All’s Well That Ends Well is a late-phase work from 1604-1605, well toward the end of Shakespeare’s career. Queen Bess had been dead for some time; her successor, the profligate James, secure on the throne and parceling out his token and favors at considerable cost to the royal treasury. Scholars consider this play to be an evolved sequel to Love’s Labours Lost – the famed apocryphal Love’s Labours Won – from a decade prior.
He didn’t coin the proverb that titles the play. It was already well-known, but come on – you use it regularly, as do I, when circumstances warrant. All’s well that ends well! (This brings to mind our breaking news of the day here in Italy – our country house is now newly provisioned with gas – after more than four months of bureaucracy, struggle, try, try again, etc. As soon as I wrap The Shakespeare Project, I’ll turn my writerly attentions to the minor drama of Jason and Monica’s Country House in Tuscany, which offers a plenitude of its own drama as we navigate deep crevices of Italian bureaucracy and culture. More on that anon.)
To the enormous satisfaction of the Boccaccio scholar in our household, the bones of All’s Well That Ends Well are lifted from the tale of Giletta di Narbona, tale nine of day three of The Decameron, which in turn was derived from another well-known European folktale.
In brief, a humble young woman (Helena) falls in love with a noble young man (Bertram, my least favorite name of all time, sorry if it happens to be your name), who is compelled by the king to marry her. But he’s young and feisty and would rather study abroad, i.e., go to war in Italy. He seduces a maid in Florence (Ms. Capilet, and yes, we note that name recycle) who crosses paths with Helena. They collude to trick Bertram: he takes his wife Helena to bed rather than the maid Diana Capilet. (Who can tell in the dark? Audience, please suspend all disbelief.) At the end of the play, it is revealed that Helena is in fact alive (it was given that she was dead) and pregnant with Bertram’s child, at which point he grows up very quickly and demands further proof. Everyone’s happy in the end. All’s well that ends well!
Helen’s a great lead, a strong female character. A woman who practices medicine, famed enough to be summoned to cure a king. Bertram – we wonder why she’s so into Bertram. Aspirational marriage? Juvenile fixation? Her obsession rings true. Who among us was not held in thrall by a consuming crush as a young adult? What I found strange, though, is how little she appears to actually know Bertram. They do not banter; they do not bicker. She puts him on a pedestal and vows to win him at any cost. All her moves are strategically made to align with drawing every closer to Bertram, Bertram, until she finds herself miles away on a battlefield in a dark bedroom, bedding the husband who scorned her, pretending to be the battlefield strumpet/Florentine maid Diana. But every character seems to love Helena. Her mother-in-law, Bertram’s mother, loves her. The French king loves her. Every other person in the play is working to help out Helena.
Some people take issue with this obsession, the near-conniving it brings about. She tricks Bertram into thinking she is someone else and gets herself with his child. Okay, she is married to him, and is actually his legal wife, but he thinks she is dead and doesn’t bother to turn a light on to see that she is not, in fact, Diana. (Audience, please continue to suspend disbelief.)
I suppose my takeaway from this play is, Helena, why? Aim higher. Bertram’s no good. Nowhere near her station.
If it appear not plain and prove untrue,
Deadly divorce step between me and you.— Helena, Act V, Sc. 3
I know five hundred years ago social stations were different, but really, this rigid? Sigh. My Romantic (in the literary sense) betrays me, Jena School and Young Werther.
I am from humble, he from honored name;
No note upon my parents, his all noble.
My master, my dear lord he is, and I
His servant live and will his vassal die. – Helena, Act I, Sc 3
I might come back to this one just because I like Helena so much, even if she’s disturbingly close to home. Never mind the king’s disgusting malady.
Next up: Othello, but it’ll be a quick one because, like everyone else on the planet, I’ve seen it a few times.
Tales of Tuscan homeowner drama to follow!