Comedy Comes of Age in Shakespeare’s All’s Well

[I gave a version of this piece as a lecture at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2009, at the invitation of John Jowett. It’s pretty closely in dialogue with my book Shakespeare and Comedy (Arden, 2005), especially Chapter 3, ‘Lightness, Love and Death’ and the Afterword, ‘Comedy for a New Reign’. I’m putting it here because All’s Well is in effect a Lost Book among Shakespeare’s plays.]

Michael Denison as Bertram, Jill Dixon as Diana

‘All’s well that ends well’ was already an old saying in early modern England; the only non-biblical proverb to be used as a title for one of Shakespeare’s plays. The story on which the play is based was also old by the time he adapted it. It derives from Boccaccio’s tale ‘Giletta of Narbonna’ in The Decameron (c. 1350), as mediated through an English translation first published in Shakespeare’s infancy.[1] The sense of going back to the past to gain a new perspective on the present is pervasive in the play. In itself, this idea is nothing new; but Shakespeare’s understanding of how the past manifests itself in the present and comes into conflict with it is subtly different here than in any of his other works – subtly different, too, from anything by his contemporaries. Above all, he’s concerned with the changes undergone by language in each generation, and with the forms of discourse – proverbs, old stories, riddles, prophecies, jokes – which may be used to maintain a sense of continuity between one generation and another.

Kimberly Parker Green as Helena, James R. Winker as the King of France, Graham Hamilton as Bertram

To put it crudely: All’s Well That Ends Well – which is generally dated to the early days of the reign of James I, between 1603 and 1607 – dramatizes a conflict between two discourses or verbal attitudes. The attitude to language it presents as modern, and which it seeks to challenge, is an excessive reliance on what has come to be called the ‘cold light of reason’ – or simply ‘sense’; the notion that one can argue one’s way to the truth using the structures of formal logic, based on an understanding of the world that perceives it as always and everywhere the same, and that therefore fails to recognize its subjection to the transformative operations of time. The means by which the play mounts this challenge is by way of a variety of time-worn discourses which were branded by contemporary moralists folly or nonsense. The seriousness of this encounter between two conflicting philosophies of language is stressed by the quasi-legal structure of the play’s last act, in which an informal trial is staged at a point when one might expect a formal trial to have been set up. But the triumph of nonsense at the end of the play – its success in engineering a happy ending against all odds, in supplanting a legal sentence with what is in effect a punchline – makes it an endorsement of comedy, a genre that would seem to be directly at odds with the notion of trials, judgements or any other form of legislation. An ambiguous endorsement, to be sure; but then verbal comedy (as opposed to slapstick) has always thriven on ambiguity.

In a law-court, the proper and improper use of language may be a matter of life and death. And the fact that the quasi-trial in Act 5 of All’s Well does not take place in a law-court stresses the extent to which every verbal act is a risky business – the extent to which you take your life in your hands, put yourself on trial as it were, every time you open your mouth. I have argued elsewhere that Shakespeare’s comedies are pervaded by the notion that the word-play which is the medium of comedy is the riskiest business of all; and I would like to suggest here that the period of Shakespeare’s life when he’s most aware of the riskiness of the comic is just before and just after the accession of James I. Mock-trials occur with astonishing frequency in the plays of this period; trials in which men of power accuse, convict and sentence their inferiors – usually women – without giving them the benefit of a jury or a formal defence. The most extreme example of such a mock-trial is the final scene of Othello (c. 1603-4), in which Desdemona’s husband appoints himself her judge, jury and executioner. But Othello’s precursors include Claudio and Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598), who condemn Hero without listening to her plea of not guilty; Hamlet, who accepts as the only witness of Claudius’s guilt what might well be a ‘goblin damned’; Troilus, whose summary sentencing of Cressida has no interest in exonerating circumstances; and the Duke in Measure for Measure (c. 1604), who passes a series of arbitrary judgements on Isabella, Mariana, Angelo and Lucio in the play’s last scene. The implication of all these plays is that grammatical sentences may become quasi-legal sentences at a moment’s notice in the sophisticated discourse of the 1600s. And since the word ‘sentence’ could mean ‘proverb, saying, aphorism’ (from Latin sententia), the right use of proverbs as a means of swaying judgement – your own or other people’s – becomes a particularly urgent issue in this play ruled by a proverb.

