CW: Mention of sexual assault and torture.
In this episode we analyse one of Shakespeare's least popular plays and review the the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s 2022 production directed by Blanche McIntyre.
Featuring music from the Early Music - Classical Guitar Ensemble. You can listen to more of their music here: http://www.jsayles.com/familypages/EarlyMusic.htm
You can read more about the RSC production here: https://www.rsc.org.uk/alls-well-that-ends-well/
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Content Warning: Mention of sexual assault and torture.
Hello and Welcome to ‘Cozy Critiques’ in this show we present reviews of creative endeavours. Today we are taking a look at All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare. In particular, we will be reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s 2022 production directed by Blanche McIntyre.
Before I launch into an analysis and begin throwing names around willy nilly I should probably give you a summary of the play and a bit of context.
Summary and Context
The basic plot of the play is an adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. One of Shakespeare’s talents was taking a pre existing story, usually a folk tale and reworking it in a refreshing, accessible and enjoyable way.
Helena was an intelligent and driven young woman. After losing her father, a renowned physician, she became the ward of the Countess of Roussillon. While there she met and fell in love with the countess's son Bertram, a privileged and arrogant young man. He had no interest in her and made that very clear before leaving for France to join the king’s court. The king had fallen terminally ill and Helena saw an opportunity to use this to win Bertram’s hand. She made her own way to France and offered to cure the king using the training she received from her father. The king had tried everything and so, having nothing to lose, he made a bet with Helena. If he died then she would be executed, but if he was cured then she could choose a noble husband from the court. This king was clearly one hell of a gambler!
Of course, Helena miraculously healed the king and chose Bertram as her husband. He vehemently rejected her because of her low standing in society and lack of dowry. Enraged by his disobedience the king forced the marriage ceremony to take place anyway, but Bertram left for Italy immediately afterwards. He gave Helena what he thought was an impossible ultimatum, that they would only be truly married if she could get his family ring from him and give birth to his child. Well this lady just beat the king in a high stakes bet so she certainly wasn’t going to be intimidated by this gamble.
In Italy Bertram performed well as a soldier. However, he was also known for taking the virginity of local women through false promises.
Determined to overcome his challenge, Helena secretly followed the army to Italy, disguised as a pilgrim. She met and befriended a woman called Diana who was being pursued by Bertram, despite her lack of interest in him. The two women worked together to lay a trap and trick Bertram into sleeping with Helena by swapping places in the dark. Before they made the switch Diana managed to acquire Bertram’s family ring in exchange for one of Helena’s.
While this was happening Bertram’s friend Parolles was caught in a snare of his own. He was a braggart soldier who talked a big game but his actions were mostly cowardly. A group of Bertram’s lordly friends wanted to prove that Parolles was a liar and so they baited him into sneaking back enemy territory to retrieve a drum that he had lost. The lords disguised themselves as the enemy, and kidnapped and interrogated him with Bertram watching in secret. Parolles eventually gave Bertram’s name to his supposed captors , which was exactly the act of betrayal they were looking for. The whole group shamed and abandoned Parolles to make his own way home.
In true Shakespearean style Helena then faked her own death. Bertram callously celebrated with his friends before returning home, secretly followed by Helena and Diana. When he tried to marry a local noble woman Diana interrupted and accused him of using and abandoning her. After quite a bit of back and forth where Bertram attempted to shame Diana, Helena revealed herself, the trick they played on him and that she had beaten his challenge. Bertram was impressed by her and professed his new found love for her. The end! Bows, Curtain falls, take all your rubbish with you when you leave.
Stated production aims
Now that you have an idea of all the goings on, let’s have a look at how the RSC interpreted this play and the aims of the team.
The programme tells us that they were focusing on ‘the awkward truths about ill advised love,’ through the lens of social media. They felt that the balance of wit and tragedy was even more resonant with this additional layer of miscommunication and carefully tailored personas.
Using the play to comment on the groups formed on social media was very much at the fore of this production. There is certainly a dramaturgical link between emerging research and the drama of the play. They highlighted a quote by Erving Goffman which asserts that ‘in any given social interaction, we perform a part for others around us.’ In other words, we present different versions of ourselves depending on the needs of the social situation.
