All’s Well That Ends Well

Act 1

Michael:

All’s Well begins low key, with our learning that Bertran is leaving his recently widowed mother and going to the court, where the king is apparently dying. The man who might have treated the king, Gerard de Narbon, Helena’s father, has also recently died (six months before, we later learn). It’s a somber opening for a comedy. The Countess sends Bertram off with some motherly advice, and the real opening of the plot comes in the middle of the first scene, when Helena soliloquizes that the real source of her tears isn’t the death of her father but the departure of Bertram,  whom she loves, hopelessly because of her much lower estate.

The dialogue with Parolles (“Words”?) that follows seems rather pointless, a discussion of virginity. Some of this dialogue is difficult to quite make out, but it ends with Parolles telling her to get a good husband, “and use him as he uses thee.” Helena’s soliloquy following seems not to respond to this, but expresses her energy — all in rhyme for some reason, perhaps to express its purposefulness. She appears to vow her agency in acting on her love for Bertram and her desire to help the king with her father’s prescription.

The next scene turns to plot development with the king in his court expressing his desire for his gentlemen to fight in the Tuscan wars, apparently on either side. Bertram’s entry recalls his father to the king and makes of the father, as it seems, a nobler figure than Bertram is likely to be. At the end of their dialogue we hear of the physician, Helena’s father, whom the king would turn to if he were still living.

The following scene of the Countess with the Clown again seems to lack purpose, except that it concerns marriage and physical love, which the clown says he requires, which will figure later in the play. The Countess tries to dismiss him, but he hangs around to no obvious purpose. The steward then spills out what he has overheard Helena saying to herself of her love for Bertram; this seems a somewhat awkward intro to the Countess’s breaking of the subject to Helena, mainly through her insistence on being a mother to Helena. Helena resists because that would make her a sister to Bertram, which would suggest that her love is incestuous. But the Countess introduces the idea that she could be a mother to Helena in the sense she could rather be a mother-in-law and uses this to draw her out on her possible love of Bertram. Helena then solemnly confesses her love. We never get a sense of why she should love Bertram. Presumably they have been brought up together, and the hint of a quasi incestuous element may enter here; he’s the brother she doesn’t want to be a brother but a lover. The Countess asks about Helena’s intent to go to Paris to take her father’s prescription to the king, but not incidentally it seems because Bertram is there. Helena understands the prescription as her father’s legacy, presumably in default of a legacy of money or land. The Countess’s support seems the other half of the legacy.

The King is understandably skeptical about Helena’s prescription, but this takes us into Act 2, which I’ll leave to you.

Act 2

Dusty:

Act 2 runs longer than Act 1, five scenes instead of three, about 725 lines instead of about 550. But we still keep focused on a single plot line: Helena’s pursuit of Bertram, who is going off to Paris and then to Italy. Helena’s cure of the king is quickly accomplished without any complication, so it does not seem to constitute a “subplot.” I suppose we could say that Parolles, who talks big but declines to fight, constitutes a second area of interest.

2.1 involves the curing of the king. Curiously, it is introduced by some bawdy talk from Lafew, who assures the king that the medicine he promotes is strong enough to “arise” a king and put “a pen in his hand,” and later jokes that he is like Pandarus, in bringing King and Helena together. The scene is set in verse, but I was puzzled that much of it, beginning with the king at line 124, is in rhymed couplets. Why? Shakespeare seems to want to set off this part of the play, to mark it as different. As you note, Helena had spoken in couplets at the end of 1.1. I wonder if this is a signal that Shakespeare is shifting the register, or the genre, and inviting us to think of these parts as folkloric. There is perhaps something fairy-tale like in the king promising Helena he will grant one wish if she succeeds in curing him.)

2.2 is a short scene in prose — so a real change from the previous scene. It’s devoted to Lavatch making jokes to entertain the Countess, and does not advance the plot. Did Shakespeare include it just to give the actor playing the fool a chance to entertain the audience?

2.3 is another puzzler. In the opening lines Parolles repeatedly interrupts Lafew. Maybe this is another comic routine? What do you make of it? When the king comes in at line 45 he has forgotten how to speak in couplets, although he remembers in time to conclude his first speech with one couplet, and his third. Helena picks it up, and speaks in rhyme while she reviews the men offered to her by the king, and finally chooses Bertram. I was a bit puzzled by the exchanges between Helena and the men. She seems to ask if the first one will “hear her suit” and he says yes, but she then apparently says “thanks anyway.” Then she dismisses the rest of the men. So why does Lafew, who acts as the color commentator of the scene, say that they “deny her”? (Has she not denied them?) And why do we even need Lafew to comment on the scene?

I suppose there is something comic in Bertram’s situation and responses: he has been chosen but has no say in the matter. When he tells the king that he understands what Helena has done for the king, but doesn’t see why “he should marry her,” he seems to have a good case. How do you play this scene? Does the director want us take offense at Bertram’s snobbishness, or to have sympathy with him? or just be amused?

Bertram and the King exchange dialogue in unrhymed verse, but then at line 126 the king again shifts into couplets to give Bertram a lesson in what constitutes worth. Bertram does not follow his lead, so the rest of their dialogue is in unrhymed verse. They leave, and Parolles and Lafew remain, and Lafew picks a fight with him. I am again disoriented: maybe this is part of the “Parolles plot” — his gradual unmasking. Bertram returns and tells his bosom friend Parolles that he will never “bed” Helena, and instead will go off to the Italian wars. Is there something comic here — a man declining sex? — or is Bertram hoping, by avoiding consummation, to get an annulment? As Bertram departs, his final two speeches close with a rhymed couplet. And even Parolles picks up the pattern. The effect, I think, is to sustain a sense of unreality or artifciality. But I am interested to know what you think.

 

2.4 is another short scene like 2.2. Also in prose. And involves Lavatch. And a series of jokes, this time a series of plays on “she is not well” (i.e., she will not be “well” until she is dead.) An apparently trivial bit of humor based on proverbial wisdom, except that it seems to call into question another bit of proverbial wisdom that assures us that “all’s well that ends well.” But the scene also advances the plot: Parolles lets Helena know that Bertram will not bed her. Helena takes it very calmly, indeed passively, asking  what other commands her new husband has for her. How do you play Helena in this scene? How does she react to Parolles, whom we are coming to see to be a lowlife? Why does she tolerate him? And is she really as meek and self-effacing as she seems?

