Category Archives: Post-Hamlet

Macbeth

Macbeth, Makers, “The Scottish Play”, “The Porter Show”: Macbeth (Mac) goes by many names and comes in many forms. I would argue that Mac enjoys the widest range of persons amongst all of Shakespeare’s plays. People who don’t necessarily like Shakespeare will still get excited about this play. It is the biggest hit (usually) with high school students who have the “great tragedies” (and Romeo and Juliet) thrust upon them. And why not? With witches, ghosts, invisible daggers, murder most foul (or is that just Hamlet?), revenge – Mac is an explosion of excitement! It is also one of the shortest plays, which means that beyond a bit of a lull in Act IV, there is not much taking away from the

good bits. The language is also quite captivating, unlike All’s Well That Ends Well, which would have Bartlett scratching his head looking for a good quote, in Mac they constantly jump out at you. Lines like: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly” (I.vii): lines that do not carry much meaning but have a great sound to them. And you don’t need to have any knowledge of the play to love Lady Macbeth’s speech:

“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’” (I.v)

And then there’s the opposing view: those “great Shakespeare scholars” who hide in their metaphorical tower looking down on the rest of us. I tried to get into the tower once or twice to use the washroom but was pointed out by old men with large beards. At any rate, they claim that Mac is for the lowest of the low, a piece of populist drivel, the shallowest of Shakespeare’s works since Two Gentlemen of Verona. There is nothing to get out of it but cheap entertainment. This may be an extreme, but I have seen and heard this view expressed many times. I will grant these scholars that Mac may not have the same web-like structure of Hamlet, where when you begin to pull one thread, a hundred more spawn. With Mac there is a bit of “what you see is what you get” happening. Wilson Knight in this excellent, albeit out-dated, book The Wheel of Fire, does a good job of disproving the point I just made. He points to the vagueness that runs through the play that makes us question how much we really know about what is happening. Incidentally, if you ever wanted to read an essay that makes you think: “wow, Timon of Athens is a great play,” look at The Wheel of Fire because that is the only place (that I have found so far) that you will find it. In what follows I want to demonstrate that just because Mac is a popular work, perhaps at times full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, it still has the greatness and depth that the five High Tragedies are celebrated for.

Now, it is true, or mostly likely true, that Mac was put on to impress the new king, James I. In this way it has a lot in common with Vergil’s Aeneid: Vergil was told to write an epic that glorified Augustus Caesar. Similarly, Shakespeare tries to glorify his King through the character of Banquo. Banquo was Macbeth’s faithful companion in battle, and a great soldier, and a great man. King James I claimed that his lineage could be traced back to Banquo, as Augustus claimed his lineage back to Aeneas. Now, according to the source of Mac, Banquo was a bloody warrior – as was Macbeth, as well as Duncan – everyone in Scotland who vied for power was ruthless. But Shakespeare wanted to please his king so he made Banquo a more saintly man. But this is really the only concession that Shakespeare makes in an otherwise brilliant play.

The play famously starts with the three witches talking about when they will meet again: “in thunder, lighting, or in rain” – why not all three? Having the power to forecast the weather they decide that their meeting will be later that day, and they will go to meet Macbeth. Then they leave. Yes, they leave. The thing is that in several productions, as well as according to many people who describe the play, being only slightly familiar with it, Macbeth and Banquo appear right at the start and are confronted by the witches. Many cut out the scene between the two scenes with the witches – the one where King Duncan is talking with his men. And why not? It is a boring scene in between two exciting ones. However, there is a really interesting element to this oft lost scene. In Act I, scene ii we learn that the Thane of Cawdor is a coward. Duncan removes his title and says to present it to Macbeth. In the next scene, the witches “foretell” that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor (and then of course it happens). So because of the dramatic irony, we know what is going to happen even before the witches do. We are given the same prophetic power that they are – and we don’t even have to handle the eye of newt! What does this say about the witches’ powers? Should we think less of them because they aren’t really prophesizing anything? Some people are like Macbeth, whose mind is rapt by the fact that the witches have accurately “prophesized” that he will be Thane of Cawdor, and who further prophesize that he will be King. Others are like Banquo, who is more sceptical of the witches. Banquo is told by them that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (I.iii). They are of course referring to the eventual ascendency of King James I. This blending of fact and fiction, as well as the witches foretelling what we already know makes them more interesting than just weird women with beards, meant to entertain the lowest common denominator. They are not characters in the play but the directors of Macbeth’s actions. They control how Macbeth acts, and by extension they also control how Lady Macbeth acts. They create in these two characters that poor player who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage”: they anticipate what Pirandello will do in the 20th century and trap his characters in a play. And there are consequences to this – which I will get to shortly. But when it comes down to it, Mac is really a meta-theatrical work.

So, Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawsor and believes that he soon will be king. He sends a letter home to his wife about everything that has happened thus far, and she immediately decides that Duncan must die so her husband can be king (see her speech that I posted earlier). Much has been made of L. Macbeth, some say she is a product of misogyny, some say she is wonderful. It is hard to explain why she so quickly bends her thoughts to murdering the king. All she has is a letter about an encounter with witches who said that her husband would be king. I would think that she might want to wait until Macbeth gets home, get him to explain this a bit more, maybe decide where she stands on witches; but no, she goes straight to scheming about murder. I can’t decide if this is brilliance or poor character development. Her rashness either makes her more of a villain than Iago or Edmund – who are cruel for the sake of being cruel – or demonstrates some weakness in women. I’m not sure. But Macbeth gets home and she lays out her plan. He is sceptical but says he will go with it. Duncan comes and there is a feast for him and then we learn that Macbeth is having second thoughts. Duncan has been so good to him, given him so much – why should he kill him? L. Macbeth scolds him, questions his manhood, and convinces him to carry forward with the plan. They will murder Duncan in his sleep, drug his two guards and place the bloody dagger on their bodies (smeared with blood). So Macbeth finally “screws his courage to the sticking-place” and after a wonderful monologue with an invisible dagger, he goes to kill the king. He comes back and tells his wife about the deed and she scolds him for not leaving the dagger. He, immediately filled with remorse will not go back to return the dagger so she does it, and she too is now sickened by the whole thing. They go off to bed and immediately there is a knocking at the door, and we meet the Porter – a drunk gatekeeper. Much has been made about the Porter’s rant, but I don’t really want to go into it. Essentially he talks about being the gatekeeper of Hell, and invites all manner of professional scoundrels into Hell and mocks them in that comic style you find in the eighth circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Many actors have given an astounding performance in this role, and succeeded in bringing the one moment of laughter to this dark play. Thomas De Quincey, in an essay which I will post at the bottom, focuses on the act of knocking in this scene. He explores the idea of knocking as a transition from pre-Duncan’s death to post-Duncan’s death. Duncan’s death causes this ripple of death and lamentation, as Lennox explains:

“The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake” (II.iii).

And Macduff’s knocking and entrance is the entrance of life into death – the progression of the play after this halting act. Of course, there is another way to view this scene, and it goes back to my meta-theatrical point.

Macbeth is promised in I.iii that he will be King. This becomes his ambition, his goal – and his wife’s as well. We may think back to an earlier work of Shakespeare: Richard III. From the start of that play Richard schemes on how to be king. He completes a series of plots and eventually gets the crown: in Act IV, over halfway through the play. And even after he gets the crown he is not satisfied, but continues to scheme.All Macbeth really wanted was to be king, or least that’s all he was told that he was going to be. The problem is that he becomes king part way through Act II. The dead Duncan’s sons – Malcolm and Donalbain – flee the scene and are because of this suspected of planning to murder their father. Macbeth conveniently kills the two guards before they can deny anything and so things are wrapped up neatly: Macbeth is king! Yay! But he quickly realizes that he is trapped. He is a character in a play who senses the end of the play is at hand. Or perhaps he realizes that the play the witches have written for him is a tragedy: he knows that he is at his height and he can only go down from here. Either way, he tries to take control of his own play: if the witches will not give him any more direction, he will direct himself. He decides that he needs to kill Banquo: his reasoning is that he did not want to go through all of that just to see Banquo’s offspring become king. You would think that he might try to remedy this by planting a child in his wife, but the thought never really occurred to him. Why not? That would solve everything! Oh well, might as well kill Banquo. And so he does, or gets some murderers to do it. Banquo’s son, Fleance, escapes murder and eventually goes on to father a line of failed English kings: well James I was alright I suppose. And Macbeth is left wondering, “now what?” Once again, he is a character in a play without direction. He just cannot accept that his play is done. He cannot take his bow, he continues to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. And the more he does, the worse it gets. He is haunted by the ghost of Banquo at a banquet, has a freak-out which his wife tries to cover up, and makes some of his lords suspicious. Macbeth decides that in order for his play to continue he needs to go speak to the directors: “give me the rest of my script,” he wishes to say.

