Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093
All's Well That Ends Well
Likely composed and first performed between 1602 and 1605, All's Well That Ends Well has long been considered a problem play. The drama has resisted categorization because it features elements of the comic, tragic, and romantic; indeed, the play has been variously regarded as a dark comedy, tragicomedy, and romantic comedy. The play centers on Helena, who becomes the ward of the Countess of Roussillon after the death of her father, a famous physician. Helena falls in love with the Countess's son, the pompous Bertram, who regards her as socially inferior. After she heals the King, Helena requests as her reward Bertram's hand in marriage. Unhappy at being coerced to marry a woman he does not love, Bertram sets a series of impossible tasks that Helena must accomplish if she wants him to accept her as his wife—she must become pregnant with his child and take the ring from his finger. By conspiring with Diana, a woman Bertram is trying to seduce, and taking her place in Bertram's bed, Helena accomplishes her tasks and Bertram is forced to accept her as his wife. All's Well was inspired by a story from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1353). Scholars have noted that the drama retains some of the traditional folktale motifs of its source, including the healing of the king and the fulfillment of impossible tasks. Although traditionally viewed by critics as one of Shakespeare's least successful dramas due to its numerous unresolved issues, ambiguous ending, and largely unsympathetic characters, All's Well That Ends Well has risen in esteem among contemporary scholars. In an attempt to overturn the play's designation as a flawed work, many modern critics have endeavored to reevaluate All's Well's dramatic structure, genre, themes, and characters.
As in many of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, the central figure of All's Well That Ends Well is a determined young woman. Unlike such esteemed Shakespearean heroines as Rosalind or Viola, All's Well's Helena has frequently perplexed or disappointed commentators. Surveying past critical perceptions of Helena, Susan Snyder (1993) describes her as an unorthodox female protagonist, and remarks on the traditional critical apprehension of her sexual aggressiveness in pursuing an unwilling, and perhaps undeserving, Bertram. Snyder also considers Helena's role in challenging patriarchal gender conventions that expect passivity and submissiveness from women. David Haley (1993) stresses the significance of Bertram as the main focus of All's Well That Ends Well. According to Haley, Bertram's personal maturation from a “proud, scornful boy” to a young nobleman possessed of at least a degree of self-knowledge and a sense of personal responsibility forms the thematic arc of All's Well. Michael D. Friedman (1995) focuses on the tension between Bertram's individualized sexual desires and the social necessity of legitimate procreation. Principal among the minor characters in All's Well That Ends Well is Bertram's dubious companion Parolles. Robert Hapgood (1965) associates Parolles with a life of shame, viewing him as a debauched liar in the tradition of Falstaff, but bearing none of the redeeming features of Shakespeare's exuberant tavern knight. For Hapgood, the ignoble rogue Parolles quite simply sacrifices honor in favor of unrestrained living. R. J. Schork (1997) claims that Parolles is a clever adaptation of several stock types from Roman New Comedy: the cowardly braggart soldier, the crafty servant, and the archetypal pimp.
Although never a favorite with audiences, All's Well That Ends Well's popularity on the stage has increased since the second half of the twentieth century. The drama is a challenge to directors, who must create psychological coherence and dramatic resolution out of the play's incongruous elements, such as its ambiguous ending and unsympathetic characters. Eric Grode (see Further Reading) reviews the minimalist staging of director Andrew Grosso's 2000 production of the play at the HERE Theater in New York. Grode praises the director's incisive rendering of the drama's darker themes, but laments the loss of the its much-needed comedic elements. In another unfavorable review, Peter Marks (2003) critiques director Richard Clifford's 2003 staging at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. Although the critic acknowledges the inherent difficulties of successfully staging All's Well That Ends Well, Marks contends that Clifford's production was a conventional, drab, and lifeless effort that failed to elicit audience sympathy. Unlike these two relatively disappointing presentations, Gregory Doran's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, which featured an outstanding Judi Dench in the supporting role of the Countess of Roussillon, received the highest praise of reviewers Matt Wolf (2003) and Patrick Carnegy (2003). In addition to offering accolades to Dench for making emotional sense of the play through her compelling performance, Wolf commends workable interpretations of both Helena and Bertram, and an innovatively comic Guy Henry as the garrulous Parolles. Carnegy lauds Doran's brilliant ability to effectively lead audiences through this notoriously obscure stage drama, and notes that “Doran keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering why the play's making better sense than you might have imagined.”
Critics of All's Well That Ends Well are interested in the play's treatment of love, redemption, and honor as well as its evocation of the destructive forces of old age, decay, and death. Carl Dennis (1971) illuminates a religious theme in All's Well associated with the Christian conceptualization of agape, or divine love. Dennis discusses the play's dramatization of an unsympathetic and seemingly unredeemable Bertram saved by the saintly grace of Helena's boundless love for him. Michael Shapiro (1972) presents a variation on this theme, arguing that redemption in All's Well begins with self-knowledge, but is only achieved through mutuality. In this reading, Helena saves Bertram with her love and intelligence, and Bertram returns the favor to Helena by offering her his own redemptive forgiveness. David M. Bergeron (1973) focuses on the play's allusions to the tumultuous affair of the classical gods of love and war, Venus and Mars. Associating these figures respectively with Helena and Bertram, Bergeron declares that the play offers a final triumph of love over discord and conflict. Vivian Thomas (1987) stresses Shakespeare's deeply ambiguous treatment of honor and virtue in All's Well That Ends Well, claiming that the play features a clash of personal and public moral perspectives that remain largely unresolved at its conclusion. Finally, Lynn M. Simpson (1994) concentrates on the psychological dynamics of All's Well and its themes of separation, identity, and memory. Simpson contends that Helena's character, caught between romance and reality, illustrates a repressed failure to adequately mourn for her dead father. According to the critic, Helena insulates herself against her grief by denying it, and outwardly compensates with bold self-assertion in a reckless sexual pursuit of the reluctant, but ultimately willing Bertram.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11649
SOURCE: Thomas, Vivian. “Virtue and Honour in All's Well That Ends Well.” In The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problems Plays, pp. 140-72. London: Croom Helm, 1987.
[In the following essay, Thomas stresses Shakespeare's deeply ambiguous treatment of honor and virtue in All's Well That Ends Well and claims that the play features a clash of personal and public moral perspectives that remain largely unresolved at its conclusion.]
A striking feature of All's Well is the way in which the play opens by specifying relationships and engaging the theme of virtue as an intrinsic quality which may be complementary to or in conflict with nominal status. In the opening line of the play the Countess expresses sorrow at the imminent departure of Bertram, but does so by emphasising the fundamental nature of family bonds: ‘In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband’. Bertram acknowledges his debt of affection to his dead father but counterbalances it with his duty to the King and his ‘subjection’ (line 5). However, this statement of Bertram's is to sound like a hollow formula in the light of his later disregard of the King's authority. No sooner has Bertram expressed himself formally than Lafew speaks of the King as a ‘husband’ to the Countess and ‘father’ to Bertram: formal bonds are to be affective ties. Lafew's confident reassurance to the Countess is based on knowledge of the King's virtue and her desert: ‘He that so generally is at all times good must of necessity hold his virtue to you, whose worthiness would stir it up where it wanted, rather than lack it where there is such abundance’ (I.i. 7-10).
The pattern is continued a few lines later with the first reference to Helena. She too has lost a father and has become the adoptive daughter of the Countess. Before extolling her virtues the Countess makes a remarkable statement about Helena's gifted father. Although, as Lafew comments, ‘he was skilful enough to have liv'd still, if knowledge could be set up against mortality’ (I.i. 28-9) the Countess describes him as one ‘whose skill was almost as great as his honesty’ (I.i. 17-18). Immediately there is a weighing and balancing of admirable qualities: if this man was famous as a physician he must have been a man of total integrity for his honesty to surpass his skill. The implication is that honesty is valued even above life-saving skills. Characteristic of the problem plays is the way in which we plunge into a consideration of values.
The relationship between inherited qualities and education is developed by the Countess in her praise of Helena: ‘I have those hopes of her good that her education promises her dispositions she inherits—which makes fair gifts fairer’ (I.i. 36-8). Where skills and talents are cultivated but are at the disposal of an ‘unclean mind’ they are not to be admired. Rather, ‘they are virtues and traitors too’ (I.i. 40). The suggestion that talent and honesty do not always go together is followed by an awareness that integrity is not necessarily inherited. The Countess' farewell to Bertram expresses hope rather than certainty that he will prove worthy of his breeding:
Be thou bless'd, Bertram, and succeed thy father In manners as in shape! Thy blood and virtue Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness Share with thy birthright!
The Countess is aware that Bertram is on the brink of being tested for the first time in his life. His inexperience is revealed in her plea to Lafew:
'Tis an unseason'd courtier; good my lord, Advise him.
If the hope but uncertainty of inherited qualities is suggested by the Countess' speech, along with an awareness of the need for education and experience to bring intrinsic qualities to fruition, the idea of the child as preserver of the parent's reputation is brought out by Lafew's farewell to Helena: ‘Farewell, pretty lady; you must hold the credit of your father’ (line 75). It is ironic that Helena's tears are not for her famous father because she has already forgotten him. Indeed, the impression made by Bertram on her imagination is so powerful that it has erased all other images. Helena's soliloquy, in which she gives vent to her adoration of Bertram, possesses an ease and fluency which contrasts with the compacted speeches that precede it: analysis of concepts and values gives way to free flowing verse which is expressive of Helena's idealised love of Bertram:
I am undone; there is no living, none, If Bertram be away; 'twere all one That I should love a bright particular star And think to wed it, he is so above me. In his bright radiance and collateral light Must I be comforted, not in his sphere. Th' ambition in my love thus plagues itself: The hind that would be mated by the lion Must die for love. 'Twas pretty, though a plague, To see him every hour; to sit and draw His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls, In out 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.
The immediate effect of this speech is to create a sense of surprise or incongruity. Helena's ‘idolatrous fancy’ seems strikingly at odds with Bertram's cold and detached comment to her ‘Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her’ (I.i. 73-4). Not only are they separated by a social gulf, but Bertram seems unaware of her as a young woman. Moreover, there is nothing in the early exchanges to suggest why Bertram should attract such admiration—other than the fact that he is a handsome young man. That Helena is not just a silly young girl is made clear by her shrewd assessment of Parolles: she recognises that he is a ‘liar’, ‘fool’ and ‘coward’, but rather than feeling contemptuous towards him she implies that these qualities don't create an altogether unattractive character. Helena quickly routs Parolles in a battle of wits which reveals an ease of manner that enables her to cope admirably with his bawdy talk and self-importance. It is her resilience and strength of character which are manifested in the closing speech of the scene:
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. .....The mightiest space in fortune nature brings To join like likes, and kiss like native things.
Here Helena expounds a philosophy to underpin her action. Leaving everything to heaven often serves as a pretext for inaction; and frequently seemingly disparate things are brought together and conjoined. If the audience feels any scepticism at this stage it is not about her determination to be active but rather about the worth of Bertram. Has this young woman so idealised the object of her love that he will not prove worth the effort? Significantly, her enthusiastic description of him is confined to physical characteristics: the comments of the Countess have been sufficient to create an awareness of the possibility of a discrepancy between intrinsic and extrinsic qualities. Moments later the King directs the attention of the audience back to this duality with its potential for conflict:
Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face; Frank nature, rather curious than in haste, Hath well compos'd thee. Thy father's moral parts Mayest thou inherit too!
The King hopes rather than assumes that Bertram will inherit his father's qualities.
When the King recalls Bertram's father he conveys a genuine sense of loss: there is no feeling of respectful sentiment being the due of the dead, but rather a picture is created of a man remarkable for humour, tact and humanity. And when the King reaches the climax of his praise it comes as something of a surprise: his greatest virtue was an ability to communicate so easily with men of all social levels that they felt comfortable with him, indeed as if they were dealing with their social equal:
Who were below him He us'd as creatures of another place, And bow'd his eminent top to their low ranks, Making them proud of his humility In their poor praise he humbled. Such a man Might be a copy to these younger times; Which, followed well, would demonstrate them now But goers backward.
The quality for which Bertram's father is most praised will be found most markedly absent in Bertram. But the King's speech suggests that Bertram should find it easier to shine as a consequence of the falling away in the present generation. The King undoubtedly creates a sense of two distinct eras, with the present being inferior to the former. While this could easily appear to be part of the traditional expression that things are no longer what they were, there is a feeling that the King is not merely responding as an ageing man idealising the past. One of the minor links between the problem plays is criticism of the obsession with the new-fangled: Ulysses makes the point in Troilus and Cressida (III.iii. 175-6); and so too does the disguised Duke in Measure for Measure (III.ii. 217-20). Here the King attributes the view to Bertram's father:
‘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.’
Just as in the opening scene the fathers of Bertram and Helena are linked, the King turns to ask how long it has been since the death of the physician who was ‘much fam'd’ (I.ii. 71). The King's welcome to Bertram is concluded in a manner which expresses the emotional bond which binds them through the father-friend:
Welcome, count; My son's no dearer.
So it is that both scenes focus sharply on human qualities through recollections of Bertram's father and the father of Helena.
While the question of Bertram's worth remains open, Helena's virtue is placed beyond question. On hearing of Helena's love of Bertram the Countess makes clear her estimation of her adopted daughter.
Her father bequeath'd her to me, and she herself, without other advantage, may lawfully make title to as much love as she finds; there is more owing her than is paid, and more shall be paid her than she'll demand.
Moreover, the Countess insists that her feelings towards her adopted daughter are as great as those for her natural son. In expressing this feeling Shakespeare has the Countess employ his favourite source of imagery: horticulture (also used at a critical moment in Measure for Measure but virtually absent from Troilus and Cressida):
I say I am your mother, And put you in the catalogue of those That were enwombed mine. 'Tis often seen Adoption strives with nature, and choice breeds A native slip to us from foreign seeds.
This reference to ‘foreign seeds’ is critical, because for Bertram there can be no question of social equality between people of unequal descent. Whereas the Countess enthusiastically accepts Helena as her own, and eagerly embraces the prospect of her marriage to Bertram, and the King praises Bertram's father for his natural humility which enabled men of inferior birth to feel that they were being treated as equals, Bertram appears to have total contempt for such values. He exhibits a powerful sense of social superiority. However, before revealing his attitude in this important sphere Bertram expresses an enthusiasm for the value of military honour. He fears that he will be forced to stay at court ‘Till honour be bought up’ (II.i. 32).
When he is chosen by Helena he is not only vigorous in expressing his dislike of the proposal, but is positively insolent in responding to the King's question:
Know'st thou not, Bertram, What she has done for me?
Yes, my good lord, But never hope to know why I should marry her.
Here is a clear breach of decorum which Bertram reiterates before going on to make the basis of his defiance clear:
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!
A great deal of special pleading has been made on Bertram's behalf—he is immature, too shocked to respond more cautiously, bitterly disappointed at being deprived of the excitement of being a young man at court and going off to the wars, etc.—but Shakespeare could hardly have made this character's feelings more explicit and unambiguous. To marry someone of Helena's social standing would be to suffer dishonour regardless of her personal qualities. Clearly for Bertram, unlike the King and his mother and father, status is everything; personal qualities are irrelevant. The King's reply constitutes a philosophical generalisation but is also a gentle attempt to persuade Bertram that he is mistaken:
'Tis only title thou disdain'st in her, the which I can build up. Strange is it that our bloods, Of colour, weight, and heat, pour'd all together, Would quite confound distinction, yet stands off In differences so mighty. If she be All that is virtuous, save what thou dislik'st— A poor physician's daughter—thou dislik'st Of virtue for the name. But do not so. From lowest place when virtuous things proceed, The place is dignified by th'doer's deed. Where great additions swell's and virtue none, It is a dropsied honour. Good alone Is good, without a name; vileness is so: The property by what it is should go, Not by the title. She is young, wise, fair; In these to nature she's immediate heir, And these breed honour; that is honour's scorn Which challenges itself as honour's born And is not like the sire. Honours thrive When rather from our acts we them derive Than our foregoers. The mere word's a slave, Debosh'd on every tomb, on every grave A lying trophy, and as oft is dumb, Where dust and damn'd oblivion is the tomb Of honour'd bones indeed. What should be said? 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.
The King's response to Bertram is astonishing for its powerful insistence that assessment of human worth must be made in terms of character and action (‘is’, ‘deed’, ‘breed’, ‘acts’, all operate to generate a sense of action) rather than by means of social status or breeding. Starting at the fundamental physiological level the King makes a statement of fact that blood cannot be distinguished in terms of social status. Hence when the term ‘blood’ is being used as a means of making social distinctions it is operating as a metaphor not as a description of physiological reality. The King argues that the comparison must be between actions regardless of the status of the actors. He then goes one step further: high social standing cannot transform a bad action into a good deed. Finally, he insists that Helena has derived outstanding qualities from nature, which she may transmit to the next generation and so produce genuine honour, as opposed to the honour of title unsupported by virtuous character.
It is difficult to think of another speech in the whole of Shakespeare which sets forth this ‘democratic’ argument with such force and clarity. It is all the more remarkable coming from the King: a man who owes his position to inheritance of title. The argument does not necessarily undermine the principle of inheritance, the existence of an aristocracy or a hierarchical society, but it does imply that title and high status require virtuous behaviour—honour goes with actions not title—and that there should be no barrier to upward social mobility: not every virtuous and beautiful young woman can become a countess, but when she is chosen by a nobleman or is endowed with wealth (as Helena is by the King) there is no possible justification of citing humble birth as a means of casting doubt on the acceptability of such a marriage. The King in Shakespeare's source material does have momentary qualms about the marriage on social grounds; Shakespeare's King is unequivocal in his dismissal of the values enunciated by Bertram.
Bertram's answer to the King's speech is surprising. When he insists, ‘I cannot love her nor will strive to do't’ (II.iii. 145), not only is he rejecting the social ethos advanced by the King, but he is also denying a vital social principle in his society: his duty to his monarch. The King reminds Bertram of this but not before Helena has attempted to relinquish her reward and the King has insisted that fulfilling his side of the bargain is a matter of honour:
My honour's at the stake, which to defeat, I must produce my power. Here, take her hand, Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift, That dost in vile misprision shackle up My love and her desert; that canst not dream We, poising us in her defective scale, Shall weigh thee to the beam; that wilt not know It is in us to plant thine honour where We please to have it grow. 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; both my revenge and hate Loosing upon thee in the name of justice, Without all terms of pity. Speak. Thine answer.
Only after Bertram has been warned that he will have no significant place in the court life of his society does he submit to the King's demand. What in the source material was a private transaction behind closed doors is in Shakespeare's play a public occasion which is embarrassing and humiliating to all three participants. Bertram's retreat is anything but dignified and stems quite clearly from a recognition of his own dependence on the King's favour:
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.
Having reiterated his pledge to provide Helena with a handsome dowry (one that will make her more than Bertram's equal in terms of wealth) the King warns Bertram that his fortunes are inextricably tied to Helena:
As thou lov'st her Thy love's to me religious; else, does err.
Clearly the King has less than total confidence in Bertram's willingness to be a ‘good’ husband without a strong incentive.
Thus, like the debate scene in Troilus and Cressida which begins with Priam setting out the costs of the war and the Greeks' offer of peace, and ends with Hector's astonishing turn about, this public occasion conveys a feeling of the perversity of human nature. As Hector sets forth an irrefutable case for ending the war before joining ranks with Troilus in the pursuit of ‘honour’, so too in this scene is there a feeling that Bertram has bowed to necessity but remains unconvinced of the validity of the social principles enunciated by the King. And what of Helena? The problem for the audience is to comprehend how she will be able to retain her feeling of love for Bertram after the treatment she has received in this scene. Can she still idolise him?
When Helena next appears it is to be informed by Parolles that she has to forgo the consummation of her marriage because Bertram has urgent business elsewhere. Helena's response is one of simple acceptance: ‘In everything I wait upon his will’ (II.iv. 52). Before Helena receives the remainder of her instructions from Bertram—to return to Rossillion where he will join her in two days—the audience has had the opportunity of seeing Parolles thoroughly exposed by Lafew, while being accepted as a worthy confidant by Bertram. Even after Lafew has insisted that ‘the soul of this man is his clothes’ (II.v. 43-4), Bertram remains convinced that Parolles ‘is very great in knowledge, and accordingly valiant’ (II.v. 7-8). Bertram, then, is singularly undiscerning: he lacks the ability to see through even such a transparent character as Parolles.
Bertram's attitude to Helena is one of contempt: as she advances to receive her instructions from him his terse comment is ‘Here comes my clog’ (II.v. 53). He then proceeds to lie to her and in response to her tentative plea for a kiss he dismisses her coldly. After making all possible allowances for Bertram's disappointment it is difficult to feel any sympathy for him. His behaviour towards Helena is callous. However, even after receiving the next blow—the riddling letter informing her that Bertram will never accept her as his wife until she has his ring and a child fathered by him—Helena expresses no antagonism towards Bertram. Rather she suffers great anxiety on his part and a sense of guilt that she has caused him to court danger in the wars:
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? .....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.
The contrast between the reactions of Helena and the Countess is striking. The Countess is direct in her chastisement of her son:
Nothing in France until he have no wife! There's nothing here that is too good for him But only she, and she deserves a lord That twenty such rude boys might tend upon And call her, hourly, mistress.
Moreover, she claims that honour is not interchangeable: the sum of honour cannot be augmented if it is lost in one sphere and gained in another: ‘tell him that his sword can never win / The honour that he loses’ (III.ii. 93-4). Ironically, when Bertram does return from the war the honour he has gained in battle does serve him well in gaining quittance for his treatment of Helena.
It is not merely Helena's tender care for Bertram which is so marked but the whole speech is delivered in a highly romanticised vein; she is still in love with what sounds like an ideal or idealised young man rather than the insensitive character who has treated her with contempt. There seems nothing selfish in Helena's love; her own bruises she can bear with equanimity; it is the prospect of Bertram suffering that she cannot endure. And yet, though her ostensible reason for leaving home is to encourage Bertram to return, Helena is soon in Florence on Bertram's doorstep planning yet again to win him. Although Helena's chief goal is to see Bertram safe and comfortable she is unable to quell her longing for him. Shakespeare has headed off any antagonism towards her by the Countess' comment that:
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 attitude is reinforced by the ladies of Florence who are full of admiration for Bertram's appearance but dislike his treatment of his wife and the attempt to seduce Diana. It is the young virgin herself who insists on placing moral considerations in the final estimation of a man: ‘if he were honester / He were much goodlier’ (III.v. 79-80). Likewise, Mariana in cautioning Diana against Bertram states: ‘the honour of a maid is her name, and no legacy is so rich as honesty’ (III.v. 12-13). Bertram, in contrast, sees honesty as Diana's only failing: ‘That's all the fault’ he replies in answer to the comment ‘But you say she's honest’ (III.vi. 107-8). Here is the topsy-turvy world of the dashing young nobleman: he gives his all on the battlefield to heap up honour, but in order to satisfy his lust is prepared to ruin a poor young virgin. In a play overflowing with references to worth and honour Shakespeare has created an awareness of the incongruities between scales of values. When Helena puts her proposal of the bed-trick before the widow she has to persuade her that there can be no question of improper behaviour. Despite her poverty the widow is proud of her ancestry claiming ‘And would not put my reputation now / In any staining act’ (III.vii. 6-7). In contrast to the reticence of the widow Helena has no doubt that Bertram will surrender his family ring in payment for Diana's virginity:
Now his important blood will naught deny That she'll demand; a ring the country 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.
It is ironic that a man who stood first against marriage on the principle of high birth should be willing to part with a symbol of his family's honour for an hour of sexual gratification with a woman whom he disdains as a human being. The ring is of far greater symbolic significance than the drum ostensibly sought by Parolles. But the drum is merely a pretext for action that will win esteem; Parolles' difficulty is to acquire the symbol without risking his life. Unlike Bertram who possesses physical courage in abundance, Parolles is a natural coward. As he ruminates on his dilemma, one of the eavesdropping lords asks the question, ‘Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?’ (IV.i. 44-5) Rather than promoting a contempt for Parolles' brazenness, this comment rather creates an awareness of his self-knowledge. At no point in the play does Bertram ever display such a sense of insight into his own character: from first to last he appears to think of himself as an admirable fellow. Moreover, Parolles' exposure is highly comic as he unwittingly participates in a dialogue with his fellows. His vice is revealed in an atmosphere of amusement, whereas Bertram's exposure takes place in a formal situation which is untouched by comic elements. When Parolles is ‘captured’ his outburst is poignant as well as comic:
O, let me live, And all the secrets of our camp I'll show,
Parolles' disgrace, as a soldier, is total. But when set beside Bertram's calculated wooing of Diana his response is understandably human. In the light of his later denunciation of Diana, Bertram's courtship is cynical in the extreme. Dismissing the ties of his enforced marriage he pledges undying love to the woman whom he intends to use:
I was compell'd to her, but I love thee By love's own sweet constraint, and will for ever Do thee all rights of service.
As Diana wards him off Bertram's vows become more pressing; he insists:
And my integrity ne'er knew the crafts That you do charge men with.
No doubt, Bertram is a novice in this activity but he presses his case as persuasively as a seasoned seducer. Initially he refuses to part with his ring, but once Bertram recognises that it is the essential currency for the purchase of Diana's ‘honour’ he willingly accedes to her demand:
Here, take my ring; My house, mine honour, yea, my life be thine, And I'll be bid by thee.
He is even prepared to anticipate the death of Helena as he promises marriage to Diana in the event of his wife's demise.
It might be argued that this behaviour is very natural for a handsome young man sojourning in foreign parts, but in the very next scene his peers discuss Bertram's action with extreme distaste. They criticise him both for his treatment of Helena and for his seduction of Diana:
He hath perverted a young gentlewoman here in Florence, of a most chaste renown, and this night he fleshes his will in the spoil of her honour;
The response of the First Lord on hearing of Bertram's escapade is to reflect ruefully on the nature of mankind: ‘As we are ourselves, what things are we!’ (IV.iii. 18-19) The Second Lord is eager to dispose of any suggestion that he is Bertram's confidant: ‘Let it be forbid, sir! So should I be a great deal of his act’ (IV.iii. 43-4). Finally, when he is informed of Helena's death the Second Lord has no doubt about Bertram's reaction to the news: ‘I am heartily sorry that he'll be glad of this’ (IV.iii. 61).
What becomes clear from this dialogue is that Bertram's behaviour is not characteristic of his fellows and that his treatment of Helena and his seduction of Diana are deplored by young men who admire him in many other ways. The Second Lord weighs Bertram's acquisition of honour in the military sphere with his loss of honour outside it: ‘The great dignity that his valour hath here acquir'd for him shall at home be encount'red with a shame as ample’ (IV.iii. 65-7). The response of the First Lord mitigates criticism of Bertram by generalising about human nature: ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp'd them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish'd by our virtues' (IV.iii. 68-71). Bertram's exuberant entrance comes as a shock, especially as the dialogue between the two lords has revealed that on receipt of a letter from his mother Bertram had ‘chang'd almost into another man’ (IV.iii. 4). Rather than appearing contrite Bertram enumerates his evening's actions culminating with a boast about his seduction of Diana and the possibility of having made her pregnant: ‘I mean, the business is not ended, as fearing to hear of it hereafter’ (IV.iii. 93-4).
Bertram's sense of self-satisfaction is diminished only when he discovers that Parolles has made a comprehensive confession. His immediate reaction is one of fear lest Parolles has revealed something unpleasant about him. As the blindfolded Parolles is put through his paces Bertram expresses no embarrassment about having been taken in by ‘the gallant militarist’ (IV.iii. 137). After Parolles has denigrated the First Lord in the most extreme terms the latter is able to comment, ‘He hath out-villain'd villainy so far that the rarity redeems him’. Bertram, in contrast, who has been relatively unscathed by Parolles' calumnies, can only respond testily: ‘A pox on him! He's a cat still’ (IV.iii. 264-6). While he awaits judgement Parolles determines to give up the futile pretence of military valour: ‘I'll no more drumming. A plague of all drums! Only to seem to deserve well, and to beguile the supposition of that lascivious young boy, the count, have I run into this danger’ (IV.iii. 288-91). Even under the duress of imagined capture and interrogation Parolles has been unable to stop his tongue running away with him, but the experience has been enough to persuade him to discard any further military pretentions. He is set on the path to reform as far as his nature will allow. Once the humiliation is complete, far from creeping away in shame Parolles looks reality in the face, accepts himself as he is, and the new role which he must seek:
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; being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive. There's place and means for every man alive. I'll after them.
In this engaging soliloquy Parolles, stripped bare, seems to breathe a sigh of relief that his acting days are over. Henceforth he can be himself, a copper coin passing as small change rather than current gold. But before he can secure his new position he serves another function. Lafew blames him for having mislead Bertram, describing him as ‘a snipp'd-taffeta fellow … whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbak'd and doughy youth of a nation in his colour’ (IV.v. 1-4). Typically Parolles is described by reference to his extravagant clothing and the link is forged between the clothing and food by means of saffron which was used to colour both. But despite Parolles' bad influence on Bertram the audience can't take Lafew's rationalisation at face value. As Lafew goes on to inform the Countess that the King has agreed to a marriage between his daughter and Bertram, the scene has all the flavour of an exercise designed to restore social harmony and reintegrate Bertram into the community. Helena is remembered and described movingly by the Countess—‘If she had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love’ (IV.v. 10-12)—mingling imagery of growth, consanguinity and value. But the pursuit of the growth imagery by Lafew soon spills over into joking with Lavatch—the kind of response characteristic of funerals where an attempt is made to return to the moving current of life while recognising the numbing impact of loss through death. Thus Shakespeare provides a scene in which the loss of Helena is recognised but the way is prepared for Bertram to re-establish himself. No one really believes that his misdemeanours are all attributable to the influence of Parolles, but it provides an adequate social cover.
