Three Wills for Three Years

On YouTube (jitko42), I’m going to analyze all 38 Shakespeare plays, one month at a time. I’ll go in alphabetical order. Henry IV parts 1 & 2, will be done in one month and the three parts of Henry VI (which cover the War of the Roses) will be done over two months, making my total 36. As a bonus, I’m going to add a song from William Downing and art and/or poetry from William Blake.

The first play is All’s Well That Ends Well. I knew nothing about this play until about three years ago when I watched BBC’s production. It’s considered a “Problem Play,” and I agree that it’s not among the best, but for different reasons than I’ve read and heard. The “fairy tale” quality, the appeal to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, is likely the reason the play is making a comeback. Fairy Tales are making a big comeback, and they’re all grown up and Grimm. An annotated publication of the Grimm Fairy Tales recently spent time on the bestsellers’ list. Two television series tackled the darker side of fairy tales. We no longer demand realism from our fiction, as was also the case in Shakespeare’s day. For me, the “problem” is that not one character has enough depth for me to emotionally invest in their journeys. This seems to be a defining characteristic of fairy tale characters. And it’s all good, and all well. It’s not really a problem. There’s plenty to like and enjoy.

This play is compared to Measure for Measure because both have the heroine convincing another female to switch unmaid beds but similarities end there. In the first scene there are echoes of Hamlet. Peppered throughout the play, are R&J‘s symbol of the rose and how qualities, not labels, define people.

There are two delightful fools in this play: Parolles and Levatch. For centuries, Parolles’ “virginity speech” was excised from productions, which is a shame of shame. It’s very funny, and it presents a very serious feminist issue. All verbs assigned feminine are passive (Naomi Wolfe wrote that the most active word women can muster is “swallow”). Helena demands, “But he assails; and our virginity, though valiant,/in the defence yet is weak: unfold to us some/warlike resistance.” This is Shakespeare’s most feminist play and we can see the power of ovarian and gestational energy in the female characters of the play. Levatch is the clever (not wise) fool. He makes a great case for the merits of being a cuckold.

This is the only play where a forced marriage is indeed forced. Even Juliet, who is told she will be kicked into street to starve if she doesn’t marry her father’s chosen son-in-law, escapes the arrangement. But Bertram is told he must marry Helena, and very shortly thereafter (that same evening), he is married. Helena goes after what she wants and she doesn’t dress as a man to do it. I wish she were more likable. Perhaps she would be if Bertram, the object of her affection, weren’t such an intolerable cad. His only “noble” qualities are 1.) he is titled and 2.) he performed well in war. I’m unimpressed with 1, and (as a pacifist) consider 2 a con. Rosalind in As You Like It connives to get her man, but she does it almost solely as sport. When cousin and BFF Celia advises Rosalind to be merry, Rosalind replies, “From henceforth I will, coz, and devise sports. Let me see; what think you of falling in love?” Then when she has captured Orlando’s heart and he posts love poems throughout the forest, Rosalind must be reminded who it is that is so in love with her. We can have far more hope for Rosalind and Orlando than we have for Helena and Bertram. Rosalind is guided by wit and does as she likes. She likes the freedom men take for granted, so she dresses as a man and outmans men. Helena shoots for a star and, for her, the end justifies the means.

Other feminist notes are found in Countess of Rousillon. She speaks the first line. No other play opens with a female speaker. Also, the king, though recently on his deathbed, travels to Rousillon for the final scene. Christaine Northrup, MD introduced me to the concept of “ovarian energy.” In patriarchy, fast-swimming sperm are to be emulated. But what drives those actively swimming millions? A single, attractive and “passive” egg. When my eldest daughter was almost four, she announced, “Women have magic, men have power.” Is it really important which would win in battle of magic and power? Is not the better question what magical and powerful creation can we make together?

No other play that is a phrase repeats that phrase more often. In fact, Twelfth Night is not mentioned even one time but “All’s Well” is spoken many times, many ways. And how all will end well is in the stars–but more importantly, in our initiative.

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.

The monosyllabic key words “aim,” “miss,” and “hit” sprinkle almost every scene. Even “scope” clues us to Aristotle’s “Telos.” This is the main theme, aim for the stars and hit or miss, All’s Well That Ends Well.

All’s well that ends well; still the fine[end, FINish]’s the crown;
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.

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