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,



Anonymous said...

I find the role women hold in shakespeare's plays a bit confusing - some like you have mentioned are presented as strong and independent while others are submissive and their role seems to be informed more by plot or theme than any personal qualities within themselves.
Take for instance Kate from "Taming of the Shrew" she starts out as a rebellious and non conforming to her role in her family or society yet she succumbs in the end to being a submissive and dutiful wife to her new found husband.

Randall said...

If you haven't read it, you may find Isabella in "Measure for Measure" equally interesting. She is on her way to becoming a nun, but gets put in a very difficult position by a local administrator. And then later the Duke proposes to her. If there'd been an Act 6, we might have found out what she had to say about that.

Jonathan Shailor said...

Thank you for posting this rich and thought-provoking discussion! I have always had a fondness for at least some of the so-called "problem plays," including "All's Well," "Measure for Measure," and "Troilus and Cressida." My way of reading all of the plays is to accept Shakespeare's characters as written, and to hold them up as mirrors to my own experiences. In my youth I was once a Bertram to a woman very much like Helena. I was in some ways an ass, and yet she saw something in me that made me worth the pursuit.