As Helena is laid to rest there is a characteristic glance at the past when the Countess says of Lavatch, ‘My lord that's gone made himself much sport out of him; by his authority he remains here’ (IV.v. 61-2). That brief comment contains a number of resonances: the disparity between father and son is called to mind: Lavatch has really outlived his credit—the Countess makes an effort to engage Lavatch so that he may feel that he still has a part to play in the household. Lafew possesses the sympathy of the older generation and affords Lavatch the opportunity of exhibiting his wit. Helena is the only character who appears to have a totally congenial relationship with Lavatch: they are comfortable with each other, and in her company his humour is less contrived. For instance, Helena enjoys his effortless deflation of Parolles (II.iv. 17-35). In contrast Bertram and Lavatch have nothing to say to one another. The favourite of the father has no rapport with the son. When Lavatch announces the arrival of Bertram he does so in a way that suggests the patch on his face may be intended to cover a blemish which is the consequence of venereal disease rather than a battle scar. Although this could be an example of weak humour it also has a touch of malice which Lavatch displays on at least one other occasion. These little touches suggest that Lavatch is no admirer of Bertram's.
Thus the whole scene, which prepares for the arrival of Bertram and the tangled conclusion, is characteristic of the quiet scenes of this play: it is full of suggestion and atmosphere, and it is arguable that no other play of Shakespeare's so effectively conveys a sense of atmosphere: of place and time and mood. Here is Shakespeare at his most delicate and subtle, adopting a style which is uniquely fitted to this play.
As we encounter Helena, the widow and Diana there is both a quickening of pace and a sense of weariness: time and effort pervade a scene which commences with a speech by Helena that embodies these features and employs the growth imagery in a way which is both simple and utterly genuine:
But this exceeding posting day and night Must wear your spirits low. We cannot help it; But since you have made the days and nights as one To wear your gentle limbs in my affairs, Be bold you do so grow in my requital As nothing can unroot you.
As everyone moves towards Rossillion for the final drawing together there is strong emphasis placed on valuation and reevaluation. Parolles confesses his poor worth to Lafew and receives in exchange a jovial assessment of his character and a promise of security: ‘though you are a fool and a knave you shall eat’ (V.ii. 50). Likewise the King sums up Helena's worth and Bertram's actions:
We lost a jewel of her, and our esteem Was made much poorer by it; but your son, As mad in folly, lack'd the sense to know Her estimation home.
The effect of the discussion which ensues between the King, Lafew and the Countess is to pose another possible conclusion to the play. There is bitterness in the King's reflection on Bertram's past action but a recognition of the necessity of restoring social harmony. The mother forgives her son, the King his subject and Lafew is instrumental in creating a new family alliance. The past casts a shadow, but the nature of life is such that social cohesion has to be continually re-created. Bertram appears to have inherited none of his parents' virtues but he has inherited a position and so must be brought inside once more. Even so, while recognising the social reality the King conveys the impression of forcing himself to forgive Bertram, always referring to the penitent as ‘him’ rather than as the ‘count’ as he does when welcoming Bertram so warmly and generously in I.ii. where he equates him with his son. The King's inability to be wholehearted in his forgiveness is made clear in his first speech to Bertram:
I am not a day of season, For thou may'st see a sunshine and a hail In me at once. But to the brightest beams Distracted clouds give way; so stand thou forth; The time is fair again.
This speech also takes up the theme of time which is developed strongly by the King in response to Bertram's apology:
All is whole Not one word more of the consumed 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.
Here is an example of the kind of outward movement into a generalisation about time that occurs so powerfully in Troilus and Cressida. But a great deal of the poignancy resides in the King's awareness that his life is drawing to a close. His line ‘All is whole’ is particularly significant in the context of the problem plays: here is the characteristic desire to see relationships or ideals as standing firm against human frailty or dishonesty. His diction is striking for its simplicity, and there is a stark contrast between his simple question to Bertram ‘You remember / The daughter of this lord?’ (V.iii. 42-3) and the latter's elaborate response:
Admiringly, my liege. At first I stuck my choice upon her, ere my heart Durst make too bold a herald of my tongue; Where, the impression of mine eye infixing, Contempt his scornful perspective did lend me, Which warp'd the line of every other favour, Scorn'd a fair colour or express'd it stol'n, Extended or contracted all proportions To a most hideous object. Thence it came That 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.
Nowhere in the play is there the slightest suggestion that Bertram had been attracted to Lafew's daughter. Moreover, he has never evinced an excess of modesty which he claims impeded him from making his feeling known to the young woman. At this moment Bertram has available to him several ways of accepting the young woman with good grace and acknowledging his poor treatment of Helena, but he chooses to practise deception—and does it with style: falsity and dishonesty seem to come naturally to this character. The speech contains the conventionalised features of falling in love and also a glimpse of the body parts so characteristic of Troilus and Cressida: ‘heart’, ‘eye’, ‘tongue’. Artificial and insincere as this speech is, it is accepted by the King with alacrity because it is perceived as an attempt by Bertram to acknowledge and excuse his past guilt while moving forward with enthusiasm to embrace his new position in society. Even so, the King underlines the inadequacy of a sorrow that comes too late in a speech which points strongly in the direction of the romances:
but love that comes too late, Like a remorseful pardon slowly carried, To the great sender turns a sour offence, Crying, ‘That's good that's gone.’ Our rash faults Make trivial price of serious things we have, Not knowing them until we know their grave.
When Bertram hands over his ring to Lafew in a symbolic gesture of joining the two families it is, no doubt, with a good deal of relief as the references to Helena must soon cease. His sense of shock is all the more marked, therefore, when he is challenged successively by Lafew, the King and his mother about how he obtained the ring from Helena. For once Bertram is innocent, but in providing an explanation of how he acquired it Bertram not only lies easily, but also conveys an account which places him in the best possible light:
You are deceiv'd, my lord; she never saw it. In Florence was it from a casement thrown me, Wrapp'd in a paper which contain'd the name Of her that threw it. Noble she was, and thought I stood ingag'd; but when I had subscrib'd To mine own fortune, and inform'd her fully I could not answer in that course of honour As she had made the overture, she ceas'd In heavy satisfaction, and would never Receive the ring again.
Two elements stand out in this part of the scene: first Bertram's plausibility: he lies with such facility and spontaneity; second, how quickly the King thinks the worst of him, even suspecting Bertram of murder. The King's newly rekindled suspicions are expressed in a way that is characteristic of the play. Though the meaning is not obscure the mode of expression calls attention to itself through its knotted quality:
My fore-past proofs, howe'er the matter fall, Shall tax my fears of little vanity, Having vainly fear'd too little.
After receiving Diana's letter the King is ready to express to the Countess his conviction that Helena has been the victim of foul play. But rather than reject any suggestion that Bertram could be involved in such an act her response is, ‘Now justice on the doers!’ (V.iii. 153) Nobody, it seems, has any confidence in Bertram; they are willing to believe him worse than he is. Are they merely responding naturally to the strange ‘facts’ or are they giving expression to their true estimation of this young man? Lafew quickly withdraws the offer of his daughter and Bertram is under fire from all sides as Diana makes her accusation. At this point there must surely be a good deal of audience sympathy for Bertram, but Shakespeare quenches it with astonishing speed. First, Bertram defends himself with brazen arrogance:
Let your highness Lay a more noble thought upon mine honour Than for to think that I would sink it here.
Then in response to Diana's direct accusation Bertram behaves in the most despicable way possible, adopting an approach that has been the age-old standard response of scoundrels who have seduced or raped young women over the centuries:
She's impudent, my lord, And was a common gamester to the camp.
Is it possible that someone able to adopt this stratagem is really capable of being transformed into a ‘good’ man or a romantic hero? Here is the gentleman of noble birth, who cannot bring himself to contaminate his blood by marriage to a physician's daughter, resorting to the most ignoble behaviour in order to preserve his reputation as a gentleman. Could any audience fail to be disgusted by Bertram's behaviour? And could they, within minutes, accept his reformation and pledge of future love? If that is the intention of the dramatist he has certainly pushed Bertram's infamous behaviour to the absolute limit.
When Diana produces Bertram's ring, the Countess makes it very clear how greatly it has been valued as a symbol of family loyalty:
Of six preceding ancestors, that gem Conferr'd by testament to th'sequent issue, Hath it been owed and worn.
This is not a romantic comedy formula but a declaration of Bertram's disregard of family connection. The man who insists on his inherited status is prepared to relinquish an important symbol in order to secure sexual gratification—and with a woman for whom he feels contempt.
As Parolles is called for as a witness the parallel between his trial and Bertram's becomes evident. But whereas the former provoked laughter and pity, the latter produces distaste and contempt. It is all the more ironic, therefore, that Bertram is genuinely outraged at the thought of Parolles being called as witness. His language reveals that he has no conception of his own dishonesty and contemptible behaviour:
He's quoted for a most perfidious slave With all the spots a'th'world tax'd and debosh'd, Whose nature sickens but to speak a truth.
This is arrogance and moral blindness on a grand scale. But Bertram has not finished degrading himself in an attempt to slip out of what he appears to conceive of as a little local difficulty: he denigrates Diana still further:
Certain it is I lik'd her And boarded her i'th'wanton way of youth. She knew her distance and did angle for me, Madding my eagerness with her restraint, ..... and in fine Her inf'nite cunning with her modern grace Subdu'd me to her rate; she got the ring, And I had that which any inferior might At market-price have bought.
Once more the question of value becomes part of the structure of the speech. As a consequence of her infinite cunning, Bertram protests, he was persuaded to accept her ‘rate’ and thereby obtained what any ‘inferior’ might have secured at mere ‘market-price’. Deeply embedded in the structure of the problem plays is an awareness of value in its various manifestations. One of the ironies of this speech, apart from Bertram's total disregard for the truth, is the assumed superiority of the speaker at the very moment when his estimation in the eyes of virtually everyone else has reached the lowest level. For Bertram, his social status insulates him against ignominy. He does not believe that actions make the man. Parolles makes the point succinctly in response to the King's question about whether Bertram loved Diana: ‘He did love her, sir, as a gentleman loves a woman … He lov'd her, sir, and lov'd her not’ (V.iii. 243-5). That is to say, he said he loved her, made love to her, but did not love her. That is precisely the category of ‘gentleman’ to which Bertram belongs. Yet, when Helena emerges to resolve the seemingly irresolvable confusion Bertram is unhesitating in his response. In reply to Helena's
'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see; The name and not the thing.
Bertram's uncharacteristically simple protestation is:
Both, both. O pardon!
When she claims that she has fulfilled the requirement of his letter Bertram becomes the model lover:
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
Or has Bertram seen a means of saving himself and responded with his usual adroitness?
W. W. Lawrence comments, ‘Critical explanations have nowhere shown wider divergence than in regard to this play, nor have the points at issue ever been more sharply marked.’1 But for his own part Lawrence feels totally comfortable about Bertram's redemption: he suggests ‘Bertram's sudden change of heart was a convention of medieval and Elizabethan story, which must be expected to follow Helena's triumph’ and adds, ‘there is no implication that their after life would be anything but happy’.2 Lawrence rests his case on the force of the convention and the constraint which it imposed on Shakespeare; he ‘was not free, as is a dramatist or novelist of today, to make such sweeping changes in the meaning of traditional stories, in situations made familiar to people by centuries of oral narrative’.3 Although Lawrence provides a ‘solution’ to the problem that troubles so many critics and theatregoers he still sees the play as a failure:
the imagination of the dramatist has seldom been kindled, or his sensibilities aroused. A curious hardness and indifference are often evident. There are flashes of tenderness and fineness, as in the portraiture of Helena and the Countess, but these are all too rare … He relied for effect, not on emotion or truth to life, but on the familiarity and popularity of the story, and upon the theatrical effectiveness of individual scenes. And this, I think, is why the modern reader, who has no feeling for the traditions of story, and who cannot judge from the stage effects, finds All's Well highly puzzling.4
The last comment indicates that the difficulties of the play are associated specifically with the play on the page rather than the play on the stage. Nevertheless, Lawrence implies that All's Well is not a very good play, and to be enjoyed it must be observed from the standpoint of an Elizabethan without any thought being given to verisimilitude. Neither of these arguments stand up to close examination: why did Shakespeare go to so much trouble to complicate the traditional story by making Bertram so unattractive? As G. K. Hunter argues, ‘If personal reconciliation is really the end of this scene, we can only say that Shakespeare has been extraordinarily clumsy.’5 Secondly, despite the problem of interpreting the conclusion, this play is now recognised as a great theatrical success. Neither is it a second class piece of work nor enjoyable simply in the naïve way of Lawrence's assumed Elizabethan playgoer. The enormously successful RSC production of 1981, for example, attests to the fineness of the play and its popular appeal. That production preserved the ambiguity by having Bertram and Helena walk off the stage side-by-side but with their hands not quite touching. The chilling thought remained that Bertram had used another ploy to save himself and that Helena, for all her personal qualities, was destined to endure a thoroughly miserable marriage. Yet the possibility of genuine happiness occurring after initial embarrassment and uncertainty was retained.
Philip Edwards, however, is unequivocal in his final evaluation of the reconciliation and the inadequacy of the play:
The treatment of Parolles shows us a scoundrel changed by shame into a new recognition of himself 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. Angelo's alteration in Measure for Measure is an entirely different matter: he has all the resources for change, the depth of being, that the shallow Bertram never has. In All's Well, the unconvincing words, asking pardon and promising love, are all that can be wrested from the figure Shakespeare has created. Anything further would be falseness and he surely knew it. He has driven the play to a fold it cannot enter, and he refuses to make it enter. That is the failure. But why the obstinacy of the character of Bertram? Has Shakespeare ‘accidently’ created the wrong figure for his story? The obstinacy is in humanity as Shakespeare saw it before it is in his dramatic fiction. Given a providence, given a whole world of family honour to guide him, given the angel-like wife to safeguard him from the consequences of his actions, the imbued irresponsibility, selfishness and shallowness of a Bertram remain intact.6
Shakespeare originally intended to create harmony and reconciliation but his own integrity stood in his way, Professor Edwards insists:
Shakespeare's honesty has then, in a way, wrecked the play: the final harmony is in fact discordant. The need he felt to tune that discord is seen in the composition of Measure for Measure. Yet to have wrecked the play as a comedy is still to have produced a work which speaks out even more truth than the completed circle could have shown. There is a consolation somewhere in the failure to bring off the consolation for the audience. Shakespeare has met the challenge he gave to his own earlier comedies, and wrought a form of comedy which would be more inclusive of the facts of evil. He refuses, at the last minute as it were, to believe that he can contain the facts within the form: if the play disappoints, we are surely deeply impressed by the sense of struggle and by the honesty of the craftsman who tries to bring the deep hopes of the soul into the images of art, and finds them countered by the even deeper doubts.7
This is a fascinating conclusion. Edwards refuses to resort to evasion; he recognises the power of this play yet ultimately he detects incongruity, the source of which is the disparity between Shakespeare's original intention and his achievement. However, Edwards claims that Shakespeare learned from this experience, so that Measure for Measure does not fail in the same way. In contrast to Bertram's reformation Professor Edwards claims, ‘The penitence of Angelo and the reception of the new man into the society of the play is convincing and moving.’8 Yet many theatregoers and critics find Angelo's penitence and reform just as difficult to believe in as Bertram's. So perhaps Shakespeare failed twice in the same way. The alternative explanation is that Shakespeare achieved precisely what he intended in both cases: the subversion or disruption of the romantic comedy ending. But why should he do this? What was he trying to achieve? Dowden felt that Shakespeare must have been experiencing some kind of mental breakdown during the period when he was writing these plays. This dubious conclusion at least has the merit of recognising that there is something peculiar about the problem plays. What Shakespeare did was to invent a new form, and that is one reason why the ambiguous terms dark comedies and tragicomedies are not useful as descriptive labels for these plays. They provide a familiar structure which embrace elements antithetical to that structure. It is as if Shakespeare sought to insinuate a questioning about certain aspects of life by creating a questioning of the form in which that life is embodied. The kinds of epithets associated with the problem plays are ‘analytical’, ‘perplexing’, ‘puzzling’. In this sense Shakespeare achieved his objective. The Trojan war and the love story of Troilus and Cressida presented him with a unique opportunity for creating a play which evaded all existing classifications while enabling him to disturb his audience with profound questions about human values and the operation of human society. But that play did not exhaust the range of questions Shakespeare wanted to raise. His next step, in All's Well, was to adopt the structure of comedy but employing two endings: the ending of fairy tale which satisfies one kind of human desire, and an ending which points in an entirely different direction. Hence the blending of fairy tale with an intense sense of realism. In real life Helena could be mistaken about Bertram. But rather than present an outright denial of romantic comedy Shakespeare does something much more disconcerting: the audience is left pondering the possible scenarios beyond the end of the play. As they pursue these possible ends they spontaneously revert to consideration of the action which precedes the resolution of the drama. Not even Shakespeare's tragedies produce the intense analytical reflection that these plays provoke, nor do the problem plays allow the consolation of tragedy. Despite the destruction, cruelty and pain encountered in the tragedies, consolation is gained through an awareness of our common humanity. We cut through the fibrous strata to the very centre of human being. The problem plays deal with a broader and in one sense more superficial range of human thoughts and actions. In real life there is little heroism or grandeur: men struggle to establish values and institutions. These continually come under pressure from the chaotic stream of human action which contains a great deal of weakness, folly, greed, envy, self-deception, egotism, and pettiness. A large part of the social world depicted and suggested by Shakespeare in the problem plays bears close kinship with Brueghel's paintings. While some men and women seek to purify life, to establish firm principles and values, others use existing values and institutions as props to be used for their own ends or as barriers to be negotiated. Bertram accepts the concepts of social hierarchy and nobility of birth while simultaneously rejecting their concomitant of obligation. He accepts fighting as a means of asserting personal worth and acquiring honour because it is congenial to him, but rejects the principle of honourable behaviour towards women. Self-gratification is his guiding principle, and it remains open whether Bertram will continue happily on his way, simply using the protection of a good wife as a cover. What sort of master will Bertram make? The question would have occurred more readily to some members of Shakespeare's audience than to a contemporary one. After three hours of observing the nasty little egotist, could anyone really feel that here is a man who will retain the tolerant and good-humoured regime established by his father and continued by his mother? Whereas in Shakespeare's plays it is generally misleading to stray beyond the confines of the play world, in the problem plays there is positive invitation to explore the adjacent territory. Shakespeare seems to be saying ‘if this was the world of romantic comedy, this is how the play would end; but consider these events in the light of human experience and contemplate the probable outcomes’. This open-endedness makes its appearance in the contemporary novel. John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, for example, provides three clear options. Shakespeare provides an indeterminate and amorphous range of possibilities. Moreover, the consideration of likely scenarios arising from the conclusion of All's Well provokes a more intense re-examination of the preceding events than occurs in Fowles's novel. Fowles is adopting a traditional narrative form imitative of writers like Hardy and attempting to subvert it. He pursues his objective not by parodying the traditional narrative technique but by utilising it with great tact and sensitivity. At one level the book is a very fine nineteenth-century novel. But it is also a contemporary novel inviting a reappraisal both of the novel form and of the nature of social values and personal responses. Fowles and other contemporary novelists like him are doing very much what Shakespeare is doing with fable and folk tale in All's Well.
An important aspect of this question has been perceived by Nicholas Brooke who, in his insightful commentary on the play, focuses on the finely balanced and precisely articulated relationship between realism and folk tale. Shakespeare, argues Brooke, takes the established convention of the folk tale but locates it firmly within a realistic setting. In consequence the language moves between rhyming couplets applicable to fairy tale and terse, precise, prosaic expression which conveys a strongly naturalistic feeling. Brooke suggests that ‘What All's Well does, is to take that familiar [folk tale] material and look at it in a very unfamiliar way.’9 He goes on to draw an illuminating comparison between what Shakespeare is doing in this play and what Caravaggio does in his picture of Mary Magdalene.
What Caravaggio has done is to take the familiar iconography and view it with a wholly unfamiliar naturalism, which projects an entirely new image. His Mary is neither crude whore nor glorious saint, but a quiet and plausible girl, very much alone. Once that is seen the painting becomes extraordinarily interesting; and its interest is generated, not by the naturalism alone, but by the juxtaposition of that with the traditional mythology. That is almost exactly the achievement I am attributing to Shakespeare in All's Well: not a simple naturalism, but a consistently naturalistic presentation of traditional romance magic.10
Brooke's comments go a long way towards creating an understanding of the connections between the romantic and naturalistic elements in the play and to the way in which Shakespeare has adopted a specific patterning and structuring of the language in order to keep these elements in balance. As Brooke himself expresses the point:
I have already claimed for this play a distinctive and very distinguished language … so far from being a play that falls apart, it has a controlled unity of a kind rare even in Shakespeare. Its unity is conditioned by its tone; by the refusal ever to let it move beyond the limits which that defines.11
In contrast G. K. Hunter maintains that ‘There is a general failure in All's Well to establish a medium in verse which will convey effectively the whole tone of the play.’12 This view has rightly been criticised by Brooke who points out that ‘the play's characteristic medium is precisely this uniquely bare language which excludes decoration and so makes all imagery, or any romantic valuation of experience, evidently superfluous’.13 Brooke carries the argument further by stressing that the function of the naturalism of the language is that ‘It continually delivers the shock of actuality into the context of anticipated fiction’, and he adds, ‘But the naturalism of the speech is not merely bluntness. It has the quality too of the reticence of natural speech.’14 Thus the quality of incongruity which is so detectable is a very deliberate feature of this play operating at every level and being powerfully mediated through the language.
So far, no attempt has been made to analyse Helena. Her goodness is verified through the comments of the Countess, Lafew and the King. But because her virtue is to be taken for granted, rather than to be subjected to close psychological scrutiny, her relationship with Bertram forms a crucial part of the incongruity which informs the play, the connection between fairy tale and reality. As Rossiter comments:
Helena is (mainly) a fairy-tale, ‘traditional’ story-book female, who is ‘good’; and we should no more inquire into the details than into those of her honeymoon … The problematic element remains, because this sentimental fairy-tale ‘Good One’ is conjoined with a realistic, real-life ‘Bad 'Un’; and the two particles in this mysterious, alleged unity exist in not merely different orbits, but orbits in different systems. This produces a state of mixed feelings, in which the fairy-tale solution we might like to believe in (and are adjured to by the title, and by the ‘historical method’ interpreters) is in conflict with the realistic, psychological exposure—which is very much more convincing.15
And so we come full circle. The rock on which all criticism ultimately alights (or founders) is the consummation. Rossiter, like Edwards, expresses the view that the incongruity is the consequence of Shakespeare failing to complete the intended design. As he puts it,
In All's Well there are ‘disparities of experience’ (thought and feeling) which fail to reach ‘amalgamation’. The play came from an unresolved creative mind, in which sentimentality tried to balance the scepticism, and deliberately not seeing far enough (the fairy-tale element), tried to write off the results of seeing too far through (the ‘realist’ or tragic-comic inquiry into mankind).16
It is worth citing the response of one or two other critics in order to convey just how pervasive is the anxiety and dissatisfaction with the conclusion of this play. Roger Warren, for example, sums up the feelings of many critics and theatregoers when he suggests that ‘The most extraordinary feature of All's Well, surely, is the curiously unsympathetic portrait of its hero.’17 But he quite rightly sees this as deliberate on Shakespeare's part:
By the standards of ordinary romantic heroes, Bertram is a ‘failure’, but as a consistent character he is brilliantly successful, so much so that I think we must assume that Shakespeare meant him that way, and that the worrying effect is intentional.18
It is the very realism of the characterisation of Bertram that explains the intensity of the antagoism which he has aroused. Tillyard, for example, comments that ‘The irony and the truth of Helena's situation are that with so much intelligence and so firm a mind she can be possessed by so enslaving a passion for an unreformed, rather stupid, morally timid, and very self-centred youth.’19
Here then is the enigma: it is difficult to see Bertram as a man worthy of Helena's love or capable of becoming worthy of her love. Roger Warren explores the Sonnets in order to suggest the source of Shakespeare's feeling towards the story. He concludes his discussion by commenting
I think that he made Helena so intense, and presented her beloved with such relentless honesty, because he had something especially personal to say about the power of love to prevail over all ‘alteration’ and humiliation, even if it proved less easy to show matters ending well in dramatic than in non-dramatic terms.20
Despite the intelligent and insightful nature of the argument we once more see the critic driven back from offering an explanation from within the drama. The implication is that whatever Shakespeare was aiming at he did not quite succeed.
One of the few critics who feels satisfied with the romantic interpretation of the play is Robert Smallwood. In his perceptive study he suggests that the play ‘concludes in gaity and in hope for the future, though not in the triumphant joy of more unequivocally romantic comedy’.21 Thus even a critic who finds the behaviour of Bertram forgivable, and has a strong sense of his positive qualities, feels obliged to register a note of caution. Although Smallwood believes that ‘The affection which Bertram is capable of inspiring in those around him is remarkable’22 and that ‘his heart, ultimately, is “great”, or at least has the potential for greatness’,23 he insists that ‘the play ends, and is meant to end, not in fully achieved happiness, but in hope’.24 It is difficult to find a critic who argues his case more cogently, but even after reading this persuasive essay it is impossible to be convinced for long of Bertram's potential greatness or humanity.
Clearly the majority of critics of this play feel a sense of unease with the resolution. Rossiter and Edwards come out boldly in claiming that Shakespeare failed to fulfil his original intentions though they see the play as flawed rather than as a failure. Few perceive the ambiguity as intended and fewer still are satisfied with it. The argument advanced here is that Shakespeare was in complete control of his material and the ambiguity was fully intended. Following his artistic, though not necessarily popular, success of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare deliberately used the structure of romantic comedy to create an intense awareness of the moral and social values raised and to provoke an examination of the dramatic mode in which they are expressed. When Boas coined the term ‘problem plays’ he was being more insightful than he realised. These plays are profoundly concerned with problems of values and human attachments, and these are matters which concern not only the great and powerful, but all mankind.
W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 3rd edn (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 43.
Ibid., p. 48.
Ibid., p. 73.
Ibid., pp. 78-9.
G. K. Hunter (ed.), Introduction to the New Arden Edition of ‘All's Well’ (Methuen, London, 1967), p. 1iv.
Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art, 2nd edn (Methuen, London, 1972), pp. 114-15.
Ibid., p. 115.
Ibid., p. 115.
Nicholas Brooke, ‘All's Well that Ends Well’ in Muir and Wells (eds), Aspects of Shakespeare's ‘Problem Plays’ (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982), p. 16.
Ibid., p. 17.
Ibid., p. 20.
Hunter (ed.), New Arden Shakespeare, p. 1ix.
Brooke, ‘All's Well’ in Muir and Wells (eds), Aspects of ‘Problem Plays,’ p. 12.
Ibid., p. 13.
A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns, 4th edn (Longman, London, 1970), p. 100.
Ibid., p. 105.
Roger Warren, ‘Why Does It End Well? Helena, Bertram and the Sonnets’ in Muir and Wells (eds), Aspects of ‘Problem Plays’, p. 48.
Ibid., p. 44.
E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays, 3rd edn (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 112.
Warren, ‘Why Does It End Well?’ in Muir and Wells (eds), Aspects of ‘Problem Plays’, p. 56.
R. L. Smallwood, ‘The Design of All's Well that Ends Well’ in Muir and Wells (eds), Aspects of ‘Problem Plays’, p. 41.
Ibid., p. 38.
Ibid., p. 41.
Ibid., p. 42.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3808
SOURCE: Hapgood, Robert. “The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well.” Essays in Criticism 15, no. 3 (July 1965): 269-78.
[In the following essay, Hapgood studies Parolles as a representation of shame in All's Well That Ends Well and notes that the character sacrifices honor in favor of unrestrained living.]
The wit of Parolles's name is in the ‘s’—which Irvine and Kökeritz in their pronouncing dictionaries agree in sounding, along with the ‘e’. Altogether of Shakespeare's invention, the name has generally been taken to derive simply from ‘parole’ in the sense of ‘word’ (Lafew plays upon it thus, V, ii, 39). Wilson Knight suggests, in addition, a possible overtone of ‘word of honour’,1 which seems to me apt; for Parolles is no more a man of his word than a man of few words. To his shame, he is a man of many words. Yet his vivacious talkativeness is also a form of his most redeeming trait—a love of life so strong that it can make him welcome (all too easily, it's true) even the prospect of living safest in shame. It may not be too fanciful, then, to find in the pluralness of Parolles's name, suggesting as it does a conjunction of liveliness with shame, the essence of his character, and perhaps of the play.
The main difference between Parolles in the study and Parolles in the theatre is the force of his vitality. In the study, one observes this as one trait among many; it is notable, for example, in his first exchange with Helena, where he dilates with relish upon his theme of virginity, not advocating promiscuity but, significantly, deploring barrenness—'tis against the rule of nature, there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost. In the theatre, on the other hand, Parolles's vitality is a dominant impression. The first thing Richard David mentions about Michael Hordern's Parolles is that he was ‘brimful of vitality’ (Shakespeare Survey 8, p. 134); Robertson Davies is even more emphatic about this feature in Douglas Campbell's portrayal of the role (Renown at Stratford, p. 58); and it is my own impression from a production I watched through rehearsals to performance at the Shakespeare festival theatre in Ashland, Oregon. The only other Parolles I have seen—played by Paul Eddington at the Bristol Old Vic—failed precisely because this quality was suppressed.
