Directors notes on Alls Well That Ends Well

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.  Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.
                                                                                                William Shakespeare
                                                                                                Alls Well That Ends Well

"The joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs and fears: they cannot utter the one, nor will they utter the other
                                                                                                Sr. Francis Bacon

While working on Alls Well That Ends Well, I have repeatedly been asked to defend the play, and more specifically the actions of its young hero and heroine, Bertram and Helena.  Both are far from perfect, and their imperfections account for much of why critics group Alls Well along with Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida as one of Shakespeares Problem Plays.  For me (and I hope, by the end of the evening, for you as well) there isnt really a problem with the play at all; indeed, quite the opposite.  With Alls Well That Ends Well, I believe Shakespeare has crafted a nearly perfect study of our deeply imperfect human natures.  The young people in this play make colossal mistakes.  They love people who seem, on the surface, undeserving of their love, and loathe the people who they should most revere.  They confuse glory with honor, and mistake the trappings of nobility for nobility itself.  And, in the process of all this, they cause unspeakable pain to themselves and one another.  Yet its in the plays ability to illuminate these aspects of our nature -- aspects we might not like to admit we have -- where I believe its genius lies.  If the purpose of playing, as Hamlet tells us, is to hold as twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure, then Alls Well That Ends Well does so with an acuity with which we may not be entirely comfortable.

The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.
                                                                                                Saki

Before the play begins, the Count of Rosillion, husband to the Countess and father to Bertram, has died.  So too, we soon learn, has his physician, Helenas father, leaving her under the Countesss protection. The King of France, meanwhile, totters near death, languishing of a fistula, which no doctor in the country has been able to cure.  The presence of death, both recent and imminent, is thick, and memories of the departed weigh heavily on those theyve left behind.  Against this canvas of mortality and decrepitude, Shakespeare sends three naive children into the world.  It is out of this polarity between youth and age, between vibrancy and sickliness, and between naivete and wisdom, that Alls Well That End Well begins.  The young, of course, have much to learn from the old, as do the old from the young. The play seems obsessed with this interplay between the generations -- and between the past and the present.  Yet despite the fact that they are told repeatedly what their parents wish of them, the young will never completely know or understand their predecessors any more that the adults will ever completely understand the young.  Images of the past remain locked in sepia tones, present yet distant from the here and now, and one generation can only guess as to what the other expects of it.  To be young again, if we could, the Countess laments.

Be gentle with the young.
                                                                                                Juvenal