Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687

All's Well That Ends Well

Illustration of PDF document

Download All's Well That Ends Well Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Although it is typically categorized among Shakespeare's comedies, most scholars consider All's Well That Ends Well a “problem play” or “dark comedy” because of its somber and tragic elements. The play, based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), relates the tale of a young woman's pursuit of a reluctant lover. The principal figures of Helena and Bertram have often been viewed negatively, while the overall tone of the work—despite its ostensibly happy conclusion—has been considered bleak and marred by unresolved issues. Critics have frequently discerned problems of sexuality and gender conflict in All's Well That Ends Well. In particular, the work's concentration on a strong, somewhat unconventional, and passionate heroine has prompted feminist critics of the late twentieth century to see in the drama a variety of themes related to sexual roles and feminine disruptions of social order. Overall, while numerous topics in the drama have drawn modern critics to the play, the subjects of gender, Helena's character, and the work's problematic status as a comedy continue to provide the focus of much recent scholarly commentary on All's Well That Ends Well.

Feminist analysis, and its consequent concerns with the themes of gender and sexuality, has provided the dominant model of contemporary critical interest in All's Well That Ends Well. The thematic implications of Helena's pursuit of Bertram and her bold use of the so-called “bed-trick,” in which she disguises herself in order to win Bertram as her lover, have long been recognized as central to the play. Peter Erickson (1991) examines the gender dynamics of All's Well That Ends Well and their relation to politics and society, commenting on how Helena's sexualized actions toward Bertram upset the dominant patriarchal order. David McCandless (1994) studies Helena's infamous “bed-trick” and the tensions it raises concerning conventional distinctions between masculine and feminine roles. Jonathan Hall (1995) takes a somewhat different approach, seeing Helena's active sexual pursuit of Bertram as posing a symbolic threat to patriarchy that—in her later renunciation of “ambitious love”—ultimately serves to reestablish traditional social hierarchies. Irene G. Dash (1997) offers a thorough feminist critique of All's Well That Ends Well, which finds a demarcation of the limits of feminine sexual choice within the patriarchal confines of the play.

A perennial critical interest in Shakespeare's representation of women has resulted in a number of analyses of Helena, who has elicited widely differing opinions. Richard A. Levin (1980) has a cynical view of the play's heroine. Acknowledging a dilemma between her virtue and ambition, Levin argues that Helena uses guile and dissimulation throughout the drama, seeing her as a master of intrigue who carefully orchestrates Bertram's acquiescence to her passions. David McCandless (1990) takes an opposing point of view. Interpreting All's Well That Ends Well as essentially a romance, rather than a “defective festive comedy,” McCandless perceives Helena's chastity as an indication of the play's romantic theme of redemption. Robert Ornstein (1986) considers the play's protagonist as a complex character, largely devoid of romantic idealism. For Ornstein, Helena is not only virtuous and noble (despite the fact that most other characters in the play generally fail to perceive this), but also single-minded and manipulative in achieving her goals.

In addition to questions of character, the status of All's Well That Ends Well as a comedy figures prominently in many recent critical assessments of the play. Comparing the drama with several of Shakespeare's earlier works, Richard P. Wheeler (1981) comments on the unprecedented shift in the play's comic form, due in part to its treatment of issues generally reserved for tragedy. David Scott Kastan (1985) has a similar view of the play, observing that while All's Well That Ends Well does provide a happy ending, its failure to resolve its own internal tensions points to Shakespeare's commentary on the palliative nature of comedy. Considering comic sources, Robert S. Miola (1993) places All's Well That Ends Well within the tradition of Latin New Comedy—inaugurated by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence. Mary Free (1994) acknowledges the play's comic form, but characterizes All's Well That Ends Well as a “noncomic comedy” due to its strong emphasis on dramatic and linguistic expressions of power.

Peter Erickson (essay date 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7372

SOURCE: “The Political Effects of Gender and Class in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 57-73.

[In the following essay, Erickson examines Helena's disruption of the patriarchal order in All's Well That Ends Well.]

One of the most striking features of All's Well That Ends Well is its full rendering of specifically male frustration in the person of Bertram, a besieged and recalcitrant Adonis writ large.1 But the problem of Bertram cannot be adequately discussed at the level of individual character, as though our response hinged exclusively on the question of his personal defects and of his capacity to overcome them in the end. The analysis must rather be extended to the larger cultural forces operating on, and embodied in, Bertram. This latter approach can be opened up by noting the cultural overlap between Bertram's situation and that of the Essex-Southampton group: in both cases an emphatically military definition of masculinity is placed under intense pressure and ultimately frustrated. Yet the equation of Bertram with Southampton in G. P. V. Akrigg's reading of All's Well That Ends Well constitutes a methodological obstacle to this interpretation.2 Treated as literal topical allusions, such connections are impossible to prove and are readily dismissed by a stringently factual account such as Samuel Schoenbaum's: “Shakespeare did not again dedicate one of his writings to a noble lord. Southampton now departs from the biographical record.”3 However, by responding at the same level as the critics he rejects, Schoenbaum remains within the framework of a limited historical mode now challenged by new historicists, among others.

For a cultural analysis of All's Well That Ends Well, Mervyn James's essay “At a Crossroads of the Political Culture: The Essex Revolt, 1601” provides a more promising and substantial starting point than Akrigg's narrowly conceived work.4 Two elements in James's study of the cultural formation of the Essex-Southampton group have a strong resonance with Bertram's predicament. First, this historically specific male identity had its source in a military subculture, creating a concept of manhood that was potentially volatile, destabilizing, and anachronistic.

But what gave the Essex connection its special tone, and many of its cultural characteristics, was its strongly military orientation. … Moreover, the military relationship had been given a special aura, of a traditionalist and chivalric kind, by the lavish way in which Essex, in spite of the queen's protests, had used his military prerogative to confer the honour of knighthood on those who distinguished themselves under him on the field. … To those who received it [as Southampton did], knighthood implied a special relationship with Essex himself.

(pp. 427-28)

As the clause “in spite of the queen's protests” suggests, this male bonding and solidarity is defensive—a defiant assertion of threatened male privilege:

Yet the sense of ancestry, in the Essexian context, strikes a special note: often self-confidently arrogant, but marked by a nostalgia for past glories, and a sense of being, as it were, under siege. … The sense of political frustration, of being unjustly slighted and so their honour defaced, was an experience shared with the leader by many courtier Essexians also, including such peers as … the earl of Southampton.

(pp. 433-34)

Second, the gendered quality of this thwarted masculinity was accentuated by the mutually suspicious relationship between the cult of male military honor and the cult of Elizabeth. The latter appeared to place men in a double bind because the queen both stimulated chivalric heroism and curbed it—a bind which made graphically clear the queen's female rule and against which Essex bridled in sexual terms:

Yet his relationship to the queen nevertheless became progressively charged with a tension which contained the seeds of violence. The tension, rooted in political failure and exclusion, was related to his view of their respective sexual roles. … Essex never wavered in the conviction that, when important decisions had to be made, the weaknesses of the queen's femininity must be overwhelmed by a rough masculine initiative. … The so-called “great Quarrel” of July 1598, the point of no return in relations between Essex and the queen, generated so much bitterness precisely because of the earl's assessment of their respective sexual roles in terms of honour. For by striking him in the course of a Council meeting at which he had rudely turned his back on her, the queen had shown an unnatural male aggressiveness, and had thus submitted Essex to the unbearable dishonour which a publicly administered woman's blow involved. … He himself replied with a violent gesture, clapping his hand to his sword, and equally violent words, till the other councillors separated them.

(pp. 443-45)

Even before Helena's action has transformed the king into a vehicle for her power, Bertram has already figured the obstruction of his military drive as female:

I shall stay here the forehorse to a smock,
Creaking my shoes on the plain masonry,
Till honour be brought up, and no sword worn
But to dance with.


The contrast with Henry V is instructive. The military aspirations of Hal as Henry V are given wide scope. The new king's qualms of conscience may create residual complications, but there are no external impediments to stop the forward movement of his nationalist enterprise.5 Bertram's heroic ambition is sharply circumscribed, his military adventure accorded only abbreviated and truncated dramatization. Military achievement is discounted and devalued in advance by being presented as a delaying action, an escapist diversion from the central issue—Helena's strongly registered claim: “his sword can never win / The honour that he loses” (3.2.93-94); “The great dignity that his valour hath here acquired for him shall at home be encount’red with a shame as ample” (4.3.65-67).

Like Essex, Bertram uses military service as a cultural escape route that enables him to establish a field of male action in a remote location whose distance from the female-dominated central court temporarily affords a measure of protection. But Helena invades this space, thus intensifying the conflict between male prerogative and female rule. While Helena may not match the queen's “unnatural male aggressiveness” as experienced by Essex, her determined pursuit of Bertram is nevertheless sufficiently forceful and relentless to constitute aggression.6All's Well That Ends Well thus hits a sensitive cultural nerve, and the open question announced in the title is less one of aesthetics than of sexual politics: can all end well if female power undercuts male heroism?

Mervyn James, citing the Chorus that begins act five of Henry V (5.Cho.29-35), attributes to Shakespeare a strictly orthodox attitude supporting the queen's position with regard to Essex: “So Shakespeare had seen. … It was as ‘the general of our gracious empress’ that the earl's heroic image as the embodiment of lineage, arms and honour acquired validity” (p. 452).7 However, in the larger context of Henry V, the effect of this circumspect, correct statement of Essex's subordination to Elizabeth is complicated and counteracted by the appeal of Henry V's male prowess, which runs roughshod over Queen Isabel and Princess Kate in the final scene. In order to make the parallel with Elizabeth-Essex work, Henry V has to occupy both positions: he is both chivalric warrior and monarch, and his dual role displaces Elizabeth as a specifically female ruler. This effect is confirmed by the way subsequent dramatic events assert male domination in Henry V's high-handed appropriation of Katherine: Henry V in the most decisive manner reverses Essex's subordinate position. The uneasy coexistence of two quite different models of male-female relations—the Choric acknowledgment of female authorization of male chivalry and the dramatization of male self-authorization—creates an impression of ambivalence.8

This ambivalent response to female authority is pronounced in All's Well That Ends Well, where female bonds are strengthened as male bonds are correspondingly weakened: the Countess displays “a more rooted love” (4.5.12) toward Helena than is possible for Queen Isabel toward her daughter in Henry V, while the chivalric ties glorified in Henry V (4.7) are denied outright by the satiric exposure of the Parolles-Bertram relationship in All's Well That Ends Well (4.3.79-311).9 The Countess's extraordinary readiness to renounce her son Bertram provides a reminder of Queen Elizabeth's ability to sever relations with her male courtiers.


One way of minimizing Helena's effect is to deny the full impact of her power by portraying it as narrowly and exclusively channeled against Bertram as an individual rather than against the social structure as a whole. This version presents Bertram as an isolated target by stressing Helena's alliance with the older generation. But Helena's interactions with the King of France cannot be characterized as cooperation or service. Rather, her rescue of the king calls attention to his ongoing weakness as nominal head of government while dramatizing, by contrast, her own achievement of power to be used for her own ends. The image of male order is vulnerable not simply because Bertram is a weak link in an otherwise solid chain but also because there is no convincing, living embodiment of the ancestral “first father” (3.7.25) elsewhere in the play as the king himself conspicuously demonstrates.

The opening lines of the play focus attention on the King of France as the center of a patriarchal social system, raising high expectations about his capacity to repair breaks in the family network. According to the extended family metaphor developed by Lafew, the king will restore the loss of Bertram's father by offering himself as a paternal equivalent. Thus Bertram is encouraged to see the king as “a father” (1.1.6-7). The first encounter between the king and Bertram in act 1, scene 2, reinforces this logic. The king begins the meeting by recognizing the link between Bertram and his dead father: “Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face” (1.2.19).10 He ends the session by confirming his ability to serve as a paternal substitute and by this mediation to preserve the potential for the continuity of male heritage: “Welcome, count; / My son's no dearer” (75-76). Yet the smooth functioning of this father-son framework is jeopardized by the irritation aroused in the king by the prospect of his replacement by the younger generation. The king's nostalgic identification with Bertram's father leads to a heightened contrast between older and younger generations at the latter's expense that threatens to forestall the larger momentum of generational continuity: “Such a man / Might be a copy to these younger times; / Which, followed well, would demonstrate them now / But goers backward” (1.2.45-48).11 Pursuing this invidious comparison between the noble past “when thy father and myself in friendship / First tried our soldiership” (25-26) and the unsatisfactory present of the new generation, the king rehearses a set of highly charged emotions: rage over his aging and demise (“But on us both did haggish age steal on, / And wore us out of act”—29-30), resistance to yielding control, defensive antagonism toward his eventual successors, desire for reassurance and appreciation.

The feelings released in the king by Bertram's presence are by no means unprecedented. From the perspective of the Henriad, the unstable mood created by the king's critique of male youth can be seen as a standard feature of the generational tension fathers and sons must negotiate. Like the King of France in All's Well That Ends Well, Henry IV is a sick king who initiates contact with his youthful counterpart by lashing out against him:

                    See, sons, what things you are,
How quickly nature falls into revolt
When gold becomes her object!
For this the foolish over-careful fathers
Have broke their sleep with thoughts,
Their brains with care, their bones with industry;
For this they have engrossed and pil’d up
The canker’d heaps of strange-achieved gold;
For this they have been thoughtful to invest
Their sons with arts and martial exercises;
When, like the bee, tolling from every flower
The virtuous sweets,
Our thighs pack’d with wax, our mouths with honey,
We bring it to the hive; and like the bees
Are murder’d for our pains. This bitter taste
Yields his engrossments to the ending father.

(2H4, 4.5.64-79)

Henry IV's accusation registers the combined explosive pressure of self-pity and anger to which the King of France gives vent. In particular, citing the “good melancholy” (1.2.56) of Bertram's father, he employs the same despairing image of the beehive:

                                        “Let me not live,” quoth he,
“After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain; whose judgments are
Mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.” This he wish’d.
I, after him, do after him wish too,
Since I nor wax nor honey can bring home,
I quickly were dissolved from my hive
To give some labourers room.


The sarcastic play on the term father—“mere fathers of their garments”—is reminiscent of Henry IV's challenge to Hal's apparent contempt: “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought” (2H4, 4.5.92).

But there is a striking difference in the operation of the bee metaphor that the two kings share. In Henry IV's case, the image conveys richness and abundance: “Our thighs pack’d with wax, our mouths with honey” (2H4, 4.5.76). The language suggests, even during his momentary despair, a conviction about Henry IV's power and desire to give the crown. The King of France, however, confesses utter depletion and inadequacy, as though he were completely lacking in resources: “Since I nor wax nor honey can bring home” (1.2.65). The contrast between fullness and emptiness is emblematic of larger differences in the two situations.

Henry IV's angry outburst is quickly followed by reconciliation, the transmission of royal authority, and the commitment to military action. Henry IV and Hal manage their conflict by themselves without outside interference. The erotic force suggested by the image of Henry IV's “full thighs” is fulfilled in the intimate emotional exchange between two powerful men. The political resonance of the honey image is later realized in Henry V in the “sweet and honey’d sentences” (1.1.50) which the Archbishop of Canterbury attributes to the new king and in Canterbury's own elaboration of the male state as a beehive (1.2.187-204).

In All's Well That Ends Well decisive action comes from outside male relations. Helena's intervention is what interrupts the sense of drift. She provides the energy and direction needed to overcome the impasse created by the king's listlessness. In the transaction between the king and Bertram, Helena is “this good gift” (2.3.151), the object of exchange parallel to the crown which Henry IV gives to Hal. But Helena herself determines the terms of this gift giving. Not only does Bertram receive for his inheritance something he does not want but also the king gives him something which he did not plan and to which he has been forced to agree by the bargain that revived him. The king tries to transform his test of wills with Bertram into an exclusively man-to-man confrontation, but Helena's prior organizational role is too strong. The occasion will not compose into the standard pattern of male traffic in women who serve as incidental tokens by which men determine their relations of power to one another.

Helena's role as a woman who disrupts the normal procedures of patriarchal power can be registered only by a thorough examination of the extent of the king's—and hence the system's—weakness, for this weakness creates a political vacuum that helps to make Helena's control possible. From the outset, the King of France exudes an overall spirit of lassitude and exhaustion consistent with the specific emptiness communicated by his use of the honey motif in his first appearance. Lafew's idealized encomium invoking the king's “abundance” (1.1.10) is no sooner pronounced than it is undercut by the Countess's abrupt leading question about the king's health (1.1.11), which shifts the emphasis to his incapacity. The king toward whom Lafew directs reparative hopes is himself an empty center in need of restoration. Moreover, his debilitated condition is not merely a physical problem, but is symbolic of a more general malaise.

Even before Bertram's arrival at court, the king's handling of the business of the Florentine-Sienese war raises doubts about his leadership. His decision to avoid committing the state seems less a matter of sound judgment than of abdication because the policy of noninvolvement is compromised by his further decision to endorse private actions whose effect is random and in principle self-canceling since individuals are free to fight on either side. The contradictory nature of the king's policy is underlined by the strained language of his subsequent farewell to the two separate—and opposed—groups of young French nobles: “Share the advice betwixt you; if both gain all, / The gift doth stretch itself as ’tis receiv’d, / And is enough for both” (2.1.3-5). What is being stretched here is the king's logic: the phrase “both gain all” tries unsuccessfully to deny the division that he himself has introduced.

The cynical aspect of this approach is brought out by the attendant lord's observation: “It well may serve / A nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit” (1.2.15-17). The allusion to sickness generalizes the king's personal ill health, suggesting wider cultural malfunction. The patent inability in a subsequent commentary to explain the king's rationale retroactively exposes the hollowness of the king's decision making:

The reasons of our state I cannot yield,
But like a common and an outward man
That the great figure of council frames
By self-unable motion; therefore dare not
Say what I think of it, since I have found
Myself in my incertain grounds to fail
As often as I guess’d.


The king appears to sponsor an ideal of heroic honor, but this honor is vitiated in advance. Through the lack of coherent and principled policy, the king contributes to the conditions for the youthful drift which he goes on to complain about in his initial meeting with Bertram: the king is thus responsible for what he criticizes.

Moreover, the king's attitude toward women exhibits the callousness for which he will later so vigorously prosecute Bertram. Like Polonius's tolerance of his son's “wanton, wild and usual slips” (Hamlet, 2.1.22), the king's gratuitous final bit of advice to the departing French nobles gives permission for sexual adventure after military service, if not before:

Those girls of Italy, take heed of them;
They say our French lack language to deny
If they demand; beware of being captives
Before you serve.


Bertram's engagement with Diana conforms to this set of priorities, and his later excuse that he “boarded her i’ th’ wanton way of youth” (5.3.210) fits with the winking spirit of the king's initial formulation. Furthermore, the king's sly generalization about “Those girls of Italy” licenses the contemptuous attitude which Bertram exhibits—she “was a common gamester of the camp” (5.3.187)—and to which the king himself momentarily succumbs—“I think thee now some common customer” (280).

What convinces the king to undergo Helena's treatment is her willingness so emphatically to differentiate herself from the dangerously seductive foreign women the king has warned against (2.1.169-73). But this distinction becomes insecure, blurred by the sexual overtones of the power by which Helena performs the king's rejuvenation. Helena's success confirms her control: she gains the initiative and the king loses it. In designating Bertram as her choice, Helena tries to mitigate her power by moderating her language: “I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live, / Into your guiding power. This is the man” (2.3.102-4). But the “guiding power” is all too clearly neither Bertram's nor the king's. Helena's negotiation with the king has already unmistakably established her primacy through the decisive phrase “I will command”: “Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand / What husband in thy power I will command” (2.1.192-93). By his consent to this proposition, the king shows that he too “lacks language to deny / If they [women] demand” (20-21).

Despite the king's cure, he remains exceedingly vulnerable, truculent and ineffectual for the rest of the play. In between his two meetings with Bertram the king's confidence has been recovered through Helena's agency. His earlier despair gives way to renewed conviction in his “sovereign power and father's voice” (2.3.54). But the second encounter with Bertram in act 2, scene 3, demonstrates the king's continuing weakness because circumstances draw the king into an overreaction that reveals his insecurity, making the restored self seem defensive and unstable. Forced to “produce my power” (150), the king resorts to a harsher version of his earlier tendency to blame the younger generation for all problems when he threatens Bertram: “Or I will throw thee from my care forever / Into the staggers and careless lapse / Of youth and ignorance” (162-64). This outburst dramatizes the king's own flaws as much as Bertram's, for the king's need to apply pressure so heavy-handedly to Bertram stems from the pressure of the king's prior submission to Helena's intervention. Bertram's resistance calls attention to the king's own ongoing dependence on Helena: “But follows it, my lord, to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” (112-13). By his refusal to cooperate, Bertram upsets the smooth operation of a scenario that would allow the king to deflect his dependence by passing it on to the younger man and making him share it.

Helena's relations with the king and with Bertram form parallel actions: in both cases, she meets with resistance which she successfully overcomes by manifesting her superior power. Uneasiness about the triumph of a woman's demand is by no means confined to Bertram. The king's psychological and institutional discomfort is suggested by the lengths to which he goes in his coercion of Bertram. It is as though the king is constrained to deny his own doubts by aggressively suppressing them in Bertram. Yet the completion of the process in which Bertram is “crush’d with a plot” fails to satisfy the king because it does not bring relief from the fundamental problem of his own dependence on a woman. The king's offer to Diana at the end of the play—“If thou beest yet a fresh uncropped flower / Choose thou thy husband and I’ll pay thy dower” (5.3.321-22)—is not a simple repetition. Rather, it represents a compulsive effort to redo the plot to make it come out right: this time he, not the woman, seizes the initiative. If the proposal is his, then the male control that he has lost can be reasserted. The irony of this logic is that his proposal is so closely modeled on Helena's original proposition that it testifies to her power rather than to his. But the irony is not a lighthearted one. Though brief, this moment signals a deep and continuing uneasiness with female control.


The course of Helena's love in All's Well That Ends Well has the effect of reconstituting a combined image of Venus and Diana;12 she therefore reconnects the female attributes that the poetic sequence from Venus and Adonis to The Rape of Lucrece had split apart. Helena succeeds, where Venus spectacularly failed, in the conquest of a resistant male. Moreover, Helena also recuperates Lucrece's humility and passivity; for Helena's occasional hesitation and submissiveness, which seem to compromise her assertiveness, act rather as a sign of the virtue that sanctions and strengthens her position. The difference between Venus's and Helena's ambition is that the latter is more difficult, virtually impossible, to fault. Venus's violation carries with it a suggestion of illegitimacy that permits us to label her action as in some sense wrong. Helena's triumph is licensed by a moral justification akin to the merry wives' riddling self-defense that they “may be merry and yet honest too” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 4.2.96):

                                        Why then tonight
Let us assay our plot; which, if it speed,
Is wicked meaning in a lawful dead,
And lawful meaning in a lawful act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.


Two critical formulations lead to an underestimation of Helena's disruptive social significance. The first, exemplified by G. K. Hunter's introduction to the New Arden edition, diminishes the threat of Helena's initiative by stressing her personal submissiveness and her religious reliance on divine agency. Too neatly dividing the play into two parts, Hunter sees Helena's pilgrimage—“a journey of contrition and abnegation” (p. xxxi)—as the turning point and confines her active role to the first half: “In the second half of All's Well, Helena is a ‘clever wench’ only in the sense in which Griselda is—clever enough to be virtuous, pious, and patient till Destiny and Justice work things out for her” (p. xxxii). Recent feminist critics have challenged and refuted this characterization of Helena by noting that the consistent forcefulness of her actions impressively outweighs her occasional recourse to passive language or diminutive tone. While acknowledging Helena's mixture of “aggressive initiative and passivity,” Susan Snyder convincingly argues that upon arrival in Florence Helena “takes forceful control of the action, persuading the Widow to agree to the bed-substitution, instructing Diana, pursuing Bertram back to France, seeking audience with the king, and through her agent Diana manipulating the final revelation-scene to expose Bertram, prove her fulfillment of the impossible tasks, and claim her reluctant husband all over again.”13 Helena's oxymorons—“humble ambition, proud humility” (1.1.167)—apply to her actions at the end as well as the beginning; she is never humble without also being ambitious and proud. There is no mistaking the crisp energy with which Helena manages Bertram's taming: “But let’s about it” (3.7.48).

A second formulation by which Helena's dominance is tempered is to treat it as a temporary and transitional anomaly whose resolution can be found in the late romances. This motif of the postponed resolution is represented by G. K. Hunter's use of a larger developmental perspective retroactively to solve the problems of All's Well That Ends Well: “Viewed in this context [of the romances], much that seems perverse in All's Well begins to fall into focus”; “much of the perversity of the denouement disappears if we see it as an attempt at the effects gradually mastered in the intervening comedies, and triumphantly achieved in The Winter's Tale” (introduction, New Arden edition, p. lv). This approach creates difficulties, however, because it leads in my view to an inaccurate account of The Winter's Tale14 and because it mutes the effect of All's Well That Ends Well by recuperating it in terms of another play and thereby reducing our ability to see its own terms. What is lost when All's Well That Ends Well is redirected toward and transposed onto the late romances? One answer is that Helena's power is discounted, since the gender dynamic of the romances requires her transformation into an enabling, cooperative heroine. But the Helena of All's Well That Ends Well cannot be easily translated and assimilated into the sublime female comfort exemplified by The Winter's Tale. In the distinctive play she dominates, Helena makes her own demands and, however cautiously, advances her own power.

The force of Helena's challenge is illustrated by the change in the king's rhetoric about class. Prior to Helena's arrival at court, the king evokes an ideal of hierarchy based on the behavior of Bertram's dead father:

So like a courtier, contempt nor bitterness
Were in his pride or sharpness; if they were,
His equal had awak’d them, and his honour,
Clock to itself, knew the true minute when
Exception bid him speak, and at this time
His tongue obey’d his hand. Who were below him
He us’d as creatures of another place,
And bow’d his eminent top to their low ranks,
Making them proud of his humility
In their poor praise he humbled.


The witty reversal of “proud” and “humbled” in the final two lines depends on the firm, fixed distinction between ranks that admits no ambiguity between “His equal” and “Who were below him.” What is striking about this image of clear-cut class structure is that it has no room for Helena. Neither Bertram nor the king can follow this decorum because Helena refuses to accept her position as one of the “creatures of another place.”

After Helena's decisive intervention in the court world, the king projects a very different image of class relations, now adjusted to reflect the situation into which he has been maneuvered by the pressure of Helena's upward initiative:

’Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which
I can build up. Strange is it that our bloods
Of colour, weight, and heat, pour’d all together,
Would quite confound distinction, yet stands off
In differences so mighty. If she be
All that is virtuous, save what thou dislik’st—
A poor physician's daughter—thou dislik’st
Of virtue for the name. But do not so.
From lowest place when virtuous things proceed,
The place is dignified by th’ doer's deed.


In shifting from his earlier image of “creatures of another place” who remain in “their low ranks” (1.2.42-43) to this more positive version of “lowest place” (2.3.125), the king legitimizes social mobility instead of ordered stability. In so acting on Helena's behalf, however, he inadvertently names the danger that her advancement as a lower-class woman may “quite confound distinction.”

The king emphasizes his own agency—“the which / I can build up”—but he is Helena's creation more than she is his. With Helena as prime mover and the king as the figurehead through which she pursues her own ends, the play's action confounds the conventional organizing distinctions both of class and of gender.15 The intertwined gender aspect remains pertinent because while the king enunciates a philosophical endorsement of class flexibility, Helena's practical realization of her aspiration depends on strong support from female sponsors, one of whom, the Florentine widow, suggests an experience of class that validates Helena's enterprise. The Widow provides a living example of class fluidity, though in the reverse direction (“Though my estate be fall’n, I was well born” [3.7.4]), and thereby serves as a mediating figure who breaks the barrier between high and low.

Following J. Dover Wilson's suggestion that the class disparity expressed by Helena's view of Bertram as “a bright particular star / … so above me” (1.1.84-85) is equivalent to “the social relationship between Shakespeare and his patron,”16 C. L. Barber develops a parallel between the poet and the young man of the sonnets and Helena and Bertram. According to this analysis, All's Well That Ends Well represents an aggressive disengagement from the bourgeois poet's paralyzing deference to the aristocratic youth in the sonnets. Feelings about the youth, who is now recast as Bertram, are released in two ways. The first exorcises the poet's adulatory stance by self-critically parodying it in the form of Parolles's empty words of affection for Bertram. The satiric treatment of Parolles is a relatively routine replaying of issues more deeply expressed in the rejection of Falstaff. The second attempts to enact the poet's vindication through Helena's highly charged conquest of the young aristocrat, despite his efforts to ignore and resist her. But this wished-for triumph is secured by a psychological shortcut: since “Helena's project culminates in the moral aggression expended on Bertram before he accepts marriage to her, we can feel … that the play is being used, rather than that its full human implications are being worked out into the light.”17

This interpretation presupposes an alignment between Helena and Shakespeare, who share the same “moral aggression” against Bertram. I want to modify this version of the balance of forces by emphasizing the structural ambivalence of Shakespeare's position. Helena's gender makes impossible any one-sided identification with Helena against Bertram. However enthusiastic Shakespeare's participation in the discomfiting of Bertram, there is also an undertow of residual sympathy for Bertram's plight and concomitant anxiousness over Helena's power.18 However substantial Shakespeare's promotion of Helena's enterprise, there is no total, unimpeded, unqualified cross-gender identification on his part.19 Helena's aggression against Bertram is different from Shakespeare's; the latter is more limited than the former, creating a boomerang effect that pulls Shakespeare's investment in Helena up short and makes his ambivalence run both ways, toward Helena as well as toward Bertram. In this sense it is possible to reverse Barber's formulation and say that the play uses Shakespeare.

Reacting against Helena's triumph, Shakespeare remains in part sympathetically bound to the besieged male positions of both Bertram and the king; the play thereby gives voice not only to the two male characters' discomfiture but also to Shakespeare's. The authorial division that blocks a convincing resolution is significant because it dramatizes a much larger cultural quandary: the society's inability to accommodate, without deep disturbance, decisive female control. If the underlying restiveness of All's Well That Ends Well gives way in Hamlet to open misogynist attack, this shift is made possible in part by the drastic decrease in female power and control. Deprived of the delicate balance between sexuality and purity by which Helena wins her position as wife, the wife in Hamlet is left isolated, exposed, and vulnerable.


  1. The date for All's Well That Ends Well is uncertain. G. K. Hunter gives “a tentative dating” of 1603-4 in the New Arden edition of the play (London: Methuen, 1959), p. xxv; Anne Barton specifies 1602-3 in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 502; David Bevington indicates a range of 1601-4 in his Bantam edition (1988), p. 263. Given the uncertainty, it may be possible to view the play both in Elizabethan and in Jacobean terms. My goal, however, is to place the play in its Elizabethan context.

  2. G. P. V. Akrigg, Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 255-56.

  3. S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (New York: Oxford University Press, rev. ed. 1987), p. 179. Schoenbaum similarly denies any significant connection between Shakespeare and Essex. Reviewing the circumstance of the staging of Richard II prior to Essex's revolt, Schoenbaum finds no involvement on Shakespeare's part (Documentary Life, pp. 217-19; “Richard II and the Realities of Power,” Shakespeare and Others [Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1985], pp. 86-90).

  4. Mervyn James, “At a Crossroads of the Political Culture: The Essex Revolt, 1601,” Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 416-65. Also relevant is James's earlier essay on honor culture, “English Politics and the Concept of Honour, 1485-1642,” pp. 308-415, which shows how in response to “the facts of social mobility” a redefinition of honor occurred that tended “to present honour, virtue and nobility as detachable from their anchorage in pedigree and descent” (p. 375). The struggle between Helena and Bertram is in part a conflict between new and old ideas of honor.

  5. I do not discount the critical perspective on Henry V built into the play, which I have discussed in “‘The fault / My father made’: The Anxious Pursuit of Heroic Fame in Shakespeare's Henry V,” Modern Language Studies 10, 1 (Winter 1979-80): 10-25, and in chapter 2 of Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 39-65. My concern here, however, is to emphasize the relative contrast between Henry V and Bertram.

  6. There is a line of criticism—from Clifford Leech's “The Theme of Ambition in ‘All's Well That Ends Well,’” English Literary History 21 (1954): 17-29, to Richard A. Levin's “All's Well That Ends Well, and ‘All Seems Well,’” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 131-44—that provides ample testimony to the perception of Helena's ambition and power. However, in the absence of a feminist perspective, the cultural significance of her ambition is lost and this criticism amounts to a restatement of male complaint. Feminist interest in the reversal of customary gender roles whereby Helena becomes the active pursuer rather than the pursued leads to a wholly different emphasis on Helena as the center of the play's action. See Carol Thomas Neely, chapter 2, “Power and Virginity in the Problem Comedies: All's Well That Ends Well,” in her Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 58-104; Carolyn Asp, “Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well,” Literature and Psychology 32, 4 (1986): 48-63; Lisa Jardine, “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: ‘These are old paradoxes,’” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 1-18; Susan Synder, “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object,” English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 66-77.

  7. The expected comparison would be the one between Henry V and Elizabeth with which R. Malcolm Smuts begins his “Public Ceremony and Royal Charisma: The English Royal Entry in London, 1485-1642,” in The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone, ed. A. L. Beier, David Cannadine, and James M. Rosenheim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 65-93:

    Thus when Henry V returned from Agincourt, the Lord Mayor and
    Aldermen in scarlet robes, and 300 mounted citizens dressed in coats of murrey
    (dark purple) with gold chains around their necks, rode out to meet him at
    Blackheath and accompanied him back to Westminster. More than a century and
    a half later, in 1584, Elizabeth returned from a progress to an essentially
    similar welcome.

    (pp. 68-69)

    Shakespeare's reference to Essex disrupts the continuity by marking the difference between a male king's military campaign in Agincourt and Elizabeth's domestic progresses. Annabel Patterson's discussion of the fifth Chorus, which became available only after I had completed this chapter, overlaps with mine on several points: see “Back by Popular Demand: The Two Versions of Henry V,” chapter 5 in Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 71-92.

  8. The political tensions between Elizabeth and Essex, which Mervyn James excludes from Shakespeare's presentation, are discussed in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, “History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 206-27, especially p. 219.

  9. Carol Thomas Neely develops the contrast between the efficacy of female solidarity and the emptiness of male bonds in Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays, pp. 74-78.

  10. This motif also occurs, for example, in As You Like It when Duke Senior performs a similar act of recognition for Orlando. Senior reconstitutes the father-son bond by testifying both to the son's and to his own connection to the deceased father.

  11. The age/youth conflict is also enacted in a simplified, one-sided form in the encounter between Lafew and Parolles (2.3.184-260), but the interaction between the king and Bertram is not reducible to this version. Nor is it accurate to portray Helena as siding with and supporting the older generation: her alliance with the older group serves her interests and values, not theirs.

  12. In “Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure,” in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman H. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 151-74, Janet Adelman discusses the psychological tension epitomized by the Venus/Diana motif in All's Well (pp. 160-61). I would add that an undercurrent of associations with Queen Elizabeth's female power accentuates this tensions.

  13. Susan Snyder, “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object,” pp. 66-67. Of the four feminist critics cited in note 6, only Lisa Jardine finds Helena's power sharply diminished: “in the second half of the play, Helena acts out an atonement for her ‘forwardness’” that implies a “ritual return to exemplary passivity” (“Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: ‘These are old paradoxes,’” p. 11). Jardine contrasts Helena with Portia of The Merchant of Venice: the latter “does not resolve the actively knowing heroine into passively tolerant wife” (p. 12). I agree with Jardine's basic point that the traditional marital terms of Helena's quest set limits to her exercise of power, but I want to complicate the comparison by suggesting that Portia's power is also qualified. Her dominance is ensured by her withdrawal to the private sphere of Belmont, her intervention in the social action of Venice having been temporary. Portia does not directly challenge the male power structure invested in the position of the Duke of Venice and she leaves it intact. By contrast, Helena's actions place the already questionable authority of the King of France into further question. Moreover, while the compliant Bassanio presents very little opposition to Portia's designs, Bertram offers determined resistance to Helena's. From this standpoint, Helena appears the more powerful figure: she triumphs over greater opposition. Finally, because she lacks the upper-class status that Portia takes for granted, Helena has to traverse a greater social distance to reach the levers of power; by this measure, Helena alters the balance of power to a degree that Portia does not and her victory is consequently more socially disruptive. This view helps to account for the comparatively more strained ending of All's Well That Ends Well.

  14. I present an alternative, critical account in chapter 5, “The Limitations of Reformed Masculinity in The Winter's Tale,” in Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama, pp. 148-72. In “T. S. Eliot and the Creation of a Symbolist Shakespeare”—Twentieth Century Literature in Retrospect (Harvard English Studies 2), ed. Reuben A. Brower (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 191-204—G. K. Hunter criticizes Eliot's treatment, influenced by G. Wilson Knight's The Wheel of Fire (1930), of the late romances. However, Hunter's own method recapitulates Eliot's view. Hence the romances demonstrate “the power of a new poetic vision,” “allowing the recognition scene to be human without infringing the symbolic power of the event” (introduction to the New Arden edition of All's Well That Ends Well, p. lvi). Reading back from this view of the late romances projects an ideal of harmonious resolution that mitigates and distorts the experience of gender conflict in All's Well That Ends Well. Moreover, the ultimate assurance of Perdita's high birth in The Winter's Tale eliminates the problem of class difference that Helena presents so sharply.

  15. Because of this doubling effect, I would rephrase Muriel Bradbrook's claim that “by making his social climber a woman, Shakespeare took a good deal of the sting out of the affair” (“Virtue Is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,” The Review of English Studies 1, n.s., no. 4 [October 1950]: 289-301, quotation from p. 297). Helena's combined lower-class and female status, on the contrary, increases the sting. Technically Helena's power is derived from her father's medical expertise, but her own female initiative quickly outstrips the paternal derivation. Moreover, Helena's spectacular success in curing the king is noteworthy because in England the male Royal College of Physicians in effect excluded women from the medical profession.

  16. J. Dover Wilson, The Essential Shakespeare: A Biographical Adventure (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), pp. 58-59.

  17. In The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler discuss All's Well That Ends Well on pp. 15-18, 161, 190-91, and 196; quotation from p. 17.

  18. It is indicative of the ideological power of norms—and of Shakespeare's implication in them—that Petruchio's handling of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew can appear humorous and beneficial, while the reversal of gender roles results in a mood that is strained and unpleasant: the motif of the dominant woman and the resisting male forbids similar comic treatment. The potential tragic cast of Bertram's situation can be suggested by reference to Coriolanus, whose aristocratic military identity is broken not only by his mother's manipulations but also by vulnerability to a lower-class threat. The difference is that Bertram faces this double gender and class threat combined in the single person of Helena.

  19. In “The Third Eye: An Essay on All's Well That Ends Well,” in his The Sovereign Flower (London: Methuen, 1958), pp. 93-160, G. Wilson Knight assumes a trouble-free continuity between Helena and Shakespeare by positing a “creative bisexuality” (p. 156) that they share. Thus Shakespeare's androgynous capacity gives him a direct, unobstructed connection with women: “Shakespeare's women lovers may be said to have been created from the female element in his own soul” (p. 132). Opposing this line of approach, I argue against an authorial androgyny that enables Shakespeare to transcend gender conflict and in favor of his problematic involvement as a male author in the sexual political struggles he stages. It is symptomatic of Knight's thinking that he can so easily find the “new form of society where the female values will be in the ascendent,” which he sees prefigured by the play, “darkly symbolized in the queenship of Shakespeare's age” (p. 160). This concluding bit of idealism ignores complicated questions about Elizabeth's status in a patriarchal culture and about Shakespeare's dramatization of this dilemma.

David McCandless (essay date 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11199

SOURCE: “Helena's Bed-trick: Gender and Performance in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 449-68.

[In the following essay, McCandless analyzes All's Well That Ends Well's concern with sexuality, and the importance of Helena's bed-trick to “the play's provocative interrogation of gender roles.”]

The starting point for this essay is Susan Snyder's recent characterization of All's Well as a “deconstructed fairy tale”:1 lurking beneath the folkloric narrative of the poor physician's daughter who deploys magic and cunning in order to overcome a dashing count's disdainful resistance are the unrepresentable specters of female sexual desire and male sexual dread. Indeed, the play invests the fairy-tale motifs that W. W. Lawrence believes undergird All's Well—“The Healing of the King” and “The Fulfillment of the Tasks”—with potent erotic subtexts.2 In adapting “The Healing of the King,” Shakespeare, like his model Boccaccio, departs from tradition in making the King's healer a woman. Lawrence barely mentions this innovation, but it seems to me highly significant, especially since Shakespeare, unlike Boccaccio, makes Helena's gender—more particularly her sexual ardor and allure—indispensable to the cure.

Integral to the narrative of “The Fulfillment of the Tasks” is the bed-trick, an explicitly sexual event in which a disprized wife wins back her husband by making love to him incognito, taking the place of another woman, in some versions the wife herself in disguise, whom he has wooed. All's Well deconstructs this folkloric device by wedding it to genuine sexual perturbation. The bed-trick is not simply the consummation of a marriage, in which Helena cleverly satisfies Bertram's seemingly impossible conditions, but an act of prostitution, in which Helena services Bertram's lust and submits to humiliating anonymous “use,” and a type of rape, in which Helena coerces Bertram into having sex with her against his will.

Yet, as many critics have noted, the play seems to suppress its own erotic subdrama.3 Certainly Shakespeare idealizes and mystifies the sexual arousal that empowers Helena's cure of the King. He lends Helena magical and hieratic powers, giving her the capacity to effect a supernatural cure. He similarly desexualizes her erotic agency in the bed-trick, allowing Diana to serve as Helena's sexualized double. Diana suffers Bertram's degrading slander in the final scene, thus allowing Helena to reenter the play as a saintly resurrected figure whose visible pregnancy sanctifies her sexuality and who elicits an instantaneous reformation from Bertram. The bed-trick becomes a transcendent event, vastly removed from bodies groping in the dark, from the kind of event imaged as “defil[ing] the pitchy night” (4.4.24).4

In performance the bed-trick is further removed from sexual experience precisely because it is undramatized, not part of the play's visceral theatrical life, a plot mechanism scarcely capable of disconcerting audiences as it has critics. I want to examine how staging the bed-trick can assist in dramatizing the “deconstructed fairy tale” that lies at the heart of All's Well, thus bringing to the surface the erotic subdrama that the play represses, and, in so doing, extend the play's provocative interrogation of gender roles.


Helena has been a puzzle and provocation to critics because she occupies the masculine position of desiring subject, even as she apologizes fulsomely for her unfeminine forwardness and works desperately to situate herself within the feminine position of desired object. Bertram, too, poses problems because he occupies the feminine space of the Other, even as he struggles to define himself as a man by becoming a military and sexual conqueror. He is the desired object, the end of the hero's—or in this case heroine's—gendered journey of self-fulfillment.

Helena's opening soliloquy conveys the plight of a woman trapped between active (“masculine”) and passive (“feminine”) modes of desire. She clearly expresses her desire to consummate a sexual love, calling herself a “hind” who wishes to be “mated by the lion” (1.1.85-92). At the same time, she adopts a “feminine” posture: she cannot mate but can only be “mated.” Furthermore, as a hind desiring a lion, she cannot mate at all. Helena thus naturalizes the culturally established distinctions of gender and class that make Bertram a forbidden object. In addition, Helena appropriates the masculine privilege of the gaze, submitting her “curled darling” to rapturous objectification, only to affirm a “feminine” helplessness, lamenting the impossibility of eliciting her beloved's look.5 Her gaze becomes masochistic: it is pleasurable torment—“pretty, though a plague”—to survey his beauteous, unattainable form “every hour” (ll. 92-93).

Once galvanized by Parolles's bracing antivirginity jape, however, Helena resolves to “feed” her desirous gaze, to make the object of worship an object of consumption:

What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes, and kiss like native things.

(ll. 220-23)

That Helena imagines a sexual feeding here seems plausible, given the imagery of “joining” and “kissing,” not to mention the suggestive phraseology of “mount[ing] my love.” The “space” separating her and Bertram she portrays as a product not of nature, which favors their “join[ing],” but of “fortune,” which seems here to mean “standing in life” and thus to represent culture.

The language Helena employs is characteristically elliptical, stemming from her guarded, coded, sexually charged dialogue with Parolles. The obscurity of her discourse perhaps reflects the unspeakability of her desire. Her exchange with Parolles begins as a theatrical turn, with Helena playing straight man for the swaggering poseur. As straight man Helena channels her unspeakable desire into the discourse of male bawdry, seeking a kind of release through the sublimated pleasures of naughty talk, even if her lines serve principally as cues for Parolles's ribaldry.

At a certain point, however, Helena seems to take seriously Parolles's aspersion of virginity—or, more specifically, his vision of the naturalness and regenerativeness of sexuality; she steps outside the scene's theatrical frame and trades the role of straight man for that of surprised pupil: “how might one do, sir,” she asks, “to lose it [her virginity] to her own liking?” (ll. 150-51). She disregards his censure of her wish to choose rather than be chosen (“Off with’t while ’tis vendible; answer the time of request” [ll. 154-55]) and answers his challenge—“Will you anything with it?”—decisively if obscurely:

Not my virginity yet:
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,
A phoenix, captain, and an enemy,
A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,
A counsellor, a traitress, and a dear;
His humble ambition, proud humility;
His jarring concord, and his discord dulcet;
His faith, his sweet disaster; with a world
Of pretty, fond, adoptious christendoms
That blinking Cupid gossips.

(ll. 163-75)

Modern editors have been inclined to assume a missing line between Helena's terse defense of virginity and her expansive list of lovers' endearments. “There” is usually taken to mean “at the court,” and the speech is explained as Helena's anxious contemplation of courtly rivals whose enchantments may well stir Bertram's desire. The speech may perhaps be better understood, however, as a coded disclosure of Helena's own erotic stirrings. That she speaks cryptically and elliptically may simply reflect the difficulty of articulating female desire. If one gives up the idea of a missing line, the sense of Helena's response is captured in G. Wilson Knight's paraphrase: “‘I shall not part with my virginity to anyone yet, because therein your master has an infinite love.’”6 Knight, however, backs away from the aggressively sexual connotations of this decoding and asserts, “I do not think that, at this early stage in her story, it can mean ‘In giving your master my virginity I shall give him a thousand loves’, since she has no good reason at this stage to expect such an event.”7 Helena's lacking any reason to expect “such an event” is surely beside the point; she clearly desires to “mate” with Bertram, and, stoked by Parolles's libidinous exhortations, she presumably builds on the tantalizing possibility of losing her virginity to her own liking, that is, to Bertram. The speech thus becomes the link between this heretofore unthinkable idea and the conception of her bold plan for winning him. Perhaps “at the court” has seemed the best candidate for Helena's imagined “there” because virginity—or rather the unpenetrated female territory it predicates—has been perceived, within a phallocentric register of meaning, not as a “there” but as a “nowhere,” a “nothing-to-be-seen,” in Luce Irigaray's striking phrase.8

Thus the key to the speech may lie not in a missing line but in a missing language—one that embodies a woman's “thereness” and enables the articulation of a distinct female desire. From a Lacanian perspective, female desire is literally unspeakable, inconceivable within a phallocentric linguistic system that makes woman a signifier of man, reducing her difference to opposition, reconfiguring her desire as the desire for his desire.9 The unspeakability of Helena's passion perhaps compels her to express it evasively and mystically. She thus characterizes her “virginity” as a kind of philosopher's stone, a “tinct and multiplying medicine” (5.3.102) that blesses Bertram with a supernally expansive love and allows her, for his sake, to assume all the guises of the courtier's beloved, to become a kind of shape-shifting superwoman. Helena, however, continues to believe that she must be “mated”: she cannot unleash this mystical female power—cannot become Bertram's idealized courtly lover—until Bertram “has” her maidenhead, discovers her wonders “there.” Once more the play seems to dramatize the contradiction of female subjectivity: Helena expresses an active (masculine) longing to consummate her passion in terms that betray a “feminine” urge to empower and sustain Bertram, to fit herself to his fantasies—or at least to his received images of femininity. Helena's (feminine) hope that Bertram might find her desirable after “having” her sexually eventually impels her (masculine) orchestration of the bed-trick.

