A visit to the Globe Theatre in Southwark is an essential stop in London. Close to its original site, re-built through the efforts of Sam Wanamaker, the Globe had its official opening season in June 1997. Tours are conducted year-round and the museum housing the Globe Exhibition is a must-see – I have taken this tour a few times but have never been in London during the show season, usually late April to early October [ click here for this year’s offerings ] – so I was thrilled this trip to finally see a performance, and a play I have neither read nor seen: All’s Well That Ends Well!
The best way to get there is to walk across the Millenium Bridge:
We had fabulous seats, front row of the first balcony with the railing to lean on, looking down onto the stage and the lowly “pit-dwellers” [and cautioned to NOT drape anything or hold drinks over the rail for fear of droppings on the standing-room only crowd below] – and one piece of advice – either bring your own or rent a cushion – offered for £1 and worth every pence!]
What an experience! – transported back into Shakespeare’s day –
the language, the costumes, the comedy! Though there was no such
Globe Theatre during Austen’s day, Shakespeare was produced in the
theatres and Austen was a regular theatre-goer when visiting Henry
and Eliza in London. Austen and Shakespeare is, however, book not
blog post material! – there are numerous allusions to Shakespeare in
her letters and writings [ Richard III, Macbeth, King John, Hamlet,
Henry IV, The Merchant of Venice for starters…], but as heard in this
dialogue between Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park,
we can perhaps get a sense of Austen’s true feelings about Shakespeare:
Crawford: “… I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”
And Edmund replies: “No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent.”
[Mansfield Park, Vol. III, Ch. 3, p. 338]
But back to All’s Well That Ends Well: I turn to my trusty Shakespeare
text from college [we were using the G. B. Harrison text of 1952 in 1967!
yikes!] – now, I confess, quite torn and tattered, one of the few books I vigorously attacked with marginalia and underlining – but alas!, AWTEW remains pristine, a glaring anomaly, and I wonder what my professor had against this play?! This must be one of Shakespeare’s duds – a comedy
without humor, a romance without a hero. Indeed, this textbook says
[dated though it is!):
“The play seems never to have been popular. Scholars have found no contemporary mention of quotation. There is, therefore, no external fact by which the date of writing can be determined, nor is there any topical allusion or other clue within the play itself. The style is uneven, but in the best passages, both verse and prose, there is a maturity which shows that the play was written in the latter half of Shakespeare’s career…. [thus] a date is assigned somewhere between 1601 and 1604.” [Harrison, p. 1018.] It first appeared in print in the First Folio of 1623, after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.
Its original source was from Boccaccio’s Decameron, likely from William Painter’s collection of Italianate tales, The Palace of Pleasure (1566), Shakespeare following the tale of Giglietta de Narbone and Beltram de Rossiglione quite closely, with his usual added subplots of fools and
Basic story: Bertram, a young Count whose father has just died, leaves
home to attend the Court of the ailing King of France. Bertram bids adieu
to his mother, the delightful Countess* of Roussillon, and her ward, Helena,
the daughter of a well-respected physician. Helena is in love with Bertram,
but as she is of a lower class, her affection is not, cannot be reciprocated [though Bertram does carry Helena’s handkerchief with him for the entire play, all the while eschewing her love]. Conveniently the King of France is dying; Helena offers to cure him with the knowledge she has learned from her father; her prize if she is successful to choose a husband from his courtiers; the Countess sends her off to Paris, and the fun begins.
The King is cured, Helena chooses Bertram [the selection process is very funny!], he declines due to her low social status [he is a man on the way UP],
the King insists, they marry, and Bertram sends her home without a wedding night. He then heads off to war in Italy to make a name for himself, writing Helena that he will remain her husband in name only unless she can get the
ring from his finger and prove she is pregnant with his child [difficult with no wedding night…]. Helena leaves immediately for Italy, with full approval of
her now mother-in-law The Countess who loves her as a true daughter, and she discovers Bertram making merry with the young Italian lasses, one in particular named Diana. Helena tells her tale of woe to Diana and her mother and they agree to the infamous “bed-trick” whereby Helena will secretly appear to Bertram as his lover Diana – she requests his ring, she, or course, is left with child, her identity is revealed, Bertram confesses his true love after all, and as the saying goes, “all’s well that ends well”! [This very brief summary gives
short shift to the subplot of Bertram’s right-hand man, Parolles, a coward and
a traitor, blindly followed by Bertram until his true colors are revealed – and
all up to humorous par with Shakespeare’s other such braggarts.]
