All’S Well That Ends Well
The lately widowed Countess of Rossillion has a son, Bertram, who prepares to go to Paris as the king's ward. Helena, whose father has recently died, grew up with Bertram and, unknown to him, loves him passionately. Helena follows Bertram to the French court, and offers the king a secret remedy for the disease that threatens his life. In return, she asks that the king give her the husband she desires. She heals the king and chooses Bertram, who is furious at having to marry beneath him. Yet, marry he must. Following the wedding, Bertram leaves for the wars in Italy with Parolles, a braggart he admires. He sends Helena word that she may never call him husband until she secures the family ring from his finger and begets him a child. In Florence, Bertram "tempts the honor" of Diana, an Italian girl. Helena, on a pilgrimage which brings her to Florence, persuades Diana to consent and to demand Bertram's ring. Helena then takes Diana's place in the nighttime rendezvous, consummating the marriage without Bertram's knowledge. They all return to the French court, where Helena appears and confronts Bertram with the evidence that she has fulfilled his conditions. Backed into a corner, he accepts her as his wife, but whether out of necessity or joy, Shakespeare leaves us to decide.
The exact composition date of All's Well that Ends Well is uncertain, however the play was probably written in 1602-1603. Dating figures importantly to All's Well because it has greatly influenced the way the play has been perceived. Prior to the mid-twentieth century it was seen as an early and "failed" play of Shakespeare's. It was almost always produced as a farce, and was given fewer than 200 performances before 1916. In this century All's Well has been accepted as the work of an older, more mature Shakespeare. The play's complex interweaving of themes and the modern juxtaposition of its fairy-tale and realistic qualities are now appreciated.
Shakespeare's source for the story of All's Well was Boccaccio's (1313-1375) "Gigletta di Nerbona." The story belongs to a section of Boccaccio's Decameron (Day III) which is concerned with the mutability of fortune. It focuses particularly on people "who by dint of their own efforts have achieved an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost." Although Shakespeare follows Boccaccio's basic plot closely, he makes alterations that heighten its comedy and deepen its meaning. First, as he did with nearly all the stories he transformed into plays, he compresses the time of the story, heightening its drama. Second, he makes Helena poor and young, although Boccaccio's Gigletta is wealthy and worldly. This change increases our sympathy for Helena and accentuates a major theme of the play: the assessment of human worth by merit earned versus merit inherited. Shakespeare's third major change also accentuates the theme of merit: Bertram is much more pronounced in his faults than his counterpart, Bertramo. Fourth, Shakespeare's king plays a larger role than Boccaccio's and insists on the equality of human beings and the value of earned merit. He warmly approves the match of Bertram and Helena, where Boccaccio's king hesitates. Finally, Shakespeare adds four major characters who operate in different ways to raise Helena in our estimation and degrade Bertram: the Countess of Rossillion (Bertram's mother), Lafeu (the wise and forgiving counsellor), Lavache (the wise fool), and Parolles, the character who provides much of the play's comedy. With these changes Shakespeare highlights the themes of true honor versus the appearance of honor, the relativity of moral judgments, and the relationship between forgiveness and moral regeneration.
FAIRY TALE AND MORALITY PLAY Shakespeare employed two ancient story-telling forms in writing All's Well. One, the fairy tale, he inherited from his source. The other, the morality play, he worked into the story. The type of fairy and folk tales of which All's Well is an example are known as Virtue stories. These are composed of two major sections: The Healing Of The King and The Fulfillment Of The Tasks. These tales can be found in the early literature of cultures the world over and have two qualities in common: the cleverness and devotion of the woman sent by her husband to perform the tasks, and the husband's immediate acceptance of the fulfillment of the tasks as evidence of the wife's courage and love. The Healing Of The King in All's Well is a variation of a common popular theme: a hero wins the hand of the king's daughter by performing a difficult task, in which failure will cost him his life. Boccaccio and Shakespeare add interest by switching the genders of the characters. Shakespeare also drew on the morality plays, a popular medieval theatrical form in which characters representing good and evil struggle for the soul of the hero. In All's Well Shakespeare has created similar relationships by adding the character of Parolles. Parolles acts as Vice personified, and Helena acts as Divine Grace. Together they struggle for the soul of Bertram, unredeemed man. Shakespeare carefully weaves these two forms together at two major points in the action. Helena's healing of the king operates on the level of fairy tale and carries hints of the miraculous as well. Lafeu calls it "A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor." At the end of the play, Bertram's acceptance of Helena fits the Virtue story form. It also reflects the point in morality plays when unredeemed man, burdened by sin and about to be carried off to the everlasting torments of hell, calls for mercy. However, unlike the characters in morality plays and fairy tales, Shakespeare's characters are realistic in their motivations and behavior. Can a fairy tale work in the complex lives of real people? By putting these realistic characters in fairy-tale situations perhaps we should wonder if Shakespeare is asking us, "Is all well that ends well?" After so much talk of the play's background, it is easy to lose sight of the story itself. The CSF production, which draws inspiration from the paintings of Chagall to show the changing of the seasons and the passage of time, also focuses attention on Helena's determination and ability to overcome obstacles and make choices for her own life. This idea is succinctly summed up by Murial St. Clare Byrne: Helena is a heroine of unusually strong character and intelligence, with that capacity for loving (in the adult sense) that Shakespeare admires in women, who is in love not with a hero but with a handsome, aristocratic, spirited, young woodenhead-a very young and very ordinary young man. And this is an ordinary twentieth century situation. Dennis Beck, Dramaturg, All's Well That Ends Well
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