Helena continues to feminize her desire throughout her campaign to win Bertram, offering compensatory performances of exemplary chastity to atone for the unchaste boldness of her plan.10 Forced by the Countess to confess her love for Bertram, Helena disclaims the desire to win him that we know she harbors, reviving the self-abasing hopelessness of her first soliloquy, once more portraying Bertram as an unattainable heavenly body that she worships (1.3.204-7). In conversation with the King she betrays a similar compulsion to appear normatively chaste, instantly withdrawing her suit when he taints her proffered cure with imputations of prostitution, “Humbly entreating” a “modest” thought—requesting the King's belief in her chastity—as she prepares to take her leave (2.1.127-28). Her willingness to suffer a prostitute's punishment if her cure fails seems designed to dispel any lingering suspicions of unchastity, to distance her holy magic from wanton witchery (ll. 170-73).11

In 2.3, the scene in which Helena is to choose a husband, Helena's status as desiring subject becomes public. The King, parading a contingent of eligible wards, formally confers on her the power of the gaze: “Fair maid, send forth thine eye. … Peruse them well” (ll. 52, 61); he also lends her the masculine privilege of choice: “Thou hast power to choose, and they none to forsake” (l. 56). Her public position as dominant woman is so unprecedented that Lafew mistakenly believes the young lords have rejected her rather than vice versa: as a woman she cannot be the chooser but only the object of choice. Helena's singular ascent requires another compensatory performance of “femininity.” Though she has, in fact, “command[ed]” the King to grant the fulfillment of her desire (2.1.194), she protests her chastity to the assembled suitors and blushingly retires before the King ratifies her authority and compels her to continue. In Susan Snyder's words, “when [Helena] finally addresses Bertram, she does her best to deny her role as aggressive, desiring subject and to recast herself properly as object.”12 (“I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live, / Into your guiding power” [2.3.102-4]). Bertram, however, discerns and resists this implicit emasculation, dismissing her protestations of vassalage and demanding the return of masculine looking power: “I shall beseech your Highness, / In such a business, give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes” (ll. 106-8).

To call attention to Helena's “performative” femininity is not to accuse her of hypocrisy or willful deception. To point out that her self-effacements are self-serving is not to rehearse the tired, limited characterization of her as a two-faced, manipulative manhunter.13 It seems to me more helpful to understand Helena's hyperfemininity as a kind of Lacanian misrecognition that she persistently reenacts. Helena performs femininity so convincingly because she has successfully internalized a culturally imposed image of Woman. When Helena seems to affect femininity for the sake of covering her unfeminine, predatory tracks, she may not be crudely dissembling but rather, like a good method actress who loses herself in the role, truthfully simulating, thereby authenticating the role demanded of her. “The action of gender,” Judith Butler suggests, “requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established.”14 Butler is not alone in contending that subjectivity entails a subjection to cultural norms, predicating a process by which socialization is mistaken for individuation.15 Helena challenges a restrictive standard of feminine chastity, but, while doing so, she must answer to the chaste self-image shaped by patriarchal society. As John Berger puts it, a woman is “almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.”16 One reason, no doubt, that critics have so often discerned two Helenas—saintly maiden and cunning vixen—is that Helena so vividly embodies the contradiction that Teresa de Lauretis identifies as essential to female subjectivity: self and cultural mirror, woman and Woman.17

In performance one way to call attention to that contradiction would be to assign two actors to the role of Helena: a woman and a man in drag who would step in whenever Helena “acts feminine.” These two Helenas would then take turns, sometimes within the same scene (Helena's interview with the King in 2.1, for instance) or even the same speech (for example, the first soliloquy), while at other times a single Helena would dominate (the female for Helena's combative exchanges with Parolles, the crossdressed male for her doleful evasions of the Countess). In a modern-dress production of All's Well, costuming could accentuate this duality, with the crossdressed male (as cultural mirror) far more unerringly “feminine” in appearance than the female, whose attire could be freer and more individualized, even androgynous. The prettified, feminine (male) Helena then becomes kin to the lavishly festooned Parolles, a culturally constructed gender image compelling imitation. Such a choice dramatizes the process of misrecognition, participating in a postmodern fragmenting of subjectivity.18 A less ostentatious approach might, however, prove even more theatrically potent. Since Helena's essential provocation lies in her capacity for forcing masculine and feminine modes of desire to collide, the director might prefer to capture her doubleness not through double casting but through the concentration of its contradictory effects in a single actor, making her as self-possessed and unself-consciously sensual in her “masculine” moments as she is self-effacing and studiously chaste in her “feminine” ones.

Helena's “masculine” desire is no less subject to cultural construction than her “feminine” chastity. As Foucault has argued, sexual desire is dervived as much from culture as from nature.19 Accordingly, Helena's desire is directed toward the culturally approved goal of marriage, an institution that, at least according to the “Protestant doctrine” of Shakespeare's time, confirms a woman in femininity by delivering her to permanent chastity—and subservience.20 In 2.5, her only scene with Bertram prior to the play's final moments, Helena seems to savor “feminine” subservience as the reward for her “masculine” boldness. She embraces wifely subjugation with a fervor that mortifies Bertram. “Come, come, no more of that,” he protests when she pronounces herself his “most obedient servant” (ll.72-73). From a Freudian perspective, she accepts—even flaunts—a neutered passivity for the sake of eliciting male love.21 When Bertram annuls the marriage she has taken such pains to effect, she takes the desexualization one step further, embracing a monastical chastity by reconfiguring herself as a penitent whore getting herself to a nunnery, disavowing her desire and receding into iconicity, inspiring the Countess to compare her, I would argue, to the Virgin Mary (3.4.25-29).22

The sexual renunciation ends when Helena locates another mirror of misrecognition: Diana, the young Italian woman who defines femininity for Helena by virtue of her attractiveness to Bertram. As Catherine MacKinnon asserts, “socially, femaleness means femininity, which means attractiveness to men, which means sexual attractiveness, which means sexual availability on male terms.”23 In order to win Bertram, Helena the devoted would-be wife must refashion herself as sexual object. Her goal shifts from the fulfillment of desire to the achievement of desirability. Her desire is no longer simply the desire to wed but the desire to be desired. She thus identifies with, and acts through, the woman whom Bertram covets. In a Lacanian context, Helena says not “I wish to become a woman” but rather “I wish to be like her whom I recognize as a woman.”24 Her deputization of Diana offers an extreme instance of Helena's need to conceal her desire. Only when she secures the services of a surrogate who agrees to embody that desire and risk the “tax of impudence” that Helena herself carefully dodges does Helena manage to secure Bertram.


Perhaps the best demonstration of the distance between Helena and Bertram comes when Parolles, urging Bertram to “steal away” to the wars in order to avoid the emasculation of marriage, characterizes Helena's “virginity” in terms radically different from her own:

He wears his honor in a box unseen,
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars's fiery steed.


The site of Helena's miraculously generative sexual love becomes a “box unseen,” a lack that threatens to contain and consume Bertram's manly essence, an effeminizing, contemptible “kicky-wicky” that would preclude his purchase of masculine honor. The opportunity to mount Mars's fiery steed in manly combat rescues Bertram from an emasculating stint as “forehorse to a smock” (2.1.30)—that is, a woman's beast of burden—a humiliating reversal of the roles of man/woman, rider/horse, master/slave that had become homologous in Shakespeare's England.25

Parolles embodies a fiction of masculine grandeur that Bertram attempts to actualize, a mirror of misrecognition in which Bertram insists on seeing himself, a narcissistic reflection of an idealized self that confers an illusion of wholeness. In particular, the supposedly battle-tested, sumptuously plumed Parolles offers Bertram an image of military glamor and promotes participation in the Italian war as a rite of passage into manhood. Thus he praises Bertram's determination to fight as evidence of potency: “Why, these balls bound, there’s noise in it. ’Tis hard!” (2.3.297).

Yet the Countess and the King both define manhood for Bertram as the imitation of his father, the true “perfect courtier” (1.1.61-62 and 207; 1.2.19-22 and 36-48). Parolles becomes a rival father-figure whom Bertram's own father, speaking through the King, indirectly disparages with his criticism of meretricious fashionmongers who beget nothing but clothes (“whose judgments are / Mere fathers of their garments” [1.2.61-62]). Later, Lafew implies that Parolles was begot as clothes, that he was not born but made—by a tailor (2.5.16-19). These images impute to Parolles and his like both sterility and unmanliness and—through the emphasis on costume—imposture and barren theatricality. Parolles functions as a symptom of the tailoredness of gender, performing a masculinity that seems as much a caricature of the cultural norm as does the performed femininity of Helena. In following this counterfeit soldier-courtier, Bertram appears to be doing what Helena has already done: internalizing and authenticating a culturally inscribed myth of gender, saying not “I’m a man” but rather “I’m like him whom I recognize to be a man.”

Despite exhorting Bertram to emulate his father, the King denies him the opportunity to do so by forbidding his soldiership, rendering him unable to prove himself the son of a worthy Frenchman (2.1.11-12). Rather than being allowed to “woo” and “wed” honor (to use the King's language to his departing soldiers), Bertram becomes an object of a woman's wooing and wedding. The King, at Helena's behest, subjects Bertram to the very calamity he urged his soldiers to avoid—bondage to female sexuality:

Those girls of Italy, take heed of them.
They say our French lack language to deny
If they demand. Beware of being captives
Before you serve.


Bertram is captive before he serves, in thrall not to one of those “girls of Italy” whom the King stigmatizes but to the girl from Rossillion, the girl next door. While he is primed to resent any imposed responsibility that keeps him from going a-soldiering, marriage to Helena is the very worst of fates, taking him even further back into boyhood by returning him to the maternal domination he presumably escaped by ending his constrictive “marriage” to the Countess. (“In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [1.1.1-2], she asserts as the play begins.)26

Bertram protests that he “cannot” love Helena. She cannot be an object of his sexual desire, cannot be a “real girl,” in Havelock Ellis's terms.27 This fact is striking, since she so easily achieves that status with the other men in the play, sexually provoking Parolles, Lafew, and the King alike. Lafew considers Helena so much a “real girl” that he would like to consign those seemingly standoffish suitors to the fate of castration (2.3.86-88). From Lafew's perspective, anyone who would not consider Helena a “real girl” is not a real man.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, Bertram cannot love Helena because she is a forbidden object. The Count's responsibility for “breeding” Helena (2.3.114) reinforces her status as a sister-figure. The Countess's sponsorship of Helena's matrimonial campaign makes Helena a kind of mother-surrogate as well. The Countess sees in the passionate Helena an image of her younger self (1.3.128-31). By colluding in Helena's plot, the Countess aims to help Helena secure her son as husband and thus to revive by proxy the relationship she herself has lost.28 Helena may also be considered a maternal figure by virtue of her status as partner to Bertram's surrogate father, the King. In a reversal of a Freudian plot, in which the son sacrifices the mother as the price of masculine autonomy, the King blocks Bertram's achievement of manhood by forcing on him the woman whom Bertram sees as the object of the King's own sexual interest: “follows it, my lord,” Bertram protests, “to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” (2.3.112-13).29

In addition, the first of the identities Helena hopes to derive from marriage to Bertram is the one conspicuously removed from the realm of courtly love that engenders them: “mother” (“There shall your master have a thousand loves, / A mother, a mistress, and a friend”).30 On one level, of course, Helena simply invokes a biological fact: she may become pregnant as a consequence of intercourse with Bertram. On another, she explicitly identifies with the very maternal image that repels Bertram and, by raising the specter of castration, drives him to the wars. In one sense, then, Bertram's military campaign represents a retreat: like Parolles, he runs away for advantage when fear—in this case fear of Helena's sexuality—proposes the safety (1.1.201-3). Lavatch later characterizes Bertram's campaign in precisely the same terms: Bertram will not be “killed”—his manhood will not be lost—because he runs away from Helena: “The danger is in standing to’t; that’s the loss of men, though it be the getting of children” (3.2.37-42, esp. 41-42).


In appointing Helena her impossible tasks, Bertram sets up a fairy-tale framework only for the sake of demolishing it. While the tasks themselves present a fairy-tale challenge—do these things and “then call me husband”—his decoding of them precludes a fairy-tale solution: “but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never’” (3.2.57-60). Helena, however, insists on the fairy-tale framework, reading his metaphor of rejection as a scenario of acceptance and orchestrating the bed-trick, a folkloric convention, in order to secure him as husband. Helena, however, describes the actual event in anything but fantastical terms:

                                        … O, strange men,
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen’d thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away.


Helena here configures Bertram as male Other, as personification of difference, as a creature from whom she is estranged. In addition to the folkloric narratives that Lawrence identifies, All's Well also discloses affinities with other “old tales” that more directly address this problem of difference. I am thinking, in particular, of “The Loathly Lady,” which deals with male fear of female sexuality, and “Beauty and the Beast,” which dramatizes the female's struggle with male sexuality. In each tale, the protagonist's love—acceptance of the loathliness or beastliness (that is, sexual difference) of their opposite—converts ugliness into beauty. “Beauty and the Beast” depicts a young woman's transference of love from father to Beast, the sexually menacing male Other. According to Bruno Bettelheim, “only after Beauty decides to leave her father's house to be reunited with the Beast—that is, after she has resolved her oedipal ties to her father—does sex, which before was repugnant, become beautiful.”31 At the start of the play, Helena has already made this transference. “What was … [my father] like?” Helena muses. “I have forgot him. My imagination / Carries no favor in’t but Bertram's” (1.1.81-83). Moreover, far from fearing male sexuality, Helena embraces Bertram's beastliness as the play begins, portraying him as a lion with whom she wishes to mate. Indeed, by portraying herself as a hind, Helena both affirms her own sexuality and evokes a fundamental difference in “kind” that divides them. The bed-trick forces Helena to confront the un-kind Beast within Bertram and to undertake his taming. Bertram, by contrast, recoils from Helena's loathliness, her menacing sexual difference (“what [he] hate[s]”), seeing in her an image of the old crone or castrating mother.

Helena's story—and by implication All's Well itself—also contains intriguing parallels to what Jane Yolen identifies as the common features of the traditional “Cinderella” tale: “an ill-treated though rich and worthy heroine in Cinders-disguise; the aid of a magical gift or advice by a beast/bird/mother; the dance/festival/church scene where the heroine comes in radiant display; recognition through a token.”32 Helena fits this profile to a significant degree: a worthy yet socially undesirable young woman who finds herself, thanks to a magical gift, miraculously conveyed to and radiantly displayed at a royal public ceremony (“Mort du vinaigre!” exclaims Parolles, apparently stunned by her glamorous appearance, “is not this Helen?” [2.3.44]). Indeed, it is surely no accident that both Tyrone Guthrie and Trevor Nunn, directors of two celebrated modern productions of All's Well, staged this scene as a lavish ball and costumed the poor physician's daughter in an elegant gown, effectively portraying her as Cinderella-turned-Princess. And, while she fails to enchant the Prince at first, she does become the object of his desire at another clandestine encounter, which she later proves publicly by means of a token that seals their marriage. The token in this instance is a ring, as it is in several versions of the traditional tale.33

In a psychoanalytic context, the Cinderella tale presents a heroine coming to terms with her own sexuality. Her cinders-guise externalizes her dread of the dirtiness of her own sexual drives. Her awareness of the underlying dirtiness impels her to exit the dance prematurely three times, unable to yield to her sexual longing for the reciprocally desirous prince. (The midnight deadline that prompts her departure is not part of the traditional tale but rather the invention of Charles Perrault, whose seventeenth-century version provides the source for the well-known Disney movie.) In the climatic scene she affirms her sexuality by meeting the Prince in her cinders-guise and, in an overtly phallic gesture, triumphantly inserting her foot into the slipper.34 In All's Well, by contrast, the Prince runs from the heroine, whose active sexuality begrimes her chaste feminine persona. She wins the Prince by catching him and taking him into the cinders with her.

Traces of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella” may be found in the twentieth-century romance novel, a kind of fairy tale that also sports parallels to All's Well. The “new heroine” of those novels

is no longer split between two archetypal female characters: the plain-naive-domestic-selfless-passive-chaste heroine and the beautiful-sophisticated-worldly-selfish-assertive-sexually active Other Woman. Instead, the New Heroine is both good and sexual.35

Helena holds in unresolved tension the roles of good girl and sexual adventuress that the new heroine has apparently successfully assimilated. A motif of “taming the beast” figures prominently in these modern tales: a seemingly beastly—that is, hard and unyielding—man loses his heart to the worthy heroine and becomes a sensitive lover. As though ruled by this fantasy, Helena endeavors, through the power of her love, to transform the beastly Bertram into the Prince Charming of her fantasy. Helena's own narrative of self-fulfillment—and a narrative pressure of the play itself—resembles a romance novel in which the cruel hero's callous disregard of the desirous heroine masks a depth of adoration he ultimately avows.36 The romance novel—and possibly All's Well—predicates a retributive fantasy of benign dominance-and-submission. As Tania Modleski puts it:

A great deal of our satisfaction in reading these novels comes, I am convinced, from the elements of a revenge fantasy, from our conviction that the woman is bringing the man to his knees and that all the while he is being so hateful, he is internally groveling, groveling, groveling.37

It may be said that Helena seeks to transform Bertram's fantasy by enabling it, replacing the pornographic narrative of violating an idealized virgin with the romance-novel plot of eliciting a redemptive kindness from an unyielding male.38

Indeed, if the bed-trick were dramatized, it would literally dislocate the narrative of Bertram's debauchery: “I will tell you a thing,” the Second Lord confides to his brother, “but you shall let it dwell darkly with you” (4.3.10-11). This report of female victimization would then give way to the dramatization of female desire. “The place and time of feminine desire,” says de Lauretis, are “nowhere” and “now,” which are representable only from an “elsewhere of vision” and within “a different narrative temporality.”39 In virtually all performances of All's Well, the place of the bed-trick is precisely “nowhere” or “elsewhere.” Its narrative temporality is other than the play's—parallel but not precisely coincident with that of the French captains' gossip. Indeed, the literal death they ascribe to Helena (4.3.47-59) becomes the only means of registering the metaphorical death she experiences during the bed-trick, the only means of invoking her sexual pleasure.40 Through the bed-trick Helena deflects Bertram's teleological quest for manhood into the timeless “now” of her desire, replacing the march of “masculine” time with the occupation of “feminine” space. The site of the bed-trick emblematizes female difference, expresses the “unseen wonders” of the woman's own enclosed space and thus is not only unrepresented but unrepresentable within a phallocentric framework that associates that site with a “nothing-to-be-seen.” In that sense Helena's reported death—signifying her ultimate absence—becomes symbolic of the “lack” culturally inscribed on her body.41 How then does one stage an event whose place is unseen and unseeable (“nowhere”) and whose subject—female sexuality—is unrepresentable? Can one theatrically embody or evoke the “there” to which Helena cryptically alludes?

As Jeanie Forte notes, contemporary feminist performance artists have instinctively searched for the theatrical equivalent of the distinctive female language imagined by Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, a mode of representation that would liberate women from a phallocentric signifying economy.42 These artists aim to “perform the body” in much the same spirit that Cixous exhorts feminists to “write the body,” achieving what Forte calls “erotic agency,” either by dramatizing a bodily “pleasurability” or enacting a resistance to bodily oppression, in the first instance asserting subjectivity, in the second defying objectification.43 As an example of the former, Forte cites the work of Marianne Goldberg, whose dance texts celebrate “her subjective pleasure in her own body and its possibilities for movement”; for instance, in “Hudson Rover” (1987) “she rolls on the floor, slowly wrapping and then unwrapping her (clothed) body in blue fabric, seemingly oblivious to anything other than the feel of hard and soft surfaces.”44 As an example of the latter, Forte points to Karen Finley, whose penchant for smearing her body with food, candy, and ashes evokes “both self-abuse and self-pleasuring” and confounds an objectifying gaze that equates looking with consuming.45

While the tactics and techniques of feminist performance art offer fascinating possibilities for deconstructive stagings of Shakespeare, they are not especially well suited to Helena's bed-trick, which unfolds within the very realm of desire that these artists reject and thus precludes exclusive focus on a pansexual, performed female body. By maintaining rather than abandoning the phallocentric system of representation, however, one may stress the singularity of Helena's ascent to the position of desiring subject in order to accentuate her contradictory status within the play's narrative and, in doing so, underline the contradictory position of women within patriarchy's limited signifying economy. This effect seems in accord with de Lauretis's notion that feminism must

redirect identification toward the two positionalities of desire that define the female's oedipal situation; and if the alternation between them is protracted enough … the viewer may come to suspect that such duplicity, such contradiction cannot and perhaps even need not be resolved. … The most exciting work in cinema and in feminism today is not anti-narrative and anti-oedipal. It is narrative and oedipal with a vengeance for it seeks to stress the duplicity of that scenario and the specific contradiction of the female subject in it.46

In staging the bed-trick, one might actually make explicit Helena's dominance, a dominance that the text only hints at. Helena effectively inscribes a condition of lack onto Bertram's body. The restrictions that she imposes—darkness and silence—deprive him of the two patriarchal capacities that define him as (masculine) subject: the gaze and speech. She positions Bertram so that he lacks the language to deny what she commands. The language of bodies now prevails, and Helena, like Diana in 4.2, secures control of Bertram partly through manipulation of the lust she elicits.

An often overlooked marker of Helena's control is her curious postcoital detention of Bertram. “When you have conquer’d my yet maiden bed,” Diana says on Helena's behalf, “Remain there but an hour, nor speak to me” (4.2.57-58). What, one must ask, is the point of this detention? What takes place during that hour? Does the dilation of the trick create a space for the operations of a less propulsively phallic, consumptive sexuality? Does it summon the freer, more resourceful and expansive processes of female desire?47 Certainly it seems that Bertram is being set up for something—but that something is never explicitly revealed. This ellipsis perhaps offers yet another register of unrepresentable female desire which a staged bed-trick could represent.

The staged bed-trick could, for example, begin with Diana's placing a blindfold on Bertram and yielding her place to Helena. The blindfold would not only provide a realistic explanation for Bertram's inability to distinguish her from Diana but also visually link him with his double, Parolles, who is likewise blindfolded and tricked in the very next scene. The blindfold would both deprive Bertram of the gaze and signify his blindness to the threat of castration that originally drove him away from Helena.

The principal strategy in staging the bed-trick would be to present a kind of suspended foreplay, Helena deflecting Bertram's propulsive, lust-driven energies into more dilatory, sensual rhythms, with Helena positioned as gazing subject and Bertram as gazed-upon object. Helena's masculine gaze, initially frustrated by her feminine powerlessness, would here operate freely and powerfully.48

The play provides other possibilities for reinforcing such a gaze. Just as Diana, her mother, and Mariana all positioned themselves as spectators to the triumphal procession of soldiers in 3.5, with Diana sending forth her eye over the glistening combatants, one could turn Bertram's attempted seduction of Diana into a spectacle by positioning Helena, the Widow, and Mariana as spectators, concretizing the female frame of reference that contains the scene. Within this play-within-a-play, Diana acts the part of sexual tease, defamiliarizing the role of “the-girl-who-says-no-but-means-yes” by exposing it as performative, presenting herself instead as “the-girl-who-says-yes-but-means-no.” The concealed female audience also marks Bertram's incipient masculinity as performative: “My mother told me just how he would woo,” exclaims Diana, “As if she sate in 's heart. She says all men / Have the like oaths” (4.2.69-71). Like Helena in her hyperfeminine mode, Bertram enacts a culturally inscribed script without knowing it, affirming his kinship with “all men” by venting unctuous oaths and fulsome endearments in order to arrange a one-night stand. Since the play's audience not only watches Bertram's performance but also watches women watching it, the scene parallels that of Parolles's capture, in which concealed pranksters also watch their victim walk into a trap.

Even if the voyeurism and fetishism of this gaze reverse rather than overturn masculine-feminine polarities, the powerful position of gazing subject afforded Helena by the staged bed-trick would not only empower her desire but perhaps also momentarily free her from a process of representation that enables her consumption as sexual object. There are at least two scenes, in particular, that position Helena, the desiring subject, as desired object: her early skirmish with Parolles and her interview with the King. Performance could make clear the extent to which Parolles not only jests with Helena but also cheekily flirts with her, launching, behind the cover of licentious badinage, an assault on her own virginity. In the latter scene, performance could also emphasize the erotic arousal enveloped by magical incantation and miraculous faith healing. Some productions have, in fact, attempted to bring the scene's erotic undercurrents to the surface. In John Barton's 1967 production Helena was “a tease of a girl,” titillating the King by sitting on his bed and fluffing up his pillows,49 and in Elijah Moshinsky's BBC version she was a very proper young woman whose provocation of the King—culminating in a lingering, erotic kiss—seemed utterly unintentional. Barry Kyle, in his 1989 RSC production, apparently attempted both to accent the scene's eroticism and to preserve its mysticism: his Helena “kick[ed] off her shoes to perform a circling, energetic, sexually assertive, slightly fey dance,” exuding an aura of “white witchery.”50

In both scenes Helena claims the only kind of female power available in a phallocentric economy by activating and frustrating male desire, “blow[ing] up” both Parolles and the King, making them swell with desire (1.1.118-26, esp. 118-19). Helena's active sexuality is discernible throughout the play but, beyond the space of the bed-trick, is constricted not only by internalized notions of normative femininity but also by the external operations of an objectifying gaze.

As befits Helena's status as desiring subject, the ultimate goal of her bed-trick seems to be that of “taming difference.”51 In the immediate aftermath of the trick, she recoils from male lust and affirms Bertram's strangeness (“O, strange men, / That can such sweet use make of what they hate”). In the play's final scene, however, she emphasizes his kindness, a word that connotes kindredness as well as gentleness or generosity: “O my good lord, when I was like this maid, / I found you wondrous kind” (5.3.309-10).52 Helena needs to claim Bertram as one of her kind, needs to create him in her own image—the same image she has sought doggedly to impose despite all his obstinate assertions of alienness. In the final scene, Helena tries to confirm Bertram in kind-ness by “crush[ing]” him “with a plot.”

Helena avenges her earlier humiliation at Bertram's hands by orchestrating his utter ruin: he is censured, disgraced, and threatened with execution. She enacts a version of the romance-novel retributive fantasy, bringing Bertram to his knees—a posture he has, in fact, assumed in more than one production—abusing him in order to please him, positioning him to savor the bondage he initially abhorred.53 It appears that Helena schemes to rescue Bertram from the calamity she has herself created in order to elicit feelings of indebtedness conducive to capitulation. She depends on his feeling like the rescued sinner of the medieval morality plays to ensure her reception as savior and wife.54 Her strategy, which recalls Duke Vincentio's determination to make Isabella “heavenly comforts of despair” (Measure for Measure, 4.3.110), appears to work: in penitently promising love and accepting her as wife, Bertram accepts transformation from beast to Prince Charming, at long last consenting to actualize her fantasy (5.3.315-16 and 308).

The success of Helena's plot does not, however, guarantee a successful marriage with Bertram, for it validates neither the sincerity of his conversion nor the seemliness of their union. Critics have lamented the paltriness of Bertram's conversion speech, but the problems with the play's final scene run much deeper. Since Bertram has twice before falsely professed admiration for Helena (2.3.167-73, 5.3.52-58), no words of his, no matter how eloquently or torrentially penitential, could ever suffice to confirm his sincerity. Nor, for that matter, could his actions. Even the most extravagant self-abasing gestures may simply be symptoms of feverish gratitude rather than of genuine conversion. Helena may be able to work up feelings in Bertram that simulate and even enable love but do not actually generate it. And of course Bertram may simply cunningly simulate a penitential swoon. In either case, Helena manipulates Bertram into affecting a kind-ness that he may quickly discontinue upon assuming his male prerogatives in marriage. Perhaps Bertram functions here as a male Kate—a seemingly tamed lout who performs the submissive role his dominant spouse has taught him, but who may, after all, only be performing. Since, in the play's second half, Helena's aim seems to shift from wedding Bertram to eliciting his desire, it may be that, for the second time in the play, her goal eludes her even as she appears to achieve it.55

Moreover, Helena's success seems mitigated by not only the dubiousness of Bertram's conversion but also the dubiousness of her own objectives, her willingness to deliver herself unequivocally to normative femininity. Her dominance of Bertram ultimately enables her to submit to him in marriage. Ever in thrall to Bertram, she wins him only by putting him temporarily in her thrall so that she may put herself permanently in his. Although Helena's narrative dominates Bertram's and allows her to construct him as the Other out of whom she creates herself, at the same time her fundamental, culturally prescribed desire is to become the object of his desire, the Other out of whom he creates himself:

The end of the little girl's journey, if successful, will bring her to the place where the boy will find her, like Sleeping Beauty, awaiting him, Prince Charming. For the boy has been promised, by the social contract he has entered into at his Oedipal phase, that he will find woman waiting at the end of his journey.56

Indeed, while Bertram may or may not gratify Helena's fantasy, Helena seems prepared to embrace Bertram's. His “impossible conditions” essentially ask for assurance that Helena can conceive a child without sexually contaminating herself or surrendering maternal purity.57 Bertram's apparent acceptance of Helena's success in meeting his conditions subjects them to a final reinterpretation: “I’ll be your husband if you can have sex with me without shaming or emasculating me.” Through the bed-trick Helena allows Bertram to fulfill his forbidden desire for her involuntarily, assimilating for his sake the seemingly unassimilable roles of wife and lover, mother and “real girl.”

The finale of All's Well could be said to dramatize the amelioration of castration anxiety. Helena steps forward as the eroticized mother-figure of Bertram's dreams. Her resurrection at the play's end represents the final mystification of her own sexuality, an unthreatening eroticizing of the saintly guise she assumed for the pilgrimage. She replaces her own degraded double, rescuing and retiring the wayward desiring self that the beleaguered Diana personifies. Her pregnancy—that is, her status as mother—purifies the sexuality it affirms. It also ratifies Bertram's manhood, signaling his conquest of her, his success in “blowing her up.” Moreover, given the belief circulating in Shakespeare's day that a woman could conceive only if she experienced an orgasm,58 Helena's pregnancy serves as the proof not only of his potency but also of her pleasure, of her satisfaction by him. The bed-trick thus becomes Bertram's initiation into manhood, with Helena serving as his initiator. This fact may simply mean that, in this world of absent fathers, no viable model of manhood exists for Bertram. His father's masculinity, as Bertram confronts it in 1.2, may be no more authentic than that of Parolles, for it is also derived from a performance, from the King's dramatic, deathbed celebration of the Count. The King constructs an exceptional figure, a hero/courtier of fabulous proportions who seems partly a product of the King's intense nostalgia for a lost youth. Bertram is thus left with a choice between two equally fantastical images of manhood: the inaccessibly legendary and the insidiously fashionable. In marrying Helena, Bertram finds his manhood affirmed through a reassuring maternal presence and gets what he may have wanted all along: a wife/lover/mother who allows him to become a man by remaining a boy.

The play's refusal to dissipate its tensions or substantiate its tentative resolutions leaves its drama of sexual difference suspended, arrested in an unresolved but provocative, even poignant tension. Helena's attempt to tame difference meets with uncertain success, and Bertram seems to reaffirm difference in the play's final moments, confronting a female strangeness that mystifies rather than repels. When he declares, “if she, my liege, can make me know this clearly” (5.3.315), the “this” he wishes to know surely encompasses a good deal more than the details of Helena's fulfillment of his conditions: it must include the mystery of female otherness. The body Bertram used and discarded returns in the person of a would-be wife, a once and future lover, to claim him like an avenging spirit. Helena brings him, however obscurely, new knowledge of female sexuality, offering tantalizing allusions to their time in bed and visible proof of their mutual gratification. Bertram may wish to know more, to see the unseen wonders to which he was previously blind. Bertram's “this” becomes homologous with Helena's “there,” suggesting that the performance of sex has possibly solved his problem with sexuality. Yet this solution and the knowledge it assumes are simply intriguing possibilities. As the play ends, Helena and her body remain unknown and perhaps unknowable to Bertram—objects of fascination, further knowledge, perhaps even desire.

Helena remains a mystery to be solved by the reader and spectator—and director and actor—as well. So too does Bertram. Both characters aim to ground themselves in genders that the play suggests are groundless—or at least unstable, fluid, performative. Neither manages to forge a stable identity or secure a clear destiny. Modern performance could underline Helena's and Bertram's status as subjects-in-process, active agents inextricably engaged with subjugating myths of gender. And a staged bed-trick, by fetishizing the male body and empowering a female gaze, could underline the instability of the genders that Helena and Bertram seek to stabilize, taking the play's provocative dramatization of difference to startling and invigorating lengths.


  1. This phrase appears in Snyder's description of her “All's Well That Ends Well” research seminar posted in the Bulletin of the Shakespeare Association of America 16 (1992): 4.

  2. Although Lawrence insists in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931) that these plays should be accepted simply as stories, requiring the same level of unsophisticated reception as the widely known traditional tales from which, by his reckoning, they were derived (73-77), folklore scholars have been uncovering for some time the potent cultural and psychological dramas that such tales encode. See, for instance, Alan Dundes, “The Psychoanalytic Study of Folklore,” Parsing Through Customs: Essays by a Freudian Folklorist (Madison, WI, 1987), 3-46. All's Well may be considered a play that pushes the folktale's subterranean psychic drama provocatively close to the narrative surface. Ruth Nevo proposes a method for tracing this covert drama: “we must attempt to read, as we say, between the lines, and to hear with a third ear. The space between the lines is the psychic space of evocation and resonance shared by both audience and dramatis personae. It is the space of precipitation by the text into consciousness of the normally unconscious” (“Motive and Meaning in All's Well That Ends Well” in “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions”: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton, eds. [London, 1987], 26-51, esp. 29). Creating a theatrical space that similarly enables the infiltration of that which the play leaves unsaid or unseen thus seems a particularly apt and exciting directorial choice.

  3. See, for example, Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York, 1992), 84-86; Barbara Hodgdon, “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well,” Philological Quarterly 66 (1987): 47-71; Susan Snyder, “‘The King's not here’: Displacement and Deferral in All's Well That Ends Well,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 20-32, and “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object,” English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 66-77.

  4. For a provocative discussion of the bed-trick's transmutation into a transcendent event, see Adelman, 84-85. Citations of All's Well That Ends Well follow the Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974). Evans's square brackets have been removed to avoid confusion with my own interpolations.

  5. I borrow the resonant phrase “curled darling” from Robert Ornstein, Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery (Newark, DE, 1986), 182. Carolyn Asp in her fascinating psychoanalytic account of the play, also notes Helena's initial embrace of masochistic femininity; see “Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well,” Literature and Psychology 32 (1986): 48-63, esp. 52.

  6. Knight, The Sovereign Flower: on Shakespeare as the Poet of Royalism together with related essays and indexes to earlier volumes (London, 1958), 137.

  7. Knight, 137-38. In a sense Knight extends Helena's (or Shakespeare's) mystification of virginity: “the love is infinite, ‘a thousand loves’; it is the window to a great insight. It may be related to the state of perfect integration from which poetry is born.”

  8. Irigaray, “Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,” Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY, 1985), 50.

  9. See Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (1982; rpt. London, 1985), 144-45.

  10. Lisa Jardine perceives a more fundamental split in Helena's behavior: her exemplary passivity in the play's second half atones for her transgressive forwardness in the first: “the sexually active Helena of the first part of the play [becomes] the virtuously knowing, ideal wife …” (“Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines,” SQ 38 [1987]: 1-18, esp. 11). I would contend that Helena is consistent throughout the play in mitigating her audacity with displays of “femininity,” that her recession in the play's second half simply extends her strategy—or habit—of compensatory self-effacement. Her urge to assume an exemplary femininity reflects Shakespeare's need—or rather a cultural need working through him—to purify and mystify female sexuality in order to neutralize its provocations; hence the possible value of a staged bed-trick that foregrounds and demystifies female desire.

  11. As Jardine points out, the infamy that Helena courts, if realized, could “ostracize [her] from the community, recasting her wisdom as witchcraft” (10).

  12. Snyder, “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens,” 74.

  13. While relatively few modern critics have subscribed to such an extremely negative view of Helena (cf. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies [Oxford, 1960], 145-66; and Richard A. Levin, “All's Well That Ends Well and ‘All Seems Well,’” Shakespeare Studies 13 [1980]: 131-44), many have felt compelled, until only very recently, to judge Helena's character in some measure and have often found cause to indict or at least regret the duplicitous and predatory tactics that belie her celebrated virtue. See E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London, 1925), 200-207; Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in ‘All's Well That Ends Well,’” ELH 12 (1954): 17-29; Alexander Leggatt, “All's Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance,” Modern Language Quarterly 32 (1971): 21-41; W. L. Godschalk, “All's Well That Ends Well and the Morality Play,” SQ 25 (1974): 61-70; David Scott Kastan, “All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” ELH 52 (1985): 575-89. Critics have of course also judged in Helena's favor. See my own earlier essay, “‘That Your Dian / Was Both Herself and Love’: Helena's Redemptive Chastity,” Essays in Literature 17 (1990): 160-78. Judgments of Helena perhaps follow inevitably from a formalist focus on the play's “genre trouble” rather than its “gender trouble” (to borrow Judith Butler's term).

  14. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990), 140.

  15. Central to the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan is the notion that subjectivity entails subjection to a culture's dominant mode of signification; see Foucault's “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 777-95, and Lacan's The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (1977; rpt. New York, 1981). Teresa de Lauretis summarizes subjectivity as “a process by which … one places oneself or is placed in social reality, and so perceives and comprehends as subjective (referring to, even originating in, oneself) those relations—material, economic, and interpersonal—which are in fact social and, in a larger perspective, historical” (Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema [Bloomington, IN, 1984], 159). De Lauretis, like many feminists, feels that Foucault's account of power and Lacan's of language preclude consideration of women as historical agents who are engaged in forging subjectivities in opposition to patriarchal structures of meaning (94-95 and 164-65).

  16. Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York, 1973), 121.

  17. De Lauretis, 156-59.

  18. In their review of Jill Dolan's 1991 Midsummer Night's Dream, Stacy Wolf and Michael Peterson describe Dolan's use of both fragmentation and crossdressing in the presentation of 2.1: “when Helena prostrated herself and pleaded with Demetrius to ‘beat me,’ Puck halted the action, directing ‘ACT-UP’ fairies to reconfigure Helena's masochistic desires by taking over for her and Demetrius. The male and female actors moved in and out of the Balinese-derived masks which indicated these two roles, suggesting the construction of gender and the representational constraints placed on women” (“Review of A Midsummer Night's Dream,Theatre Journal 42 [1992]: 228). In addition, Dolan underlined the theatricality of gender by cross-dressing Theseus and Hippolyta in the final scene and by “cross-casting” Oberon and Titania: the fairy king was a mustachioed woman in suit and hat, the queen a man in high heels, leather miniskirt, and rhinestone-studded bra.

  19. According to Foucault, “Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power” (The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley [New York, 1978], 105-6).

  20. Though feminist scholars have challenged her estimation of the liberating effects of Elizabethan marriage for women, Juliet Dusinberre gives a good account of the ideal of marital chastity with which Puritan reformers sought to displace a monastic (Catholic) one; see Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London, 1975), 20-63.

  21. According to Freud, the little girl surrenders or represses the active part of her libido (“masculine” desire) in return for her father's (i.e., male) love, consenting to a condition of “lack,” of passivity and dependence. See Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey and Anna Freud, 24 vols. (London, 1953-74), 22:112-35.

  22. David Bevington also regards these lines as evocative of the Virgin Mary; see The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th ed. (New York, 1984), 386n.

  23. MacKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory,” Signs 7 (1982): 530-31.

  24. “… The statement, ‘I’m a man,’ … at most can mean no more than, ‘I’m like he whom I recognize to be a man, and so recognize myself as being such.’ In the last resort, these various formulas are to be understood only in reference to the truth of ‘I is an other’” (Jacques Lacan, “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan [New York, 1977], 23).

  25. Lynda E. Boose, “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member,” SQ 42 (1991): 179-213, esp. 199-200; see also Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, eds. (Chicago, 1986), 123-42, esp. 126.

  26. For a superb psychoanalytic account of Bertram's fear of Helena's engulfing maternalism, see Adelman, 79-86.

  27. Ellis wrote: “But only the girl with whom one has not grown up from childhood, and become accustomed to, can ever be to us in the truly sexual sense, a real girl. That is to say, she alone can possess these powerful stimuli to the sense of sexual desirability, never developed in people one has grown unconsciously used to, which are essential to the making of a real girl” (Sex and Marriage [Westport, CT, 1977], 42).

  28. Nevo contends that the Countess is “rather more than half in love with her son” and “since she cannot have a husband in her son, she will identify with the girl who would be his wife, and so transform her love for Bertram into a double maternal solicitude” (33 and 35). My argument is closer to that of Adelman, who identifies a “binding maternal power” in the Countess which Helena enacts and extends (79-80).

  29. For a brilliant discussion of the oedipal conflict between Bertram and the King, see Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley, CA, 1981), 35-45.

  30. Nevo also notes the strangeness of “mother” within the menu of lover's epithets (37-38).

  31. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York, 1975), 308.

  32. Jane Yolen, “America's Cinderella” in Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook, Alan Dundes, ed. (New York, 1982), 298.

  33. Yolen, 296.

  34. My reading of the traditional tale of “Cinderella” is indebted to that of Bettelheim (260-72), who regards the climactic insertion of foot into slipper as both an affirmation of female sexuality and a palliation of a male castration anxiety symbolized by the Prince's inability to observe the blood from the amputated parts of the stepsisters' feet. The limits of Bettelheim's reading reflect the limits of its Freudian predicates: to characterize Cinderella as an “uncastrated woman” whose dangled foot expresses a “desire for a penis” presupposes the embeddedness of “penis envy” in the female psyche and the experience of lack as a biological condition rather than a patriarchal construction. The point seems worth stressing because, shorn of its Freudian fatalism, Bettelheim's reading of “Cinderella” applies most intriguingly to All's Well: through the bed-trick Helena both affirms her sexuality and ameliorates Bertram's castration anxiety—the dread of loss and lack that accompanies his aversion to her. Helena not only gives Bertram a taste of the sexuality that Cinderella symbolically evokes but presents herself at the end as uncastrating (rather than uncastrated), one who has already had Bertram sexually without damaging him.

  35. Carol Thurston, The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity (Urbana, IL, 1987), 8.

  36. Thurston points out that the callous male who learns to be sensitive has recently been challenged by a “new hero” whose sensitivity is manifest from the outset (72).

  37. Tania Modleski, Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women (New York, 1982), 45. As a genre of twentieth-century fiction written exclusively by and for women and as a site of recent feminist criticism, the romance novel seems a valuable referent for a male critic/director pondering the narratives—both old and new—that intersect with All's Well's drama of sexual difference. For a spirited and compelling defense of the link between Shakespeare and popular culture, see Harriet Hawkins, Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres (Toronto, 1990). For a very different critical use of the romance novel, see Linda Charnes, “What’s Love Got to Do With It? Reading the Liberal Humanist Romance in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” Textual Practice 6 (1992): 1-17. Charnes discerns a romance-novel sensibility not in Shakespeare's play but in the “traditional liberal-humanist” reading of it, in which “‘love’ will proleptically revise and make emotional sense of all preceding experience, no matter how violent and disjunctive” (11).

  38. “In both [All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure], the bedtricks are employed to cure or transform male fantasy through its apparent enactment” (Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays [New Haven, CT, 1985], 94). Neely's discussion of the bed-trick is extremely helpful and insightful. See also Susan Griffin's discussion of the pornographic narrative, where she observes that “Over and over again, the pornographer's triumph, the piece de resistance in his fantasy, occurs when he turns the virgin into a whore” (Pornography and Silence [New York, 1981], 22).

  39. De Lauretis, 99 and 83.

  40. See Neely, 73, and Hodgdon, 60.

  41. See Asp, 57.

  42. Jeanie Forte, “Focus on the Body: Pain, Praxis, and Pleasure in Feminist Performance” in Critical Theory and Performance, Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph P. Roach, eds. (Ann Arbor, MI, 1992), 248-62. See Hélène Cixous, “Sorties” in Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis, MN, 1986); see also Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One (Ithaca, NY, 1985). Dissenters from what is often referred to as “French feminism” object that the notion of a distinctive female pleasure and language presupposes a body free of patriarchal inscriptions. Forte argues that feminist performance artists avoid this essentialist trap by asserting the material body against subjugating modes of representation (254).

  43. Forte, 256-59.

  44. Forte, 258.

  45. Forte, 257.

  46. De Lauretis, 153 and 157.

  47. Irigaray's account of female sexuality, in This Sex Which Is Not One, seems to me persuasive even if one is inclined to view the differentiation it posits as contingent rather than essential.

  48. The notion of the gaze has undergone significant revision since Laura Mulvey first posited an active, male, voyeuristic gaze and a passive, female, exhibited object of that gaze, a scopic regime that limited female spectators to the untenable alternatives of masochistic identification with a female object/victim or sadistic identification with the male subject—in other words, denial or erasure of female subjectivity (“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Feminism and Film Theory, Constance Penley, ed. [New York, 1988]). As Linda Williams observes, feminist film theorists “have fruitfully shifted to a model of bisexuality of more fluid movements on the part of both male and female spectators that alternate … between masculine and feminine identifications” (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and theFrenzy of the Visible” [Berkeley, CA, 1989]). These theorists have also identified bisexual fluidity in representation as well as identification. Carol Clover finds in slasher films examples of female characters assuming a masculine position, and Kaja Silverman explores Werner Fassbinder's films for instances of male figures adopting the feminine; see Men, Women, and Chainsaws (Princeton, NJ, 1992), and “Fassbinder and Lacan: A Reconsideration of Gaze, Look, Image,” Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York, 1992), 125-56. Recently Silverman has argued that the equation of the gaze with male voyeurism stems from a misreading of Lacan, for whom the gaze is a mechanism of social surveillance rather than of libidinal fixation. Lacan describes the gaze as the all-seeing “spectacle of the world” that “determines” us as beings who are looked at (quoted in Silverman, 151). The gaze, Silverman suggests, is “the signifier for that which constitutes the subject as lacking within the field of vision” (407). This gaze is outside desire and utterly inaccessible to any individual viewer. Neither gender can own it or escape it. What film theorists have called the male gaze is really a male look that “transfers its own lack to the female subject and attempts to pass itself off as the gaze” (144). In deference to Silverman's persuasive analysis, perhaps I should speak not of Helena's masculine gaze but of her desiring look, which during the bed-trick emulates the gaze in making a spectacle of Bertram.

  49. See J. L. Styan, Shakespeare in Performance: All's Well That Ends Well (Manchester, UK, 1984), 25 and 51.

  50. Robert Smallwood, “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1989 (Part II),” SQ 41 (1990): 491-99, esp. 494.

  51. The phrase taming difference heads Barbara Freedman's fascinating essay on The Taming of the Shrew in her invaluable book Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca, NY, 1991). Though Freedman's definition of “staging the gaze” is more theoretical and sophisticated than mine, much of her commentary confirms the necessity of destabilizing symbolic (phallocentric) structures of representation: “Theater enacts the costs of assuming the displacing image returned back by society—the mask that alienates as it procures entry into society … feminist theater requires a performance that exposes and stages this taming of the gaze by the symbolic order” (139-40).

  52. For an excellent discussion of the implications of the word kind for Shakespeare's audience, see Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981), 142.

  53. Asp also identifies Helena's veiled sadism: “I would go so far as to say that lurking behind Helena's apparent psychological masochism of her initial attitude towards Bertram lies its opposite, i.e., anger or rage at having been denied subjectivity by him and a willingness to inflict pain, a psychological form of sadism” (58).

  54. Some critics have contended that the play itself resembles a morality play. See, for instance, Knight, 138-57; Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York, 1965), 123-31; and William B. Toole, Shakespeare's Problem Plays: Studies in Form and Meaning (The Hague, 1966), 122-57.

  55. In Susan Snyder's Lacanian reading of All's Well, Helena's goal eludes her because it is essentially illusory: “the ‘bright particular star’ (1.1.85) she pursues is her own fantasy, a far cry from the increasingly soiled and compromised actuality of Bertram. … The whole shape of the story thus enacts desire in Lacanian terms: at best you get a flawed, imperfect substitute for the image that drives you” (“‘The King's not here,’” 30). In Asp's Lacanian account, by contrast, Helena's desire for Bertram “seems to be displaced by her own maternity and by her return to the mother.” Helena thus moves beyond the Imaginary Order, in which she is initially trapped, to the Symbolic, where through her maternity “she is inserted into the larger cultural sphere of social and familial engagement” (55-56).

  56. De Lauretis, 133.

  57. Adelman makes much the same argument in her brilliant discussion of All's Well (85). See also Nevo, 44, and Kay Stockholder, Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays (Toronto, 1987), 75-76, for corroborative readings of the wish-fulfillment fantasy encoded in Bertram's impossible conditions.

  58. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 1-9.

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8173

SOURCE: “‘Adoption Strives with Nature’: The Slip of Patriarchal Signifiers in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 127-48.