Othello is the play of Shakespeare’s that most fully exploits the more sinister aspects of sententia, as well as of the quasi-legal sentence. Iago’s manipulation of Othello deploys well-known proverbs, which are supposed to articulate ancient wisdom, as a means to instigate prejudice – that is, pre-judgement, the bane of all efforts to set up an equitable trial. He persuades Othello to see Desdemona through the lens of the proverbial licentiousness of Venetian women, and tricks him into conforming with the proverbial stereotypes of ‘changeable’ Moor and jealous old husband, the commedia del arte Pantaloon with a murderous twist. And Iago does this by convincing Othello of Iago’s own simple honesty, as exemplified in a style of speech that’s liberally sprinkled with old sayings. As has been often pointed out, the success of Iago’s proverb-fuelled project would be comic if its consequences had not been so appalling.

Helena as pilgrim, by John William Wright

All’s Well inverts Othello. The play’s protagonist Helen is honest, deriving her honesty from her father – whereas Iago, as a Spanish stranger in Venice, has no known forebears to guarantee his honesty. Helen’s parents were poor but honest; but finding herself in a world where honesty is despised, she resorts to tricks that might be construed as dishonest, allying herself through word and action with the professional fool Lavatch (whose brazen honesty in telling harsh truths to his mistress often gets him into trouble) and the foolish professional soldier Parolles (whose brazen dishonesty gets him into trouble till he learns to be honest about it by becoming a professional fool).

The proverb that emblazons All’s Well, however, furnishes it with a title as unsettlingly knotty as any scheme Iago could come up with – as knotty as the play it introduces. It carries with it, for example, the notion that meaning in discourse is always deferred – that is, contingent on the passing of time; a notion Shakespeare was to play with at length in his late romances.   It implies, too, that this comedy is concerned with happy endings; though the phrase also incorporates the sense that all happiness has an ending. And it raises the question of what an ending is (many commentators have pointed out that the play’s conclusion, like that of Johnson’s Rasselas [1759], is one ‘in which nothing is concluded’). The end of one epoch, after all – such as the reign of Elizabeth, which also signaled the end of the Tudor dynasty – is the beginning of another – such as the reign of James I, which inaugurated the age of the Stuarts; a single life can span both epochs without changing significantly; the structure of the realm may not change a great deal between the end of one historical period and the beginning of another; measurements are always contingent, even the measurement of a life, which may not end when the quietus comes, as Hamlet reminds us. Until we can ascertain that an ending really has taken place, and agreed both what has ended and what the significance of that ending is, the proverb of the play’s title cannot come into play; it remains always a promise or possibility rather than an assertion, an illustration of the crassness of proverbs rather than a trusted piece of familiar wisdom passed down from one generation to the next.

But the play is not solely concerned with endings; it’s equally concerned with beginnings that may or may not be happy – a topic of keen interest to a nation at the beginning of a new century and a new reign. And the play’s attitude to the new epoch is quite different from that of Shakespeare’s other theatrical salute to the Stuart dynasty, Measure for Measure. Where the latter begins with a set of characters who nurture unrealistic expectations of protecting their absolute principles in a degenerate world, All’s Well that Ends Well introduces us to a set of men and women who are acutely conscious that they must deal with a flawed world on its own terms, and that they will probably not be able to protect their most cherished principles from becoming compromised by these worldly dealings as one age or period or fashion gives way to another. This is another implication of the title: that happy endings may be held to justify the means used to reach them, and that not all of these means may be good ones. But the title also invites us to consider from the beginning the question of what it means to be ‘well’, either physically or morally speaking. There’s a sense, then, both of resignation and of doubt about the title – of the conditional mode, as it were, the big ‘if’ that governs its proceedings – that perfectly suits it to the play it emblazons.