This sense of ‘felt life’ is very important in the whole play, the more so because it contrasts with an atmosphere of death that is heavier than in any other comedy I know. Mortality is everywhere. Bertram, Helena, and Diana have all lost their fathers. The opening lines of the play are extraordinarily packed with references to sickness, death, and burial, actual and metaphorical; and they continue, though less intensively, throughout. The First Lord is thoroughly in the idiom of the play, for example, when he tells the Second that he will keep a secret: ‘When you have spoken it 'tis dead, and I am the grave of it’. In a theatre, there is in addition the constant visual effect of debility in Lafew, the Countess, and especially the king when he is virtually dead. They need not, of course, be as debilitated as in the 1953-4 Old Vic version in which, according to David, the Countess was ‘bent and crabbed, her gestures had an arthritic awkwardness, her utterance was creaky, abrupt, arbitrary’; but their old age, however elegant, will make itself felt.
These reminders of death make all the more striking the play's scenes of life-renewed. After one has seen the dying king helped off the stage at the end of II, i, his sprightly return with Helena a scene later seems more than a recovery; it is a rejuvenation. As Lafew remarks at the time, ‘Why your dolphin is not lustier … why, he's able to lead her a coranto’. At the finale, Helena's ‘resurrection’ is comparable to Hermione's. It is true that in All's Well the audience has been fully let in on the surprise; yet to everyone on stage but Diana and her mother, much-mourned Helena's appearance is the return to life they have been longing for. Parolles's revival at the end of the drum-episode conveys in still another way the feeling that ‘one that's dead is quick’. It is more than an ‘escape’ from the death he was so sure his tormentors were about to inflict. It is as if the real Parolles emerges from the gallant militarist. In Ashland, he vaulted to his feet, as from the grave; Hordern, more interestingly, ‘slithered to the ground, becoming wizened and sly on the instant, and with “Simply the thing I am shall make me live” revealed an essential meanness not only in Parolles but in human nature as a whole’.
Critics have often spoken of All's Well as if it were a pre-Shavian life-force comedy; it would be more accurate to regard Man and Superman as a watered-down All's Well. For the life-force in Shakespeare's play fecklessly leads its avatars into disgraces that Shaw merely skirts. The king, Helena, Diana (in a lesser way), Bertram, and Parolles—all undergo a prolonged ordeal of some sort in which they face the prospect of death; all, for the sake of life and/or love, sacrifice or risk their honour; and all end up alive and healthy. This seems to me the dominant action of the play and worth following in its main ramifications.
The king's compromises are relatively mild. In ten lines (II, i, 113-23) he three times insists that to allow a ‘kind maiden’ to attempt his cure would show a lack of judgment damaging to his royal reputation; yet he lets himself be persuaded to take the risk, and—by promising Helena her choice of a husband—guarantees a reward which leads to further compromise. Doubtless he is within his royal rights and doubtless he is sincere when he tells Bertram, ‘Obey my will which travails in thy good’. Still one cannot forget when he demands that Bertram marry Helena that he thus fulfills the bargain by which he saved his own life.
It is hard, however, to hold these shortcomings much against a king so benevolently bemused in general and in particular so overwhelmed by the superior force of Helena. Helena (another key name, as Lavatch's song confirms) trails her honour in the dust, E. K. Chambers puts it, ‘from dishonour to dishonour on the path to her final victory’. Try as her defenders will, there is no denying that Chambers is right: Diana's poor knight chases her man, the devoted servant commands her dear lord, the daughter exploits her dear father's dying gift, the king's saviour capitalises on his gratitude, the detested wife, who cannot beg even a kiss from her husband, traps him with a bed-trick shrewdly arranged—with some money down and more later—by the pilgrim of Saint Jaques le Grand.
What Chambers misses, however, is the gallant ‘vital genius’ Helena shows in carrying it all off. Although she is very like Ann Whitefield in her absolute, feminine assurance that, however outrageous her violation of their codes, God and Society are on her side, Helena's vitality is both stronger and more varied than Ann's. At the beginning of the play, Helena restores life, ministering a medicine ‘That's able to breathe life into a stone, / Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary / With sprightly fire and motion’. At the end, she ‘feels her young one kick’. Her sense of life—enormously wider than Ann's—mediates between and encompasses that of every other character in the play. The king, the Countess, and Lafew never tire of praising her, seeing in her everything they value in life; as the king says:
Thy life is dear, for all that life can rate Worthy name of life in thee hath estimate: Youth, beauty, wisdom, courage—all That happiness and prime can happy call.
(II, i, 178-81)
Yet she can think and talk about sex as physically as Parolles or Lavatch. If she speaks often of stars, as Mark Van Doren well says, ‘she is as regularly concerned with visions of herself as an animal mating’. It is no accident that she frequently talks of her love for Bertram in terms of life and death (divorce is ‘deadly’, ‘there is no living, none / If Bertram be away’) for to her, it would seem, love and life are virtually synonymous. Hence she is perfectly willing to risk her ‘well-lost’ life for the sake of fulfilling her love; hence her reunion with Bertram is appropriately rendered as a ‘return to life’.
In a sketchier way, the common pattern can be made out in the dowering of Diana. She risks her reputation as a maiden and undergoes a prolonged pilgrimage to the king. Her ordeal is completed by the last scene, in which she is publicly stigmatised, not only by Bertram but by the king (‘I think thee now some common customer’), and threatened with death, only to be royally rewarded at last by a dower and—alarmingly enough—the choice of a husband.
Unlike all the others, who are all-too zealous in its service, Bertram sins against life. Like the fair youth in the opening sonnets, Bertram—the ‘proud, scornful boy’, the ‘hater of love’, the unbedded husband—at first holds back. His sin is abundantly defined in the play, although never in words directly applied to him. ‘Virginity’, says Parolles, ‘is peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love which is the most inhibited sin in the canon’; ‘'tis too cold a companion’. Lafew condemns the lords he mistakenly thinks are refusing Helena: ‘An they were sons of mine I'd have them whipp'd, or I would send them to th' Turk to make eunuchs of’. Bertram's own speech to the ‘wondrous cold’ Diana might almost have been spoken to him by Helena:
If the quick fire of youth light not your mind You are no maiden but a monument. When you are dead you should be such a one As you are now; for you are cold and stern …
(IV, ii, 5-8)
Bertram's desire for Diana is his fortunate fall. Helena revealingly tells one of the ‘boys of ice’: ‘You are too young, too happy, and too good, / To make yourself a son out of my blood’. Paradoxically, it is not until the ‘quick fire of youth’ has made Bertram's blood adulterously ‘important’ (‘he persists / As if his life lay on't’) that he can be redeemed as a husband. He, then, in his turn, makes his compromise. He offers Diana ‘my house, mine honour, yea my life be thine’. In particular, he sacrifices his lineal ring, symbolising as it does the pride in being Count Rossilion that is his dearest conception of himself. The recovery of his sick desires which follows then completes the pattern; yet as if he had still not suffered enough of an ordeal, his moment of dishonour is re-enacted, publicly and with embellishments, in the last scene.
The necessary conjunction of life and human warmth with shame, which all these instances suggest, is further supported by its corollary. The only characters who come close to keeping their honour intact are the Countess and Lafew, who are so old that they no longer cling strongly to life. To the small extent that they do—by seeking vicarious satisfactions through the young—they too are involved in small compromises with honour, being at first too ready to forgive the prodigal-returned and make a match. The only one, it seems, who succeeded in keeping his honour unblemished is Bertram's dead father (cf. I, ii, 58-63).
Parolles is the extreme test to which Shakespeare puts the worth of what Isabella in Measure for Measure calls ‘shamed life’. Lavatch with his Isbel sinks deeper into shame than Parolles—‘He that ears my land spares my team, and gives me leave to in the crop’—but he clearly enjoys wallowing in it, where Parolles has to learn to accept it. It is not as if Parolles had ever imagined that he truly was a gallant militarist and then failed; there is nothing of Lord Jim about him. He knows perfectly well that he is an impostor, and the shame he suffers in order to live is entirely that of being found out and exposed. Yet he does feel this shame; he has made no Falstaffian transvaluation that would free him of it.
Comparison with Falstaff is inevitable. Falstaff's ‘give me life’ is more affirmative, less anguished, than Parolles's ‘let me live, sir, in a dungeon, i' the stocks, or anywhere, so I may live’; but the likeness is there. Even more than Falstaff, Parolles has been vilified. H. B. Charlton calls him ‘that shapeless lump of cloacine excrement’ and T. S. Eliot finds him more disturbing and frightening than Richard III and perhaps Iago. Certainly he merits contempt; yet I cannot believe that Shakespeare intended an effect simply of revulsion. As with Falstaff, it is chiefly Parolles's vivacious tongue that makes even his worst evils sit so fit on him. In his immediate and total betrayal of his comrades, there is an exuberance which is disarming; as Captain Dumaine chorically observes, ‘He hath out-villain'd villainy so far that the rarity redeems him’. The zest with which—amid all his troubles—he warms to his theme as he enlarges on Captain Dumaine's faults (‘He will steal, sir, an egg out of a cloister … drunkenness is his best virtue’) makes us, if we again follow Captain Dumaine, ‘begin to love him for this’. His truly Falstaffian ‘Who cannot be crushed with a plot’ shows more than impudence; it reveals the resilient life of one who, as the First Soldier remarks, might well out of so much shame ‘begin an impudent nation’—the same, all-surviving tensile-strength that makes the soliloquy which follows much more than craven relief at a last minute reprieve:
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.
(IV, iii, 319-23)
Here is the prime instance of the ‘debased vitalism, as if mere existence were its own argument’ which, as Donald Stauffer finely discerns, informs the philosophy of the ‘low characters’ in All's Well (Shakespeare's World of Images, p. 118). I would suggest that such, also, is the implication of the whole play.
About nothing are most of the characters in All's Well less ashamed than of not telling the truth. Yet to others, especially the Countess and Lafew, truth-telling is a prime concern. The pull between telling true and telling false pervades the dialogue and does much to determine its characteristics of style.
Of course, there is a sense in which this might be said of any conversation. But in All's Well the issue is pointed in special ways. For one thing, there is an inordinate deal of lying done. Not to mention Parolles, his star-pupil Bertram equivocates in his promise to the king, misleads Helena, swears false oaths in trying to seduce Diana, and at the end—even after being repeatedly caught in his lies—continues to try to lie his way out of his difficulties. Helena's first words are an equivocation, meant to conceal the fact that her tears are not for her dead father, whom she has already forgotten, but for her departing master. Only by extended prodding does the Countess persuade Helena to ‘tell true’ about her love for Bertram and her reason for going to court. Later, amid other benevolent deceptions, she writes letters reporting her ‘holy undertaking’ to Saint Jaques and her grieving decline ‘even to the point of her death’, arranges for the rector of the place to confirm her death, and stage-manages Diana's expert deception of Bertram and elaborate equivocation at the end.
In contrast, a number of characters tell the truth in situations which make it particularly awkward to do so: one servant reluctantly reports on another, one courtier tells another that he is a fraud, two friends tell another that his friend is false. Also, we hear a great many general truths. Quantities of (unheeded) advice are given; Bertram, especially, receives sententious counsel from all sides—his mother, Lafew, the king, his friends, Parolles. And so many of the characters indulge an inclination for the gnomic that hardly an occasion is left unimproved by philosophical or theological comment.
Both the Countess and Lafew are devoted to plain-speaking and to extracting the truth about others—Lafew with Parolles, the Countess (much more gently, of course) with Helena. Lafew likes to give pungency to his frank speech by using the racy idioms of aristocratic diversions; the Countess is given to an extreme care of statement, marked by subtle and witty distinctions and a penchant for the hypothetical. At the other extreme is Lavatch, who with his instinct for the minimal, would reduce the language of court to a single response: ‘Oh, lord, sir’. Appropriately, it is the Countess who shows up its inadequacy.
Immediately after this scene, Parolles similarly reduces courtly communication to an echoing ‘so say I’. Chiefly, though, his bent is toward proliferation—to carry the refinement of language practised by the Countess and the aristocratic flair of Lafew to a snipp'd taffeta extreme of affectation. In this same exchange with Lafew, for example, he says: ‘Nay, 'tis strange, 'tis very strange; that is the brief and the tedious of it; and he's of a most facinerious spirit that will not acknowledge it’. As we've seen, nothing about Parolles is as full of uninhibited life as his tongue. To his own dismay, it leads him to boast his way into danger in the drum-adventure and, at various points throughout, to flatter, slander, fabricate, misrepresent, cant, palter, misguide, betray. His final testimony about Bertram and Diana is a remarkable attempt to talk out of both sides of his mouth at the same time:
Faith, sir, he did love her; but how?
How, I pray you?
He did love her, sir, as a gentleman loves a woman.
How is that?
He lov'd her, sir, and lov'd her not.
(I take this exchange to be a clear sign, along with his scurvy curtsies at the end, that Parolles's old flamboyance is returning.) The only truths he tells are the military secrets he thinks he is revealing to the Moskos regiment; and he makes the most of the novelty, with much talk of how ‘a truth is a truth’ and swearing ‘by my truth’ and offering to ‘take the sacrament on't’.
There is fine comic nemesis in the fact that this man of words, with his smack of all neighbouring languages—German, or Dane, Low Dutch, Italian, or French—should be taken in by the gabble of his ‘executioners’: Boskos thromuldo boskos, Oscorbidulchos volivorco—choughs' language which represents the ultimate emptying of meaning from words in the play, and in Shakespeare.
‘The natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life’, writes De Quincey in ‘The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, ‘because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of “the poor beetle that we tread on”, exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet’. In All's Well, it would appear that the poet, with unique concentration, insists upon precisely this attitude, showing one character after another being brought to cry with Parolles, ‘Let me live!’
This is the only play in which he does so. Falstaff certainly opts for life over honour, but is shameless about it. Antony and Cleopatra feel their dishonour but incur it in the service of a transcendent love. In the last plays, the renewal of life is linked not with shame but with redemption and innocence. In Measure for Measure, in many ways a companion-piece, the issue is the same as in All's Well, but most of the characters prefer death to a ‘shamed life’. Where death is generally deplored and feared in All's Well, it is generally accepted and even welcomed in Measure for Measure. Isabella would throw her life down for Claudio's deliverance as frankly as a pin; Vincentio as Friar Lodovico counsels Claudio to be absolute for death; Claudio, although he at one point pleads ‘Sweet sister, let me live’, ends the same scene with ‘I am so out of love with life that I will sue to be rid of it’; and Angelo at the end begs, craves, entreats for death.
Since in All's Well it is life that most of the leading characters crave, at any cost, we may well ask whether life—as presented—is worth it. Helena, as Dr. Johnson pointed out, has made no great catch of a husband; her abject willingness to give so much for so little can be matched only in some of the later Sonnets. Bertram, who was ready to accept Maudlin, settles for Helena, largely, I suspect, as an out—having been forced into wedding her, tricked into bedding her, and trapped into finally accepting her. (I am unconvinced by Bertram's desperate and brief repentance and conditional reconciliation; he asked for ‘Pardon’ in much the same way when he had to before.) Parolles must be thankful for the mocking ‘grace’ of Lafew. Is all well that ends well when ending well means for the leading characters such minimal satisfactions?
In the study the answer for most readers has been ‘No’, and the play has seemed either a failure or unpalatably bitter. In the theatre, the answer seems to me to be a rueful and dubious ‘Yes’. In the context of this play, the love of life as Friar Lodovico tells Claudio, ‘is not noble’; and this is at least as evident when seen as when read. But what one feels in the theatre, to a degree unimaginable in the study, is the force of the vitality of Helena and Parolles, and of the three ‘returns to life’—first the king, then Parolles, finally Helena. In my experience, it is this physically felt sense of how good it is to be alive that makes the difference, that at last in its bitter-sweet way overcomes one's own scruples—much as it has overcome those of so many of the characters on stage.
Sovereign Flower, p. 172. ‘Parole’ as ‘word of honour’ in the technical military sense may not yet have been available in English; the first instance in O.E.D. is Beaumont, a1616. But the more general sense of ‘verbal promise’ was present in both languages at this time (cf. Wartburg). Indeed, in English the chief usage of the word seems to have been for legally binding declarations.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5040
SOURCE: Snyder, Susan, ed. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-67. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Snyder examines the diverse critical assessments of All's Well That Ends Well's Helena from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.]
All's Well that Ends Well has never been a favourite with audiences and readers. No allusions to it from Shakespeare's own time have been found, and evaluations by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics tend to be at best defensive; more often their tone is embarrassed or denunciatory, and some, like Quiller-Couch, Tillyard, and Josephine W. Bennett, do not hesitate to label the play a failure. Eighteenth-century audiences enjoyed the Paroles plot, but the Garrick version they saw displaced and dimmed the heroine and her trials of love to highlight the braggart soldier. Though nineteenth-century productions restored Helen to centre stage, it was in adaptations designed to distance her from sexual aggressiveness, and indeed from sexuality itself; yet in spite of all this anxious care, the play was performed only seventeen times in the entire century, considerably less than the fifty-one performances of the preceding century. Recent decades, however, have seen frequent productions: Shakespeare Quarterly records fifty-six since World War II. In the best of these—notably those by Tyrone Guthrie (1953 at Stratford, Ontario, and 1959 at Stratford-upon-Avon), Elijah Moshinsky (BBC Shakespeare series, filmed 1980), and Trevor Nunn (Stratford-upon-Avon 1981, London and New York 1982)—the script survives without distorting cuts; pain, farce, and social constraints all find their places in a dramatic experience of considerable complexity.1
This popularity of All's Well on stage both reflects and furthers an upswing in critical interest in the play and a new respect for its power and subtlety as drama. Tillyard, significantly, thought he might have had to qualify his label of ‘interesting failure’ if he had seen All's Well performed. That he had not had the opportunity, and assumed that no one else had either,2 speaks perhaps as much to the tenacity of Victorian distaste for the indecencies of the play's plot as to stageworthiness per se. The current vogue on stage of All's Well, and of the other ‘problem plays’ Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, in turn owes something to the modernist penchant for irony and to more recent post-structuralist trends in criticism, which value the very dislocations and gaps that distressed earlier organicist critics. Critics and directors alike see opportunity in the discord of modes, the signs of class and gender ideologies in conflict, that were only defects for earlier generations.
Besides objections to the incomplete blending of the ‘mingled yarn’, detractors of All's Well have sometimes located its problem in Bertram, an unsatisfactory figure not worthy of the hero's role or of Helen's love. Queasiness about the bed-trick recurs as well. Generally speaking, however, unease about All's Well has focused on Helen herself.
Samuel Johnson summed up Bertram's nature and behaviour as a serious stumbling-block to enjoying the play as a comedy:
I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.3
And many after Johnson, whether officially espousing poetic justice or not, feel that Bertram deserves casting out rather than reincorporation with his wife at the play's end. As Hugh Richmond points out, Bertram is given none of the charm that renders the offences of other adolescent heroes more tolerable to the audience.4 Nor, although we seem meant to accept him as penitent at the play's end, has Shakespeare given him words to compel our belief in his change of heart. There is a limit to how much transformation the actor can project into his brief ‘Both, both. O pardon!’, his lines of conditional acceptance addressed to the King, and his subsequent silence, even with assistance from stage business (5.3.308-end).
Those who nevertheless find grounds for hope in this graceless character stress his youth. Immature Bertrams work best on the stage (Guthrie's Edward de Souza and Nunn's Philip Franks, in London and New York, are good examples), and the line of criticism that does most to rehabilitate him concentrates on problems of maturation. In this line, Richard Wheeler demonstrates clearly the difficult situation of a young man who escapes from a feminine family context, is immediately forced into a marriage that sucks him back into that orbit before he has attained real autonomy or confirmed his masculine sense of self, and understandably if reprehensibly runs off once more to the scene of male comradeship and achievement in battle.5 Such arguments tend to put considerable weight on Bertram's military success as a sign of his maturing—more weight, probably, than the text can support, in view of its problematic presentation of martial honour. Finally seeing through Paroles is advanced as another step in his education (although critics like Evans and Leggatt point out that this supposed turning-point in fact brings him no discernible self-knowledge or alteration of behaviour). Karl Elze thought that we should see All's Well as a companion piece to The Taming of the Shrew: Bertram, like Kate, is a wayward young animal being tamed into his social role. As she is likened to a falcon in training, so he is a colt being broken.6
In Elze's view, Bertram's character—headstrong, unripe and unformed—is what it must be to carry out Shakespeare's major decision, which was to have in this version of the taming motif a woman as the tamer. In this case as in others, the roads of critics' disapprobation have a way of leading back to the main character, Helen. She is set up by the play for their admiration, but they cannot truly admire her: her actions require this peculiar kind of hero, the bed-trick—which causes extreme unease both as a deception of Bertram and as a degradation of Helen—is her doing. Critics after Johnson, while variously displeased with the hero, have by and large given to their dissatisfaction the local habitation and name of the heroine. Their text might in unexpurgated form run like this:
I cannot reconcile my heart to Helen: a woman who pursues and captures, not once but twice, a man who doesn't want her; uses trickery in order to force herself on him sexually; and finally consolidates her hold on her husband to a chorus of universal approbation.
Such a straightforward expression of distaste is rare, however. In the face of indications that Shakespeare (as well as his characters) approves of Helen, resentment tends to be suppressed; and that suppressed resentment may energize a view of Helen at the opposite extreme, as a selfless saint who degrades herself to redeem her husband.
When the rejuvenated King enters with Helen after she has cured him, there is an odd exchange between Paroles and Lafeu:
Mort du vinaigre! Is not this Helen?
Fore God, I think so.
Lafeu's response is as puzzling in its way as Paroles' nonsensical oath. How can he be learning for the first time that the King's deliverer is the young woman he had met earlier at Roussillon, when he himself introduced her into the royal presence in Act 2 Scene 1? Commentators have had to posit irony, or a change in dress and mood after her success that transforms the Helen of old; I have in this edition adopted Taylor's attractive suggestion that the ‘Doctor She’ who presents herself at court in Act 2 Scene 1 is in disguise and therefore not recognized at that time by Lafeu. But the immediate sense this passage generates, that Lafeu is seeing a completely different woman from the one he sponsored just two scenes earlier, may stand as an emblem for the critical history of this play, which projects at least two quite different heroines.
The key to both the major versions of Helen is the upsetting of the gender role system created by having the woman rather than the man take the sexual initiative. Objections to the ‘indelicacy’ of Helen's banter with Paroles on virginity have tended to fade along with Victorian standards of propriety, but her appropriation of the male role as sexual aggressor has continued to give offence. No other heroine in Shakespearian comedy goes after the man she wants without some prior attachment initiated by the man. Even Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose pursuit of the unwilling Demetrius as well as her name links her with the Helen of All's Well,7 is trying to win back a man who initially courted her (Dream, 1.1.106-8). Portia in The Merchant of Venice, in other ways as aggressive as the Helen of All's Well and a bigot to boot, attracts neither the chorus of disapprobation nor the nervous defences that Helen does, perhaps because in the crucial area of initiating marriage she lets Bassanio take the lead. However spirited and ready to take control, the Portias and Rosalinds wait to be wooed. If they love before they are asked, they nevertheless further their desires by strategies of reception and encouragement that are in keeping with their traditional gender role. Both heroines of The Two Gentlemen of Verona follow the men they love, but only after they have been courted and won. Silvia is bridging distance rather than reversing sexual initiative when she goes after the banished Valentine; Julia is doing the same as far as she knows, thinking herself sure of Proteus' welcome. Even in male disguise (assumed for protection rather than as conferring male aggressive prerogatives, and maintained as a means of access to Proteus), she is not a pursuer but an object of pursuit waiting for renewed attention. Helen alone makes her beloved a sexual object.8
Anxiety on this score may be as old as the story itself. Giletta, we are told, fell in love with Beltramo ‘more than was meet for a maiden of her age’ (Boccaccio, ‘oltre al convenevole della tenera età’). No one voices such a reservation in the play, where only Bertram and Paroles hold out against the universal admiration of Helen. Yet we may wonder if the misogynistic ramblings of the Clown in Act 1 Scene 3 were not called forth by some anxiety felt by Shakespeare at his own transgressions of gender convention. The Clown elsewhere is one of Helen's admirers (4.5.17-18), but sometimes, as we have seen, he speaks for others besides himself. Perhaps in this third scene not only the sexual nausea noted in my previous discussion but the following ballad of Troy with its antifeminist commentary were generated by nervousness about Helen's actions, distant as they are from the accepted norm for good women.
In any case, patriarchal anxieties are unmistakable in the concerns of some adapters and critics. In refining the playtext in the last years of the eighteenth century, John Philip Kemble disallowed for his heroine not only unseemly banter about virginity and competence with fistulas but also husband-hunting initiative: he ends the first scene with Helen's passive, despairing words of love for the ‘bright particular star’ who is impossibly far above her, and delays the contrasting soliloquy of energetic resolve that should end the first scene, ‘Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie’, for inclusion in the third scene, so that Helen appears to be acting under the Countess's sanction rather than striking out on her own. Helen does not in his version flaunt her prerogative as chooser of her mate by speaking with each of the King's wards in turn but presents herself directly, and meekly, to Bertram. Critics show the same anxieties. E. K. Chambers's assumption that women should be ancillary to male activities rather than initiating action on their own is apparent when he finds Helen degraded by an inordinate desire, which ‘turns man's tender helpmate … into the keen and unswerving huntress of man’. John Masefield thinks Shakespeare shared his outrage at ‘a woman who practises a borrowed art, not for art's sake, not for charity, but, woman fashion, for a selfish end’, who puts ‘a man into a position of ignominy quite unbearable, and then plot[s] with other women to keep him in that position’. Andrew Lang hoots at Hazlitt's contention (see below) that Helen, whom he calls ‘this female D'Artagnan’, does not violate modesty. His effort at evenhandedness, asserting that her behaviour would be just as reprehensible in a man, does not convince: do we expect modesty in a male D'Artagnan?9
Since patriarchalism shapes women's values as well as men's, it is no surprise to find Charlotte Lennox as an early (1753) denouncer of Helen. Her indictment has many counts, but the main charges of arrogance, cruelty, and guile are informed by a sense that Helen violates feminine propriety. The same is true for the hard, predatory figure discerned by Helen's most fervent recent attacker, Bertrand Evans: while he rails against her deceptions, a deeper antipathy emerges in assertions like ‘her pilgrimage was never meant for [Saint] Jaques, but for Priapus’. Dismay at Helen's sexual aggressiveness also lurks in the background of other charges: ambition (Clifford Leech), religious hypocrisy (Cole), conspiracy (Richard Levin), even quackery (Henry Yellowlees).10
Masefield and Lang take particular exception to Coleridge's frequently-quoted pronouncement that Helen is ‘Shakespeare's loveliest character’. But Coleridge is in fact a good example of the ambivalence called forth by this masterful heroine. In a more private moment, he sympathized with Bertram at being forced to marry Helen, and added, ‘Indeed, it must be confessed that her character is not very delicate, and it requires all Shakespeare's skill to interest us for her.’11 Even the ‘loveliest character’ tag occurs in a problematic context: commenting on Helen's statement to the Florentine women (3.5.50-1) that she knows Bertram by reputation only, he asks, ‘Shall we say here that Shakespeare has unnecessarily made his loveliest character utter a lie?’12 Should we perhaps also say that Coleridge's ‘loveliest character’ superlative is a kind of compensation, energized by the force of his own suppressed revulsion at Helen's indelicacy? Something of the sort is clearly at work in Hazlitt, who keeps defending Helen against unstated but persistent accusations:
The character of Helen is one of great sweetness and delicacy. She is placed in circumstances of the most critical kind, and has to court her husband both as a virgin and a wife; yet the most scrupulous nicety of female modesty is not once violated. There is not one thought or action that ought to bring a blush into her cheeks, or that for a moment lessens her in our esteem.13
The gentleman protests too much. He also writes as if the plot of the play were imposed from outside on an unwilling protagonist, and not generated by her own desire. Anna Jameson too sees Helen ‘placed’ by her marriage in a degrading situation, glossing over the fact that it was Helen's own initiative that brought about the marriage against Bertram's will.14 Separating the character from her plot in this manner allows critics to bury their doubts in superlatives of veneration. It is one way to ‘save appearances’, in the scientific as well as the social sense: they account for troublesome phenomena and behaviour outside the code by manoeuvres that resemble in their complication those of the pre-Copernican astronomers.
