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All's Well That Ends Well

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Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote All's Well That Ends Well between 1602 and 1605, though some commentators propose an even earlier composition date. The play is based on a story from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1353), which deals with a common folktale motif—the achievement of an impossible task. Critics have long considered All's Well to be a “problem play” because of its questionable plot elements, unlikable characters, and unsatisfactory ending. In the late twentieth century, however, scholars began to view the play as a bridge between Shakespeare's earlier festive comedies and his later tragedies; many adherents of this view now praise All's Well as a compelling dramatic experiment on Shakespeare's part. While earlier critics focused on such themes as social rank, virtue, and intergenerational strife, commentators from the nineteenth century onward have emphasized Helena's dynamic role in the dramatic action, the relationship between the sexes, and the interplay between romance and realism in the comedy.

Twentieth-century critics have demonstrated a continuing interest in Shakespeare's sophisticated characterization in All's Well. For example, Anthony Brennan (1980) discusses Helena in relation to the concept of time implicit in the play, noting that she alone of all the younger characters has a strong connection with the older generation. According to Brennan, this bond enables her to challenge the constraints of time and to accomplish her aim of winning Bertram as her husband. Susan Snyder (1988) focuses on the overt aggressiveness of Helena's quest to win Bertram. Snyder points out how this aggressiveness reveals an undercurrent of sexuality in the play, particularly through indirect and suppressed speech. The critic contends that ultimately the play illustrates the difficulties of being an assertive woman in a patriarchal setting. Some of the minor characters in All's Well also have attracted critical attention. Christopher Roark (1988), for example, probes the characterization of Lavatch as an indicator of the play's unresolved themes. According to Roark, Lavatch represents a “wise fool” who fails to serve his master because he is incapable of providing counsel, just as the play itself ultimately holds out no answers to the moral questions it poses.

Closely associated with critical analyses of the problematic relationship between Helena and Bertram are discussions of gender issues. Carolyn Asp (1986) maintains that Helena challenges the notion of “woman-as-subject-of-desire” and surmounts “attitudes and theories of female deprivation and inferiority.” Asp then focuses on the reversal of power—inspired by Helena's desire—that allows Helena to succeed in her plans to win Bertram. Critic Barbara Hodgdon (1987) examines the gender theme on a structural level, revealing how Shakespeare's use of the various instances of doubling and substitution—most notably in the bed-trick scene—help to bring about the marital compromises that conclude the action of the play. David McCandless (1997) also emphasizes the bed-trick as a motif that Shakespeare used to exploit assumptions about gender. In addition, McCandless traces the evolution of gender roles, particularly those of Helena and Bertram, throughout the course of the play.

Connected to the gender issues in All's Well is the theme of betrothal and marriage. Many twentieth-century scholars have turned to Shakespeare's historical milieu in an effort to understand the playwright's complex treatment of matrimony in the play. Margaret Loftus Ranald (1963) studies historical documents, such as Elizabethan matrimonial contracts, in order to demonstrate how Shakespeare both criticized the matrimonial practices of his time and made use of them to explain the actions of Helena and Bertram to his audience. Like Ranald, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1989) examines both the classical precedents as well as Renaissance matrimonial texts to illuminate how Shakespeare's audience might have reacted to the characters of Bertram and Helena. In a similar context, Susan Bassnett-McGuire (1984) discusses marriage in terms of the social issues of Shakespeare's day, examining the nature of the marriage contract itself and, more broadly, the role of the individual in relation to the state. Taking a different approach, W. Speed Hill (1975) explores the marriage of Helena and Bertram in the context of their familial situations, pointing out that their union “symbolizes on both parts an acceptance of their own faulty parental experiences.” According to Hill, it is only when Bertram comes to terms with his past that he is finally freed to assume his proper role within the comic plot of All's Well.

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8428

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1, March, 1971, pp. 21-41.

[In the following essay, Leggatt explores the tension between elements of romance and elements of realism in All's Well That Ends Well, noting that this tension is never resolved and therefore lends an experimental quality to the play.]

It has been commonly observed that romance and realism are in conflict in All's Well That Ends Well.1 But, to a surprising extent, critics have been content to state the fact and then drop it, while they pursue issues relating to the play's ideas, its characterization, its source material, or what have you. Perhaps this is because we are so much in the habit of searching Shakespeare's plays for abstract ideas or for characterization which is psychologically explicable. The idea that the play's form may in itself be the controlling factor, the key to understanding, has not received the attention it merits. But these other lines of investigation inevitably become involved with the peculiar tensions of the play, and much debate has ensued. The play has been denounced and defended to the point where, if one sets oneself the task of reading a range of criticism on it, one rises with a feeling of having spent the day in a police court.

Much of the debate centers on the characters. Is Bertram a cad or a promising young fellow who simply needs to grow up? Is Helena a ministering angel or a vulture? Debates like this do not spring out of nothing, and the play provides enough evidence both ways to keep the controversy burning merrily for some time to come. My concern here is not to bring in a verdict of guilty or not guilty on Shakespeare and his characters, but to discover how the trouble started in the first place. I propose to do this by examining the characters, not as “real people” or as vehicles for certain ideas, but as creations springing from, and inextricably wedded to, the peculiar dramatic mode of the play. Or perhaps I should say modes. For Shakespeare is doing something rather unusual here: he is bringing two kinds of dramatic convention together, not in harmony (as in some of the earlier comedies), but in a positive and deliberate conflict. There is nothing here of the easy confidence with which Shakespeare moves from Rosalind's cool, satiric examination of love and marriage to the final masque of Hymen, and makes both acceptable. Here, the values of romance are tested in a world of down-to-earth and often unpleasant realism. The various tests which take place during the play reflect its essential nature: it is a play about testing, and a play which in itself is a test. Nor is the test in any way rigged; the tension between the two dramatic modes is genuine and intense, and the outcome is by no means certain.

In As You Like It, realism could work well enough with romance, since the former was represented by the easygoing animality of Touchstone and the only half-serious cynicism of Jaques. But in All's Well, as in Troilus and Cressida, the realities of life are harsher and much more hostile to romance. The King suffers, not from a genteel complaint like consumption, but from a fistula.2 Parolles, condemning his brother officers, does not restrict himself to the usual charges of cowardice, but says of Dumaine: “in his sleep he does little harm, save to his bedclothes about him; but they know his conditions and lay him in straw” (IV.iii.246-49).3 The dangers of pox are recalled by Bertram's velvet patch, which might hide an honorable scar or a syphilitic chancre (IV.v.90-97). The clown Lavatch is not just a joker, but a “foul-mouth'd and calumnious knave” (I.iii.54-55), almost a Thersites. It is in a world like this—a world of fistulas, venereal disease, and bed-wetting—that Helena tries to win a husband by the romantic device of passing a test.

Of course, not everyone in the play talks like Parolles and Lavatch. The older aristocrats are aware of living in a fallen world, and they are rather weary of it; yet they are also aware that there are higher potentials in life than those that are being achieved at present. Being old, they look to the past for their ideals. There is, for example, the memory of Helena's father, whose skill very nearly lifted him above mortality. Shakespeare places his depiction of man's possible capabilities in a realistic context, and therefore keeps it this side of magic—but only just:

Countess: This young gentlewoman had a father—O that “had,” how sad a passage 'tis!—whose skill was almost as great as his honesty; had it stretch'd so far, would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work. …
Lafew: He was excellent indeed, madam … he was skilful enough to have liv'd still, if knowledge could be set up against mortality.


The King says of Bertram's father,

                    Such a man
Might be a copy to these younger times;
Which, followed well, would demonstrate them now
But goers backward.


The play opens with four of the leading characters in mourning for the Count, and his shadow lies over the first few scenes, which are full of reminiscence, giving a sense of past greatness and present decay. The decay is reflected symbolically in the King's sickness, which robs the court of the powerful central personality it needs, and makes virtue the property only of those who have survived from former days.4 The King casts a critical eye over the young courtiers who surround him; compared with Bertram's father, they seem frivolous and lacking in honor (I.ii.31-35). They are restless for action in the field, but the King, though willing to give them a chance, does not seem confident about their conduct. On bidding them farewell, he urges them to honor, but adds a very down-to-earth warning: “Those girls of Italy, take heed of them” (II.i.19). In Bertram's case in particular, the King's doubts are justified; and we see nothing in the later military scenes to indicate that any of the young lords has attained the old-fashioned honor of warfare.

Into this world of decay, in which memory alone seems noble, Shakespeare introduces Helena. Of all the sympathetic characters in the first part, she alone has forgotten the past and is launching with romantic aspirations into the future:

                    I think not on my father,
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him; my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.


As in the earlier comedies, romantic love leads to the idealization of the beloved. The King recalls human perfection in a dead friend; Helena sees it in a living man, on whom her future hopes are pinned. Her imagination gives Bertram a splendor that the actual man as we see him later does not seem to deserve. Her devotion to him is like the devotion of a worshiper to a god; the vocabulary of her love is religious:

                    'Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart's table—heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour.
But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.


                    Thus, Indian-like,
Religious in mine error, I adore
The sun that looks upon his worshipper
But knows of him no more


At this point in the play, we have not seen enough of Bertram to doubt seriously Helena's view of him. We may agree with G. Wilson Knight that “Helena's love sees Bertram as he potentially is, that core and inmost music of his personality which no faults can disturb … and this outspaces the moral judgement, which, though present, is surpassed. …”5 Moral judgment is not so easily surpassed later, when we see more of him; but Helena's view of the potential Bertram sustains her all the way through, and for the moment we can share it.

Courtly and military honor seem now to be things of the past; if there is an ideal to cling to in this world, it looks as though it must be an ideal of love, for Helena's imagination offers the play's only living impulse toward perfection. One of the signs of this is the way her love unites youth and age. The King and his young courtiers remain aloof from each other; he doubts their capacity for honor, and they get no inspiration from him. But Helena enlists the sympathy of the Countess, who recalls her own youthful love and justifies the conduct of love as following the demands of nature:

                    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 impress'd in youth.


This is recognized even at court, for Helena enlists the sympathy of the King and Lafew, who seem more enthusiastic about her than about the more courtly members of the younger generation. And there is another reason for confidence in Helena. She is not merely an idealist, out of touch with everything except her dream of romantic perfection. She can also hold her own in a down-to-earth battle of wits, as we see when she tangles with Parolles on the question of virginity. She appears to embrace the two aspects of the play's vision, and thus seems capable of bringing the play, in the end, to a satisfactory resolution, as Rosalind, a heroine with a similar double awareness, does in As You Like It.6

For the moment, however, her capacity to descend to market-place realities is kept in reserve. Her first project to win Bertram operates on the romantic, folk-tale level. She will win him as Bassanio wins Portia, by fulfilling a task, a task with a certain aura of magic—the curing of the King. Taken realistically, her skill as a physician would be an irrelevant claim on Bertram's love—and it is to this realistic level that we will later descend. But, for the moment, the logic of romance holds the two purposes together. Moreover, Shakespeare does what he did not do even in the riddle of Portia's caskets; he skirts the edge of the supernatural. The success of Helena's project depends on its working on a level higher than that of natural reality. We see a hint of this when the scheme is first mentioned. The Countess, though not unsympathetic, withholds actual encouragement until Helena mentions the magic properties of the 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; and would your honour
But give me leave to try success, I'd venture
The well-lost life of mine on his grace's cure
By such a day, an hour.
Countess: Dost thou believe't?
Helena: Ay, madam, knowingly.
Countess: Why, Helen, thou shalt have my leave and love. …


The offer of Helena's death as the price of failure takes us more firmly on to the folk-tale level. The offer of sacrifice and the hint of magic are what really win the Countess over; in Helena she recognizes something more than mortal, and her acceptance of it is something like an act of faith. Just as realism, in this play, is pushed to one extreme and becomes sordid, so romance is pushed to the other, and becomes spiritual.

In the scene in which Helena persuades the King to let her undertake the cure, we have the high-water mark of romance in the play. The style, and especially the use of rhyme, is important, as Knight has remarked: “Observe the gnomic, formal, incantatory quality of the rhymes, functioning, as in Helena's first recognition of her own magical powers … as the language of inspiration: she seems to be mesmerizing the King.”7 The scene certainly seems to work on these terms in the theater.8 We are being lifted out of ordinary reality, and the rhyme, by making the speeches stylized, contributes powerfully to this effect. It is interesting to note that the King is the first to use rhyme. His first couplet sounds final and dismissive, as though he is trying to bring the argument to a close; and Helena takes it in this spirit, retiring discouraged. But as she is about to go, the King resumes the debate, still in couplets. It is as though, at the bottom of his mind, he does not really want her to leave and is trying to keep her with him by continuing the argument. She seems to sense this, for she responds, in couplets, to the point he has raised, and continues in this vein until she has won him over. In a sense, the King himself has made the first overture; and this is important. What will cure him is not so much the power of the medicine as his own willingness to believe in it. As Paulina says before the statue of Hermione comes to life, “It is required / You do awake your faith.” When Helena invokes God, Heaven, and Grace, the King responds:

Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak
His powerful sound within an organ weak;
And what impossibility would slay
In common sense, sense saves another way.


The King's cure is not so much a medical achievement as an act of faith and grace; this is why we feel that he is really cured before he leaves the stage, and the “Flourish” which sounds at the end of the scene (unusual for an exit involving only two people) underlines the sense of triumph. We may contrast this with the doubts and qualifications of the play's ending, in which Bertram seems less capable of faith and asks for proof before he will submit to Helena.

For the moment, however, Helena's victory seems complete. Her magic makes itself felt even at the lower levels of reality. The stylized, incantatory verse of the interview with the King is its natural literary medium, but the wonder of it also affects the down-to-earth Lafew, who describes Helena's power in a more racy, comic way:

                    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 araise King Pippen, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in's hand
And write to her a love-line.


And, in his reaction to the cure, he states in prose what the King and Helena have said in verse:

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.


Lafew, a chatty old courtier with an earthy sense of humor, is there partly to provide a dramatic balance to the stylized “incantation” scene;9 but he also shows that the values of romance, centered on Helena, are now beginning to penetrate the world at large. The tired court that we saw at the beginning of the play is starting to wake up, for it now has something to believe in. And, most important, it wants to believe. Helena's magic has worked, because the King was receptive to it. Everything seems set, in fact, for a straightforward comic finale—the successful invasion of the ordinary world by the values of romance, and the final dance in which the couples, their difficulties overcome, join hands. Shakespeare creates something like the ending of one of his more conventional comedies—in the middle of Act II.

This brings us to the crucial scene of Bertram's refusal, which needs to be studied in some detail. Helena's entrance with the King after the cure seems designed to give a sense of triumph appropriate to the finale of a comedy; Lafew's exclamation, “Why, he's able to lead her a coranto” (II.iii.42-43), suggests that this may be precisely what he is doing; and a coranto is a very lively dance. The surprise of Parolles, which Lafew seems to share, that the woman before them is Helena may indicate that Helena, for the first time in the play, is splendidly dressed, so that she is for a moment unrecognizable. She now speaks in a manner recalling Portia when Bassanio has made his choice; she formally and triumphantly renounces maidenhood and embraces marriage, of which she now seems certain:

Now, Dian, from thy altar do I fly,
And to imperial Love, that god most high
Do my sighs stream.


The sequence in which she passes among the lords, addressing them in formal rhymed couplets, suggests a dance, with the changing of partners; it has, in fact, been staged this way.10 Lafew's grumbling prose comments about the young men do not break the air of romance; rather, they maintain his role as a realistic spokesman who believes in the romantic values represented by Helena—and help to emphasize, by contrast, the formality of the other speeches. The romantic vision of the play seems to be proceeding to its consummation—and then Bertram, speaking in unrhymed verse, breaks the formal pattern by rejecting Helena's choice:

Bertram: My wife, my liege! I shall beseech your highness,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
King: Know'st thou not, Bertram,
What she has done for me?
Bertram: Yes, my good lord,
But never hope to know why I should marry her.


We come back to earth with a bump. It is as though Portia had said to Bassanio, “You may be good at riddles, but who ever said this was a sound basis for marriage?” The logic of romance requires Bertram's acceptance, but the logic of daylight reality suggests that personal compatibility is necessary in marriage; and Bertram does not want to marry Helena.11

Romance has passed its first test in the fallen world—the curing of the King—but only because Helena has picked two receptive people, the King and Lafew, both of whom are capable of faith and of a response to the romantic. But such a response is beyond Bertram. When we get to know more of him, we see that Shakespeare has drawn a realistic portrait of a shallow, immature young man whose values are crass and earthbound, and whose two most important actions in the play—the refusal of Helena and the assault on Diana—spring, the first from snobbery, and the second from sensuality. Such a figure clearly does not fit the patterns of romance; his motivations are only too realistic. His refusal to accept Helena is the critical moment of the play, for it shows a direct clash between the values of romance and the values of reality. Helena has established a claim on Bertram, but not a realistic one. For the rest of the play, her task will be to win Bertram on his own terms.

The use of rhyme in this scene is as interesting as that in the King-Helena scene, though it has been less frequently remarked on. As before, it is associated with the romantic values centered on Helena. Bertram's first refusal, in blank verse with run-on lines, makes a deliberate, jarring contrast with the formal couplets of the “choice” scene. In reply, the King's lecture to Bertram on Helena's natural virtue, which should overcome rank, swells appropriately into rhyme. Bertram's second refusal breaks the rhyme again, and the rest of the scene is in blank verse, as the King, his appeal to higher values having failed, simply bullies Bertram into submission.

The romantic finale has been shattered; and the impression made by the scenes that follow is deliberately loose, scattered, and anticlimactic. There is no dramatic showdown between Helena and Bertram; he uses Parolles as an intermediary to tell her that he has been called away. When they do meet, they hardly know what to say to one another. She is formal and polite; he is clearly uncomfortable:

Helena: Sir, I can nothing say
But that I am your most obedient servant.
Bertram: Come, come; no more of that.
Helena: And ever shall
With true observance seek to eke out that
Wherein toward me my homely stars have fail'd
To equal my great fortune.
Bertram: Let that go.
My haste is very great. Farewell. Hie home.


There is a striking sense of the actual in this scene of embarrassment. We are back in the world of reality, and very cold reality at that. For this, Bertram is largely responsible. He is quite brutal about Helena behind her back, referring to her as “my clog” (II.v.53). He has a coldly prosaic explanation for his apparently temporary parting from her:

                    Prepar'd I was not
For such a business; therefore am I found
So much unsettled.


Helena has been an enchantress; she is now a practical problem, a nuisance, a clog. The magic of the King's cure has evaporated completely.

Bertram's response to the wedding is that of a child to whom brutal adults have done something dreadful: “O my Parolles, they have married me!” (II.iii.268). This shows us what Helena's problem now is. It is a problem on a realistic level, involving human wills and personalities rather than behavior imposed by the conventions of romance. Helena must win the acceptance—and, if possible, the love—of a recalcitrant husband who is not really ready for marriage. The problem is stated, however, in folk-tale terms. Helena once more has a task to perform: “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 …” (III.ii.56-58).12 This looks like a kind of artistic compromise; the folk-tale task is a symbolic way of achieving the personal adjustment that reality requires. Bertram's refusal to consummate his marriage is a symbolic rejection of it.13 By getting him to sleep with her, Helena will achieve—again, symbolically—the personal acceptance necessary for marriage.14 However, the compromise is an uneasy one, for Bertram himself does not see the test on the folk-tale level, but regards it as simply an elaborate way of saying that he is not going to accept Helena as his wife. Having stated the conditions, he adds: “then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never’” (III.ii.58-59). On the naturalistic level, the achievement of the task is nearly as irrelevant to the achieving of marriage as is the curing of the King. It represents the personal adjustment which was the important factor missing from Helena's first task, but whether Bertram is really prepared to take symbolism for reality is still dubious. And, as we will see, it is the problem of Bertram's conversion that provides most difficulty at the end of the play.

The dramatic treatment of Helena at this point reflects the change in the nature of the task before her; winning Bertram is now seen as more of a practical problem than it was before; it cannot be done by magic alone. The enchantress-heroine has been rebuffed and told, in effect, that she has gained her husband by means that are not really valid. In asking Bertram for a kiss, she says that she “like a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” (II.v.81-82). She seems disturbed by what she has done; she recognizes that the law provides an external sanction for her marriage, but that until the internal sanction—the consent of her husband—is provided, she is no better than a thief if she tries to claim his love, for that love is not rightly hers:

Ambitious love hath so in me offended
That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon,
With sainted vow my faults to have amended.


The religious vocabulary of love now expresses penance; she has offended the object of her worship. Helena the enchantress has failed, and must withdraw to make room for a new Helena, in whom the practical side will be uppermost.15 The old Helena is seen from a greater distance; she comes to us at second hand in the letter (written in rhymed verse, a sad reminder of her earlier triumph) which is read aloud by the Countess's steward. As she disappears, she becomes more and more idealized by the other characters. The Countess, adopting the religious vocabulary that has been associated with Helena's love, describes her as a saint interceding for Bertram:

                    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.


This idealization of the absent Helena continues to the end of the play. She becomes, like Bertram's father, a distant memory of perfection, in a world which once more seems fallen and imperfect.

Realism is now firmly re-established as the dominant mode of the play. The magic which temporarily transformed the court of France is gone, and the next movement takes place in a harsh daylight that flatters nobody. The war for which Bertram has left his wife is treated critically.16 We are immediately suspicious when the Duke of Florence's explanation of the war elicits the comment from the First Lord,

          Holy seems the quarrel
Upon your Grace's part; black and fearful
On the opposer.


Our suspicions will be strengthened if we remember that the King had refused to take sides on the matter, allowing his men to choose either party (I.ii.1-15). And there is nothing particularly glorious, or even satisfactory, about the actual fighting. The battle in which the drum was lost seems to have been mismanaged and confused; owing to a mix-up in the orders, the Florentine cavalry, of which Bertram is the general, has attacked its own infantry ( There is not even a decisive impression of victory or defeat; all Bertram can say about the battle is, “Well, we cannot greatly condemn our success …” ( We never even hear who wins the war, if anybody does; all we know is that a peace has been arranged (IV.iii.38). There is no honor or glory in this war; it is a shambles, frustrating to the participants, and finally, for all we know, indecisive.

Just as there is no glamour in war, there is no romance in relations between the sexes. The idealism of Helena's love poetry in the first part of the play has now given way to a matter-of-fact view of sex. The warnings of Mariana, the widow's neighbor, when she advises Diana to guard her chastity, take us to the crass, prosy side of sex, the world of back-alley seductions (III.v.18-21). It is on this level that Bertram—as Parolles describes him, “a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish” (IV.iii.207)—now operates. The sophistry he uses in attempting to seduce Diana recalls the arguments of Parolles himself in the “virginity” dialogue: “And now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got” (IV.ii.9-10). This rather reduces him to Parolles' level; the attack on virginity masquerades as a defense of fertility. Like all seducers, Bertram is really thinking of the moment of pleasure and does not plan to be around nine months later.

In this cynical, disordered, and very real world of war and sex, the ideal values have not been quite forgotten. They are not so close to us as the romantic passion of Helena, or even the recent memory of Bertram's father; they seem to belong to a vaguer, more distant past. But they are there, and they are seen specifically in opposition to Bertram, who has immersed himself in the cynical world of the present. In his attempted seduction of Diana, he is betraying the nobility of his ancestry, symbolized by the ring, a priceless heirloom that he is willing to surrender for a moment of cheap pleasure:

          a ring the county wears
That downward hath succeeded in his house
From son to son some four or five descents
Since the first father wore it. 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.


He is asking a similar sacrifice of Diana, whose honor is, like the ring, a priceless treasure that should not be lightly thrown away. When he shows himself reluctant to give her the ring, her response has a formal quality, given not in this case by rhyme, but by the repetition of Bertram's own words (a repetition that also underlines his hypocrisy in standing by his own honor and asking her to part with hers):

Bertram: It is an honour 'longing to our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i'th'world
In me to lose.
Diana: Mine honour's such a ring;
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.

(IV.ii. 42-49)

Diana herself, by the way, provides an interesting echo from the earlier part of the play. Diana was the goddess of Helena's prayers before her marriage (I.iii.110,18 207; II.iii.74). Now, instead of a goddess, we have the ideal of chastity embodied in an ordinary woman. The ideal is the same, but its expression is more suited to the realistic world we now inhabit.

A similar transformation has now taken place in Helena herself. The romantic Helena has, as we have seen, retreated into the distance, and the new Helena appears more subdued. Her first entrance (III.v) is very quiet and low-key. She comes now not to a court, but to the house of a widow in reduced circumstances who takes in lodgers. She comes, however, bringing the old values with her. There is a repetition of the feeling we had in the first part of the play that she represents a power higher than her own. There is a drop in levels, however. She came to the King bearing the power of heaven; she comes now to the widow, assured of the power of the King:

That you may well perceive I have not wrong'd you
One of the greatest in the Christian world
Shall be my surety; for whose throne 'tis needful,
Ere I can perfect mine intents, to kneel.


The power of heaven is here too, though it is working at a more mundane level than it did when she was curing the King:

          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.


Helena is still an agent for the values of romance, but she is working more in terms of the market place than she did before: “After, / To marry her I'll add three thousand crowns / To what is pass'd already” (III.vii.34-36). This new practicality fits the more practical nature of the task she has now in hand.

That task is regarded with a certain amount of uneasiness by the characters involved—and it seems to me that their uneasiness is justified, and reflects a deep tension in the play. Helena is winning what the law claims rightly belongs to her, and her sleeping with Bertram is entirely legal. There is, all the same, something distasteful about it. She is at once deceiving him and gratifying his lust, and the widow is not sure at first that what she is being asked to do is not ordinary pandering (III.vii.4-7). One speech in which Helena justifies her purposes is couched in riddling terms which, while they reflect the folk-tale nature of the task, also reveal its moral ambiguity:

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

(III.vii. 43-48)

The last line offers a clue to the spirit in which Helena is now operating. Although she may contemplate for a moment the moral ambiguities of what she is doing, her chief concern is to get the job done. The practical side is dominant. This is reflected in the expression that gives the play its title: “All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown. / Whate'er the course, the end is the renown” (IV.iv.35-36). In other words, Helena asks us not to think too closely about the device by which she gains her husband, but to accept that the end justifies the means. If romance conquers, we should not be too concerned at the stooping involved.

In a purely romantic context, such considerations would not worry us; but Shakespeare has placed us in a real world in which there is not much to stop us from looking at the bed-trick literally. And if we look at it literally, it becomes, for all its legality, a bit sordid. The play's title, which at first seemed an expression of confidence, now looks more like an embarrassed apology. Helena's speeches seem to me to reflect Shakespeare's own uneasiness with the bed-trick, an uneasiness that is branded on the whole play by its title. Other Shakespearean comedy titles suggest that the playwright was impatient with the business of naming his play; this is the only one that suggests he was nervous about his material. And the fact that the bed-trick is a conventional act, symbolic of—but not literally representing—a psychological adjustment in Bertram, creates more problems, as I have suggested. Will Bertram's repentance be purely conventional and arbitrary, stemming entirely from the symbolic consummation of the marriage? Or will the playwright try to show that a real psychological adjustment is taking place, preparing the ground, so that when Helena fulfills the task, Bertram will be able—both symbolically and literally—to accept her? The latter course might have been more satisfactory, and Shakespeare seems to have been tempted by it. But he does not, evidently, have full confidence in it.

The Countess asks the King to excuse Bertram's conduct, which she attributes to his immaturity, with the implication that he will behave more worthily once he has grown up a bit:

          'Tis past, my liege,
And I beseech your majesty to make it
Natural rebellion done i'th' blade of youth,
When oil and fire, too strong for reason's force,
O'erbears it and burns on.


Something of the sort seems to be suggested by a passage at the beginning of the “drum” scene, in which the Second Lord describes Bertram's reaction to a letter from his mother, presumably telling him of Helena's death: “there is something in't that stings his nature, for on the reading it he chang'd almost into another man” (IV.iii.2-4). We have our doubts about this change, however, when we realize that he is still determined to consummate his affair with Diana. And when Bertram actually appears, any suggestion that he is softened by his wife's death is dispelled:

I have tonight dispatch'd sixteen businesses a month's length apiece. By an abstract of success: I have congied with the duke, done my adieu with his nearest, buried a wife, mourn'd for her, writ to my lady mother I am returning, entertain'd my convoy, and between these main parcels of dispatch effected many nicer deeds; the last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet.


He explains the latter point with a sardonic echo of his argument against virginity: “I mean, the business is not ended, as fearing to hear of it hereafter” (IV.iii.93-94). The curt, businesslike tone of his farewell to Helena still clings to him. Her death and his “mourning” for her are simply incidents in a busy evening, no more important than anything else that happened, and the “greatest” business is still the seduction of Diana. Nor does the unmasking of Parolles do much to change him; he has one illusion less, but his behavior is not appreciably different.19 When, on being forgiven by the King, Bertram expresses a sense of shame at his past conduct—“My high-repented blames / Dear sovereign, pardon to me” (V.iii.36-37)—we can be forgiven for wondering if the place and the company, rather than his own feelings, call forth these words. If Shakespeare meant to show that Bertram has repented and is ready for Helena even before she appears, he has not carried out his purpose with any great conviction.20 It looks as though Bertram's acceptance of Helena will have to depend on romantic convention.

To confirm this, the quality of folk tale and romance, present only in a fitful way since Bertram's refusal, returns with a rush in the final scene. The “dead” Helena is idealized in preparation for her triumphant return. Lafew says of Bertram:

          He lost a wife
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.


The power of romance is set against Bertram; his accuser Diana speaks in highly formal, patterned verse, with an appeal to absolute values of faith and duty:

          If you shall marry
You give away this hand and that is mine,
You give away heaven's vows and those are mine,
You give away myself which is known mine;
For I by vow am so embodied yours
That she which marries you must marry me—
Either both or none.


Helena's entrance to claim her husband is prepared by Diana's rhymed-verse riddles, which take us to the folk-tale level:

He knows himself my bed he hath defil'd;
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.


Once again, romance is set in definite opposition to Bertram; accused in this formal incantatory style, he defends himself in a sordid way: “She's impudent, my lord, / And was a common gamester to the camp” (V.iii.186-87). His unpleasant behavior in this scene makes us feel that some kind of magic conversion will indeed be necessary for a satisfactory ending. Something of the sort seems to happen, in fact, when Helena enters, seemingly risen from the dead:

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!


Shakespeare seems, at this point, to have decided on a romantic, conventionalized ending, with the magical appearance of Helena producing a change in Bertram and a reconciliation between the two. It is not magic alone, however. Shakespeare reiterates, through Helena's first words, a point made in the curing of the King. Magic is not sufficient in itself unless confirmed by human will. The King, like the spectators by Hermione's statue, was required to awake his faith. Helena's magical return from the dead will not be meaningful unless Bertram really accepts her as a wife. His first reaction seems to give us the confirmation of love that Helena requires. It looks like a fairy-tale ending.

But the impulse in Shakespeare's imagination that produced the element of realism in the play has not been stilled. The miraculous conversion would be acceptable in a purely romantic context; but this play does not provide such a context. There is a hint of doubt, a slight qualification, in Bertram's next words: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (V.iii.309-10).21 And the suggestion that the happy ending is not complete, but depends on certain conditions, is taken up in the King's closing speech: “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (V.iii.327-28). The happy ending is not seriously in doubt; but it is not completely confirmed, either.22 According to H. B. Charlton, “the play hardly generates the imaginative conviction that the good [Helena] secures must necessarily come out of the circumstances presented.”23 It is not that we cannot accept the Elizabethan convention of quick repentances;24 the experienced reader of Elizabethan plays soon learns to do with very little in the way of repentance speeches. We could have been satisfied if Shakespeare had merely cut the offending couplet and left Bertram with “Both, both. O pardon!” The problem is rather that the penitent himself is not co-operating; his repentance still depends on certain conditions. The ending is an honest reflection of the tensions created by the play as a whole. Bertram is a realistic character being acted on by a romantic convention whose power is not fully established. We are still not entirely sure that the solving of a riddle can make one person love another.

In other Shakespearean comedies which contain this tension between romance and realism, some kind of resolution is generally achieved. As You Like It, after all its satiric joking about love and marriage, ends with a masque of Hymen. The Tempest, after the masque of Prospero, with its vision of an ideal order, returns us to the ordinary, unpredictable world.25Love's Labour's Lost fuses romance and reality in that the lovers, while brought to regard love as a serious business, not just a springtime game, express this new awareness in a series of highly romantic vows. But in All's Well That Ends Well the pull between these two magnetic centers in the playwright's imagination remains unresolved. Romance sets out to impose its values on an intractable world of reality; it suffers one serious rebuff, and while victory may be in sight at the end, we never see it achieved.

I stated at the beginning that my purpose was not to attack or defend All's Well That Ends Well, but to try to examine the tensions which give it its peculiar quality. Yet it is difficult to be quite neutral about this play, and any explanation of its peculiarities other than bad taste or incompetence is bound to be a defense of some sort. One may or may not like the play, but I think it deserves to be recognized as an important dramatic experiment, conducted with unusual courage and honesty. In the earlier plays, the attacks on romance were softened by the fact that they were only half-serious, and that, as Rosalind put it, “the whippers are in love too.” Bertram is an antiromantic character of a different order, however, one who resists love's magic not just with his mind, but with his whole nature. And yet the play is not a simple send-up of romance either; its values are established, especially in the early scenes, as serious and important. When Bertram refuses to play the game, we can see his point, but we feel a definite shock as well. Helena, as a miracle worker, has charm and power; and it is embarrassing to watch her cheating and tricking her way to a husband. The testing of romance is a painful business, and to feel disturbed by the play is, I think, a truer response than to try to explain its tensions away, for tension and uncertainty are its very life. It is the work, not of a confident artist, but of a courageous one, who is willing to ask awkward questions about the assumptions behind his own art.


  1. G. K. Hunter, in his introduction to the Arden Edition of All's Well That Ends Well (London, 1962), p. xxxiii, notes that “the play juxtaposes extreme romantic conventions with down-to-earth and critical realism.” E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto, 1950), p. 2, says “there is something radically schizophrenic” about this play and Measure for Measure. According to Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in All's Well That Ends Well,ELH, 21 (1954), 19, “the esemplastic power does not seem to have been fully at work.”

  2. As Hunter's note on this passage points out, the term “fistula” in Shakespeare's day did not necessarily mean an abscess external to the rectum, but could apply to a burrowing abscess in any part of the body. This removes some of the unpleasantness, but it is still a nasty and embarrassing complaint to have.

  3. Quotations from All's Well That Ends Well are from Hunter's edition, cited in note 1.

  4. M. C. Bradbrook, “Virtue is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,RES, 26 (1950), 289-301, points out that a court could be a center of nobility or of corruption, and that the King's illness left his courtiers exposed to the dangers of the place.

  5. The Sovereign Flower (London, 1958), p. 139.

  6. Hunter, in his introduction, p. xxxvii, puts it another way: “The magic of Helena is clearly associated with this elder age, but she herself must make her way in the new world of social mobility and opportunism. …”

  7. The Sovereign Flower, p. 152.

  8. See M. St. Clare Byrne's account of Tyrone Guthrie's 1959 production at Stratford-upon-Avon, in “The Shakespeare Season at The Old Vic, 1958-59 and Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959,” SQ, 10 (1959), 545-67, especially p. 563.

  9. Dramatic balance is also provided by the prose comedy of the Countess and the Clown (II.ii), which is interposed between the “incantation” scene and the scene in which the King appears, cured, dancing with Helena.

  10. See M. St. Clare Byrne, “The Shakespeare Season,” pp. 565-66. For Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York and London, 1965), pp. 116-17, the scene suggests a children's party game in which one of the guests refuses to be “it.” Hunter stresses the formal quality of the scene, as does Knight (The Sovereign Flower, p. 146).

  11. As a ward of the court, Bertram is legally in the King's power; but that does not mean that his personal wishes are regarded by Shakespeare as irrelevant. Helena herself accepts Bertram's refusal and in effect asks the King to withdraw his power of enforcing Bertram's choice (II.iii.147-48).

  12. For the folk-tale analogues to this task, see William Witherle Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 2nd ed. (New York, 1960), pp. 41-45.

  13. This point is developed by S. Nagarajan, “The Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,EIC, 10 (1960), 24-31, especially p. 25.

  14. John F. Adams, “All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation,” SQ, 12 (1961), 268, points out the sexual pun in the test of the ring, and compares Lavatch's bawdy remark about “Tib's rush” (ring) and “Tom's forefinger” (II.ii.21-22).

  15. This effect is analyzed by Harold S. Wilson, “Dramatic Emphasis in All's Well That Ends Well,HLQ, 13 (1950), 217-40, especially p. 226.

  16. Leech reminds us that this play was written not long after Troilus and Cressida (“The Theme of Ambition,” p. 22).

  17. Josephine Waters Bennett, “New Techniques of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well,SQ, 18 (1967), 351, speaks of “Bertram's success as a soldier” as a sign of his growing maturity. But she bases this on the gossip of the women, and there is a satiric contrast between this and what we hear in the camp, from the soldiers.

  18. This reference to Diana is conjectural interpolation by Theobald, but a very convincing one.

  19. The view that the unmasking of Parolles is the turning point in Bertram's development has been attacked by several critics; see, for example, Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), pp. 160-61.

  20. There is a rather confusing passage (V.iii.42-67) in which the King and Bertram discuss a woman whom Bertram loved at first, then scorned, and loved again after he had lost her. The King's words at the beginning of the exchange identify the woman as Lafew's daughter Maudlin. But the passage ends, with no indication that the subject has changed, “Be this sweet Helen's knell, and now forget her” (V.iii.67). One might say, “textual corruption,” and thus cut one Gordian knot only to tie another. But sense can be made of the passage as it stands; Bertram's speech describing the course of his feelings (V.iii.44-55) seems to refer to Maudlin. The King's response, describing how we love too late those we have lost (V.iii.55-67), is couched in more general terms, and it may be that his reflections, though they begin with Maudlin, lead him to think of Helena and to apply the same thoughts to her. This is consistent with my view that Bertram has not really repented his treatment of his wife; and the idea that the passage is corrupt leaves us in the dark, or at the most extends into the final scene Shakespeare's earlier indecision over Bertram's response to the letter.

  21. For obvious reasons, this couplet has bothered those who would prefer a purely romantic ending. M. St. Clare Byrne's account of this moment in the Guthrie production indicates that the reconciliation was satisfying because the stage picture of a contrite Bertram and a forgiving Helena allowed the words to pass unnoticed (“The Shakespeare Season,” pp. 557-58). But the words are there, and we cannot wish them away.

  22. The “conditional” nature of the ending is discussed by John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies, 2nd ed. (London, 1962), p. 192; and Clifford Leech, “Shakespeare and the Idea of the Future,” UTQ 35 (1966), 225.

  23. Shakespearian Comedy (1938; rpt. New York, 1961), p. 264.

  24. Robert G. Hunter argues that the repentance fails to communicate to us because Shakespeare is depending on a convention which he counts on his audience to accept (Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness, pp. 130-31). I would argue that the problem is not the failure of the repentance to communicate, but the fact that the repentance is incomplete in itself.

  25. See Leech, “Shakespeare and the Idea of the Future,” pp. 226-28.

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9813

SOURCE: “Motive and Meaning in All's Well That Ends Well,” in “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions”: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton, Methuen, 1987, pp. 26-51.

[In the following essay, Nevo asserts that All's Well That Ends Well should not be classified as a problem play since its structure resembles that of Shakespeare's earlier maturation comedies.]

All's Well That Ends Well has been classified among the problem comedies, perhaps mainly because Bertram has failed to captivate; he has been found even more devoid of charm than Angelo in Measure for Measure, the companion ‘problem’ comedy. Bertram is, as my students invariably inform me, a creep. And in this they have the critics on their side: that he is ‘a thoroughly disagreeable, peevish and vicious person’ (Lawrence, 61) seems to be the consensus. One is hard put to it, indeed, to think of a fictional character less popular than the young Count of Rossillion. Yet Helena has come in for her share of criticism too. She is forward, obstinate, manipulative, opportunistic. She does not heal the king out of patriotic fervour but because she has an eye for the main chance. And so on. To rebellious, feminist Katherine Mansfield,

Helena is a terrifying female. Her virtue, her persistence, her pegging away after the odious Bertram (and disguised as a pilgrim—so typical!) and then telling the whole story to that good widow-woman! And that tame fish Diana. As to lying in Diana's bed and enjoying the embraces meant for Diana—well, I know nothing more sickening. It would take a respectable woman to do such a thing. The worst of it is I can so well imagine … acting in precisely that way, and giving Diana a present afterwards. … But to forgive such a woman! Yet Bertram would. There's an espece of mothers-boyisme in him which makes him stupid enough for anything.

(Journal, 274)

Critics who, on the other hand, fall in love with Helena—Coleridge, it will be recalled, found her ‘Shakespeare's loveliest character’ (Raysor, II, 113)—attempt desperately, for her sake, to exculpate Bertram of at least the worst of his lies and infidelities. Those who scold her for being a shameless hussy forcing herself (twice!) upon an unwilling partner feel that a thoroughly unattractive couple, evidently conceived by Shakespeare ‘in a time of illness or mental disturbance’ (Nicoll, 116) get, in each other, no more than they deserve.

On the face of it, and considered in terms of the modular properties it shares with the festive comedies and their New Comedy paradigms, All's Well would not seem to be in line for presenting a problem at all. It possesses, conspicuously, many of the features of its distinguished predecessors. It has a resourceful heroine, an autocratic father-figure to be eluded or outwitted, true love which doesn't run smooth, a comic device involving mistaken identities which through its deception reveals a truth, a wonderful fop who is resoundingly exposed, and a fool whose ribaldries provide a low-life counterpoint to the concerns of his betters. And there is a final match-making which puts the recalcitrant young man firmly in his place in the scheme of things by making an honest father of him. To make of it a problem because its male protagonist is a callow youth and its female protagonist determinedly in pursuit of her man (which of the comic heroines, save Beatrice, is not?) is surely nonsense as criticism, reducing our expectation of a Shakespearean play to the level of a tabloid magazine.

Yet generic uneasiness, a sense of generic impropriety, remains. The paradigm ground-plan outlines as many problems as it sets out to skirt. For the play seems to break as many rules as it keeps. It starts, not with young men and women in search of a mate but with the death of a father, two fathers indeed, and with mourning. A foster-father is at once provided, but instead of constituting the obstacle to a match desired by the young he positively forces a marriage upon his resistant foster-son. Instead of the canonical senex of the Terentian New Comedy formula, whose law or writ or interference with young lovers must be overcome or evaded, we have a blocking son. This too is a clash between a father, or father-figure, and a son, but upside down, as it were. Similarly topsy-turvy, the young woman, enterprising and triumphant trickster-heroine of the earlier comedies, is a victim-bride (like her single precursor, Hero) who must be done to death before resolutions can be found, and she plays the role of therapeutic, even thaumaturgic, quasi-daughter to the King which becomes canonical for daughters only in the later romances.

Then again, though it looks like a courtship comedy, it is one which is constrained to get along without courtship, since the young man takes flight to the Italian wars, and the young woman follows him to Italy, but not, as previous comedies might have led one to anticipate, in page disguise. One has only to imagine Helena in pursuit of her Bertram in page disguise, with the opportunities thus offered for masked witty courtship, for a playful battle of the sexes in which a balance, for both sexes, between pursuit and defence, winning and losing, is articulated, to see that this device might well have transformed All's Well into the supreme successor to Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. I make the point not because one would expect or wish a dramatist simply to go on repeating his inventions, but to throw into prominence the peculiar distribution of differences with which we are presented in All's Well. For what we have instead of the page disguise is the pilgrim disguise and the bed trick, a mock death and a trick consummation. And the bed trick notoriously pleases no one. On the contrary, it crystallizes the general sense of impropriety, and throws into relief the split in critical opinion concerning Helena: saint or strumpet, and the near-unanimous critical repudiation of Bertram, tricker tricked, but not, it is felt, thereby improved.

For all these reasons the festive end is felt to be a flop, or a merely mechanical or superficial closure. And it lacks the grand harmonic completion the festive comedies have accustomed us to. The King, cured of his wasting disease in Act I, and ‘of as able body as when he number'd thirty’ (IV.v.77-8), remains unmatched, though the widowed Countess, it would seem, is an available and ideally suitable partner for him. ‘You shall find of the king a husband’, says Lafew, incorrigible matchmaker, already in line 6 of Act I, but that carefully planted option is not taken up. Nor is a mate found for the virtuous and good-hearted Diana. There is even another unmarried young woman, possibly jilted, in the wings at the play's end. The play provides all the constituents for a grand celebratory wedding closure in which ‘individual fulfillment, marital intimacy and communal renewal are celebrated’ (Wheeler, 3), but it is felt to be a question whether there are any truly festive marriages at all, or rather quite the contrary: a disillusioned rendering (for good or ill—some will praise the absence of illusion) of a cynical and sterile world. All's Well, it is generally agreed, has no commanding centre, does not integrate its realism (which is usually admitted to be of a power and veracity equal to Shakespeare's peak period) either with its folk-lore motifs—the Healing of the King, the Clever Wench, the Fulfilment of the Tasks1—or with conventional expectations, and produces an effect of unease and confusion.2All's Well is unable, it seems, to make up its generic mind. It is neither fish, flesh nor good red herring; neither comedy, tragedy nor romance.

I would like to submit that All's Well, so far from having to be apologized for, can be seen as a particularly interesting successor to the festive or, as it might be better to call them, the maturation comedies; that the critics' problems are often reflections of their own unaware masculine or feminine identifications, embodying defences and resistances which themselves repeat the conflicts dramatized in the play; and that therefore, the better to understand both critics and play, 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. It is there that we can find what Peter Brooks calls the ‘complex history of unconscious desire, unavailable to the conscious subject but at work in the text’ (516). This, ‘the self's other story’, is what we must set out to discover if we wish to do justice to the drama enacted in All's Well and to see as significant the anomalies mentioned above. The complaint, for example, of the Arden editor that the play lacks a ‘central, acceptable, and unified viewpoint’ to define its values, and to integrate its incompatibilities (xxxv), acquires a different kind of truth when we perceive that All's Well places itself at a node where three dreams cross: the dream of the elders, reliving their lives through their children, the dream of the young man escaping parental domination, and the dream of the young woman desiring a child and a father. And these dreams neither coincide nor harmonize.

In All's Well, still in outline and plan a courtship comedy, parents have become, if not central as in the romances, at least not completely instrumental. The point of view is predominantly of the young, but since the parents, with their own problems of ageing, of holding on and letting go, are not mere obstacle figures, their point of view is operative too. They exist within the play both in their own right, and as their wills, desires, fantasies and memories intermesh with those of the younger generation. This intermesh is a feature neither of the festive comedies nor of the romances, and it is what gives to All's Well its peculiar richness and density.

If there is a problem in this text, it is to be found in the unfinished business—unresolved tensions or repressed fears and desires which every play, every text, leaves in its wake to motivate the writing of the works to follow. But so far as its comic project is concerned, it quite triumphantly contains, while it also reveals, its potentially explosive and painful material.


Comedy, Chaplin once said, ‘is at its best when it flirts with death, plays with it, mocks it, pokes its nose into it’. If there is validity in the view that comedy is the mode of drama which defers, denies, evades or overcomes death, then one can see the play's opening not as an abrogation of comic conditions, but as a foregrounding of them. The deaths of the two fathers are undone by the adoption of Bertram and of Helena by the King and Countess respectively. The initial mourning, already past as the play begins, suggests precisely such a denial, renewal or overcoming. But if death is thus vigorously defended against at the very start, its shadow remains to haunt the play. If we listen, as perhaps we always should, with half-closed eyes to the verbal texture of the opening scenes, we become aware of major themes which are the older generation's: nostalgia, the vulnerable body, the dereliction of time, impotence. ‘In delivering my son from me’, says the Countess, ‘I bury a second husband’ (I.i.1). The King's disease—that mysterious fistula—is immediately introduced, together with the wishful fantasy of his restoration to youthful fitness. A strangely skeletal image—‘virtue's steely bones / Looks bleak i' th' cold wind’ (I.i.101-2)—appears in Helena's defence of Parolles; the consequences she envisages should her gamble for Bertram fail are vividly imagined: ‘Let the white death sit on thy cheek for ever’ (II.iii.71). Parolles' adjurations on the subject of virginity not unexpectedly turn the age-old carpe diem theme into a very explicit memento mori: ‘Your date is better in your pie and your porridge than in your cheek; and your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French wither'd pears: it looks ill, it eats drily; marry, 'tis a wither'd pear’ (I.i.154-9).

The peculiar anxiety the play's body-language expresses lies in a vacillation between images of desire and of decrepitude. The passionate Helena, who has loved (though it was ‘a plague’ to do so) ‘To see him every hour; to sit and draw / His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls' (I.i.91-2), who longs to ‘feed [her] eye … / To join like likes, and kiss like native things’ (I.i.217, 219) grieves that ‘wishing well had not a body in't / Which might be felt’ (I.i.177-8). This vehemence is curiously echoed by Bertram, newly wed and in flight, as he parts from one of his new companions: ‘I grow to you, and our parting is a tortur'd body’ (II.i.36). We have the unvarnished plain speaking of Lavatch (of Touchstone's ilk) to drive the point home, as he seeks permission to marry his Isbel: ‘My poor body, madam, requires it; I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives’; ‘Service is no heritage, and I think I shall never have the blessing of God till I have issue a' my body; for they say barnes are blessings’ (I.iii.26-8, 21-4). ‘Issue of the body’ is the leitmotif of the King's elegy for his own, and his old friend's, youth:

But on us both did haggish age steal on,
And wore us out of act …


Would I were with him! …
                    “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 …”
                    This he wish'd.
I, after him, do after him wish too,
Since I nor wax nor honey can bring home.

(I.ii.52, 58-65)

‘Oil’ for his flame, ‘wax’ or ‘honey’ for the hive, suggest that the loss of sexual potency underlies the melancholy of this Fisher King. We note his resigned reply to the courtier's ‘You're loved, sir’: ‘I fill a place, I know't’ (I.ii.67, 69). The lewd Lafew leaves no room for doubt about the nature of the King's disease, or at least of its symptomatic manifestation. He himself refers to his task—the bringing of the physician's daughter to her royal patient—as a pandar's role: ‘I am Cressid's uncle / That dare leave two together’ (II.i.96-7); describes what ‘Doctor she’ will achieve in language which barely cloaks its sexuality; and takes a salacious pleasure in persuading the melancholy King to attempt the cure:

                              O, will you eat
No grapes, my royal fox? Yes, but you will
My noble grapes, and if my royal fox
Could reach them. I have seen a medicine
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With spritely fire and motion; whose simple touch
Is powerful to araise King Pippen, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in's hand
And write to her a love-line.


It is precisely the King's virility that Helena restores. After his recovery, he is ‘lustique’ enough to lead his ‘preserver’ in a coranto (II.iii.41). ‘Your dolphin is not lustier’, Lafew informs us (II.iii.26). This restoration by the daughter of his old friend is the magic fulfilment of a wishful fantasy; but it also provides the King with—what? a surrogate daughter as well as a surrogate son? An Avishag for his declining years? A greater warmth, perhaps, than one would feel for one's physician is to be caught in the King's resolve to become her patient: ‘more to know could not be more to trust’ (II.i.205). His violent repudiation of the recalcitrant Bertram, the transformation of ‘My son's no dearer’ (I.ii.76) into

                    Check thy contempt;
Obey our will …
Or I will throw thee from my care for ever
Into the staggers and the careless lapse
Of youth and ignorance; both my revenge and hate
Loosing upon thee in the name of justice,
Without all terms of pity


is the provision of the tyrannical senex of New Comedy with a vengeance. But if he is, as we intuit, more than half in love, not any longer with easeful death, but with a young woman who promises rejuvenation, it is not difficult to understand the intensity, and the ambivalence, of his emotional investment in this match.

By the same token we recall the words of the widowed Countess, as the play opens with the dispatching of Bertram to Paris: ‘In delivering my son from me’, says the Countess, ‘I bury a second husband.’ On the face of it, this is the patrician gesture of a dignified and courtly lady distancing with art a double sorrow. This second ‘birth’ is a second death, she says. But in the rhetorical condensation may we not descry a telltale parapraxis? The Countess is in mourning for her husband; she is also, we perceive, rather more than half in love with her son.4

The Countess's second exchange with her fool, which follows Helena's confession and her departure for Paris, is similarly revealing. She is sending him off in Helena's wake to the King's court and is prepared, with good-natured irony, to indulge his scapegrace effrontery. On the whole she treats his scurrilities with much the same matronly indulgence as Olivia does Feste's, but the open sexuality of his bawdry this time, it seems, is provocative of more than cool irony. His ‘answer’, he says, fits all questions ‘like a barber's chair that fits all buttocks’ (II.ii.16); is as fit

as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney, as your French crown for your taffety punk, as Tib's rush for Tom's forefinger, as a pancake for Shrove Tuesday, a morris for May-day, as the nail to his hole, the cuckold to his horn, as a scolding quean to a wrangling knave, as the nun's lip to the friar's mouth; nay, as the pudding to his skin. … From below your duke to beneath your constable, it will fit any question.


‘It must be an answer of most monstrous size that must fit all demands’, is the Countess's reply; and then suddenly, in the midst of the thrust of parry and repartee, comes a striking non sequitur: ‘To be young again, if we could’ (37).

They are mourning their youth, this autumnal pair, it seems. And in consequence they are projecting upon their children (or their adopted children) their longing to relive their lives. It is no wonder that crossed currents of ambivalence will traverse this inverted family romance.

Read in this light the testing scene between the Countess and Helena becomes as iridescent as Helena's tears. The Countess receives the steward's confirmation of Helena's love for Bertram with an immediate, motherly empathy, shadowed, however, in its reference to ‘faults’, by the hint of a jealous reservation:

Even so it was with me when I was young;
                              … this thorn
Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong. …
Such were our faults, or then we thought them none.

(I.iii.123-5, 130)

The scene which follows is masterly in its representation of ambivalence, of simulation and dissimulation, between the two women, both contenders for Bertram's love. ‘You know, Helen, / I am a mother to you’ (I.iii.132-3) is the Countess's opening ploy, and it serves her purpose of eliciting response and testing intention excellently when Helena replies, with modestly disavowing emphasis, ‘Mine honourable mistress’ (my italics):

                    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 a catalogue of those
That were enwombed mine. …
You ne'er oppress'd me with a mother's groan,
Yet I express to you a mother's care.
God's mercy, maiden! does it curd thy blood
To say I am thy mother? what's the matter,
That this distempered messenger of wet,
The many colour'd Iris, rounds thine eye?
—Why, that you are my daughter?


The Countess exploits Helena's embarrassed feint—‘The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother. … must not be my brother’ (I.iii.150, 155) to point out that Helena as her daughter-in-law would solve the semantic problem, and she drives home her advantage:

God shield you mean it not! daughter and mother
So strive upon your pulse. What! pale again?
My fear hath catch'd your fondness; now I see
The myst'ry of your loneliness, and find
Your salt tears' head. …
                              Speak, is't so?
If it be so, you have wound a goodly clew.

(I.iii.163-7, 176-7)

She is playing the role of indignant matron that she has set herself. But in doing so, she is playing it out. The ambiguous irony of ‘you have wound a goodly clew’ allows us to register simultaneously the angry resentment she is professing, and the compensatory acceptance she is working her way towards. 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. This is an admirable solution: it is indeed the way of women in Shakespearean comedy to resolve their inner conflicts more successfully, more benignly, than do the men.

At the end of the scene, Helena has the Countess's leave and love and approval for her project. But in order to understand Helena in the testing scene we must retrace our steps.

The predicament that is developed in Act I of All's Well offers a powerful exemplification of Freud's observation upon family quadrangles. ‘I am accustoming myself’, he wrote in a letter to Fliess in 1899, ‘to regarding every sexual act as an event between four individuals’. ‘Every sexual thought’ perhaps he should have said. Much of interest emerges when we turn our attention to the Countess's foster-daughter, also, like Bertram, in mourning for a father: ‘The remembrance of her father never approaches her heart but the tyranny of her sorrows takes all livelihood from her cheek’ (I.i.45-7), we are told. We are immediately riveted by a scene curiously reminiscent of the opening scenes of Hamlet but with the sexes reversed. ‘I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too’ (50) is Helena's reply to the Countess's chiding: ‘No more of this, Helena; go to, no more; lest it be rather thought you affect a sorrow than to have—’ (47-9). Helena, it seems, like Hamlet, has something to hide, something that presses for utterance and chafes at the need for dissimulation. Helena, like Hamlet, as we speedily learn, is ‘too much in the son’:

                    I think not on my father,
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him; my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.


The lines are obscure, but possibly uncannily shrewd. To make sense of the antithesis we must read ‘remembrance’ as a metonymy for ‘remains’—all that remains of her father is her memory of him. So: the great tears grace his memory more than those she shed at his funeral, tears shed ‘for him’, still, so to speak, present in the flesh. This is very condensed, more particularly since ‘grace’ carries with it its subliminal contrary—‘disgrace’. Surely a considerable tinge of guilt colours Helena's acknowledgement of the displacement, in her passionate affection, of father by beloved. The denials, like most denials, are self-betraying. What the speech tells us is that she is very far from having forgotten her father; but that her love for Bertram has, quite literally, and not without guilt, taken the place of her love for her father, the one image overlaying the other. If so, it is no wonder that her love is perceived by her as unattainable, out of reach, never to be consummated. Yes, he is socially above her, and this provides the ostensible reason for her despair. But since nothing, we are told, is fortuitous in the world of the mind, Helena's choice of the object of her affections could be in accordance with a deeply ambivalent inner need. If it is her father she loves, and therefore a father that she seeks in the mate she chooses, the latter will be, for that very reason, impossible, untouchable, a forbidden prince lointain: ‘'twere all one / That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it’ (I.i.83-5).

We are offered a great deal more data for the fathoming of Helena's complex motivation in the dialogue with Bertram's friend, Parolles, whom she loves ‘for his sake’ though she knows him for the liar, fool and coward that he is. With Parolles she enjoys a relationship of ironic equality despite her lowly birth and his complacent patronizing. ‘Save you, fair queen’ is his greeting, and her reply, ‘And you, monarch!’ (I.i.104-5), shows, as does the flyting that concludes their conversation (187-200), that she can give as good as she gets in this power game. Helena is shrewd and self-reliant as the scene makes very clear: it ends with her bold resolve to seek the remedies that ‘in ourselves do lie’ (212):

                    Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?
The king's disease—my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me.