2.5 has Bertram trying to patch up the quarrel between Lafew and Parolles. Then in comes Helena, Bertram’s “clog.” Do you play her as Patient Griselda, putting up with abuse from her new husband? Or do you play her as sly, maintaining her pride and putting on an act? (Bertram seems discomfited by her repeated declarations that she will obey him.) Is she trying to get the upper hand, or is she just trying to get a farewell kiss?

Michael:

I’ll take up some of the Act 2 questions before I go on to Act 3. This is an odd play, isn’t it, with the sections in rhymed couplets, the odd, folkloric marriage plot, the intermixing of seemingly irrelevant comic scenes. I reread Decameron 3.9 to see if there are any hints. The only things I learned is that Bertram and Helena were indeed childhood companions and that her love for him dates to that; nothing about his sentiments. And Helena has twins from the encounter in Florence. The French king is very grateful to Helena and seems to think it okay to order Bertram to marry Helena.

Maybe the rhyme does give these sections a folkloric character, though the language doesn’t seem to follow that. The mixing of those scenes with the Parolles’ what? satire? and the Clown’s chatting with the Countess is also odd. My text calls Lavatch just the Clown, and I’m guessing Sh. had to use him.

The Parolles/Lafew beginning of 2.3 just tells us that the king has been cured, and seems otherwise just filling space. Then the king calls in “three or four” bachelors, and it’s awkward that Helena has to turn them all down, not that any seem at all eager to be chosen. When she finally springs the trap on Bertram, “this is the man,” he seems baffled that he should marry her just because she has cured the king. It might be played as comic, but that would seem to make a joke of the whole premise. Maybe the king’s rhymed speech wants to raise the situation out of common sense into the realm of fairy tale. But Betram’s single-line response decisively favors the common sense understanding. Helena seems also to favor this: she’s happy the king is restored, “Let the rest go.” But the king takes it personally, and insists that Bertram take her. I gather that his reply is, well, okay, since you insist and since you’re coming up with the cash and honor, I’ll submit. So the play’s over, right? But then Parolles seems to unravel the whole thing in ways I don’t understand in the quarrel with Lafew. Then Bertram comes in and tells Parolles of his plans; he’s married, but won’t consummate, but rather go off the the Tuscan wars. War is preferable to “the dark house and the detested wife.”

 

I find 2.4 rather baffling, maybe more jokes just to give the Clown/Lavatch employment. Yes, everything seems to depend on how Helena’s single lines are spoken, but how? I think it might be more challenging to play Helena here and in 2.5 as sly and proud, as if she has a sense of what she’ll do — even though she can’t really yet know. But the Patient Griselda side does seem built into the situation.

Act 3

Michael:

Act 3 is shorter, seven scenes and some 470 lines, and mostly concerned with plot, though we do have something of  a lame subplot in Parolles and the drum. The first scene switches us to Florence and the Duke’s war, then in 3.2 back to the Countess and the letter from Bertram about his plan. The Countess cites Parolles as in part to blame, but I don’t think we really agree. At the end of the scene, Helena blames herself for Bertram’s decision and vows that she will leave France so he will have no wife in France to keep him away. In the short third scene Betram is given a position in the duke of Florence’s army; the significant line is the final one in which B. declares himself a lover of the duke’s drum and a hater of love.

In Scene 4 the Countess reads a letter from Helena that she is will be a pilgrim to Saint Jaques; since this is in Compostela, it’s hard to see how the route lies through Florence. Her letter contains more of the self-sacrificing language she had earlier used, and Countess responds with her grief.

Scene 5 moves the plot with the women in Florence mentioning the corrupt Parolles and Helena entering; the Florentine women commiserate with what they’ve heard of Bertram. When he and his company parade past, Helena can see and appreciate him. It seems clear that a part of his otherwise mystifying appeal are his good looks. And Parolles is singled out for blame, and we hear of the lost drum. This becomes something of a subplot in the next scene, as Parolles is induced to think he can recover it. There’s a general sense among the various lords that Parolles is a scoundrel. But at the end of the scene the plot is advanced with Bertram’s interest in the Florentine woman who will be Diana.

The act ends with Helena concocting the plot to trap Bertram, getting the ring and substituting herself for Diana. The morality of it all is decidedly blurred, as Helena puts it, “wicked meaning in a lawful deed, And lawful meaning in a lawful act, Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.” Bertram sins, but unbeknownst to himself, does not objectively sin. And Helena presumably does not sin either in intention or fact. It all compounds the dilemma that Helena created with her request of the king –and the king created by agreeing to it.

I wonder if the initial craziness of Act 4 recalls some of the plot against Malvolio, though we don’t pity Parolles.

 

Dusty:

Some further thoughts on Act 3:

Yes, it’s full of plot, mostly serving to set up the two traps that will be sprung in Act 4 — the fake-interrogation of Parolles and the bed-trick. I continue to be puzzled why the Countess is so tender towards Helena. And Helena takes self-abasement to extremes. There seems to be very little in Parolles in which we are invited to take comic pleasure. I suppose he is a descendant of the Braggart Soldier, and a cousin of Falstaff. But he’s nasty and “filthy.”

The church where Helena hides out is St. Jaques le Grand, which seems to be in or near Florence, and not the one in northwestern Spain.

Act 4

Dusty:

The two traps are sprung, though Shakespeare spares us the bedroom scene (though we see Diana getting the ring from Bertram). Parolles has a big part in this act, which makes me rethink his role in the first two acts, where he seemed extraneous. I guess Shakespeare wants him to constitute a second plot in the play: he is exposed by a trick just as Bertram is. If the play is to work as a comedy, Parolles can’t be too sinister a figure, or the balance of the play shifts away from comedy. Can we think of him as a minor-league Falstaff? But he doesn’t have Falstaff’s wit, invention, and gusto. What he shares is cowardice, gluttony, and readiness to lie. And in this play he is ready not just to rob travelers, but to turn traitor, betraying the army he fights with. (By arranging for a peace, Shakespeare reduces the consequences of Parolles’s readiness to betray.)

How do you play Diana in 4.2? Is she modest, compliant, innocent? Isn’t she also ready and willing for intrigue and deception? That’s an interesting mix. She tells herself that the deception is “no sin” because it’s for a good cause. This seems to be the moral “problem” in this problem play: how much deception can be used to counter wickedness?

