All’s Well That Ends Well

Yeah, that noncommittal title pretty much sums up all of the urgency and excitement of this fairly obscure comedy.  It’s sad, because there are plenty of redeeming moments that are actually pretty fantastic.  But really there isn’t much happening here.  Even when the threat of death is suddenly imminent, these characters are far more concerned with  getting laid.

Which, now that I say it out loud, is a pretty inherently funny situation.

So here’s what happens:  Helena is awesome, beautiful and intelligent in a way that defies gender conventions of Shakespeare’s time.  The King of France is so deathly ill that he has given up all hope of a cure, yet this young woman is able to return him to health.  In gratitude, he grants her any wish within his power, and she requests the right to marry any man she chooses.  She chooses Bertram, a douchebag and “careless lapse of youth and ignorance”

But she still really wants to marry him, despite his overwhelming dickishness.

Bertram is disgusted by the proposal, and embarasses Helena in front of the entire French court by exclaiming, “I know her well: she had her breeding at my father’s charge.  A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain Rather corrupt me ever!” The King responds that “From the lowest place when virtuous things proceed, The place is dignified by th’doer’s deed,” and the mere title of her position can easily be raised when everything else in her is so perfect.  Threatened by the eternal wrath of the King, Bertram feigns consent and then runs away to fight in a manly war in Italy.  The rest of play is basically Helena’s odyssey to consummate the marriage.

A marriage that will surely crumble into bitterness and infidelity at some point...

Like I said, the play certainly has it’s moments, and it has the best and most intelligent cast of female characters outside of Merry Wives of Windsor.  For that alone it’s probably worth staging, and my male perspective is just making me stupid and blind to this play’s worth.  It’s even more likely that my maddening personal life this week has tainted my view of the play, and left it lukewarm in my memory.  It’s a funny, interesting play, no matter what.  I just had trouble caring about the characters when I read it, and that is something that can be fleshed out in performance.  Yeah, these young lovers are acting like morons, but “Even so it was when I was young: If we are nature’s, these are ours; this thorn Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong.” 

Mistakes are the best way to learn, I've always said.

So let’s just look over some of those redeeming elements of the play that are good and potentially redeeming.  First, there’s the Parolles, who is basically a French Falstaff.  Highlights include his argument against women saving themselves for marriage, as well as an episode where the French test his loyalty (Bertram and company dress up like Italians, speak in Italian-sounding gibberish, and threaten him with torture to see how he would react if he were actually captured).  After Bertram is engaged to Helena, Parolles has a strange dialogue with Bertram that involves phrases like “what, what, sweet-heart?” and “hugs his kicky-wicky here at home” – so take that however you want to.  But my favorite character has to be the old French lord Lafeau, who (in my mind’s casting) looks and acts entirely like Terrence Stamp in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert:

Yeah, so imagine that guy saying this to Parolles: “You are a vagabond, and no true traveller: you are more saucy with lords and honorable personages than the heraldry of your birth gives you comission. You are not another word, or else I’ld call you a knave.”  And he’s full of insults like that.

He's a king of one-liners.

So in the end, it’s very interesting, and I would definitely love to see a production of it, but I don’t know if I would like to tackle the project personally.  This week I will end with a quote from Helena, while she is discussing the virtues of chastity with Parolles: “Bless our poor virginity from underminers and blowers-up! Is there no military policy, how virgins might blow up men?”

Probably something like this.

Next week, I am going to retreat into something familair, like King John.  See you then!

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  1. […] the least depth in characters as well as plot despite being actually funny some of the time.  Even All’s Well That Ends Well has stronger characters and an almost storybook whimsy to it.  However, if I fleshed out a bottom […]



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