She is also preoccupied, as the scene makes clear, with the very subject Parolles, with preternaturally cunning complicity, has chosen for their conversation.

Parolles is a mine of information on the subject of virginity, which is the topic he first provocatively launches. Helena parries his provocations to good effect, but in the process of enquiring of Parolles, who should know, how one may ‘barricado it’ against man the enemy, Helena also enquires, ‘How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?’ (I.i.147). Parolles' diatribe against withered pears concludes with the challenge ‘Will you anything with it?’ (I.i.159-60), and is followed by an elliptical speech from Helena, perhaps half to herself, which has proved no less a challenge to interpreters:

Not my virginity; yet …(5)
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.


The ellipsis, a characteristic of Helena's which suggests a reflective inwardness, is open to a number of interpretations. Are we to hear an emphasis upon ‘my’ virginity? Is the implied other virginity, if any is implied, Bertram's? Is ‘yet’ temporal or concessive? Whatever is unspoken crystallizes finally upon what is evidently the dominant preoccupation—‘your master’: ‘There shall your master have a thousand loves.’ But where shall this take place? In Paris? Or in ‘my virginity’, the immediate antecedent for the anaphoric ‘there’? However we read what follows, whether as an envious and ironic catalogue of sonneteering epithets (a denigration of the loves Bertram will find in Paris) or as an ardent outdoing even of the chivalric passions of the sonneteers (and so a valorization of the love that she can offer), immediately after ‘a thousand loves’ there occurs an oddity which we can surely only interpret as another astonishing slip of the text. What follows is ‘a mother, and a mistress, and a friend’. For while one has encountered fantastic, hyperbolic, even outrageous, epithets in High Renaissance sonnets, even the most assiduous reader of these confections will be hard put to it to recall a mother among them. No occurrence, the Arden editor assures us, is on record.

Why has this ‘mother’ entered Helena's mind? Has she perceived the bond between the Countess and Bertram? And, seeking herself a father surrogate in her love, does her wise unconscious fear a contrary quest in Bertram? Or, on the contrary, is it her wish too to ‘mother’ Bertram? These are the questions which resonate further in the testing scene between the Countess and Helena, which we will consider now from Helena's point of view.

The Countess's outburst:

                    does it curd they blood
To say I am thy mother? what's the matter,
That this distempered messenger of wet,
The many-colour'd Iris, rounds thine eye?
—Why, that you are my daughter?


receives the opaque reply, ‘That I am not’. Helena, elliptical as ever, may mean by this ‘I am not that’, by way of emphatic disavowal, or ‘Because I am not’ by way of concession. How are we to read the elliptical Helena? Does she inadvertently reveal her true feelings, or cannily mask her feelings with a declarative equivocation? The reason she gives for her continued insistence is disingenuous: ‘Pardon, madam; / The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother’:

My master, my dear lord he is; and I
His servant live, and will his vassal die.
He must not be my brother.


Embarrassed, Helena falls into confusion as she struggles between the Scylla of impoliteness or ingratitude and the hypothetical Charybdis of brother/sister incest:

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.


It can surely escape no one that Helena's double bind here is factitious. The Countess can be her mother only metaphorically. Certainly the semantic absurdity does not escape the Countess, who, as we have seen, uses it to drive home her advantage.

Helena's agitation serves the Countess's testing purposes, and she is trapped into the confession the Countess wants to hear. But we must seek a deeper reason for her extreme discomposure. Her ostensible reason—the desire not to be Bertram's sister since she wishes to be his wife—since it is absurd, can only be a screen upon which we can read an inner conflict. That she is made so nervous by the idea of being Bertram's forbidden sister could well be symptomatic of the deeper taboo. Daughter and mother so strive upon her pulse in a sense truer than the Countess knows: shall she continue to be her father's docile daughter, submissive and self-effacing, or become her lover's active pursuer, challenger and replacer of his mother? That it is the father's daughter which at this point dominates her mind is to be inferred from the posture of helpless, hapless adoration from afar that she expresses, in excess, one feels, of what is required to pacify the Countess, but in keeping with the masochistic note we have already heard (‘The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love’, I.i.89-90):

I know I love in vain, strive against hope;
Yet in this captious and inteemable sieve
I still pour in the waters of my love
And lack not to lose still. Thus, Indian-like,
Religious in mine error, I adore
The sun that looks upon his worshipper
But knows of him no more. …
                    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!

(I.iii.196-202, 208-12)

Richard Wheeler says that Helena's main task is to overcome a difficulty ‘that originates in Bertram's revulsion from her’ (15). But this is surely not so. Helena's main task is to overcome a difficulty that originates in the Oedipal taboo. She is as passionate a woman as she is an affectionate daughter, but not yet able to break the father's spell. The phoenix image fantasizes a sublime self-immolation, but pursuit of Bertram to Paris is seductive too. The will to pursue Bertram to Paris under the guise of healing the King, since it is also the will to heal the King under the guise of pursuing Bertram, is for her a wonderfully composite and legitimizing wish-fulfilment. Using the craft of her own father, she will restore a proxy father-figure to health, and receive, at his grateful hand, a husband.

Helena consciously conceives her problem as a conflict between boldness and self-effacement, presumption and modesty, in terms both of the social hierarchies and the maidenly proprieties, but also in terms of chastity and sensuality. ‘Loving dearly’, for Helena, is no matter for platonic abstractions and Diana, her much invoked goddess, was, it will be recalled, the goddess of childbirth as well as of virginity. But it is Diana, not of the Ephesians but of virgins, whom she invokes in order to formulate her plight at this point:

                    My dearest madam, …
                              if yourself,
Whose aged honour cites a virtuous youth,
Did ever, in so true a flame of liking,
Wish chastely and love dearly, that your Dian
Was both herself and love—


Only later, and, typically, when she steels herself for possible humiliation in the self-exposure of the choosing scene, does she see herself as deserting Diana for ‘imperial Love, that god most high’ (II.iii.75).

Helena's fantasied plot of success, in which she will choose her man and the King-father will sanction her choice, fails. It is at the French court, following the triumph of her cure of the King, that humiliation—the ‘Tax of impudence, / A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame’ (II.i.169-70) which, she told the King, she was ready to venture, in other words, had deeply feared, as the consequence instinctively associated for her with sexual love—becomes indeed her lot. In a way she has tempted Providence, for her replies to the reluctant courtiers are self-abasing: ‘Love make your fortunes twenty times above / Her that so wishes’; ‘I'll never do you wrong, for your own sake. / … in your bed / Find fairer fortune if you ever wed!’; ‘You are too young, too happy, and too good, / To make yourself a son out of my blood’ (II.iii.82-97). We conceive the drama that she has conceived, empowered by her father's power: the response she hoped for from Bertram would have reversed the situation, dignified her humility by triumphantly vindicating her intrinsic worth. But at her grand moment of choice, she is despised and rejected, punished, if you will, by a chauvinist text. The choice-of-a-suitor scene has understandably troubled critics, both on her behalf and on Bertram's. The latter indeed has troubles of his own, to which I now turn.

They interestingly mirror Helena's. For where Helena seeks, and struggles with, a father in her love, Bertram fears, and flees, a mother in his. Understanding this, we will understand the pathos of the crossed vectors of desire, the knot of conflicting needs which this comedy of maturation must untie.

Critics scold Bertram for being so unchivalrous about Helena, but we should surely register the authenticity of his resistance to a marriage forced upon him by a foster-father, to the socially inferior, and domestically familiar, receiver of his mother's patronage. Even to a kind of sister—Helena's anxiety on this score can alert us to his. That he chafes is hardly to be wondered at. Bertram has emerged from beneath the maternal wing only to fall under the sway of a new paternal authority. It is surely incumbent upon us to see the matter from his point of view when he bursts out with

My wife, my liege! I shall beseech your highness,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.


And seeing it thus we may perceive the bind in which he is placed. It would hardly make things better for Helena if his repulsion were so great as to make him defy the King's threatened ‘revenge and hate’. His surrender has been construed as abjectly, cynically opportunistic. But it could also be read as a bitter acceptance of force majeure:

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.


It depends where we locate the irony, whether we monopolize that commodity as a critical prerogative, or allow the dramatized persona access to the sarcasm which is the defence of the powerless. And Bertram is powerless. That he is ‘not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy’ (as Malvolio says of Cesario in Twelfth Night, I.v.158-9) is the play's generational starting point.

Already in Act II Bertram's plight is presented as one of extreme frustration. He is

          commanded here, and kept a coil with
“Too young”, and “The next year” and “'Tis too early”. …
I shall stay here the forehorse to a smock,
Creaking my shoes on the plain masonry,
Till honour be bought up, and no sword worn
But one to dance with.


Seeking honour in battle, action, manhood, he is kept childishly at home by a King who is as patronizing as he is paternal. And this situation reaches a crisis when even freedom of marital choice is denied him.

But more is at stake for Bertram than freedom of marital choice. Lafew's comments throughout the scene of Helena's choice brand all the reluctant courtiers as beardless boys, objects of his macho contempt before their lackluster performance. ‘Do all they deny her? And they were sons of mine I'd have them whipp'd, or I would send them to th' Turk to make eunuchs of’ (II.iii.86-8). They are ‘boys of ice. … bastards to the English; the French ne'er got 'em’ (93-5). In particular he despises Bertram, and in terms which suggest the condescending arrogance of the grown man for the sexually immature youth. ‘There's one grape yet. I am sure thy father drunk wine; but if thou be'st not an ass, I am a youth of fourteen; I have known thee already’ (99-101).

In the scene which follows, the mutual hostility between Lafew and Parolles also hinges specifically upon the question of manliness: Lafew excoriates Parolles for his effeminate clothes—he is a ‘good window of lattice’ (II.iii.212)—and for his foppish airs and affectations—‘I must tell thee, sirrah, I write man; to which title age cannot bring thee’ (197-8). And his insinuations go further than aspersions cast merely upon Parolles' sartorial foppishness: ‘Why dost thou garter up thy arms a' this fashion? Dost make hose of thy sleeves? … Thou wert best set thy lower part where thy nose stands’ (245-8). To Lafew, aggressively male, Parolles is ‘a hen’. As far as Lafew is concerned, it seems, Parolles is nothing but a male punk and he cannot stand him. Parolles for his part throws Lafew's ‘antiquity’ in his face, and, once Lafew is safely absent, swears ‘Well, thou hast a son shall take this disgrace off me; scurvy, old, filthy, scurvy lord! … I'll beat him, by my life, if I can meet him with any convenience’ (231-5). It is to this braggart ‘sweetheart’ that Bertram turns for sympathy when he enters, ‘Undone and forfeited to cares for ever!’ (263). Parolles' bravado, characteristic defence of the sexually and personally insecure, presents the refuge of a homosexual attachment as a valorization of the male cameraderie of warfare:

                    To th' wars, my boy, to th' wars!
He wears his honour 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.


And off to the wars go the bachelor companions in perfect agreement that ‘A young man married is a man that's marr'd’ (II.iii.294).

For Bertram, frustrated by his forced marriage, Mars is a welcome substitute for Venus. But that a fear of impotence lies just beneath the surface of his martial posture is suggested not only by the Parolles connection but by his own tell-tale envoi:

I have writ my letters, casketed my treasure,
Given order for our horses; and tonight,
When I should take possession of the bride,
End ere I do begin.


Effeminate Parolles, ‘jackanapes with scarfs’ (III.v.85), is Bertram's refuge from ‘the dark house [a displaced image of female enclosure?] and the detested wife’ (II.iii.288). The danger, bawdy Lavatch informs us, is in ‘standing to 't’: in battle, ‘that's the loss of men’; elsewhere, ‘the getting of children’ (III.ii.40-1). Bertram, who runs away, the clown's irony seems to suggest, has double indemnity. Lavatch's caustic comment is important because it links the two masculine prerogatives, and puts them both in question vis-a-vis Bertram. But we must ask our own questions of the text that represents Bertram.

First of all, we note, the nearly universal critical prejudice against him leads to a cardinal misjudgment. Bertram does in fact exhibit prowess in battle. And he does not, at this stage at least, lie to Helena. He does not declare to her a love he does not feel. He will not kiss her even when they part, and she pleads for at least a formal embrace.

Moreover the riddle with which he sets Helena her impossible task: ‘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’ (III.ii.56-8) is double-tongued, like all riddles. It states an apparent impossibility but represents an unacknowledged desire. To see this, one has only to suppose the conditional form changed, not the primary substance; to read instead of ‘When thou canst …’, ‘If only thou couldst …’.6

And when he dispatches her to his mother, it is with almost a plea on his part for her understanding:

And rather muse than ask why I entreat you;
For my respects are better than they seem,
And my appointments have in them a need
Greater than shows itself at the first view
To you that know them not.


The need ‘Greater than shows itself’, as Richard Wheeler persuasively demonstrates, stems from the fact that Helena is ineluctably bound up in his mind with his mother: ‘A son's affection for a mother is directed by Bertram toward the countess; a son's fears of female domination and of his own oedipal wishes are aroused in Bertram by Helena’ (42). Hence ‘I cannot love her nor will strive to do't’ (II.iii.145). Wheeler concludes, however, that the play's ‘comic purpose, to free Bertram from anxieties that originate in family ties’, is not achieved. ‘The action of All's Well’, he says, ‘dramatizes neither a liberation from nor a transformation of obstacles that obstruct the marriage to Helena’ (80).

It is at this point that my own reading of All's Well diverges from Wheeler's. He reads into the play the problems of the Sonnets, with Helena as a screen figure for the humiliated and self-humiliating lover and Bertram as the Sonnets' young man, presented now with a savage mockery the self-excoriating author of the Sonnets could not permit himself. My own reading is dramatically opposed. I see these two as chiastic doubles, mirrors of each other. Where Helena seeks a (forbidden) father in her love, Bertram fears a (forbidden) mother; but the text also inscribes their shared desire for sexual enfranchisement, for fatherhood and motherhood, and provides the means for its attainment.

The reversals, which will make possible the happy ending, occur in the play's middle Act. Helena's great speech of renunciation is worth quoting at length for the subtlety with which it articulates a momentous transformation.

Nothing in France, until he has no wife!
Thou shalt have none, Rossillion, none in France;
Then hast thou all again. Poor lord, is't I
That chase thee from thy country, and expose
Those tender limbs of thine to the event
Of the none-sparing war? And is it I
That drive thee from the sportive court, where thou
Wast shot at with fair eyes, to be the mark
Of smoky muskets? O you leaden messengers,
                    … do not touch my lord.
Whoever shoots at him, I set him there;
                    … I am the cause
                    … No; come thou home, Rossillion,
                    … I will be gone;
My being here it is that holds thee hence.
Shall I stay here to do't? No, no, although
The air of paradise did fan the house
And angels offic'd all. I will be gone,
                    … Come, night; end, day;
For with the dark, poor thief, I'll steal away.


In the parting scene Helena begged for her kiss ‘like a timorous thief, [who] most fain would steal’ (II.v.81) what is legally hers. Now she will herself steal away, so only she be no obstacle to Bertram's return. It is to be noted, too, that in thus renouncing him she refers to him in his own patronymic right, as Rossillion. It is a turnabout for the determined young woman who has outfaced a king and a court to gain her end, and gained it. But what the accents of the speech tell us is that this self-abrogation, which springs no doubt from the masochism of infantile taboo, has undergone a transformation. Her guilt here is reality-tested, objective, since she really is the cause of Bertram's escape into soldiering. The tenderly maternal solicitude that we hear in this speech is a transference wonderfully, and movingly, caught. Helena has broken the spell of the father in this fantasy of herself as a mothering, protective figure to the man she desires.

It is for this reason, I suggest, that there is no page disguise in All's Well. Helena's problem has not been the sorting out, balancing and harmonizing of masculine and feminine components in her own personality as it was for her hermaphrodite sisters of the earlier comedies. They had to reconcile themselves to a woman's role without loss, if possible, of the adventurous, maverick male attributes they also possessed, and cherished. She has had to free her sexuality from the archaic bond of infancy, to undertake a pilgrimage into mature sexuality. It is beautifully in keeping with this trajectory of ‘the other plot’ that we are following that disguise as a girl called Diana, women's camaraderie, and the bed-trick mark her achievement of the passage from virgin chastity to marital sexuality. The bed-trick represents enabling fantasy for both partners. For Helena it offers camouflage—anonymity, invisibility—under cover of which she can transcend the inhibitions of a threatening sexuality. For men, conversely, bed-trick fantasies represent fears of being tricked in bed. But for Bertram the bed-trick is his sexual conquest of the woman he believes to be Diana and so fulfils an analogous liberation. Helena is dead. We do not know the nature of the change that came over Bertram when he received the news of Helena's death, but ‘on the reading it he chang'd almost into another man’ (IV.iii.3-4). Already in his wooing of Diana, he was liberated enough to be able to contemplate, and to exorcise by invoking, a primal scene: ‘now you should be as your mother was’, he says, ‘When your sweet self was got’ (IV.ii.9-10). Now, in bed with a light o'love—Fontybell!—and therefore unhampered by any honourable intentions whatsoever, ‘he fleshes his will’ (IV.iii.15), confirming his potency. Thus Bertram outgrows Parolles. Or rather, he is in a position to outgrow Parolles. His repudiation of his erstwhile ‘sweetheart’, however, is still to be brought about.


Parolles, often seen as a quasi-vice figure in a morality play contest with virtuous Helena, and about whom Wheeler, oddly, has very little to say, is perhaps the most brilliant dramatic invention in All's Well. Bertram's virtual sibling, brother-at-arms, alter ego, he is our essential vehicle for an understanding of Bertram's rake's progress as an authentic reflection of masculine adolescence. Perhaps too much so for the comfort of spectators, male and female, who cannot free themselves from masculine idealizations of romantic protagonists.7 But let us examine the exposure of the inimitable Parolles.

The exposure of Parolles in Act IV marks, together with the bed-trick, the remedial phase of the Shakespearean comic plot. Characteristically, folly, become hyperbolically excessive, extrudes itself, exposes itself, or is exposed, exhausts and so eliminates itself.8 The lords have a double remedial project in hand in the gulling scene. Parolles, ‘most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker’ (, is to be openly and palpably disgraced, but Bertram too is due for chastisement for the brazen callousness with which he has received the news of Helena's death and for his seduction of ‘a young gentlewoman … of a most chaste renown’ (IV.iii.13-14). The French lords will ‘gladly have him see his company anatomiz'd, that he might take a measure of his own judgments wherein so curiously he had set this counterfeit’, and they economically set their trap so that each will be ‘the whip of the other’ (IV.iii.30-5). The first stage of the trap exposes Parolles, in sham pursuit of his lost drum, as the fraud and coxcomb, the ‘counterfeit module’ (IV.iii.96) and craven informer that he is. The second stage turns the tables upon the now indignant, and betrayed, Bertram. The latter appears, in extremely high spirits after his rendezvous with Diana, and that he deserves what he gets is underlined by his airy account of the ‘sixteen businesses’ he has dispatched (IV.iii.82-9) since the news of Helena's death.

Parolles, having surrendered unconditionally at the first syllable of the Lords' ‘terrible language’, is now beyond shame—‘If ye pinch me like a pasty’ (IV.iii.119-20), he says, he can betray no more military intelligence than he possesses, which, when it comes to a run-down on the French commanders, he is determined to embellish with details that will, he is confident, endear him to his interlocutors. Thus it comes about that the trickster Lords, including Bertram—‘a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish’ (207)—hear no good of themselves. The blindfold removed, face to face with the objects of his ‘pestiferous’ slanders, Parolles' exposure is complete.

The ‘cure’ proves wonderfully effective; more so than Malvolio's even, perhaps because Parolles has had a measure of self-knowledge all along concerning at least his ‘foolhardy tongue’: ‘Tongue, I must put you into a butter-woman's mouth, and buy myself another of Bajazeth's mule if you prattle me into these perils’ (IV.i.41-3). But he goes on paroling himself into perils, and that it is by the Lords' gobbledegook—‘choughs' language’ (IV.i.19)—that a mean-spirited braggart is undone is no more than poetic justice. Or homeopathy. Self-knowledge, self-acceptance can hardly go further than that of Parolles, shamed beyond words, disgraced, despised, but alive:

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. …
Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and Parolles live
Safest in shame. …
There's place and means for every man alive.


But what of Bertram vis-a-vis his ex-alter ego? He repudiates him, of course. He is now, ‘A pox upon him! … a cat’ (IV.iii.254-5) whom he detests. But does he see anything of himself in this unmasking? ‘What a past-saving slave is this!’ ‘Damnable both-sides rogue!’ (IV.iii.135, 214), he says, failing to recall that the only after-thought he had about Diana was a fear of ever hearing of her again. We might adapt the courtier's rhetorical question regarding Parolles: ‘Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?’ (IV.i.44-5). Is it possible that Bertram knows what Parolles is, and be as he is?

Bertram's own exposure, indeed, is still to come. At present he still ‘thinks himself made’ (IV.iii.16-17) by his battle honours and bed victories. If the gulling of Parolles dramatizes the demise in Bertram of Parolles the effeminate tongue-man, Parolles the feather-man remains to be demolished. Parolles himself, though he smells, is still very much alive—on handouts from the contemptuous Lafew. He must still run the gauntlet of Lavatch's olfactory insults, just as Bertram will run the gauntlet of the women's unmasking. The foppish kinship between them is neatly brought out by Bertram's affectation of a velvet patch (we have not heard that he was wounded) upon which Lavatch lavishes his scurrilous witticisms.

The final scene has the curious effect of a replay, only this time with the young women firmly in charge of the act. The elders are once more engaged in match-making, Lafew's daughter and Bertram this time, an opportune circumstance Bertram seizes with alacrity. Once more paternal benevolence turns into ferocity when Diana's possession of Helena's ring, given her, we recall, by the King as a pledge of his gratitude, makes the King suspect foul play, even murder, on Bertram's part.

And Bertram, trapped between rings, the inherited, patrilinear ring that he gave, the virginal, betrothal ring that he took? Yes, he lies, and wriggles and prevaricates. His snobbery is distasteful; chivalry was never his strong point. Like Parolles, in his recognition scene, he is disgraced, left with no face to save, his ‘champion Honour’ exposed for the broken reed it is.

But what, after all, do his critics expect? He is trapped, as he was at the beginning; he has a face, a life, to try to save.

He too is restored by Helena, who, like Mariana in Measure for Measure, wants no other, nor no better, man. Her ‘O my good lord, when I was like this maid / I found you wondrous kind’ (V.iii.303-4)9 is, for his wounded ego, the one most restorative thing she could say. The bed-trick, it turns out, served his fantasy of virile masculinity, and trumped it. For he finds in the woman he seduced, the woman he fled—a nurturing, saving presence, a sexually compatible bride and the mother of his child. He is still bewildered when he says to the King, ‘If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly’ (V.iii.309-10). But I myself do not find his ‘Both, both. O pardon!’ (V.iii.302) necessarily perfunctory. Certainly an actor need not make it so.

Are they a mismatch? More, or less, than anyone else in life or in literature?

Is All's Well a ‘problem’ play, and as such deserving of relegation to second-class status? It has been my claim that no such special category is required for the elucidation of All's Well. It exhibits a firm structural family resemblance to the earlier maturation comedies. If it anticipates in certain aspects a late romance like Cymbeline, it is no more problematic for that reason than any other play in the Shakespearean opus (or any other), each play being manifestly transitional between its precursors and its successors.

Certainly the vicissitudes of motive and meaning caught and displayed in the web of its text engage our closest attention. If we allow its complexities, its psychological depth and finesse, their due, we might well admit it once more into the canon of Shakespeare's most admired plays. Where, to adapt once more Parolles' famous self-summation: simply the thing it is shall make it live.

The King, by the way, is still, at the end of All's Well, indefatigably in search of a marriage partner—this time for Diana Capilet.


  1. See W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies.

  2. See e.g. Richard A. Levin, ‘All's Well and All Seems Well’, Shakespeare Studies, 13 (1980), 131-42.

  3. Richard Wheeler, p. 75, quotes Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York, 1955) on the sexual suggestiveness of ‘stone’, ‘fire’, ‘motion’, ‘touch’, ‘[a]raise’, and ‘pen’.

  4. Otto Rank noted the Oedipal motif in the very first lines of the play as early as 1912, and found ‘the tabooed relationship of mother and son underlying a good deal of the play’. See Norman Holland, 154. Literary critics, on the other hand, have made surprisingly little of suggested unconscious motivations. Significantly, however, Bernard Shaw, in whose ‘deeper affections’ the play was ‘rooted’, found the Countess ‘the most beautiful old woman's part ever written’: Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (London, 1961), p. 10.

  5. G. K. Hunter provides an account of the textual problem in his commentary on the lines in the New Arden edition.

  6. Cf. Helena's ‘riddle’ in I.iii.212: ‘But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies’, in which the wit masks a wish by way of the Elizabethan double entendre in ‘dies’. Phyllis Gorfain, ‘Puzzle and artifice: the riddle as metapoetry in Pericles’, Shakespeare Survey, 29 (1976), makes the interesting suggestion that the paradoxes and contradictions out of which riddles are contrived constitute a ‘schema of marriage’—children being born of male and female, and mediating between past and future. See also Freud's account of the aliquis ‘riddle’ in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (PFL 5, 46-9).

  7. G. K. Hunter admits Parolles' stage success as a humour character but finds no way to ‘fit him into this play’, or ‘to balance him against the different kind of reality’ of Helena (xlviii). But see Robert Rogers, A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature, ch. 8 and passim, for a very useful account of character ‘doubling’, especially the latent, ‘secret sharer’ kind, as ‘a fundamental mechanism’ for the representation of psychic conflict.

  8. I have attempted to develop a theory of exorcist Shakespearean comic form in Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London, 1980).

  9. ‘Sexually responsive’ was one of the many nuances of the word in Elizabethan English, which included the archaic ‘natural’ and the modern ‘well-intentioned’ or ‘good-natured’.


Brooks, Peter, ‘Repetition, repression and return: Great Expectations and the study of plot’, NLH (1980).

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).

Holland, Norman, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1979).

Lawrence, W. W., Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York: Macmillan, 1931).

Mansfield, Katherine, Journal, ed. John Middleton Murry (London: Constable, 1927; repr. 1954).

Nicoll, Allardyce, Shakespeare (London, 1952).

Raysor, T. M., ed., Coleridge's Shakespeare Criticism (London: Dent, 1960).

Rogers, Robert, A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970).

Ure, Peter, Shakespeare: The Problem Plays (London: Longman, 1961).

Wheeler, Richard P., Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981).

Anthony Brennan (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6653

SOURCE: “Helena versus Time's Winged Chariot in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, Summer, 1980, pp. 391-411.

[In the following essay, Brennan discusses Helena in relation to the notion of time in All's Well That Ends Well, noting that she alone of the young people in the play has a strong connection with the older generation and that she actively struggles against the constraints of time to achieve her goals.]

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devoured
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done. Perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honor bright; to have done, is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mock'ry.

(III, iii, 145-153)

These opening lines of Ulysses' great speech in Troilus and Cressida are the locus classicus of Shakespeare's constant preoccupation with the nature of time. The politician endeavours to arouse the lethargic Achilles by characterizing Time as an insatiable cannibal looming over us who can only be appeased by fresh deeds, fresh meat from the battlefield outside the Trojan walls. This image of Time as an implacable tyrant is presented with endlessly varied ingenuity by Renaissance writers. Of all the extraordinary changes that took place in this period the gradual emergence of a new attitude to time is one that has had far reaching consequences for subsequent history. Throughout the entire medieval period two concepts of time were in conflict—the cyclic and the linear. Because of the powerful influence of astronomy and astrology scientists and scholars for a long while emphasized the cyclic concept. The linear concept, which was ultimately to become triumphant, was promoted by the mercantile class and the development of a money economy. When power was concentrated in ownership of land the concept of time was associated with the unchanging cycle of the soil, a natural, recurring, beneficent rhythm, in which time was plentiful. The circulation of money led to the unlocking of that stable, even static way of life, led to mobility of goods, of people, of careers and reputation. Hence the difference in views of Falstaff and Hotspur on the subject of honour, Cassio's agony over his lost reputation, the precipitous crash of Othello whose ‘occupation's gone.’ Men pursue reputation but know it is ‘a bubble.’ It was in the fifteenth century that public clocks in Italian cities for the first time struck all twenty-four hours of the day. Just before Shakespeare came to London the attempt to fix time much more precisely was made with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in March of 1582. And at the time when Shakespeare came to dominate the London stage, Johannes Kepler, formulating his three laws which changed man's world-view for ever, used a new concept of time as the fundamental variable. In the words of Ernst Cassirer:

… the planets were dethroned as the ancient gods of time and fate, and the general view of time and of the temporal process was transferred from the image-world of the mythical-religious imagination to the exact conceptual world of scientific cognition.

(p. 140)

The tempo of life was increasing, and time was considered to be something valuable that was slipping away continually. The singular concept that has such devastating effect in our technological society—namely that ‘time is money’ and must be used economically—emerged in Shakespeare's lifetime.

Erwin Panofsky has pointed out that in classical art time is represented as fleeting opportunity (Kairos) or as creative eternity (Aion) but in the Renaissance time is a destroyer, equipped with an hour-glass and a scythe. Panofsky argues that no period has been so obsessed with the horror and sublimity of time as the baroque, “the period in which man found himself confronted with the infinite as a quality of the universe instead of as a prerogative of God” (p. 92). The evidence of this uneasiness is found throughout Shakespeare's work. In stanza 133 of The Rape of Lucrece we are given an image of an assassin:

Mis-shapen Time, copesmate of ugly Night,
Swift subtle post, carrier of grisly care,
Eater of youth, false slave to false delight,
Base watch of woes, sin's pack-horse, virtue's snare,
Thou nursest all and murder'st all that are:

Many characters in his plays lament their abuse of time or the pressure it puts on them. Anticipating Rilke's famous image we begin to get the impression that time is a bank deposit that must be withdrawn and wisely invested, otherwise we are subjected to cruel mockery—a position Richard II finds himself in when mewed up in Pomfret Castle:

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numb'ring clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now, sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart
Which is the bell. So sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times and hours.

(V, v, 49-58)

There is a whiff of Samuel Beckett in this paralysis in face of the gorgon Time. But in solving the angst of ‘la condition humaine’ Shakespeare does not drift, as so many modern writers seem to do, towards catatonia. He has specific ideas on how to confront the assassin Time, and I want to look at those ideas in All's Well That Ends Well.

Mircea Eliade in Myth and Reality points out that “To cure the work of Time it is necessary to ‘go back’ and find the ‘beginning of the world’” (p. 88). He points out in many of his books the strategies adopted by primitive societies to achieve cycles of eternal renewal. To conquer time you have to repeal it or reverse it—go back to the roots of your society. By the Renaissance, formally organized ritual methods of renewal were disappearing. In All's Well That Ends Well, we have the sense of a world of solid, firmly rooted values in decay, or being eclipsed by the newer world of pragmatic, political action willing to pay only lip-service to the old ideals. The new generation, eager to bustle in the world, cares little for a rooted tradition. It will snatch up any branches that are to hand and stick them in the ground. That the leaves on the branches may wither, that the garden will be laid waste is of less moment than the advantage they might gain in the immediate present. In pursuing the bubble reputation, they cannot afford true honour and honesty, only a semblance of it. There is no time for concern with how they might appear in their own eyes or in God's. But instead of conquering time, they become ever more slaves to it. Our hope in Shakespeare's comedies usually resides in the ability of the younger generation to grasp and reaffirm enduring values.

Helena is the only member of the younger generation who has strong, continuing links with the older generation. She has no difficulty getting along with the king, the Countess, or Lafew. As child of Gerard de Narbon, she is inheritor of ancient skills. The king, dying of a fistula, has respect for the old values, and yet, in the decline of his body, we see the decline of his society. His doctors have no skill, and he has no faith in them. Critics have often commented on the decayed nature of this French court, the shallow, young courtiers, the brooding atmosphere of death. There is an echo here of John of Gaunt on his deathbed facing Richard II and his court of rash, bavin wits, the world of Duncan being replaced by that of Macbeth, or Antony by Octavius, or old Hamlet's heroic times by Claudius' pragmatism. The age of heroes, of the Count Rousillon and Gerard de Narbon, may seem as irrecoverable as that of the Black Prince, but in comedy there is room for one green shoot to survive the new wintry world of shifting values.

The lines with which the Countess opens the play: “In delivering my son from me I bury a second husband” (I, i, 1-2) underlines a contrast that the play explores in detail. Bertram may be called a second husband, but he is not yet worthy to step into the shoes of the dead Count, who embodied the true, courteous, aristocratic ideal. In those past times miracles were almost possible, as she indicates in commenting on Gerard de Narbon's skill which “almost as great as his honesty; had it stretched so far, would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work” (I, i, 16-20). The parallelism of the two mighty ancestors of Bertram and Helena is important, for he betrays the memory of his father, while she inherits and practices Gerard's marvellous skills. That past age, however, was not inhabited by gods, as Lafew points out in his comment on Gerard: “He was skillful enough to have lived still, if knowledge could be set up against mortality” (I, i, 26-28). Yet we retain the impression that, though mortality could not be denied, the older world was not one in which Time was so easily triumphant. The king indicates to Bertram that the old Count was not one to alter his principles to suit the times but the embodiment of more enduring values:

                              He did look far
Into the service of the time, and was
Discipled of the bravest. He lasted long,
But on us both did haggish age steal on
And wore us out of act. It much repairs me
To talk of your good father; in his youth
He had the wit which I can well observe
To-day in our young lords; but they may jest
Till their own scorn return to them unnoted
Ere they can hide their levity in honor.
So like a courtier, contempt nor bitterness
Were in his pride or sharpness. If they were,
His equal had awaked them, and his honor,
Clock to itself, knew the true minute when
Exception bid him speak, and at this time
His tongue obeyed his hand.

(I, ii, 26-41)

That wonderful final image indicates the defining quality of the lost golden age. The Count was like a self-regulating clock in that he responded only to his own interior standards of honour. The king goes on to say that the Count was able to show courtesy to those of humbler birth because of his security in his own honour and worth. Bertram, lacking any such rooted principles will respond with snobbery, and not with courtesy, to Helena.

We are not, of course, to assume that Shakespeare is totally in sympathy with this backward-looking lament, that the king's evaluation of the present decay is totally accurate. The king is a sick man, and his morbid distaste for the present is excessive. He is submitting to the power of death before he needs to do so. The action does indicate that things are pretty far gone at the French court, but the question Shakespeare attends to is the one he confronted all of his creative life—are they gone beyond redemption? In play after play he demonstrates that mere doting on that lost aristocratic world makes men vulnerable to the worst excesses of the new world that was so swiftly replacing it. To stem the tide and find a middle way before all is lost Shakespeare chooses Helena, who is not a born aristocrat, but who is, like so many other redeemers in Shakespeare, noble in spirit.

The new world she has to cope with is characterized most clearly by Lafew:

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

(II, iii, 1-6)

This scientific world resistant to mystery helps to make men vulnerable to time. If the world is a mechanism in which everything can be explained, the way is open for opportunists who understand the mechanism to work their way to the top. Such men act in feverish haste because the time at their disposal is limited. As Lafew asserts, this is a world of “Uncertain life and sure death” (II, iii, 23). And yet Lafew is, in fact, celebrating the miraculous recovery of the king by Helena's agency—an event which, in his view, makes scientific, mechanistic philosophies bankrupt. The king had had so little faith that he had not wanted to submit to the medicine, even though Lafew had claimed that it would bring King Pepin and Charlemain back from the dead—reminding us, perhaps, of the times when the raising of Lazarus was possible. The king asserted that nothing could “ransom nature / From her inaidable estate” (II, i, 118-119). Helena's cure is miraculous not merely because of the efficacy of her father's skill, not because it cures an illness, but because it recovers in the king a youthful vigour. In this reversal of time it seems, for a while, as if the irrevocable process of aging can be conquered.

Helena's revival of the king is an example of how faith (faith in her father's skill) can triumph. Her medicine is effective because she enlists God in her cause as the king's other doctors had not done:

Inspired merit so by breath is barred.
It is not so with Him that all things knows
As ’tis with us that square our guess by shows;
But most it is presumption in us, when
The help of heaven we count the act of men.

(II, i, 148-152)

The cure very specifically defeats time—it is accomplished in one day. But more than that, of course, Helena stakes her life on the cure. She asserts her faith by her disdain for death. In wrestling with Time's agent, Death, to release the king from its grasp, she willingly submits herself to its power. Like all of Shakespeare's heroines she asserts, in her aim to win Bertram, the transcendent power of love in her determination to hazard all for it: “If I break time or flinch in property / Of what I spoke, unpitied let me die” (II, i, 187-188). A world hag-ridden by time can be saved by enduring values of faith, hope, love, and the offer of self-sacrifice. We can see here a recovery on an archetypal level of the redemption of an aging Adam by a Christ-like willingness to sacrifice.

It is not the purpose of the play, however, to suggest that society can be saved by reviving old men, refurbishing those besmeared by sluttish Time. However firmly the old in this play may seem to have a grip on enduring values, they falter towards the end. True, their faltering is in the direction of compassion and forgiveness. When they decide to pull Bertram's chestnuts from the fire by marrying him off to Lafew's daughter, we are aware, as they are not, that he is not worthy of such an easy reprieve. Their decision is dotage not wisdom. The king is dangerously unstable, crotchety, all-forgiving, irascible, indulgent by turns. Society needs renewal not merely by miraculous reversals of time but by the infusion of new blood. It is necessary that those captivated by the temporal values of a fashion-conscious world be reclaimed or redeemed. Bertram's ill-angel, Parolles, is fired out, but the process of saving Bertram himself is not easy, and Shakespeare allows it considerable space.

It has often been noted that the career of Bertram bears some relation to the figure of an older morality drama, the prodigal son blundering into error by rejecting a complex of traditional values embodied in the elders of his society. Bertram is a figure who dashes here, there, and everywhere. The patience required in the extended series of inquiries to riddle out the truth about the rings is like that required in breaking a high-strung horse. The king makes a number of comments on how easily startled and frightened he is. Bertram spends most of the play darting away, rearing up against the idea of Helena as a mate, running abroad after glory and a mistress. There are moments, indeed, when he, too, seems to have reversed time by stumbling into Shakespeare's drama out of Peter Shaffer's play, Equus. To bring this runaway to a halt is no easy feat. Critics complain about the shallow, ill-defined quality of Bertram. It is that shallowness which is his defining quality. He is poorly developed; there is little stuff to him, for he is one of those young Renaissance bucks who pursue superficiality, mere fashion. One can often measure a man's solidity by the way he is capable of standing against the tide of time. Bertram simply bobs along like a cork with the tide. His snobbery leads him to sacrifice Helena, for he believes she would soil his reputation, and yet he persists in valuing Parolles, whose acquaintance brings him only dishonour, long after everyone else has seen through him.

Parolles figures as the polar opposite of the kind of courage embodied in the old Count Rousillon whom the king quotes:

          ‘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.’

(I, ii, 58-63)

The Count did not wish to live on into a world in which Parolles could offer Bertram advice on how to win friends and influence people:

Use a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords, you have restrained yourself within the list of too cold an adieu. Be more expressive to them; for they wear themselves in the cap of the time; there do muster true gate, eat, speak, and move under the influence of the most received star; and though the devil lead the measure, such are to be followed.

(II, i, 50-56)

All of Parolles' advice indicates that you have to be wide awake to keep up with the mad scramble of changing fashions, you have to know how to hit the market at the right time.

The play is full of vignettes of what happens when mere fashion reigns triumphant. The aging clown, Lavatch, is convinced that he has found a phrase, “O Lord Sir,” which will serve every occasion, freeing him from having to accommodate himself to, or even pay attention to, the different situations he finds himself in. He tries it out on the Countess in Act II, Scene ii, but finds that it will not endure all inquiries. She wears out the usefulness of the phrase causing Lavatch to admit, “I see things may serve long, but not serve ever” (II, ii, 53). In commenting on the frivolity of the exchange, the Countess uses a metaphor that could be applied to the various ways in which the characters in the play are married to time: “I play the noble housewife with the time, / To entertain it so merrily with a fool” (II, ii, 54-55).

Time can be a nagging shrew. But one need not simply be a victim of time; there are different ways of using it. One can use it to develop, to grow into full manhood, or one can refuse to grow up. Bertram's resistance to marriage is unnatural. Full maturity in Shakespeare involves sharing one's fate with another. Bertram's resistance in this matter is almost as foolish as that of Katharine the shrew. His closest companion, Parolles, has not used time well. When Parolles mocks Lafew for being old, he gets the tart reply, “I must tell thee, sirrah, I write man, to which title age cannot bring thee” (II, ii, 197-198). When Parolles brings Helena news of Bertram's departure, he phrases it most particularly in terms of his world-view:

Madam, my lord will go away tonight;
A very serious business calls on him.
The great prerogative and rite of love
Which, as your due, time claims, he does acknowledge;
But puts it off to a compelled restraint;
Whose want, and whose delay, is strewed with sweets,
Which they distil now in the curbed time,
To make the coming hour o'erflow with joy
And pleasure drown the brim

(II, iv, 37-45)

Helena may have won the battle against time in curing the king, but time claims back the prize that she won by that act. Bertram itches to be off to submit to fashion in pursuit of battle glory rather than submit to a more enduring relationship figured in love. He is thus little better than Parolles, who seeks to escape the enduring value of honour.

Like Falstaff, Parolles has no concept of eternal values. He pursues short-term gains. His proposal to recover the drum is rooted not in the real world but in the illusory world of play acting. He will be happy enough to gain glory even though it only last a week. The First Lord says, “Certain it is that he will steal himself into a man's favor, and for a week escape a great deal of discoveries; but when you find him out, you have him ever after” (III, vi, 81-85). It will cost him two or three hours' sleep in a field and a few convincing wounds, which by Parolles' business calculations is a reasonable investment of time. This precise calculation of time is important, for it is utterly opposed to the older concept of honour, which a man held not for passing advantage but for an eternal assertion of the worth of his name. Maintaining the honour of a family name is valuable exactly because it is a statement of defiance against time, because no matter how time wears out individual men, honour passes from generation to generation. But Parolles' view is different. Lafew says, “the soul of the man is his clothes” (II, v, 42-43)—all exterior and no essence. Besides being a particularly vivid image of the decay of values, Parolles has an even more important function. He helps us to see that those who surround and torment him are not as noble as they pretend. He may be a slanderer and an inventive liar, but some of the mud that he throws in his blindfolded state sticks. Shakespeare structures this action very carefully by making Bertram the first object of Parolles' attack.

Parolles' protestations that he tried to save the virtuous Diana are certainly lies, but he does see very accurately into Bertram's lascivious nature. Bertram is nettled by the accurate description of him as an irresponsible wastrel. After he has hit this mark, we are liable to suspect that Parolles' comments on Captain Dumain and his brother may not be simple invention. The essence of his criticism is that they are opportunists, liars, frauds. Behind their noble exteriors, they are captives of the tyrant appetite. We may take this seriously or not, but we must remember two things. These are the young noblemen that the king and Lafew lamented were mere shadows of their parents. And the behaviour of the courtiers when Helena made her choice of husband indicated that Bertram was not alone in the shallowness of his values. Certainly they are able to see through Parolles as Bertram could not, but the delight they take in setting up the exposure of the coward has a kind of adolescent nastiness about it that is far from the courtesy of true aristocrats, who would hardly demean themselves by indicating irritation at such scurrilous detraction. So Parolles is merely the most visible evidence of a general decay. And he does, of course, win a measure of forgiveness by being true to his own existential values. He is willing to live in a dungeon, in the stocks, anywhere, so he may live. He will suffer no deep scars of humiliation:

                              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.

(IV, iii, 307-311)

Here he speaks the true voice of the new age in which a man carries none of the excess baggage of idealism and traditional values. Life is a day to day affair in which the tyrant, Time, makes everything but mere survival irrelevant. Shakespeare does not submit to such a view, but by allowing Parolles, like Pistol before him, to declare his philosophy unashamedly, he acknowledges that such a strategy of life is becoming increasingly widespread. The fact that it is Lafew who intends to help him is significant. To Parolles he says, “though you are a fool and knave, you shall eat” (V, ii, 51). He intends, perhaps, to undertake his reform, but his capacity to forgive is a touch of the older, true, aristocratic courtesy.

The basest view of the relations between men and women is voiced by Parolles early in the play when he debates the subject of virginity with Helena. That Helena is willing to match wits with Parolles disturbs all those critics who adopt Shakespeare's heroines as their daughters and wish to bring them up amid the proprieties of a nice, middle-class home. The scene surely is meant to signal to us resilient and urbane qualities in the girl that will be amply demonstrated by her later actions. The nub of the argument is a juxtaposition of two attitudes to time. There is, after all, a great deal of poetry in this period which offers advice to young virgins on how to make much of time and how coy mistresses are to be winkled out of their infuriating shyness. The argument always has to do with a view of life as a process of wearing out. You can defeat time only by accommodating yourself to the fact that it will triumph eventually. Women are like baked goods which soon go stale, or like fashionable garments soon out of style. Because flesh ages, its appeal is merely transient. Wisely used, it can keep the world well supplied with virgins for which there is always a plentiful demand:

Keep it not; you cannot choose but lose by't. Out with't! within ten years it will make itself ten, which is a goodly increase, and the principal itself not much the worse.

(I, i, 141-144)

There are no absolute values. In this world-view, everything—love, honour, loyalty, faith—is a commodity. “’Tis a commodity will lose the gloss with lying: the longer kept, the less worth. Off with't while ’tis vendible; answer the time of request” (I, i, 148-50). This is how the world cuts itself off from transcendent values. Man has only a limited time to enjoy the fruits of this world because his enjoyment comes through appetite, through the senses, and the senses decay or wear out, so he has even less time than he thinks he has. So a woman has no time for nice considerations; she must jump into the market and sell herself right away. Parolles puts his point of view plainly enough towards the end of the scene: “When thou hast leisure, say thy prayers; when thou hast none, remember thy friends” (I, i, 205-206).

Though Helena does not share Parolles' view that prayers are useful only to fill an idle hour, she does not intend to rely simply on prayers, as she points out immediately:

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.

(I, i, 208-211)

Helena is an active agent, she will not be worn out by time. She aspires to one above her and yet uses the example of nature as her warrant. Critics have often found her too active in her own cause. Alarmed by what they seem to regard as a ‘pushy’ woman, they forget that that is a quality which defines so many of Shakespeare's heroines. Somebody has to push things in the right direction.

But we must not forget the crucial irony at the end of the play that relates back to this conversation with Parolles. Bertram, having refused to consummate his marriage, makes the loss of her virginity and a subsequent pregnancy a condition of his submission to the marriage he denies. Here we are in an upside down world—the woman who has chastely preserved her virginity for her husband cannot get rid of it. She did not offer it on the open market as Parolles counselled, but she cannot even make a lawful investment of it. Bertram, though married, is still free to range the market for maidenheads. The bed-trick that Helena plays on Bertram is appropriate payment for the unnaturalness of his behaviour. What he takes to be the sweets of an illicit union is lawful after all. Even as he supposed himself to be spreading his seed casually, in line with his submission to the urgency of the time, he was sealing himself into an eternal bargain—not a soldier's indulgence, but a husband's duty. That all this is validated with rings that are heirlooms passed down from one generation to another underlines the fact that Bertram, whether he knew it or not, was entering an enduring relation sealed by tradition and ending his submission to a life of ephemeral fashion.

When Bertram undertakes the assault of Diana, their debate echoes that earlier one between Helena and Parolles. Again we are focussed on that question of honour as it relates to time. Much of the behaviour involved in the courtly love code has to do with posing, a narcissistic self-regard, a pretence of eternal commitment to love as a way of gaining temporal advantage. Bertram, a married man, swears eternal faith in his adulterous designs, but Diana knows that he aims at only one night's pleasure. She asks for a marriage vow before God, the action of giving oneself ‘as long as ye both shall live,’ a bond which Shakespeare always asserts in face of the opportunism inherent in the courtly love code. Bertram's response is little better than the urgency of a little boy who wants to get to the bathroom: “Stand no more off, / But give thyself unto my sick desires” (IV, ii, 34-35). When asked for his ring as surety he offers to lend it, which indicates something less than long-term commitment. She can borrow his ring if he can borrow her body. Diana points out that she cannot lend since yielding up chastity is a permanent rather than temporary matter. Her chastity has to do with the honour of her family name, it is a jewel bequeathed down from many ancestors and so transcends time. Thus, Bertram is forced to yield up the ring which will ensnare him.

The definitive revelation of Bertram hag-ridden by time as he bustles in this busy world comes in the following scene:

I have tonight dispatched sixteen businesses, a month's length apiece. By an abstract of success: I have congied with the duke, done my adieu with his nearest, buried a wife, mourned for her, writ to my lady mother I am returning, entertained my convoy, and between these main parcels of dispatch effected many nicer needs. The last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet.

(IV, iii, 80-86)

The eternal oaths sworn to Diana are reduced to this. She is a parcel, one item he has crossed off his checklist of business pending. The courtly lover commits himself to nothing beyond the satisfaction of his own body, trampling on the values of chastity, trust, honour, love, marriage. Shakespeare places this desecration of all values immediately before Parolles' breaking of trust with his friends. Bertram's outrage at this betrayal is, therefore, an example of the pot calling the kettle black.

At the beginning of this play, young love, as so often in comedy, was dammed up by Bertram's hasty departure. It has to find some subterranean passage, when Helena in the bed-trick pursues her deed of darkness, so that society, bound in submission to time and decay, can emerge into full daylight. In almost all the plays Shakespeare wrote in which women have to work hard to ensure that love finds a way, he gives them an important ally—the wisdom of nature. And this is a different interpretation of the effect of time. The enduring values are rooted in nature, which transcends the temporary aberrations of individual mortals. If we work in harness with what is natural, as Helena does in pursuing the sanctity of the marriage bond, then time becomes our ally, ensuring that by the process of maturing, things will turn out well. To make her point, Helena uses an image that underlines the inevitable cycle of nature:

                              the time will bring on summer
When briars shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us.
All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown.
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.

(IV, iv, 31-36)

However, the difficulty Helena has in catching up with the French court almost brings us to believe that Helena will be defeated by a mere accident of time as, say, Romeo and Juliet were. Time, it seems, will heal all in the wrong way. The marriage arrangement that is fadged up with Lafew's daughter at the end to save Bertram is deliberately disturbing. The older aristocratic figures seem not to have learned from the sacrifice Helena has made. They revert to type and intend to seal up the usual alliance of noble households. Everyone is willing to forget and forgive Bertram's misdeeds. His sins were “done, i' th' blade of youth” (V, iii, 6). “The time is fair again” (V, iii, 36). The king is eager to make the most of time:

                              All is whole;
Not one word more of the consuméd time.
Let's take the instant by the forward top;
For we are old, and on our quick'st decrees
Th' inaudible and noiseless foot of time
Steals ere we can effect them.

(V, iii, 37-42)

The attitude of not crying over spilt milk is a generous one, perhaps, but the haste is rather unseemly. Yet it is ultimately time itself that accomplishes Helena's purposes. It is their haste to bury the past that reveals the flaw in the design. Lafew asks for a favour to give his daughter, and Bertram yields up the ring that will unravel all his dark dealings in the past. By the time Helena arrives, Bertram's shame is public. But the miracle that Helena achieved in saving the king's life did not ensure a recovered state. The king may be vigourous, but he is prone to error still. He forgives Bertram; then he arrests him; he is sympathetic to Diana, and then he arrests her; he forgets Helena, and then he remembers her. He is a creature of caprice. Helena must effect another miracle. She must come back from the dead to claim her own, her blood must revive this decaying stock. She can do so because she is an amalgam of both the old and the new. She combines her father's almost magical skill and his sense of faith and sacrifice with a pragmatic ability to get what she wants.

In Shakespeare's comedies, the women, who usually have a much clearer perception than men of what is healthy and what is required to refertilize a sterile society, often have to go to extraordinary lengths to get what they want. The more devious are the means they have to use, the sicker is the society that they are trying to circumvent. Viola and Rosalynde have to go in disguise and take to the road to get what they want. But they do not have to get involved in bed-tricks as Isabella and Helena do. But then Illyria and the Forest of Arden are not as corrupt or decayed as Vienna or the French court. Horses for courses. And Helena is not simply a reincarnation of her father with his miraculous skills.

That world is gone. She wants marriage with someone who is above her social station. So that we may have no inclination to accuse her of social-climbing, she is endowed with near miraculous powers and with extraordinary tenacity. Her faith that Bertram, a decayed stem of a noble family, is not beyond redemption is admirable. But noble self-sacrifice, going on pilgrimages or down into death, would avail nothing. She has to bustle in the world. Is she then no better then the other young people in the play? Is she not merely an opportunist, no freer of the temporal, materialist philosophy than they? She is contrasted point by point with the others of her generation. She does not start off in all directions at once as Bertram does, she is not a prey to fashions. She pursues her goal undeviatingly and will never accept surface for essence. We can accept her opportunism because she is the only character in the play who exerts any energy to stop a bad situation from getting worse. At the end of the play we do not have the old world of the king's youth, of Count Rousillon and Gerard de Narbon recovered. But we do not have the shallow world of the feckless young courtiers or the ignoble Parolles triumphant. We have a new world achieved by a pragmatic determination to salvage some of the older values that men had once so easily taken for granted. The lengths to which Helena has to go to achieve a via media indicate that the world can not be set to rights by waving a magic wand. Indeed, if it could then when Helena cured the king, Bertram would have perceived her virtue, and the play could have ended right there. It does not help to say that Shakespeare found himself stuck with an awkward source story. He was no great respecter of his sources and altered them freely. What is, perhaps, significant is that at this point in his career he chose source stories, out of which he fashioned Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well, that involve bed tricks. He did not have to choose those stories at all. He chose them, I suspect, precisely because he is at this point exploring how difficult it is for virtue to triumph in face of corrupt and decaying worlds. There is no twin brother who will show up at the appropriate moment to resolve all difficulties. Bertram, like Angelo and Isabella, is an inflexible figure who is changed not so much by persuasion but by being outflanked. The dark secret that he has buried is brought out publicly to shame him. Like Angelo, he has to recognize the tawdriness of his shameful attempts to deceive. Like Angelo, he tries to lie, bully, and brazen his way out of the situation to the very last minute. It takes considerable time and maneuvering for Helena to triumph, and when she disappears into the darkness, society almost manages to forget her. Quite clearly, all of these strategies are deliberate on Shakespeare's part, and they are designed to indicate how perilously close this world comes to a failure to achieve renewal. It is finally Helena's faith in marriage that provides stability in a shifting world of impermanent values and that allows her to triumph over “Time's winged chariot hurrying near.”


Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Form, Vol. II. New Haven, 1955.

Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. New York, 1968.

Panofsky, Studies in Iconology. New York, 1962.

Christopher Roark (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8013

SOURCE: “Lavatch and Service in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 241-58.

[In the following essay, Roark asserts that Lavatch is an indicator of the failure of All's Well That Ends Well, noting that “[t]he fool fails to serve in the same way the play fails to serve.”]

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be consider'd. That's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.

(Hamlet III.ii.38-45)1

Of Shakespeare's wise fools, Lavatch in All's Well that Ends Well has been the most expendable in performance, and the most superfluous to critics. Tyrone Guthrie's 1953 production of All's Well at Stratford, Ontario, eliminated Lavatch's role.2 Robert H. Goldsmith remarks, “he is unlike Shakespeare's other fools in that his role bears no significant relationship to the meaning of All's Well. He is in no way a measure of the play's meaning, as Touchstone, Feste, and Lear's fool are for their plays.”3 Hamlet's advice to the players tells us that fools like Lavatch are mere comic relief, provoking laughter which distracts the audience's attention from the play's necessary questions.

However, Jay Halio writes, “The clown's speeches pose some interesting problems of interpretation which scholarship has left almost entirely ignored; until they are worked out it seems wise to reserve comment on the true function of this character.”4 G. K. Hunter observes that “the action of the play is seldom allowed to make simple unimpeded effects, but is complicated throughout by a commentary, implicit as well as explicit, of which the principal agent is the clown.” He notes that “we approach Helena's request to the Countess that she may pursue Bertram by way of Lavatch's request that he may marry Isbel.” Later, the fool speaks of his growing distaste for Isbel at the same time the Countess reads Bertram's letter of rejection for Helena. The fool points to “the distinction between physical nurture and moral discipline so important to the play,” as when Lavatch describes himself as “highly fed and lowly taught.” Hunter wisely remarks in a footnote that “it is dangerous to assume that Shakespeare's clowning is making only obvious points.”5

I submit that Lavatch's part, especially when it appears to be most superfluous, can add a crucial dimension to our understanding of All's Well that Ends Well, and is useful for focusing the critical debate about the play's unsatisfying resolution and other problems. Lavatch's fooling with the Countess about an answer that “serves all,” a scene that occurs during the King's healing, has been particularly singled out as obscure. It has been called “silly stuff” by John Dover Wilson, “almost pointless” by Glynne Wickham, and omitted in modern productions directed by Henson, Benthall, Guthrie, and Willman.6 Yet in this scene I believe Shakespeare is doing something odd to startle us into paying close attention. The fool goes through an elaborate buildup (twenty-eight lines) to an answer that will serve all men and fit all questions, though this only leads to a disappointing answer—nothing more than an exclamatory remark, “O Lord, Sir!” (II.ii.40). The long prologue and the answer are ridiculous, seem to serve no one, and appear to do nothing more than mock the play's occasional affected courtly talk. It also seems to confirm that Lavatch's part is tenuous.

But, if we begin to consider the scene within the larger dramatic context, it is at this crucial moment that the King's miraculous cure takes place, an answer that does serve all in the sense of serving the entire kingdom. When the King appears in the following scene, after some elaborate introductory remarks by Lafew and Parolles about Helena's miracle cure, it is a moment of festive celebration. Like the ending of many comedies, something heavenly or magical, beyond human comprehension, has restored things to their proper place, after earthly reason has failed.7 The folktale origins of the play's story have been noted by W. W. Lawrence, with Helena as a virgin whose magical powers show “a heavenly effect in an earthly actor” (II.iii.24).8 Following closely Lavatch's mock invocation to heaven, “O Lord, sir!” as the answer that serves all things, we have Helena's answer that also invokes providence, now to cure the King and thus serving all men. We expect her actions to lead to a happy marriage, the usual comic conclusion.