[In the following essay, Hall investigates Helena's “upwardly mobile” desire in All's Well That Ends Well, contending that “her actions restore the very patriarchy which she seems to threaten.”]

In this chapter I want to examine the way in which the romance narrative of All's Well That Ends Well (1599), together with the archaizing representation of the feudal court of France, in fact addresses the anxieties of the centralizing kingdom of England of Shakespeare's time, for this play is by no means a merely idealizing or escapist fantasy. The archaism itself is the locus of a contemporary breakdown, and the mobile heroine, Helena, emerges as the agent of an extremely precarious restoration.

The plot of All's Well That Ends Well is taken from Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1350), though the immediate source may well have been Painter's version, “Giletta of Narbona,” in The Palace of Pleasure (1556). The story is of a bourgeois heroine, Helena, who is adopted into a noble family, and falls in love with the son, Bertram, whom she pursues to the court in Paris. There she cures the dying King with healing powers learned from her father, and earns for herself thereby the right to choose a husband. She chooses Bertram, who only acquiesces under pressure from the king and flees from her love to war and illicit love in Italy. There, in pilgrim dress, Helena arranges to substitute herself in bed for a noblewoman whom he plans to seduce, and is consequently recognized by him as his wife.

In one sense this plot represents the fulfillment of Helena's upwardly mobile desires and a successful assault upon the caste barriers guarding the nobility, from which her lack of the right paternal “blood” excludes her. But, in another sense, which also needs to be traced out, her actions restore the very patriarchy which she seems to threaten. The crucial questions turn on the recognition and legitimation of her desires by two apparently incompatible figures. These are firstly Bertram's mother, the countess of Rossillion, and secondly the king of France. Shakespeare invented the former matriarchal figure, and vastly expanded the importance of the latter patriarchal one, whom Helena restores to life. He also introduces a third major figure, Lafew as spokesman for the “true” patriarchal order.

The play opens with a strange death which is also a birth and a marriage. The death of Bertram's aristocratic father by “blood” means, according to Lafew, that his true father is now the king. Similarly, the king is also (equally truly, i.e., metaphorically), the husband of the countess:

Countess. In delivering my
son from me I bury a second husband.
Bertram. And I, in going, madam,
weep o’er my father's death anew; but I must attend his majesty's
command, to whom I am now in ward, and evermore in subjection.
Lafew. You shall find of the King
a husband, madam; you, sir, a father.

(All's Well That Ends Well, 1.1.1ff.)

Bertram's departure is like the second breaking of a “natural” bond in two senses: firstly the bond of a child to the mother's body, which is indeed natural and is broken at birth, and secondly the “blood” bond of aristocratic patrilineal descent. This second, supposedly “natural” bond, is destroyed on the death of the father, not by nature however, but by royal power. The aristocratic heir becomes the ward of the king “evermore in subjection.” Lafew's metaphors are recognizably in the service of royal ideology and of the law making aristocratic orphans wards of court, which the English Crown vigorously enforced where it could.

The underlying historical issue is the struggle between central power and the independent nobility. Centralizing authority is actually being constrained to replace “blood” bonds with more modern forms of state power, but in so doing it unwillingly exposes these supposedly natural relations to a potentially disastrous recognition of what they are: that is, mere signifiers in a discourse of power. The point is that royal power also depends crucially on the ideology of “blood” inheritance, but it is forced to usurp the place assigned by aristocratic filiation to the natural father in order to assert central control. The generalized crisis of this feudal signifier arises from the ineluctable translation of its formerly unquestioned “natural” status into its status as sign. My argument is that the discourse of the “natural,” associated with the heroine in this play, is mobilized to restore substance to this important feudal signifier: the patriarchal “blood.” But first it is necessary to attend to its crisis and its displacement into essentialist and moralizing misrecognitions. These issues are first sounded in the countess's farewell blessing to her son:

Countess. Be thou blessed,
Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright. Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none.


The farewell blessing is traditionally a paternal function, and the countess here stands in for the authority of the dead father. There is a suggestive ambiguity in the notion of contention when she says: “Thy blood and virtue / Contend for empire in thee.” Clearly, her words express a wish for the triumph of “blood” and “virtue” in unison, but they also portend the central conflict of the play, where the dissociation of virtue and caste (“blood”) becomes a major issue. Similarly, the king's first greeting to Bertram notes his resemblance to his father, and goes on to wish, like the countess, that the resemblance will have a moral correlate:

King. Youth, thou bear’st
thy father's face.
Frank nature, rather curious than in haste,
Hath well composed thee. Thy father's moral parts
Mayst thou inherit too.


To point to the flaws in Bertram's character is to labor the obvious. Less obvious is the chain of associations established later in this scene between Bertram's flaw, the contemporary loss of values, and the king's resignation to his own death. The sight of Bertram brings up a nostalgia in the king for lost youth and strength, and that in turn leads to a comparison of two epochs:

King. It much repairs me
To talk of your good father. In his youth
He had the wit which I can well observe
Today in our young lords, but they may jest
Till their own scorn return to them unnoted
Ere they can hide their levity in honour.
So like a courtier, contempt nor bitterness
Were in his pride or sharpness; if they were
His equal had awaked them, and his honour—
Clock to itself—knew the true minute when
Exception bid him speak, and at this time
His tongue obeyed his hand.


For the king, the lost “honour” of the generation of the fathers depended upon a virtuous sense of due measure, and modern “wit” is its undoing. The metaphor of the accuracy of the clock denotes the lost adequation of words to occasion, of action to words, and of person to rank. In that remembered epoch, sign and self corresponded. The lamenting King goes on to quote the “good melancholy” of Bertram's dead father verbatim. This repetition of the melancholy words indicates a controlling structure of nostalgia or regressive desire, for the King's present wish to die repeats explicitly the same wish expressed by Bertram's father:

King. ‘Let me not live’,
quoth he,
‘After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain, whose judgements are
Mere fathers of their garments, whose constancies
Expire before their fashions’. This he wished.
I after him do after him wish too,
Since I nor wax nor honey can bring home
I quickly were dissolved from my hive
To give some labourers room.


The indirect reproach to Bertram from the King sees fashion, like the younger generation's verbal wit, as a metaphor for a contemporary loss of adequation of word to being, and beyond this the metaphor hints at a loss of paternity itself. The courtier's wit fathers not sons but garments, a situation in which even changing fashion is more constant than judgment. Bertram's physical attractiveness inherited from his father (which everyone notes), also threatens to function as a sign of emptiness. It may turn out that even his own father has fathered a rich but empty garment. Fashion, which turns clothes from being reliable signs of social identity (status) into a proliferation of empty signifiers and mobile identities, was precisely what Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws sought to counteract. The association of fashion with wit (Much Ado About Nothing is full of examples) is by no means fortuitous, but is itself the sign of a far-reaching anxiety. Here it is also striking that the king, hostile as he is to this new world of signs, feels death-bound (even desiring “to be dissolved from my hive”) because he is no longer the source of riches. What is failing here, and what the king nostalgically clings to, is that effect of encoding which Deleuze calls “miraculation,” through which the despot is perceived as the true origin of collective riches. The dying king is actually protesting against the generalized cultural “decoding” taking place all around him, through which former identities and certainties are now being revealed as nothing but arbitrary, empty signs. His own imminent death is the central metaphor of this crisis of decoding. Thus the “medieval” romance is concerned with the killing power of mercantilism, which it does not represent, but to which it responds as its absent cause. (Parenthetically for the moment, I would add that it is uncertain whether it is Shakespeare or the king alone who thinks that the collective production of the honeybee is organized around a king. In the end, it scarcely matters: in either case, the certainties of the male-centered discourse itself are surreptitiously undone by the alliance between the countess of Rossillion and Helena. In the background of the patriarchal crisis, there is a “natural” order where the queen bee reigns. Of that, more anon).

The relationship of Bertram's personal conduct to the more general crisis in values does not come to the forefront until Helena's cure of the king has led on to Bertram's refusal of her. But the key issues of this plot development are already anticipated in the representation of the dying patriarch at the center of a dying system, and therefore wishing to die himself. Where Boccaccio and Painter utilize the folkloric motif of the dying king purely instrumentally to further Gilette of Narbonne's desires, Shakespeare puts those active desires in a very significant context of cultural dislocation. Helena's rescue of the dying king is an incompleted action, in the sense that the cultural crisis associated with that imminent (and immanent) death is not really overcome until Bertram too is rescued from his betrayal of patriarchal values, to become integrated into the law. This connection between the two “tasks” fulfilled by the heroine is entirely absent from Shakespeare's source plots. In developing the restorative function of active female desire in a scene of fallen patriarchal values, Shakespeare transforms a socially and sexually disruptive figure into a cultural heroine.

Shakespeare follows Boccaccio and Painter, but with greater emphasis, when he establishes the strict upper limit to the disruption represented by Helena's desires. As in the prose narrative sources, Helena specifically reassures the king that her choice of husband will not touch the royal blood:

Helena. Exempted be from me
the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name [sic] to propagate
With any branch or image of thy state;
But such a one, thy vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow.


“Blood” and “name” are synonyms, since both are the signifiers of patrilineal descent. In Boccaccio, Helena's disclaimer is merely mentioned. Even in a romance fantasy, a king could not accept Helena's choice if that would jeopardize the royal blood. Shakespeare develops this theme. The king, freed from the potential threat to the royal blood, reproaches Bertram for overvaluing “blood” and preferring the sham of title to the reality of virtue:

King. ’Tis only title
thou disdain’st in her, the which
I can build up. Strange is it that our bloods,
Of colour, weight, and heat, poured all together,
Would quite confound distinction, yet stands off
In differences so mighty.


The king belittles aristocratic “title,” except the titles that he bestows, because (it goes without saying) titles bestowed by himself are recognitions of virtue and merit. More forcefully, he attacks the idea of the value inherent in blood, denying that the differences which it signifies have any basis in nature. But this is only within the understanding that the value inherent in the royal blood remains inviolate. Clearly the issue is political. It is a politics in which key words like “blood,” “honour,” “virtue,” and “father” mediate the historical confrontation of feudal values and a centralizing but still inescapably feudal monarchy. The crisis of the play should be understood as the slippage of some very important feudal signifiers under pressure. The King's desire is a desire that these signifiers be reattached to the signifieds for which he is nostalgic. Hence his lament for the lost epoch. But at the same time, in asserting his power over Bertram, he is driven to demystify the principal signifier of the order which he yearns to restore. The point is not to display yet another text deconstructing itself, as is the wont of texts under the modern critical gaze. It is rather a matter of demonstrating that the king's speech negotiates a historical contradiction and its related anxieties.

The assumption by the king of paternal rights over Bertram raises a crisis in the social myth. In the second scene of Act 1, the king has remembered an epoch exemplified by Bertram's father, when nobility of birth corresponded exactly to nobility of word and conduct. Virtue, therefore, inhered in social rank and was at the same time grounded in “nature.” This act of memory is, of course, a present dramatic act in Shakespeare's plot. The king constructs a nostalgic myth in accordance with his anxiety and his desire. The past world, constructed on the pattern of romance literature, which mends in fantasy the rifts that are beginning to appear too clearly in ideology, is unattainable except through a miracle. It is in marked contrast to the actual world, where the noble has become the courtier; now “wit” no longer corresponds to a man's “nature” as shown by his deeds (though to say “no longer” is to fall within the terms of the mythical version of history), and the metaphor for this rift between word and being is that of the changing clothes of fashion.

The normally unproblematic function of the monarch in romance tales is to recognize virtue and confer the appropriate title. Rewards are by definition deserved. And Helena in this play undertakes a romance quest, which means to undergo a series of legitimizing recognitions. Her noble “nature” is recognized by the countess, Lafew, and then by the king himself when she restores him to health. Her paternal heritage is her healing virtue. Her test in healing the king involves putting her life and honor at stake to prove her given word. Her deed, therefore, has the trial quality of the combats of epic and romance, normally reserved for men, and the reward has the same quality of recognition. But Bertram's refusal to recognize her is, within this reinvented world of the romance, a refusal to recognize the power of the king.

This opens a breach in the nostalgic myth. When the king replies to the challenge to his authority by locating “honour” in “nature” (to be revealed by deeds), he is obviously reasserting the medieval ethics of the romance, but he is also unwittingly confessing to a breach in them:

King. The property by what
it is should go,
Not by the title. She is young, wise, fair.
In these to nature she’s immediate heir,
And these breed honour. That is honour's scorn
Which challenges itself as honour's born
And is not like the sire; honours thrive
When rather from our acts we them derive
Than our foregoers. The mere word's a slave,
Debauched on every tomb, on every grave
A lying trophy, and as oft is dumb
Where dust and damned oblivion is the tomb
Of honoured bones indeed.


What the king strenuously asserts is that deeds underwrite the paternal inheritance by establishing that inheritance in “nature.” But, in order to say that, he also has to say that by itself the inheritance from our “forgoers” is nothing. Even worse, it becomes a sham (a “mere word,” a “lying trophy”) if it is no longer supported by deeds.

This is partly a royal criticism of feudal rights inherent in the paternal blood, but developed in terms of the crisis of the sign. Royalty had always tried to assert that rights or titles of tenure were the king's rewards for service. The usually futile attempt to prevent these hardening into hereditary “blood” rights was the constant preoccupation of feudal monarchies throughout Europe. The political issue is the independent will of the aristocratic family, and the king's claim to control has clear affinities with the policies of the monarchs of England. Thus the dismissal of “blood” or caste in the name of “virtue” is part of the discourse of Royal power:

King. If thou canst like this
creature as a maid,
I can create the rest. Virtue and she
Is her dower; honour and wealth from me.


The king's restored power will be manifest in the “creation” of “honour and wealth.” Deleuzian “miraculation” is to be recovered, but at the expense of the independence of aristocratic “blood.” A small but important detail in Boccaccio's story, namely that the orphan girl is a rich heiress, is reversed. Here Boccaccio appears more modern than the later Shakespeare in identifying merit with the social mobility of money in the overcoming of rank. In Shakespeare's play, rank continues to imply wealth. The problem turns on whether both are within the gift of the king. When the latter talks of himself as the source of “honour and wealth,” this involves issues that are much more important for the centralizing monarchies of Northern Europe than for the mercantile city state. The removal of caste barriers to mobile desire in the body politic must be counterbalanced by the reinforcement, or rather reinvention, of respect for feudal myths at the center. But the reinvention brings up the old fissure. The audience may well recognize virtue with the king. But the inability of male erotic nature to obey patriarchal commands is also recognized. The “blood” rebels, and Bertram's personal rebellion mediates a historical crisis in the nature and source of power. “Honour” becomes a problematic concept here. For the king, the idea that deeds express nature and earn honor is not so much a claim for upward social mobility as for the central monarchy to recognize and bestow. Nonetheless, a new social alliance is implied in his championing of non-noble blood. So Bertram's protestation over the dishonor to his family in marrying the lower born Helena is a provocation to the king:

King. My honour's at
the stake, which to defeat,
I must produce my power. Here, take her hand


It is one version of patriarchy against another. But at the same time, an open confrontation with the absolute arbitrariness of the signs of rank and social identity, (which haunts the king and, reportedly, Bertram's father) has to be avoided. Helena does not just restore the king. In pursuit of her own desires, she becomes an instrument of royal ideology against an independent nobility. She represents a “natural” virtue that the king can recognize and invoke against the myth of the aristocratic, paternal “blood.”

The problem that emerges at this point cannot be reduced to a question of individual character psychology alone. The display of royal power produces an acquiescence from Bertram, but this will quickly be revealed as a simulacrum, and the hollowness of words, lamented by the king, becomes a cover for rebellion:

Bertram. Pardon, my gracious
lord, for I submit
My fancy to your eyes. When I consider
What great creation and what dole of honour
Flies where you bid it, I find that she, which late
Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now
The praised of the King; who, so ennobled,
Is as ’twere born so.

[emphasis added] (2.3.168ff.)

The king claims for his word a power to replace the patrilineal signifier, “blood.” And it is this claim that Bertram resists here, while pretending to accept it. The completion of Helena's second “task” has a redemptive character, because, when Bertram is brought to recognize Helena as his legitimate wife, bestowed by his new father, the internal split is healed and this also ends his state of rebellion against the king. The “true” alignment of his desire in accordance with the king's will also signifies an acceptance of the king's paternal authority within his own subjectivity. He submits to the national law of the father in place of his feudal independence, which is characterized as anarchic desire in this play. In order for this to come about, his “recantation” (as Lafew in the next scene calls his false submissive speech) must become true. The plot which enables this is engineered by Helena, and leads to a public clarification before the monarch, and before Bertram himself, of how much he had earlier become a traitor to his own values of blood and honour. This gratifying “clarification,” however, is contrived by Helena, and is the product of her desire in the service of centralism.


Helena's “virtue” is recognized by the king because it is a figure for wider magical restorative properties, overcoming the divisive sickness at the center of the patriarchal order. But at the same time she is also a disruptive figure, in the sense that her desire, even when recognized as “virtue” by the king, is an upwardly mobile desire which contains a threat to the values of the “blood.” But there is another issue too. The threatened “blood” is a paternal signifier. But in the case of Helena, “nature” provides a connection between outward sign and inward being. The opening of the play deals not only with Bertram's second birth but also with Helena's. As Bertram changes fathers, Helena enters his aristocratic family. The countess explains to Lafew that she is “bequeathed to my overlooking” by her father, Gerard de Narbonne. She cites the father's name as though the “de” designated aristocracy, and not mere geography, tactfully obscuring the social difference of “blood.” But this distinction is crucial for Bertram who refuses to marry the “poor physician's daughter.” Like Lafew, and the king himself, the countess attaches nobility to virtuous conduct, not to blood.

Helena declares her love for Bertram in open soliloquy before she is made to confess it as a guilty secret by the countess. In this soliloquy, it is recognized as overreaching, and even seems to borrow from Cassius's celebrated speech to Brutus in Julius Caesar (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves that we are underlings,” Julius Caesar, 1.2.141ff.). Helena's virtue is likewise touched with that Republican threat, insofar as “nature” serves a desire set against the twin pillars of fate and feudal hierarchy:

Helena. Our remedies oft in ourselves
do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join likes and kiss like native things.
The King's disease—my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fixed and will not leave me.
[emphases added]


“Nature” also provides a very important link with the countess. When she is informed by the faithful Rynaldo that Helena is in love with Bertram, her reaction is one of sympathetic identification with the “faults” of youthful feminine desire:

Countess. Even so it was with
me when I was young.
If ever we are nature's, these are ours: this thorn
Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong.
Our blood to us, this to our blood is born;
It is the show and seal of nature's truth,
Where love's strong passion is impressed in youth.
By our remembrances of days foregone,
Such were our faults—or then we thought them none.


This feminine solidarity between generations, grounded in “nature's truth” born “to our blood,” is in striking contrast with the previous scene, which deals with the king's patriarchal reproach to the young males of his court for falling away from their truth. The king sees in the young men a historical degeneration and disobedience, whereas in the countess' speech, women are not, as it were, separated from “nature” like men. Their history is therefore a narrative of continuity, not one of repeated degeneration. At the same time, this “nature” is a challenge to patriarchal hierarchy.

The countess' soliloquy, quoted above, develops a leading motif when she goes on to subject Helena to an interrogation by reiterating that she is not merely Helena's “mistress” in the social order (as Bertram says in his curt farewell to Helena) but a true “mother.” Her insistence that she is Helena's “mother” recurs as a motif throughout the play, and contrasts significantly with Bertram's relationship with his official adoptive “father,” the king. This introduction of a “natural” matriarchy, and the expansion of the crisis centered on the king, is a major shift in Shakespeare's rewriting of the story. It is comic here but nonetheless the pleasure depends upon the evocation of a serious anxiety in Helena:

Countess. Nay, a mother.
Why not a mother? When I said ‘a mother’,
Methought you saw a serpent. What’s in ‘mother’
That you start at it? I say I am your mother,
And put you in the catalogue of those
That were enwombed mine. ’Tis often seen
Adoption strives with nature, and choice breeds
A native slip to us from foreign seeds.


The countess playfully subjects Helena to an equation of her desire with incest. Since Helena has been adopted into the family, the incest anxiety arises from a forbidden affinity and not from consanguinity. But there is more here. The patrilineal “blood” is the principal signifier of the social order, and the countess says that, as a mother, she is not subject to that order. Her “choice” can change “nature” itself. To use her own metaphor, her “recataloguing” can transform the order of succession. She jokes darkly that a woman's “choice” is the true natural source of any bloodline, and that the claims of patriarchy to control the womb's products are based purely on conventional signifiers. In effect, then, Helena's “adoption” by the countess is itself a transgression against caste, a quasi-incestuous assault on the “blood” of patrilineal descent. In rejecting Helena, Bertram maintains a loyalty to his father and the independent nobility. But the countess is subverting this. At first Helena protests in the name of social hierarchy, but she is protesting against her own desire:

Helena. Pardon, madam.
The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother.
I am from humble, he from honoured name;
No note upon my parents, his all noble.
My master, my dear lord he is, and I
His servant live and will his vassal die.
He must not be my brother.


Under pressure again, she protests in terms that display more clearly the incest anxiety invoked by the Countess:

Helena. You are my mother
madam. Would you were—
So that my lord your son were not my brother—
Indeed my mother! Or were you both our mothers
I care no more for than I do for heaven,
So I were not his sister.


There is, of course, a solution to this entanglement of desires, but Helena can only hint at it obliquely because she considers it too as forbidden. It is the countess who voices it, and Helena's reaction is further guilty confusion:

Helena. … Can’t
no other
But I, your daughter, he must be my brother?
Countess. Yes, Helen, you might be
my daughter-in-law.
God shield you mean it not! ‘Daughter’ and ‘mother’
So strive upon your pulse. What, pale again?


In this comic interrogation scene staged by the Countess, Helena expresses obliquely what she is trying to hide. Even when she finally confesses her transgressive love, she still shields the truth of her transgressive intentions.

Helena. I follow him not
By any token of presumptuous suit,
Nor would I have him till I do deserve him,
Yet never know how that desert should be.
                                        O then give pity
To her whose state is such that cannot choose
But lend and give where she is sure to lose,
That seeks to find not that her search implies
But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies.


The inexorable countess, however, is not fooled; she shows that she has solved the “riddle” when she goes on to question Helen on her motives for going to Paris. Helena persistently denies her intentions, because although her desires are not literally incestuous, they have a socially disruptive value for which even she herself considers incest to be the appropriate metaphor. Because this whole scene of comic crisis is itself a small play provoked and managed by the countess, it ends with a permission and legitimation of Helena's desire by the matriarch:

Countess. Why, Helen, thou
shalt have my leave and love,
Means and attendants, and my loving greetings
To those of mine in court. I’ll stay at home
And pray God's blessing into thy attempt.
Be gone tomorrow, and be sure of this:
What I can help thee to, thou shalt not miss.


In formal narrative terms, the potential opponent to Helena's project has become a helper or sender. But the comedy staged by the benevolent countess, is not just the removal of the external restraints of guardianship upon Helena. There is a detour through the highly charged metaphors of incest, in order for the countess to grant permission to desire what is in fact already desired. In granting this permission, the countess does indeed play false to her dead husband, as she jokes, but Lafew's opening remark about her finding a new husband in the king acquires a certain metaphorical truth. She becomes an agent in the restoration of the king and, more markedly, in the restoration of her son to proper subjection to his new father. Although she has darkly suggested that women are closer to “nature” and can therefore subvert the claims of the patriarchal signifiers to be grounded in nature, in the end this discourse of the natural proves its loyalty to the Royal order.


The process by which Bertram is brought to recognize how his actions have betrayed his “self” is prefigured by the lords' revelation of the truth of his follower Parolles to Bertram. In effect, in the second part of the play, there are two plots and two sets of manipulators running in significant parallel. The First Lord Dumaine makes the parallel explicit when he expresses the hope that Bertram's disillusionment with Parolles will lead on to Bertram's reassessment of himself:

First Lord. I would gladly
have him see his company anatomiz’d, that he might take a measure of
his own judgements, wherein so curiously he had set this counterfeit.


Parolles's name (“Words”) clearly indicates the nature of the unreliability that he represents. “Words” are corrupters and agents of destabilizing desire. At the very beginning he is accurately “anatomised” by Helena when she balances his evils against the pleasures of wit:

Helena. [And yet] I know him
a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, solely a coward.
Yet these evils sit so fixedly in him
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak i’th’ cold wind.


When Helena goes on to joke with him about losing her virginity in accordance with her desires, her libidinal investment in verbal mobility against the fixities of virtue and social caste is quite apparent. Parolles's wit serves desire, and that is why in the end he must be controlled and reduced to the status of “licens’d fool” like Feste in Twelfth Night.

Parolles is a clown, or what Feste calls a “corrupter of words,” but he is also a miles gloriosus. Traditionally the braggart soldier figure exfoliates language as a cover for fear, and the underlying fear is unequivocally displayed by cowardly actions. But it is Shakespeare's peculiar achievement in Parolles to problematize the relationship between a fixed being (presumed essentially cowardly) and his language. Such is the power of Parolles's rhetoric that it even engages him in actions that contradict the cowardly being detected by the lords. The Second Lord Dumaine observes this paradox:

Second Lord. Is not this a
strange fellow, my lord, that so confidently seems to undertake this business,
which he knows is not to be done? Damns himself to do, and dares better be
damned than to do’t?


And Parolles himself confirms the opacity that arises when words do not simply express or conceal character:

Parolles. What the devil should
move me to undertake the recovery of this drum, being not ignorant of the
impossibility, and knowing I had no such purpose? Tongue, I must put you in
a butter-woman's mouth, and buy myself another of Bajazet's mute,
if you prattle me into these perils.


No previous miles gloriosus figure finds his own activity perplexing like this. If it were not for the confident knowledge of Parolles's essence, demonstrated by Lafew and reconfirmed by the Lords Dumaines' plot, this perplexity would get out of hand and Bertram's blind trust in Parolles would contain a worrying insight. After all, if a bombastic rhetoric can truly involve the “coward” in heroic exploits, can one really be confident of a cowardly essence after all? Furthermore, is it not the function of all heroic rhetoric to outweigh a real fear? If the rhetoric which defeats fear (and this is the psychological mechanism operative in all the braggart soldier figures) is so effective as to engender heroic deeds, where are the criteria distinguishing cowardice from heroism? What Parolles raises as a problem for a value system that recognizes deeds as reliable signs of an essence is that there can be a rhetoric of deeds. (Prince Hal in 1 and 2 Henry IV knows and uses this theatrical truth too: see chapter 12.) In that case Parolles's power with language is a threat to the proper hierarchy of appearance and reality. When he is restored to his essentiality by the Lords' plot, the threat disappears. His immediate reaction to his exposure is:

Who cannot be crushed with a plot?


This may just seem like characteristic cynicism in its assumption that all resemble him. But the point is that Bertram too will be “crushed with a plot.” (In his case too it will be beneficial, but inwardly fissured by what it claims to resolve.) The most remarkable part of Shakespeare's handling of this scene of the crushing of Parolles is that Parolles himself finds a relief in the recognition which restores him to an essential character:

Parolles. Yet am I thankful.
If my heart were great
’Twould burst at this. Captain I’ll be no more,
But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live.


This mythical return from the falsity of signs to the reality of his body makes way for his reintegration into the social and metaphysical order too, and this is explicitly confirmed later by Lafew as providential super-patriarch:

Parolles. O my good lord,
you were the first that found me.
Lafew. Was I in sooth? And I was
the first that lost thee.
Parolles. It lies in you, my lord,
to bring me in some grace, for you did bring me out.
Lafew. Out upon thee, knave! Dost
thou put upon me at once both the office of God and the devil? One brings
thee in grace, the other brings thee out. … Sirrah, enquire further
after me. … Though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat.


The romance plot engineered by Helena achieves a similar Providential hierarchization of human nature into appearance and reality, but through a much more problematic encounter with the uncontrollable metonymic substitutions of desire. Helena bravely moralizes her plot to the Widow in terms of Providence:

Helena. Doubt not but heaven
Hath brought me up to be your daughter's dower,
As it hath fated her to be my motive
And helper to a husband.


Here we have the assertion of a Providential structure underlying the romance plot in general. As Leo Salingar writes about the “exemplary romance”:

Fortune, seemingly hostile or capricious, acts at the end in concert with the latent powers of Nature and obeys a hidden Providence.

But then Helena, who is playing the role of hidden Providence, goes on to a disturbing reflection upon what it is that her plot both utilizes and overcomes:

Helena. But O, strange men,
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozened thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play
With what it loathes, for that which is away.


Helena's speech momentarily confronts a truth of “strange men,” an ambiguity which she calls “lust” where “sweet use” and “hatred” merge, and one body is substituted for another through “cozened thoughts.” In other words, the plot in which she is an agent of Providence delivers Bertram from a state of desire where opposites intermingle and where imagination supplies the desired object in its absence. But what Helena calls “lust” is simply a truth of desire, namely its inseparability from signs, which the traditional comic deception of the bed trick always utilizes. And her naming of the unacceptable truth of desire as “lust” is part of her providential role. Thus she asserts that the blind desire called “lust,” can be separated from a controlled, self-knowing desire free from error. Helena's deliverance of Bertram abolishes this “lust” to the realm of appearances and unreality, in order to permit the emergence of a prior but previously unrecognized “true” desire. And so, thanks to this mythical operation, Bertram's repentant recognition of his wife at the end is allowed to be a gratifying moment of self-recognition too. Helena's plot is important because through it, Bertram's rebellion, feudal independence, and erotic anarchism can all be (mis)recognized as a betrayal of the true “self.” This stabilizing construction of a self through a narrative ordering is what, in Freudian terms is known as “secondary revision.” The coherent narrative allows the chaos of desires, characteristic of the metaphoric displacements of dreams, to become misleadingly comprehensible. Helena's redemptive unmasking of the false Bertram to his “real” self depends upon a certain construction put onto the nature of “lust.” According to this, lust is not constitutive of Bertram's “nature,” but a self-betrayal from which he can be rescued by a crisis of recognition. “Lust,” in Helena's ultimately triumphant discourse, is a misprision of the truth of desire, which is itself a product of rebellion. That is why lust has no part in the characterization of Bertram until he betrays himself and his caste together by rebelling against the king. And the king makes this same assumption in his tirade against Bertram's rejection of Helena:

King. Proud, scornful boy,
unworthy this good gift,
That dost in vile misprision shackle up
My love and her desert.


The removal of the “vile misprision” requires a self-recognition by Bertram, and the installation of the hierarchical truth of the clearly separated levels of illusion and reality in the place of the metonymic substitutions of desire, which Helena fleetingly alludes to as the nature of “strange men.” She does not dwell on it excessively, because it is a truth of desire that her whole redemptive activity is there to overcome.

This ideological significance of Bertram's erotic waywardness is registered quite explicitly through the shock expressed by the Lords Dumaine at Bertram's projected seduction of a chaste gentlewoman, Diana. No one could suppose that such delicacy was in any way typical of the conduct of the warrior class in a foreign land. But the point is to establish that caste, self, and royal centralism are all of a piece. The lords' shock links moral and religious terms to a self-betrayal which is also betrayal of caste:

First Lord Dumaine. Now God
delay our rebellion! As we are ourselves, what things are we.
Second Lord Dumaine. Merely our own
traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal
themselves till they attain to their abhorred ends, so he that in his action
contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself.
First Lord Dumaine. Is it not meant
damnable in us to be trumpeters of our unlawful intents?


Diana also brings up the betrayal of caste, when she repeats his own words on the value of the ring which he refuses to give up, and makes the claim that she too is defending her aristocratic lineage:

Bertram. It is an honour ’longing
to our house
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which it were the greatest obloquy i’th’world
In me to lose.
Diana. Mine honour's such a
My chastity's the jewel of our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors
Which were the greatest obloquy i’th’world
In me to lose. Thus your own proper wisdom
Brings in the champion Honour on my part
Against your vain assault.


The ring, a material signifier of his patrilineal concept of honor, is what she demands in exchange for the ring of her own inherited “honour.” The ring of female honor is a quasi-natural symbol, of course, but the signified “honour” is patriarchal. Ultimately, after the revelation of the bed trick substitutions to the king and Bertram, the exchange of rings will retrospectively acquire a true value through a comic secondary revision. In this process, the two signifiers of value, which have seemed to be merely arbitrary are gratifyingly revealed to be rooted in “nature.” Helena's comic plot restores a content to the simulacrum of the exchange between Bertram and “Diana.” That is to say, Helena's natural ring gives a grounding to the material signifier which is exchanged for Bertram's. Now this signifier, the ring surrendered by Helena impersonating Diana, was in fact given to Helena as a pledge of support from the king. Unknowingly, then, Bertram has again received Helena's natural/symbolic ring from the king! The solidarity of the patriarchal signifier and the “natural” order asserts itself miraculously within what has seemed to be a mere exchange of signs.

Bertram's recognition of Helena as his wife bears on a whole discourse rescued from crisis: a content is restored to words and signs. Helena recognized is not just the Helena as individual living body, but also a dramatic metaphor for the resolution of the crisis which has opened up between sign and thing:

King. Is there no exorcist
Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?
Is’t real that I see?
Helena. No, my good lord,
’Tis but the shadow of a wife you see,
The name and not the thing.
Bertram. Both, both. O, pardon! [emphasis


Ann Righter claims that it is Helena who is restored to life: “Only Bertram's ‘Both, both! O, pardon’ … can confer a palpable existence upon Helena, freeing her at the same time from illusion and nonbeing.” But actually Helena is never perceived as particularly lacking in “palpable existence” (not more than other characters, that is). And the audience sees clearly that her death is a mere rumor which she manipulates and prolongs as part of her plot. She is the creator of plot (“palpable” if one wishes to utilize the critical metaphors of the concrete) manipulating the fiction of her death in order to display a fictional rebirth, without any claim being made to the audience offstage that it is anything but a fiction. But there is indeed a rebirth brought about by her plot, and not just represented in it. Bertram is resurrected, in a much more complex manner than the king earlier. Helena emerges as a therapist again. But what is saved (only because it is earlier put in jeopardy) is the system of patriarchal signifiers. They are saved, by being grounded in a new myth of “nature.” Shakespeare departs significantly from his sources by having Helena initially become a pilgrim as a disinterested act of love. Like Julia's love in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Helena's love is underwritten as pure by the gesture of renunciation, though it remains active sexual love. The comparison with Julia and her role is useful because it focuses attention on the differences between the early romance comedy and this later return. The heroines are very similar. Both are active in desire and metaphorical pilgrims, who restore errant male desire to its “true” object. But there is a difference.

Helena has been the focus of greater unease, and even hostility from critics. Occasionally this hostility consists in denouncing her as a hypocrite, but in my view this is reductive, and probably arises from an anxious desire for clarification. At first Helena is not disguised as a pilgrim as part of a strategy, as she is in the sources. She takes up the role of pilgrim out of self-denying love for Bertram, so as not to be the cause of his self-exile and possible death. Although she is not a “real” pilgrim, she is not definitely a “false” one either. She is a metaphorical pilgrim. Christianity furnishes the language linking renunciation and self-denial with active devotion in her letter to the Countess:

I am Saint Jacques' pilgrim, thither gone.
Ambitious love hath so in me offended
That barefoot I plod the cold ground upon
With sainted vow my faults to have amended.


In the renunciation of “ambitious love” she recognises her earlier conquest of Bertram as disruptive, and imposes her own banishment in order that Bertram may return and live. Her letter to the countess concludes:

He is too good and fair for death and me;
Whom I myself embrace to set him free.


The assumption of guilt and the ultimate degree of self-denial as an act of disinterested love here mark this pilgrim out as a fair follower of Christ. Yet there is no religious vocation, and her actual itinerary is not to Santiago de Compostela but in the exactly opposite direction, to Florence. It is love proving itself, but not in the self-denial, for which religious mortification provides the metaphor. Some of this can also be said of Julia, including the restorative function. The significant difference lies in the relationship of the character to the plot. Julia is an active agent, but she does not produce the romance plot. It requires her to follow her lord, to faint and then to reveal the truth of her identity, but Providence is located elsewhere. Helena, by contrast, is the producer of the redemptive plot. She makes Bertram's “truth” appear, and is therefore a figure of power, like Prospero, and, for that matter, Iago, or the duke in Measure for Measure. Like the latter too, she pretends to be somewhere else. But she is unique in being a female plotter, and perhaps that makes her doubly shady for those who accept Prospero's assumed divinity without qualms. Her role as producer of a revelatory plot to disambiguate appearance from reality in the psyche of the unknowing participant in her puppet show, means she herself remains beyond its clarifications. Helena is the potential source of continuing audience anxiety, for her clarification which restores identity and rescues the patriarchal order, may be deeply desired, and yet to witness its contrived production is to undo all possibility of believing that patriarchy is truly produced out of “nature.” There is also the more threatening possibility, represented through Helena's control of the plot even though it restores the patriarchy, that a “natural” order might plausibly be matriarchal. In the end, however, only contrivance remains, and, witnessing the contrivance, one can never completely forget that, after all, there is no “natural” filiation, male or female to return to: Helena was “adopted” into matriarchy no less arbitrarily than Bertram into the reinvented patriarchy. All the rest is signs in the service of desire.

Irene G. Dash (essay date 1997)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11714

SOURCE: “When Women Choose: All's Well That Ends Well,” in Women's Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays, Associated University Presses, 1997, pp. 35-63.

[In the following essay, Dash discusses the subject of women's sexual options within the patriarchal society of All's Well That Ends Well.]

How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?


Although the phrase “catch 22” had not yet entered the language, Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1898 described the concept with precision—as it applies to women's lives. She noted that even though the young girl “is carefully educated and trained to realize in all ways her sex-limitations and her sex-advantages” with the ultimate aim of marriage,

she must not even look as if she wanted it. … What one would logically expect is a society full of desperate and eager husband-hunters, regarded with popular approval. Not at all! (emphasis added, 581-82)

And the irony is compounded, for our hypocritical society practices a “cruel and absurd injustice of blaming the girl for not getting what she is allowed no effort to obtain” (582). The writer thus describes the contradiction immediately facing young women, contrasting their support system with that of young men, who are encouraged to pursue their goals. Moreover, she distinguishes between the aims of boys and girls, again attributing the differences to societal training: “Where young boys plan for what they will achieve and attain, young girls plan for whom they will achieve and attain” (emphasis added, 582). Because of the “sexuo-economic relation” of our society, the girl's objective is immediately linked with another person, a husband.

Although written at the end of the nineteenth century and meant for her own time, Gilman's statement may also be applied to the lives of women in the Renaissance. Ruth Kelso, too, in her classic study of this subject defines wedlock as the only possible career: “Only one vocation, marriage, was proposed for the lady” (78). While not exploring Gilman's idea of “pursuit of vocation” and limiting her study to middle- and upper-class women, Kelso's words suggest that the goal of marriage well predates the nineteenth century and speaks to much earlier limitations on women's worlds.1

In All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare personalizes Kelso's notion of “vocation” and dramatizes Gilman's observation. Concentrating on the interaction of characters, the dramatist opens his play with a glimpse of Helena, a young woman at first dedicated to merely “thinking about” the man she adores. The play then shows her altering her ideas after she becomes involved in a discussion on “virginity” with a boastful friend of her hero's. In the two soliloquies that frame the dialogue, the dramatist unfolds her amazing transformation. In fact, Helena addresses the fundamental contradiction pointed out by Gilman: the illogical concept of pursuing one's vocation by not pursuing it. The soliloquies reveal the mental and emotional turmoil that lead Helena to rethink her attitude and actively pursue the young man of her choice. But Shakespeare does more than merely develop the portrait of a young woman of brains and drive, characteristics of Helena: he also turns to paradigms and reworks them. Deviating from his sources, he emphasizes this woman's strength, creativity, wit, and courage while, at the same time, he demonstrates her idol's weakness and dishonesty, creating a sharp dichotomy between them. Developing an unconventional heroine and making the object of her affection an antihero, the dramatist turns the action into an even more unconventional situation, which points up the truth of Gilman's thesis. Even as she protests that she would rather not upset the status quo, Helena, quite deliberately and dramatically, does so.

Like Gilman, Shakespeare also introduces economics into the relationship. A social schism exists between the two young people: Count Bertram is heir to Rossillion—an adored and handsome only son; Helena is the orphan of a physician and in the care of the Countess of Rossillion, Bertram's mother. Along with everyone around her, Helena too idolizes Bertram. When later the Countess asks, “Do you love my son?” (I.iii.186) Helena's answer, “Do not you love him, madam?” (187) reveals her evasiveness at this moment but also the logic of her choice of this young hero of Rossillion. Indeed, he is the one, to use Charlotte Gilman's language, “for whom” Helena would “achieve and attain” and “through whom” she would reach the woman's ultimate goal of marriage.

Unfortunately, however, her success has caused many critics to find All's Well That Ends Well a problem. They fault Helena's determination or aggressiveness. Reflecting the relevance of Gilman's words, such critics still frown on young women pursuing the goal for which they have been highly “trained.” As recently as 1980, Richard A. Levin writes of Helena's “guile” and “cunning”:

The romantically inclined reader will accept the image of patience that Helena projects. Another reader sees only an elaborate facade, concealing an aggressive and self-centered nature. Supporting the latter view, I will show that Helen's success depends on guile; later, I will discuss how her cunning affects the play's comic form. (131)

The intensity of this criticism indicates a hostility to the young woman that goes beyond the text. While this critic attributes to Helena an almost Iago-like nature, I hope to show how to view her sympathetically and understand what is driving the hostile criticism of her.

From the first scene, where she is introduced as a person of education and promise, to the closing scene, when she wins her husband for a second time, Helena has the endorsement, love, and sympathy of most of the characters in the play. The dramatist develops a complex portrait of a young woman orphaned and left to her own resources who comes to realize that she cannot merely pine away for a young man, but must act. Shakespeare gives her an unusual number of soliloquies for a woman, and through these she reveals this shift from passive to active. For example, in the first scene her closing soliloquy begins:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.


This decision to take action marks a change from her first soliloquy, which sounds very much like the lament of an unrequited lover:

                                        My imagination
Carries no favor in’t but Bertram's.
I am undone, there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away.


Speaking of him as her “bright particular star” (86), the man she longs to “wed” (87), she enumerates his attractive physical features, “arched brows, … hawking eye,” and “curls” (94), concluding with an almost overwrought “But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his relics” (97-98). Here surely is an exaggerated example of passivity. This concept of treasuring and worshipping as “relics” the memories and the mementos surrounding her in his mother's home illustrates the stereotypical portrait of the young woman who patiently waits. Thus Shakespeare establishes at the start the norm from which Helena will deviate to grow into a self-sufficient person.

Between these two soliloquies occurs that unusual conversation on virginity. Parolles, a braggart soldier and Bertram's closest companion and adviser, engages Helena in the dialogue. The topic is central to the theme of the play but, like Helena's subsequent aggressiveness, considered inappropriate for a woman to discuss, even in jest, with a man. Acting as a catalyst, this conversation appears to alter Helena's self-perception and leads her to take action.

“Are you meditating on virginity?” (110), asks Parolles, bursting in upon her and interrupting her melancholy mood. “Ay,” she answers honestly. Then, allowing him to distract her by expounding on the topic he had introduced, she poses her own question: “You have some stain of soldier in you; let me ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?” (111-13). Suddenly, a scene formerly marked by the tearful parting of mother and son sparkles with humor. Parolles's answer to Helena, “Keep him out” (114), leads to further verbal parrying. “But he assails, and our virginity though valiant, in the defense yet is weak. Unfold to us some warlike resistance” (115-17). When the wordy Parolles concedes, “There is none. Man setting down before you, will undermine you and blow you up” (118-19), Helena refuses to accept such a direct answer. “Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men?” she queries (121-22). He then offers a dissertation on virginity, on its ultimate uselessness, noting that “Virginity, by being once lost, may be ten times found” (130-31), and exclaims triumphantly, “’Tis too cold a companion; away with’t!” (132) Continuing this banter, Helena adamantly claims, “I will stand for’t a little, though therefore I die a virgin” (133-34). Once again she prompts a long speech by Parolles, this one on the increase in population bred by loss of virginity.

Still “meditating,” she then poses the crucial question, “How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?” (150-51). But Parolles fails to give a clear answer. “Let me see. Marry, ill, to like him that ne’er it likes” (152-53), he asserts, seeming to reverse what she says. Speaking of “her own liking,” Helena in this conversation has indicated a woman's determination to have a say in the final outcome. Parolles, however, counters with a generalization implying that men do not like women to remain virgins and would seduce them rather than give them the choice of partner. The ambiguity of his comment, however, allows for a range of interpretation. Whereas Helena's reference, “to lose it to her own liking,” clearly refers to “virginity,” Parolles's response could be understood as “Marry, ill, to like the man who doesn’t like you.” Samuel Johnson chose to understand the comment as a play upon the word “liking.” He interpreted the line as: “She must do ill, for virginity, to be so lost, must like him that likes not virginity” (7:376-77). The wit combat extends for one hundred and seventy-four lines, terminating only when a page summons Parolles to join Bertram.

Despite the substantial length of the exchange, its exploration of a subject relevant to the play, and its insight into Helena's thinking, it has seldom reached the stage in full. In the Bell edition, which probably reflected what was acted at Drury Lane under David Garrick's management, everything after Helena's “ay” was excised.2 Kemble adopted many of these changes although he often altered the text further in later editions. For example, although his 1793 and 1811 versions differ slightly, the conversation between Helena and Parolles appears in neither. Nor is it found in most of the basic acting texts of the nineteenth century since they derive from Kemble. Thus the Cumberland edition of 1828, the Lacy edition, and, late in the century, the French edition all excised this section of text. William Poel eliminated it at the century's close, and even in the twentieth century most of the lines frequently disappeared. It was cut from the Lillian Baylis production in 1922 and as late as 1953 from Michael Benthall's for the Old Vic. Price (24) notes that the Garrick and Kemble texts differ in their emphases, the one on farce the other on sentimentality. However, neither adaptor retained the verbal jousting of Shakespeare's text that contributes to the portrait of a vibrant Helena and illuminates an important theme in the play: the right of a woman to do her own choosing.

The fact that the characters speak of sexuality—illustrated by this outspoken conversation between Helena, a respectable young woman, and Parolles—partially explains the disappearance not only of these lines but of the play itself from the stage, as I detail below. As for the question of sex, even at mid twentieth century it was common for critics to have reservations about this topic in the context of the play. John F. Adams, in 1961, for example, observed that three interrelated ideas permeated All's Well That Ends Well. However, he found the major, or “ground,” theme the subject of sex and procreation. “Essentially this … problem is that of understanding sex within civilized institutions. Paradoxically, sex can be a significant sin or a significant virtue, circumstances determining which” (261). Deciding whether sex is a sin or virtue, however, may depend on the perceptions of the character speaking or the person being addressed. For Helena, the conversation on sex evidently affected her subsequent action. To adaptors, however, the thought of it as sinful influenced their treatment of the text. Writing of the Samuel Phelps production in 1852, Shirley Allen notes that it was an “almost unknown comedy” by then and that despite its extreme abbreviation, a reviewer called the plot “indelicate, even beyond the limits usually conceded to Elizabethan dramatists” (222). In 1920 Odell in his Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving seems no more enlightened in his comments:

All's Well that Ends Well has ever been a problem on the stage; the story is revolting, the heroine incapable of awakening sympathy, and the comic scenes either disgustingly low (to use an Eighteenth-Century expression) or mere reminders of earlier (?) successes in the Falstaff plays. Who would cut must needs wield an heroic axe. (2:21)

The conversation on virginity would surely fall before such an ax, for Odell calls it “the filthy talk of Parolles to Helena in the first scene” finding its equal only in the lines of “the Clown to the Countess throughout” (2:21).

But that first scene reveals Shakespeare's artistry as he develops the portrait of Helena and raises questions explored throughout the play: to what extent may a woman determine her physical self-ownership, and can a woman choose her husband or must she be passive? Ancillary to these is another question: what hazards must she expect to confront? This scene, which offers a sharp contrast between Helena's two soliloquies, opens with the Countess of Rossillion bidding farewell to her son, Bertram. His father's death requires that the young man depart for Court to be the King's ward. Standing by silently, Helena is introduced to us primarily through the Countess, who identifies the young woman as a famous physician's daughter. “This young gentlewoman had a father. … Would for the King's sake he were living! I think it would be the death of the King's disease” (I.i.17-23), observes the older woman having heard of the inability of the king's physicians to cure the monarch. This challenge Helena will herself undertake later on. Here, however, she remains quiet as the Countess continues: “Her dispositions she inherits, which makes fair gifts fairer” (40-41). During that conversation Helena merely listens, almost like an object that is spoken of but has no voice. When, finally, she does break her silence, it is with a single line, an aside, addressed to no one in particular, but reflecting her own deep feelings at the moment “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” (54). What is the audience to think hearing this line? Obviously, Helena's thoughts are not perceived by the others in the drama. Moreover, her statement sounds ambiguous, confusing, and provocative. As soon as the stage is cleared however, Shakespeare enlightens his audience by giving Helena that first soliloquy, establishing her character at the start. Visually and verbally, she embodies the shy conforming young woman, illustrating the training Gilman described centuries later.

