All’s Well That Ends Well — Endingus Interruptus: a fairy fail

Back when I was discussing the conclusion of Troilus and Cressida a couple of months back, I said while that play has an ending, it really doesn’t have a resolution to either of its plots, neither the love (comic) plot of our titular lovers, nor the tragic plot of the war (and our–or at least my–tragic hero Pandarus). Well, this play’s ending is just as problematic: All’s Well That Ends Well ends, but not well. It ends too quickly. Not that there isn’t a resolution–in a seeming contradiction, it’s that there may very well be too much resolution.

[And notice the preponderance of “well”s in the last few sentences… but more on that in a bit.]

Hear me out:

  • The king orders a not-quite-cooperative Diana “to prison” (V.iii.291).
  • Diana calls for her mother to bring in her “bail” (V.iii.292).
  • Helena returns from the dead.
  • The king wonders if “is’t real that (he) see(s)” (V.iii.203), and Bertram begs for “pardon” (V.iii.305)… but more on that in a bit.
  • Helena reveals her getting with child “is done” (V.iii.310).
  • Helena and Bertram exchange a different, weirder set of vows (again, more in that in a bit).
  • Lafew takes Parolles home.
  • The king calls for “this story” (V.iii.321) to be told, promises to marry of the virgin Diana, and proclaims “all yet seems well” (V.iii.329) and “sweet” (V.iii.330).
  • And an epilogue calls for our applause.

All in less than 50 lines.

That’s a whole lot of resolution in a short period of time. Especially considering that in this rush to resolution, our heroine Helena speaks only twelve lines in three speeches, and her love Bertram only three lines in two speeches.

When Helena claims to be the name “wife” (V.iii.304) but not the thing itself, Bertram proclaims that she is both, and begs for pardon. It is a very quick exchange and an even quicker change of heart for Bertram. Almost fairy tale-like in his miraculous transformation.

When Helena says that the task “is done,” Bertram says to the king that if Helena can explain to him how all of this happened (and who else could?), then he will “love her dearly — ever, ever dearly” (V.iii.313), which according to Harold Bloom “is at least one ‘ever’ too many” (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom, Harold. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 1998; page 356). Again, he gives her a task, but she responds with an ultimatum of her own: if anything she says proves “untrue // Deadly divorce step between (Helena) and (Bertram)” (V.iii.315-6). And since she’s already returned from the dead, you get the impression that the deadly half of the divorce would belong to Bertram.

So, we have an ending. But it’s crammed in so suddenly, it seems impossible for it to be satisfying to the audience or happy for the participants. It throws a wrench into the works of a fairy tale “happily ever after.” But is that even what Shakespeare’s after? Happiness itself may be a fairy tale. With the “Epilogue” telling us that “All is well ended if this suit be won” (V.iii.332), we’re not only out of the realm of fairy tales, but out of the realm of tales altogether: we’re dealing now with a suit, a business transaction.

Yes, a transaction. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “well” had a number of meanings in Shakespeare’s day. It did not only mean the expected (from a modern perspective) “Expressing a state of good fortune, welfare, or happiness,” “satisfactory,” and “In a state of prosperity or affluence” (“well, adj. and n.3; A.1, A.3a, A.8a, respectively” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 18 September 2015.). It also meant “In a sound or undamaged state. In later use esp. of a ship (often in the context of marine insurance)” and “right and proper in itself or under certain circumstances” (“well, adj. and n.3; 6 and 10, respectively” OED Online.), both with very prominent business applications, and each taking us further away from a fairy tale ending.

In much the same way as The Two Gentlemen of Verona rushes to its ending (and I find it interesting that the two plays I discuss in that blog entry share the letter/writing focus we found in our concordance discussion for this play [Two Gents and Love’s Labor’s Lost]), Shakespeare seems almost hell-bent to get out of All’s Well That Ends Well. Hell-bent. And in a play so tied to heaven, I’m not sure that “all yet seems well” or that this play ends well (stylistically speaking).

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