Monday, August 15, 2011

Suburbs of Our Discontent

Why it's Good to See All's Well That Ends Well with a Psychiatrist

The skies finally cleared last night, so my friend and I managed to catch the final performance of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's All's Well That Ends Well on the Boston Common.

So here's what always gets me about All's Well. The heroine, Helena, pathetically chases the immature jerk Bertram even though he disses her very sincerely and very publicly. So embarrassing! But does that stop her pursuit? No, it doesn't! She goes ahead and arranges a "body switch" with the girl Bertram's truly hot for, and tricks Bertram into having sex with her instead. Which, of course, gets Helena pregnant so that she can really screw him over.

I like to refer to this play as the prototype for the "he's just not that into you" concept. Yes, I believe that Shakespeare was the first person to fully articulate this.

But my friend, a psychiatrist, had two readings of the play's conclusion (Bertram walking off with Helena, trapped into marriage with a girl who stopped at nothing to get him). Here are her two theories about how we can "accept" the ending of the play:

1) This is Shakespeare's brilliant illustration of two people in a mutual, hostile relationship. Bertram hates her (that's obvious), but Helena's actions are sadistic, a reaction to Bertram's refusal to fulfill her desires which may or may not also be related to other experiences of loss in her childhood, etc. etc.

2) Helena rocked Bertram's world during the bed trick. Although he believed that he was having sex with the woman he actually was into, Diana, the fact remains that it was damn good sex, and that might be enough for him to give a little shrug at the end and sign on for some more good times with Helena. I like this reading because it undermines all the high-minded talk of oaths in the play, and the characters' condemnation of the character Parolles ("words" or "speech" in French) for his chronic misuse of language and his linguistic bombast. The "Good Sex" theory is kind of like "hey, in the end, primal urges just transcend language anyway."

Now I want to see every Shakespeare play with my psychiatrist friend.

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