4.3 begins with discussion of Bertram’s remorse for abandoning Helena and his readiness to “pervert” Diana, but quickly moves on to spring the trap on Parolles. I thought it interesting that the two malefactors (Bertram and Parolles) are considered, as it were, together. This takes place even at the sentence level: “We will not meddle with him till  he come, for his presence must be the whip of the other.” My editors suggest that “him” is Parolles and “he” is Bertram, and that “his” refers to Bertram and “the other” to Parolles. But Shakespeare’s pronouns mean that you could say just the reverse.

If Helena is dead, as it is reported, why is not Bertram free to do what we will with women, even to marry Diana? The two lords suggest that Bertram will be glad of Helena’s death, and comment on his valor and his faithlessness, both his virtues and his faults. 2nd Lord says “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” It’s perhaps a meta-comment on the nature of the play, a “mingled yarn,” both comedy and (potential) tragedy.

The big theatrical moment in the act is the extended interrogation of Parolles, presumably with Bertram behind a curtain. Parolles not only betrays his army’s secrets, but also bad-mouths Capt. Dumaine — and his brother! And on top of it all has apparently written a letter of warning to Diana. In trying to puzzle out this excess, I came to suspect that Parolles had figured out that he was being tricked, and decided to ham it up, inventing “Dumaine” but slyly inviting his interrogators to understand that he is in fact describing himself as a thief, liar, drunk, and ravisher. The idea is apparently to show that he understands that it’s all a trick, and he will play his part in it. As for the letter to Diana, I can think of no motive for that other than an attempt to blackmail Bertram, to make clear that he has incriminating evidence on him. Maybe we’re supposed to find Parolles both ingenious and nasty.

4.4, a scene between Helena and Diana, seems unnecessary. It’s as if Helena and Diana are reassuring themselves (and Shakespeare reassuring us) that what they are doing is lawful, since “All’s well that ends well.” Maybe the fact that Shakespeare feels the need to make this point again suggests that he in fact raises a question about it.

The short 4.5. gives us more of the Clown, and I can’t see why. Did Shakespeare think he owed something to the actor, or that the audience demanded a clown? Is it possible that he wanted us  to find Lavatch’s jokiness tiresome and irrelevant in this new kind of play? The exchange between Lafew and the Countess puzzled me: is Lafew seizing the opportunity to promote a match between his own daughter and the now-apparently-wifeless Bertram? Or is he part of a plot that we don’t yet know about to reunite Bertram and Helena by having Helena impersonate Lafew’s daughter?

 

Michael:

The second ring, the one Bertram is wearing, which we learn Helena had from the King, then Bertram from Helena as Diana, puzzles somewhat. We hear of it earlier when Diana says she, actually Helena, will give it to Bertram, 4.26.61ff., but unless I missed it, not earlier. Of course it makes a nice pairing with Bertram’s ring that he gives to Helena as Diana, which he’d made part of his separation from Helena. You would think this would be part of the King’s gift to Helena, but if so I missed it. This ring isn’t in Boccaccio.

Yes, there is a San Giacomo Maggiore in Florence, but it seems odd to cross it with the pilgrimage to Compostella. It’s not in Boccaccio, so Sh. must have heard of this elsewhere, and decided to cross it with the pilgrimage site.

Yes, Parolles must have a distant kingship with Falstaff and the braggart soldiers of Plautus, but he doesn’t seem really funny, and the subplot just seems to fill out the play. I’m doubtful that he sees through the deception and plays along with it. Of course Falstaff would claim this. But Parolles just seems nasty. And unnecessary.

Act 5

Michael:

In the first scene of Act 5, Helena gives a letter for the king to a gentleman, and we learn that the king, rather improbably, is in Rousillon. We also get the repeated assurance that all’s well that ends well. Then a return of Parolles, first for some jokes with Lavatch/Clown, but what the encounter with Lafew means is hard to say.

Then the final, long scene brings all together for what in a romance would be the recognition scene. The Countess’s words to the king seem designed to mitigate Bertram’s viciousness; he was just a stupid kid, and the king seems inclined to go along with this, as long as he doesn’t ask the king’s pardon, since B. reminds him of Helena’s reputed death. B’s willingness to marry Lafew’s daughter seems to redeem him. The king’s rhyming praise becomes a kind of epitaph for the supposed dead Helena. But then the second ring comes into play, Bertram’s that he had from Helena as Diana, recognized by Lafew as Helena’s, then by the king as given to Helena. Bertram cannot believe it had been Helena’s and seems to concoct a story about its having been thrown to him. As this angers the king, B. is taken off, and the plot thickens with the entry of the gentleman to whom Helena had given the letter to the king. It doesn’t seem clear whether the letter really is from Diana or was written by Helena. It underscores Bertram’s fecklessness, since she says he beat it out of Florence without a goodbye. Lafew withdraws his daughter, and the king wonders whether Helena’s death may have something to do with B. The entry of the widow and Diana completes, or almost, the springing of the trap, and the other ring, Bertram’s, is brought forth. Bertram’s rehabilitation is not at all helped by what he says of Diana, the he “boarded her i’ th’ wanton way of youth,” that she got the ring from him by playing on him. The last bit of the scene puts all the pieces together in a series of paradoxes: Parolles telling of B’s encounter with Diana, “loved her and loved her not.” Then Diana’s response seems to follow that, the king’s ring was not given to her, nor did she find it, and the king reacts angrily, and she says if she ever knew man, it was he (to a king?) Why has she accused B, he asks, and she responds is the same sense of paradox, B. is guilty and not guilty; he knows she’s not a virgin, and she will swear she is. She’s either a maid, or the kiTg’s wife. Only the audience knows the way out, and Diana ends with “one that’s dead is quick.” This brings on the climax of the recognition, Helena’s entry. She presents B. with his ring. Lafew’s comment about smelling onions seems risky for the dramatic effect of the scene, as also does his comment to Parolles.

The king hasn’t learned his lesson, since he promises the same favor he granted Helena to Diana. Are they rolling their eyes in the final lines?

