On William Shakespeare’s Comedic Problem
So, having the flu has one upside, you’ve suddenly got a free slot(h) in your schedule for all your fav whimsies.
I, for instance, ended up re-visiting one of my favourite plays:
All’s Well That Ends Well
(AWW or simply All’s Well)
Favourite not because I specifically *like* the story line or any of the characters, rather, because I don’t. I just don’t. It’s a twisted, strange, rapy, and at times plain old disturbing piece of writing. Which is exactly why I *love* talking and writing about it. There, teachers, it is out there. Deal with it.
Let’s start with some of the ridiculous characters:
The King of France
the most hysterically petty of Shakespearean royalty. Given up on life and doomed by his butt-fistula (!) he is whiny and abuses his power (just to mention one thing – he force-marries one of his (under-age) “men” to a fierce teenage girl) he is, simply, pathetic throughout.
oh idiotic little pretty boy Bertram.
calling her a “fierce” teenage girl might have been a bit hasty. She is more forceful and cunning than fierce. She knows what she wants and finds ways to get it, I’ll give her that, but seriously, the much hailed “bed trick” is basically rape.
But enough of this rambly character-shaming, let’s move into the action of the play and see why the only reason this is funny is because it is so absolutely un-comedy-esque!
Why would AWW (written in 1604-5 by the way, just to poise as somewhat scholarly here for a second. Just for a second though, it’s a blog post, not a dissertation, get over yourselves) *ever* be qualified as a Comedy in the first place? Considering that the “happy ending” achieved is comprised of a possible (forced) re-union which Helena forced on her (forced, as she made the king *give* Bertram to her as a price for being healed of his butt-fistula) husband Bertram who *clearly* doesn’t want to be with her (so clearly at that, that he rather ran away to *war* in another country than consume the marriage with Helena); Diana, the fair maiden Bertram was after in Italy, is promised a similar deal as Helena got (choose your husband, I the King shall make him marry you) after she enabled Helena to bed-trick Bertram into sleeping with her & taking his inherited ring to Helena, so that H can claim B as her justly betrothed; Lafew’s daughter gets dropped under the figurative stage after Helena returns, who knows what happens to her. But, it is comedy, sketchy, dark and hilarious comedy.
It fulfils the category’s factors to some extent. It has, as mentioned above, a Happy Ending, with a reunion of the major characters after their temporary separation (leaving aside for a moment here that B *ran away*). The – not so – classical closing scene takes place in Marseille with a weeping party for the “deceased” Helena (who just ran after the apple of her crafty eye to Italy). The King, Countess and the whole country decide to forgive B for his flight. But conundrum starts: Lafew wants B to marry his daughter who agrees and gives the King the ring H got to marry B which she gave to D and D to B (keep up here), fingers are being pointed, Diana and the widow arrive, explain less than confuse, they present Helena when the King decides to jail D for stealing first ring, Helena presents them with B’s evil letter AND his ring (bed-tricked off him) and her baby-bump (although, in this version of the story there wouldn’t have been much to see yet). The king decides that if Helena can prove her case truthfully all shall be well and they shall be lawfully bound, if not a divorce is to be had. Thus it ends, so the “happy ending” just as the wedding and the bed-trick scene are off stage. What we get is the cryptic *if’s*, including what if Helena didn’t succeed in being impregnated by the one time she had sex with Bertram? What if, the kings mood changes, his health worsens and he decides that Helena didn’t really cure him etc etc.
So, this rather intense ending aside for a moment, let’s move on to another very comedic aspect of the play: gender switching (yay). The gender switch in this play is a figurative one where the female character dons male characteristics and actions for various parts of the storyline, whereas in other comedies (e.g. 12th night or As you like it) the gender switch is in so far literal as it is executed as disguise (Viola poses as her brother Sebastian and Rosalind as a young soldier Ganymede). Helena in AWW was raised as the professional heir of her widowed father. She is set on marrying the beautiful Bertram, and achieves this by using her skills (healing the fistula-ed French sovereign), manipulation (sweet, innocent Helena vs. Crafty, tricky Dr. She who basically Lady-MacBeth-s the whole play) and the (super sketchy) bed-trick.
Personal growth, part of the classical comedies, takes place in AWW as well, on a less obvious level though, I’d say. Bertram grows from the (depending on casting for performances) naive youth/attractive dumbass to someone who (after being quite literally shown) sees the hollow, shallow, neat-dressed, slick-talking Parolles for who he really is and stands up to his responsibilities (thus critics say, but I really cannot see actual growth in B as he hasn’t got a choice, he is a guileless pretty-boy in my opinion, who’s yet smart enough to obey the king and not good for much more [he went on a rampage of “seducing virgins” in Italy with his pall Parolles, afterall, it was during this that he met and decided to “love” Diana, what good did Kharma bring him?]). Helena’s personal growth, well, she gets what she wants, but there isn’t much change in her that one could call growth. She changes from the driven “God himself bestowed me with the power to heal you oh mighty butt-fistula-ed king” to “oy-wey oh my oh misery, Bertram doesn’t love me yet he’s so *hot* i gotta have him but am not worthy, oh my” with random evil genius in there.
Very Comedy-esque is the setting, off the isles and into France, for where else could one have a whining morbid King healed by a child, a girl at that, without getting into trouble (the French aye!? Snicker) and panty-chasing lords.
AWW is fittingly labelled “Problem Play”, with all the fairy tale logic and critical, cynical representations of good and evil. It just doesn’t fit in with twelfth night, midsummer nights dream, much ado and the rest, but it does not quite belong with Macbeth, King Lear, Titus, and that whole lot either. It is as much a problematic play where classification is concerned as a play concerned with social problems. The king, as the sole ruler, as the husband of all widows and the father of all orphans, as a weak man influenced by the fairer sex; it picks up on law issues, social norms, social deceptions, and gender roles. And just by the way, *is* there a possible heir to the thrown if the King kicks the bucket?
It is dark and confusing, there is a witty comic relief (fittingly named the “clown”) and it doesn’t end in total death (take that, Hamlet) *just* in forced marriage. The title – when read sarcastically – says it all: *is* it well just because it ended “well”*, really?
*well = not in total and/or brutal annihilation of all characters