James R. Winker as the King of France, Kimberly Parker Green as Helena

Like Measure for Measure, the comedy has much to say about the difficulty of dialogue – and indeed it contains some of Shakespeare’s most complex and elusive poetic language. Verse is its medium, where prose was the dominant medium of Measure for Measure – especially in the second half of that play. And an astonishing proportion of the verse in All’s Well is rhymed. The play’s protagonist Helen uses rhyme repeatedly, and the formal closure rhyme gives to her lines imparts to many of them a proverbial feel, like that of the play’s title, as if she is quoting long-established, carefully formulated philosophical truths – drawing, perhaps, on the same store of ancient knowledge that formed the basis of her father’s reputation as a man of letters. ‘Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?’ she asks (1.1.212-3), and despite the uncertainty of the answer, the question becomes an assertion by virtue of the euphonic link it establishes between striving and desire. ‘He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister’ (2.1.135-6), she tells the King of France as she undertakes to cure him of a terminal illness, and the rhyme lends an authority to her verbal empowering of the weak that both testifies to her confidence and gives confidence to her hearers. The other great users of rhyme in the play are Helen’s adoptive mother, the superannuated Countess of Roussillon, and the aged King of France himself, whose cure she effects using a drug invented by her father, and who becomes a replacement father-figure to her. Helen’s, the Countess’s and the King’s rhymed exchanges make them sound as though they are singing to the same tune, as it were.   The King and Helen in particular establish a family resemblance in the scene where they first meet, as their speeches gradually get closer to each other in rhyme, in despite of reason – a contest between sound and sense, euphony and probability, which gets reignited by the King at the end of the play when he celebrates Helen’s return to his court with a tentative restatement of the play’s title: ‘All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’ (5.3.326-7, my emphasis). There’s a mutual understanding between Helen and the King that unites genders and generations through the medium of melodic utterance. Here, then, is yet another meaning of the title: that a conversation goes well when each of its metrical units ends (meetly and sweetly, as the King might say) in a rhyme. There’s clearly something contrived about such a claim; it cannot be said to be true in any obvious sense. But its very contrivedness stresses the extent to which this play is preoccupied with the elaborate engineering of a happy ending, against all odds, by all means necessary, regardless of improbabilities – or even impossibilities. Helen and the King acknowledge that they live in a universe that resists happy endings. They are determined nevertheless to achieve one, and the way they talk articulates that determination.

As with the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure, their plan to engineer happiness flies in the teeth of the ferociously anti-romantic environment they inhabit. Both Helen and the King are old-fashioned in their belief that happiness is a condition worth having – or even possible to have. The play is full of elderly people who lament the passing of old-time excellence and the ascendancy of a self-centred new generation. The Countess of Rossillion, who cannot countenance her son Bertram’s treatment of Helen; the elderly courtier Lafeu, who is disgusted that the young aristocrats of his time cannot appreciate Helen’s beauty and wit; the King, who in the first act wishes that he, like Bertram’s father, had not lived ‘to be the snuff / Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses / All but new things disdain’ (1.2.59-60) – all note the course of the world’s decline, its gradual loss of affection with each succeeding age. Helen allies herself with these nostalgic old folk both by her deployment of old knowledge – her use of her father’s medicine to cure the King – and by their adoption of her as their imaginative offspring. The Countess adopts her as her daughter in the first act, the King effectively adopts her in the second, and she substitutes herself for Lafeu’s daughter in the final act, when she reclaims Bertram’s hand just after he has contracted it to the old man’s child. By the end of the play, the base-born Helen has effectively forged a new lineage for herself, an ancestry that extends into the mists of French antiquity, linking her to the past as strongly as the ancient wisdom she inherited from her father.

