05 November 2013

All's Well That Ends Well

By the time I was halfway through the first scene in All's Well That Ends Well, my eyebrows had hit my forehead. I'm no longer wondering why my English lit teacher in high school did not include this play on the syllabus for the Shakespeare class. That first scene contains an amusing discourse on virginity, how it is lost, and whether it's better to keep or lose it, and how it doesn't keep well (odd to think of that having an expiry date). Needless to say, given that the Shakespeare lit class I did in grade 12 was for homeschooling families, I can't see it going over well with the parents or with some of the students.

The story goes thus: A young woman named Helena is in love with young Count Betram, who has recently departed for the sick and ailing King of France's court. She is an attendant of his mother's, the Countess, and is the daughter of a physician. When the Countess discovers Helena's love for her son, she wishes to encourage it, and so Helena departs for Paris, hoping to gain favour in the King's eyes, and a promise of marriage to Betram, by providing him with some of her father's medicines. When she meets with the King, she offers to cure him. If her remedies fail, then her own life is forfeit, but if she succeeds, the King will arrange a marriage for her with the man of her choice. In the meantime, Bertram and the King's lords are trying to handle a war within Italy which France is involved with.

Helena's medicines work, so the King allows her to choose a husband. When she selects Bertram, he refuses. The King insists, so Bertram marries Helena, then refuses to consummate the marriage and sends her home, intending to head out for Italy the next day. So Helena hatches a new plan. She leaves France and goes to Italy as a pilgrim, where she encounters a woman and her daughter, Diana. Diana has caught the eye of Bertram. She's not happy about it, nor about his promises to marry her once his wife is dead. Helena takes Diana's place in bed the one night she consents to sleep with Bertram, and claims his ring. Then she fakes her death, so Bertram believes himself free to wed another. When Diana turns up at the King's court, claiming Bertram as her husband now that his wife is dead, he disavows her. A friend of his bears witness that Bertram was in love with Diana and had claimed to sleep with her. When Diana claims to yet be a maid, confusing matters more, the King is about to throw her into prison when Helena arrives, revealing that she stood in for Diana and therefore claimed her own husband. Bertram acquiesces to a marriage with her now that she has out-smarted him, and the King volunteers to provide a dowry for Diana, for the work she did in assisting Helena.

This isn't one of the more popular comedies. The ending is dissatisfying because, though Helena triumphs, she has chosen a man who only accepts her once she has proven that she is more clever than he, and that makes her somewhat worthy in his eyes, when before, she didn't matter because she was not highborn. He's not the greatest of men. His friend Lafeu, who provides wise and insightful commentary on the situation throughout the play, is a far better character. I feel like Helena's been cheated, even though she wants Bertram and does get him in the end.

One more comedy to go, and it's the one I've been waiting for: A Winter's Tale!

"Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven." Helena, All's Well That Ends Well, I.1.218-219

"If men could be contented to
be what they are, there were no fear in marriage." Clown, All's Well That Ends Well, I.3.370-371

"I am not a day of season,
For thou mayst see a sunshine and a hail
In me at once: but to the brightest beams
Distracted clouds give way; so stand thou forth;
The time is fair again" The King of France, All's Well That Ends Well, V.3.2711-2715

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