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HE comedy of "All's Well that Ends Well" is, perhaps, rather instructive than apt to provoke enthusiasm. Tennyson said that the composition of Shakespeare's plays, their genesis in the poet's mind, was a problem which entirely baffled him. In "All's Well that Ends Well," little as we know from external sources of the history of the piece, the intellectual processes appear unveiled. A play was wanted for the stage, perhaps in the poet's years as "Johannes Factotum." He took an Italian tale, which really "did not set his genius," did not set the genius of any dramatist working in his age and under his conditions. He wrote a piece full of the rhymed couplets, the euphuisms, the sonneteering of his early essays. Later, at an un
known date, I guess, a play was needed, and Shakespeare rapidly vamped up the comedy as we possess it, mainly in blank verse. Probably it was never very popular. We have no Quarto of "All's Well that Ends Well." The drama first appears in the Folio, and it is clear that the printers set up the piece from a very bad text. But I do not suppose that such a distasteful passage as Helena's wit-combat with Parolles about virginity is mere " an interpolation by the actors. Those who think so love Shakespeare, unlike Ben Jonson, on the other side of idolatry. George III was quite right, Shakespeare was very capable of having such things happen to him. In "All's Well that Ends Well" we have the work of the practical play-writer of the company, and the charpentage of the playwright is better than in "Cymbeline," for example.
The true poet -like cheerfulness on the philosophical reflections of Dr. Johnson's early friend, - “ keeps breaking in," and the humourist makes gallant play with a character not present in the original story from Boccaccio, with that stock personage of the comedy, the Miles Gloriosus. Parolles is like Gullio in "The Return from Parnassus"; but a pretence of valour, not of taste and learning, is the motive of Parolles, "the vile Parolles," Mr. Israel Gollancz calls him. For me, no Parolles, no "All's Well that Ends Well!" The rascal "has given me medicines to make me love him." Shakespeare's rogues are dear to the readers as to the kind, smiling poet. But the poet is hampered by the intractable nature of his material. He seized on a story
that would not be handled. The date of the piece, whether in the hypothetical early form, or in its actual shape, is unknown. Meres, in his "Palladis Tamia (1598) mentions Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Won," otherwise unnoted. "Love's Labour's Lost" is certainly an early play, answering in Shakespeare's work to "Les Précieuses Ridicules," in that of Molière. The quarto of "Love's Labour's Lost" is of 1598, but was then "newly corrected and augmented." It must have been an early success, rewritten in 1598. It was natural that Shakespeare should follow it up with a comedy which, in 1598, still bore the title of "Love's Labour's Won." The name is appropriate to the dingy triumph which crowns the long and complicated labour of the love of Helena. Later, Shakespeare, in his second manner, may well have "newly corrected and augmented" "Love's Labour's Won," and produced it on the stage as "All's Well that Ends Well."
The story of the piece reached Shakespeare through Painter's translation in "The Palace of Pleasure" (1566) of a novel from the Decameron. "Giletta, a physician's daughter of Narbon, healed the French king of a Fistula, for reward whereof she demanded Beltramo, Count of Rossiglione, to husband. The Count, being married against his will, for despite fled to Florence and loved another; Giletta his wife by policy found means to be with her husband in place of his lover, and was begotten with child of two sons: which known to her husband, he received her again, and afterwards he lived in great honour and felicity."
Too clearly "this will never do." Human nature, pitiful of her who "never told her love," revolts from the girl who does tell it, unasked, who, tout entière a sa proie attachée, seizes her advantage, and makes the King confer on her the hand of his reluctant ward: the King, by feudal privilege, having his ward's marriage. Bertram is but a boy he is too young to go to the wars, which boys sought so early in the Middle Ages. "Too young,' and the next year,' and 'it is too early." Helena, in the play, not in Boccaccio, is clearly older and more mature than the lad who is beguiled into thinking Parolles a hero. If the King had thus thrust a man on a reluctant girl ward, all the world would cry shame. And if the man, by Helena's trick, obtained "restitution of conjugal rights," we should deem worse of him than of d'Artagnan when he so shamefully deceives Milady. The act is not seemly in Mariana, in Helena it is shameful. Again, Shakespeare, who otherwise follows Boccaccio very closely, makes Bertram a cur and a liar, in his repudiation of Diana as a public light o' love, a leaguer lass. In the "Decameron," the sight of his two sons, the ring, and his vow, reconcile the Count to his wife: the infamy of Bertram, worse than the mere knavery of Parolles, is wilfully thrown in by the poet. Halliwell Phillipps says that it is "dangerous" to speak with common-sense about the art of Shakespeare. It is not a danger dire enough to terrify constantem virum. Shakespeare, probably in a hurry, chose an impossibly unsympathetic plot, and darkened what was already repulsive to all who respect. womankind and mankind.
How was the situation to be redeemed, how was Shakespeare to win our sympathy for Helena? Sympathy then was, perhaps it is no longer, with patient Grizel. A woman must endure everything; and even now hearts are touched when Helena exclaims, as if the words were wrung from her,
"Strangers and foes do sunder and not kiss."
Helena, her quality of crampon apart, is to the peevish false boy whom she adores as Titania to Bottom. Her soliloquy of love is worthy of the poet. Bertram is leaving her, her dear father has been spoken of, she weeps as the women of Achilles wept when Patroclus fell, "in seeming for Patroclus, but each for her own sorrows." It is for Bertram that she "lets these tears down fall."
Hel. O, were that all! I think not on my father;
What was he like?
I have forgot him: my imagination
Must die for love. T was pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,