I’ve talked in the past (almost ad nauseam) about the lack of true stage direction in the texts of the plays of Shakespeare. However, many clues for the actor and director are slipped into the dialogue and speeches. All’s Well That Ends Well is no different.
Obviously, we need Helena to cry in the opening scene, as Lafew tells the countess (after she has discussed Helena’s dead father), “Your commendations, madam, get from her tears” (I.i.46-7). Helena doesn’t need to be bawling, but she needs to be, at the very least, wiping her eyes.
In Act One, Scene Three, when the countess questions Helena on her feelings about Bertram, Helena responds, “Then I confess // Here on my knee … I love your son” (I.iii.187-8, 190). Though every edition I’ve seen has “[Kneels]” or “[Kneeling]” preceding the speech, these are editorial additions as in the actual published text of the First Folio, no such direction appears.
Of course, the question then becomes “when does she rise from her knees?” There aren’t even implicit dialogue cues for this one. Possibly Helena rises as soon as two lines later in the same speech: “Be not offended” (I.iii.192); here, she could rise to follow the countess if she were to walk away. It’s possible that her use of the phrase “Indian-like, // Religious in mine error” (I.iii.200-1) signifies that she should still be kneeling. If this is the case, maybe she rises on “Let not your hate encounter with my love” (I.iii.204) or “O, then give pity” (I.iii.209); each of these make requests of the countess, but they are more directing than begging.
After the king is cured and he makes his entrance into Act Two, Scene Three, it should be with a bounce in his step at the least, at the most maybe a full dance, as Lafew notes that the king is “able to lead (Helena) in a coranto” (II.iii.42). A coranto is not only a kind of dance, but one in which the music is “a tune in triple time” (“coranto, n.; 2” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 13 September 2015.). A lively dance, indeed.
When Parolles has an exchange with the clown Lavatch in Act Two, Scene Four, after the fool’s six-line speech that feels like a verbal attack, punctuated by five “nothing”s (and remember what that can mean), Parolles responds, “Away! th’art a knave” (II.iv.28). With such a verbal attack, it would not be surprising that there is a physical component to it as well, one that could cause the braggart to exclaim for the clown to get away from him.
Sometimes, the clues are less for the actors/director than for other members of the production staff: In the case of the parade of French soldiers before the Florentine women, the costume designer is given hints to provide some flamboyant dress for the soldiers, outfitted with “plume(s)” (III.v.69) and “scarfs” (III.v.84).
In Act Five, Scene Two, the clown Lavatch pinches his nose shut (“stop your nose” [V.ii.10] and “stop my nose” [V.ii.12]) in response to the body odor of the now disgraced Parolles (and his “stink[ing]” [V.ii.12] metaphor). Later in the scene, when Lafew believes Parolles is a beggar, he gives him a coin, as he says, “There’s a cardecue for you” (V.ii.32). In this case, “cardecue” is a reference to the French coin, quart d’écu; so there needs to be the gift of a coin.
Finally, in the last scene, when Diana confronts Bertram, she tells him, “If you shall marry, // You give away this hand, and that is mine” (V.iii.168-9). This hand is not her own physical hand but Bertram’s (it’s only hers as the concept of “one flesh” though marriage). It’s a cue to the actress to do something with Bertram’s hand. But what? Point to it? Touch it? Hold it, maybe even interlacing her fingers with his? We don’t know with certainty, but we do know the actress needs to do something.
Man, I love mining the text for clues and cues.