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All's Well That Ends Well (The Pelican Shakespeare) Paperback – August 1, 2001
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Is the happiness at the end of the play deserved? Do two wrongs make a right? The well-known proverb says they do not, so we would expect Shakespeare to agree but he doesn't. The hero and heroine, Bertram and Helena, wrong each other but in the end they get what they want, especially Helena, so two wrongs do seem to make a right. And yet, something feels off. The memory of deceit and trickery remains with the protagonists, so perhaps things don't end that well after all.
Helena is a sincere, loving, deserving woman. Her late father was the physician to the House of Rossillion. She is in love with Bertram, the young count, but as mere servant she cannot aspire to marry into nobility. She does have an ally however in the old Countess Rossillion and Bertram's mother. The countess thinks Helena's qualities outshine her low status and is happy at the thought of Helena as her daughter-in-law. But how to match the two?
Helena's father left her a secret cure with which she heals the dying King. As a reward, she asks that he gives her the husband of her choice. The King agrees and she chooses Bertram. Bertram is aghast and accepts only after the King threatens him. He cheats Helena however as he resolves to go abroad without ever consummating the marriage.
He makes his way to Florence and enters the service of the Duke. Much to everyone's surprise, not least the audience's, Bertram reveals himself a valiant warrior. He falls in love with a local woman, Diana, but knowing he is married she refuses his advances.
In the meantime, Helena follows Bertram to Italy in secret and meets Diana.Read more ›
This is supposedly one of Shakespeare's "problem plays", but I don't see the problem. We have characters who have extreme emotions (a favorite Shakespeare motif) and some situations that border on ridiculous, but the emotion and heart of the conflict reflects reality in a way that only Shakespeare can produce. Although modern audiences may balk at Helena's throwing of herself at a man who disdains her, we must remember that Helena is in love, and thus, not always rational. Love wants its desires, not practical solutions.
"All's Well" also includes a wonderful Shakespearian character in Parolles. The man is a coward, a fool, and a braggart. The irony (and joy) of his character is that he knows and accepts these faults in himself. Despite his poor qualities, he is really the most honest character in this work. Read this play if for no other reason than to introduce yourself to this this great character.
Existential questions about self worth and the paradoxical nature of humanity are the real crux of this play, and once again, Shakespeare shows us what it means to be human. As one character says in Act IV, "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together..." "All's Well" demonstrates this in the dual nature of almost every character and plot device.
As for the Pelican Shakespeare series, they are my favorite editions as the scholarly research is usually top notch and the editions themselves look good as an aesthetic unit. It looks and feels like a play and this compliments the text's contents admirably. The Pelican series was recently reedited and has the latest scholarship on Shakespeare and his time period. Well priced and well worth it.
"All's Well that Ends Well" may have originally been titled "Love's Labor's Won," a play thought to have been lost, and a companion play to "Love's Labor's Lost," written around 1590-92. Some critics think so, and point to a line in the play as evidence, uttered by Helena: "This is done; Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?"
There is a consistent theme regarding men and women in Shakespeare's comedies and "All's Well That Ends Well" is no exception. Shakespeare adored women, and praised the marriage covenant as the very cement holding civilization together. He portrayed a good marriage as not merely romantic but as heroic. He created a series of female characters who were both passionate and pure, who gave their hearts spontaneously and remained true to the bargain in the face of tremendous odds. Men, on the other hand, are not nearly so good or so pure and require chastening before they are allowed to get the girl. Indeed, men are fickle and quick to shy away from commitment. They do not recognize true love when it stares them in the face. These are the very qualities that describe Helena and Bertram.Read more ›