But like Lavatch's answer, Helena's cure does not really serve all men, especially Bertram. Her remedy for the King is with the help of heaven, but the cure for her love sickness is in stark contrast to the healing because it lies within her own designs:

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 ourselve are dull.


Helena's thoughts are like the bastard Edmund's attitude in King Lear.9 After Gloucester has attributed the kingdom's problems to heaven, Edmund also comments on false beliefs in providential control and such explanations for human behavior: “This is an excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeits of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion” (I.ii.121-25). Though it is an unflattering comparison, and though Helena does ally herself with heaven to cure the King, both she and Edmund forego dependence on providence and excel at the same kind of instrumental reasoning, employing various deceptions to rise in society. Both know providence cannot be depended upon and that “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.” Whether it is for Bertram's own good or not, the ease with which Helena manipulates him to achieve her end is troubling, especially later in the play with the bed trick.10 In spite of her professed admiration for Bertram, Helena's plot with the rings is based on an acute understanding of his weaknesses, on her knowledge that Bertram cannot control his lust, which she uses against him. I suggest that her manipulative reasoning, especially as it permits her to move up in society, was troubling for Shakespeare. In none of his other comedies do we find a marriage that attempts to cross such wide social boundaries, and those characters who dream of such things, such as Malvolio, are rudely put in their place. In the great tragedies to come, the skill with which Iago, Edmund, and Lady Macbeth are able to exploit the other characters' weaknesses helps to set the tragic wheels in motion. These characters also aspire to a higher social rank.11

Helena's manipulation of Bertram (even if it is out of love) so that he will recognize her new status (as the King and Countess do) is a basic problem in All's Well that Ends Well that reminds us more of Shakespeare's tragedies than his comedies. However, Shakespeare was aware of this problem and indicates this to us through the fool's discussion with the Countess during the King's healing. At the same moment that Helena is at the height of her heavenly powers, inherited from her father, the fool is also put to the “height” of his “breeding” (II.ii.2), invoking providence, “O Lord, sir!” as the answer that serves all. Helena, following the comic form, has also called upon providence to heal the King so that society can be reconstituted and her marriage follow. But like the fool, and as the action of the play bears out, Helena (and Shakespeare) discover that comic solutions, as Lavatch remarks, “may serve long, but not serve ever” (II.ii.55). The fool's “O Lord, sir!” is a glance at a comic solution by Shakespeare that parodies Helena's solution, points out its limits, and takes place at the same moment she is invoking her solution. The providential solution perhaps serves well for the pastoral (“Tib's rush for Tom's forefinger”) and holiday references (“Shrove Tuesday, a morris for May day”) that the fool invokes, but then fails to serve when the Countess reminds Lavatch that he is a fool, not a courtier, and that his low station makes him subject to whipping. In an odd way, the fool's difficulty is Helena's: invoking heaven, a comic solution, fails to treat the problem of his low station, and similarly Helena's heavenly healing of the King, also a comic solution, is unable to change her station in Bertram's eyes and lead to marriage.12

Like these two scenes, the characters in All's Well that Ends Well again and again offer answers that only partially, temporarily, or simply cannot serve the problems they encounter. In Lavatch's “silly stuff” we find a clue to a dominant characteristic of the play: time and again Shakespeare gives us elaborate buildups that often try our patience but lead only to answers that do not serve the problem at hand. Shakespeare takes every opportunity to reiterate this pattern, pointing toward the final episodes, especially Parolles's exposure (his answers only serve to damn him during the elaborate inquisition) and the play's exasperating final scene, where Bertram's “answers” (or rather lies) continually fail, and Helena's plan to reveal the truth seems to bring as many problems as solutions.

In the opening scenes, the characters also dwell on problems that seem unsolvable: first the King's incurable fistula; then the defense of virginity, discussed by Bertram and Helena; and later the service of “our young Lords,” which the King holds to be inadequate. In all three cases, the answer is in a dead or lost past: Gerard de Narbon could cure the King, remaining a virgin was “formerly better,” and the King finds the dead Count Rossillion's service superior to the young lords. With the exception of Helena's cure, often when characters do offer solutions, their answers are contradictory. When the Countess, to assuage Helena's sorrow, calls herself Helena's mother, Helena can only see herself as Bertram's sister, contradicting her wishes for married love (I.iii.158-63); or later in the scene when Helena desires to “Wish chastely and love dearly, that your Dian / Was both herself and love,” we again have an answer to her problematic love for Bertram that is contradictory. Lavatch's elaborate answer to Helena's inquiry about the Countess's health, expressing that she is both well and not well, underscores this tendency (II.iv.1-13). His answer simply doesn't serve, and it prepares us for the same mutually exclusive answers that Parolles and Diana give in the play's last scene. Parolles's drum is another example: his elaborate complaints trap him with a problem he cannot solve. This is particularly highlighted when the Lords spy on the parasitical soldier ticking off five answers to his dilemma, all of which the Dumains observe are inadequate (IV.i.46-61).

An earlier example of this dominant pattern is Bertram's response to the marriage. Again, the play presents a curiously prolonged, and seemingly unneeded, buildup to the “answer,” Helena's choice of Bertram (II.iii.63-101). Yet thinking that Helena's solution will not serve, but rather corrupt his bloodline forever (II.iii.115-16), he responds to her choice by going to war and serving the Duke of Florence, an answer which serves himself but not the King, his mother, or Helena. For Bertram's difficulties, Shakespeare again offers an instructive parallel with the fool that focuses a necessary question of the play. When we are introduced to Lavatch, Shakespeare presents us with Bertram's problem in reverse. No one is forcing the fool to marry and corrupt his bloodline; rather, the fool petitions the Countess to allow him to marry so that he can “have issue o' my body; for they say barnes are blessings” (I.iii.24-25). The fool is knowingly driven on by the flesh to marry so he may “repent”; Bertram is also driven by the flesh to repent, though unknowingly. The Countess contends that Lavatch should be married before he is wicked, which again recalls Bertram, who is unfaithful after he is married. Lavatch's final reason for marrying strikes us as an absurd answer, and an example of perverted service:

Clown: I am out o'friends, madam; and hope to have friends for my wife's sake.
Countess: Such friends are thine enemies, knave.
Clown: Y'are shallow, madam, in great friends; 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 drudge. He that comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood; he that cherishes my flesh and blood loves my flesh and blood; he that loves my flesh and blood is my friend. Ergo, he that kisses my wife is my friend.


The fool tells us that a man who cuckolds him does him service by cherishing what he cherishes. Even here, the fool's twisted logic relates to Bertram: cuckoldry is not just a problem with an unfaithful wife, but also a problem of awareness: that is, a cuckold is someone whose wife has sex with a man without the husband's awareness, which is what Bertram does when he has intercourse with Helena in Italy. In essence, Bertram cuckolds himself, and if we follow the fool's “logic,” in doing so he becomes his own best friend. Yet our usual logic tells us that the man who cuckolds another's wife is the husband's worst enemy. Shakespeare is careful to emphasize at the opening of the last scene that in losing Helena, along with his seeming ill behavior toward Diana which is revealed moments later, Bertram “Did to his Majesty, his mother, and his lady / Offense of mighty note; but to himself / The greatest wrong of all” (V.iii.13-15). The irony of this, as we sense with the fool's twisted logic, is that Bertram has been at once his own worst enemy and his own best friend, both without his awareness. Lavatch's fooling exposes an uncomfortable contradiction about Bertram, emphasizing that the Count's worst desires, by Helena's trick, do him service, just as the fool's worst embarrassment, cuckoldry, by a trick with logic, does Lavatch service.

Excessive lust, cuckoldry, and the need for greater social status (for whatever reason), are all potentially tragic problems that are linked to service in All's Well. Lavatch's remarks show that service in the play is somehow perverted, especially as that service is related to marriage. In the festive comedies, Shakespeare controls problems with lust or status by relegating them to minor characters, such as Touchstone or Malvolio. But in All's Well these are Helena's and Bertram's difficulties. Our sense of disjunction about the play is summed up by the fool's banter about cuckoldry: we see a tragic problem solved by a trick with logic in a comic or humorous context, after an elaborate buildup, but it is not an answer that we feel satisfied with: it provokes more questions, as most “answers” in the play do, and calls attention to its own inadequacy.

It is with the peculiar behavior of the fool that Shakespeare underscores these difficulties and guides critical assessment of the play. The Countess's response that Lavatch will “ever be a foul-mouth'd and calumnious knave” (I.iii.56) uncomfortably echoes how easy it is to relegate him to a role of mere bawdy mockery or simple parody, as the other characters do. Unlike Touchstone and Feste, whose intelligence is recognized by both Rosalind and Viola respectively, Lavatch's relevance is unnoticed, except for Lafew's brief recognition of his shrewdness (IV.v.63). When Lavatch responds to the Countess's accusation by saying “A prophet I, madam, and I speak the truth the next way” (I.iii.58), he seems to know that his remarks, especially when the fool mentions a man at a women's command, foreshadow Bertram's problems later. Here Lavatch's part hints at the prophetic qualities of fools that become significant in King Lear.

The remark which continues Lavatch's discourse on cuckoldry is also prophetic, “If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage” (I.iii.50-51). Even the wit and wisdom of a Rosalind or Portia does not serve entirely to unite the divisive forces in Shakespeare's festive comedies; rather, it is the characters' recognition of their wisdom's limits and their ability to understand their own weaknesses, or simply be what they are and trust in providence, that enables difficulties to be overcome. Helena's intelligence, especially when she interrupts her pilgrimage and devises the bedtrick, allows her to escape confronting what she is, a skillful doctor's daughter whose station is abhorrent to the one she loves. But both Parolles and Bertram must be rudely introduced to themselves. The difference between Parolles's contented capitulation, and Bertram's final skepticism about whether or not he has been foolish (“If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I'll love her dearly,” V.iii.313-14) will be discussed later.

Clearly, though, Bertram's inability to recognize his shortcomings is an important problem. At the end of the play, we can still ask, as the Lords ask of Parolles, can Bertram know what he is and be what he is? During the reconciliation he stands isolated from the others, united to society by the same trick that has exposed his foolishness. He has been a man unknowingly “at a woman's command.” Whether or not any harm's been done, as Lavatch also remarks (I.iii.91), is a troubling question which will be explored properly in the tragedies that follow, where Shakespeare is able to confront questions of self-awareness, sexuality, and human folly that he can only suggest here with Lavatch and others. In any case, with All's Well that Ends Well, it is a lack of self-awareness that serves Bertram, and also the play's plot and purpose of reconciliation, just as the soldiers who capture Parolles know how they are to serve that plot though ignorant of what they say to each other: “Not to know what we speak to one another, so we seem to know, is to know straight our purpose” (IV.i.17-19).

Another indication that All's Well that Ends Well is an interesting midwife between the festive comedies and the birth of Shakespeare's later tragedies is the fact that virginity, rather than something inviolately preserved until the play's end as in the festive comedies, becomes a means to trap Bertram. Providential aid does not serve to unite the protagonists in marriage, and likewise virginity and virtue in a woman no longer serve to attract a husband. It is because women are no longer virgins in the plays that Shakespeare must confront problems with procreation, heredity, and incest that figure so largely in the tragedies. Just as the comic form no longer serves the questions about self-awareness and service that Shakespeare is now asking, so virginity is “a commodity will lose the gloss with lying; the longer kept, the less worth” (I.i.154-55). Yet where Parolles only sees “rational increase” coming from the loss of virginity, the fool knows better; “The danger is in standing to't; that's the loss of men, though it be the getting of children” (III.i.41-42). Lavatch's previous desire to get married is gone after visiting court; perhaps like Bertram, he begins to sense the problems with procreation and marriage. Isbel and a family, like the play's comic solutions, no longer serve, giving way to lust: “I have no mind to Isbel since I was at court. Our old ling and our Isbels o' th' country are nothing like your old ling and your Isbels o'th'court. The brains of my cupid's knock'd out, and I begin to love, as an old man loves money, with no stomach” (III.ii.12-16). The clown recites this as the Countess reads Bertram's letter announcing his intention never to bed Helena and to roam the world. Lavatch's remarks parody Bertram's inability to recognize any domestic values and remind us that the spoils of war for him include the lusty pursuit of women.

Bertram's letter closes with an ironic twist; he signs off with “My duty to you,” though his behavior is in violation of his proper duty to his mother's wishes. The problem at the heart of All's Well is that Bertram cannot recognize that his duty or service is only to himself, nor can he recognize the true service of others. Shakespeare carefully illustrates the contradiction between Helena's constant offers of humble service to Bertram (II.iii.103; II.iv.47, 51, 54; II.v.55, 73, 75, 87) and Parolles's declaration that Bertram, a count by inheritance, is nothing more than his equal (II.iii.186-93, 243-45, 260-63). In choosing to follow Parolles to war, rather than accept Helena in marriage, Bertram is choosing the answer that literally does not serve. Parolles is mere language and clothes that pervert true service. Lavatch does not only attack Parolles's apparent (except to Bertram) opportunism and pompousness (as Lafew also does), but also his service to the count: “Marry, you are the wiser man; for many a man's tongue shakes out his master's undoing. To say nothing, to do nothing, to know nothing, and to have nothing, is to be a great part of your title, which is within a very little of nothing” (II.iv.23-27). Parolles's banter is a “nothing” that Bertram, his master, follows. His talk both shakes out Bertram's undoing as it goads him to Italy, and then also undoes his master at the play's end, when Parolles's attempt to say nothing conclusively ties Bertram to his seeming crime against Diana (V.iii.257-64). Here, Parolles has been reduced to a fool-like servant who desires to say, do, and know nothing. The fool's remarks about Parolles, like his remarks about Bertram, precisely describe what is to come. They are underscored when Lavatch says to Parolles “much fool may you find in you, even to the world's pleasure and increase of laughter” (II.iv.36-37).

The fool's, the play's, and the critic's search for answers that serve well leads us also to consider Helena's service. Yet even her behavior, though obviously a better choice than Parolles, is hard to swallow because she so thoroughly traps and exposes Bertram. Helena's love does not allow her to remain simply his servant, but rather to have the “best wishes that can be forg'd in … thoughts be servants” to her as she pursues him (I.i.75-76). The service that her calculating thoughts do for Bertram makes us uncomfortable, and even her initial service to the King is tainted; she thinks of helping him only because it may give her an advantage with Bertram (I.iii.229-33). Similarly, Shakespeare is careful to repeat three times that Helena must pay for Diana's services, thus suggesting that no service in the play is without some sort of blatant self-consideration.13

Lavatch proclaims himself “A fool, sir, at a woman's service, and a knave at a man's.” First, for his own lusty sake, he would “cozen the man of his wife and do his service,” and then “give his wife my bauble, sir, to do her service” (IV.v.23, 27-28). All service, the fool tells us, is somehow perverted into self-service. Even the fool's desire to satisfy the cuckolded man's wife results in nothing more than her own self-serving masturbation. Lavatch also suggests the cause of All's Well's corrupt service when he responds to Lafew's admonition that he should continue to serve the devil:

I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always lov'd a great fire, and the master I speak of ever keeps a good fire. But, sure, he is the prince of the world; let his nobility remain in's court. I am for the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be too little for pomp to enter. Some that humble themselves may, but the many will be too chill and tender, and they'll be for the flow'ry way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire.


In contrast to Lavatch's narrow gate suggesting domestic values and service, Bertram remarks to the Countess in his letter as he flees marriage: “If there be breadth enough in the world, I will hold a long distance” (III.ii.23-24). Service in the court world, the fool suggests, is tainted, and often merely self-service.

Parolles is more parasite than braggart soldier, and the play's most obvious example of self-service.14 And yet his response to the exposure of his false service, linked to the fool's remarks here, is one of the strangest moments in the play. Just as Parolles is the play's most blatant example of self-service, so also is he the only character who is forced to acknowledge his limitations, then be truly humbled and so transformed by them. Parolles's search for any answer to serve the enemy elaborately builds towards his invocation “O Lord, sir” (recalling Lavatch) before he is unmasked. Following this, his answer to “live / Safest in shame: Being fool'd by fool'ry thrive!” (IV.iii.340-41), is borne out when he returns after his exposure, now unrecognizable in the rags of a fool, and ready to enter Lavatch's narrow gate for domestic service. When he encounters Lavatch, the fool's earlier observations about him become true, “‘Before a knave th' art a knave’; that's, ‘Before me th' art a knave.’ This had been truth sir” (II.iv.29-31). Parolles, by becoming a fool, has found Lavatch in himself: “Did you find me in yourself, sir? Or were you taught to find me? The search, sir, was profitable; and much fool may you find in you, even to the world's pleasure and the increase of laughter” (II.iv.34-37). Appropriately, Lavatch's last words bequeath Parolles to Lafew, “I do pity his distress in my similes of comfort, and leave him to your lordship” (V.ii.25-26).

Lafew enlists Parolles into service that recalls Lavatch's woodland fellow:

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 and the other brings thee out … though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat.


Like Lavatch, Parolles also serves a devil. Like the fool with the Countess, Parolles has been introduced to his real status; however, when he looks to a “lord” for grace he is saved. Parolles will humble himself and serve Lafew (“I'll make sport with thee”) as Lavatch used to serve his old master (“My lord that's gone made himself much sport out of him”). Both characters forego the wide gate of pomp and reputation and enter into honest domestic service. Instead of interrupting Lafew with worthless courtly verbage, Parolles now humbly begs one single word to identify himself. His answer, “Parolles” (V.ii.40), is of course a fool-like pun, a play on a word that means “words,” and also a contradiction like so many answers in All's Well. But importantly, this is a contradiction that serves: it leads to Parolles's recognition, and his service to Lafew. In an odd way Parolles's former vice of excessive language, exactly that which denoted his perverted service, literally now leads to his honest service, again showing that a character's vices, by a trick with a pun here, aid him, and allow the plot to be worked out. Later, Parolles, like a wise fool, exposes Bertram's folly with Lavatchian contradictory answers and thus does the count service. It is appropriately a humble domestic's service that forces Bertram himself into marriage, a bond that requires humble and honest service to another.

But to assess Parolles's importance, his exposure should be compared with Bertram's, especially as it bears on the play's understanding of service. Unlike Parolles, we do not see Bertram enthusiastically accepting his exposure, and we thus cannot be sure whether he can serve others. Parolles can both know himself and be himself, and in doing so can commit himself to serve others. But for Bertram this is one of the play's most nagging problems, and one that Shakespeare knows he cannot serve well in a comic context.15 Since Bertram qualifies his last remark, (“If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly”), we simply do not know whether he can be himself and know himself, and thus whether he can commit himself to serve Helena and their marriage, or merely fall back on more self-service. Here we are returned to Lavatch's earlier proposition, “If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage” (I.iii.50). Our fear is that Bertram cannot recognize his shortcomings, much less correct them and serve another. Parolles can understand his limitations through a kind of comic self-consciousness; thus for him “there's place and means for everyman alive.”16 For someone to find his place, the play emphasizes, admitting one's limitations is crucial, exactly what Bertram fails to do again and again in the play's last scene, as he continually lies and returns to answers that don't serve. Bertram's one short request for pardon (“Both, both, O, pardon”), as noted, is quickly qualified by the “if” of his last remark.

Bertram's shortcomings, especially his vain lack of self-knowledge, are too much like those found in Shakespearean tragedy to be resolved here by anything more than artificial tricks which do not serve to correct the problem, as Shakespeare evidently knows. By titling the play All's Well that Ends Well he ironically underscores exactly what we do not feel at the play's close, for this title is an answer that does not serve, a proverb pasted over our discomfort as the play's resolution is pasted over Bertram's unconfronted problems.17 Along with Helena's all too calculating entrapment, the play fails to find a satisfying response to Bertram's self-service of his selfish needs. If we accept that Parolles's transformation, and offer of service, is a gesture that counters Bertram's selfishness, then Shakespeare makes this a weak gesture at best.18 Parolles's transformation prefigures those of Kent and Edgar, both fool figures who serve, but his, too late and too little, lacks the powerful tragic context that makes their sacrifices so unforgettable.19 In the same sense, Bertram's vain lack of self-knowledge is an extremely muted version of Lear's slender knowledge of himself, as the comic context of All's Well continually mediates against the development of these tragic issues.

Lavatch himself, compared with Shakespeare's other wise fools, fails to serve. Although he does focus the play's necessary questions, he is more detached than Touchstone, Feste, and Lear's fool, and it takes a more careful search to understand how he highlights the other characters', and the play's, failure to serve. No other characters in the play have any hint of his curious relation to the larger action, and we wonder just how conscious Lavatch himself is of how his parodies or perverse remarks parallel the behavior of others. Touchstone's parody is more direct and obvious than Lavatch's, and unlike Feste and Touchstone, Lavatch is not in the play's final scene, when Parolles appears to take over his role. Again, as Parolles's final behavior reminds us of Kent and Edgar, in an oddly reductionistic way Parolles's fool anticipates Lear; like him, Parolles is also stripped of his position along with his clothes, and so takes on the missing fool's part.20 That part means speaking the “truth,” as Lavatch himself asserts; he foreshadows events and consistently focuses our attention on the play's problems. And yet, if Lavatch does have a fool's traditionally prophetic powers, it seems out of place in the realistic world of All's Well. In addition, with the exception of Lafew, the others cannot pun or play with language like Lavatch; they are little more than straightmen when speaking to the fool, unlike those who banter with Touchstone or Feste. On the whole, the play is barren of engaging battles of wit. The fool fails to serve in the same way the play fails to serve, for the answer that there are no answers that serve, which Lavatch's fooling reveals and the play itself consistently returns to, is not an answer that serves.

Do we then conclude that Shakespeare has failed? In a strict sense, he has with this play. The answer that there is no answer which serves well lies at the heart of our dissatisfaction with All's Well. If Shakespeare is claiming “no adequate answer” to the problems he has raised as the law, in the sense of an enabling poetic, of this play, then he is failing at what he has set out to do as a dramatic poet creating comedy, just as if critics claimed the same “no adequate answer.” To explain the play as an experiment for what will receive proper attention in the forthcoming tragedies, especially King Lear, as I have in part done, is not really to interpret the play, but rather to assuage the failure by pointing to examples or other sets of laws outside of the play itself.21 This is Hunter's strategy when he looks to the romances at the close of his introduction.22 As critics, perhaps we can make the play “explainable,” but strictly speaking the play lacks if it can only be understood by laws outside of itself or by examples from other plays. As a poem which contains the rules of its own interpretation, as Shakespeare's better plays do, All's Well that End's Well fails, and Shakespeare in the process calls attention to that failure, especially with Lavatch.

Given this problem, we must ask why Shakespeare wrote All's Well. On the one hand, with the admission that to say so we are not really interpreting the play, we can say that Shakespeare is experimenting; he purposely tries to resolve what are tragic motifs in a comic context, and so works with the problems that he will render with brilliance in his later tragedies. But it is the way he experiments, I think, that we must also try to understand, specifically his service as an artist as he confronts problems that turn out to be unresolvable in a comic context. Sigurd Burckhardt, in a study of Shakespeare's Prince Hal trilogy, argues that Shakespeare discovers “a lethal mixture of two mutually inconsistent and severally inadequate models of succession.” Burckhardt makes this helpful comment in an effort to understand Shakespeare's solution:

Some three centuries before Niels Bohr, Shakespeare discovered the need of complementarity—i.e., of operating with two mutually inconsistent and severally inadequate models because, and as long as, a single, consistent, and adequate model has not been found. Complementarity differs from and is superior to mixing because it remains aware of its “illegitimacy” and pays the price for choosing one model over the other. It does not pretend to be a solution, hence it does not close the road of discovery but on the contrary compels us to take the risk of following it. Its passionate demand for order forces us to leave the safe prison of a static, once-for-all world picture, to suffer the grief of imperfection and disorder, and the joy of genuine action and creativity. Complementarity, in short, asserts the value of human action in time, which is to say, of history, of drama.23

A compelling way, I think, to reconcile the problems of All's Well with Shakespeare's awareness of those problems is to say that he understood the illegitimacy of what he was doing and also its consequences, that he knew he was paying a price for choosing the comic model over the tragic for the treatment of Bertram's selfishness and lack of self-awareness, or Helena's self-regarding manipulation of the count. Shakespeare is leaving the safe prison of the comic genre and posing problems that, he discovers, he cannot pretend to solve convincingly with comic solutions, especially providential help. But his passionate demand for a humane solution to human difficulties, to problems of self-awareness, uncontrolled lust, lying, one character's questionable manipulation of another, and social status, all problems that block significant relations between people, required him first to try to solve these difficulties in a manner that would not exact the awful human destruction of tragedy. Before he could confront these problems in the most destructive of tragic contexts such as King Lear, Shakespeare, I would like to suggest, had to try to solve them in a benevolent comedy.

Shakespeare, I believe, understands his failure in All's Well, and carefully expresses this to us with Lavatch. He also underscores this failure in the play's final lines. Like Bertram, Helena, “the shadow of a wife,” also begins her final remark with an “if” (V.iii.315). In addition, the King hedges about whether or not the ending is complete, “if this suit be won”: it is exactly the “oneness” of Helena's and Bertram's marriage that troubles us. The King, like Parolles, is transformed to a humble “beggar” as he subtly thanks the audience for their patience, and asks them to put themselves in the actors' shoes, as the actors put themselves in the audience's place, “ours be your patience then, and yours our parts.” While the King may have the audience “express content,” one can't help but feel that the audience, like the King, senses the discontent, and has patiently endured the incomplete working out of the play's problems, and that Shakespeare is apologetically asking them to try to see it from the actor's point of view, whose service will “pay / With strife to please you, day exceeding day.” The beggar-King's suggestion that the players will “pay” the audience uncomfortably echoes the fact that most of the service in the play is paid for rather than unselfishly given. The conclusion, then, is a tacit admission of All's Well's failure to serve the audience.

But service itself is an important idea for the ending of All's Well. Though there is no service that redeems the characters' severe problems or Shakespeare's failure to serve as a comic dramatist, Parolles hints that a character can free himself from false courtly artifice and deceit to serve honestly. But again, this does not tell us if Bertram can know himself and truly serve another or if Helena's manipulative intelligence, and the abuse that such control can lead to, will merely keep him “at a woman's command.” Whether both can gain a comic understanding of their limits, and achieve an honest self-awareness, or whether their behavior will lead to tragic destruction, is an either-or proposition the play leaves us with, a problem of service and a question of complementarity insofar as the comic marriage and unresolved tragic problems clash. Burckhardt also writes:

And the metaphor is one of complementarity, of either-or. It is neither a mixture nor a synthesis, but a metaphor: that strange entity which demands to be analytically dissolved because it means and creatively “made good” because it is. It is pregnant, hence promises birth; but the birth is never certain, while labor and pain are certain. Is even the father certain? Can we be sure of legitimacy? Will the offspring be the child of passion or of duty, of self-assertive lust or submissive routine? There are no guarantees, only the risk and the will—the need—to order.24

It is Bertram's inability to serve, and Helena's questionable methods of service, that lead to the pregnancy, an answer to the play that is literally and dramatically, and thus metaphorically, of questionable legitimacy. It is a clash of elements the play cannot resolve yoked together by pregnancy, by something with the potential to give birth both to good and bad. Shakespeare as dramatist has failed to serve because of this illegitimate answer, but the service itself that the play's creation also represents works metaphorically, a metaphor pregnant with possibilities that will be borne out in his great tragedies. As he wrote All's Well that Ends Well the birth of King Lear was not certain, but the labor and pain toward the highest achievements of drama, the “strife to please you,” would be. The child in Helena now, of whom the father and the legitimacy is uncertain, is the child of both Bertram's lust and Helena's questionable service and duty, but what that child will turn out to be, and how the family and their love grows or is destroyed, is an either-or question the tragedies must answer as Shakespeare moves beyond complementarity to depict the clash of man's inhumanity with his humanity, of his selfish self-service with his service to others. It is a question that Shakespeare will serve with his greatest artistic skill, risking the road of discovery that leads to suffering, grief, and discord (especially as he questions the value of his own role as an artist), but also to the joy of genuine action and creativity.

The metaphor of pregnancy, it seems to me, is how we can understand this problem play: All's Well that Ends Well brings together clashing elements which lead to a product of questionable legitimacy. But the play itself is pregnant with questions which will be creatively made good in the great tragedies that follow, especially King Lear, where the necessary questions of duty and service, of both his characters and of the dramatist Shakespeare, will be presented along with the worst extremes of human destruction and self-service that poetic drama can portray, in a search for the questions and answers that will serve well. If Bertram's unresolved problem is his inability to recognize his limits, know himself, and serve others, and there is no adequate example in the play to counter his self-service (or something to counter Helena's self-regarding manipulation) then we must look ahead to Shakespeare's understanding of his role as an artist and his service to us in the later tragedies, as he leaves the seeming knowledge of comedy, of a static, once-for-all world picture, and submits himself and his characters to the unknown fear of tragedy. Miracles are past, and things unnatural and causeless must now be confronted head on.


  1. All quotations from Shakespeare's plays are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1980).

  2. Oscar James Campbell, ed. The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (New York: Crowell, 1966), p. 17.

  3. Robert H. Goldsmith, Wise Fools in Shakespeare (East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press, 1963), p. 60.

  4. Jay Halio, “All's Well That Ends Well,” SQ 15 (Winter 1964):35.

  5. G. K. Hunter, introduction and notes to The Arden Edition of All's Well That Ends Well (London: Methuen, 1959), pp. xxxiv, xxxv, 47, 50.

  6. J. L. Styan, All's Well that Ends Well: Shakespeare in Performance (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1984), p. 55.

  7. Shakespeare takes pains to show that Helena's healing is an act of heaven. When she first argues with the King her language becomes religiously infused, “So holy writ in babes hath judgement shown / When judges have been babes; great floods have flown” (II.i.138-39). She goes on to speak of “miracles” (141); “Him,” referring to God (149); “the help of heaven” (152); and “of heaven not me make experiment” (154) to the King. All this stands in stark contrast to how she must win Bertram, “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven” (I.ii.215-16).

  8. W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York: Ungar, 1960), pp. 35-63.

  9. W. L. Godshalk writes that “religious references are replaced by the appeal to nature, an appeal frequently made in the play” in Helena's speech at the end of II.i. He continues, “Nature allows man to bridge the gaps made by Fortune; and, like Edmund in King Lear, Helena accepts Nature as her guide.” See All's Well That Ends Well and the Morality Play,” SQ 25 (Winter 1974):64.

  10. David Scott Kastan writes, “In the problem comedies the contrivance is the character's own and is throughout too self-regarding, too unresponsive to the needs of others.” See his fine essay “All's Well that Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” ELH 52 (Fall 1985):579.

  11. Helena's remark cited in note 7 which links her to Edmund can be compared to Viola's “O time, thou must untangle this, not I; it is too hard a knot for me to untie” (II.ii.40-41). Rosalind and Portia do deceive their husbands, not to win a love they already possess, but rather to expose follies which do not mar the close of their comedies. Helena's social position, and her method for advancing, is part of the larger issue of social mobility that needs further treatment in Shakespeare. However, as Lawrence Stone persuasively argues, we can say that the Elizabethans would have been sensitive to the aristocracy's “crisis” regarding social mobility, its “unprecedented” expansion during Shakespeare's age and the conservative backlash that sought to control it. For a thorough study of this problem, see Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).

  12. Kastan's essay cited in note 10 is also concerned with the limits of comic solutions. However, he writes that the problem is “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” (p. 580).

  13. Godshalk notes that “the fact that Helena is conducting a dubiously moral intrigue returns to haunt our excuses” each time Shakespeare reminds us that Helena is paying Diana (p. 65).

  14. Hunter, p. xlvii.

  15. See Phillip Edwards for an intelligent discussion of Bertram's behavior in Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. 113-15. Edwards points out that the count's “execrable” behavior is not a matter for critical debate: “The treatment of Parolles shows us a scoundrel changed by shame into a new recognition and a new way of life. Bertram is not so treated. Helena never saves Bertram. He is unredeemable: Shakespeare could not save him. It is not a matter of failing to write the lines that would have changed the soul of the play: it is a matter of not being able to force one's conscience to alter a character whose alteration would be, simply, incredible.”

  16. Shakespeare's wiser comic characters have an acute sense of their own folly, a comic and unpretentious appraisal of their failings, exactly what Bertram shows no trace of in the last scene especially, but also when the blind-folded Parolles anatomizes the count's bad behavior (IV.iii.216-37). M. C. Bradbrook's analysis, like Edwards's, makes it clear that Shakespeare intends little sympathy for Bertram: “The Elizabethan code of honour supposed a gentleman to be absolutely incapable of a lie. … To give the lie was the deadliest of all insults and could not be wiped out except in blood. … Alone among Shakespeare's heroes Bertram is guilty of the lie” and by such conduct “forfeits his claims to gentility”; see “Virtue and Nobility in All's Well that Ends Well,RES 1.4 (October 1950): 289-301.

  17. Ann Barton makes this insightful comment on the proverbial nature of the play's title: “Like the proverbs continually employed in the perverse and contradictory fashion by the bitter fool Lavatch—traditional bits of lore existing uneasily in a world grown too complex for such simplifications—it serves as a gentle reminder that fairy tales, ultimately, are not true.” See her introduction in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1974), pp. 499-503.

  18. For an alternative view of Parolles's effect on the last scene, see Gerard J. Gross, “The Conclusion to All's Well that Ends Well,SEL 23 (Spring 1983):275-76.

  19. See Jonas A. Barish and Marshall Waingrow, “Service in King Lear,SQ 9 (1958):347-55.

  20. James Calderwood writes that Lear's fool's disappearance “makes foolish sense. When Lear has absorbed the fool's truths and begins to utter them himself, the fool becomes redundant.” See “Creative Uncreation in King Lear,SQ 28 (1986):10.

  21. Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 296-98.

  22. Hunter, p. lv.

  23. Burckhardt, p. 183-84.

  24. Burckhardt, p. 185.

Susan Snyder (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4942

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 66-77.

[In the following essay, Snyder probes the characterization of Helena as a sexually aggressive woman through instances of indirect and suppressed speech in the play.]

I'm going to move into my speculations from two different directions. One point of departure is a set of gaps, disjunctions, and silences in All's Well, places where we lack an expected connection or explanation in the speeches or actions of the main character, Helena. The other is, on the contrary, an unexpected coincidence, a connection between that somewhat mysterious Helena and a character in another play which on the face of it is quite unlike All's Well.

Helena's career strangely mixes aggressive initiative and passivity. She begins All's Well in a state of social and psychological constriction: a physician's orphaned daughter silently in love with a young nobleman who cares nothing for her and is about to leave Roussillon for the court. Helena can only grieve passively. She is interrupted by Parolles, who engages her in a joking conversation, advancing the standard arguments against women retaining their virginity; and by the end of the scene she is suddenly resolved to go to Paris herself and offer a medicine of her father's to cure the desperate illness of the King. The initiative is a success, and brings the reward she dared to stipulate for her service, a choice of husbands from among the King's wards. But the chosen Bertram refuses to play his part in the fairy-tale match; he rejects her in outrage, and after the King terrorizes him into going through with the marriage, runs away with Parolles to the wars in Italy rather than consummate it. Bundled off to Roussillon at his order, Helena there receives by letter his cruel farewell: he will never accept her as his wife until she can get possession of his ancestral ring and conceive a child by him. He means the setting of impossible tasks as a total dismissal: “in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never”’ (3.2.58).1 She recapitulates her initial despair, blames herself for exposing him to danger on the battlefield, and vows to get out of the way so that he can come home. But almost immediately we find her as a pilgrim in Florence, where Bertram is, where she meets Diana, the girl whom he is trying to seduce. Helena again takes forceful control of the action, persuading the Widow to agree to the bed-substitution, instructing Diana, pursuing Bertram back to France, seeking an audience with the King, and manipulating the final revelation-scene to expose Bertram, prove her fulfillment of the impossible tasks, and claim her reluctant husband all over again.

The gaps and disjunctions I want to examine are associated with these shifts between assertion and self-abnegation. One of them occurs in the center of that early, apparently extraneous banter with Parolles about virginity. What moves Helena from hopeless assent to fate to the contrary proclamation that “our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven?” (1.1.212-13). Why should some bawdy conversation with a coarse braggart convert her from despairing withdrawal—“the hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love” (89-90)—to an energetic plan to follow Bertram to Paris and use this suddenly remembered medical remedy to win favor with the King? The answer is probably a complicated one, but we might look particularly at an odd break in the text at the very center of the conversation. Listening to Parolles' exuberant arguments against virginity, Helena has answered first, “I will stand for't a little, though therefore I die a virgin” (131-32); and after some more, “How might one do … to lose it to her own liking?” (147). Parolles argues further:

Off with't while 'tis vendible; answer the time of request … your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French wither'd pears: it looks ill, it eats drily; marry, 'tis a wither'd pear. It was formerly better; marry, yet 'tis a wither'd pear. Will you anything with it?

Helena's response is disjointed, tangential:

Not my virginity yet:(2)
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


And so on through several more lines of epithets for the beloved lady familiar from the love sonnet tradition. Some textual commentators have denied any break here, reading something like “In my virginity, which is far from a withered pear, Bertram will find everything he ever wanted in a mistress.”3 But why should she suddenly reveal her love, kept secret from everybody, to this insensitive blabbermouth? And the epithets of the sonnet-lady tyrannizing over her enslaved lover—captain, enemy, goddess, traitress—are violently at odds with her habitual attitude to Bertram, expressed before and after this speech, which is the self-abasing devotion of one who feels herself inferior. It seems more likely that “there” means the court, where Bertram will find some all-consuming love. But what unenunciated pressure has brought up this powerful new mental vision?

Editors have speculated that the rest of the short line 161 has dropped out here, some reference to the court. Perhaps. The Folio copy for All's Well seems to have been especially messy, and recent textual work has uncovered signs of authorial second thoughts.4 Yet even if we hypothesize a few missing words (Hanmer adds “You're for the court”; Gary Taylor conjectures “yet at the court”), Helena's transition from her maidenly defense against Parolles to imagining love-life at court is still abrupt, and it seems likely that the emotions suppressed here may figure in her larger transition in this scene from quiescent grief to active pursuit.

Textual corruption is not an issue in my second example. At court Helena has a hard time persuading the King, who has lost all hope of being cured. She argues professional skill (her father working through her), and the possibility of a miracle (God working through her). But the King maintains his steady resistance until he asks what she is willing to risk if she fails. He gets a strange reply:

                              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.


As in the Boccaccio story from which Shakespeare drew his plot, she risks death. That is what convinces the King. What he does not respond to, what is not in the source, is the kind of punishment she first feels compelled to propose: versions of public shame for immodesty and sexual boldness. Failure might convict her of professional or religious presumption, but why of being a strumpet? There is something operating here that she leaves unsaid.

In my next example, it is Shakespeare who leaves something unsaid, something very important. We are never told whether Helena deliberately pursues Bertram to Florence in order to fulfill his impossible demands or rather arrives where he is by accident and acts only on fortuitous opportunity. This is a deafening silence, all the more noticeable because the early acts have been so firmly centered in Helena's subjectivity: her soliloquies and her confidings in the sympathetic Countess, her foster-mother, keep us close to her feelings and motives. That centering is reasserted in the latter part of the play, when Helena finds new confidantes in Diana and the Widow. But at the crucial point Shakespeare opens a gap which prevents full understanding.

Helena's soliloquy after she hears of her husband's defection to Italy is all shame and withdrawal:

                              And is it I
That drive thee from the sportive court, where thou
Wast shot at with fair eyes, to be the mark
Of smoky muskets? …
Whoever shoots at him, I set him there;
Whoever charges on his forward breast,
I am the caitiff that do hold him to 't;
And though I kill him not, I am the cause
His death was so effected. …
                              I will be gone …
                    Come night, end day.
For with the dark, poor thief, I'll steal away.


Bertram's own mother and friends have just condemned his conduct, but Helena locates all the guilt in her own action: pursuit of Bertram is equated with theft and murder. The new “action” she proposes is really a form of self-effacement: she will go away not with any particular destination but just to remove herself as an obstacle. Soon afterward we hear that she does have a destination, one that accords with her feelings of guilt:

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.

(3.4. 4-7)

At this point, however, we are not given Helena's direct speech but a letter she has left behind for the Countess; and we are further distanced from her thoughts by the letter's highly wrought sonnet form. As G. K. Hunter remarks, “by its various inversions and alliterations [it] produces an effect more archaic and formal than anything in The Sonnets or the early plays.”5 Purpose is conveyed to us without intimacy, at two removes. And in the next scene there is Helena—in Florence. Saint Jaques, later called Saint Jaques le Grand, is Saint James the Great, and Florence is considerably off the road from Roussillon in southern France to his shrine in northwestern Spain. Is the whole pilgrimage scheme simply a pretense, then, to cover her pursuit of Bertram? It is interesting that later one of the French Lords actually uses that word in describing her action.6 Alas, the apparently pointed term doesn't point clearly in one direction: it could mean “false pretext” all right, but in Shakespeare's English it could equally well mean just “intention,” with no deception implied (OED 3). In the same ambiguous way, while Helena's route to Santiago may raise suspicions in the audience, no one in Florence finds it odd. In fact, there are several pilgrims bound for the same place lodging there. Why this deliberate mystification, and how are we to fill in the gap it creates?

And now for my second point of departure. This mysterious Helena in All's Well is highly unusual among Shakespeare's comic heroines in that she not only loves before she is loved but actively, overtly, chases the man she wants. Even Rosalind and Portia, however spirited and ready to take control, wait to be wooed; in love, theirs are strategies of reception, not initiation. There is really only one other exception, in A Midsummer Night's Dream: a young woman who loves without response, who, after beginning in as passive and despairing a mode as the heroine of All's Well, turns to active pursuit and continues it even when pained and shamed by the rebukes of the man she pursues. And her name of course is Helena. The repetition of name and situation is striking, especially since as far as we know Shakespeare chose the names in both cases. He seems to have invented the Midsummer lovers and their story; and for All's Well, he deliberately rejected the name supplied by his source, Giletta, and substituted that of Helena or Helen.

We can't know what private associations the name Helena had for Shakespeare, if any, but the public one is unavoidable: Helen of Troy, the fought-over woman, the archetypal desired object in his culture's myth of origins. Did this legendary Helen influence Shakespeare's naming? It's not clear in A Midsummer Night's Dream, although the Helena there is of course Greek. In the play's one allusion to the legend, Theseus' scoff at the lover who “sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt” (5.1.11), Shakespeare could well be glancing at Demetrius' earlier rejection of Helena's fairness for the dark complexion of her rival (Hermia, when out of favor, is called an Ethiop and a tawny Tartar). In All's Well it may be significant that, after first introducing his heroine as Helena, Shakespeare settled into a notable preference for the shortened form of her name, the form he always used for the archetypal queen.7 But the play provides direct evidence for associating the two:

Steward: May it please you, madam, that he bid Helen come to you; of her I am to speak.
Countess: Sirrah, tell my gentlewoman I would speak with her—Helen I mean.
Clown: Was this fair face the cause, quoth she,
Why the Grecians sacked Troy?


The Countess' “Helen I mean” is doubly superfluous: the Steward has just named Helen, and in any case she has no other attendant gentlewoman to confuse us. The name thus accented highlights the Clown's response, which is to sing a ballad of the Trojan War that had Helen's fair face as its object. This undoubted association may throw retrospective light on Parolles' first greeting to Helena, “Save you, fair queen”—a title she emphatically denies (1.1.104-07). Not only is she far from a queen in her social rank, so much lower than Bertram's, but she is an anti-Helen: not the desired one but the desirer. Shakespeare's own representation of Helen of Troy in Troilus and Cressida, a play probably near in time to All's Well, only sharpens the ironic contrast. She is argued about and fought over, but seen as an actual character only briefly, as a totally passive object.

I am suggesting, then, that the Helenas of the two comedies are linked by the name chosen for them, a name that ironically contradicts its prototype and thus underlines their peculiar situation as subject, the locus of active desire, rather than the usual “woman's part” as pursued object. Because the implications of this situation are clearer in Midsummer than in All's Well, for reasons I'll suggest later, I'm going to try the first play as a kind of subtext for the second, using what is manifest there to fill in the silences and suppressions surrounding the second Helena.

Helena in the first scene of All's Well goes from the threat of “old virginity” as a withered pear to a sudden sharp anticipation of Bertram in love with a court lady who has all she lacks, to the active quest for Bertram. Helena in the first scene of Midsummer is mopingly jealous of her rival, the favored Hermia: “Demetrius loves your fair … Your eyes are lode-stars” (1.1.182-83, emphasis mine). What spurs her to unwonted action is the news that Hermia is running off with Lysander to consummate her love, leaving her behind. Her course illuminates that of the second Helena, impelled by Parolles' reminder of time's passage and the fear of being left to wither, to the sharp realization that Bertram will find fulfilling love elsewhere, and to an answering urgency that propels her to act on her desires.

So Helena in Midsummer sets Demetrius in pursuit of the lovers and herself pursues him into the wild forest, beyond the walls of Athens and the accepted cultural constructions the city embodies. When Demetrius denounces her, the deeply rooted code of sexual difference speaks clearly:

You do impeach your modesty too much
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not,
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity.

(MND, 2.1.214-19)

Helena herself feels the deep unease of her reversal of cultural roles—“We should be woo'd, and were not made to woo”—but she persists in the radical venture:

                    the story shall be chang'd:
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
                    … the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger.


The Helena of All's Well also leaves home to venture into alien territory. While she too has called herself a retiring hind, at court she “unnaturally” chases her lion instead of pining quietly away. The exchanges between Demetrius and Helena in Midsummer spell out her own unvoiced conflict as the shamed but persistently pursuing Daphne. She knows that healing the King is not her ultimate purpose but a means to achieving her sexual desire: she has already admitted to the Countess that but for loving Bertram she would never have thought of offering her father's medicine to the King.8 Failure to win his gratitude would fully expose her cultural transgression. What should follow more inevitably than her public branding as an unwomanly woman, a shameless strumpet?

Success is shaming enough. She is embarrassed and self-denigrating when choosing among the King's wards, and almost can't go through with it.

I am a simple maid, and therein wealthiest
That I protest I simply am a maid.
Please it your majesty, I have done already.
The blushes in my cheeks thus whisper me:
“We blush that thou should'st choose; but, be refused,
Let the white death sit on thy cheek for ever” …
Now, Dian, from thy altar do I fly,
And to imperial Love, that god most high
Do my sighs stream.


If refusal of her self-offering would be the ultimate humiliation, she has to blush for the public choosing itself as a deep contradiction to the accepted image of “a maid.” We might also remember that when Helena's love seemed hopeless she could claim to the Countess that “Dian / Was both herself and love” (1.3.207-08). But now that she has acted, chastity and love split apart. Helena's name, of course, associates her through the myth of Troy with Venus, the source of “imperial Love” and in Shakespeare's own most notable presentation the quintessential female pursuer of a reluctant Adonis.9 But where Venus as a goddess can simply be desire, the socially conditioned human Helena is abashed by her public exposure as wooer. When she finally addresses Bertram, she does her best to deny her role as aggressive, desiring subject and to recast herself properly as object: “I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live, / Into your guiding power” (2.3.102-04). Reshaping the situation with words, however, fails to disguise for either Bertram or Helena herself the radical reversal of male and female. He bitterly protests being the chosen rather than the chooser; and even before his desertion, she sees her act as illicit. She cannot claim her husband's kiss by right, because her marriage feels like a kind of robbery:

I am not worthy of the wealth I owe,
Nor dare I say 'tis mine—and yet it is;
But, like a timorous thief, most fain would steal
What law does vouch mine own.


When Bertram runs off to the wars, escaping his unwanted wife and reasserting his threatened status as active male, the same sense of having usurped a role not rightfully hers shapes her self-reproaches: “with the dark, poor thief, I'll steal away.” In her exaggerated guilt, Helena enacts on herself a form of the penalty for failure which she enunciated to the King, the “tax of impudence” for chasing her Apollo like a bold strumpet instead of withdrawing like a chaste nymph. The deeply imbedded, internalized story by which we are constituted in terms of sexual difference is not so easy to change.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream the story is in fact not changed. When Oberon observes the Athenian Daphne pursuing her Apollo, he intervenes forcibly to reconstruct the traditional pattern. It is not enough to make Demetrius reciprocate Helena's love. Puck must apply the love-juice so that their roles are truly reversed: “Fare thee well, nymph: ere he do leave this grove / Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek thy love” (2.1.245-46). “Nymph” in this context implies a whole sexual ideology. As Louis Montrose points out, Oberon is enacting another version of his reassertion of patriarchal control over Titania.10 Under his magic ministrations, Helena becomes an object with a vengeance, wooed furiously by both Demetrius and Lysander. Yet this does not make her happy. Instead, she feels used by the men, and she especially resents Hermia's perceived defection from their old sisterhood to support the men in objectifying her. In a long, moving passage (3.2.198-219) she recalls their self-mirroring girlhood friendship, a support of subjectivity now lost to her. The play sorts out its love-tangles into neat unions, but it never reinstates that close bond between Hermia and Helena. Rather, the passage marks what must be left behind in the process of growing up and being fully inscribed in the patriarchal order.

No so in All's Well. In that play Helena, as desiring subject, drives its plot onward. She inserts herself uninvited into Bertram's bed, and acts as her own Oberon to bring about her own order. No wonder Bertram has so little to say at the close, and no wonder that the ending in general has made critics so uneasy. Shakespeare was following his source, of course, but in giving an internal life to Boccaccio's externally-conceived characters, he created something much more subversive.11 Did it make him uneasy too? He apparently revised the central husband-choosing scene in such a way as to underline Helena's feminine shame.12 At the conclusion he gave Bertram no speech of full endorsement, and caused even the authoritative King to amend the play's affirming title into a more doubtful “All yet seems well” (5.3.327).13 And he deliberately mystified the middle, leaving the thrust of purpose undefined.

Indefinition opens space for multiple interpretations, an especially useful effect for an unorthodox play. Fill in the gap with your own assumptions and needs, as you like it. Without claiming to be exhaustive, I shall propose two of interpretations, a “safe” one as well as a subversive one. For the first, I resort once more to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which questions culturally constituted sexual identities only to replace male subject and female object in a fully reaffirmed patriarchal system. Indeed, just because of that reversal the earlier comedy can voice more directly the conflicts that must remain half-submerged in the more problematic later one. The central actor in Midsummer is Oberon, who achieves his purposes by magic means unrecognized by those he works on. This godlike dominance may seem to offer no relevant subtext for All's Well, with its all-too-human Helena apparently in charge. Yet the characters there keep alluding to an offstage operative power, a supernatural manipulator who is as invisible to us as Oberon was to the lovers. When Helena's initiative in curing the King succeeds, everyone hails her, not as a good doctor, but as a channel of divine purpose. “A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor … the very hand of heaven … in a most weak minister great power, great transcendence” (2.3.1-37). The age of miracles is not over, proclaims Lafew. Helena herself, when persuading the King to try her cure, dwells at length on scriptural examples of great deeds done by God through agents without power in themselves (2.1.135-40), and when successful presents herself as a tool of God: “Heaven hath through me restored the King to health” (2.3.64). In her pilgrimage to Saint James, proposed at the crucial juncture of blurred motivation, it is not hard to see her yielding to divine direction, which then guides her to Florence and the means of consummating her marriage. When it turns out that the money she can give for Diana's help will enable a poor girl to marry well, that is another providential sign, as she assures the Widow: “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” (4.4.18-21). Helena's purpose must be God's purpose, since he has already signally intervened in the natural course of events to bring it about. The action is propelled by God's desire, not Helena's. Doubt not.

That's a safe way to fill in the silence. But Helena herself has pointed in a different direction when she said, “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven” (1.1.212-13). The text also invites a riskier reading, grounded in psychology rather than religion. Suppose Helena is drawn to Florence by Bertram's presence. We may still think something more than mere opportunity is needed to re-empower her as desiring self against the crippling guilt and shame that followed on her first action of pursuit. And in this respect we may notice different aspects of the scene (3.5) that introduces the Florentine women. Diana's mother and her neighbor Mariana discuss thoroughly Bertram's wooing of Diana, sizing him up realistically and counseling Diana in resistance, with her considered agreement. The female integrity of self they support, being predicated on Diana's chastity, is far more conventional than the kind Helena has earlier acted on; but there's a clear emphasis on it, and on the mutual support of women in maintaining it. What Helena walks into, and quickly joins, is a version of the kind of self-confirming female friendship that was so notably denied to the Helena of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In confirming the illicit nature of Bertram's own sexual initiative, this friendship allows her to project the felt guilt of her own different kind of transgression onto him, and makes renewed activity psychologically possible. But there are no fewer than three additional scenes of conference and mutual assurance among the women to remind us how important their solidarity is. Solidarity strengthens Helena; it empowers Diana to take complete control of the last scene, manipulating not only Bertram but even the King, who is nominally in control. The connection seems clear between the strength of a woman and the strength of women.

Does All's Well really “change the story?” I don't know. What it does do, I think, is to enact—by disjunction, indirection, and suppression as much as speech and action—the difficulties and conflicts of imagining a woman as active, desiring subject. It doesn't end unambiguously “well,” and has trouble ending at all. That shouldn't surprise us.


  1. Quotations from All's Well that Ends Well and A Midsummer Night's Dream are from the New Arden editions of G. K. Hunter (London, 1959) and Harold F. Brooks (London, 1979).

  2. Folio punctuation; later editors have variously repointed according to their interpretations of the textual crux.

  3. First advanced by Steevens in the 1773 Johnson-Steevens edition of the plays.

  4. Fredson Bowers, “Shakespeare at Work: The Foul Papers of All's Well that Ends Well,English Renaissance Studies Presented to Dame Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1980), pp. 56-73.

  5. Arden ed., p. xx.

  6. “Sir, his wife some two months since fled from his house. Her pretence is a pilgrimage to Saint Jaques le Grand” (4.3.45-47).

  7. “The heroine of All's Well that Ends Well is called Helena four times in the Folio; three of these occurrences are in stage directions, only one in dialogue, a prose passage in the opening scene. … The occurrences in stage directions are in the opening direction and in two others in Act Two, Scenes Four and Five. … The short form of her name—Hel< l =en—occurs twenty-five times, sixteen of them in dialogue, both verse and prose. It seems that Shakespeare was initially rather inconsistent but that he eventually abandoned the long form”: Stanley Wells, Re-Editing Shakespeare for the Modern Reader (Oxford, 1984), p. 47.

  8. Countess: This was your motive / For Paris was it? Speak. Helena: My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the King / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then (1.3.225-30). Even here she cannot fully enunciate her plan to win Bertram in marriage through service to the King. Similarly, as Bertrand Evans has observed, her soliloquy of determination at the end of 1.1 “does not make even her incidental purpose explicit—the cure of the king—let alone the deeper purpose to be served by that cure”: Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), p. 151. For him this is an early hint of the drive and duplicity of a “relentless hunter,” which the text only gradually reveals. Evans' obvious distaste for a woman in this role is a good example of the critical unease with All's Well I mention on p. 75 and the constructions of sexual difference that underlie it.

  9. I am indebted to Professor Donald Cheney of the University of Massachusetts for calling to my attention the relevance of Venus and Adonis to Helena's situation. Among several points where play resonates with poem, we might notice especially Adonis' accusing Venus of immodesty (53), Venus' persistent plea for a kiss, his disdain of love in favor of manly exercise, and her lament when these pursuits lead to his death: “Love's golden arrow at him should have fled, / And not death's ebon dart to strike him dead” (947-48; cf. All's Well 3.2.106-07). The traditional opposition between Venus and Diana may have figured in Shakespeare's naming of the Florentine Diana who will be “most chastely absent” (3.7.34) while Helena takes her place to conclude the rites of love with Bertram.

  10. Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations, 1:2 (1983), 82-83.

  11. The Third Day of the Decameron is devoted to tales of those who gain what they desire by their wits; and the telling of Giletta's story stresses her clever methods of achieving her aim rather than what it feels like to be the desirer.

  12. Bowers (p. 61) speculates on the basis of a misplaced stage direction that lines 66-73, which I discuss above, pp. 73-74, were added to 2.3 after the first writing.

  13. Emphasis mine; cf. his less than confident appeal to the audience in the epilogue, “All is well ended if this suit be won, / That you express content.”

Carolyn Asp (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8353

SOURCE: “Subjectivity, Desire, and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 4, 1986, pp. 48-63.

[In the following essay, Asp focuses on the reversal of power—inspired by Helena's desire—that allows Helena to succeed in her plans to win Bertram.]

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


According to prevailing opinion, All's Well That Ends Well is a “problem play” whose major difficulty is located in the very assertion that the title makes in summarizing the action. In the opinions of many critics the play does not “end well” because the resolution remains on the structural level rather than moving to the psychological level.1 The frog prince remains a frog until the end and the princess chooses to overlook his slimy skin. If the reader or theater-goer expects the romance of heterosexual coupling that concludes Shakespeare's “high comedies,” disappointment is inevitable.

