One of the more curious of Shakespeare plays, All’s Well That Ends Well never seems to have sat comfortably with its audience. Even its title can be seen as one of Shakespeare’s playful jokes; riffing, as it does, on the fairy-tale narrative of ‘happily ever after’ despite those watching being left with serious question marks over the likelihood of the future joy to be shared between Helena and Bertram.
At its core All’s Well That Ends Well combines a number of fairy-tale tropes and applies them to the real-world. The healing of the king by someone of lower birth who is granted what their heart desires forms the play-logic that allows Helena, a ward of the Countess of Rossillion, to be granted the hand of Bertram, the Countess’ son.
In the world of fairy-tale this would be the ideal marriage and Bertram, the prince, would realise that he loved the woman of lower-birth all along. However by placing the plot in a world where people are not shaped by archetypes, we see Bertram as little more than an indulged trustifarian who runs at the first sight of emotional commitment, who is used to bending the world to his whims and who believes honour is for the battlefield not the bedroom.
This may explain modern concerns with the play; that the resourceful, intelligent and determined Helena would seemingly humiliate herself and traipse across Europe for a man who clearly does not lover her.
It is on this point that Nancy Meckler’s production of the Royal Shakespeare Company comes into its own and in doing so helps to rehabilitate a play that, for its problems, contains, in Parolles, a comic creation of rare intelligence alongside two strong female roles that are pillars of wisdom and virtue.
Meckler’s production updates the plot to the early twentieth century and through this framing device we see the character dynamics in a whole new light. The fairy-tale plotting remains but within a world that is realistic to us.
The background is Europe at war and in Helena we feel any one of the millions of women who stepped into the roles left by men. Helena’s curing of the King of France is a reminder of the importance of women to the war effort and how they carried out job that before the War they would never have been allowed to do.
Bertram’s treatment of Helena and his dismissive rejection of the King’s statement that ‘Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which / I can build up’ [II.iii] reflects the wider disintegrating status of hereditary gentry. Bertram has truly never considered Helena within the context of a potential wife despite living in close proximity at court.
There is also a significant amount of comedic irony to a modern audience in his plea that ‘In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ [II.iii]; it is clear that once the shoe is on the other foot, the male ego struggles with the concept of entering what is effectively a shotgun wedding.