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Authors: William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends Well

BOOK: All's Well That Ends Well
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The RSC Shakespeare
Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Chief Associate Editors: Jan Sewell and Will Sharpe
Associate Editors: Trey Jansen, Eleanor Lowe, Lucy Munro,
Dee Anna Phares, Héloïse Sénéchal

All's Well That Ends Well
Textual editing: Eric Rasmussen
Introduction and Shakespeare's Career in the Theater: Jonathan Bate
Commentary: Eleanor Lowe and Héloïse Sénéchal
Scene-by-Scene Analysis: Jan Sewell
In Performance: Maria Jones (RSC stagings) and Jan Sewell (overview)
The Director's Cut (interviews by Jan Sewell and Kevin Wright):
Gregory Doran and Stephen Fried
Guy Henry on Playing Parolles

Editorial Advisory Board
Gregory Doran, Chief Associate Director, Royal Shakespeare Company
Jim Davis, Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick, UK
Charles Edelman, Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University,
Western Australia
Lukas Erne, Professor of Modern English Literature,
Université de Genève, Switzerland
Jacqui O'Hanlon, Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company
Akiko Kusunoki, Tokyo Woman's Christian University, Japan
Ron Rosenbaum, author and journalist, New York, USA
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature,
Columbia University, USA
Tiffany Stern, Professor and Tutor in English, University of Oxford, UK

2011 Modern Library Paperback Edition

Copyright © 2007, 2011 by The Royal Shakespeare Company

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Modern Library, an imprint of
The Random House Publishing Group, a division of
Random House, Inc., New York.

and the T
Design are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc.

“Royal Shakespeare Company,” “RSC,” and the RSC logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of The Royal Shakespeare Company.

The version of
All's Well That Ends Well
and the corresponding footnotes that appear in this volume were originally published in
William Shakespeare: Complete Works
, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, published in 2007 by Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

eISBN: 978-1-58836-884-3

Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photograph: © Margie Hurwich/Arcangel Images




“He Wears His Honour in a Box Unseen”

The New Code of the Self

The Critics Debate

About the Text

Key Facts

All's Well That Ends Well

Textual Notes

Scene-by-Scene Analysis

All's Well That Ends Well
in Performance:
The RSC and Beyond

Four Centuries of
All's Well:
An Overview

At the RSC

The Director's Cut: Interviews with Gregory Doran and Stephen Fried

Guy Henry on Playing Parolles

Shakespeare's Career in the Theater



The Ensemble at Work

The King's Man

Shakespeare's Works: A Chronology

Further Reading and Viewing


Acknowledgments and Picture Credits


All's Well That Ends Well
is one of Shakespeare's least performed and least loved comedies. It is also one of his most fascinating and intriguingly modern works. The play presents a battlefield of opposing value systems: abstract codes jostle against material commodities, words are undermined by actions, generation argues with generation, and a sex war rages.

The language of sexual relations is persistently intermingled with that of warfare. The key word, deployed with equal force in conversations about the bedroom, the court, and the battlefield, is “honour.” The atmosphere feels very different from that of Shakespeare's comic green world.
All's Well
shares the darker view of human nature and the more troubling preoccupations of three other plays written at the end of Queen Elizabeth I's reign and the beginning of James I's:
Troilus and Cressida, Othello
, and
Measure for Measure

In the very first scene, virginity is described by Parolles as woman's weapon of resistance. But man will besiege it, “undermine” it, and “blow up” his foe—make her pregnant. Like honor, virginity may variously be seen as a mystical treasure, a mark of integrity, a marketable commodity, and a kind of nothing. Traditional wisdom suggests that it is something a girl must preserve with care. But the play is full of proverbs and moral maxims that are found wanting, “undermined” by the demands of the body. Lavatch, Shakespeare's most cynical and lascivious fool, is on hand to remind us of this. “I am driven on by the flesh,” he remarks, suggesting that the story of the sexes boils down to “Tib's rush for Tom's forefinger.” “Tib” was a generic name for a whore; the “rush” is a rudimentary wedding ring fashioned from reeds, but a woman's “ring” is also the place where she is penetrated by a man's nether finger.

