We rank our ten favorite Shakespeare plays

Sargent - Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Macbeth may not be one of our favorite Shakespeare plays, but this portrait of Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth is probably our favorite picture by John Singer Sargent

Since starting the Emsworth blog, we’ve been amazed to see how many first-rate websites and blogs are devoted more or less exclusively to Shakespeare. The one we like best and visit the most is the indispensable Shakespeare Geek, whose learned readers happily debate such enduring questions as whether Hamlet’s mother was in on the murder of his father. The Geek has guest appearances from Shakespeare experts, passes along news from the world of Shakespeare scholarship, and cheers the ongoing impact of Shakespeare on culture.

The Geek recently invited readers to rank their favorite ten Shakespeare plays so he can poll the results. This is our list:

10. Measure for Measure. A bracingly earthy play in which a hypocritical judge sentences fornicators to death, but demands sex from a woman who seeks mercy for her brother. Angelo is one of our favorite villains. And there’s the glorious cameo role of Barnardine, the reprobate who successfully insists that he’s too drunk to be executed.

We were delighted to learn recently that, back in the early 1800s when Thomas Bowdler prepared his editions of Shakespeare with the smutty parts taken out or rewritten to make them suitable for family reading, he threw up his hands and gave up Measure for Measure as an incurable case.

Shylock -- Al Pacino (2004 movie)

Al Pacino as Shylock

9. The Merchant of Venice. The first Shakespeare we ever read and still a top favorite, even though we have yet to see a good production. Who can resist either the trial scene or the “In such a night” duet of Lorenzo and Jessica?

We’d like a moratorium on the whining about the ethnic stereotypes in this play. Sure, Shylock’s character shows evidence of the ingrained prejudices of the day, but the playwright’s affirmation of our common humanity was a breakthrough. And as Portia says, “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.”

8. Troilus and Cressida. All good literature and drama is “relevant” (how we despise that tiresome word!) in today’s world. But what Shakespeare play presents a more apt metaphor for our own times than this tale of Greeks, lost in sensuality and relativism, who have lost the sense of what they’re fighting for, or why it makes any difference which side they’re on? The play’s attractions include two of Shakespeare’s most repulsive characters, Thersites and Pandarus.

Falstaff - Orson Wells

Orson Wells as Falstaff

7. Henry IV, Part 1. The play that gives the best sense of England in the Bard’s own day. Prince Hal’s slumming with Falstaff is great fun.  But the picture of Falstaff’s manning his regiment with unarmed peasants for cannon fodder is sobering. Those were cruel times.

If the Shakespeare Geek were inviting his readers to rank their favorite practical joke scenes in Shakespeare, our favorite would be the prank Falstaff’s fellow villains played him on the highway near Gadshill. (Our second favorite is the hilarious scene in All’s Well in which the blindfolded Paroles, believing himself a prisoner of the enemy, doesn’t hesitate to betray his comrades.)

Prospero -- John Gielgud

John Gielgud as Prospero

6. Othello. So many Shakespeare plays revolve around characters like Iago who control and manipulate people around them that we’ve often thought the playwright must have had recurring fantasies of having godlike control over his fellow humans. But none of the Bard’s other puppet masters is so thoroughly sociopathic as Iago. The visceral impact of the final scene is unparalleled.

5. The Tempest.  Gonzalo will forever be a hero to Emsworth and all bibliophiles because he made sure the castaway Prospero was supplied not only with food and clothes, but also with books:

Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

Even the wretched Caliban knew the value of Prospero’s books:

First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot

4. Hamlet. For all the usual reasons, we never tire of Hamlet. And the comic relief — the garrulous Polonius, the traveling players, the gravediggers — always comes just when the play needs it the most.

Fuchsia -- Mervyn Peake's drawing

Mervyn Peake's drawing of his own character, Fuchsia

3. Twelfth Night. Here we confess that since boyhood we have been prone to hopeless crushes on fictional female characters: Mona in Elizabeth Enright’s The Four-Story Mistake, Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street, Titus Groan’s sister Fuchsia in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Bobbie Wickham in P. G. Wodehouse’s Wooster/Jeeves stories, Jane Austen’s Emma — and the quick-witted, slender-figured Viola, heroine of Twelfth Night.

Feste’s our favorite Shakespeare fool. There’s just no other Shakespeare comedy that we like nearly so well.

2. Julius Caesar. A gripping story, the best plot of any Shakespeare play. So many delicious scenes: Cassius’s courtship of Brutus, the assassination of the tyrant Caesar, the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, the exquisite quarrel between Brutus and Cassius — and especially the cameo appearance of the unfortunate Cinna the poet. “Tear him for his bad verses!”

