Wednesday, June 03, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

Shakespeare, William. All's Well That Ends Well.

What does a girl have to do to catch a husband? Apparently a lot if you're a young maiden named Helena. In All's Well That Ends Well, the readers meet a young woman, Helena, who is madly in love with a young man, Bertram. Bertram is, in my opinion, an ass. He is stupid and lusty, and lusty and stupid. And he hangs out with with a truly annoying guy named Parolles. What is keeping these two apart? I mean, besides the fact that Bertram has no interest in her? Well, Helena, though well-beloved by her guardian, The Countess of Rousillon, is not noble by birth. She's the daughter of a very good (but now dead) doctor. And she can't reasonably hope to marry well--let alone marry her dream guy, Bertram, who is a Count (the son of the (above) Countess). So what's a girl to do, I say?!

Well, if you're Helena, you'll think up a couple of schemes. Scheme #1 being that you will head off to the King of France, who is conveniently dying, cure him with your father's wonderful secret remedies, and earn his devotion, respect, and favor. Once you've been granted the hand of ANY man in the kingdom, then you can go about nonchalantly (or maybe not so much) choosing the man you've loved all along, which in Helena's case is Bertram. Is Bertram extra-stupid, or is he just a typical guy in need of a couple years maturity? I'll leave that up to others to decide. Meanwhile, his response to Helena--and to the King--is to throw a temper tantrum, sulk and pout, and stomp off stealthily (again, not so much) to a whole other country--but not before he says, "I do."

Having won her husband in name only, Helena returns to the Countess who is pleased to see her but annoyed with her son for being the way he is. (He probably needed more spankings, perhaps?) After receiving a letter from him that he will not be her true husband until she has his ring on her finger and his child in her womb, she runs away to plot more schemes. The Countess is upset to see her go, but not too distressed since she has a full-time Clown to entertain her and make bawdy jokes night and day.

Bertram and his companions are in Florence, in the army, and when they're not off, you know, fighting, he is busy trying to have his way with various women. One woman that he is wooing is named Diana, she is the daughter of a widow woman. This widow-woman just happens to meet up with Helena--Helena has followed her husband secretly to Florence--and oh the plotting that these two do!

Can Helena (with some help, of course) win her husband's heart?

My thoughts on All's Well That Ends Well:

This is my first time with this play. I was a little nervous tackling it all on my own. But it was surprisingly easy to follow. At least surprisingly easy to follow....for being Shakespeare. I think the fact that it is a comedy, and that the jokes still translate (at least relatively so) as funny all these centuries later just shows you how some things never change. Is Helena stupid for loving a man who doesn't love her back? Should the Countess--or the King, or the Widow--have just told her that 'he's just not that into you'? Does Helena's loving Bertram make her weak by today's standards? Shouldn't Bertram have some say in who he marries? After all, it is his life. And couldn't Helena's persistent devotion be seen as proof of how stubborn she is? And if she's stubborn about this, she could very well turn out to be stubborn in everything else. I'm not saying Helena's wrong, not really, every single character--almost every single character anyway--seems to praise Helena as being the essence of a good woman, a great woman, an amazingly wonderful woman. But does the reader have enough proof that this is so? She does save the King's life, and that is something, and while her motives may be double in nature--wanting the king's favor to grant her Bertram--she probably does want to see him live for his own sake. And she does save the king by her own skill, her own smarts, so that says something: she is smart in some things at least. Why does she love Bertram? Why is he 'the one' for her? What makes him so wonderful in Helena's eyes? (Fortunately, Shakespeare was no Stephenie Meyer else all Helena's speeches would talk about his eyes.) Do we as readers need to know? It's always nice if we're shown why a hero and heroine belong together. (I think that is why I heart Much Ado About Nothing so much!!!) If the reader comes to feel what the heroine feels, then we have a connection with both hero and heroine. It makes for a more satisfying story. And that is something that is definitely lacking in All's Well That Ends Well. Helena loves him. End of story. Throw a party.


