Shakespeare's Staging
All's Well That Ends Well
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Friday, 22 April 2005 06:04


All's Well (I.iii): Ellen Ternan (1839-1914) as the Countess Rousillion and Lewis Ball (1820-1905) as her Clown. Published by John Tallis & Co. Courtesy of Wikipedia, under GNU Free Document License.


This script is often called a "problem play" because it does not conform to conventional plot or character expectations. The heroine aspires to marry above her social class and succeeds by using her father's medical resources to cure a king who thereupon orders her target aristocrat to marry her. After the wedding he runs off to make war, but she entraps him into impregnating her by substituting herself for a young woman he wishes to debauch. Dazed by this "bed-trick" he accepts her as his wife. Many romantics, like Coleridge, find Helena manipulative and Bertram callow.

However, Helena's determination and resilience match many characteristics of modern women as evoked in the "feminist" plays of Bernard Shaw, in which the "life force" provides women with a psychological drive to procreation that overrides male will, as in Man and Superman. As a result of such role-revisionism, modern performances of the play have increased (e.g. 2.1.3, 2.1.4, 6.1.1 and 6.1.2), but Bertram's lack of charm still leaves many women unconvinced about the plausibility of Helena's obsession with him, particularly in view of his debasing association with a contemptible rogue called Parolles—though Parolles' misconduct and ultimate humiliation provide some humor. It is a very difficult play for which to predict audience reaction. Shakespeare follows Lope de Vega's specifications that heroines should be socially agile and their lovers inept, but this will not please romantic spectators. HMR


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