I have to confess a bias toward the tragedies, incubated and inculcated in a dark Vermont parlor where we studied and slaved over the them, reveling in our young adult liberal arts angst. I viewed the comedies, and to a certain extent still do, as frivolous, formulaic early templates of the sitcom. Subterfuge, manipulation, miscommunication and mistaken identity run amok and create chaos which inevitably dissolves and resolves itself tidily in the end — with a few laughs along the way. Just like every episode of Seinfeld and Will & Grace. Thank you, again, Shakespeare for your innumerable contributions to our culture. But wouldn’t we rather be miserable, anguished and driven to explore universal moral and ethical dilemmas? I, for one, certainly would. The comedies just work out so facilely, through means and choices that often seem ill-conceived and contrived.
This is, though, a large part of my motivation for embarking on this project in the first place. I felt compelled to give the comedies a fair shake – to keep an open mind. Interestingly, I find myself approaching life in general in this way more often of late. Age has its benefits. It seems just to make more sense to be less critical and judgmental, and it feels better. It’s not always easy because I have developed strong muscle memory for quite the opposite behavior but I’m trying to temper it.
So I read All’s Well That Ends Well with verve, and I enjoyed it. But it did little to sway my predilection to not like the comedies. There are many left, so my mind is still open. I did find it comforting to read in Anne Barton’s foreword (pp. 499-503) in the Riverside Shakespeare (after I finished the play) that the plot loosely parallels that of the ninth story in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Because while much of the language is lovely, and the exchanges witty and bawdy, the plot is dumb.
I try to remember that in reading an Elizabethan piece in an Obama era my perspective and sensibilites necessarily differ from that of the intended audience. That notwithstanding, the play does not provide enough epiphany to justify the plot weaknesses.
Helen loves Bertram, but is not of his social stature. Instead of confessing her love to him, she confides in his mother, the Countess and contrives to “earn” him by fixing him as her fee for healing the ailing King of France. The King happily and firmly commits to “pay” for his treatment with Bertram’s unwitting hand in marriage. Bertram, eschewing loyalty to King, country, and family, balks, and flees to Italy. Helen, rejected and dejected, follows him ostensibly to confine herself to a nunnery. She actually contrives and executes a convoluted plot to deceive the philandering Bertram into unknowingly allow Helen to satisfy the conditions upon which he would agree accept her as his wife.
It works. They all return to France and although they’ve caught Bertram with his pants down, and Helen has twice forced a shotgun wedding, everything works out just fine in the final scene. But Shakespeare does hint at a few chinks in the armor: the Countess barely utters a word as the whole reveal and rejoice scene plays out. Perhaps she sees this for the shaky foundation for a good marriage that it is. She brought to mind Cher’s grandfather in Moonstruck ( a much more intelligent, witty, and quite Shakespearean comedy) who, watching a similar denouement unfold, exclaims, “I’m confused.” Only the King, in his wrap-it-up soliloquy, hints at the chinks: “All is well ended.” Not ended well. The sequel, I fear, would find Bertram and Helen in divorce court.
Shakespearean women seem often not to make good choices. This is a pet peeve of mine, because he wrote during the reign of and for a formidable female monarch. Why would Helen still want an unfaithful Bertram after such an unequivocal rejection? Does she value herself so little even though she is the smart and talented daughter of a preeminent physician? How does Bertram’s mother, the Countess, so swiftly shift her allegiance from her son to her lady in waiting? Barton notes that “As usual, Shakespeare greatly compressed the time span of Boccaccio’s story.” This explains some of the nonsense. Characters in both the tragedies and present-day entertainment often do incomprehensible, seemingly impossible things. I get that it’s not meant always to be “real life.” But often those feats are in support of a larger purpose or deeper meaning, and that’s what I feel is lacking here.
This thwarted and rejected “wife” – in name only – goes to great length and distance to reclaim a man hardly worthy of her love or intellect. To my mind, all’s not well, nor did it end well.
On to Antony and Cleopatra.