Shakespearing #26 by David Foley
All’s Well That Ends Well
In the Riverside chronology, All’s Well That Ends Well sits uneasily between Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. More problematic than even those plays, there’s nevertheless something chrysalis-like about All’s Well, as if something were stickily emerging, wings still wrinkled and folded.
One thing that’s emerging is a fairy tale element that blooms in the late romances, but is even present in Lear. This element is not the fairy mischief of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but more what I described in my Lears posting: the way the simplicity of the tale points to wells of hidden knowing. It occurs to me only as I’m writing this that a central flaw of Into the Woods may be the assumption that you can make fairy tales darker than they are. You don’t even need the grimmer aspects of the Grimms—birds pecking out the stepsisters’ eyes—to get at the way that a fairy tale, by its very simplicity, by its sparseness of explanation, places us in relation with elemental things. Or as Lafew puts it in All’s Well, “Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.” Fairy tales submit us to the unknown fears.
The most obvious fairy-tale aspect of All’s Well is Helen’s healing of the King and her bargain for Bertram. All of the scenes surrounding Helen’s dealings with the King have the formal, direct rhetoric of a fairy tale, plunked out in rhyming couplets: “Then thou shalt give me with thy kingly hand/What husband in thy power I will command.” This is striking because elsewhere the play continues Troilus’s movement towards more complex and difficult language, as if Shakespeare were pushing to make language do more or as if he could count on a company of actors who knew how to ride the caprices of his lines. The Folger notes are full of perhapses, where scholars are still guessing at Shakespeare’s meaning. Try this: “The reasons of our state I cannot yield/But like a common and an outward man/That the great figure of a council frames/By self-unable motion.”
So we have the simplicity of a fairy tale combined with something else. But what? The most obvious answer is Bertram. If All’s Well is a problem play, Bertram is the problem. He’s awful! Shakespeare can’t even figure out a way to redeem him at the end. He just brings Helen back and rushes everyone off stage, hoping we won’t notice that Bertram remains every bit as much of an asshole as he was at the start of the play.
What’s going on here? The hero is a villain, and the villain—the comic Parolles—ends up being far more likable. Or as one characters says, “He has out-villained villainy so far that the rarity redeems him.” Parolles’ scene with his fake captors has echoes of Thersites in Troilus. His accusations against the lords are meant (I think) to be lies, but they provide a counter-narrative to noble pretensions. As does Bertram. This sequence of plays seems infused with bitterness about human nature, particularly in men, and even more particularly in men in power.
It’s left to women to redeem them. As if in apology, Shakespeare gives the name of Troilus’s “whore” to his heroine, and then gives her the strangest line in the play: Bertram “is too good and fair for death and me.” As if she had the magic to redeem him not just from his own nature, but from death itself. Just like a fairy tale.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.