We then get an interesting scene with the witches and Hecate – the “leader” of the witches. Hecate seems to be mad because the witches convinced Macbeth to kill Duncan without consulting her. Hecate could be seen as the overbearing Producer, who needs to have a strong hold over the Director of the play because it is her money and reputation on the line. “What have you done,” she seems to say to the witches, “I told you that Duncan has to die towards the end of the play! You’ve gone and finished this whole show off in half an hour! What are we going to do now?” She then leaves, telling them that they must speak with Macbeth again in order to keep this show going.

What follows next is the same thing that happened at the start of the play. In IV.i Macbeth goes back to the witches and learns – amongst other things – that he should fear Macduff. Macduff is a threat. What is often forgotten is the previous scene, III.vi, in which we learn that Macduff has gone to England – where Duncan’s son Malcolm is – to treat with Edward, King of England. So when the witches, through an apparition, tell Macbeth: “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff; beware the thane of Fife” (Iv.i), we already know that he is a threat. These witches can really only see into the present, not the future. This once again established the witches not as supernatural beings, but as directors of the play – pushing Macbeth onward. Macbeth also learns that none of woman born could ever harm him, and that he would never fall until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth is quite pleased because of course there is no such thing as a man not born of woman, and the thought of a wood moving is absurd – he is untouchable! And he is also happy because he once again has direction: his play now has a plot and can move forward. He will conquer his enemy Macduff, and the English forces that come against him.

Macbeth sends a murderer to Macduff’s home in Fife: Macduff is not home. The murder kills Lady Macduff, Macduff’s children, and everyone else in the home. In England, Malcolm and Macduff receive word of what is happening and prepare for battle. Back in Scotland, Macbeth also prepares for battle, confident that he could never fall. Also, Lady Macbeth dies – I’ll get back to that. Malcolm comes up with the plan that all his men should cut down a tree and hide behind it to conceal their numbers. Macbeth receives report that Birnam Wood is moving towards them at Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth finds himself severely outnumbered and trapped in his castle. He meets Young Siward, a young man (probably 16), and kills him – this bolsters his confidence; killing children will do that, or something. He is resolved that no one of woman born will kill him. Macduff finally meets up with them and they have a good old fashioned fight. During the battle Macduff reveals that “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” (V.viii). This detail has always been a bit iffy for me – I mean he still came from his mother, does it really matter that he wasn’t born vaginally? Written in the 20th century, Macduff would probably be a test-tube baby. But the prophecy had to be fulfilled. So Macbeth immediately loses his confidence, but he refuses to yield. They exit fighting and Macduff returns a bit later with Macbeth’s head. Malcolm is proclaimed King and all is well!

Why wasn’t Macbeth killed on stage? Claudius gets to die twice on stage but Macbeth, twice the villain as Claudius does not get that honour? During the interval between Macduff’s exit and entrance, Malcolm, Ross, and Siward talk of Young Siward’s death, and how honourable it was. The fact that we see this insignificant character die on stage but not Macbeth seems to be part of the glorifying James I’s past – Macbeth is a stain upon Scotland’s past and does not even deserve to be shown dying. He must be wiped away from history.

Just a quick jump-back to the ladies before I wrap-up. We do not see much of Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. She has that one moment during the banquet where she tries to keep order while Macbeth talks to the ghost of Banquo, and then the next time we see her, a doctor is talking with her gentlewoman about how she sleepwalks and talks in her sleep, confessing the evil deeds done. We see her famously wringing her hands, saying “out damn spot” and trying to wash the invisible blood from her hands. Shortly after, there is a scream from off-stage and Macbeth is told that his wife is dead. His response:

“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing” (V.v)

He just doesn’t have the time to process this information, and neither do we as audience members. We seem to lose all care for Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. And despite the infamy of her madness, it does not produce the same effect as Ophelia’s madness. Her death just seems meaningless and is so quickly taken over by the battle at hand. Macbeth has realized the way his play is going, and has even accepted that he and his wife are poor players who will come to nothing. But he is in too deep to turn back so he continues to the fight. Once again, I don’t know what to make of Lady Macbeth. Given her attitude in Act 1 you’d think she would be fighting with Macbeth at the end, continuing to fill herself with blackness – but instead she goes mad. I can’t help but think this is a cop-out.