Brian Bedford as Lear

Brian Bedford as Lear at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, 2007

1. King Lear. This is Emsworth’s favorite Shakespeare.  We identify in an alarming way with Lear, with his monumental mistakes of judgment, with his inability to swallow his pride, with his instinct for the grand and the dramatic.  And Emsworth has three daughters too (and is counting on them to take care of him in his old age)! 

The comic moments in King Lear almost overshadow the tragic. Just when his heartache is most acute, Lear has the presence of mind to address “Poor Tom” with a self-deprecating witticism: “Didst thou give all to thy two daughters?”

Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.

The politically incorrect Shakespeare

Statue of Hamlet in Stratford-on-Avon, England

(August 2008) Emsworth finds that he enjoys Shakespeare plays best when he has brushed up on the written text ahead of time. Reading Romeo and Juliet this last week in anticipation of an imminent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), he was struck once again with the extent to which Shakespeare can offend contemporary sensibilities — sometimes even Emsworth’s.

Take the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. Samson and Gregory, who apparently work for the Capulets, are trash-talking about what they’ll do to the Montagues if they get the chance. Samson brags,

I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men I will be civil with the maids — I will cut off their heads.

What Samson means by “heads” is “maidenheads,” and the rest of the dialogue makes it clear that what he intends is forcible rape.

This may have passed for “comic” dialogue in Shakespeare’s day, but it doesn’t seem funny today. Especially after all we’ve read lately about the deliberate use of rape as a tool of genocide in Africa, it’s a bit raw. Samson’s braggadocio may seem mild compared to the viciousness of some of the characters in contemporary plays by David Mamet, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter, but those characters aren’t comic, and their lines are intended to shock.


Katherine learns submission in the Stratford Festival's 2008 show

In fact, one doesn’t have to look very hard for politically incorrect material in Shakespeare:

In Othello, all the characters take it for granted that Desdemona is debasing herself by making the beast with two backs with the dark-skinned Moor, “a Barbary horse.”

In The Taming of the Shrew (also at the Stratford Festival this season), Petruchio teaches “submission” to Katherina.

And in The Merchant of Venice, the avaricious Shylock embodies many anti-Semitic prejudices — and is forced at the end of the play to “convert” to Christianity.

As I recall, last year the Stratford Festival included a warning on its website that The Merchant of Venice was a “controversial” play (much as they might have warned that there would be strobe lights or smoking on stage!). And the program for last year’s Merchant actually seemed to be apologizing for the Bard:

The anti-Semitic nature of the play has caused controversy, particularly in the 20th century. The anti-Semitism is not confined to evil characters in the play, which makes scholars conclude that Shakespeare himself must have accepted at least some of the bias of his age.

Well, how astonishing would it be if Shakespeare hadn’t harbored some of the prejudices of his contemporaries? Whoever thought that literary genius was necessarily accompanied by enlightened social views? It’s a sorry commentary on our politically correct times that a theater company should feel that it needs to apologize in advance for material in a Shakespeare play, worrying that audiences might impute the prejudices of the playwright to the management!

No one needs to make excuses for Shakespeare. We ought to be tolerant enough, and humble enough, to recognize that in every culture, and at every point in history, cultured people of good will have had moral blind spots.  That includes, of course, twenty-first century Americans and Canadians as well as the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Update. As it turned out, the Stratford Festival’s 2008 Romeo and Juliet just wasn’t very good — it seemed a bit of a muddle. See Emsworth’s review at this post. And for Emsworth’s comments on the “color-blind casting” for Romeo and Juliet (which wasn’t really color-blind at all; they bungled it), see this post.

But the Stratford Festival did put on a highly entertaining The Taming of the Shrew in its 2008 season. For Emsworth’s enthusiastic review of this show, see this post. For his comments on certain kinky aspects of how Katherine the shrew was “tamed” in the Stratford show, see this post.

What Harry Potter could have learned from Hamlet

Despite his best intentions, Emsworth has occasional brushes with popular culture. A few years ago, for example, he fell prey to the addictive tales of J. K. Rowling. What a story-teller! But the way she concluded her Potter story in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, released about a year ago, was hugely unsatisfactory.  Now, after spending some time with Shakespearean tragedy (for example, see Emsworth’s review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post), Emsworth is in a position to explain why.

J. K. Rowling simply failed to respect the rules of tragedy. For six heart-racing volumes, the Harry Potter saga was shaping up as one of the grand tragedies in our literature. But in the end, Rowling lacked the intestinal fortitude needed to end her tale properly.

The rules of tragedy have been well understood since Aristotle laid them down 2,000 years ago, and I summarize them here, not intending to patronize any readers, but merely to refresh them on what they learned while studying Julius Caesar in ninth grade. A tragedy must, first, be a serious story about a conflict between a hero and a great malign force. In a tragedy, moreover, the hero must undergo a change of fortune, preferably because of his own mistake or flaw, leading to a disastrous, heart-rending denouement.

