones had families, wives and children in some cases, and those survivors will be left alone. Hopefully it was for a good cause.

The last part of the speech wraps up and reinforces the message nicely: "Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it." Williams' speech is not confusing. The meaning does not disguise itself with fancy language, only violent imagery, perhaps a testimony to Williams' standing as a common soldier and not a member of the nobility as Hal is.

Emma Johnson-Rivard (SPA '11)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part K

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and a jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane;
But being awak'd, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body (hence) and more thy grace,
Leave gormandizing, know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest,
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and feeder of my riots.
Till then I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
(2 Henry IV 5.5.47-65)

Ah, divorce. Medieval style. Is Henry V's restraining order against Falstaff the first instance of the proverbial "ten-foot pole" concept? Ten miles is significant. If you have Google Earth, and you type in "London, England" you'll notice the city's current sprawling urban density goes on for miles and miles. To keep out of Henry's way today, Falstaff could just pick up and move to East Ham, where there is sure to be a sufficient number of pubs for him to satisfy his craving for a capon and a small beer. But in the 15th century, Falstaff's ten-mile punishment means complete expulsion from London, for the city is barely two miles in diameter (click on the historical map above). If London is heaven, Falstaff has been tossed out.

I think the religious imagery here is intriguing. It feels like Hal has a bit of anxiety about his transition from bad boy to good king, so he evokes God's omniscience to corroborate his transformation. The people may be skeptical, but God knows. Falstaff (along with Poins and Bardolph), on the other hand, is a "misleader" and "tutor" of dissolute behavior, which sounds distinctly fiend-like. Thus, Henry V's banishment of him is like God's expulsion of the rebel angels:

"And the great dragon, that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, was cast out, which deceiveth all the world; he was even cast into the earth, and his Angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12.9).

Notice the neat connection between "old serpent" and Hal's double taunt ("old man," "so old") regarding Falstaff's age. To take this one step further, Falstaff's banishment, by analogy, elevates King Henry into the place of God. His decree, then, further establishes the divine right of his rule.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well - Against Coleridge


While we’re ruminating on All’s Well That Ends Well, and Gil’s comments, I thought I’d invite a “literary light” into the discussion: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In one of his briefer table talk pieces, Coleridge takes Bertram’s side, explaining that Bertram is not an intolerable jerk because he has every reason to be disgruntled with an arrangement that finds him forced to marry a woman he has previously considered only a friend. Coleridge calls the king’s decree “tyrannical.” Of “Helena,” he opines the following:

“Indeed, it must be confessed that her character is not very delicate, and it required all Shakespeare’s consummate skill to interest us for her; and he does this chiefly by the operation of the other characters,–the Countess, Lafeu, etc. We get to like Helena from their praising and commending her so much” (Hawkes 254).

Really? That’s a pretty odd argument, that we only engage with a character because others are there to prompt us. Let’s take a couple scenes where this is demonstrably not possible: Act 1 scene 1 and Act 3 scene 2. Those are the scenes in which we find Helen’s soliloquies. Often, soliloquies define what is compelling about a character – Iago’s gleeful villainy (“And what’s he, then, that says I play the villain, when this advice is free I give and honest”); Hamlet’s incapacitating grapple with suicide and despair (“O that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”); Hal’s lawyerly crash course in Medieval public relations (“If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work, but when the seldom come, they wished-for come, and nothing pleaseth but rare accidents”); Juliet’s crisis of confidence regarding the reliability of those who would protect her (“What if it be a poison which the Friar hath subtly ministered to have me dead, lest in this marriage he should be dishonored because he married me before to Romeo?”). And soliloquies establish this character while he/she is alone on the stage.

Do Helen’s soliloquies reveal a depth of character? Here’s the first:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense and do suppose
What hath been cannot be. Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love? (1.1.222-233)

There’s a sexist tang to Coleridge’s assessment, as if the concerns of women (love and matrimony) do not carry the weight of men’s. Yet here we find concerns about fate, free will, and the restrictive boundaries of social class. And parsed in couplets, too. If her thoughts lack gravitas, what do we make of the first lines’ similarity to Cassius’s comment in Julius Caesar?

