But, as it turns out, All's Well That Ends Well is a triumph, as I learned from watching the stunningly stylized Moshinsky production. Moving away from the much more naturalistic adaptations of the first couple of seasons, Moshinsky and new producer Jonathan Miller deliberately took inspiration from 17th century Baroque paintings, particularly those by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). The interplay of dark and light (chiaroscuro) is essential to Moshinsky's camerawork and cinematography; lighting technician John Summers used single projector bulbs hidden behind objects to simulate the idea of a candle as a single source of light in a room, creating a masterful silhouetted effect that lingers in the mind long after the adaptation's running time is up. Vermeer's paintings influenced the production in more ways than one - from the marble tiled floors to the memorable opening sequence in which Helena sits at a virginal (The Music Lesson; Lady Seated at a Virginal) to the fact that practically every single shot of this production is an interior, just as the settings for Vermeer's paintings are almost always two modest rooms in his Delft house. One of the innovations that came under Miller's new directives for the BBC Shakespeare series was that mid-17th century settings and costuming were now permitted (previously, anything post-1616 was strictly forbidden): it's not actually an especially common "look" for Shakespeare productions, which tend to either be aggressively Elizabethan or aggressively modern, with the occasional 19th century dalliance in the middle, and the presentation of an absolutist European court circa 1660 is fascinatingly different.
But impressive though the production is, and great though the performances are (and they are, particularly a Stephen Fry-like Peter Jeffrey as the blustering egotist Parolles), it was the chance to - shock horror - acquaint myself with this fascinating text which really interested me; it's a Shakespeare play I barely knew. What marks All's Well That Ends Well out is what, in my view, makes Twelfth Night so distinctive: a beautifully nuanced blend of life as one of sorrow and laughter. It is, together with Twelfth Night, the most melancholy of all Shakespeare's comedies. And yet in many aesthetic respects it is nothing like Twelfth Night; I can hear the cries of "damning with faint praise!" brewing already, but shall grasp the nettle anyway: it's not as raucously funny. There are none of the same brash and colourful gender-bending cross-dressing qualities. There is one instance of mistaken identity, but it's curiously elided in the actual story-line; referred to off-stage, rather than any visual humour being wrung from the underlying premise of someone not being who you thought they were. In fact, the play's chief weakness is its main clown figure, both in general and in this production.
What there is, instead, is an atmosphere of surprising emotional maturity and what is, for Shakespeare, almost realism. This is one of the infamous problem plays, and sits alongside Measure for Measure in its - well - unusual blend of tragedy and comedy. Not in the later sense of The Winter's Tale, which veers from overtly tragic moments (a man is torn apart by a bear) to lengthy rustic japes; this is not in any way a play of extremes, but of moderation. Would some find it dull? Perhaps. But I would challenge them to find a better expression of, say, the pains and pleasures of being human than "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." The wordplay on 'yarn' is only the icing on the cake in this melancholic image.
I used the word 'realism' in the last paragraph rather guardedly but at its heart the tale of All's Well That Ends Well does have a curious psychological realism to it that hits home in a way not all the comedies do. Bertram spurns Helena's love - he resents being told to marry against his will - and runs off to Florence where he dallies with various other women: there is a poignancy to this that is far from fairy-tale whimsy. That the play focusses so much on Helena, both opening with her love for Bertram and then making her quest to win him back the play's main drive, also sets it apart in that it has an unusually dynamic and driven heroine ("our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven"). The disparity between her and Bertram - she's a mere gentlewoman (that is to say, 'attending a great lady' rather than being a great lady herself, in the vernacular of the age) whilst he's a nobleman and a count - makes the play intriguingly class-conscious as well as gender-conscious. "'Twere all one that I should love a bright particular star and think to wed it, he is so above me," Helena laments, "in his bright radiance and collateral light must I be comforted, not in his sphere." In short, she concludes that he's out of her league.
