Let’s not get carried away claiming Shakespeare for Catholicism

The current production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe. (Photo: Globe)

I had a real theatrical treat last night, namely seeing All’s Well that Ends Well at the Globe. It was a glorious production and the applause at the end would have raised the roof… if the Globe had had one.

All’s Well is not frequently performed, and I had never seen it before, though I had read it many times as an undergraduate. It is classed as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, along with Measure for Measure: the sort of play in which the plot devices do not really resolve the questions that the drama raises. In the case of All’s Well, Helena is in love with Bertram, and is married to him, but he rejects her and treats her with cruelty and contempt; in the end she tricks him into consummating the marriage, but is he truly reconciled to his fate and to her? Is the happy ending convincing? Is the title of the play bitterly ironic?

With great skill, and some daring production ideas, the Globe’s director gave us an All’s Well that was a comedy from the start – a very funny and engaging one too. It was clear that boyish Bertram was in love with Helena all along, but had to be detached from his sidekick Parolles as well as educated in the ways of love. The play makes much of Helena being a virgin, but this production also emphasised the way that Bertram is crippled by an emotional inexperience that made it impossible for him to follow where his heart leads him, or even to know his own heart properly.

Literature often focuses on young women and their emotional toils: it was psychologically interesting and refreshing to have a production that put the spotlight on young men and their difficulties in taking their place in society. And this of course solved one of the play’s problems: why on earth should sensible Helena love someone as outwardly odious as Bertram? And why should anyone want to watch a play whose central character was so unappealing? This Bertram was both complex, vulnerable and engaging – quite an achievement.

At one point Helena disguises herself as a pilgrim to the shrine of St James of Compostella and appears on stage complete in palmer’s weeds and wearing a cockle shell badge. This – and certain references in the text to the sacredness of oaths and the sacred bonds of duty – reminded me of Clare Asquith and her famous thesis that the plays of Shakespeare are a hidden and coded allegory about Catholic matters. A lot of friends of mine are huge fans of the Asquith way of looking at things, but I am a firm disciple of the late Mrs Bednarowska; the text is the thing, not some hidden text behind the text. This production used the text and never contradicted it; an Asquith-inspired production would run into all sorts of difficulties, I fear. Helena is herself, not some allegorical figure standing in for the wronged and rejected Catholic faith.

Mind you, though, we have no way of knowing one way or the other. I reckon that Shakespeare was at the very least sympathetic to the old ways of Catholicism, as many Elizabethans must have been. But there is really no evidence of a Catholic faith, though there may be some sympathy with Catholic ideas. The Catholic Encyclopaedia’s article, even if it does not reflect the most up to date research, surely gets this right. It is understandable that some may wish to claim the national poet for the faith, but it seems to me little more than wishful thinking. Meanwhile, I say, enjoy Shakespeare for what he undoubtedly is, our greatest dramatist, and hot-foot it to the Globe before the summer is over.