Sir Thomas Elyot, by Hans Holbein

The nostalgic attachment to the past shared by Helen and her adoptive parents is not, then, a reactionary one. It seems to liberate them from reactionary class positions, making them prize a person’s words and actions more highly than her birth, in marked contrast to young men like Bertram, who do not understand that it’s necessary to inherit their ancestors’ ‘moral parts’ as well as their facial features (1.2.21). Early modern conduct manuals very often stress the notion that aristocracy was first bequeathed to certain families by common consent of the people, as a reward for their achievements. Perhaps the richest and most intriguing assertion of this view comes in Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governor (1532) – a favourite book of Shakespeare’s. ‘In the beginning,’ Elyot tells us in his chapter on nobility,

when private possessions and dignity were given by the consent of the people, who then had all things in common, and equality in degree and condition, undoubtedly they gave the one and the other to him at whose virtue they marveled, and by whose labour and industry they received a common benefit, as of a common father that with equal affection loved them.[2]

It’s therefore necessary, Elyot asserts, for each new generation of nobles to reassert their nobility in action if they wish to retain their hereditary privileges; and Shakespeare’s King of France concurs. ‘Honours thrive,’ the King tells Bertram, ‘When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our fore-goers’ (2.3.133-5). Those nobles who fail to act nobly not only forego their right to the title they inherit, but show symptoms of a more general sickness in the world they inhabit. Elyot puts it like this:

Where virtue joined with great possessions or dignity hath long continued in the blood or house of a gentleman, as it were an inheritance, there nobility is most shown, and these noble men be most to be honoured; forasmuch as continuance in all thing that is good hath ever pre-eminence in praise and comparison. But yet shall it be necessary to advertize those persons, that do think nobility may in no wise be but only where men can avaunt them of ancient lineage, an ancient robe, or great possessions, at this day very noble men do suppose to be much error and folly. Whereof there is a familiar example, which we bear ever with us, for the blood in our bodies being in youth warm, pure, and lusty, it is the occasion of beauty, which is everywhere commended and loved; but if in age it be putrefied, it loseth his praise. And the gouts, carbuncles, cankers, leprosy, and other like sores and sicknesses, which do proceed of blood corrupted, be to all men detestable. (p. 104)

What this passage reveals is the fact that the past is the location of radical thought and action. It was as a result of a communal decision, a revolutionary rethinking of the problem of how best to live together, that people first established the institution of nobility. Elyot’s identification of nobility as having been granted to certain men by democratic agreement implies that it can be taken away just as easily (notice that resonant phrase ‘as it were an inheritance’ – Elyot denies that inheritance is ever either essential or automatic). The political implications of this position were taken up much later in the century in the notorious French treatise Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579), by Philippe du Plessis Mornay and Hubert Languet, which argued that kings as well as nobles were originally elected by the people, and might be deselected – deposed – should their merits become subject to ‘degeneration’. And Elyot’s comparison of successive generations of nobles to the ageing of the human body implies something more: that later generations are in a sense older than those that went before them, since they are further removed from the vigorous, innovatory convictions that motivated the institution of nobility. The younger generation is therefore more vulnerable to the ravages of disease – to what he calls putrefaction – than the old. Bertram is sicker than the King of France, his body less responsive to Helen’s loveliness, his concern for the public weal, as Elyot calls it – for the wealth and/or wellness of the state (Elyot was an amateur physician as well as a politician) – almost non-existent. The notion that he is to be healed in the second half of the play, as the King was in the first, is a structuring principle of the comedy. And the play implies too that the world Bertram represents – the world occupied by the theatre audience – is as sick as he is, and needs restoring to health by similar means if it’s not to fall apart under the burden of its own decrepitude.

Sir Thomas Elyot was a lexicographer like Samuel Johnson. He authored the first Latin-English dictionary, and his Book Named the Governor is also a kind of lexicon, passionately committed to the belief that the right use of words, the respect for their etymology and proper deployment, is essential to the wholesomeness of any early modern society.[3] His chapter on nobility is more concerned with restoring that word to its proper signification in the here and now than it is with antiquarianism. All’s Well is similarly concerned with the use and misuse of words; and its title implies a similar reading of the world as having gone off track, as needing to return to where it started, to the common weal, which depends on a common or mutual understanding of what words mean – an understanding that has almost been lost, with disastrous political and social consequences.

