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All’s Well

That Ends Well...

Or was it really?

Sited in Rousillon, Paris, Florence and Marselles and written in 1602-03, ten years after he abandoned the theatre to write poetry and sonnets, William Shakespeare wrote the character-complicated, All’s Well That Ends Well along with few more plays. The play found little appreciation with the audience when it was first staged and gathered dust for sometime.

Synopsis

Bertram who is the son of dowager Countess of Rousillon is secretly loved by Helena, an orphan brought up by his mother. When Bertram is summoned by the King of France as a ward to serve him, Helena follows him. The king who has an uncurable sickness where many physicians have failed, welcomes the sprighty young Helena who offers to cure him.

Her father had been a celebrated physician before his death and she had learnt much about his cures. Much to the King’s surprise, she does so with one of her father’s remedies. The delighted king offers her the choice of a husband from the gentlemen at court. And this is the moment that Helena had been waiting for.

Helena – ‘Sir, I can nothing say, But that I am your most obedient servant’.... Act.11, Scene V

Helena – But if I help,

what do you promise me?

King – Make thy demand

Hel. - But will you make

it even?

King – Ay, by my scepter and

my hopes of heaven

Hel. - Then shalt thou give me

with thy kingly hand

What husband in thy power

I will command

Exempted be from me the arrogance

To choose from the royal blood of France.

Act.11, Scene 11

Helena selects the snobbish Bertram who objects to the poor physician’s daughter to be his wife but the King orders him and he is obliged to agree. Immediately he runs away to Florence as a volunteer in the Tuscan wars along with his stupid, cowardly follower, Parolles as his companion.

Returning to Rousillon, Helena is over-joyed to hear that Bertram has consented to take her as his wife but when she has received from his finger the prized heirloom-ring and borne him a child.

King – Why then young Bertram,

take her; she is thy wife.

Bertram – My wife?, my leige;

I shall beseech your Highness

In such a business give me leave to use,

the help of mine eyes;

King – Know’st thou not, Bertram,

what she hath done for me?

Bert. - You my good lord;

But never hope to know why

I should marry her

King – Thou know’st she has raised

me from my sickly bed.

Act.11 Scene 11

Helena goes to Florence dressed as a pilgrim where Bertram is attempting to seduce the Widow’s daughter, Diana. Helena persuades Diana to yield to his cravings and ask for his ring in return for the favours.

Helena will impersonate and be seduced by Bertram. In the meantime, the fellow-officers of Parolles tricks him into exposing Bertram. Diana having received Bertram’s ring, duly arrange a midnight tryst with him hidden by darkness. Helena swaps Diana’s place and gives Bertram as a token the ring which she had been gifted by the King of France.

Hearing that Helena is dead, Betram returns to Rousillon where his mother and the old lord, Lafeu believe him. Having heard this, Lafeu makes arrangements to give his daughter in marriage to Bertram. Done this, when he tries to give his bride the ring from Helena, the King is furious and orders Bertram to be arrested. In the meantime, Diana arrives and accuses Bertram of seducing and when he denies it, the King orders her to prison. To unravel the mix-up the Widow arrives with Helena and tells the King that it is she who is carrying Bertram’s child and not her daughter. Diana who is taken out of prison while Bertram is united with Helena.

In performance

Not a great play on stage, this drama is based on a story by Boccaccio in the Decameron. Because Helena is an unlikely persistent opportunist, many actresses have by passed portraying her character. In the 18th century (1741) at Goodman’s Fields and in 1742 at Drury Lane, saw day light painfully. By 1832, this comedy was played at Covent Garden. Slowly and steadily the play picked up momentum until the early 1920s. In an Old Vic production in 1953, the public turned their attention on this play until it moved abroad leaving behind the Royal Shakespeare Centre and moving over to Ontario’s Stratford. In the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1959 and 1966, Barbara Barrie appeared as Helena. I cannot recall a film made on this comedy.

 

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