Thursday, 4 October 2012

All's Well That Ends Well (1967)

By William Shakespeare (c1604-5)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, June 1967

Helena, the low-born daughter of a famous physician, loves Bertram, the young Count of Roussillon and ward of the King of France. He, however, is indifferent to her. The King is dying of a fistula and Helena effects a cure using a prescription left by her late father. As reward the King allows Helena to choose a husband from among the court nobles. She, of course, chooses Bertram. He devises a supposedly impossible condition to prevent consummation of marriage with someone he considers his social inferior: that she may not call him husband until she can get the ring from his finger and is with child by him. Bertram has set his sights meanwhile on bedding Diana, daughter of a Widow of Florence. Helena reveals to Diana that she is already married to Bertram and they agree that Helena will impersonate Diana in the bedroom (the so-called “bed-trick”). Bertram is caught out when a pregnant Helena reveals all before the King. Where Shakespeare comedies usually end in betrothal(s), this play concludes with the attested consummation of a marriage already solemnized.

Rightly has it been called a “problem play”. All’s well that ends well  or is it? The problems start with the title. It’s capable of several interpretations, but one there’s no escaping is that a desirable end can justify the questionable means used to achieve it. Helena quotes the proverb directly on two occasions (IV.iv, V.i), but in justifying the bed-trick to the Widow, she is more explicit, arguing that there can be “wicked meaning in a lawful deed, | And lawful meaning in a wicked act” (IV.i).

Bertram is an unlikeable figure, with no obvious redeeming features, and the play does little to endear him to us. Even in the final scene, he is still wriggling: he calls Diana a “common gamester” and continues to set conditions to his love (if we can call it that) for Helena. The apology is perfunctory, and his final lines are addressed to the King rather than to the woman he has wronged. Has he learnt anything?

Helena, in a different way, struggles to earn our respect; it’s hard to understand her unwavering passion for someone so undeserving. And what are we to make of a woman who will go to such lengths to entrap a man who manifestly doesn’t want her? On the plus side, she’s considerably more reflective than other Shakespeare heroines (see her soliloquy before Parolles’ entrance in I.i) and she’s a healer, a proxy medic long before women could enter the professions, who has a fascinating scene with the King (II.i) when she convinces him of the efficacy of her powers: often played quasi-erotically (as in the BBC TV production), it explores the limits of the doctor-patient, analyst-analysand relationship.

Character is subordinated to plot, so that, unlike in earlier Shakespeare comedies, the resolution feels more like the squaring-off of a mythic pattern than the outcome of motivated behaviour. Ted Hughes suggested that All’s Well and Measure for Measure are re-enactments of the Venus and Adonis myth, but that Shakespeare “had difficulty in making his women real” because “the secularized characters of Helena and Isabella, with their human histories which the audience observes from the outside, are inadequately insulated from their mythic roles, which continue to galvanize them from the inside.” The high incidence of rhyming couplets in All’s Well (about 19 per cent of the whole) also lends a sententious tone to many speeches, as if the characters, taking their cue from the play’s title, are speaking in proverbs.

When faced with something we don’t like in Shakespeare, there’s a reflex to assume the text has been corrupted in some way, lines are missing, the text was reworked by another hand, or there was another hand in the original composition. The cynicism (or is it plain pragmatism?) that seeps into this play aligns it with the city comedies of his contemporaries. Perhaps we look in vain for a magnanimity or generosity of spirit that we expect to find in the Bard. One explanation, recently advanced in the pages of the TLS in the teeth of strong opposition, is that the play was co-written by Thomas Middleton. Another is to re-date composition to later in the decade, so that its fable-like tone brings it within range of The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.

These objections notwithstanding, All’s Well has always found admirers. Defying the Victorians’ distaste for the play, Bernard Shaw viewed the play in Ibsenite terms, with Helena redrawn as a sort of 1890s New Woman. He praised Shakespeare’s “intellectual experiment, repeated nearly three hundred years later in A Doll’s House, of making the hero a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his wife.”