The nostalgia of Helen and the old people of All’s Well is for a very distant past; perhaps even for the days before the nobility was founded, that golden age when the idea of nobleness mattered more than any social institution. They speak of the age when miracles occurred (as they do again in this play: the miracle of the King’s recovery, the miracle of Helen’s return from the dead to reclaim the hand of her husband); or when goddesses like Diana walked the earth (as she does in this play from Act Three, in the person of the mortal girl Diana). Above all, they speak of the days when words were inextricably linked with their simplest meanings, as Helen insists they are when she addresses people like Diana who share her integrity, or as the King says they were whenever Bertram’s father opened his mouth. ‘His honour,’ says the King of his dead friend, ‘Clock to itself, knew the true minute when / Exception bid him speak, and at this time / His tongue obeyed his hand’ (1.2.38-41). Words in those days were carefully weighed, sparingly spoken, sincerely meant; and once again, the King’s and Helen’s deployment of rhyme would seem to replicate the careful timing and placing of words that characterized this legendary epoch.

Of all the good qualities of the past, this exemplary use of language is the most difficult to recover in the present. The Countess’s desperate efforts to get Helen to confess her love for Bertram, the Countess’s son, are rendered necessary by the time they live in; a time when the tongue is hobbled by the knowledge that its owner’s best intentions may be wilfully misread, its most direct and honest utterances subject to misprision. ‘Only sin / And hellish obstinacy tie thy tongue,’ the Countess tells Helen, ‘That truth should be suspected’ (1.3.170-2); but she is wrong. Helen is merely concerned to defer her declaration of love until she knows she will be pardoned for it; that she will not be condemned out of hand for ambition in loving a man above her station, or brazenness in giving her desire expression. These days, Helen finds, well-meaning people must convey their thoughts in riddles if they wish to avoid instant misprision. She speaks ‘riddle-like’ to the Countess when she finally confesses her love for the Countess’s son (1.3.208); and in the final scene, her friend Diana speaks in riddles to the King in her efforts to explain the convoluted paths by which the play’s happy ending is being achieved. Riddling is the language of oracles, another of the ancient sources of knowledge that Helen resurrects. When she promises the King that she can cure him, she relies on the ‘help of heaven’ to substantiate her promise (2.1.151), just as the priestess did at the Delphic oracle when she begged Apollo for answers to his worshippers’ questions. The King is both amazed and impressed by Helen’s confidence: ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak,’ he tells her, ‘And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way’ (2.1.174-7). Her claims to occult knowledge, in other words, seem to him senseless, like the verses delivered by the Delphic oracle; yet in one way or another the ‘sense’ of the Delphic verses was always confirmed by the outcome of events, just as the sense of Helen’s riddles will assert itself before the play is done. The plot of All’s Well is an elaborate device to give substance to the latter-day oracular riddle spoken by Diana in the final scene: or to put it another way, to extract sense from a senseless world by uttering seeming nonsense.