So what to make of this odd play. In a number of ways it shares elements with the romances: a strong, virtuous, put-upon heroine, who must act on her own behalf. A weak, or culpably mistaken, morally compromised husband/lover; deception and disguise, the reputed dead coming back to life, and finally redemption of the male figure. One of Parolles’ dramatic counterparts would seem to be Autolycus, though he’s both funnier and more effective. So is the play a kind of early attempt at romance? The redemption of the male figure isn’t very effective here. Much of the concluding business rests the unfolding of on the series of paradoxes. And that last part of the final scene seems rushed. Bertram’s “Both, both, O pardon” and his final couplet don’t seem adequate. And what of those twin boys in Boccaccio? Helena must be visibly pregnant here.

 

Dusty:

Some responses to your comments on Act IV:

The two rings at first seem a bit much, but maybe there’s a reason for it. I think we hear first (in III. 2) about Bertram’s ring, the one he will never take off, and will signify that he is Helena’s husband only if she can get it. We hear about it again in III. 7. We later hear, from Helena in IV. 2 about “another ring,” the second ring, the one Diana gives to Bertram. Why didn’t Helena discuss that second ring in III. 7? Am I right in thinking that we don’t find out until later that Diana got the ring from Helena, who in turn got it from the KIng. In the end Helena gives it back to the king, and it is on his hand in V. 3 when Diana recognizes it. Maybe the two rings in some sense suggest the rings that two betrothed people exchange.

I continue to be puzzled by the big scene in which Parolles is exposed. Maybe you’re right that he shamelessly lies and then confesses. And the “Captain Dumaine” and his brother that Parolles slanders are apparently not invented, but are the same as First Lord and Second Lord.

And on Act V:

It’s odd that the shameless liar Parolles is called in as a witness. Why should anybody trust his “word”? (Lafew makes the pun at V. 2. 40). Just as we have two rings, we have two letters to the king, one in V. 1 and one in V. 2.

I think you rightly call V.3 the recognition scene (as in romance) — it’s also the reconciliation scene. Yes, All’s Well  shares several features with The Winter’s Tale. But WT seems a much richer and more heartfelt play. And even there are improbabilities, at least Shakespeare provides for a gap of many years for repentance and reformation. Here it’s maybe a matter of days or weeks after Helena has been reported Undead that Bertram is quickly forgiven, by both his mother and the King, and is readied for marriage with an obliging girl whom we never even meet. The King remembers Helena fondly, but then is ready to “forget” her (67).

Diana and the Widow play their assigned parts well — they show no hesitancy, and as you say Diana speaks boldly and dangerously to the king in one of her “riddles” (300).

When Helena enters, it takes Bertram only a moment to acknowledge her as his “wife” and to ask “pardon.” But why should we accept this? He never showed the slightest fondness for her before: maybe he is just yielding to his legal status. (Contrast the great moment at the end of the Marriage of Figaro when the Count, suddenly exposed, asks the Countess to forgive him.) And why should Helena, after what she has learned of Bertram, have the slightest interest in asking him “will you be mine?” At this point we are in the realm of folktale or fairy tale.

Is it notable that Bertram says he will love her “IF she . . can make me know this clearly”? Maybe he is still dragging his heels. And Helena responds with another “if”: if she cannot make things plain, they will “divorce.” Although Lafew is ready to weep, this hardly seems a moment for tears of joy.

On top of it all, Parolles is still on stage, not banished from the festivities. In fact, he is reconciled with Lafew! And I agree with you — it’s just too much when the King promises Diana she too can choose a husband.

We are assured several times that “All’s well that ends well,” most recently at V. 2. 25. In the closing couplet, the King repeats the sentiment, though with a difference: “All yet seems well,” and he too has an if: “. . . “if it end so meet,/ The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.” Much hangs on “if.”

On the whole, I find the play unsatisfying:  too much Clown (Lavatch), an unreformed Parolles who seems to get a free pass, a heroine who seems to have no reason to love Bertram except for his good looks, and no real reason to continue to want him (except maybe that she’s now pregnant), and a “hero” (if you can call him that) who acts badly throughout the play (except in war), gets easily forgiven, and then after resolutely and repeatedly pushing Helena away suddenly decides that  he will “love her dearly.”

 

Michael:

The second ring might have worked better if we’d heard of it earlier and were led to anticipate its use. Yes, I think we don’t hear of this second ring until later, when it seems a bit confusing.

My sense is that All’s Well is a sort of try-out for the romance genre, but with much still to understand, especially the necessary role of time; all of the later romances allow time to pass before things are allowed to produce reconciliation and forgiveness. The count’s sudden realization and plea for forgiveness in the Marriage of Figaro certainly works — and is rather thrilling — but maybe that’s because of the music that accompanies it, and the countess’s earlier “Dove sono i bei momenti” aria may allow anticipation. The quick and easy conclusion of All’s Well, Bertram’s apparent turn, Helena’s return from the dead, her too easy acceptance of his conversion, etc., all point to the need of time. Maybe part of the problem is that title, All’s Well, that seems to allow too much, and it gets repeated at various points in the play; one wants to stop and ask, “really, are you sure?” And the king hasn’t learned anything.

I agree in finding the play unsatisfying and needing some revision. My final, final thought is that Shakespeare needed our advice on this play; the various problems we’ve found, maybe especially in Bertram, need fixing, and Bertram needed some sort of chastisement before he’s worthy of Helena. And in fact we need to see some sense of his earlier worthiness, besides his good looks, to make us care about his possible reformation. And Parolles seems altogether a mistake, as well as Lavatch the clown.

 

Dusty:

I think you are right that All’s Well only makes sense as a clumsy attempt at romance. I can’t figure out how much time passes in the play between the reported death of Helena and her reappearance in V.3. Are there any indications of a change in season? Any references to Helena looking pregnant? If not, then maybe it’s at most a couple of months. The King and the Countess agree pretty quickly to “move on.” As for Helena, who has grounds for lasting anger and resentment, I don’t think she ever gave up loving and wanting Bertram, and never said a bad word about him.

So you might say that the play is a clumsy comedy: in a way it’s not unlike Twelfth Night, in which the girl is determined to get the guy, and encounters a lot of difficulties and unkindness before she finally gets him. (Remember that Orsino even threatens to kill “Cesario” and she says he is ready to die for him. I don’t think we really take either Orsino or Viola seriously, and in any case neither one of them leaves the stage and the matter, based on a misunderstanding, is quickly resolved.)