Thus Parolles's entry and their subsequent conversation initiates a new mode of thinking for Helena—a new sense of self. It is generally accepted that the main plot of All's Well That Ends Well derives from Boccaccio's Decameron, Day III, and that Shakespeare added three major characters: the Countess, Parolles, and Lafew—adviser to the king—as well as several minor characters (Bullough, 2:375-81). There is less agreement, however, about the function of Parolles in the play. Because of his similarity to Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV plays, the tendency has been to evaluate Parolles in terms of his influence on Bertram, noting the contrast between Hal's awareness of Falstaff's weaknesses and Bertram's blindness to Parolles's shortcomings. Writes Bullough, for example, “Parolles was invented to help us explain—and excuse somewhat—Bertram's offences, and to afford a baser parallel to those offences themselves” (2:387). Attaching great importance to the Parolles-Bertram relationship, W. W. Lawrence finds the “subplot … singularly independent of the main action” (33). G. K. Hunter in the Arden edition, disagreeing with Lawrence, emphasizes Bertram's role as central and considers both Parolles and Helena as subsidiary:

… [T]he Bertram story would not mean the same without the Parolles story. There is continual parody of the one by the other. Parolles and Helena are arranged on either side of Bertram, placed rather like the Good and Evil Angels in a Morality. (xxxiii; emphasis added)

For this editor, Parolles and Helena illuminate Bertram's character.

On the other hand, although the plot links the two men, Parolles and Helena have the longest and most important roles in the comedy. In addition, he plays a major part in revealing her character.3 His lines catalyze her into action. No other character so clearly serves this function. She herself hints at this before their lengthy dialogue in the first scene. Observing him approach, she forgives him his weaknesses in advance because of his friendship with Bertram:

                                        Who comes here?
One that goes with him. I love him for his sake,
And yet I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, soly a coward;
Yet these fix’d evils sit so fit in him,
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak i’ th’ cold wind. Withal, full oft we see
Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.


Having itemized his weaknesses, she then concedes the possibility of learning even from “superfluous folly.” Although I believe that the rationalization was meant to apply to the companionship between the two men, by the end of the scene, Parolles's “superfluous folly” has influenced her thinking. Like Hal with Falstaff, she recognizes Parolles's weaknesses, and like Hal she listens to the advice, transforming it to her own uses and endowing it with new qualities.

Parolles in this first scene connects with the overall conflict of the play, the one voiced by Helena: “How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?” Their conversation illuminates the different perceptions of virginity by men and women. A word often used in humorous conversation, it also defines the standards of a woman's life, as we see later in the play in the scene between Helena and the King. Moreover, virginity and its loss, with proof of progeny, are central to the work. And it is to Parolles, that character who is later unmasked as a coward, losing his position and prestige with Bertram, to whom Shakespeare assigns the task of opening a not quite conventionally acceptable subject to the audience: virginity and women's perception of it.

The construction of the first scene also illuminates not only Helena's forthrightness and quick wit but also Parolles's insight. In contrast with the Countess and others in the first half of the scene who had simply assumed, hearing Helena sigh, that she was thinking of her father, Parolles makes no such mistake. “Are you meditating on virginity?”—his opening line—meets an immediate “Ay.” Had he been wrong, she might easily have said no. Although before his arrival she had confided to the audience her intention of humoring Parolles because he was dear to Bertram, no such deception was necessary. Her arguments on behalf of the virgin fail to mask that immediate “Ay.” And though she listens to Parolles's long-winded discourse on the subject, she does follow up her own query of losing one's virginity to one's “own liking” with the lengthy, wistful reference to Bertram at court. “There shall your master have a thousand loves / … with a world / Of pretty, fond, adoptious christendoms / That blinking Cupid gossips. Now shall he—” (166-75). Then almost catching herself, she continues, “I know not what he shall” (176). Stychomythia ensues, “The court's a learning place, and he is one—” (177). Her hesitation quickly prompts his “What one, i’faith?” “That I wish well. ’Tis pity—” “What’s pity?” (178-80). Regaining self-control, she once more distances herself from that “bright particular star” at the center of her world and speaks in general terms to Parolles, wishing both men well.4

His parting words, “Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee” (214-15), precede her closing soliloquy where she determines to act. She will pursue the objective for which, as Gilman observes, women have been trained. Helena jettisons the lovelorn self of the scene's opening and opts for extraordinary action. “The king's disease—my project may deceive me, / But my intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” (228-29). She has decided to use the knowledge of medicine bequeathed her by her father to cure the King. She will follow Bertram to the French court.

Such decisiveness wins neither societal approval nor that of the play's adaptors, actor-managers, or directors. The Bell text cut this soliloquy, as did Kemble's. There the earlier passive, worshipful speech on her “bright particular star” closed the scene, after the briefest of conversations. No quips on virginity survived. Transposition combined with excision remolded Helena into a passive, quiet, modest young woman. Modifications in the rest of the text reinforced this portrait. The stereotype prevailed over Shakespeare's characterization.

For audiences today, the Helena-Parolles conversation on virginity is hardly offensive, although some critics decry it. The exchange indicates Parolles's tendency to speak of a subject he thinks amusing yet appropriate to Helena, a young unmarried woman. And it might show his awareness of her interest in Bertram, an interest inimical to his own. Shakespeare's choice of Parolles for this early unmasking of Helena's feelings suggests a desire to pair these two characters who stand on the fringes of the society of the play and have the two longest roles—almost equal in length.5 Their encounter also stresses Helena's lack of reserve (despite her early silence), her intellectual vigor, and her tendency to consider herself the equal of men—a point that will become for some her major problem throughout the drama.

Nor is Helena alone in this confident sense of self, expressed through an easy, unself-conscious exchange with a man on the subject of sex. Two scenes later, the Countess of Rossillion engages Lavatch, her servant-clown, in a similar conversation. Again the subject is virginity and again a woman crosses class lines, ignoring the demands of decorum to question a crude character who revels in his own down-to-earth observations. When she wonders at his rationale for marrying so late in life, he explains, “My poor body, madam, requires it. I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives” (I.iii.28-30). This leads to a debate on the relationship of marriage to evil, Lavatch freely admitting that “I hope to have friends for my wive's sake … for the knaves come to do that for me which I am a-weary of. He that ears my land spares my team, and gives me leave to inn the crop. If I be his cuckold, he’s my drudge” (39-46)—an admission of fatigue, but also a brash statement on his willingness to be cuckolded. Again, perhaps, Shakespeare is turning tradition upside down—the tradition of male possessiveness of women. Occasionally the Countess interrupts Lavatch with a reprimand. However, such interruptions seem more like dramaturgic devices to terminate a monologue rather than real expressions of shock or anger. For Lavatch then continues his biting observations using a new approach, story, or song.

The conversation between Helena and Parolles presented two views on easy loss of virginity, suggesting a virile, youthful perception; the exchange between the Countess and Lavatch betrays the speakers' age—they are tired, wistful, philosophic. Both debates contrast men's and women's thoughts on sexuality and illustrate women's moral stance challenged by men's flippancy. The fact that both conversations occur early in the play suggests the dramatist's intention of showing the women's awareness of the male point of view when they later attempt to deal with Bertram, the beloved of the younger and the son of the older. But the conversations do more. They introduce us to two strong, attractive women who, unlike later audiences, appear unperturbed by men's rowdy humor.

In this scene as in the opening, past productions have excised, transposed, and inserted new material in an effort to alter the woman's portrait. Again, these changes date back to the earliest promptbooks—of 1773—and, with only some slight variations, continue through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. For example, the Countess's lines with Lavatch are reduced to directives to call Helena while his talk of marriage, losing its cynicism, centers on a wish to have “issue a’ my body” (25) and an admission, “I have been, madam, a wicked creature, as you and all flesh and blood are, and indeed I do marry that I may repent” (35-37). Indeed, by the twentieth century, Lavatch disappeared completely from Tyrone Guthrie's (1959) production, seriously affecting audience perception of the Countess. His absence helps diminish her portrait to that of a conventional, gentle, old woman, her vigor in Shakespeare's text fading into quiet conformity.

The general embarrassment and dissatisfaction with these conversations of the two women and the desire to mask the nonconformist aspect of their portraits have a long history. As early as 1773 the John Bell acting text, which purports to record the play “as performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane,” presented the following complaint:

From the appearance of several pieces Shakespeare wrote, we cannot but think he catched at some single idea, or character, without considering what other materials there might be to work upon. Hence we find him frequently capital in a few scenes, where he is very trifling in others; of this observation, we think All's Well that Ends Well is no slight instance; tho’ a little attention might certainly have made even this slight plan much better; as it is, this play can never live on the stage, and hardly in the closet; yet we are of opinion, that by judicious alterations and additions, it might be made much more tolerable, both in public and private. (Prompt AW 3, Introduction)

In 1793 Kemble introduced “judicious alterations” into scene 3—the scene between the Countess and Lavatch—that glorified the mother who mourns her son's departure, injecting a note missing from Shakespeare's text.

The adaptation offers insight into the deeper understanding of women that emerges from the original. As occurs so often in Shakespeare's plays, adjacent scenes contrast with one another, sometimes to illuminate character, sometimes to establish the passage of time, and sometimes to heighten suspense. Shakespeare's scene 2, wafts us away from Rossillion for a brief sortie at the court of the sick King of France, showing his despair and the hopelessness of his illness.6 Back at Rossillion in scene 3, we are conscious of a new time frame when we listen to the Countess first with Lavatch and then in a wonderful dialogue with Helena. The scene's first lines, “I will now hear. What say you of this gentlewoman?” (iii.1-2), reflect the Countess's concern for Helena. The lines also indicate the scene's artistic unity since the opening question will be answered at the close, when Helena, with the Countess's blessings, departs for the court of the King of France. Unified around the concept of women bonding together and supporting one another, the scene as constructed reveals little concern or weeping of a mother for a departed son.

Kemble, who moved scene 3 so that it immediately followed scene 1, lost the indeterminate time gap as well as the sharp contrast between the two older people—the King and the Countess. The actor-manager did, however, establish a pattern for later adaptors and created a more acceptably sad mother. Kemble changed the scene's opening lines, inserting a brief soliloquy before the query about Helena. Rather than referring to the future, it dwells on the past: “He’s gone; and ’t is weakness, to mourn over his departure,” the Countess reflects (1793 ed., p. 3; 1811 ed., p. 8). The stereotypical mother, suffering silently and waiting patiently, replaces Shakespeare's activist older woman supportively encouraging the younger female. Ironically, Kemble borrowed the word gone from another context, the Countess's directive to Lavatch to “be gone, sir knave” (85), a command rather than a wistful recollection of her son.

Memories of her own youth and the sexual stirrings the Countess then felt—not thoughts about her son—characterize the soliloquy Shakespeare gives her. Considering Helena's plight, the older woman reminisces:

If ever we are nature's, these are ours. This thorn
Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong;
Our blood to us, this to our blood is born.


Meditating on virginity and sexuality, she reveals a warm, sympathetic, and basically optimistic perception of the heat and passion of youth. She has known it, and it has been good. Her lines contrast with the weariness of life and the jealousy of youth expressed by the King in the previous scene. He speaks of “haggish age” stealing on him (even giving it a feminine persona), then quotes his deceased friend's wish as reflecting the King's own desire:

… “Let me not live,” quoth he,
“After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain.”


The fear of youth's disdain of age characterizes the sick King, contrasting his point of view with the Countess's healthy perception of herself and sexuality.

In comparing men's and women's lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the sense of hopelessness, “the inevitable fatalism … the almost lust for death” that “creeps into all womanhood” as compared with the excitement that dominates men's lives (445). In this play Shakespeare reverses Fitzgerald's equation despite the adventures of Bertram at the front. In fact, the text here reveals the vibrancy of women's worlds as they differ from those of men. By transposing the sequence of scenes, however, Kemble diminished the contrast between the Countess's vitality and the King's languor and illness. Earlier, the Bell text blurred the distinctive differences between the two older people's ideas on sexuality by eliminating the Countess's lines on the warm blood of youth beginning, “If ever we are nature's, these are ours.” Kemble reduced the Countess's lines of reflection to their simplest essentials—a brief reference to the resemblance between the two women followed by a description of the approaching younger one:

E’en so it was with me, when I was young:
Her eye is sick on’t; I observe her now.(7)

The full speech emphasizes the naturalness of sexuality and the sense of human identification with nature. It has an outspoken joyousness. Interestingly, although the lines reappeared towards the end of the nineteenth century, they were again cut in 1935 by B. Iden Payne and in 1953 by Michael Benthall. Rather than representing the cultural responses of one period, the excisions seem instead to reflect patriarchal ideas about women that have persisted well into the twentieth century.

Shakespeare continues to offer conflicting perspectives on stereotypes about women in the second half of scene 3. There his dialectic method undercuts prevailing views that see women as competitive and lacking mutual support. Aware of Helena's plight, the Countess tries to show her concern for the young woman by proposing: “You know, Helen, / I am a mother to you.” The simplicity of the language contrasts with Helena's formal “Mine honorable mistress.” The dramatist then explores various interpretations of “mother”:

                    Nay, a mother,
Why not a mother? When I said “a mother,”
Methought you saw a serpent. What’s in “mother”
That you start at it? I say I am your mother,
And put you in the catalogue of those
That were enwombed mine.

(I.iii.139-44, emphasis added)

Six uses of the word in seven lines heavily emphasize the concept. Although she is also teasing Helena here, the Countess is rejecting the belief in the superiority of natural to adoptive parents. Yet her son, in contrast, will later insist on verification of his role as natural parent as the price of becoming Helena's husband in more than name.

“You ne’er oppress’d me with a mother's groan, / Yet I express to you a mother's care” (147-48), the older woman reminds the younger. Again the word mother surfaces. And again the stage direction in the speech clearly delineates Helena's actions:

God's mercy, maiden! does it curd thy blood
To say I am thy mother?

(149-50, emphasis added)

We, as audience, know the purpose of the Countess's insistence—to elicit Helena's confession of love for Bertram, to offer sympathy, and ultimately to help the young woman. Nevertheless, the rhetorical pattern, the repetition of mother, has deeper resonances in this play. For although the King has spoken to Bertram of his father, we will discover that mothers, mother surrogates, mothering, and the proof of motherhood take precedence over fatherhood. To the Countess, motherhood means care, love, concern, and nurturing without mandating pregnancy. Here the dramatist seems to question conventional patriarchal ideas about mothers or the strong ties of blood that they must feel for their children. Rather, the Countess's choral repetition of mother to Helena affirms close ties with this “adoptive” child.

Excisions in this section abound in stage adaptations. These cuts straddle the centuries. They reflect societal opposition to the ideas expressed by the Countess rather than squeamishness regarding language, an argument often used to explain textual excisions in earlier periods. Neither eighteenth-century refinement nor nineteenth-century bowdlerization account for them since they persist into our age. For example, the 1773 text excises parts of the Countess's soliloquy before Helena's entrance, but so does the 1953 text. Again, the lines “Adoption strives with nature, and choice breeds / A native slip to us from foreign seeds” (145-46) disappear from the 1888 as well as the 1953 versions. In contrast the following passage has always survived intact:

What, pale again?
My fear has catch’d your fondness! Now I see
The myst’ry of your loneliness, and find
Your salt tears' head, now to all sense ’tis gross:
You love my son.


Unlike descriptions of motherhood and mothering, these lines contain all the push-button words associated with women and love: pale, fear, fondness, mystery, loneliness, and salt tears. The excisions undercut Shakespeare's remarkable portrait of an outspoken, attractive upper-class woman, one who defied acceptable cliches.

Tyrone Guthrie, who had eliminated the Lavatch section in his 1959 production, retained this particular encounter between the two women in full. Perhaps the stress on intimacy between mother-surrogate and potential daughter-in-law had a contemporary relevance; or perhaps references to birth and pregnancy by two women alone on stage no longer shocked audiences. Undoubtedly the presence of two remarkable actresses, Zoe Caldwell as Helena and Edith Evans as the Countess, also influenced the director, who tempered the language elsewhere. According to stage directions, Helena kneels, the Countess lifts up the young woman's face, the Countess then holds Helena's hand and slowly turns her so that they are looking at one another. Warmth and trust exist between them. Photographs suggest the scene's visual influence on the 1981 BBC TV production of All's Well. There the two women meet before a fireplace; the lights and shadows in the room and on their faces capture the fluctuations of mood as Helena moves from kneeling on the floor to rising with the older woman's blessings:

Why, Helen, thou shalt have my leave and love,
                    and be sure of this,
What I can help thee to, thou shalt not miss.


Helena, the activist, will go to the French court. Convinced that she can cure the King, she wishes to gamble her life on her medicine, explaining, “I’d venture / The well-lost life of mine on his grace's cure” (247-48)—a gamble she will repeat with greater vehemence to the King himself when he challenges, “Upon thy certainty and confidence / What dar’st thou venter?” (II.i.169-70). Her final offer comes late in the conversation, only after she has failed to convince him of her skill. For the audience, that last proposal is linked to her earlier conversation with Parolles where she speaks with such directness about sex.

At first, despite Lafew's strong introduction of her as the daughter of her famous physician father, the King rejects Helena's proposal. He assures her that others, far more skilled than she, have finally admitted defeat. There is no cure for his illness. “We thank you, maiden, / But may not be so credulous of cure, / When our most learned doctors leave us” (II.i.114-16), he protests. As she presses on, he warns her of her naivete, “But what at full I know, thou know’st no part, / I knowing all my peril, thou no art” (132-33). It is only when she offers her life, and perhaps more persuasively, her reputation, that he listens. It is her willingness to have her name bandied about as a strumpet that finally convinces him. The obverse of Isabella's unwillingness to sacrifice her virginity for her brother's life (Measure for Measure), Helena's proposal rests on a similar awareness of the price expected of women—one linked with sexuality. Because her eventual goal is marriage to Bertram, Helena gambles that combination—her life and her reputation:

                                        Tax of impudence,
A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame,
Traduc’d by odious ballads; my maiden's name
Sear’d otherwise; ne worse of worst—extended
With vildest torture, let my life be ended.


The above passage is one of the play's cruxes, its punctuation challenging editors. However, the general references to being called a strumpet, celebrated as such in ballads, having her name disgraced, and finally meeting death through torture, seem clear, especially the direct connection between loss of virginity and loss of reputation. Helena knows that this is the sharpest criticism a young woman can face, coupling sexual disgrace with death. As a result of the extremity of her personal risk, the King agrees to try her cure.

And then, once again she deviates from the expected behavioral pattern for women: she asks for a reward. Rather than being satisfied with the King's thanks or her own sense of accomplishment at having cured a seemingly incurable man, she sets a specific price on her labor. Although her story parallels Shakespeare's source and is said to have prototypes in early folk tales (Lawrence, Ch. 2), her request for marriage to the man of her choosing is clearly unconventional. And yet, she asks for neither money nor wisdom nor any more esoteric reward, but rather for the prize which young women have been trained to seek: marriage. Helena's bargain with the King reflects her directness; she will chance her life:

… not helping, death's my fee,
But if I help, what do you promise me?
King. Make thy demand.
Helena. But will you make it even?
King. Ay, by my sceptre and my hopes
of heaven.


The challenge for Helena, however, goes beyond winning a husband; it lies in overcoming the shift in values when women succeed in a patriarchal society. Suddenly the rules of the game change. Helena cures the King and wins the hand of Bertram in marriage only to discover that the highly acclaimed achievement loses its luster when performed by a woman. Because such success so surprises men, as Margaret Fuller observes, the term miracle then replaces success:

Wherever she has herself arisen in national or private history, and nobly shone forth in any form of excellence, men have received her, not only willingly, but with triumph. Their encomiums, indeed, are always, in some sense, mortifying; they show too much surprise. “Can this be you?” he cries to the transfigured Cinderella; “well, I should never have thought it, but I am very glad. We will tell every one that you have ‘surpassed your sex.’” (43)

The critical word in the above quote is mortifying. Fuller then goes on to explain it as revealing men's inability to comprehend women's success when competing in men's sphere. In Shakespeare's play, Parolles's lines reverberate with the same incomprehension as those of Fuller's typical man: “Mort du vinaigre! is not this Helen?” (II.iii.44), he exclaims in shock when he discovers that she is the person who has cured the King's illness and is dancing a coranto with him. If she has surprisingly “surpassed her sex,” Helena's problem is that the reward she has asked for expresses the traditional expectations of her sex—a husband—but it casts her as the active pursuer rather than the passively wooed.

After Parolles's exclamation, the King wastes no time in honoring his pledge. He calls the young men of his court to him and directs:

Fair maid, send forth thine eye. This youthful parcel
Of noble bachelors stand at my bestowing,
O’er whom both sovereign power and father's voice
I have to use. Thy frank election make;
Thou hast power to choose, and they none to forsake.


Shakespeare uses a sensitively tuned artistic device—a series of young nobles whom Helena will query—to show that not merely Bertram, but societal attitudes, conspire against her. She moves from one young man to the next: “Sir, will you hear my suit?” (76) she asks. “And grant it” (77), he replies. The words seem to imply acceptance. Helena, however, moves on to the next potential suitor. Here her opening observation offers a clue to what she sees: “The honor, sir, that flames in your fair eyes, / Before I speak too threat’ningly replies” (80-81). Nevertheless, she asks and he accedes. Rejecting him, she moves on. As David Haley observes, “The young lords' icy politeness masks a contempt of which Helena is quite sensible” (49). Although there has been some critical disagreement as to the young men's reactions to Helena, the dramatist provides a first-hand observer in the King's trusted adviser, Lafew. Because verbal meanings may be colored by tonal inflections and even contradicted by body language, his indignant comment should be recognized as summarizing those young bachelors' responses: “Do all they deny her? And they were sons of mine, I’d have them whipt, or I would send them to th’ Turk to make eunuchs of” (86-88). On the page, the men's lines may not appear cold; Lafew's speech, acting as a stage direction, tells us just how they must be spoken on stage. A third and yet a fourth “noble bachelor” is approached and then rejected by Helena. We know, just as she does, that Bertram is the man, right from the start. Surely part of the reason for this movement from one young man to the next is the laughter it can provoke. Through the double vision possible in the theater, audiences may watch the contradictory impulses driving Helena and, at the same time, keep an eye on Bertram.

This important scene illuminating her character, however, frequently changes shape on stage. Records of the omission of the other young men date back to 1773. Once more, excisions reduce her role. The audience may no longer observe her dramatic flair as she moves from one young man to the next. Nor may they hear her keen evaluation of each prospect and her sense of humor. Even worse, the cuts deny audiences the opportunity to witness Helena's timidity as she shies away from naming Bertram at once, perhaps in the wild hope that he may find her attractive and step forward. The scene, which emphasizes the fate of a woman who wins in a society where she is not even supposed to compete, becomes instead another example of Helena's unfeeling forwardness since she moves immediately to Bertram.

Shakespeare's insight into this catch-22 for women, personalized and made specific in Helena in this scene, echoes in our own time. In her article “Fail: Bright Women,” Matina Horner documents the decision of intelligent college women to sacrifice intellectual excellence for sexual appeal to men (36-39). In fact, in Tyrone Guthrie's 1959 production, this dichotomy between brains and beauty is clearly established by the introduction of additional lines in a ball scene preceding the entrance of the cured King with Helena. The guests are speaking. One guest refers to the “Wise Woman” in the King's chamber; another to the “good old King”; still another gives the impression that the King himself will not appear that evening. Then one of the guests says, “quite a young girl, quite young. Your age or less”—obviously addressing a woman—who responds, “Would I had her skill.” “Or she your beauty,” is the quick reply. Giving the conversation a too-modern twist, the woman then chides, “Nay sir, none of that. My husband will be angry.” Helena's triumphant waltz from one young man to the next hardly wins applause. She has not learned to fail. But productions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries refrained from showing the scene Shakespeare wrote. Instead they reduced it to a single, undeviating choice, emphasizing her single-minded devotion, without humor, to Bertram.

As written, Shakespeare's scene has a complexity that questions some accepted stereotypes. It confronts us with the weaknesses of our social system and the cost to women of a limited perception of sexuality, one stressing a dichotomy between intelligence and physical beauty. The play seems to accept the possibility that these two qualities along with assertiveness can belong to one woman character. Many adaptors, however, failed to link these characteristics in Helena. Guthrie's production characterizes one of the problems: the influence of contemporary culture on staging the play. Nineteen fifty-nine belonged to the post-World War II period, marked by women's return to the kitchen and child-raising; normalcy was defined as treasuring the home life.8 Betty Friedan had not yet completed The Feminine Mystique although women were living it. As she says, she “wasn’t even conscious of the woman problem” (1) until she started writing the book in 1957. To give some idea of just what the period was like, and how, therefore, it could have influenced this production, even though Guthrie was working in England at the time, I quote:

By the end of the nineteen-fifties, … the proportion of women attending college in comparison with men [dropped] from 47 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar. (12)

In such an environment, responses to Helena, but more important perhaps, projections of her in the theater were distorted.

By omitting the other young men, or by creating a portrait of the brainy if sexually unattractive woman, adaptors and directors failed to hear the text's complexity in Helena's selection speech. Perhaps they found her movement from one young man to another painful or unladylike. Nevertheless, this withholding of her choice of Bertram appears in the text. Although her lines to Bertram sound submissive, her final four words—addressed to the King—do not:

I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power.—This is the man.


She has employed neither seduction nor tricks. In a society that rewards achievement, she has won honestly, gambling her life. But she has defied the conventions. Although innumerable examples exist in fiction probably known to Shakespeare's audience of the wise woman who, given a seemingly impossible task, achieves it, this drama also illuminates the immediate and specific obstacles a woman character, no matter how wise, must face.

When Helena says, “This is the man,” Shakespeare creates an explosive situation to move his audience. Although Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes of “what one would logically expect” as a result of a girl's training, she also knows that such logic is irrelevant. At this point in the action, All's Well That Ends Well illustrates that absence of logic. Helena has followed logic in pursuing marriage to Bertram. He, however, scorns her; he would choose for himself and not be the one chosen. As we later discover, he insists on initiating the choice. Although his training, unlike a woman's, may not have focused on the “vocation” of marriage, the social structure endorses him. The play, however—because of its sympathy for Helena and its alteration of the character of Bertram from the prototype in the source—questions that position.

Shakespeare's play also reveals how a “logic” based on power governs patterns of courtship in a patriarchal society. Responses to Helena's being the wooer or pursuer depend in part on the staging and in part on evaluation of the validity of her action. George Bernard Shaw cheered her as the precursor of the modern woman, calling the play “an experiment repeated nearly three hundred years later in A Doll's House” (Our Theatres 1:27). Others have condemned her.9 Writing of Othello, Helen Gardner noted that passions are still strong concerning the play's subjects—among them jealousy, fidelity, and chastity—and considers this one reason why a “conflict of views about the play and its hero” exists (5).10 The same may be said about All's Well That Ends Well. A conflict of views exists about one of the primary subjects in this play: the right of a woman to pursue a man with the objective of marriage. Implicit here is the pejorative accusation of “aggressiveness” applied to women for characteristics praised in men as “strength” and “self-confidence” (Broverman 34:1-7). Despite her success in curing the King and her right to a reward, Helena herself feels the social pressure and retreats to the expected womanly role, “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. Let the rest go,” a line never excised (II.iii.147-48). But it is too late, the contest has become one between the honor of two men; the elder and more powerful, the King, triumphs.

Married to Bertram, Helena discovers the irony of that first debate with Parolles, so relevant to the play and so often omitted. Once again virginity is the topic. Paradoxically, the challenge she faces is not that of protecting herself from a man who would “blow her up” but of legitimating her marriage through pregnancy by her husband. Having returned to Rossillion at his request, she receives his letter: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never.’” She recoils at its finality. “This is a dreadful sentence” (III.ii.58-61). Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century actor-managers also recoiled. They found his conditions tasteless and therefore reduced the letter to Bertram's first demand: the ring.

Like variations on a motif, the pattern of this scene recalls the play's opening at Rossillion. Again the Countess dominates the conversation. This time, however, her praise for Helena is linked with disapproval of Bertram. “I do wash his name out of my blood, / And thou art all my child” (67-68), she exclaims to the young bride, condemning Bertram's defiance of a good King and “misprising of a maid too virtuous / For the contempt of empire” (31-32). Reacting with scorn to the closing line of his letter, “Till I have no wife, I have nothing in France” (74-75), she labels him a “rude” (82) boy, exploding, “There’s nothing here that is too good for him / But only she,” (80-81). Meanwhile, the parallel to the earlier pattern continues as Helena listens in comparative silence. Again, she reveals herself only in soliloquy after the others have left the stage. This time, however, she speaks as a wife reacting to her husband's letter. Nor does her soliloquy capture the tone of passive adoration or exuberant confidence in the value of action heard at the beginning of the play. Despite reward, action had not brought the anticipated happy ending. The naive young woman who believed “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie” has discovered that societal conventions subvert the self's achieving its goal. Feeling guilty at depriving Bertram of the right to come home and fearing that he may be killed in battle, Helena's adoration of him cannot be passive—as it was at the play's opening. More in despair than hope, she decides to leave Rossillion that night.

Shakespeare's modulations of the portrait of Helena continue, revealing his insight into women's lives as they seek to adjust and readjust to the restrictive rules of a patriarchal society. Disguised as a pilgrim, she arrives in Florence disconsolate and feeling defeated. Although critics have questioned her motives for going to Florence—some believing she is further plotting to “snare” Bertram—her reflections in soliloquy before leaving Rossillion, her subsequent letter informing the Countess of the decision to depart, and even Helena's later comments to the Florentine women all reflect her sense of defeat. At this moment in the play, she believes she has overstepped the boundaries of proper behavior and therefore deserves her fate.

Meeting three women who identify her at once as a pilgrim recently come from France, she accepts their invitation to join them in watching the parade of passing French troops. She listens to their talk of Bertram. “Here you shall see a countryman of yours / That has done worthy service” (III.v.47-48), says the eldest, the Widow. When told that according to reports the King “married him / Against his liking” (53-54) and that Parolles speaks “but coarsely” of the wife, Helena agrees, “O, I believe with him” (56-57). Disagreeing with Helena, these women show more compassion for Bertram's wife than she does for herself. Observes the Widow's daughter, Diana:

                                        Alas, poor lady,
’Tis a hard bondage to become the wife
Of a detesting lord.
I would he lov’d his wife. If he were honester
He were much goodlier.
’Tis pity he is not honest.

(63-65, 79-80, 82)

She expresses her sympathy in three separate speeches, while Helena regains confidence after the Widow's comment, “This young maid might do her / A shrewd turn, if she pleas’d” (67-68). The disguised wife's quick response, “How do you mean?” (68), differs from her resigned acceptance of Parolles's unflattering comments earlier in the scene.

Providing comfort and support for her, these women also introduce still another perspective on virginity, one less concerned with “choosing to one's own liking” than with defense against the manipulative male. Before Helena's appearance, their conversation establishes the standards governing their actions. Diana's praise of “the French count” (Bertram) who had “done most honorable service” (III.v.3-4) is quickly interrupted by the warning, “The honor of a maid is her name, and no legacy is so rich as honesty” (12-13). The speaker, Mariana, then details men's methods of seduction:

[T]heir promises, enticements, oaths, tokens, and all these engines of lust, are not the things they go under. Many a maid hath been seduc’d by them, and the misery is, example, that so terrible shows in the wrack of maidenhood, cannot for all that dissuade succession, but that they are lim’d with the twigs that threatens them. I hope I need not to advise you further, but I hope your own grace will keep you where you are, though there were no further danger known but the modesty which is so lost.


All but the last sentence of this was excised from the 1773 Bell text and both Kemble adaptations. Benson, in 1888, printed the entire section in small type—indicating omission—and Bridges, in the 1922 production, deleted these lines. What remains is a brief “Beware of them [Parolles and Bertram] Diana” (18) followed by the response “You shall not need to fear me” (29). The specificity of the warning has been eliminated along with Mariana's hopelessness about women heeding her.

At the beginning of the play, Helena had asked in jest if there were a way to “barricado” oneself against the invading male; she had been assured there was none. Her conversation had concentrated on the physical aggression against a woman's virginity. Mariana includes the emotional and psychological, oaths and flattery, noting that women themselves cooperate in breaking down their own defences. Paradoxically, Shakespeare, here as elsewhere—in Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet, for example—illustrates the ability of young women to perceive men's deception through oaths and flattery.11

Crossing social and intellectual lines, Helena gains a new sense of herself as a woman through this chance meeting with others who identify with “Bertram's wife.” The Widow's comment about Diana leads the disguised pilgrim to further speculate, “May be the amorous count solicits her / In the unlawful purpose” (69-70). Her choice of words shows how carefully Shakespeare has developed the portrait of a woman who knows the man she has married. The texts “amorous,” “solicits,” and “unlawful” also seem to contradict one critic's theory that Bertram “must be educated to accept … sexuality,” or that his initial rejection of Helena included a “recoil from sexuality itself” (Parker, 100, 102).

Conferring with the Widow in her next scene, Helena asks for help in fulfilling the demands of the letter. She establishes her identity, then reveals, again, her knowledge of Bertram, a flawed man. Referring to the ring on his finger that she must acquire, she counsels:

                                        This ring he holds
In most rich choice; yet in his idle fire,
To buy his will, it would not seem too dear,
Howe’er repented after.


More than anyone else, she spells out his weaknesses. He is accustomed to getting what he wishes, then weighing the cost afterwards. According to her evaluation, her “bright particular star”—now her husband—is spoiled. In the first scene, she tolerated Parolles—“a notorious liar”—because of Bertram—“I love him for his sake.” Here she offers more specifics. Although critics have tended to ask flippantly why someone as gifted and bright as Helena would want a cad like Bertram, the play emphasizes the irrelevance of that question. Rather, Shakespeare asks why a woman superior to a man in intelligence, ability, and moral strength may not choose to her own liking. He then explores the close relationship between power and sexuality. Helena has competed and won by society's rules. And yet she has not been able to claim her reward. Kate Millett writes: “Sexual dominion obtains … as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power” (25). Bertram's power supersedes the King's.

From the opening to the closing of this play, we hear the contrast between the way men and women “meditate” on virginity, noting its direct relationship to power. Helena opens with thoughts of Bertram. Parolles expounds on the philosophic reasons why women should hurry and lose their virginity. Helena decides actively to pursue Bertram at court. The Clown talks of his need for a woman and marriage; the Countess soliloquizes on falling in love, then shares her thoughts on childbearing with Helena. The King speaks of the girls of Italy, jestingly warning his young nobles against them. Helena at court chances being called a strumpet and disgraced as a whore if she fails in her cure. Meditating on virginity for her means winning Bertram. For Bertram, meditating on virginity means setting impossible standards for consummating a marriage. It also means deflowering Diana. For Diana, meditating on virginity means learning to distrust men's vows.

Diana's delightful scene with Bertram when she bargains for the ring and sets the time and place of the rendezvous illustrates her skepticism about the truth of men's vows:

’Tis not the many oaths that makes the truth,
But the plain single vow that is vow’d true.
If I should swear by Jove's great attributes
I lov’d you dearly, would you believe my oaths
When I did love you ill?


Reminiscent of Juliet's lines to Romeo, this speech gives insights into Diana's wit and sharpness. Often, however, merely a few lines remain, the scene's primary emphasis being on a comparison of his ring—“an honor ’longing to our house” (42)—and Diana's chastity—“the jewel of our house” (46). Gone too in many versions is most of her closing soliloquy, beginning “My mother told me just how he would woo, / As if she sate in's heart” (69-70) and ending, “Only in this disguise I think’t no sin / To cozen him that would unjustly win” (75-76).

Since she and the Widow are important supports for Helena in the closing scenes, the audience needs to have some hint of their humanity and sense of values. Too often excisions blur the picture. Occasionally staging alters the intention of the text. Guthrie, for example, introduced a musical duet between Diana and Bertram at the scene's opening:

Bertram. Pray thee take these
flowers, maiden fair.
Diana. Thank you sir for me they’re
blossoms rare.
Bertram. Tho’ they fade and
wither yet stayeth green,
Both. In my heart, forever my love

This was only part of the overall shift in characterization. According to Price, Guthrie also presented Diana as “a wartime factory tart who sits on the doorstep in nightgown and housecoat” and the Widow as an older version of her daughter (58). No longer is Diana a moral young woman supporting another woman's cause. She becomes, instead, someone involved in a trick because of possible reward, thus distorting the text.

The substitution of one woman for another in a man's bed has often troubled critics, who label it “the bed trick.” Diana, after winning Bertram's ring, promises to meet him. Instead, her rendezvous becomes Helena's. Applying the test of realism to such substitution, some critics find the play deeply flawed. But realism does not affect the underlying truth expressed in the work. Nor is it relevant that Helena becomes pregnant after one encounter with a man—the complaint of one critic who called it “an extremely lucky hit” (Parker, 112). Shakespeare's portraits of women in All's Well That Ends Well, of their relationships with one another, of their perceptions of the male world, and of their sense of themselves have a validity that overshadows any realistic questions of plot—just as the presence of a ghost does not disqualify the insights in Hamlet. The women, particularly Helena and the Countess, are remarkable and complex. This comedy seems to ask, “What if men and women were equal?” It answers with a variation on Virginia Woolf's words, that “Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation” (41). Then women, like men, may choose to their own liking and make their own mistakes.

Moving into the Illyria of adulthood for women and chancing sexual disgrace, Helena discovers constantly new unanticipated obstacles even after achieving the “vocation” of marriage. While fulfilling the requirements of comedy, the play's ending, where she finally wins Bertram for a second time, seems hedged about with ambiguities. It includes his rejection of Diana, lying and accusing her of being a camp follower, and then, when confronted by Helena, who has fulfilled all the seemingly impossible tasks listed in his letter, he begins his speech with the word If. “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, [that she is pregnant by him] / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (V.iii.315-16). While Bertram's concession in these closing moments may sound like a reprieve, his actions offer little support for an unconditional change of heart. As the King's final lines suggest, “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (V.iii.333-34). This is hardly a strong affirmative statement. Shakespeare presents a portrait of a woman unloved by her husband. Audiences and readers recognize the irony of Helena's rejoicing in this momentary triumph since she surpasses Bertram in knowledge, skill, and virtue.

Helena's acceptance by Bertram, however, must be considered against the larger landscape of women's sexual options—no matter what their talents—when they come of age in a patriarchal society. Shakespeare's heroine has successfully challenged the pattern. Not only has she planned “for whom she will achieve and attain,” but she illustrates the “eager husband hunter” regarded with approval in the world of the play. The problem for those in the world outside the play—audiences, adaptors, and critics—is that they still look with disapproval on such logical behavior.


  1. Kelso discusses her use of the term lady as follows:

    … there was no such thing as the lady so far as theory went … distinguished either from the gentleman or from any other woman. … [M]any books of a theoretical sort were written for and on the lady … but beyond the dedications to ladies, duchesses, or queens, the contents … apply to the whole sex rather than to any favored section of it. The lady, shall we venture to say, turns out to be merely a wife. (1)

    See chapter 1, note 3 for further discussion of Kelso's book. See also Renaissance conduct manuals such as Juan Luis Vives's A Very Fruitful and Pleasant Booke, called the Instruction of a Christian Woman, which went into many printings during the sixteenth century, and William Whately's A Bride-Bush, or A Wedding Sermon (1617). See chapter 3, note 1 for excerpts from Whately's work. For a selection of the writings as well as a discussion of them, see Joan Larsen Klein's Daughters, Wives, and Widows: Writings by Men about Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1640.

  2. According to George Winchester Stone, Jr., we do not know whether Garrick “supervised any revisions of the texts. … However that he was closely concerned with their production cannot be doubted” (“Garrick's Handling of Shakespeare's Plays. …” I:320). According to Pedicord and Bergmann, Garrick “produced but did not act in All's Well That Ends Well” (3:xiv). No specific Garrick version exists. I will therefore refer to changes in All's Well That Ends Well at that time as the Bell text, the Drury Lane production, or the 1773 text, since the Bell text records the play “as performed at the Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane (London: John Bell, 1773).” Folger prompt AW3 uses this edition although it is marked with later changes by an unknown hand (n.d.).

  3. In Love's Labour's Lost, a similar kind of error in coupling of characters occurs. There, we tend to parallel characters because they are love-matched couples, for example, Berowne and Rosaline. In reality, however, the primary intellectually and verbally matched couple is Berowne and the Princess of France. For a full discussion of this, see chapter 2 of Irene Dash's Wooing, Wedding, and Power.

  4. In some ways Helena's lines, with their hesitation and emotional intensity, resemble Leontes's in I.ii of The Winter's Tale when he is tormented by thoughts of his wife's unfaithfulness (108-46, 185-206 continuing intermittently to 333). As Susan Snyder observes, the exact meaning of this passage has been debated. Some scholars even believe that lines have been omitted and “recent textual work has uncovered signs of authorial second thoughts” (68). Snyder offers a detailed analysis of various interpretations of this section.

  5. According to the Concordance, Helena and Parolles have an almost equal number of speeches, lines, and words, thus dominating the action. Whereas Helena has more lines and words (15.8 percent of each) than Parolles (12.8 percent and 13.25 percent), he has the greater number of speeches (15.0 percent to her 11.6 percent). Spevack, Concordance 1:1015-1121.

  6. See David Haley's discussion of the role of alchemical medicine in this play, especially 58-101, 224-37.

  7. These lines appear in the Kemble 1793 acting text (5). However, after having reduced the soliloquy to these two lines (121 and 129 in Shakespeare's text), Kemble then found them sequentially weak and transposed them in his 1811 version (10).

  8. See, for example Farnham and Lundberg's Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947), a popular work of the time.

  9. See Joseph Price's excellent book for a review and analysis of the criticism.

  10. See chapter 5, “A Woman Tamed,” on Othello in Wooing, Wedding, and Power for a discussion of the problems in criticism of the play and the frequent failure of critics to recognize Desdemona as a complex woman character entering an unorthodox marriage.

  11. When the Princess of France warns the King of Navarre, “your Grace is perjur’d much, … / Your oath I will not trust” (LLL V.ii.790, 794), she is saying in a comedy what Juliet says in a tragedy when she warns Romeo “Do not swear at all (Rom II.ii.112). The dramatist in each case is illustrating the ease with which men swear and the skepticism of women. For further discussion, see chapters 2, 4, and 8 in Wooing, Wedding, and Power.


Dash, Irene G. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Farnham, Marynia, and Ferdinand Lundberg. Modern Women: The Lost Sex. New York: Harper, 1947.

Haley, David. Shakespeare’s Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.

Kelso, Ruth. Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1956.

[Kemble, J. P.] Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, with Alterations by J. P. Kemble, As … Performed … [at] the Theatre-Royal, Drury-Lane. London: J. Debrett, 1793.

Klein, Joan Larsen, ed. Daughters, Wives, and Widows: Writings by Men About Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1604. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Pedicord, Harry William, and Frederick Louis Bergmann, eds. Garrick’s Adaptations of Shakespeare. Vols. 3 and 4 of The Plays of David Garrick. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981.

Price, Joseph. The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of “All’s Well That Ends Well” and Its Critics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.

Snyder, Susan. “All's Well that Ends Well and Shakespeare’s Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object.” ELR 18 (1988): 66-77.

Spevack, Marvin. A Complete Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare. 6 vols. Hildesheim, Germany: George Olms, 1968-70.

Stone, George Winchester, Jr. “Garrick’s Handling of Shakespeare’s Plays and His Influence upon the Changed Attitude of Shakespearean Criticism During the Eighteenth Century.” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1940.

Vives, Juan Luis. A Very Fruitful and Pleasant Booke, called the Instruction of a Christian Women. Translated by Richard Hyrde. London: Printed by Robert Walde-grave, 1585.

Whately, William. A Bride-bush, or A Wedding Sermon: Compendiously describing the duties of Married Persons: By performing whereof, Marriage shall be to them a great Helpe, which now finde it a little Hell. Printed at London by William Jaggard, for Nicholas Bourne, and are to be sold at his shop at the entrace into the Royall Exchange, 1617.

Richard P. Wheeler (essay date 1981)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4605

SOURCE: “Imperial Love and the Dark House: All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 45-56.

[In the following excerpt, Wheeler examines the comic patterns of All's Well That Ends Well, claiming that they “radically change the comic spirit of All's Well from that of earlier comedies.”]

lavatch That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!

Northrop Frye, in “The Argument of Comedy,” called attention to the unusual turn Shakespeare gives the typical comic pattern in All's Well:

The normal comic resolution is the surrender of the senex to the hero, never the reverse. Shakespeare tried to reverse the pattern in All's Well That Ends Well, where the king of France forces Bertram to marry Helena, and the critics have not yet stopped making faces over it.1

In Shakespeare's comedies, however, the senex is rarely a competing suitor, and never is this role of central importance. Although the aged and wealthy Gremio courts Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio has his future wife's father—a more typical role for old men in Shakespearean comedy—on his side in courting Kate. Shakespeare regularly takes pains to see to it that loving couples will not have their love excessively obstructed or compromised by the jealous claims of fathers on their daughters. Once, with Oberon's help, love has worked itself out in the forest of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the obstructive Egeus is superseded by higher authority when Theseus sanctions the marriage of Hermia to Lysander. Egeus's role, though essential to the plot, is of minor significance in the drama of discordant love. When Bassanio solves the riddle of the caskets in The Merchant of Venice, that obstacle to marriage reveals itself as a symbol of protective paternal wisdom rather than unwarranted intrusion. Often the heroines have dead and esteemed fathers, like Portia or Viola or Beatrice, or loving and compliant ones like Rosalind, who in As You Like It succinctly expresses the liberation from paternal ties that facilitates romantic triumph in the comedies: “But what talk we of fathers when there is such a man as Orlando?” (III.iv.34-35). Villainous fathers, when they are central to comic plots, do not stand directly in the way of the principal loving union, nor do they effectively block the marriages of their own daughters. Shylock, for all the power he exerts in The Merchant of Venice, is easily evaded by Jessica; in As You Like It Celia marries a man whose lands have been seized by her father, the usurping Duke Frederick.

Comic heroes, like Orlando in As You Like It, also often have dead and esteemed fathers—when their parentage is mentioned at all. Living fathers of heroes appear on stage only in the first three comedies Shakespeare writes (Egeon in The Comedy of Errors; Vincentio, Lucentio's father in Shrew; and Antonio, father to Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona), where the indebtedness to Terentian and Plautine models is strongest. Dead fathers who are mentioned do not reach out from the grave to obstruct the love plot. Indeed, Petruchio seems to feel liberated by his father's death in Shrew; Sir Rowland de Boys not only lives in spirit in Orlando, but his past friendship with the duke is instrumental in sealing Orlando's match with Rosalind in As You Like It.

But perhaps more significantly for understanding All's Well in relation to earlier comedies, no comic hero or heroine has a mother whose presence, either as memory or as living person, is of central importance (a curious exception occurs when the mother of the twin Syracrusians appears in the final scene of The Comedy of Errors). The mother, often the “son's ally” in New Comedy (Frye, “Argument,” p. 58), is virtually omitted from Shakespearean comedy, until she becomes a significant figure, first Bertram's ally, then Helena's, in All's Well. In those comic actions that dramatize the renewal of the family and the transmission of family heritage, Shakespeare, through the virtual elimination of mothers and the minimization of roles traditionally played by fathers in New Comedy, carefully plays down the potential for disruption in relations across generations.

With what Frye calls the reversal of the usual comic pattern in All's Well, such disruptions are introduced directly into the play. Conflict in All's Well invariably occurs in contexts that include a parent or surrogate parent, the countess, the king, or Diana's mother, all of whom are present and important in the final scene. All's Well begins with a potential loosening of family ties as Bertram prepares to leave home for the court. Like many comparable characters in the festive comedies, both Bertram and Helena have recently lost to death worthy fathers. The value of each of them is understood in relation to that father; Helena “inherits” her father's disposition, Bertram his “father's face,” and, the king hopes, his “moral parts” as well. Like Viola and Olivia in Twelfth Night, each has the task of going beyond mourning to find his or her own place in life, and each has a plan for doing this. But the movement outward into adult identities is greatly complicated in All's Well by developments that relate the younger generation to the old.