Conleth Hill as Parolles, Michelle Terry as Helena

In the modern age, words are wayward, treacherous, suspicious, and must be circumvented by discovering a new discourse composed (perhaps) of riddles and rhymes. Yet even words as used in the modern age can serve to bring people together if cleverly used – like the wheelings and dealings of a crafty pimp. This is confirmed in All’s Well by the words and actions of Parolles; a braggart soldier who helps to lead Helen’s husband Bertram astray, but who also helps to bring him back to the wife he abandons; a pimp who lends his services in an effort to help Bertram commit adultery, but who ends instead by introducing the wayward husband to the deferred delights of his wedding night. As his name suggests (it means ‘words’ in French), Parolles embodies the way words are used in the here and now, the duplicitous ambiguity of latter-day discourse. Words lead people away from truth, just as Parolles encourages Bertram to be untrue to Helen; yet they also inadvertently restore truth to those who have lost it, as Parolles restores Bertram to his lost spouse. This verbal double action is present in everything Parolles says. In the first act, for instance, he delivers an oration to the virgin Helen on the uselessness of virginity (‘Loss of virginity is rational increase; and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost’, 1.1.117-9). Yet despite his obviously salacious motives in speaking thus (he wants to sleep with Helen himself), Helen is not insulted by Parolles’s oration. On the contrary, she finds it intriguing: it impels her to ask him what is (for her) the million dollar question: ‘How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?’ (1.1.141). Yet the same speech serves Bertram’s turn as well; the young man later parrots it when attempting to seduce Diana: ‘When you are dead, you should be such a one / As you are now, for you are cold and stern; / And now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got’ (4.2.7-10). Parolles, in other words, speaks both for the loyal Helen and for the disloyal Bertram. He gives voice to Helen’s desire, which she cannot easily voice herself without being condemned for it like her Homeric namesake; and he furnishes Bertram with the language of seduction, thus initiating the young man into the pleasures of sex – the first step on the way to reconciliation with his wife. This dual action of Parolles’s words is apparent, too, in the message he delivers to Helen from Bertram after their marriage, telling her that Bertram has left her for the theatre of war. For Parolles, this abandonment – which seems so disastrous to Helen’s adopted parents – is merely a deferral of the couple’s pleasure, an erotic technique (familiar to frequenters of brothels) for enhancing the ecstasy of their future love-making. Bertram’s departure, says Parolles, will ‘make the coming hour o’erflow with joy / And pleasure drown the brim’ (2.4.44-5). And despite the fact that Parolles doesn’t mean this – that at this point he doesn’t expect Bertram and Helen ever to meet again – this quasi-pornographic fantasy proves prophetic. The King’s last words before the play’s epilogue (‘The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’, 5.3.327) effectively repeat Parolles’s sentiment. Parolles, then, is a vehicle for truthful utterance – a servant, like Helen, of the gods, or of whatever forces lend structure to chaos, bring sense out of nonsense. The difference is that Helen is conscious that she has this function, whereas Parolles is not.

If Parolles acts as a kind of inadvertent soothsayer or prophet, then Helen and the older generation to which she allies herself sometimes act as pimps. When the old courtier Lafeu first leaves Helen alone with the King he compares himself to the most famous of pimps: ‘I am Cressid’s uncle, / That dare leave two together’ (2.1.96-7). His pimping has a positive effect: the King is cured, and Lafeu alludes to the King’s restored health in sexual terms: he is ‘Lustig, as the Dutchman says… he’s able to lead her a coranto’ (2.3.38-40). The newly cured King then acts as a pimp with Helen as his client: first parading his courtiers before her like whores in a brothel, then using threats to make her chosen partner, Bertram, accept her advances. The comparison of King to pimp may seem a trifle strained; but it does not seem so to Lafeu, who is disgusted by the young courtiers’ failure to respond to Helen as compliant whores should do: ‘An they were sons of mine I’d have them whipt; or I would send them to th’Turk to make eunuchs of’ (2.3.84-6). And the comparison occurs, too, to Bertram, who is appalled by the role reversal whereby a woman becomes the client and himself the sexual partner she chooses: ‘In such a business’ he says, ‘give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ (2.3.105-6, my emphasis). Later in the play, Diana’s widowed mother uses the same word, ‘business’, to refer to pimping: she tells Helen that she is well brought up and therefore ‘Nothing acquainted with these businesses’ (3.7.5), such as that of getting a strange woman into bed with a man. But at this point Helen is urging the widow to act as a legitimate pimp between herself and Bertram, just as Lafeu and the King acted as legitimate pimps in the play’s second act. Bertram has fled to Italy without consummating his marriage to Helen, and Helen prostitutes herself with the aim of producing lawful effects from Bertram’s unlawful desires. In Italy, Bertram is attracted to Diana, the widow’s daughter, and makes an arrangement through Parolles to sleep with her; but Helen substitutes herself for Bertram in Diana’s bed, thus creating the context for yet another redemptive riddle. Her plot to sleep with Bertram, she says, ‘Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act; / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact’ (3.7.45-7). In a world where men react with horror to lawful sex and instead seek pleasure with unlawful partners, pimping, prostitution and the playing of sexual practical jokes may be legitimate practices, and dealing in double meanings may be the only way to circumvent more damaging forms of duplicity.