Saving appearances has been a major motivation for critics of Helen, and the anxious idealization first displayed by Coleridge and Hazlitt in the early nineteenth century was long the favoured method. Dowden, who first finds Helen the embodiment of will and energy, recuperates her from this potentially amoral position by demonstrating how she shapes the double action of the play through her role as providential healer, first of the King's sick body and then of Bertram's sick spirit. Helen's unseemly desire is thus obliterated by altruistic love, and her dubious actions are justified by their purpose (asserted by Dowden with no textual evidence) of serving her husband. H. B. Charlton too, backing off from an initial vision of Helen as a ‘nymphomaniac’ who casts decency aside to get her man, eventually comes up with a combination saint and social worker. Wilson Knight pushes the sanctification further, allying Helen in purity with Joan of Arc and in her salvific function with Christ. Her assuming, ‘for once, the male prerogative of action’ is vindicated allegorically in that ‘she goes out as a Saint Joan to fight for the female values, for the female honour, for “virginity” as a conquering power’. The potentially interesting notion of ‘female values’ posed against the male valourizing of prowess in battle is thus completely desexualized to equate with religious spirituality.15
Knight is, nevertheless, more comfortable with Helen when she is grovelling to Bertram: ‘the woman is at her finest in submission’. The recurrent position of self-abasement before her ‘bright particular star’ that we see in Helen's first soliloquy, in the careful phrasing by which she turns ‘I choose you’ into ‘I give myself into your power’, in her humble acceptance of his dismissive cruelty, and in her blame of herself for endangering his well-being by driving him away to the wars, offers all-important support to the sanctifiers. Several point to the bed-substitution as itself a self-humbling act, thus resourcefully turning a potential negative to positive advantage.16 It must be observed, however, that even in the most generous interpretation Helen's submissive posture is recurrent, not constant. It alternates with episodes of self-assertion, so that the passivity of her first soliloquy is, after her conversation with Paroles, replaced by the confident plans of her second soliloquy, still in the same scene. Her submission to Bertram follows hard upon the unmaidenly forwardness of choosing her own husband, and indeed may well be a reaction to it. Her announced withdrawal to leave the scene clear for Bertram's return somehow takes her to the very place where he is; and her passive mode quickly converts to active as she arranges and carries out her stratagem for getting Bertram's ring and conceiving his child. Confronting Bertram in the last scene, she both pleads and asserts her claim. Schücking and others have judged these pendulum-swings as internal contradiction, a basic compositional flaw;17 perhaps we should see them rather as deliberately constructed to render the waverings of a woman driven to transgress gender proprieties by overpowering desire, but embarrassed by that transgression and trying to cover or redeem it with extreme humility—another version of the compensatory mechanism I have observed variously in the Clown's misogyny and the critics' beatification.
That beatification also draws support from the eulogies of Helen we hear from the Countess, the King, Lafeu, the French lords, and even the Clown. Indeed, this universal approval, unqualified by any character whose opinion we are invited to trust, seems to forbid reservation or mixed reaction on the part of the audience. On the other hand, they praise her for the quality of her being rather than specifically for her actions. Their summations present her as good in herself and as good for Bertram, if only he would value her properly. That is, they tend to redefine Helen out of the subject-position she has appropriated in such an unorthodox way, back into a more ideologically acceptable role as valuable object—or, viewed as a channel of heavenly grace, as a vehicle for a more exalted Subject rather than acting in her own interest.
The idealized Helen is ultimately just as inadequate in expressing our experience of this complex play as the debunked and degraded one. Indeed, the action of All's Well itself, as Joseph Westlund reminds us, ‘fully reveals the danger of inventing what one wants’ in displaying the nature and consequences of Helen's uncritical adoration for Bertram. Idealization of Helen by the other characters and by critics, though applied to less intractable material, should be suspect too, when we see how her obsession creates the perfect love object by neglecting all his qualities except high birth and good looks. In order to achieve their ends, the sanctifying critics must in turn neglect this very obsessiveness, which renders inoperable where Bertram is concerned the moral judgement and good sense she applies to everyone else, and drives her to focus totally on her own feelings with no attention to his.18 It is worth noting that, while the haloed Helens created by some actresses are remembered only for their beauty, if at all, obsessiveness and intensity help to make Helen a compelling figure on the stage; they were at the centre of two highly successful recent performances, by Angela Down on television, and by Harriet Walter in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1981.
Psychological approaches to Helen's situation, working apart from the extremes of moral evaluation that have distorted much past criticism, have recently been more fruitful. Robert Ornstein sees her as a figure comparable to Angelo, uneasy with her own desire and striving to repress it. He stresses her initial psychological isolation as one who has grown up on the fringes of a noble household with no assured place in it. Only later in her alliance with the Widow and Diana does she learn to reach out to others; her experience also engenders a more realistic attitude to sexual passion.19 To Ornstein's we may add several other readings in which Helen grows in the course of the action, her development being in some sense parallel to that of Bertram. Some of these are attractive, for example the notion advanced by John Russell Brown and later Michael Shapiro that Helen must get beyond the arrogance that tries to compel love. But developmental readings of Helen, like those of Bertram, tend to crumble at the resolution stage, unable to show either of them as clearly arrived at a new and better understanding.20
Another approach to the contradictions in Helen's stance—not only between aggressive and submissive lover but between miracle-worker and down-to-earth arranger of the sexual rendezvous—is through the demands of the hybrid plot rather than the nuances of psychological portraiture. Carol Thomas Neely notes that in the folk-tale analogues ‘the entire burden of sexual union is symbolically placed on the woman, who must contrive to fill both halves of it. In order to do so, she must be … both “clever” [in gaining access to her husband] and a “wench” [unformidable and seduceable, thus allaying her husband's sexual anxieties].’21 Peter Ure would have Helen as well as Shakespeare aware of the contradictory roles required of her, so that the passionate woman consciously transforms herself into the ‘remote, thaumaturgic heroine’ required to win Bertram against all mundane probabilities.22 But it is Shakespeare, according to a popular line of reasoning, who has effected the main transformation: fearing that Helen's descent from working miracles in Act Two into something like procuring in Acts Three and Four may lose her the audience's sympathy, he displaces her from the centre of attention in this second phase. We are variously invited to concentrate on Diana and her mother, Paroles, and Bertram, while Helen operates more in the background, offering no access to her thoughts and motives.23 The shift from the early, soliloquizing Helen to the later, more reticent one certainly calls for attention. A crucial question of motivation is left in doubt when Shakespeare has Helen apparently announce a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and then arrive in central Italy in the town where she knows Bertram to be. The very silence of the text on her intentions has encouraged contrasting critical inscriptions; the detractors suspect that the penitent pilgrimage is a ruse from the beginning, veiling an intention to hunt down and capture Bertram, while the sanctifiers are enabled to see divine providence once more assisting Helen, leading her where she may further the larger plan of Bertram's redemption. It is not clear, though, that Shakespeare found this ‘de-characterization’ of Helen necessary to deflect audience disapproval of her doings and thus save the schematic happy ending.24 Such readings are also suspect in tending to play down or gloss over Helen's considerable aggressiveness in the earlier acts, highlighting only the self-abnegating side of her pendulum swings.
Joseph G. Price thoroughly canvasses the stage history of All's Well in The Unfortunate Comedy (Toronto, 1968); J. L. Styan examines twentieth-century productions in ‘All's Well that Ends Well’, Shakespeare in Performance series (Manchester, 1984).
‘Fail the play does, when read; but who of its judges have seen it acted? Not I at any rate; and I suspect that it acts far better than it reads’: E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (1950), p. 89.
Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, The Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. vii (New Haven, 1968), p. 404.
Hugh Richmond, Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy (New York, 1971), pp. 152-3.
Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies, pp. 35-45.
Elze builds on suggestions from Kreyssig and Schlegel: ‘All's Well that Ends Well’, Essays on Shakespeare, trans. L. Dora Schmitz (1874), pp. 118-50. Bertram is several times associated with horses: he complains at being ‘fore-horse to a smock’ (2.1.30), is threatened with ‘the staggers’ for disobeying the King (2.3.164), is encouraged in revolt by Paroles' comparison between ‘jades’ who remain in France and ‘Mars's fiery steed’ in Italy (2.3.283-5), is soon made general of the horse for Florence (3.3.1), is to be sold off at market like an unsatisfactory horse when found unworthy of Lafeu's daughter (5.3.148-9), is seen to ‘boggle’ like a horse taking fright when Diana produces the ring (5.3.232).
See Susan Snyder, ‘All's Well that Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object’, English Literary Renaissance, 18 (1988), 66-77; some of the material following is also adapted from this article.
The patriarchal discomfort this creates receives clarification in Laura Mulvey's study of the way films in directing the ‘curious gaze’ enact a gendered active/passive division of labour. ‘According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. … Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man's role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen’: ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16, no. 3 (1975), 6-18; p. 12.
Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (1925), p. 203; Masefield, William Shakespeare (New York, 1911), p. 148; Lang, ‘All's Well that Ends Well’, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 85 (1892), 213-27.
Lennox, Shakespear Illustrated (1753), i. 190-2; Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), pp. 145-66, quotation from p. 157; Leech, ‘The Theme of Ambition in All's Well that Ends Well’, ELH, 21 (1954), 23-9; Cole, pp. 114-37; Levin, ‘All's Well that Ends Well and “All Seems Well”’, Shakespeare Studies, 13 (1980), 131-44; Yellowlees, in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (1959), pp. 175-7.
T. M. Raysor, ed. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism (1930), ii. 356-7.
Raysor, i. 113; he goes on to pose an alternative question about the necessity of deceit but never resolves the doubt.
Collected Works of William Hazlitt, ed. A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover (London and New York, 1902-4), i. 329. A. P. Rossiter noted similar signs in comments by Dowden and Tillyard of ‘holding something down’—something negative about Helen. He himself advises us not to look too closely at her character, but goes on to do just that, and to find her virtue is really ‘virtù’, a strong will and an aptitude for scheming: Angel With Horns, ed. Graham Storey (1961), pp. 82-107.
Jameson, Characteristics of Women, 2nd edn. (1833), i. 109.
Dowden, Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875), p. 86; Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (1938), pp. 217, 258-65; Knight, The Sovereign Flower (1958), pp. 95-160.
Frances M. Pearce sees another parallel to Christ, who employed humiliating means to save mankind as Helen does to save Bertram: ‘In Quest of Unity: A Study of Failure and Redemption in All's Well that Ends Well’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 25 (1973), 71-88; pp. 84-5. See also William B. Toole, Shakespeare's Problem Plays: Studies in Form and Meaning (The Hague, 1966), p. 150.
Levin L. Schücking, Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays (London, Calcutta, Sydney, 1922), pp. 195-6. Donald Stauffer agrees that the inconsistency between Helen's Patient Griselda side and ‘the ruthless self-made woman’ makes her fail as a character: Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1949), p. 119.
Westlund, Shakespeare's Reparative Comedies: A Psychoanalytic View of the Middle Plays (Chicago and London, 1984), pp. 121, 128-9, 134. R. A. Foakes also sees Helen as ‘in her own way … as self-centred as Bertram and Parolles’, pursuing Bertram without reference to what he really is or whether he wants her; but he sidesteps any judgement by likening Helen to Ann Whitefield in pursuit of Jack Tanner in Shaw's Man and Superman, a natural force allied with the vigour of life itself: Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays; From Satire to Celebration (Charlottesville, Va., 1971), pp. 16, 29.
Robert Ornstein, Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery (Newark, Del., London, and Toronto, 1986), pp. 172-94.
James L. Calderwood, ‘The Mingled Yarn of All's Well that Ends Well’, JEGP [Journal of German and English Philology], 62 (1963), 61-76; Price, pp. 137-72; Ruth Nevo, ‘Motive and Meaning in All's Well that Ends Well’. On compelling love, see J. R. Brown, Shakespeare and his Comedies (1957), p. 187, and Michael Shapiro, ‘“The Web of Our Life”: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well that Ends Well’, JEGP, 71 (1972), 514-26. Brown, trying to see an evolution away from pushiness, hedges on the question of how and why Helen gets to Florence; Shapiro thinks Helen repeats her error of trying to win love by force in engineering the bed-trick, but has to lean on her ‘untriumphant entry’ in 5.3 to show she has attained humility.
Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven and London, 1985), p. 78.
Peter Ure, William Shakespeare: The Problem Plays (1961), p. 14.
The case is argued most fully in Harold S. Wilson, ‘Dramatic Emphasis in All's Well that Ends Well’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 13 (1950), 217-40. ‘It is the idea of Helena [as noble, humble, virtuous] that sustains our impression of the consistency of her character in the second episode, up to the moment when she reappears in her old role of the humble and devoted wife’ (p. 226).
This position is argued or assumed by Kenneth Muir in Shakespeare's Sources, vol. i (1957), pp. 100-1, and R. L. Smallwood in ‘The Design of All's Well that Ends Well’, Shakespeare Survey 25 (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 52-5, as well as Elze, Wilson, and others. De-characterization is often a strategy for ‘saving appearances’.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11218
SOURCE: Haley, David. “Bertram at Court.” In Shakespeare's Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in All's Well That Ends Well, pp. 1-51. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Haley interprets All's Well That Ends Well as a moral play depicting Bertram's path to self-discovery and his transcendence of a courtly “crisis of honor.”]
PROUD, SCORNFUL BOY
In its structure and dramatic emphasis, All's Well That Ends Well looks like Helena's play. Her intellect and force of personality dominate every scene in which she appears, and the audience is kept aware of her extraordinarily active presence even after she has been reported dead, in the latter part of the play. Yet critics persist in discussing Bertram as though his persona, rather than hers, held the key to the play's design. This is because the playwright everywhere solicits our concern for the young Count. Within the society of the play, Bertram is the theme of every tongue, his conduct a common topic of discourse. The heroine, hoping he will acknowledge her for his countess, implicitly takes part in the argument over Bertram's merits. Her formidable will fixes our attention upon her object, and our opinion of Bertram cannot be separated from Helena's unwavering belief in him.
Shakespeare's own estimate of Bertram is not easy to discover from the role he creates for his aristocratic but callow hero. Because Bertram's sullen character lacks the straightforward erotic purpose of an Orlando or a Bassanio, or even a Proteus, he seems unapt to propel the Menandrine action or “argument” that Frye and others have found in classical comedy. Nor is the young man's behavior any more consonant with the romantic, festive plot which, in most of Shakespeare's comedies, brings a liberating change: the King is healed and Helena is restored, but the first of these transformations works to restrict the hero instead of freeing him, while the effect of the second, as modern productions of All's Well have shown, is debatable.1
In counterpoising Bertram's youth against the entire older generation, the playwright obviously traces a ritual of social renewal. The elders' valedictory and elegiac speeches supply a kind of backdrop for Bertram's initiation into public life and for his marriage, but the expected revitalization, signaled by the reappearance of his pregnant wife, comes about in spite of Bertram's having done all he could to prevent it. He fulfills his comic role without alacrity or grace, so that even in his last-minute change he does not seem to conform to the traditional, Menandrine hero.
Instead of individualizing his personality, Shakespeare makes this “proud, scornful boy”2 a specimen of the unformed nobleman. No matter what discreditable attitude Bertram assumes—stubborn, petulant, or aloof, as the dramatic action may require—his psychology is not revealed. Shakespeare never gives him a soliloquy. At the end of the play, he marks the long-awaited dawning of Bertram's self-recognition with two and a half lines that barely register intellectual growth on the young man's part. The playwright finds Bertram attractive, apparently, for much the same reason that Helena does: the young nobleman embodies the heroic virtues of the court. All told, Shakespeare is less intent on defining Bertram's characteristic limitations than on guarding his aristocratic potential.
This view of Bertram, of course, is similar to the view that the poet in the Sonnets takes of his presumably aristocratic subject. … [H]ere it is only necessary to remark that the entire society of the play, and not merely the playwright or poet, focuses its attention on Bertram. A. P. Rossiter speaks for many readers when he notices how the other characters maintain a running ethical commentary upon Bertram: “In a very different way from Hamlet, Bertram is ‘the observed of all observers.’ The questioning attitude that is set up by all this [i.e., the ‘abstract ethical comments’] is one of the play's characteristics: although admittedly not all the reflections are clear.”3
The playwright, I believe, wishes to communicate to the audience this “questioning attitude,” and means to involve us, too, in the ongoing dialogue about virtue and honor and providence that dominates this courtly play. If Shakespeare, in writing All's Well, had wanted to “create a young man wholly responsive to his own invention,” he need not have exposed his hero to the court and its exacting scrutiny. Consequently, Bertram engages our interest in a manner quite unlike the hero of an Entwicklungsroman. We do not watch him develop; like Hal, who is an adult masking as a youth, he suddenly casts off his immaturity. The determinate result of his dramatic change counts far more than its gradual evolution. Although Bertram's mentors are fond of calling him a “boy,” they never doubt that he will claim his aristocratic birthright.4
What they do question, and what the playwright, too, seems to ask, is how Bertram can establish the true ground of his nobility—whether the young nobleman is able to manifest his essential areté or excellence despite the shame his own actions have heaped upon it. Unlike Hal, this “unseason'd courtier” (I.i. 67) has no plan to set off his mettle against a carefully prepared foil. Given his uncommunicative nature, Bertram's discovery of honor has to be inferred mostly from his deeds. Except to criticize Parolles, he does not engage in the discussions of merit that punctuate the play. Nevertheless these courtly discussions, alternating with his actions, create a dramatic dialogue that leads up to Bertram's recognition of Helena and his appropriation of her virtue. The taciturn hero and his demanding honor are the real subject of the courtly dialogue. In other words, All's Well thematizes Bertram's role as courtier.5
The best critical formulation of the play's chief theme, the discovery of true nobility, is still Muriel Bradbrook's. She believed that
Shakespeare was trying to write a moral play. … He was not writing allegorically but his characters have a symbolic and extrapersonal significance. … [The] structural center [of the play is] the King's judgment on virtue and nobility. … [Helena claims] desert for virtue, [whereas Bertram, in his mother's words,] ‘corrupts a well-derived nature.’ … In Helena and Bertram, the true and false nobility are in contest. Helena seeks recognition: Bertram denies it. The King, with the Countess and Lafew, [were created] to act as arbiters. … Helena is a ‘jewel’ which Bertram throws away. His rejection of her must be seen not in isolation but as linked with his choice of Parolles. … [In the final scene,] an elaborate and inexorable shaming of the now utterly silenced young man proceeds.6
This comprehensive summary of the play's themes necessarily subordinates some structural elements that need to be brought into the foreground. I agree that the play's “structural center” is act 2, scene 3, but I shall argue that, as an engine of the dramatic movement, the King's judgment is of lesser moment than Bertram's profoundly spontaneous rejection of Helena. Shakespeare has contrived to make his young hero's perverseness the spring of the action, and, as I hope to show, Bertram's recklessness, both when he throws away his “jewel” and later when he ignorantly judges himself, is in fact his uncanny means of working out his self-fulfillment. This obliquely providential action, I believe, gives All's Well its character of a “moral play.” Helena, Bertram, and the King do take on an “extrapersonal significance,” but this does not arise from moral (or from theological) allegory. It is built up, rather, through specific biblical allusions, the most important of which have not hitherto been identified.
Bradbrook's thematic and formal analysis defines the contents of All's Well, but at the cost of arresting the play's dynamic unfolding. To help us get back to the dramatic source of our perceptions, Frye's theory of how the dramatic experience is structured can be useful. Adopting terms from Aristotelian logic, Frye assigns to comedy four “causes”: efficient, formal, material, and final. Of these, the two last and most important miss their effect, it would seem, in All's Well. Frye finds the “material cause” of the comedy in the young man's sexual desire, and the “final cause” in “the audience, which is expected by its applause to take part in the comic resolution.” Let us see how both of these “causes” affect the overall course of the action in All's Well which, as was already observed, appears to stray from the Menandrine plot.7
Frye thinks that Shakespeare tried to reverse the usual pattern—in which the young man defeats or outwits the senex in order to obtain the young woman—by letting the King impose a wife upon Bertram. If we take a broader view of the play's action, however, we can see that Shakespeare has retained the Menandrine argument intact but woven it into a more comprehensive, circuitously providential plot. The forced marriage in the middle of the play is not the comic climax. It occasions no festivity, nor is it consummated. Far from reconciling the younger generation with the older, this marriage only frustrates the young man and fortifies his wayward inclinations. But this warping of youthful desire actually deflects it towards the comic end. The King's willful fiat, by thwarting Bertram's natural choice, drives him upon the libertine course that takes him to Diana. Allowing for this bias, the hero's erotic intent does quite literally lead him to the consummation of his marriage.
The form of the New Comedy, then, can be discerned in All's Well; its elements are here, but they are oddly transmuted. Shakespeare seems to displace natural impulses from their straightforward course and to dislocate the direct relationships found in Menander. The hero's lust reaches its goal, but per ambages. The clever slave who assists him is none other than Helena. Her service is fantastically doubled and parodied by Parolles, who by encouraging the hero to forsake his wife speeds him into her arms. Also doubled from the New Comedy is the sympathetic mother. Normally she is her son's ally against the senex. In All's Well the Countess's support is inadvertently neutralized when she backs the King's second choice of a wife for Bertram (Maudlin), so that Helena must turn to a surrogate mother, the Widow, to help her achieve a husband. The strangest modification of all, though, is Shakespeare's fracturing the Menandrine role of the senex into three parts: the King, Lafew, and Bertram's dead father. Each of these paternal figures in turn offers to impose on Bertram a wife whom he cannot accept on their terms without compromising the virtue that makes him noble—his prerogative of self-determination. That, rather than some erotic prize, is what is at stake in the Menandrine conflict between generations, and that is what the young man desperately defends when, driven to a bay, he finds his voice. “In such a business,” he implores the King, “give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes” (II.iii.107-8).
Is the hero victorious in his struggle with the senex, as the comic pattern requires? Yes, in some fashion; but our answer in this point is hypothetical, since the effect of the Menandrine plot can be known only by the response of the audience, which is its “final cause.” And the stage history of All's Well is largely a history of how its last, climactic scene has been received. Putting aside for the moment the two main responses to Bertram's behavior by readers who either have resented him for a cad “dismissed to happiness” (Johnson) or have pleaded on behalf of the noble youth deprived of his liberty (Coleridge), we may look at some theatrical interpretations of Bertram and of the final scene.8
Since midcentury, several productions have emphasized Bertram's youthful desirability. A reviewer in 1959 found that “he is too normal to be basically unlikeable: one simply has to wait for him to grow up.” In 1981, another reviewer thought that “Bertram might be immature, but he was clearly worth waiting for, even suffering for, as a sexual partner.” Such an impetuous, unformed Bertram apparently stems from Guthrie's earliest production (1953, Ontario), in which Bertram starts out as a young fool tricked into marriage, and then, disillusioned with Parolles, begins to mature. “At last, when he is ready for the kind of woman that Helena is, Helena is waiting for him.”9
In contrast to these interpretations showing Bertram's potential for growth, at least three productions have laid the stress upon his aloofness and snobbery. Nunn's production of 1981-82 presented both versions of Bertram. With Gwilym playing the role originally, this production was “a sympathetic play about growing-up.” When Franks replaced Gwilym in the part, “the interpretation became more coherent but less exciting. Franks offered adolescent weakness rather than adolescent self-assertion. The benefit of this was that it came as less of a shock when, in the final scene, Bertram's horror at the prospect of marrying Diana reveals him to be a snob after all.”10
As with the character of Bertram, so with the ending of the play, directors have had to choose between excitement and coherence—between romantic promise and moral or social plausibility. They must make their interpretation clear in the brief space of thirty lines. Upon Helena's sensational entrance, the King speaks first. Then Helena's three short speeches frame Bertram's two, their entire dialogue occupying a bare thirteen lines before she turns aside to the Countess, and Lafew and the King speak the remaining lines. When Helena plaintively remarks that she is wife only in “name and not the thing,” Bertram vehemently corrects her (“Both, both”) and then begs “O pardon!” as he (usually) kneels to her. He speaks again after Helena, either raising him from his knees or kneeling with him, shows him his letter and indicates she carries their child. This speech—Bertram's final word—is the notorious couplet:
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
A director can control the intimacy of this reunion by modulating the movements of the pair, especially their exit, but Bertram's delivery of the couplet is critical for the interpretation of the ending. Parolles, after he was exposed in an analogical anticipation of this scene, was given a notable soliloquy. Bertram, who at no point in the play appears alone, here steps into the historic role of Rossillion by appropriating, without comment, the aristocratic persona that everybody seems to have expected him to assume.
His final couplet, dubbed by one reviewer “perhaps the worst that any actor could be asked to speak,” nevertheless can be the means for asserting a touch of self-possession after his humiliation, a slight dignity of resolution, like Parolles' “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live” (IV.iii.322-23). Or the couplet can be spoken in a note of wonder as a repentant Bertram, crushed by Helena's benign plot, finds that his sexual prodigality quits him well; more quizzical than reflective, he is welcomed home in a festive ending. While generally preferring the latter alternative, recent directors, mindful of the skepticism in the King's couplet that closes the play (“All yet seems well”), have hedged the festivity with touches of irony which the audience is at liberty to ignore.
“Bertram's if seemed wondering rather than skeptical, admiring rather than conditional,” said a reviewer of the Nunn production. And Price, surveying the reviews of Barton's production, noted that “Bertram's own exposure was kept much lighter” than that of Parolles, “partly through the comic management of a delightful Diana who relished her role. The audience accepted the final reconciliation, one in which the wisdom of romance overwhelmed the credible shallowness of youth. And isn't it precisely in this that the joy of All's Well resides?” Not exactly, we may reply. In Barton's production, Bertram slapped Helena on the back at their final exit; and in the Nunn production, when Bertram went to take her hand, “he didn't actually do so; instead he spoke that cryptic, conditional couplet. … Left alone, Bertram and Helena walked upstage together, their hands still apart, the final image of an unequal marriage.” Plainly, neither directors nor the critics can quite agree that All's Well should be played as festive comedy.11
Some productions have diminished the unpleasant selfishness of Bertram's character by making him appear as the remote, partly idealized object of Helena's passion. This approach to the play harks back to the nineteenth-century interpretation of Helena as the sentimental heroine of a melodrama. Roger Warren reports of Jones's 1977 production that
in the kiss scene, when Helena finally blurted out her request, Bertram bent and brushed her hand with his lips, whereupon she seized him and held him in a prolonged kiss. … It was an original interpretation. It did not sentimentalize Bertram. … On the other hand, it did not exaggerate the cruelty. Some of Bertram's harshness elsewhere was underdone, ‘Here comes my clog’ thrown away, back to the audience. The cutting edge of the writing was missing here. … Everything built, as it should, to Helena's redemptive entry.
In his version for BBC-TV (1980), Moshinsky also took a sentimental approach, deploying the camera to break down our critical distance so that we might experience with the characters onstage a harmonious close. Helena's entry cannot seem miraculous to us, who know she lives and anxiously awaits the unfolding climax. But on television, “as the cast looks through the door music begins to play. ‘Behold the meaning,’ says Diana. But the camera does not allow us to behold. Instead it does what the camera does best—it shows us a set of mouths and eyes. As it tracks along the line we are made witness to a series of inner sunrises, as face after face responds to the miracle and lights up with understanding and relief. I confess to finding it a very moving experience.”12
Foreshortening the final scene to suggest “the wisdom of romance” or to approximate the nostalgia of The Winter's Tale subordinates realistic comedy to thematic “redemption.” Whatever individuality Bertram has won from his protracted crisis gets lost in Helena's transfiguration. A magical ending deprives Bertram of his past; he is not permitted to reflect upon his experience. Even Parolles, after all, was transformed by his shame, not annihilated. Having observed Bertram through five acts, the audience does not want him dismissed to happiness without some indication of how his humiliation and unexpected reprieve have affected him. A romantic ending ought not to come at the expense of the play's structural integrity. For our own dramatic experience to be coherent, we need to know what Bertram has learned.
The playwright does not tell us, and we are sent back to the dialectic of the drama, or to the thematic arguments that arise from its scenes of courtly reflection and heroic action. While it is no doubt true that an apparent ineptitude like Bertram's final speech “goes better, as so much does, in the theatre,” even an otherwise successful performance may leave its audience unconvinced that the playwright's conception has been fully articulated. For the purpose of highlighting this dramatic logic, Bradbrook's statement of the traditional subject of All's Well, quoted above, is more helpful than the various glosses that attempt to translate its humanistic themes into the post-Renaissance language of social evolution or psychology.
These attempts usually end by diverting attention from the play's topical, moral question: whether a young aristocrat can achieve on his own terms the birthright that he has alienated by his rash actions. Having raised this question, the playwright pursues it within the customary social framework to which the characters belong. The youth's transformation requires no real social change; Bertram can simply assume his place among the next generation of elders. The King welcomes him to court with the wish that the young Count may be like his dead father, whom he resembles: “Thy father's moral parts / Mayest thou inherit too!” (I.ii.21-22). Similarly, a Freudian analysis of Bertram's rebellion that uncovers “faulty parental experiences” in both Helena's and Bertram's past trivializes the significance of the self-determining choice Shakespeare wishes to dramatize.13
The root of Bertram's rebellion is as much intellectual as libidinous. His “vile misprision” of true nobility (II.iii.152) is no less a crisis for the court than for him. By repudiating Helena and striving ignorantly against his own inheritance, he forces the court to reconsider its heroic ideal. His devious path to his station as Count Rossillion imitates the sinuous dialectic of the courtiers' debate about excellence. That courtly debate generates most of the drama. Once its nature has been called into question, honor cannot be defined fully and dramatically without a jarring contention between King, court, and Bertram.14
The Socratic principle that all knowledge is self-knowledge was adopted implicitly by the Renaissance court, but, as Castiglione warns in discussing how a prince should be educated, the principle was to be respected indirectly with wit and geniality, not with a pedantry betraying self-ignorance. Not every poet had Shakespeare's tact. Ben Jonson for instance in his satirical comedy, Cynthia's Revels, undertakes to instruct his sophisticated audience in the quality of courtliness. Dramatizing humanistic personifications more aggressively than Shakespeare does, Jonson simply thrusts noble virtue on stage in the person of “Arete.” Cynthia's revels are staged beside a fountain of self-love from which the false courtiers drink. The fountain stands in opposition to the familiar Renaissance glass that confers self-knowledge upon its viewer, as, for example, the jewelled walls of Logistilla's palace in Orlando Furioso (10.58-60). Cynthia's court is supposed to be such a glass. Jonson's simple antithesis of self-love and self-knowledge is more humanistic than courtly; therein lies the real difference between Cynthia's court and the court of All's Well. Rather more complacent than Shakespeare, Jonson does not hesitate to show Arete along with Cynthia bestowing their approval upon the scholar Crites, an apparent surrogate of the playwright himself.15
Self-love of the kind that Jonson exposes in his courtiers was an easy mark for the dramatist, an affectation on the order of Malvolio's. However, a puritanical steward “sick of self-love” (TN [Twelfth Night] I.v.85) could be traduced more familiarly than an aristocrat, whose vanity, except in the case of a bald caricature like Portia's Prince of Arragon, was not easily distinguishable from a justifiable pride. Huizinga has taught our democratic era the extent to which late medieval society sustained the illusion that nobility was the cause, not the effect, of a prosperous commonwealth. The ideal life to which the aristocrat aspired, and which his society expected him to live, was a sublimation of man's sensual vice, guilt, and cruelty. By his peculiar ars vivendi, he raised these faults into a plausible and conspicuous honor. Where the humanist pursued self-knowledge philosophically, the aristocrat cultivated his honor.16
This was the nobleman's indispensable glass. Socrates, in all vital crises, was wont to heed his internal monitor; the Renaissance courtier steered life's treacherous course by his honor. Our habit of differentiating from one's public image a more essential, personal self makes it difficult to appreciate the aristocrat's stake in his reputation. That—and not his soul—was his essence, as Cassio's lament bemoaning his intemperance well shows: “O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial” (Oth. [Othello] II.iii.255-56). And with the cry, “Othello's occupation's gone” (III.iii.357), his General sinks into the same abyss of confounded identity. For the aristocrat, honor comes before his soul; or rather, the usual concern for one's soul yields place, in him, to an intent regard for the glass of his honor, whose condition he gauges by the respect others show for it.