Singular among the plays in Shakespeare's canon, All's Well That Ends Well is written out of the history of the female subject and this history is the history of her desire. The inadequacy of the male as subject is not only NOT repressed; it is emphasized. In this, the play challenges both culture and theory which both subordinate the issue of woman-as-subject-of-desire to the question of male subjectivity and desire. Renaissance notions of female inferiority (and consequent objectification) were largely based on physiological schemes. The cultural stereotypes that mandated female subordination were (and are) often legitimized by the appeal to the irreducible realm of the real, i.e., nature. Both Aristotle and Galen after him declared that the female is characterized by deprived, passive, material traits and is cold and moist (earthy) in her dominant humours. Because the female is less fully developed than the male, her sexual organs have remained internal; she is therefore incomplete in a teleological scheme that aims toward perfection, i.e., the male. Heat, associated with perfection on the physical level, is a male characteristic; it is the lack of heat in the process of generation that causes the genitalia of the female to remain internal and therefore imperfect. The male characteristic of heat thrusts out the genitalia and produces a perfect human specimen.2 To round off the paradigm, this assumed frailty of body was thought to be accompanied by mental and emotional weaknesses which were the natural justification of the female's exclusion from responsibility and moral fulfillment. Although the explanations used to justify female subordination to patriarchal structures have become increasingly complex in our day, the figure of the female hero in Renaissance drama, a figure who, especially in the comedies, rebels against her “natural” inferior position (or better yet, pays it no heed), still serves as a model of self-determination, i.e., as the subject of her desire, not the object of another's. Because there was much of the new in the old, much of the old in the new, I wish to use certain paradigms from psychoanalytic theory that are congruent with Renaissance notions of the character and place of the female to discuss the complexities and ambiguities of the central female character in All's Well That Ends Well. Viewed from this perspective Helena can be seen as coming to independent womanhood by surmounting attitudes and theories of female deprivation and inferiority.3 Psychoanalytic theory is a useful tool for such an investigation because it attempts to account for the phenomenon of female inferiority in terms of structural psychic formations and introjected cultural ideals; but it is also limited in that it insufficiently addresses itself to female psychic formation, i.e., to a female version of the Oedipal crisis. Until recently, despite Freud's late interest in the “pre-Oedipal phase,” which stresses the mother-infant relationship,4 psychoanalytic theory had largely ignored that stage of development. Helena, in her ambiguity, represents a challenging subject for the psychoanalytic critic in that she breaks out of both the cultural (historical) and psychic (transhistorical) strictures applied to women in both her time and our own. She does this by the assertion of desire, the refusal of objectification and by interaction with other women in the play.

According to psychoanalytic theory, particularly Lacanian theory, the inauguration of subjectivity and desire is based upon a male model, the model of the Oedipal crisis. That model stipulates the phallus as the signifier for the needs and drives which the subject must relinquish to gain access to the symbolic order, the order of language, culture, and symbolization. In the Lacanian scheme the phallus is not identifiable with the penis; it is, however, the signifier for the cultural privileges which define male subjectivity and legitimate his desire within the patriarchal order. The female subject remains isolated from this register, ironically, because she has no penis to lose or exchange for the phallus.5 As Luce Irigaray comments: “All theories of the ‘subject’ will always have been appropriated by ‘the masculine’. … The subjectivity denied to the woman is, without doubt, the condition which guarantees the constitution of any object: object of representation, of discourse, of desire.”6 The scene of “castration” has only one subject as the concept of penis envy implies; the little girl sees herself through the eyes of the boy as “lacking.” The “truth” of female sexuality, therefore, is “truth-as-lack.”

The male subject, on the other hand, gives up the penis (direct expression of his own sexuality) to attain the phallus (the privileges of the patriarchal order). The female subject does not succumb to as radical an alienation from sexuality but neither does she enjoy as full a participation in the patriarchal order. Female sexuality, then, is not represented by the phallus (power) but by “castration” or lack. Since female sexuality cannot be represented (it is lack or absence) it remains “a dark continent” that, according to male theory, threatens to overpower both the female and the patriarchal order. According to Antonia Fraser, this “menacing” aspect of female sexuality was well known and greatly feared by seventeenth century males. In addition to the testimony of countless dramatis personae, there is the witness of such men as Thomas Wythorne and poets from Wyatt to Lovelace.7

Although there is a nice logic about this paradigm it is contrary to common sense to assume that the female is outside of signification or that her sexuality is any less structured or repressed by culture than is the male's. In entering into meaning and symbolization the female makes a sacrifice analogous to that of the male, i.e., the sacrifice of the mother and the gratifications she supplies.8 The difference is that the girl's sexuality is negatively rather than positively defined.9 This definition occurs on a cultural level which assigns public power and prestige to the male. In developmental processes gender myths of female lack and male fullness are internalized and treated as “true” and identification with stereotyped characteristics takes place. On this cultural, or symbolic level, then, the both men and women are conditioned to think of the male as “all” and the female as “not-all” (Lacan, Séminaire III 198). Prior to the Oedipal crisis, however, the subject is bisexual (Freud, SE XX: 118) undetermined by gender myths. Although physiological lack may be used to justify the idea of female inferiority, it is not the cause. Penis-envy, such as it is, is symbolic rather than organic, referring to social power rather than to physical potency. Since the female functions as a signifier of lack in culture the male must accommodate himself to the fact of difference by either establishing the woman's unworthiness or by transforming her into a compensatory object. This objectification of woman (as castrated) is designed to annihilate the threat that she represents. Similar relief is found in the disparagement of women by which the male takes pleasure through control and punishment.

The subject's entry into the Symbolic Order (language, culture, power) displaces the mother as the central object of desire with the father; this transaction is of crucial importance in the constitution of the subject. The son identifies with the father as possessor of cultural power; the daughter with the mother as one who lacks such power. The result of such internalization is a profound sense of inadequacy both for the male and the female—the son can never be equivalent to the symbolic father (the position with which he identifies and with which he identifies the actual father); the daughter is denied even an identification with that position (Silverman 191).

This was especially true in matters of sexuality and marriage in Renaissance England where the role of female desire was widely held to be small, even non-existent. According to Lawrence Stone, the qualities most valued in a woman in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were weakness, submissiveness, charity and modesty: “the theological and legal doctrine of the time were especially insistent upon the subordination of women to men in general and to their husbands in particular.”10 Ian McLean, after an extensive review of the learned documents devoted to the discussion of women in Renaissance theory, comes to the conclusion that the single greatest force preventing fundamental changes in the notion of women in the Renaissance was the institution of marriage; in the eyes of Renaissance thinkers—all male, by the way—marriage is a divine, natural and social institution and any alternative is considered subversive (85). Rethe Warnicke states that “… women were expected to marry, and those who did not were denied the respect of their communities.”11 Any change in the position of the silent and submissive wife in relationship to her lordly husband would require a new vision of the mental and physical predispositions of the sexes; this was too radical even for such Utopian writers as Thomas More and Rabelais.

Renaissance handbooks on marriage speak of the “choice of a wife” but never the choice of a husband. It is the man—the suitor—who seeks, who chooses. He does not expect the woman to seek him or to take the initiative in declaring her love first. It was generally agreed by wise heads that both physical desire and romantic love were unsafe bases of an enduring marriage, since both were regarded as violent mental disturbances which could only be of short duration. Women were especially prone to fits of passion; a menacing aspect of female desire was the woman's suspected carnality as the sixteenth century mysogynist, Thomas Wythorne, states: “Though they be weaker vessels, yet they will overcome 2. 3. or 4 [sic] men in satisfying their carnal appetities” (qtd. in Fraser 4). Women were considered incapable of making a wise choice in the best interests of marriage. After arguing against “enforced marriages” in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton adds: “A woman should give unto her parents the choice of her husband lest she be reputed to be malapert and wanton, if she take upon her to make her own choice, for she should rather seem to be desired by a man than to desire a man herself.”12 Somewhat later in the century (1688) Lord Halifax writes in his Advice to a Daughter: “It is one of the disadvantages belonging to your sex, that young women are seldom permitted to make their own choice; their friends' care and experience are thought safer guides to them than their own fancies, and their modesty often forbiddeth them to refuse when their parents recommend, though their inward consent may not entirely go along with it. … You must first lay it down for a foundation in general that there is inequality in the sexes, and that for the better economy of the world, men, who were to be law-givers, had the larger share of reason bestowed upon them, by which means your sex is better prepared for the compliance that is necessary for the better performance of those duties which seem to be most properly assigned to it” (Stone 278), i.e., the duties of marriage. This representative patriarchal statement implies that the duties of compliance and subservience which the marriage doctrine enjoins could only be performed by those limited by nature (biological determinism) to a lesser level of intelligence than man. As late as 1706 Mary Astell still laments; “A woman, indeed, can't properly be said to choose; all that is allowed her is to refuse or accept what is offered” (Stone 275).

Ruth Kelso, who has surveyed an impressive variety of treatises on female behavior in The Doctrine of the Lady of the Renaissance, finally speculates that such emphasis would probably not have been placed on the submission and obedience of women and the inborn superiority of men if women in general were not asserting themselves in the pragmatic sphere. According to Kelso, the womanly ideal as found in male writings represents a most unrealistic separation of theory from fact.13 Joan Kelly adds another dimension to the pragmatic argument by quoting Lucrezia Marinella who speculates that the psychology of educated men (the authors and authorities) who both vituperated and idealized women was based on both the necessity of feeling superior to women and the displacement of sexual feelings.14 The received opinion on the value and place of women in a male world was based on male psycho-sexual experiences, not on observation and truth to experience (Kelly 82). Learned treatises on the relations of the sexes and marriage were contaminated by the need to maintain male supremacy even if that meant flying in the face of truth. In the face of such bias, how was a true image of woman to be recovered?

It was in the drama in particular that a new portrait of the female began to emerge during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. No matter what the various guises in which she appears, this woman has one consistent trait: she does not think of herself merely as an appendage of man; she insists on making her own decisions. It is this insistence that is so threatening to the patriarchal prerogative; it sets her apart from the conventional woman and often subjects her to attack or disapproval. One of the most interesting types of female rebels is the one who, like Helena, insists on the right to choose her own husband, to assert her own desire. This was a radical demand. A woman's right to love and marry according to her own desires could not be admitted without upsetting an established order which regarded women as inferior beings who needed to be governed by the sex for whose pleasure and convenience they had been created. Yet with the recognition that woman as well as man was “a reasonable creature” came the acceptance of the fact that she should use her reason in one of the most vital concerns of her life—the choice of a marriage partner and her relations with him. To find this type of assertive woman very much alive and extremely articulate in Renaissance drama is surely a surprise given the repressive nature of the tracts and sermons. But it is a surprise that leads to a deeper understanding of what is actually new in what seems old; it also provides an interesting and often amusing instance of that gradual process by which new attitudes supplant old ones over a period of time and produce profound societal changes.15

Helena, in the opening scene, seems to have internalized the “lack” mapped onto the female body; she acquiesces in her own powerlessness as defined by her context and tearfully accepts Bertram's inaccessibility as a love object. In this scene she plays out her role as passive, even masochistic female. This problematic first appearance can be explained by looking at her behavior from the viewpoint of psychoanalytic theory which postulates that female masochism is connected with gender identity and sexual desire, both social products. When the girl completes the Oedipal crisis, she also, like the boy must renounce the mother, the first love-object, and turn to the father who will not affirm the phallus in her (as he does for the boy), but instead will give it to her. When she turns to the father, she represses the active part of her libido: “hand in hand [with turning to the father]” says Freud, “there is to be observed a marked lowering of the active sexual impulses and the rise of the passive ones. … The transition to the father is accomplished with the help of passive trends insofar as they have escaped from the catastrophe. The path of femininity now lies open to the girl” (Freud, SE 21:239). It is this path of powerlessness and dependence which Helena initially believes she must adopt in regard to her desire for Bertram.

The ascendence of passivity in the girl is due to her recognition of the futility of realizing her active desire and of the unequal terms of the struggle. A segment of erotic possibility (female desire) is constrained. This realization, reinforced by cultural norms, prompts Helena's excessive and according to the other characters, unspecified emotional response. The creation of “femininity” in women as they are socialized also leaves in them a resentment of the constraints to which they were subjected, but they have few ways of expressing this residual anger, even rage. Not only is passivity inculcated in the girl; masochism is as well. When she turns to the father because she must, she discovers that “castration” (lack of power) is the condition of the father's love, that she must be a woman (signifier of lack) to evoke his love. She therefore begins to desire to be castrated, or powerless, trying to turn a disaster into a wish. In finding her place in the sexual system, then, the woman is robbed of libido and guided into masochistic eroticism (Freud, SE XXII: 128).

Although Helena at first seems to embody these psychoanalytic paradigms of psychic masochism and powerlessness, she struggles at several points in the play to defy them and moves from tearful and powerless acceptance of her position—and a concomitant construction of herself as object—to an assertive desire of which she is the subject. How does this shift occur? In her bawdy and witty banter with Parolles on the subject of virginity they both speak of sexuality with the metaphors of warfare. This conversation brings with into contact with aggressivity and narcissism, thus establishing a contact with unconscious desire. Desire can be restricted within the bounds of societal gender myths or it can follow its own trajectory and operate independently of them. Helena quickly shifts into resolve rooted in desire and determines upon cunning, aggressive action: a woman need not always defend her virginity against attack, i.e., remain an object; she may in fact, go on the offensive and “lose it to her own liking” (I.i.145). Desire here overcomes both gender and class; under the impress of its mobile power the unpropertied, educated female had much to gain even though such a desirous woman was regarded as a usurper of the masculine function and prerogative. Filled with resolve she casts off abjection: “Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?” (I.i.218-219).

Helena is not alone in her struggle, however. In a canon in which mother-daughter relationships are so few, this play is unusual in having several. Although Helena is a ward of the Countess, it is obvious that the countess extends to her the love of a mother for a child: “you ne'er oppressed me with a mother's groan,” she tells Helena, “yet I express to you a mother's care” (I.iii.140-141). Helena quibbles, rejecting a fraternal relationship with Bertram: not “daughter” but “daughter-in-law” is the title she desires. When Helena admits her love to the Countess as well as her scheme to cure the King, the Countess allows Helena to speak of her desire, gives her an empathetic hearing, and bids her success, promising what aid she can. Helena appeals to the Countess' own youthful female experience thus creating a bond of womanly desire that transcends class.16 It is obvious that the Countess regards Helena as an appropriate wife for Bertram, but leaves the initiative to her (the King as Bertram's guardian, has the right to dispose of the young man). Once Helena has legally secured the reluctant Bertram and he rejects her, she returns to the Countess who verbally castigates her son but can do nothing to change the situation. The Countess functions as an emotional center who utters the correct—and truly felt—sentiments, but who is ineffectual to help Helena in any way except through verbal support. Albeit a kind and caring woman, a validator of Helena's desire, the Countess limits her effectiveness and accepts her position of dependence within the patriarchal order.

Helena leaves the maternal aegis of the Countess on the strength of her paternal inheritance; “prescriptions of rare and prov'd effects”, male learning passed on to her as her dowry. She must leave the mother-figure to insert herself with a larger, public group and utilize the skill bequeathed her by her father. Armed with the patriarchal legacy of language and learning, she confronts and confounds “the schools” and attempts the king's cure. By curing the debilitating fistula (a sexually symbolic disease) Helena restores the king's manly vigor upon which the success of her project depends. But prior to the cure, she engages the royal honor: “Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand / What husband in thy power I will command” (II.i.194-95). It is in her best interest to restore power to the patriarchy which she plans to engage in her behalf.

This request, which depends upon patriarchal power for its implementation, paradoxically subverts the very order of patriarchy itself. Throughout history women, not men, have been sexual objects, gifts. The “exchange of women” expresses the social relations of a kinship system that specify that men have certain rights in their female kin and that women do not have such rights over themselves or their male relatives. In this system the preferred female sexuality is one that responds to the desires of others rather than one which actively seeks an object and a response (Lacan, Séminaire II, 306). We ask: “What would happen if a woman demanded a certain man as her gift rather than the other way around?” This play shows us what happens. The king's debt to Helena is reckoned in Bertram's flesh; he must become the sexual partner to her to whom he is “owed” as the reward for the restoration of the king's flesh.17 Bertram resists this structural “feminization” loudly voicing the resentment that accompanies objectification, a resentment that arises from having been given no choice; “I beseech your highness, / In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes” (II.iii.105-7).

The play contains a series of triangular exchange transactions of which this is the first. By power the king provides a substitute sexual partner for Helena who will function as his “stand in.” It is obvious that he values and desires Helena more than any other male in the play—what man does not love the woman who restores his virility? But Helena is determined to have Bertram and the king, by virtue of his position, is outside the circuit of desire, Subject par excellence! Up to this point Helena attempts to control events less through her own sexuality and desire than through patriarchal gifts to her. These gifts come to her in language: prescriptions, learning, promises that will enable her to possess legally what she desires. Even though she is emboldened by desire, she is unable to evoke the desire of the other (Bertram), the ultimate goal in Lacanian psychic dynamics. So what she gets is a marriage in name only—an ironic reward—a marriage that Bertram never intends to honor with his flesh. The letter but not the spirit of the law is fulfilled. So her scheme has both succeeded and failed. This seems to be the limit for female desire that relies too heavily on even the best-intentioned of men.

After the check of Bertram's rejection Helena initiates a complex and indirect action for attaining her desire, an action in which she relies both on her own cunning and on bonding with other women. Taking up the apparently impossible conditions of Bertram's rejection as a challenge—“When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which shall never 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 ‘never’” (III.ii.56-59). Helena paradoxically weaves her net of capture by literally following his directives, turning his language into a trap. Her campaign initiatives arise from the very messages he sends denying her. Responding to his refusal to return to his ancestral lands “till I have no wife” she disguises herself as a pilgrim and sets out for Florence where it is possible she knows he is stationed. Ostensibly she appears submissive to his will, but her submission is also a strategy; her success from this point until the end is linked to her ability to assume a “feminized” (inferior, powerless) position and yet remain in cognitive control of the situation. This combination of positions is exceedingly potent and establishes her mastery in the second half of the play.

In the early part of the play the ideal that Helena thinks she sees in Bertram is not merely hidden; it is absent, lacking. She eventually must come to terms with this fact. Bertram is not a sufficient representation of the “virile object” that Helena sees only in her fantasy. We might wonder why she so desires him. In Lacanian terms, Helena is initially trapped in the level of consciousness called the Imaginary, i.e., the register in which opposition and identity are the only possible interrelationships between self and other. This “other” is usually someone or something which is thought to complete the subject or reflects back to him/her an ideal image (Lacan Ecrits 2-4). The Imaginary is the register of the ego, a construct that involves a purely dual either/or relationship that resembles that of the Hegelian master/slave paradigm. The predominance of the Imaginary in relationships results in the conversion of interdependent similarities and differences between man and woman into pathological identities and oppositions (as between images of man and woman). To enter into productive relationships it is necessary to transcend the oppositional relationships and reduce mastery to insignificance by means of this transcendence. During the course of the action Helena traverses this path of development, passing from the register of the Imaginary to that of the Symbolic Order (Lacan, Séminaire I 215). Early in the play she is almost overwhelmed by opposition in her relationship with Bertram; she can see only unbridgeable separations. Then she swings to the opposite, narcissistically identifying his desire with her own, never doubting her ability to win him. His severe rejection forces her to align herself with the limits of the possible. Finally she comes to a third position within the Symbolic Order, the register of similarities and differences, of the social and the cultural. She must accept the fact that his desire, whatever it may be, may be different from her own. Her original desire for Bertram seems to be displaced by her own maternity and by her return to the mother so that she is inserted into the larger cultural sphere of social and familial engagement. Paradoxically she does this by remaining true to her desire (is this type of maturation initiated, then, by desire within the register of the Imaginary?); as desiring subject she not only gets what she thinks she wants but more. And it is in this “more,” this excess, that Helena's real triumph is located. This excess has to do with her increasing realization of the pragmatic and psychological support that female bonding provides for her in her erotic adventures.

In contrast to the Countess who is a very real but passive support, the Florentine women, a mother and daughter with whom Helena plots, are active on her behalf. Fallen from fortune, they must make their way in the world and struggle to defend their hard-earned gains. The precious jewel of her treasury is Diana's chastity, a “commodity” that commands a high price. As a consequence, these women have nothing but distrust and contempt for male language, especially the male language of seduction; instead, they rely on female lore: “My mother told me just how he would woo, / As if she sat in's heart” (IV.ii.69-70) says Diana, fore-armed against Bertram's vows. When these women show a willingness to believe her story, Helena grasps the opportunity to fulfill the letter of Bertram's law, an opportunity that Bertram's “sick desires” for Diana give her. In a scene of many exchanges she buys Diana's place with gold while Bertram thinks he is purchasing Diana's “ring” (genitals) with the patriarchal ring of Rosillon.18 What occurs is a triangular transaction between women in the possession of a man. In this circuit of desire Diana remains aloof, Helena gets what she wants and Bertram gets what he does not know he does not want. Without cognitive power, Bertram assumes the role of a circulatable commodity; again he is “feminized.”

In transactions of heterosexual desire, there can be hidden strategies of bonding which seem to occur here; the bond between Helena and Diana is cemented by means of sexual substitution. Earlier in the play (I.iii) there is an odd conversation between Lavatch and the Countess in which Lavatch describes the use he will make of Isbel to create “friends” for himself. Voluntary cuckoldry creates a bond among men with the “other” (the partner of the opposite sex) as the object to be exchanged among them. When the Countess remonstrates: “Such friends are thine enemies, knave,” Lavatch points out to her this new type of bonding: “He that comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood; he that cherishes my flesh and blood loves my flesh and blood; he that loves my flesh and blood is my friend; ergo, he that kisses my wife is my friend” (I.iii.43-47). Lavatch describes a literal series of heterosexual displacements in which implicit homoerotic desire is represented as heterosexual adultery. Isbel will mediate a communion among males. Is Lavatch a fool or a knave or neither? He describes himself as involved in triangular sexual transactions in which he maintains control through knowledge and manipulation. As either thief or distributor he regards women as circulatable commodities, objects of desire. His song invoking Helen of Troy underlines this paradigm of the shared woman, the common ground of male desire.

Helena's sexual experience with Bertram, in which she substitutes her body for that of the desired Diana's, leaves her with the conviction of the impersonality of the act. “Strange men”—in several senses of that word—make sweet use of what they hate, i.e., the female body with its threatening lack. “Lust doth play / With what it loathes” (IV.iv.24-25) in the darkness which hides both the particularity (subjectivity) of the woman and the place of castration. Lacan explains this imbalance by commenting that what man approaches in the sexual act is the cause of his desire (lack). The male identifies the woman with what he has repressed in himself and makes love to complete himself in her. Thus the woman's specificity is subordinate to the man's quest for this own fulfillment (Ragland-Sullivan 292). Helena seems both shocked and disillusioned by this experience of sexual objectification in which she is not seen and in which she may not speak. Yet from this place of apparent lack (her genitals) and seeming powerlessness she traps the cozened Bertram's wild desires and lures them into consummating the legal bond. Publicly commenting on her experience later in the play, Helena admits that Bertram's sexual performance was “wondrous kind” (V.iii.305), gentle and natural.

After Helena has fulfilled Bertram's stipulations, the ensuing action is excessive, almost gratuitous. I believe that it is only at this point that Helena moves beyond the Imaginary (projected idealizations) with respect to Bertram and begins to see him as he is. All traces of psychological masochism vanish from her character and she begins to express a residual anger toward him, a desire to punish him for having rejected her desire and objectified her. It becomes clear that she has his public humiliation in mind since she now has achieved a cognitive leverage over him which gives her power. She has sent back word to France that she is “dead,” i.e., she represents “castration” or loss as the ultimate lack or absence. Paradoxically it is from this position of “castration” or loss that she is able to achieve her greatest power as an active subject.19 What is thought to be absent can be ignored; what is regarded as lost can be thought of as without power. Yet the very veil of disappearance allows the subject room to act with impunity. Once again she enlists the aid of the Florentine women to carry out her project.

Having arrived in France Helena sends a letter ahead to the King via messenger. Because of the unforeseen concatenation of events, it becomes clear that this letter had been prepared in advance by Helena although it is signed with Diana's name. It lays claim to Bertram as a fair exchange for the latter's honor. What becomes increasingly apparent is that Helena is preparing a public confrontation between Diana and Bertram based on a non-event, i.e., an absence that will entrap him in a web of signs (rings) and language (lies) from which he will be unable to escape. The effectiveness of Diana's script turns upon an exchange of rings prior to the bed trick. Here the plot becomes increasingly dense since neither the audience nor most of the characters knows the history of the rings. The disclosure that the ring Diana gave to Bertram had been given to Helena by the King is a shocking surprise. What is even more disquieting is the fact that Helena had given it to Diana explicitly to exchange for Bertram's patriarchal ring, a transfer that indicates Helena's intent to entrap, since encoded in this ring is a secret message to the King: she is in need of his help. The sight of Bertram wearing this ring coupled with Helena's fictional account of her own death leads the King to suspect Bertram of foul deeds. On the defensive, Bertram entangles himself more and more tightly in the snare; brazenly lying, he repudiates Diana and denies any knowledge of Helena. As the pièce de résistance Diana produces Bertram's ring, alleging that with it he purchased her honor. Although like Parolles, Bertram may play with language, he cannot deny the object, irrefutable proof of his complicity. Publically revealed as a liar, a coward and a faithless husband, Bertram has no choice but to stand shamed and endure humiliation. At this point Helena enters triumphant as the dea ex machina to clarify and forgive.

By reading events of the second half of the play backwards, so to speak, we can see Helena's complex plan to turn Bertram's desires and fears against him and then make his weakness, perfidy and ignorance public through the accusations of others, herself remaining aloof.20 It is evident that there is little romance in Helena's attitude toward Bertram at the end of the play; when she greets him she merely makes known her fulfillment of his conditions. When he further questions her, her final words to him are distant and almost foreboding: “If it appear not plain and prove untrue / Deadly divorce step between me and you” (V.iii.314-315). This marriage is an unknown item, a risk whose outcome is to be determined beyond the limits of the play. In contrast her greeting to the Countess is warm and affectionate: “O my dear mother, do I see thee living?” (V.iii.316). These, her last words in the play, seem to indicate that she has re-adjusted the focus of her desire.

Along with the power shift that occurs in the second half of the play there seems also to be a psychological reversal. 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.21 In some ways her reversal is quite shocking but it certainly is not an unusual female paradigm. As mentioned earlier in this essay, the constraint of female desire in a patriarchal system leaves a residual resentment and anger in the woman which most women, unlike Helena, do not have the opportunity to act on. Granted, her action is indirect, even cunning, but for all that, it is eminently effective. As Helena moves from object position into subject status, from passive to active (the latter associated with the masculine “position”) she concomitantly exchanges psychological masochism for a certain degree of willingness to inflict pain or humiliation in the assertion of mastery. Shakespeare manages to put Helena in the subject (sadistic) position without depriving her of our sympathy by shielding her behind the accusations and anger of others whom she has convinced to act in her place. Her agency has been displaced, certainly veiled. We cannot deny that Bertram deserves the punishment she arranges; our puzzlement is reserved for the “reconciliation” on which the play ends. If there is a reconciliation, then how does it come about and whose attitudes must change?

Helena's shift occurs in two phases in an encounter with the Real, i.e., the given field of existence, nature in self and in the world. The first phase is Bertram's rejection and abandonment of her which forces her to see him as he is; the second is her sexual encounter with him which is lustful and procreative rather than romantic. These encounters with the Real shake her out of the narcissism and the false perceptions associated with the Imaginary register and precipitate her into positioning herself within the Symbolic Order as a viable alternative to the delusory projections of the early part of the play. There is loss but there is also gain. Her position in culture and the collective is ratified by her obvious “wife-li-ness” and maternity. She is the fleshly sign of the link between the generations and as such holds a secure place in the Symbolic Order (Welsh 21). Helena has successfully rejected the powerlessness of her original position in the Imaginary, emerging from it at another level, carrying the signs of her transaction. It is she, not Bertram, who has both the ring and the child and she will exchange both for his acceptance of her as his wife and mother of his child. Helena's desire now locates itself within the social order—the child in her womb is the heir—but that order is not exclusively patriarchal. In the process of pursuing her desire for Bertram, Helena has come to experience the loyalty, support, and kindness of women who not only never doubted her but who never failed her. What began as a pursuit of a man developed into a transaction among women. With skill, intelligence and cunning they use Bertram's very desires to bind him to what his position and phallic potency demand of him. Through the trajectory of desire he becomes the victim of the trick. But the paradox does not operate only in Bertram's case. Let us entertain the possibility that in the pursuit of a husband Helena has actually found a mother, has discovered the power of feminine bonding. Although she carries the sign of her heterosexual eroticism and Bertram's potency, her desire seems to have transcended the narrow limits of such eroticism and moved into the larger sphere of female affectivity. Her sexual experiences and her own maternity seem to create a new awareness of and desire for the maternal body.

Is Helena's turning to women at the end of the play unusual in her immediate social context? Or does it signal some kind of change in sensibility that was actually occurring at the time? Although there has not yet been much investigation of primary documents relating to the bonding of women in the Renaissance, there are many collateral sources which refer to this phenomenon, including works of poetry, fiction and drama which depict strong, loyal, and loving relationships between and among women. In addition, it seems likely that in a society so constrained by rigid gender-role differentiations there would be both the emotional segregation of women from the male world and a corresponding development of bonding within the female circle. It is certainly true that biological realities centered around incessant pregnancies and childbirth traumas bound women together in intimacy. Supportive female networks paralleled the social restrictions on intimacy between men and women. Courtesy books, advice books, sermons, and other male-originated texts all stress gender-role differentiations as well as the social segregation characteristic of the culture.22

Although generally speaking the mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of the female world, in Renaissance literature we see bonds of kinship and service forming the basis of intense friendships. The literature frequently depicts a “conspiracy of women” that organizes itself around female desire. When the male is indifferent or hostile to such desire, the female characters find support in female kin, friends, or servants. Celia conspires with Rosalind; Emilia defends Desdemona to the death; Paulina refuses to abandon Hermione; Cleopatra surrounds herself with her women in the hour of her final triumph. This woman's world has a dignity and integrity that spring from mutual affection and the shared experiences of being a woman in a man's world. The drama of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England, then, provides many examples of not only strong women but of strong friendships between women. According to Juliet Dusinberre, the struggles of many of the heroines in Shakespeare's plays are struggles against the male idea of womanhood; they are efforts to be considered human in a world that sees them only as female, i.e., as powerless, “castrated” devoid of initiating desire. In these conflicts women are intimate not just as individuals but as women; they develop a loyalty to their sex which can express itself in confederacy, even cunning.23 For example, in the play under consideration, the Countess is more sympathetic toward Helena than she is to her own son. She assures Helena: “… be sure of this / What I can help thee to, thou shalt not miss” (I.iii.248-49).

Helena succeeds in her scheme because she heeds and follows her desire even though the caveats of internalized gender values and the constraints of society make her task seem impossible. Frequently she occupies the so-called male position, the position of knowledge and power, through the very paradox of her “castration”; in this position she sets up the exchanges upon which society depends for its continuation. By the play's end she has come to value and depend on the world of women whose power Bertram, with some humility, is forced to acknowledge. Her success argues for a re-evaluation of the patriarchal denigration of female desire and a reconsideration of that desire's power and validity in the social order. Through Helena's single-minded action a redefinition of gender prerogatives has occurred and as a consequence the patriarchal order is modified, if ever so slightly.24 Fired by her desire, Helena refuses to submit to gender myths that link the female with loss unless that loss can be turned to gain. The play ends as well as it can—all only “seems well” the king states at the conclusion—given the fact that sexual relations will never be harmonious, that psychic unity is tenuous at best.25


  1. Paula S. Berggren, “The Woman's Part: Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare's Plays,” in The Woman's Part, ed. Carolyn Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Neely (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980). pp. 22-23; G. K. Hunter, “Introduction” to All's Well That Ends Well, Arden Edition (Cambridge, Mass: Cambridge University Press, 1959), xxix-xxxi; Hunter also comments (liv-lv) that “in these plays (the problem plays) the strand of psychological realism makes the absence of personal reconciliation seem wanton and careless.” Richard Wheeler states that the ending of the play is not a true resolution but merely a superficial denial of the hero's rebellion: “Marriage and Manhood in All's Well That Ends Well,” Bucknell Review, 21 (1973), 103-24. Roger Warren in “Why Does It End Well?: Helena, Bertram and the Sonnets”, Shakespeare Survey 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 79-92, faults Shakespeare for failing to provide a “powerful and reassuring speech” for Helena at the finale, a definite dramatic weakness in his opinion.

  2. Ian McLean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 33.

  3. Warren sees Helena as “unbearably poignant” and tends to idealize her masochistic tendencies; my argument follows Hunter's insight that “to fit Helena into the play or to adapt the play to Helena is obviously the central problem of interpretation” (xiviii). I agree with Hunter that “her role is a complex one, but there is an absence of adequate external correlatives to justify this complexity; we are drawn to regard her as an isolated, complex individual” (xlix). In his enlightening study of the play, Wheeler (Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981)) keeps to a middle ground when he asserts both her humble, adoring love for Bertram and her “vigorous, cunning and determined pursuit” of him. p. 63. Psychoanalytic theory can provide paradigms to account for her complex attitudes and behaviors.

  4. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1964), XXII, 112-135. Nancy Chodorow in The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1978) has developed this theory in great detail.

  5. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 66.

  6. Luce Irigaray, Speculum de l'autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974), p. 165.

  7. Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (New York: Knopf, 1984), p. 4.

  8. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis (Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 1985), pp. 297-98.

  9. Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 198.

  10. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 199.

  11. Rethe Warnicke, Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 178.

  12. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: Vintage, 1932), “Third Partition”, p. 238.

  13. Ruth Kelso, The Doctrine of the Lady in the Renaissance (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 208.

  14. Joan Kelly, Women, History and Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 81.

  15. Jean Gagen, The New Woman (New York: Twayne, 1954), p. 119.

  16. Carol McKewin, “Counsels of Gall and Grace: Intimate Conversations between Women in Shakespeare's Plays,” in The Woman's Part, pp. 117-132.

  17. Eva Sedgewick, “Sexualism and the Citizen of the World,” Critical Inquiry (December, 1984), p. 233. See also Wheeler, pp. 49-51 on the deflection of male sexual interest from women to men.

  18. Alexander Welsh in “The Loss of Men and the Getting of Children: All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure,Modern Language Review, Vol. 73, Part I (January, 1978), argues against Wheeler and later Kirsch (Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981)) in their emphasis on the “threat of castration inherent in the Oedipal situation,” i.e., Bertram's identification of Helena with her mother. He asserts that “inheritance and succession are far more important concerns than Oedipal jealousies” p. 21. Although my focus is not on Bertram, I agree with Welsh that the Oedipal argument is quite weak and unconvincing. Aside from the “punning” scene between the Countess and Helena, there is no reference to such a motive in the play. In that scene Helena specifically and somewhat playfully, refers to brother/sister incest.

  19. Here I disagree with Hunter (xxxii) on the power of coincidence and submission to supernatural forces as the dynamic forces of the second half of the play. Helena actively uses and arranges the circumstances that lead to her success.

  20. R. B. Parker, “War and Sex in All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Survey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 37: 111-112.

  21. Wheeler states that “the exposure of Bertram releases a righteous feeling of moral outrage and with it a kind of vindictive pleasure that corresponds to the sadistic attack on the internalized object lost in reality described by Freud”, pp. 72-73.

  22. Carroll Camden in The Elizabethan Woman (New York: Elsevier Press, 1952) quotes from many such treatises which lead us to believe that women spent a great deal of time together. In his satirical pamphlet, The Gossips Greeting, Henry Parrot inveighs against talkative and outgoing women. Burton also refers to gossiping among women as “their merrie meetings and frequent visitations, mutual invitations in good towns … which are so in use.” A Dutch traveller named Van Meteren found this mode of entertainment a notable one among Elizabethan women. He writes: “all the rest of their time they employ in walking and riding, in playing cards or otherwise, in visiting their friends and keeping company, conversing with their equals and their neighbors and making merry” (162). Educated women also spent time carrying on an extended correspondence with their female friends.

  23. Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 282.

  24. Even at the end of the play the king proposes to repeat the process he inaugurated with Helena by finding Diana, the professed virgin, a husband. Lefew's daughter is offered to Bertram and then summarily withdrawn without any consultation with her. The tableau of women at the end of the play is intriguing; it ranges from Diana, who has vowed not to marry, to “fair Maudlin” who is given and taken back. The widow Countess stands with the newly restored wife-mother, Helena. What seems to be emphasized is the lack of or problematic nature of heterosexual relationships.

  25. Jacques Lacan, Séminaire XX, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1973-74), p. 14. Other references to the Séminaires in the text refer to the French editions published by Seuil and edited by Miller.

Barbara Hodgdon (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10187

SOURCE: “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes, and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 47-71.

[In the following essay, Hodgdon examines the gender theme on a structural level, revealing how Shakespeare's use of the various instances of doubling and substitution—most notably in the bed-trick scene—help to bring about the marital compromises that conclude the action of the play.]

In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena stands, much like As You Like It's Rosalind, at the center of the internal drama as well as the critical drama—that is, its critical controversies concerning meaning and language.1 Both plays share significant story elements; both are fictions of an ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary. Both Rosalind and Helena disguise their sexuality—the one by assuming a mask which permits her to explore male as well as female roles and attitudes through verbal wit and situational jokes; the other by foregrounding—even flaunting—her most vulnerable quality—her virginity. Both achieve their ends (Is it possible to talk of sexuality without creating a secondary sexual discourse?) by taking on the drive and ambition usually associated with males, by insisting on their intelligence, by using themselves (and their “magical” powers) in order to gain and to preserve their imagined loves.2 And both dramas endow their heroines' explorations of desire with stature and conviction.

Critical discussions of both plays, however, often ignore if not erase such similarities and focus on the differences between the two, engaging enthusiastically with Rosalind's fabular androgyny but questioning—even condemning—Helena's motives as well as the “unlawful” means through which she “doubly wins” a husband. As You Like It may offer jibing critiques of Petrarchan ideals or the foolishness of love at first sight, may provide glimpses of alternative perspectives on sexual desire as a potential threat to individual relationships or to the community fabric; but its close places these features within an idealized construct that celebrates desire and mutuality. In All's Well, however, sexuality appears, on the one hand, as a blatant preoccupation of the play and, on the other, assumes the convenient disguise of plot and character conventions associated with fairy tale and romance. Much like the screwball film comedies of the late 1930s and early 1940s, All's Well conveys its concern with sexuality paradoxically by means of prohibitions of representation and language3—by what it does not say or show, by avoiding areas or topics to which it has access. And although All's Well journeys toward a celebratory ending similar to that of As You Like It, this paradox generates a complex of meanings that compromises the arrival. Whereas As You Like It bears us away, All's Well bears pondering.

Let this pondering take the form of a bricolage of at least three voices. One re-examines Shakespeare's transformation of Boccaccio's tale; another explores how sexual signs are articulated in character and event; yet another discloses how what I call substitute scenes and doubled presences function to sexualize its narrative structure.4 Although I will be moving somewhat freely among these voices or perspectives, my re-reading of All's Well approaches the play primarily from Helena's point of view. And because her virginity—and the “use” she makes of it—lies at the heart of both the drama and its critical history, I begin by raising that issue in conjunction with another, All's Well's re-naming of Boccaccio's heroine.5

Why does Shakespeare change Giletta's name? Rather than, as with Beltramo, simply anglicizing her name to Juliet or Julietta, thus suggesting comparisons to the heroine of his romantic tragedy (or tragical romance), Romeo and Juliet,6 he chooses to call her Helena, thus signalling particular sexual, as well as social and metadramatic, connotative possibilities. By association, her name evokes both the adulterous Helen of Troy and the lonely, virginal, left-out Helena of A Midsummer Night's Dream, strongly locked on a single object of desire. In name alone, then, Helena embraces a paradox, one insistently re-enforced by the text. Through extremely economical means, Shakespeare's renaming of his heroine encompasses her sexual awareness, her obsessive desire and her virginity. And this latter quality the playtext underscores further, first in her conversation with Parolles (1.1.104-211)7 and then by linking her to Diana, the name and symbol of chastity itself.

The dialogue Helena shares with Parolles separates two soliloquies. In the first, she declares that Bertram has replaced her father in her imagination and that she is “undone”—even dead: “there is no living, none, / If Bertram be away” (1.1.80-81); in the second, cued by Parolles' exit line—“Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee. So, farewell” (1.1.206-7)—she exchanges her former sense of lifelessness for a fixed resolve, a “project” involving the King's disease which, although she avoids specific reference to Bertram, presumably will help to win him. Helena's initial position is comparable to that of Ophelia in Hamlet—if Hamlet had returned to Wittenberg or gone off to the Norwegian court. As others have noted, much about All's Well's opening recalls Hamlet; indeed, the entire first scene reads almost like Hamlet from Ophelia's point of view, although the advice Helena receives from Parolles is exactly opposite to that which Laertes gives Ophelia just as he leaves, coincidentally, for Paris. Helena, however, speaks not with a brother, a desired lover or even (as Rosalind does with Celia) a close friend but with a man she identifies as a liar, a fool and a coward—but nevertheless a substitute for Bertram, a man she will love for Bertram's sake. Their exchange represents the only sign of her willingness to engage in sexual banter, and the implicit questions raised here press Helena—and the narrative—on.8 Why is virginity humiliating, laughable—“a desperate offendress against nature,” “out of fashion,” “a wither'd pear?” Why worthless until used? Why, or to what extent, is marriage thought to justify its “use?” And, of course, Helena's own explicit question, “How might one do, sir, to lose it [virginity] to her own liking?” (1.1.147). Although Helena states the text's hermeneutic question directly, without metaphoric double entendre, thus placing her in a position of sexual power, from this point on the text consistently masks her sexual awareness with riddles or with language that betrays her deep mistrust, even fear, of sexuality. Only her actions express her desires frankly, moving her toward a husband as well as toward an initiatory sexual experience that is hurried, cloaked by night and silence and set up through deceit and trickery—however “lawful” that deceit may be. At the same time, the text represents her as a miraculous and virginal minister of healing grace, capable of restoring her King to sexual health and her future husband to (presumably) sexual wealth.

Helena herself, speaking to the Countess, outlines the paradox:

                              … but if yourself,
Whose aged honour cites a virtuous youth,
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!


To be both Dian and love; to give and to lose; to live and to die: the narrative process seeks to explore—and finally to integrate—these absolute oppositions. Toward this end, the play gives Helena two doubles—Diana and Lavatch. In linking her to Diana, the text again particularizes its narrative source: Boccaccio's substitute for Giletta in the bed trick remains nameless, plays her purely functional role, is rewarded with a dowry and leaves the city. Shakespeare's text not only highlights (ironically) notions of idealized chastity by naming her Diana but also firmly establishes her within a community of women as Helena's ally, not her possible rival; and the riddling language the two share further reinforces their correspondence. Thus Helena's “maiden pilgrimage” to Saint Jaques' shrine takes her “from Dian's altar” to “imperial Love” by way of the literal Diana; and Helena's loss (or giving “use”) of her own virginity preserves Diana's chastity, which becomes a crucial feature in the play's final revelations.

Helena's link to Lavatch, though less precise—comparable to the implicit relationship between Cordelia and Fool in King Lear in that, just as Fool replaces the banished Cordelia, so does Lavatch replace Helena as the Countess's companion—provides one means of sustaining a level of witty playfulness about sex that disappears, after her conversation with Parolles, from her role. Reading Lavatch as Helena's substitute, surrogate or double enriches both their presences: that his first appearance separates Helena's initial statements of her desire for Bertram and her confession of that desire to the Countess and that he speaks of what occupies her mind—marriage—further join the two. The Clown's persistent theological references, which parody, within a bawdy context, the court's pious sentiments on honor, virtue and fortune,9 also suggest Lavatch's correspondence with the religious aura surrounding Helena. His “holy reasons” for marrying—that he is “driven on by the flesh” and seeks to marry in order to repent—preface a sustained parody of the Epistle for the marriage service (1.3.44-53).10 This double, rather perverse, view of marriage as fulfilling male hopes and fears—giving sensual satisfaction but also leading to cuckoldry—suggests a potential register of Helena's suppressed discourse, one that critics, anxious to stress her selfless, saint-like perfection and humility (and thus aiding their defense of her forthright and devious “male” behavior), have themselves suppressed. And it is Lavatch who also evokes Helena's link to Helen of Troy, “corrupt[ing]” his ballad by juggling the proportion of good men in order to “purify” the number of good women (1.3.57-84). This rather backhanded compliment, as well as the words just preceding his exit—“That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!” (1.3.87-88)—surely suggest Helena's situation, which the Steward outlines for the Countess just before Helena enters.11 I shall return to Lavatch, but now I should like to turn, as the narrative does, to the King's healing.

As many of its critics have noted, All's Well, like The Winter's Tale, falls into two halves: each contains a miraculous and sexually charged transformation, and each transformation is doubled—that is, each generates its own medium of exchange. Linked to death as well as to new or renewed life on both literal and metaphoric levels, transformation not only threatens the integrity of the individual but also becomes a means to register sexual events. In the first such transformation in the play, Helena restores the King's health in order to get the man she desires, Bertram. Yet, although Lafew's comments about Helena's ability to “araise King Pippen” and “To give great Charlemain a pen in's hand / And write to her a love-line” (2.1.75-77) preface their confrontation, the formal, rather distanced, riddling couplets articulating their exchange as well as Helena's presentation of herself as one possessed not only of purely natural healing properties (inherited from her father) but also of God's grace and the help of heaven strongly counter this particular level of sexual suggestiveness. And again, the playtext differs significantly from the source text.

In Boccaccio, the King, after deciding to permit Giletta to work her cure, asks her to set the terms of her failure:

“Damosel, if thou does not heale me, but make me to breake my determination, what wilt thou shal folow thereof.” “Sir,” said the maiden: “Let me be kept in what guard and keeping you list: and if I do not heale you within these eight dayes, let me be burnt: but if I do heale your grace, what recompence shall I have then?” To whom the kinge aunswered: “Because thou art a maiden and unmaried, if thou heale me according to thy promise, I wil bestow thee uppon some gentleman, that shalbe of right good worship and estimation.” To whom she aunsweared: “Sir, I am very well content that you bestow me in mariage: But I beseech your grace let me have such a husband as I myselfe shall demaund, without presumption to any of your children or other of your blood.” Which request the king incontinently graunted.12 [my emphasis]

In All's Well's source, the idea of rewarding Giletta with a husband comes from the King; in Shakespeare's text, Helena sets the terms of the bargain herself, a change that foregrounds her sense of her own power. More remarkable, though, is how the playtext transforms Giletta's suggestion that she be burned (the fate of witches) if she fails to heal the King.

King. Upon thy certainty and confidence
What dar'st thou venture?
Helena. 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 torture, let my life be ended.(13)

(2.1.164-73 [my emphasis])

Shakespeare's playtext transfers the notion of burning (which looks back to the “flame of liking” in 1.3) to Helena's maiden name, adding the ideas of torture and death as circumstances which extend the other risks: impudence, boldness, shame, traduction. Helena foregrounds the threat to her virginity, links that idea to her worst fears, and places herself in a position of abjection, substituting the literal mention of death as a cover for its metaphorical sense.

That Helena's cure of the King as a means of forwarding her own desires and that her language—both consciously and subconsciously—reflects those desires seems clear enough. But what of the King? Lafew's remark, “I am Cressid's uncle / That dare leave two together” (2.1.96-97) suggests reading the scene as an illicit encounter; the exchange of vows, sealed with a handclasp, and the absence of a “love scene” so far in a play concerned with romance further invite reading at least an implicit current of sexual attraction between Helena and the King.14 Initially, however, he rejects Helena's aid until she evokes the help of heaven and repeats her vow to hazard her life: “Not helping, death's my fee” (2.1.188). And the only phrase he speaks that approaches double entendre—“Thy will by my performance shall be serv'd” (2.1.201)—gains a potential sexual resonance more from Helena's (and an audience's) hearing than from its literal context. The BBC-TV production pushed that potential by closing the scene with Angela Down's Helena bending over Donald Sinden's King, who sucked life from his restorer in a passionately consuming kiss, over which the camera lingered. Representing the King's cure as initiated by a shared sexual attraction anticipates and supports the courtiers' elliptical remarks when, fully recovered, he dances with Helena (2.3). Yet the playtext chooses other means—the first of several substitute scenes—to signal the King's reawakened sexual powers.

With this scene (2.2) the narrative returns to Rossillion and to some comic banter between the Countess and Lavatch. On the surface, their dialogue does little more than simply fool away the time: the usual thematic reading focuses on pointing the distinction between physical nurture and moral discipline and as Shakespeare's familiar commentary on the emptiness of courtiers. Read as a narrative substitute for the King's healing, however, its heavily suggestive double entendre not only articulates offstage events but also further supports the notion that Lavatch functions as Helena's double. Although the Countess opens the exchange with a line that glances at Helena's role—“Come on, sir: I will now put you to the height of your breeding” (2.2.1-2)—Lavatch's claim—“I have an answer will serve all men” (2.2.14)—puts him more directly in her position as “healer-virgin.” And the Countess's questions and comments evoke the King's earlier verbal behavior. At first she seems to ignore Lavatch's bawdy play on “it,” yet she does not reprimand him but, rather, repeats her questions.

Count. Have you, I say, an answer of such fitness for all questions?
Lav. From below your duke to beneath your constable, it will fit any question.
Count. It must be an answer of most monstrous size that must fit all demands.
Lav. But a trifle neither, in good faith, if the learned should speak truth of it. Here it is, and all that belongs to't; ask me if I am a courtier; it shall do you no harm to learn.
Count. To be young again, if we could, I will be a fool in question, hoping to be the wiser by your answer.


The Countess's wish here is exactly consonant with what is happening to the King in these moments. Moreover, she herself not only indulges in but seems to enjoy this juvenile wit play, encouraging Lavatch's riff on “O Lord, sir!” until he says, “Nay, put me to't, I warrant you” (2.2.45)—at which point she reminds him of whipping (Does Helena's mention of torture as an alternative echo here?). Although straining exact substitutions—Lavatch for Helena; the Countess for the King—risks overprivileging this exchange, the Countess's wish for youth and her momentary indulgence in sexually playful talk at this particular point in the narrative do function as verbal substitutes for unrepresented events.15 The next scene fulfills her wish: Helena's cure restores the King's youth. Although thought to be miraculous—“A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor” (2.3.23-24)—his cure also results from double entendre, from the text's own sexual play with the power of language as representation.16 Lafew first stresses the King's youthfulness—“Why, your dolphin is not lustier”; his next comment registers a more precise sexual connotation: “Lustique, as the Dutchman says. I'll like a maid the better whilst I have a tooth in my head. Why, he's able to lead her a coranto” (2.3.26-27; 41-43).

Once again, the playtext's stress on the King's sensual health transforms Boccaccio's details. In the tale, Giletta, once married to Beltramo, wins the love and affection of her husband's subjects for returning order to Rossiglione, for restoring “all the countrie again to their auncient liberties.” Her sociopolitical concern for the subjects' welfare prompts her to assemble the “noblest and chiefest of the country” to announce that she will leave Rossiglione for pilgrimages and devotion.17 In Shakespeare's playtext, ordering the social and political aspects of the state becomes linked to the reawakening of the King's sexual powers, thus foregrounding Helena's ability to restore a dying world to life. But the most important narrative results of the King's restoration are that it not only produces a couple, Helena and Bertram, but that Helena gains from the King the “honor and wealth” that make her Bertram's equal. Here, too, the playtext manipulates Boccaccio's details. Whereas Giletta is fatherless and rich and refuses many husbands with whom her kinsfolk would have matched her, Helena, though she is also fatherless, is neither rich nor sought after but, like the nameless gentlewoman in Boccaccio's tale who becomes her bed-trick substitute, “very poore and of small substance, nevertheless of right honest life and good report, who by reason of her poverty was yet unmaried.”18 And Shakespeare's playtext transforms Giletta's refusal of many husbands into a miniature occasion that foregrounds Helena's undesirability, not her eligibility, by surrounding her with a whole group of unwilling potential husbands (and sympathetic, if not willing, older men—surrogate fathers) from which Helena chooses (as we know she will but the King does not) the singularly unwilling Bertram. Further, the King assumes a father's role in granting Helena both a title and a dowry, which both validates her marriageability and transforms her virginity into a medium of exchange. And it is precisely through this exchange, through the King's “raising,” that Helena acknowledges her desire and effects her second miracle. But first, some talk of the happy couple.

Assuming that dialogue between lovers functions as a form of discourse that substitutes for sexual foreplay, the talk that Helena and Bertram share represents the confined and sexually constrained (or silent) nature of their relationship. As the King formalizes their marriage contract, Bertram and Helena speak only to him, not to one another. Here as well as in the next few scenes, they speak only through intermediaries—the King, Parolles—meeting (in 2.5) only to say goodbye, a point at which the text inscribes an acute lack of mutuality. Bertram rejects Helena's words, her obedience, her very physical presence; he ignores and/or turns away from her wish to “steal” a parting kiss: neither her body nor her language can transform his silence into either sexual discourse or gesture. Yet that silence functions in conjunction with what they do say to one another (and what other characters say, not only to them and about them but to others) as a structuring absence: in this text, avoiding access to sexuality constitutes a mode of paying heightened attention to it. In representing Helena and Bertram's relationship, the text articulates a tension between the obsessive frankness of highly playful double entrendre and a repressive discourse centering on ideal notions of love, virtue and honor. And the narrative structure further represents this tension between obsessiveness and restriction by masking heightened sexual events with substitute scenes which cover but do not silence their presence.

When with Parolles, Helena speaks straightforwardly of losing her virginity; when alone, she expresses her desire for Bertram in romantic metaphors, seeing him as “a bright particular star” and herself as “the hind that would be mated with the lion”; she talks of dying for love (1.1.84; 89-90). When with Bertram, however, she suppresses both modes of speech. Like Helena, Bertram would preserve his virginity—“lose it to [his] own liking”; also like Helena, he speaks most freely with Parolles, his double. Just as Lavatch's comments reveal the underside of Helena's sensuality, Parolles' remarks disclose Bertram's sexual preoccupations in the conventional bawdy glaze of locker-room juvenilia. At Parolles' urging, Bertram substitutes the romance of the Tuscan wars for the marriage bed—“Wars is no strife / To the dark house and the detested wife” (2.3.287-88)—later shifting that desire onto Diana. Ironically, his attempt to refuse the story scripted for him by the King and to introduce a new, and forbidden, sexual narrative leads him to legitimize Helena's desire.

As Helena and Bertram leave the stage to be married, the narrative parts them. That the text avoids the sort of bawdy substitute for Helena and Bertram's marriage that it provides for the King's cure measures the coldly contractual, nearly asexual nature of their union. Yet the moment does receive a substitute: Lafew's ridicule of Parolles masks the ceremony, and the text foregrounds the coincidental timing by Lafew's exit and immediate return with the news of Helena and Bertram's marriage. Parolles, by not even acknowledging the marriage but instead demanding “reservation” of the “wrongs” in Lafew's statement about his “lord and master,” mirrors Bertram's refusal to accept Helena, to be “mastered,” except by God (2.3.238-60). Their exchange functions doubly, exposing Bertram's unworthiness by showing Parolles' emptiness and self-concern and by preserving Bertram from immediate judgment by displacing that potential for judgment onto Parolles. When Bertram does enter, his absolute refusal of Helena, set against Parolles' ingratiating, almost nanny-like support of the wars as an alternative to marriage,19 locates honor in sexually explicit terms:

He wears his honour 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.


In his willingness to exchange the use of his “manly marrow” in his wife's arms to pursue “honour” in the wars, Bertram, like Helena in her bargain with the King, views possible death as an alternative to consummating what he views as illegitimate desire. And when Helena next appears (2, 4), the text sets her concern for the Countess and her desire to conform to Bertram's will sharply against Bertram's hatred of the King's “present gift” and his resolve to send her to her “single sorrow”—a state she will share, if briefly, with his mother. Helena's exit with Lavatch, after hearing Parolles' flowery (and prophetic) excuses for Bertram's delay in consummating the marriage, strengthens the earlier suggestions of their doubling, equating their fool-likeness. Their shared silence here foregrounds the defeat of both verbal aspects of Helena's sexuality: against that of the man of words, Parolles, neither form of discourse has power. In Trevor Nunn's 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production of All's Well, Helena's slow exit, holding hands with the stooped and limping Lavatch, movingly evoked their relationship as well as her extreme vulnerability.

Following a brief scene that sets up the war, the narrative now focuses on that vulnerability by further outlining the threatening territory of death and dying that Marjorie Garber suggests as a pervasive grounding for Shakespearean comedy.20 Soon, Helena will begin to question both Bertram's sexuality and her own; but now, again in banter with the Countess, Lavatch glances at Helena's position. He thinks not of his desire, Isbel: “The brains of my Cupid's knock'd out, and I begin to love as an old man loves money, with no stomach” (3.2.14-16). Lavatch leaves for the reading of Bertram's letter, which tells the Countess of his “undoing” and his flight, returning to outline the life and death issues. In so doing, he links Bertram's vulnerability with Helena and identifies his “danger” specifically in terms of sexual encounters.

Lav. Nay, there is some comfort in the news, some comfort; your son will not be kill'd so soon as I thought he would.
Count. Why should he be kill'd?
Lav. So say I, madam—if he run away, as I hear he does; the danger is in standing to't; that's the loss of men, though it be the getting of children.


As Alexander Welsh points out, the play takes seriously the joke on “standing to't”: the only way Helena can call Bertram husband is to turn him into the father of her child.21 But as the play's first half ends,22 Helena's soliloquy expresses her fears of Bertram's death in battle; imagining herself as the potential cause of his death, she resolves to substitute her absence for his return to Rossillion. She sees herself, as when she earlier sought Bertram's farewell kiss, as “a timorous thief” who has stolen the title of wife. At this mid-point, closing (as it began) on notes of death and loss, of humiliation and self-sacrifice, Helena's sexuality has no potentially expressive means: denied as both virgin and wife, she is nothing.23

The opening of the second half, by rhyming on the play's first scene, where Bertram leaves for Paris, initiates some expectation that the narrative will now follow his military career. Instead, the text explores his sexuality, exposing his faults and then betraying him to himself, thus confirming Helena's view of him as a worthy object of desire. Although the second part of the narrative analyzes Bertram's experience as well as the patriarchal conventions he attempts to put into play, its affective center affirms Helena's control and power as a counter to those conventions. The narrative overturns the vowed absences of both characters, transforming these lacks into presence.

After Helena leaves, her letter to the Countess, blessing Bertram and vowing to sanctify his name, concludes:

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


Most editors gloss “whom” as “death,” which limits the possible play in her phrase. The words riddle prophetically: she will embrace both herself (in the person of Diana) and death (literally, by forging her own, and metaphorically, by embracing Bertram). That embrace will free Bertram from literal to metaphoric death, which, in turn, will eventually free him to her. Strikingly, she betrays her suppressed preoccupation with sexual dying by positioning herself (as she had before the King) as a substitute for death.

Increasingly, Helena's language elides both the actors and the actions of desire, compressing her thought into cryptic phrases that mask self-revelation.24 After arranging the bed trick, for instance, taut, riddling couplets formalize and cap her resolve:

Let us assay our plot; which, if it speed
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a lawful act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.
But let's about it.