Jim DeVita as Parolles

Parolles is the presiding spirit of this decadent modern world, self-centred, dishonest, bombastic, morally hollow; and what happens to him demonstrates how this world can most effectively be dealt with. Parolles, like the duplicitous words invoked by his name, can be worked on to generate useful meanings. His particular brand of nonsense can be exploited to produce sense, just as the more elevated nonsense of prophecy can make sense when properly applied. In the fourth act Parolles is subjected to a terrifying practical joke that unleashes a torrent of verbiage from him. A band of his fellow soldiers, attached like him to the Florentine army, disguise themselves as members of the army with which Florence is at war. They capture Parolles, then interrogate him in a nonsensical made-up language cobbled together from fragments of European dialects ancient and modern. Under their interrogation and in terror of his life, Parolles regales them with a flood of truths and half-truths, treacherously telling them all he knows and more about the composition of the Florentine forces and the private lives of the Florentine generals. At the end of the dreadful interview the traitor’s eyes are unbound and he finds himself confronted with the men he has been betraying and traducing. And his exposure betrays not only Parolles but the man who took Parolles at his word, Bertram. The young man’s trust in the protestations of a fool who is so palpably untrustworthy suggests that he himself is not to be trusted. The interrogators find in Parolles’s pocket evidence of both his and Bertram’s unreliability: a letter from Parolles to Diana, urging her not to trust Bertram (‘After he scores, he never pays the score… He ne’er pays after-debts’, 4.3.208-210) and to transfer her favours to Parolles instead. Later, Parolles again betrays the truth about Bertram, inadvertently testifying to his attempted seduction of Diana at a crucial moment in the play’s last scene. Parolles, like Helen, makes sense out of nonsense if properly ‘found’.

The man who ‘finds’ Parolles’s dishonesty is old Lafeu (‘I have now found thee,’ he crows in Act Two, 2.3.203); and it’s Lafeu who employs him as a fool at the end of the play. The old courtier notes the danger of taking Parolles seriously – of lending excessive credence to the kinds of insubstantial words he represents. He tells Bertram that ‘there can be no kernel in this light nut’ and warns him to ‘trust him not in matter of heavy consequence’ (2.5.42-5). At the same time, Lafeu sees too that properly handled Parolles’s lightness can be wholesome. The Countess of Roussillon’s fool Lavatch urges him to find the fool in himself: ‘much fool may you find in you, even to the world’s pleasure and the increase of laughter’ (2.4.34-5); and it’s ‘to the increase of laughter’ that he is tricked into betraying what he knows about Bertram and the Florentine army, since the French lords who plan the prank do it ‘for the love of laughter’ (3.6.29). As a result of their exposure Parolles becomes an honest man – or rather, honestly dishonest, dedicating himself to a career in making people laugh with his blatant lies and petty treasons. From being a corrupting influence when given too much weight, he becomes an invigorating one when taken as what he is, the epitome of lightness. And this transformation of Parolles from heavy and corrupt to light and wholesome is masterminded by a man whose name allies him with light, an ennobled reincarnation of Measure for Measure’s Lucio, Parolles’s new master Lafeu.

Parolles the Captive, by Francis Wheatley

Lafeu specializes in well-timed humour, distinguishing the serious from the frivolous with a tact and sensitivity that recalls the King’s description of Bertram’s dead father. When introducing Helen to the King he begins by associating her with a chain of sexual allusions. ‘I have seen a medicine’ he says, ‘That’s able to breathe life into a stone… whose simple touch / Is powerful to araise King Pepin’ – Pepin being a long-dead ancestor of the French King’s whose name comically distorts the word ‘penis’ (2.1.71-5). But Lafeu goes on to testify seriously to Helen’s apparent worth, ‘If seriously I may convey my thoughts / In this my light deliverance’ (2.1.80-1). He thus becomes the first to warn of the ease with which women may be taken too lightly, the substance of their ‘light’ – that is, their knowledge, wit and wisdom – left unrecognized, to the detriment of all. Bertram’s mother the Countess of Roussillon is the next to see it. Instructing her steward to write to Bertram about Helen’s departure from France she tells him, ‘Let every word weigh heavy of her worth / That he does weigh too light’ (3.4.31-2). And the King is the last; speaking of Helen’s supposed death he tells Bertram that ‘Our rash faults / Make trivial price of serious things we have, / Not knowing them until we know their grave’ (5.3.60-2). Lafeu has helped to teach his elderly contemporaries the distinction between different forms of lightness; and at the end of the play he proposes to go on using Parolles as a tool for illustrating the distinction.