According to Christopher Barrie, we have a new social space to navigate which throws these behaviours into sharp relief. The imagined societies of online spaces mirror the imagined communities of the physical world, groups where most of the members will never meet each other but still feel a sense of connection. ‘We project an image of ourselves (online) the way we do in life, however there are a distinct set of rules and cultural norms that make social media spaces distinct. When people are posting online they are making calculations and decisions based on how they think people will respond to it. We ‘judge what might be interesting to diverse individuals in our online networks and what is appropriate to the context.’ We curate ‘a version of ourselves.
Barrie points out that the leads of the play, Helena, Bertram and arguably Parolles fall within the window of adolescence. At that stage of life curating self image is very important and people are more susceptible to peer pressure. There is a strong desire to be accepted and liked. This leads to more extreme versions of self image curation and risky behaviour. These theories tie in well with the themes of the play.
Let’s take a detour to have a look at some of the discourse around the play before diving into the execution of the production.
All’s Well That Ends Well falls into the category of ‘problem play,’ meaning that it is a mix of comedy and tragedy with an ambiguous ending. Shakespeare creates a situation in which there is no absolute right answer. Dr Erin Sullivan tells us that this play in particular is ‘strange and frequently unloved.’ The majority of the characters are, seemingly deliberately, difficult to like. Their interpretations of love are simultaneously the reason that the play is not staged very often and why its themes have remained interesting and relevant.
I feel that this backs up Juliet Dusinberre's point that ‘Shakespeare was the only dramatist of the period who wrote with no explicit reforming purpose.’ He proposes attitudes to life rather than having an explicit moral message.
He doesn’t celebrate chastity and similar societally enforced virtues over the nuances and dilemmas of human relationships. This is clearly seen in All’s Well that Ends Well as there is no neat right or wrong answer to the predicament that Helena is in. Even she admits that the ‘bed trick’ is both ‘not a sin, and yet a sinful fact.’ For Shakespeare, it seems more important that she recognises her situation and chooses how she handles it.
Both Sullivan and Dusinberre have a lot to say about Helena’s characterisation.
Sullivan points out that the play tells us that Helena is ‘attractive, noble , and virtuous.’ However, the audience is given greater insight to her inner thoughts than most of Shakespeare’s heroines and these reveal that she is a ‘complicated and idiosyncratic person.’ she is consistently selfish in her single minded pursuit for her own goals. Her actions damage those around her and herself. There are many aspects of her depiction that Shakespeare usually reserved for his male characters. She is self described as ambitious and freely shares her sexual desires with the audience. She consistently ignores the boundaries of Bertram to the extent that she commits sexual assault. These again are actions that were more commonly seen in male characters.
Dusinberre is primarily interested in how Shakespeare comments on societal expectations through Helena. As a character she has divided critics, especially when they examine her through the lens of cultural ideas of femininity. Helena’s actions and values are similar to the male characters, as she sees herself as being responsible for achieving the life she wants. Through her as a character Shakespeare examines ‘the concept of a man’s dominion over’ the women in his life through the eyes of a woman in that situation. Throughout the play she both adheres to and defies that world view. A great deal of the tragedy in this problem play comes from the conditioning of women to be dependent on men in that culture. Helena is ‘the most humanist of Shakespeare’s heroines (and) the least beholden to the Petrarchan religion of love. She frees herself through a conscious dissociation from her image in men’s eyes.’ The idea of womanhood that this character challenges is a product of society's expectations and is enforced by the treatment they receive.
Bertram is a very interesting character as he seems to represent more than a single individual.
Sullivan holds nothing back when they say that ‘Bertram is at best an immature and foolish young man and at worst a self centred liar.’ While not depicted on stage the audience is told that he has also coerced sex from many people. He has several obvious failings but he is a victim as well as a perpetrator. While in its original context ‘The bed trick’ would not have been as controversial as married partners were assumed to be consenting partners. At the same time the text still seems to demonstrate that the title All’s Well That Ends Well is very much ironic.
Dusinberre posits that Shakespeare uses Bertram to raise and challenge the ideas that aristocratic birth guaranteed virtue and that Virginity means that a person is chaste and good.
‘Bertram disdains Helena because “She had her breeding at my father’s charge.” He believes that because of his aristocratic standing he is morally superior to her and those of a lower class than him. No war but the class war indeed.
Shakespeare ‘savagely exposes Bertram’s idea of honour. His mother responds to his rejection of Helena by asserting that ‘his sword can never win the honour that he loses.’ And the king, the top of this feudal system that Bertram idolises calls out the lack of logic in his world view. He asserts that Helena has more virtue than Bertram because of her actions as a doctor. Bertram’s actions are consistently unvirtuous, especially his treatment of women and his noble birth cannot save him from condemnation.