Shakespeare usually does not require his characters formally to define their honor. Although Falstaff's catechism on honor springs to mind and the word is much on Hotspur's tongue, only brief invocations of honor punctuate Shakespeare's drama from King John down through The Winter's Tale. In this respect All's Well stands out from Shakespeare's other plays. In no play is the actual word honor (aside from the form of address, “your honor”) sounded as often as here. Because it is understood in All's Well to be the foundation of courtly existence, honor is an implicit topic in nearly every dialogue, and it becomes the explicit issue at the crisis in act 2, scene 3, when Bertram recoils at Helena's choosing him for her husband. The King defines honor in an authoritative speech (117-44) sharply distinguishing virtue from inheritance, and, to edify the stubborn young nobleman, makes his meaning as concrete as possible by an emblematic conjunction of himself and Helena: “Virtue and she / Is her own dower; honour and wealth from me” (143-44). The King speaks as it were ex cathedra from the plenum of his court, with the excellent virgin by his side. Their tableau powerfully reinforces his words. Helena is unmistakably the mirror of honor. Yet Bertram rejects her: “I cannot love her nor will strive to do't” (line 145).
“Thou wrong'st thyself,” responds the King, “if thou should'st strive to choose.” Bertram does wrong himself; he disdains the proffered honor. But here the scene of courtly harmony suddenly fractures into an acrimonious debate between opposed conceptions of honor, each having its strong validity. From one standpoint we can see that the young aristocrat foolishly repudiates the kingly “dole” (line 169) meant for him; from another, we can cheer his refusal to play a courtly role arbitrarily foisted upon him by his royal guardian. The King presents Helena's honor to us under a traditional and proverbial form of definition backed by his will. He impatiently brushes aside the circumstance that to Bertram, Helena is “a poor physician's daughter.” She is really not much more, yet, to us. The King can only reiterate “what she has done for me.”
For her part, Helena, who began the scene in nervously heightened spirits, feels the strain of the situation and tries to step between the King and Bertram (147-48): “That you are well restor'd, my lord, I'm glad. / Let the rest go.” Her embarrassed deprecation is not entirely on her own account. She is dismayed to see the willful King crush the spirit of the youth whose “arched brows” and “hawking eye” (I.i.92) should draw everyone's admiration. But now the King considers that his own honor is on the line:
My honour's at the stake, which to defeat, I must produce my power. Here, take her hand, Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift, That dost in vile misprision shackle up My love and her desert; .....Do thine own fortunes that obedient right Which both thy duty owes and our power claims; Or I will throw thee from my care forever Into the staggers and the careless lapse Of youth and ignorance.
This scene, which opened with the praises of Helena's miracle and unfolded in the fairy tale ritual of her choice of husbands, now runs up against a hard reality: the fact that courtly honor is ambiguous. The mirror of the monarch's community shows a crack. The King, restored to “as able body as when he number'd thirty” (IV.v.77-78), thinks that the court's honor has been sufficiently burnished by his miraculous healing. If he called this assembly with the object of presenting a quasi-dramatic choice or “discovery” of honor in the way that a masque discovers (reveals) a personified virtue, he is bitterly disappointed when Bertram refuses to discover (find) honor in Helena.
In earlier scenes, the King has shown his mistrust, and perhaps his sexual jealousy, of the young courtiers. Bertram represents the younger generation whose “levity” of spirit the King deplores (I.ii.35) and would control by the fiat of this match (“As thou lov'st her / Thy love's to me religious; else, does err” [182-83]). He wants to define honor for the young men, ignoring the fact that the present generation of courtiers refashion the mirror by their own deeds and reflections. For them honor is actual and contemporaneous. The older generation demands recognition for an honor it tiresomely locates in the past. When the King lectures the courtiers upon the honor exemplified by his friend the late Count, he forgets that the courtly mirror, as it grows mostly retrospective, becomes unreal. By his speech on hypothetical honor, the King denies to the young noblemen—and specifically to Bertram—their prerogative of renewing the honor of the court.
The King has created this strained situation in order to make good his promise to grant Helena's wish. When she hesitates, he encourages her to “Make choice, and see, / Who shuns thy love shuns all his love in me” (72-73). He claims “both sovereign power and father's voice” over these “noble bachelors” (53-54), arrogating to himself a godlike paternalism and equating courtly honor with the courtiers' “love [i.e., interest] in me.” By his angry pun—“Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift, / That doest in vile misprision shackle up / My love and her desert”—the King intimates that Bertram wrongly “shackles up” his honor in the prison of his scorn (“misprision”). His honor, he is told, lies in the King's “love” and Helena's “desert”; in spurning those, he does not know his own good and diminishes himself.
The King says his own honor is threatened by this rebuff. Bertram's real offense, though, is his affront to the court, or at any rate to its elders. Helena, who came hither after gaining the blessing of the Countess and who promptly converted Lafew and the King to the knot of her admirers, has the approval now of the entire older generation. She represents their honor, as if the elders had chosen her as their moral successor. The King offers her as an extraordinary bride, more precious to him than a daughter. That is why Lafew is upset when the King's wards seem not to respond to her.17
The traditional courtly debate over honor, then, is raised in this central scene to a contest between the generations, with the sexual rivalry that is always latent in such contests flaring up here as Bertram resists the King. To Bertram, who was silent during the talk of her miracle at the start of the scene, Helena cannot appear very dazzling. Here is the young woman bred up with him at Rossillion whom he left behind to “be comfortable to my mother” (I.i.73). This is not the honor he sought at court. “She has rais'd me from my sickly bed,” says the King. Bertram's insolent retort, with its sexual pun on “raising” and “bring me down,” expresses his impatience with the old King and his valetudinarian honor:
But follows it, my lord, to bring me down Must answer for your raising? I know her well: She had her breeding at my father's charge— A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain Rather corrupt me ever!
The generational conflict of wills pushes this scene towards tragedy, as in the opening scene of King Lear. Bertram's stubbornness is not honestly forthright like Cordelia's, though, and after the King's threat (quoted above) Bertram prudently feigns to change his mind and submit to having honor thrust upon him by the proposed marriage:
When I consider What great creation and what dole of honor 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.
A specious equanimity settles over the court as the King, with a masquelike benediction, decrees the marriage: “Good fortune and the favour of the king / Smile upon this contract” (177-78).
Such a forced reconciliation of their different notions of honor is palpably wrong. Without Bertram's willingness, there can be no marriage between nobility and virtue; without the younger generation's ardor, no quest for honor in court and society and therefore no heroic self-knowledge. The implied sneer in Bertram's speech of submission shows that the court has been infected with disdain. The disdain is picked up in Lafew's flouting of Parolles that follows. Their recapitulation of the antagonism between the King and Bertram is satirically entertaining, but it also exposes the older generation's contempt for its successors, upon whom the elders impotently try to impose their will. The satire shows us a daemonic mirror, reflecting not so much the court's virtues and vices, or its hopes and fears, as its delusion and indecision. The court has mistaken honor and finds its capacity for epic deliberation impaired.
It is important to understand exactly what Bertram is rejecting in his deeply instinctive response to the King's offer. Recent critics, taking their cue from the evidently sexual overtones in this confrontation and in the dialogue between Bertram and Parolles at the end of the scene, point to the young man's loathing of “the dark house and the detested wife” (line 288). This tack is too reductive in that it isolates his “precarious masculinity,” or some other psychological abstraction, from the complex social situation to which Bertram responds. At best, such reduction may help us see that Bertram has a case, in opposition to those critics who carry on Johnson's heavy reprobation of him. The case for Bertram becomes stronger, however, when regarded not from the standpoint of psychology but in the perspective afforded by the courtly mirror.18
Bertram identifies honor with the “brave wars” (II.i.25). He seeks to create honor by himself. Helena's familiar virtue adds nothing to the inheritance he means to augment by his own deeds. The King not only overlooks his ward's noble ambition, but tries to curb his individual preeminence by imposing on the young man an image of the late Count, Bertram's father:
Who were below him, He us'd as creatures of another place, And bow'd his eminent top to their low ranks, Making them proud of his humility.
Bertram's disdainful response to Helena's choice shows none of his father's graceful condescension, but that is in part because he can no longer address her as an inferior. In a sense, Helena has become his rival. She emulates his noble aim of achieving honor by deeds instead of by birth or, for that matter, by a donative from the King. Like Lear autocratically ignoring Cordelia's firm sense of what is filial and meet, the King dismisses Bertram's notion of honor. He demands that the young Count constrict his vision of honor, and hence the heroic image of himself, to the figure of this maid who has cured his master. What Bertram rejects is not Helena per se, nor yet the example of his father. Bertram, like Cordelia, repudiates the false mirror the King holds up to view—the mirror, that is, in which the King represents himself as the supreme fount of honor, surrounded by courtiers who glorify the vigorous image of their restored prince. Such honor is merely demonstrative. Finding it repellent to his noble substance, Bertram, in a gesture instinct with real honor, rejects it.
The combination against Bertram of Helena's desire joined with his sovereign's will is formidable. The young man spontaneously withstands it, and the sullen disdain that his resistance puts on masks the heroic resolution of an aristocrat. No longer the petulant youth who repined at being interdicted from the wars, Bertram suddenly is spurred to seek his proper role in the courtly epic. He shuns his “love in [the King]” to pursue glory where the King shunned it: in honor abroad, among the wars and the “girls of Italy” (II.i.19). One might say that he individuates himself by defying the King's authority, but to stress his psychological autonomy is to miss the chief point of the scene: its demonstration of self-transcendence. Bertram's spontaneous act is definitive for him. It is also exemplary for the court, as I will try to explain.
Bertram justifiably resents the King's overbearing treatment. That “he is shamefully and cruelly wronged” was also the opinion of Andrew Lang: “He is enslaved in the dawn of his youth, and his resolve to go to the wars, and leave his wife at the church door, is in no way unbecoming. Every one would sympathize with the woman had the matrimonial constraint been on the other side. … It is not correct to say [as Johnson did] that Bertram ‘leaves Helena as a profligate.’ Nothing in his life becomes him like the leaving her.”19 The force of Lang's protest is not met by the reply that the King had the right to dispose of his noble wards as long as the match did not “disparage” them in rank. The King observes the rules of wardship and says he will ennoble Helena, but he still wrongs Bertram by offering to foreshorten the youth's career of honor. When at the end of the scene Bertram declares himself free to seek honor, Parolles concurs: “The King has done you wrong; but hush 'tis so.”
To the King's taunt of “Proud, scornful boy,” Bertram might well retort, “Proud, my lord, and true.” Critics who characterize Bertram's first real affirmation of honor as adolescent rebellion, or as a blind struggle for autonomy, are ignoring its impact on the court. Bertram's pride, like Cordelia's, suggests strength of character beneath his stubbornness. A less spirited courtier would tamely embrace the fortune provided him by his king; instead, Bertram asserts his right to determine his own place in the mirror of the court, a right he would forfeit by this arbitrary match. The King tries to play the role of providence, as if he were God disposing his ward's fate. Bertram's protest rescues his honor from the interference of Helena and the King. He spurns the prospect of domestic glory offered him. In breaking with his King and venturing on an unfamiliar path, Bertram transcends himself. All's Well pivots upon this scene of self-transcendence.
As we saw in examining the nobleman's mirror, his honor will not let him repose in his private self or the ordinary “ego.” The dialogue opening the play (I.i.1-7) sounds the aristocratic imperative of self-transcendence:
In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.
And I in going, madam, weep o'er my father's death anew; but I must attend his majesty's command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection.
You shall find of the king a husband, madam; you, sir, a father.
As a young, “unseason'd courtier,” armed only with his mother's blessing and advice, Bertram answers the King's summons to Paris (I.1.60-68). He leaves Rossillion for his proper sphere at court, where the nobleman seeks his epic (or mock-epic) role in its mirror of honor.
Although Bertram's father is dead, the late Count's fame eclipses his son in the eyes of their sovereign, and his father's legacy is something else Bertram must transcend. At court, the King indeed acts as “a father” to Bertram, but he patronizes him in a manner calculated to stifle the courtier's spirit. He provides for Bertram a premature, adventitious honor, which is not what the Countess wished in her benediction for her son:
Be thou bless'd, Bertram, and succeed thy father In manners as in shape! Thy blood and virtue Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness Share with thy birthright!
His blood and shape are Bertram's inherent birthright. By itself, the marriage to Helena cannot confer virtue, manners, or goodness upon him. These are qualities he must “contend for.”
In his lecture upon honor, the King asserts that
Where great additions swell's and virtue none, It is a dropsied honour. ..... Honours thrive When rather from our acts we them derive Than our foregoers.
Even as he speaks these words, the royal guardian proposes to bestow on his ward the hand of Helena, a “great addition” unsuited to a nobleman who would “derive” his honor from heroic deeds. Bertram's “contend[ing]” for honor commences with this quarrel. The attempt on the part of the King and Helena to forestall his fate by marriage makes Bertram see that his true honor is in jeopardy, and he removes himself from the King's oppressive tutelage, entrusting his destiny to “Great Mars” (III.iii.9).
Paradoxically, this rupture frees Bertram so he may follow the prescriptions the King earlier laid down for the courtiers in quest of honor. By leaving the court, Bertram ceases to be the King's ward, but he remains his subject (“in subjection”) and becomes an active figure in the Italian wars, which supply factitious, epic roles for the French courtiers. Bertram wins honor for himself and for the court and King; and—once the play's convoluted plot has been unwound—his rebellion also fulfills the hopes of his mother's benediction. Thus, by driving the young man off in quest of a heroic role elsewhere, the King inadvertently seconds Bertram's instinct of self-transcendence, which from this point on determines the direction the play will take.
To comprehend Bertram's act and its critical placing, we must back up a bit and review more carefully the King's role as antagonist to the young man. All's Well opens with a scene of domestic mourning, whence our attention is immediately directed to the court and its sick King. Lafew, remembering what the King used to be, promises the Countess and her orphaned son that Bertram will receive at court the guidance he lacks, “a father. He that so generally is at all times good must of necessity hold his virtue to [Bertram]” (I.i.6-8). Arrived at court, Bertram discovers the King's virtue at a low ebb, his hospitality enfeebled because he is preoccupied with his disease. The doctors, says the King, “have worn me out / With several applications; nature and sickness / Debate it at their leisure. Welcome, Count; / My son's no dearer” (I.ii.73-76). After this compulsive greeting, the King exercises his guardianship, we learn, by peremptorily forbidding Bertram to go to the wars.20
We see the sick King again as act 2 opens and the courtiers take their leave for Italy. Shakespeare has interpolated both of these court scenes into Boccaccio's story in order to indicate that real honor is to be won in contests abroad. The spirited young Bertram grasps this very clearly, but the King's thoughts dwell at home and upon his struggle with his disease. He never imagines that the fame his courtiers win abroad might help restore his own vigor, or that the young lords' undertaking is necessary to fulfill the honor of his court. His weary cynicism bids fair to sap the glory of their enterprise.
He tells them to let the Italians “see that you come / Not to woo honour, but to wed it” (14-15)—a trite metaphor with alarming implications, in view of the hero's compelled marriage two scenes later. As the other noblemen leave for Italy, Bertram complains to Parolles, “I am commanded here, and kept to a coil with / ‘Too young,’ and ‘The next year’ and ‘'Tis too early’” (27-28). Although it occurs to him that he might “steal away,” when Parolles asks “What will ye do?” Bertram replies (or shows why he fears to reply) with a laconic “Stay: the King” (F2 reading). Bertram has been thoroughly cowed by his autocratic patron's monopoly of the terms of honor. The thought torments him that he must “stay here the forehorse to a smock” until all “honour be bought up” abroad (30-32), but so far he submits to the King's will.
When the King next shows himself to his court, in the central scene we have been discussing (II.iii), nothing has changed for Bertram. The King on the other hand has been transformed. Helena's cure has reinvigorated him so that he is “lustique” enough to lead her in a lively dance or “coranto” (41-43). His rejuvenation seems especially miraculous to Lafew, who brought this “Doctor She” (II.i.78) to the King. This big court scene, which climaxes in Bertram's defiant act of self-transcendence, opens accordingly on a note of wonder expressed by Lafew as he enters with Bertram and Parolles:
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.
This speech highlights the providential theme associated with Helena. I want to defer that theme … and call attention here to the courtiers' self-consciousness or reflexiveness conspicuous in Lafew's speech and in the comments it inspires. Parolles chimes in with Lafew's every remark, creating an inane dialogue that parallels the Clown's “O Lord, sir!” of the preceding scene (II.ii). Parolles' affectation and Lafew's Polonian wisdom between them express the courtier's embarrassed hyperbole, the effect (to vary Johnson's definition) of wonder operating upon skepticism. They agree that Helena's miracle shows the “very hand of heaven … in a most weak … and debile minister; great power, great transcendence” (31-35). This little display of courtly self-mockery culminates in Lafew's reading of a ballad title that seems to parody the providential theme of the play itself (“A Showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor”).21
The self-conscious dialogue here is characteristic of the play, combining marvel and satire, or romance and realism. The curious mélange is always noticed by students of All's Well, and usually is explained as the merging of two disparate perspectives or kinds of drama. But the discrepancy inheres in the court society that Shakespeare portrays and is only brought to light by the supernatural effect of Helena's miracle. The court is familiar with the nobleman's boast of heroic self-transcendence; that is a customary, humanistic paradox, but, as Parolles' outlandish phrase (“great transcendence”) shows, no one can tell what to make of divine grace. The courtiers' embarrassment at the start of the scene quickly proves to be widespread throughout the court.
What is peculiar about this scene, and what raises a problem for its producer, is the way the playwright praises the miracle but immediately limits its effect. A modern audience, naturally assuming that Helena's deed introduces Divine Providence into the play, becomes confused when next it beholds the mere quality of honor usurping the stage from God. Helena's own miscalculation of her providential role will be discussed in a later chapter. What needs to be emphasized here, where Divine Providence has just been thematically enunciated, is the fact that the playwright firmly reasserts the court's secular perspective. Helena has easily overcome the doubts of the elders—the Countess, Lafew, the King—but she has yet to encounter the skepticism of the young aristocrats. Instead of dwelling upon Lafew's admiration of “things supernatural” or on Parolles' grandiloquence, we should notice Bertram's silence. It suggests he does not find the miracle particularly uplifting.22
Neither do the other young noblemen. Addressing herself to the “parcel / Of noble bachelors” who are at the King's bestowing, Helena proceeds with diffidence in this most unnatural, “frank election”:
Heaven hath through me restor'd the king to health.
We understand it, and thank heaven for you.
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 forever,
We'll ne'er come there again.”
Make choice, and see,
Who shuns thy love shuns all his love in me.
Helena's metaphor of death is a premonition of the consequences her choice may have. On the surface, her virgin modesty is what inhibits her from making her desires public. More profoundly, she appreciates, as the King and Lafew cannot, the momentousness of the occasion. A refusal from Bertram will annihilate her. But the “death” she intuits is more than personal. She is about to risk defining herself in the mirror of the court as Bertram's countess. Her deliberation as she abandons her maiden security is like the deliberation of the courtier who relinquishes a comfortably private identity for the sake of honor. Either choice is an act of self-transcendence that radically alters the courtier's or cortigiana's orientation towards their society. Their affirmation of individual integrity demonstrates a vital alternative to the honor offered by the King. It creates a moment of trepidation in the court, as in the opening scene of King Lear, and changes the court's actual image of honor. Helena's self-transcending “election” is therefore heroic, and it sets the example for Bertram, whose fateful response raises him to his epic role.
Elated by the success of their “miracle,” the King and Helena overlook the courtier's loyalty to his secular honor. Editors who follow Johnson think that Lafew misunderstands Helena's exchanges with the lords and that she refuses them, not they her. Thus, the New Shakespeare editors assume that “all three lords who do speak are very ready to accept this delightful maid at the King's hands. … Despite her blushes, Helena thoroughly enjoys this interview of the candidates for her hand.” This misreading makes light of Helena's premonition, and it ignores the vital issue of honor contested here between the generations. The young lords' icy politeness masks a contempt of which Helena is quite sensible. As she says to one of them, “The honour, sir, that flames in your fair eyes / Before I speak, too threat'ningly replies” (80-81). “Do they all deny her?” asks Lafew, observing the scene. Although his personal interest makes him anxious about Helena's success, we may take it that his fears are well-grounded. Lafew's choric comments elsewhere in the play are always accurate, as Price demonstrates.23
This remarkable scene, a spectacle of worldly honor set off with urbane references to heaven, captures the mirror of the court at that critical moment when its collective being is touched by change (transition; metaphorically, death). Helena must fear in Bertram the same transcendence she experiences in herself. The aristocratic gesture of going beyond oneself takes any of several forms: the hero's self-sacrifice, the warrior's vow, the nobleman's characteristically impersonal regard for his family and his fame, the courtier's self-deprecation or sprezzatura. Bertram must reject the King's gift to transcend and complete himself.
I said earlier that Shakespeare rarely prescribes manners for the courtier, but he does tutor his noblemen specifically in self-transcendence—not only in the Sonnets, but quite explicitly in Ulysses' lesson to the self-regarding Achilles (Tro. [Troilus and Cressida] III.iii.96-120). Ulysses tells the sulking hero that
man, how dearly ever parted, How much in having, or without or in, Cannot make boast to have that which he hath, Nor feels not what he owes, but by reflection.
“Reflection” means just the opposite of thinking about oneself as Achilles is doing. It refers to the act whereby the nobleman gives up, alienates, or transcends his private image of himself in order to find his greater, heroic self in the public mirror. As Ulysses says, the “position … is familiar”:
No man is the lord of any thing, Though in and of him there be much consisting, Till he communicate his parts with others; Nor doth he of himself know them for aught, Till he behold them formed in th' applause Where th' are extended.
Before he can “communicate his parts with others,” the nobleman must expect to figuratively die in himself, in the manner of which Helena has a presentiment. Ulysses' doctrine cuts deeper than the denunciation of self-love that exercises Crites in Cynthia's Revels. The philosopher seeks to know himself, but the aristocrat, as Ulysses' lesson teaches, cannot rest with contemplative knowledge. He gives a further, reflexive twist to the Delphic injunction. The aristocratic courtier knows that he is not what he is—knows that he is other than himself. This means he can realize himself only in transcending himself. The Renaissance aristocrat aims at self-transcendence, not at self-fashioning. He relinquishes introspection for praxis. He appropriates the image in the mirror—the image of an actual self participating in events (history). The courtier's self and his public image become interchangeable. Their concrete realization is his honor.
Bertram is eager to realize himself “by reflection” in the mirror of his honor. Although his first moves appear uncertain, Bertram understands honor in its contemporaneous, courtly-epic scope better than the King does. The honor offered by the King is circumscribed and false. Bertram thinks he knows that Helena and her honor are no part of the transcendent honor he means to achieve or “communicate … with others.” Her miracle now impedes his career, and he sees he must remove her. As he will write in his letter to her at Rossillion, “Till I have no wife, I have nothing in France” (III.ii.73).
This is Bertram's original discovery of himself at court. Rejecting Helena, he rejects the self that he is (his place at court as the King's ward) and appeals to the self that he has yet to become—the honor he expects to win. This ulterior self which he identifies with his honor is as yet indeterminate; insofar as it is other, Bertram does not possess it. Like honor, it must be communicated to become his; yet he can only communicate what he possesses. The play will solve this riddle reflexively. Helena is the clue, representing both what Bertram rejects and what he seeks. With Helena's aid, Bertram will provide his own destiny. But his self-providence operates indirectly. He does not fashion himself. Transcending himself rather, he acts prudentially to form the other self, the self of the mirror. That self is his honor, and he is reciprocally fashioned by it.
Even though he leaves the court, Bertram's actions henceforth take their significance largely from his heroic deliberation. Bertram's initial discovery of this heroic prudence confirms him a genuine courtier and subject of the King. His self-conscious virtue requires proving in the mirror that extends beyond the French court. The crisis of honor within the court forces the court to turn outward, and to rediscover its epic ideal through praxis.
See Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” in English Institute Essays, 1948, ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), 58-73. “New Comedy is certainly concerned with the maneuvering of a young man toward a young woman, and marriage is the tonic chord on which it ends. The normal comic resolution is the surrender of the senex to the hero, never the reverse. Shakespeare tried to reverse the pattern in All's Well That Ends Well, where the king of France forces Bertram to marry Helena, and the critics have not yet stopped making faces over it.” Frye's essay has been reprinted in Essays in Shakespearean Criticism, ed. James Calderwood (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 50.
The rather slight stage history of All's Well since the mid-eighteenth century is related in Joseph Price, The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well That Ends Well and Its Critics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968). Some recent productions of All's Well are discussed below.
The King's phrase, II.iii.151, when Bertram balks at Helena's choosing him. See All's Well That Ends Well, New Arden edition, ed. G. K. Hunter (London: Methuen & Co., 1959). Unless noted otherwise, the play and its Boccaccian source are both cited from this edition. Other Shakespearean quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).
A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns: Fifteen Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Graham Storey (London: Longman, 1961), 96-97. This posthumously published lecture dates from 1950-56.
For the notion that Shakespeare has structured All's Well as a “revenge comedy,” and so makes Bertram “wholly responsive to his own invention,” see Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), 59-60.
Properly speaking, Shakespeare dramatizes his materials, whereas the word “thematize” might imply he is doing philosophy instead of making a play. If we understand by theme not a literary motif discerned only by the reader in the study, but a topic of cultivated discussion made dramatically accessible, then Shakespeare often handles his basic themes in such a way as to deconstruct them. Even the title, All's Well That Ends Well, demands a radical interpretation. …
M. C. Bradbrook, “Virtue Is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,” The Review of English Studies, n.s., 1 (1950): 289-301. The phrases quoted are from pp. 290 and 296-97. Bradbrook condensed the essay while adding some pessimistic remarks about Bertram in her Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London: Chatto & Windus, 1951), 162-70.
Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” 50.
Price, The Unfortunate Comedy; see also Hunter, ed., All's Well, introduction, p. xxix: “From this point of view [i.e., that of theatrical performance), and it is ultimately the crucial one, criticism of All's Well has failed, for it has failed to provide a context within which the genuine virtues of the play can be appreciated.” Since Hunter wrote this in 1957, more than a half-dozen successful, generally acclaimed productions have been directed by Guthrie (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959), Houseman (Stratford, Connecticut, 1959), Barton (Stratford/Aldwych, 1967-68), David Jones (Stratford, Ontario, 1977), Moshinsky (BBC-TV, 1980), Nunn (Stratford/Barbican, 1981-82), and Barry Kyle (Stratford/Barbican, 1989-90). Many details of these productions are usefully collected by J. L. Styan, All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare in Performance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).
Muriel St. Clare Byrne, “The Shakespeare Season at the Old Vic, 1958-59, and Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959,” Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959):562; Nicholas Shrimpton, “Shakespeare Performances in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 1981-82,” Shakespeare Survey 36 (1983):150; Robertson Davies, “The Players,” in Tyrone Guthrie and Robertson Davies, Renown at Stratford: A Record of the Shakespeare Festival in Canada, 1953 (Toronto: Clark, Irwin, 1953), 75; Styan, All's Well, 23.
Shrimpton, “Shakespeare Performances,” 150. The Barton production played Bertram “with an icy correctness of demeanor,” in Styan's view (All's Well, 22), and the Moshinksy Bertram (Ian Charleson) was blandly taciturn. For the Jones version, see below. Reviewing the recent production by Barry Kyle, Barbara Everett (review of All's Well That Ends Well, TLS, 27 Oct./2 Nov. 1989, 1185) found a Bertram invested with “a younger brother's wistful affection for Helena,” with the result that he “never comes near that brute male charm which actually overwhelms her; robbed of its aristocratic certitude, Bertram's part is almost unactable.”