All’s Well That Ends Well

Michael:

All’s Well begins low key, with our learning that Bertran is leaving his recently widowed mother and going to the court, where the king is apparently dying. The man who might have treated the king, Gerard de Narbon, Helena’s father, has also recently died (six months before, we later learn). It’s a somber opening for a comedy. The Countess sends Bertram off with some motherly advice, and the real opening of the plot comes in the middle of the first scene, when Helena soliloquizes that the real source of her tears isn’t the death of her father but the departure of Bertram,  whom she loves, hopelessly because of her much lower estate.

The dialogue with Parolles (“Words”?) that follows seems rather pointless, a discussion of virginity. Some of this dialogue is difficult to quite make out, but it ends with Parolles telling her to get a good husband, “and use him as he uses thee.” Helena’s soliloquy following seems not to respond to this, but expresses her energy — all in rhyme for some reason, perhaps to express its purposefulness. She appears to vow her agency in acting on her love for Bertram and her desire to help the king with her father’s prescription.

The next scene turns to plot development with the king in his court expressing his desire for his gentlemen to fight in the Tuscan wars, apparently on either side. Bertram’s entry recalls his father to the king and makes of the father, as it seems, a nobler figure than Bertram is likely to be. At the end of their dialogue we hear of the physician, Helena’s father, whom the king would turn to if he were still living.

The following scene of the Countess with the Clown again seems to lack purpose, except that it concerns marriage and physical love, which the clown says he requires, which will figure later in the play. The Countess tries to dismiss him, but he hangs around to no obvious purpose. The steward then spills out what he has overheard Helena saying to herself of her love for Bertram; this seems a somewhat awkward intro to the Countess’s breaking of the subject to Helena, mainly through her insistence on being a mother to Helena. Helena resists because that would make her a sister to Bertram, which would suggest that her love is incestuous. But the Countess introduces the idea that she could be a mother to Helena in the sense she could rather be a mother-in-law and uses this to draw her out on her possible love of Bertram. Helena then solemnly confesses her love. We never get a sense of why she should love Bertram. Presumably they have been brought up together, and the hint of a quasi incestuous element may enter here; he’s the brother she doesn’t want to be a brother but a lover. The Countess asks about Helena’s intent to go to Paris to take her father’s prescription to the king, but not incidentally it seems because Bertram is there. Helena understands the prescription as her father’s legacy, presumably in default of a legacy of money or land. The Countess’s support seems the other half of the legacy.

The King is understandably skeptical about Helena’s prescription, but this takes us into Act 2, which I’ll leave to you.

Dusty:

Act 2 runs longer than Act 1, five scenes instead of three, about 725 lines instead of about 550. But we still keep focused on a single plot line: Helena’s pursuit of Bertram, who is going off to Paris and then to Italy. Helena’s cure of the king is quickly accomplished without any complication, so it does not seem to constitute a “subplot.” I suppose we could say that Parolles, who talks big but declines to fight, constitutes a second area of interest.

2.1 involves the curing of the king. Curiously, it is introduced by some bawdy talk from Lafew, who assures the king that the medicine he promotes is strong enough to “arise” a king and put “a pen in his hand,” and later jokes that he is like Pandarus, in bringing King and Helena together. The scene is set in verse, but I was puzzled that much of it, beginning with the king at line 124, is in rhymed couplets. Why? Shakespeare seems to want to set off this part of the play, to mark it as different. As you note, Helena had spoken in couplets at the end of 1.1. I wonder if this is a signal that Shakespeare is shifting the register, or the genre, and inviting us to think of these parts as folkloric. There is perhaps something fairy-tale like in the king promising Helena he will grant one wish if she succeeds in curing him.)

2.2 is a short scene in prose — so a real change from the previous scene. It’s devoted to Lavatch making jokes to entertain the Countess, and does not advance the plot. Did Shakespeare include it just to give the actor playing the fool a chance to entertain the audience?

2.3 is another puzzler. In the opening lines Parolles repeatedly interrupts Lafew. Maybe this is another comic routine? What do you make of it? When the king comes in at line 45 he has forgotten how to speak in couplets, although he remembers in time to conclude his first speech with one couplet, and his third. Helena picks it up, and speaks in rhyme while she reviews the men offered to her by the king, and finally chooses Bertram. I was a bit puzzled by the exchanges between Helena and the men. She seems to ask if the first one will “hear her suit” and he says yes, but she then apparently says “thanks anyway.” Then she dismisses the rest of the men. So why does Lafew, who acts as the color commentator of the scene, say that they “deny her”? (Has she not denied them?) And why do we even need Lafew to comment on the scene?

I suppose there is something comic in Bertram’s situation and responses: he has been chosen but has no say in the matter. When he tells the king that he understands what Helena has done for the king, but doesn’t see why “he should marry her,” he seems to have a good case. How do you play this scene? Does the director want us take offense at Bertram’s snobbishness, or to have sympathy with him? or just be amused?

Bertram and the King exchange dialogue in unrhymed verse, but then at line 126 the king again shifts into couplets to give Bertram a lesson in what constitutes worth. Bertram does not follow his lead, so the rest of their dialogue is in unrhymed verse. They leave, and Parolles and Lafew remain, and Lafew picks a fight with him. I am again disoriented: maybe this is part of the “Parolles plot” — his gradual unmasking. Bertram returns and tells his bosom friend Parolles that he will never “bed” Helena, and instead will go off to the Italian wars. Is there something comic here — a man declining sex? — or is Bertram hoping, by avoiding consummation, to get an annulment? As Bertram departs, his final two speeches close with a rhymed couplet. And even Parolles picks up the pattern. The effect, I think, is to sustain a sense of unreality or artifciality. But I am interested to know what you think.

 

2.4 is another short scene like 2.2. Also in prose. And involves Lavatch. And a series of jokes, this time a series of plays on “she is not well” (i.e., she will not be “well” until she is dead.) An apparently trivial bit of humor based on proverbial wisdom, except that it seems to call into question another bit of proverbial wisdom that assures us that “all’s well that ends well.” But the scene also advances the plot: Parolles lets Helena know that Bertram will not bed her. Helena takes it very calmly, indeed passively, asking  what other commands her new husband has for her. How do you play Helena in this scene? How does she react to Parolles, whom we are coming to see to be a lowlife? Why does she tolerate him? And is she really as meek and self-effacing as she seems?

