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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: September ::
Lavatch's Riddling Limerick
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1527  Thursday, 15 September 2005

From: 		Arnie Perlstein <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 14 Sep 2005 21:31:05 -0400
Subject: 	Lavatch's Riddling Limerick in Act 1, Scene 2, AWTEW

For those of you who are familiar with All's Well That Ends Well 
(perhaps not all that many, as I have gathered it does not even crack 
the Top Twenty of many Shakespeare lovers, even though it makes mine, 
comfortably), do you have any speculations on the meanings of the 
riddling limerick sung by the Clown Lavatch as he verbally spars with 
the Countess in Act 1, Scene 2? I raised this question in a group 
discussion of AWTEW and no one has responded.

Here is what the Clown sings:

"Was this fair face the cause, quoth she,
Why the Grecians sacked Troy?
Fond done, done fond,
Was this King Priam's joy?
With that she sighed as she stood,
With that she sighed as she stood,
And gave this sentence then;
Among nine bad if one be good,
Among nine bad if one be good,
There's yet one good in ten."

And here is the verse from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus to which the Clown 
is alluding (and no wonder the Countess tells the Clown that he is 
corrupting the song!):

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips such forth my soul. See where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be in Paris, and for love of thee
Instead of Troy shall Wittenberg be sacked;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus
And wear thy colors on my plumed crest.
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening's air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars,
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele,
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azure arms,
And none but thou shalt be my paramour."

Is the Clown Shakespeare's riddling surrogate commentator on the action 
at that early stage of the play, or even a riddling surrogate oracle of 
what is to come during the remainder of the play? Is the song of 
Shakespeare's own composition, or was it a popular lyric of the day?

If it does pertain to the play, and surely it does, then who is the she 
who sighs and stands? Helena? The Countess? Helen? The Riverside edition 
guesses at Hecuba, wife of King Priam and mother of Paris (and it cannot 
be coincidence that Scene 2 has just transpired in Paris).

And who is the one good one out of ten? Helena? (or mockingly) Bertram? 
The Riverside suggests that the ten are the ten sons of Priam, and that 
this explains the Clown's clarification that he is adding a woman to the 
rhyme and therefore purifying it. Or, as the Harrison edition suggests, 
is this some sort of tithing?

Or, more obliquely and perhaps more profoundly, is there a connection to 
the very interesting thread in this listserv from a while back that I 
browsed earlier today, which discussed parallels between Prospero in The 
Tempest (which, it just occurred to me today, could be seen as a 
combination of the words "Temptation" and "Test") and Marlowe's Doctor 
Faustus? In particular it was noted that Prospero, despite having the 
objects of his long vengeful hatred in his grasp, relents and forgives 
them "on a dime", shamed by Ariel's compassion. Does this somehow fit 
with the Clown's riddling here in AWTEW? I.e., is there something in his 
foolish metaphoric logic pointing toward the destruction of two ancient 
cities other than Troy, i.e., Sodom and Gomorrah, when not even one good 
man could be found, despite Abraham's intercessions to deter Yahweh from 
the fire and brimstone option? And how does that then point to the 
action in AWTEW?

And all of this also reminds me in a variety of ways of Measure for 
Measure, it seems like Shakespeare was circling and circling around the 
same themes, endlessly varying and reversing them, the way Bach would 
play with musical themes in counterpoint.

Finally, does Troilus And Cressida fit anywhere in this picture?

I have not found anything in the scholarly literature on the Clown's 
song, which I find extremely surprising, in light of its pointing in so 
many directions. I am confident that you here will have some valuable 
insights in this regard.

Thanks!
Arnie Perlstein
Weston, Florida

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