Men at some time are masters of their fate.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.146-148)

Helen’s ambition is to marry above her station; Cassius’s is to assassinate a Roman leader. Both challenge socio-political order. And isn’t that what we find most compelling about Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines? Their fearlessness in confronting the cosmos and seeking to reorder it? Her comment, “Impossible be strange attempts to those that weigh their pains in sorrow and do suppose what hath been cannot be,” shows just how far she’s willing to beyond the established order of things. Her quest will be “strange,” out of the ordinary, uncommon, remarkable, the kind of thing others have failed at because they lacked imagination or were defeatist – a hero’s vision. Her final question, it seems to me, is rhetorical, not plaintive. She’s saying “if I strive, I will succeed” – a hero’s stance.

I’ll save a close reading of the second soliloquy for another time.


Friday, June 3, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part J

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

You are right justice, and you weigh this well,
Therefore still bear the balance and the sword,
And I do wish your honors may increase,
Till you do live to see a son of mine
Offend you and obey you, as I did.
... You did commit me;
You shall be as a father to my youth,
My voice shall sound as you do prompt mine ear,
And I will stoop and humble my intents
To your well-practic'd wise directions.
(2 Henry IV 5.2.102-121)

Shakespeare begins this passage with a play on words. "Justice" can be a judge (he's speaking to the Chief Justice), but it can also mean "fair" or "right," ideas symbolized by "the balance and the sword." In a way, we can see Hal find balance, or rightness, in his own life by the end of 2 Henry IV. This passage shows his transformation since "Part 1." In the first play, he is very laid back, lazy, unready to be king, and scheming to manage his image and create an insincere metamorphosis. Here, he shows himself to be the true self he projects in "Part 1." He has emerged as a very honorable man, one who has matured and is ready for the responsibility of being king.

Shakespeare emphasizes this transformation and maturity with his use of imagery that evokes fatherhood and the implication that King Henry IV's influence on Hal has been significant. In the first play we see his struggle to maintain (or regain) his father's approval in his declaration: "I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, be more myself" (1Henry IV, 3.2). In 2 Henry IV, Hal's true "self" has emerged. He mentions to the Chief Justice that he hopes the Justice will be able to see Hal's sons "offend you and obey you, as I did." This shows Hal taking on his father's role, as he is trying to act and discipline people how his father would have, with fairness. In addition, he is arriving at the balance between his youthful behavior (which he understands definitely influenced who he is now) and his future responsibility. He expects no special treatment for his son, but he also acknowledges that youthful rebelliousness is part of the equation.

Calvin Va Her (SPA '12)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well, I Hope

Gil writes:

The Will Shakespeare Experience seems to have choked on The Merry Wives of Windsor, and I am not confident that All’s Well That Ends Well will succeed as a Heimlich maneuver (there’s an analogy that gets out of control).

My own history with the play is minimal, though I may have been prejudiced against it very early in my 60 years of association with Shakespeare. Once upon a time elementary-school Gilbert saw an evening of excerpts from Taming of the Shrew and Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by either Eva Le Gallienne or Margaret Webster, both of whom toured the US at the time, when I was in grade school, but the only image I’ve kept was being allowed to move to the front row at intermission where I was fascinated to see the detail of Puck’s makeup. My first full production was a Tempest when I was in junior high (again, either Webster or Le Gallienne), and from that I remember the scenery, a backdrop of the tempest on a giant roller so the storm sped by as the sailors tilted back and forth to simulate being rocked by waves. Caliban wore a tortoise shell.

It wasn’t until I was in England in high school, and I saw Peggy Ashcroft and Leo McKern in Twelfth Night at the Old Vic that I was hooked for life. Soon thereafter was a Love’s Labour’s Lost with Michael Redgrave (in Newcastle, for some reason), and then acting in my own high-school productions of Henry V—want me to recite the “Upon the King…” speech for you? And since, I have spent many more than a hundred nights (and days during all those summer Shakespeare festivals) in the theatre, read the plays close to a hundred times, and taught at least eighteen.

So where in all that is All’s Well That Ends Well? Well (that didn’t end well), I’ve seen it only once, in Ashland, Oregon, on my honeymoon in 1961, forty-nine years, eleven months ago. What was most memorable about it? It finished last among Midsummer Night's Dream, 1 Henry IV, Hamlet with Richard Russo, and The Alchemist. Honeymoonwise, I remember tubing on the Rogue River, being amused by the Oregon Vortex (“center of mystery”), and splurging on chateaubriand for two in the Mark Antony Hotel. And I vividly remember the young woman I was with, the focus of so many memories for the last 49 11/12 years.

