I know I’ve griped about “mistaken identity” comedies in several Shakespeare posts by now, but this one’s definitely different than the rest. The motives are simple and the need for identity swap is more intelligent than I think I’ve seen in the other Shakespearean comedies.
The biggest draw has to be the heroine, Helen. She’s more three-dimensional a “virtuous lady” than many from the early works.
And I confess a weakness for dark comedies, which I think this definitely counts as.
All’s Well That Ends Well is about Helen, who is an orphaned daughter of a great physician. She’s been raised in the home of the Countess of Rousillon and has been in love with the woman’s son, Bertram, most of her life. The Countess figures this out and is actually pleased about it, because though Helen might not be of high birth, she’s definitely a great match for him and would be a great wife. Bertram’s on his way to Paris to get his orders and speak with the king, who is ill. Helen, however, knows of a cure that would help the king and the Countess sends her off to heal him and earn his favor.
Helen meets the king and makes a bargain with him that should she fail to cure him, he could take her life; if she were to succeed, she should have her pick of a husband. He agrees, he’s cured, and when the eligible bachelors are lined up, Bertram is there and she picks him.
This is where things get really interesting and we understand what is in Bertram’s thoughts. He is concerned about a woman’s status in society rather than her inner worth and beauty and insists he can’t marry anyone below his station, but thanks to pressure from the King, they get married. Bertram abandons her without consummating and flees to where the fighting is as soon as he can.
This is what accelerates the plotting. Helen is determined to have him be an actual husband and to complete the marriage. The Countess is angry at her son and his behavior, as are others who’ve witnessed it. Helen devises a way to get him to acknowledge her as his wife in the end, and it takes quite a bit of plotting and some sympathetic characters to help her along.
I don’t want to give it all away, partially because if you’ve read other “man doesn’t want me” scenarios by Shakespeare (Measure for Measure is pretty comparable), you’ll probably already have an idea how this is going to work. More than that, there’s so much that happens in between that sets it up. There’s a widow and her young daughter, Diana, that end up playing a huge part in Helen’s plot. Bertram’s best comrade and fellow noble, Parolles, is a braggart and coward that everybody is able to see through, except for Bertram.
There are plenty of lessons for the thick-headed Bertram to learn as time goes on, and Shakespeare makes it pretty damn clear that Helen is well regarded and Bertram is becoming scum in many eyes the farther he goes.
What made me perk my ears up in the first act regards Helen speaking with Parolles, who insists that she ought to lose her virginity as fast as she can. The lengthy conversation between them is charged, and full of a rather startling amount of innuendo and even blatant speech regarding men and women and the problem of virtue related to sex. I was chuckling a bit because Helen sees through his callous stupidity and gives as good as she gets verbally. That part’s fun to read, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it on stage just to see the faces of those around me who didn’t read the play first.
I have to say I really liked this play, and will definitely read it again. The one thing that’s a bit off-putting is by the end, I have to wonder how happy an ending this is going to be for Bertram and Helen.
But I’ll let you be the judge of that.