The play has been rarely acted, and has no glowing reviews, as the following example of Samuel Johnson attests:
The play has many delightful scenes, though not sufficiently probable, and some happy characters, though not new, nor produced by any deep knowledge of human nature. …I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram, a man noble without generosity, and young without truth, who marries Helen [sic] 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 he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.
[Samuel Johnson, Notes on the Plays of Shakespeare, 1765] –
in Harrison, p. 1019.
But enjoyable it was, despite the hero being a bit of a jerk [does “Bertram’
have a familiar ring as a hero sorely lacking??!] – he does every thing to hurt Helena, is obsessed with his social status, chooses friends who are scoundrels, whines, whines and whines again, lies his way into the beds of maidens, and in the last five minutes, is, as Johnson says, “dismissed to happiness.”
But who needs a dashing romantic hero when one has The Globe in one’s periphery and a play with much lively wit in prose and verse [the King’s
timely “I am wrapped in dismal thinkings” nearly brought the roof down, though alas! no roof in sight! – I shall now use this phrase repeatedly and annoy all my friends!], and it all ends with a lengthy round of dancing – all characters participating in the raucous festivities where one is finally able to see Bertram as a more lively and affectionate lover. My traveling companion and I agreed – all plays should end in such a way! [we later in the week saw Wicked and were much disappointed that the characters came out only for a bow and did not break into ten minutes of dancing!]
* an Austen 6 degrees of separation stretch but worthy of note!:
The Countess is played by Janie Dee, who is also cast as Adam Dalgliesh’s lovely Emma in P. D. James’s Death in Holy Orders and The Murder Room – Emma of course being the perfect mate for her Austen-loving detective and recipient of a very Wentworth–worthy letter of Dalgliesh’s professed love!
A side note: the program guide is worth the price of admission! – with a short history of the Globe, Shakespeare in London, the background and history of the play to include its contemporary contexts all with pictures, photographs of the actors in rehearsal, extensive biographies of the cast, excellent ads, and the latest news at The Globe, a very exciting bit being the new indoor Jacobean Theatre which will allow winter performances. Hurray!
If you are in London this season, I can only emphatically say, get thee hence to The Globe! – this season’s offerings besides AWTEW are Hamlet, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Doctor Faustus, Anne Boleyn, The Globe Mysteries, and The God of Soho – see the link here for more information.
From The Globe Exhibition:
FurtherReading: [a very brief smattering of Shakespeare]
- Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare, the Complete Works. Ed. G. B. Harrison. New York: Harcourt, 1952.
- Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/ visit for this season’s schedule, the shop, membership, tour information, etc…
- Globe Theatre History: http://www.globe-theatre.org.uk/
- Old Globe Theatre: http://www.william-shakespeare.info/william-shakespeare-globe-theatre.htm
- Time Out Review of AWTEW – http://www.timeout.com/london/theatre/event/216483/alls-well-that-ends-well
- Folger Shakespeare Library: http://www.folger.edu/index.cfm
- AWTEW at the Folger: http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=877
- AWTEW at Internet Shakespeare Editions: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Foyer/plays/AWW.html
- AWTEW at Rare Book Room: [digital quarto edition]http://www.rarebookroom.org/Control/shaf1b12/index.html
- Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet: http://shakespeare.palomar.edu/default.htm
- Absolute Shakespeare: http://absoluteshakespeare.com/index.htm
[All photographs by Deb Barnum, @2010 and @2011 unless otherwise noted]