Perhaps one lesson of these modern performances is that a producer should decide not between an amiable Bertram and a snob, but between an aristocrat capable or incapable of reflecting upon his experience. One reviewer thought that in the first Nunn version, Gwilym became “a savage Strindbergian monster” (Styan, All's Well, 22). If he has played a Bertram who is excessively foolish, or who is throughout ruled by his impulses, the actor may find it hard to show consideration, like an angel, overtaking his character in the final thirty lines.
Byrne, “The Shakespeare Season,” 557, calls Bertram's couplet “the worst,” and adds, “I did not hear him speak it. I did not knowingly shut my ears. Actress and producer simply persuaded me at the critical moment to be all eyes and feeling.” For the other quotations, see Russell Jackson's review of the Nunn production, “All's Well That Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre,” Cahiers Elisabèthains 22 (1982):98; Joseph Price, “The Interpretation of Shakespeare in the Theatre,” in Directions in Literary Criticism, ed. Stanley Weintraub and Philip Young (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973), 78; Styan, All's Well, 116; Roger Warren, “Shakespeare at Stratford and London,” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983):80.
Price finds that in one review “even the much-maligned reconciliation was justified in critical theory reminiscent of Langer, Frye, and Barber” (“Interpretation,” 80). Cf. R. A. Foakes, Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays (London: Routledge, 1971), 17: “An account of the play that focusses on the dramatic action suggests a different estimate of All's Well, as something other than festive comedy.” In his recent Stratford production, Barry Kyle, aiming apparently at another sort of festive ending, “floods his stage with actual small persons, ‘Children of Estate Workers,’ who lose his heroine all the effect of her return home to Rossillion at last” (Everett, review of All's Well).
See Roger Warren, “Comedies and Histories at Two Stratfords, 1977,” Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978):145-46. The description of the Moshinsky film is by G. K. Hunter (review of the BBC-TV production, Shakespeare Quarterly 33 :76); quoted in Styan, All's Well, 114.
The remark about Bertram's speech going better in the theater is by J. C. Trewin, Going to Shakespeare (London: Allen and Unwin, 1978), 187 (quoted in Styan, All's Well, 115). For a reading of the marriage of Bertram and Helena as the symbol of their “acceptance of their own faulty parental experiences,” see W. Speed Hill, “Marriage as Destiny: An Essay on All's Well That Ends Well,” English Literary Review 5 (1975):344-59. Hill remarks interestingly that “Bertram's education as a courtier is the essential subject of the play” (p. 357).
Jay Halio (“All's Well That Ends Well,” Shakespeare Quarterly 15 :33) thinks that “if Shakespeare fails to supply us with sufficient verbal clues as to Betram's true character … it is quite possible that he depended (if unduly) upon the implications of his plot and (more plausibly) upon the acting itself.” Halio develops Bradbrook's point that Bertram's nobility is from the start problematic and that Parolles is “symptomatic” of Bertram's self-betrayal. Jonas Barish, in his good introduction to All's Well, in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), says of Bertram's initial rejection of Helena, “He misconceives his aristocratic heritage, at this moment, as a simple possession, rather than as a quality of spirit or an ideal to be realized” (p. 366).
Parolles' paradoxical argument that Helena's virginity betrays “self-love … the most inhibited sin in the canon” (I.i.142-43) parrots the courtly gospel of Cynthia's Revels. Asotus in the same play, and several other Jonsonian characters in Every Man Out of His Humor about a year before (1599), evidently made the foppish exclamation, “O Lord, sir!” current on the stage.
See Johann Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954), especially chapters 4-6. Besides Huizinga's examples of honor that reveal “the primitive and spontaneous asceticism … at the bottom of the chivalric ideal” (p. 77), canto 29 of Orlando Furioso supplies a striking illustration of the heroic nobleman and his queer lack of what we call self-consciousness. Rodomonte, having in his drunkenness been tricked by Isabella into chopping off her head, erects a shrine to her and her dead fiancé. He then builds a narrow bridge over the nearby river and challenges all passengers, promising their spoils as trophies for the couple's tomb. The Saracen thus translates his guilt into aggression, compels the world to pay for his error, and institutes a ritual conflict symbolizing his determination to hew to his honor and to Muslim law (if he gets drunk again or forfeits his self-mastery, he can atone by falling into water). The chivalric hero regularly uses his vow to define himself.
See below for the differing interpretations of the lines in which Helena steps forth to make her choice. In the next act (III.ii.79-82), the Countess repeats the elders' indignation at the rejection of Helena.
For a discussion of the older generation's sexual jealousy in All's Well, see Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), chapter 5. Kirsch takes up Rossiter's hint that Shakespeare had been reading Montaigne's essay, “Upon Some Verses of Virgil,” in Florio's translation (see Rossiter, Angel with Horns, 98-99).
An example of psychological abstraction can be found in Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, 40-41; he thinks this “forced marriage to Helena deflects [Bertram] from his quest for a masculine identity and toward a sexuality he fears” (owing to his associating Helena with his mother and hence with Oedipal feelings that threaten to overwhelm his “precarious masculinity”).
Andrew Lang, “All's Well That Ends Well,” Harper's Magazine 85 (1892):220-22.
The sick king, as the example of King Lear reminds us, “was always something more than a metaphor for Shakespeare” (Bradbrook, “Virtue Is the True Nobility,” 294). Bradbrook interprets this symbol in All's Well as an admonition against the perils of the court. “A sick or ageing ruler left the courtiers exposed to all the natural dangers of the place without restraint.” In Bradbrook's view (Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, 170), Shakespeare missed or abandoned his original aim of showing in Bertram the “fashioning of a gentleman.” Bradbrook is right about the playwright's original plan (which he does, however, complete), but she gives a sentimental, uncourtly meaning to “gentleman.” Shakespeare's courtier knows when to “condescend” to inferiors, but his chief study is his honor; without that, he is no “gentleman.”
Significantly, Jung puts just the opposite interpretation upon the figure of the sick king, a fundamental symbol of the alchemists. Jung maintains that the sick or infertile king in myths and fairy tales corresponds to the ennui or depression that always signals the start of the “individuation” process.
Commenting in her New Penguin edition of the play ([New York: Penguin Books, 1970], 176), when Parolles says “If you will have it [i.e., the account of the miracle] in showing, you shall read it in what-do-ye-call there,” Barbara Everett suggests that Lafew does not read off a title, as Hunter and several producers of the play have him doing. Even if Parolles refers to a broadside ballad or a print, says Everett, Lafew takes “showing” to mean manifestation, and so formulates its meaning in an elegant courtly motto. Everett's interpretation brings out the self-conscious effect of Lafew's summary, which is a good example of courtly reflexiveness or self-mirroring.
Bertram says next to nothing in this dialogue, and his silence has troubled the editors who have rearranged the speeches in an effort to mute Parolles' verbosity and repair Bertram's “meekness.” The Globe editors reduce Parolles to nothing but an echo, and Sisson simply omits Bertram from the entry (see Hunter's note on the passage). But as Everett (ed., All's Well, 176) remarks, “The characters in this play do have odd angles: the youth Bertram has his meekness, and the fool Parolles his moments of strength.” I think Bertram's silence argues rather that he is not much more interested in the miraculous cure than he was in the King's “notorious” disease, of which Lafew had to inform him (I.i.30-33).
All's Well That Ends Well, The New Shakespeare, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 146, 148; Price, The Unfortunate Comedy, 155-56.
Bradbrook, M. C. “Virtue Is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well.” The Review of English Studies, n.s., 1 (1950): 289-301. (Reprinted in Muir, ed., Shakespeare: The Comedies.)
Byrne, Muriel St. Clare. “The Shakespeare Season at the Old Vic, 1958-59, and Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959.” Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959): 556-67.
Frye, Northrop. “The Argument of Comedy.” In English Institute Essays, 1948. Edited by D. A. Robertson, Jr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. (Reprinted in Calderwood, ed., Essays in Shakespearean Criticism.)
Lang, Andrew. “All's Well That Ends Well.” Harper's Magazine 85 (1892): 213-27.
Price, Joseph G. “The Interpretation of Shakespeare in the Theatre.” In Directions in Literary Criticism, edited by Stanley Weintraub and Philip Young. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973.
———. The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well That Ends Well and Its Critics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.
Rossiter, A. P. Angel with Horns: Fifteen Lectures on Shakespeare. Edited by Graham Storey. London: Longman, 1961.
Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Shakespeare Performances in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 1981-2.” Shakespeare Survey 36 (1983): 149-51.
Warren, Roger. “Comedies and Histories at Two Stratfords, 1977.” Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 145-52.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8941
SOURCE: Friedman, Michael D. “‘Service Is No Heritage’: Bertram and the Ideology of Procreation.” Studies in Philology 92, no. 1 (winter 1995): 80-101.
[In the following essay, Friedman focuses on the tension between Bertram's individualized sexual desires and the social necessity of legitimate procreation portrayed in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Ah, if thou issueless shalt hap to die, The world will wail thee like a makeless wife; The world will be thy widow and still weep, That thou no form of thee hast left behind .....No love toward others in that bosom sits That on himself such murd'rous shame commits.
(Sonnet 9, ll. 3-6, 13-14)
In contrast to the argument employed in the first eight of Shakespeare's procreation sonnets, Sonnet 9 abandons the strategy of exhorting the young man to beget a son for the benefit of his own self-perpetuation and turns instead to the concerns of “the world,” which maintains a keen interest in his failure thus far to produce an heir. This social dimension of the procreative process takes the form of familial pressure on the young man to carry out his duty to pass down the honor of his house for others' sake as well as his own. Robert Crosman, who recently argues for Southampton as the target of Shakespeare's exhortations, suggests, “If the sonnets are not addressed to Southampton, then they are addressed to someone very much like him: a vain young aristocrat with a beautiful mother and a dead father, whose family was eager to see him marry and beget an heir, but who was not himself eager to put aside self-admiration, casual sex, and perhaps crushes on older men.”1 Such a description of the young man of the Sonnets also fits another of Shakespeare's creations, Bertram of All's Well that Ends Well, who finds himself in a similar situation vis-à-vis his own family. Bertram's recently widowed mother supports the designs of Helena, a waiting gentlewoman, to become her son's wife. By curing the King's illness, Helena earns the right to marry the Count, but Bertram disdains her lowly origins and refuses to consummate the marriage. Instead, he flees with his mentor Parolles to the Tuscan wars, where he attempts to seduce Diana, a virtuous maid. The play at this point goes beyond the situation described in Sonnet 9, for it enacts the ultimate triumph of the “makeless wife,” Helena, who beguiles the Count into unwittingly fulfilling his ancestral responsibility by means of a bed-trick. She conceives a child through this union, and “the world” eventually has its way.
Despite the fact that Helena's conspiracy achieves its desired effect, All's Well does not resolve the original contradiction between Bertram's desire to engage in unfettered sexual liaisons and his social obligation to father legitimate heirs. Indeed, Bertram's interactions with the predominantly male society of the court tend to exacerbate this conflict by encouraging him in both directions at once. The King urges Bertram to live up to the example set by his father, a family man and a soldier, but the sexual ethics associated with these roles, as the play presents them, are seemingly incompatible. While the institution of marriage promotes monogamous sexuality for the purpose of procreation, the code of military behavior condones the illicit seduction of young maids as analogous to the slaughter of enemies on the battlefield. At the end of the play, Bertram is first celebrated for his service in the wars, then condemned by his king and mother for his metaphorically equivalent act of military “service” performed, as Bertram thinks, upon Diana.2 The moment of Helena's climactic reappearance at Rossillion dramatizes the ostensible resolution of this contradiction, for it demonstrates to Bertram that a man may love like a soldier and a father at the same time. Helena's bed trick allows Bertram to experience the thrill of licentious sex, then her pregnancy both legitimizes that experience and presents the Count with the fulfillment of his lineal duty. Of course, this resolution is merely imaginary, for as Janet Adelman points out, “the act imagined to have been deeply illicit is magically revealed as having been licit all along.”3 Nevertheless, Bertram submits to this illusory solution and accepts his designated social position as both soldier and father.
In Althusserian terminology, the conclusion of All's Well exemplifies the way in which ideology situates the subject (Bertram) in a “‘lived’ … relation to the real,”4 which, in the words of James Kavanagh, provides the subject with “a set of pre-conscious image-concepts in which men and women see and experience, before they think about, their place within a given social formation.”5 Ideology, in this context, refers to “a system of representations that offer the subject an imaginary, compelling sense of reality in which crucial contradictions of self and social order appear resolved.”6 In Bertram's case, the bed trick and the resulting pregnancy offer him just such a “compelling sense of reality,” which seems to resolve the conflict between his individual desire and the needs of the social order. However, the text also encounters some difficulty in attempting to reconcile the lustful, “wicked” intent of Bertram's act of seduction and the chaste, “lawful” meaning of his conjugal union with his wife. As Helena says to the Widow and Diana before the implementation of the bed trick,
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.
Faced with the nagging ambiguity of the deed that she and Bertram are about to perform, Helena cannot avoid the conclusion that the act is both “lawful” and “sinful” at the same time. Unable to resolve this contradiction, she simply dismisses it in favor of direct action to reclaim Bertram for the social order: “But let's about it.” Helena inevitably falls silent when she encounters the notion that lascivious male sexuality may be turned to legitimate procreative use,8 for such a paradox contradicts the cultural assumption that, as Sonnet 129 puts it, “lust in action” is “Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame” (ll. 1-2).9 Nevertheless, the text also highlights the biological truth that illicit copulation is no more “wasteful,” in a reproductive sense, than married sexuality; the product of an extramarital coupling is simply not recognized by society as a legitimate heir.
Therefore, the written text of All's Well manifests both the successful reconciliation of the subject to the social order and the unresolved contradictions which ought to impede such resolution. This counterposition of contrary ideological elements is one of the characteristic strengths of Shakespearean drama, but as Kavanagh tells us, the allowance of discursive space to opposed ideological components
also destabilizes the reconciliation effect that the text seeks to achieve within a given cultural ideology. The achievement of the appropriate effect with a text that opens itself so to insurgent ideological positions becomes more heavily reliant on the context of extra-textual ideological, political, and economic practices that surround and enmesh the text, and manage its consumption.10
Critical discourse represents one extra-textual practice which “develops and realizes the ideological effects of a literary text.”11 When such a text is specifically dramatic, however, performative discourse may also serve to manage its consumption, providing a context in which the “reconciliation effect” may achieve stability within a particular cultural ideology. As an examination of All's Well on the stage will demonstrate, the performance choices of directors and actors have tended to eliminate or distract attention away from conflicts present in the written text, thereby averting ideological discord between the performed text and its spectators. Following a discussion of the competing ideologies of procreation at work in All's Well, this study will conclude with a consideration of the production history of Act 5, scene 3, with special emphasis on the moment of Helena's return, pregnant, to Rossillion, which offers various manifestations of the ideological function of performance.
Upon Bertram's arrival at the Court of France, the King immediately comments on the young Count's physical likeness to his predecessor:
Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face; Frank nature, rather curious than in haste, Hath well compos'd thee. Thy father's moral parts Mayest thou inherit too!
This resemblance is at the heart of Bertram's conflict with society, for as R. B. Parker points out, his friends and family, “eager to see a potential for nobility in him that he does not really possess … keep saying they hope he will live up to the virtues and achievements of his famous father.”12 The Count's responsibility to uphold the family name is symbolized by his ancestral ring, which he later hesitates to give to Diana when she asks for a token of his affection:
Give me that ring.
I'll lend it thee, my dear, but have no power
To give it from me.
Will you not, my lord?
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.
Bertram's ring represents not only his duty to emulate his honorable forbears, but also his link in a chain of inheritance that has endured for several generations. In order to avoid “the greatest obloquy i' th' world,” Bertram must both keep the ring (the honor of his house handed down to him intact by his father) and eventually produce a “sequent issue” (5.3.196) to whom he may bequeath it. Thus, Bertram's responsibility extends to future generations as well as to the past; he owes it to his father and his son to serve as the intermediary between them. As the poet reminds the young man in Sonnet 13, “You had a father; let your son say so” (l. 14).
Despite his duty to his house, Bertram gives away the symbol of his honor to a woman who cannot produce for him a legitimate heir, thereby endangering his link in the generational chain in both directions at once. The discrepancy between Bertram's ancestral obligations and his wartime behavior is one symptom of the conflicts within and between the ideologies which dominate the civilian and military spheres. At the moment of Bertram's first appearance at Court, the King urges the Count to emulate his father, the famous soldier, but when the Tuscan wars arise, the King prohibits the very emulation he ordains. Bertram is “commanded here, and kept a coil with / ‘Too young,’ and ‘The next year’ and ‘'Tis too early’” (2.1.27-28). Frustrated by this contradiction, Bertram must stand by and hear the King salute the other youths about to embark in their fathers' footsteps:
Farewell, young lords.
Whether I live or die, be you the sons
Of worthy Frenchmen; let Higher Italy—
Those bated that inherit but the fall
Of the last monarchy—see that you come
Not to woo honour, but to wed it, when
The bravest questant shrinks: find what you seek,
That fame may cry you loud. I say farewell.
Health at your bidding serve your majesty!
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.
The King's two speeches in this passage illustrate the dual and conflicting codes of sexual ethics impressed upon the minds of the young French courtiers. Their sovereign's first command “Not to woo honour, but to wed it” employs the language of love and courtship to describe the acquisition of glory on the battlefield; honor is personified as a woman with whom the young solider must not dally, but enjoy only within the confines of marriage. In the second speech, the King reverses the metaphorical relationship between love and war and speaks of courtship as if it were battle. Women, specifically “Those girls of Italy” are no longer personifications of honor, but enemies plotting to take the soldiers captive. Contradicting his earlier mandate of committed sexuality, the King warns his young lords to “serve,” both literally in the field and metaphorically in the beds of the Italian girls, before becoming prisoners of war or love.
Bertram's father, as his own generation remembers him, was a paragon of “service.” The invalid King in particular looks back nostalgically on his military comradeship with the former Count of Rossillion and tells his son,
I would I had that corporal soundness now, As when thy father and myself in friendship First tried our soldiership. 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.
In time, both the King and Bertram's father were eventually worn “out of act,” unable to perform their military “service.” This passage refers, in one sense, to the elder soldiers' unfitness for battle, but it also glances at their inability to perform the sexual “act,” which the King blames on the advancement of “haggish age.” Again, the soldier's enemy is personified as a woman, this time a sorceress who steals upon the unsuspecting warrior to sap his strength and virility. Plagued by this hag, the King now languishes of a fistula, but the courtier Lafew describes the ailment as a form of impotence which the alluring but virtuous Helena may cure by replenishing the King's sexual vitality:
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.
Old Lafew himself, in conversation with Parolles, laments the fact that age has also stolen away his own potency:
My lord, you do me most insupportable vexation.
I would it were hell-pains for thy sake, and my poor doing eternal; for doing I am past, as I will by thee, in what motion age will give me leave. Exit
Arthur Kirsch speculates that Lafew's “compulsive interest” in Parolles stems in part from his exasperation with his own “declining sexual powers”;13 Lafew is well past “doing” while the younger soldier is not. This envious scorn of youthful sexual capacity characterizes the elder generation's disdain for the younger men in the play, especially Bertram and Parolles.14
Faced with diminished capabilities, the old Count, as the King recalls, found no more purpose to his life: “‘Let me not live,’ quoth he, / ‘After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff / Of younger spirits’” (1.2.58-60). This wish eventually comes true, for the old Count's death clears the way for his young son to possess the “oil” or potency his father's flame of desire came to lack. As the Countess, excusing Bertram's earlier disobedience, says to the King near the end of the play,
'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.
The King agrees that the fire and oil of youth (its will and its ability to put that will into action) is “too strong for reason's force” and acts against its own self-interest. Helena clarifies the explicitly sexual component of this metaphor when she explains to the Widow that Bertram's lust for Diana burns more intensely than his devotion to the symbol of his family's honor: “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” (3.7.25-28). The youthful “abuse” of sexual capacity particularly angers the impotent Lafew, who observes the scene of Helena's choice of a husband from a distance and remarks on her suitors' apparent rejection of her proposals, “Do they all 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” (2.3.86-88). In Old Lafew's mind, any young man who foolishly passes up the chance to enjoy Helena's physical charms within the context of marriage does not deserve to possess sexual capability in the first place.
Angered by the youthful misuse of sexual potency, the King and Lafew pressure the young lords to apply their virile energies toward the reproduction of the elder generation's version of the social order. Helena's cure, although it seems to restore the King's own sexual vigor,15 cannot remove the class barriers which disqualify her as an appropriate partner in the propagation of his royal name.16 He may, however, bestow enough wealth upon Helena to make her what he considers an eligible match for Bertram, through whom the King may vicariously experience a legitimate consummation with Helena and thereby perpetuate the current social structure of the Court.17 The King's concern with procreation, not merely sexuality, is evident in his description of Helena's fitness to produce offspring for the house of Rossillion:
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.
After praising Helena's ability to “breed honour” for Bertram, the King moves the other direction along the chain of inheritance and criticizes Bertram's failure to live up to his father's example of honorable behavior. Ironically, Bertram's own notion of honor, with its emphasis on class consciousness, forbids the type of “humility” and disregard for distinctions in blood for which his father has been commended (1.2.44). Given the Count's present refusal to act as the link between generations, the King endeavors to ensure the continuation of the house of Rossillion by asserting his power to enforce Bertram's cooperation in the reproductive process: “It is in us to plant thine honour where / We please to have it grow” (2.3.156-57). As if by some form of artificial insemination, the King intends to plant the seed of Bertram's honor in Helena's womb, but Bertram foils this plan by running away without bedding his wife. Until the contradiction between the sexual roles of soldier and father is resolved, Bertram cannot be compelled to act “honorably” in the eyes of the Court.
Once Bertram escapes to the Tuscan wars, he leaves behind him the cultural expectations of the Court and enters the military domain, where the concept of “service” governs both battlefield and bedroom activity. In both arenas, the object is to kill one's enemy: either to slay the soldier in the field or to be the death of a maid's virginity. While the civilian social order openly glorifies the first type of service, it publicly condemns (yet privately winks at) the second, branding illicit seduction a barren, sterile pursuit that does not serve social ends. However, a competing military ideology espoused primarily by Parolles resolves this contradiction for Bertram by asserting that “Loss of virginity is rational increase” (1.1.125). In other words, all copulation, even “service” performed outside marriage, is potentially procreative; therefore, a man may kill and bring life in the same sexual act. Although Parolles' own soldiership is debatable, as a miles gloriosus whose name means “words,” he functions as a spokesman for an exaggerated version of the military ideology that “true” soldiers, like the brothers Dumaine, secretly disparage. Bertram shares the braggart soldier's attitude until his exposure in Act 4, which appears to invalidate Parolles' construction of reality and to prepare the Count for his re-entry into the civilian social order.
We first hear details of Bertram's great success in the wars from Diana and her mother, who discuss the Count's triumphs prior to Helena's arrival in Florence:
They say the French count has done most honourable service.
It is reported that he has taken their great'st commander, and that with his own hand he slew the duke's brother.
Just as Bertram's “honorable service” in war involves the slaying of the duke's brother, his supposed seduction of Diana is described privately by the second Captain Dumaine as the slaughter of her virginity: “He hath perverted a young gentlewoman here in Florence, of a most chaste renown, and this night he fleshes his will in the spoil of her honour” (4.3.13-15). As G. K. Hunter notes, “To ‘flesh a hound with the spoil’ was to give it some of the flesh of the hunted animal to eat, to stimulate its hunting instincts. So, Bertram's will (lust) is to be fleshed (rewarded and stimulated) with the honour of the girl it has hunted down.”18 Dumaine, who has himself accompanied the Count on the hunt for Diana (3.6), now somewhat hypocritically censures Bertram for tracking down his innocent prey, then killing and devouring her honor. In Dumaine's view, the Count has taken the first step toward demonstrating the violent and voracious sexual appetite ascribed to him by Parolles: “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” (4.3.211-13).19
All's Well also insistently portrays Bertram's pursuit of Diana as a martial campaign with sexual conquest as its objective.20 As Helena tells the Widow, “The count he woos your daughter, / Lays down his wanton siege before her beauty, / Resolv'd to carry her” (3.7.17-19). Diana herself reproaches Bertram for attempting to carry out this form of military service:
I love thee
By love's own sweet constraint, and will for ever
Do thee all rights of service.
Ay, so you serve us
Till we serve you; but when you have our roses,
You barely leave our thorns to prick ourselves,
And mock us with our bareness.
As Diana knows, Bertram intends to pluck the rose of her chastity and leave her bare of honor, an image which John F. Adams argues represents the “barrenness” of dishonorable sexual union.21 The Clown Lavatch, telling the Countess his reasons for wishing to marry, agrees that carnal service outside the bonds of matrimony is deficient and unfruitful: “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” (1.3.21-24). As Elizabeth Sacks comments,
The word “service” is double-edged, referring both to domestic servitude and sexual service, and the Clown's speech thus acquires a second meaning: “There is no future in sexual dalliance; I must marry and found a family.” The sexual pun on “service” points up the [“fact” that] illicit sexual encounter is sterile, offering no promise of children. Only marriage assures survival—“heritage,” “blessing of God”—through procreation.22
The proverbial nature of the Clown's speech (“Service is no heritage”—“they say barnes are blessings”) suggests that Lavatch articulates the civilian social order's ideology of procreation. Bertram, as a subject, must also come to accept the sterility of service if he is to assume his place within that social formation.
However, Parolles' military code of ethics offers Bertram a different ideology which resolves temporarily the conflict between his desire for uncommitted sex and the wastefulness of such activity. According to Parolles (and biological fact), episodes of illicit sexuality are potentially no less procreative than conjugal relations, and a soldier's brief encounter with a maid will not necessarily leave her barren:
You have some stain of soldier in you; let me ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?
Keep him out.
But he assails; and our virginity, though valiant, in the defence yet is weak. Unfold to us some warlike resistance.
There is none. Man setting down before you will undermine you and blow you up.
A soldier “setting down” before a virgin, like Bertram laying down his “wanton siege” before Diana's beauty, may easily blow her up, swelling her womb with his unborn child. Although the military context of these remarks implies that Parolles refers to martial “service,” he does not specify that such a loss of virginity takes place outside the context of marriage; indeed, the question of marriage simply does not arise. Parolles merely argues against virginity as an impediment to the natural, fruitful process of procreation: “Virginity, by being once lost, may be ten times found, by being ever kept it is ever lost. … There's little can be said in't; 'tis against the rule of nature. To speak on the part of virginity is to accuse your mothers, which is most infallible disobedience” (1.1.128-35). The extent to which Bertram has come to identify with this sense of reality is evident in the reasoning he uses to try to talk Diana into bed with him: “And now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got” (4.2.9-10).24 Like Parolles' appeal to the mothers of virgins, Bertram's reference to the sexuality of Diana's mother affirms procreation while avoiding the issue of marriage altogether.
Just after Bertram's wedding, Parolles voices overt opposition to wedlock in the proverbial language of his competing ideology: “A young man married is a man that's marr'd” (2.3.294). If military service itself is procreative, then there is no need for the restrictive, emasculating bonds of matrimony:
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.
Ironically, Parolles views married sexuality as a wasteful activity because it saps the “manly marrow,” the vital juices which sustain the soldier's potency and allow him to perform his military “service.” The belief that the act of intercourse drains the life out of a man reappears two scenes later, when the Clown informs the Countess that Bertram has run away from the Court:
Nay, there is some comfort in the news, some comfort; your son will not be kill'd so soon as I thought he would.
Why should he be kill'd?
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.
Like Parolles, the Clown observes the overlap between military and sexual service, which he calls “standing to't,” an action that paradoxically leads both to death and to the renewal of life.25 Holding his ground on the battlefield will compel a soldier to kill or be killed, while rising to the occasion on the sexual battleground also leads to “the loss of men” as well as “the getting of children.”
However, Parolles himself does not “stand to't” under the pressure of the battlefield interrogation staged by the Dumaines in 4.3, and his cowardly double-dealing causes Bertram to disavow his allegiance to him. As the Count later portrays his former mentor to the King, “He's quoted for a most perfidious slave / With all the spots a' th' world tax'd and debosh'd, / Whose nature sickens but to speak a truth” (5.3.204-6). Having recognized Parolles' duplicity, Bertram disputes the truth of anything the braggart soldier might claim, particularly his valorization of sexual service, which the Count now views as mere debauchery. Thus, the play at this point demonizes Parolles' alternative ideology with an ad hominem argument rather than a refutation of its principles, and residual conflicts persist. When we see Bertram in Act 5, he is eager to please the king by marrying and assuming his position within the civilian social order, but traces of Parolles' version of the military ideology still remain within his “lived relation to the real.”
Bertram's sojourn in the Tuscan wars succeeds on all fronts: he lives up to his father's example as a soldier, and he achieves what he believes to be a sexual conquest in the tradition of military service. His own reputation as a warrior secured, Bertram attempts to make peace with the civilian social order by accepting a match with Lafew's daughter, which puts him in a position to emulate the old Count once again, this time as a producer of legitimate heirs.26 Bertram's battlefield success has already led to one metaphorical pregnancy; the Duke of Florence, promoting Bertram to the command of his cavalry, ordains, “The general of our horse thou art, and we, / Great in our hope, lay our best love and credence / Upon thy promising fortune” (3.3.1-3). The Count's marriage to Maudlin is arranged so that he may make her “great” with child as well, but this match does not resolve the conflict between the codes governing the sexual behavior of the soldier and the father. Until Helena's reappearance, Bertram merely assigns these contradictory ethics to different spheres: he keeps the lustful, uncommitted copulation acceptable within the military context separate from the lawful, monogamous sexuality appropriate to the bonds of matrimony. Only Helena's legitimate pregnancy, engendered through an hour of “illicit” passion, can unite these two standards and fully reconcile Bertram to his social position. The visual revelation of Helena in a pregnant state embodies this resolution, fusing together in one form the chaste woman who has provided him with sexual stimulation and the wife who will bear him a child.