These complications consistently redefine the young characters in their roles as children—Bertram as promising then as rebellious son, Helena as virtuous and increasingly beloved daughter. Bertram will find at court a “father” in the king, who will also serve, in Lafew's explanation, as a “husband” to the countess. The countess also becomes a mother to Helena: “If she had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother, I could not have owed her a more rooted love” (IV.v.9-11). Family bonds are not severed by death, but reconstructed and rescued from death. The countess, who often talks about dying, is greeted by Helena in the final scene: “O my dear mother, do I see you living?” (V.iii.316). The king, rather than die from his fistula, becomes through Helena's cure “of as able body as when he numbered thirty” (IV.v.75-76). This play, which begins with the separation of children from parents, ends when Diana's mother brings Helena on stage, to be presented to the king and the countess as well as to Bertram. The final union of the young couple is defined, not by its liberation from ties of family, but by parental sanction retrieved from the threat of parental repudiation and punishment.

These altered conditions radically change the comic spirit of All's Well from that of earlier comedies. But perhaps they represent less a reversal of Shakespeare's usual comic pattern than a forcing into the action of conditions latent in previous plays. Shakespearean comedy, like New Comedy, dramatizes the cultural crisis perpetually reenacted when bonds of family and friendship must yield to sexual passion and the bond of marriage. The movement through and beyond friendship plays a prominent role, often more visible than the movement beyond family, in these plays. In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio must be freed from the binding power of Antonio's love, as in Much Ado About Nothing Benedick must be freed from his self-identification as soldier and comrade, if the key marriages of these plays are to be completed. In Merchant, a crisis in the friendship of Bassanio and Antonio temporarily disrupts the marriage of Bassanio and Portia; the disrupted wedding of Claudio to Hero forces a crisis in Benedick's friendship with Claudio in Much Ado. In As You Like It, Rosalind exploits her disguise as Ganymede by forming a friendship with Orlando. As Ganymede, and as Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind, Rosalind uses the familiarity of friendship Orlando grants her as a boy to bring his naive love a step closer to an awareness of the human properties of his exalted beloved. In each case, a liberation from or a movement through and beyond friendship is performed that is consistent with the capacity Bertram develops to free himself from Parolles, although this friendship is unusual among the comedies in being presented as a bogus relationship in and of itself. More important, however, for understanding All's Well in relation to earlier comedies are complications in the comic movement beyond family ties.

Frye suggested that New Comedy dramatizes a “comic Oedipus situation” in which a young man (the son in the Oedipus triangle) outwits a father or father-figure to win the love of a young woman (“Argument,” p. 58).2 Such a heroine presents an image of the youthful mother that a son loved and thought himself to possess as a child. In this framework, the comic movement toward marriage builds on fantasies of triumphant return to a time in which a boy thought himself in complete possession of a mother's love, and the father could still be regarded as an unwelcome intruder, susceptible, at least in the child's imagination, to magical exclusion. The cunning slave, so often the young hero's ally in New Comedy, and the “efficient cause” (p. 59) in Frye's analysis, perhaps represents an extension of this magical resourcefulness, serving the son's sexual aspirations, and yet independent enough of him to preserve his innocence in the contest with the father. The “material cause,” Frye argued, is the “young man's sexual desire,” which may be fulfilled when “it turns out that she [the young woman, “usually a slave or courtesan”] is not under an insuperable taboo after all but is an accessible object of desire, so that the plot follows the regular wish-fulfillment pattern” (pp. 58, 59). In Shakespearean comedy, however, the young man rarely seems to be driven by overpowering sexual longing, and the women are typically high-born daughters of noble fathers, suggesting that the Oedipus situation stands in a very different relation to the comic action than in Plautus or Terrence.

Freud has shown that a typical result of the incest barrier formed by repression is to deflect the feelings of young men for women along two different paths: toward sexual relations with women who are in some way degraded, and toward idealized and sexually inhibited relations with women chosen after the model of the mother.3 The device in New Comedy by which the sexually desired young woman often turns out to be nobly born after all is a way of synthesizing in drama these two separate paths, so that they ultimately converge on the same woman. But in the two comedies that seem most closely to resemble All's Well, particularly in the characterization of the heroine, Bassanio's love for Portia and Orlando's love for Rosalind follow the idealization pattern from the beginning. Bassanio loves a Portia of “wondrous virtues” (I.i.163), Orlando the “fair, the chaste, and unexpressive” (III.ii.10) Rosalind; neither expresses nor demonstrates compelling sexual ardor. And very little happens in these plays to suggest that either Bassanio or Orlando has been liberated significantly from the “aim-inhibited,” idealizing trends in their loves.

Orlando and Bassanio are less driven by a desire to possess their women sexually than to be possessed by them, and the possession they long for seems to exclude or minimize sexual desire. Orlando, for instance, associating Rosalind with the chaste goddess Diana, longs to surround himself with a forest in which every tree will bear “thy huntress' name that my full life doth sway” (III.ii.4). The heroines seem to be attractive to these men because of their susceptibility to idealization and their practical strength and resourcefulness in creating conditions that make the marriage arrangements possible.

Sexual desire for men in such comedies tends to be deflected away from the hero into the language, and sometimes the actions, of secondary figures, especially clowns or fools. Touchstone, for instance, wittily deflates romantic love to mere sexual desire, both in his bawdy recasting of Orlando's poetry and in his pursuit of the country wench Audrey. C. L. Barber catches exactly the dramatic purpose Touchstone serves in relation to the “play's romance”: “the fool's cynicism, or one-sided realism, forestalls the cynicism with which the audience might greet a play where his sort of realism has been ignored.”4 But the separation of “instinct” in Touchstone from idealizing sentiment in Orlando suggests psychological necessity as well as dramatic strategy in As You Like It. Orlando fills perfectly the role Shakespeare gives him, but that role reflects constraints essential to Orlando's relation to the psychological base of comic form in the festive comedies, which demands that ardent sexual longing and idealizing love be kept separate. Touchstone's function is not only to counterpoint the hero's idealizing love, but to protect it. The force of sexual degradation and the threat of sexual anxiety are released through the fool's bawdy wit without invading the hero's love; but the full integration of sexual desire and serious love remains a promise, not an achieved dramatic reality, at the play's end.

Bassanio and Orlando pursue an image of the beloved that builds on a child's need to inhabit a world presided over by a benevolent, powerful mother, a need strong enough that a boy sacrifices his sexual claim on a mother to it when desire and dependence come into conflict with each other. This need is vital particularly at those moments when a child relinquishes his precarious autonomy for a reassuring maternal presence able to supplant threatening reality with magically protective intimacy. The dramatic resolutions of Merchant and As You Like It are curiously akin to such moments. Portia presides over the end of Merchant, teasing and generous, seductive and aloof, furnishing from within her position of complete control a wife for Bassanio and “life and living” for Antonio. Rosalind, as she accepts in the last scene of As You Like It her womanly positions as daughter and wife, provides magical dispensations of happiness through union and reunion that suggest the intervention of a generous mother to put things right. Indeed, Rosalind has overseen the boyish tribulations of Orlando, and of Silvius as well, with the playful, semi-indulgent patience of a confident mother observing and directing the games of children. Lorenzo's closing remark to Portia and Nerissa assimilates them to the need for loving nurture that forms the first bond of love an infant experiences: “Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starvèd people” (V.i.294-95). Each of these plays culminates in a gesture of submission before the magical, maternal presence of a strong, wise, loving woman. In these plays, Shakespeare must deemphasize the potential for parental conflict and with it the sexual dimension of desire, because the hero's love includes within itself a need for maternal presence potentially disruptive of the movement into the sexual bond of marriage.

Bertram closely resembles such heroes as Bassanio and Orlando. All are young, inexperienced, eager, ambitious; each has less depth of characterization than the woman he marries. Each is intent on a course of self-fulfillment, which Bassanio and Orlando are able to achieve because of the actions of Portia and Rosalind. But Bertram is unable to achieve what he wants because of the actions of Helena. With the formidable backing of the king and the countess, characters who have no very exact predecessors in the festive comedies, Helena presses the comic hero for the first time to come to terms with a sexual bond within the play itself. Dramatically, the presence of the older generation intensifies the stress brought on by this alteration of the comic plot. Psychologically, however, the presence of the king and countess does not so much engender conflict as represent the unconscious association of sexuality and family ties forced into the action in All's Well when the marriage is pushed forward into the second act.

The clown's role in All's Well reflects the changes that occur in the main plot. Lavatch, whom Frye calls “the most mirthless even of Shakespeare's clowns,”5 and who is often regarded as a rather desperate departure from his predecessors,6 can behave much like earlier clowns, as when he wittily exposes Parolles as a fool (II.iv.) or plays on the sexual connotations of his “bauble” (IV.v.). When he first appears, Lavatch seems to be a nearly direct descendant of Touchstone, who in As You Like It justifies his marriage to Audrey as a necessary accommodation to the constraints and liabilities of sexual drives: “As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon her bells, so man hath his desires; and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling” (III.iii.69-71). Lavatch would marry Isbel because “my poor body, madam, requires it.” Like Touchstone, he is “driven on by my flesh,” though he introduces a rather darker association than Touchstone's analogies from the animal kingdom: “he must needs go that the devil drives” (I.iii.28-30). But instead of resigning himself to cuckoldry in marriage (like Touchstone: “As horns are odious, they are necessary” [III.iii.45-46]), Lavatch welcomes it,

for the knaves come to do that for me which I am aweary of. He that ears my land spares my team and gives me leave to in the crop; if I be his cuckold, he’s my druge. (I.iii.40-43)

By the time he returns from court, bringing Bertram's letter instead of Bertram himself, “your old ling and your Isbels o’ th’ court” have led Lavatch to forgo sexual desire altogether: “The brains of my Cupid's knocked out, and I begin to love, as an old man loves money, with no stomach” (III.ii.14-16).

When he declares that he has lost his stomach for passion, Lavatch parodies and generalizes Bertram's response to marital sexuality; each response serves, in a different way, a common purpose. Lavatch makes the connection between the two when he comments on Bertram's flight. Since her son has run away, Lavatch tells the countess, Bertram “will not be killed so soon as I thought he would. … The danger is in standing to’t; that’s the loss of men, though it be the getting of children” (III.ii.36-37; 40-41). Lavatch here identifies sexuality and emasculation in precisely the way Bertram identifies them when he rejects his marriage to Helena. Bertram's flight from marital sexuality, from “the dark house and the detested wife,” is matched by his flight into licentious sexuality apart from marriage; both flights reflect his vulnerability in relations to women, and both are related to the more general rejection of sexual desire expressed by Lavatch.

“A shrewd knave and an unhappy,” Lavatch remains at Rossillion by the authority of Bertram's dead father, who “made himself much sport out of him” (IV.v.59-61). Although he is not a member of the Rossillion family, part of his role is to articulate tensions generated by the pervasive concern with family bonds in this play. Lavatch is like a child who endures all the inhibiting force of parental constraints, and who exchanges the right to grow beyond them into manhood for the clown's privilege of expressing with witty aggression the child's anxieties in an adult world that is both his home and his confinement. When he recounts his withdrawal from sexual desire, Lavatch expresses the most primitive, infantile level of Bertram's response to marriage with Helena. But that response, like the sexual anxiety that engenders it, threatens the effort to affirm a masculine identity. Bertram's compulsive effort to seduce Diana in Florence suggests that his seductive ardor is a means of defending himself against complete surrender to sexual inhibition so that he may prove to himself that his potency has survived the threat aroused by the incestuous dimension of his marriage.

Earlier, when Lavatch is accused by the countess of corrupting a song, he claims to have accomplished a “purifying” of it, for he has sung the prospect of “one good woman in ten. … Would God would serve the world so all the year! … An we might have a good woman born but or every blazing star, or at an earthquake, ’twould mend the lottery well; a man may draw his heart out ere ’a pluck one” (I.iii.78-84). Here Lavatch does not speak the bawdy raillery of earlier clowns but an ironically detached version of the misogyny that torments Hamlet and Iago. All's Well belongs to a phase of Shakespeare's development when the forceful presence of a woman is often perceived, or misperceived, as a deep threat to a tragic hero's manhood. Lavatch gives comic voice to a mistrust of women as potential destroyers of manhood tragically present in Hamlet and Othello. When the countess commands him to “be gone,” Lavatch responds: “That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!” (I.iii.85; 87-88). Lavatch's droll, ironic astonishment, if expressed in a more desperate vein, would indicate that point at which Bertram's experience breaks with that of earlier comic heroes and links up with the world of Hamlet and the tragedies. When Parolles counsels flight for Bertram, he speaks to a center of anxiety in the young count analogous to the vulnerability Iago exploits when he urges Othello to “be a man” (IV.i.65) by destroying the unsettling sexual presence of Desdemona. Bertram's flight, indeed, is a comic version of such destruction, completed symbolically by Helena's apparent death, by Bertram's relief that she is dead, and by the king's suspicion in the last act that Bertram may have been directly responsible for killing her.

In both Bassanio's high-spirited journey to Belmont and Orlando's venture to find “some settled low content” (II.iii.68) in Arden, the young hero's effort to set out for himself is inseparable from his effort to court the heroine. Each of these young men pursues his own ends within relationships that come under the pervasive control of the heroine, until his own adventure of self-definition is absorbed into a comic movement that culminates when the heroine puts every one in place, including the hero, in the festive community she has created. The ready compliance of earlier comic heroes gives way to recalcitrance in All's Well when Bertram encounters the demand that he submit himself sexually to a woman he sees as part of his family, and who is backed by a king whose manhood nullifies his own. But when the force behind his aversion to Helena is acknowledged, Bertram's actions seem less those of a uniquely reprehensible character than those of a typical comic hero who finds himself at the center of deep psychological conflict from which his predecessors have been carefully protected.

Bertram's response to Helena creates for Shakespeare an unprecedented conflict between the inner dimension of Bertram's experience and the demands of comic form. This conflict expresses the tension between comic form as Shakespeare has used it up to this point and developments that have recentered his art in tragedy. Bertram's flight from Helena and his quest for autonomous selfhood develop in embryonic and ultimately aborted form psychological issues dealt with masterfully and sympathetically in the tragedies; the form of the play extends the movement toward marriage, often presided over by a strong, active woman, which works out happily in the festive comedies. This tension between the play's design and its psychological content can only be intensified by efforts to resolve it. Helena can meet Bertram's mocking conditions for accepting the marriage only by becoming more powerful and sexually aggressive. But her efforts exaggerate conditions responsible for his initial flight. Whatever Bertram's accomplishments in Italy (and no other comic hero can offer comparable achievements), from the perspective of his home and the French court Bertram becomes increasingly boyish and dependent, Helena increasingly a woman of exceptional strength and virtue, until they almost seem to parody the subtler mismatches of Bassanio with Portia, Orlando with Rosalind.

It could be argued that the completion of their sexual union in Florence exorcises incestuous associations that have interrupted their marriage; Bertram does have intercourse with Helena, and makes her pregnant, even though he thinks she is someone else. But the play does little to suggest that the bed trick, which allows the comic plot to be completed, significantly alters the psychological conditions that have made it necessary. The integration of sexuality and the marriage bond thus accomplished seems to be almost purely contractual, a near fulfillment of the terms Bertram has expressed in his letter to Helena:

When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never.’


When Bertram receives news that Helena is dead, he tucks his hasty grief among the “sixteen businesses” he transacts in his busy last night in Florence, including his apparent seduction of Diana and his witnessing of Parolles' exposure. Helena's death fulfills a wish generated by his position in the play; as the king later says, “thou didst hate her deadly, / And she is dead” (V.iii.117-18). With Helena dead, Bertram can return home to “my lady mother.” But the strongly developed movement toward illicit sexuality for Bertram is never countered by a comparable movement toward acceptance of the marriage to Helena. The brief exchange between Helena and Bertram when they are united in the final scene, though it can be bolstered by theatrical production, hardly seems substantial enough to provide a fully dramatic resolution of the complex psychological conflict that has led into it. Bertram briefly acknowledges that Helena is a wife both in name and substance: “Both, both; O, pardon!” (V.iii.304). When presented with his ring and his letter, “doubly won” Bertram responds with this rather dismal and curiously conditional couplet—addressed not to Helena, but to the king: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I’ll love her dearly—ever, ever dearly” (V.iii.312-13).

Bassanio is not much more, and Orlando even less, loquacious when, the complications of their plays finally resolved, these men are united with their spouses. But in both Merchant and As You Like It, these inevitable unions, unobstructed by any reluctance on the part of the comic heroes, are carried by the sweeping force of festive celebrations of marriage and community. Instead of dramatizing conditions that facilitate a completed union between Bertram and Helena, the last scene of All's Well emphasizes Bertram's place in the social and moral world of the king—first by the effort to find a marriage that the king can newly sanction and then by the considerable energy expended in showing how badly Bertram has behaved, and continues to behave, as his new beginning in France inaugurates a new set of lies on his part. …


  1. English Institute Essays 1948, ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), p. 59.

  2. For a more rigorously psychoanalytic consideration of this comic pattern, see Ludwig Jekels, “On the Psychology of Comedy” (1926), tr. I. Jarosy, in Theories of Comedy, ed. Paul Lautner (New York: Doubleday, 1964), pp. 424-31.

  3. “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, vol. 11 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1957), pp. 179-90.

  4. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 232.

  5. A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), p. 105.

  6. Lawrence found Lavatch “a thoroughly unsavory fellow” who ordinarily provides “rather poor comic relief”; like Parolles, he has “none of the geniality with which Shakespeare often endows his depraved characters” (Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, pp. 64-65, 66). E. M. W. Tillyard saw in Lavatch “the Clown who hates being such” (Shakespeare's Problem Plays [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1949], p. 111).

David Scott Kastan (essay date 1985)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5503

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” in ELH, Vol. 52, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 575-89.

[In the following essay, Kastan explores the problematic view of comedy presented in All's Well That Ends Well.]

Renaissance theories of comedy generally stress its moral function: “Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life,” says Sidney, which the comic poet “represents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.”1 Comedy, then, is at once critical and corrective, holding the mirror up to degenerate nature so that the viewer may see and repudiate its images of human folly.

Thomas Heywood similarly conceives comedy's function:

either in the shape of a clown to shew others their slovenly and unhandsome behaviour, that they may reforme that simplicity in themselves which others make their sport, lest they happen to become the like subject of generall scorne to an auditory; else intreates of love, deriding foolish inamorates, who spend their ages, their spirits, nay themselves, in the servile and ridiculous employments of their mistresses.

But Heywood knows that Sidney's moral claims for comedy will not fully account for its strategies and structure. Comedy does provide examples of behavior to be shunned, but, Heywood continues,

these are mingled with sportfull accidents, to recreate such as of themselves are wholly devoted to melancholly which corrupts the bloud, or to refresh such weary spirits as are tired with labour or study, to moderate the cares and heavinesse of the minde, that they may returne to their trades and faculties with more zeal and earnestnesse after some small, soft and pleasant retirement.2

Here comedy both reforms and refreshes, as Heywood grafts onto Sidney's exemplary notion a recreative conception. Reluctantly he acknowledges that comedy is not merely a glass of moral behavior, but lest its “harmless mirth” seem frivolous he carefully subordinates its pleasure to social utility: comedy's “sportfull accidents” become a scheme for increasing worker productivity, sending its audience back “to their trades and faculties with more zeal and earnestnesse.”

Interestingly, neither Sidney nor Heywood mentions comedy's most obvious formal characteristic—its happy ending. Medieval definitions, derived from the fourth-century grammarians, insist that comedy enacts the triumph of joy over sorrow,3 but both Sidney and Heywood ignore this formal fact, as if any such acknowledgment would detract from their moral claims. Sidney's mimetic conception of comic character and incident, and Heywood's added notion of an invigorative comic effect both imply an easy transaction between the play world and the real world of the audience. Happy endings, however, threaten to deny or at very least restrict this transaction, reminding us by their too ready compliance with our wishes that comedy is more fully responsive to human desire and design than life is.

This willingness to gratify human desires in the face of the evidence of human experience discomforts those who demand moral utility from art. Bacon complains that “the Stage is more beholding to Love than the Life of Man,”4 but comedy, in spite of the claims its moral defenders make for it, is not a representation of life. If comedy serves human need it does so precisely by its refusal to represent life, by its self-conscious repudiation of life's imperfection. According to the generic definitions derived from the late classical commentaries on Terence, comic action—unlike tragic—is to be feigned rather than drawn from history, testifying to comedy's freedom to shape its fiction into comforting patterns of wish fulfillment.5

Shakespeare's comedies at once enjoy and explore this freedom, and in the process seek to break free from the withering dialectic of comedy that has “truth” and “falsehood” as its polar terms. Shakespeare flaunts his willingness to gratify our hopes and desires, flaunts the comedies' subordination of reality to the pleasure principle. “Comedy,” according to the induction of Mucedorus, “is mild, gentle, willing for to please,”6 and Shakespearean comedy is “as you like it” or “what you will”; it offers not an image of a perfect world—comedy portrays Ardens, not Edens—but images of a world whose imperfections, however improbably, yield to the comic logic: “Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love.”7 The laws of comic form conveniently triumph over the hostile laws of cities like Ephesus or Athens, presenting us not with “an imitation of the common errors of our life” (as Sidney understood comedy) but with examples of our common hopes for harmony and happiness, common dreams of a reality responsive to the manipulation of the will.8

Yet we are never completely released to the appeal of our hopes and dreams; we are made to recognize that they become articulate only as we willfully and insistently deny reality. The cost of our dreams, then, is the inescapable reminder that they are only dreams. Twelfth Night ends with the marvelous triumph of rearrangement and revelation, but what determines its propriety and effectiveness is a logic of comedy rather than of character. We are prepared for a happy end; the characters are not.

To call attention to the formal rather than the psychological justifications of its conclusion, however, is not to engage in the critical activity Richard Levin has called “refuting the ending.”9 It is not to find the ending either inadequate or ironic, but only to see it as it is: as a self-consciously improbable—though thoroughly desirable—resolution of loyalties and affections. But we can hardly deny that it lacks credibility.10 Olivia marries Sebastian unaware that he is not Cesario, unaware that Sebastian even exists, and Orsino proposes to Viola within seconds of learning that she is not Cesario, while she is still dressed as a man:

                                        Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.


Certainly if Shakespeare were trying to convince us that these are marriages of true minds other tactics would be employed, but at the end of Twelfth Night the resolution is formal rather than emotional, as the reunion of the twins makes clear. Twins separated for only three months would hardly need to test their identities in order to reestablish their relationship; Viola and Sebastian, however, enact a scene of discovery out of Heliodorus or Cox and Box:

Viola: My father had a mole
upon his brow.
Sebastian: And so had mine.


It is difficult for any ending to avoid seeming forced and artificial. “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere,” Henry James reminds us in the preface to Roderick Hudson, “and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle in which they shall happily appear to do so.”11 In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare happily draws the circle of formal completion, but the arbitrariness of his design calls attention to the geometry of his fiction rather than to the inevitability of the form. Shakespeare, not time, untangles the knots of frustration and confusion that have inhibited the comic triumph. The action ends well, but manifestly because the playwright has decreed that it will.

The satisfactions that the ending yields are the satisfactions of form. The play asserts not the ability of reality so conveniently to shape itself to our desires but only of art to do so. Comedy triumphs here, extravagantly demonstrating its willingness to please, as Feste reminds us:

A great while ago the world begun,
                    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
But that’s all one, our play is done,
                    And we’ll strive to please you every day.


Shakespeare's comedy, then, is neither a mirror of life nor merely a diversion from it. It is neither curative nor anodyne. Rather it is palliative. No doubt we must say that comedy is too good to be true but not, as the moral critics fear, too good to be good. Its action and our response to it attest powerfully to the need for—and the possibility of—the experience of harmony, to the appeal of “beauty,” as we once might have termed it, rather than to the authority of “truth.” But if this is a victory for comedy, the triumph is limited by the reminder, “Our play is done.” Though the actors promise that they will strive to please us every day, even their willing exertions cannot turn London into Illyria, except during “the two hours' traffic of our stage.”

In the so-called problem comedies,12 however, the exertions of the actors cannot turn even Illyria into Illyria; the comic resolution does not release comic celebration. “All is well ended,” says the King in the epilogue of All's Well That Ends Well, “if this suit be won, / That you express content”; yet “content” is not what we feel. Usually comedy gratifies what tragedy frustrates—“the fictive aspirations,” in Paul Hernadi's phrase, that “Shakespeare has led us to endorse.”13 But the problem of the problem comedies is that although fictive aspirations have been gratified (thus the plays are not tragedies), we have not been led to endorse these aspirations; indeed we have been made suspicious of them (thus the plays are not precisely comedies). They are generic mixtures, or generic mutations, that lead us to withhold our endorsement by making the gratification of desire appear so willfully manipulated and contrived. Precisely what makes the plays comedies, then, is what leads us to deny them that status.

The contrivance of the romantic comedies, as we have seen, establishes them literally as play worlds, worlds of make-believe, witnessing to Shakespeare's manipulation and control, and freeing us to delight in them. In the problem comedies the contrivance is the characters' own and is throughout too self-regarding, too unresponsive to the needs and desires of others, to permit our delight. We are forced to recognize that comic triumph is not innocent, that event usually will not yield to desire without some other desire yielding to event; that is, we are forced to contest the claim that “all's well that ends well.”

The epigrammatic title of Shakespeare's play may virtually serve as a definition of comedy, and appropriately the play is Shakespeare's most insistent exploration of the nature of the comic assertion—indeed of the idea of comedy itself. Nonetheless, its own “most lame and impotent conclusion” has won it few admirers. (Critics apparently prefer to do their own refuting of Shakespeare's endings rather than attend to the ones Shakespeare refutes for them.) Jack has his Jill—or, more properly, Jill her Jack—but we remain unpersuaded that all has ended well. Bertram, to whom Dr. Johnson was unable to “reconcile” his heart, is, in Johnson's phrase, “dismissed to happiness”14; and though Helena finally does earn Bertram's love, she succeeds through a tenacity too nearly predatory to be completely attractive or satisfying. If they stand together at the play's end, it is with the knowledge that the process that has brought them there has humiliated each.

The ending is thus appropriately couched in qualifications and conditionals:

All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.


Tortuously, the comedy has achieved a realignment and reintegration of its society, as comedy must, but the stability of even the subdued and sober resolution that is achieved is called into question by the King's offer to Diana: “choose thou thy husband, and I’ll pay the dower” (5.3.324). The King, of course, had made the same offer to Helena, and now the possibility of a second imposed marriage shows how little has been learned, and threatens to reinitiate the action of the play.

In spite of its title, the play refuses to end well, indeed virtually refuses to end at all; but, pointedly, it is the desire for comic endings that has informed—and deformed—the action throughout.15 Helena carefully plots a New Comedy. Her conversation with Parolles has rescued her from passivity, animating her previously “slow designs” (1.1.211), and she commits herself to overcoming the barrier she sees to love's fulfillment. “Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love” (1.1.218-19), she asks, then confidently sets off for Paris in order to display her merit and gain her love.

Her plot—on the level of plot—is successful. She cures the King's fistula, is given freedom to choose a husband, selects and marries Bertram. But here she is made to see the limitations of formal control. Bertram can be compelled to marry but he cannot be compelled to love; and when it is clear he will not, Helena is content to withdraw her claim:

That you are well restored, my lord, I’m glad.
Let the rest go.


The King, however, will not “let the rest go.” His “honor's at the stake” (2.3.148); if her comic powers have proven inadequate, his, he feels, are able to enforce Bertram's submission to the comic design:

                                        Here, take her hand,
Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift,
That dost in vile misprision shackle up
My love and her desert.


But it is Bertram's love that is at issue here—not the King's—and that love can neither be deserved nor compelled. The barrier to the fulfillment of Helena's New Comic plot is revealed to be not Helena's social class or even Bertram's intractable snobbery, but an inadequate conception of love—or, put differently, an inadequate conception of comedy, a conception that would exclusively formalize comic action, shaping comic characters and events to our desires.

Of course, this describes almost exactly the procedure of Shakespeare's romantic comedy, but All's Well That Ends Well raises doubts about both the aesthetics and the ethics of this kind of comedy. It is not so much tragicomic as anticomic. Bertram is “crushed” with Helena's plot. The healing of the King has no logical relation to Helena's marital hopes, nor can an appeal to the folktale origins of the story remove the unpleasantness.16 Bertram's ungenerous response reminds us that this is not a folktale. “Why then, young Bertram, take her; she’s thy wife,” the King instructs, and Bertram hesitates: “my wife, my liege?” Irritated by Bertram's resistance, the King tries to justify the match:

                                        Know’st thou not, Bertram,
What she has done for me?

And Bertram's reply testifies to the play's distance from the comic paradigm that underlies it:

                                        Yes, my good lord,
But never hope to know why I should marry her.

(2.3.104-5, 107-9)

Bertram has become one of those refuters of the ending, refusing to bow gracefully before the logic of the form. He insists upon his psychological integrity rather than accepting his role within the comic design. When he does submit, he bows grudgingly to necessity rather than to love, to the King rather than to Helena: “I submit / My fancy to your eyes” (2.3.166-67). And if he is forced to take Helena's hand, he drops it at the first opportunity: “Tomorrow / I’ll to the wars, she to her single sorrow” (2.3.289-90). At the end of Helena's New Comedy, no “golden time convents” like that which the Duke promises at the end of Twelfth Night (5.1.371). Here Bertram rejects and perverts comedy's promise of permanence and stability: “I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” (3.2.20-22).

Bertram's unintended pun, of course, alerts us that, though the play's first example of comic designing has failed, others must follow. In act 5, scene 3, believing Helena dead, the King, with the aid of the Countess, again attempts his comic artistry. The play is now not Plautine but Christian, not New Comedy but a prodigal-son play.17 The Countess urges the King to forgive her erring son:

                                        ’Tis past, my liege,
And I beseech your majesty to make it
Natural rebellion done i’th’blade of youth.


“Make it” most obviously means “consider it” but it also suggests that such a consideration is a willful imposition upon disagreeable and recalcitrant facts. Again comedy will occur when character and event are shaped by desire. “I have forgiven and forgotten all” (5.3.9), the King assures the Countess. “We are reconciled,” he says, and to Bertram he promises: “the time is fair again” (5.3.21, 36). The erring son has returned home, and the King celebrates the reformation of Bertram and the re-formation of the comic society:

                                        All is whole
Not one word more of the consumèd time.


Clearly, however, the wholeness that comedy would effect is merely asserted here, not achieved. The King would banish memories of the disturbing past, but the “consumèd time” will not easily be forgotten, a fact the King's language betrays even as he denies it:

                                        Let him not ask our pardon;
The nature of his great offense is dead,
And deeper than oblivion do we bury
Th’incensing relics of it.


Though the King claims to have “forgiven and forgotten all,” Bertram's “offense” is still “great” and the “relics” still “incensing.” The fragility of this comic plot is obvious, and with the discovery of Helena's ring this effort happily to end the action with the marriage of Bertram and fair Maudlin must itself be abandoned. “I am wrapped in dismal thinkings” (5.3.128), the King reluctantly admits.

If the King temporarily resigns his role as comic manipulator, Helena has not completely abandoned her comic aspirations. Bertram's letter declaring his intention never to live with Helena contains in its only apparently impossible conditions the means by which he may be forced to do so. In Florence when Helena discovers Bertram's pursuit of Diana,18 she realizes that she may even now “rough-hew” the ending she desires: “Doubt not,” she says to the widow,

                                        but heaven
Hath brought me up to be your daughter's dower,
As it hath fated her to be my motive
And helper to a husband.


The notorious device of the bed trick permits Helena to get from Bertram both the ring and the child that he believes she never will. It is a disturbing episode raising complex moral issues, but for the moment what is important to notice is that once again Helena succeeds, only to discover that her success is merely formal. The revelation at court is brilliantly structured. Diana's riddles create the demand for, and the expectation of, a triumphant reversal of the events which heretofore have resisted all efforts to shape them into comedy. Diana accuses Bertram:

He knows himself my bed he hath defiled,
And at that time he got his wife with child.
Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick.
So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick—
And now behold the meaning.


She sets the scene and prepares the triumph, and predictably the King is delighted by the show:

                                        Is there no exorcist
Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?
Is it real I see?


But Helena, as Michael Shapiro has shrewdly observed,19 denies her victory:

                                        No, my good lord,
’Tis but the shadow of a wife you see,
The name and not the thing.


She is forced to admit once again that her notion of love as something that can be earned—either by healing the King or by satisfying the conditions—is inadequate. Love must be freely given, not compelled. She is forced to see that happy endings so obviously manipulated will not satisfy—not even the successful manipulator.

But rather than relinquishing her claim as she does in act 2, Helena presses it, aware that she holds a winning hand. The potential comedy of forgiveness emerges as a Terentian comedy of intrigue:20

                                        There’s your ring,
And, look you, here's your letter. This it says:
“When from my finger you can get this ring
And are by me with child, etc.” This is done.
Will you be mine now you are doubly won?


If the ending fails to satisfy it is because it is so willful, so desperate to claim what may be “won,” which is always less, as even Helena knows, than what may be given.

As if to acknowledge how fragile and tentative the conclusion is, the play ends with its well-known litany of conditionals. Touchstone says in As You Like It that there is “much virtue in if” (5.4.103), but “if,” in All's Well That Ends Well, rather than releasing possibilities as in the Forest of Arden, restricts them. Conditions here exist to be satisfied, to fix rather than to free, to exploit rather than to explore, emotional possibilities and attitudes.

Bertram: If she, my liege,
can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
Helena: If it appear not plain and
prove untrue,
Deadly divorce step between me and you.


The confident assertion that “all's well that ends well” (4.4.35) has to be reformulated less optimistically, “all yet seems well” (5.3.329), and the doubts are raised precisely by what should allay them: the ratification of the marriage bond. Instead of Helena and Bertram standing together in mutual need and trust, each hides behind the conditional—one nervously looking for the way out, the other smugly certain it is unavailable. Yet the play does not abandon its efforts to find some convincing term of comic triumph, and extends its search into the epilogue. If the characters are unable to make the play a comedy, perhaps their audience can:

The King's a beggar, now the play is done.
All is well ended if this suit be won,
That you express content; which we will pay
With strife to please you, day exceeding day.
Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts;
Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.

Another “if” qualifies the claim that “all is well ended.”21 Now we must “express content,” though only three lines earlier the King was unable himself to do so unequivocally: “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet …” (5.3.329). But lest his doubts deter us, he is willing to purchase our pleasure to bring about the happy ending the completed action has been unable to effect: “we will pay / With strife to please you, day exceeding day.” Alone among Shakespeare's epilogues, this one offers to buy our good will, as Helena offers to buy the widow's:

                    Take this purse of gold
And let me buy your friendly help thus far,
Which I will over-pay, and pay again
When I have found it.


In this problem comedy what should be freely given must be bought. Even Helena's gracious “cure” has a price: “if I help you what do you promise me?” (2.1.190). Florence is much like France, no regenerative green world but another place where commitments must be purchased or won. The King's offer to “pay” us for our “content,” even in the currency of art, would establish a relationship between the play and its audience much like the relationships between characters within the play, relationships that have proven inadequate. One last time, in the epilogue, the King tries to ensure that all will end well, and to the extent that we do applaud and our applause tacitly expresses “content,” the King's suit is “won” and “all is well ended.” But the King has won only in the limited sense that Helena has “won” (5.3.311). His too is a victory of form, an assertion of desire. We applaud, but we do so in response to the convention of the epilogue rather than to its literal appeal.

But that is what we have been doing all along—responding to a convention. The play is a comedy—all's well that ends well—if we attend to the conventions of the genre, at least insofar as the genre may be defined by actions ending well. The play, however, makes us recognize the inadequacy of a conception either of comedy or of ethical behavior that focuses exclusively on ends. Helena may hold that “whate’er the course, the end is the renown” (4.4.36), but we have discovered that “the course” matters, that ends achieved by refusing to take full account of the ends of others (that is, by turning them into means) are neither comic nor moral.22 We have learned too much about the limitations of human desire and design to accept the comic assertion that would ignore the means used to achieve it. Helena would reassure herself and us:

All's well that ends well yet,
Though time seems so adverse and means unfit.


But even if the action “ends well,” the “means unfit,” which have trampled on the ends of others, disrupt the comic claim. If All's Well That Ends Well is a problem comedy, then, it is so because it sees so clearly that comedy is a problem. All is not necessarily well that ends well, and actions that end well are not necessarily comedies.

The harmony of comedy is achieved, in Bacon's phrase, “by submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind.”23 and its perfected form is thus at once a denial of and a consolation for the imperfections of the world in which we live. All's Well That Ends Well, however, makes us suspicious of “the desires of the mind,” because they are revealed to be usually unable or unwilling to acknowledge fully the integrity and autonomy of other minds' desires. Helena's desire for Bertram, the King's for wholeness, and even our own for comic satisfaction can be fulfilled only by assuming that “the shows of things” exist primarily for our own pleasure and purpose. The play, on the other hand, makes manifest and urgent its concern that desire be civilized, be humanized, in its refusal to end well, that is, in its refusal to allow the desires of the mind the victory comedy claims for them.

In an odd sense, then, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well marks a return to Sidney's notion that “comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life,” for the play enacts, and forces us to enact, the “common error” (attested to by the insistent claims of scientific, civil and social engineering) of supposing that reality should yield to human desire. The play's reiterated, if continually reformulated, contention that “all's well that ends well” testifies to that supposition, but precisely what necessitates the reiteration and reformulation—the play's stubborn resistance to ending well—testifies that the aphorism is not necessarily either good or true.

The melancholy clown, Lavatch, who has learned of the impossibility of “an answer [that] will serve all men” (2.2.13), points to the inadequacy of applying the aphorism to all situations as he reveals the difficulties of ending well. To Helena's query about the Countess, Lavatch replies:

She is not well, but yet she has her health; she’s very merry, but yet she is not well. But thanks be given, she’s very well and wants nothing i’th’world. But yet she is not well.


When Helena demands some further sense from Lavatch's equivocation, he replies, “Truly she is very well indeed, but for two things”:

One, that she’s not in heaven, whither God send her quickly; the other that she’s in earth, from whence God send her quickly.


Lavatch insists that none can be completely “well” while alive in the fallen world. Perfect endings must wait for some better place where grace purifies desire. In this imperfect world, as the King says, “laboring art / Can never ransom nature from her inaidable estate” (2.1.118-19). The “laboring art” of All's Well That Ends Well does not pretend to ransom fallen nature; pointedly, it does not submit the shows of things to the desires of our mind, but it does explore and extend the limits of comedy.24


  1. The Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London: Nelson, 1965), 117.

  2. An Apology for Actors (London: Shakespeare Society, 1814), 54.

  3. Vincent of Beauvais, for example, defines comedy as “poetry reversing a sad beginning by a glad end” (quoted in C. S. Baldwin's Medieval Rhetoric and Poetic [1928. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959], 176); and Dante writes that “comedy begins with sundry adverse conditions but ends happily” (Epistolae, trans. Page Toynbee [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966], 200). In the sixteenth century, Webbe echoes these commonplaces. “Comedies,” he says, “beginning doubtfully, drewe to some trouble or turmoyle, and by some lucky chance alwayes ended to the ioy and appeasement of all parties” (Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith [1904. Reprint. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967], 1:249).

  4. “Of Love,” in Francis Bacon: A Selection of his Works, ed. Sidney Warhaft (New York: Odyssey, 1965), 68.

  5. New editions of the important fourth-century commentaries on Terence are needed since they exist primarily in the conflated and occasionally garbled form in which they appeared in sixteenth-century editions of the plays. Nonetheless the insistence upon the fictive nature of comedy is clear. Servius writes of comedy that “the matter consists of fictitious materials … for never does actuality (res gesta) have a place in comedy” (quoted in T. W. Baldwin, Shakespere's Five-Act Structure [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1947], 66). See also Marvin Herrick, Comic Theory in the Sixteenth Century (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1964) for an extended account of the influence of Servius, Evanthius, and Donatus upon sixteenth-century critical theory and artistic practice.

  6. A Most Pleasant Comedie of Mucedorus (London, 1598), A2v.

  7. All quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, general editor, Alfred Harbage (1969. Reprint. New York: Viking, 1977).

  8. See Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965); and Anatomy of Criticism (1957. Reprint. New York: Atheneum, 1965), esp. 163-87.

  9. New Readings vs. Old Plays (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), 102-25.

  10. Dr. Johnson writes of the ending of Twelfth Night: “The marriage of Olivia, and the succeeding perplexity, though well enough contrived to divert on the stage, wants credibility, and fails to produce the proper instruction required in the drama, as it exhibits no just picture of life” (Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, vol. 7 of The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson [New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1968], 326).

  11. Roderick Hudson (New York: Scribner's, 1907), vii.

  12. In Shakespere and His Predecessors (London: John Murray, 1896), F. S. Boas first applied the term “problem play” to All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, seeing them as plays whose endings produce neither “simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome …” (345).

  13. “The Scope and Mood of Literary Works: Towards a Poetics Beyond Genre,” Language, Logic, and Genre, ed. Wallace Martin (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1974), 50.

  14. Johnson on Shakespeare, 404.

  15. See Ian Donaldson's excellent essay “All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings,” Essays in Criticism 27 (1977): 34-55; see also Roger Warren, “Why Does It End Well?: Helena, Bertram, and The Sonnets,” Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 79-92; Gerald J. Cross, “The Conclusion to All's Well That Ends Well,Studies in English Literature 23 (1983): 257-76; and Thomas Cartelli, “Shakespeare's ‘Rough Magic’: Ending as Artifice in All's Well That Ends Well,Centennial Review 27 (1983): 117-34. For a more general account of the problems of ending in Shakespeare's comedies, see Anne Barton's admirable account, “As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending,” in Shakespearian Comedy, ed. David Palmer and Malcolm Bradbury (London: Edward Arnold, 1972), 160-80.

  16. W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 48-61. See also Northrop Frye, The Myth of Deliverance (Toronto Univ. Press, 1983), 46.

  17. See Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), esp. 103-31, for a reading of the entire play in the context of the Christian “belief in the reality of the descent of grace upon a sinning human” (131).

  18. Helena's convenient arrival in Florence has troubled many critics who have observed with Dr. Johnson that Florence is “somewhat out of the road from Rousillon to Compostella.” St. Jaques le Grand (3.5.32) seems certainly to refer to the famous pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostella in northwest Spain. Shakespeare, however, does not raise questions about her route; indeed the widow observes that “There’s four or five, to great Saint Jaques bound, / Already at my house” (3.5.91-92).

  19. “‘The Web of our Life’: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 71 (1972): 521-22.

  20. J. M. Silverman, in “Two Types of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well,” (Shakespeare Quarterly 24 [1973], 25-34), sees the play moving from a “naive and ‘miraculous’ form of comedy” to “one … filled with intrigue” (25).

  21. Thomas Cartelli, in his suggestive essay in Centennial Review, argues, on the contrary, that the “subtle displacement of the King's ‘seems’ by the epilogue's ‘is’” helps confirm “the felt closure carefully cultivated by Shakespeare” (132, 133).

  22. See section 2 of Kant's The Moral Law, or Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (London: Hutchinson, 1948), where the logic of ends and means is subjected to the fullest ethical scrutiny.

  23. The Advancement of Learning, ed. G. W. Kitchin (London: Dent, 1915), 85.

  24. I am grateful for the opportunity to have delivered and discussed versions of this essay at the post-graduate seminar at The University of London and at a session at the 1983 MLA arranged by the Shakespeare division. I would like to extend my thanks in particular to David Daniell, Charles Forker, David Trotter and René Weis.

Robert S. Miola (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8293

SOURCE: “New Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 23-43.

[In the following essay, Miola studies Shakespeare's adaptation of Latin New Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well.]

We are all familiar with the traditional understanding of sources: a source is a previous text that shapes a present one through authorial reminiscence and manifests itself in verbal iteration. As the seminal works of Baldwin, Muir, and Bullough amply demonstrate, this definition has served us long and well, but every element in it has undergone intense scrutiny and reevaluation. Scholars now recognize the potential limitations of a linear, author-centered, and largely verbal approach and have become attuned to the likelihood of intermediation, the encodings implicit in genre and language, the more oblique and more satisfying evidence of configuration—both rhetorical and dramatic. Within the spacious perspectives provided by scholars like Leo Salingar, Emrys Jones, Gordon Braden, Harry Levin, Alan Dessen, and Louise George Clubb (who has coined the term “theatergram” for certain kinds of configuration), we may well reexamine the sources of Shakespearean comedy. I shall study here the influence of New Comedy on All's Well, particularly the shaping presence of stock situations and characters including the important and enormously flexible traditions associated with the miles gloriosus, the braggart soldier.1

Joseph G. Price has documented critical dissatisfaction with All's Well That Ends Well, particularly with Helena's trickery, Bertram's callowness, and the constrained reconciliation. Noting affinities with Measure for Measure, readers have usually labeled All's Well a “problem play,” one that imperfectly mixes realism and romance, characterization and convention.2 Commentators have analyzed the mix by examining various ingredients—the folk tale, morality play, contemporary drama, and Italian novelle, especially the ultimate source, Boccaccio's Decameron, day three, novel nine, the tale of Giletta of Narbonne.3 Despite Shakespeare's pervasive indebtedness throughout his career to Plautus and Terence, no one has yet considered fully the contributions of Latin New Comedy to the shaping of this play. This neglect seems all the more striking when we recall that Boccaccio studied New Comedy well (he copied out by hand all of Terence) and that Hecyra is a well-recognized antecedent of the tale of Giletta.4

All's Well is a sophisticated recension of New Comedic themes, conventions, and characters, which draws upon Shakespeare's earlier adaptations of Plautus and Terence.5 Like the Errors plays—The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night—it features in its end false accusation, arrest, and mistaken identity. The humiliation of Malvolio prefigures in salient ways that of Parolles. Like the Intrigue plays—The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing—All's Well features tricky deceptions and, as a focal point, a broken nuptial which the action works to mend.6 As in Shrew the mending coincides with the taming of one partner, here Bertram. And Shakespeare reveals in this young man, as he had in Claudio, the theatrical and moral limitations of the Plautine adulescens. Moreover, All's Well bears interesting similarities to Shakespeare's Merry Wives, his earlier exploration of the miles gloriosus. Both plays blend Roman comedy and folk tale; both balance the exposure of the braggart with an inset Plautine love affair, namely, the wooings of Anne Page and Diana Capilet. And, most important, both plays scrutinize the miles gloriosus. All's Well, however, divides the military and amorous aspirations of the character into separate but related incarnations—Parolles and Bertram. Injecting Parolles into Boccaccio's tale, Shakespeare creates a perspective that clarifies the ordeal and exposure of Bertram. Like classical amorous soldiers, Bertram displays the characteristic folly of overestimating himself and underestimating another, particularly a woman. All's Well represents a more complex treatment of the miles than does Wives and, whatever its shortcomings, shows a more purposeful matching and balancing of braggart soldiers. In fact, its construction according to the Andria five-act formula,7 its use of the double action and rhetorical argument (the discussions of virginity and honor), its daring and skillful handling of traditions and its knowing inversion of New Comedic elements make it Shakespeare's most Terentian comedy.

Discussing an archetypal comic pattern “in which a senex iratus or other humor gives way to a young man's desires,” Northrop Frye, in passing, brilliantly observes: “The sense of the comic norm is so strong that when Shakespeare, by way of experiment, tried to reverse the pattern in All's Well, in having two older people force Bertram to marry Helena, the result has been an unpopular ‘problem’ play, with a suggestion of something sinister about it.”8 Though many variations appear in New Comedy and Shakespeare, there are still enough irate fathers in both to validate Frye's perception of the comic norm. (We think of Theoproprides, Mostellaria, Demea, Adelphoe, Egeus, Leonato, Page, Capulet, and others.) Here Shakespeare seems to have gone out of his way to violate the norm, to portray a different older generation, one sympathetic to young love, at least to Helena's.9 He introduces the Countess and Lafew, without precedent in Boccaccio or Painter, and expands greatly the role of the king. Remembering her own youthful fancies—“this thorn / Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong” (1.3.124-25)—the Countess comforts the lovelorn Helena and promises aid. This sympathetic portrayal, it should be noted, is not wholly without precedent in the ancients. Plautus and Terence occasionally depicted parents indulgent of the amorous young. Compare, e.g., the reaction of Philoxenus on hearing of his son's adventures: “Minus mirandumst, illaec aetas si quid illorum facit, / quam si non faciat. Feci ego istaec itidem in adulescentia. (Bacchides, 409-10). “It’s less surprising to have a youngster up to something of that kind than not. I’ve done the same sort of thing myself in my younger days.”