Glossing Helena's phrases not only suggests their complexity but reveals her attempt to legitimize her “plot,” to transform “wicked meaning” (Bertram's intended adultery as well as, perhaps, her own ruse) to “lawful deed” (Bertram's marriage duty to Helena) and to enclose “lawful meaning” (Helena's rights as a wife) in a “lawful act” (marriage) which erases the “sin” of both. But Helena's argument, which reflects the intricate and delicate play between forbidden and legalized sexuality in purposefully antithetical absolutes, cannot so transform Bertram's attempted adultery; rather, “and yet” separates that “sinful fact” from the rest of her thought, signalling its transgressive nature. Nevertheless, her impersonal terms and strong end rhymes press toward action and aftermath: intent upon meaning, deed, act and fact, she seems distanced, apart, speaking more for the playtext's mechanism than for herself.25

Although Helena's last words—“But let's about it”—anticipate that the bed trick will follow directly, the text elides it, substituting a noisy mask for the promised silence of the sexual encounter. Two scenes of foreplay introduce the centerpiece. Parolles' capture and blindfolding, where his captors taunt him (appropriately, with meaningless languages), repeat and intensify the earlier substitution for Helena and Bertram's wedding—Lafew's attack on Parolles (4.1). And again, the moments function doubly, to suggest Bertram's position by showing Parolles' blindness, his fear and his concern for his life; and to emphasize not only the artificiality of language but also its inability to convey meaning.26 Diana's claims for true vows continue and extend this mockery, exposing and ridiculing Bertram's reliance on conventional sonnet epithets and on his carpe diem argument, recalling Parolles' earlier words to Helena—“Loss of virginity is rational increase, and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost” (1.1.125-27). Prophetic in his “sick desires,” he gives Diana his ring and vows, “My house, mine honour, yea, my life be thine / And I'll be bid by thee” (4.2.52-53). Hearing Diana's “You have won / A wife of me, though there my hope be done” only through the immediacy of desire, he transforms her thought to his own sexual fantasy: “A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee” (4.2.64-66).27

The bed trick itself constitutes the most complex substitute scene in the narrative, linking betrayal, exposure and death. The first speakers, Bertram's fellow-officers, blame him for shaking off his worthy wife, for incurring the displeasure of the King and for perverting a young gentlewoman in Florence. Just at this moment, they say, Bertram “fleshes his will in the spoil of her honour” (4.3.15), an action the Lords condemn: “Now, God delay our rebellion! As we are ourselves, what things we are!” “Merely our own traitors,” replies the Second Lord (4.3.18-20). Again the time is mentioned, a precision Shakespeare's texts rarely employ except to emphasize its particular significance. The Lord's conversation turns briefly to Parolles' anticipated unmasking, then to the war's peaceful conclusion and finally to Helena's pilgrimage and the news of her death: “the tenderness of her nature became as a prey to her grief; in fine, she made a groan of her last breath, and now she sings in heaven” (4.3.49-51). Once more, as when double entendre masked the King's cure (2.2), the text articulates, on the level of social gossip, the progress of offstage events. The report of Helena's death coincides with the moment that Bertram consummates what he thinks is his desire for Diana and what we know is the “lawful act” of marriage.28 The shrine of “imperial Love” blurs the distinctions between literal and metaphoric dying: it is both a kind of brothel and a heaven of peace.

The possibility of Bertram's honor being “used up” by his death at the hands of war becomes replaced by Helena's metaphoric death, by what she later refers to as the “sweet use” of her virginity. In All's Well the exchange is much less cruelly mechanical than the exchange of head for maidenhead in Measure for Measure.29 Nevertheless, the moments produce a similarly problematic life and death context, tainted by betrayal. For Helena has surely “betrayed” Bertram into her bed under the cover of darkness, just as the Lords have lured Parolles to “betray[ing] us all unto ourselves” (4.1.92). Like Angelo in the final scene of Measure, and like Bertram and Helena in this play, Parolles is threatened with torture and death and then allowed to live. And, in another startling reminiscence of the earlier substitute scene, his “O Lord, sir, let me live, or let me see my death!” echoes Lavatch's riff on the answer of “fitness for all questions” (2.2).

However dazzling and satisfying this purge of Parolles/Bertram, Bertram's own responses to facing his doubled death seem puzzlingly muted. In cataloguing the “sixteen businesses” he has dispatched, he summarily dismisses Helena's death and his mourning and makes only an elliptical reference to the “business” of his sexual pleasure—“the last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet” (4.3.88-89)—which yields almost immediately to his fear that Diana will claim him as her husband. Even when he hears himself described as “ruttish,” a “dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity, and devours up all the fry it finds,” and when Parolles' verse letter exposes his half-made oaths and inability to pay what he owes, he condemns Parolles only briefly (4.3.212-23). Like Helena in 2.2, who approaches the four Lords with a careful balance of rhyming wit and commonplace blessings that masks her feelings about choosing a husband publicly, Bertram's comments on Parolles' gulling cover the extent of his own exposure: of all the participants in this mass confessional, he remains most distant. Whereas the text might have given him either a long aside or a soliloquy,30 instead Parolles, his double, speaks in self-acknowledgment—“Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live. … There's place and means for every man alive” (4.3.322-28)—delaying knowledge of Bertram's own awareness.

If this substitute for privileging Bertram's point of view frustrates rather than reassures, Helena's level of awareness is equally problematic. Although the easy trust among the play's community of women purposefully counters the men's betrayal of themselves and of Parolles, Helena's words reveal her distance:

                              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.


She views her hour with Bertram not as giving sexual pleasure but, paradoxically, as a “sweet use” which prompts her to analyze the mental operations of hatred, wantonness and lust, producing a discomforting commentary on male sexuality. As before, she elides subject and object. But here, her thought process completely represses the female presence, transforming it into “what they hate,” “what it [lust] loathes,” “that which is away.” Finally, she masks the future with proverbial notions:

All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown.
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.


Both Bertram and Helena turn toward the results of their experience, toward endings. Bertram elides any analysis of his sexuality, suggesting both his deep privacy and his self-concern. Helena, puzzled by men's strangeness, tries to comprehend a male point of view; characteristically, she does so by denying self and without conveying specific blame. The strongest impression of both, however, is that their metaphoric death produces stillness and verbal silence: sexuality seems suspended, momentarily in a kind of limbo, following its “use.”

Lavatch's appearance following the bed trick reflects this suppression. His sexual wit play gone, his comments glance at both Helena and Bertram as he rues her death and professes himself “a fool … at a woman's service, and a knave at a man's” (4.5.1-22). His view of the world has shrunk:

I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire, and the master I speak of ever keeps a good fire; but sure he is the prince of the world; let his nobility remain in's court, I am for the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be too little for pomp to enter; some that humble make themselves may, but the many will be too chill and tender, and they'll be for the flow'ry way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire.


This apocalyptic glimpse glances precisely at how Lavatch views a world lacking Helena's redemptive presence.31 Although Lavatch's despair causes Lafew to dismiss him and the Countess to apologize for him, the text continues to support his link to Helena. Significantly, in his absence, Lafew introduces the idea of Bertram's marriage to his daughter, Maudlin, just before Lavatch returns to announce Bertram's arrival. And in the final moments of his role, he faces and insults his opposite double, the muddy (and smelly) Parolles, before leaving him with Lafew.32 His absence in the final scene signals the repression of his particularly incisive, misanthropically proverbial wit and his replacement with his now-transformed double, Helena. For one function of the closing scene is to remove the taint of Helena's deception, likening her to Bertram and Parolles, and to substitute another likeness.

The final scene recalls and reproduces the whole narrative, transforming each repeated event in a series of astonishing volte-faces. These features suggest its likeness to a play-within-a-play, yet it provides not just a contrapuntal inset mechanism but a full and tough-minded analysis of grief, confession, lies and accusations, justifiable anger and reconciliation. All of these mirror, though not in their precise ordering in the playtext's process, the stages Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identifies as those we pass through in accepting death.33 That acceptance of literal as well as metaphoric death grounds one function of the sexual signs operating here. On another level, the text reconfirms and equates virginity with miraculous capabilities; further, elaborate doublings validate virginity as well as marriage. Although to some extent, metaphorical, mythical and miraculous constructs here displace those of actual human behavior, such fairy-tale signs have been integrated, throughout the play, with signs of the real, and the close continues that seeming paradox.

First, a summary of Boccaccio's ending. Having executed the impossible tasks—getting Beltramo's ring and a son begotten by him—Giletta appears at a feast Beltramo gives on All Saints' Day. Just as the company prepares to sit down at table, she enters, bearing her twin sons in her arms, identifies herself and asks (since she has fulfilled his conditions) to be received as Beltramo's wife. Beltramo, “greatly astonned,” recognizes the ring and “the children also, they were so like hym.” As she retells her story, Beltramo instantly knows that she speaks the truth and, “(perceiving her constant minde and good witte, and the twoo faire young boyes),” accepts Giletta as his lawful wife, honoring her and “abject[ing] his obstinate rigour,” not only in order to keep his promise but also to please his subjects.34

Whereas Boccaccio focuses on Giletta's constancy and cleverness as a way to acknowledge and affirm the legitimacy of the social order, Shakespeare's text uses these emphases only as a frame to join the play's oppositions—virginity and marriage, giving and losing, life and death. Two of Boccaccio's most striking details, however, are foregrounded: the mention of All Saints' Day and Beltramo's twin sons. One has a limited “presence,” in that it acts as a pre-text only for some elements of the closing scene; the other pervades the entire play.

All Saints' Day, the festival celebrating the saints in heaven, becomes not only a possible antecedent for Helena's reference to herself as “but the shadow of a wife” but also lies securely behind an ending celebrating her return from the dead. All's Well certainly evokes the spirit, as well as a remembrance, of both the Epistle and the Gospel for All Saints' Day. The Epistle, from Revelation 7:2, concerns the appearance of a multitude standing before the throne of the Lamb clothed in white robes. When an elder asks who they are, he receives this reply:

These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

Do Lafew's tears—and the Countess's—also recall this passage? And as a pre-text for the religious undertones here, the Gospel for All Saints' Day—Matthew 5:1, the beatitudes—prefaces Christ's call to perfect love.

All's Well transforms Beltramo's twin sons into a series of resonant doublings: Bertram/Parolles; Helena/Diana; Helena/Lavatch; Helena/Maudlin (a “shadowed” doubling prompting Bertram's avowal of Helena's worth); Helena's double cures of the King and Bertram; the doubled rings; doubled “deaths”; Bertram's double “winning.” In addition, the closing scene produces further doubles. In denying that the ring he gives to Maudlin was Helena's, Bertram prompts the King to accuse him of Helena's literal, not her metaphoric, death. Momentarily, then, he again faces consequences similar to those Helena was willing to suffer if she failed to cure the King. Further, Bertram's initial rejection of Diana repeats, with a difference, his earlier rejection of Helena. Diana, insistent on her “right,” vows “That she which marries you must marry me— / Either both or none” (5.3.173-74), words that introduce the equation of virginity with married chastity, which Helena's later appearance confirms. Pressed on all sides, but especially by the threat of exposure from Parolles, Bertram finally acknowledges that he “boarded her i' the wanton way of youth,” idealizing his own role in the encounter and blaming her “restraint” for “madding” his eagerness (5.3.210-12). These statements, together with Parolles' remarks that Bertram “Lov'd her, and lov'd her not” and that he, Parolles, “knew of their going to bed and other motions” (5.3.245; 257-58) are the most explicit sexual signs in a discourse where sexuality is confined to its symbols—the rings—and endowed with an ability, once openly recognized, to regenerate the past, heal the present and provide for the future.

Diana's forthrightness here, like Helena's as she proposed to cure the King, threatens her with death. Lafew assumes, from Diana's answers, that she is a whore: “This woman's an easy glove, my lord; she goes off and on at pleasure” (5.3.271-72), recalling Helena's similar positioning of herself if she failed to cure the King—either a strumpet (her “maiden name sear'd”) or a wife. Denying that she is a strumpet, Diana assumes Helena's magical qualities, sets up the riddle that solves her own riddling ambiguities and produces Helena. In turn, as Helena produces Bertram's ring and the letter, her double winning of her husband validates Diana's chastity. And Bertram faces, in his moment of revelation, not twin sons, replicas of himself, but doubled presences of chaste virtue. And, as the King promises to provide Diana with a dowry and the husband of her choice, she (as well as what she stands for) becomes additionally powerful—the means for the story to be repeated once again.

Throughout, Shakespeare's text complicates the characters' sexual psychology beyond Boccaccio's details, generating suggestions of Helena and Bertram's potential incest as well as creating the expectation that the King and the Countess may marry.35 The close, however, evades both notions. The King, in accepting Bertram and providing Helena with a dowry, does become a surrogate father for both, but the text does not couple him with the Countess, thereby eluding the creation of a family joined by metaphorical, if not literal, incest. The final words of his role stress his presence as “lord” and “liege” to Helena and Bertram, and his fatherly function transfers from them to Diana, for whom—if she proves herself a virgin—he will provide a dowry.

These last-minute transfers and transformations suppress the Countess's verbal role: she functions as an observer, providing explanatory asides and confirming significant information, such as the ring's provenance. Although Bertram neither greets her nor acknowledges her commentary, Helena does respond: “O my dear mother, do I see you living?”36 In Nunn's production, the Countess's weeping prompted Helena to embrace her, reaching beyond the formally achieved marital and social resolutions articulated by the text toward an emotional expression of reconciliation. Only Lafew's tears fill the silence that marks the text's final riff on doubled presence: one mother faces (and/or embraces) her replacement on the crowded, uncoupled stage, recalling Helena's early wish:

The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes, and kiss like native things.


Finally, the play positions women either as virgins ready for marriage or as mothers. Implicitly and explicitly, the woman who acknowledges her own sexual desire becomes transformed into one or the other.

This transformation marks Helena's willingness to relinquish her independent identity for the dependency of marriage and motherhood, to (some would say) sacrifice herself to these institutions. Yet she has already passed through the sacrificial fire that would sear her maiden name; in winning through to her desire, she is, unlike her namesake from Troy, neither war booty, ransom, nor gift. Unlike many Shakespearean heroines, she does not lapse into silent consent at the close. Rather, the text displaces that potential onto Diana, who remains silent at the King's offer of a dowry if she proves to be a virgin—in other words, a substitute for what Helena was. Thus, although the close foregrounds conformist ideology by placing Helena as a socially and sexually legitimate wife and mother, it also generates another virgin who may attempt to use the patriarchal system in order to gain power—much as Queen Elizabeth used patriarchal codes by speaking a discourse of apparent abjection and vulnerability.37 By articulating a cogent analysis of female (and male) sensibility, Shakespeare's text generates an incipient critique of patriarchal systems as well as a model of feminized power. But that is another essay.

I began this essay by saying that Helena lies at the center of the internal as well as the critical drama of All's Well. At the close, however, the critical emphasis shifts away from Helena to express widespread disappointment and dissatisfaction with Bertram's truncated and insubstantial replies to Helena, objections that level at what I read as signs of realism (albeit expressed through highly controlled artifice) in a non-realistic text and seem to be grounded in a romantic expectation that Shakespearean characters will not only say exactly the “right thing”—that is, that they will speak expressively, preferably at some length and with rhetorical fluency—but also that this particular character, Bertram, will finally accept Helena with a bit more enthusiasm.38 Listen to their final exchange with the King:

[Re-]enter Widow [with] Helena
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!
Helena. O my good lord, when I was like this maid
I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring,
And, look you, here's your letter. This it says:
When from my finger you can get this ring
And is by me with child, & c. This is done;
Will you be mine now you are doubly won?
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!


Helena first speaks to Bertram through the King, echoing her earlier inability to address him directly. Yet by completing her verse line, Bertram's response joins his thought to hers: in the compression and elision characteristic of his (and Helena's) role, he gives her the name of wife, acknowledges that she is no longer “nothing” but “the thing itself” and asks for pardon. Helena's words seek further surety, reminding him, first, of their encounter and then, more specifically, that the terms of her acceptance were his. Her question—“Will you be mind now you are doubly won?”—in its pun on won/one, recalls the twins of the source and invites Bertram to reconfirm her presence in terms of a unity that includes them both. And again Bertram cues his speech to hers, addressing her through the King in words that pick up, in his repetition of ever and dearly, her notion of “doubly won”—and thus acknowledge his willingness. Helena's response continues and confirms the paired notions that, alone, make their exchange noticeably extraordinary. Her thought first rests on plainness, on constancy. Now, she links divorce to death, rephrasing her initial oppositions—to be both Dian and love, to give and to lose, to live and to die. But she no longer bears death alone; she transfers it to divorce, to what may “step between me and you.” And she repeats Bertram's conditional preface, grounding her answer in negatives—“not plain,” “prove untrue”—that can transform into positive terms only through a similar operational instruction, a potential “if.” The exchange, sounding more like the terms of a bargain (and a fictional one at that) than the romantic language of our expectations, articulates—in this text, for these characters—a startling mutuality.

Finally, for Helena and Bertram, their commitment to their shared sexuality becomes hesitantly apparent, more in silence than through extravagant speech or romantic gestures, as the possibility of kindness and love. Trevor Nunn chose to open his production of All's Well That Ends Well with a couple waltzing in half-light to a haunting tune and to deny a similar image at the close but rather to have Helena and Bertram exit—after the King's epilogue and after the others had left the stage—slowly, together but without touching one another. His staging privileges those features of the close suggesting that all only seems well—for the characters as well as for the comedy—given the problematic “ifs” of Bertram, Helena and the King, which acknowledge the conditional nature of human sexual behavior in marriage and of fictions about marriage. This close celebrates compromise, the text's final real-izing of romance.


  1. I borrow this construct from Jacqueline Rose, “Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 95-118.

  2. For these notions of story elements, see Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974), see especially pp. 138-19, 160-61 and 230.

  3. Brian Henderson, “Romantic Comedy Today: Semi-Tough or Impossible?” Film Quarterly 31, no. 4 (Summer 1978): 11-23.

  4. In reading the play's structure, I draw from the following: V. I. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (1928), trans. Laurence Scott (U. of Texas, 1958); A. J. Greimas, “Elements of a Narrative Grammar” (1969), Diacritics 7 (1977): 23-40; and Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970), trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

  5. Although some have not been cited, I should like to acknowledge a general debt to the following studies: Nicholas Brooke, “All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 73-84; James L. Calderwood, “Styles of Knowing in All's Well,MLQ 25 (1974): 272-94; Howard C. Cole, The All's Well Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare (U. of Illinois Press, 1981); Ian Donaldson, “All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings,” Essays in Criticism 27 (1977): 34-55; R. A. Foakes, Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays (U. Press of Virginia, 1971); Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (Columbia U. Press, 1965); Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981); Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (Columbia U. Press, 1965); Arthur C. Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge U. Press, 1981); G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (London: Methuen, 1958), pp. 95-160; W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 2nd edition (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1960); Joseph G. Price, The Unfortunate Comedy (U. of Toronto Press, 1968); A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (London: Longman's, Green and Co., Ltd., 1961); R. L. Smallwood, “The Design of All's Well,Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 45-61; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (U. of Toronto Press, 1971); Roger Warren, “Why Does It End Well? Helena, Bertram and the Sonnets,” Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 79-92; Richard C. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (U. of California Press, 1981).

  6. All references to Boccacio's tale are from William Painter's version (1575) as reprinted in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), 2:389-96.

  7. All text references are to the Arden edition of All's Well That Ends Well, ed. G. K. Hunter (London: Methuen, 1962).

  8. G. K. Hunter sees Helena's dialogue with Parolles as a “free and frothy play upon the ideas which are fermenting … in Helena's (or rather Shakespeare's) mind” and as “germane” to Helena's situation. (Arden Introduction, p. xlii.) Free and germane it certainly is, but that Helena confirms her determination to put her virginity to use through joking with Parolles seems more disturbing than frothy.

  9. See G. K. Hunter, Arden Introduction, pp. xxxiv-xxxvi.

  10. Arthur C. Kirsch notes the liturgical parody and provides a cogent analysis, p. 140. In discussing these moments, Joseph G. Price reminds readers that the Clown's parody must be seen in its overall thematic context and that we are not to take it seriously, for seeing him as a choral commentator on Helena's love ignores both the text and the role of the clown in Shakespeare's plays (Price, pp. 146-47). But by so limiting Lavatch's (or any clown's) verbal presence, he becomes simply an incidental figure whose role functions only to express a dramatic convention.

  11. G. K. Hunter, the Arden editor, notes the glance at Helena's situation, p. xxxv.

  12. Bullough, pp. 390-91.

  13. I have adopted the Folio punctuation here, which, rather than making “extended / With vildest torture” parenthetical, suggests the rush of Helena's thought.

  14. Like Angelo in a more avowedly perverse love scene in Measure for Measure (2.4), the King seems attracted to Helena's virtuous qualities.

  15. For a full discussion of unrepresented events in The Winter's Tale, see Howard Felperin, “‘Tongue-tied our queen?’: The Deconstruction of Presence in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 3-18.

  16. In Roland Barthes' view, from the pleasure of the text. The Pleasure of the Text (1973), trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975).

  17. Bullough, p. 392. A similar concern for the country's welfare and for its misuse of “liberty” prompts Duke Vincentio to assume the disguise of a friar. Unlike Giletta, however, he tells no one except another friar where he is going or why. Measure for Measure may be indebted to All's Well's source for these details.

  18. Bullough, p. 393.

  19. Cf. Juliet's nurse advising her to marry Paris, Romeo and Juliet 3.5.214-27.

  20. Marjorie Garber, “‘Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death’: Darker Purposes in Shakespearean Comedy,” in Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Maurice Charney (New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980), pp. 121-26.

  21. Alexander Welsh, “The Loss of Men and Getting of Children: All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure,MLR 73 (1978): 17-28.

  22. See Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford U. Press, 1971), esp. pp. 66-88, for a full discussion of two-part structure.

  23. Cf. Mariana in Measure for Measure, 5.1.172-79.

  24. Nicholas Brooke's essay, “All's Well That Ends Well,” gives extremely sensitive readings of the operations of language in the play.

  25. As does Measure's Duke Vincentio at similar points in that play's narrative (3.2.254-75; 4.1.71-76). “Who is speaking here?” Barthes would ask. S/Z (1970), trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), pp. 41-42.

  26. Price, p. 163.

  27. Several cruxes of language in 4.2 have long puzzled editors. First, Bertram's opening line, “They told me that your name was Fontybell.” G. K. Hunter reports Thiselton's conjectural reference to the fountain with a statue of Diana erected at Cheapside in 1596 but comments on the lack of evidence that it was ever called Fontybell or font bel. He adds, “Even if it had been, why should Bertram be told that his beloved had the name of a fountain?” (pp. 100-1, n.). Even though Bertram, a few lines later, calls Diana “no maiden but a monument” (which supports the statue reference), does not his question, in the situation literally an opening “line,” function as double entendre? Surely he knows Diana's name and is attempting to transform her into the “beautiful fount” of his imagined desire, testing her sexual willingness. If so, Diana will not play the game and silences Bertram's initial approach: “No, my good lord, Diana.” Refusing to be seen as an available object, she reminds Bertram that she has the name of chastity herself. Returning to Ovid's Diana, it is tempting to suggest that Actaeon's fate upon seeing Diana “naked in his sight,” bathing in “a lively spring with Christall streame” underlies this exchange. In Ovid, Diana sprinkles water on Actaeon's head and face and says, “Now make thy vaunt among thy mates, thou sawste Diana bare. / Tell if thou can: I give thee leave: tell heardly: do not spare.” And then she places the hart's horns on his head. Shakespeare's Ovid, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (Southern Illinois U. Press, 1961), Bk. 3, ll. 188; 220-30. It would, however, be a strain to push a full correspondence between the two situations and the two texts. Diana does not seek as thorough a revenge on Bertram (she is, after all, not seen naked but prevents that), and the usual threats of cuckolding are absent from the text.

    Second, I would like to add a new possibility to those offered by editors for the crux of 4.2.38: “I see that men make rope's in such a scarre.” Might “I see that men may rope's in such a scarf” make good sense? It certainly has the advantage of re-calling Parolles, whom Diana has described as “that jackanapes with scarfs” (3.5.85)—a further reminder of his position as Bertram's double, and sexual mentor, in this crucial scene.

  28. Welsh also notes this conjunction, p. 20.

  29. Jan Kott, “Head for Maidenhead, Maidenhead for Head: The Structure of Exchange in Measure for Measure,Theatre Quarterly 8:31 (1978): 18-24.

  30. Similarly, Helena, following Bertram's rejection in 2.4 or 2.5, might have spoken in soliloquy, as she did at the close of 3.2.

  31. Northrop Frye overstates the case, I think, in calling this a vision of “the mass of humanity moving witlessly, like lemmings, to its own annihilation” that summarizes the “blind and deluded movement that sent Bertram out to the wars” and that anticipates the final action that brings him home (Frye, pp. 105-6).

  32. Lavatch's final line, “I do pity his distress in my similes of comfort, and leave him to your lordship” (5.2.24-25), is not unlike Fool's last comment on the situation to his double, Lear: “And I'll go to bed at noon” (King Lear 3.6.83).

  33. Garber, “Wild Laughter.” See also Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan Co., 1969) and Edwin S. Shneidman, “Death Work and Stages of Dying,” in Death: Current Perspectives, ed. Edwin S. Shneidman, 2nd. ed. (Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 305-11, in which he argues that the stages Kübler-Ross indentifies do not of necessity follow the exact progression she outlines.

  34. Bullough, p. 396.

  35. As Marjorie Garber points out, the play's first line is the Countess's ambiguous remark, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.” Bertram, at once a newborn son and his mother's (forbidden) husband, leaves for the King (in whom, Lafew promises, his mother will find a husband and he a father) and male companionship in the wars, apparently fleeing a household dominated by women. Clearly, Bertram associates Helena with his mother, speaking to her as though she were a sister; Helena herself rejects this role when the Countess offers to be a mother to her by declaring that she desires not a mother but a mother-in-law (Coming of Age, pp. 41-42).

  36. The moment has a parallel in As You Like It that can easily go by unnoticed, both on the page and in performance. Directly following Hymen's wedding song in 5.4, Duke Senior says, “O my dear niece, welcome thou art to me, / Even daughter, welcome, in no less degree!” (5.4.141-42). Juxtaposing the divine with a simpler emotional response translates what is universal to a particularized human intensity: enabling people to co-exist, honored, in families, is one lasting residue of the “blessed bond of board and bed.”

  37. See Michael Calvin McGee, “The Origins of ‘Liberty’: A Feminization of Power,” Communication Monographs 47, no. 1 (1980): 23-45; Michael Calvin McGee, “On Feminized Power,” The Van Zelst Lecture in Communication, Northwestern University School of Speech, May 1985.

  38. In Measure for Measure's final scene, the gender expectations are reversed, as the continuing debate over Isabella's consent or non-consent to Duke Vincentio's rather badly timed proposal demonstrates. The critical dramas surrounding both plays, however, are heavily weighted by individual critics' assumptions about (for examples) comic form, closural conventions, the sanctity (or non-sanctity) of marriage and gender-specific behavior.

David McCandless (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 21092

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well,” in Gender and Performance in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, Indiana University Press, 1997, pp. 37-78.

[In the following essay, McCandless focuses on the evolving gender roles of Helena and Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well, discussing Shakespeare's handling of the bed trick as a tool for exploring gender myths.]

The starting point for my discussion 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 spectres 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 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 kind 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 also suffers Bertram's degrading slander in the play's final scene, 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 groping bodies in the dark, from the kind of event imaged as “defil[ing] the pitchy night” (4.4.24).4

I propose in this piece to stage the play's erotic subdrama, to push it further to the surface, for the purposes of tracing the play's provocative interrogation of gender. Helena and Bertram are both inextricably entangled in gender's constrictive myths. Helena performs and seeks to reify a normative femininity that her aggressive desire contradicts, while Bertram enacts a normative masculinity that his model, the meretricious Parolles, radically destabilizes. The reading I wish to stage adumbrates a theatrical staging that I will extend by citing and imagining corroborative directorial choices. I will consider, in particular, how the circulation of the look reinforces or disrupts gender roles. My investigation of performance will focus most heavily on the implications of performing the unperformed bed-trick. In performance, the bed-trick constitutes a “lack” in the play's narrative because it is unperformed, not part of the play's visceral, theatrical life, a plot mechanism scarcely capable of disconcerting spectators to the degree that it has critics. I want to examine the extent to which staging the bed-trick can assist in dramatizing the “deconstructed fairy tale” that lies at the heart of All's Well—can assist, that is, in bringing to the surface the erotic subdrama that the play represses, and, in so doing, deepen the play's deconstruction of gender. Indeed, a staged bed-trick demystifies and substantiates a female sexuality that the play elsewhere mystifies and evades, and thus begins to redress the “lack” not only in the play's performed life but in a representational economy in which woman figures only as absence.


Helena has been such 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.5 At the same time, Bertram poses problems because he occupies the “feminine” space of the objectified 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 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 trains a desiring look on Bertram, submitting her “curled darling” to rapturous objectification, only to affirm a “feminine” helplessness, lamenting the impossibility of eliciting his returned look.6

'Twas pretty though a plague,
To see him every hour, to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart's table—heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour.


Her look manifests lack and insufficiency, conveying a masochistic fixation: it was pleasurable torment—“pretty though a plague”—to survey his beauteous, unattainable form “every hour” (1.1.79-98).

Once galvanized by Parolles' bracing anti-virginity jape, however, Helena resolves to “feed” her desirous look, 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.


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 “joining,” but of “fortune,” which seems here to mean “standing in life” (OED 5) 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 translates 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' ribaldry.

Helena's salacious banter with Parolles marks her first explicit deviation from normative femininity, marks her as provocatively “open” in a social spectacle that, in Shakespeare's time, demanded female “closedness.”7 Lisa Jardine asserts that Helena reveals herself as “too [sexually] knowing for the innocent virgin she professes to be.”8 Yet Helena does not profess to be anything at all in the play's opening scene. Rather, she challenges the spectator's attempt to hold her to a stable identity. She appears a grieving daughter, reveals herself a despairing lover, and finally emerges a resolute wooer, signaling a subjectivity that eludes a coherent singleness.

Certainly Parolles regards Helena as sexually knowing and therefore “open” to ravishment. Performance could make clear that Parolles not only jests with Helena but cheekily flirts with her, launching, behind the cover of licentious badinage, an assault against her own virginity. The two of them may actually engage in some version of the erotic combat they describe: Helena “blows up” (arouses) Parolles, and Parolles seeks an opportunity to “blow up” Helena (make her pregnant). Although Parolles casts Helena as desired object, she maintains her status as desiring subject, rejecting subjection to his controlling look. Her objection to his greeting—“save you, fair queen” (106)—registers a protest against being treated like a “quean.” She claims the right to control her own sexual destiny, resisting Parolles' injunction to “answer the time of request,” and thus rejecting the notion that a woman must not exercise choice but must make herself the object of a man's. If Helena initially agrees to play the role of imperiled virgin, she ends the scene by emasculating Parolles, not simply by declining to gratify his desire but by mocking his cowardice and thereby undermining his masculine honor, provoking his retributive threat to return in order to “naturalize” (i.e., debauch) Helena.

Helena's query, “how might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?” (150-51) conveys something more than a rebuff of Parolles' lecherous overtures. By invoking the possibility of fulfilling her own desire, Helena begins to take seriously Parolles' 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 convert. She disregards his censure of her wish to choose rather than be chosen 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.


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 might be better understood, however, as a coded disclosure of Helena's own erotic stirrings. Her need to speak cryptically and elliptically not only betrays a compulsion to conceal her sexual passion but also reflects the difficulty of representing female sexuality within an oedipal plot that typically idealizes or erases it. 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.”9 Knight, however, backs away from the aggressively sexual connotations of this decoding, asserting, “I do not think, 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.”10 Helena's lacking a reason to expect “such an event” is surely beside the point; she clearly desires to “mate” with Bertram and, stoked by Parolles' libidinous exhortations, she presumably builds on the tantalizing possibility of losing her virginity to her own liking—that is, to Bertram. The speech becomes the link between this heretofore unthinkable idea and the conception of her bold plan for winning him.

She wishes Bertram well, she tells Parolles, but would rather do him well—“show what we alone must think.” She would like to give her well-wishing (that is, her love) a “body” which “might be felt” (180-81). Her wish that Bertram feel the body of her love foreshadows the offering of her body in the bed-trick and in marriage. 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 Irigaray's striking phrase.11 In a Shakespearean sense, the virgin “knot” connotes a “not.”12

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 expression of female desire. Helena appears trapped within the phallocentric linguistic system that Lacan describes, in which female desire is literally unspeakable, always already reconfiguired as the desire for male desire.13 The unspeakability of Helena's passion compels her to speak it evasively and mystically. She thus characterizes her “virginity” as a kind of philosopher's stone (5.3.102), a “tinct and multiplying medicine” 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. “I am his anything,” Helena seems to say, as though embracing the status of possession that Petruchio prescribes for Kate when he calls her “my any thing” (3.2.332).

In addition, Helena 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.” Bertram will, in effect, give birth to her as a woman, becoming the fount of signification, a father as well as husband, confirming a transference implied in Helena's earlier assertion that his image had supplanted her father's (79-83). Once more the play seems to dramatize the contradiction of female subjectivity: Helena expresses an active (“masculine”) longing to consummate her passion but 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 love her once he knows 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.14 Her urge to simulate a normative femininity furthers an oedipal narrative that depends upon muting her sexual provocation. 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 (1.3.204-207). In a conversation with the King, she betrays a similar compulsion to appear normatively chaste. After Lafew does his best to mark their meeting as a sexual tryst, Helena precipitously withdraws her suit when the King taints her proffered cure with imputations of prostitution, “humbly entreat[ing]” a “modest thought”—requesting his 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 (2.1.170-73) seems designed to dispel any lingering suspicions of unchastity, to distance her holy magic from wanton witchery.15

In 2.3, the scene in which Helena is to choose a husband, her status as desiring subject becomes public. The King, submitting a batch of eligible wards for her inspection, formally confers “looking power” upon her: “fair maid, send forth thine eye. … peruse them well” (52, 61). He also lends her the masculine privilege of choice: “Thou hast power to choose, and they none to forsake” (56). Her public position as dominant woman is so unprecedented that Lafew mistakenly believes that the young lords have rejected her rather than vice versa: as a woman, she cannot be the chooser but only the object of choice.16 Helena's singular ascent requires another compensatory performance of “femininity.” Although 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.

Helena has come a long way from her earlier masochistic fixation on Bertram. In surveying the undesired suitors, her look frees itself from libidinal investment and so emulates the gaze by marking them as signifiers of her power (over the King), as participants in her spectacle. At the same time, Helena also derives power from being looked at, from being the center of attention, the belle of the ball. Her “to-be-looked-at-ness”—in cinema a signifier of female “lack,” according to Laura Mulvey17—becomes in the theater an attribute of power, a specularity that approximates the gaze rather than marking her as its object. As Lacan puts it,

At the level of the phenomenal experience of contemplation, this all-seeing aspect [of the gaze] is to be found in the satisfaction of a woman who knows that she is being looked at, on condition that one does not show her that one knows that she knows.18

Within the theatrical frame, the looked-upon central performer and her observers do indeed collude in the kind of disavowal of specularity that Lacan describes. Of course, Helena (or the actress performing her) is looked at not simply by the other figures on stage but by the play's spectators as well. Yet here, too, she may escape a fetishizing look by availing herself of a strategy inaccessible to the film actress: returning the look. In this particular scene, such an effect could be achieved by placing the prospective suitors within the audience, so that when Helena sends forth her eye, she surveys “us” as well as them, bringing us into spectacle by breaking the fourth wall—by determining us, the audience, as lacking by linking us with those desiring suitors whom she rejects. Even in relation to the audience, then, Helena may represent not “to-be-looked-at-ness” but “looking at to-be-looked-at-ness.”

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”:19 “I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live, / Into your guiding power” (102-104). Bertram, however, discerns and resists this implicit emasculation, dismissing her protestations of vassalage and reclaiming the masculine privilege of looking: “I shall beseech your highness, / In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes” (106-108). Bertram refuses to let Helena function as gaze for him. He breaks the stage picture of the happy affianced couple that Helena, in collusion with the King, has created. Indeed, if Bertram takes his protest to a King enthroned upstage right, and the humiliated Helena drifts downstage left, her stage observers shift accordingly, “facing out” in order to look at her. Helena takes a vulnerable position and accepts the status of “to-be-looked-at” as the audience no longer looks at her but looks at her being looked at. She is now clearly the object of the male look, the pawn in a male power struggle, standing by mutely as the King and Bertram proceed to debate her worth. If Helena is born to femininity and at certain moments compelled to achieve it, here it seems thrust upon her.

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 man hunter.20 It seems to me more helpful to understand Helena's hyperfemininity as a kind of misrecognition that she persists in enacting. Helena can perform femininity with such conviction 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, like a good method actress who loses herself in the role, truthfully simulating, thereby authenticating the role demanded of her. As Butler suggests,

gender is … a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions.21

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.”22 One reason, no doubt, that Helena has elicited such contradictory critical assessment is that she so vividly embodies the contradiction foundational to female subjectivity in a phallocentric system of meaning—that between self and cultural mirror, woman and Woman.23

In performance, one way to call attention to that contradiction would be to assign two actors to the role of Helena: a woman accompanied by 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 cross-dressed male for her doleful evasions of the Countess). In a modern-dress production of All's Well, costuming could accentuate this duality, with the cross-dressed male (as cultural mirror) far more unerringly “feminine” in appearance than the female, whose attire could be freer and more individualized, even androgynous. This prettified, feminine, male-constructed Helena then becomes kin to the lavishly festooned Parolles, a culturally constructed gender image compelling imitation. Such a choice dramatizes the process of misrecognition, exposing the performativity of gender in a manner congruent with much of feminist theater theory.24 Director/theorist Jill Dolan took a similarly deconstructive approach to her staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

[W]hen 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.25

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.

The two-actor approach I describe might, however, have the regrettable effect of collapsing Helena's core self with a “masculine” desire as symptomatic of cultural influence as her “feminine” self-abjection. The director may therefore prefer to capture Helena's doubleness not through double-casting but through the concentration of its contradictory effects in a single actress—an actress capable of projecting a core self that dramatizes the contradiction as a symptom, preventing the role from sliding into static incoherence. Helena thus becomes as self-possessed and unself-consciously sensual in her active moments as she is self-effacing and studiously chaste in her passive ones. Traditional criticism has tended to portray Helena as either long-suffering Griselda or cunning vixen (thinly veiled versions of “madonna” and “whore”), either glossing over her audacious desire and celebrating her virtue or reading her virtue as a mask for audacity and regretting or deploring her duplicity. A characterization keyed to Helena's doubleness invalidates these reductive caricatures, underscoring the inadequacy of phallocentric constructs to an understanding of Helena's complex subjectivity. This approach challenges audiences to reconcile Helena's indomitable sexuality with her obsequious femininity, to account somehow for a nice girl who seeks and obtains what has traditionally been considered the bad girl's pleasure.

Helena's doubleness manifests itself unmistakably in her one scene with Bertram (prior to the play's final moments). In one sense, she savors “feminine” subservience as the reward for her “masculine” boldness, embracing wifely subjugation with a fervor that mortifies Bertram. “Come, come, no more of that,” he protests when she pronounces herself “his most obedient servant” (72). She seems to accept—even to flaunt—a neutered passivity for the sake of eliciting male love.26 At the same time, her lavish self-effacements seem designed to compensate for her irrepressible, potentially transgressive desire. In asking Bertram for a kiss, she offers a muted sexual overture and claims some measure of her conjugal rights—yet in language so elliptical that it virtually negates the desire it manifests. When Bertram demands, “what would you have,” she answers,

Something, and scarce so much; nothing indeed.
I would not tell you what I would, my lord.
Faith, yes:
Strangers and foes do sunder, and not kiss.


Once more Helena struggles with the unspeakability of her desire, managing to speak it only indirectly and negatively. It is “something” which quickly becomes “nothing,” something she would not tell. Although she shifts back into affirming it (“yes”) she quickly subsides into a pause, manifesting her search for a language expressive of her desire. As though confirming the impossibility of finding it, she proceeds to describe the desired kiss as something strangers and foes do not do.27

As noted, Helena's “masculinity” is as much a construct as her “femininity” for, as Foucault has argued, sexual desire is as much culturally engendered as naturally derived.28 Accordingly, Helena's desire is directed toward the culturally approved end of marriage, an institution that, at least according to the puritan propaganda of Shakespeare's time, confirms a woman in femininity by delivering her to permanent chastity and subservience.29 Helena herself seems to affirm her belief in this ideal of redemptive marriage when, in an attempt to enlist the Countess' sympathies, she assesses the impossible alternatives imposed by a marriageless life:

if yourself,
Whose aged honour cites a virtuous youth,
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.


Helena presents the “feminine” alternative to marriage as the “sweet death” of terminal sexual pining, the “masculine” as the “loss” of chastity that attends “lending” and “giving” her body. She implies that she must choose between fruitlessly preserving her virginity or fruitlessly expending it. Marriage, by contrast, offers the fruitful option of expending and preserving her virginity—or at least preserving the virginal purity that chastity commends. In marriage, Dian is both herself, the goddess of chastity, and Love (or Venus), the goddess of desire. In marriage, that is, a woman may be both sexual and chaste, “living sweetly where she dies” in quite a different sense. This speech suggests that Helena wishes to channel her sexual desire into culturally idealized marital chastity.

Yet Bertram annuls the marriage that Helena takes such pains to make, and in terms that aim at quashing her desire, imprisoning her in the female negative, in the land of “not” and “never.” “I have wedded her, not bedded her,” he informs his mother, “and have sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal.” In his letter to Helena, he does indeed afflict Helena with an “eternal not”: “in such a then I write a never.” In so doing, Bertram swears to make Helena's virgin knot eternal, demanding that she remain lacking, accepting her status as the negative signifier of his masculine positive. Indeed, the “dreadful sentence” that Bertram hands Helena demands the very sexual renunciation that she undertakes in her pilgrimage. She embraces a monastical chastity, reconfiguring herself as a penitent whore getting herself to a nunnery, disavowing her desire and receding into iconicity, inspiring the Countess to compare her to the Virgin Mary (3.4.25-29).

From this perspective, Helena's pilgrimage becomes the ultimate compensatory performance of femininity. Some commentators have regarded the pilgrimage as a ruse for renewed pursuit of Bertram.30 While it is tempting to read her farewell sonnet as yet another coded disclosure of desire, its tone and content accord exactly with the masochistic, grief-stricken, guilt-ridden soliloquy in which Helena announces her intention of fleeing France in order to secure Bertram's return. Shakespeare transforms what had been, in Boccaccio's story, a relentless pursuit into a pilgrimage converted to pursuit by virtue of a miraculous coincidence. Once more Shakespeare seems to mystify Helena's sexuality, portraying her as the prodigious recipient of another heavenly favor that works to validate her desire.

Helena's sexual renunciation ends when she locates another mirror of misrecognition: Diana, who defines femininity for Helena by virtue of her attractiveness to Bertram. As Catharine MacKinnon asserts, “socially, femaleness means femininity, which means attractiveness to men, which means sexual attractiveness, which means sexual availability on male terms.”31 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.32 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. Helena says not “I wish to become a woman” but, rather, “I wish to be like her whom I recognize as a woman,” mimetically replicating a gender ideal.33 Helena's deputization of Diana offers an extreme instance of her need to conceal her desire. Only when Helena secures the services of a surrogate who agrees to embody that desire and risk the “tax of impudence” that Helena herself carefully dodges does she manage to secure Bertram.

Helena's employment of Diana allows her to remain on a kind of pilgrimage—away from patriarchy's center (represented by the King) to a position on its margins where she can operate more daringly. She gets herself to a kind of secular nunnery, joining a confederacy of women who assist her in an intrigue that leads to her rebirth into patriarchal culture as wife and mother. Yet she must still take pains to prove her femininity, assuring the Widow of the lawfulness of her seemingly unchaste plot. She also continues to refer her power to the King (“That you may well perceive I have not wrong'd you / One of the greatest in the Christian world / Shall be my surety” [4.4.1-3]) and to invoke Heaven, mystifying her bribery of the Countess as an implement of divine providence (“Doubt not that heaven / Hath brought me up to be your daughter's dower” [4.4.18-19]). Having, in effect, pimped Diana by exposing her to censure as a whore (a censure she actually suffers in the final scene) Helena undertakes to redeem Diana by reversing the mirroring process and turning her into an image of herself, a virgin positioned for advantageous marriage, a status the King ratifies in the final scene by extending to Diana the same privilege of choosing a husband that he once conferred upon Helena (5.3.327-28)—a position seemingly contrary to her wishes to “live and die a maid” (4.2.74).


One must understand Bertram's treatment of Helena in light of his quest for normative masculinity. He begins the play as a liminal figure, an “unseason'ed,” uninitiated male caught in the limbo between boyhood and manhood. In the play's opening lines, his mother, the Countess, not only heralds but laments his passage into manhood—“in delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband”—registering his birth as a man as the death of a husband-surrogate, as though regretting her powerlessness to hold him in perpetual boyhood. The incest she evokes may be metaphorical but, within the oedipal plot enveloping Bertram's development, it raises the specter of maternal engulfment threatening to his masculinity. His quest for manhood meets with two principal obstructions: an absence of men willing and able to help him achieve it and the continued presence of Helena, who, in consort with his mother, launches a campaign to marry him and (at least from his perspective) return him to maternal dominance.

Bertram seems adrift in a world of strong women and weak men, men who fail him as father figures. His own father is dead and cannot instruct him in courtly or military arts. Lafew, despite an explicit promise to the Countess to advise Bertram (1.1.71-73), makes little attempt to do so, and on occasion even evinces scorn for his charge (2.3.99-101). The King, a surrogate father, seems rather to block Bertram's passage into manhood, shaming him with marriage to Helena and excluding him from the wars.

The histrionic Parolles happily fills the void, embodying 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!” (2.3.279-83).

Yet the Countess and King both define manhood for Bertram as an imitation of his father, the true “perfect courtier” (1.1.60-61, 1.2.19-22). They admonish him to live up to his father's memory. Parolles becomes a rival father figure whom Bertram's own father, speaking through the King, indirectly disparages with his criticism of meretricious fashion-mongers who beget nothing but clothes (“whose judgments are / Mere fathers of their garments”). 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 sterility, unmanliness, and—through the emphasis on costume—imposture and barren theatricality. Indeed, by Lafew's reckoning, Parolles constructs a persona that displays attributes of a social rank and gender to which he has no legitimate claim. By insisting on calling Parolles a “servant,” Lafew disputes his nobility (2.3.186-95, 242-51), and by referring to him as a “hen” (213), denies his masculinity. Indeed, Lafew tells Parolles, “I write man, to which title age cannot bring thee” (198-99) and casts similar aspersions when the King summons Parolles to testify against Bertram: “I saw the man today, if man he be” (5.3.203). Yet Parolles' histrionics problematize the notion of a masculine essence implicit in Lafew's disparagements. He functions as a symptom of the tailoredness of gender, performing a masculinity that seems as much a caricature of the cultural norm as 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.”

His father's masculinity, such as Bertram confronts it, may be no more authentic than that of Parolles, for it is also derived from a performance, from the King's dramatic death-bed 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. The King not only draws the Count's character for Bertram to emulate but, at one key moment, speaks for him (“‘Let me not live,’ quoth he”). In a sense, the King impersonates Bertram's father, giving the Count's melancholic reflection on mortality a particularly dramatic recitation by turning it into his own death-bed speech—his own enactment of a father's dying advice to his son. Indeed, with one foot in the grave, the King becomes a virtual medium for the deceased Count's spirit. His line, “methinks I hear him now,” could refer not only to a recollected worldly voice but to a newly audible, other-worldly one. The King functions as the ghost of Bertram's father, whose underlying message is, “remember me.” Yet the “me” that Bertram is asked to remember is so mystified and glorified that he appears to be left with a choice between two equally fantastical images of manhood: the inaccessibly legendary and the insidiously fashionable.

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). Bertram implicitly equates exclusion from the war with emasculation:

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.


Bertram accuses the King, who ought to have initiated him into manhood, of prolonging his boyhood by consigning him to the company of women, precluding his purchase of masculine honor, leaving him with a permanently sheathed, ornamental sword rather than a phallic weapon. His affected farewell to the departing soldiers also conveys his sense of emasculation: “I grow to you, and our parting is a tortur'd body” (2.1.36-37)—an image highly suggestive of castration.

Moreover, in imagining himself the “forehorse to a smock,” Bertram imagines himself a woman's beast of burden, an animal she drives and whips. He thus protests the emasculating reversal of the roles of man/woman, rider/horse, master/slave that had become homologous in Shakespeare's England.34 Bertram's paranoid fantasy seems to be almost instantly fulfilled. Upon choosing Bertram as husband, Helena offers her “service,” but, by coercing him into being her sexual partner, she implicitly commands Bertram to do her “service.” Rather than being allowed to “woo” and “wed” honor, as the King commands the 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 had 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, with whom he grew up. While he is primed to resent any imposed responsibility that keeps him from going a-soldiering, marriage to Helena is, from his perspective, the very worst of fates, regressing him even further into boyhood by returning him to the maternal domination he presumably escaped when ending his constrictive “marriage” to the Countess.35

Perhaps the best demonstration of the distance between Bertram and Helena 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' fiery steed.


The site of Helena's miraculously generative sexual love becomes a lack, an unseen box, a black hole that consumes Bertram's manly essence, an effeminizing, contemptible “kicky-wicky.” The opportunity to mount Mars' fiery steed in manly combat rescues Bertram from his emasculating role as forehorse to a smock.

That Bertram's rejection of Helena stems more from sexual dread than class prejudice seems borne out by his dismissal of the King's promise to endow her with title and dowry. If Bertram were concerned solely with social status, marriage to the King's favorite would seem distinctly advantageous. The King, after his lengthy lecture equating honor with virtue, puts the matter quite plainly: “if thou canst like this creature as a maid, / I can create the rest.” Bertram's response is equally unambiguous: “I cannot love her, nor will strive to do't” (2.3.142-43, 145).

Bertram “cannot” love Helena. She cannot be an object of his sexual desire, cannot be a “real girl” in Havelock Ellis's terms.36 This fact is striking, as 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 her matrimonial campaign makes her 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, to revive by proxy the relationship she herself has lost.37 Helena also may be considered a maternal figure by virtue of her status as partner to the King, Bertram's surrogate father. In an apparent reversal of the oedipal plot, in which the son sacrifices the mother as the price of masculine autonomy, the King blocks Bertram's achievement of manhood by forcing upon him the object of his own sexual interest (“follows it, my lord,” Bertram protests, “to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [111-13]).38

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”).39 On one level, of course, Helena simply invokes a biological fact: she may become pregnant as a consequence of intercourse with Bertram. Indeed, motherhood is an essential requirement of Bertram's impossible conditions for marrying her (“when thou canst … show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to”). On another, she explicitly identifies with the very maternal image that repels Bertram and, by raising the spectre of castration, drives him to the wars. Within an oedipal framework, Helena's maternal associations make her a forbidden object, a mystified (m)other both attractive and repellant to Bertram. In one sense, then, his military campaign represents a retreat: Parolles, he “runs away for advantage when fear [in this case fear of Helena's sexuality] proposes the safety” (1.1.201-203).

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). If the swaggering, ornamental Parolles mirrors the glamorous masculinity for which Bertram strives, the wisecracking, enigmatic Clown voices the sexual anxiety that underlies it.40 His first jest portrays female sexuality as a force that deflates male sexuality in its insatiable demand for “service,” hence the Clown's preposterously cheerful acceptance of cuckoldry: “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” (1.3.43-45). Thus Lavatch celebrates his nonsexual servitude to the Countess: “that man should be at woman's command and yet no hurt done!” (1.3.92-93).

In addition, the Clown parallels Bertram's course by presenting himself as a man recoiling from marriage and female sexuality (“I have no mind to Isbel since I was at court … the brains of my Cupid's knock'd out, and I begin to love, as an old man loves money, with no stomach” [3.2.12, 14-16]). When Bertram returns from the wars, having embraced the sexual experience that Lavatch eschews, the Clown suggests that the patch upon his cheek conceals syphilitic scars, reading the patch as a signifier of Bertram's corruption by female sexuality (“it is your carbodano'd face” [4.5.101]).

Lavatch seems to function as Bertram's secret sharer in a second sense: his scant commentary on Helena indicates a comparable need to construct her as a sexless madonna. Late in the play, thinking Helena dead, Lavatch affectionately eulogizes her as “the sweet marjoram of the sallet or rather the herb of grace” (4.5.16-17). This remark suggests that his earlier misogynistic ditty decrying female turpitude and seemingly linking Helena with Helen of Troy might actually mark her as the unnamed “one good woman” exempt from his slanders, dissociated from her notorious namesake and the corrupting female sexuality she epitomizes (1.3.70-79). Lavatch's need to desexualize Helena provides a subtext for his only direct speech to her, in which he offers the seemingly arbitrary anti-joke about the Countess's “wellness.” In locating “wellness” in the other world, Lavatch may be admonishing Helena for her excessively worldly (that is, sexual) conduct, urging her to a monastical chastity, implicitly scolding her unchaste entrapment of Bertram. His later eulogy celebrates her seeming compliance, her expiration at the end of her penitential trek to a holy shrine, her ascension to saintly martyrdom.

Bertram so distinguishes himself in the Florentine wars that he ascends to the position of “general of our horse” and wins the masculine honor he had so craved. The scene of his ascension (3.3) often has been cut in performance but it affords an opportunity for staging a grandiose military ceremony dramatizing Bertram's ritual birth as a man, as young warrior-god. The ceremony could center on Bertram's reception of a sword, symbolizing his supposed acquisition of the phallus. In such a staging, the Duke unfurls the sword, raises it high, executes some histrionic sword salute—collectively seconded by a troop of sword-wielding soldiers—then lowers it to a kneeling Bertram, who takes hold of it, kisses it, then rises to receive it. Perhaps a pounding of drums accompanies the ceremony, which climaxes in multiple gun shots. As the thunderous volleys cease, Bertram steps forward and declares, “Great Mars, I put myself in thy file; / Make me but like my thoughts, and I shall prove / A lover of thy drum, hater of love” (9-11).

Bertram occupies the same position that Helena did in 2.3: the center of attention, the object of an admiring, even fetishizing, male look. Like Helena, Bertram functions as both spectacle (to be looked at) and simulated gaze (determining through looking). He is the glittering, glamorous presence who constitutes the others as lacking, as needing to be seen by him. Like Helena, Bertram may function as gaze for the play's spectators as well, if they are joined by soldiers extending the lacking army beyond the proscenium arch.

If the ceremony seems sufficiently overwrought and theatrical, it may begin to convey the extent to which Bertram delivers himself to a role, embracing a mythical masculinity and effectively becoming his own Parolles, who ought to be exiled to the periphery during this scene. Bertram's birth as a man coincides with his willing entrance into spectacle, his assumption of the image of ruthless warrior after rejecting that of domesticated husband.

If Bertram, contrary to the Clown's insinuations about his patch, sustains a bleeding wound—either in battle or in ritual—his ascent to manhood can include a ceremonial purgation of femininity familiar to tribal rites of passage: the bleeding wound symbolizes a male vulva that enables a masculine rebirth superseding his original birth through woman. By spilling blood and voicing rage (declaring himself a lover of Mars' drum and a hater of love), Bertram “gets the woman” out of himself and achieves manhood.41

At the mid-point of the play, Bertram and Helena appear to have achieved the extremes of emblematic masculinity and femininity. One could underscore this polarity in performance by creating a tableau at the end of 3.4. (invariably the end of “Act One” in performance), presenting Bertram as gilded, sword-brandishing military hero and Helena as supplicating, saintly madonna. Barbara Dameshek's 1993 production for Shakespeare Santa Cruz extended this idea, counterpointing a soldiers' chorus chanting in rap style “lover of thy drum, hater of love” with the ethereal singing of women dressed in white who assisted Helena in a highly stylized donning of her pilgrim's costume: as the Countess read her letter, Helena walked down a path of white gauze fabric while wrapping around her waist a banner that contained the first line of her sonnet (“I am Saint Jacques' pilgrim, thither gone” [4]).

Some critics have attempted to justify Bertram's rejection of Helena, or at least to present it sympathetically, as an understandable rebellion against a degrading forced marriage.42 This laudable championing of Bertram's cause ignores the fact that a character must first become a subject before an audience can take offense at his or her being treated as an object. Theatrically speaking, Bertram has not yet become enough of a subject for the spectator to perceive his injury when the play's sympathetic heroine chooses him as husband. His first two scenes are public, dominated by his elders, allowing him little opportunity to display an individuated character. In the first, eager to leave for Paris, he struggles to play the dutiful, respectful son. In the second, he strives to make a favorable impression on the King. Only in his third appearance, free of his elders and petulantly protesting his exclusion from the war, does he exhibit a discernible subjectivity. Yet this effusion of personality is unlikely to win him many admirers. Nobody likes a whiner.

Most critics have found Bertram manifestly unworthy of Helena's devotion.43 Certainly his conduct alienates the play's other characters, each of whom defames him at one time or another. He humiliates and abandons Helena, defies and enrages the King, and so offends his mother that she resolves to disown him and later endorses the King's threat to punish him—possibly even to execute him. His callous treatment of Diana repulses his comrades-in-arms. Offered an unearned second chance to regain the favor of his benefactors, he instead renews their ire—particularly the King's—and to save himself from censure and disgrace, he contemptuously scorns the woman to whom he had sworn eternal love. An unremittingly unsympathetic Bertram poses considerable problems for performance, however: Helena appears hopelessly foolish and deluded if the object of her pursuit is a thoroughly disagreeable clod who unequivocally disdains her. Since the play clearly derives dramatic interest from the discrepancy between Helena's unquestioning desire and Bertram's questionable desirability, the crucial question for the director to address is this: just how bad is Bertram? To what extent should he be seen as “worth it?” To what extent should one mitigate his defects in performance? Should the audience perceive something potentially redemptive in his character or potentially receptive in his attitude toward Helena? A performance that predicates Bertram's unequivocal inadequacy generates less tension and conflict—ingredients essential to dramatic interest—than one that leaves the question of Bertram's worth unresolved. Who wants to watch a play about a terminally besotted girl pursuing an insufferably churlish boy? In such a production, the play's ending becomes an unambiguous anti-climax, confirming what the audience could be presumed to have known all along: that Bertram is a boor, Helena a masochist, and their marriage an almost certain catastrophe. Such an approach does not so much deconstruct the comic love story as decisively preempt it. Indeed, the play's notorious open-endedness depends upon preserving the possibility of a comic resolution—which in turn requires the possibility of Bertram's reformation, which requires presenting him as reformable, or at least worth reforming, and therefore worth attending to as the play progresses.