A very forgettable character in this play is Lady Macduff, who appears for one scene and is killed. She is everything Lady Macbeth (at least Act 1 and 2 Lady Macbeth) isn’t. She is weak, she is defeated in a battle of wits by her son, and she scorns her husband for leaving them and calls him a traitor: she is all-in-all unpleasing. I can’t help but wonder why Shakespeare did not draw out her character further, as well as Lady Macbeth’s, in order to really present them as foils and demonstrate how great a character Lady Macbeth is, sort of like Octavia to Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. Then again, if we accept the fact that this is the witches’ play, then we can accept that the singular focus is on the fall of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is really just a casualty by association, as is Lady Macduff. I think what I have decided is that Macbeth is like the anti-Truman Show. In The Truman Show, Jim Carey is a free agent in a scripted world, in Macbeth, Macbeth is a scripted character (scripted by the witches) in a free world, and his scripted actions have natural consequences on those around him. The witches did not direct Malcolm and Donalbain to flee after the murder of Duncan. They did not direct Macduff to side with England, these happened naturally. All they did was get Macbeth to kill the King and get him to stand his ground so that he may die. They gave him his hour (or two) on stage so that he may strut and fret, knowing full well that it signified nothing. I keep coming back to that speech because it really is the thesis of the play.

So for those who criticize Mac for not being deep enough, they are both right and wrong. The complexity of Mac lies in the fact that it is full of sound and fury and signifies nothing – and all the inherit consequences that this entails.

*Here is a link to De Quincey’s essay:

Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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All’s Well That Ends Well

Harold Bloom refers to All’s Well that Ends Well (All’s) as Shakespeare’s “most undervalued comedy” in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (one of the best books on Shakespeare you will find). I would personally give this title to Comedy of Errors, or even Measure for Measure which seems to not get the appreciation that it deserves. I will admit that I do not like All’s that much: the first time I read it I did not have the time to give it its full consideration, so I re-read it recently and still cannot say that I love it. I think it boils down to this play is severely lacking in language and character: there are no great moments of literary passion that you find in many of Shakespeare’s works, and there are really only three characters that can come close to surviving in a Shakespeare character death match.

While touching on these complaints, I will focus on All’s redeeming qualities as well, which can be summarized in two and half words: it’s different. Yes, as a Romantic comedy All’s is inevitably placed against the two champions of the genre – As You Like It and Twelfth Night – and while there are some similarities, there are more differences. All’s offers a clash of genres and contemporary dramatic tropes, woven into one story. It offers a relationship that is unlike those in previous comedies. And it offers a mother. Think of how many Shakespeare plays have a mother figure – then think of how many have a strong mother figure and you can cross off Gertrude and Amelia. We are left with the nameless Queen from Cymbeline, Volumnia from Coriolanus, and the one that precedes them both – the Countess Rossillion from All’s. But we’ll get back to her.

For the male readers/audience of All’s, the play addresses that phenomenon of women who go after a guy despite the fact that he is no good for her and you cannot fathom what she sees in him. For the female readers/audience of All’s, the play asks: “why would you do that? What do you see in him?” Or as W.B Yeats, puts it:

“It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” – A Prayer For My Daughter

The reason for this is because the primary relationship in the play is between Bertram, Count Rossillion, and Helena. In any other Shakespearean primary character, you can find some redeeming qualities: “yeah, he’s an idiot, but he represents sentimentalism at its height” or “he’s not a well-developed character, but he’s funny.” There is nothing redeeming about Bertram. As the play opens, his father has died, leaving him as Count Rossillion. But he is too young to assume his title, so the King of France adopts him as a ward. “I must attend his majesty’s command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection” (1.i). He just becomes more and more of a spoiled brat as the play goes on.