Consider Lear, that warrior king and grand personality, whose fatal mistake is to misjudge the characters of his daughters and to surrender his kingdom prematurely. With his world aligned against him, he loses everything. King Lear ends, oh so satisfyingly, with a stage strewn with corpses. Kent and Edgar, who survive, rule in Lear’s place.

Consider Othello, that great general and commanding figure, whose fatal weakness is to trust the sociopathic Iago and to allow him to plant fatal seeds of jealousy in his bosom. Weakened, Othello loses everything, and the play ends (once again, most gratifyingly) with blood and bodies everywhere. Gratiano, a minor character, succeeds to Othello’s place.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Now consider Harry Potter, a hero among heroes, a wizard prodigy, a born leader and Quidditch captain, whose destiny is to battle the world’s greatest wizard. Like Lear, Othello, and Hamlet, Harry has a fatal weakness: a powerful connection with Voldemort tempts him to the dark side. Harry flirts too closely with evil and, in a moment of ambition and weakness, betrays his friends. Too late, he repents, and the story ends with bodies (including his own) and wands broken and strewn over the great hall at Hogwarts. The wizard world starts anew; a minor character, Neville Longbottom, succeeds to the place in the world of wizards that Harry might have held.

Only, of course, that’s not how J. K. Rowling wrote it. Because she lost her nerve plotting and writing the final volume, Harry never makes a fatal mistake, never loses his way, and rises safely and blandly from the wreckage of the final battle.

And so do Hermione and Ron. And so does practically everyone else. In fact, after all the hullabaloo and speculation by Potter fans over what would transpire, who among the Order of the Phoenix actually dies? An elf. The werewolf. The duplicitous Severus Snape. One of the Weasley twins (the twins do not have distinct personalities). Tonks (you probably don’t remember who she was, either).

J.K. Rowling lost her nerve in "Deathly Hollows"

In fact, at no point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — for that matter, at no point in the series — are readers called upon to deal emotionally with the deaths of any character they have truly come to care about, except Dumbledore, and his age and infirmity take the sting out of his loss. J. K. Rowling flinched at her final task, which was to break our hearts.

She even shrunk from disposing of her villains. What possible reason could Rowling have had for letting Percy Weasley live? When a character in a tragedy has lost his way and gone over to the enemy, he must perish, even if he has belatedly seen the light. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this; that’s why the great warrior Boromir was slain at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

And why, oh why, does Draco Malfoy survive? In a properly staged final battle, Harry’s arch-enemy would repent and, in a moment of high drama, would strike a critical blow on Harry’s side. Then, having atoned for his earlier wickness, and in a state of grace, Draco would die fighting. At the very least, Draco should die at the hand of the Dark Lord, so as to punish his parents for their wickedness. But nothing of the sort happens. Readers are not even told what happens to Draco after Harry last encounters him.

Let there be no mistake: J. K. Rowling wanted to write a tragedy. Why else would she have attached an epigraph to the Deathly Hallows in the form of a quotation from the playwright Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy (died 455 B.C.)?  But when it came down to cases, she lacked the stomach for the tragic conclusion that her story deserved.

From the dark tone of the fifth and sixth books, we were fully justified in expecting that (a) the forces of good would, in the final conflict, sustain serious losses and (b) that even if the Dark Lord were defeated, the wizard world would never be the same. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, to which the Harry Potter saga owes much, the defeat of Sauron marked the end of an age and the departure of the elves from Middle-earth.

Instead, Rowling left readers in a wizard world where all was copacetic, where the survivors were happily mated up, and where their little wizard offspring were happily heading off to Hogwarts. Sentimental rubbish, and a good tragedy wasted.

All’s Well That Ends Well at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The Countess of Rossillion (Martha Henry) and Lafew (Stephen Ouimette)

By good fortune Emsworth had the opportunity to see a production of Othello last winter at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater directed by Marti Maraden. Her intelligent, text-focused approach to Shakespeare left me looking forward to more of her work in Stratford later in the year. We were not disappointed in All’s Well That End’s Well.

We would think that All’s Well presents even more challenges for a director than Othello, because the play itself has such serious internal problems that they can only be glossed over, never resolved. Moreover, while the story of Othello is familiar to many theater-goers, All’s Well That Ends Well is not well known, nor is its plot particularly memorable. With such a play, a director cannot take for granted that the audience will understand anything that is not clearly explained.

In key ways, the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well is simply unbelievable. The story begins with Bertram (Jeff Lillico), the only son of the widow Countess of Rossillion (Martha Henry), leaving home, summoned to join the court of the King of France (Brian Dennehy), who is dying. Among the tears shed at his parting are those of Helena (Daniela Vlaskalic), a pretty and accomplished young woman who has been living as the ward of the Countess since the recent death of her father, an eminent physician.

