And we find ourselves at the ending of All’s Well That Ends Well. Does it end well? I think so. At least for me. At least for this discussion.
If you look at the Roadmap, you see that we’re in the midst of the so-called “problem plays.” And while at times that genre is referred to as “dark comedies” and the last play, Troilus and Cressida was problematic, I also found it to be a tragedy; this one–on the other hand–is a comedy. Not necessarily funny, mind you, but a comedy nonetheless, especially in terms of source of genre, as fertility rites were the basis for these tales that end in marriage and/or birth. The play ends with not only the reunion of husband and wife, but with the pregnancy of that wife. So we’ve got that going for us, comically speaking. This conclusion of plot is less than satisfying for an audience (frankly, from a stylistic point of view, there’s just too much resolution in too short a span of lines for it to be truly enjoyable) or happy for the participants (Bertram is now caught between the truth and “deadly divorce”; and Helena is stuck with what she must realize now is a feckless husband… and duo and their knowledge of their states makes it even less fun for the audience).
Despite this lack of a satisfactory resolution (hell, maybe even because of it) and the widespread critical opinion that this play is one of the lesser in the Canon, I like All’s Well That Ends Well. I know what some of you are thinking: Bill, you perverse bastard, you just like to run counter, you with your love of Titus, and now this! Look, I don’t think this is the best play, but I do like it. It’s not even a great play, but it’s like this weird wonderful piece of origami, all folding in on itself, creating something different than what it had been to begin with. Or if not origami, some kind of weird patchwork web of our own making:
And what a mingled-yarned web we have: a play with a clear-cut dichotomy between the first and second halves, in characterization, structure, even the use of fate. A gender role swap with Helena taking on the more typically masculine active role, and Bertram the one more submissive (or he puts it, “in subjection” [I.i.5]). She gets to choose her husband, he’s told who his wife must be, which runs counter to what we’ve seen in earlier comedies.
We’ve got a grumpy fool (though that’s not really out of the ordinary in Shakespeare) and a fiery old man. A pair of lords who happen to be brothers and who have names in the dialogue but not in the cast of characters, and out of their mouths we get the only philosophical statements of the play, like the “mingled yarn” quote above.
The play gives us a blowhard braggart (again not an unheard of supporting character in Shakespeare). This character, Parolles–a name that comes from the French word for “words”–actually has more speeches than any other character in the play… and it’s not even close (Bertram has 102 speeches, Helena, 109; our dime-store Falstaff, a whopping 141). And through a major subplot and set-piece, he is undone and exposed for what he is; this mirrors the revelation of Bertram as a lying cad.
Dead or dying father figures abound at the beginning of the play. Rings. Herculean (or should I say Virgin Mary-an) tasks. That whacked out Bed Trick (and let’s face facts, if the genders had been reversed, wouldn’t we see that act as a kind of rape?.. but here it’s played like some kind of righteous reverse comeuppance [semi-bawdy pun totally intended]).
Helena is a put-upon heroine, one who–because of Bertram’s boorish behavior–is granted sympathy but who is not exactly sympathetic: she wants Bertram, but never stops to think about the possibility that he doesn’t share the feeling. And this contributes to a fairy tale vibe that, like the Parolles persona, is completely subverted by the ending of the play, when we’re told all “seems well” (V.iii.329) but we’re pretty sure isn’t.
A mingled yarn, indeed.
Does such a wildly mixed up play make sense? Can it? Only if you’re looking for a kind of nightmare logic.
I’m not even sure–having never seen a live performance–that it can even be an enjoyable theatrical experience. But damned if there isn’t something there in all its confused bizarre glory that I just kinda dig.
So where do I rank it? Like I said, I don’t think it’s the best, I don’t think it’s great. I put it about dead center in the plays, number 13 out of the 25 I’ve read for the project thus far, just ahead of plays like Richard II and As You Like It (yeah, I know… that sounds weird but in the heat of the moment having just read this, I just like it), and and #1 as a “problem play” ahead of both Troilus and Cressida, and The Merchant of Venice.
So All’s Well is ended. Measure for Measure is next!