With a title like "All's Well That Ends Well," I feel it's not much of a surprise that things end well. For me to be convinced that things were really well, I'd need to feel that Bertram grew least grew up a little. What has Bertram done to prove to readers that he is good-husband-material? Nothing. At all. Sure, he says he'll be a good and true husband to her. But really, what else can he say with all his boasting of how he came to care for her only after Helena's "death"? He could talk big to his mother and to his king when he thought his wife was dead. Yes, I repented of not loving her. Yes, I'm a fool. But having come to love her though too late, I'm a better man now. Can I get married to this other chick, now? I'm suspicious of Bertram still. Why? Because he's not honest. That and he's stupid. He's stupid for thinking he can get away with telling lie after lie. (I wouldn't have been surprised to hear him say emphatically and imploringly, I did not have sex with that woman.) Bertram's also insulting. Not only does he insult Helena (a few times to her face, but mostly by letter), he's insulting to Diana as well. When Diana is before the king, confessing all, he uses the old sure-but-she's-just-a-whore excuse. Of course, Diana wasn't a whore. She's a maiden still, as the reader well knows. (I personally would have written in a few face slaps. You know how Jack Sparrow is always getting his face slapped by women he's done wrong, well, Bertram needs a comeuppance.) Can Helena change Bertram? Really? Truly? Is a happily ever after likely here?

Why did I feel inspired to read this play? Well, I'm in Liv's A Shakespearean Summer Reading Challenge.

Have you read All's Well That Ends Well? Did you like it? What do you think are the chances for these two being happy together? Have you seen a good production of this play? I'd love to hear about it if you have! If you've not read the play (or even if you have, I suppose), what is it about Shakespeare that you love or hate most?

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Shanra said...

That has got to be the most amusing summary of a Shakespeare play that I've ever read. And that includes the summaries-in-verse which I lent out to... someone and really should ask back.

Last year, I pretty much ODed on Shakespeare because I insisted on reading all the plays in the course (and then some) before the semester began. Reading three plays in one day is not advised. But that's neither here nor there, except as partial reason why I think Shakespeare should be performed. (If you ever get a chance to watch a Cheek by Jowl performance of Shakespeare, take it, by the by.)

All's Well that Ends Well was one of the plays I read back then. I'm sad to say without prompting that's about as good as my memory gets. I think that also says something about how much I liked the plot. It's amusing, but as you say isn't terribly convincing (or, I suppose, happy ending-y) to a modern reader. We expect more from our plays, and this isn't one of Shakespeare's best anyway.

Which brings me neatly to 'What do I (dis)like about Shakespeare'. I suppose I could sum it up as 'I dislike having to read Shakespeare', but that might be cheating the question. Because, in all honesty, I can't answer it any better than "Why do you like icecream?" and "Why do you like chocolate icecream but hate vanilla flavour?"

Neither of which will net you a better answer than "Because I do..." on a good day, never mind a bad one. I'm not a terribly visual creature, myself, so for me reading the plays is far too bare to form a decent picture of the play. (That's not to mention it's hard to read even with footnotes because the vocabulary is what it is. You'd think four or five classes regarding Early Modern English would make it easier.) When it's performed, though? I was lucky enough to be able to attend Cheek by Jowl's interpretation of Troilus and Cressida last year and... wow. Most every Shakespeare performance I've seen (granted, this isn't much) have been so very powerful to see.

One of my favourite series is Slings and Arrows. It's a three-season Canadian series about a Shakespearean actor's troupe and their troubles staying afloat in a world no longer interested as interested in theatre. The first season focuses on Hamlet, and yes the title comes from one of his soliloquys. The speeches are... Wow. You're not given the whole plays in the series, so having those snippets (of famous lines), with the power they do... Just imagine them in their full context, produced on a stage... It's amazing.

And I think that might be why I like Shakespeare, after all. But the plays have tobe performed in some way or another. (And that got to be very long. Sorry. ^-^; )

Amanda said...

Wonderful review! I haven't read this one but it doesn't look like it would be my favorite either. Kind of like a Midsummer Night's Dream...wake up! He's just not into you! And I heart Much Ado About Nothing...I think my favorite one.