2.5 has Bertram trying to patch up the quarrel between Lafew and Parolles. Then in comes Helena, Bertram’s “clog.” Do you play her as Patient Griselda, putting up with abuse from her new husband? Or do you play her as sly, maintaining her pride and putting on an act? (Bertram seems discomfited by her repeated declarations that she will obey him.) Is she trying to get the upper hand, or is she just trying to get a farewell kiss?

Michael:

I’ll take up some of the Act 2 questions before I go on to Act 3. This is an odd play, isn’t it, with the sections in rhymed couplets, the odd, folkloric marriage plot, the intermixing of seemingly irrelevant comic scenes. I reread Decameron 3.9 to see if there are any hints. The only things I learned is that Bertram and Helena were indeed childhood companions and that her love for him dates to that; nothing about his sentiments. And Helena has twins from the encounter in Florence. The French king is very grateful to Helena and seems to think it okay to order Bertram to marry Helena.

Maybe the rhyme does give these sections a folkloric character, though the language doesn’t seem to follow that. The mixing of those scenes with the Parolles’ what? satire? and the Clown’s chatting with the Countess is also odd. My text calls Lavatch just the Clown, and I’m guessing Sh. had to use him.

The Parolles/Lafew beginning of 2.3 just tells us that the king has been cured, and seems otherwise just filling space. Then the king calls in “three or four” bachelors, and it’s awkward that Helena has to turn them all down, not that any seem at all eager to be chosen. When she finally springs the trap on Bertram, “this is the man,” he seems baffled that he should marry her just because she has cured the king. It might be played as comic, but that would seem to make a joke of the whole premise. Maybe the king’s rhymed speech wants to raise the situation out of common sense into the realm of fairy tale. But Betram’s single-line response decisively favors the common sense understanding. Helena seems also to favor this: she’s happy the king is restored, “Let the rest go.” But the king takes it personally, and insists that Bertram take her. I gather that his reply is, well, okay, since you insist and since you’re coming up with the cash and honor, I’ll submit. So the play’s over, right? But then Parolles seems to unravel the whole thing in ways I don’t understand in the quarrel with Lafew. Then Bertram comes in and tells Parolles of his plans; he’s married, but won’t consummate, but rather go off the the Tuscan wars. War is preferable to “the dark house and the detested wife.”

 

I find 2.4 rather baffling, maybe more jokes just to give the Clown/Lavatch employment. Yes, everything seems to depend on how Helena’s single lines are spoken, but how? I think it might be more challenging to play Helena here and in 2.5 as sly and proud, as if she has a sense of what she’ll do — even though she can’t really yet know. But the Patient Griselda side does seem built into the situation.

Michael:

Act 3 is shorter, seven scenes and some 470 lines, and mostly concerned with plot, though we do have something of  a lame subplot in Parolles and the drum. The first scene switches us to Florence and the Duke’s war, then in 3.2 back to the Countess and the letter from Bertram about his plan. The Countess cites Parolles as in part to blame, but I don’t think we really agree. At the end of the scene, Helena blames herself for Bertram’s decision and vows that she will leave France so he will have no wife in France to keep him away. In the short third scene Betram is given a position in the duke of Florence’s army; the significant line is the final one in which B. declares himself a lover of the duke’s drum and a hater of love.

In Scene 4 the Countess reads a letter from Helena that she is will be a pilgrim to Saint Jaques; since this is in Compostela, it’s hard to see how the route lies through Florence. Her letter contains more of the self-sacrificing language she had earlier used, and Countess responds with her grief.

Scene 5 moves the plot with the women in Florence mentioning the corrupt Parolles and Helena entering; the Florentine women commiserate with what they’ve heard of Bertram. When he and his company parade past, Helena can see and appreciate him. It seems clear that a part of his otherwise mystifying appeal are his good looks. And Parolles is singled out for blame, and we hear of the lost drum. This becomes something of a subplot in the next scene, as Parolles is induced to think he can recover it. There’s a general sense among the various lords that Parolles is a scoundrel. But at the end of the scene the plot is advanced with Bertram’s interest in the Florentine woman who will be Diana.

The act ends with Helena concocting the plot to trap Bertram, getting the ring and substituting herself for Diana. The morality of it all is decidedly blurred, as Helena puts it, “wicked meaning in a lawful deed, And lawful meaning in a lawful act, Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.” Bertram sins, but unbeknownst to himself, does not objectively sin. And Helena presumably does not sin either in intention or fact. It all compounds the dilemma that Helena created with her request of the king –and the king created by agreeing to it.

I wonder if the initial craziness of Act 4 recalls some of the plot against Malvolio, though we don’t pity Parolles.

 

Dusty:

Some further thoughts on Act 3:

Yes, it’s full of plot, mostly serving to set up the two traps that will be sprung in Act 4 — the fake-interrogation of Parolles and the bed-trick. I continue to be puzzled why the Countess is so tender towards Helena. And Helena takes self-abasement to extremes. There seems to be very little in Parolles in which we are invited to take comic pleasure. I suppose he is a descendant of the Braggart Soldier, and a cousin of Falstaff. But he’s nasty and “filthy.”

The church where Helena hides out is St. Jaques le Grand, which seems to be in or near Florence, and not the one in northwestern Spain.

Dusty:

The two traps are sprung, though Shakespeare spares us the bedroom scene (though we see Diana getting the ring from Bertram). Parolles has a big part in this act, which makes me rethink his role in the first two acts, where he seemed extraneous. I guess Shakespeare wants him to constitute a second plot in the play: he is exposed by a trick just as Bertram is. If the play is to work as a comedy, Parolles can’t be too sinister a figure, or the balance of the play shifts away from comedy. Can we think of him as a minor-league Falstaff? But he doesn’t have Falstaff’s wit, invention, and gusto. What he shares is cowardice, gluttony, and readiness to lie. And in this play he is ready not just to rob travelers, but to turn traitor, betraying the army he fights with. (By arranging for a peace, Shakespeare reduces the consequences of Parolles’s readiness to betray.)

How do you play Diana in 4.2? Is she modest, compliant, innocent? Isn’t she also ready and willing for intrigue and deception? That’s an interesting mix. She tells herself that the deception is “no sin” because it’s for a good cause. This seems to be the moral “problem” in this problem play: how much deception can be used to counter wickedness?

