By Megan Diehl, Dramaturg
With the death of Queen Elizabeth I in the middle of his career, William Shakespeare may have feared his world would soon be turned upside down. A successful poet and playwright under his patron and beloved “Virgin Queen,” his future was somewhat unknown as he watched James I’s accession to the throne. Would his company of players still find their home in London under the reign of a new king?
He penned All’s Well That Ends Well in the years between 1601 and 1605, with the monarchical transition directly in the middle. Although it is complex and categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” it is simple to see reflections of the heady themes in All’s Well that may have circled in his mind at the time—life and death, the passing of generations, truth and fidelity, power and gender roles, etc.
All’s Well blends the comedy and drama of love affairs and class conflicts with nuanced humanity touched by a fairy tale flair. Shakespeare abandons the promise of neatly classified heroes and villains and attempts to reconcile those traits twisted within us of both good and evil as he writes, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”
The plot focuses on Helena, recently orphaned, with a pure heart and a unique family potion that cures the King of France. As repayment for this favor, he grants Helena her heart’s desire, the young Count Bertram, in marriage. Bertram at first refuses to marry beneath his status and later escapes his marital duties by joining the war in Italy. With a bittersweet mixture of honesty and light-hearted clowning around, All’s Well follows Helena’s journey to win Bertram’s heart.
The play shirks the expectations of Shakespeare’s era by adhering to neither the strict rules of comedy and tragedy, nor the unities of time and place that had become popular for those audiences. Although the story, like many of his others, may end in a wedding, is the ending indeed a happy one? Has Helena achieved her true desire by finally winning Bertram as her bridegroom?
But for all the various elements that may classify one of Shakespeare’s texts a “problem play,” All’s Well and its insights still function as what The New York Times’ Frank Rich called “still a mirror, however cracked, held up to the world.”
Much is unknown about the history of All’s Well. Scholars believe that Shakespeare collaborated with Thomas Middleton to adapt the tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron, and some even venture that Bertram’s surprising reversal at the play’s sudden resolution suggests a substantial section of missing text. Few records exist of early performances until the 18th century. Soon after, the play aroused superstitions when it became a trend for cast members to fall ill during production.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare invites us into a fantastical world of ambition and courage, while visiting themes that still echo with a contemporary resonance. In Helena, he has found a heroine who is flawed yet admirable, stopping at nothing to achieve her one desire, and still victim to Bertram’s ignorance of her true nature. Helena was a precursor to Henrik Ibsen’s “New Woman” as portrayed in A Doll’s House, and a favorite of that era’s more progressive authors including George Bernard Shaw.
Shakespeare’s unorthodox approach to the fairy tale gender roles charges Helena with single-mindedly pursuing her beloved. Even with royal assistance on her side, she faces a challenge to win over Bertram by proving herself. She is the Prince Charming who must rely on her wits and character to earn the right to her one true love, despite the tricky means she may take to achieve the ends.
All’s Well That Ends Well examines the modern idea that merit, and not class, can determine our worth. With a heartfelt and nuanced story accompanied by some of Shakespeare’s classic clowns, the story ends “well” as the old adage insists, but with a bit of a question mark. All’s Well inhabits an exciting corner of Shakespeare’s canon by mixing poignancy and passion, and allowing us to examine the tangled natures that exist in all of us.
Shakespeare shifts location often to weave his tale. The French locales are winsome and romantic, reflecting the hopeful fairy tale elements of the story. Italy, on the other hand, is a more dangerous setting for battling young men who are tricked in their pursuit of passion.
LOVE AS A BATTLEFIELD
Bertram escapes to the battlefield to avoid his marital obligations, but Shakespeare’s poetry throughout All’s Well continues to play on the idea of combat and war and its similarities to the characters’ struggles with love, sex, and class.
Megan Diehl (Advancement & Communications Manager) is a dramaturg, director, and writer in her 15th season with PSF. She recently obtained an MA from Villanova University with a Certificate in Nonprofit Management, and is an alumna of DeSales University.