When Bertram first runs away from Helena to the wars, his mother insists that “his sword can never win / The honor that he loses” (3.2.92-93), but the Count's brave service on the battlefield restores him to the good graces of the King, who accepts Bertram's excuses for his disobedient conduct and approves his engagement to Maudlin. When Diana's charge of a prior claim to Bertram's hand threatens to disrupt this match, the Count downplays his attachment to her as a mere youthful indiscretion: “Certain it is I lik'd her / And boarded her i' th' wanton way of youth” (5.3.209-10). Here Bertram displays vestiges of the military view of sexuality advocated by Parolles: Diana was simply a vessel “boarded” by the young soldier during his allowably wanton service in the wars. Bertram's excuse assumes, with some justification, that the King and others share his distinction between the sexual behavior appropriate to military and civilian life, but Lafew, the enemy to youthful carnal abuses, now rejects the Count as a suitable match for Maudlin: “Your reputation comes too short for my daughter; you are no husband for her” (5.3.175-76). The elder generation, which rules the civilian social order, simultaneously exalts and condemns Bertram's “service” in the wars, and his reconciliation with society appears to be in jeopardy.
At this point, Helena, who has reportedly died of grief over the Count's abandonment of their marriage, miraculously returns to salvage Bertram's reconciliation to the civilian social formation. Her pregnancy represents a change from the play's source, in which Giletta of Narbona delivers twin sons, then waits years for them to grow up to resemble their father before offering them to him as evidence that she has fulfilled one of her assigned tasks.27 The translation from prose fiction to drama may have occasioned the foreshortening of events here, but the demand for dramatic economy cannot also account for the curious deceleration of the movement of the plot at the beginning of Act 5. In reference to this slackened pace, R. B. Parker complains of “the apparently unnecessary scene at Marseilles”28 during which Helena gives a letter to one of the King's men and laments the rigors of her “exceeding posting day and night” with Diana and the Widow (5.1.1). One of the functions of this scene, however, may be to create the illusion of the passage of a significant amount of time between the bed trick and Helena's arrival at Rossillion, time enough for her condition to begin to “show.” Helena's obvious pregnancy, unmentioned by the text until seconds before her appearance, may provide in performance a surprising dimension of visual significance for both the audience and Bertram.
Although Parker asserts that “there has certainly not been time for the pregnancy to be so advanced,”29 Diana's prelude to Helena's entrance states specifically that her condition has progressed to the stage at which she can sense Bertram's child moving in her womb:
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.
According to Diana's riddle, Helena is both “dead” and “quick,” ostensibly deceased yet alive, lifeless yet bearing life. In a similarly paradoxical way, she is now two women to Bertram, both the virgin he has killed in the line of service and the wife he has impregnated with his child. Tellingly, we must “behold” the meaning of this riddle; its significance is embodied by the visual image of Helena's chastely beautiful and pregnant form. After she appears, the text continues to direct attention to the implications of what Bertram and the others “see” when they look at her:
Is there no exorcist
Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?
Is't real that I see?
No, my good lord;
'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see;
The name and not the thing.
Both, both. O pardon!
Helena claims to appear as a wife in “name” only and not as “the thing” itself; Bertram's spouse by law alone and not by practice. But when the Count views her, he sees “both” at the same time: the “shadow of a wife” whose chaste bed he knows he has not entered and the “real” wife with whom he has clearly conceived an offspring. By means of the bed trick, Helena portrays simultaneously the two diverse sexual partners Bertram seeks: the virgin illicitly (and yet still to be lawfully) deflowered, and the spouse who will help him fulfill his ancestral duty to procreate. Finding both coalesced into one woman, Bertram accepts this resolution, however imaginary it may be, and assumes his designated place at Helena's side, vowing to “love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (5.3.310).
Although from Bertram's point of view the conflict between his individual desire and the needs of the civilian social order is resolved, readers of All's Well have often found the Count's reconciliation with his society more open-ended and disturbing than one would expect in a romantic comedy. At least three sources of tension remain unresolved. First, even though Parolles himself is disgraced as a coward, his alternative ideology of procreation receives some degree of persuasive articulation that is never directly refuted. Contrary to cultural beliefs, sexual service does possess a reproductive capability equal biologically to that of conjugal relations. Second, Helena's dual role as a virgin sinfully seduced and a wife lawfully impregnated is merely illusory; readers are fully aware, in a way that Bertram is not, that the excitement of his “illicit” act was not in the deed itself but in his mind, as is the ultimate confluence of Helena's two roles. Can Bertram now desire Helena for herself and not simply as a body substituted for Diana's? Third, as Joseph Westlund points out, Helena makes a subtle change in the tasks assigned to her by Bertram when she reads them aloud at the end of the play:
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?
Technically, Bertram is not yet “doubly won,” for Helena's pregnancy does not fulfill the second condition as it is originally stated in his letter: “show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to” (3.2.57-58). Unlike Giletta of the source, Helena still faces the task of convincing Bertram that the child is his; moreover, there is no guarantee that the baby will turn out to be the male heir to the house of Rossillion that Bertram is obliged to produce. These loose ends could potentially disrupt what Kavanagh calls “the reconciliation effect that the text seeks to achieve within a given cultural ideology,” but in production, the performance choices made by actors and directors have served to manage the consumption of the text and to resolve contradictions between the text's sense of reality and that of a particular audience. My conclusion will raise the question of whether or not such contradictions ought to be resolved in the first place.
Historically, stage productions of All's Well have approached these three issues with strategies of omission and misdirection designed to draw viewers' attention away from the contradictory elements of the final scene. According to Joseph G. Price, the precedent for nineteenth-century revivals was set by J. P. Kemble's 1811 acting edition, which contained several major cuts, including the entire virginity dialogue between Parolles and Helena, the passage from Bertram's letter mentioning the condition of the conception of a child, and all overt references to the bed trick.31 Samuel Phelps' production at Sadler's Wells in 1852, which probably followed the Kemble text, featured the same expurgations but went a step further by eliminating the bed trick altogether.32 These bowdlerizations are clearly intended to avoid offending the moral principles of the age, but they also resolve potential ideological conflicts for the audience by omitting their foundations. The removal of the virginity dialogue eliminates the most articulate expression of Parolles' competing ideology of procreation, which no longer challenges the notion that “service” is barren. The obfuscation or elimination of the bed trick blurs the contradictory roles of seduced virgin and lawful wife that Helena plays for Bertram upon her reappearance, and the loss of the condition of the child removes pregnancy (and with it the indeterminate sex of the baby) from its central position in the visual scheme of the conclusion.33 As Price sums up the thrust of the altered text, “Everything in the play is directed to the delicate sensibility of the heroine and to the bliss of the reconciliation.”34
While twentieth-century productions of All's Well have restored most of the passages deleted during the nineteenth century, some modern directors have also incorporated bits of stage business which focus attention primarily on Bertram's newfound romantic attachment to Helena. For example, Russell Fraser describes the ending of John Barton's 1967 RSC revival as follows: “Helena's entry was a moving event to which Bertram responded with a passionate cry on the words, ‘Both, both. Oh pardon!’; his ‘ability to collapse,’ in R. L. Smallwood's phrase, was ‘his salvation.’”35 Photographs of the scene in performance show Bertram on his knees, grasping Helena's hand and the ring upon her finger as he smiles lovingly into her beaming face; however, she is not visibly pregnant.36 Such a staging highlights Bertram's remorse over his shabby treatment of Helena and his awakening love for her, and these emotions overshadow questions about sexuality and reproduction that linger in the written text. The visual element of Helena's pregnancy is also effaced from the most widely known version of the play, Elijah Moshinsky's BBC television production, which employs a dramatic shift in perspective at the moment of her entrance. G. K. Hunter recalls,
As the cast looks through the door music begins to play. “Behold the meaning,” says Diana. But the camera does not allow us to behold. Instead it does what the camera does best—it shows us a set of mouths and eyes. As it tracks along the line, we are made witness to a series of inner sunrises, as face after face responds to the miracle and lights up with understanding and relief. I confess to finding it a very moving experience.37
Moshinsky's manipulation of the audience's point of view directs our attention away from the visual image of Helena's body to the faces of the onlookers, particularly Bertram, whose apprehension of the event as a miraculous and moving resurrection the viewer is invited to share. The rest of the scene is shot with tight closeups, only briefly offering a glimpse of Helena's torso (which has not yet begun to show) moments before Bertram expresses his newly discovered love with a kiss. Thus, Moshinsky opts to allow the emotional power of Helena's reunion with her husband to take precedence over the troublesome meaning one might behold in her pregnant body, a choice which precludes potential conflict between the spectator's perception of reality and the version offered by the performed text.
When directors have provided audiences with the visual image of Helena in an observably pregnant state, their tendency has been to use stage business to foreground Bertram's attachment to the unborn child. Muriel St. Clare Byrne's influential review of Tyrone Guthrie's 1959 revival at Stratford-upon-Avon recalls that, at the moment of Bertram's concluding couplet, the Count knelt and clung to Helena in a “gesture of contrition.”38 A photograph accompanying this review depicts Bertram down on one knee, his head pressed to Helena's side, with one hand resting gently on her slightly swollen womb.39 A variation on this business occurred in the 1989 production directed by Edward Gilbert at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. Helena entered slowly, wearing a dress with an empire waist, which emphasized her expectant state. As she concluded her reading of the conditions of Bertram's letter—“This is done”—she took her husband's hand and placed it on her stomach, allowing him to feel the palpable life within her. Bertram's expression of love for Helena was clearly prompted by the powerful feelings evoked through this gesture, which signalled the beginning of the bond between the father and the child. As in the Guthrie production, the location of the spectator's emotional focus on the affection of Bertram for his unborn offspring, regardless of its sex, distracted attention from the Count's contradictory vision of Helena and the possible unfitness of the child to become the next Count Rossillion. Perhaps such an interpretation better suits the perceptions of an age which places less emphasis on gender in the determination of lineal inheritance.
As these modern examples show, Helena tends to be portrayed visually in 5.3 as either the object of Bertram's passion or as the mother of his child, but not “both,” as the text demands. When Helena's pregnancy is not visible, she may easily fit the conventional role of the object of male sexual desire, but when directors choose to make her condition obvious, they also tend to rechannel Bertram's ardor directly toward his child and only indirectly toward Helena in gratitude for conceiving his baby. What performances have not yet provided us is a picture of Helena as Bertram sees her, simultaneously his illicit lover and pregnant wife. The fact that there are practical difficulties involved in fusing these two parts convincingly on the stage is precisely the point; the union of the two roles is purely imaginary, and spectators unconvinced by the illusion that they have coalesced will become aware of the contradictions involved in their fusion, even if Bertram himself does not. These contradictions arise in the first place because Shakespeare's contrived solution, the bed trick, requires Bertram's reconciliation to the civilian social order to depend upon the facilitation of military “service,” with which the Court's ideology of procreation is ultimately incompatible. The sexual ethics of the soldier and the father are, in the end, mutually contradictory, and the play cannot hope to “resolve” them without residual conflicts.
I offer instances from the performance history of All's Well merely to demonstrate that the stage has traditionally attempted to resolve for its audiences the ideological conflicts present in the text rather than to allow these contradictions to trouble the guarded optimism of the conclusion. I do not claim that such stagings are “wrong” or “defective” in any sense; I only wish to point out that they achieve their effects, as do all performances, by foregrounding certain aspects of the text while obscuring others. It seems significant, however, that the aspects that are generally obscured are those which could potentially draw notice to the opposed ideological elements of the text and disrupt harmonious comic closure. As Sheldon Zitner remarks, “Music, dance, lighting and gesture and all the determination of actors and directors in league with audience susceptibilities can make All's Well seem [to be] a [traditional] comedy in the theatre. But the text has other directions.”40 To follow in these alternative directions, a contemporary performance of the play might enlist elements of production to expose sites of ideological contestation rather than to conceal them. Performance has no obligation to make consistent and pleasing what the text presents as contradictory and unsettling; on the contrary, the revelation of the text's perplexing inconsistencies may represent the fullest expression of the play's ideology of procreation.
Robert Crosman, “Making Love Out of Nothing At All: The Issue of Story in Shakespeare's Procreation Sonnets,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 41 (1990): 486.
Previous explorations of the sexual connotations of “service” in All's Well include John F. Adams, “All's Well that Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation,” SQ 12 (1961): 267; James L. Calderwood, “The Mingled Yarn of All's Well,” JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology] 62 (1963): 74; Christopher Roark, “Lavatch and Service in All's Well that Ends Well,” SEL [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900] 28 (1988): 248-49; and Elizabeth Sacks, Shakespeare's Images of Pregnancy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), 52.
Janet Adelman, “Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure,” in Shakespeare's Personality, eds. Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 152. Adelman's article is one of the most recent in a series of studies which explore male desire and sexual anxiety in All's Well, including Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); Ruth Nevo, “Motive and Meaning in All's Well that Ends Well,” in “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions”: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, eds. John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton (London: Methuen, 1987), 26-51; and Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
Louis Althusser, For Marx (New York: Vintage, 1970), 233-34.
James H. Kavanagh, “Shakespeare in Ideology,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), 145.
Quotations from All's Well refer to the Arden Shakespeare edited by G. K. Hunter (London: Methuen, 1959) and will be noted parenthetically in the text.
For further comments on the unsettling quality of this paradox, see Kirsch, 137; and R. G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), 124-25.
A similar situation occurs just after the bed trick when Helena reflects on the “sweet use” that a lustful Bertram has made of the wife he loathes:
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. But more of this hereafter.
Pierre Macherey and Etienne Balibar, “Literature as an Ideological Form: Some Marxist Hypotheses,” Praxis 5 (1980): 57, quoted in Kavanagh, 161.
R. B. Parker, “War and Sex in All's Well that Ends Well,” ShS [Shakespeare Survey] 37 (1984): 100.
Although the play accents Bertram's youth more strongly than that of Parolles, the braggart soldier is constantly associated with fashion, which Bertram's father condemns as an affectation of “younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses / All but new things disdain” (1.2.60-61).
R. B. Parker writes (p. 110), “After the cure … Lafew insists on an erotic element in the King's recovery; ‘your dolphin is not lustier,’ he claims, and ‘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, 41-43).
Helena acknowledges this class distinction when she adds the following condition to her proposed reward for healing the King: “Exempted be from me the arrogance / To choose from forth the royal blood of France / My low and humble name to propagate / With any branch or image of thy state” (2.1.194-97). It is worth noting that Helena wholeheartedly embraces her role in the procreative process in a way that Bertram does not. Her individual conflict with the needs of the social order takes instead the form of the opposition between Venus and Diana, sexual passion and maiden purity, which is ultimately resolved as chaste love within the context of marriage. See Eric LaGuardia, “Chastity, Regeneration, and World Order in All's Well that Ends Well,” in Myth and Symbol, ed. Bernice Slote (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963): 119-32.
For Bertram's role as the King's sexual surrogate, see Wheeler, 81; Parker, 110; and Carolyn Asp, “Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well that Ends Well,” Literature and Psychology 32 (1986): 55.
G. K. Hunter, 105n.
The connection between military service, killing, and eating (with overtones of sexual appetite) also appear at the beginning of Much Ado About Nothing, when Beatrice asks the Messenger about Benedick's success in the recent war:
I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing.
Faith, niece, you tax Signior Benedick too much, but he'll be meet with you, I doubt it not.
He hath done good service, lady, in these wars.
You had musty victual, and he hath holp to eat it: he is a very valiant trencherman; he hath an excellent stomach.
This quotation refers to the Arden Shakespeare Much Ado edited by A. R. Humphreys (London: Methuen, 1981).
For an extended discussion of the war/sex metaphor in All's Well, see Parker, 105-9.
Adams, 267. I agree in principle with Adams' interpretation of this passage, but he bolsters his evidence unjustifiably by reading “barrenness” for “bareness” in l. 20 without textual basis.
Parolles also reminds us that even rape has reproductive consequences. Under interrogation, when asked if he is acquainted with Captain Dumaine, he replies, “I know him: 'a was a botcher's prentice in Paris, from whence he was whipp'd for getting the shrieve's fool with child, a dumb innocent that could not say him nay” (4.3.180-83).
The resemblance between these two passages has been noted by several critics, among them G. K. Hunter, 101n; Parker, 106; Michael Taylor, “Persecuting Time with Hope: The Cynicism of Romance in All's Well that Ends Well,” English Studies in Canada 11 (1985): 283; and Alexander Welsh, “The Loss of Men and Getting of Children: All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure,” MLR [Modern Language Review] 73 (1978): 18-19.
Welsh sees this passage as fundamental to his thesis that the reasoning of All's Well “is fundamentally biological rather than cultural, and biology admits only two possible ends of human existence: the continuation of the species and individual death” (p. 17).
Robert Ornstein writes, “After [Bertram] has proved his gallantry, won the esteem of his fellow officers, and possessed the prize of Diana's virginity, he is ready to marry Maudlin, especially when it will redeem him in the eyes of the King, his mother, and Lafew” (Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery [Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986], 174).
“‘Giletta of Narbona,’ The Thirty-eighth Novel of William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure,” is reprinted in G. K. Hunter's Arden edition, 145-52. Some critics have remarked that Shakespeare's alteration fits with the equivocal nature of All's Well as a whole, which presents us with only the possibility for a happy ending. John Arthos comments that the “particular reality of twins is exchanged for an unknown birth, for an uncertain image of all the confusions and hopes that have reigned before” (“The Comedy of Generation,” EIC [Essays in Criticism] 2 : 108). Joseph Westlund writes, “That Helena is simply pregnant suits the insistently tentative quality of the play. She stands as a perfect symbol of potential, one which contributes to the play's haunting sense of longing for something good which may, or may not, be realized” (Shakespeare's Reparative Comedies: A Psychoanalytic View of the Middle Plays [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 145).
Joseph G. Price, The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well that Ends Well and its Critics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), 24-26.
Kemble's original 1794 production ironically featured an actress who was in fact pregnant at the time, but her condition was apparently considered a drawback rather than a feature to be exploited. As Charles Shattuck records, “Mrs. Jordan, who played the virginal Helena, was five months gone with child, a circumstance which drew one or two winking comments in the press and rendered further appearances in the role inadvisable” (Introduction to All's Well that Ends Well, John Philip Kemble Promptbooks [Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1974], i).
Russell Fraser, ed. All's Well that Ends Well, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 35. Fraser quotes Smallwood's article, “The Design of All's Well that Ends Well,” ShS 25 (1972): 60.
See Peter Ansorge, “Contemporary Shakespeare,” Plays and Players 14 (August, 1967): 36. A slightly different version of the same photograph appears in Aspects of Shakespeare's “Problem Plays”: Articles Reprinted from Shakespeare Survey, eds. Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 25. Although one cannot assume that a publicity still reproduces the details of a performance exactly, the evidence that Barton employed such an approach to this scene is suggestive.
G. K. Hunter, “The BBC All's Well that Ends Well,” in Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews, eds. J. C. Bulman and H. R. Coursen (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1988), 187. See also Roger Warren, “Some Approaches to All's Well that Ends Well in Performance,” in Shakespeare, Man of the Theater, ed. Kenneth Muir et al. (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), 119.
Muriel St. Clare Byrne, “The Shakespeare Season at the Old Vic, 1958-59 and Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959,” SQ 10 (1959): 557-58.
Byrne, 556-57. The same photo is reproduced in Muir and Wells, 25.
Sheldon P. Zitner, All's Well that Ends Well, Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989), 149.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2326
SOURCE: Schork, R. J. “The Many Masks of Parolles.” Philological Quarterly 76, no. 3 (summer 1997): 203-09.
[In the following essay, Schork claims that All's Well That Ends Well's Parolles is a clever adaptation of several stock types from Roman New Comedy: the cowardly braggart soldier, the crafty servant, and the archetypal pimp.]
As a romantic comedy there are a number of very odd twists to All's Well That Ends Well. Its adolescens hero is a reluctant lover, delinquent husband, and a liar. The King of France practically forces the youthful Count of Rossillion to marry a poor, but beautiful and intelligent commoner; Bertram's noble mother thoroughly approves of this match. In terms of the stock roles of the genre, the play's villain is an even greater bundle of contradiction. Parolles is acknowledged as part miles gloriosus, part parasite, and all rogue. The purpose of this note is to add aspects of two additional New Comedic roles to the list of type-characters which he enacts in the play. At times Parolles inverts the duties of a servus callidus; he also briefly appropriates the manner (and the morals) of a leno. The presence of an unscrupulous word-wizard and a procurer manqué in All's Well That Ends Well adds a new level of complexity to the action—and to our perception of Shakespeare's adaptation of classical motifs to the needs of his plots.1
First a brief review of Parolles' more obvious stock roles. Although he appears in Rowe's Dramatis Personae as a “parasitical follower of Bertram,” one of the primary functions of the Plautine parasite is adroitly deflected by Shakespeare. Parolles is assigned none of the fawning catalogues of praise by which he could, in typical realizations of the role, curry the favor of or cadge a dinner from his master.2 Rather, after his “capture,” he indicts the Count of Rossillion in several series of hyperbolic lies: “for rapes and ravishments he parallels Nessus …”; “in breaking [oaths] he is stronger than Hercules” (4.3.250-53). Indeed, Parolles does not hesitate to reveal to his captors the strength of his comrades' forces:
Spurio, a hundred and fifty; Sebastian, so many … mine own company, Chitopher, Vaumond, Bentii, two hundred fifty each; so that the muster-file, rotten and sound, upon my life, amounts not to fifteen thousand pole …
The same sort of specific detail and zany arithmetic is used by the parasite Artotrogus in Plautus' Miles Gloriosus. In a catalogue of Pyrgopolynices' far-flung slaughter of enemy forces, he incorrectly—and improbably—announces that their total is septem milia (42-54).
In classical New Comedy villains are frequently punished in a way that fits the crime. Pyrgopolynices, for example, is led into a trap by a slave. The boy disarms the victim by hailing him as the special favorite of two gods. The gullible braggart asks which pair: Mars et Venus (1384). These patrons personify and divinely supervise the spheres of human activity in which the soldier claims egregious heroism, war and love. Thus, in the next scene the avengers threaten to castrate him. Pyrgopolynices thereupon promises to reform. His captors exact a stiff monetary fine so that there will be sound witnesses that they have sent Venus' pet grandson away, gonads intact (“saluis testibus ut ted hodie amittamus Venerium nepotulum” [1420-21]). The double intent of Plautus' verbal byplay is obvious. In threat, oath, and release, Pyrgopolynices is paroled on the pledge of his bogus integrity, martial and venereal.3
In All's Well That Ends Well Parolles suffers an analogous fate. He is the only character in the play to speak in Latin. He does so when he claims that he will retrieve his lost drum from the field of battle, or “hic jacet” (3.6.62). That boast is never fulfilled; but this bravo does know the terminology. Significantly, then, pseudo-linguistics is the springe in the trap that exposes Parolles' sham courage and counterfeit loyalty. The trap is neatly built and baited by Bertram's fellow officers, who ambush Parolles while he scours the field for his missing drum. They know that their prey “hath a smack of all neighboring languages” (4.2.15). Thus, as they pretend to be members of the enemy force, they speak “clough's language” (4.2.19) and appoint a soldier to act as an interpreter for the blindfolded Parolles. He is completely hoodwinked:
And I shall lose my life for want of language. If there be here German, or Dane, Low Dutch, Italian, or French, let him speak to me.
His captors reply with bursts of nonsense: “Throca, movousus, cargo, cargo, cargo”; “Oscorbidulchos volivoco” (4.1.65, 79).4 When the “interpreter” lets Parolles know that he can save his life only by revealing the secrets of his camp, the scoundrel tells everything. As Bertram listens to these verbal proofs of Parolles' utter infidelity, a fellow officer volunteers a sardonic comment: “This is your devoted friend, the manifold linguist and armipotent soldier” (4.3.236).
Those two conspicuously Latinate epithet-noun phrases epitomize both the scope and the method of Parolles' humiliation. The braggart warrior becomes a secret-spilling coward; the master of language has been baffled by a jackdaw's gabble. I also suggest that there is additional dramatic significance in the characterization of Parolles as a “manifold linguist.” In addition to his boast of speaking many languages, he perverts the honorable function of the servus callidus in New Comedy. To be sure, there is no hint of a servile attitude in his actions, and his pedigree is that of a courtier and gentleman-officer. Nevertheless, Parolles' name signals his essence. And the stock character who serves and rescues the adolescens by his own mastery of words is the clever slave. Indeed, one of the bits of bogus speech that terrify Parolles is immediately translated into a threat typically used by Plautus to stymie the maneuvers of a slick conniver: “Portotartarossa. He calls for the torures” (4.3.119-20).5 After Bertram has listened to the enthusiastically verbose proof of his aide's treachery, he includes the following terms in the cascade of invective which he pours over his former comrade: “past-saving slave” (4.3.138) and “most perfidious slave” (5.3.205). The scornful noun is not meant to be taken literally, but in the typology of traditional roles it is right on the mark.
Bertram has learned that he should not have depended upon Parolles to serve him well in any of the tasks regularly assigned to a fast-talking slave in ancient comedy. The discovery of his sonnet-letter to Diana has revealed Parolles' self-serving betrayal of his master on a mission to arrange an assignation. His most flagrant failure to use words cleverly in defense of Bertram's interests, however, is shown in the final scene of the play. The King calls Parolles as a hostile witness in the inquest about the Count's relations with Diana. In Roman Comedy this would be the supreme test of the verbal ingenuity and loyalty of the servus callidus: the deft extrication of his master, in the face of family or proprietary accusation, from the consequences of his amorous adventures. In All's Well That Ends Well Parolles' words accomplish nothing: “Thou hast spoken already. … But thou art too fine in thy evidence, therefore stand aside” (5.3.267-68). There is more than just Parolles' ridiculous logic-chopping at fault here. In an scene much earlier in the play the King not only forecasts Bertram's obstinate failure to distinguish the genuine from the sham, but he also encapsulates the theme of the entire play:
Honors thrive When rather from our acts we them derive Than our foregoers. The mere word's a slave. …
On the stage of Plautus and Terence it was the manipulation of words by the clever slave that overcame the obstacles faced by the young master. In contrast, Parolles' repeated behavior reveals that he is the greatest obstacle which his master faces. Since he is a perverse slave to mere words, no honor derives from any of his acts.
The gap between what is said and what is done is, paradoxically, a watchword with another stock character in New Comedy, the leno. In Plautus' Pseudolus the archetypal pimp Ballio cuts short an appeal by a short-of-cash young lover: “eadem est mihi lex: metuo credere” (I have the same policy: I fear to give credit) (304). A bit later he reiterates his position: “inanis cedis, dicta non sonant” (Your visit is useless, words don't ring [like coins on the counter]) (308). A procuress in “Asinaria” is just as tough: “par pari datum hostimentumst, opera pro pecunia” (Fair return was given for fair price, service for cash) (172). Lycus is equally emphatic in Poenulus: “quia aurum poscunt praesentarium” (Because [what they want] demands gold, up front) (705).
Just as Parolles shows that he is a second-rank braggart warrior, abuses the flattery-ploy of a classical parasite, and falls flat as a scheming slave, so too does he momentarily appear as a leno. Here his words and stance ring true. Parolles plays that new role during a mission which, in Plautine comedy, would have been assigned to—and probably designed by—a servus callidus. Bertram uses him to deliver of a token to the master's lady-love. His miserable performance is revealed after the fact. During the interrogation by his captors, a letter to Diana, the count's “mistress,” is extracted from the prisoner's pocket. The interpreter reads the rhymed advice which Parolles has written to the young Florentine woman. Here is how she is to deal with the adolescens on whose behalf he is acting:6
“When he swears oaths, bid him drop gold, and take it; After he scores, he never pays the score. Half won is match well made; match and well make it; He ne'er pays after-debts, take it before.”
The primary dramatic purpose of this doggerel is, of course, to demonstrate to Bertram the extent of Parolles' villainy. He has betrayed not just the army, but a trusting friend and commander. The caddish advice which he offers to Diana would have been totally out of place for a clever slave in a Plautine comedy, but entirely congenial to one of his pimps.
The several New Comedic roles enacted by Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well are proof of Shakespeare's versatility and ingenuity in blending New Comedic motifs into a plot lifted from Boccaccio. All the characters in the play (the Countess as matrona, Lafew as senex, the Widow of Florence as anus, for example) could be matched to analogous characters in Roman comedy; none of them, however, plays the stock role straight. The Countess is amiable, Lafew pliable, and the old Widow generous. The most startling inversions of convention are those assigned to Parolles. He is overtly both a swaggering soldier and a parasite. Those two roles are usually complementary: the parasite flatters the miles. Shakespeare twists that relationship topsy turvy: Parolles falsely incriminates Bertram and reveals military secrets. He does so by using the same exaggerated catalogue of forces and ridiculous calculation that traditionally sum up the braggart warrior's conquests.
A second reversal in roles is even more deliberately unconventional. Parolles has some of the attributes of servus callidus; but his schemes fail, essentially because his designedly tricky words convince no one. When called to testify at his master's inquisition, Parolles' string of inane paradoxes triggers scorn from the accuser, not the usual acquittal of the adolescens. Moreover, on another typical mission (delivering the ring to Diana), he breaks character to utter the cliches of a Plautine leno. Here Parolles adopts the strategy of the clever slave's traditional enemy, the pimp who stands in the way of his master's true love. This is not mere inversion, it is treasonous perversion of generic expectations.
