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Understanding the Bard

Last week, the Com­mon­wealth Shake­speare Com­pany began its 16th annual “Shake­speare on the Common” season with “All’s Well That Ends Well.” We asked Erika Boeckeler—an assis­tant pro­fessor of Eng­lish who recently returned from a post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at the Hunt­ington Library in San Marino, Calif. — for some insight into one of The Bard’s lesser-​​known works.

What’s the meaning of the play’s title?

The title – “All’s Well That Ends Well” – is repeated sev­eral times by the pro­tag­o­nist, Helena. To that end, the play asks, “What does it mean to have a happy ending? The work’s many fairy tale ele­ments play into this query.  In stan­dard fairy tales so many awful things happen, but then every­body seems happy because of the mar­riage at the end.

There’s often a dis­turbing under­cur­rent to the end­ings of Shakespeare’s Come­dies. Think of “Two Gen­tlemen of Verona,” which ends with a double mar­riage pro­posal right after one of the char­ac­ters almost rapes his best friend’s future wife. Or “Love’s Labor Lost,” where all the mar­riages are deferred at the end so that the char­ac­ters can do penance. When they happen on stage, we tend to get swept up with all the lights and cos­tumes and emo­tions, but when you stop to think about it, the end­ings are far more disturbing.

What should members of the audience pay particular attention to? What questions should they keep in mind as they watch the action unfold?

Some­thing essen­tial to under­stand before watching the play is the role of the fool, Lavatch. In gen­eral, Shake­spearean fools are always very com­plex and their humor can seem bitter, out of place and some­times not very funny. This is because they reveal bitter truths or express psy­cho­log­ical states of the characters.

Lavatch reverses our expec­ta­tions and that of the social norm.  As you watch, ask your­self the fol­lowing ques­tions: Who is he making fun of? In what ways does he show that person to be a fool? How does he poke fun at the social con­ven­tion of a sit­u­a­tion or char­acter? How does his role fit with the darker side of the play—including the many pseudo-​​happy end­ings, the fre­quent deceits and lies and the play’s prob­lem­atic vision of the future as it comes to a close?

How does Helena’s character stand apart from Shakespeare’s other female protagonists?

“All’s Well That Ends Well” sub­verts a Ger­manic fairy tale; instead of a man who comes to an ill king’s court, it’s a woman. What’s more, Helena’s char­acter is a doctor, which was unusual for Shakespeare’s time, and uncommon among his plays. After her jerk of a hus­band, Bertram, aban­dons her for Italy to fight in the war, Helena embarks on a pil­grimage to Italy. No other Shake­spearean woman takes on some­thing like this dressed as a woman – and if they did, they’d dis­guise them­self as a man.

I think a lot of young pro­fes­sional women can relate to Helena: she’s ambi­tious, smart, beau­tiful, rich, at the very pin­nacle of her career, and even quite sexual, despite the fact that she has some serious rela­tion­ship issues.

“All’s Well That Ends Well” is at the Parkman Band­stand on Boston Common, Tues­days through Sat­ur­days at 8 p.m., and on Sun­days at 7 p.m, through August 14. The play runs 2 hours and 45 minutes.

– by Matt Collette

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