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.
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
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
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.
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.