“War,” says Bertram, “is no strife / To the dark house and the detested wife.” For a young man in search of action, a wife is but a “clog,” a block of wood tied to an animal to prevent it from escaping. Parolles voices the same sentiment in the tumble of language that is his hallmark:

 … To th'wars, my boy, to th'wars!

He wears his honour in a box unseen

That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,

Spending his manly marrow in her arms,

Which should sustain the bound and high curvet

Of Mars' fiery steed. To other regions,

France is a stable, we that dwell in't jades:

Therefore, to th'war!

“Kicky-wicky” is an abusive term for a wife, the “box unseen” is the vagina, and “marrow” is the essence of manliness (according to ancient physiology, semen was distilled from the marrow in the backbone). A proper man, Parolles suggests, should be off riding a “fiery steed” into battle, in the spirit of Mars, god of war; those who stay at home are no better than female horses, good only for breeding and sexual indulgence (“jade” was another slang term for whore).

All's Well
is in the mainstream of comedy insofar as it is about young people and the process of growing up. Bertram is like most young men of every era: he wants to be one of the boys, to prove his manhood. Enlistment in the army provides the ideal opportunity. He wants to sow some wild oats along the way, but is not ready for marriage. Critics hate him for not loving the lovely humble Helen from the start. “I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram,” wrote Dr. Johnson with characteristic candor and forthrightness, “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.”
Of course there is something obnoxious in the snobbery with which Bertram first dismisses Helen on the grounds of her low status, but when he goes on to say that he is simply not in love with her, he reveals a kind of integrity. He bows to the King's will and marries her, but since his heart does not belong to her he refuses to give her his body. If a woman were forced to marry in this way, we would rather admire her for withholding sexual favors from her husband.


Bertram represents modernity in that he acts according to an existential principle: he follows his own self, not some preexistent code of duty, service to his monarch, or obligation to the older generation. One word for this code is indeed integrity. Another is selfishness. It is the prerogative of the old, especially mothers, to know, to suffer, and still to forgive the selfishness of their young. Bertram's mother, the widowed Countess of Rossillion, who treats the orphaned Helen like a daughter and is only too happy to accept her as a daughter-in-law, regardless of her lowly background, was described by George Bernard Shaw as “the most beautiful old woman's part ever written” (though she could perfectly well be in her forties). Since female parts were written for young male actors, strong maternal roles such as this are exceptional in Shakespeare. The only analogous parts are the more overbearing figures of Queen Margaret in the
Henry VI
plays, Tamora in
Titus Andronicus
, and Volumnia in
. The serenity of the Countess has meant that the principal reason for modern revivals of
All's Well
has been the opportunity to showcase actresses such as Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, and Judi Dench in their later years.

One of the key debates in the play is that between nature and nurture. The Countess of Rossillion believes that her son is a fundamentally good boy who has fallen into bad company, as embodied by the worthless Parolles. Helen, meanwhile, has strong natural qualities (the “dispositions she inherits”) reinforced by a loving and responsible upbringing (the “education” she has received first from her doctor father, then in the household of the Countess).

Parallel to the question of nature and nurture is that of divine providence and individual responsibility. Helen believes that “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven”: like Bertram, she is a voice of modernity in her belief that individuals can carve their own destiny. She does so by means of disguise and bold solo travel: from Rossillion in southwest France to Paris, where she gains access to the King, then to Florence in the dress of a pilgrim en route to Compostela. Like Julia in
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
, Rosalind in
As You Like It
, and Viola in
Twelfth Night
, she uses her disguised self as an opportunity to talk about her true feelings. The part is the longest in the play and it gives an actor great opportunities for the portrayal of an isolated young woman's self-exploration through both soliloquy and dialogue in lucid and serpentine verse, not to mention passages of prose banter and some piercing asides.

As Dr. Johnson dryly noted, the geography seems somewhat awry when Helen undertakes her pilgrimage: in going from France to Spain via Italy, she is “somewhat out of the road.” Such details did not matter to Shakespeare. For him, the pilgrim motif—taken over from the story in Boccaccio that was his source for the main plot of the play—had symbolic importance in that it associated Helen with an older value structure of reverence and self-sacrifice even as she asserts her own will. Pilgrims are people who believe in miracles, so Helen's adoption of the role allies her with the worldview voiced by the old courtier Lafew after she has cured the King: “They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.”

BOOK: All's Well That Ends Well
13.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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