Shakespeare directly plays the flawed ideas of virtue and chastity against each other when Bertram does not want to give up his ring, the symbol of his nobility, for Diana’s virginity. Immediately after he thinks that he has slept with Dianna he sees her as discarded property, while he still believes that his honour is protected by his noble family.
We’re moving away from precise examination of characters and more general exploration of the themes within the text. Buckle up!
The play is founded on the paradox of virginity. The clown and Parolles point out that celibacy is not usually a natural occurrence. Parolles echos writings by Luther and Donne (we had a whole episode on him, check it out!) by saying that virginity is defined by its loss. In the play the value of virginity is highly reliant on context. Because Helena is married her virginity is inconvenient. But Dianna is single and seems happy to be so. She has no interest in losing her virginity. Here we see multiple women’s experiences of a cultural phenomenon. The elevation of female chastity in courtly love poems is rooted in ideas of class and property. Shakespeare ‘criticises the assumptions in the double standard applied to men and women.
‘Bertram’s attempted seduction of Diana brings (Cultures and class) into conflict. The courtier wooing the middle class woman with the religion of love, and the woman (believing) in the bourgeois ideal of the family.’
As my granny used to say, The upperclass have the morals of ally cats, and laugh at us for having scruples.
Shakespeare pits class virtue against court vice. Bertram is condemned by the king, his mother, and his peers because he ‘profanes women in the name of chivalry.’ His actions alienate him from all classes. The play points out and critiques a world view which venerates female chastity and believes that the loss of virginity means that a woman cannot possibly be virtuous.
It directly attacks these ideas of Nobility, virginity, virtue and chastity and reveals their flaws.
Sullivan believes that the ugly and toxic feelings and actions of the play feel true to life. Like Dusinberre she asserts that these are the logical conclusion to unhealthy practices and beliefs around love that society perpetuates.
The play is also an interesting mirror to the life of women in Elizabethan societies. Dusinberre tells us that aristocratic women at court during Shakespeare’s time consistently proved that women were the intellectual equals of the men. Elizabeth the first’s court featured remarkable women like Anne Bacon, Anne Clifford and the countess of Pembroke (who was probably named Anne too so the queen could have a full set!) These and others like them had a degree of emancipation. While James’s subsequent court would be less welcoming to female scholarship, the ideas and values had managed to migrate to the middle classes. Shakespeare highlights this social change in Helena’s characterisation as she is a highly educated middle class woman and is celebrated for it by the king and countess.
Speaking of the countess, she is an interesting figure as she wields a large amount of cultural and political power in the play. The clown jokes about the subversion of the gender hierarchy in their professional relationship. ‘That man should be at woman’s command, and yet no hurt done!’ As a servant he submits to her authority despite her gender but he doesn’t seem to care. This subversion of male authority is continued with Helena and Bertram. She is technically submitting to his command to ‘leave him unless she can prove (that she is) his wife with his ring and child. However, ‘her obedience defies his desire to be rid of her.’
The play certainly raises interesting questions that the audience must wrestle with in the aftermath.
On that note, let's move onto how I wrestled with those questions and if the presentation helped with the mental gymnastics.
I will start by acknowledging a bias. I went to the 2013 Nancy Meckler production of this play and found the story very challenging. This meant that I was going in with trepidation. So keep that in the back of your mind while listening.
An initial minor production note is that the loud noises utilised throughout the play were jarring and I felt that there wasn’t enough warning before the show for audience members that might struggle with this.
As I said earlier, the production made it very clear that it was commenting on the use of social media. The phones, tablets and televisions that the characters were looking at were shown to the audience on a screen at the back of the stage. Many of the scenes were being ‘recorded’ by other members of the cast. For example Parolles the cowardly soldier is shown to have an online presence as a Military coded fitness coach and his antics were filmed and projected onto the back screen.
Some of the uses of social media worked well, for example sending texts instead of letters, while others felt awkwardly forced like Helena’s scrapbook of cliche adolescent infatuation. There was also a patronising feeling to the execution. I couldn’t help but be reminded of an elderly person explaining to a teenager why their use of mobile phones is isolating them from reality. While social media does have many proven problems, a few of which the programme touches on, It is a social space like any other with good points that the show didn’t feel were worthy of comment.
With one hand it seemed to want to connect to a younger generation, and with the other it mocked them.