4.3 begins with discussion of Bertram’s remorse for abandoning Helena and his readiness to “pervert” Diana, but quickly moves on to spring the trap on Parolles. I thought it interesting that the two malefactors (Bertram and Parolles) are considered, as it were, together. This takes place even at the sentence level: “We will not meddle with him till  he come, for his presence must be the whip of the other.” My editors suggest that “him” is Parolles and “he” is Bertram, and that “his” refers to Bertram and “the other” to Parolles. But Shakespeare’s pronouns mean that you could say just the reverse.

If Helena is dead, as it is reported, why is not Bertram free to do what we will with women, even to marry Diana? The two lords suggest that Bertram will be glad of Helena’s death, and comment on his valor and his faithlessness, both his virtues and his faults. 2nd Lord says “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” It’s perhaps a meta-comment on the nature of the play, a “mingled yarn,” both comedy and (potential) tragedy.

The big theatrical moment in the act is the extended interrogation of Parolles, presumably with Bertram behind a curtain. Parolles not only betrays his army’s secrets, but also bad-mouths Capt. Dumaine — and his brother! And on top of it all has apparently written a letter of warning to Diana. In trying to puzzle out this excess, I came to suspect that Parolles had figured out that he was being tricked, and decided to ham it up, inventing “Dumaine” but slyly inviting his interrogators to understand that he is in fact describing himself as a thief, liar, drunk, and ravisher. The idea is apparently to show that he understands that it’s all a trick, and he will play his part in it. As for the letter to Diana, I can think of no motive for that other than an attempt to blackmail Bertram, to make clear that he has incriminating evidence on him. Maybe we’re supposed to find Parolles both ingenious and nasty.

4.4, a scene between Helena and Diana, seems unnecessary. It’s as if Helena and Diana are reassuring themselves (and Shakespeare reassuring us) that what they are doing is lawful, since “All’s well that ends well.” Maybe the fact that Shakespeare feels the need to make this point again suggests that he in fact raises a question about it.

The short 4.5. gives us more of the Clown, and I can’t see why. Did Shakespeare think he owed something to the actor, or that the audience demanded a clown? Is it possible that he wanted us  to find Lavatch’s jokiness tiresome and irrelevant in this new kind of play? The exchange between Lafew and the Countess puzzled me: is Lafew seizing the opportunity to promote a match between his own daughter and the now-apparently-wifeless Bertram? Or is he part of a plot that we don’t yet know about to reunite Bertram and Helena by having Helena impersonate Lafew’s daughter?

 

Michael:

The second ring, the one Bertram is wearing, which we learn Helena had from the King, then Bertram from Helena as Diana, puzzles somewhat. We hear of it earlier when Diana says she, actually Helena, will give it to Bertram, 4.26.61ff., but unless I missed it, not earlier. Of course it makes a nice pairing with Bertram’s ring that he gives to Helena as Diana, which he’d made part of his separation from Helena. You would think this would be part of the King’s gift to Helena, but if so I missed it. This ring isn’t in Boccaccio.

Yes, there is a San Giacomo Maggiore in Florence, but it seems odd to cross it with the pilgrimage to Compostella. It’s not in Boccaccio, so Sh. must have heard of this elsewhere, and decided to cross it with the pilgrimage site.

Yes, Parolles must have a distant kingship with Falstaff and the braggart soldiers of Plautus, but he doesn’t seem really funny, and the subplot just seems to fill out the play. I’m doubtful that he sees through the deception and plays along with it. Of course Falstaff would claim this. But Parolles just seems nasty. And unnecessary.

Michael:

In the first scene of Act 5, Helena gives a letter for the king to a gentleman, and we learn that the king, rather improbably, is in Rousillon. We also get the repeated assurance that all’s well that ends well. Then a return of Parolles, first for some jokes with Lavatch/Clown, but what the encounter with Lafew means is hard to say.

Then the final, long scene brings all together for what in a romance would be the recognition scene. The Countess’s words to the king seem designed to mitigate Bertram’s viciousness; he was just a stupid kid, and the king seems inclined to go along with this, as long as he doesn’t ask the king’s pardon, since B. reminds him of Helena’s reputed death. B’s willingness to marry Lafew’s daughter seems to redeem him. The king’s rhyming praise becomes a kind of epitaph for the supposed dead Helena. But then the second ring comes into play, Bertram’s that he had from Helena as Diana, recognized by Lafew as Helena’s, then by the king as given to Helena. Bertram cannot believe it had been Helena’s and seems to concoct a story about its having been thrown to him. As this angers the king, B. is taken off, and the plot thickens with the entry of the gentleman to whom Helena had given the letter to the king. It doesn’t seem clear whether the letter really is from Diana or was written by Helena. It underscores Bertram’s fecklessness, since she says he beat it out of Florence without a goodbye. Lafew withdraws his daughter, and the king wonders whether Helena’s death may have something to do with B. The entry of the widow and Diana completes, or almost, the springing of the trap, and the other ring, Bertram’s, is brought forth. Bertram’s rehabilitation is not at all helped by what he says of Diana, the he “boarded her i’ th’ wanton way of youth,” that she got the ring from him by playing on him. The last bit of the scene puts all the pieces together in a series of paradoxes: Parolles telling of B’s encounter with Diana, “loved her and loved her not.” Then Diana’s response seems to follow that, the king’s ring was not given to her, nor did she find it, and the king reacts angrily, and she says if she ever knew man, it was he (to a king?) Why has she accused B, he asks, and she responds is the same sense of paradox, B. is guilty and not guilty; he knows she’s not a virgin, and she will swear she is. She’s either a maid, or the kiTg’s wife. Only the audience knows the way out, and Diana ends with “one that’s dead is quick.” This brings on the climax of the recognition, Helena’s entry. She presents B. with his ring. Lafew’s comment about smelling onions seems risky for the dramatic effect of the scene, as also does his comment to Parolles.

The king hasn’t learned his lesson, since he promises the same favor he granted Helena to Diana. Are they rolling their eyes in the final lines?