Helena (Danila Vlaskalic) and Bertram (Jeff Lillico)

Helena (Danila Vlaskalic) and Bertram (Jeff Lillico)

Helena cries because she has fallen hopelessly in love with Bertram — hopelessly, because Bertram has no interest in her and because their different stations in life make a match impossible in any case.

But why should she love Bertram? At the outset, we learn from Helena’s own mouth (in a soliloquy) that the attraction is physical. We are sure of that when, immediately afterward, she initiates a comic exchange with Bertram’s servant Parolles (Juan Chioran) about the merits of virginity.

But as the play unfolds, Bertram shows himself to be contemptible and unmanly. Pressured by the king to marry Helena (who has healed the king with a prescription inherited from her father), Bertram insults Helena and then pretends to give in to the King’s wishes while making secret plans to escape the marriage. Later in the play, having fled to Italy as a soldier to avoid sleeping with his bride (!), he tries to seduce Diana (Leah Oster) a respectable young virgin of Florence, then, to save his own skin, defames her as a whore.

Bertram is thoroughly detestable — but Helena persists in wanting him for a husband. After living in the same household with them, how could she have failed to see his character? And once his behavior becomes known all over Europe, how could she still want him? There is no explanation for Helena’s steadfastness in pursuit of Bertram. 

Equally hard to believe is that everyone in the play except Bertram seems to know that his foppish friend and follower Parolles is a braggart and a coward. Bertram may be a cad, but he hardly seems a fool. Why does it take an elaborate practical joke on Parolles to convince Bertram that he has an unworthy friend?

Tom Rooney as Lavache

Tom Rooney as Lavache

Yet Marti Maraden’s perfectly-paced production of All’s Well That Ends Well holds together beautifully despite the play’s improbabilities. Wherever the Bard touches on one of his themes throughout the play, Maraden helps us draw the dots. For example, Helena and Parolles introduce the themes of virginity and procreation early in the play; the clown Lavache (Tom Rooney) develops them in strangely profound comic speeches; and Diana brings them full circle in a late scene.

Most of all, this is a play about our universal experience of grief, loss, and resignation, climaxed by the Countess’s lament:

My heart is heavy, and mine age is weak;
Grief would have tears, and sorrow bids me speak.

(Act III, Scene 5). It would be easy for a director to waste energy trying to make too much of the weak storyline, at the expense of the play’s poetry.  Not so here.

Juan Chioran as Parolles

We loved the hilarious (and almost cruel) scene in which the blindfolded Parolles is unmasked as a liar and a fraud. But this show has a number of outstanding performances.  The tireless Ben Carlson (who played an energetic Hamlet later the same day that we saw All’s Well That Ends Well) brings the most out of his supporting role as the First Lord Dumaine.  Fiona Reid, as the Widow Capilet, and Michelle Fisk, as Mariana, are both delightful.

It goes without saying that the lovely and gracious Martha Henry, the veteran Stratford actress, is perfectly cast as the Countess of Rossillion.  What I will remember most about this show, however, is the wonderful, tender performance of Tom Rooney as the comic philosopher Lavache.

Unfortunately, there are weak performances as well. The most disappointing is that of Daniela Vlaskalic as Helena.  She declaims her lines in an unnatural, almost sing-song manner, having failed to learn from Martha Henry how to project her voice in a large theater without sacrificing expression and meaning. The most jarring performance is that of Leah Oster, who inexplicably brings to All’s Well That Ends Well the same midwestern drawl that she apparently uses as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, also part of the Stratford Festival’s 2008 season. And I could not help feeling that Brian Dennehy, as the King of France, was saving his energy for something else.

According to the program notes, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well (probably written around 1602) is set in 1889 (the opening scene is set in a railroad station).  As is usual with the deplorable practice of setting Shakespeare plays in different time periods, this led to distracting incongruities.

I was able to overlook the historical fact that, in 1889, it had been a hundred years since there had been a French king. But I had more difficulty with Helena and her “holy pilgrimage.” According to Shakespeare’s text (Act III, Scene 5), Helena has come to Florence in disguise, pretending to be a pilgrim to a saint’s shrine. (Her real purpose in Florence is to pursue her husband and obtain her marital rights).

Students of European social history can correct me, but it is my sense that the practice of undertaking long pilgrimages on foot to religious shrines died out long before 1889. And if Ms. Vlaskalic as Helena was supposed to be wearing a “pilgrim” disguise in these scenes, I could not make it out.  Once again, the “modern” setting served only to muddle the plot.

Emsworth reviews the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of Hamlet in this post.

Emsworth gripes about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, which resulted last winter in Des McAnuff’s becoming the sole artistic director of the Festival, in this post.

Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).