Directors have employed various means to mitigate Bertram's obnoxiousness. Some have cast a physically striking, charismatic actor (such as Mike Gwilym, who played the part for Trevor Nunn) in order to make Helena's attraction credible, while others have opted to accent Bertram's youthfulness in order to make his trespasses tolerable. Paul Venables, for instance, who played the part in Barry Kyle's 1989 RSC production, was “baby-faced,” “guileless,” and “slightly goofy”: “the sense that his errors and offenses were committed in a blissfully naive thoughtlessness … made him ultimately forgivable at the play's end.”44

Directors have also aimed to redeem Bertram by lending him a subtextual complexity that qualifies and complicates his mistreatment of Helena. In Peter Hall's recent RSC production, for instance, Toby Stephens's callow, self-involved Bertram begins to mature in the second act when tested by the ravages of war and the first confused stirrings of sexual passion. The actor's subtext registered strongly with one critic who wrote, “[Bertram] doesn't seem to know what to feel, but it's clear he's feeling something deeply, for the first time.”45 Helena thus became the jewel in the crown of his hard-won maturation.

Trevor Nunn devised a different subtext for Bertram in his 1981 production, drawing on a psychoanalytic reading of repressed desire. According to Harriet Walter, who played Helena,

In Trevor's scenario, Bertram had funny dreams about Helena. She's someone who's been raised in the household but is only the daughter of a family retainer. So he's somehow disturbed by her because he mustn't love her. He doesn't like the effect she has on him so he cuts her out.46

In Nunn's view, according to Walter, “Bertram had loved Helena all along but discovered it too late.”47 Yet Gwylim, Nunn's Bertram, objected to this interpretation and consequently keyed his performance to the dismissive gestures on the surface rather than the messier emotions underlying them.48

Nunn's choice offers the actor playing Bertram an emotional investment in Helena that adds drama and intrigue to his mistreatment of her, creating and heightening the conflict on which drama depends. Such a subtext could establish that Bertram struggles against feelings for Helena that confuse and unnerve him, that he rejects her not out of contempt but out of fear. Some directors have flirted with this interpretation, in particular turning Helena's request for a kiss into a stimulus for feelings that belie Bertram's apparent disdain for her. In Noel Willman's (1953) and Tyrone Guthrie's productions (1959), Bertram seemed ready to grant the kiss until, reminded of Parolles' presence, he recoiled and brusquely dismissed Helena, as though admonished by Parolles' image of uncompromised masculinity.49 In John Houseman's production, as well as in Kyle's, Bertram willed himself to reject Helena and then remorsefully sought to make amends, turning to her as if to speak a kind word in Houseman's show, seeming tempted to hug her in Kyle's.50 In all four cases, an agitated and uncertain Bertram evinces feelings that undermine the genuineness of his rejection. He seems motivated by a need to defend himself, not only against the force of her passion but also against the unseemliness, the unmanliness, of his own.

These choices illustrate the directorial necessity of planting in earlier scenes effects necessary to those in later ones. A bitter and hateful Bertram in 2.5 may so alienate the audience as to foreordain an unambiguously dissatisfying ending instead of a provocatively ambiguous one. In Elijah Moshinsky's BBC production, for instance, Ian Charleson's Bertram dismissed Helena harshly and disdainfully, as though her request for a kiss mortally offended him. Indeed, Charleson, normally a resourceful actor, was so narrowly sulky and conceited as Bertram, and Angela Down so relentlessly downcast as Helena, that long before their final pairing off, which Moshinsky seemingly wished to portray as a touching reconciliation, I had lost interest in them. A reconciliation of such antithetical forces can only be untenably miraculous or preposterous rather than intriguingly, even irritatingly tenable. A Bertram with some measure of merit or appeal or mitigating “unseasonedness” not only keeps the ending open but also helps ensure that Helena will appear uncomfortably obsessed rather than foolishly deluded.


Bertram constructs a narrative of initiation that essentially subsumes the oedipal plot in which woman functions as both figure of obstruction (Helena) and figure of closure (Diana). Bertram's ascension to manhood requires that he prove himself a sexual as well as military conqueror. So he sets his sights on Diana, a “real girl,” a sexual object safely removed from the maternal realm. Bertram's oedipal plot intersects with what feminist critic Susan Griffin considers the quintessential pornographic plot: despoiling an idolized virgin.51 For Bertram, who worships and supplicates Diana as a goddess but means to use her as a whore, the bed-trick becomes a mostly auto-erotic exercise. His lust reduces Helena and Diana to interchangeable embodiments of Woman, functioning as passive, anonymous receptacles. Of course, Helena's plot requires her willingness to become Woman, to enter the bed-trick having assimilated the fantasy image of Diana that Bertram projects. Through the bed-trick, Helena does not so much negate as revise Bertram's oedipal narrative, substituting herself as both bed-mate and figure of closure.

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”’ (2.4.57-61). 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's language is again elliptical: her assertion that strange men make sweet use of what rather than whom they hate evokes once more her hidden, forbidden sexuality, the “there” of her previous conjurings. Her disillusioned look transforms Bertram from curled darling to lustful debaucher. Just as she had predicted, his incontinent passion impels him to surrender his ancestoral ring (“in his idle fire, / To buy his will, it would not seem too dear” [4.1.26-27]). Her recent trials seem to have curbed her rapt idealizations. Helena temporarily releases Bertram from his position of substantiating mirror, the Prince Charming who enables her fantasy of ascent to love and esteem. She now configures him as Other, as personification of difference, a creature from whom she is estranged. She redirects her energies to overcoming this estrangement, straining against her disillusioning knowledge to reconfigure Bertram as curled darling. If, in the play’s first half, Helena follows a fantasy image of Bertram, in the second half she undertakes to subdue the real Bertram to it—to facilitate or fabricate his transformation back into the creature of her fancy and so solidify her preferred image of herself.

In addition to the folkloric tropes that Lawrence identifies, All's Well also discloses affinities with other “old tales” that more directly address this problem of “strangeness.” 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 story, the protagonist's love—acceptance of the loathliness or beastliness (that is, sexual difference) of his or her 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.”52

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 initially embraces Bertram's beastliness, 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 sports intriguing parallels to what Jane Yolen identifies as the common incidents of the traditional tale of Cinderella: “an ill-treated through 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.”53 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 Helena?” [2.3.44].) 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 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.54

In psychoanalytic terms, the traditional tale presents a heroine who comes 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 impels 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 climactic 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.55 In All's Well, by contrast, the prince runs from the heroine, whose active sexuality begrimes her chastely 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 romance novel, a kind of contemporary 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.56

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 contemporary tales: a seemingly beastly (i.e., 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.57 The romance novel—and possibly All's Well as 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.58

One may say 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.59


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 this brother, “but you shall let it dwell darkly with you” (4.3.10-11). This report of one woman's degradation would then give way to the dramatization of another woman's desire. Within the oedipal plot, says de Lauretis, “the place and time of feminine desire” are “nowhere” and “now,” which are representable only from an “elsewhere of vision” and within “a different narrative temporality.”60 In virtually every performance 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 becomes the only means of registering the metaphorical “death” of sexual pleasure she experiences during the bed-trick (4.3.47-59).61 Through the bed-trick, Helena arrests Bertram's teleological quest for manhood and forces it into the atemporal “now” of her desire, replacing the march of “masculine” time with the occupation of “feminine” space. This hitherto unrepresented space of the bed-trick emblematizes a female difference unrepresentable within a phallocentric framework that associates that space with a “nothing-to-be-seen.” If Helena's goal in the bed-trick is to undo the “knot” that Bertram vowed to make eternal, a staged bed-trick can begin to undo her “not,” to deliver her from the constraints of a “lacking” femininity.

The staged bed-trick serves as a powerful gestus by creating an alternative space (not but) of female erotic agency, defamiliarizing Helena by unveiling her persistently veiled desire, enabling her to embrace unapologetically the status of sexual subject. Far from resolving her baffling doubleness, the staged bed-trick exacerbates it, intensifying the aggressiveness that belies Helena's habitual self-abjection, stressing not only her contradictory status within the play's narrative but the contradictory status of women assimilated to a phallocentric construct of idealized femininity to which they are always already unassimilable. This effect of heightened contradiction is precisely what de Lauretis identifies as the hallmark of the most effective feminist art:

[I]t should be possible to work through [narrative] codes in order to shift or 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.62

By accentuating Helena's doubleness, the staged bed-trick underscores her nonmimetic subversiveness, her assertion of a difference ultimately unconforming to oedipal femininity. It brings her closer to hysteria, to a realm outside the oedipal plot where she must serve as the source of her own signification.

This outside realm, this elsewhere, substitutes unscripted body language for sanctioned verbal text, allowing Helena to replace the passive silent body Bertram expects with her own powerful “speaking body.” She controls “elsewhere” by controlling its speechless discourse, effectively inscribing a condition of lack on Bertram's body. The circumstances that she stipulates—silence and darkness—deprive him of the operations that define him as masculine subject: speech and dominating look. Helena positions Bertram so that he lacks language to deny what she commands, transforming him into precisely what he sought in Diana: a masterable body.

An often overlooked marker of Helena's mastery is her curious post-coital 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? Surely the two lovers do not simply lie there together, not seeing, not speaking, not touching. It seems that Bertram is being set up for something—but that something is never explicitly revealed. Does the dilation of the trick express a desire on Helena's part for a more sustained intimacy, for an extension of “now,” for satisfaction on her terms? Does it aim beyond mere sexual intercourse for the “something more” of jouissance? Does it portend Bertram's unknowing immersion in the space he sought to penetrate and withdraw from, his submergence in the neverland of “there”? In arranging the assignation with Diana, Bertram wishes for nothing more than the performance of sex, a “trick” in another sense of the word. Helena not only offers him a different kind of trick but attempts to elicit a different kind of performance, one that transcends a merely performative sexuality. This curious ellipsis not only offers another veiled glimpse of Helena's erotic agency but also evokes her need to tame the beast, to transform a one-night stand into a foretaste of conjugal love.

The moments preceding Bertram's entrance could parallel those of Helena's aborted wedding night, which one could dramatize by cutting the Clown from 2.4. and setting the scene in a bedchamber, showing Helena readying herself for Bertram's arrival, attended by women who hasten away upon hearing a knock at the door. Helena then walks to the door and opens it, admitting not the longed-for Bertram but his leering emissary Parolles, who reports that Bertram must postpone “the great prerogative and rite of love” (2.4.41). One could then repeat this staging for the later scene: once more Helena readies herself, attended by women (this time her coconspirators Diana, the Widow, and Mariana), but this time she too flees upon hearing the knock, leaving Diana to welcome her wayward husband.

The trick itself could begin with Diana's placing a blindfold on Bertram and yielding her place to Helena. The blindfold not only provides a realistic explanation for Bertram's inability to distinguish her from Diana but also visually links him with his double, Parolles, who is likewise blindfolded and tricked in the very next scene. The blindfold would both deprive Bertram of the look and signify his blindness to the threat of castration that originally drove him from Helena. Diana could plausibly place the blindfold on Bertram if the first part of the scene were staged as a playful chase, a physicalization of the verbal cat-and-mouse game that characterized their last meeting. At some point, Helena could literally emerge from the shadows and replace Diana as the object of Bertram's pursuit.

Extending the implications of Bertram's post-coital detention, Helena could then initiate a kind of suspended foreplay, deflecting Bertram's lust-driven energies into more dilatory, sensual rhythms, indicating a desire for “something more” and ultimately turning his hasty act of undressing into a sustained performance for her benefit. If one positions Helena upstage of Bertram, the audience perceives her as looking subject and Bertram as looked-upon object. Helena emulates the gaze by making a spectacle of Bertram, constituting him as lacking through the projection and control of her desiring look. One could underline this powerful “gaze” by visually contrasting it with her earlier powerless look: during her woebegone first soliloquy she could actually watch Bertram watch himself in a mirror as he finishes dressing for his journey to Paris. In the bed-trick, by contrast, he undresses in the mirror of Helena's preemptive look. Here, as in the husband-choosing ceremony, Helena signifies not “to-be-looked-at-ness” but “determining-through-looking.” In both scenes, she elicits and manages male desire, drawing a look that manifests lack. But now she looks back, unaided by the King's authority, desiring the man who desires her despite himself, functioning as the gaze for him as he previously did for her.

The play provides other possibilities for reinforcing this look. In 3.5, for instance, Diana, her mother, and Mariana all position themselves as spectators to the triumphal procession of soldiers. Diana “sends forth her eye” over these glistening combatants and lights on Bertram as desired object. The previously all-male military world admits female spectators who watch a display of macho glamor that once more positions Bertram as “to-be-looked-at” male.

Similarly, one could turn Bertram's attempted seduction of Diana (4.2) 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 “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. Because the play's audience watches not only Bertram's performance but also the women watching it, the scene parallels that of Parolles' capture, in which concealed pranksters also watch their victim walk into a trap. One could extend this staging of the female look in the bed-trick, with Diana, the Widow, and Mariana joining Helena as spectators to Bertram's striptease.

In addition, Helena's reanimation of the King provides a parallel opportunity to accent her sexual power and to stage the unstaged. The cure, like the bed-trick, constitutes a significant “lack” in the play's narrative, its absence similarly serving to mask Helena's sexuality—at least insofar as the play strongly hints that the cure is sexual in nature, that Helena revives the King by arousing him.

Indeed, Helena's interview with the King functions as a kind of antecedent bed-trick. Often set in a bedchamber, it is an erotically charged, intimate meeting that forges the contract that the bed-trick ultimately fulfills. Calling himself Cressida's uncle, Lafew insinuates that Helena's medicinal powers derive from her sexual allure and later attributes the King's revival to an increase in lustiness, an interpretation Bertram seems to share in calling it a “raising” (2.1.72-78, 97-98; 2.3.41). The King suggests that entertaining Helena's cure would be tantamount to prostitution and ultimately yields to her in terms that connote an assent to sexual union: “sweet practicer, thy physic I will try, / That ministers thy own death if I die” and “thy will by my performance shall be serv'd” (2.1.185-86, 201). In addition, while the King claims his “heart owes the malady,” the association of “fistula” with the anus makes Helena's attempted cure a particularly intimate act and connects All's Well's stricken monarch with the Fisher King, whose wound “between the thighs” (suggesting emasculation) seems similarly sexual in origin.63 The sexual symbolism of the King's ailment, combined with the sexual language surrounding its proposed cure, give the impression of a sexually contracted or sexually disabling disease. If the King is so afflicted, poised to die because infected by a woman, his warning to departing soldiers to avoid Italian girls, combined with the Clown's suggestions that Bertram's patch conceals a syphilitic scar, circulates even more widely the fear of female sexuality that shadows Helena's pursuit of Bertram.

More to the point, it burdens Helena with the weight of male sexual dread, necessitating the vindication of her chastity. Although this scene comes the closest of any in the play to affirming Helena's erotic agency, it nevertheless shrouds that agency in mystical incantation and miraculous faith healing. The director may therefore extend the feminist gestus simply by judiciously demystifying Helena's hieratic ministrations to the King, making clear in performance the extent to which she not only persuades and inspires but sexually excites him, inducing appreciable gains in vigor as the scene progresses. This preliminary rejuvenation both anticipates and initiates the actual healing. It could even be said to substitute for it.

Some directors have attempted, with varying results, to bring the scene's sexual undercurrents to the surface, to suggest that Helena secures Bertram as bed-mate by, figuratively speaking, going to bed with the King. In John Barton's 1967 production, Helena was reduced to a “tease of a girl” who titillated the King by sitting on his bed and fluffing up his pillows,64 and in Moshinsky's BBC version she was a proper young woman whose erotic effect on the King—culminating in a lingering kiss—seemed both incongruous and unintentional. Closer to the mark perhaps was Barry Kyle, who, in his 1989 RSC production, attempted to preserve the scene's mysticism as well as accent its eroticism: his Helena “kick[ed] off her shoes to perform a circling, energetic, sexually assertive, slightly fey dance,” exuding an aura of “white witchery.”65

My own choice would be to extend the erotics of Helena's encounter with the King into a staging of the cure itself, first by eroticizing the gesture of “laying on hands” suggestive of faith healing.66 At the half-line, “my art is not past power,” Helena could pause, reach under the King's nightshirt, and place her hand on his chest, a gesture at once sensual and clinical, disclosing Helena's mode of diagnosis: “nor you past cure.” Given that more intimate areas of the King's anatomy might require a healing touch, one could also capture the scene's peculiar mixture of sex and witchery by having Helena perform a kind of mystical sensual massage, moving her hands soothingly and rhythmically around the stricken parts of his body without actually touching him, an image that extends the conflation of faith healing with sexual stimulation. If one dispenses with the arguably dispensable interview between the Countess and the Clown (2.2), one could extend this mystical therapy into a dramatization of the cure itself. Having regained full vigor at Helena's hands, the King could rise from his sickbed and continue to respond to Helena's gestural stimulations, initiating a pattern of rhythmic movement that could slowly shift into a celebratory, intimate dance, setting the stage for their dancing entrance in the next scene.

Of course, these displays of female erotic power have their limitations. The dominating, objectifying look afforded Helena by the staged bed-trick reverses rather than replaces a masculine-feminine polarity, supporting asymmetrical power relations. Moreover, to the extent that Helena secures control of the King and Bertram by withholding satisfaction of the desire she elicits, she claims the only kind of power seemingly available to women in a phallocentric economy: the power derived from the excitation and frustration of male desire, from “blowing up” men and thereby inducing surrender to their will.

Nevertheless, the powerful position of speaking body/looking subject that Helena achieves through a staged bed-trick has the subversive effect of freeing her desire from “feminine” constraint, defamiliarizing the disabling gender roles with and against which Bertram and Helena struggle. By decisively (if only temporarily) giving up the “feminine,” Helena establishes the limits of gender-typing and thus evokes a more nuanced enactment of gender than the oedipal polarity permits. In addition, by releasing Helena's repressed erotic energies and suggesting her longing for the “something more” of jouissance, by accentuating the anxiety and incongruity that attain to her pursuit of Bertram, the staged bed-trick potentially restores the female difference that Bertram—and the play—so fretfully elides.


The drum-trick parallels the bed-trick in several key respects and so functions as an ironic substitution scene: both Bertram and Parolles lack language to deny their captors' schemes; both transgress in intention but not in fact; both mistake the familiar for the strange; and both succumb to primitive drives (fear in Parolles' case, lust in Bertram's).67 In addition, by subjecting Parolles to humiliating exposure, the drum-trick also forecasts Bertram's own humiliation in the final scene. Parolles' discasing functions as a warning that Bertram fails to heed, an emasculation that fails to threaten his masculinity because he has already actualized the image of military and sexual conqueror that Parolles merely projected. Bertram perceives no threat in the wreckage of a discarded model.

One could stage the moments following the removal of Parolles' blindfold as a court-martial, a ritual emasculation, in which Bertram and the French Captains, before contemptuously dismissing him, ceremoniously strip Parolles of his sword, his insignias, and his extravagant military costume, leaving him virtually naked. To the accompaniment of a drum roll—ironically underscoring the agency of his demise—Parolles suffers the destruction of his carefully constructed masculine facade. Like Bertram in the staged bed-trick, Parolles submits to the feminization and specularization of his body, but as object of shame rather than desire. Parolles also takes Bertram's place as center of attention in a military pageant whose staging could parallel that of the general-of-our-horse ceremony. The collective male look strips Parolles of manhood even as it had conferred it on Bertram.

Parolles' near-nakedness lends his final speech added significance:

Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live. …
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.


The “thing” that Parolles is becomes the “place” that he fills. His resolution to thrive by foolery may thus be read as a wish to find employment as a professional jester. The human actor requires a role—a Lacanian “screen”—in order to enter into the spectacle of the world.68 Stripped of his macho soldier's garb, Parolles seeks a fool's motley, aiming to reconstitute himself by recostuming himself. Lafew seems to have been right all along: the soul of this man is his clothes.

Before reentering the Symbolic Order at the play's end, Parolles passes through an (undramatized) limbo of statuslessness and genderlessness in which, as Lavatch had predicted, he signifies nothing (2.4.23-27). One might stage this liminal phase by arranging for Parolles to cross paths with Helena and her women as they journey home to France. If, like Kyle, the director portrays Helena's group as a “little female army behind their wooden cart,”69 the hungry, outcast Parolles—perhaps transformed by his derelict wanderings into the semblance of a bare, forked animal—could join their army, gratefully donning a dress that one of the women extracts from a trunk in order to cover his bare limbs. Such cross-dressing could underline Parolles' genderless status, his consignment to ranks of not-men, confirming Lafew's disparagements of him as a “hen,” one who cannot “write man.”

Parolles' feminine attire could also sharpen the additional shaming he receives from the Clown and the old Lord, each of whom had earlier seen through his macho impostures (2.4.23-37; 2.5.45-46). Parolles acquiesces in his own humiliation for the sake of gaining entry into the Symbolic Order. Since he can no longer be a soldier or courtier or even a man, he becomes a “tame” one to be kept (2.5.45-46), accepting a permanently liminal, “lacking” status. His appearance in the final scene in full fool's regalia marks his debut as professional jester. Indeed, his equivocating testimony at Bertram's trial may easily take the form of a fool's quibbling word games. Ultimately, Parolles demonstrates the constructedness not only of gender but of subjectivity, the cultural regulation to which a core self is subject. The audience discerns that role-playing is foundational to Parolles' subjectivity even as, thanks to the actor, it grasps a “Parolles” separable from the roles he plays. His descent to the status of fool may therefore be read as an act of self-preservation rather than self-evacuation, a survival artist's anti-heroic adaptation to a cultural order that would otherwise erase him.

In the final scene, Bertram, despite disowning his disgraced double, suffers a comparable shaming, a comparable assault on his constructed masculinity and capitulation to those he formerly scorned. Helena avenges her earlier humiliation at Bertram's hands by orchestrating his utter ruination: he is censured, disgraced, and threatened with execution. The drama that she oversees virtually reenacts the earlier scene. Once more the King tries and fails to make a match for Bertram (Lafew's daughter Maudlin). Once more Bertram scorns and humiliates a prospective wife (Diana), a threateningly desirous stand-in for Helena who claims him as husband. Once more the would-be wife suffers transformation from subject to disprized object. Indeed, Bertram might repeat his earlier beseeching move upstage to the enthroned King in an attempt to make a spectacle of Diana, reinforcing his efforts to put her on trial, to portray himself as her victim, a helpless male preyed upon by female cunning (5.3.210-19).

Bertram tries to align himself with the King, whose royal look approximates a gaze. In fact, Helena functions as gaze in this final scene. She establishes and orchestrates the spectacle. Hers is the all-seeing unseen eye for whose sake the others perform. One might even position Helena as concealed spectator to the play's final scene in order to foreground this function. When Helena herself enters the spectacle, she decisively resumes the position she previously secured in the husband-choosing scene, the all-observing observed of all observers. Helena-as-gaze thus makes a spectacle of Bertram, turning his triumphant homecoming into a trial, foiling his attempt to act the part of prodigal son, the reformed rake reconciling with a forgiving father (the King). She also prevents the fatherless Bertram from gaining Lafew as father-in-law by ruining his hopes of marrying Maudlin. Helena dominates the play's final scene but, characteristically, she is not physically present—not “there”—until its final moments.

She embodies herself—and her desire—through two rings which, once introduced, turn the tide quickly and overwhelming against Bertram. The first ring, which Helena places on Bertram's finger during the bed-trick, functions both as a wedding ring, signifying her consummation of the marriage, and as a symbol of Bertram's bondage to the female sexuality he had previously abhorred. The ring around his finger signifies the (k)not that Helena has tied around his body, the “there” in which Bertram seemingly loses himself during the bed-trick and from which he cannot escape. The ring, a gift from the King, also represents Helena's power to “command” patriarchal authority, to enlist the King's assistance once more in winning Bertram as husband (5.3.83-86). Its introduction thus induces the King to turn violently against Bertram, leaving him vulnerable to Helena's further manipulations. The second ring, which Bertram surrenders to Diana in exchange for (he thinks) her sexual favors, also signifies Helena's dominance, her success in securing Bertram as permanent sexual partner by fulfilling his conditions for marriage. By surrendering the token of his masculine honor, Bertram further binds himself to a dominant female sexuality.

These rings restore Helena's dominance not only covertly but, as tokens of her unrepresentable sexuality, nonmimetically as well. Certainly they play havoc with the King's attempt to conduct an orderly investigation into their origins and meanings. Although a careful reader can keep track of them, the rings' dizzying trajectories in performance render them virtually nonreferential, or at least unstable and ungraspable, signifiers without a clear signified. The King goes so far as to suggest that Helena's ring possesses alchemical properties, conjuring multiple owners just as its elusive referent (“there”) generated multiple identities for Helena (5.3.101-106).

Diana's evasions and equivocations concerning the rings further destabilize meaning, transporting the King to the realm of “Not”: “It was not given me, nor I did not buy it. … It was not lent me neither. … I found it not. … I never gave it him” (5.3.272-76). Diana diverts the King's investigation into the unraveling of a riddle, initiating the kind of representational shell game imagined by Irigaray in her description of a nonmimetic “hystera theater”: “[Y]ou will always already have lost your bearings as soon as you set foot in [it].”70 Trying to explain her acquittal of Bertram, Diana makes the riddle explicit, evoking the hidden secrets of the nonmimetic bed-trick:

he's guilty and not guilty.
He knows I am no maid, and he'll swear to't;
I'll swear I am a maid, and he knows not. …
He knows himself my bed he defil'd,
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.

(5.3.189-91, 300-304)

Diana's “hysterical” discourse confounds distinction, deranging the binary logic on which language—and mimesis—depends. Her words insist on an impossible two-in-oneness, a meaning capable of unifying opposites, of reconciling positive to negative. This assertion of the “not-one” proves an “abuse” to the King's ears until Helena steps forward and offers herself as unambiguous signified, the answer to the riddle, the “meaning” of the spectacle, the “one” who dissolves contradiction.

Yet Helena herself continues to be impenetrably contradictory. For one thing, she continues to mystify her power and desire, staging her return as a miraculous resurrection that once more casts her as necromancer—or, in this case, “exorcist” (5.3.304). To ensure her reception as savior, she positions Bertram as redeemed sinner, masking the elements of revenge and erotic conquest that also mark her homecoming.71 Like Duke Vincentio, who resolves to make Isabella “heavenly comforts of despair,” Helena sanctifies her scheme to rescue Bertram from the calamity she herself has created—presumably in order to elicit feelings of indebtedness conducive to capitulation.

Moreover, Helena reaffirms doubleness in calling herself, essentially, a wife and no-wife (“the shadow of a wife, … / The name, and not the thing” [5.3.307-308, emphasis mine]), thereby perpetuating rather than dissolving contradiction. Bertram affirms that she is both “name” and “thing” and begs her pardon, as though ready to accept her as wife and end her riddling self-division. Yet he follows his seemingly unequivocal affirmation with a more conditional one: “[I]f she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (315-16). Characteristically, Helena affirms her claim to have met his conditions in negative terms: “[I]f it appear not plain and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you”—once more raising the spectre of a permanent “not,” the “never” of Bertram's original formulation. If Helena does indeed succeed in securing Bertram as husband, the marriage she makes can represent, at best, a double negative: she successfully negates Bertram's negation of their wedding. She proves herself not a not-wife. Whether she can truly achieve the status of wife remains provocatively questionable.

Equally questionable is precisely what it would mean to achieve it. What does “the thing” signify? The suspicion that “wife” connotes “safely nullified female” haunts the play's final scene. On one hand, Helena no longer feels compelled to simulate normative femininity. She does not disclaim dominance of Bertram by fulsomely protesting subservience. She does not hesitate to call the Countess “mother” (5.3.119). At the same time, given her previous displays of obsequiousness, given the wife's submissive status in marriages of Shakespeare's time, to become “the thing” of wife may mean to erase permanently those aspects of herself at odds with normative femininity, to end doubleness at the expense of self-erasure. From this perspective, 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 can put herself permanently in his. Although Helena's narrative dominates Bertram's, allowing 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.72

The fulfillment of Helena's quest for womanhood depends upon fulfilling Bertram's quest for manhood, functioning as figure of closure for his oedipal plot. Despite persistently demonstrating her divergence from lacking femininity, Helena ultimately appears to embrace it, to read her worth and constitute her identity in the returned look of her Prince Charming, to resolve her doubleness by submitting to his “one.”

Helena aims to deliver both herself and Bertram to a fairy tale denouement that safely reinscribes a masculine-feminine polarity, submitting difference to a symbolic opposition that turns Bertram into her substantiating mirror. In the immediate aftermath of the bed-trick, Helena recoiled from male lust and affirmed Bertram's difference (“O strange men, / That can such sweet use make of what they hate” [4.4.21-22]). In the play's final scene, however, she emphasizes his likeness to her, his “kindness” (“O my good lord, when I was like this maid, / I found you wondrous kind” [5.3.309-10])—a word that connotes kindredness as well as gentleness or generosity.73 Helena needs to claim Bertram as one of her own kind, 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.” She replaces his prodigal-son narrative with a version of the romance-novel retributive fantasy, aiming to bring him to his knees (a posture he has assumed literally in more than one production), abusing him in order please him, positioning him to savor the bondage he initially abhorred.74 She succeeds only to the extent that she elicits an apology and a capitulation that approximate and promote the kindredness she covets. The play, however, offers no assurances that Bertram has truly accepted transformation from Beast to Prince Charming or that he can ever hope to match Helena's idealized vision of him.

Critics have long lamented the paltriness of Bertram's conversion speech, but the problems with the play's final scene run much deeper.75 Because Bertram has twice before falsely professed admiration for Helena (2.3.167-73; 5.3.44-55), 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 be symptoms simply 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 resuming his male prerogatives in marriage. Perhaps Bertram functions here as a male Kate—a seemingly tamed lout who performs the submissive part his dominant spouse has taught him but who may, after all, only be performing. Because, in the play's second half, Helena's aim seems to shift from wedding Bertram to eliciting his desire—from being the “name” to being the “thing”—it may be that, for the second time in the play, her goal eludes her even as she appears to achieve it.76

Moreover, Helena's attempt to embrace femininity is scuttled not simply by Bertram's uncertain response but by her own unfeminine excess, her embodiment of a doubleness that resists reduction to a legible unity. Even as she attempts to accommodate herself to the oedipal plot, she remains elsewhere. Even as her pregnant body allows her to inscribe herself as “wife” and “mother” within the patriarchal order, it also projects the nonmimetic jouissance of the bed-trick.77 On one hand, that is, Helena's pregnant body assimilates her sexuality to a reassuringly feminine, maternal image that evidences Bertram's potency and paternity. On the other, it manifests her sexual dominance, serving as the text of Bertram's fulfilled conditions—and thus as the cause of his capitulation. It also speaks of her own desire and pleasure, reaffirming the active sexuality transgressively alien to the oedipal plot.

Let's look at this double effect in greater detail: on one level, Bertram's apparent readiness to accept Helena's satisfaction of his conditions invites a revisionist reading of them as coded desire, embedding a fantasy of merger with the dreaded but desired female other.78 The conditions are themselves provocatively contradictory, both prescribing and prohibiting sexual intercourse with Helena. Indeed, assuming that Bertram harbors a hidden desire for Helena, the conditions themselves constitute a riddle: how can I have sex with you without suffering shame or emasculation? How can you have sex with me without contaminating yourself or surrendering maternal purity? Helena's answer is the bed-trick, which allows Bertram not only to fulfill his forbidden desire for her involuntarily but to overcome a disabling, contradictory apprehension of female difference: through the bed-trick Helena assimilates for Bertram's sake the seemingly unassimilable roles of wife and lover, (m)other and “real girl” and, in so doing, appears to become “one” with the oedipal plot.

The finale of All's Well could therefore be said to dramatize (at least on one level) the amelioration of castration anxiety—the dread of loss and lack that attends Bertram's aversion to Helena. Helena presents herself as uncastrating, one who has already “had” Bertram sexually without damaging him. She steps forward as the eroticized mother figure of his 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, sanitizing the wayward desiring self that the beleaguered Diana personifies. Her visible pregnancy—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,79 Helena's pregnancy serves as proof not simply of his sexual potency but of her satisfaction by him. Also, by helping him to become a father, Helena promotes Bertram's resemblance to the father he was urged to emulate from the outset.

The bed-trick becomes Bertram's initiation into manhood, with Helena serving as his initiator, the womb or matrix through which he is reborn, negating his attempt to “get the woman out,” to undergo a rite of passage symbolically affirming his separation from woman. His “second birth” repeats rather than replaces the first, affirming his maternal origin. In this world of absent fathers, no viable model of manhood exists for Bertram. Helena essentially takes the place of Bertram's father, as her possession of his ancestral ring suggests. Bertram becomes her creation rather than the Count's. In marrying Helena, Bertram finds his masculinity affirmed through a reassuring maternal presence, getting what he may have wanted all along: a wife/lover/mother who allows him to become a man by remaining a boy.

On another level, Helena's difference is not so easily assimilated, and the impossible conditions represent not a fantasy to fulfill but a law to countermand. By consigning Helena to the realm of Not, Bertram reinscribes the Law of the Father, dismissing her body as nothing-to-be seen, erasing her by textualizing her, subduing her to the patriarchal symbolic. By seeming to return from death—the realm of permanent “not”—Helena underscores her resistance to symbolic erasure, her subversive unassimilability to the lack culturally assigned her. The body Bertram used and disposed of proves itself indisposable; the invisible object of the bed-trick becomes formidably subjective and visible, returning in the person of a would-be wife, a once and future lover, who claims him like an avenging spirit.

Helena defeats the phallocentric negation embedded in Bertram's text by offering the text of her own pregnant body as proof of her indisposability, a text whose meaning exceeds the limits of the conditions it fulfills and the symbolic categories (wife, mother) to which it is subject. By bearing material traces of the nonmimetic bed-trick, by textualizing her own aspiration to jouissance, Helena records a difference irreducible to anatomy. Her body becomes not the source of a prediscursive, universal female meaning in which she shares but a signifier of her own elusive subjectivity, the text of her own persistent riddle. Helena brings Bertram, however obscurely, new knowledge of herself, offering allusions to their time in bed and visible proof of their mutual gratification—allusions both tantalizing and confounding. Her body claims knowledge of Bertram and attributes to him a knowledge of her that contradicts and challenges his lack of knowledge, sparking the desire to know more. When Bertram declares, “if she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,” 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 difference, of an otherness he may now perceive as other than “nothing-to-be-seen,” other than Other, distinct from the culturally promised Woman awaiting him at his oedipal journey's end. To desire to know more of Helena is to desire her, to regard her as a riddle worth solving. The “this” that Bertram's wishes to know becomes homologous with Helena's “there,” suggesting that the performance of sex has solved his problem with sexuality, that he loves her and loves her knot—to rework Parolles' definition of a gentleman's love for a woman. Yet this solution, and the desire for knowledge it predicates, are simply intriguing possibilities. As the play ends, Helena remains elsewhere, suspended somewhere between known and not known. By recurrently transcending the lacking femininity she seemingly strives to embrace, Helena moves beyond the realm of “not” to the elsewhere of “not, but,” paradoxically inserting herself into the oedipal plot as the source of her own meaning, hysterically coexisting with her own negation.

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 remains a mystery to be solved by the reader and spectator 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. In particular, a staged bed-trick, by fetishizing the male body and empowering a female gaze, could underline the instability of those genders they seek to stabilize, taking the play's provocative dramatization of difference to startling and invigorating lengths.

The play itself also remains a riddle to be solved. It interrogates the happy ending it provisionally enacts by refusing to exorcise the doubts that have clouded Helena's pursuit of Bertram from the outset. It seems almost deliberately designed to force the audience to confront the implications of its need for a comic love story in which imperiled protagonists happily transcend all conceivable obstacles and vexations. Even as Helena finally secures Bertram as husband, the play stokes doubts about the sincerity of his conversion and the seemliness of their union. Does their reconciliation evidence the flourishing of mutual love and desire or the wedding of delusion and opportunism?

The play gestures toward comic closure while refusing to harmonize its anti-comic discordances. For this reason, the director may wish to insert Lavatch into the final scene as a signifier of that anti-comic spirit. The Clown's strained and dissociated jesting manifests not only sexual but metaphysical anxiety. His jokes “keep touching religion like a sore tooth.”80 On at least three occasions he addresses issues of salvation and damnation (1.3.28-37; 2.4.1-13; 4.5.36-55). When Lafew, unnerved by such apocalyptic raillery, calls Lavatch “a shrewd knave and an unhappy,” the Countess concurs, “So 'a is. My lord that's gone made himself much sport out of him; by his authority he remains here, which he thinks is a patent for his sauciness” (4.5.60-63). In this brief exchange, one not only hears of Lavatch's bitter and melancholic disposition but deduces their probable source: the death of the Count, to whom the Clown was evidently much attached. Lavatch is a walking symptom—of the fear of female sexuality, of the dread of mortality, of the instability surrounding the death of the father. In the midst of a narrative straining to resolve itself comically, he personifies that principle in experience that resists comic idealization.

Lavatch might be placed as brooding, skeptical spectator to the play's final events, signaling the stubborn persistence of his personified question. Can dread of female sexuality be so easily exorcised? Can the unruliness of male sexuality be so safely assimilated to a redemptive marriage of the very sort that Lavatch mocked in his opening scene? Can any of these characters achieve “wellness”? Can the play itself achieve it, mired as it is in a truculently realistic anxiety? The melancholy jester/scourge sticks like a burr to this play. One could close the play with the King's summoning his subjects offstage, leaving Bertram and Helena alone at last, sealing their marriage with a kiss. Upstage of them, standing in the shadows but perturbingly visible and intensely observant, is Lavatch, an unanswered, perhaps unanswerable question mark. The play ends by directing focus to a doubting look that disrupts Bertram's and Helena's attempt to signify “happily married couple” in the spectacle of the world.

In the play's 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). The play ends well if we say that it does. Remembering Lavatch's definition of “wellness” as a state of grace beyond human experience, one must perhaps admit that, given the play's engagement with that often unlovely and dispiriting experience, it ends as well as it can.


  1. Bulletin of the Shakespeare Association of America 16 (July1992), 4.

  2. Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York: Macmillan, 1931). Although Lawrence insists 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 for some time uncovered the potent cultural and psychological dramas that such tales encode. See, for instance, Alan Dundes, “The Psychoanalytic Study of Folklore,” in Parsing through Customs: Essays by a Freudian Folklorist (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 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, threatening the uncomplicated unfolding of the oedipal plot and the gender ideology it encodes. A feminist gestus aims to heighten the drama of that threatened rupture by staging the play's repressed contents.

  3. See, for example, Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 84-86; 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) 47-55; Susan Snyder, “‘The King's Not Here’: Displacement and Deferral in All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (Spring 1992); and “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object,” English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988), 73-77.

  4. References to All's Well That Ends Well are based on The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  5. I italicize feminine and masculine in order to make clear that I use the terms to denote modes of desire (passive and active) while distancing myself from the Freudian view that such modes are rooted in the biological difference between male and female.

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

  7. For an extremely helpful discussion of the paradigm of “closed femininity,” see Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern England, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (U of Chicago P, 1986), 123-42.

  8. “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: ‘These Are Learned Paradoxes,”’ Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (Spring 1987), 1-18.

  9. The Sovereign Flower: On Shakespeare as the Poet of Royalism Together with Related Essays and Indexes to Earlier Volumes (London: Methuen, 1958), 137.

  10. Knight, The Sovereign Flower, 138. 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.”

  11. “Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,” in Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1985), 50.

  12. Cf. Mariana in Pericles: “If fires be hot, knives sharp, or waters deep, / Untied I still my virgin knot will keep” (4.2.146-47).

  13. See Jacques Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: Norton, 1985), 144-45.

  14. 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. “[T]he sexually active Helena of the first part of the play [becomes] the virtuously knowing, ideal wife” (“Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines,” 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.

  15. As Jardine points out, the infamy that Helena courts, if realized, could “ostracize [her] from the community, recasting her wisdom as witchcraft” (“Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines,” 10).

  16. Some commentators believe that the young lords are indeed standoffish. See, for instance, Joseph Price, The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well That Ends Well and Its Critics (Liverpool UP, 1968), 155-56. I find it difficult to credit this reading because of the unlikelihood of the wards' openly flouting the King's formidable demands for cooperation (2.3.56, 72-73). It is far more likely that Lafew takes a position peripheral to the proceedings and so misconstrues their meaning.

  17. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975), 11-12.

  18. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 75.

  19. All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens,” 11.

  20. While relatively few modern critics have subscribed to such an extremely negative view of Helena (see, however, Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies [Oxford UP, 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 very recently, to judge Helena's character in some measure, and have often found cause to indict or at least regret the duplicitous and predacious tactics that belie her celebrated virtue. See E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1925), 200-207; Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in All's Well,ELH 12 (1954), 17-29; Alexander Leggatt, Modern Language Quarterly 32 (1971), 22-41; W. L. Godschalk, “All's Well and the Morality Play,” Shakespeare Quarterly 25 (1974), 61-70; David Scott Kastan, “All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” ELH 52 (1985), 575-89. Critics, of course, have 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).

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

  22. Ways of Seeing (New York: Viking, 1973), 121.

  23. De Lauretis discusses this contradiction in especially helpful terms in Alice Doesn't, 156-59.

  24. See, for instance, Janelle Reinelt, “Feminist Theory and the Problem of Performance,” Modern Drama 32 (March 1987), 48-57.

  25. Stacy Wolf and Michael Peterson, review of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theatre Journal 42 (May 1992), 228.

  26. See Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1964), 22, 112-35. According to Freud's reductive biological model, the little girl's desire shifts from wanting a penis to wanting the one who possesses it. She thus surrenders or represses the active part of her libido (“masculine” desire) in return for her father's (i.e., male) love, consenting to her condition of “lack,” of passivity and dependence.

  27. I am indebted to Ralph Alan Cohen for pointing out the pervasiveness of the negative in the language of All's Well in “The (K)notty Discourse of All's Well That Ends Well,” unpublished manuscript, presented to the Shakespeare Association of America, 1993.

  28. “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 knowledge, the strengthening of controls and resistance, 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: Random House, 1978], 105-106).

  29. Although she overestimates the liberating effects of Elizabethan marriage for women, Juliet Dusinberre nonetheless gives a good account of the ideal of marital chastity with which Puritan reformers sought to displace a monastical (catholic) one (Shakespeare and the Nature of Women [London: Macmillan, 1975], 20-63).

  30. Richard A. Levin offers the most extreme version of this view, essentially arguing—seldom with textual support—that everything that happens in the play is the direct result of her indefatigable conniving (“All's Well That Ends Well and ‘All Seems Well”’).

  31. “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory,” Signs 7 (Spring 1982), 530-31. While MacKinnon's comment offers a useful gloss on Helena's predicament, it can hardly be taken as universally true; female sexuality is surely far too powerful, multifaceted, and complex to suffer reduction to the simple task of attracting and pleasing men.

  32. James Hillman suggests that Helena never gives the slightest indication that she cares whether Bertram desires her or not; she wishes to construct herself out of her construction of him and so aspires only to render him powerless to reject the image she wishes to project onto him (William Shakespeare: The Problem Plays [New York: Twayne, 1993], 67). Although I agree that Helena positions Bertram as self-substantiating Other, I would argue that her alliance with Diana bespeaks a need not merely to stand in for but to become the object of Bertram's desire, to present herself at play's end as, among other things, a body bearing physical evidence of its antecedent desirability.

  33. “The statement, ‘I am 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,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 23.

  34. Lynda E. Boose discusses this homology in her stunning essay “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), 199-200; also Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” 126.

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

  36. “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,” in Sex and Marriage (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1977), 42.

  37. Ruth 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” (“Motive and Meaning in All's Well That Ends Well,” in “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions”: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, ed. John W. Malion and Thomas H. Pendleton [London: Methuen, 1987], 33, 35). My argument is closer to that of Adelman, who identifies a “binding maternal power” in the Countess which Helena enacts and extends (Suffocating Mothers, 79-80).

  38. For a brilliant discussion of the oedipal conflict between Bertram and the King, see Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies, 35-45.

  39. Nevo also notes the strangeness of “mother” within the menu of lovers' epithets, “Motive and Meaning in All's Well That Ends Well,” 37-38.

  40. Other critics have noted the Clown's role as Bertram's double (see, for instance, Snyder, “‘The King's Not Here,”’ 23-24), though none that I know of has argued that the parallel encompasses an ambivalent attitude toward Helena.

  41. The way in which male initiation rites tend to exclude women and often require the reception of a wound that constitutes a male vulva has been noted by, among others, Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), esp. 21-40; and Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (Glencoe, N.Y.: Free Press, 1954; rpt. New York: Collier), esp. 90-121.

  42. See, for instance, Ornstein, Shakespeare's Comedies, 183.

  43. David Haley's recent study, Shakespeare's Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Praxis in All's Well That Ends Well (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1993), offers perhaps the most thorough defense of Bertram, arguing that his character can be understood only in the context of aristocratic “praxis” and not individual psychology. Haley argues that Bertram, like Hal, becomes the heroic nobleman he was destined to be from the outset: “[T]he playwright has fashioned the character primarily with a view to the character's heroic end. Bertram must be conceived as the nobleman he will ultimately be” (218). Haley's confidence in Bertram's maturation—and concomitant elision of his inadequacies—strikes me as problematic, as does his reification of an heroic code that the play seems to destabilize. Although Haley resists psychoanalytic interpretations, his notion of “mirroring” lends itself to Lacanian translation: Bertram must identify with a culturally imposed image that allows him to signify within the cultural (courtly) spectacle, must fit himself to the screen that enables capture by the gaze. That such identification constitutes a misrecognition seems apparent from the insubstantiality of the models to which Bertram is subject: the militaristic flummery of Parolles and the nostalgically mythologized courtliness of his father, the Count.

  44. Robert Smallwood, “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1989, Part II,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (Winter 1990), 494.

  45. Steve Vineberg, “Problem Plays,” Threepenny Review 52 (Spring 1993), 32.

  46. Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voice: Shakespeare's Women Today (London: Women's Press, 1988), 81.

  47. Rutter, Clamorous Voices, 88.

  48. Rutter, Clamorous Voices, 88.

  49. J. L. Styan, All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare in Performance (Manchester UP, 1984), 72.

  50. See Price for an account of Houseman's staging (The Unfortunate Comedy, 67), and Smallwood for a description of Kyle's (“Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1989,” 494).

  51. Pornography and Silence: Culture's Revenge against Nature (New York: Harper, 1981), 22. Griffin offers compelling evidence of the consistent recurrence of this plot, although her association of women with nature and her affirmation of a natural sexuality seem problematically essentialist.

  52. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Random House, 1975), 308.

  53. “America's Cinderella,” in Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook, ed. Alan Dundes (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982), 298.

  54. Yolen, “America's Cinderella,” 296.

  55. My reading of the traditional tale of “Cinderella” is indebted to that of Bettelheim (The Uses of Enchantment, 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 step-sisters' 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 biological determinism, 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.

  56. Carol Thurston, The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987), 8.

  57. 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 (The Romance Revolution, 72).

  58. Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (New York: Methuen, 1982), 45. As a genre of contemporary fiction written almost exclusively by and for women and, as a recent site of 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 linking Shakespeare to popular culture, see Harriet Hawkins, Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres (U of Toronto P, 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 (Spring 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).

  59. “In both [All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure], the bed-tricks are employed to cure or transform male fantasy through its apparent enactment” (Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays [New Haven: Yale UP, 1985], 92). Although Neely sees the bed-trick as primarily humiliating for Helena (as I do not), she does acknowledge Helena's affirmation of the “sweetness of her pleasure and the growth that will ensue: ‘the time will bring on summer, / When briars shall have leaves as well as thorns, / And be as sweet as sharp”’ (4.4.31-33), 80.

  60. Alice Doesn't, 99, 83.

  61. See Neely, Broken Nuptials, 73, and Hodgdon, “The Making of Virgins and Mothers,” 60.

  62. Alice Doesn't, 153, 157.

  63. For a helpful discussion of the King's fistula, see F. David Hoeniger, Medicine and Shakespeare in the English Renaissance (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992), 293-98. Surveying contemporaneous medical treatises, Hoeniger concludes that Shakespeare's audience would have assumed that the King's fistula was in ano. Hoeniger believes that the cured King's reference to “this healthful hand, whose banished sense / Thou hast repealed” indicates that the wound might actually have been located in his hand, as though Shakespeare were playing a joke on an audience inclined to believe that the fistula was in ano. This single line, however, does not provide strong enough evidence that Shakespeare wished to contradict the audience's assumption. The Fisher King “had been crippled by a spear-thrust in the thighs. It seems clear that the words usually translated ‘wounded through his two thighs’ were intended to mean ‘wounded between his two thighs.’ In plain language, he was emasculated. The Fisher King is impotent and his land is threatened with ruin,” Robert Cavendish, King Arthur and the Grail: The Arthurian Legends and Their Meaning (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), 140.

  64. See Styan, All's Well That Ends Well, 25, 52.

  65. Smallwood, “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1989,” 494.

  66. Guthrie's production offered a purely mystical example of faith-healing. See Styan, All's Well That Ends Well, 54.

  67. I am essentially paraphrasing Snyder here (“‘The King's not here,”’ 27).

  68. See Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 96-97. As Silverman explains, Lacan is “concerned with the process whereby the subject assumes the form of a representation, or—to state the case somewhat differently—becomes a picture, a process which involves three rather than two terms: subject, screen, and gaze,” in Male Subjectivity at the Margins, 148.

  69. Smallwood, “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1989,” 495.

  70. Speculum of the Other Woman, 244, 292.

  71. Some critics have contended that the play itself resembles a morality play. See, for instance, Knight, The Sovereign Flower; Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia UP, 1965); and William B. Toole, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (The Hague: Mouton, 1966), 130-51.

  72. de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't, 133.

  73. 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 UP, 1981), 142.

  74. 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” (“Subjectivity, Desire, and Female Friendship,” 58). Asp, however, sees Helena as more unequivocally altered and triumphant than I do, arguing that she decisively shifts from a deluded idolization to a realistic assessment of Bertram, giving up an obsessive desire for otherness rooted in the Imaginary for structural coherence as wife and mother within the Symbolic. In my reading, neither of these shifts is clear-cut: Helena's desire continues unabated, implicating Bertram as Other and exceeding the maternal and wifely roles she claims.

  75. G. K. Hunter speaks for many critics: “[T]he mere substitution of Bertram's cryptic fustian … for the elaborate recognitions of the earlier comedies does not remove from our minds the desire for some expression of what is being resolved,” Introduction to All's Well That Ends Well, in The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1959), lv.

  76. In Susan Snyder's Lacanian reading of All's Well, Helena's goal eludes her because it is essentially illusory: “‘the bright particular star’ 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). I see more ambivalence and ambiguity in the play's ending, owing to Bertram's possible awakening to Helena's difference which, while not redeeming his demonstrable inadequacies, nevertheless points him to a new and enabling knowledge.

  77. It seems clear that Helena must be visibly pregnant in the play's final scene, not simply because Diana's testimony that she “feels her young one kick” places the pregnancy in its advanced stages but because Helena's claim to have fulfilled Bertram's conditions would otherwise lack substance. The claim is still problematic, of course, given that Bertram actually requested a child (in the source, Giletta presents Beltramo with twin boys) and that Helena could be carrying another man's baby. Still, it seems unlikely that Helena would claim fulfillment without visual corroboration. I am also intrigued by the possibility that, if Helena is indeed visibly pregnant, her line “When I was like this maid” could be heard as “when I was like this made.”

  78. See Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 85; Nevo, “Motive and Meaning,” 44; and Kay Stockholder, Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays (U of Toronto P, 1987), 75-76 for corroborative readings of the wish-fulfillment fantasy encoded in Bertram's impossible conditions.

  79. See Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1990), 1-9.

  80. Helen Wilcox, “‘Help of Heaven’ or ‘Act of (Wo)Man’?: Sacred and Secular in All's Well That Ends Well,” unpublished manuscript, presented to the Shakespeare Association of America, 1993.

Margaret Loftus Ranald (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5191

SOURCE: “The Betrothals of All's Well That Ends Well,” in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, February, 1963, pp. 179-92.

[In the following essay, Ranald discusses the nature of Elizabethan matrimonial contracts in order to elucidate the marriage theme of All's Well That Ends Well.]

Of Shakespeare's three so-called problem comedies, All's Well That Ends Well has been the most neglected. Some of the situations (notably the bed trick) undoubtedly do repel some readers, and scholars have largely concentrated on explaining their significance to the play. One allied topic has, however, gone almost unnoticed: the betrothals and resultant matrimonial situations. Certainly W. W. Lawrence discusses them in his study of this play, and G. K. Hunter appends some thought-provoking annotations to the new Arden edition of Shakespeare; but in general too much attention seems to have been paid to the bed trick, while the nature of matrimonial contracting, a topic which appears continuously throughout the play, has been largely ignored.

The aim of this paper is, therefore, to study the somewhat confused yet generally accepted laws surrounding Elizabethan matrimonial practice and to examine their relevance to the marriage of Bertram and Helena. The marriage contracts seem to be largely representative of English practice, so it would appear that Shakespeare has “Englished” his source (Boccaccio) in this way also. Thus through an understanding of Elizabethan matrimonial law some of the material in Act II may become more clear, and some of the immense confusion of Act V may be seen to have an underlying order and dramatic significance.

Many of the difficulties of All's Well were admirably solved by W. W. Lawrence when he showed how much of the action of the play had its roots in the conventions of folk and fairy tale. But despite Lawrence's assurance that “The Elizabethan audience would have accepted these ‘tricks’ [of Helena] as valid without question; that Bertram's sudden change of heart was a convention of mediæval and Elizabethan story, which must be expected to follow Helena's triumph,”1 critics have still had difficulty in matters of characterization and meaning and often end by merely classifying the play as a “problem comedy.” Yet, as Madeleine Doran remarks, “the only ‘problem’ in it is Helena's problem of getting the man she wants for a husband.”2 Certainly, as John F. Adams points out, Helena is no cold virgin. She is a virtuous woman whose aim in the play is to fulfill her function of procreation by losing her virginity through marriage to a man who pleases her.3 This motivation makes of Helena a really “clever wench” in her interestingly legal attempts to gain Bertram's person and his love.

The first move in any Elizabethan arrangement, after the financial details were settled, was the betrothal, or the espousal. This ceremony was of such great importance in both civil and ecclesiastical law that it was surrounded with specific official formulas, chiefly concerning the promises which the Church of England recommended that its members make in public and before witnesses.4 Elizabethan law recognized two different kinds of betrothal. The first of these was sponsalia per verba de praesenti, which meant an exchange of consents in words of the present tense, preferably spoken in public. This espousal in effect created the status of marriage immediately and was indissoluble except in cases of diriment impediments,5 earlier contract to another, or adultery committed by one of the parties to the unconsummated contract.6 Though the sponsalia per verba de praesenti did not confer the sexual privileges of marriage, it was treated almost like a valid marriage and could be upheld in the courts.7 The second kind of betrothal was sponsalia per verba de futuro, which meant an exchange of consents in words of the future tense, preferably spoken in public, and merely entailed an obligation to marry at some later date. At that time a public exchange of consents in the present tense would take place in facie ecclesiae.8 Consent was therefore recognized as the basis of matrimony, but the view of Gratian was still upheld even in post-Reformation England: the contract effected matrimonium initiatum only, and consummation was required for matrimonium ratum, a marriage made quite indissoluble by sacramental symbolism.9

Consent could also be given subject to conditions, providing that they were not impossible, frivolous, involving grave sin, or concerned with necessary natural conditions such as “if the sun rise tomorrow.”10 If, however, the parties to the conditional contract later expressed their mutual consent in words of the present tense, they were considered joined in simple matrimony.11 Again, if the parties to a conditional espousal later had carnal knowledge of each other before the fulfillment of the condition they were then considered to have renounced the condition.12 In short, carnal knowledge of the contracting parties meant that they had contracted simple matrimony.13

The ceremonies of public espousal included the exchange of consents by the contracting parties before sufficient witnesses (at least two) and, generally, handfasting. The exchange of nuptial kisses and rings was also considered important, and rings were sometimes exchanged even in cases of secret and unsworn espousals.14 This last point ought to be remembered in the study of All's Well.

The state of mind of the parties was also important. As William Harrington said in 1528, “it is to be knowen that man and woman dothe entre this holy ordre and sacramente of matrymony by expresse and free consente of both partyes.”15 This insistence on free and unforced consent was often paid only lip service in Elizabethan arranged matches, but consent given through intimidation caused by threats sufficient to put the fear of death into a strong man (metus qui posset in virum constantem cadere), could render a marriage null and void ab initio even if it had been consummated.16

This situation is important in All's Well because Bertram is the ward of the king and is forced into marrying Helena. Certainly under Elizabethan law the king is within his rights in choosing Helena for Bertram, or rather in agreeing to her choice of Bertram; but he follows the often castigated practice of Elizabethan guardians by unjustly exercising his prerogative and forcing his will upon an unwilling ward “by the rigour of the law.”17 As Glenn H. Blayney notes, this occurrence is extremely important to the later development of the play: “The enforcement motif has been heightened in Shakespeare, and Bertram's neglect of Helena follows more dramatically from this motivation. … Perhaps we should today regard Bertram in the light of seventeenth-century attitudes which explained his behavior as a victim of a king's will unjustly imposed through the prerogatives of wardship.”18

The actual scene of choice and espousing in II.iii seems to follow contemporary Elizabethan practice and to reproduce most of the legal requirements of betrothal. The espousal actually begins when Helena approaches Bertram with these words:

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.