So what to make of this odd play. In a number of ways it shares elements with the romances: a strong, virtuous, put-upon heroine, who must act on her own behalf. A weak, or culpably mistaken, morally compromised husband/lover; deception and disguise, the reputed dead coming back to life, and finally redemption of the male figure. One of Parolles’ dramatic counterparts would seem to be Autolycus, though he’s both funnier and more effective. So is the play a kind of early attempt at romance? The redemption of the male figure isn’t very effective here. Much of the concluding business rests the unfolding of on the series of paradoxes. And that last part of the final scene seems rushed. Bertram’s “Both, both, O pardon” and his final couplet don’t seem adequate. And what of those twin boys in Boccaccio? Helena must be visibly pregnant here.

 

Dusty:

Some responses to your comments on Act IV:

The two rings at first seem a bit much, but maybe there’s a reason for it. I think we hear first (in III. 2) about Bertram’s ring, the one he will never take off, and will signify that he is Helena’s husband only if she can get it. We hear about it again in III. 7. We later hear, from Helena in IV. 2 about “another ring,” the second ring, the one Diana gives to Bertram. Why didn’t Helena discuss that second ring in III. 7? Am I right in thinking that we don’t find out until later that Diana got the ring from Helena, who in turn got it from the KIng. In the end Helena gives it back to the king, and it is on his hand in V. 3 when Diana recognizes it. Maybe the two rings in some sense suggest the rings that two betrothed people exchange.

I continue to be puzzled by the big scene in which Parolles is exposed. Maybe you’re right that he shamelessly lies and then confesses. And the “Captain Dumaine” and his brother that Parolles slanders are apparently not invented, but are the same as First Lord and Second Lord.

And on Act V:

It’s odd that the shameless liar Parolles is called in as a witness. Why should anybody trust his “word”? (Lafew makes the pun at V. 2. 40). Just as we have two rings, we have two letters to the king, one in V. 1 and one in V. 2.

I think you rightly call V.3 the recognition scene (as in romance) — it’s also the reconciliation scene. Yes, All’s Well  shares several features with The Winter’s Tale. But WT seems a much richer and more heartfelt play. And even there are improbabilities, at least Shakespeare provides for a gap of many years for repentance and reformation. Here it’s maybe a matter of days or weeks after Helena has been reported Undead that Bertram is quickly forgiven, by both his mother and the King, and is readied for marriage with an obliging girl whom we never even meet. The King remembers Helena fondly, but then is ready to “forget” her (67).

Diana and the Widow play their assigned parts well — they show no hesitancy, and as you say Diana speaks boldly and dangerously to the king in one of her “riddles” (300).

When Helena enters, it takes Bertram only a moment to acknowledge her as his “wife” and to ask “pardon.” But why should we accept this? He never showed the slightest fondness for her before: maybe he is just yielding to his legal status. (Contrast the great moment at the end of the Marriage of Figaro when the Count, suddenly exposed, asks the Countess to forgive him.) And why should Helena, after what she has learned of Bertram, have the slightest interest in asking him “will you be mine?” At this point we are in the realm of folktale or fairy tale.

Is it notable that Bertram says he will love her “IF she . . can make me know this clearly”? Maybe he is still dragging his heels. And Helena responds with another “if”: if she cannot make things plain, they will “divorce.” Although Lafew is ready to weep, this hardly seems a moment for tears of joy.

On top of it all, Parolles is still on stage, not banished from the festivities. In fact, he is reconciled with Lafew! And I agree with you — it’s just too much when the King promises Diana she too can choose a husband.

We are assured several times that “All’s well that ends well,” most recently at V. 2. 25. In the closing couplet, the King repeats the sentiment, though with a difference: “All yet seems well,” and he too has an if: “. . . “if it end so meet,/ The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.” Much hangs on “if.”

On the whole, I find the play unsatisfying:  too much Clown (Lavatch), an unreformed Parolles who seems to get a free pass, a heroine who seems to have no reason to love Bertram except for his good looks, and no real reason to continue to want him (except maybe that she’s now pregnant), and a “hero” (if you can call him that) who acts badly throughout the play (except in war), gets easily forgiven, and then after resolutely and repeatedly pushing Helena away suddenly decides that  he will “love her dearly.”

 

Michael:

The second ring might have worked better if we’d heard of it earlier and were led to anticipate its use. Yes, I think we don’t hear of this second ring until later, when it seems a bit confusing.

My sense is that All’s Well is a sort of try-out for the romance genre, but with much still to understand, especially the necessary role of time; all of the later romances allow time to pass before things are allowed to produce reconciliation and forgiveness. The count’s sudden realization and plea for forgiveness in the Marriage of Figaro certainly works — and is rather thrilling — but maybe that’s because of the music that accompanies it, and the countess’s earlier “Dove sono i bei momenti” aria may allow anticipation. The quick and easy conclusion of All’s Well, Bertram’s apparent turn, Helena’s return from the dead, her too easy acceptance of his conversion, etc., all point to the need of time. Maybe part of the problem is that title, All’s Well, that seems to allow too much, and it gets repeated at various points in the play; one wants to stop and ask, “really, are you sure?” And the king hasn’t learned anything.

I agree in finding the play unsatisfying and needing some revision. My final, final thought is that Shakespeare needed our advice on this play; the various problems we’ve found, maybe especially in Bertram, need fixing, and Bertram needed some sort of chastisement before he’s worthy of Helena. And in fact we need to see some sense of his earlier worthiness, besides his good looks, to make us care about his possible reformation. And Parolles seems altogether a mistake, as well as Lavatch the clown.

 

Dusty:

I think you are right that All’s Well only makes sense as a clumsy attempt at romance. I can’t figure out how much time passes in the play between the reported death of Helena and her reappearance in V.3. Are there any indications of a change in season? Any references to Helena looking pregnant? If not, then maybe it’s at most a couple of months. The King and the Countess agree pretty quickly to “move on.” As for Helena, who has grounds for lasting anger and resentment, I don’t think she ever gave up loving and wanting Bertram, and never said a bad word about him.

So you might say that the play is a clumsy comedy: in a way it’s not unlike Twelfth Night, in which the girl is determined to get the guy, and encounters a lot of difficulties and unkindness before she finally gets him. (Remember that Orsino even threatens to kill “Cesario” and she says he is ready to die for him. I don’t think we really take either Orsino or Viola seriously, and in any case neither one of them leaves the stage and the matter, based on a misunderstanding, is quickly resolved.)