Doing Battle With ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’

imagesFor the past two weeks I’ve been engaged in what I can only describe as warfare with Shakespeare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well.

Do you know it?  Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you if you don’t.  I’ve only seen three or four productions myself and remember I’ve been going back and forth to Stratford for over fifty years now.  However, it was one of the first plays I saw and as a consequence has always intrigued me.  I couldn’t for the life of me understand what Helena saw in Bertram when I was seventeen and more than forty years on I still can’t.  But then, of course, that is the nature of obsessive love, isn’t it?  And, if ever anyone was obsessed by the desired object it is Helena.

But, initially at least, Helena’s motivation wasn’t what was giving me sleepless nights.  As a character she certainly is one of the play’s many problems and I might come back and write about that another day, however my first difficulties lay with the nature of the play itself.  It just feels so piecemeal; none of the rough edges have been smooth out.

Of course, I’m not the first person to have felt this way and there have been many attempts to ‘excuse’ the less than perfect script that Shakespeare has left us.  For example, it’s been suggested that the play was first staged in the 1590s only then to be carelessly revised in the 1600s, and last year two Oxford academics, Emma Smith and Laurie Maguire, published a controversial paper proposing the theory that the play was actually the combined work of Shakespeare and his fellow playwright, Thomas Middleton.

This latter suggestion is in no way outlandish given that it was common in Shakespeare’s day for playwrights to work in collaboration and we do know that around the same time these two authors were working together on Timon of Athens,  however, it doesn’t really account for the rather slapdash nature of the text we have been bequeathed.  So, I have come up with my own theory.  I have absolutely no proof to back it up other than gut instinct and the memory of what happened back in the sixties when Paul Scofield was ill and the RSC had to cancel his King Lear at pretty much the last minute.  And what was that?  They rapidly threw together another production (The Comedy of Errors) in a matter of a couple of weeks.

Here then is my theory as to what actually occurred.  I think that the King’s Men had commissioned another playwright (forever to remain unknown) to write them a play, they had it fitted into the schedule, possibly even had the publicity for it ready, and then one of three things happened:

said playwright didn’t complete the play;

said playwright completed the play but when the company took it down to the pub for a read through they said the Jacobean equivalent of “not flipping likely”;

said playwright completed the play, the company took it down to the pub for a read through, liked it, sent it to the Master of the Revels to be licensed and he said the Jacobean equivalent of ‘not flipping likely’.

Whichever of these it was the company would suddenly have been left with a gap to fill in the repertoire and so they turned to their two leading playwrights and said “do something”.  Or more to the point, “write something”.  And All’s Well is what they came up with.

As I say there is no way at all of ever proving this but it would explain all sorts of peculiarities within the play.  For example, it would account for why there seem to be so many echoes in the first act of another recent play, Hamlet. Let’s rehash something that’s already worked.  It would throw light on the different characterisations of the main protagonist in the two halves of the story.  What do you mean you think she’s a feisty young woman, I’ve written her as a modest young maid.  It might even be the reason behind a title which doesn’t exactly sit easily with the play’s dénouement.   I don’t care what you want to call it, we’ve already printed the playbills.

What we should never forget when we study Shakespeare is that his primary motivation was to get the paying public through the door.  Allowing The Globe to ‘go dark’ for a couple of afternoons wasn’t an option.

No one is going to give my theory so much as a passing thought, but it has enabled me to begin to come to terms with this play and to find a way of elucidating some of the issues it brings with it for the class I’m teaching.  For the moment, I’m sticking with it.

10 thoughts on “Doing Battle With ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’

  1. Hi, Alex. All things considered, I think your theory is certainly up there among the possibilities. I think you’ve interrogated the different likelihoods well and come up with a reasonable explanation that could fit what facts we know. Good job of speculation! Even if you’re wrong, you’ve been able to enter imaginatively into the situation of Shakespeare’s time and conditions.

    1. Thank you. I really do think we can too easily forget that Shakespeare was first and foremost a practical theatre man and having taught theatre studies for a couple of decades I can affirm that there are things we have to take into consideration that literary bods would probably never think about and raise their eyebrows at (at the very least) if they realised what we were up to. This play screams something done in a rush, recycling ideas and character types already used. Later this season the RSC are staging Middleton’s ‘A Mad World My Masters’ which was written at roughly the same time as ‘All’s Well’ and I can’t wait to see if there are any links through to his work as well.

  2. Fascinating stuff, but I have to confess that Shakespeare is a bit of a black hole in my life – ever since GCE O level in fact. Your theories are however fascinating!

    1. Too many people have Shakespeare ruined for them at school, Tom. I was lucky that I was able to see first class performances before I ever had to study it. My first production was ‘As You Like It’ with Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind, followed by ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with Judi Dench as Titania. You don’t get much better than that. If you want to fill that black hole then seek Shakespeare out on stage, that is where he really belongs fascinating though it is to explore him in the study as well.

  3. I think that’s a fair theory, and imaginative (in a good way!). I’ll wonder if we’ll ever know? Probably not… I’ve never seen it and I think only read it once, a long time ago, but I always liked the title for its irony.

    1. My colleagues down at the Institute would have a fit if I tried it out on them, Helen, because there is no way we can prove it and they work from evidence first whereas I work from my gut theatre instinct first. A good production of the play is worth seeing and if you can get hold of a copy of the BBC version then do have a luck. That series is pretty variable in quality but the ‘All’s Well’ is definitely one of the better ones.

  4. I was not at all familiar with this play until I saw it in DC last year. I was surprised at how terrible it was, even though I couldn’t fault the production itself for any of the problems. This particular company has done some great work salvaging poorly regarded plays (their Two Gentlemen of Verona was terrific), but All’s Well just seemed like a mess at its core to me. Helena’s motivation made no sense to me, and the whole thing felt slapped together. The fact that the production itself was rather sleek probably made the slapdash nature of the story all the more apparent. Perhaps it would have helped to know going in that it was a weak play. Then at least I could have appreciated the company’s valiant efforts at making something good out of it!

    1. I think the problem of Helena’s motivation is at the heart of all the problems to do with this play, Teresa. I mean, what does she see in him? Perhaps the difficulty lies in the fact that we’ve always been taught to think of it as a comedy and comedies have happy endings, don’t they? If, instead, we see it as a play about obsessive love and the consequences of getting what you ask for in that respect, it might work out better. Although how an audience would take a production where at the end Helena was left on stage with a slow dawning of what she had actually let herself in for, I don’t know. We also make problems for ourselves by casting Helena and Bertram as too old. We should remember that they were probably around fifteen or sixteen. If you think of Bertram as a moody teenager it answers a lot of questions.

  5. I haven’t read this particular play, but your theory makes sense to me! I don;t know why it couldn’t be as valid as ones put forth by the Shakespeare scholars. 🙂

    1. Ah well, you see they are the ones with evidence. And to be fair their evidence is valid. The dating comes from comparing the language in the play to those which we can definitely date and the Middleton suggestion relies on comparing the language useage to that in his plays as well. No evidence, no scholarly plus points.

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