Bertram, by contrast, goes on devaluing women till the last possible moment. When Diana accuses him of seducing her in the final scene he dismisses her as a plaything, a disposable toy: she is ‘a fond and desp’rate creature / Whom sometime I have laugh’d with’ (5.3.177-8). No wonder, then, if women have recourse to light strategies to get justice from men of his generation. Helen poses as a ‘light’ woman, a whore, to get him back when he deserts her; and Diana has recourse to the ‘light’ or frivolous language of riddles to explain Bertram’s actions to the King (‘So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick’, 5.3.297). Diana’s jokes almost kill her; exasperated by their seeming senselessness, the King orders her to prison and adds that he will put her to death ‘within this hour’ if she cannot give him a more satisfactory account of herself (5.3.278). Luckily, Diana is able to provide a visual clue to the ‘meaning’ of her riddle by presenting the King with the living body of Helen, who was thought to be dead; a body that is also ‘quick’ with child, that is, pregnant by Bertram. There is substance to her quibbles, sense to her senselessness, as there is not to Bertram’s lying protestations of honour and fidelity. It is Bertram, not Diana or Helen, who is light – as hollow as the drum with which Parolles is repeatedly linked. And at the end of the play one cannot help but wonder if he can ever acquire the substance to keep his promise to Helen and ‘love her dearly, ever, ever dearly’ (5.3.310).

In an earlier French play by Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1594-5), words grew wings and flew away from meaning. The play’s repeated references to children and childishness reflected the immaturity of the witty courtiers who set its tone, and its unsatisfactory ending stressed the difficulty of reuniting what they had divided: sound and sense. All’s Well introduces us to another set of French courtiers many of whom are elderly, as if they have long ago completed the rigorous course of instruction imposed on Navarre and his companions by the youthful Queen of France. In All’s Well comedy comes of age, its destructiveness and its wholesomeness held in a delicate balance. Throughout the play, as has often been noted, there’s an emphasis on healing that reflects yet another meaning of the title: all’s well that ends in a state of health. And good comedy was said to be one of the most potent medicines of all, reviving and restoring its auditors through the healing influence of laughter. At the beginning of the play Helen wishes Bertram well as he leaves for the court of France, although she is uncertain that his departure will bring him wellness. ‘Tis pity,’ she tells Parolles,

That wishing well had not a body in’t

Which might be felt; that we, the poorer born,

Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,

Might with effects of them follow our friends

And show what we alone must think, which never

Returns us thanks. (1.1.166-74)

In the rest of the play Helen does indeed give a body to her wishes and follow Bertram, like an embodiment of the base-born comic playwright, who gives body to his thoughts for the benefit of the highest as well as of the lowest social classes. She plays an audacious comic trick on him to marry him, and a yet more audacious prank to consummate their marriage; and she contrives a comic ending to their adventures in defiance of hatred, infidelity and death. She is a mistress, then, of the related arts of medicine and comedy; and her early success in healing the King permits us to hope that she will finally succeed in healing Bertram, too, despite all appearances to the contrary. After all, less plausible things have happened, both on and off the comic stage.

Kristin Villanueva as Helena, Timothy Douglas as the King of France

[1] William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1566-7), Volume 1.

[2] Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book Named the Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London and New York: Dent and Dutton, 1962), pp. 103-4.

[3] See my Elizabethan Fictions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 1, for more on Elyot’s The Governor as lexicon.

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