for missing The Decemberists until now. Check out one of the most interesting songs I have heard in many moons.
“Her bed of chaparral.” Wow.
They covered this song, in their inimitably charming fashion, at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, to set up the climactic bed-switch scenes of All’s Well that Ends Well.
But the question about the play is: Is all well that ends this way?
The lying “knight” Paroles has been reduced to pathetic beggary, punished perhaps overmuch for all his false bravado. And Helena finally has her husband–by having substituted herself for the Italian woman he thought he was shamelessly seducing in the midnight darkness.
All well? The most comical scene of the play involves Paroles’ blindfolded interrogation by his disguised confederates, who masquerade as the enemy in order to “take him prisoner” and make a fool of him. But the interrogation goes in a nonsensical direction. Why would an enemy general want to know about the moral character of Paroles’ friends? That, however, is what they ask him about, and he blithely supplies the information: They are all lying, cheating, cowardly rogues. Is he slandering them? Perhaps. More likely: they really are.
Every time Bertram has the opportunity to turn away from selfish immaturity and towards noble responsibility, he neglects to do so. He keeps dovetailing into extended adolescence. Even after Helena has proven not only her devotion but also her uncanny ingenuity and resourcefulness, he demands an account of the facts from someone else, because he can’t quite bring himself to trust her.
And even noble Helena herself admits that her motives in doing good are not pure. She acknowledges that she only thought of trying to cure the king (which she miraculously does) only because it gave her an excuse to go to Paris in search of Bertram.
In other words, All’s Well that Ends Well largely covers: how bad people are. We lie. We sneak off and break our commitments. We present ourselves to be what we are not. The king starts the play with a mortal corruption of body, beyond all hope of cure. The play ends with a healthy king, but a clear picture of humanity before our eyes: Man is morally corrupt, beyond all hope of cure.
The perennial “problem” in this play: Is Helena’s devotion to Bertram at all believable? Can we really believe that she ends the play happy–when she finally gets her louse of a husband to submit?
Two points to raise in answer to this perennial question:
1. Exactly how much of a louse is Bertram really? Granted: he carries on like an enormous blockhead of a young count. He breaks his own mother’s heart, which is about a low as you can get. And his designs on Diana reek of the basest cravenness.
But: Bertram’s trusting affection for hapless Paroles actually argues in favor of the young man’s character: He is innocent enough to believe the old fraud’s lies. And Paroles’ companionability gives the play its lightest touch, a little Falstaff in nuce. Bertram’s attracting Paroles as a companion suggests that he’s not such a bad young gentleman. Also, in the war, Bertram receives quick promotions. He clearly enjoys high regard as a brave and competent leader. So we could conclude that this louse actually does have a hidden good side that only Helena can see.
The second point: What really does it take to be happy in love anyway?
I don’t know whose idea it was to throw this wild Decemberists’ song into the final act, or why–but I think it was a particularly inspired thing to do. The song presents a vision of happiness and peace beyond reason, beyond deliberation, beyond reflection, beyond the events of time. Time moves; people experience expectation and dissatisfaction. But the Infanta rests in bliss at the summit of all royalty, the destination of the grandest of all processions.
I think we could say that Helena pursues her man with a similarly indomitable serenity. He may not be the most virtuous young count in the kingdom. But he is hers. She will indeed be happy when everything settles down and they can be together like they are supposed to be. All will be well when the fuss and bother ends–and marital cohabitation begins.
So maybe All is Well in the end because: The sovereign power of womanly commitment to marriage stabilizes this world, which otherwise would be a cesspool of immature selfishness.