Still, the countess becomes irata later in the play, recovering and inverting the wrathful energies of the stereotype. After learning of Bertram's flight to battle, she declares: “He was my son, / But I do wash his name out of my blood / And thou art all my child” (3.2.66-68). This extraordinary threat echoes the sentiments of many other angry parents in comedy: it is, in Terence's words, “vi et via pervolgata patrum” (Heautontimorumenos, 102), “the violent line that is common with parents.” Reproaching himself for having taken this line with his son, who had fallen for a poor foreign girl, Menedemus remembers his exact words: “Ego te meum esse dici tantisper volo, dum quod te dignumst facies; sed si id non facis, ego quod me in te sit facere dignum invenero” (ibid., 106-8). “I am ready that you should be called my son just so far as you do what befits you; if you act otherwise you will see me find the fitting way to deal with you.” In Shakespeare, however, the parent makes the threat of dissociation for precisely the opposite reason: the countess is angry not because her son loves a lower-class woman but because he fails to.

The old Lafew, also without precedent in the source tale, likewise reverses conventional expectations, supporting poor maidenly virtue against titled arrogance. He praises Helena's “wisdom and constancy” (2.1.83), shows his admiration in the selection scene (2.3), and, supposing Helena dead, praises her, “Whose beauty did astonish the survey / Of richest eyes; whose words all ears took captive; / Whose dear perfection hearts that scorn’d to serve / Humbly call’d mistress” (5.3.16-19). The king, old friend of the dead count, formally and legally (1.1.4-5) acts as Bertram's father. In exchange for the miraculous cure he accedes to her choice of husband and responds generously to Bertram's indignant hauteur:

Bertram. But follows it, my
lord, to bring me down
Must answer for your raising? I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father's charge—
A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever!
King. ’Tis only title thou
disdain’st in her, the which
I can build up. (2.3.112-18)

Here the building humor, a headstrong and prideful concern with title and social status, originates in the son, not the father. Helena's virtues, the king goes on to argue, “breed” the very honor that Bertram thinks she lacks; besides, as king, he can bestow wealth and name.10 This scene reverses the common configuration of New Comedy, where fathers frequently oppose the marriage of their sons to lower-class women. We recall the situations in Mostellaria, Bacchides, Cistellaria, Andria; the senex amans variations—with the father blocking because he wants the girl for himself—in Casina, Mercator; and the complex handlings of Terence in Heautontimorumenos and Adelphoe. We may also remember a Shakespearean example that reverses the genders: Page plays angry father to his daughter, blocking Fenton's hopes because of his reputation: “He kept company with / the wild Prince and Poins” (3.2.72-73).

Shakespeare carefully plans his inversion of the New Comedic paradigm. Making Helena poor, unlike the noble Giletta, he focuses on internal honor not on social status. As Clubb observes, Shakespeare creates a spiritualized innamorata, the “woman as wonder” who often manifests in Italian comedy the workings of divine providence. Part untitled virgo, part wondrous woman, part simple serving maid, part religious sermonizer (2.1.133 ff.), part incantatory folk-tale sorceress (160 ff.), Helena persuades the king and audience of her good intentions and power. Undertaking the cure, she names the punishments that may befall her for failure: “Tax of impudence, / A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame, / Traduc’d by odious ballads; my maiden's name / Sear’d otherwise; ne worst of worst, extended / With vilest torture, let my life be ended” (169-73). Even though Helena has an ulterior motive, the willingness to risk all is an impressive act of faith. And it is no accident that Helena's alter ego Diana will suffer the tax of impudence while Helena herself is counted dead—these two ordeals recalling this pledge and linking Helena's curing of the king with her curing of Bertram. Helena's willingness to risk differentiates her from the classical virgo, often mute, passive, and off-stage, sometimes pathetic (Palaestra in Rudens), rarely spirited (Saturio's daughter in Persa), but never a complex woman capable of self-sacrifice. Unlike them, Helena is equally unlike the devious meretrix many critics make her out to be, the passionate schemer relentlessly serving selfish desires.11 Helena trusts in her dead father's art and depends on circumstances and on Providence throughout the play, her actions, as she says, “sanctified / By th’luckiest stars in heaven” (1.3.240-41). “Heaven hath through me restor’d the king to health” (2.3.64), she declares, and the play repeatedly insists on the formulation (2.1.150-51, 153; 2.3.23, 31, 65; 3.4.27). The word “grace,” like “heaven,” also comes to suggest the greater power aiding Helena: she swears “by grace itself” (1.3.215), invokes “the greatest Grace lending grace” (2.1.159), gets eulogized by Lavatch as “the herb of grace” (4.5.16). Helena is far from a determined schemer. When Bertram rejects her, she backs down and abandons the whole plan, saying to the king, “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” (2.3.147-48). And when she receives the cruel conditions for marriage with Bertram, she undertakes a pilgrimage. She does not, as does Giletta, immediately purpose “to finde meanes to attaine the two thinges, that thereby she might recover her husbande” (Bullough, 2: 392). Neither overly ingenuous (as portrayed in many sentimental adaptations, beginning with that of John Philip Kemble, 1793) or overly ingenious, Helena makes one with Shakespeare's other Plautine heroines—Bianca, Hero, Anne Page, and especially Viola—those adapted virgines who make their own occasions mellow, who show sweet passivity as well as a capacity for independent action and intrigue that any callidus servus might admire.

Cast by others in the role of the adulescens, Bertram pointedly refused to play the part. Unlike those impetuous young men in New Comedy, the yearning Philolaches (Mostellaria), Alcesimarchus (Cistellaria), Chaerea (Eunuchus), or Pamphilus (Andria), he is cold, unmoved, and slow to temptation. To use Harry Levin's terms, this playboy is a killjoy. He rejects Helena not because he loves someone else or does not love her, but because he, like Beltramo, knows her “not to be of a stocke convenable to his nobility” (Bullough, 2: 391). Subscribing to an inflated notion of himself and the worth of his aristocratic blood, he refuses to look upon Helena, to regard her much-praised virtue and beauty and her near-miraculous powers. He never sees the woman herself, but only “a poor physician's daughter” (2.3.115). Bertram's objection to Helena's social status contrasts with the ardency of classical youths, who fall for every species of the unprivileged—lowly flute girls, courtesans, foreigners, and foundlings. So too does his desire for death or exile—typically the desperate options of the unrequited adulescens, not the requited one.12 Bertram's overestimation of himself and underestimation of Helena, here contrasted to the courteous responses of the other nobles, evidence the same folly that will prize Parolles and misprize Diana. This folly, as the king immediately perceives, springs from delusions about human worth, phrased as delusions about the nature of honor. In both amorous and military endeavors, Bertram values too highly external trappings and pays too little mind to that within which passeth show.

Shakespeare initiates the processus turbarum of All's Well by declining and recombining both the characters and situations of New Comedy. At the heart of Shakespeare's new creation is the miles gloriosus, whom both Greek and Latin New Comic dramatists portrayed with dual aspect—that of braggart warrior and boasting lover. An Italian descendant, Della Porta's Martebellonio neatly illustrates both aspects of the traditional figure: …

I believe it’s no less a sign of power and greatness to wound a body with one's sword than a soul with one's glances: well may I deem myself glorious among men, for I’m as powerful in the one way as in the other; for no man, no matter how hardy, can stand up to me when I have my sword in hand, nor any woman, no matter how chaste and unbending, can resist the onslaught of my glances; and if with the sword I can pierce to the heart, with my eyes I make the deepest wounds, which penetrate to the very soul. (Porta, 198-201)

In All's Well Shakespeare embodies the military and amorous aspects of the stereotype in separate characters, Parolles and Bertram, and sets up parallel ordeals and recognitions. So doing, he anatomizes the braggart's vice of overvaluing the self and undervaluing others. Accolti's Virginia, Cole (128-29) observes, may supply some precedent for the invention of Parolles as an ironic counterpart; there Ruffo's humiliation parallels and prefigures his master's. In All's Well Parolles's expedition for the lost drum parallels Bertram's affair with Diana Capilet, and one exposure serves as prelude to the next. Striking a balance (however precarious) between moral satire and romantic comedy, Shakespeare shows himself here a perfectly orthodox neoclassicist. For such a balance, Smith (134-98) has well demonstrated, characterizes Renaissance (and later) productions of Plautus and Terence in England, whether academic, courtly, or popular.

As Nicholas Rowe recognized in 1709, Parolles combines two New Comedic types: “The Parasite and the Vain-glorious in Parolles, in All's Well That Ends Well, is as good as any thing of that Kind in Plautus or Terence.13 In his own words, Parolles is a “braggart … found a ass” (4.3.325), a miles gloriosus, one whom audiences have delighted in at least since the time of Theophilus Cibber's performance in the role (1742). Blustering descendant of the archetypal Lamachos (Aristophanes' Acharnians), kin to Armado, Pistol, and Falstaff, Parolles speaks the magnifica verba (Eunuchus, 741) of Thraso or Pyrgopolynices, boasting of past exploits like the wounding of one Captain Spurio (appropriately named) (2.1.41), patronizing the younger nobles, “Mars dote on you for his novices!” (2.1.46), carrying on preposterously about his lost drum. Shakespeare prepares for the grand humiliation of Parolles by using two popular stage routines that characterized and exposed the braggart. The first, amply documented by Boughner (84 ff.), is the rationalized retreat, the invention of some absurd excuse to avoid confrontation. When Helena mocks him for his cowardice, Parolles lamely responds, “I am so full of businesses I cannot answer thee / acutely” (1.1.202-203); he hastily changes the subject and exits. The second is the entrance of the adversary immediately after the braggart makes empty threats.14 Miles enters to bash and abash the blustering Thersites in an early Tudor play (Thersites [1537]); in a later one Downright arrives to beat Bobadill, who has just vowed to “bastinado” him (Every Man in His Humour [1598], 4.5.94 ff.). After Parolles declares “I’ll / beat him and if I could but meet him again” (2.3.236-37), Lafew reenters and continues his abuse: “If I were but two hours younger I’d beat / thee” (249-50). The strutting Hercules becomes the quivering Aguecheek. Like his classical forebears, Parolles fools very few. Helena taunts him for retreating from battle (1.1.194 ff.); Lafew mocks him mercilessly, calling him a “window of lattice” (2.3.212), thus recalling Pistol's “red-lattice phrases” in Wives (2.2.27); the Clown knows him for a “knave” (2.4.28); Diana calls him “that jackanapes with scarfs” (3.5.85); the French lords think him a “hilding” and a “bubble” (3.6.3, 5). Only Bertram considers Parolles “very great in knowledge, and accordingly valiant” (2.5.7-8). So thinking, he is much less perceptive than the others in the play, not to speak of Palaestrio and Gnatho, the slave and parasite who serve their boastful masters only to serve their turns upon them.

Bertram's misperceptions are precisely at issue throughout the play, and they stand for stringent correction as Parolles reveals his true nature. In the company of the lords Bertram goes from gull to intriguer, inveigling Parolles to go fetch his drum, participating fully in the false capture. First there is the eavesdropping, then the elaborate masquerade. Like Falstaff at Gadshill, the blindfolded Parolles shows his mendacity and cowardice spectacularly; he, too, carries an incriminating paper in his pocket, not a bill for sack but the letter to Diana. This letter speaks truly of Bertram as “a fool, and full of gold,” as one who “ne’er pays after-debts” (4.3.202, 218). It also betrays Bertram's friendship, a betrayal that appears even worse in light of Parolles's function as ring-carrier and the hint of his own amorous intentions, “Men are to mell with, boys are not to kiss,” “Thine, as he vow’d to thee in thine ear, / Parolles” (4.3.220, 223-24). Parolles's exposure is thoroughly Plautine. Like Pyrgopolynices, Parolles stands admist a group of hostile, jeering persecutors and begs for mercy. The Roman boaster loses permanently his tunic, military cloak and sword, “de tunica et chlamyde et machaera ne quid speres, non feres” (1423); Parolles will lose his scarves and bannerets, symbols of his vanity. “The soul of this man,” Lafew well observes, “is his clothes” (2.5.43-44). Boughner (80 f.) notes, Italian comedy reappropriates and refines such stripping, often depicting the soldier in woman's clothing or the rag-clad poverty of the bravo. Shakespeare here adopts the second alternative, later portraying Parolles as a wretched beggar (5.2). Thus he reveals the parasite in the miles gloriosus, that core of predatory self-interest also displayed in the ignoble and impecunious ends of Pistol, Nym, and Falstaff.15 Both ancient and Renaissance braggart are thankful to escape with their lives: Pyrgopolynices: “Gratiam habeo tibi” (1425); Parolles: “Yet am I thankful” (4.3.319).

Parolles's exposure reveals Bertram's capacity for misjudgment. And though the audience may profit from the knowledge, Bertram, as his behavior in the last two acts shows, seems no wiser for the experience. He does not, as the first lord hopes, “take / a measure of his judgments wherein so curi- / ously he had set this counterfeit” (4.3.31-33). Shakespeare does not conceive of comic character according to modern expectations, which would have Bertram learn from his mistakes and travel a well-marked path to self-knowledge; the play is not a Bildungsroman.16 Instead, in the manner of classical comedy, Shakespeare creates a comic action which exposes errors of mind …17 He presents Parolles and Bertram as characters subordinate to this action, as soldier-lovers who complement each other in significant ways and in small details. Praying to Mars, Bertram declares himself, like Parolles, “A lover of thy drum” (3.3.11). Parolles, we have seen, is a would-be suitor of Diana.

How carefully Shakespeare interweaves the two dupings in Italy is clear even from cursory examination. The night of Parolles's imprisonment coincides with Bertram's rendezvous. Shakespeare presents the two comic actions in alternating scenes, beginning with 3.5, Helena's arrival and the procession, followed by 3.6, the hatching of the plot against Parolles, 3.7, the hatching of the plot against Bertram, 4.1 the springing of the first plot, 4.2, the springing of the second, 4.3 the exposure of Parolles, 4.4, preparation for the exposure of Bertram. What is more, Shakespeare unites the two actions by use of military imagery such that Parolles's solitary expedition in quest of the lost drum, the “instrument of honour” (3.6.62), parallels Bertram's expedition to Diana, questing after “the spoil of her honour.” (4.3.15). Bertram uses “engines of lust” (3.5.19) to lay down a “wanton siege” (3.7.18); Diana, however, prizing her “tender honour,” “is arm’d for him and keeps her guard / In honestest defence” (3.5.72-74). The word “honour” and its cognates echo throughout the play, notably in the language of the king (16 times in 87 speeches), who articulates the ideals of both military and amorous behavior. Bertram's prowess on the field is “most honourable service” (3.5.3-4), but “his sword can never win / The honour that he loses” (3.2.93-94) in love, as the countess observes. The word “honour” suggests the military standard Bertram upholds and the amorous one he violates, unmarking and marking him as a comic butt like Parolles.

The double comic action reveals the falseness of swaggering language, be it military bluster or romantic blarney. The lords show Parolles to be “an infinite and / endless lair, an hourly promise-breaker” (3.6.9-10); the ladies prove that Bertram's extravagant protestations and “oaths / Are words, and poor conditions but unseal’d” (4.2.29-30). Early on, Mariana warns Diana of both Parolles and Bertram: “Beware of them, Diana: their promises, enticements, oaths, tokens, and all these engines of lust, are / not the things they go under” (3.5.18-20). Here she rightly perceives the disjunction between rhetoric and reality; Parolles and Bertram are moral identical twins, frauds infatuated with self-love who seek to deceive others. Consequently, they suffer similar punishments. Parolles's exposure, Dessen (124-46) has argued, foretells Bertram's, the two linked together by many suggestive parallels.18 Parolles's lost drum becomes Bertram's lost ring. Parolles, blindfolded, stands trial under the judgment of three figures, just as Bertram, with velvet patch, stands in front of the king, the countess, and Lafew. Both are taken off guard; both slander present witnesses; both get deeper into trouble.

In order to expose Bertram's folly Shakespeare again reworks a New Comedic situation familiar, e.g., from Mostellaria or Cistellaria. The passionate adulescens ardently woos with money and gifts a meretrix, who lives with an older and more worldly woman. In Florence, Bertram takes on precisely the role he refuses to play earlier with Helena—that of importunate adulescens. Like Philolaches or Alcesimarchus, he courts the lady, earnestly imploring mercy, willing to disappoint family and friends, eager to pay any price for sexual favors. The widow acts the role of the older woman, Scapha or Syra, for example, attentive to her charge and to harsh economic realities, experienced in the sinister ways of men. (“My mother told me just how he would woo / As if she sat in's heart. She says all men / Have the like oaths,” 4.2.69-71.) Helena plays the role of the clever slave who uses a purse of gold (3.7.14) and masterminds the intrigue; like Tranio (both Plautus's and Shakespeare's), she writes the script, casts the characters, directs the play. Diana plays the Plautine courtesan who has her price, Bertram's ring. Never in fact the “common gamester” (5.3.187) whom he reviles, she turns out to be a chaste and resourceful virgo who uses her sexual attractiveness to her and Helena's ends. Diana makes the youthful lover a dupe very like the miles gloriosus, Pyrgopolynices, who likewise thinks himself beloved only to find himself befooled.

The flexibility of the New Comedic configurations and the dazzling fluency of Shakespeare's handling must give us pause. Especially noteworthy is Helena's role, which resembles also that of the wives in Menander's Epitrepontes and Terence's Hecyra, likewise made pregnant by unwitting husbands-to-be. Neither Pamphile nor Philumena take an active part in the process of resolution, however; they are, for the most part, helpless victims, off-stage. Shakespeare here follows Boccaccio's lead who inserted a folk-tale wonder-worker into the New Comedic plot to expose her husband.

This exposure, this finding of Bertram as fool, toward which the entire play tends, has a prelude in the short scene with Lafew and Parolles, now a chastened beggar to whom Lafew finally says, “Though you are a fool and a knave you shall eat” (5.2.50). The curve of action in Parolles's story, from earlier confrontation through humiliation and loss of honor, to present forgiveness and new life establishes a pattern for the upcoming scene with Bertram.19 Parolles makes a brief but telling admission that may guide our response later: “O my good lord, you were the first that found me” (5.2.41). This “finding” is crucial to the play, where “find” and its cognates occur some forty times. The aim of the intrigue against Parolles is “finding,” i.e., exposure, not the forced acquisition of self-knowledge or internal reformation. This finding discovers for all the true identity of a person. It is, in Aristotle's terms, anagnorisis … (Poet. 11.4), “a change from ignorance to knowledge,” accompanied by peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, in this case, from good to bad. Just as in Twelfth Night, Ado, and other comedies this discovery reveals moral character not merely social status.

The finding of Bertram is likewise the aim of his exposure scene; but the discovery of him as liar and cheat coincides with the discovery of him as husband and of Helena as wife. His peripeteia effects a change in his fortune for the better. Such changes, coinciding or closely associated with exposure, are frequent in New Comedy. Menander's boasting soldiers, we recall, though exposed, often wind up with the girl—Thrasonides (Misoumenos), Stratophanes (Sikyonios), and Polemon (Perikeiromene). Terence's Thraso, at the end, is permitted to enter Phaedria's house as a mock-rival for Thais. Della Porta's Martebellonio gets more than he bargained for, winding up with the insatiable serving maid Chiaretta instead of the expected and beautiful Callidora. In the raucous world of comedy there are worse punishments than such humiliation.

Furthermore, the ending of All's Well recalls other New Comedic conclusions wherein virtuous woman often becomes citizen wife. Here vicious man becomes citizen husband—a variation worthy of Terence, who probably provided some suggestion for it directly, or indirectly through Boccaccio. In Hecyra, Pamphilus rapes an unidentified girl, agrees to a forced marriage with another (so he believes), and leaves his new wife without consummating the union. Discovering his wife to be pregnant, he casts her off for unchastity. A courtesan Bacchis to whom he had given the unidentified girl's ring appears at the end to identify her as the wife. All are reconciled. In this play, as Donatus observes, Terence presents res nouae, “new things,” that overturn conventions and expectations: “Inducitur enim benevolae socrus, verecunda nurus, lenissimus in vxorem maritus, et item deditus matri suae, meretrix bona.” “He introduces kindly mothers-in-law, a truthful nurse, a husband very gentle to his wife and at the same time devoted to his mother, a virtuous courtesan.”20 Leaving aside for now the obtuse description of Pamphilus, we can see that Donatus, like later commentators, recognizes Terence to be a bold innovator in this play.21 But, as Goldberg observes, Terence departs from Menander's example in Epitrepontes, forcibly subordinating moral issues to the exigencies of comic plot. Like Shakespeare, he focuses attention on the older generation, portrays the women fully and sympathetically, and creates an unappealing hero.22 Partially recovering Menander's interest in the morality of the adulescens, however, Shakespeare tentatively shapes the action according to the familiar contours of Terence moralisé. As Turner and Beck suggest, Bertram dimly embodies the sin-and-repentance paradigm of contemporary prodigal-son drama and Helena appears, if fitfully, as comic heroine and an agent of God's miraculous—the more so because unexpected and undeserved—grace.

The final scene differs materially from the end of the source, where Beltramo at dinner listens patiently to the revelations and humbly accepts his wife. False, cold, and arrogant, Bertram lies about his involvement and slanders Diana's good name. Rejecting Diana, huffing about the absurdity of sinking his honor so low, Bertram replays in significant ways the earlier rejection of Helena. His actions render untenable his earlier prattle about freedom of choice (we have seen him, after all, choose Diana) and show him a liar and a snob in need of exposure. “It is worth remembering,” writes Kenneth Muir, “that all Bertram's worst traits were added by Shakespeare—his friendship with Parolles, his rejoicing at the death of his wife, his promise of marriage to the girl in Florence, the parting with the ancestral heirloom, his smirching of the girl's character. The blacker his character, the greater the miracle of his redemption.”23 Like Parolles, Bertram loves himself too much and others, especially women, too little. Parolles may joke cynically about virginity, but Bertram denies Helena consummation (and even a kiss) and tries to undo Diana. Like Parolles, he endures a humiliating discovery.

To portray this discovery Shakespeare draws on his Errors plays and on past experience with Plautus. As in Menaechmi, Errors, and Twelfth Night, the playwright winds up the epitasis to its height before the resolution. In Shakespeare's Errors plays, an authority figure tries to resolve the confusion, but is baffled by the escalating din of claims and counterclaims. The Duke hears Antipholus of Ephesus, falsely arrested, and his accusers in the “intricate impeach” (5.1.270). Orsino hears Antonio, also arrested, as well as Olivia, who, like Diana, claims a husband on stage. So the king in All's Well hears and arrests Bertram and Diana in angry confusion. The resolution in Errors and Twelfth Night, as well as in the Plautine archetype, Menaechmi, comes at a single stroke in the form of a dramatic entrance.24 The appearance on stage of Menaechmus of Ephesus, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, and Sebastian cuts the knots and resolves the difficulties in each play. It also substitutes life for death, which looms for Egeus and Antonio and has, in yet other variations, reportedly claimed Hero as well as Helena. So Helena's entrance here clarifies the confusions and creates new life, instilling in all an appropriate sense of humility and wonder.

The daring strategy that casts a comic butt as romantic lead is not without risks, as the history of dissatisfaction with Bertram for failing to be Romeo or even Demetrius, Posthumus, or Claudio shows. Johnson's evaluation rings throughout the ages: “I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.”25 Shakespeare's care to endow Bertram with some admirable qualities, his attractiveness and courage in battle, has not much influenced critical disaffection. But it is not, after all, essential that we like Bertram for Helena to love him. And this love—a complex mixture of sexual desire and selfless devotion—does not abide question.26 It is constant even as it ripens from lyrical adoration to knowing acceptance, from youthful infatuation to marital love.27 Helena exposes Bertram's vanity and routs the forces that would demean or undervalue her, as do the merry wives with Falstaff; but unlike them, she rewards the offender with her devotion. The final scene balances the discovery of Bertram with the discovery of Helena, alive, faithful, forgiving, and loving. Returned from the ranks of the dead, Helena again seems a miraculous restorative figure, one who, like Hero, redeems past wrongs with present love. Bertram's discovery of Helena here is certainly an Aristotelian anagnorisis, a change from ignorance to knowledge; and, as Aristotle prescribed, it conduces to friendship or hatred … (Poet. 11.4). Aristotle's illustrations of this change, Else (350) explains, show in such changes the crucial ingredient …, a bond between two people such that one finds a) in an enemy the loved one (Oedipus and father) or b) in a loved one the enemy (Clytemnestra and son). Bertram, having found in Parolles a traitor, now experiences a comic variation of Aristotle's first type, discovering in the detested clog his loving wife.

To complete this complex resolution, Shakespeare transforms two ubiquitous motifs from New Comedy, pregnancy and a recovered ring. Helena's pregnancy not only fulfills one of Bertram's demands, but, as in Hecyra, summons him to the real world of work, responsibility, and marriage. (We may also recall the similar effect of Jaquenetta's pregnancy on that other boaster Armado.)28 And there are rich symbolic associations here as well, missing from Giletta's delicate presentation of bouncing twin boys. Helena carries in her the promise of new life, not only for herself but for her child and husband, who promptly asks forgiveness: Helena. “’Tis but the shadow of a wife you see; / The name and not the thing.” Bertram. “Both, both. O pardon!” (5.3.301-2). Recognition by artificial tokens like rings or necklaces was an old stage device by Aristotle's time, one that drew his censure as unartistic and incompetent … (Poet. 16.1-2). This judgment notwithstanding, Plautus and Terence make good use of artificial tokens (e.g., Cistellaria, Rudens, Hecyra) as do many later playwrights. In All's Well, Shakespeare doubles the device as found in Boccaccio, providing two rings and introducing Helena's as a surprise which begins the process of exposure. Bertram's ring symbolizes the family honor he stands so haughtily on but, in the heat of passion, proves unworthy of. As David Bevington (58) aptly observes, “The ring of the husband suggests a journey of self-betrayal leading to repentance, while that of the wife tells a story of maligned virtue forced to disguise itself until at last truth is revealed.” Bertram's ring also suggests the marital love and fidelity he owes to Helena, who appropriately collects and returns it to him in a new wedding ceremony. These rings are not mere proofs from the past but symbols of selves lost and found, of identities formerly created, now claimed, and always to be honored.

All's Well shows a sophisticated mastery of New Comedic conventions, themes, and characters, one that raises and upsets audience expectations, creates and dissolves Plautine fictions. Fluently incorporating elements from Shakespeare's other comedies, the play owes most to Shakespeare's earlier miles gloriosus play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. There, as here, two tricky women conspire to lead on the amorous captain bedazzled by the prospect of sexual pleasure. The wives merely tease Falstaff, while Helena and Diana, through the bed-trick, actually satisfy Bertram's desires. In both plays, however, the women control the male libido, transforming their attempts at illicit sex into a ratification of existing marriages. Ford comes to accept Mrs. Ford as faithful wife; so, too, does Bertram come to accept Helena. The action proceeds in each play by embodying traits of the miles gloriosus in several characters, who illuminate—fitfully in Wives and clearly in Ado—character and theme. Both actions expose the vanity of the principals and then provide for forgiveness and reintegration—slightly in Page's invitation of Falstaff to dinner and hugely in Bertram's reconstituted marriage. All's Well draws much from the intrigue plays, especially from Much Ado, where Claudio comes repentant to a new marriage only to find his former wife resurrected. In him and Bertram, Shakespeare struggles with the moral and theatrical limitations of the adulescens whose youthful impetuosity, both times inverted into a cold regard for honor, seems inadequate to the demands of love. Hero and Helena, to varying degrees, supply such deficiencies. And their miraculous reappearances—suffused with love and forgiveness—look ahead to the restorations in Shakespeare's New Comedic romances, especially Pericles and The Tempest.29


  1. On these traditions, see Boughner; Hanson.

  2. See Hunter, xliii ff.; Leggatt; Brooke. Doran, 251, has salutary advice: “Sometimes we are troubled by lack of motivation in character when an Elizabethan audience would take the story for its own sake without expecting motivation at all. Our oversophistication in fiction leaves us disconcerted by the methods of pure story so often operative in Elizabethan romantic comedy. The motives are often the non-individualized motives of fairy tale, which are taken for granted. They reside in a conventional problem, whose terms have to be literally met, as a riddle's terms are met. One of the best illustrations of this technique is in All's Well That Ends Well, a play that post-Romantic critics turn into a ‘dark’ or ‘bitter’ or ‘problem’ comedy, and wholly falsify. The only ‘problem’ in it is Helena's problem in getting the man she wants for a husband.”

  3. On the folk tale, see Lawrence, 39 ff.; on the morality play, Godshalk, Dessen, 113-33; on contemporary drama, Wilson, Neuss, and Turner's illuminating discussion of “Prodigal Son” plays, wherein a well-born young man spurns a virtuous lady for illicit pleasures, only to come finally to exposure and union with her; on Boccaccio and Painter's translation, Hunter, xxv-xxix; Smallwood; Bullough, 2: 375-88; Muir, 1978, 170-74; Cole, 12 ff., 72 ff.

  4. See Lee, 102; Branca, 4: 1185. On Boccaccio's copying Terence by hand, see Hutton, 226n. References below to Painter's translation of the tale of Giletta, Shakespeare's probable source, are cited to Bullough, 2: 389-96.

  5. Coulter, 82, however, observes one relatively unsophisticated classical device in the play, the clown's repeated “O Lord, Sir!”, which “corresponds to the Censeo and I modo of Plautine slaves (Rud. 1269-78; Trin. 584-90).”

  6. Salingar, 301 ff., groups together Mer., Ado, All's Well, and Meas., which all come from Italian novelle. They all have, he argues, a grave tone, an emphasis on trickery and disguise, the aiding of a heroine by fortune, the presence of a serious opponent, the recourse to law, a trial scene, a predominantly urban setting, the problem of a broken or incomplete nuptial in the middle of the play.

  7. On this construction, see Baldwin, 1947, 728-36. Baldwin also points out some interesting parallels with TGV, where the heroine in disguise likewise wins back an unfaithful lover, but he believes All's Well the prior play.

  8. Frye, 1957, 180. Noting the sympathetic older generation, the callow Bertram, and the complex Helen, Riemer, 50, likewise declares: “The play is, therefore, a network of contradictory suggestions, strange turnings, odd reversals of expectations and attitudes. It is, in other words, a series of variations on the conventions of a popular [form] of Renaissance comedy. It is Shakespeare's most surprising and most thorough experiment with comic form.”

  9. This reading of the elder and younger generations differs substantially from that of John Edward Price who thinks that the play opposes the vital, witty world of the young and the moribund, platitudinous one of the old. More perceptive on this subject, I think, is Hill; also interesting is Styan, 23-29.

  10. Bradbrook argues that the king's judgment about virtue and nobility is at the heart of the play.

  11. For a survey of reactions to Helena, ranging from Shakespeare's “loveliest character” (Coleridge) to a “keen and unswerving huntress of man” (Chambers), see Champion, 217-18; J. G. Price. More recent derogations include those of R. A. Levin; Ornstein, 175: “Helena's attraction to the callow Bertram must necessarily be merely physical, just as her pursuit of him must be calculated and covert.” Such an account reads purposeful intrigue in the pilgrimage and lust in Helena's youthful attraction to Bertram's good looks, just as it ignores the theatrical power of the magical cure, and of Helena's modest devotion viz. Bertram's arrogant rudenesses. Nor will it do to argue with Shapiro, 519: “Helena violates the ethos of Shakespearean love comedy in failing to understand that love must be freely and voluntarily given, not extracted by force, even force of merit.” What ethos? Consider the forcible extraction of Demetrius's love by Puck's potion, of Katherina's by Petruchio's taming, of Benedick's and Beatrice's by the deceits of their friends, and of Angelo's by the bed trick, to name only the obvious counterexamples.

  12. Duckworth, 239.

  13. Vickers, 2: 195. (See also the praise of Parolles by Charles Gildon [1710] and Arthur Murphy [1757], Vickers, 2: 244; 4: 295). On this point Rowe is right against Hunter, xlvii, who says that Parolles is “not essentially a miles gloriosus (in many ways he is nearer to the classical parasite).” The combination of the two types was common, as evidenced by Falstaff, Pistol, and Quintiliano (Chapman's May-Day). See also Vandiver, 423. Inattention to classical and Renaissance background has weakened modern interpretations of Parolles, e.g., those of Huston, Rothman.

  14. Recognition of this convention resolves the so-called problem of character consistency first noted by Arthur Murphy: “Yet one Thing I have observed in it [Parolles's character] which I never could answer to myself: it is when, after one of his Scenes with Lafeu, the Bragart in a Soliloquy talks of wiping off the Disgrace put upon him by that old Lord by fighting his Son, and a good Deal more to that Purpose. Every where else Parolles is thoroughly sensible of his Cowardice: why then should he just at that Instant lack that Consciousness and strive, as it were, to cheer himself into a Notion of his being brave?”, Vickers, 4: 295.

  15. Boughner, 168-69, notes the similar fate of another braggart, Idleness, in The Mariage betweene Witt and Wisdome (1579).

  16. These expectations largely account for critical disappointment in the play. See, e.g., Parrott, 354: “It takes the complete revelation of the cowardice and treason of Parolles to open Bertram's eyes, and it seems a pity that this recognition of his error was not somehow causally connected with Bertram's final reunion with his wife.”

  17. Janko, 36, 208 ff.

  18. Charting the territory from a different perspective, Parker, 99, avers that “the conflict of the play is resolved by having each ideal—war and love—modify the other, so that the conclusion takes the form of a wry accommodation between them in which the purity of both ideals has had to be abandoned.”

  19. Noting this curve of action in the stories of the king, Helena, and Diana, as well, Hapgood discusses the peculiar qualities of the new life, animated by joy in survival, diminished by painful experience. On the theme of honor, see Hunter, xxxix ff.; Adams.

  20. Terentius, 616.

  21. On Terence's innovations, see McGarrity: Konstan, 130-41. Konstan, 140, remarks, interestingly: “Indeed, a remarkable feature of the Hecyra is that the blocking character is identical with the lover himself—a feature which strangely anticipates some comedies of Shakespeare.”

  22. Goldberg, 150-52. Frye, 1965, 44 ff., also discusses the tension between characterization and plot in Hecyra, Ado, All's Well, and Measure.

  23. Muir, 1979, 132.

  24. Salingar, 321: “The chief precedent for the complicated and surprising judicial climaxes in Shakespeare's problem comedies must have been the dénouement he had already devised himself for The Comedy of Errors.” Salingar doesn’t note the Plautine entrance but discusses other parallels—the disclosing of “successive identities in a judicial hearing,” the mending of broken marriages, “the emotional theme of the judge and the nun.” Riemer, 117 ff., points out, in addition, similarities between Helena and the Abbess of Errors, who both project an aura of magic, miracle, and Providence and appear at the end to mend broken family bonds.

  25. Vickers, 5: 114.

  26. The selfless Helena has been well appreciated, even to excess by Knight, 146, who calls her “a semi-divine person, or some new type of saint.” On the implicit sexuality of Helena's love, see Calderwood. Anti-Helena critics who think Helena lustful show the same attitude toward healthy physical attraction as those early editors who made Rosalind's hopeful reference to Orlando as “my child's father” (1.3.11) into a reference to herself, “my father's child.” Helena actually acts out Rosalind's wish.

  27. Warren sketches this movement.

  28. See Baldwin, 1947, 735: “The braggart Parolles pairs more closely with the braggart Armado than does any other character in Shakespere, and Shakespere himself is aware that they are both of a particular type, since they are both labeled as ‘monarchos.’”

  29. On the play's relationship to the late romances, see Hunter, lv-lvi; Wheeler.


For references to All's Well I have used Hunter; to other Shakespeare plays, Evans; to Plautus and Terence (including the translations), the Loeb editions.

Adams, John F. “All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 12 (1961): 261-70.

Aristotle. The Poetics With an English Translation. Ed. and trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA, and London, 1927. [with Longinus and Demetrius.]

Baldwin, T. W. Shakspere's Five-Act Structure. Urbana, 1947.

———. William Shakespere's Small Latine & Lesse Greek. 2 vols. Urbana, 1944.

Beck, Ervin. “Terence Improved: The Paradigm of the Prodigal Son in English Renaissance Comedy.” Renaissance Drama, n.s. 6 (1973): 107-22.

Bevington, David. Action is Eloquence: Shakespeare's Language of Gesture. Cambridge, MA, and London, 1984.

Boughner, Daniel C. The Braggart in Renaissance Comedy: A Study in Comparative Drama from Aristophanes to Shakespeare. Minneapolis, 1954.

Bradbrook, M. C. “Virtue is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well that Ends Well.Review of English Studies, n.s. 1 (1950): 289-301.

Braden, Gordon. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege. New Haven and London, 1985.

Branca, Vittore, ed. Tutte Le Opere di Giovanni Boccaccio. 10 vols. Milan, 1964-67.

Brooke, Nicholas. “All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 73-84.

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 vols. London and New York, 1957-75.

Calderwood, James L. “The Mingled Yarn of All's Well.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 62 (1963): 61-76.

Champion, Larry S. The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy: A Study in Dramatic Perspective. Cambridge, MA, 1970.

Clubb, Louise George. “Woman as Wonder: Theatergram in Italian and Shakespearean Comedy.” In Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time, 65-89. New Haven and London, 1989.

Cole, Howard C. The “All's Well” Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare. Urbana and Chicago, 1981.

Coulter, Cornelia C. “The Plautine Tradition in Shakespeare.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 19 (1920): 66-83.

Dessen, Alan C. Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays. Lincoln and London, 1986.

Doran, Madeleine. Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama. Madison, 1954.

Duckworth, George E. The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment. Princeton, 1952.

Else, Gerald F. Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument. Cambridge, MA, 1957.

Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston and London, 1974.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, 1957.

———. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York and London, 1965.

Godshalk, W. L. “All's Well That Ends Well and the Morality Play.” Shakespeare Quarterly 25 (1974): 61-70.

Goldberg, Sander M. Understanding Terence. Princeton, 1986.

Hanson, John Arthur. “The Glorious Military.” In Roman Drama, ed. T. A. Dorey and Donald R. Dudley, 51-85. New York, 1965.

Hapgood, Robert. “The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well.Essays in Criticism 15 (1965): 269-78.

Hill, W. Speed. “Marriage as Destiny: An Essay on All's Well That Ends Well.English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975): 344-59.

Hunter, G. K., ed. All's Well That Ends Well. The Arden edition. Cambridge, MA, and London, 1959.

Huston, J. Dennis. “‘Some Stain of Soldier’: The Functions of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970): 431-38.

Hutton, Edward. Giovanni Boccaccio: A Biographical Study. London and New York, 1910.

Janko, Richard. Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of “Poetics” II. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984.

Jones, Emrys. The Origins of Shakespeare. Oxford, 1977.

Jonson, Ben. Every Man in His Humour: A Parallel-Text Edition of the 1601 Quarto and the 1616 Folio. Ed. J. W. Lever. Lincoln and London, 1973.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Sovereign Flower. New York and London, 1958.

Konstan, David. Roman Comedy. Ithaca, NY, and London, 1983.

Lawrence, William Witherle. Shakespeare's Problem Comedies. New York, 1931.

Lee, A. C. The Decameron: Its Sources and Analogues. London, 1909.

Leggatt, Alexander, “All's Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance.” Modern Language Quarterly 32 (1971): 21-41.

Levin, Harry. Playboys and Killjoys: An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Comedy. New York, 1987.

Levin, Richard A. “All's Well That Ends Well, and ‘All Seems Well.’” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 131-44.

McGarrity, Terry. “Reputation vs. Reality in Terence's Hecyra.Classical Journal 76 (1980-81): 149-56.

Muir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven and London, 1978.

———. Shakespeare's Comic Sequence. New York, 1979.

Ornstein, Robert. Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery. Newark and London, 1986.

Neuss, Paula. “The Sixteenth-Century English Proverb Play.” Comparative Drama 18 (1984): 1-18.

Parker, R. B. “War and Sex in ‘All's Well That Ends Well.’” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 99-113.

Parrott, Thomas Marc. Shakespearean Comedy. New York, 1962.

Plautus. Plautus With an English Translation. Ed. and trans. Paul Nixon. The Loeb Classical Library. 5 vols. Cambridge, MA, and London, 1916-38.

Porta, Giambattista Della. Gli Duoi Fratelli Rivali / The Two Rival Brothers. Ed. and trans. Louise George Clubb. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1980.

Price, John Edward. “Anti-moralistic Moralism in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 95-111.

Price, Joseph G. The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of “All's Well That Ends Well” and its Critics. Toronto, 1968.

Riemer, A. P. Antic Fables: Patterns of Evasion in Shakespeare's Comedies. New York, 1980.

Rothman, Jules. “A Vindication of Parolles.” Shakespeare Quarterly 23 (1972): 183-96.

Salingar, Leo. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy. Cambridge, 1974.

Shapiro, Michael. “‘The Web of Our Life’: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 71 (1972): 514-26.

Smallwood, R. L. “The Design of ‘All's Well That Ends Well.’” Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 45-61.

Smith, Bruce R. Ancient Scripts & Modern Experience on the English Stage 1500-1700. Princeton, 1988.

Styan, J. L. Shakespeare in Performance: “All's Well That Ends Well.” Manchester, 1984.

Terence. Terentivs, in quem triplex edita est P. Antesignani Rapistagnensis Commentatio. Lyons, 1560.

———. Terence With an English Translation. Ed. and trans. John Sargeaunt. The Loeb Classical Library. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA, and London, 1912.

Turner, Robert Y. “Dramatic Conventions in All's Well That Ends Well.Publications of the Modern Language Association 75 (1960): 497-502 [see also 79 (1964): 177-82].

Vandiver, E. P., Jr. “The Elizabethan Dramatic Parasite.” Studies in Philology 32 (1935): 411-27.

Vickers, Brian, ed. Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage. 6 vols. London and Boston, 1974-81.

Warren, Roger. “Why Does it End Well? Helena, Bertram, and The Sonnets.” Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 79-92.

Wheeler, Richard P. “The King and the Physician's Daughter: All's Well That Ends Well and the Late Romances.” Comparative Drama 8 (1974-75): 311-27.

Wilson, Harold S. “Dramatic Emphasis in All's Well That Ends Well.Huntington Library Quarterly 13 (1950): 217-40.

Mary Free (essay date 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4755

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well as Noncomic Comedy,” in Acting Funny: Comic Theory and Practice in Shakespeare's Plays, edited by Frances Teague, Associated University Presses, 1994, pp. 40-51.

[In the following essay, Free maintains that despite its conformity to comic formulae, comedy is thwarted in All's Wells That Ends Well through the play's representation of the power dynamics of marriage and metalanguage.]

The title of All's Well That Ends Well suggests potential for mistaken identity, intrigue plot, thwarted romance—the stuff that makes comedy and the comic—and in its way the play fulfills those potentials. All does end well at least in the sense that girl does get boy despite all obstacles.1 In gross structure and plot, All's Well That Ends Well also conforms to comedy's basic outlines as they appear in other Shakespearean plays. Bertram's flight from authority figures—King, Countess, Helena—and their rules and dictates to pursue the Florentine wars echoes flight to the saturnalian green world. His abandoning the woman he scorns along with his later pursuit of one who scorns him has precedent in both The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Proteus and Demetrius forswear their former vows (“In number more than ever women spoke” as Hermia prophetically reminds us, 1.1.176)2 to woo Silvia and Hermia respectively. Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a worthy predecessor to Diana in All's Well That Ends Well; the dogged devotion that Julia (The Two Gentlemen of Verona), Hermia (A Midsummer Night's Dream), and Helena (A Midsummer Night's Dream) display toward the sometimes unworthy objects of their adoration anticipates Helena's in All's Well That Ends Well. This late play's conclusion also fits the comedic prototype by bringing together those admired with those shamed; everyone reenters the community—even Parolles with his “scurvy” curtsies—which creates “a movement towards harmony, reconciliation, happiness: the medieval idea” (Nelson 1990, 2).

These conformities to formulae notwithstanding, All's Well That Ends Well provides less pleasure, amusement, or even laughter than either the relatively weak The Two Gentlemen of Verona or the comedically superior A Midsummer Night's Dream. Throughout All's Well That Ends Well’s progress we, as theater-goers or critics, become aware—to our growing discomfort—that “ending well” does not in and of itself guarantee the presence of the comic within comedy. Two factors help to hold the comic at bay in this play: first, the placement and use of marriage as an expression of power; and second, the metalanguage of power that distinguishes the marked hierarchies of noble/commoner, public/domestic, and maturity/foolishness that the play presents.


Marriage is a central element in the construct of Renaissance comedy. In the Shakespearean canon, a number of the comedies include marriages, placing them (or implying that they impend) close to or at the plays' ends as a reaffirmation, restoration and promise for the continuation of society.3 Other comedies deal with married women as in The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor; or they move the marriage forward, thus foregrounding it and making it precipitate further action in the main plot as in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing. What makes All's Well That Ends Well’s foregrounded marriage unique is the undeniable fact that Bertram does not want Helena regardless of how much she wants him or how much the members of the nobility—most notably the King, the Countess, and Lafew—want him to want her. Further, in its institution, its mixing of high personages with low, and the alliances between social groups, the foregrounded marriage in All's Well That Ends Well subverts the comic by creating discomfiting inversions in the play's social spheres. While the concept of marriage as regenerative force via Helena's pregnancy obtains in principle at the end, when the “broken nuptial” comes together,4 no wonder we, along with the King in the epilogue, feel little if any delight: things but “seem” well; we have no guarantees. We cannot be certain even there that Bertram truly wants her.

A distinction that contributes to my thesis is that All's Well That Ends Well stands apart from the Shakespearean comedic mainstream in that Helena and Bertram, however estranged their relationship, remain the single couple in the play.5 Elsewhere Shakespeare provides us with sets of couples: twins who marry and woo in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, two men in pursuit of one woman in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream, two married women who plot to outwit one man and teach another a lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rosalind and Celia with their loves in As You Like It, and a triad of lovers in The Merchant of Venice. Even Measure for Measure, the play most often closely linked to All's Well That Ends Well, provides us pairings. All's Well That Ends Well gives us two widows, a virgin, and a wife in name only. While all these pairings deal with power in relationships, they do not constitute the exact marked hierarchies of power that All's Well That Ends Well presents to us.

The foregrounded marriage in All's Well That Ends Well differs from those in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing in origination and ordination. While Kate in The Taming of the Shrew has no more choice than does Bertram about whom each marries (Baptista and Petruchio merely strike a bargain as do the King and Helena), Petruchio and Kate as a pair remain this play's focal point. We observe the battle of wit and will between them, and the entire fourth act centers on them. Whether we grant or disallow the concept of mutuality of consent,6 whether the production relies on Zefferellian horseplay or a more restrained production concept, The Taming of the Shrew provokes laughter7—the sine qua non of the comic—because of the physical and verbal interaction between the principal characters. The same holds true for Much Ado about Nothing. Like Kate and Petruchio, Beatrice and Benedick command our attention, their wit and wordplay amuse and distract us, and they are more interesting to us than the play's other couple Claudio and Hero. Even in that relationship, the comedy of Much Ado about Nothing remains more comic than does All's Well That Ends Well. Claudio and Hero agree to marry, an important distinction between their relationship and that of Helena and Bertram. The distasteful circumstances of the broken nuptial notwithstanding,8 the separation between Claudio and Hero fails to disrupt wholly the play's overall comic spirit for two reasons: first, we know Dogberry and the Watch hold the key to reconciliation; second, as well as more important, the comic Beatrice and Benedick remain our primary focal point.

Helena and Bertram appear on stage together in but five scenes. Their exchanges generally indicate the dynamic of power in their relationship as Helena oozes subservience to her lord and master, while Bertram, until the final scene, plays his superiority, both of class and gender, for all it’s worth. In three scenes where they appear together, they speak to or about one another but engage in no dialogue. In 1.1 Bertram in one and a half lines commands that Helena, “Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, / And make much of her” (76-77). In 2.3 she subserviently offers herself to him in two and a half lines:

I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power


The remainder of this scene has them each talking to the King, but not to one another. In a third scene (3.5), Helena merely views Bertram from a distance as the army passes and asks about him. Only two scenes have them exchanging dialogue. In 2.5, comprising thirty-five lines, Bertram, without having consummated the marriage and refusing Helena's modest request for a departing kiss, dismisses his bride by sending her back to Rossillion. His language is primarily in the command form, hers acquiescent. She comes “as [she] was commanded from [him]” (2.5.54). She declares herself Bertram's “most obedient servant” in a scene that allows for no possible irony (2.5.72). Even when she musters the courage to hint at a parting kiss, she hesitates and stumbles as a young woman very much in love and unsure of herself. In 5.3, the reconciliation, they exchange two lines each, and arguably Bertram's “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” is addressed more to the King than to Helena. These two encounters comprise but thirty-nine lines all told.

All's Well That Ends Well remains a comedy in structure, yet Helena's agency in the enforced marriage, as well as the subsequent separation and ploys, distances us from the comic. Other elements distance us as well. When the Countess learns that Helena loves Bertram, we have the perfect occasion for a traditional blocking figure, but no. The Countess not only enjoys, but also encourages Helena in her aspirations. No witty bantering about sex, love, fidelity in wedlock—that which might create the comic within the matrix of comedy—takes place between Helena and Bertram, the play's only couple. Certainly some comic playfulness occurs within the play. No one will deny its presence in the virginity dialogue between Helena and Parolles, nor in the choosing scene as Helena walks from budding youth to budding youth before “giving” herself to Bertram, nor in Parolles's humiliation. Nevertheless, what lightness exists remains apart from the focal couple. Of added significance is how little of the playfulness associated with earlier comedies takes place among the women. Beyond the Countess' hope for Helena's love, her brief acknowledgement of her own past, and her teasing in the “I say I am your mother” dialogue (1.3), women's dialogue as they assess man's fecklessness has a more brittle edge than do similar assessments given in the earlier comedies.

Helena's actions set her apart from her Shakespearean sisters. Other independently-acting heroines—Viola, Rosalind, Portia—play at their love-games and are, in some cases, willing to leave Time to fadge things out. They also employ masculine disguise to effect the amount of control or empowerment they enjoy. Helena does what she does without disguise. In some respects Helena and Portia are the most closely akin. Portia is willing to comply with her father's will; Helena is willing to submit herself to Bertram's.9 Both work purposefully to achieve their goals. However close that kinship, differences obtain. Allies from the play's outset, Portia and Nerissa plot to test true love's faith; Helena, who must create her allies, has yet to gain mere acceptance as wife. To achieve her goals, she acts with what Western culture sees as male prerogatives. As A. P. Riemer has said, she acts with a “male purposefulness” (Riemer 1975-76, 54). In order for her to succeed undisguised, she must perform these actions in a way that the empowering male structure (i.e., the King and Lafew as members of the ancien régime) fails to recognize as violating sex or class differences.

In All's Well That Ends Well Helena follows Bertram to Paris. There she originates the marriage by striking a bargain with the King and curing him. Unlike the other pairings and marriages in the comedies, however, no tacit nor overt mutuality exists between this nuptial pair. Here the King must ordain an enforced marriage of his ward Bertram to comply with the terms of the bargain. Such ordination violates the usual circumstances that we find in the festive comedies.10 In those comedies, ordination, directed against a woman, may initiate the flight from authority into the saturnalian world of comic license.

Bertram's response to the King's command is like that of Silvia or Hermia: forced into marriage ordained against his will, a marriage that is originated by a spouse who is not loved, he runs away, as do the heroines. Bertram's running away to Florence offers a different kind of escape from that of the heroines. Not only is his escape to a city but to one associated with sexual licentiousness. The King himself warns his courtiers against “Those girls of Italy.” When Helena discovers Bertram in Florence,11 she entraps him by means of the bed trick, which inverts predicated male-female sex roles just as “girl gets boy” inverts what we would recognize as the clichéd phrasing. Her action substitutes the legal for the licentious. Helena entraps Bertram a second time as well in 5.3 by her further employment of Diana before the King. Even the King becomes confused as Helena employs her skills. What allows everyone to escape prison is Helena's ability to use the language of empowerment without disturbing the status quo.


Since Renaissance cultural and sexual politics determine that only males have the possibility of an unbounded (or “unmarked”) scope of action, Helena's behavior—both her actions and linguistic powers—marks her. Marking is a means of classifying, of categorizing differences that exist within orders. To be marked is normally negative because a marked group is set apart to be evaluated on a special scale, one generally lower than the universal scale of the unmarked whole. Hence critical study often uses a lesser scale to evaluate minority authors or marginalized works (such as the problem comedies).12 The group that is unmarked thus controls the discourse used to evaluate; that group establishes the hierarchical ranking. To reproduce a marking system is to reproduce a form of hierarchy under the guise of “natural” reality. Significantly, to maintain a classification scheme, we learn to believe that principles of difference are natural principles inherent in given structures. This naturalization is a social process effected by a particular discourse that reproduces structures in a consistent manner. When something violates these classificatory principles, it disconcerts. As a problem comedy, All's Well That Ends Well provides a case in point. Comedy by its classification should be comic. When it’s not, we begin marking it, setting it off from its parent class. As we do so, we find ourselves referring to an anomalous work negatively and mask, or “background,” its historical provenance, making the work lie beyond normal reflection.13 Hence what doesn’t fit takes precedence over what does. But understanding the process does more than just clarify how the work is marked vis-à-vis the canon. That understanding also offers a way of accounting for what happens within the play.

All's Well That Ends Well works on three pairs of well-known marking distinctions. First, writers from Engels on have stressed the importance of the distinction between the domestic sphere of marriage and family, the main arena of women (and the structural principle of comedy), and the public sphere dominated by males (the world of tragedy). The public sphere activities of production are the activities that maintain social institutions defined as important by leaders and politicians—“to busy giddy minds with foreign wars,” and by merchants and businessmen—to have “argosies [that] overpeer the petty traffickers.” At the same time they appear routine and relatively empty of interesting human drama, save when they become disrupted by such male passions as revenge (Hamlet), ambition (Macbeth), and violence (Coriolanus), when they become the stuff of tragedy. The activities of reproduction in the domestic sphere are always marked by human drama even if often trivial drama. To oversimplify, in the domestic sphere the “image” of public legitimacy does not have to be maintained, so the discordant details of human relations can be revealed. From Shakespearean comedy to modern sitcom, the domestic sphere and its activities, because they are marked, are routinely more entertaining, even comic, than public activities, but they are also less “real,” less significant in their impact than the activities of the male-dominated sphere. The extra information that makes domestic activities more interesting also assures us that they are in the less important domestic sphere. In All's Well That Ends Well the major concerns are about the domestic institutions of marriage and sex; public institutions of power and war are in the background.

Second, in All's Well That Ends Well the characters divide into fools—Bertram, Parolles, Lavatch—and sincere, mature people—the King, Lafew, and all of the female characters. The marking of fools is analogous to the marking of the domestic sphere in that the fools are more interesting (or perhaps irritating is a better choice of word in Bertram's case), but are less involved in important things. The Florentine wars as war, after all, figure little in the plot, and Parolles's loss of the drum parodies heroic action. Because most of the play's fools are male and most of the sincere, mature people are female, the things attended to by the serious people are things of importance to women, in this case, principally marriage. Significantly, this fact places the King as an ally with the women in their concern for marriage, a fact especially crucial in understanding the King's decision to help Diana to a husband at the play's end. Despite the Renaissance prohibition that comedy should not mix King with commoner, this alliance not only establishes the play as comedy, it reinforces the King's role as “father” (with its implications for marital status) and the dominant patriarchal figure in society—a role Bertram must also learn to play in order for society to work.

Third, the characters are divided into nobility versus commoners. The latter group includes Helena and Parolles along with Diana and the Widow. In All's Well That Ends Well noble/common fits the same unmarked/marked pattern as the other two distinctions (i.e., public/domestic, mature/fool). The Widow alludes to having lost a former higher status and states her aspirations for Diana. Helena's common birth makes her love for Bertram appear hopeless, something she strives to overcome. Both Helena and Parolles seek to climb the social ladder, yet nothing in the text supports a reading of her as mere social climber. She is no would-be Count Malvolio. Parolles, by way of contrast, is the play's true social climber who gets his just deserts in public humiliation. Helena is marked because the normal marriage arrangements among the nobly born, public spectacles and often dynastic alliances, are unavailable to her. Thus, she must undertake a series of interesting but unusual activities (travel, linguistic magic, the bed trick) if she is to gain the ceremony of formal marriage, which in turn posits comedy, and the domestic intimacy of consummation, which in the play's inverted sexual manipulation denies the comic.

Helena's decision to leave Rossillion to go to Paris and her later decision to become Saint Jaques's pilgrim indicate her independence and self-reliance. Those attributes do not guarantee her success. To achieve her goals, she must insinuate herself into the world of power, the world of the nobility that figures so importantly in this play. Her means is linguistic. (Arguably that linguistic skill in the sense of language of power is part of the legacy her father has left her and facilitates her success with the King.) Other heroines control language as game, as play; Helena does not often play at comic wit. She dominates Parolles in the dialogue on virginity; she wins the Countess's favor and the King's trust on the basis of language. As the play builds her power in allying her with the King, so Helena uses that power in allying Diana and the Widow with herself. At the same time that the play allows Helena power via language, Helena's professed view of herself calls attention to her subordinate position in the domestic sphere. As Joan Larsen Klein argues for Lady Macbeth as a good huswife, so could we for Helena in her desire to wed, bed, produce offspring, and be subservient to her lord.14 Unlike Lady Macbeth, Helena becomes the embodiment of power via her pregnancy.

Helena's skill in language will not work with Bertram, however, because he fails to understand it, as his alliance with Parolles suggests. Parolles also attempts to violate the noble/commoner distinction but fails. His attempts to move into the public world end in cowardice and shame, for Parolles lacks the linguistic superiority associated with other Shakespearean rogues. The ultimate irony of the unmasking scene lies, I believe, in the language of command the lords choose: doubletalk. Unlike Helena and the King, Parolles—despite his name—never controls language and, therefore, remains powerless: a victim easily undone by a plot concocted by those who do control the language of power. His final line, “I will not speak what I know,” underscores that powerlessness. In contrast, however much humiliation Falstaff suffers at the Windsorites' hands, he maintains his comic dignity by recognizing his folly. Lafew may take Parolles home to sport, but the latter's curtsies remain “scurvy ones.” While the unmasking action comprising Parolles's comeuppance is the most comic in the entire play, it remains unsuccessful because he has never mastered the original linguistic game and because it profits nothing for Bertram. Bertram must undergo his own linguistic education before an even higher court.

The (mis)alliance between Bertram and Parolles differs from earlier dramatic models. The play never convincingly shows Parolles misleading Bertram in the classic morality or prodigal son format. Were he to do so, the action would empower him. Instead Parolles tends to parrot Bertram's views. Parolles as parrot helps to point out that Bertram doesn’t know how to control language either. Bertram offers clichés or denies the significance of the language of power when the King says that “I can create the rest” referring to his ability to bestow a title on Helena (2.3.143). Such a failure suggests an inability to understand the larger game wherein the words signify, a failure potentially far more dangerous than the Florentine wars. Because of that lack of knowledge, Bertram mistakenly chooses commoner—in his alliance with Parolles, or his haste to the Florentine wars—an inversion that cannot obtain ultimately in the world of comedy. Only through his humiliation, as he is caught in a linguistic trap of Helena's devising, can Bertram fulfill the comedic formula of reconciliation. Although Diana speaks the riddling verse, Helena originates it, and it bears similarity to her incantatory charming of the King. Helena's inventions work, but Bertram's fail. While the aspirations for Helena, Parolles, and Bertram differ in degree, these inversions, given the construct of this play, strike the audience as illegitimate and unpleasantly manipulative be they male or female. As such the inversions violate and deny the comic.

It might appear that the dramatic structure of All's Well That Ends Well would be a parallelism of these three distinctions: public/domestic, mature/fool, and noble/commoner. But what is dramatic about the play is its inversion of public/domestic and mature/fool. This inversion takes place because the power of the king/subject distinction supplants that of the more generic noble/commoner one. The King can write new rules for the game. He can alter the standards at will to ordain the marriage of his unwilling ward, raise Helena in status, condemn and forgive both Diana and Bertram, promise yet another female commoner one of “This youthful parcel / Of noble bachelors [who] stand at [his] bestowing” (2.3.52-53). The language of power is almost always unobtainable for those in the marked class because the holders of power can change the language at will, thus changing the rules. Helena is an exception.

The play still fundamentally does not oppose male hegemony and the marked nature of the domestic sphere, however. What Helena wants—along with her Shakespearean sisters—is marriage (that she actually wants Bertram remains a disappointing reality for most of us). She wins in the end through her use of intelligence and through the inversion that places her in the serious moral and linguistically-sophisticated sphere and Bertram in the arena of the foolish and verbally inadequate. But the inversion takes place initially because Helena cures the King. From then on the King, the ultimate symbol of male controlling power, is on her side. What the play's end restores is marriage and the domestic sphere “the way it should be” in a comedy.

Viewed dialectically, both the King and Helena have different roles from the other characters in the play. For the others, distinctions such as male/female, noble/commoner are givens (preattentive distinctions); they assume that these distinctions are normal and thus cannot manipulate them or even understand why they are so. The King, on the other hand, understands and can manipulate the metalanguage of power. After Helena cures him, the King cancels for her not only the effect of commoner birth, but also female lack of power in the prerogative of marriage choice by means of the foregrounded and ordained marriage. Helena does not have the King's power, but she does have (perhaps) an even greater understanding of the metalanguage. What she understands is that when a woman can mobilize the solidarity of other women, as she does with the Countess, Diana, and the Widow, she can succeed—if the males do not notice any sex or class differences being violated; hence Helena's acquiescing to a subservient role. It is thus fitting that Bertram is such a weak character; in the dialectic of the play the King is Helena's true partner. And it is no wonder that he, along with us, is left trying to puzzle this comedy out in the Epilogue.


  1. The fact that “girl gets boy” reverses the usual phrasing. What that reversal encompasses in the play's action helps to contribute to the noncomic atmosphere in All's Well That Ends Well, a point I take up later in the body of the essay.

  2. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare.

  3. See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, or C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy for extended consideration of the function of marriage in comedy.

  4. The phrase is from Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974) and Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

  5. Robert Ornstein comments on the implications of this feature, which Shakespeare appropriated from his source, Boccaccio's tale of Giletta and Beltramo; see his Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986), 173-78.

  6. I agree with Irene Dash that while the play “throws both ideas [forced marriage vs. ‘good consent’] out to the audience … the comedy offers a remarkably mature affirmation of the potential for understanding between a man and a woman” (Dash 1981, 35, 64). The Taming of the Shrew’s plot contains that potential, while All's Well That Ends Well ends with a series of conditional “ifs” and “seems.”

  7. Notable exceptions are Charles Marowitz's 1975 adaptation and the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1978 production; cf. David Bevington, “The Taming of the Shrew in Performance,” in Shakespeare: Four Comedies (New York: Bantam, 1988), 12.

  8. Certainly one could argue that Claudio and Bertram are close kin in rejecting their brides. Claudio's accusation, however, breaks that nuptial before the ceremony is complete. Bertram must perforce go through the rite. He then vows not to consummate the marriage, which means it will remain a marriage in name only until Helena can meet his demands. Furthermore, in Much Ado about Nothing Hero remains offstage until the reconciliation while we must attend to Helena's actions in All's Well That Ends Well.

  9. The question of Portia's and Helena's “submission” is beyond the focus of this study. Richard A. Levin's recent Love and Society In Shakespearean Comedy (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985) examines Portia's motivations while Bertrand Evans's Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960) and Howard C. Cole's The “All's Well” Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981) remain classic statements on Helena's assertive behavior.

  10. For the way in which enforced marriage of a ward violates the guardian's responsibilities, see the discussion of All's Well That Ends Well in Marilyn Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986), 59-64, or the analysis of what such considerations meant to women in Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 79-85.

  11. I am not concerned here whether her arrival is by plan or happenstance.

  12. Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983) is relevant here.

  13. My discussion is grounded in the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Anchor, 1967).

  14. See Joan Larsen Klein, “Lady Macbeth: ‘Infirm of Purpose,’” in Carolyn Lenz, et al., eds., The Woman's Part (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 240-255.

Richard A. Levin (essay date 1980)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6108

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well, and ‘All Seems Well’,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XIII, 1980, pp. 131-44.

[In the following essay, Levin argues that Helena accomplishes her goals in All's Well That Ends Wellthrough guile and deceit, thus contributing to the play's categorization as a “problem comedy.”]

Critics have offered two very different assessments of Helena, and hence of All's Well That Ends Well.1 Some regard her as a genuine romantic heroine—resourceful, yes, but also virtuous, feminine, charming, and modest. She never behaves cynically, and her motives are above reproach. She cures the king's physical ailment and later brings Bertram to spiritual health. This daughter of a middle-class physician is rewarded, like patient Griselda, with a man of high degree. The alternative view is that Helena mercilessly pursues Bertram. Whether she is at first motivated by love, sex, ambition, or, in Tillyard's fine phrase, “the humour of predatory monogamy,” she suffers “degradation” as she “passes from dishonour to dishonour on her path to final victory.”2 She sets out to trap Bertram, succeeds, and—when he flees her—captures him again. She gets the husband she deserves, a spoiled aristocrat.

These two accounts of Helena and of the play could not be more different; and yet, despite innumerable attempts, no one has accounted for the dilemma, nor solved it.

Can it be that Shakespeare planned to create the controversy? When, for example, Helena reaches Florence at the moment Bertram passes on parade, the coincidence makes us wonder whether she has not secretly plotted. The play, almost alike a Rorschach test, reveals our predispositions. The romantically inclined reader will accept the image of patience that Helena projects. Another reader sees only an elaborate facade, concealing an aggressive and self-centered nature. Supporting the latter view, I will show that Helen's success depends on guile; later, I will discuss how her cunning affects the play's comic form.

When All's Well opens, Helena (along with others) wears black and supposedly weeps for her father. Left alone, however, she explains the tears differently. She is pining because Bertram, the young count, shows no interest in her and is leaving for the French court. Though this candid revelation disposes us in her favor, we must be careful. She may deceive us, as her weeping has deceived others. Helena speaks as if she passively accepted the fate of a love that crosses social bounds: “The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love” (I.i.89-90). But a closer look at her soliloquy reveals that she chafes at the cultural restrictions placed on a young woman. Previously she has lived a protected life and has not needed greater freedom. But now that her father is dead, she is left alone to take care of an old countess (I.i.73-74). The hours she has spent daydreaming of Bertram seem like an indulgence. “Th’ ambition in my love thus plagues itself” (l.88), she concludes, saying, in effect, that ambition is ludicrous if one is without the will to realize it. Helena has reached a moment of transition.

Her thoughts are interrupted by Parolles, Bertram's worthless servant-companion. She has taken his measure: he is “liar,” “fool,” and “coward.” She has observed how such creatures get on in the world: sometimes “fix’d evils sit so fit” in a man that they serve him well, while another man's virtues may leave him out in the cold (ll.100-03). Can she learn something from Parolles—and make use of him?

When he greets her by asking, “Are you meditating on virginity?” she replies “Ay” (ll.108-09). The confluence of their thoughts startles; so, too, does Helena's willingness to discuss her virginity with “this impertinent,” as Quiller-Couch calls him.3 Both she and Parolles seem to regard virginity as a commodity that a woman markets. The two of them differ only about the value Helena should attach to her maidenhead. Parolles is a “fool” who can see no further than his nose. He is on his way to court, while she must remain at home. He thinks therefore that she might just as well agree to become Bertram's mistress. Helena, however, sets her sights much higher. She seeks tactics that will reverse the odds in the war between the sexes: “Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men?” she asks (ll.119-20). Parolles refuses to pursue her question, and inquires one last time whether she will relinquish her virginity: “Will you anything with it?” Helena's reply hints at a counter proposal, as well as a threat. Although she is losing Bertram to the court, Parolles may lose him at the court, where a mistress will replace him as “friend” and “counsellor” (ll.163, 166). Helena thinks to make an ally of Parolles, who could watch Bertram and keep her informed. But Parolles does not bite, even when she adds that were she successful, she would then be able to reward her friends (ll.177-81). She makes one last attempt. “You were born under a charitable star,” she begins, but Parolles interrupts her with male bravado, “Under Mars, I.” Although he is corruptible, Helen is too poor to bribe him. He will live to regret that they do not strike a bargain.

For the present, Helena must be self-reliant: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie” (l.212). She repudiates female passivity and “slow designs,” resolving to bridge the vast social gap that separates her from Bertram (ll.216-19). She alludes darkly to a “project” she has in mind, one somehow connected with “the king's disease.” “My intents are fix’d,” she says; she is determined to marry Bertram.

Helena must get to the royal court; but, not being our contemporary, she cannot merely announce her decision and leave. Even if she could, she would avoid sacrificing the countess's good wishes. Coming up with a plan, she suborns the steward. When he appears before the countess, we may at first forget Helen's “project” and think the steward really did accidentally overhear her. Or, if a little more suspicious, we may think she has let herself be overheard. But careful attention to the steward suggests that Helena works with greater precision. Just before she enters, the steward must elicit maximum sympathy from the countess. After testifying to his impeccable record of service, he asks that Helena be called. He has come (he says) because the countess loves Helena so “entirely” (I.iii.96). When the countess confirms the fact, he continues. He is certain that Helena was unaware of his presence when she revealed how “surpris’d” she was by the power of first love and how she regarded herself as “without rescue.” “This she delivered,” the steward adds, “in the most bitter touch of sorrow that ere I heard virgin exclaim in” (ll.113-14). The countess thanks him twice for his “honest care” (ll.117, 122) and has only a moment to reflect before Helena arrives.

The countess deeply pities the helpless girl: “Even so it was with me when I was young” (l.123). But that girl wonderfully calculates the image she projects—a fact that Anne Barton misses, even while noticing that “Helena … is prized by the older generation [as] a living example of the attitudes of the past.”4 Helena enters prepared to take advantage of her sympathetic interrogator, who begins by saying, “You know, Helen, / I am a mother to you” (ll.132-33). Helena, amid tears, hints that she wants the countess as her mother-in-law; Count Rossillion must be something closer than a brother. Under the circumstances, she is about as explicit as she can be. Silently concluding that the steward was correct, the countess hints at her own intentions: “I charge thee, / As heaven shall work in me for thine avail, / To tell me truly” (ll.178-79). Helena, seeing she is near the goal, admits her love in well-chosen terms. Surely the countess in her “virtuous youth” also felt chaste wishes:

                                        O then, give pity
To her whose state is such that cannot choose
But lend and give where she is sure to lose;
That seeks not to find that her search implies,
But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies!

(ll. 208-12)

As on so many other occasions, Helena claims to be passively awaiting death, but on this occasion the countess detects a contradiction.

She remembers that Helena “lately” expressed a desire to go to Paris. When asked about it, Helena confesses, giving as her motive a desire to cure the king. Questioned more closely, however, she admits that, indeed, the idea would never have occurred to her if Bertram were not at court. Such engaging candor wins the countess' heart. She not only sends the girl off with her “blessings” but gives her an entree at court: Helena shall convey greetings to friends of the countess.

Before Helena's arrival in Paris, we learn that the king has been suffering not only from a physical ailment but from despair. He has lost hope of his recovery, and he feels isolated. Today's youth are overly given to “jest”; they are preoccupied with their “garments” and “fashions” (I.ii.33, 62, 63). No sooner does Bertram arrive than the king begins to reminisce. “It much repairs me,” he says, “to talk of your good father” (I.ii.30-31). That father lived a full life and died, as he wished, before becoming a useless drone (ll.55-67). The young courtiers try to reassure the king. But they are about to leave for battle. As a neglected old man, ready to die, the king gives them parting advice: “Those girls of Italy, take heed of them; / They say our French lack language to deny / If they demand” (II.i.19-21). The king, as we shall see, might well heed his own advice.

And so might Lafew. We must infer that Helena, upon arriving at the court, brought him the countess's greetings. When at Rossillion, he had cast an eye on the “pretty lady” (I.i.75), and now, before very long, he is charmed into doing her a favor. He goes to assure the king of Helena's curative power:

                                        I have seen a medicine
That’s able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With sprightly fire and motion; whose simple touch
Is powerful to raise King Pippen, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in’s hand
And write to her a love-line.


Helena herself is the medicine! The sexual overtones in this and several other passages have not escaped detection. Robert G. Hunter finds that Lafew “imitat[es] the encomium of a pander.”5 Indeed, comparing himself to Pandarus, he leaves Helena alone with the king (II.i.94-97). He is joking, of course, for the king is as old as he, and neither will have an explicit sexual encounter with Helena. But Lafew is also knowing: he comprehends the sublimated pleasure that both men experience in Helena's presence. I therefore cannot agree with Robert Hunter and G. K. Hunter that, as the latter puts it, the spiritual “association of virginity with magic power” complements the physical association. We must choose between contrasted explanations of Helena's power.

Alone with the king, Helena goes quickly to work. She introduces herself as the daughter of Gerard de Narbon and alleges that the “dearest issue” of her father's practice is a medicine designed specifically for the king's illness. Convincing though she sounds, the king has already tried too many remedies. After feigning the willingness to depart, Helena adopts a new approach. She is only God's agent, and the king should trust in heaven's power to perform miracles (ll.133-43, 147-57). Interested at last, the king asks the length of the cure. In answering, Helena employs elaborate periphrasis to say “two days”; and although other critics have heard “priestess-like incantations,” I find only the jargon of a montebank.6 Even the king responds by asking for firmer evidence of her sincerity: “What dar’st thou venture?” (169). But he examines as poorly as his contemporary, the countess, and Helena has an answer ready—if she fails, she can be branded with:

                                        Tax of impudence,
A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame,
Traduc’d by odious ballads; my maiden's name
Sear’d otherwise; ne worst of worst, extended
With vildest tortues, let my life be ended.

(ll. 169-73)

Though the language is comically exaggerated the king swallows it—hook, line, and sinker: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak.” Ready for treatment, he starts to close the scene with a couplet (ll.184-85). When she surprises him by asking how he will reward her for a cure, the king replies, “Make thy demand.” After making him swear he will grant her wishes, Helena asks to choose a husband!

Shakespeare cunningly leaves us to guess at the nature of the cure, which takes place offstage. Lafew announces the king's recovery:

They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.


As this speech counterpoints Parolles' scepticism, we are no doubt inclined to think that Lafew is in earnest and that the play endorses his account of Helena's success. Neither assumption is correct. The pander, perceiving the nature and effect of the cure, says of the restored king, “he’s able to lead [Helena] a coranto,” a lively dance step (ll.42-43). Lafew also wittily suggests that the same medicine would be good for his own old age: “I’ll like a maid the better whilst I have a tooth in my head” (ll.41-42). He chuckles, enjoying Helena's good fortune while needling her opponent, Parolles, who is beside himself at her sudden rise at court. If we do not at least suspect the irony in Lafew's description of the cure, we shall miss a great deal of what follows.

Helena's defenders find that her virtue is rewarded—the king functions as a “divinely allowed arbiter of destiny.”7 One can instead conclude that she has mastered him and contrived a trap for Bertram. Presented with her pick among the young lords, she appears overcome with blushes, but makes her choice. Her words to Bertram are marvelously self-effacing:

I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power.


Despite these words, she herself retains the “guiding power,” as the rest of the scene confirms. The king, responding to the young count's silence, moves forward: “Why, then, young Bertram, take her; she’s thy wife” (l.105). Although Bertram in rejecting her displays grossest snobbery, his words resound with deep feeling, which deserves some respect: “I cannot love her,” he tells the king (l.145). Helena could hardly speak and wisely does not. She knows the king will plead her case. In exalted terms, he defends intrinsic honor over social rank; in reality, he is just a lonely old man manipulated by a young charmer. When Bertram still refuses, the king becomes angry, and Helena finally intervenes: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad / Let the rest go” (ll.147-48). We should not imagine that she is actually giving up. She has always known that Bertram would never choose her of his own free will; in backing down, she relies on the king, who has sworn in open court that Helena has the power of choice and the men no power of refusal (l.56). The king brooks no opposition, finds that his “honour's at the stake” (l.149), and virtually forces the marriage on Bertram.

Although Helena now seems to have prevailed, Bertram imagines he can take the offensive. He decides to go through with the marriage but to depart for the wars in Italy without consummating it. His anger, however, overcomes his ingenuity. First Parolles, then Bertram himself, inform Helena in a tone of mock regret that the count must leave on “serious business” (II.iv.38). To Parolles, the bride says that in “everything” she waits upon her husband's will (l.52); facing Bertram, she infuriates him by calling herself his “obedient servant” (II.v.73). She is unperturbed, and she hardly seems surprised. Perhaps she isn’t! Suspicion focuses on Lafew, in whose presence Bertram and Parolles talk freely about their plans (II.v.14-26). Lafew may be working on Helena's behalf when he tries to persuade Bertram not to trust Parolles as a soldier (II.v.1-13). But more of Lafew's alliance with Helena later.

Following Bertram's instructions, Helena returns to Rossillion and receives a message from him swearing that he will not live with her until she has a ring from his finger and is pregnant with his child. Otherwise, he will return to France only when she has left. While the countess is present, Helena says nothing; but in soliloquy, she expresses sympathy for Bertram and remorse for exposing him to the dangers of battle. She intends to leave so that he can return, as she explains in a letter to the countess:

I am Saint Jaques' pilgrim, thither gone.
Ambitious love hath so in me offended
That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon,
With sainted vow my faults to have amended.
Write, write [she instructs the countess], that from the bloody course
of war
My dearest master, your dear son, may hie.
He is too good and fair for death and me;
Whom I myself embrace to set him free.

(III.iv.4-9, 16-17)

James L. Calderwood describes the passage as “a recoil from sexual aggressiveness,” and concludes that Helena sincerely seeks “atonement.”8 But Helena sings to the old tune; she is patient and even prepared to die for love. The heightened, or (one might say) exaggerated moral tone makes us ask: is Helena pious or a pious fraud? To put the question in another way: does she cross paths with Bertram in Florence by chance or design? Traditionally Helena's defenders have contrasted her with Giletta, the heroine of Shakespeare's source (in Painter's Place of Pleasure), who sets out with a secret purpose in mind.9 Certainly Helena acknowledges no project, nor do other characters detect one. But because the meeting in Florence would be an astonishing coincidence, we should wonder whether this journey, like her previous one to Paris, is contrived. Many a critic, disposed to see, here, only Providence rewarding a virtuous lady, nevertheless adds a cautious “seems” before asserting coincidence and hastily going on to other matters. I can find no grounds for any “reasonable doubt” that Helena has planned every move. In the latter half of the play, character is revealed by plot, and plot is uncovered by detective work.

Helena never dreams of letting her hard-won husband escape. She did not trust him alone at the French court, and she certainly does not trust him in Italy. She knows as well as the king that French soldiers cannot resist “those girls of Italy.” In due course Bertram will succumb, and if she is there at the time, she can substitute herself for an Italian maiden susceptible to bribery. And so Helena, resolving upon a course of action, disguises herself as a pilgrim, travels to St. Jaques's shrine, writes letters about an illness, and bides her time. Meanwhile, others are working on her behalf. No doubt Helena had thought of enlisting the support of her affectionate mother-in-law. But when Helena returned to Rossillion, the countess counselled “patience,” that traditional female virtue (III.ii.47), and Helena dared not admit to aggression. The countess announces, however, that she will send her son a letter of sharp rebuke. Since this letter, if delivered promptly, might bring Bertram scurrying home too soon, Helena must control the mail leaving Rossillion. She therefore announces her departure in a letter which the steward postpones delivering until she is far away. The countess, annoyed that the steward has let Helena leave, instructs him to frame a letter for Bertram and to arrange for its delivery (III.iv.29, 34, 40). Helena needs one other ally, in Florence.

The Two French lords of the play present an unsolved textual problem.10 In all of the scenes discussed, I follow the Folio's distribution of lines between them. Since all editors introduce changes, the identification of the First and Second Lords does not always correspond with my own. For this reason, I will identify the lords as E and G, a method also sanctioned by the Folio. The two are brothers, with a name and a military title in common: Captain Dumaine. When Helena arrives in Rossillion, she talks offstage with the two lords, before entering with them (III.ii.44). What has happened among them? From several subsequent events, which I shall discuss in turn, we may infer that she spoke with Lord E alone and bribed him.

The lords leave Rossillion with a letter from the countess for Bertram (III.ii.94-95) and, via the French court, return to Florence. There Lord E renews his acquaintance with Bertram (II.i.35-36) and becomes his confidant. Finally, after two months (IV.iii.45), Bertram mentions his attempt to seduce Diana, a reluctant maid ( Helena certainly seems to obtain this information, for at just this time she hastens to Florence and falls in among the three women (including Diana and her widowed mother) who are discussing Bertram while they wait for him to pass on military parade. When the women, not surprisingly, have identified Helena as French, their conversation returns to Bertram and to the gossip, mysteriously spread, that he has forsaken his wife. Helena (disguised of course) indicates she knows the wife, whom she indirectly praises, saying that she is of “mean” station, with only “honesty” to her credit (III.v.60, 61). Diana (another maid of that sort) puts in a predictable kind word, while her mother thinks of the “shrewd turn” that her daughter might do the count's wife (l.68). Helena virtually finishes the mother's thought—as if she herself had arrived fully informed about Bertram's overtures to Diana. She soon treats the other women to a dinner.

Helena sets up the “bed trick” with no difficulty whatever. Though Diana lacks shrewdness, Helena finds a useful ally in the widow. The two of them express scrupulous regard for the morality of the scheme, but they also strike a firm bargain. Helena offers a “purse of gold” (III.vii.14), then vaguely promises more money (l.16), and finally pins down the additional sum at “three thousand crowns” (l.35)! W. W. Lawrence inaugurated an era of criticism by claiming that as a folklore motif the bed trick raised no moral issues.11 But we hardly need Lawrence if we credit the cloak these two women put on the deal. “Doubt not,” Helena adds later, “but heaven / Hath brought me up to be your daughter's dower” (IV.iv.18-19). I suggest that the holier Helena's language becomes, the less we should believe her.

So smoothly does her planning go that she has time for another project, the destruction of Parolles. Whatever the thematic relevance of this subplot, most critics regard it as technically independent of the main plot. Helena, however, is the secret mastermind. Lafew had once foreseen a future drubbing for Parolles (II.iii.222-26). When the two French Lords travel to the court after speaking with Helena at Rossillion, they hear Lafew on the subject of Parolles (, but in Florence they take no action. Then Helena arrives and hears that Parolles has been the “go between” in Bertram's attempt to seduce Diana. As he passes on parade, Diana says to Helena: “Were I [Bertram's] lady, I would poison that vile rascal” (III.v.83-84). And poison him Helena does! Lord E, without confiding in his brother, gains his cooperation; and in the very next scene, the two urge on Bertram a plan for exposing Parolles' true nature. Lord E carefully insists that Bertram be present at the “examination” (; IV.iii.34-35), for Parolles' punishment must also teach the young count a salutary lesson.

The bed trick takes place offstage. Helena's mastery is nevertheless exhibited in the performance of her chosen ally, Lord E, who (at the beginning of IV.iii) tells his curious brother he has only now delivered the countess' letter. He has surely delayed at Helena's instructions. Now, in order to ascertain that the letter is taking effect, he asks whether Bertram will “again return to France” (ll.39-40). Lord G replies that word has come of Helena's death—which she has also arranged to have announced—and that Bertram will proceed homeward in the morning. All goes according to plan until a hitch develops when Bertram, coming in, says that he leaves Italy with some “nicer” business unfinished (l.88). Lord E encourages him to complete whatever remains undone, but it turns out that the tryst has already taken place (ll.86-94). Parolles is brought in and exposed as a turncoat. And we must infer that still later that night, Lord E informs Helena of all he has learned, for next morning she departs for France, knowing that she is “supposed dead” and that her husband “hies him home” (IV.iv.11-12). Bertram wears her ring, and she has his. If she is pregnant as well, or at least can make others believe she is pregnant, Bertram is hers.

If my readers, having gone with me this far, agree on calling Helena a master of intrigue, they will not be surprised that for the denouement she leaves little to chance. The first clue comes when Parolles' blindfold is removed. Lord E, rather than leaving him to shift for himself, makes the surprising suggestion that Parolles go to France and seek the help of Lafew. Since Lafew, though his archenemy, does take him in, we can infer that Helena and her allies have a use for Parolles. We discover their plot by watching Lafew. He waits until he learns that Bertram has left for Rossillion and Helena for the court. Lest the nostalgic old king quickly forgive Bertram, returning with “letters of commendations” (IV.iii.75-76), and offer him a new wife, Lafew proposes his own daughter. He has no intention of marrying her to Bertram; she never appears in the play, nor does Lafew let her speak with Bertram (V.iii.28-29). His proposal accepted, Lafew goes to Rossillion so that when Bertram returns there, he can be led off to Paris, where Helena should by then have arrived. Suddenly Lafew gets “intelligence” that the king has left Paris for Rossillion (IV.v.79-80). Lafew immediately sends out a messenger, who finds Helena; but as she is with a group of friends, he does not openly confide in her. Instead, this messenger obligingly takes a letter from her and casually lets drop the king's change in plans.

Act V, scene iii, opens with the king at Rossillion, in a forgiving mood and eager for Bertram's remarriage. Then—a stroke of luck for Lafew—the king orders Bertram to send an “amorous token” to Lafew's daughter (l.68). Lafew looks down at Helena's ring on Bertram's finger; and the king, recognizing the ring as his gift to Helena (how well she has planned), immediately suspects Bertram of murdering her and orders him arrested. Lafew, having completed his work, can enjoy Diana's performance, knowing that when the time comes, Parolles will appear and betray Bertram by crediting Diana's accusations against him. And when the time comes, Helena herself will appear.

I will discuss the final events of the play with the aim of deciding the shape of this “problem” comedy. Critics have explored the alternatives.12 Some find that the play has a genuine comic resolution. Bertram comes to appreciate Helena; their marriage demonstrates that the younger generation has at last found itself. The opposite view is that Helena entraps a husband, that he and she deserve each other, and that the key to their marriage can be found in their courtship. A compromise account has had some currency—one that finds in the play a qualified Christian optimism. Helena and Bertram, although not romanticized, do gain spiritual insight. In the words of the play, “the web of our life is of a mingled yard, good and ill together” (IV.iii.68-69). Since this pious moralizing does not penetrate very deeply, I side with the more cynical account of the play.

Helena has come a long way! Until the last thirty-odd lines of the final scene, others do her work for her. She plans meticulously, with flawless judgment. The countess proves ineffectual; the king, a faulty investigator; Lafew is loyal to the end. In my opinion, the role Helena casts for Bertram shows her cruel and effective. From the time he receives his mother's letter, he suffers from conscience and fears the consequence of his misdeeds. But when he arrives home, the promise of a clean slate gives him hope. Then Helena's ring is discovered on his finger, and Diana appears. Suddenly he is threatened with total exposure. To defend himself, he notoriously slanders Diana. Unknowingly he digs himself in deep. Helena miraculously appears. Before, she merely cured the mortally ill; now, she herself returns from the dead. Others gasp and are grateful. It is her moment of triumph and Bertram's moment of darkest humiliation. What can he do except beg her “pardon”? She stands before him, humbly presents evidence that his demands have been met, and asks him to be hers. Though he cannot understand how she has succeeded, he cannot uncover her plot, and so he submits (V.iii.309-10).

The text does little to establish the significance of the marriage. We can interpret Bertram's acceptance of Helena as a sign of his moral growth and this growth as a product of her solicitude. On the other hand, we should beware of the habit of mind caught in the play's title, All's Well That Ends Well. When the end looks satisfactory, the road along the way is remembered as straight, not crooked. But the Panglossian phrase, used in the play only by Helena, can cloak moral cynicism. Perhaps the means do not justify the ends, and perhaps unsavory ends are called means and justified by ends that never come about. At the conclusion of All's Well, we look around the stage and see that a real reckoning has not taken place. We see what the characters do not; like Bertram and Helena, they have succumbed to temptation, some knowingly and with profit, some in ignorance. The countess, reliving her youth through Helena, has betrayed her son. Lafew and the king have enjoyed an indirect romantic involvement with Helena. Lord G, led by his brother, has enjoyed debunking Parolles, a scheme from which Lord E gained both pleasure and profit. And, as a final warning against complacency, history starts to repeat itself. Like Helena earlier, Diana has passed herself off as a poor helpless maid. Although already well rewarded by Helena, she is now invited to choose a husband; the king promises her a royal dowry (l. 322). Even that dull king qualifies the note of celebration: “All seems well.” Seems, but is not!

A society so willfully self-ignorant as the one pictured here needs a scapegoat, and it has one in Parolles. He alone suffers, though many are as corrupt as he. After discovering that the lords and Bertram have trapped him, Parolles says, “Who cannot be crush’d with a plot?” (IV.iii.314). Another undetected traitor is present. When Parolles informs on Bertram, Lord E points the moral: “This is your devoted friend, sir” (l. 227). But Lord E is himself disloyal to Bertram. For a moment, he fears discovery, for his brother asks whether Lord E, like himself, could be corrupted with “well-weighing sums of gold.” Parolles answers “yes” but has no evidence (ll. 174, 273-79). Lord E is a minor character; Bertram and Helena are not. As critics have shown, Bertram is wrongly exculpated by those who would say that Parolles leads him astray.13 They are two of a kind. Both have pretensions to honor; on the same evening, both are exposed as willing to deceive and betray others. Critics have also suggested, although more cautiously, the parallels between Parolles and Helena, viewing both these characters as adventurers who follow the count to the royal court. Helena is no less ambitious than Parolles, although she is far more intelligent and shows “inf’nite cunning” (V.iii.215). “Who cannot be crush’d with a plot?” The answer is—Helena. No one is clever enough to uncover Helena's deception.


  1. Among Helena's earlier supporters is Samuel T. Coleridge, who in one place calls her Shakespeare's “loveliest character,” although elsewhere he is more critical (Coleridge's Shakespeare Criticism, ed. Thomas M. Raysor [London: Constable, 1930], I, 113; II, 357). George Bernard Shaw admires Helena's “exquisite tenderness and impulsive courage” (Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson [London: Cassella, 1962], p. 12). In our century, G. Wilson Knight, in The Sovereign Flower (London: Macmillan, 1958), p. 146, calls her “a semi-divine person”; and many critics follow him in finding her virtually a symbol of grace. Among the recent defenders of Helena, and of the play as comedy, are James L. Calderwood, in “Styles of Knowing in All's Well,Modern Language Quarterly, 25 (1964), 272-94; Anne Barton, in her introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974); and Sylvan Barnet, in his introduction to All's Well in The Complete Signet Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972). More cynical accounts of Helena and the play are offered by E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1925), pp. 200-07; Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in All's Well,ELH, 12 (1954), 17-29; and W. L. Godschalk, “All's Well and the Morality Play,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 61-70. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 145-66, offers the fullest account of Helena's perhaps unscrupulous maneuvering. G. K. Hunter's “Critical Introduction” in the New Arden All's Well (London: Methuen, 1967) is a sophisticated defense of Helena as a heroine and of the play as comedy. I have studied his argument closely and tried to answer it; I also quote from his text throughout.

  2. E. M. W. Tillyard mentions Helena's “humour” in Shakespeare's Problem Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1950), p. 112. The description of Helena's journey is from Chambers, p. 205.

  3. Introduction to the New Shakespeare All's Well, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1929), p. xxv.

  4. Riverside, p. 501.

  5. Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 115, 253 (n. 12). The quotation below is from G. K. Hunter, p. xlii.

  6. New Arden All's Well, p. xlii.

  7. Ibid., p. xxxi.

  8. Calderwood, p. 282.

  9. See Riverside, p. 502; Complete Signet, pp. 1054-55; and the New Arden All's Well, p. xxvii.

  10. The best summary of the textual problem is in the New Arden, pp. xv-xvii. In a note on the two French lords (Notes and Queries, NS 26 [1979], 122-25), I follow Hunter's solution to the problem except that I emend the designation of speakers only in IV.i. I believe that Lord E, at the end of, feigns an exit (l. 103), only to be called back by Bertram, who wishes to share further confidences concerning Diana. Lord G then exits (l. 105). All editors wish to give both apparent exit lines to the same lord, and in order to do so substantially alter the designation of speakers either in this scene or in IV.iii. May I also suggest that I.ii establishes the lords as purveyors of secret information, that in III.i the Duke of Florence sifts them for information which they withhold, and that on a mission back to France, Lord E picks up another assignment from Helena—but not one that puts him in serious jeopardy, since he knows that both the king and the countess favor Helena over Bertram.

  11. William Witherle Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York: Macmillan, 1931), pp. 39-54.

  12. For critics on either extreme, see n. 1. The “compromise” case is argued by Michael Shapiro, “‘The Web of our Life’: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well,Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 71 (1972), 514-26, and by Frances M. Pearce, “In Quest of Unity: A Study of Failure and Redemption in All's Well,Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 71-88.

  13. See especially R. Hunter, pp. 119-22. Several critics make brief mention of parallels between Helena and Parolles: Tillyard, p. 106; Leech, p. 19; G. K. Hunter, p. xxxiii; and, somewhat more fully, R. A. Foakes, Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 15-17.

David McCandless (essay date 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9288

SOURCE: “‘That Your Dian / Was Both Herself and Love’: Helena's Redemptive Chastity,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Fall, 1990, pp. 160-78.

[In the following essay, McCandless sees Helena as a compelling romantic heroine whose chastity and sexual passion are inseparable elements of her character and important components of the play's theme of redemption.]

Any discussion of chastity might well start with the simple assertion that, while often mistaken as a synonym for virginity, chastity actually connotes a kind of achieved purity, an absence of sexual corruption rather than an abstinence from sexual experience. Indeed, sexuality and chastity are not necessarily antithetical. Theoretically, at least, one might lose one's physical virginity and still remain spiritually pure. As Juliet Dusinberre explains, this was precisely the point that the humanist reformers of Shakespeare's era endeavored to make.1 They opposed to the Catholic ideal of monasticism the Protestant ideal of marriage, defining chastity not as an exaltation of cloistered virginity but as a sanctification of marital union. According to this view, one attains the loftiest spiritual state through the wholesome integration of spirit and flesh rather than through their fanatical segregation.

This notion of chaste sexual love is, I believe, crucial to an appreciation of the lamentably under-appreciated All's Well That Ends Well or at least suggests a solution to one of the play's most obstinate problems: Helena's prodigious combination of passion and chastity, her perplexing dual roles of scheming man-hunter and saintly heroine. These seemingly contradictory identities are, critical opinion tells us, unassimilable, or, at best, imperfectly, uncomfortably assimilated.2 Which is the real Helena? scholars have wondered. Clear-cut answers seem to come only at the cost of denying the character's complexity. Thus A. P. Rossiter insists that we take for granted Helena's status as a traditional fairy-tale heroine since “analysis only results in confusion.”3 At the other extreme, Bertrand Evans and Richard A. Levin take pains to dispute Helena's virtue, claiming that her “patient Griselda” persona is merely a conveniently pious cover for wanton conniving.4

In a different vein, some feminist scholars have also addressed the hiddenness of Helena's motives, attributing either to Shakespeare or to Helena herself a need to purify or mystify her sexual aggressiveness in order to make it more acceptable to a patriarchal mind-set (whether Bertram's or the audience's). As Susan Snyder puts it, All's Well enacts the “difficulties and conflicts of imagining a woman as active, desiring subject.”5

Yet the problem of incompatibility between Helena's chastity and sexual passion begins to recede if one admits the possibility of chaste sexual passion. In fact, I will argue, Helena's chastity and sexuality are not only compatible but inseparable: her desire is chaste and her chastity sexually charged, generating a redemptive force that goes a long way toward resolving the play's seemingly irresolvable crises. Thus All's Well may be legitimately read as a vindication both of chastity and of female sexuality: a young woman may be possessed of sexual desire, pursue the man she loves and yet be neither a frightening virago nor a shameless hussy. She may also be chaste without inviting censure as a frigid coward or unctuous fraud. Indeed, once chastity is freed from its monastical, puritanical associations, we may see that Helena's chastity, far from falsely prettifying her desire, actually empowers it.

That Helena's assimilation of passion and chastity has proved so difficult to accept reflects the larger problem of accepting the play's melding of romance and realism. Helena's passion, her status as desiring subject, suggests a realistic self, contrived to look life-like, while her chastity, her status as innocent virgin, seems part of a romanticized self, endowed not only with an unlife-like allotment of virtue but with other-wordly power as well. Helena is not simply a virtuous maid, recipient of her elders' admiration; she is a redemptive agent, recipient of heaven's favor.

It is a mistake, however, to interpret Helena's collusion with the divine as Shakespeare's mystification of her morally dubious course or his evasion of her daunting female subjectivity. As in the romances, Helena's sexually charged chastity becomes a spiritual, redemptive force. Shakespeare is not so much mystifying her sexuality as suggesting its regenerative potential, giving it mystical properties because its life-giving effects partake of a kind of grace. As in the romances, Shakespeare turns a folk tale into both human drama and spiritual allegory and the allegory does not encumber or falsify the drama but ramifies and enriches it. The clever wench fulfilling impossible tasks becomes both a resourceful, desirous woman defeating her husband's seemingly intractable disdain and an agent of grace rescuing a seemingly unregenerate man. Shakespeare aims to take folk-tale wish-fulfillment out of the realm of convention (the festive comedies) and into the realm of human experience (the romances), with what degree of success we will of course want to inquire. But the play's link to the romances seems to me crucial.

Indeed, regenerative chastity such as Helena's plays quite a prominent role in the romances. I would like to begin my consideration of Helena's chastity by briefly assaying the uses and images of chastity in Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, Pericles, and The Winter's Tale in order to contend that Helena resembles Marina and Perdita far more than she does Cressida and Isabella and that All's Well That Ends Well ought to be considered a kind of early romance rather than a defective festive comedy.

Chastity appears impossible to achieve within the world of Troilus and Cressida. Cressida has little concern for sexual purity. Her preserved virginity is simply a source of power (“achievement is command; ungain’d, beseech” [1.2.293]),6 the surrender of which subjects her to precisely the sort of male tyranny that she had feared. Troilus, by contrast, in raptly wishing for a “winnowed purity in love,” seems to aspire to chastity (3.2.158-70). The plighted, constant love that he so grandiloquently extols, however, is greatly at odds with the precipitous, secretive liaison that he actually offers. Troilus is essentially a panting voluptuary with delusions of grandeur. His call for chastity in love is as suspect as his call for infinite glory in war. Both ideals are false glamorizations of destructive appetites.

Chastity in Measure for Measure is of a fanatical, monastical, asexual sort shown to be dangerously limited, inducing Isabella to denounce her own brother with ferocious self-righteousness, rendering Angelo incapable of wholesomely assimilating his sexual passions, and so disabling the Duke that he proves both an ineffectual governor and a maladroit regulator of the chaos that ensues from his absenteeism.7 Marriage emerges as the only means of reconciling the extremes of unfeeling chastity and unruly sexuality, the only way of humanizing the former and sanctifying the latter. But while the multiple pairings-off at the end of the play may appear to promote the Protestant ideal of chaste marriage over a discredited Catholic ideal of monasticism, the Duke's hasty match-makings seem less the realization of an ideal than the desperate implementation of a last resort.

In Pericles, Marina bears some resemblance to Isabella. Both are innocent girls forced to defend their chastity against the lecherous designs of a corrupt governor. Marina's chastity is, however, of an altogether different sort, representing not simply spiritual purity but spiritual potency, a mystically revitalizing force that partly draws on the sexual passions that she attracts as the prize offering of the Mytilenean brothel. She assimilates the sexual energy of would-be corrupters into a spiritual energy that, returned to them, proves redemptive. Lysimachus, who wishes to despoil her, ends up chastely loving and wedding her, a clear instance of achieved purity. Marina, whose wisdom dumbfounds the most learned scholars and who becomes a kind of spiritual mentor to the entire citizenry is, at fourteen years old, clearly a prodigy. Her masculine double is the mystical healer Cerimon, who is praised throughout the play as a god-like agent of heaven (3.2.44-45; 5.3.57-60, 62-63). Just as he cures physical illness, so she remedies moral disease. Just as he revives Thaisa from death, so she revives Pericles from a death-in-life.

The Winter's Tale similarly presents the redemptive prodigies of a sexually energized virgin. Compared to Marina's, Perdita's chastity is more naturally and less mystically a revitalizing force. Distributing the flowers of spring, presiding over a folk celebration brimming with primitive vigor, she becomes a fertility-figure like Flora and Persephone. Unlike Marina, she longs from the outset to lose her virginity chastely. So too does her chaste suitor Florizel. Their mutual avowals of desire (4.4.31-35, 130-32) prove that their pastoral love, while absolutely pure, is not prettily abstract but potently sexual. Indeed, their harmonious unification of spirit and flesh helps rectify Leontes's deranged polarization of them, his crazed obsession with preserving an ideal of chastity by killing the chaste wife he imagines to have befouled it. At the end, the lovers complete their redemptive mission by retrieving both Leontes and Hermione from a barren chastity, a monastical death-in-life. Leontes ceases to be an unmarriageable self-mortifying penitent and Hermione a withdrawn monument of Patience smiling at grief. A passionate chastity returns them to each other.

All's Well That Ends Well portrays the trials of two chaste women: Helena, who, like Perdita, longs to lose her virginity lawfully to the man she loves, and Diana, who, like Marina, strives to protect it from a man who wishes to ravish her. That the two men are one and the same, Bertram, is the hinge upon which the play's resolution turns. Actually, in plotting to debauch Diana, Bertram bears enough of a likeness to Troilus and Angelo to give the play a superficial resemblance to Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. He is, like Troilus, a young, hot-blooded, glory-mongering military hero whose self-regarding masculine fancy demands the seduction of women. As in Troilus and Cressida, virginity confers power on the unyielding virgin and the imploring inamorato becomes as a military champion laying siege to the fortress of chastity. Indeed, the equation of courtship and military conquest persists from Helena's and Parolles's debate on virginity through the multiple references to Diana as “armed” against Bertram's “assaults” (3.5.73-74; 3.7.18-19; 4.2.50-51). Bertram, however, is neither as complex nor as dangerous as Troilus. The war in Troilus and Cressida is a grotesque, gruesome affair that extends the ill effects of Troilus's incontinent romanticizing, while the war in All's Well That Ends Well is of the distanced storybook sort that leaves no blood on Bertram's hands and serves to elevate him in the audience's eyes rather than to diminish him.8

Moreover, Bertram looks remarkably unmenacing compared to the treacherous Angelo, who has power sufficient to place his intended victim in genuine peril. Bertram never threatens Diana. She has the upper hand throughout the scene and simply sets him up for the bed-trick that Helena has already devised. In Measure for Measure, by contrast, Isabella seems defenseless against Angelo's depredations. Only later does the Duke learn of her dilemma and improvise a bed-trick.

If Diana the imperilled virgin is but a distant cousin of Cressida and Isabella, Helena the desirous virgin claims something more like sisterhood with the romance heroines Perdita and Marina. Indeed, Helena shares Perdita's plight of loving a man whose superior social rank seems to make him unattainable. Although Perdita's beloved ardently returns her devotion, she repeatedly vents the fear that his vows will prove hollow in the face of his father's certain disapproval. Thus a strange poignancy attains to her impersonation of Flora: this goddess of fertility may never bring her own love to fruition.

In her first soliloquy Helena sounds like Perdita in lamenting, “’twere all one / That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it, he is so above me” (1.1.85-87). Seemingly reposing in the hopelessness of her love, Helena consigns herself to a chastity synonymous with barrenness and renunciation. In her scene-ending second soliloquy, however, she delivers herself of radically different sentiments: far from passively accepting the fate of unfulfilled love, she boldly vows to bring about its fulfillment (“Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?” [1.1.226-27]). Here we see the conversion of chastity from static fruitlessness to pulsating fertility. The agency of conversion is an exceptionally unlikely one: Parolles. His case against virginity, although scandalously over-stated, nonetheless imposes on Helena an important truth: sexual desire is natural and necessary for the renewal of life (“there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost … virginity murthers itself and should be buried on highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [1.1.128-29, 139-41]).

I cannot agree with Lisa Jardine that Helena “is a match for Parolles in equivocating on virginity” or that her willingness to address sexual matters in public indicts her as unchaste.9 In fact, she begins to banter with Parolles as one would with a fool—which is precisely how she describes him upon his entrance—and seems to do so out of loyalty to the man she loves (“Who comes here? / One that goes with him; I love him for his sake” [1.1.98-99]). Helena is a match for Parolles only in the sense that she briefly descends to his level in order to indulge his waggish salaciousness. She actually speaks sparingly in the scene, principally confining herself to posing questions that serve as cues for his facile ribaldries. Helena, one might say, plays straight man for Parolles.

While Jardine may be correct in asserting that the audience connects this raillery to Helena's own plight, what strikes me as crucial about the scene is that Helena herself does not, at least not at first. If her first words to Parolles were truly a reflection of her immediate crisis, we would expect a response to his question, “are you meditating on virginity?” much different from the one that she offers: “Ay … Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?” (1.1.110, 112-13). Surely advice on protecting her virginity against male aggression is irrelevant to her needs. Indeed, only after Parolles has expounded at some length on the unnaturalness of virginity is she moved to solicit the appropriate counsel: “How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?” (1.1.150-51). She begins to take seriously what had seemed a frivolous joke. She trades the role of straight man for that of surprised pupil. In the course of his trivial disquisition on virginity she begins to grasp the truth that leads to the heady optimism of the second soliloquy. Parolles functions here as a kind of covert promoter of Helena's sexual passion. Just as the sheep-shearing festival surrounds Perdita's virginal yearning with earthy sensual rumblings, so Parolles surrounds Helena's with a similarly primitive libidinal eruption, offering the rhetorical equivalent of a fertility rite.10

Resolved to pursue Bertram to Paris, Helena implores the Countess to understand her predicament:

                                        if yourself … 
Did ever in so true a flame of liking
Wish chastely, and love dearly, that your Dian
Was both herself and Love, O then give pity
To her whose state is such that cannot choose
But lend and give where she is sure to lose;
That seeks not to find that her search implies,
But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies.


Faced with the equally impossible alternatives of illicit sexual dalliance with Bertram (“lend and give where she is sure to lose”) or consignment to celibacy (“lives sweetly where she dies”), of fruitlessly expending her virginity or fruitlessly preserving it, Helena opts for a third course: marriage, in which Dian is both “herself” (the goddess of chastity) and “Love” (Venus, the goddess of passion), in which one may fulfill her sexual desire yet remain chaste, surrender her virginity yet retain her virginal purity.11

Once at court, then, Helena grows both more sexually vital and more vitally chaste, combining Perdita's fertile natural passions with Marina's supernatural powers. When presenting Helena to the King, for instance, Lafew makes unmistakable allusions to her sexual allure, calling himself “Cressid's uncle” and extolling her touch as “powerful [enough] to araise King Pippen, nay, / To give great Charlemain a pen in ’s hand / And write to her a love-line” (2.1.76-78). At the same time, he proclaims her a Marina-like miracle-worker, a young woman “able to breathe life into a stone” who, “in her sex, her years, profession, / Wisdom, and constancy, hath amaz’d me more / Than I dare blame my weakness” (2.1.83-85).

Similarly, left alone with the King, Helena explicitly identifies herself as a vessel of divine grace: “He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister. … Dear sir, to my endeavors give consent, / Of heaven, not me, make an experiment” (2.1.136-37, 153-54). The initially skeptical King falls under her spell: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” (2.1.175-76). Yet Helena's effect on the King may be physical as much as spiritual, an arousal of sexual feeling as well as an awakening of faith. The King's vow, “sweet practicer, thy physic I will try, / That ministers thine own death if I die” (2.1.185-86) registers metaphorically as an assent to sexual union. Similarly, Helena characterizes failure to cure the King as a sexual transgression, warranting a “tax of impudence, / A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame, / Traduc’d by odious ballads; my maiden's name / Sear’d otherwise” (2.1.170-73).

The proposed terms of punishment match her hidden sexual motive: if her attempted cure fails, then the desire that impelled it may be branded unchaste, as if the potency of the physic were dependent upon the purity of the physician. The King of course knows nothing of Helena's desire for Bertram but could conceivably have grounds for questioning her purity, since her claim to special power makes her a potential witch, whose healing touch is derived from a wicked rather than a chaste sexuality. The penalty that she proposes is thus an implicit denial of witchcraft, underscoring her claim to be heaven's agent, to traffic in white rather than black magic. Indeed, Helena takes a position somewhat similar to that of Paulina, who disavows “wicked powers” in promising to animate Hermione's statue and urges, “those that think it is unlawful business / I am about, let them depart” (5.3.96-97). Helena, too, means to escape suspicion of wickedness, portraying her cure—and hence her amorous designs on Bertram—as “lawful business.”

The exact nature of the cure Shakespeare keeps mysterious in order to portray Helena as the principal healing agent. Certainly Lafew lends credence to this view, characterizing the remedy as neither a potion nor a powder but a person—“Doctor She,” Helena herself (2.1.72-79).

Yet Helena is clearly no qualified doctor, nor does she claim to be. Early in the play, the Countess praises her education (1.1.36-42), but the acquisition of medical skill does not appear to have been part of it. Indeed, the Countess wonders, how can a “poor, unlearned virgin” like Helena hope to cure the King when the “school” of learned physicians has pronounced his disease incurable? Helena, in reply, portrays herself as the minister of an essentially supernatural cure:

                                        There’s something in ’t
More than my father's skill, which was the great’st
Of his profession, that his good receipt
Shall for my legacy be sanctified
By th’ luckiest stars in heaven.


Helena later underlines the cure's mystical properties in telling the King that her father “bade me store [it] up, as a triple eye, / Safer than mine own two” (2.1.108-09). The equation of the cure with the third eye, which, in occult tradition, is a source of extra-sensory perception and power, ballasts the impression that Helena is not a learned physician but a Marina-like mystical healer, innocent of medical knowledge yet able to revive a dying King, able to breathe life into a stone. Moreover, Helena's father, Gerard de Narbon, bears a close resemblance to Marina's spiritual father, Cerimon. Both are miracle-workers rather than mere physicians, turning natural substances into transcendent remedies in a manner reminiscent of the alchemists.12 Indeed, Helena may be considered a kind of soror mystica—the “mystical sister” of the alchemical tradition who served as the adept's female helper or disciple and was, in fact, often his wife or daughter. The soror mystica supplied the feminine energy essential to the miraculous transformation of matter.13 Similarly, Helena's feminine energy—her passionate chastity—is indispensable to the miraculously transformative effects of her father's cure.

Helena's association with the soror mystica and reference to the third eye help drive home the point that her skill is less medical than magical. Indeed, while assuring the king of her healing graces, she begins speaking in cryptic rhymed couplets that sound like a sorcerer's spell:

Ere twice the horses of the sun shall bring
Their fiery torcher his diurnal ring,
Ere twice in murk and occidental damp
Moist Hesperus hath quench’d her sleepy lamp,
Or four and twenty times the pilot's glass
Hath told the thievish minutes how they pass,
What is infirm from your sound parts shall fly,
Health shall live free, and sickness freely die.


Thus, while Nicholas Brooke discerns four rival explanations for the king's recovery—“drugs,” “miracle,” “magic,” and “sexual response”—the true remedy is Helena herself who unifies all of these into a single feat of healing.14 That Helena's libidinal drive has spiritual force does not mean that Shakespeare feels compelled to mystify female sexuality in order to neutralize its provocations. Even on a “realistic” level, Helena's chaste passion is a kind of burgeoning regenerative force, a stored creative potential primed for the renewal of life, a power at once miraculous and natural. On the romantic level, Helena functions as both a Marina-like virgin priestess, chaste enough to serve as a conduit of divine energy, and a Perdita-like fertility figure, sexually potent enough to convert that energy into a revitalizing physical force. As Barbara Everett asserts, “as a character, Helena has power”—a power derived from both “grace” and “nature.”15 Lafew, who has the final word on the King's revival, is quick to declare it a miracle but equally quick to discern in the King, who celebrates his recovery by dancing a lively coranto with Helena, an increase in “lustiness” (2.3.26, 41). The simultaneous heightening of Helena's sexuality and chastity is not then a conundrum. The two forces are not opposite but complementary. They are, in fact, the same force.

The dual emphasis on passion and purity continues in the husband-choosing scene. On the one hand, Lafew's initial desire to trade places with the prospective husbands and subsequent impugning of their masculinity reinforces Helena's sexual allure. Helena herself, who previously wished Dian “both herself and love,” now resolves to quit Dian's altar and dedicate herself to “imperial Love.” On the other hand, she soon reveals that yielding to sexual love has an ultimately chaste purpose: as she moves from one courtier to the next, she employs a succession of key words—suit, love, bed, son—that suggest that marriage and procreation are foremost in her mind.

In addition, her singular position as public female wooer, like her unique status as female physician, requires a disavowal of “forwardness.” Her progress through the ceremony is thus marked by abashed hesitations, self-deprecations, and protestations of modesty. When she finally claims Bertram, as Snyder observes, “she does her best to deny her role as aggressive, desiring subject and to recast herself properly as object.”16 Yet Helena's self-effacement seems to me not simply a female's conditioned retraction of a threat to male autonomy—although it is surely that—but an honest affirmation of the chaste purpose empowering her untoward tactics.

The pilgrimage that Helena undertakes in the wake of Bertram's emphatic rejection strikes some critics as simply a ruse for pursuing Bertram. Such a reading affirms Helena's chastely indomitable sexual drive, to be sure, but overlooks key textual evidence and undersells the play's romantic dimension. Construing the pilgrimage as a ruse requires reading Helena's farewell sonnet either as a veiled disclosure—which the Countess fails to decode—or as an extravagant lie. While Helena may have reasons for hiding her true purpose from the Countess—although they are difficult to fathom given the happy effects of her earlier confession—it seems decidedly odd that Shakespeare would deceive an audience that, by virtue of Helena's soliloquies, confessions, and confidings, has consistently been made a party to her plotting.

In fact, Helena's pilgrimage tallies precisely with the content of a previous confession to the audience. In the soliloquy that ends 3.2, she resolves to flee France in the hope of retrieving Bertram from the war and vents a grief and guilt so extreme as to make a penitential trek psychologically plausible and give grounds for taking the later letter at face value. Only the “death” that Helena proposes to “embrace” seems to me a metaphor, not for sexual union (an interpretation that requires reading the entire letter metaphorically) but for sexual renunciation. In preparing to do penance for her “offensive” ambitious love, Helena trades a chastity empowering sexual desire for a chastity disclaiming it. She imposes upon herself a “tax of impudence” for her sexually aggressive ways and embraces the death-in-life of monastical withdrawal.

Certainly the Countess seems to regard Helena as engaged in an exclusively spiritual quest. Responding to Helena's intention of “sanctifying” Bertram's name, she cries incredulously

                                        What angel shall
Bless this unworthy husband? He cannot thrive,
Unless her prayers, whom heaven delights to hear
And loves to grant, reprieve him from the wrath
Of greatest justice.


Just when Helena appears to devote herself to a Catholic ideal of chastity, the Countess attributes to her the same intercessory power as the ultimate female redeemer in the Catholic tradition—the Virgin Mary. Just when Helena seems intent on spurning the ways of the flesh, the Countess's words have the effect of etherealizing her.

Helena's sexual resignation ends in Florence, however, when she hears of Bertram's overtures to a young Florentine woman, Diana, and undertakes to turn them to her own advantage. Florence may seem too much out of Helena's way for her discovery of Bertram to be unintended, but geographical improbabilities and fantastic coincidences are the stuff of romance. Helena, it seems, is the lucky recipient of a providential boon: Fortune smiles on her desire for Bertram by facilitating a design favorable to its fulfillment. At the same time, Helena's own human initiative—her determination and ingenuity—combined with the sympathetic ministrations of Diana and the Widow, ensure that this singular chance is readily exploited.

Diana is well-qualified to be Helena's accomplice, for she too combines passion and chastity. Like her namesake, the Roman goddess, Diana proves a champion of chastity, offering to die an “honest death” in Helena's service (4.4.28-30) and declaring, in the wake of Bertram's perfidy, that she will “live and die a maid” (4.2.73-74). Yet evidence of Diana's sexual avidity also abounds, as Brooke affirms in calling her, rather cheekily, “a virgin more in fact than spirit.”17 Certainly her interest in Bertram is unmistakable. Her acclaim of his handsomeness and valiancy, and the reprimands and warnings that it elicits from her mother and Mariana, provide compelling evidence of sexual attraction. More to the point, in order to set Bertram up for the bed-trick and secure his ancestral ring, she flirtatiously incites the very lust that she chastely shames. Her success in bamboozling Bertram bespeaks genuine desire as well as genuine virtue. This Dian is both herself and love, just as this Helen is both herself and chastity.

For the second time in the play, Helena ends a bereaved acceptance of barren chastity and concocts a scheme for winning Bertram that prodigiously reconciles chastity with sexuality: the bed-trick. Generations of critics have blanched at Helena's recourse to sexual subterfuge as unbecomingly conniving and tawdry, if not downright unchaste.18 While Helena herself makes no attempt to gloss over its unsavory implications, she does insist, in securing the Widow's support, that her purpose is chaste: she calls the bed-trick “wicked meaning in a lawful deed,” clearly describing Bertram's activity, and “lawful meaning in a lawful act,” clearly describing her own, “Where both not sin and yet a sinful fact” (3.7.45-47). Bertram's “deed” may be legalistically chaste since it inadvertently fulfills his marriage vows. But only Helena's “meaning” is “lawful.” Only her passion is chaste. While she fulfills a sexual love, he gratifies a blinding lust. Indeed, Bertram's sinlessness seems less important than his intended sin. The bed-trick may save Bertram from infamy but it also marks him as only marginally worth saving.

The event itself has the effect of confirming and extending Helena's indictment of male “wickedness”:

                                        But, O strange men!
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen’d thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away.


Helena wonders at a desire so disabling that it makes the dark night darker and obliterates the distinction between desired and despised. As Carol Thomas Neely observes, the bed-trick depends upon “the radical anonymity of sexual union, its separation from love and marriage.”19 Indeed, if from one angle Helena is the contracted wife who consummates her marriage, from another she is the sexual plaything who facilitates her own betrayal. She can win her husband only by posing as a woman whom he uses as a whore.

It would be oversimple, however, to read the bed-trick as a distasteful charade proving Bertram's perfidy and Helena's desperate masochism. It is also a potentially transformative event, aiming, as Neely observes, to “cure or transform male fantasy through its apparent enactment.”20 The reference to male fantasy is crucial, it seems to me, for Bertram appears to be possessed of a pornographic consciousness, at least as Susan Griffin and Andrea Dworkin define it: a fear of the feminine that induces fantasies of sexually mastering a substituted female image.21

The point obviously requires some elaboration. In the opening scene, Bertram takes leave of his mother and sets off to become a ward of the King. “In delivering my son from me,” says the Countess, “I bury a second husband” (1.1.1-2). The child dies and the man is born. The son affirms his separateness from his mother and ends his “marriage” to her. He prepares to take his place in patriarchal culture, to uphold, in Lacanian terms, the Law of the Father—to become, in fact, a kind of surrogate son to the Father of the Land.

For Bertram, this initiation into manhood requires not simply leaving his mother but rejecting the feminine altogether, as seems evident from his outrage at being excluded from the wars:

I shall stay here the forehorse to a smock,
Creaking my shoes on the plain masonry,
Till honor be bought up, and no sword worn
But one to dance with.


The imagery here registers Bertram's fear of female domination. He equates exclusion from the all-male enterprise of war, crucible of masculine “honor,” with an emasculating, dishonorable consignment to the company of women. In such company, the sword that he wears can only be a flaccid appendage, not a weapon but a toy, not an agency of power but an insignia of impotence. More strikingly, he imagines himself the “forehorse to a smock,” a woman's beast of burden, an animal that she drives and whips. This nearly sadomasochistic image suggests that his fear of female domination encompasses dread of sexual enslavement.

Bertram's paranoid fantasy seems to be almost instantly fulfilled: Helena chooses him as mate and, implicitly at least, commands him to become the slave of her desire, to submit permanently to her dominant sexuality. While Bertram is primed to resent any imposed responsibility that keeps him from going a-soldiering, marriage to Helena is the very worst of fates, restricting him to the status not simply of untried boy or gelded warrior but lawful male prostitute whose pimp is the king. Having ended the constrictive “marriage” to his mother, he falls under a more menacing form of “woman's command” (and, unlike Lavatch, he sees nothing but “hurt” in it).

This menace must seem all the more acute for its utterly unexpected source: Helena, a young woman effusively admired by her elders who “had her breeding at my father's charge” (2.3.114), a kind of goody-two-shoes-girl-next-door. When this Pollyanna turns sexual predator and threatens to emasculate him, he escapes and enters the all-male military world, proving his manhood with a vengeance, becoming a military conqueror and aiming to become a sexual one as well. Shrinking from the image of woman as dominatrix, Bertram turns dominator and enacts a common pornographic fantasy: despoiling an idolized virgin.22 He worships and supplicates Diana as a goddess but only in order to turn her into a whore. As he later testifies, much of Diana's attractiveness lies in her unattainability:

She knew her distance and did angle for me,
Madding my eagerness with her restraint,
As all impediments in fancy's course,
Are motives of more fancy.


Her chastity—or “restraint” as he insists—is for Bertram a provocation, an invitation to defilement. Her inaccessible, unspoiled loveliness gives her a power over him that he must subdue. Diana thus dominates him in a manner different from Helena: by afflicting him with desire and withholding satisfaction. Beneath his gilded entreaties, Bertram essentially asks Diana to stop playing “hard-to-get” and implies that her chastity is mere prudery or frigidity (4.2.3-10). The irony of course is that Diana is indeed playing “hard-to-get” but only in order to secure from Bertram the ancestral ring that is integral to Helena's plot. Thus Shakespeare effectively de-familiarizes the male fantasy of the “girl-who-says-no-but-means-yes.” Indeed, Bertram is such an easy mark for Helena's scheme precisely because of his ready belief in this patriarchal myth.

The bed-trick sets in motion a series of substitutions that ultimately corrects Bertram's original substitution of image for person, his transformation of Diana into “Diana,” the pornographic image, the madonna/whore. First, Helena substitutes herself for “Diana,” assuming the role of debauched goddess in Bertram's erotic fantasy. Next Diana substitutes herself for “Diana”/Helena, refusing, in the final scene, to accept the status of disposable plaything (“Diana”) and presenting herself as wronged wife and formidably desirous woman (Helena). Indeed, from Bertram's perspective, Diana re-enacts Helena's original threat of female domination through coercive marriage. Diana's rendition of Helena's aggressive sexuality draws the “tax of impudence” that Helena has adroitly dodged at every turn, as the King and Lafew join Bertram in abusing her, calling her “easy glove” and “common customer” (5.3.277-78, 286). Finally, Helena substitutes herself for her own disparaged double, vindicating her beleagured sexuality and combatting Bertram's objectifications by revealing that she is “Diana.”

The effect of this ending is intriguingly analogous to that of The Winter's Tale. When Leontes confronts Hermione's statue, he is, in effect, confronting the consequences of his own objectification of her, his imprisonment of her in image, first as treacherous whore, then as recollected, idealized madonna. Her descent from the pedestal, facilitated by his rapt yearning for her return, signifies the achievement of subjectivity, the replacement of image with person.

In All's Well That Ends Well, Bertram, having used Diana as a whore, insists that she remain one. She thus functions as woman-as-object, woman-as-statue, the constructed, substituted image through which Bertram means to dominate the feminine. Yet “Diana,” woman-as-object, gives way to Helena, woman-as-subject. “Is’t real that I see?” asks the King, stupefied by her seemingly miraculous re-appearance. “No, my good lord,” she replies, “’Tis but the shadow of a wife you see; / The name and not the thing.” Bertram instantly corrects her: “Both, both. O pardon!” (5.3.306-08). He instinctively welcomes her as his wife and implores her forgiveness even before she has recited her fulfillment of his conditions or alluded to the means employed. In declaring her both the “name” and the “thing,” in effecting the integration of the previously polarized roles of wife and sexual partner, Bertram authorizes Helena's emergence from the limbo of objectification. The shadow achieves a substance. The statue stirs and descends from the pedestal.

“This is done,” Helena proclaims, after giving evidence of having passed his test. “Will you be mine now you are doubly won?” Bertram's ensuing use of the conditional—“if she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (5.3.314-16)—has struck some critics as an alarming demur. As Alexander Leggatt puts it, “the penitent himself is not cooperating; his repentance still depends on certain conditions.”23 But Bertram's espousal of Helena is so unhesitating and unequivocal as to make an instantaneous retraction decidedly improbable. Moreover, Bertram does not, as before, demand the performance of some near-impossible feat but merely solicits clarification of a story that has quite naturally bewildered him—a condition, if we can call it that, that Helena will surely have little trouble fulfilling.24 Thus the emphasis in Bertram's lines seems to fall on the reward that awaits her: “I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly”—which sounds very much like a pledge of devotion. Indeed, their brief exchange of lines amounts to a renewal of vows in a second, extemporized marriage ceremony, complete with presentation of ring.

To our amazement, the bed-trick turns out to be an experience to build on rather than transcend. “When I was like this maid,” Helena tells Bertram, “I found you wondrous kind” (5.3.309-10). This single line has profound implications. It cannot but radically alter our perception of the bed-trick, our image of Bertram as a frenzied brute “fleshing his will” (4.3.16) and violating a woman whom he has sworn to love, and of Helena as a passive receptacle of Bertram's blind passion, masochistically submitting to humiliating, anonymous “use.” We now discover that Bertram was “wondrous kind” to her. Indeed, if before she marvelled at the “sweet use” men could make of “what they hate,” she now accentuates the sweetness and downplays the use. The line excuses the conjecture that Helena might actually have felt more loved than used. The bed-trick begins to seem less a degrading accommodation of lust than a mutually gratifying foretaste of conjugal love.

The precedent of enjoyed intimacy gives the marriage an unexpected foundation. Attributing tenderness to Bertram imparts hope for his permanent reform. In sum, Helena gives grounds for granting Bertram the benefit of the doubt just when he needs it the most. The way is clear for him to accept and assimilate the feminine, which he previously abjured as inimical to manhood. He has unwittingly serviced the woman whose sexuality he so abhorred, finds himself under her “command” just as he had feared. But her “use” of him proves “sweet,” yielding an experience of consensual pleasure rather than unmanly subjugation. In the final scene, Bertram must again perceive Helena as a sexual being, but as once and future lover, not castrating predator. The undesirably desirous woman may now become desirable. Griffin asserts that, for the pornographer, “the mystery of the female body is revealed to be nothing more than flesh.”25 For Bertram, the potentially reformed pornographer, the mystery of the female body—the body to which he made love in the dark—is revealed to be nothing less than a person. The object becomes a subject, the erotic fantasy a wife.

Or does she? To what extent does Bertram recognize Helena's subjectivity? To what extent can we consider him truly reformed? Certainly Helena positions him to undergo a genuine regeneration, see the error of his ways, experience remorse and contrition, and commit himself to a loving marriage that reconciles passion and chastity, masculine and feminine. But the play's ending leaves room to doubt that such a radical transmutation has, in fact, taken place. That Bertram is now prepared to marry Helena can scarcely be doubted. That he speaks words indicative of shame and repentance seems clear enough. But the brevity of his apology, the suddenness of his supposed conversion, the cumulative evidence of his incorrigibility, have incited some critics to doubt his rehabilitation and to declare the play's title perversely ironic.

These critics prinicipally complain that Bertram spoils the happy ending by failing to verbalize his repentance with adequate eloquence and expansiveness or to effuse a new-found love for the woman whom he has so deplorably abused. This complaint loses much of its force, I think, if we imagine the sort of scene requested: Bertram, in a long, torrentially penitent speech, flays himself for his mistreatment of Helena and pledges to love her unconditionally and eternally. Would such rhetorical extravagance really give satisfactory assurance of his sincerity? Bertram, after all, is a prolific liar. Indeed, his two previous abashed embracings of Helena—his eagerness to marry her when the King furiously commands it, his readiness to praise her when she is assumed dead—are self-serving dissimulations designed to appease the King. If Bertram were to launch into yet another self-reproving penitential jag, would the likelihood of his lying not be greater, would we not then be inclined, in the Countess's words, to “tax him for speech” even more than we would “check him for silence” (1.1.67-68)?

Clearly, given Bertram's character, his words, whether plentiful or sparse, could never suffice to confirm his sincerity. What clearly matters in the final moments of the play are his actions. The concision of his speech may signify that Shakespeare shrewdly recognized the impossibility of penning a convincing confessional for Bertram and, eschewing poetry, left the scene deliberately underwritten, asking the actors to effect an emotionally satisfying resolution. Thus, if Bertram were to cease his macho posturing and do something unprecedented and uncharacteristic—shed tears, physically embrace Helena, or give some other evidence of searing shame and feverish gratitude to her—then his penitent words could gain credibility—and indeed, have gained credibility in performance. One thinks of Tyrone Guthrie's 1959 production—or at least of Muriel St. Clare Byrne's famous account of it, which testifies to the actors' success in enacting a stirring, compelling reconciliation. Indeed, alleges St. Clare Byrne, “there was no need for Bertram to speak, and if his words had been adequate, they would have been out of character.”26

In two other respects Bertram's quick and uneloquent conversion seems fitting. First, it sustains the play's pattern of youthful resurgence. While All's Well That Ends Well may be considered a precursor of romance, it is also, in one crucial sense, a typical comedy: it belongs to the young. And the young people in this play are resolutely forward-looking. Helena weeps in the opening scene and is presumed to be mourning her father's death. In fact, she has already moved on from that lamentable event and mourns her unrequited love for Bertram. In no time, however, she conceives a plan for achieving its requital. Parolles, too, adopts an attitude of “don’t look back” when exposed as a dissembling coward: “Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and Parolles live / Safest in shame; being fool’d, by fool’ry thrive. / There’s place and means for every man alive” (4.3.337-39). Similarly, at the outset of the final scene, the King urges Bertram to “take the instant by the forward top,” to forego confessions and pleas for forgiveness, even to forget Helena: “all is whole; / Not one more word of the consumed time” (5.3.38-40, 67). Perhaps Bertram emits such a brief mea culpa upon Helena's return in deference to this earlier injunction.

Second, the quickness of Bertram's conversion conduces to the final scene's effect of underscoring Helena's regenerative power. She stages her return to Rossillion as a resurrection and seems once more to cast a spell on the King (“Is there no exorcist / Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?” he asks [5.3.305-06]) and, in all likelihood, on all the scene's witnesses. She unveils herself, almost emblematically, as pregnant wife, as successful unifier of passion and chastity. The child and the ring that she offers Bertram in fulfillment of his conditions become not only the sacramental tokens of a second wedding but the proofs of her redemptive power: the unborn child, fruit of passion, represents the creative assimilation of the destructive lust that Bertram sought to unleash against Diana, the ring, symbol of chastity, the preservation of the honor that he would all too readily have surrendered.

In addition, as generations of critics have noted, Helena's regenerative capacities turn her relentless pursuit of Bertram into an image of irresistible grace pursuing unregenerate man. While few people would be willing to read the play as a spiritual allegory or to accept Bertram as an “eleventh-hour” penitent instantaneously transformed by his acceptance of grace, the concluding scene does, in fact, function as a secularized morality finale, yet another instance of the play's commingling of realism and romance. Bertram repeats Mankind's mistake of securing worldly favor at the cost of his soul—or at least of his honor. Having achieved, through his military exploits, an enviable worldly standing, confirmed by the King's forgiveness of his misdeeds and the honorable marriage that he is poised to make, Bertram instantly loses it and comes face to face with utter ruination—with censure, disgrace, and possibly even death. He stands as an exposed sinner facing damnation, doing everything in his power to save himself but finding that power pitifully limited. Like Mankind, he requires a miraculous deliverance. And that is precisely what he gets—or at least what he must feel that he gets. Desperate and helpless, he is disposed to experience Helena's wholly unexpected, unaccountable return as the wondrous intervention of grace.

To imagine a Bertram capable of coolly feigning repentance amidst these tumultuous events is to imagine a young man more megalomaniacally imperturbable than the play gives us. That his mother's earlier recriminatory letter “stings his nature” and leaves him a “changed man” proves that he has a conscience (4.3.1-5). That his intended debauchery turns into “wondrous kindness” discloses an unsuspected emotional sensitivity. Indeed, Bertram may have so few words to say precisely because Helena's re-appearance overwhelms him, returns him to the realm of pure feeling last visited during the bed-trick, when he and Helena spoke to each other in purely physical terms. Thus Barbara Hodgdon finds Bertram's speechlessness more expressive of “the possibility of kindness and love” than “extravagant speech or romantic gestures.”27

Even if Bertram simply clings to Helena as a drowning man to a life-preserver, the profound gratitude that he must feel might at least engender a new appreciation of her. The disdainful husband seems capable of loving the once “detested wife,” the woman-fearing male of assimilating the feminine, the wayward sinner of accepting grace. Not only does Helena appear to possess a regenerative power capable of reforming Bertram; he himself shows signs of reformability.

Although performance can enhance the credibility of Bertram's repentance, one must concede that the play offers no assurance of his permanent amendment. Such assurance could result only from the depiction, possibly through a “wide gap of time,” of a process of moral and spiritual maturation that repentance inspires. As Neely observes, the play's ending is only a beginning.28 It is, however, a happy beginning. All's Well That Ends Well may indeed be provocatively open-ended, but it is a provocatively open-ended romance, I think, and not a fractured comedy.

Indeed, like The Winter's Tale, All's Well That Ends Well submits the intractable data of life to the ameliorations of romance, as if to transport idealization from the realm of myth to that of experience. If The Winter's Tale succeeds in making idealization real, All's Well at least makes it appear possible. Certainly the seams show a good deal more. Its artifice is more evident and its magic rougher. Its closure consequently depends, to an even greater degree, on the audience's imaginative complicity. The awakened faith that Paulina solicits in the final scene of The Winter's Tale—the faith essential to the conversion of art to life, symbolized by Hermione's reanimation—seems even more in demand at the climax of All's Well. In the epilogue, the actor/king declares: “The king's a beggar, now the play is done; / All is ended well if this suit be won, / That you express content” (Epi.1-3). Within the conventional appeal for the audience's applause lies an appeal for their acquiescence in romantic wish-fulfillment. The proposition that the play ends well if the audience believes that it does Thomas Cartelli calls “one of the strongest appeals commanded by drama—theatrical appeal, the invitation to participate in a fantasy fulfilled.”29

The fantasy of course is Helena's, her means of fulfillment the regenerative drive of her passionate chastity which reconciles, in a manner reminiscent of Pericles and The Winter's Tale, the seemingly irreconcilable forces of purity and desire. This reconciliation distances the play from the other “problem comedies.” Troilus's attempt to wed chastity to sexuality through voluptuous idealization of desire ends in ignominious failure and the Duke's arranged marriages are too precipitous and ill-prepared to recommend themselves as models of chaste sexual love. The mystical Marina's marriage to the once-reprobate Lysimachus and the fertile Perdita's attainment of a seemingly unattainable love are much more obviously analogous to Helena's achievement.

Helena is both romance heroine and compellingly “real” woman who, in the course of pursuing and winning an initially unwilling husband and providing the means for his redemption, validates the ideal of female as desiring subject by virtue of an achieved purity, a chastity empowering rather than negating sexuality, a chastity wedded to experience rather than divorced from it, a chastity that signifies neither frigidity nor repression and commends a desire neither corrupt nor corruptive. If we must inevitably admit that the play does not end unambiguously well, we might at least take comfort from Lavatch's definition of “wellness” as a state of grace beyond human experience (2.4.1-12). Given the play's engagement with that calamitous experience, perhaps we may admit that it ends as well as it can.


  1. Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975) 20-63.

  2. See, for example, Michael Taylor, “Persecuting Time with Hope: The Cynicism of Romance in All's Well That Ends Well,English Studies in Canada 11 (1985): 284; G. K. Hunter, All's Well That Ends Well, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1959) xxxi; Alexander Leggatt, “All's Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance,” Modern Language Quarterly 32 (1971): 41; W. L. Godshalk, “All's Well That Ends Well and the Morality Play,” Shakespeare Quarterly 25 (1974): 66; and Lisa Jardine, “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: ‘These are Old Paradoxes,’” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 11.

  3. A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns (New York: Theatre Arts, 1961) 99.

  4. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1960) 145-66; Richard A. Levin, “All's Well That Ends Well and ‘All Seems Well,’” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 131-44.

  5. Susan Snyder, “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object,” English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 77.

  6. Quotations from all Shakespearean plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton, 1974).

  7. It is important, I think, to recognize that the Duke is as much an exemplar of a monastical chastity as Angelo and Isabella. A man who loves the “life removed” and shuns the assemblies of “burning youth” (1.3.6,8), who protests to Friar Thomas and Lucio alike that he is immune to sexual temptation (1.3.1-3, 3.2.121-22), the Duke is, like Angelo and Isabella, a reclusive ascetic whose chaste life leaves him ill-equipped to deal with the unchaste ways of the world.

  8. This point is arguable, I realize, but the play provides no anti-war perspective from which to challenge his heroic status. On the contrary, Bertram's valor wins him admiration and renown: the Duke proclaims him “general of our horse” (3.3.1) and Diana and the Widow extol his exploits while rushing to the city's walls to hail the returning soldiers (3.5). In addition, Bertram cannot be accused of sullying his heroism—as he is by the younger French captain (4.3.68-70)—without first becoming a hero.

  9. Jardine 8. I do not wish to dispute Jardine's point that Helena reveals herself as “sexually knowing” in this scene, only the corollary assertion that Helena is “too knowing for the innocent virgin she professes to be.” One can be sexually knowing and still be an innocent virgin as long as “innocent virgin” means “chaste woman” and not “guileless ingenue.” Also, Helena does not “profess” to be anything. Certainly, in the opening scene, our perception of her keeps shifting. She appears a grieving daughter, reveals herself a despairing lover, and finally emerges a resolute wooer. These perceptual shifts do not, however, make Helena herself shifty. We discover in this scene that she is avidly sexual—and to a degree that perhaps surprises us given her opening gestures of disconsolate withdrawal—but not that she is unchaste.

  10. Helena finds incentive to pursue Bertram not only in Parolles's lusty exhortations but in her own dread of courtly rivals who may well render Bertram unpursuable (1.1.165-77).

  11. The line “lend and give where she is sure to lose” does not prove that Helena has actually contemplated becoming Bertram's paramour, only that such a sorry option is one of the few open to her. As Parolles later confirms, the way that a gentleman loves “a woman”—a social inferior like Helena or her proxy Diana—is to “love her and love her not” (5.3.248)—to take her as a mistress or use her as a whore.

  12. Cerimon claims an ability to cultivate the divine properties of natural substances and so transform them into supernatural cures (3.2.31-38). Gerard similarly, if less explicitly, facilitates a process by which a naturally-constituted cure attains supernatural force. The mention of Paracelsus expands the play's alchemical dimension (2.3.11). Indeed, inasmuch as Helena's rehabilitation of the King is spiritual as well as physical, her cure is clearly more Paracelsian than Galenic. For a consideration of Helena's application of Paracelsian magia naturalis, see J. Scott Bentley, “Helena's Paracelsian Cure of the King: Magia Naturalis in All's Well That Ends Well,Cauda Pavonis 5 (Spring 1986): 1-4.

  13. My understanding of the soror mystica comes from various of C. G. Jung's studies of alchemy. For a brief description see Mysterium Coniunctionis (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970) 153.

  14. Nicholas Brooke, “All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 82.

  15. Barbara Everett, All's Well That Ends Well, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) 20.

  16. Snyder 74.

  17. Brooke 79.

  18. For an indictment of Helena's recourse to trickery, see Evans; Levin; Godshalk 65; Leggatt 35-36; and Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in All's Well That Ends Well,Journal of Literary History 21 (1954): 26.

  19. Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale UP, 1985) 79.

  20. Neely 94.

  21. Susan Griffin, Pornography and Silence (New York: Harper, 1981) and Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (London: The Women's Press, 1982). My pat definition of course risks oversimplifying these exceptionally challenging works and perhaps implies too close a kinship between them. However, as “anti-pornography feminists,” Griffin and Dworkin do, in fact, share a fundamental perception of pornography as patriarchy's most brutal mechanism for subjugating women. Linda Williams, an “anti-censorship feminist,” contests the Griffin-Dworkin position in the opening chapter of Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and theFrenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: U of California P, 1989).

  22. Griffin 22: “Over and over again, the pornographer's triumph, the piece de resistance in his fantasy, occurs when he turns the virgin into a whore.”

  23. Leggatt 40.

  24. Since the full disclosure of schemes and telling of secrets invariably takes place off-stage in Shakespearean comedy, Bertram's use of the conditional could also be considered an early exit-line, a request to commence the business of unravelling and revealing, a cue for the King's conventional summons: “Let us from point to point this story know, / To make the even truth in pleasure flow” (5.3.325-26).

  25. Griffin 33.

  26. Muriel St. Clare Byrne, ‘“The Shakespeare Season of the Old Vic, 1958-59 and Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959,” Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959): 558.

  27. Barbara Hodgdon, “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitution Scenes, and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well,Philological Quarterly 66 (1987): 67.

  28. Neely 92.

  29. Thomas Cartelli, “Shakespeare's ‘Rough Magic’: Ending as Artifice in All's Well That Ends Well,Centennial Review 27 (1983): 134.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682

Asp, Carolyn. “Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well.” Literature and Psychology XXXII, No. 4 (1986): 48-63.

Employs psychoanalytic theory to assess the effects of Helena's sexual desire on the patriarchal order of All's Well That Ends Well.

Friedman, Michael D. “Male Bonds and Marriage in All's Well and Much Ado.” In Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 231-49.

Considers male bonding in All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado About Nothing as it relates to audience perceptions of Bertram and gender issues in the plays.

———. “‘Service Is No Heritage’: Bertram and the Ideology of Procreation.” Studies in Philology 92, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 80-93.

Explores ideological conflicts between individual desire and social consequence in regard to Bertram's conduct in All's Well That Ends Well.

Haley, David. Shakespeare's Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in All's Well That Ends Well. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 1993, 314 p.

Principally argues that in All's Well That Ends Well Shakespeare presents “a dialectic between prudence and Providence.”

Hillman, Richard. “All's Well That Ends Well.” In William Shakespeare: The Problem Plays, pp. 54-91. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Analyzes Helena's love relationship with Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well, particularly focusing on the interplay of sexuality and power, and affinities between Helena's romantic plot and Hamlet's love for Ophelia in Hamlet.

Hodgdon, Barbara. “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well.” Philological Quarterly 66, No. 1 (Winter 1987): 47-71.

Evaluates Helena's internal sexual drama in All's Well That Ends Well.

Hunt, Maurice. “Words and Deeds in All's Well That Ends Well.” Modern Language Quarterly 48, No. 4 (December 1987): 320-38.

Probes the problem of matching words to actions in All's Well That Ends Well.

Leggatt, Alexander. “All's Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance.” Modern Language Quarterly 32, No. 1 (March 1971): 21-41.

Investigates tensions between dramatic modes of romance and realism in All's Well That Ends Well as they are represented in the figures of Helena and Bertram, respectively.

Mukherji, Subha. “‘Lawful Deed’: Consummation, Custom, and Law in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 181-200.

Studies All's Well That Ends Well in terms of Renaissance marriage laws and Christian interpretations of marriage and divorce.

Neely, Carol Thomas. “Power and Virginity in the Problem Comedies: All's Well That Ends Well.” In Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays, pp. 58-104. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Discusses sexuality as the central element of All's Well That Ends Well, arguing that, despite many unresolved issues in the work, Shakespeare's treatment of this subject expands the boundaries of comedy.

Price, John Edward. “Anti-moralistic Moralism in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Studies XII (1979): 95-111.

Focuses on patterns of dominance and subservience and the juxtaposition of vital youth and moribund old age in All's Well That Ends Well.

Schork, R. J. “The Many Masks of Parolles.” In Philological Quarterly 76, No. 3 (Summer 1997): 263-69.

Surveys Parolles as an amalgamation of the stock roles of braggart warrior, parasite, and pimp from Latin New Comedy.

Simpson, Lynne M. “The Failure to Mourn in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 172-88.

Traces the thematic implications of Helena's inability to mourn her dead father in All's Well That Ends Well.

Snyder, Susan. “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object.” English Literary Renaissance 18, No. 1 (Winter 1988): 66-77.

Discusses the disjunctions, silences, and unexpected connections in language and plot that culminate in the ambiguous ending of All's Well That Ends Well.

Sullivan, Garrett A., Jr. “‘Be this sweet Helen's knell, and now forget her’: Forgetting, Memory, and Identity in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, No. 1 (Spring 1999): 51-69.

Applies several conceptions of memory and forgetting to All's Well That Ends Well as a means of approaching the play's failure to achieve a comic resolution.

Thomas, Vivian, “Virtue and Honour in All's Well That Ends Well.” In The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problem Plays, pp. 140-72. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

Interprets All's Well That Ends Well as a play principally concerned with the problem of moral and social values as these are expressed in terms of honor and virtue.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 38)


All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 63)