Then there is Helena. Helena is an interesting character. She is often compared to Rosalind from As You Like It for her control over of the situation, and ability to scheme. Helena does not have nearly as much wit as Rosalind and is more like a whiny little sister (not Celia). And yet, Helena has a formal education, sort of. Her father was a great doctor and before he died he passed on all his knowledge to Helena. It is very rare that you find an educated female character. Despite her education, since her father died she has become an orphan and was taken in by the Countess as a “favour.” So she is lower class, as Bertram is so quick to point out. Helena loves Bertram: as mentioned the crux of the play is “why?” Why does she, a good-natured, smart young lady love that horrible person?” Let’s see…

The play opens with Bertram leaving for France to attend the King. We learn from Lafew, a Lord, that the King has a anal fistula…can’t sit down very well. This little piece of information is not present in any of the source material for All’s and so Shakespeare looked at this story and said “there is really not enough butt jokes in here…I can fix that.” But this disease of the rectum becomes a major plot point in the story.

So Bertram leaves, with some advice from his mother:

Love all, trust a few,

Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy

Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend

Under thy own life’s key. Be check’d for silence,

But never tax’d for speech. What heaven more will,

That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down,

Fall on thy head” (1.1)

Anyone familiar with Hamlet will recognize Polonius’ advice to his son in these lines. However instead of an incompetent father, we here have an incompetent son. Bertram will do none of these things that his mother tells him, because Bertram looks out for number one.

Just before he leaves he tells Helena to be good to his mother, that’s all. So as soon as Helena’s alone of course she will launch into the “O! I am unhappy” routine – “I cannot live if he is gone…what am I going to do?” WHY?

Helena is interrupted form her thoughts when Parolles enters. Parolles, along with Helena and the Countess, is the redeeming character of this play. He’s like Falstaff, but not good enough to be Falstaff. But he is a scoundrel, and he is funny, and has a sharp-tongue, so there is much to like in him. Helena announces his entrance by telling the audience that he is a “notorious liar” and a “great way fool, soly a coward” – all which is true. The two have a fun banter about virginity and how to seduce a man. He is then called away to join Bertram and Helena is once again left alone to torture us. She delivers a sonnet-like-thing that is just…awful. I will always give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt and say it is intentionally awful – but it illustrates that we are dealing with a play in which we should not expect any bon mots, or sweet phrases.

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense and do suppose
What hath been cannot be: who ever strove
So show her merit, that did miss her love?
The king’s disease–my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix’d and will not leave me” (1.1)

The first major development in the paly comes in I.iii when the Countess calls Helena before her, after dismissing a Clown who I will not write about because he is not funny, nor adds anything to the play, and is an embarrassment to the great clowns that came before him. So Helena and the Countess go round and round as the Countess tries to draw out that Helena loves Bertram. Helena is being coy and the Countess – who I picture as Maggie Smith – finally says for Helena to just admit she loves Bertram. Helena does and the controlling mother starts forming her plan to get the two married. She gets Helena to admit that she wishes to go to Paris and we learn that Helena believes she has a cure for the King’s troubles. She goes off to Paris to win the favour of the King, all according to the Countess’ plan.

And of course she succeeds in curing the King. So happy is he that he gathers a group of his young lords and says to her: “pick one.” And of course in a long-winded manner – because she is ever so happy! – she picks Bertram. But she does not even pick Bertram, but says: “I dare not say I take you, but I give me and my service, ever whilst I live, into your guiding power” (2.3). She gives herself completely to him – an absolutely obedient wife falls right into his hands, and he says “I don’t want to marry her.” “But she saved my life,” says the king. “Yeah, well why should I suffer for that?” said the brat….and he continues.

“She had her breeding at my father’s charge

A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain

Rather corrupt me ever!”

Translation: I don’t want no poor girl to muck up my title!

The King becomes very wise and philosophic and says that if the only thing stopping him is her title that is silly because he is the king and he can raise her title to whatever he wants. He then waxes poetic about the nature of goodness and how good is good and virtue is virtue and the class distinction is arbitrary and meaningless. It’s great! Let’s tear down those class barriers and see people for who they really are! Bertram replies:

“I cannot love her no will strive to do’t”

Helena tries to save face – because who would love being told she is unworthy to her face and says that she doesn’t care anymore, it is enough that the king is well, let the rest go. But the King flips out and starts berating Bertram. Interestingly enough, he begins his tirade with “my honour’s at the stake” – so we might ask how much he really cares about Helena, and how much he cares about looking like a weak man in front of his lords? He concludes by saying that Bertram must take her as wife or he will be cast out and left a beggar, so of course the goat’s end says: “Oh, yes, I have been so foolish. I thought she was base but now, if I look at her from this angle, yes as long as you, King sire, say so, she is beautiful!”

