Occasionally, I like to take a look at a concordance–a reference book that lists every major word used in a work and the number of appearances there–for words that I notice popping up repeatedly throughout a text. For Julius Caesar, it was “noble,” while in Twelfth Night, it was “gull.” “Play” in Hamlet. “Man” in As You Like It. “Noting” and “listening” in Much Ado About Nothing. So what about All’s Well That Ends Well?
Well, in my deeper dives into this play, I’m seeing quite a bit about writing and letters.
A look at the concordance (and for the purposes of this blog, I use the one at OpenSource Shakespeare) comes back with some interesting results. If we look for forms of the verb “to write” (writ, write, written, writing, writer, wrote, and the like) combined with references to letters, and All’s Well That Ends Well comes in fourth place in the Canon with a total of 35 references. Only Love’s Labor’s Lost (41), King Lear (47), and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (a whopping 54) have more. I haven’t re-read Lear in years; we’ll catch up with the old guy in about six months. But Love’s and Two Gents I have read. Now, it might be my rapidly aging and slowing mind, but I don’t remember there being a whole lot of letters in those plays. I could be mistaken, and the fact that I read both those plays at the beginning of 2010 (yikes, over five years ago!) may have something to do with it, but I just don’t remember.
On the other hand, in this play, we have a boatload of letters. And I’m not talking about writing that is referenced in passing. No. I mean letters that appear in the text (and should be seen onstage):
- “Enter the King of France with letters, and divers Attendants” (I.ii opening stage direction [not an editorial addition])
- Countess: “To your business: give Helen this (letter), // And urge her to a present answer back.’ (II.ii.58-9)
- “A letter” from Bertram which the countess reads aloud (III.ii.19 stage direction; read 19-26)
- Helena’s letter from Bertram her “passport” (read III.ii.56-9)
- Helena to Bertram: “here’s your letter,” the one she had received and red in Act Three, Scene Two (V.iii.309)
- Countess: “Brought you this letter, gentlemen?” (III.ii.61)
- The “letter” Helena sends to the countess when fleeing Rossilliion (III.iv.4-17)
- Countess: “take the letter…read it again” (III.iv.1, 3)
- The letter Parolles wrote to Diana, which was in his pocket (IV.iii.219-227)
- Helena to the gentleman she meets in Marseilles: “Commend the paper to (the king’s) gracious hand” (V.i.31)
- “A letter” from Diana to the king, the one given by Helena to the gentleman in Act Five, Scene One (V.iii.139 stage direction; read 139-146)
- Parolles: “give my Lord Lafew this letter” (V.ii.1-2)
Nine different letters, physical missives that appear in the play.
And those are beyond the writings merely mentioned:
- Lafew: “To give great Charlemagne a pen in’s hand, // And write to her a love line” (II.i.78-9)
- Bertram: “There’s letters from my mother.” (II.iii.274); probably part of a packet of letters sent from the countess to Helena
- Bertram: ”I’ll send her to my house, // Acquaint my mother with my hate to her // And wherefore I am fled, write to the King // That which I durst not speak” (II.iii.284-7)
- Bertram: “I have writ letters” (II.v.23); one of these is the letter the countess reads on stage in Act Three, Scene Two
- A letter “written” (III.ii.93) from the countess to be sent to Bertram via the second lord
- Countess: “Write, write, Rinaldo // To this unworthy husband of his wife” (III.iv.29-30)
- Second Lord: Bertram’s “mother’s letter” (IV.iii.1-2)
- Bertram: “I sent to (Diana)…tokens and letters” (III.vi.109, 111)
- Second Lord: news of Helena’s death “by her own letters…faithfully confirmed by the rector of the place” (IV.iii.55, 58-9)
- Messenger: “The duke hath offered (Bertram) letters of commendations to the king.” (IV.iii.77-8)
- King: “I have letters sent me // That sets (Bertram) high in fame” (V.iii.30-1)
- Bertram: “I have…writ to my lady mother” (IV.iii.85, 87)
- Parolles” “I think I have (the duke’s) in my pocket…or…in my tent” (IV.iii.196-7, 200, 201)
- First Lord: “a copy of the sonnet (Parolles) writ to Diana in behalf of the Count Rossillion” (IV.iii.309-11)
- Countess: “I have letters that my son will be here tonight” (IV.v.83)
That’s a lot of letters. A lot of writing.
Looking back on both Love’s Labor’s Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I see that my memory must be failing. Both do have multiple written pieces that are handed over and read between characters. But somehow it feels different here.
Doing a quick re-perusal of Two Gents, despite such a large number of references, I see only six physical notes/letters on stage and read, and they primarily seem to be for communication purposes (and one of those letters is so important, I devoted an entire blog entry to it… bad memory, Bill, bad–what was I saying?). And while Love’s Labor’s Lost has the same number of written missives as All’s Well, they, too, feel different; there, the written pieces are mostly poorly composed love notes that are less for communication than for the opportunity to poke fun at or ridicule the writers.
I’m not sure if I’m making sense here. Probably not.
Here, though, in All’s Well That Ends Well, the letters feel less about communication or characterization, and more about moving the plot from one location to the next, for moving the plot forward. It almost feels as if while the other plays’ use of letters is about the play, the use of letters in this play is about telling the story of the play. The employment of the letters in this play just seems so meta in comparison to what came before it.
If I had more time, I might want to work on this concept of epistolary uses in Shakespeare. Maybe something for later. Maybe something for a thesis of some kind…
[and, long-time readers, keep that in mind in about a week (spoilers!)]