The art direction around the posts they showed felt like an uncanny valley version of social media. Close, but with enough little inaccuracies to make it slightly off putting.
While on paper the play could line up well with the theories around the communities on social media, and the team are clearly very invested in the message they were trying to convey, there were only a few moments in the performance where this aspect really shone. I feel that it needed to be pushed further and made more integral to the presentation.
The cast all turned in very good performances and their acting really was an overall saving grace for the production. Rosie Sheehy’s portrayal of Helena highlighted the ultimately self destructive behaviour that an obsession can lead a person to. The show emphasised the fact that she is still a teenager by having her in a school uniform in the first scene. This meant that the audience was less likely to see her actions as those of a determined adult. Instead they were contextualised in the framework of intense teenage emotions, social pressures and a certain amount of naivete. It did make it a bit weird when she was performing complex medical procedures. It felt like an episode of Doogie Howser, MD.
One of my favourite performers was Simon Coates as Lafew. It felt like he embodied all of the barbed wit that Shakespeare’s Fools are known for. His delivery of the jokes was savagely delightful. I am unashamed to say that my enjoyment of the play dramatically increased when he was on stage.
It felt like the parts of the stereotypical Fool were split between Lafew, Parolles and Lavache and when any combination of these characters interacted it was sparkling. It made thematic sense that Parolles ended the play attached to Lafew as he was the first person to see beneath his disguise and in many ways the two characters need each other to become a great double act. I could have watched an entire play about their misadventures.
While Simon Coates was my favourite performer, Jamie Wilkes as Parolles was a Very close second. Parolles comes off in a more positive light to a modern audience. Trying to warn Diana that Bertram will sleep with her and abandon her is admirable, he seems to care about her future and wants to help her. The original audience might have focused on the betrayal instead. While he is clearly a parody of online fitness coaches that con their followers into buying dangerous products, underneath it all he seems like a kind person. His arc was one of the most interesting of this production. There seems to be a theme of self acceptance with this portrayal. At the end he appeared in coded feminine attire (bathrobe and hair towel) and is seen to be compassionate and offering comfort and support to Lafew throughout the final scene. He seems to have shaken off the performance of toxic masculinity to embrace the elements of himself that society labels feminine. It would not be too much of a stretch to have a queer reading of this portrayal. Seeking approval from society by playing into stereotypes assigned to gender and sexuality. Going through very difficult social trials and rejection and coming to a place of self acceptance will be a familiar story to many. This queer reading can be seen in the text as well as this performance with thinly veiled insinuations throughout.
While all of the chorus did a fantastic job, one element that I particularly enjoyed was the nuance that the female presenting soldiers brought to their roles. Some leant into the ‘coded masculine’ culture, seeming excited to flirt with other women in an aggressive way and displayed close platonic friendships with the male soldiers. Others seemed uncomfortable with the objectification of female civilians but stayed quiet. It was good to see a range of performances
There was a particular element of the production that I was in two minds about. The fake interrogation and torture of Parolles borrowed imagery from Terrorist executions and Guantanamo Bay. It was quite disturbing and the audience laughter became a little strained at this point. Afterwards multiple people said that it made them uncomfortable. Maybe this was intentional. Jamie Wilkies was balancing his very skilful physical humour while also portraying a person undergoing a panic attack. It gave me a little bit of whiplash while watching.
This blend of comedy and poignant depiction of trauma was presented to much better effect, in my opinion, during the 2014 RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing with Nick Haverson in the role of Dogberry. This production portrayed Dogberry as a survivor of world war 1 who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. During the interrogation of Don John’s lackeys he performed this to moving effect while still maintaining the humour of the role.
This production of Alls Well That Ends Well felt like it was trying to achieve something similar, showing the brutality of military hazings, the impact of toxic masculinity, all while filming it and sharing the footage live on social media, and still trying to keep a comedic tone. While it did not hit quite the right chord with me, I am sure that other members of the audience responded well to this presentation of the production's message. And it was a scene where Parolles was allowed to absolutely own the stage so I can’t complain too much.
While the cast were very enjoyable and the whole production team clearly threw themselves into the project, this staging of All’s Well That Ends Well hasn’t won me over to the play. It will remain one of my personal least favourite of Shakespeare’s works, however it has certainly deepened my academic appreciation of the text. And made me want a play about the odd couple comedy of Parolles and Lafew. Somebody please write that and have it on my desk by Monday morning!
Thank you so much for listening.
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