But I’m stalling. Of All’s Well my indelible memory is what an unpleasant play I witnessed, and that was concentrated on what an intolerable jerk Bertram is. He is callow from the start, stiffs the admirable and beautiful Helena (played by Elizabeth Huddle who later was director of the Intiman Theatre in Seattle ) in the complication phase of the plot, and yet when reconciliation and resolve might be anticipated by conventions of comedy, he is still the same, or worse, egocentric pig. To a honeymooner, a play about how grim marriage must be, even at its beginnings, is not promising.

So we left Ashland and went to the Oregon Caves—“see how this single match can illuminate this entire cavern; that illustrates one candle-power.” Bertram was played by a young Nagle Jackson, who has since flourished as a director, including six shows at Ashland (I saw his Pericles in 1967), and playwright (I’ve seen The Quick Change Room, This Day and Age, and Taking Leave). He was guest director at Carleton in 2002, where he directed his own The Elevation of Thieves (he and prof Frank Morral were classmates at Whitman College). He must have given a memorable performance or it wouldn’t be so indelible. I confess that when an actor is so good as a creep that I despise him, I later don’t want to see that actor again anywhere (Jason Alexander after Pretty Woman or Michael Gambon after The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; I know it’s foolish to penalize excellence, but there you are). I didn’t hold Bertram against Jackson, because he also played a definitive Face in The Alchemist as well as bits as Westmoreland and the Player King, but I seem to have dismissed All’s Well forever.

For a graduate course in Shakespearean Comedy, we read nineteen plays—Comedies, Romances, and both Henry IV’s—the final was a take-home (“You have just read a book with nineteen chapters; now write the twentieth chapter”)—and I see that I have no marginal notes for All’s Well at all. (Ernst, don’t tell Bill Matchett that I didn’t read it.)

Reading it this week, it was hard to resist being frivolous:
  • the Countess sends Bertram to court with parental advice: “Love all, trust a few, Do wrong to none,” Polonius to Laertes again, and we know how that worked out;
  • Parolles first described as “you go so much backward when you fight,” a miles gloriousus, but he will never come up to Falstaff’s example;
  • Helena, having miraculously resurrected the King wins her reward: Enter three or four Lords. “Fair maid, send forth thine eye. This youthful parcel/ Of noble bachelors stand at my bestowing,” so for background, you’re going to make me watch The Bachelorette?!? Not to say that Helena journeys on a quest to the King, cure him or die, but if she succeeds she gets to marry the prince, the old fairy tale [but in this case it’s Bertram who wants to marry the King; I said it was as fairy tale—just kidding!!!!]
  • Parolles is hooded by a disguised band of strangers (the French Lords) and they speak to him in tongues: “Boskos vauvado…Oscorbidulchos volivorco…Throca movousus, cargo, cargo, cargo.” And I don’t even know where my Klingon dictionary is.
  • And the unnamed 1 Lord and 2 Lord are at last named in act IV: Capt. Dumaine and Capt. Dumaine, that is my brother Daryl and my other brother Daryl.
OK, you can see my skepticism. But now The Will Shakespeare Experience has been challenged by Randall to redeem All’s Well from the abyss. Mirabilis dictu (that’s Klingon for “oh, wow!), I think we might. I am reading with the attention of a man two generations older than the one who dismissed the play at Ashland in 1961 and am willing to take up the challenge of structure and genre. This is a comedy, “problem” or not, and I’d like to trace that motion of comedy which celebrates change, the younger generation supplanting the older one.

I’d like to listen to Cindy and Mike (and Randall) on what might resonate with contemporary students—something beyond Bachelorette and the Klingons, I hope. And I’d like, not alone, to take on Ellen Terry and account for my Helena. May my second fifty years rise above the prejudice of the first.


Monday, May 30, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part I

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,
Sits not so easily on me as you think.
Brothers, you [mix] your sadness with some fear:
This is the English, not the Turkish court;
Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds,
But Harry Harry. Yet be sad, good brothers,
For by my faith it very well becomes you.
Sorrow so royally in you appears
that I will deeply put the fashion on
And wear it in my heart. Why then be sad,
But entertain no more of it, good brothers,
Than a joint burden laid upon us all.
For me, by heaven (I bid you be assur'd),
I'll be your father and your brother too.
Let me but bear your love, I'll bear your cares.
Yet weep that Harry's dead, and so will I,
But Harry lives, that shall convert those tears
By number into hours of happiness.
(2 Henry IV 5.2.44-61)

Through the new king Henry V's speech to his brothers (John of Lancaster, Thomas of Clarence, and Humphrey of Gloucester) after their father's death, Shakespeare deals with the realities of succession that difficult negotiation between governmental stability and chaotic power struggle and the death of a king while keeping his character true to his personality. This speech touches on everything from propriety and external perception, to the fear that naturally comes in a shift of power, to different kinds of mourning.

