Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespeare, William. All’s Well That Ends Well (Norton Comedies, 3rd edition, pp. 961-1033).
1. In Act 1, Scene 1, consider Helen’s exchange with the phony miles gloriosus Paroles. (“Boastful soldier,” a Roman New Comedy term for this kind of stock character, based on a play by Plautus.) Why does she bother talking to him at all, and how does the content of the exchange relate to Helen’s feelings for Bertram?
2. In Act 1, Scene 1, how do Helen’s reflections illustrate the power of romantic love? In what way has her affection for Bertram transformed her and taken her beyond her ordinary limitations, hopes, and reflections? What are her expectations of success in winning his attentions? What stands in her way?
3. In Act 1, Scene 2, the King says modestly, “I fill a place, I know’t” (69). A number of characters seem rather world-weary, as if they were simply going through the motions, playing assigned roles in life without enthusiasm or hope. How does the King describe Bertram’s departed father, and how does that aristocratic paragon’s conduct and attitude stack up against the present French court, Bertram included?
4. In Act 1, Scene 3, the Countess and Lavache the Clown have a conversation about his reason for marrying. Why does Lavache want to marry? Does he have a better understanding of his motivations than Helen did in the first scene? Why or why not?
5. In Act 1, Scene 3, what are the Countess’s thoughts regarding Helen’s interest in her son Bertram? Why does Helen have so much difficulty explaining her passion for Bertram to the Countess?
6. In Act 2, Scene 1, why is the King so resistant to Lafeu and Helen’s offers of a cure? What arguments does Helen advance to convince the King that he ought to give her remedies a try? Why does he eventually accept? What does Helen ask of the King in return?
7. In Act 2, Scene 2, what is the point of the exchange between the Countess and the Clown, Lavache, who seems to think that he has the perfect catchphrase, an “answer / will serve all men” (12-13). Does Shakespeare use this scene to make any point that might be relevant to the play’s action or general atmosphere? Explain.
8. In Act 2, Scene 3, Helen chooses Bertram as her reward for saving the King, and the restored old man ratifies her choice, but why does Bertram at first refuse the match? How does the king explain the nature of “honor”?
9. In Act 2, Scene 3, Lafeu and Paroles converse. Shakespeare often highlights the lesson that artifice (as opposed to whatever we consider “simply natural”) is part of human nature and not to be condemned, but in what sense does Paroles abuse that aspect of humanity? What distinguishes his artifice from that of, say, Helen, who is trying to engraft herself into the aristocratic stock of France by marrying Bertram?
10. In Act 2, Scene 3, what advice does Paroles offer Bertram regarding his current situation? Why is the young man at this point unable to see through Paroles? And why (here and elsewhere in the play) is war rather than love such an attractive enterprise to Bertram?
11. In Act 2, Scenes 4 and 5, Lavache the Clown and Paroles exchange witticisms. Describe the difference between their two philosophies. How does Lafeu try (without much success) to wean Bertram from Paroles in the fifth scene?
12. In Act 3, Scene 2, we hear that Bertram has betaken himself to the wars. How do the Countess and Helen, respectively, take this news? What seems to be Bertram’s plan, as it is reported to us? And then in the Scene 4, what do we find out about Helen’s proposed course of action now that Bertram has departed?
13. In Act 3, Scene 5, we meet the Florentine Diana and her widowed mother. These two women interact with Helen, who has recently arrived in Florence. What purpose does this scene serve in the play’s developing action? Consider also Scene 7: what plan of action does Helen devise together with Diana and her mother?
14. In Act 3, Scene 6, with Paroles as usual pretending to be the valiant soldier he is not, what scheme do Bertram’s friends the two Lords Dumaine devise in order to reveal to him the true nature of Paroles? What’s the basis of their own understanding of this rascal? How willing is Bertram at present to be un-deceived about Paroles?
15. In Act 3, Scene 7, Helen elaborates on her plan with Diana and her mother. Consider the various acts of deception going on by now: Helen is plotting to outsmart Bertram, Paroles is deceiving just about everyone, and Bertram and his friends are playing a trick on Paroles. What makes some of these acts of deception more legitimate than others?
16. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and 3, how does the trick devised by the two Lords Dumaine play out against Paroles? Aside from shamefully promising treasonous information to his supposed captors, what “information” does Paroles offer, and why is this information sought by the captors? What does this character think of his own deceptions and humiliation once he has been exposed — what is his “philosophy of life” as he now explicates it?
17. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and 3 and in general, we might ask a separate question about Paroles: namely, how does this character compare to other of Shakespeare’s comic rascals and villains? If you are familiar with Sir John Falstaff in I and II Henry IV (or The Merry Wives of Windsor), for example, that character would make a good subject for comparison and contrast.
18. In Act 4, Scene 4 at line 35 and then in Act 5, Scene 1 at line 25, Helen utters the play’s title phrase, “All’s well that ends well.” At one level the phrase’s meaning is obvious — we still use it today when we want to say that some situation was a mess but now everything’s fine. But what does it mean in these scenes and with regard to the play as a whole, when you have finished reading it? Does it connote a happy ending with no disturbing loose ends, etc., or do we need to recontextualize it to suit the ambience and action of the present play? Explain.
19. In Act 5, Scene 2, how does first Lavache the Clown and then Lafeu receive the disgraced Paroles at Roussillon? Does this reception confirm the philosophy that this character has already adopted regarding his disgrace (mainly in Act 4, Scene 3)? If so, in what way does it confirm that philosophy?
20. In Act 5, Scene 3, how is Bertram undone by a pair of rings and by Diana’s explanations when she arrives on the scene? That is, explain the basic plot mechanics of this scene. How does the king react to the deceptive responses Bertram has given and then to the apparent defiance of Diana when she is challenged to explain herself more fully?
21. In Act 5, Scene 3, when Helen finally enters and proves that she has fulfilled Bertram’s two supposedly impossible conditions for gaining his affection, Bertram relents. How do you assess his sincerity or lack thereof when he exclaims, “I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever, dearly” (310)? Does the play leave you feeling that Bertram and Helen are finally a genuine love match of the sort you expect from romantic comedy, or does the play’s emphasis lie elsewhere? Explain.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake