Wednesday, May 11, 2016

All's Well That Ends Well - Shakespeare

The king of France is sick and no one can find a cure.  There was some hope that a famous doctor could help him, but the doctor has died.  Fortunately, that doctor had a daughter, named Helena.  Helena is a poor girl, but much loved by the Countess of Rossillion, who thinks of her like her own daughter.  The Countess finds out that Helena loves her son, Bertram.
Helena journeys to see the king and offers him a cure of her father's.  She pledges her life if it doesn't work.  In return, the king offers her the hand in marriage of any of the noble men of her choosing.  The cure works and Helena chooses Bertram.  Bertram is less than pleased at this.  He decides to avoid his new wife and go to war instead.
Helena chases after him in disguise.  She finds that Bertram is wooing another woman, Diana.  Diana is fiercely protective of her virginity and refuses all of Bertram's advances.  Helena approaches her and proposes a 'bed trick' in which Diana will seem to accept Bertram into her bed, but it will really be Helena there.  Bertram beds her and then flees, leaving a family ring behind.
The war ends and everyone goes back to find the king visiting the Countess of Rossillion.  Bertram is told that Helena has died of grief.  Diana has followed him to berate him for broken promises.  Bertram denies that he has been with her.  Helena enters with the ring.  And also pregnant.  Bertram is trapped and agrees to be a loving husband to his wife.

In 'All's Well that Ends Well', Shakespeare turns the table on the story from 'Taming of the Shrew'.  Here we have a girl choosing to marry someone who doesn't want to marry her.  This story feels more sympathetic to the rejected party.  I wonder how the audiences of Shakespeare's time felt about that?
This end of the 'war between the sexes' feels very unfunny.  Helena is rejected by an awful man and then she chases after him.  He is tricked into a bed with her and only then agrees to be a good husband.  None of this feels like justice.  None of it feels like a recipe for a happy life after.
In fact, there is another unique end to this comedy.  Both of the young women, Helena and Diana, have mothers (or at least mother figures) who are actively trying to help them.  I don't think this is true in any other of Shakespeare's comedies.

There is also a bit with a braggart named Parolles, who is tricked into showing his bad nature to Bertram.  Maybe it works well on stage, but it didn't work well from the page.  He seems a particularly lackluster 'clown'.  He is tricked while being threatened with death. 
All in all, this is a very dark comedy.  That's not necessarily bad, but it didn't feel like it worked here.  This was new to me, and I didn't really care for it.

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