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Shakespeare Matters: All’s Well That Ends Well

It’s not ranked among Shakespeare’s best plays, which doesn’t mean it’s any less of a gem. All’s Well That Ends Well is a shining example of the Bard’s ability to combine drama, romance and comedy with seamless shifts in tones that make for a highly enjoyable play.

In this portrait Shakespeare looks comfortable in his nobleman’s clothes. A great majority of his plays, including “All’s Well That Ends Well,” are set in royal courts.

I just saw a delightful All’s Well at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual “Free For All” in Washington, D.C. Placed in an attractive Victorian setting, the play’s strong cast features Golden Globe winning and Oscar-nominated actress Marsha Mason (Countess of Rossillion), Miriam Silverman (Helena), Tony Roach (Bertram), Paxton Whitehead (Lafew), Adam Green (Lavatch), Cameron Folmar (Parolles), and Ted van Griethuysen (King of France). Van Griethuysen played the same role when the company last performed All’s Well at its Free For All in 1998. The choreography and music are bonuses in the current production, and van Griethuysen dances nimbly on stage in his excellent performance.

Now, here are few more reasons to see All’s Well That Ends Well.

The Bed Trick. I think Shakespeare must be second to none in using the bed trick as a plot device. The bed trick, in which one character sleeps with another without knowing who it is, becomes the main catalyst that drives All’s Well to its odd conclusion, and you’d probably be hard pressed to find a story that does it any better. The bed trick is not the only bawdy element of the play. Early on, there’s extended off-color dialogue about virginity and a rift on a sexual taboo. A prostitute plays a big part in the story. All’s Well ranks high on the Shakespeare bawdy scale along with Pericles and Measure For Measure, the latter another play where a bed trick is central to the plot. (Why is Shakespeare so fixated on bed tricks? Good question!)

Women Rule. On the surface the King of France is in charge, assisted by various male attendants and servants. But it’s a group of strong-willed women who work together to do the impossible and bend Bertram to Helena’s will. Men in the play largely come off as fools — speaking of which, the servant Lavatch is one of Shakespeare’s best clowns. In a sense, however, it’s Helena who does the best fooling, and it’s worth watching her incredible efforts to come out on top.

Parolles. A swaggering, boastful rascal whose name means “words” in French, the character Parolles is the spark that energizes All’s Well and provides some of its funniest moments. At turns sleazy and buffoonish, this character appears so natural it’s hard to believe Shakespeare didn’t base him on some real scoundrel. In the performance I saw, Cameron Folmar’s animated rendition of Parolles stole the show.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All production of All’s Well runs through September 5. If you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, check out the company’s easy on-line method of obtaining tickets.

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