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,