And those admirers have increased in recent years. In her introduction to the Oxford edition, Susan Snyder relates this upsurge of interest to the “modernist penchant for irony” and trends in criticism “which value the very dislocations and gaps that distressed earlier organicist critics.” Directors, she suggests, now “see opportunity in the discord of modes, the signs of class and gender ideologies in conflict, that were only defects for earlier generations.” Furthermore, the “upsetting of the gender role system created by having the woman rather than the man take the sexual initiative” has brought new attention to the play as argument continues on whether Shakespeare can be recruited as a proto-feminist or must, regretfully, be dismissed as a man of his time.  

John Barton’s 1967 production, in which Helen Mirren played Diana, was one of the best received of the post-war era. John Peter welcomed a “sure-footed and thoughtful revival of a flawed but unjustly neglected play”. “A step-child of the theatre, neither heart-rending nor heart-warming” it might be, but still able to project a “scattered experimental brilliance”. He admired Timothy O’Brien’s set, which evoked the “full Caroline spendour of ruffs, cloaks and tall hats”. The whole production had a “flowing, consistent style of sophistication and rich baroque grace”, while the clarity of the verse-speaking was “flawless throughout”.

The Illustrated London News found the production “blessedly direct”, an effect achieved at the cost of cutting some 500 lines, including the whole of III.iv, and telescoping and transposing scenes elsewhere.

Philip Hope-Wallace praised the “extreme honesty, lucidity and sound interpretation” of Barton’s production but found the first half “dull”. Estelle Kohler’s Helena, although “charming”, had “little enough to offer of special radiance or sparkle and when not quite sure of herself tended to simper and to squeak”. For him the “first breakthrough” of the evening came when Diana duped Ian Richardson’s Bertram (scene IV.ii). According to the Sunday Telegraph, Bertram came across as “rather endearingly clumsy and over-eager as he trie[d] to seduce Diana across an awkward and uncomfortable travelling trunk.” She seemed to succumb to his entreaties, but then chose her moment to make her demand of him. Mirren let Richardson embrace her, then said unexpectedly, “Give me that ring”. Not for the first time in the play, the immature Bertram was outwitted by a more resourceful female:

It is an honour ‘longing to our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i’th’world
In me to lose.

                              Mine honour’s such a ring.
My chastity’s the jewel of our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i’th’world
In me to lose. Thus your own proper wisdom
Brings in the champion honour on my part
Against your vain assault.

Helen Mirren complains that there are no parts for older women in Shakespeare (other than Cleopatra), but perhaps she should return to this play? Bernard Shaw, for whom Mirren professes an admiration I find hard to share, declared that the dowager Countess of Roussillon, Bertram’s mother, was “the most beautiful old woman’s part ever written”. JL Styan wrote in 1984:

The Countess of Rousillon is the maternal grande dame of the play’s events and Helena’s fortunes, the still centre which gives the audience faith that all will yet be well. This gracious part has never failed any actress in the distinguished line of those that have played her in recent times. (p24)

Over the years, that line has included Celia Johnson, Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench (Dames all). Why not add Dame Helen to an impressive roll-call?

Russell Fraser, ‘Introduction’ to New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the play (1985)
Philip Hope-Wallace, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well at Stratford-on-Avon,’ Guardian, 2 June 1967
Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992)
Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith, ‘Many hands: a new Shakespeare collaboration?’, TLS, 20 April 2012
John Peter, ‘Producer’s triumph over material’, The Times, 2 June 1967
Susan Snyder, ‘Introduction’ to Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play (1993)
JL Styan, All’s Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare in Performance (1984)
Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl, ‘What is infirm… All’s Well That Ends Well: an attribution rejected’, TLS, 11 May 2012

Photograph by Tom Holte. F. and Mig Holte Collection (© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).