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:
- The play opens in prose—spoken by characters who would normally speak in blank verse.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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”?).
- 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)
- 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.”
- There are, again, some rather rich musings on death and courtiers (a favorite Shakespeare concern) in Scene ii.
There’s more, but we want to get out into this beautiful day before driving back down to Kingston.