This develops in intriguing, almost proto-feminist ways. Helena is shown to have uncommon skill in matters medical, curing the King of France of a fistula, and his gratitude manifests itself in granting her any husband she wishes. Agency is, unexpectedly, hers, and - surprise, surprise! - she picks Bertram. At this point, of course, we might problematize the fact that monarchic society means a king arbitrarily gets to say who marries whom (and we should; this is an obvious injustice), and thus there is an inkling of sympathy for Bertram in that he is told to marry against his will. What is much harder to excuse is just how unpleasant he is towards Helena, his snobbish and classist attitude towards "a poor physician's daughter" being refuted by even the French king of all people ("strange is it that our bloods, of colour, weight, and heat, pour'd all together, would quite confound distinction, yet stand off in differences so mighty". As Muse put it a few hundred years later, "when we bleed we bleed the same"). Bertram's pride remains the main obstacle to be overcame throughout the play, and is neatly juxtaposed with the pride of the bragging peacock Parolles, who gets his comic comeuppance in a mostly unrelated but frequently very funny side-plot featuring a number of brilliant nonsense words; contrast the pride of these two men with the line above "our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not" and it's hard not to see this as a bit of a take-down of, well, stuck-up sexist pigs who don't seem to heed the much-needed whipping of their own faults.
The play hints at masculine entitlement as much as it does feminine resistance, both through Bertram's noxious behaviour but also a disturbing undercurrent of lechery on part of the king (note the sexual tension between him and Helena in Act II scene I, and his flirtations with Diana at the close), not to mention various pearls of wisdom on Helena's part: "man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?... he assails; and our virginity, though valiant, in the defence yet is weak: unfold to us some warlike resistance", and, later and even more suffragette-like, "Is there no military policy, how virgins might blow up men?" This latter line, I contend, might be Shakespeare's most brazenly and cheekily feminist moment. Is it silly to speak of a 17th century play as being a feminist text? Basically, no. It wasn't written as a feminist tract, obviously not, but it's no more folly to discuss it in these terms than a play written last week, and I don't have much time for critics who think otherwise. Talking about literature is an ongoing conversation, as much a conversation about our age as it is a conversation about Shakespeare's, and if we are only to use the terminology of his own time to discuss his plays then we are drastically impoverished in what we can say. Is "O strange men! That can such sweet use make of what they hate" not a rebuttal of internalized misogyny? If not, how else can one possibly describe it?
The play has a wide range of interesting female characters, as it happens; not just Celia Johnson's Countess back in France, but in Florence we encounter Diana, Violenta, Mariana, and an old widow. As Bertram and co plot to deceive the braggart Parolles in matters soldiering, so too do the women plot to deceive Bertram (war and love are paralleled, as expected, where both have the aim of conquering). Diana, in particular, is a fascinating part - in plot terms simply the bait to trap Bertram, but she gets a strong defiant and lyrical streak in her own right, and more than holds her own against Bertram in this production (in a very well-staged candlelit two-hander); he riddles her very prettily when he thinks he might get to sleep with her, but is quite happy to shame her later euphemistically and publicly (and completely falsely) as "a common gamester to the camp".
"All's well that ends well", Helena states: in other words, no matter how tough some of the unpleasantness one goes through, it's all justified if the outcome is a happy one. But I'm not so convinced the outcome of this play is quite as fairy-tale as often gets made out. Just before the play's ending, Helena is still "but the shadow of a wife ... the name and not the thing"; Bertram's rapid about-turn and sudden promise to marry her after all never feels remotely convincing. And, crucially, it's not left convincing in this production either. We do not anticipate domestic bliss for Helena; the somewhat impish and potentially lecherous king is still in place (and, for all we know, might marry people against their will in future); and things remain deeply uneasy. "All yet seems well", the King says in his parting words, the ambiguity a far cry from the certainty of the play's title. In as patriarchal a society as that in which Bertram and Helena live - and in which we still live - such a 'seems' may be as good as it gets. I doubt anyone thinks Bertram will be a model husband, and that Shakespeare closes on this discordant moment of cynicism is one of his strangest, most realistic, and most laudable endings.