So that’s settled, and Bertram confides to Parolles that, yes they forced him to marry, he will never bed her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars, and never bed her.” What? He would rather go die in the wars than have his wife? Why? But this is what he does and writes a letter to send to his mother and Helena saying that he is so sorry but he had to go to war.

So you would think that Helena, having suffered so much from this guy, would realize that he is not worth her time, and that there are so many lords who would love to have a treasure like her, right? No. Well, actually she comes home pretty defeated, but the Countess will not give up, and doesn’t really care for people’s emotions.

Now Bertram, or Shakespeare, created this caveat to the situation. Bertram says

“When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband” (3.2)

Most audience members would have been familiar with the two classic “tricks” – the “ring trick” and the “bed trick.” Over the course of his career, Shakespeare uses both – in All’s he uses both at the same time. Not only does Helena have to get Bertram’s ring off him, but she has to sleep with him. In brief: she runs away, disguising herself as a pilgrim (a male pilgrim), goes on pilgrimage to St. Jacques, meets a widow and her daughter Diana, devises a plan in which she gets Diana to seduce Bertram and have sex with him in the dark (so that Helena can take Diana’s place), and Diana also gets the ring. By the way, it is Diana’s mother who Helena arranges all this with, Diana is as much a pawn to her mother as Bertram and Helena are to the Countess – mothers are evil.

So the plan goes off, somewhat smoothly. And of course “All’s well that ends well” – sort of. In the last half of the play, the amount of times that a character says a variance of “All’s well that ends well” is quiet absurd. It is like Keats’ use of “happy” in Ode to a Nightingale – clearly he is not happy. We really have to question how well everything ends by the amount of times it is affirmed. There is a complex plot involving Diana and the ring which almost gets her killed until Helena shows up, reveals her plot and shows Bertram that she has both gotten his ring and is pregnant by him. And in a Shylock-like moment he says something to the effect of “I am content” and then takes Helena for his wife. To which Helena says something to the effect of “if I am ever untrue, leave me or kill me.” So everyone is happy…but something is wrong. Shakespeare never answered the question: why? Why does Helena submit, after everything she went through, to this man who is really the same man? He will go on being a spoiled child and she will be submissive – and this is a happy ending? The lesson: girls will find themselves attracted to spoiled jerks, plain and simple – nothing you can do about it. So don’t try to be intelligent, or chivalrous – just be a rich spoiled jerk.

But enough of that. I want to, in this long discourse, turn finally to Parolles, for his plot gets lost somewhere in the mess. He is in the Tuscan wars with Bertram and his fellow lords hate him, for being a coward and a liar. They devise a plan in which they will capture him, pretending to be the enemy, and get him to betray his own men. Without needing to read anything else in the play, I suggest you read Act 4, scene 1: it’s delightful: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/allswell/allswell.4.1.html

They blindfold Parolles and use a made up language to sound like the enemy. Then a “translator” gets Parolles to talk, and he reveals secrets about the men who are standing around listening to him. A key joke is Parolles’ line:

“I shall lose my life for want of language” (4.1). He means that he shall die because he cannot understand them. But the joke is that his name means words and it is words that are responsible for his downfall. So they go through the whole bit – reading the made-up language aloud is fun – and then they take off the blindfold and reveal the plot, at which point Parolles becomes suddenly serious, like Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night, but more dejected than vindictive.

“Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” he says: and this is really true for everything in the play. Bertram is crushed with a plot. Helena is crushed with a plot. Parolles is crushed with a plot. Diana is almost crushed with a plot. There is a danger in scheming: this is really the only surety that Shakespeare delivers in this play.

We may not know why Helena loves Bertram, but we do know that her plots, like the plot against Parolles, is meant to humble everyone around her, not satisfy. No one is truly happy at the end of the play despite what they may think: except the Countess, who got exactly what she wanted, and maybe Diana and her mother who after all is done, the King offers one of his lords to marry. The fact that this king reverses the whole suitor role is a matter left for a further time.

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet