Making Sense of ‘All’s Well’ ~ The Two-Story Story. am still battling away at All’s Well That End’s Well, specifically at the moment I am trying to work out why Helena is such a dynamic force in the first half of the play and such a shadowy figure in the second.  It’s almost as if you are dealing with two different characters.

Do you actually know the story?  As briefly as I can…..

Helena is the orphaned daughter of the physician at the Court of the Count Rousillon who has recently died.  She is obsessively in love with the Count’s heir, Bertram who is about to leave for the Court of the King of France where, being underage, he will be the King’s ward.  Bertram is unaware of her passion. Distraught at his leaving, she decides to follow him and offer her healing gifts to the King, who is mortally sick.  When she cures him she asks as a reward that she be given the hand of whichever of his wards she requests.  Of course, she chooses Bertram.  Bertram is horrified but forced to obey the King’s decree.  However, as soon as they are married he absconds, making off for the Florentine wars and leaving behind a letter that says he will not recognise Helena as his wife until she has got the family ring from his finger and carries a child of which he is the father.  That’s the first half.  How she manages to fulfil these conditions is the subject matter for the second half of the play.

But, as I say, the character that we see in those two halves seems to be two different people.  In the first she confides in the audience, actively seeks ways to get what she wants and is generally a positive and active force.  In the second she is much more passive, far less open about her thoughts and finds a way to meet the conditions laid down by Bertram almost accidentally.  And, I have been struggling to understand why this should be the case, struggling that is, until I realised that what we have here is a two-story story.  

Now I would imagine that this is a technical term that you haven’t come across before.  That would be because it was coined by one of my Year Six classes after we had been looking at a particularly interesting retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  This specific version of the tale began with the expected markers of the onset of story, indicating, time, place and character and the inciting moment when the Bears decide to go for a walk to let their porridge cool.  However, the next section began in same way, only this time the character was Goldilocks and the inciting moment was her getting bored and opting to go for a walk.  After some discussion as to how they should describe this, the children decided that what had happened was that two separate stories had collided and then combined to become one and before we knew it the notion of the two-story story was born.

Of course there are many variations of the two-story story and any full length novel is likely to be made up of several stories that intertwine and serve to shine revealing lights one on the other, but I’m particularly interested in those where the different stories do actually collide in some way, especially after my problems with Jack and the Beanstalk.

When I was doing the research for my PhD the one story that really made life difficult was Jack and the Beanstalk.  It starts out as what Propp would call a lack liquidated story.  Jack and his mother are penniless and they need an income.  The hen that lays the golden eggs should solve that problem and so we should, at that point, have a happy ending.  (I am assuming, you understand, that there are no marauding foxes around and that there isn’t going to be an outbreak of fowl pest.)  However, what actually happens is that suddenly it is killing the giant that becomes the most important part of the story and it turns into a villainy vanquished tale instead.  I spent thirteen thousand words in my thesis explaining exactly how this comes about and analysing the markers that point the reader in the right direction.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat the exercise here, not in relation to Jack and the Beanstalk nor in relation to All’s Well That End’s Well, even though it works in exactly the same way.

It’s generally accepted that All’s Well combines elements from two types of traditional tale, each of which is found in various forms in a multitude of cultures.  There is the story in which the dying King is cured by an unexpected healer and then the tale in which someone can only achieve their goal if they pass a number of seemingly impossible tests.  These are the stories in which Helena finds herself the leading character.  The trouble is that rather than being two separate narratives here they are combined in one and that gives us problems.  What happens is that the scene that should simply be the dénouement of the first story also functions as the igniting moment of the second.  Instead of Helena gaining the prize she has been promised for curing the King her reward comes to her in name only as Bertram marries her under duress and then kick starts the second story by leaving her and setting what appears to be a series of insurmountable tasks as the condition for their ever living together as man and wife.   The two stories collide.  Just like Jack it is a two-story story.

Unlike Jack, however, there is no continuity in the nature of the main protagonist.  There are innumerable Jack stories in British Folklore and the chief characteristic that they share is the cheeky optimism of the central character.  In All’s Well having screwed her courage to the sticking post in order to achieve her heart’s desire in the first half, Helena then creeps off and hides her light under the nearest bushel for the rest of the play, relinquishing her role as the most prominent female character to Diana and her widowed mother.  It may be at Helena who devises the means by which Bertram is brought to book in the final scene but it is Diana who carries out the plan and faces him with the accusations.  It is Diana who holds centre stage.

