Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Elizabeth DeBold, Assistant Curator of Collections, shares items she presented on December 6, 2021 as an introduction to All’s Well by Mona Awad. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.
All’s Well by Mona Awad is an intricate meditation on human suffering, both physical and psychological, and the ways we fail—both ourselves and one another—in responding to our pain and the pain of others. Though named for All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s more unsettling plays that often seems to be a tragedy in comedic clothing, Awad includes elements of two other (more well-known) plays: Macbeth, and The Tempest. It’s an odd trio; few would think to combine these particular plays, but it works wonderfully.
The book centers on Miranda Fitch, a former up-and-coming actress who had her promising career on the stage cut cruelly short by a random and terrible accident which has left her in chronic pain. A temporary job as a college theater director, meant to tide her over until she could address her health issues and get back on stage, looks both depressingly permanent and also frighteningly unstable. When the story opens, we find her barely surviving, numbed by a dangerous cocktail of pain pills, alcohol addiction, and barely-contained resentment towards the (admittedly uninspiring) college students she’s trying to direct. Her interactions with doctors and physical therapists have ceased to be helpful or productive; instead, as her pain failed to improve under their recommendations, these health professionals have slowly begun to blame Miranda for not healing. All looks not well.
This is the point at which she meets three strange men in a bar, in an alcohol and opioid-fueled haze. They seem strangely prescient, and offer her a “golden remedy,” which both heals her pain and appears to bring karmic justice to those who have wronged her. But as she spirals back up from rock bottom, her ascent seems too precarious to last. As readers watch the inevitable denouement, Awad forces us to consider how we inflict pain on one another, how women’s pain is often dismissed or disbelieved, and what justice looks like.
The Folger Collections have a wide variety of materials related to all three of these plays. Here is a small selection to pique your interest:
These two costume designs, nearly a century apart, show two visions of Miranda from The Tempest. Awad’s Miranda Fitch makes much of the concept of the main female character in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena, as a “poor, unlearned virgin.” The character of Miranda in Tempest is another who might be seen in this light, at least initially. Although innocent, virginal women are rewarded by Shakespeare, they are also often the subject of pity, and seem to lack any true autonomy. Both sketches stood out to me for their expressions, and the contrast between the protective, but sad and almost angry stance of the nineteenth-century, windblown Miranda, and the open, but almost invisible and disconnected human figure from the 1979 Jarman sketch. Miranda Fitch talks often about feeling out of control of her body and lacking any connection to it, and both these sketches speak to that feeling.
As with today, there was a great deal of concern in the early modern period about expertise in medicine. Who was qualified to provide medical treatments and opinions, and what qualified them? There was an increased push to professionalize medicine, but of course, only men were allowed entry to educational institutions up through much of the nineteenth century. In the illustration at the beginning of this book, printed in 1651, we see a woman trying to ply a sick man with her home remedies, which the author dismisses as unqualified. An angel holds her back so that the professional, male physician can come forward.
Magic was a huge part of the early modern world. In this English grimoire, written around the time Shakespeare would have been a teenager, magic circles are drawn on the ground or on a piece of parchment in order to summon angels, spirits, or demons to assist the magician with his work. The two circles are to be used to summon the spirit Birto “to make aunswere to any Question to be demaunded” on the second, fourth, sixth, tenth, or twelfth day of the month, when the air is clear, shown through the linked Call number V.b.26 (1). The summoner was instructed to sit in the right-hand circle on his knees and repeat three times the provided prayer, psalm, and conjuration. Birto would then appear in the form of a man in the other circle. The other page discusses a spirit named Bilqall. Multiple spells in this manuscript relate to deterring or catching thieves and curing or preventing sicknesses. Author Mona Awad has discussed her fascination with witches, magic, and witchcraft, which is apparent in her book—early modern men and women were, too, including Shakespeare.
Many people, usually women, kept handwritten books of home remedies in early modern Great Britain, which often combined culinary recipes and medical cures. This recipe is for the “golden oil,” which sounds a lot like the “golden remedy” in Awad’s book. While some early modern cures can sound truly foul, this sounds quite nice, and includes ingredients such as lavender, vervaine, white wine, and marigolds. The maker is instructed to put all the ingredients into a glass to stand in the sun for a month, then simmer it over a fire before bottling.
Famous actress Ellen Terry apparently famously disliked Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well, as did many people in the 19th century, and viewed her as predatory and wicked. Yet, they had a strong appreciation for Lady Macbeth, or were at least more comfortable with how she positioned herself as unambiguously villainous, at least to their minds. Artists and others have also been long fascinated by the three weird sisters from the play, whom Awad transposes to the three mysterious gentlemen Miranda Fitch encounters in the bar.
Finally we come to some items from our collections related to the titular play, All’s Well That Ends Well. Here we have three images, including a drawing of Bertram and Helena kissing—although Grace criticizes Miranda for including an unscripted kiss in her play, she isn’t the only one to have imagined this moment. In the center image, Helena is rejected by Bertram in front of the king. I chose this because of how deeply ill the king looks. In many depictions, the king simply looks tired, but here you can really see how ill he is from his position and pallor—illness is a central part of how the play works. Finally, I loved this engraving by the famous artist Henry Fuseli, which shows Helena confessing to the Countess of Rousillon. The contortion of Helena’s body makes a beautiful tableau with the Countess’s reaction (is it pity? revulsion?), as she kneels in front of her and encircles her waist with her arms.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick tour through a few of our collection items–you can explore them in higher resolution here, and there are lots more to be found on our digital collections platform, Luna. We at the Folger wish you a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season–be well!
Words, Words, Words will be taking January off, returning on February 3, 2022 for a discussion of The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. Registration for our February session opens Tuesday, January 4. We hope you make a plan to join us!