Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reading All's Well That Ends Well, again.

I read Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well a number of years ago. At the time I was so impressed with one of the King's speeches that I memorised it.

I've just read the play again, along with the long introduction by Susan Snyder, in the Oxford World's Classics edition. A very good introduction, with lots of helpful insights into the play, the problems (it depends whether you think the play is a problem play or not) and the characters. Excellent notes as well, helpfully on the same page as the script.

But what an odd piece it is. It debunks romantic love almost entirely.Though the heroine, Helen, is madly in love with Count Bertram (he doesn't have any idea of this) she doesn't in any sense woo him (if that were possible in that age). Instead she wins him by earning the right to take the hand of one of the King's men in exchange for healing the King of something none of his physicians have managed to deal with.

Bertram is an adolescent emotionally and attitudinally, but he's quite right to feel offended about being given a wife without having any say in the matter. And to show his disapproval he doesn't even consummate the marriage but skips off to war with his sidekick, Paroles. Paroles is an odd character he's constantly shown to be disliked by other characters, and distrusted by them, yet it's only late in the play that he actually does anything that's really offensive. Perhaps on stage it works better, with an actor being able to fill out what's not in the script's words.

But most curious of all, to me, in the opening scene he and Helen (who's shown to be virtuous and honourable throughout the play) have a very strange and bawdy conversation about virginity - for a hundred lines! It's as if Shakespeare sets out from the beginning to get rid of the notion that sex in (or out of ) marriage is anything but a very earthy thing, and that for all our attempts to make it something more exalted, it's nothing more than a human physical need.

There's a great deal about sex in this play: the later part of the plot revolves around getting Bertram into a trap that's sexual in nature (the 'old bed trick' which Shakespeare used more than once). He winds up bedding his own wife and making her pregnant, even though by that time he thinks she's dead. There's a good deal of discussion of the sexual relationships between men and women, discussion that would prove much too frank for some later generations. Besides Paroles and his bawdiness there's another character (known only as the Clown) who adds to the bawdiness in an even more gross way, and does this in discussion with Bertram's mother, the Countess, a lady who would also be above this sort of discussion, you'd think.

The trick against poor old Bertram is revealed in front of the King and the Countess, and Bertram once again is trapped. After all the sorting out he winds up saying a couple of slightly ambiguous lines in which he says he'll go through with the marriage. But you wonder what sort of a marriage it would ever be.

Shakespeare turns the world on its head, in a sense, in this play. A woman pursues a man in order to marry him, and gets her way. Love barely comes into it, but sex certainly does. None of the grand wedding scene here. The original marriage takes place offstage, and is ordered by the King to take place with barely any preparation, on the same day that Bertram is 'won.'  When Bertram's behaviour towards another woman is revealed he's the one who gets castigated, not her. And at the end of the play, it's still the women who have the upper hand, although the King's authority counts for a good deal.

You wonder what the original audience thought of it. Even today audiences struggle with it. It's not produced as often as it might be, though there are a couple of clips from a Royal Shakespeare production on You Tube.

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