Obviously in this speech we have a classic statement of a de praesenti espousal with the slight distinction humbly made by the young lady in the first line. Customarily in espousals one would say “I take thee for my wife, or husband.” Here Helena seems almost too conscious of the social difference between her and Bertram and therefore she changes the words slightly, though the meaning is doubtless the same.

The king, standing in loco parentis, promptly gives his blessing and consent to the match: “Why, then, young Bertram, take her; she's thy wife” (II.iii.112). The use of the word “wife” here is noteworthy, because although espousals did not confer all the rights of marriage, the titles “wife” and “husband” were frequently used for betrothed couples.20 Bertram's reply is one that has on occasion incensed critics:

My wife, my liege! I shall beseech your Highness,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.


It must not be forgotten, however, that Bertram is really asking for nothing more than the elemental right to choose his own wife rather than to have one forced upon him. The young ward, with some justice, fails to understand why he should pay the price for his guardian's cure. Almost in desperation he concocts reasons which might make the match unsuitable, beginning with the difference in rank and fortune:

                    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!


The king promptly dismisses that reason by offering to give Helena a title and money, while at the same time rebuking Bertram for his false values in equating nobility with rank and wealth instead of with virtue. The king also takes care to state Helena's fitness to be Bertram's wife:

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


Obviously he considers Helena more than a fit match for his stubborn and unappreciative ward, and most Elizabethan courtesy books would agree.

Bertram then seeks for another reason: “I cannot love her, nor will strive to do't” (II.iii.152). At this point Helena attempts to withdraw her offer; but by now the king's anger is aroused at the flagrant disobedience of his ward, and he exercises his prerogative as a guardian to enforce Bertram's consent, even to the extent of threatening the young man with punishment and the loss of royal favor (II.iii.156-173).

The king's threat speedily brings Bertram to heel. All his objections are overruled and the quality of “liking” or “fancy” is all that is lacking. So, with a very bad grace, Bertram acquiesces:

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.


Bertram then takes the lady's hand, saying merely “I take her hand” (II.iii.183). It is evident that the king considers this act one of hand-fasting and takes it as an outward sign of consent. This situation would presumably equal a binding contract because, as Henry Swinburne notes:

… albeit neither of the Parties express any words at all, but some third person recite the words of the Contract, willing them if they be there-with content, to joyn their hands together, or to embrace each other; the Parties so doing, the Contract is of like Efficacy, as if they themselves had mutually expressed the words before recited by the third Person.21

The king then gives his blessing and consent as guardian, taking the joining of hands as consent on the part of the two betrothed, and the rest of the court act as witnesses. Apparently neither nuptial kisses nor rings are exchanged, but the words of the king indicate that he considers a contract to have been made:

Good fortune and the favour of the King
Smile upon this contract, whose ceremony
Shall seem expedient on the now-born brief,
And be perform'd to-night. The solemn feast
Shall more attend upon the coming space,
Expecting absent friends. As thou lov'st her,
Thy love's to me religious; else does err.


Such a ceremony of espousing was, of course, followed by a religious ceremony in facie ecclesiae. Usually, in Elizabethan England, banns would have been called; but in many cases, including Shakespeare's own marriage, the banns were dispensed with. It was this ceremony in facie ecclesiae—and not the sponsalia per verba de praesenti—that actually conferred all the rights and privileges of matrimony.22 William Harrington's statement of 1528 was also true of Shakespeare's day:

… yet the man maye not possesse the woman as his wyfe / nor the woman the man as her husbonde / nor inhabyte / nor flesshely meddle togyther as man and wyfe: afore suche tyme as that matrymony be approved and solempnysed by oure mother holy chyrche / and yf they do in dede they synne deedly. …23

If, however, a betrothed couple did consummate their contract before the church ceremony, the sin was generally considered venial rather than mortal because of the existence of the contract.24 Nevertheless the Church would still insist upon the ceremony, and ecclesiastical penalties could be imposed.

The king proposes that the church ceremony be held that very evening and that the wedding banquet, a purely social appendage, be postponed until a later date. Apparently the religious service takes place almost immediately, because later in the same scene Lafeu enters with “Sirrah, your lord and master's married; there's news for you. You have a new mistress” (II.iii.257-258). Bertram also reinforces this evidence that the public espousals have been ratified in facie ecclesiae:

Ber. Although before the solemn priest I have sworn, I will not bed her.
Par. What, what, sweetheart?
Ber. O my Parolles, they have married me! I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her.


This action has also been used to paint Bertram as a singularly nasty young man, but as Blayney says, “We may find an excuse for his treatment of Helena in the contemporary attitudes and conduct which accompanied wardship and the enforcement of marriage.”25

Bertram seems, in fact, to be taking the only course open to him. The religiously ratified de praesenti matrimonial contract that he has just entered into is binding and almost indissoluble, but the important element of consummation is lacking. Should Bertram avoid cohabitation and refuse to consummate the marriage, then he would still have the possibility of escape on several grounds: (1) consent obtained by threats sufficient to arouse fear in a strong man; (2) consent obtained through respect for authority (per metus reverentialis); (3) mental reservation at the time of the ceremony;26 (4) refusal to consummate the marriage indicated by a three-year absence from the province, or a two-year absence within the province.27 Therefore one may say that by refusing to go to bed with Helena, Bertram is doing the only sensible thing possible under the circumstances, because the act of consummation would be considered the outward sign of consent on both sides. He would then be condemned without recourse to indissoluble marriage with his unwanted, unloved wife. It is interesting to note that Bertram can on occasion disobey the king, but only in his guardian's absence. In both the espousal scene of Act II and the concluding scene of Act V he is quite unable to protest satisfactorily when the king is present.

The central emphasis in the matrimonial affairs of the play now shifts from Bertram to Helena, and the remainder of the plot is concerned with what W. W. Lawrence called the theme of the “clever wench” or “the fulfilling of the task.” In the manner of a truly obedient wife, Helena at first acquiesces in Bertram's desire to postpone consummation of the match. She then leaves the court to return to the only home she has ever known, Roussillon, where she is shown to have gained the consent of the countess herself, who also stands in loco parentis to Helena: “It hath happen'd all as I would have had it, save that he comes not with her” (III.ii.1-2). At this time Shakespeare plays on the sympathies of his audience by having even the countess comment disparagingly on the conduct of her own son and praise the virtues of Helena. All blame is now fastened on Bertram, and Helena is all-praised—and decidedly resourceful.

Bertram's letter to his mother is exactly what one would expect, and it is significant that this is the first time the young man has put a statement of his attitudes and proposed actions in writing:

“I have sent you a daughter-in-law; she hath recovered the King, and undone me. I have wedded her, not bedded her; and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal. You shall hear I am run away: know it before the report come. If there be breadth enough in the world, I will hold a long distance. My duty to you.”


This letter is Shakespeare's addition to the Boccaccio source and it serves two purposes: it could be excellent evidence for the annulment of the marriage, and it gains further sympathy for Helena when she reads Bertram's accompanying letter of conditions:

“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.”’


Such conditions are of course typical of those in the “clever wench” genre of folk tales so admirably described by Lawrence,28 but the letter can also be read as a conditional espousal added to the earlier, public and unwilling one. It will be recalled that such conditions were not supposed to be impossible or to cause grave sin, and Bertram is saying nothing more than that he will refuse to accept the title of husband until he has acted as Helena's husband, consummated the marriage—which he has so far obstinately refused to do—and begotten a child on Helena. All that Helena does from that time is to find a way to fulfill Bertram's conditions, to obtain her conjugal rights and to lose her virginity to her own “liking,” a situation entirely different from that described in Measure for Measure. We now have the picture of a woman desperately in love who wants quite frankly to consummate her marriage and is prepared to go to almost any lengths to do so. Certainly the means she uses to obtain her end seem to arise rather too much from coincidence—but then Shakespeare was following his source. It is the treatment of this part of Boccaccio's tale that is important, and one cannot fail to note how carefully Shakespeare seems to make his material fit the Elizabethan patterns of espousing. This statement is particularly true of Bertram's relations with Diana, the maiden whom the young man solicits, and it seems to serve as a key to many of the problems surrounding the conclusion of the play.

At the opening of Act V the entire court is mourning the supposed death of Helena, and in a situation reminiscent of Much Ado about Nothing we have a second match suggested as a consolation prize for the young man who has learned the worth of his jilted lady too late:

          she whom all men prais'd and whom myself,
Since I have lost, have lov'd, was in mine eye
The dust that did offend it.


As in the case of Claudio, these lines should be taken at their face value. What is lost is now loved. Bertram is also more mature and less hasty. In the public espousal scene which follows and which parallels that of II.iii his behavior shows considerable alteration. Instead of protest we have deference and obedience to his guardian's wishes (V.iii.28-31). The king expresses a desire for the match, and “The main consents are had” (V.iii.69). In other words, the king and the countess of Roussillon as guardian and parent, Lafeu as the father of the young lady, and Bertram himself have all agreed, and Maudlin has been reported as consenting to the match. Lafeu then asks for the usual token, and Bertram naturally gives a ring—but it is the ring given him by the supposed Diana, and both Lafeu and the king instantly recognize it as the king's gift to Helena.

Thus at the moment of what would seem to be Bertram's success his bubble is pricked, and the young man's pride is broken. Bertram seizes upon the first plausible lie, but the king's suspicions are aroused to the extent of wondering whether the unwilling bridegroom might not have done away with his unwanted wife, Helena (V.iii.115-120). On top of these revelations Shakespeare produces a letter from Diana in which she claims, in the best legal manner, that Bertram is now contracted irrevocably to her:

“Upon his many protestations to marry me when his wife was dead, I blush to say it, he won me. Now is the Count Roussillon a widower; his vows are forfeited to me, and my honour's paid to him. He stole from Florence, taking no leave, and I follow him to his country for justice. Grant it me, O king! In you it best lies. Otherwise a seducer flourishes, and a poor maid is undone. Diana Capilet.”


Immediately upon this discovery Lafeu withdraws his offer of Maudlin, whom we never see.

Shakespeare has of course already prepared us for Bertram's discomfiture when in the preceding act he has Diana propose an exchange of rings as her price for entertaining Bertram:

When you have conquer'd my yet maiden bed,
Remain there but an hour, nor speak to me.
My reasons are most strong and you shall know them
When back again this ring shall be deliver'd;
And on your finger in the night I'll put
Another ring, that what in time proceeds
May token to the future our past deeds.
Adieu, till then; then, fail not. You have won
A wife of me, though there my hope be done.


This careful doubling of the rings is original with Shakespeare, and G. K. Hunter appends the following perceptive comment:

The exchange of rings was part of the ceremony of betrothal … ; since Diana claims Bertram as her husband in v.iii perhaps the exchange is thought of as having a similar force here. …”29

Diana also uses the word “wife” in referring to herself and in IV.ii.71-72 notes that Claudio

          had sworn to marry me
When his wife's dead. …

In her statements Diana seems to describe a conditional and secret espousal with an exchange of rings. The fulfillment of the condition (i.e., the death of Helena) would therefore leave Bertram contracted to Diana, although in secret. Consummation of such a relationship would of course ratify the contract, constituting a putative marriage recognizable under law. Admittedly the espousals are clandestine, being sworn in secret and lacking the religious ceremony in facie ecclesiae, but this kind of secret marriage could be, and in fact was on occasion, upheld in court, although ecclesiastical penalties and sometimes temporal punishment could be imposed because of the irregularity of the contracting.30

At this point in the play Diana almost seems to be the instigator of much of the succeeding action, a fact which contributes to the character of Helena, who does not therefore appear to be a relentless plotter. After all, as Harold Wilson says, “the controlling idea of the play that emerges is the conception of Helena's love as far stronger than Bertram's arrogance, a love which works unobtrusively and with humility toward an end that heaven favors.”31 The complication of the play has now reached its climax, and the great confrontation scene now takes place. Shakespeare does not make it clear which of the two ladies, Helena or Diana, is responsible for the planning of this scene, but it serves a highly useful purpose in motivating the repentance of Bertram and showing that by the end of the play he has gained sufficient self-knowledge and maturity to comprehend the true nobility of Helena. Only then can he be remotely worthy of her.32

On Diana's appearance Bertram is backed into a corner; his accomplice in what he would seem to have considered a mere soldier's flirtation has now come to claim him. And by Elizabethan law and practice Bertram would have been bound to her because of the promise, the exchange of rings, and the consummation of the relationship. Most unchivalrously he attacks Diana's reputation, at which point the girl produces Bertram's ancestral ring as evidence both of the contract and of his perfidy. This blow is the culminating one in a long series of shocks to the young man's pride, beginning with the marriage to Helena, continuing with the unmasking of Parolles, and culminating in this scene. By now Bertram's pride is completely crushed. All he can do is gibber wildly in an undignified attempt to cover up for himself, while Diana relentlessly uncovers each lie. Bertram must finally confess that he received the ring from “Diana” and stand by while the foul-mouthed braggart Parolles tells all. The behavior of Diana at this point seems rather strange, and critics since Johnson have objected to this part of the scene. It is important, nevertheless, because her stalling and her pert answers to the king forfeit any sympathy she might gain from the court or the audience. Further, it is dramatically necessary that Bertram be given a very real scare. His shortcomings in preferring Diana to his lost wife, who loved him for himself, must be revealed. Bertram, now knowing himself for what he is, can then react positively when Helena comes to announce the fulfillment of the conditions he had set her.

With the appearance of Helena, the now humbled young man rejoices. Some of his joy may also be dictated by the fact that she is undoubtedly saving him from the undesirable match in which he had believed himself trapped. The existing contract with Helena, though consummated by a trick, has now become binding, indissoluble matrimony; and it certainly outweighs any later contract into which Bertram might have entered. He has now been “doubly won” and his lines

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly


may bear the added meaning of gratitude towards his lady. Bertram can now compare the love and forgiveness of Helena with the almost shrewish insistence of Diana. He is still understandably confused, however, since he has only riddling words as a guide. This time he goes with relief into what he had formerly considered “loathsome bondage” with Helena, now apparently giving “free and unforced consent.”33

Thus the play ends happily with a reconciliation scene, accomplishing that transition from sorrow to joy characteristic of Shakespearean comedy. Bertram, the immature young man of Act II, has discovered through his own experience the nature of love and marriage and has as a result become worthy of the resourceful, faithful, and forgiving Helena. Shakespeare is not, of course, merely using this play to illustrate and criticize aspects of Elizabethan wardship and matrimonial practice;34 he is employing matrimonial material that was probably familiar to his audience to point up the motivations and explain the actions of some of the principal characters. And certainly a knowledge of this sixteenth- and seventeenth-century material helps to rehabilitate the character of Bertram. In like manner the problems surrounding the function of Diana and the plot of the bed trick partially disappear. One may therefore say with justice that a study of the nature of Elizabethan matrimonial contracting helps to explain many of the apparent inconsistencies in All's Well That Ends Well and leads to the discovery of added meaning in this so-called problem comedy.


  1. William Witherle Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931), p. 38.

  2. Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison, 1954), p. 251.

  3. John F. Adams, “All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation,” Shakespeare Quarterly, XII (1961), p. 262.

  4. There were of course completely secret de praesenti espousals which could be upheld in the courts as valid matrimony; cf. The Duchess of Malfi. The Church vigorously opposed this practice and insisted upon the religious ceremony.

  5. Diriment impediments were quite indispensable and could, when they were discovered, dissolve an existing union, even if it had been consummated. They included, among other things, impotence and relationship within the prohibited degrees.

  6. Henry Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals, or Matrimonial Contracts (London, 1686), pp. 236-239. This book was actually written ca. 1600.

  7. 2 & 3 Edward VI, c. 23. In Statutes of the Realm, ed. Alexander Luders et al., IV, Pt. 1 (London, 1819), 68-69.

  8. Swinburne, pp. 12-15; see also Alexander W. Renton and George G. Phillimore, The Comparative Law of Marriage and Divorce (London, 1910), p. 18.

  9. George Hayward Joyce, S. J., Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, Heythrop Series, I (London, 1948), 58. This distinction was raised in the matter of the marriage, and later the divorce, of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Had the marriage between Catherine and Arthur, Prince of Wales, been matrimonium ratum, an indissoluble diriment impediment would have existed on grounds of affinity.

  10. Swinburne, pp. 114-121.

  11. Ibid., p. 122.

  12. Ibid., p. 121.

  13. Ibid., pp. 150-151.

  14. Chilton Latham Powell, English Domestic Relations, 1487-1653 (New York, 1917), p. 17. Canonical opinion seems to have been divided over the question of whether a mere exchange of rings without accompanying words constituted an espousal. See Swinburne, p. 209.

  15. William Harrington, In This Boke Are Conteyned the Commendacions of Matrymony (London, 1528), sig. A3r.

  16. Joyce, p. 80.

  17. See Swinburne, pp. 216-217.

  18. “Wardship in English Drama (1600-1650),” Studies in Philology, LIII (1956), 478.

  19. All quotations and citations from Shakespeare are from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, New Cambridge edition, ed. William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Boston, 1942).

  20. Cf. The Taming of the Shrew, III.ii.19-20:

              Lo, there is mad Petruchio's wife,
    If it would please him come and marry her!
  21. Swinburne, p. 206.

  22. See Davis P. Harding, “Elizabethan Betrothals and Measure for Measure,JEGP, XLIX (1950), 139-158.

  23. Harrington, sig. A[4v].

  24. Cf. Much Ado about Nothing, IV.i.49-51:

                                            If I have known her
    You will say she did embrace me as a husband,
    And so extenuate the 'forehand sin.
  25. Blayney, “Wardship,” 477.

  26. Joyce, pp. 75-82; Swinburne, pp. 236-239.

  27. Swinburne, p. 237.

  28. William Witherle Lawrence, “The Meaning of All's Well That Ends Well,PMLA, XXXVII (1922), 427-436.

  29. All's Well That Ends Well, new Arden edition (London, 1959), pp. 103-104n. Swinburne, A Treatise (p. 209) believes that the exchange of rings confirms whatever contract the words then spoken import. Should there be any doubt whether the contract be considered matrimony or espousal “it is to be judged matrimony” in law.

  30. Joyce, pp. 106-107. Under English civil law certain property rights, in particular the widow's right to dower, could not be granted unless assigned formally at the church door.

  31. Harold S. Wilson, “Dramatic Emphasis in All's Well That Ends Well,HLQ, XIII (May 1950), 239.

  32. Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Sources, I (London, 1957), 100-101.

  33. Blayney, “Wardship,” 478, maintains that “The reconciliation of Bertram and Helena is not the triumph of romantic love, but obedience to a royal command at the time of their marriage.”

  34. Glenn H. Blayney, “Enforcement of Marriage in English Drama (1600-1650),” Philological Quarterly, XXXVIII (1959), 463-464 remarks that “… Shakespeare in All's Well That Ends Well fused realism and romance by adapting two romantic plots to disguise and yet illustrate the social problem of wardship and resulting enforced marriage.”

W. Speed Hill (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6531

SOURCE: “Marriage as Destiny: An Essay on All's Well That Ends Well,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 344-59.

[In the following essay, Hill explores how familial relations and marriage eventually enable Bertram to assume his proper role within the comic plot of All's Well That Ends Well.]

Shakespeare's plays persistently treat familial relationships. Neither Jonson's nor Marlowe's do, except incidentally, and from the perspective of Shakespeare, their avoidance is odd. The only characters in The Alchemist who are related to one another in ways prior to the gullings that summon all to the house of Lovewit are Kastril and Dame Pliant, and their relation as brother and sister remains essentially unexplored. The isolation of Faustus is defined by a lack of familial ties: he is a man without parents, siblings, spouse, or children—everyman, yes, but no man, too. By contrast, Webster's Duchess of Malfi, whatever her social isolation as a result of her marriage to Antonio, is seen relationally: the central conflict in that play is between rival family and marital relationships—marriage to her steward versus her sibling-tie to Ferdinand. The dramatist has every reason to exploit these ties, universal in occurrence and primal in strength; the critic finds in family relationships and their reconstitution in marriage useful differentiae for comedy and tragedy.

Tragedy, which ends in death, deals in familial relationships that have gone sour, become incapable of change, and hence destructive of the individuals that constitute the family unit. Comedy, which ends in marriage, argues the possibility of change through the agency of new and compensatory familial constellations. In tragedies the promise of marriage is characteristically frustrated or illusory. Othello's marriage to Desdemona, that archetypically romantic union of opposites—black with white, native with exotic, age with youth, military activity with domestic passivity—is destroyed by an agent of the old order of things, whose contempt for women, for authority, and for marriage is provoked by the new relationship that Othello has forged with Desdemona. In Hamlet there are two marriages, one in fact, the other in prospect; but Gertrude's with Claudius is at once incestuous and adulterous, the occasion if not the cause for murder, a retrograde step that blights the future hopes of Prince Hamlet and undoes the past accomplishments of his father; and Hamlet's own with Ophelia is undone by Polonius. In Lear, a classic instance of marriage as parental compensation goes forward in the first scene, as France accepts with gratitude the very daughter that Lear has just disowned in rage. But the exigencies of the political overplot banish France, and it is as the daughter of Lear that Cordelia returns to England, not as Queen of France. The death that concludes all in tragedy is thus the death of any possibility that conflicts intrinsic to the human situation—conflicts most intimately experienced within the context of familial relationships—shall be resolved through marriage.

Conversely, the marriages that conclude Shakespeare's comedies are emblems of hope, secular miracles, affirmations of the possibility of growth, yes, but precisely in those relationships where familial conflict is most acute. To take two especially symmetrical examples: in Romeo and Juliet, friendship (male-male loyalty) and marriage (male-female love) are presented as irreconcilable opposites; in The Merchant of Venice, the reverse is true. The marriage of Romeo and Juliet promises to end the traditional hatred of Capulet and Montague, but it is destroyed by Romeo's impulsive loyalty to Mercutio, for in the instant that Romeo determines upon the murder of Tybalt in revenge for the death of Mercutio, he irrevocably destroys the marriage he has just celebrated with Juliet. In the Merchant, however, the friendship of Bassanio with Antonio—Bassanio has no family but Antonio—subsidizes his courtship of Portia, whose father is dead and whose mother goes unmentioned, and the marriage of Portia and Bassanio saves Antonio's life and preserves his friendship with Bassanio. Characteristically, the change of venue common to so many of the comedies involves a removal of the participants from rigid and impacted social and familial situations, frequently associated with royal courts, to locales nearby (a wood near Athens, the Forest of Arden, Belmont, Bohemia, Bermuda) in which more symmetrical and more satisfying relationships may flourish. In the Forest of Arden, the fratricidal rivalry of Oliver and Orlando metamorphoses into parallel marriages to Celia and Rosalind, cousins. In Othello, the removal to Cyprus promises, but does not fulfill, the same expectation. The pattern is so familiar that it scarcely deserves note. Still, it is operative in plays that are formally comedies—that is, that conclude in marriage, not death—yet are neither obviously romantic nor particularly risible. Such generically are the so-called problem comedies, and in particular All's Well That Ends Well, of which the best that is said of it is that it was a staging ground for Measure for Measure.1 An analysis of the familial basis for the marriage of Bertram and Helena, however, shows a play at once more coherent in itself and more of a piece with other Shakespearean plays than is commonly acknowledged.


Some bracketing definitions are in order. (1) Whatever the laugh-quotient, the play is a comedy by any Shakespearean standard. That is, it ends happily, in the marriage of its principals, though the dénouement is not so much the marriage itself, for that is concluded in II.iii, as it is the consummation of that marriage, its public acknowledgment, and the evidence of Helena's pregnancy. The essential movement of the play, then, is from a de jure to a de facto marriage, from social arrangement and dynastic continuity to sexual commitment and emotional fulfillment.

(2) The title suggests obliquely—as others of Shakespeare's comedies do directly—that the play has to do with the realization of wishes, desires, hopes, of which romantic love and its celebration in marriage are, respectively, the personal and social symbols. The theme of “what you will” is perfectly explicit for Helena, for whom marriage with Bertram is avowedly a matter of life and death—hers and the King's; it is less so for Bertram, for whom marriage with Helena is decidedly not “as you like it.” Bertram regards it as a death to him of his hopes: “Undone and forfeited to cares for ever!” (II.iii.263). Risking death he rushes off to war to avoid it: “I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” (l. 269). Only after the convolutions of the plot have been worked out does he come to accept his marriage to Helena as—potentially, at least—the positive and self-fulfilling relationship that it is.

(3) The intellectual quality of the play links it equally with the happy comedy of As You Like It and the problem comedy of Measure for Measure. The themes of virtue, ambition, and nobility have each provoked extended commentary. But there are various other themes, drawn similarly from Renaissance conduct books and romance tradition, that inform the texture of thought and shape the action in the play. Like Hamlet, All's Well is concerned with the congruence of word and deed, intention and act. The twin themes of fortune (fate) and free will (nature) occupy the minds of Helena and Bertram in equal but asymmetrical measure. Helena is fated to love Bertram without apparently being able to marry him, and Bertram is fated to marry Helena without being the least in love with her. Youth versus age (Lafew and the King, Bertram and Parolles; the Countess and Helena), appearance and reality, wisdom and folly, nature and supernature, the individual and society—the list reads like a litany of Shakespearean themes. The problem for the critic, of course, is to see in the play the underlying pattern that animates it, that organizes the multiplicity of its intellectual motifs about a coherent and meaningful center of concern and urgency.

It is precisely here that the prior familial constraints that provoke the marriage are crucial. Bertram and Helena have each recently lost fathers: Helena so recently that her tears are mistaken as for him and not for Bertram; Bertram, that the household of the Countess is in mourning, “all in black” (I.i.s.d.). Both fathers are ideal figures. Whereas in Shakespeare's source, “the Counte of Rossiglione … was sickely and diseased” (Arden ed., p. 145), in the play he is “such a man [as] / Might be a copy to these younger times,” famous alike for his “moral parts,” his soldiership (“He did look far / Into the service of the time, and was / Discipled of the bravest”), and his social graces: “So like a courtier, contempt nor bitterness / Were in his pride or sharpness …” (I.ii.45-46, 21, 26-28, 36-37; cf. 38-45). Like Prince Hamlet, whom he resembles in ways more than adventitious, Bertram has the equivocal blessing, the good “fortune,” to have a father at once ideally virtuous and definitively distant, whose reputation serves as a spur to achievement, but whose absence in death renders him incapable of serving as the model his son needs for that achievement. For this reason, Bertram departs for the royal court at Paris, and for this reason, too, he falls under the influence of Parolles, who plays Falstaff to his Hal. Lafew, the Lord Chief Justice of the piece, early on disqualifies himself as paternal model by his put-down—“I would it were not notorious” (I.i.33)—the moment Bertram opens his mouth, and Bertram rejects the King precisely for his role in forcing Helena upon him. The obligation to live up to his father's example as his lineal successor, to show the nobility of his birth in virtue as well as virtù, in deed as in word, in fulfillment as in promise, rings again and again in Bertram's ears. The greeting of the King echoes his mother's parting advice: “Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face; … thy father's moral parts / Mayest thou inherit too!” (I.ii.19-22; cf. I.i.57-60). But in the event, self-affirmation and a virtuous conformity to paternal example are rival, not congruent, impulses in Bertram's mind and will.


The first line of the play abruptly and cryptically announces the theme. Entering in mourning, the Countess announces: “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” (I.i.1-2). Here it is not a marital union that compensates for a familial loss (as in France's grateful betrothal to a Cordelia whom Lear disinherits in his fury), but the other way around. It is the compensation of her son's presence, the now Count Rossillion, for her late husband that the Countess is here renouncing; and the separation, a rite de passage for the young Bertram, is as the death of a “second husband” to his widowed mother. Still, there are compensations. The King will substitute for the absent Count as both father and husband: “You shall find of the king a husband, madam,” says Lafew, and “you, sir”—addressing Bertram—“a father” (ll. 6-7). In departing, Bertram acknowledges his formal dependency upon the King: “I must attend his majesty's command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection” (ll. 4-5). But if Bertram has reason now to grieve the loss of a father—“weep o'er my father's death anew” (ll. 3-4)—we may suppose that he will later have cause to resent wardship to a man whose frailty and imminent death threaten a repetition of that abandonment. The King's precarious health thus becomes the topic of the dialogue that follows. We learn that Helena, too, has lost a father—one, too, of ideal stature, “whose skill was almost as great as his honesty,” that “had it stretch'd so far, would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work” (ll. 17-20). Here is a potential countermovement to the “common theme” of the “death of fathers” (Hamlet I.ii.103-04). Like Bertram, Helena is “sole child” of her father, but unlike him, she is quite prepared to substitute a husband when she has lost a father. Her tears, we soon find out, are ambiguous: to others, they are for her dead parent; to her, for the departing Bertram. This she makes explicit in her soliloquy, which she speaks after the Countess has bid her son a ritual farewell, has given him, like Polonius to the departing Laertes, both blessing and advice (cf. ll. 57-66):

Helena. I think not on my father,
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him; my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.

(ll. 77-81)

(Her confusion of pronoun reference, “his … him … he … him,” mirrors the conflation of the two men in her mind.) But the social disparity is too great, however vital the bond—“there is no living, none, / If Bertram be away” (ll. 82-83)—and Helena concludes: “Th'ambition in my love thus plagues itself: / The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love” (ll. 88-90).

As Bertram is ward of the King, so is Helena of the Countess, “bequeathed,” as the Countess says, “to my overlooking” (ll. 35-36). As her natural mother goes unmentioned, the Countess becomes one: “You know, Helen, / I am a mother to you” (I.iii.132-33; cf. ll. 134-49). Through familial intimacy quite as much as native virtue, Helena acquires the social promotion her birth has denied her. The nature of this relationship is made explicit in the interview in I.iii in which she confesses her love for Bertram when she rejects the maternal offers of the Countess, lest incest bar marriage. Indeed, the Countess is more maternal in her adoptive relationship with Helena than she is with her natural son. Him she can but “deliver” up to the court, but her maternal energies find a natural and needed outlet in her role as confidante and patroness of Helena. Its basis is the strong identification she feels for Helena, of age for youth, in Helena's apparently desperate love for the absent Bertram:

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 impress'd in youth.
By our remembrances of days foregone,
Such were our faults, or then we thought them none.

(ll. 123-30)

It is a speech of conspicuous generosity of feeling, one that renders the niggardly behavior of her son all the more repellant. Her willingness to extend a merely formal wardship into a substantive and explicitly parental tie, to overlook the rivalry in love the two women have for Bertram, raises the naturally gifted Helena—“She is young, wise, fair; / In these to nature she's immediate heir, / And these breed honour” (II.iii.131-33)—to a position of familial and hence social equality with Bertram. It is a process that the King will continue and complete: “all that life can rate / Worth name of life in thee hath estimate: / Youth, beauty, wisdom, courage—all …” (II.i.178-80). In a testing of the genuineness of Helena's love, of which she has been earlier informed by her Steward (no mother wants her son vamped by someone merely ambitious to be the next Countess), she forces Helena to confess to the strength—and hopelessness—of her passion. She does so, in effect, by asking Helena to choose between the two of them. Helena's dilemma is that she wants the security of being the Countess' adoptive daughter, but not at the cost of losing Bertram. “Daughter and mother / So strive upon [her] pulse …,” the Countess remarks, and, as Helena realizes, only through separation from her adoptive brother will the definitive bar of incest be removed: “Pardon, madam; / The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother” (I.iii.149-50). On her knees in submission and supplication, Helena begs that they not be regarded as rivals: “My dearest madam, / Let not your hate encounter with my love, / For loving where you do” (ll. 202-04). Instead, she invokes (as the Countess had earlier) their essential commonalty of purpose, experience, and love:

                    … but if yourself,
Whose aged honour cites a virtuous youth,
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!

(ll. 204-12)

Like the would-be wooer of Portia, Helena is prepared to “give and hazard all she has,” in the name of a love that is not more precious to her than it is impossible of fulfillment.

Though she is folk heroine, not social climber (no one except Cinderella's stepmother would accuse her of “ambition”), there are limits to the exercise of pure will: “Who ever strove / To know her merit that did miss her love?” (I.i.222-23). Still her impulse to follow Bertram is underwritten by the happy coincidence that the most effective medicine her father left her is a specific for the ailing King's “fistula.” More than coincidence, really, as she herself acknowledges:

                    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. …


Even the best of nature requires the providential concurrence of powers beyond natural ken. But Helena is more than willing to stake her all on its success: “I'd venture / The well-lost life of mine on his grace's cure / By such a day, an hour” (ll. 242-44). Won over, the Countess gives her blessing, “my leave and love, / Means and attendants, and my loving greetings / To those of mine in court” (ll. 246-48). If one so interested in Bertram's well-being as his own mother, one so close to him that he has supplied for her the place of her own absent husband, can give her blessing upon the tie, we cannot very well interpose our own objections.


Helena belongs to that class of active, intelligent, and aggressive Shakespearean heroines who don male disguises—assume the “masculine” initiative—in pursuit of their fulfillment as married women. This point is made explicit in Helena's interview with Parolles on the subject of her virginity, her social “honour,” her marital capital, which she would “lose”—invest—“to her own liking” (I.i.147). There is a paradox here: how can one actively be passive? how, given her dependent status as woman and ward, translate thought into deed, wish into actuality, love into marriage? “'Tis pity—,” she muses; “What's pity?,” Parolles asks, to which she replies:

That wishing well had not a body in't
Which might be felt, that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends,
And show what we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks.

(ll. 175-82)

She is “not in his sphere,” as she—and we—realize, and the first half of the play is construed to minimize that disparity. But discrepancy of rank and birth symbolizes a greater and more germane distance: first, between the two principals (even as they are joined socially, they are divorced sexually) and, second, within each as individuals (as between thought and deed, wish and fulfillment of that wish, personal self and social role). The problem of the play is to orchestrate the simultaneous and reciprocal resolution of these conflicts—the reduction of distance, the creation of a viable intimacy, within and between Helena and Bertram, both as individuals and as a couple, all in the context of an arranged marriage.

Helena's case is evidently the easier of the two. She has but to secure the alliance of the Countess. So authorized, she can travel to Paris to seek out Bertram, not as her rival but as her emissary and adoptive daughter. And it is as her father's daughter that she cures the King, bringing the dead back to life, restoring him to potency and power. Lafew's comment strikes the proper note here. “I have seen a medicine,” he tells the King,

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 araise King Pippen, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in's hand
And write to her a love-line.


The phallic imagery is nicely understated, but the tenor is clear enough: that which was dead shall rise again. In effect, in restoring the King to health and potency, Helena reacquires a father who can, in turn, bestow her in marriage. The cure is, naturally, a miracle, “the rarest argument of wonder that hath shot out in our latter times,” completely of a piece with the ordinary matter of Shakespearean comedy:

He that of greatest works is finisher
Oft does them by the weakest minister.
So holy writ in babes hath judgment shown,
When judges have been babes. Great floods have flown
From simple sources, and great seas have dried
When miracles have by the great'st been denied.
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises, and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest and despair most fits.

(ll. 135-43)

Helena risks her honor and her life on her cure, and in her success she is allowed the choice of her husband. By supernatural intervention and royal prerogative, woman is authorized to play the man—to choose, not be chosen, in marriage. Those who puzzle as to why Helena should love Bertram in the first place and choose to stay with him in the second ignore what parentally the two have in common: in the Countess they share the same mother; their fathers are dead; and in the King they share the same adoptive surrogate. Given the romance element of the play, it is surely expressive of Helena's deepest wishes that she be able to bring back to life, to restore to potency, power, and authority, a father who will grant her her wish and bestow upon her Bertram.

But so delicately poised is this marital equation that what is appropriate to her deepest wishes is directly contrary to Bertram's. For the father whom she re-creates for herself is not one that Bertram is disposed to obey. He asserts his traditional right “in such a business … to use / The help of mine own eyes” (II.iii.107-08). Whatever right a king may have in disposing a minor ward in marriage, dramatically our sympathies go to Bertram in his wish, in matters as intimate as love and marriage, to choose for himself. There is some question, however, as to whether he is, in fact as well as intention, capable of acting in his own best self-interest. Objectively, Helena is a marital prize of the highest order, and Bertram must obey his King. True self-interest, marriage to Helena, and submission to royal authority, distinct as all three are in Bertram's mind, are clearly congruent in the play. When Helena withdraws her petition upon Bertram's rejection—“That you are well restor'd, my lord, I'm glad. / Let the rest go” (ll. 147-48), the King forces the issue by threatening to withdraw his support from Bertram, to abandon him to his own self-destructive devices:

                    Check thy contempt;
Obey our will which travails in thy good;
Believe not thy disdain, but presently
Do thine own fortunes that obedient right
Which both thy duty owes and our power claims;
Or I will throw thee from my care for ever
Into the staggers and the careless lapse
Of youth and ignorance. …

(ll. 157-64)

A fatherless son, threatened here with abandonment by his adoptive father—“Welcome, count; / My son's no dearer” (I.ii.75-76)—Bertram acquiesces in the marriage:

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 enobled,
Is as 'twere born so.


Helena has been granted the fulfillment of her wishes; in equity Bertram demands no less. The challenge, of course, is whether these two, meant for each other no less than Beatrice and Benedick, can, on their own initiatives and left to their own devices, acting on self-perceived motives of apparent self-interest, come together and stay together. For the moment, the answer is no. It is one of the components of the myth of romantic love that the individual partners shall have freely chosen one another, independently of any social or familial matrix of which they are a part. The enforced passivity of his role in the marriage contract galls Bertram beyond tolerance, and he naturally resists the obvious truth that he could not possibly have chosen better for himself than others—the Countess, the King, Helena—have chosen for him. (In this regard, Helena's love for Bertram is less problematic: it is simply there from the beginning, a donné of her person and her situation at Rossillion.) Thus, as soon as the marriage is celebrated, Bertram escapes to the military. Abetted by Parolles, whose elective counsel Bertram pointedly prefers to that of either Lafew or the King, he lies to his King and his wife and sets off for Florence. There he is improbably given the generalship of the cavalry—the horse, “Mars's fiery steed,” is Bertram's emblem in this play2—and wins back in war the honor he feels he has lost in marriage. As corollary to war-making (and through the adroit pimping of Parolles), he seeks the conquest of the virgin Diana, poor but nobly born.

Meanwhile, Helena returns to Rossillion, where she receives from Bertram the impossible conditions of their reunion. Despite her credentials as the daughter of Gerard de Narbon, there are limits to the powers of will: she can restore an aged king to potency; she can secure a husband far beyond her own social rank; but there is simply no way she can will her own impregnation. Conversely, though he will wed her but “not bed her,” it is not sex that drives Bertram from Helena, but the element of social and sexual compulsion which marriage to her represents. Bertram is decidedly not lacking in masculine force, despite his susceptibility to consolation in the company of the befeathered Parolles. He is an exemplary soldier, and he is clearly attracted to Diana. But he treasures the model of masculine love as simultaneously self-assertive and self-fulfilling, where in his own particular it is not. Exactly the same is true of Helena, and in this respect the pair are ideally matched. But where Bertram thrashes about in the random aggression of the battlefield and the bedroom in the company of the coward Parolles, Helena embarks upon a solitary pilgrimage to St. Jaques le Grand (cf. III.ii.102-29). The journey is professedly in penance for her marital “ambition”; in fact, it expresses her frustration—and consequent self-blame—at her inability to do for Bertram what she had done with such singular success for the King: to create, out of the intensity of her love and wholeness of her own self-giving, the entire substance of a relationship with another person. Her travels bring her to Florence together (later) with the news that she has died. The exchange is arranged with Diana, and like Mariana in Measure for Measure, she forgoes her very identity to consummate the wished-for union with her Angelo. From the extremes, then, of willed self-assertion—the restoration to life of a dead father and the securing of a husband—she passes to the converse extreme, complete self-abnegation, total loss of personal identity and will in love, and a symbolic death. But marriage, with its inevitable compulsions, its necessary curbing of unbridled individualism, continues to spook the skittish Bertram, and he flees Diana the instant the news of Helena's death reaches him: that is, the very moment—and the very news—that would have made it possible for him to fulfill his promise to marry her. Evidently, whether we are a Helena or a Bertram, we must be careful what we wish for, lest we get it.

If we ask further why Bertram should reject out of hand the “young, wise, fair” Helena, whose very name connotes the loveliest woman in the world, the answer must be because she is to him such a transparent stand-in for his own mother, the Dowager Countess. The marriage is what she had been wishing for all along, but to Bertram it simply constitutes submission to her will. “It hath happen'd all as I would have had it, save that he comes not along with her” (III.ii.1-2), the Countess remarks at Helena's return. And when Bertram's impossible letter is read, her response is unequivocal: “He was my son, / But I do wash his name out of my blood / And thou art all my child” (ll. 66-68). Like Gertrude, the Countess is a powerfully maternal figure, even matriarchal, and like King Hamlet, the old Count is dead. Such a marriage to the adoptive daughter of one's own mother has its own terrors, and insofar as Bertram is truly his mother's own son, we may assume that he wants—and fears—that transposed intimacy in equal measure. That circumstances beyond his control should enforce this unacknowledged wish upon him precisely through the agency of his King and guardian fills him with understandable anxiety, for the warmth and promise of intimacy that have attracted Helena to the Countess repel her son from Helena with equal force. Rather than wonder why Helena should love a Bertram and Bertram should reject a Helena, we should recall what happened when a similarly compensatory marriage between Ophelia and Prince Hamlet was blocked by Polonius, despite Gertrude's apparent encouragement and support, on grounds identical to those on which Bertram rejects Helena.


In war, Bertram finds the honor he seeks, earning the praise of the Duke of Florence and the promise of letters of recommendation for his courtly dossier that puts him on an equal and autonomous footing with his esteemed father. But war and the courtship of death have their limitations as a mode of self-fulfillment, as Helena, who takes upon herself the guilt of any danger that the reckless Bertram might risk, is the first to realize:

          Poor lord, is't I
That chase thee from thy country, and expose
Those tender limbs of thine to the event
Of the none-sparing war? …
                    better 'twere
I met the ravin lion when he roar'd
With sharp constraint of hunger; better 'twere
That all the miseries which nature owes
Were mine at once. No; come thou home, Rossillion,
Whence honour but of danger wins a scar,
As oft it loses all. …

(III.ii.102-05, 116-22)

After war, sex—as practiced by the predatory Bertram upon the vulnerable Diana—is equally destructive. For an hour's encounter in which no words pass, Bertram barters away the very family honor he had invoked in rejecting Helena. And for all our distaste for the bed-trick, it remains the perfect emblem of the joyless encounter that Bertram is in fact seeking. In return for the ring of his father's that has been passed down for six successive generations and that betokens the unexceptioned legitimacy of his inherited honor, he accepts the ring from off Helena's finger, thus affiancing himself to his own wife as a condition of fathering his own successor.

Surely Bertram's youth is crucial here. Scarcely an adolescent, packed off to the court to complete his education but dependent upon the King and too young to be sent to Italy, passion and self-restraint (“blood and virtue”) are precariously poised in him. “My Lord,” the Countess had said to Lafew, “'Tis an unseason'd courtier; good my lord, / Advise him” (I.i.66-68). Bertram's education as a courtier is the essential subject of the play, and that means learning to be a son to his mother, the son of his father, a subject to his King, a husband to his wife—and, in the future beyond the play, a father to his own son. What is unusual, in the context of Shakespeare's treatment of courtship and marriage, is that the education sentimentale proper to courtship must here emerge after the marriage has been irrevocably established. Bertram must come to accept that marriage to Helena is in fact in his own best self-interest, that whatever he thinks he wants, he actually desires her far more intensely than he is prepared to admit to himself. Hence the importance of their union in the dark, for darkness conceals not only Helena's identity from him but also his own deepest desires from himself. Only under these improbable circumstances can his impossible demands upon her—and his own inadmissable wishes for himself—be simultaneously fulfilled. This is true equally of his explicit demand (secure my ring, bear my child) as it is of his unconscious one (be to me as my mother was to my father). Just as Helena's marital destiny could finally be realized only through an act of supreme self-abnegation, so with Bertram. The difference lies in the fact that Helena is conscious of that necessity, while Bertram is not. Helena sleeps with Bertram knowing that he is her husband and because she loves him. He sleeps with her—indeed, can only sleep with her—under the condition that her identity remain hidden. Because he cannot, of his own volition, bring himself to take his father's place with respect to his mother's stand-in, Helena, he sleeps with her thinking she is Diana, a girl to whom he promises marriage, betroths himself, and whom he then betrays. Perhaps Laertes' advice to Ophelia was not so out of place after all.

Helena contrives Bertram's exposure by doing exactly as he demands. For all her force of will, she is capable of equally great submission: “Sir, I can nothing say / But that I am your most obedient servant” (II.v.71-72). She returns to the King for the husband she had earlier won. In the interim, however, she has herself learned the limits of will and the qualifications of desire; that marital relations, unlike the parental and filial ones on which they are based, are reciprocal and interlocking. Bertram has yet to learn much the same lesson. The exchange of rings trips him up, and he is obliged to admit in public what he has done in private. Under the scrutiny of the assembled court, deed must now match word; act, intent; social role, private self. Sex and society must be incorporated in a marriage both de facto and de jure. Caught in the toils of his own duplicity—as much self-deceit as deceit of others—it comes as an enormous relief to Bertram to learn that he has in fact committed adultery with his own wife, that he has betrayed, not the virtuous virgin of Florence, Diana, but only himself—less virtuous, perhaps, but as Count Rossillion, just as virginal.


In this, a comedy, it is not for Shakespeare to articulate the process by which Bertram can come to say, “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (V.iii.309-10). Whatever else he may share with Hamlet, the youthful Bertram has none of the latter's introspection (itself by no means an infallible guide), and the dramatic sleight-of-hand by which Helena and Bertram are brought together does not wholly make explicit the substantive basis they have for finding in marriage to the other their own true self-interests. But it is simply churlish to contradict Helena when she says, “O my good lord, when I was like this maid / I found you wondrous kind” (ll. 303-04), where “kind” invokes Bertram's solicitude as well as his natural condition. None of us was there, and we must take Helena's word for it. Still, if their marriage is recognized as the favorable—and wished-for—compensation for prior familial imbalances and parental asymmetries, then its rationale is evident and agreeable. In marriage to Helena, Bertram secures a relationship at once socially acceptable and sexually satisfying, a way of marrying his mother and obeying his father (he makes no complaints about “Diana” afterwards, and it was certainly not because of sexual inadequacy that he originally deserted her). In her marriage to Bertram, Helena finds the father she has lost and, as the Countess' daughter-in-law, the mother she has never had. En route, she fulfills her own deepest desires as a woman: as a daughter to restore new life to the old King and so vindicate her father's memory, and as a wife to bear Bertram's child, desires parallel to Bertram's for military success and glory. Only the literal-minded will begrudge the substantive foundations of this union. Plausible, it is not; social barriers impede it; there is frankly an element of compulsion in it, both as presented to Bertram by the King and by Shakespeare to us. But we too can rejoice in it if we see that the marriage symbolizes on both parts an acceptance of their own faulty parental experiences; that it is no less what Bertram most deeply desires than it is what Helena so explicitly wants; and that it is no less life-giving, restorative, divinely sanctioned, and royally beneficent to him than to her. For Bertram, in his youth, his native rebelliousness, his justifiable fear of the enveloping maternalism of the Countess, and in the absence of his own father, is simply not prepared to admit to himself truths that are self-evident to others. It is to this boundary of self-awareness, self-admission, and self-acceptance that the reluctant Bertram must be brought by the plot-machinery of romance. And with this, Shakespeare draws the curtain. Let Helena's first words be our last:

The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes, and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense, and do suppose
What hath been cannot be.



  1. Cf. G. K. Hunter, ed., All's Well That Ends Well, The Arden Shakespeare (1959; rpt. London, 1967), pp. xxiii-xxiv. All quotations are from this edition.

  2. Cf. the following (italics mine):

    Bertram. I shall stay here the forehorse to a smock. …


    King. Check thy contempt; …
    Or I will throw thee from my care for ever
    Into the staggers and the careless lapse
    Of youth and ignorance. …

    (II.iii.157, 162-64)

    Parolles. He wears his honour 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. To other regions!
    France is a stable; we that dwell in't jades.


    Duke of Florence. The general of our horse thou art. …


    King. You boggle shrewdly. …


Susan Bassnett-McGuire (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3224

SOURCE: “An Ill Marriage in an Ill Government: Patterns of Unresolved Conflict in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, Vol. 120, 1984, pp. 97-102.

[In the following essay, Bassnett-McGuire suggests that All's Well That Ends Well reflects post-Reformation views of the marriage contract and also comments on the individual's relationship to the state.]

All's Well That Ends Well occupies one of the minor positions in the Shakespeare canon, and the map of its critical history reveals a text often held to be problematic, described variously as incomplete or inadequate, and perhaps dismissed most tellingly by Logan Pearsall Smith who declared that “it reads like hack-work.”2 Overall, critical opinions of the play have tended to see it as a flawed text in which disparate element sit uneasily together.

In the eighteenth century a resolution was found by placing emphasis on the farcical elements within the text, and after Garrick's 1756 adaptation for the stage the figure of Parolles acquired central status and was frequently seen as a comic figure rivalling Falstaff in stature. By the end of the eighteenth century the emphasis had shifted to focus this time on Helena, described by Coleridge as Shakespeare's “loveliest character”3, a pattern that was to continue with the advent of an acting style based on concepts of psychological realism. The sentimentalization of the play in the early nineteenth century moved away from the earlier farcical reading, a process further compounded by the views of A. W. Schlegel who saw the play as linked to the traditional fabliaux of the triumph of woman's patience against all odds.4

More recently All's Well That Ends Well has been re-evaluated somewhat more favourably. Muriel Bradbrook has seen it as a moral play that undertakes “a grave discussion of the question of what constituted true nobility and the relation of birth to merit”5, while Clifford Leech has considered the play as a satire on the Elizabethan duality towards love and ambition6, but it remains less frequently performed than most of Shakespeare's other comedies and far less frequently discussed.

Yet as soon as we move away from a reading that lays undue emphasis on story-line or characterisation of protagonists, patterns begin to emerge in the play that compel us to consider it more seriously and to look more closely at the society it depicts. The settings are aristocratic—the court of the king of France, the court of the Countess of Roussillion and the court of the Duke of Florence, with the sole exception of the Widow's house in Florence and the scene in the soldiers' camp. Moreover, all these courts are stricken with some kind of pestilence—the King of France is sick with an apparently incurable malady; the Court of Roussillion has suffered the double loss of the Count and the youthfulness of Bertram the heir, who cannot succeed his father directly but “must attend his majesty's command,” to whom he is now “in ward, evermore in subjection” (I, 4 f.) and the Duke of Florence is at war with the Siennese. The action of the play is set against this background of death, and the opening lines, spoken by the widowed Countess remind us that all is set in motion by the loss of her husband: “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.” (I, 1, 1) The private loss is followed immediately by a second loss, one dictated by the terms of feudal law, under which the son inherits but is bound to the overlord until his majority and then by an oath of realty, unable to act for himself without his Lord's permission.

Against this dark background, the story line follows the fortunes of two figures: Helena and Parolles, who move across class lines in diametrically opposite ways. Helena, in love with Bertram whom she perceives as hopelessly above her socially, achieves preferment from the King through her magical healing powers. Having cured the incurable, she is then granted the impossible—the right to choose her own husband regardless of his status or inclination. She chooses Bertram, who rejects her and flees from both wife and Lord to the Florentine wars, pausing only before he leaves to issue her with a seemingly hopeless task to fulfill: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which shall never 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’.” (III, 2, 56-60)

Miraculously, just as Helena cures the incurable King, so she succeeds in tricking Bertram to give her both his ring and a child, and after all her trials is restored to the King's protection at the end of the play.

There are no miracles in the Parolles story line, however, which charts his fall from a position of arrogance to rejection and degradation where he can state of himself that “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live” (IV, 3, 322 f.) The insecurity of social status of anyone who is not part of the hereditary aristocracy reveals a society in turmoil, where one turn of the wheel of fortune can make or unmake an individual irrevocably.

Weaving through the rise of Helena and the fall of Parolles is the Florentine-Siennese war. In I, 2 when we first meet the King, he is despatching Gentlemen to observe “either part”. Later, in II, 1 when the Gentlemen meet the Duke of Florence, they are at pains not to give a precise opinion as to the rights and wrongs of the conflict, but note that

                    the younger of our nature
That surfeit on their ease will day by day
Come here for physic.

(III, 1, 17-19)

And of course this is precisely what Bertram does, when he flees from the French King's court. Arriving in Florence, he is given a command and becomes a military hero. There is therefore a clear contrast between the relationship of fealty to the Overlord on the one hand and the idea of foreign wars as places of entertainment and self-trial for bored young aristocrats, deprived of any significant power by their oath of fealty. What emerges from this contrast is a view of two worlds in opposition—the pre-Machiavellian world of the old King and the post-Machiavellian world of young Bertram. The thrust of the play is therefore to show two ideologies in conflict and the lack of clear cut resolution at the end only reinforces the sense of crisis and tension within the aristocratic world.

The image of Bertram as military hero, described by the women in III, 5 is in contrast to that of the sullen young husband in the earlier part of the play. Readings of Bertram's character have been greatly influenced by Dr. Johnson's famous dismissal of him as “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward and leaves her as 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.”7 A major problem for directors of All's Well That Ends Well is indeed presented by the figure of Bertram, for if Dr. Johnson's view is shared, the question must be asked as to what a woman so virtuous, beautiful and noble-spirited as Helena could ever find to love in such a man? It would seem that his rashness and extravagance should be conceived of as virtù in Machiavelli's sense of the term so that when he appears at the head of the Florentine army, he comes as the conquering hero, the Renaissance Prince, a dominant stage figure described by Diana as a “most gallant fellow”. In V, 3 it is hard not to admire the skill with which Bertram tries to argue himself out of his increasingly complicated predicaments, when he lies about the ring, blackens Diana's name and rejects Parolles, and finally only concedes defeat when Helena appears, that is, when dealt a blow by fortune that individual cunning cannot counter. Even at this stage, however, Bertram is by no means unequivocal. Challenged directly by Helena with “Will you be mine now you are doubly won?” (V, 3, 308), he replies not to her but to the King, in a weak couplet hinging on a conditional clause:

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.

(V, 3, 509 f.)

Helena retorts immediately, in a strong rhyming couplet, with another conditional, addressed directly to Bertram:

If it appear not plain and prove untrue
Deadly divorce step between me and you.

(V, 3, 511 f.)

It is interesting to note that Helena talks about divorce at this point in the play, the moment when seemingly all wrongs are righted and husband and wife are united at last under the king's protection. It is also somewhat curious, since divorce has been notably absent from the play up to this moment. Bertram, when lamenting his fate to Parolles in II, 3 talks about the indissolubility of his marriage.—“Undone and forfeited to cares forever” (II, 3, 263) and chooses flight from France as his only hope of avoiding a wife he does not want. Helena's reference to “deadly divorce” in her final lines carries a weight that cannot be overlooked.

Divorce in Reformation England was by no means a clear cut issue. The Church recognized divorce on grounds of consanguinity or affinity within the prohibited degrees of marriage or for permanent impotence. It also recognized separation a mensa et thoro, for cases of adultery or extreme cruelty, but in both categories remarriage was forbidden.8 In this respect, the Anglican Church differed from most of the other Protestant churches, which allowed remarriage for the innocent party following a divorce, and the divorce debate reached a climax in 1604, (N.B. George Hunter dates All's Well tentatively as being produced in 1603-04)9 when No. 107 of the Canons finally forbade the remarriage of divorced persons conclusively.

In her essay on Arden of Faversham, Catharine Belsey sums up the political significance of the divorce issue in Elizabethan England: “The importance of the divorce debate lies in its polarisation of conflicting definitions of marriage. Broadly, the Anglican position was that marriage was indissoluble, that couples were joined by God for the avoidance of fornication and the procreation of children, and that there was no remedy for marital disharmony and discontent … Equally broadly, the Puritans held that marriage was a civil covenant, a thing indifferent to salvation, that it depended on consent, and that where this was lacking the couple could not be said to be joined by God, and could therefore justly be put asunder. … The contest for the meaning of marriage cannot be isolated from the political struggles which characterize the century between the Reformation and the English Revolution.”10

Reading All's Well That Ends Well in the light of that divorce debate and the political implications of dissolubility of marriage throws the supposedly fairy tale world of the play into different focus. Throughout the play, a major structural feature is the contract-oath, and this binding nature of marriage is explored together with the bond between Lord and subject. Both relationships come together in Bertram, the new self-willed aristocrat, recently come into his inheritance but blocked from expressing his will either in public or in private by his overlord, the King. In II, 3, ordered by the King to take Helena as his wife, Bertram accepts in a speech of bitter irony, professing subjection to the King's will while at the same time questioning the basis of the King's power over him:

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.

(II. 3. 167-173)

At this moment of supposedly bowing to the King's wishes, Bertram chooses to talk in terms of his own subjection to the power the King exercises over him, and, again describing Helena as “she”, refers to the social gulf between them both. She, Helena, being the favoured of the King, is as good as ennobled, is the surface message of Bertram's speech, but the deep structure reveals the irony beneath his words. His very acknowledgement of the relationship of fealty between himself and the King is an assertion of his belief in the binding nature of that contract, a contract made by virtue of his aristocratic birth alone, and that belief negates any statement he may make about the ennobling of Helena through actions rather than through blood. Even while appearing to accede to the King's wishes, he is challenging the fundamental premise on which the King's command is being made.

The relationship between King and subject is presented as being based on the subject's acceptance of the King's absolute power, and in the same way the relationship between husband and wife is shown as an indissoluble contract. Bertram enters into two such contracts—publicly, with Helena, and privately, through the exchange of rings with the woman he thinks is Diana. The validity of that private marriage is not called into question—when she sees the ring on Diana's finger, the Countess declares

Of six preceding ancestors, that gem
Conferr'd by testament to th'sequent issue,
Hath it been owed and worn. This is his wife:
That ring's a thousand proofs.

(V. 3. 195-198)

The value conferred on the ring by heredity becomes a sign to the Countess of Bertram's sincerity, and again the link is made in the text between the inherited power system of the aristocracy and marriage, regardless of whether that marriage has been celebrated before a priest or not. The marriage contract is presented as having an intrinsic value of its own, like the blood relationship of father and son, that cannot be challenged.