Mourning, whether for a king or commoner, can also be a difficult balancing act. Tradition requires particular rituals and outward displays, while the loss itself exacts things, even less predictably. Hal, newly King Henry V, must take his place as king and reassure everyone of the continuing stability of the regency, demonstrate a proper degree of public mourning as both a subject of and the son of the former king, and deal with his own grief. Thus, when he says "this new and gorgeous garment, majesty, sits not so easily on me as you think," he is not merely trying to dispel any jealousy or thought of opposition amongst his brothers, but telling the absolute truth.

As he does with the epitaphs of both Hotspur and Falstaff in the previous play, Hal continues to use honesty in order to lend a more genuine tone to his otherwise fairly ceremonial words. He reassures them of his intention to support them by bluntly telling them that he knows they fear what he may do (implying even that they might fear for their own lives), but that it "is the English, not the Turkish court, not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, but Harry Harry." He introduces and dispels comparison between himself and a ruler who literally strangled his brothers, thus addressing the most extreme of possibilities quickly.

By the end, he assures them that not only will he not harm them, he will protect them and do well by them: "I'll be your father and your brother too. Let me but bear your love; I'll bear your cares." In that, he furthermore introduces the potentially uncomfortable issue of personal relationships. Once their brother, he is now also their king; once his brothers, they are now his subjects. He works with this beautifully, referring to their mourning and sadness for the death of their father as "a joint burden laid upon [them] all" before he moves on to the things he himself promises, thus connecting himself with them in one way even as he has to separate himself from them in another.

Gavi Levy Haskell (SPA '11)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well - Opening Thoughts


I mentioned earlier that I’ve had the chance to see All’s Well That Ends Well twice in the last year, the only times I’ve seen the play produced in 34 years of Shakespeare-going. Having now read the play, I don’t understand why it’s not produced more frequently. The characters are distinctly drawn, the play has a clever fairy tale-like quality, the plot addresses a moral question seriously, the humor is accessible to a modern audience, and our heroine, I think, holds her own against Rosaline and Viola. She’s resourceful, intelligent, devout, and interestingly the only one of the three who need not disguise herself as a guy to successfully complete her quest. Sure, Bertram is a scoundrel. And his lying to the King at the end of the play is cowardly, but it’s not really the problem that critics who label All’s Well a “problem play” make it out to be, depending on how you set up the characters and themes in production.

So that’s my first question. And I address it to Stu and Doug, particularly – Why isn’t All’s Well That Ends Well a more regular part of the Shakespeare comedy rotation? Last year, Stu’s company performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the sixth time in its 35-year history. But in all that time Shakespeare and Company has staged All’s Well only once. Doug’s company, Great River Shakespeare Festival, still in its first decade, has not yet produced it. So, theater people, when you’re selecting plays for the upcoming season and someone says “How about All’s Well,” what tends to be the response? And what are the real criteria for any decision?

Second, for those of you interested in structure and genre, a question about what this play is. Despite its perfection, Twelfth Night is not the last comedy Shakespeare writes (probably). Does a play like All’s Well represent a further development in his concept of comedy, or is it (and the other “problem comedies”) something altogether different?

Third, I’m just now wrapping up a semester of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, 1 Henry IV, Othello, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure), pretty happy with the selection of plays and their success with students. For you high school teachers – Cindy and Mike – if you taught All’s Well what aspect of the play do you think would resonate with your students the most?

Fourth, has anyone seen a production of this play? What was most memorable about it?

Fifth, actress Ellen Terry is supposed to have called Helen a “doormat.” Is she?

And finally, Ernst, here’s one for you: You noted a while back that Elizabethan youth found it hip to be melancholy, to dress all in black and mope around, probably to tick off their parents, and we see this culture reflected in Hamlet. I’m wondering if characters like Lucio in Measure for Measure, who is listed as a “fantastique,” and Parolles in All’s Well, with his gaudy and unapologetic clothing, are also a “type”? Are these satirical characters? Or just fops?

All’s well that starts well,