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.