It is significant that neither of the marriages are presented on stage. We hear about them both, post facto but do not see them take place. Instead, what we do see is the exchange of vows between Helena and the King, when she promises healing and he promises to allow her to choose a husband “from forth the royal blood of France,” (II. 1. 196) and this scene is strongly reminiscent of a marriage. Helena swears an oath that has both a temporal and spatial dimension, showing her total commitment to her task in the following lines:

If I break time, or flinch in property
Of what I spoke, unpitied let me die,
And well deserv'd.

(II. 1. 186-188)

This oath is the only one that is actually kept. Bertram allows his private passions to continually over-ride public declarations of loyalty, hence in his marriage to Helena he has no qualms about declaring his contract before a priest but then refusing to consummate the pact and likewise he is willing to consummate but not publicly acknowledge his contract with Diana.

In the decaying courtly world of this play, the whole question of public and private contract is thrown into confusion. What we have is a picture of a society in turmoil, self-destructive, as the old moral idealism of the feudal hierarchy is threatened by the new opportunistic ethos. Bertram struggles to reject feudal authority when it extends into his private life, but fails because his opposition is rooted in an equally hierarchical conception of the world. All he can do is take flight to another court and play at being a military hero. In the end he is forced to accept the authority of his overlord and publicly acknowledge not only a wife but the heir she presents him with, who offers him the possibility of consolidating his own social position in time future. It is a compromise, but an inevitable one if the courtly class position is to be maintained.

Likewise, Helena's final solution is also a compromise. She has pushed through a contract in spite of the other partner's opposition and in the process has replaced the pre-Reformation idealisation of virginity with a marriage that ensures her a high social status as she is accepted into the aristocracy. What she does not get is commitment from her partner, and at the end of the play is as far away from a marriage as a union of equal minds as she has ever been. She is bound to Bertram in a power relationship, quite unlike Milton's idealised vision of marriage as “a covenant, the very being whereof consists not in a forced cohabitation, and counterfeit performance of duties, but in unfeigned love and peace.”11

Helena's reference to “deadly divorce”, seen in terms of the inter-relatedness of public and private contracts in All's Well That Ends Well, and set against the ongoing debate in England about the social basis for divorce is therefore a crucial moment in the play. The Anglican orthodoxy feared divorce as leading to disorder, and as setting a dangerous precedent that might cause other types of contract to be questioned, most particularly that existing between prince and subject. Divorce, in short, was dangerously revolutionary, and it is hardly surprising that Milton should have argued for liberty within marriage as reflecting man's right to liberty within the state: “He who marries intends as little to conspire his own ruin, as he that swears allegiance: and as a whole people is in proportion to an ill government, so is one man to an ill marriage. If they, against any authority, covenant or statute may, by the sovereign edict of charity, save not only their lives but honest liberties from unworthy bondage, as well may he against any private covenant, which he never entered to his mischief, redeem himself from unsupportable disturbances to honest peace and just contentment.”12

At a time of growing disquiet and economic crisis, with the passing of Elizabeth and the accession of James bringing sharply into focus the relationship between Monarch and religious groups, Shakespeare wrote a play that offers both an analysis of the complexities of the post-Reformation views of the marriage contract vis-à-vis the State and is also a warning to a class that has grown too complacent in its demands for absolute power. All's Well That Ends Well is a signpost on the road to the English Revolution.


  1. Beitrag zum Kolloquium der Shakespeare-Tage in Weimar, vorgetragen am 23. April 1983.

  2. Logan Pearsall Smith, On Reading Shakespeare, London 1933, p. 58.

  3. T. Middleton Raysor (ed.), Coleridge's Shakespeare Criticism. London 1930.

  4. Cf. A. W. Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art. London 1883.

  5. Muriel Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry. London 1951, p. 162.

  6. Cf. Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in All's Well That Ends Well'”, in: English Literary History 21 (1954) 3, pp. 17-29.

  7. Samuel Johnson, The Plays of William Shakespeare, London 1765.

  8. Cf. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. London 1977, p. 37.

  9. Arden Edition. London 1967, Introduction p. XXV.

  10. Catherine Belsey, “Alice Arden's Crime”, in: Renaissance Studies No 13, Spring 1983. I am indebted to Catherine Belsey for first drawing my attention to the political significance of the divorce debate in the sixteenth century in a version of this article presented at the University of Southampton in 1982. Without the inspiration of her paper, mine would not have been written.

  11. John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In: Milton's Prose Writings. Ed. by K. M. Burton. London 1958, pp. 247-319.

  12. Milton, ibid.

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10815

SOURCE: “Sacred and Sexual Motifs in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 33-59.

[In the following essay, Simonds examines several matrimonial texts that were available to Shakespeare and his contemporaries in order demonstrate how Shakespeare's audience might have reacted to the characters of Bertram and Helena.]

Whatever scholars may think of its value as a work of poetic literature, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is remarkably entertaining in the theater. Perhaps this is so because it fulfills the fundamental generic responsibility of comedy; it overcomes the death of the fathers through a bawdy emphasis on youthful sexuality and love, and it manipulates mythical plot elements that are subconsciously familiar to any audience in Western civilization. The play skillfully diverts our attention from death and burial to the “little death” of sexual orgasm, from age, illness, and the destruction of war to marriage and the joy of new life. Above all, it is not so much a “problem play” in the Shavian sense as it is a typical work of Renaissance comic art that attempts to unite both the physical and the spiritual elements of human existence within a single structure of the imagination.

In this essay, I shall examine certain intertextual relations concerned with the subject of matrimony that may help to shed some light on the play's meaning or meanings to a Renaissance audience. Specifically, I shall compare certain aspects of All's Well with: (1) the so-called “Greek Epithalamium” by Catullus; (2) the colloquy “Proci et Puellae” by Erasmus; (3) the text of the 1559 marriage liturgy we may presume was used in the offstage wedding of Helena and Bertram; (4) an important scriptural use of the bed-trick to fulfill the obligations of the marriage contract; and (5) a sermon by a leading Anglican divine of the period. Of course, I am not concerned here with proving that any of these texts was a direct source for the comedy. All of them were familiar to literate men and women of the English Renaissance; they all formed part of a common cultural context for the work of William Shakespeare and other creative artists of the period.

My thesis is that All's Well That Ends Well ought to be experienced in the theater and in the study as a play that is not so much ambivalent in meaning, as is often suggested, but simultaneous in its thematic implications. Among its many themes—and I will consider only the marriage topos in this paper—the play simultaneously discusses both sexual and sacred matters without essential conflict between them; therefore, any final thematic statement about All's Well must include the two elements, not simply one or the other. My purpose here is to attempt a Renaissance rather than a modern reading of the play, even though such a reading may seem remote from contemporary interests and socio-political doctrines.

It seems to me that what primarily disturbs the modern reader of All's Well (dated 1602-3 by Anne Barton) is the intimate relation we note between the language of sexuality and the language of spirituality or Protestant theology within the text. Since many modern readers are offended by the pervasive Renaissance tendency to see constant analogies between the everyday physical life of men and women and the hope for a spiritual life to come, we usually focus on Shakespeare's bawdry and thus overlook certain eschatological elements in the comedy, i.e., the poetic references to “last things,” to humanity's final destiny after death. But even Shakespeare's title, All's Well That Ends Well, would have immediately evoked thoughts of death and the Last Judgment in the minds of his audience. Of course, we do not know what Shakespeare personally thought about the quarrelsome Christianity of his age and culture. We do know, however, that he earned his livelihood by writing plays for a Christian audience. This audience could be expected to understand and respond to any theological resonances they heard in the theater, especially since open discussions of religious doctrine were forbidden on the public stage by the political authorities. I believe it is precisely the subversive presence of sacred concerns running parallel to, and often interpenetrating, the lusty sexuality of the play that makes All's Well seem “dark” to us, but that might well have ensured a commercial success for the playwright in early seventeenth-century England. Furthermore, in discussing this play, we must always keep in mind that England was then governed by a childless and elderly Protestant queen, who might have recently died by the time the play was first performed. All this provides an “interesting” context for a serious comedy, or tragicomedy, on sex, forced marriage, reproduction, illness, apparent death, and joyful resurrection.

Morris P. Tilley has already called our attention to the proverb that may lie behind the sexual implications of the title: “All shall be well, and Jack shall have his Jill.”1 And, since the continuity of physical life on earth does indeed depend on Jack's having Jill and vice versa, one entire level of the comedy is definitely concerned with coaxing the younger generation into bed—within a socially acceptable context—in order to fulfill its reproductive duties, which England's Virgin Queen had refused to do. At no point, however, is sexuality romanticized or glorified in this comedy; it is simply taken for granted as a necessary element of human life and a duty for married people. That the tempting pleasures of sex outside of marriage may lead the young morally astray is taken for granted as well, so that most of the bawdry in this play is notably rough and cynical in nature. Indeed, there is a dark Augustinian cast to the sexual jokes throughout All's Well (“so lust doth play / with what it loathes,” in subtle opposition to Helena's personal promise of curative beauty, love, and fruitfulness, thus suggesting a typical Protestant viewpoint keyed to the beliefs of an Anglican audience. But the value of marriage itself as a mysterious source of purification and regeneration is emphasized again and again within the structure of the play, and this too is typical of sixteenth-century Protestantism.2 According to Mary Beth Rose, “The fact that romantic comedy, a dramatic form which celebrates erotic love and marriage, flourished in the environment of a new sensibility which embraced marriage both as the spiritual foundation of society and as the repository of hope for personal happiness, strongly suggests a parallel development between the increasingly complex, optimistic comic representations of eros that followed Lyly's plays and the more positive moral conceptions of sexual love and marriage that were beginning to be articulated in Protestant conduct literature.”3

Since All's Well That Ends Well is the most eschatological title in the entire Shakespearean canon, the play must also have something to do with sacred love, or salvation on a cosmic level, as G. Wilson Knight and others have argued.4 But, as I have previously suggested, the modern mind seems to find it difficult to consider sex and salvation at the very same time, since—unlike the Elizabethans—we strive to keep Saturday night and Sunday morning carefully apart.

In contrast to our own lingering Puritanism, the use of erotic religious metaphors was a commonplace for the Renaissance. We need only recall, for example, Titian's erotic painting entitled Venus and Cupid With Organist (Madrid, Museo del Prado), which depicts a musician playing an organ while staring fixedly over his shoulder at a reclining and naked Venus, whose infant son's arms are twined about her neck from behind the couch.5 The organ is both a sexual reference and the most divine of musical instruments because it can sound all the chords of “World Harmony.”6 Significantly, Titian also portrays two different worlds in the same picture plane on his canvas (indeed, sharing the same couch)—the human world of the musician dressed in his fashionable Renaissance clothes and the divine world of the nude Venus and Cupid.7 He suggests thereby a marriage between heaven and earth, between historical specificity and eternal values, within the same work of art.8 It seems to me that Shakespeare employs a similar Renaissance aesthetic in All's Well That Ends Well.


Ordinary human marriage requires sexuality—the physical loss of virginity and the spiritual loss of innocence for both sexes in order to bring fertility into the wasteland. Although usually advertised as pleasurable, this loss can be frightening and indeed painful for young people, especially for girls. But in All's Well, the loss of virginity appears rather surprisingly to disturb Bertram even more than Helena, who is willing to give all for the love of her childhood playmate. In contrast, Bertram runs away from a marriage he has religiously sworn to consummate, and later he pursues not a camp follower but an honest Florentine lady named after the pagan goddess of virginity and marital chastity, Diana. Apparently he worships this goddess, as did Hippolytus, perhaps because he is still too young to face the challenge of Venus, or of her mythic priestess, Helena. We must remember that only Parolles, “a notorious liar” (I.i.100) and traitor, accuses Bertram of being “a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish” (IV.iii.215-16), and then he clearly libels the master he knows has run away from a virgin by announcing that, “I knew the young Count to be a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity, and devours up all the fry it finds” (IV.iii.219-21).9 At this point, Bertram himself protests the lie, although it might be expected to enhance his masculine reputation in a military camp. He calls Parolles a “Damnable both-sides rogue” (IV.iii.222). It should be noted that Helena, as well as Parolles, uses the word “idle” in respect to Bertram, but she seems to confirm his continued virginity when she calls his awakening sexuality so far an “idle fire” (III.vii.26). What Bertram wants at this point is “To buy his will” (27), that is, to gain sexual experience his own way, without any emotional or social commitment whatsoever.

At the same time, the audience can only feel sympathy with Bertram's rebellion against the notorious ward system that allows his king to force him to marry against his will. Lawrence Stone states that “up to 1640 the landed classes continued to endure, although with increasing discontent, the practice of wardship, by which the marriages of young fatherless heirs and heiresses of landed property were put up for sale by the Crown. The Court of Wards was tolerated as long as the society upon which it levied its tribute had itself little respect for individual freedom of choice, and treated its own children with as little consideration for personal feelings as did the Court itself.”10

In All's Well, the king rather cynically uses Bertram to pay off his medical bill, even after the physician Helena withdraws her request for the young man as her husband once she sees his distaste for the match. Nevertheless, Bertram's social snobbery and subsequent dash for freedom on his wedding night reveal him to be a spoiled adolescent unworthy of our sympathy and of the bride his mother approves for him.

Helena, of course, is far more mature. Just before her famous virginity debate with Parolles, the heroine tells us in a soliloquy of her very physical love for Bertram, for “His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls” (I.i.11). She admits her desire to “die” for him, in both senses of the word, since “The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love” (91-92). Helena understands sexual intercourse to be—in terms of a popular medieval topos—the culmination of a cruel hunt, but she accepts it willingly as the price of love. Thus, Shakespeare clearly means us to catch the irony of Parolles's impudent question as he strides onstage: “Are you meditating on virginity?” (110). The very opposite is true. Where Bertram seems to fear sexuality until he has proved himself as a soldier, after which he makes conventional and boyish attempts to seduce the impoverished maiden Diana (a common appellation for the Virgin Queen), Helena is now ready to fly from the altar of divine Diana and to dedicate herself “to imperial Love” (I.iii.74-75).

The virginity debate that follows between Helena and Parolles seems politically daring in Elizabeth's England, although it is based on an ancient topos in marriage songs. One of the oldest literary examples of it we have today appears to be the “Greek Epithalamium,” Carmen LXII, by Catullus, and this is the first intertextual relationship I wish to discuss.11 In this song, Catullus introduces a group of maidens who debate with a group of youths on what Peter Demetz has called “the gains and losses of marriage.”12 Much as Helena in All's Well initiates the Shakespearean discussion with her complaint that “Man is enemy to virginity; how / may we barricade it against him? (I.i.12-13), the Roman maidens in Carmen LXII compare the bride's virginity to a city that can no longer defend itself against enemy attack:

Hesperus, what more cruel fire than thine moves in the sky? for thou canst endure to tear the daughter from her mother's embrace, from her mother's embrace to tear the close-clinging daughter, and give the chaste maiden to the burning youth. What more cruel than this do enemies when a city falls?


Parolles in All's Well tells Helena bluntly that the only defense against man is to “Keep him out” (I.i.114), to which she replies:

Hel. But he assails, and our virginity though valiant, in the defense yet is weak. Unfold to us some warlike resistance.
Par. There is none. Man, setting down before you, will undermine you and blow you up.


Although the profanely sexual military analogy continues throughout the virginity debate in All's Well, the Roman maidens of Catullus then shift to vegetation imagery in their lament for the bride's imminent defloration:

As a flower springs up secretly in a fenced garden, unknown to the cattle, torn up by no plough, which the winds caress, the sun strengthens, the shower draws forth, many boys, many girls, desire it; when the same flower fades, nipped by a sharp nail, no boys, no girls desire it: so a maiden, whilst she remains untouched, so long is she dear to her own: when she has lost her chaste flower with sullied body, she remains neither lovely to boys nor dear to girls.


But the chorus of youths answers with a similar plant analogy that points out the need for husbandry to make a vine fruitful:

As an unwedded vine which grows up in a bare field never raises itself aloft, never brings forth a mellow grape, but bending its tender form with downward weight, even now touches the root with topmost shoot; no farmers, no oxen tend it: but if it chance to be joined in marriage to the elm, many farmers, many oxen tend it: so a maiden, whilst she remains untouched, so long is she aging untended; but when in ripe season she is matched in equal wedlock, she is more dear to her husband and less distasteful to her father.


Each verse concludes with the refrain, “Hymen, O Hymenaeus, Hymen, hither, O Hymenaeus!”—a formal evocation of the god of marriage. The young men obviously win the argument with their claim that a husband is like a tree (the family tree) to which a delicate maiden, like a tender vine, may cling and become fruitful with his support. But if a virgin does not marry, she will be forgotten and die unknown. The main reason for marriage is therefore fruitfulness, according to Catullus, and not the romantic love of golden lads and lasses. Demetz (527-28) calls our attention to the almost literal translation of the epithalamium by Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson in his 1606 Hymenai, or The Solemnities of Masque and Barriers at Marriage.

Although in All's Well Parolles lures Bertram away from fruitful marriage to the destruction of war, he also makes a witty personal attack on Helena's virginity in I.i, just as he later tries to win Diana for himself in Florence. In answer to Helena's defense of her chastity until she can offer it to the man of her choice, Parolles replies with the argument of the Roman youths that it is “against the rule of nature,” to which he adds some Christian elaborations:

He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature. Virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese, consumes itself to the very paring, and so dies with feeding [its] own stomach. Besides virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the canon. Keep it not, you cannot choose but lose by't. Out with't!


Curiously enough, Parolles personifies virginity here in male as well as female terms. Indeed, what better description do we have of Bertram than that of a young man who is “peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love”?

After Helena assures Parolles that she will do nothing with her “virginity yet” (I.i.165), she makes a speech that has been widely interpreted as a list of conventional poetic references to the loves Bertram will find at court. I tend to agree, however, with those who believe Helena is referring here to the gifts Bertram will receive when she relinquishes her virginity to him as his wife. The first word, “There,” is the source of her sexual powers, the city she continues to defend against others. She tells Parolles prophetically that

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.


Lines 171-73 appear to be subtextual allusions to the varying pleasures of sexual intercourse for the male, followed by the fruitful results for the female. To “gossip” once meant to “godparent”; thus Cupid himself godparents the results of a union between Bertram and Helena. The apparent discrepancy between the words of superior power and command in these lines referring to the privacy of sexual dominion (“captain,”“sovereign,”“traitress,”etc.) and Helena's humble attitude toward Bertram in public merely reflect the unfortunate social realities of an Elizabethan marriage in which the wife was indeed a “clinging vine,” a legal dependent of her husband and lord, although equal to him as the “heart” of a household in which he was the “head.”

Helena accepts a certain loss of dignity and independence through her marriage, but Bertram angrily struggles against his own legal subservience as a mere “ward” to the king. He announces petulantly, “I cannot love her, nor will strive to do't” (II.iii.145), which then forces the king to “produce [his] power” (150). In the security of the home, a loving woman may indeed offer the variety of experience for which Bertram is not yet sufficiently mature, as Richard P. Wheeler has convincingly argued in terms of modern psychology.13 Until the virginal Bertram is ready for the delights that the virginal Helena wishes to offer him, he is much like the equally immature Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, who—pursued by another determined, aggressive Helena—finally admits that

… all the faith, the virtue of my heart,
The object and the pleasure of mine eye,
Is only Helena. To her, my lord,
Was I betrothed ere I [saw] Hermia;
But like a sickness did I loathe this food;
But, as in health, come to my natural taste,
Now I do wish it, love it, long for it,
And will evermore be true to it.


Similarly Bertram—called a “boy” by his mother, Parolles, and the king, who considers him too young to go to war—admits that his assault on the chaste Diana is based on “sick desires” (IV.ii.35), or on a boyish need for forbidden and irresponsible sex. At the same time, he has carefully chosen as the object of those desires a lady most unlikely to be bought. Fortunately, Shakespeare's Helena is a healer, one willing to risk her reputation and her life in order to cure the sick king and her equally sick beloved.


In the early sixteenth century, Catullus's Carmen LXII was wittily Christianized by the humanist priest Desiderius Erasmus in his Latin colloquy “Proci et Puellae” (“Suitors and Sweethearts”), and G. K. Hunter briefly footnotes in the Arden edition of All's Well some striking similarities between this humanist dialogue and the virginity debate in the play.14 Erasmus's “Proci et Puellae” was translated into English by “N. L.” (thought to be Nicholas Leigh) in 1568. Like the Catullus epithalamium, this colloquy is concerned with the contradiction between the value of virginity in itself and the necessity of losing it in a fruitful marriage, which is to say that both texts are concerned with the paradoxical nature of marriage itself. Matrimony exchanges the value and power of virginity for the value and power of fecundity. As Parolles so crudely explains of bartered virginity, “Within t' one year it will make itself two, / which is a goodly increase, and the principal itself not / much the worse” (I.i.147-49).

“Proci et Puellae” is an ironic dialogue between the lover Pamphilus and a witty virgin named Maria. Like Erasmus's more famous The Praise of Folie, this charming colloquy has both profane and sacred levels of meaning. Even the names of the characters are suggestive. The eager Pamphilus, much in love with Maria's outward appearance, first attempts to seduce her by a rhetorical “appeal to pity,” insisting that her beauty has murdered him and that only she can raise him up to life once more. Hunter first notes the similarity of the greeting between Parolles and Helena, who address each other as “fair queen” (I.i.106) and “monarch” (I.i.107), and Pamphilus's promise to Maria that “I shall be to you a King, and you shall be to me a Queene.”15 Just as Maria first refuses Pamphilus's invitation to royalty in return for her body, so Helena and Parolles jokingly refuse one another's proffered crowns.

Pamphilus in A Modest Meane to Marriage informs his reluctant sweetheart that she should be called Martia rather than Maria:

Mar. And why so I beseech you? what have I to doe with Mars?
Pam. For as that God counteth it but a pastime to murther and kill me, even so doe you. Herein yet more cruell than Mars, for you murther him that hartily loveth you.

(Erasmus, sig. Avi)

Shakespeare also refers to the god Mars in All's Well I.i, but he changes the application for ironic purposes to a jest on cowardice. This allows Helena to “undermine” Parolles rather than vice versa:

Hel. Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.
Par. Under Mars, I.
Hel. I especially think, under Mars.
Par. Why under Mars?
Hel. The wars hath so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars.
Par. When he was predominant.
Hel. When he was retrograde, I think rather.
Par. Why think you so?
Hel. You go so much backward when you fight.


Helena's insult foreshadows Bertram's later sexual cowardice in respect to marriage, backward behavior that is directly analogous to Parolles's cowardice on the battlefield and possible homosexuality. Indeed, the King later comments ironically on Bertram's sexual backwardness when he says, “I wonder, sir, [sith] wives are monsters to you / And that you fly them as you swear them lordship, / Yet you desire to marry” (V.iii.154-57); and Parolles assures Helena that she can lose her virginity “to her own liking” if she will “Marry, ill, to like him that ne'er it likes” (I.i.151-53). Much of the malaise of the present court seems to consist of such fearful backwardness, as the king points out in his eulogy of Bertram's father: “Such a man / Might be a copy to these younger times / Which followed well, would demonstrate them now / But goers backward” (I.ii.45-48). In contrast to Bertram's cowardice, a normal adult male must imitate Mars when in bed with his bride and courageously storm the city gate, for as Erasmus's Maria reminds us, “virginite would seeme alwayes to be taken with violence, yea though sometime we love the partie most earnestly” (sig. Ciii).

But while Shakespeare's Parolles uses the military metaphor to explain to Helena how men “undermine” the city gates and “blow up” virgins, Pamphilus in A Modest Meane instead complains to Maria about virgins triumphing over the dead bodies of their suitors slain by unrequited love:

Mar. Oh queint handsome, nice dead body: when shall your funerals be prouided for?
Pam. Sooner than you thinke ywisse, except you remedie in time.
Mar. I remedie good Lord? am I able to do such a cure?
Pam. Yea surely: all were I deade, it lyeth in you to rayse me up againe to life, and that with a light thing.

(sig. Biiv)

There are obviously both sexual and eschatological insinuations in this teasing exchange, which may remind us of Helena's poignant plea to the Countess:

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.


The motif is eventually literalized through Helena's own later resurrection (in a state of pregnancy) from supposed physical death. Not only is she restored to her reluctant husband, but new life also proceeds from the “little death” of the bed-trick which has finally joined her with Bertram.

The resurrection motif is literalized as well when Helena raises the king of France from his sickbed with her beauty, her faith, and her medicine—a miraculous cure that leads the Clown to call her “the herb of grace” (IV.v.17), or that rue which restores life to the soul. On the sexual level, however, Lafew claims that Helena's youth and beauty are powerful enough medicine in themselves to “araise King Pippen” and to “give Charlemain a pen in's hand / And write to her a love line” (II.i.76-78).

In A Modest Meane, when Maria is asked to revive Pamphilus, she replies, “As you say, peradventure I might doe it, if some bodye woulde helpe me to the herbe Panaces, whereunto they ascribe so great a vertue.” But Pamphilus will not be lured into medical discussions at this point. He tells her that “There needeth none herbes to doe it, only vouchsafe to love againe, what is more easie to be perfourmed? nay rather what is more due and just? otherwise you shall never acquite your selfe of manspilling” (sigs. Bii and Biiv). When he is unable to persuade Maria to have an affair with him, however, Pamphilus proposes marriage with equal enthusiasm. But Maria is still unconvinced since “that thing requireth long deliberation, and much advisement, which when it is done cannot be undone againe” (sig. Bv). For the Renaissance, marriage was a serious commitment that men like Shakespeare's Bertram violated at their own peril.

Pamphilus then assures Maria in A Modest Meane that he does love her, and for all the right reasons, in the kind of speech we would wish Bertram to make to Helena: “… I have knowne for the space of certain yeares the verteous and honest behauior of your parents, that is a birde [sic] not least to be regarded (I think) to come of good stock. Moreover, I am not ignorant with what wholesome instructions, and verteous examples you haue bene traded and brought up by them. And truely good education is of more effect than good parentage” (sig. Bvv). Not surprisingly, however, the “boy” Bertram must first “breed” his personal honor and courage through victory in the battlefield before he can successfully encounter Helena's female perfections in the marriage bed.

The young people in A Modest Meane to Marriage discuss the paradox of virginity in vegetation imagery that clearly echoes the “Greek Epithalamium” of Catullus. For example, Pamphilus asks Maria “whether is it a better sight for a Vine to lye uppon the grounde and rot, or the same to embrace a poale, or an elme, and lode it full with purple grapes?” (sig. Bvii). But Maria, like the Roman maidens, sees only the moral paradox of virginity, which she is still reluctant to lose even by way of an honorable marriage:

Mar. … for all your saying, virginity is a thing much beloved and lyked with all men.
Pam. I graunt you, a young woman, a virgine, is a fayre, a goodly thing, but what by course of kind is more unseemly than an old wrinkled maide? Had not your mother been contented to lose that flower of hir virginitie, surely we had not had this flower of your beautie. So that in case (as I hope) our mariage be not barren for the losse of one virgine we shall paye God manye.

(sig. Bviiv)

Parolles makes exactly the same points during his virginity debate with Helena in All's Well: “It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature of preserve virginity. Loss of virginity is rational increase, and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost. That you were made of is metal to make virgins. Virginity by being once lost, may be ten times found; by being ever kept, it is ever lost” (I.i.126-32).16

If Queen Elizabeth were still alive when All's Well was first performed, we ought to be amazed at Shakespeare's political daring in allowing his comic character such pointed remarks on aging virginity. Parolles also criticizes “old wrinkled” virgins in language even more explicitly sexual than that of Pamphilus or the Roman youths: “Your old virginity, / is like one of our French wither'd pears, it looks ill, / it eats drily, marry, 'tis a wither'd pear” (I.i.160-63). Helena replies, nevertheless, that she will keep her virginity a little while longer.

Although Maria finally grants Pamphilus leave to address her parents in A Modest Meane, she also advises him to consider well what he is doing. She reminds him that marriage is not only a license for sexual pleasure but a serious religious contract as well, a sacrament that Christians believe has a bearing upon the afterlife:

Mar. And do not take into your counsaille, this blind affection borne towardes my person, but rather reason, for that which affection decerneth is liked for a ceason, but that which reason aviseth is never mislyked.
Pam. Certes, thou speakest like a wittie wench; wherefore I intend to follow thy counsayle

(sig. Ciii).

Although Maria counsels “reason” over sexual attraction as a basis for marriage, she also undoubtedly alludes to Saint Paul's often quoted reason for Christians to marry at all—“if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” (I Cor. 7:9)—or Pamphilus would not otherwise call her a “wittie wench” and assent so cheerfully to her advice.

Shakespeare's Bertram, in contrast to Pamphilus, refuses to listen to the king's attempts to reason with him in All's Well, preferring war and sexual freedom to the lawful (and sacred) estate of marriage. His behavior is strikingly parodied in I.iii by the Clown, who asks formal permission from the Countess to marry her serving maid Isabel. Lavatch plays the part of the Christian fool as presented by Erasmus in The Praise of Folie when he does so.17 The allusion to Corinthians is of course very clear in this passage:

Count. Tell me thy reason why thou wilt marry.
Clown. My poor body, madam, requires it. I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives.
Count. Is this all your worship's reason?
Clown. Faith madam, I have other holy reasons, such as they are.
Count. May the world know them?
Clown. I have been, a madam, a wicked creature, as you and all flesh and blood are, and indeed I do marry that I may repent.

(I.iii.27-37; italics mine)

Some twentieth-century critics have been so titillated by the Clown's sexual pun on “holey raisings” (a not unimportant aspect of marriage) that they have failed to recognize the eschatological seriousness of this scene. The pun may also refer, after all, to the Elizabethan belief in the end of the world when all men and women shall be raised from their graves to stand judgment. Despite our modern skepticism about the afterlife, we have no reason to think that Shakespeare's Clown is anything but sincere when he proclaims that he wishes to marry “that I may repent,” thus implying that his marriage may lead to his ultimate salvation.

As Arthur Kirsh reminds us in a recent study of love in selected Shakespearean plays, the reference to “holy reasons” in All's Well is far more than a bawdy joke: “Even for Shakespeare the blend of obscenity and revealed truth in these lines is remarkable, but it is a mistake to conclude that the result is an ironic depreciation either of Helena's quest or marriage itself. On the contrary, the obscene point is also the theological (and psychological) one.”18 In fact, the sources of the Clown's argument for repentance through marriage can be found in Saint Paul's assurance that “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now they are holy” (I Cor. 7:14). Paul also reminded the Corinthians, “For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?” Apparently the Countess recognizes these scriptural allusions in the Clown's reasons and grants his request to marry: “Thy marriage, sooner than thy wickedness” (I.iii.38).

On the other hand, I do not wish to overemphasize in turn the sacred or eschatological point of view, since the comedy of the scene is clearly based on a double entendre, and the Countess's reply is deliberately ambiguous. The sexual import of her remark is that the Clown will repent not his sins but his marriage, which even he admits will soon become little more than weary physical labor in a fallen world and which will probably end in his becoming a cuckold. Lavatch adds, however, a delightful encomium to the sacred brotherhood of cuckoldry, once again in a Bottom-like parody of Saint Paul: “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. He that comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood; he that loves my flesh and blood is my friend: ergo, he that kisses my wife is my friend” (I.iii.45-50). The relevant passage from Saint Paul forms part of the Elizabethan marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer 1559: (“So men are bound to love their own wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his own wife, loveth himself. For never did any man hate his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord doth the congregation: for we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones.”19

Because profane parody of the sacred intensifies audience response to that which is parodied, the Clown's foolery reminds us—within the context of a secular theatrical performance—that the marriage union itself is sacred and that it concerns both the physical and spiritual life of the community around us. “The mystery is great,” Paul adds, “but I speak of Christ and of the congregation.” So, I believe, does Shakespeare in All's Well That Ends Well, as I shall explain.

Pamphilus in A Modest Meane to Marriage agrees, as does Shakespeare's Clown, to follow the path of reason in order to gain his desire and to request Maria's hand in marriage. In this case, the maiden hastens to assure her suitor that he will have no cause to repent his decision.

Mar. You shall not repent you thereof, but howbe sirha there is now fallen in to my minde a doubt, which bereth mee fore.
Pam. Away with all such doubtes for Gods sake.
Mar. Why will you haue me marry myself to a dead man?
Pam. Not so, for I will reuive againe.

(sig. Ciiiv)

Here Erasmus permits us to smile at the lover's naughty allusion to sexual resurrection, but the eschatological significance of Pamphilus's assertion is clear as well. The lover's marriage to Maria involves participation in a sacrament that will eventually help him to achieve spiritual resurrection, as the Clown in All's Well also suggests.

Erasmus brings his ironic colloquy to a close with one last attempt by Pamphilus for extra-marital sex:

Mar. I pray God guie you a good night, why fetch you such a sigh man?
Pam. A good night say you? I woulde to God you would vouchsafe to giue me that, which you wish mee.
Mar. Soft and faire, I pray you, your harvest is yet but in the greene blade.

(sig. Ciiiv)

Not only does Maria's reference here to harvesting have an eschatological ring to it, but it reminds us as well of a similar line in Shakespeare's comedy. The Countess begs the King in the last act of All's Well to forgive Bertram's folly as no more than “Natural rebellion, done i' th' blade of youth” (V.iii.6). But the grim blade of the harvester Time will eventually cut down all such blades, whether still green or ripe with age.

Marriage, however, offers a defense against the harvester's blade, first through its physical promise of new life in this world, and secondly, through its sacramental promise of new life for the human spirit after death. For this reason, Kirsch correctly finds the text of the marriage liturgy in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer crucial to our understanding of many Shakespearean plays.20 It is important to remember that in All's Well Bertram does actually marry Helena in a formal ceremony offstage. He then runs away from his sacred promise to worship Helena with his body, telling Parolles that “Although before the solemn priest I have sworn, / I will not bed her” (II.iii.268-70). We should note that Bertram does not describe his vow as “solemn” but the priest, thus indicating a disturbing failure to understand the ordinary patterns of language or of religion. In a similar inversion of convention, Bertram—rather than his bride—now becomes the virgin who murders his own posterity (in the sense of Parolles's previous warning to Helena) by refusing to have sexual intercourse with his wife in direct violation of his religious vows: “With this ring I thee wed: with my body I thee worship: And with all my worldly goods I thee endow. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (293). Thus he breaks divine law as well as the social law of the sixteenth century when he withholds his family ring, his body, and his seed from his bride. Bertram's refusal to consummate his marriage, even to kiss Helena, also has an important religious significance for the congregation which has just witnessed the ceremony.

First, the state of matrimony was deemed analogous by Renaissance Christians to the mystical union between Christ and his people or the Church. The Anglican marriage liturgy of the period includes the following prayer: “O God, which hast consecrated the state of matrimony to such an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church, look mercifully upon these thy servants, that this man may love his wife, accordingto thy Word (as Christ did love thy spouse the Church, who gave himself for it, loving and cherishing it even as his own flesh)” (296). Sexuality within the marriage bond thus becomes a religious “mystery.” As Christ died for his people or congregation in order to give them everlasting life, so a husband must be willing to “die” sexually for his wife in order to make her fruitful and to provide new physical life for both the family and the community. For this reason, the king formally exhorts Bertram, “As thou lov'st her. / Thy love's to me religious; else does err” (II.iii.182-83).

We should note here the curious fact that Renaissance males did indeed believe that they shortened their own lives each time they had intercourse, since they still held the classical belief that semen (thought to carry the family genius) originated in the marrow of the bones and was irreplaceable once spent. The belief is referred to in Emblem 77 of The Theater of Fine Devices, Thomas Combe's 1593 English translation of Guillaume de la Perrière's Le Théatre des bons Engins (1539). The incriptio of the emblem states that “All those that love do fancie most, / But lose their labour and their cost.” The pictura shows a young man pouring water from a pitcher through a sieve held out to him by a blindfolded Cupid. … According to the subscriptio or verse,

Fond love is chiefly likened to a sive,
In which the more you poure the water in,
The more is spilt, by letting thorow driue,
And you no neare then when you first begin.
Ev'n so for love when yong men frankly give,
Till oft they leave themselves not worth a pin:
When all is spent, and they live by the losse,
They turne againe at last by weeping crosse.(21)

Shakespeare refers to this belief twice in All's Well. First, Parolles encourages Bertram to risk his life bravely at war rather than to waste it slowly at home with his wife in bed:

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 Mar's fiery steed


Later the Clown makes a similar statement when he suggests that marriage is more dangerous than war, which is why a man enters into such a union only for the most serious reasons. After hearing that Bertram has run away from his bride and his solemn vow, the Clown tells the Countess the following:

Clown. Nay there is some comfort in the news, some comfort. Your son will not be kill'd so soon as I thought he would.
Count. Why should he be kill'd?
Clown. So say I, madam, if he run away, as I hear he does. The danger is in standing to 't; that's the loss of men, though it be the getting of children.


Yet Bertram has in fact sworn before God and the congregation to imitate in sexual terms Christ's sacrifice of the flesh and to “die” for new life within his marital union. He religiously owes Helena the “great prerogative and rite of love” (II.iv.41). When he runs away, Bertram violates the sacred mystery of the covenant between God and man. The implied theological analogy would have been clear to a Renaissance audience. If a nobleman and a ward to the king refuses to give new life to his family and to his society, Christ may not keep his promise to provide an afterlife for the congregation which has witnessed Bertram's vows. As one prominent sixteenth-century English clergyman reminded the faithful, “A Household is as it were a little common wealth, by the good govarnment whereof, Gods glorie may be aduaunced.”22

In striking contrast to Bertram's fear of losing a little life through the sexual aspect of marriage, Helena feels that her own love is inexhaustible:

I know I love in vain, strive against hope;
Yet in this captious and intenible sieve
I still pour in the waters of my love
And lack not to lose still.


Thus Shakespeare uses the sieve image in All's Well not to symbolize the waste of youth through lust, as in Combe's emblem, but to reinforce the idea of love as a source of eternal replenishment of life, as “A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters …” (Song Sol. 4. 15). As far as Helena is concerned, however, the image of the sieve was also a popular symbol of chastity, a symbol deriving from the story of the Roman Vestal Virgin Tuccia. …23

Secondly, in respect to the significance of the marriage liturgy, the priest reminds the congregation and the couple of Paul's commandment to all married men in Ephesians 5: “Ye husbands love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church, and hath given himself for it, to sanctify it, purging it in the fountain of water, through thy Word, that he might make unto himself a glorious congregation, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and blameless” (297). Let us recall once more Parolles's threat that if Helena remains a virgin, she will become “like one of our French wither'd pears.” The sacred significance of marriage implies that a husband's love has the important function of keeping his wife beautiful and blameless in the eyes of God. He helps her gain salvation, as she helps him in turn.

Thirdly, according to the Anglican liturgy of Shakespeare's time, the main purpose of marriage was “the procreation of children,” although the Church also agreed with the Clown's reasons for marrying as “a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication,” as well as a source of “mutual society, help, and comfort” (290-91). In denying Helena his bodily worship, Bertram obviously denies her children too. At the same time, Helena is enjoined by her marriage vows to submit to the will of her husband, to think of him as her lord in the sense that Christ is Lord over the Church.24 Since Bertram wills not to love her, Helena must then find a way to make herself worthy. She therefore sets out on a pilgrimage to atone for her pride in desiring a noble marriage, striving as well to complete the impossible labors her lord has set for her in 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’” (III.ii.57-60). While Bertram subsequently magnifies himself in pride by conquering the Sienese army, Helena conquers herself and her natural pride by religious penance. In addition, she accepts the total humiliation of playing the whore for her husband in the dark as the only possible means of consummating their marriage.

I shall not review here the many modern critical objections to the folkloric and “unbelievable” bed-trick which allows Helena to fulfill her tasks and thus her wedding vows.25 In the play Diana tells us the correct moral response when she observes of her own part in obtaining Berram's signet ring and his seed for Helena: “I think't no sin / to cozen him that would unjustly win” (IV.ii.75-76). Moreover, the bed-trick has a very respectable precedent in the Judeo-Christian heritage, as I have shown elsewhere.26 The story is told in Genesis 38, a chapter read aloud each January 21 in Elizabethan churches, of how the widowed Tamar tricks Judah into sleeping with her in fulfillment of his neglected patriarchal obligation to provide her with an heir to Israel. Disguising herself as a prostitute, Tamar demands of Judah his cloak, his staff, and his signet in pledge for the payment of her fee. The Geneva Bible indicates that Judah's failure to recognize Tamar at this time is an act of providence. The marginal gloss states that “God had wonderfully blinded him that he colde not knowe her by her talke,” although Judah finally admits the signet as his and the righteousness of Tamar's deed. She later brings forth twins from this union with the eponymous ancestor of Judea. His first-born son is Pharez or Perez, direct forebear of King David and thus of Christ (Matt. I).

In the biblical story, as in All's Well, a signet ring is the controlling token of a legitimate legal claim on the reluctant male who rebels against the rights of a female. First, Helena remarks that Bertram's ring comes to him from “the first father” (III.vii.25). Bertram himself then tells Diana that his ring “is an honor 'longing to our house, / Bequeathed down from many ancestors / Which were the greatest obloquy i' th' world / In me to lose” (IV.ii.42-45). Yet, paradoxically, tradition tells us that the ring must be given away (in The Merchant of Venice also); worldly honor must be risked for justice to be done. And in all such mythic cases, divine providence sees to it that the ring is given lawfully to the right person.

Thomas Malory also relates two important examples of the bed-trick in British legendary history, one perpetrated by a male, Uther Pendragon, and one by a female, the Lady Elaine.27 The first results in the conception of King Arthur, savior of Britain, and the second results in the conception of Sir Galahad (Gilead), a knightly Christ-figure, who miraculously cures the maimed Fisher King, much as Helena mysteriously cures the King of France in All's Well. The bed-trick convention was thus a familiar symbol to the Elizabethans of providence at work in human affairs and was meant to be understood as necessary rather than as immoral. Certain children must be born into the world.

To be sure, by Shakespeare's time scepticism was already eating into earlier belief in supernatural miracles. The arguments of both the alchemists and—quite unintentionally—the Lutherans were causing this erosion of faith in miracles, a fact carefully brought to our attention by the dramatist in All's Well II.iii when Lafew remarks to Bertram: “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 (II.iii.1-6). Lafew apparently refers here to the eschatological realm, to reverence for mysteries and possibly to a prudent fear of the Last Judgment. He then reads aloud the providential title of a current broadsheet: “A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor” (II.iii.23-24). Shortly after this, Helena enters with the King, whom she has just raised up from his sickbed and marvelously cured. We do not know exactly how she has done this, any more than we know how Paulina brings the statue of Hermione to life in The Winter's Tale. The miracle is to be accepted, not understood. As Helena and the King stand onstage together, they are a visual emblem of what Lafew calls the “very hand of heaven” (II.iii.31) still at work in Shakespeare's time—at least in the theater. After so pointedly dramatizing this example of a providential miracle, the playwright then assumes in all probability that his audience will accept the equally providential nature of the bed-trick.

Both the curing of the King and the bed-trick provide a familiar religio-mythic infrastructure for the plot of All's Well. The comedy begins with death and disease, continues with the offer of a cure for present illness in return for a marriage with all its sacred overtones, and ends with the unexpected appearance onstage of a pregnant woman previously believed to be dead. This woman—Helena, or love in all its most luminous aspects—is the physical and spiritual emblem of new life indeed, and her story resonates far beyond the structural confines of the comedy and of the theater itself in the best traditions of dramatic art. The chaste Diana, as “presenter” in act V, clearly states in a primitive poetic form the sacred-sexual paradox inherent in both the play and the marriage: “Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick. / So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick” (V.iii.302-303).

At this point Helena reappears onstage, as if literally resurrected from the dead, which prompts the King to question her reality. She rather strangely replies, “No, my good lord, / 'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see, / The name and not the thing” (V.viii.306-08). Since Helena is seen by all to be pregnant and is about to prove by her possession of the signet ring that Bertram is the father of her child, she is presumably not just the shadow of a wife in the usual sense of the word. However, the Anglican minister Henrie Smith employed the very same term in a sermon to refer to the taking of a second wife or concubine: “another sayth, that the name of his second doth signifie a shadow, because she was not a wife, but the shadow of a wife: For this cause the Scripture never biddeth man to love his wives, but to love his wife, and sayth, They shall be two in one flesh, not three, nor foure, but onely two.”28 It seems probable then that Helena is here reprimanding Bertram for making love to her when he thought her a concubine in Florence rather than fulfilling his duties on their true wedding night. The paradox is that, although the pregnant woman onstage is still Bertram's wife, Helena, she is also the second woman after his marriage to be taken by Bertram, in this case when—in the dark—he believed her to be Diana. She is therefore the shadow of a wife, or pregnant as his second wife or concubine. Confused, and already publicly shamed as a would-be adulterer, Bertram quickly promises to love Helena “dearly,” if she can make him understand the paradox and her trick, or “to know this clearly” (V.viii.315).

Helena then mischievously threatens him with “deadly divorce” if she cannot do so. If Bertram is not the father of her child, not only has he been unfaithful, but she also is guilty of adultery, which was the only ground for divorce accepted by the Church: “As God hath ordained remedies for every disease, so he hath ordained a remedie for the disease of marriage. The disease of marriage is adultrie, and the medicine hereof is divorcement.”29 The play has indirectly circled back to the possibility of disease, but this time the cure lies in the hands of Bertram himself—if he chooses to exercise this means of escape from marriage and to be further shamed publicly as a cuckold. An Elizabethan audience would undoubtedly have caught the joke on the young rake bested in this way by his “clever wench” and have agreed that this marriage would indeed last, especially since the couple had evidently enjoyed the Florentine sexual consummation of their earlier enforced sacramental wedding.

Much as Greek and Roman comedy, a religious genre for the ancient world, always celebrated a wedding, or a resurrection, or both, so does Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well. The play is consistently evocative of the interaction between sexual love and sacred love in the lives of individuals and communities through their participation in the mystery of matrimony. At once obscenely physical and profoundly spiritual, a fruitful marriage represented for the Renaissance the central Christian mystery of the Incarnation, or the philosophical doctrine that humanity itself transcends the limitations of bodily existence and partakes of the divine nature. The strange enigmas of the marriage between spirit and body, of eternal redemption intersecting the waste of time, of life arising from sickness, loss, and death, all echo and re-echo throughout a play as provocative to an audience as is Titian's painting of Venus and Cupid with an Organist.

Finally, if Shakespeare's King will only say in the end that “All yet seems well” (V.iii.333; italics mine), it is not only because he feels concern for the marital happiness of Helena and Bertram, but because the final judgment is not his to make. In his own role as King, he too must face the Last Judgment by a higher authority. The Globe audience was very familiar with Juan Vives's analogy between the stage and the world, the audience and the gods, which gave their theater its name. It is for this reason that, in one of Shakespeare's most poignantly eschatological epilogues, the player king employs the familiar theater metaphor to remind us that even “The king's a beggar, now the play is done” (V.iii.I).


  1. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950) A 164.

  2. See Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York, 1977) 135-36; Heinrich Bullinger, The Golden Booke of Christian Matrimony, trans. Miles Coverdale (London, 1560); Henrie Smith, “A Preparative to Marriage,” in The Sermons of Maister Henrie Smith, Gathered into one volume (London, 1594) 1-3; Thomas Becon, Workes, 3 vols. (London, 1560); and Robert Cleaver, A Godlie Forme of Householde Government: for the Ordering of Private Families (London, 1598).

  3. “Sexual Love in Elizabethan Comedy,” Renaissance Drama, 15 (1984): 1-29.

  4. G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (London; 1958) 131-57. M. C. Bradbrook notes that “the language of religion is used with particular frequency by Shakespeare in this play,” in her fine thematic study “Virtue is the True Nobility,” repr. in Shakespeare, The Comedies, ed. Kenneth Muir (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965) 131. See also the theological interpretations of Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York, 1965), and of Jay Halio, who rightly calls Helena a “Minister of Providence” in “All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1965):33-43. Much less convincing is David S. Kastan, “All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” English Literary History, 52 (1985):575-89. Aside from ignoring the tragicomic precedent of Euripides' Alcestis in theater history, Kastan joins a long line of male critics, including Richard A. Levin, in finding the play unpleasant because he finds Helena's tenacity “predatory” (p. 579). One suspects that a similar tenacity in achieving his goal by a dramatic hero would be praised by this critic and others as commendable heroic determination. But Shakespeare seems to be more tolerant than his critics of women in love, and he makes the majority of his most attractive romantic heroines into notably aggressive man-chasers, which is about all they were allowed to chase in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: witness Rosalind, Viola, Imogen, as well as Hermia and Helena of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

  5. Although Venus inspires music and the arts in her celestial form, the presence of Cupid in the painting accentuates as well her earthly fecundity. The dominion of Venus over the vegetable world and human sexuality is symbolized in the background of the picture by the garden with its satyr fountain, the leaping deer, and the pair of lovers strolling away from the viewer.

  6. See Leo Spitzer's comprehensive study, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony (Baltimore, 1963). The organ is also an attribute of Saint Cecilia and thus can stand alone as a symbol of music and of the sense of hearing.

  7. Edgar Wind emphasizes the manner in which Titian differentiates between the two types of beings which occupy the same couch: “In the Holkham Venus (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the corresponding paintings by Titian in Madrid and Berlin, the disparity between mortal and goddess is heightened by a paradox of posture. While the courtier plays music under the inspiration of love (cf. Erasmus, Adagia s. v. Musicam docet amor), he does not face the goddess directly, but turns his head over his shoulder to ‘look back’ at her; he thus enacts the Platonic … reversal of vision by which alone a mortal can hope to face transcendent Beauty” (Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, rev. ed. (London, 1968) 143, n.7. See also the somewhat different views of Erwin Panofsky, Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic (New York, 1969) 122-25.

  8. Panofsky's Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origin and Character (Cambridge, MA, 1953) remains one of the best studies of Renaissance aesthetics with its meticulous surface realism in juxtaposition with elaborate symbolism and religio-mythic allusions. A recent essay by John N. Wall, Jr., has enlarged on Panofsky's insights by pointing out that the realistic style and iconographic content of pictures such as Jan van Eyck's Amolfini Wedding Portrait actually work together as a Renaissance proclamation that Christian “abstractions have significance only in their specific and particular manifestations.” As Christ entered into “historical specificity” in order to redeem fallen humanity, so the moral behavior of specific individuals in later time repeats the Fall and then does or does not merit the Redemption. See Wall, “The Amolfini Wedding Portrait as Christian Proclamation,” Renaissance Papers (1981):71-81.

  9. All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

  10. Stone, Family, Sex, Marriage 182.

  11. See The Poems of Catullus, trans. F. W. Cornish, Loeb Classical Library (New York, 1918) 85-89. Further references to this poem will be noted in the text.

  12. Peter Demetz, “The Elm and the Vine: Notes Toward the History of a Marriage Topos,” PMLA, 73 (1958): 521-32. Further references to this article will be noted in the text.

  13. “Imperial Love and the Dark House: All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley, 1981) 35-91.

  14. All's Well, ed. Hunter (London, 1959) 9 n. 104-105, 10 n. 126-27, 12 n. 148.

  15. Erasmus, A Modest Meane to Marriage, trans. N. L. (London, 1568), sig. Civ. The sexual desires of Pamphilus can be summed up in the following line: “As for myselfe, if God so woulde, it were unto me a pleasure, even to end my life in your armes” (sig. Cii). Since the beloved is named Maria, the remark simultaneously evokes an image of the Pietà. All further signatures from this work by Erasmus will be noted in the text.

  16. According to Hunter in the Arden ed. of All's Well 10-11 n. 126-27. “The idea probably goes back to Jerome's ‘Laudo nuptias, laudo coniugium, sed quia mihi virgines generant.’” Hunter also notes that the same argument that virgins bring forth virgins is used by Venus in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (lines 203-204) and by Ferardo in Lyly's Euphues.

  17. For a persuasive study of Shakespeare's Erasmian ideas, see R. Chris Hassel, Jr., Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens, GA, 1980).

  18. Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981) 140.

  19. John E. Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer 1559 (Charlottesville, VA, 1976) 293. Further page references to this work will be noted in the text.

  20. Kirsh, Experience of Love 10.

  21. I have used the Huntington Library copy (STC 15230) of Thomas Combe, The Theater of Fine Devices (London, 1614).

  22. Cleaver, Godlie Forme, 13.

  23. See Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Padua, 1611; New York, 1976) 74.

  24. Smith, “Preparative to Marriage” 28.

  25. See G. K. Hunter, introduction, All's Well, Arden ed., xliv.

  26. See my note “Overlooked Sources of the Bed Trick,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983):433-34, and John E. Van Domelen, “Genesis, Boccaccio, and Shakespeare,” The Shakespeare Newsletter (May 1965):24, which unfortunately never appeared in the indexes.

  27. For the story of the bed-trick as practiced by Uther Pendragon on the Duchess of Tyntagil, with the help of the enchanter Merlin, see Book I of “The Tale of King Arthur” in Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver, 2d ed., (London, 1971) 3-6. Sir Lancelot is similarly enhanted into spending a fruitful night with Elaine, daughter of the Fisher King. According to the prophecy, the parents of Galahad (the perfect knight and a second Christ) were to be descendants of Joseph of Arimathea and the Fisher King, which meant Lancelot du Lac (who would sleep only with Queen Gwenyver) and the Lady Elaine. The story is told in “The Booke of Sir Tristram de Lyones” of how Sir Lancelot is shown a ring belonging to the queen “lyke as hit had com frome her” (480). He is told where to meet her, and then is given wine to prevent him from recognizing the substitution in the bedchamber of Elaine (479-80). Galahad is named after Gilead, whose balm was a universal “panacea,” like Helena's. In this case, the “balm of Gilead” is the blood of Christ, which Galahad later applies to the wound of the Fisher King to cure him.

  28. Smith, “Preparative to Marriage” 6.

  29. Ibid., 36.

My thanks to Susan Snyder, who kindly read an earlier version of this essay and provided many helpful suggestions, and to Richard P. Wheeler, who did the same on behalf of Renaissance Quarterly. The section on Erasmus and Shakespeare was previously read at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association meetings in Atlanta in fall 1984. The original version of this paper was presented at the Shakespeare Association of America meetings of 1983 in Ashland, Oregon.

Further Reading

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Beauregard, David N. “‘Inspirèd Merit’: Shakespeare's Theology of Grace in All's Well That Ends Well.Renascence 51, No. 4 (1999): 218-39.

Argues that a Roman Catholic theology of grace influenced the plot and dialogue of All's Well That Ends Well.

Bradbrook, M. C. “Shakespeare's Hybrid: All's Well That Ends Well.” In Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, pp. 84-98. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984.

Contends that All's Well That Ends Well is a dramatic failure in that Shakespeare attempted to write a moral play but only succeeded in creating characters as moral stereotypes.

Ellis, David. “Finding a Part for Parolles.” Essays in Criticism 39, No. 4 (October 1989): 289-304.

Discusses Parolles's various roles in All's Well That Ends Well, contending that ultimately the character defies categorization.

Huston, J. Dennis. “‘Some Stain of Soldier’: The Functions of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Quarterly 21, No. 4 (Autumn 1970): 431-38.

Focuses on the various roles of Parolles, noting that his main function is to represent the youthful energy capable of transforming the world in All's Well That Ends Well.

Lewis, Cynthia. “‘Derived Honesty and Achieved Goodness’: Doctrines of Grace in All's Well That Ends Well.Renaissance and Reformation 26, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 147-70.

Discusses All's Well That Ends Well as Shakespeare's interpretation of the theological controversy regarding whether grace is granted through election or through a gradual process of enlightenment.

Love, John M. “‘Though Many of the Rich Are Damn'd’: Dark Comedy and Social Class in All's Well That Ends Well.Texas Studies in Language and Literature 18, No. 4 (Winter 1977): 517-27.

Comments on the role of social class in All's Well That Ends Well, noting that the ultimate fate of Helena and Bertram is determined by their class.

Palmer, David J. “Comedy and the Protestant Spirit in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well.Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 71, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 95-107.

Illustrates how Shakespeare interwove elements of comedy and Puritan theology into the plot and characterizations of All's Well That Ends Well.

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

Asserts that All's Well That Ends Well is an antimoralistic play, in which Helena and Bertram expose the empty rhetoric of the older generation through their struggle to gain their freedom and to establish their individual identities.

Richard, Jeremy. “‘The Thing I Am’: Parolles, the Comedic Villain, and Tragic Consciousness.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 145-59.

Contends that All's Well That Ends Well bridges Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, and discusses the role of Parolles in terms of his evolution from comic villainy to self-consciousness in the play.

Rothman, Jules. “A Vindication of Parolles.” Shakespeare Quarterly 23, No. 2 (Spring 1972): 183-96.

Attempts to vindicate Parolles from critical censure, maintaining that his character is the prime source of humor in All's Well That Ends Well.

Schork, R. J. “The Many Masks of Parolles.” Philological Quarterly 76, No. 3 (Summer 1997): 263-69.

Discusses the role of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, pointing out that his characterization draws on two popular types from the classical comedies of Plautus.

Simpson, Lynne M. “The Failure to Mourn in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 172-88.

Argues that in pursuing Bertram as a substitute for her deceased father, Helena “in effect denies the death of the father by ‘forgetting’ him despite the prominent and constant reminders of those around her.”

Snyder, Susan. “Naming Names in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Quarterly 43, No. 3 (Fall 1992): 265-79.

Explores the significance of various names in All's Well That Ends Well, emphasizing the mythic role that Helena and Diana play in the action.

Solomon, Julie Robin. “Mortality as Matter of Mind: Toward a Politics of Problems in All's Well That Ends Well.English Literary Renaissance 23, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 134-69.

Illustrates how Shakespeare's use of contemporary discussions about the limits of medical knowledge and the interplay between nature and culture inform the themes of All's Well That Ends Well.

Taylor, Michael. “Persecuting Time with Hope: The Cynicism of Romance in All's Well That Ends Well.English Studies in Canada 11, No. 3 (September 1985): 282-94.

Focuses on Shakespeare's ironic treatment of the idea of romance in All's Well That Ends Well.

Wheeler, Richard P. “Imperial Love and the Dark House: All's Well That Ends Well.” In Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn, pp. 35-91. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Focuses on the relationship between Bertram and Helena as it effects Bertram's quest for a social and sexual identity in the play.

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