The Jack stories have run together over centuries of retelling and now blend so smoothly that unless you’re looking very hard you would never notice the join.  All’s Well is another matter.  This smacks more to me of a play that was cobbled together at the last minute without the time to make sure that there was continuity of character and action.  I’m back again at the proposition I put forward two or three weeks ago, namely that this was a text put together in a hurry to meet a theatrical emergency.  I’m not suggesting that the two halves were written by the two different writers, Shakespeare and Middleton, there is internal evidence that argues against that, but I do think one may have plotted the first half and the other the second and that they then failed to smooth out all the rough edges that arose as a result.  Two-story stories need a lot of care if they are to work well and writing to a deadline isn’t conducive to that, not even if you’re Shakespeare.

14 thoughts on “Making Sense of ‘All’s Well’ ~ The Two-Story Story.

  1. Your article above is very thought-provoking and well-thought-out; the only quibble I have is to say (as a writer on another blog said was once said of Auden) that even a bad piece of writing by Shakespeare is better than a good one by a lot of other writers. What I’d like to do now, having read your essay, is see the play again in its entirety to check my responses. Group reading, anyone?

    1. If you can get hold of a copy of the BBC production it is well worth a view. Of course, one of the great challenges for the actress playing Helena is to try and bring those two different styles of character delineation into some sort of whole. That’s where I’m taking the class next.

  2. I happen to have a copy of the BBC production languishing unwatched on the shelf – I’m usually a tragedy/history girl when it comes to Shakespeare. But I’ll dig it out now – your post has intrigued me!

      1. I certainly will. The version I have is quite old – 1981 – with Ian Charleson, Angela Down and Michael Hordern et al. Is that the version you were referring to, or is there a more recent one?

        1. Yes, that’s the one. This is a play that is rarely done in the theatre so it’s amazing there is DVD version. In fact there is a more recent one by The Globe Company, but it’s not a patch on the BBC production.

          1. Well, I completely agree that it’s a great production. What a cast! Sinden, Hordern and Johnson were superb, as is to be expected, but it was lovely to see younger versions of Robert Lindsay, Nickolas Grace et al too. I saw exactly what you meant about the Renoir painting effect.

            The play itself – hmm. I really have issues with Shakespeare when he does comedy. I found all the Parolles stuff unnecessary and worse, unfunny. And while I enjoyed Helena’s character (and a great performance) what on earth did she see in the odious Bertram? All can’t be well that ends with a woman trapping a man into marriage against his will, can it? Even if he’s vile enough to deserve it? 😉

            I’m glad you inspired me to watch it though – thank you. The performances alone made it well worth while.

            1. It’s always the problem, what does Helena see in Bertram? And I agree that a modern audience in particular is going to rebel against the idea of anyone being trapped into marriage. One of the ideas that we were tossing around yesterday in the group I teach was that it’s quite likely that the actors playing the roles in Shakespeare’s day would have been very much younger and then their behaviour becomes more understandable, perhaps. How many fourteen or fifteen year old girls become infatuated with someone who is completely unsuitable? And how many teenage boys go through a stage when they are unbearable little brats. I don’t think we do the play any favours when we cast actors in their twenties or even thirties. By the way, the actress who played Helena was my first Jo March on television and she was really good in that part as well.

            2. I also wondered how it would have been affected by having a boy playing Helena – it might have changed the balance a bit away from the pathos I felt came through from time to time more towards the humour that I wasn’t really feeling.

              The point you make about them probably being younger might have made the bullying of Parolles a bit less unpalatable too…

            3. The question of having a boy playing Helena is interesting. I think we always have to take account of what the playing conditions would have been like when the plays were first staged. What I find fascinating is that at this point the company clearly had a boy who was very different from the one who played Beatrice, Rosalind and Viola just before the turn of the century. The boy who was cast as Cressida, Helena and then Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure’ must have been of a very different type. How much Shakespeare took this into account we’ll never know, but I bet he was too savvy to write against type.

  3. A two-story story! Brilliant. Leave it to children to come up with something so marvelously useful and descriptive. I enjoyed your analysis of the play very much. It is one I have not read but now, should I ever get around to reading it, it will be much more interesting with what you’ve said here in mind.

  4. The idea of the two-story story is most intriguing. Hmmm, have to mull over that one. Do you think there’s a difference between the two-story story that works, and the two-story story where the stories in question pull in different directions, or fail to cohere?

    1. Oh yes, unless you’re actually looking for it, it’s one of the aspects of organisation that you only really notice when it doesn’t work. Interestingly, it’s a structural feature that children come to very late when they are writing fiction simply because it is so difficult to do convincingly.

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