Variation on classical themes and character-paradigms in All's Well That Ends Well, especially the treatment of Helena, has long been discussed by critics.7 The radical reversals of type and rhetoric by Parolles—his correlative service as miles-parasitus and servus callidus-leno—have not been recognized. This note suggests that Shakespeare's Parolles, in New Comedic terms, generates considerable dramatic energy through a nicely articulated coincidence of conventional opposites.
For a crisp, deft discussion of the classical dimensions of All's Well That Ends Well, see Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Comedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 122-39.
There is no banquet in the play; but I detect a sly reminder of the parasite's essential goal in the following lines. After he has been convicted of utter disloyalty to his master, Parolles remarks: “Captain I'll be no more / But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft / As captain shall” (4.3.331-33); near the end of the play Lafew issues a scornful invitation: “I had talk of you last night; though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat” (5.2.53-54).
In All's Well That Ends Well Helena quickly blocks any amorous moves by Parolles, and, indicates that if the braggart “were born under a charitable star” of the god of war, it was when Mars “was retrograde” (1.1.190-98).
Although the intent and the dramatic context are not parallel, Plautus has a memorable scene in which incomprehensible language is cleverly manipulated for comic purposes. In Poenulus Hanno's long string of answers in Punic is “interpreted” by the servus callidus Milpho for his befuddled master (990-1031).
For a discussion of the ramifications of this staple comic motif, see Holt Parker, “Crucially Funny or Tranio on the Couch: The Servus Callidus and Jokes about Torture,” TAPA 119 (1989): 233-46.
Bertram's status is crudely underscored by Parolles in this scene. Just before the letter is read by his captors, he says “I knew the young Count to be a dangerous and lascivious boy” (4.3.219-20). In the letter itself he writes “Men are to mell with, boys are not to kiss” (4.3.228; my emphases). I owe this observation to a colleague, John J. Tobin.
For a summary of various reactions to Helena, see Larry S. Champion, The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy (Harvard U. Press, 1970), 217-18 and David McCandless, “Helena's Bed-trick: Gender and Performance in All's Well That Ends Well,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 45 (1994): 449-68, with extensive bibliographical detail in the notes.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671
SOURCE: Marks, Peter. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Washington Post (6 November 2003): C4.
[In the following review of director Richard Clifford's 2003 staging of All's Well That Ends Well at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., Marks finds the production conventional, drab, and lifeless.]
Even on the most accommodating of slopes, All's Well That Ends Well would be rough sledding. Perverse is not too strong a term for the vein in which Shakespeare is working in this peculiar “comedy” about a woman creepily pursuing a snooty punk of a nobleman who can barely stand the sight of her.
Over the years, literary critics have taken up the cause of this rarely performed piece as a small, misunderstood gem. George Bernard Shaw thought its spirited heroine, Helena, was a prototype for Ibsen's Nora in A Doll's House, and other analysts have obsessively puzzled over the play's eccentric plots for clues to a nasty streak in the dramatist's psyche.
Whatever its magnetic properties for scholars, however, All's Well That Ends Well is a bear to sit through. The latest confirmation of this is the new production at Folger Theatre, where a talented director, Richard Clifford, and an accomplished cast led by Catherine Flye, Holly Twyford, Rick Foucheux and Rick Hammerly fail to light an innovative spark under a play that's in desperate need of one.
Clifford, who directed Michael Learned to such penetrating effect in Elizabeth the Queen earlier this year, takes a head-on approach to All's Well, and the results are on the whole pretty blah. Cloaked in Victorian-era black for an opening funeral scene, the actors adopt a somber tone that the production rarely shakes. The staircases that set designer Tony Cisek erects at opposite sides of the stage are the only prominent adornments. They and Kathleen Geldard's heavy gowns and standard-issue soldiers' uniforms are merely sturdy-looking, adding to the air of utilitarian drabness.
Twyford is Clifford's Helena, the woman with the guy fixation so icky that she makes the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction seem like a mildly interested contestant on Blind Date. The apple of Helena's eye is one Bertram (James Ginty), a priggish young man in whose house she, an orphan, has grown up. As Bertram makes abundantly plain, he has not the slightest curiosity about Helena, even after being instructed to marry her by the King of France (Foucheux), whose life Helena has saved.
Shakespeare seems almost as single-minded here as Helena, devoting most of the play to Helena's pursuit of Bertram after he runs away to war—good thinking, Bert! (The only significant subplot concerns that notorious coward Parolles, whose function is to help us discover what a terrible judge of character Bertram is.) Though forensic psychologists might place Helena's profile in the folder marked “stalker”—she even uses that classic Shakespearean ruse, the “bed trick,” to ensnare her prey—Twyford plays her as an earnest bloodhound, forever with her nose fixed on the prize. As with most of the choices in this production, the performance is a conventional one, and it is to some extent successful because Twyford is always an intelligent and resourceful actress. But it's just not an especially enlivening one.
Foucheux and Flye, as Bertram's mother, the Countess, both deliver solid, well-spoken portrayals, and in a smaller role, Naomi Jacobson offers her usual vivacious professionalism. As Parolles, Hammerly captures the goofiness of the character but shortchanges his duplicitous nature. Suzanne Richard's Fool, meanwhile, played in man's cutaway and mustache, is an intriguing casting decision; she's just four feet tall but convincing as a man, although the poison in the Fool's gibes is sometimes diluted by her singsong delivery.
With his baby-face good looks, Ginty tries hard to give a human dimension to Bertram, who has to be a party to the play's weird ending, a conclusion so preposterous that Bertram does, in fact, earn some sympathy. Most of my compassion, however, went to the audience members around me, many of whom sat with chins buried in their chests, breathing rhythmically.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Variety 393, no. 6 (22 December 2003): 55-6.
[In the following review, Wolf suggests that director Gregory Doran's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon was held together by a spectacular Judi Dench in the role of the Countess of Roussillon.]
Judi Dench comes out alone, briefly, at the start of the new Royal Shakespeare Co. production of All's Well That Ends Well, and a good thing, too: It's not easy looking anywhere else when Dame Judi is on stage. On this occasion, the collective gaze has been especially keen, since Gregory Doran's lively, audience-grabbing production marks Dench's return for the first time in 24 years to Stratford, where the actress has had abundant triumphs in a professional career spanning 46 years.
Just turned 69, Dench has reached the point in a classical actress's life where the Shakespeare roles are few and far between. (Pretty much all that remains for her is the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet.) But this singular performer always leaves a lasting imprint on a role, allowing her to make up in the quality of her Shakespearean forays what may be lacking in quantity. And when she emerges as the Countess of Rossillion, richly costumed in robes that seem to sweep her across the stage, Dench elicits a giddy intake of breath. It's followed by the long, slow, satisfying exhalation as, across three hours, we witness an artist in unflaggingly empathic command of her art. (Following 10 weeks at the Swan, the production transfers mid-February to the Gielgud Theater in London.)
The Countess isn't a large role: Surrogate mother to her young ward, Helena (Claudie Blakley), the lovesick girl who has fallen hard for the Countess' son, the snobbish Bertram (Jamie Glover), this Shakespearean dowager takes pride of place on the periphery and rivals The Winter's Tale's Paulina as perhaps the wisest of the Bard's mature women. I doubt she has ever seemed wiser, more quick-witted and more heart-stoppingly alert to the vagaries of the heroic than here. With only intermittent opportunities to occupy center stage, Dench—like her character, a widow—fills the evening with the shimmering glow of a woman who has known love and still has much to give.
What of All's Well itself? It's just one testament to Dench's authority that a much-vaunted “problem play” seems to make complete and total sense, for at least as long as the actress is navigating dizzying emotional turns to carry the audience from robust comedy through to a quicksilver melancholy. (“To be young again, if we could,” she remarks, the simple phrase communicating what is so inescapably fleet about life.) Raging against her cold and callow soldier-son, Dench's Countess gives the play its moral pulse, and when she speaks to Helena of having “felt so many quirks of joy and grief,” rest assured Dench sees to it that we feel each and every one.
What isn't always so visible—or, more accurately, comprehensible—is the affection that drives the play: Helena's amorous somersault that finds the lowly physician's daughter yearning desperately for the embrace of a man, Bertram, who regards her more or less with disgust. In a sense, the emotional state of this “simple maid” is one of those Bardic sensibilities that must be taken on faith, much like the jealousy that suddenly grips Leontes at the start of The Winter's Tale, the play All's Well most resembles.
The young twosome are united by play's end in the sort of summing up that guarantees the accuracy of a title such as All's Well and the play its place in Shakespeare's comic canon. But not even the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure make as unlikely and fearful a match as this couple here, even if the ruse required to consummate their alliance finds echoes of Isabella's famous “bed-trick” in Measure. As Blakley plays the female lead, in a performance that grows considerably as the show progresses, there's no escaping the element of masochism to a heartsick obsessive who loves totally against reason, her self-flagellating insistence on Bertram more than a little creepy.
Reciprocating the compliment by referring to Helena as “my clog,” Glover is a fetching if stiff Bertram, who must be the least rewarding young lover in all of Shakespeare: a nobleman so ignoble that one is right in there with the King of France (Gary Waldhorn) when he advises Bertram to “check thy contempt.”
Away from a central pairing whose difficulties lie more in the parts themselves than with these actors (though Blakley could perhaps use a bit more of the natural radiance Helena is said by Lord Lafeu to possess), the play is in good hands, with Guy Henry scoring yet another RSC success as a predictably loquacious Parolles, the braggart with an unexpectedly Malvolio-like talent for self-abasement. The actor strikes rich comic gold in an opening exchange about virginity (among other things, it “breeds mites”), just as Waldhorn's majestically spoken King moves an audience from grief through drollery and on to much-needed common sense, via his assertion that, to Bertram, “wives are monsters.”
It helps, too, that Doran directs with his usual flair for pace, even if one might prefer less of the Les Miz-itis—banner-waving, etc.—that can creep into Helmer's work.
Physically, the production unfolds fluently on an translucent Orientalist set from Stephen Brimson Lewis that has been masterfully lit by Paul Pyant in tableaux evoking numerous painters, from Van Dyck to Joseph Wright of Derby.
And even when the odd performance falters—Mark Lambert's Lavache, this play's resident fool, is a total bore—Dench is never far away, her presence an inescapably enhancing force, as is true of the Countess herself.
Inheriting a role long associated with the late, great Peggy Ashcroft, Dench must be among the feistier of dowagers, her fury as real as her warmth. But the actress is nowhere more transcendent than in a tiny gesture near the end, where she turns and extends her outstretched palms as if in silent blessing on a play concerned with restoration and renewal that finds this performer, not for the first time, once again reborn.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631
SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Spectator 293, no. 9151 (27 December 2003): 42-3.
[In the following review, Carnegy lauds director Gregory Doran's 2003 production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, highlighting outstanding performances by Judi Dench as the Countess of Roussillon and Guy Henry as Parolles.]
You know at once from the title that nothing's going to end well, and nor has it for this, the perhaps least loved of Shakespeare's comedies. There's a permafrost at the heart of the story of the girl who ensnares an unlovely husband, is justly rejected, and after both have undergone unpleasant trials is reunited with him, leaving them to face as bleak a life together as you could imagine.
Yeats saw Helena as one of Shakespeare's ‘glorious women who select dreadful or empty men’. Some have found her a paragon of the Romantic heroine, while others, more understandably, have recoiled from her as an adolescent fantasist stirring up nothing but trouble. Bertram has found few champions, Dr Johnson writing him off as a bad lot whose fate was, in a devastating phrase, to be ‘dismissed to happiness’. It has been argued that the intolerable mess of the young people (who remain totally unchanged by their trials) is redeemed by the sagacity of their elders, prominent among them the King of France and the Countess of Rossillion, mother in blood to Bertram and in every other way to Helena. This is palpable nonsense, for the King sticks by Helena's mad choice of husband and the Countess does nothing to discourage it.
Enter Dame Judi Dench, returning to Stratford after 24 years to play the Countess. But it was always going to take a great deal more than her formidable stage presence to draw us into this troubled play and hold us there. And held you certainly are by Gregory Doran's excellent direction, which rides boldly through the archness of the text and its laboured obscurities. Doran keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering why the play's making better sense than you might have imagined. Judi Dench brings a magnetic gravitas to the Countess. Her sense of timing and inflection are extraordinary and the use of that beautiful voice a lesson to every other actor on the stage. But maybe there's just a touch too much frowning concern, too heavy an aura of lofty and self-regarding sentiment. Dench's regal bearing almost makes you forget that in her hopes for Bertram and Helena's union the Countess is every inch as much a self-deceiver as Helena.
The costumes are a slightly weird amalgam of the Three Musketeers and Cromwellian black-and-white. There's little that Jamie Glover can do with Bertram, a priggishly ‘unseasoned courtier’ from first to last. That fine young actress Claudie Blakley is in with more of a chance as Helena, injecting a note of vulnerability into her lunatic pursuit of Bertram. The follies of the young and of the old leave, thank goodness, the undeceived players in the middle ground to save the day. The banter of the attendant Lord Lafew (the first-rate Charles Kay) and of Bertram's man Parolles may seem marginal but is the key to the play. Guy Henry, seductively gravelly of voice, makes you see that Parolles is treated as a scoundrel precisely because his unvarnished words show up the high-born idiots around him. It's a richly comic performance, rising to a Falstaffian pathos (‘Who cannot be crushed with a plot?’) and humanity in the play's best-known lines—‘Simply the thing I am shall make me live … There's place and means for every man alive.’ Give up worrying about the seemingly central roles. Hold on to Parolles and the wisdom of the supporting characters and all may yet be well for you with the play.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4178
SOURCE: Dennis, Carl. “All's Well That Ends Well and the Meaning of Agape.” Philological Quarterly 50, no. 1 (January 1971): 75-84.
[In the following essay, Dennis discusses the religious themes of fidelity and divine love in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Dr. Johnson's criticism of All's Well that Ends Well has never been effectively answered. Its hero, Bertram, is too fault-ridden to attract the reader's sympathies, and his final good fortune in getting back the good wife he unjustly spurns seems grossly unmerited. Bertram, as Dr. Johnson writes, is “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.”1 And where Bertram repels us by his faults, Helena pains us by her blind devotion to a man in no way worthy of her. Pursuing someone incapable of appreciating her virtues, she seems to be casting the pearl of her love before a swine. A few critics have responded to these problems by defending Bertram as a man unfairly forced into marriage or by attacking Helena as an aggressive schemer; but in doing so they must overlook not only the main emphasis of the action but also all the judgments made about the two protagonists by the other characters. The facts remain that Bertram is a boor, a liar, and a cheat, and that Helena's ingenuity is exercised simply in working to win her unworthy husband's love by demonstrating her own. The play must be defended not by trying to minimize the distaste and pain that the characters cause us, but by showing that these responses result inevitably from Shakespeare's thematic intentions.
Our problem with Bertram can be brought into sharper focus if we try to define precisely the central issues of his career. At first glance he seems to be given the pivotal decision of the play. For in the second act he must choose either to affirm or deny the intrinsic excellence of Helena, and he proves too superficial to choose rightly. This blindness to his wife's virtues is complemented by his blindness to his servant's vices, for Parolles affirms the kind of extrinsic values that Helena repudiates. As the man of words, Parolles cultivates only the externals of nobility. Dressing and speaking as a fop, boasting of his imaginary prowess, he is in fact, underneath his rhetoric, as Helena tells us, “a notorious liar / … a great way fool, solely a coward” (I.i.111-12).2 Helena, on the other hand, though lacking the outer gloss of high birth and station, possesses all the inner virtues. As the countess says, Helena's character combines the moral gifts she has inherited with the virtues she has striven for: “She derives her honesty and achieves her goodness” (I.i.51). In refusing to live with Helena and going off to the wars with empty Parolles, then, Bertram chooses surface over substance. He rejects his wife because, like his servant, he believes that intrinsic possessions such as rank and title are more important than intrinsic possessions, that honor dwells in a man's circumstances rather than in his character.3 Even when the king explicitly points out the mistake of disliking “virtue for the name,” assuring him that “The place is dignified by the doer's deed” (II.iii.131, 133), Bertram remains unconvinced. He agrees to the marriage not because he accepts the king's logic but because he fears his power, and for most of the rest of the play he shows repeatedly how completely he has adopted his servant's vices. He is attracted to Diana because of her outer physical beauty, not because of her moral purity, declaring, indeed, that her honesty is her only “fault” (III.vi.120). And he out-lies Parolles in swearing his undying love to her, when he is only attempting to destroy her honor.
What perhaps bothers the reader most about Bertram's attempted seduction is not simply that it shows him as morally hollow as Parolles, but that it is not completed until after he sees Parolles exposed before his eyes as a moral humbug. Though the logic of the play connects Bertram's vices with his respect for Parolles, his rejection of Parolles does not lead to any rejection in himself of the values that Parolles embodies. After the scene of exposure he goes off to sleep with the woman he believes to be Diana; and in the final scene of the play, still showing no trace of remorse over the supposed death of Helena, he tries to make an advantageous marriage by denying his promises to Diana and maligning her character. Our expectations for some growth in Bertram, then, are raised by Parolles' exposure only to be frustrated. And the reader is left wondering why Shakespeare would choose to deepen the reader's dislike of Bertram when on this occasion he might so easily have lessened it. An understanding of the moral issues behind Bertram's choices is not much help in making him more attractive.
Perhaps our problem with Bertram can be best handled by treating it as an adjunct of Helena's career, by regarding Helena as the central figure in the play and explaining Bertram through her. Surely her importance in the decisive events of the plot would seem to justify this emphasis. She is in many ways the architect of the action, manipulating her husband's career first by substituting for Diana and later by contriving the scene of his trial and exposure. If we can understand the meaning of her love for Bertram, we may be able to understand why Bertram is presented as he is.
If one approaches Helena from the point of view of the earlier comedies, he may be inclined to see her career as an instance of the irrationality of romantic love. Her pursuit of a man who rudely spurns her, who does nothing to gain, hold, or deserve her devotion, may remind us of the way in which Shakespeare's other Helena pursues Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In speaking of the blindness of her own emotions, the earlier Helena seems to provide a moral for the later one: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (I.i.232-33). Another parallel for Helena's blindness, from a play closer in time and tone to All's Well that Ends Well, is Troilus's subjective love for Cressida. Yet although Troilus adores a woman whom clear-sighted Ulysses knows on first glance to be a slut, he is finally brought down to reality by visual proof of her infidelity. Helena's awareness of Bertram's infidelity, on the other hand, does nothing to change her attitude to him. Moreover, the ending of the play seems not to destroy her illusions but to vindicate her perseverance by allowing her finally to obtain the husband she has been pursuing. And her love, unlike Troilus's, is not criticized by a single character. Neither she nor anyone else regards her commitment as a foolish casting of pearls before swine. Bertram, rather, is seen as foolish for casting away the jewel of her love. In rejecting the “dear perfections” of Helena, Lafeu declares, Bertram does “to himself / The greatest wrong of all” (V.iii.14-18). And instead of her appearing weakly passive like the earlier Helena, our Helena seems to be the most active and most powerful person in the play, miraculously curing the dying king as well as controlling the fate of Bertram. She herself equates the success of her love with the exertion of her own will, with the ability to shape her own fortunes:
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.
The forceful perseverance of Helena's moral will seems to vindicate her love.
If we are not meant to condemn Helena's love as blind emotion, even though the man she loves is clearly meant to appear ignoble, we must conclude that the play defends a kind of love that is not based on the worth of the recipient. Love here is not a reward bestowed on someone because of his virtues but rather a free gift based on an internal necessity in the giver. It is the kind of giving which the modern theologian Anders Nygren finds expressed most completely in the writings of the Apostles, where it is called agape. One gives agape not because the beloved deserves to be loved but because God has commanded every man to love his neighbor as himself. In Helena, Shakespeare presents a figure who perhaps embodies this ideal more fully than any other of his heroines. All's Well that Ends Well seems to set out deliberately to explore the meaning of agape.
In Christian thought the necessity of agape is sometimes linked to the limitations of fallen man. Because our intelligence is darkened we do not have the ability to know another man's inner life; and because our own wills are perverse we do not have the right to judge him. Every man by strict justice would be condemned to death and damnation. He is saved by an unearned gift of love from God and must extend such love to his fellowman. In Shakespeare this argument for mercy is clearly presented in Portia's plea to Shylock or Isabella's plea to Angelo. But in All's Well that Ends Well the situation is slightly altered. As Bertram's dedicated wife rather than his judge, Helena offers love that is characterized not so much by mercy and forgiveness as by belief and commitment. This dimension of agape is perhaps best defined as creative faith, the kind of unlimited trust that Kierkegaard celebrates in his great book on agape, The Works of Love. The lover who gives agape to his beloved chooses to reject the outer light of reason for the inner light of faith. No matter how convincing the evidence against his beloved's goodness might appear, he chooses to believe by a leap of faith in his beloved's ideal self. The idealized subjective image of his beloved is more real to him than the objective fact. This kind of belief is embodied in Helena's love for Bertram. While Bertram steadily degenerates in our eyes he remains fixed in hers, even though she has all the evidence we have to condemn him. She begins by worshiping him as a “bright particular star” above her “sphere” (I.i.97-100). When he cruelly rejects her, she chooses to take the guilt of his disdain upon herself, contending that she was at fault in reaching for too high a prize. And when she sees with her own eyes the treachery he is practicing on Diana, she judges the deed but not the doer. Her only moral comment on the episode is a mild speech of a few lines in which she speaks of “strange men” whose “lust doth play / With what it loathes for that which is away” (IV.iv.21-25). By using the word “strange” she presents an objectively vicious act as merely a foolish one; and by speaking of “men” in general rather than of Bertram in particular she seems to excuse Bertram's personal guilt. And this very mild and indirect reproach is cut short with the phrase “But more of this hereafter,” as if any act of judgment is irrelevant to her purpose. When she finally confronts Bertram openly at the end of the play, as he stands tangled in his lies and slanders, trying to arrange a marriage that shows complete disregard for her memory, she utters not one word of blame. To her, Bertram is still “my good lord,” as she twice calls him. Her only concern is that “the shadow of a wife” be made a real one by his accepting her (V.iii.308). By some miracle of faith Bertram remains untarnished in her eyes.
Although agape can be fully justified as obedience to the divine command, “Thou shalt love,” regardless of its practical effect, it is usually seen as helping to produce moral growth in the beloved. As Kierkegaard expresses it, “Love builds up.” Through the lover's faith the beloved is provided with an unchanging image of his own ideal self. Thus, no matter how bad his actions may become, he may still be able to avoid losing all faith in his own capacity for good. Seeing his ideal self in his lover's eyes, he may begin to believe in his own worthiness, in his ability to change. The closing scene of All's Well that Ends Well seems to suggest that Helena's love has produced such a change in Bertram. Though the play ends only thirty lines after Helena reveals herself to Bertram, and he speaks only three lines, some important shift in his perceptions seems to be indicated. Here is the key passage:
[Re-enter Widow, with Helena.]
Is there no exorcist
Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?
Is't real that I see?
No, my good lord.
'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see,
The name and not the thing.
Both, both. Oh, pardon!
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 are by me with child,” &c. This is done
Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
Bertram's plea for pardon here appears to be a sincere expression of contrition. He does not yet know exactly how Helena is related to Diana, but the simple shock of her reappearance after her presumed death, a shock which the king expresses outwardly, seems to destroy his desire for any more false pretenses and to reveal to himself his own turpitude. His promise to love Helena “dearly, ever, ever dearly” if she can prove the truth of her contentions suggests no reluctant compliance with his bond but an eager hope in her devotion. Though he can hardly believe that she loves him, he sincerely wants to find it true. For if it can be shown that the woman he has most wronged has thought him worth her devotion, has dedicated herself solely to winning his love, he may be able to accept himself. Her vision may enable him to discover within himself some capacity for good, and help him move from remorse to love.
Once we see that All's Well that Ends Well is about the works of agape, we can understand why Bertram is presented so unsympathetically until the very end of the play, why even the exposure of Parolles is allowed to lead to no change in Bertram's character. Bertram must be presented as vice-ridden in order to make clear the unconditional nature of Helena's love; and he must remain so for his final transformation to be seen not as the result of his own moral exertion but of her fidelity. Only by the delaying of Bertram's growth until he is stunned by the constancy of Helena's belief can the redemptive power of agape be fully celebrated. Shakespeare takes the risk of losing the reader's sympathy for the hero in order to give greater scope to the heroine's devotion. If the devotion seems to some readers strangely unselective, that strangeness is central to the meaning of the kind of love that Shakespeare sets out deliberately to explore.
The centrality of agape in the play becomes even more obvious when we notice that it is extended not only to Bertram but also to Parolles, to the man who embodies all the worst qualities of his master. Here, however, agape takes a less idealistic form. The pardon that Lafeu grants to Parolles is based not on faith but on pity. Where Helena is Bertram's believer, Lafeu is Parolles's exposer, persistently pointing out the hollowness of Parolles's pretensions. Yet the very fact that Lafeu sees Parolles's worthlessness only makes the unconditional nature of his forgiveness more obvious. When Parolles returns to his master's house bedraggled after his exposure, “muddled in Fortune's mood,” as he himself admits (V.ii.4), an exterior man with no appearances left, he is a moral cipher. Yet Lafeu, knowing all, receives his plea for help, accepting him as part of his retinue: “Though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat. Go to, follow” (V.ii.56-57). Parolles' terse one-line response to this acceptance, “I praise God for you,” perhaps indicates, like his master's final line, a movement towards contrition and change. He has already decided, when his cowardice is exposed in Act IV, to give up all pretensions of merit, declaring, “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live” (IV.iii.369-70). And now in asking for help he not only dispenses with bragging about himself but also with the kind of obsequious flattery of his betters that previously made him contemptible. And in praising God and not Lafeu, Parolles seems to be finally acknowledging a religious order above the social, aware that he owes his reception not to any virtue in himself or to any social form but to Lafeu's adherence to God's commandment, “Thou shalt love.”
The uniquely religious character of the love at the center of All's Well that Ends Well is evident not only in the literal statements and actions of its characters but also in the metaphoric dimensions of the play. Through typological allusions and episodes the major characters are linked with central figures of the Christian myth. Perhaps this level becomes first obvious through the contrasting appeals that Parolles and Helena make to Bertram; for these opposed advisors, like figures in a morality play, are figuratively associated with either the minions of Satan or the angels of God. It is not difficult to see the man of words, Parolles, as a follower of the father of lies, the Devil. Lafeu in fact makes this connection clear when he first attacks Parolles as a fool and a knave. “The Devil it is that's thy master,” he insists, when Parolles contends that he serves him who dwells “above” (II.iii.261-264). And at the end of his career Lafeu makes clear to Parolles the necessity of rejecting his master the Devil for God:
It lies in you, my lord, to bring me in some grace, for you did bring me out.
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.
In helping Parolles to change his master, Lafeu gives his own name symbolic significance. He becomes an agent of the fire of purgatory that will enable Parolles to receive heavenly grace.
The Devil's servant in the play, Parolles, must contend with God's minister, Helena. Several passages suggest that Helena enjoys an especially close bond with heaven, and seem to justify G. Wilson Knight's contention that Helena is presented as “a channel or medium for the divine or cosmic powers,” an example of “renaissance sainthood.”4 Thus, when she urges the king to take her father's cure, she insists she is acting an intermediary for some heavenly power:
But most it is presumption in us when The help of Heaven we count the act of men. Dear sir, to my endeavors give consent. Of Heaven, not me, make an experiment.
And the unexpected success of the cure is specifically called by Lafeu a miracle of the “very hand of Heaven” (II. iii. 37). When Helena later meets Bertram at Florence she is a pilgrim on the way to the shrine of “Saint Jaques,” and she tells Diana's mother that “Heaven” is directing her to her husband (IV. iv. 18). And Bertram's mother, the Countess, later supports this contention by declaring Helena's prayers to be Bertram's only hope of salvation, his only link to heaven:
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.
In rejecting Helena for Parolles, then, Bertram metaphorically rejects God for the Devil, Heaven for Hell.
But Helena is presented figuratively not only as the saintly intermediary for her husband but as the Divine Intercessor for all men, Christ. Her unceasing pursuit of Bertram becomes a metaphor for Christ's irresistible pursuit of everyman's salvation. She is the Hound of Heaven, hunting down the recalcitrant soul until it yields under the pressure of Christ's irresistible love. Human agape is finally only an imitation of the archetypal act of agape expressed by Christ's Incarnation. By God's strict justice, fallen man would be damned. He is saved only because Christ's love is not based on desert but is rather a divine, unmerited gift to man. The name given to this divine agape is “grace”; and Helena, as the clown Lavache declares, is “the herb of grace” (IV.v.18).
As a surrogate for Christ, Helena undergoes a series of trials which have clear typological references. In her first important action she performs one of Christ's miracles, curing the sick, which proves she is heaven-sent; but she is rejected by the stubborn heart of the fallen man, Bertram. Like Christ, Helena dies in demonstrating her love, or at least leads others to believe in her death. And finally like Christ she is resurrected from apparent death to make a final demonstration of her holy power.5 Bertram's yielding to this miracle of resurrection is an image of man's wonder at the spectacle of Christ's Passion and Resurrection. Viewed as a whole, Helena's career can be seen in terms of typological symbolism as Christ's descent from Heaven to Earth and His eventual return. Just as Christ leaves Heaven in order to bring fallen man into heaven, so Helena leaves the Countess's court at Rousillon in order to allow Bertram to return to it. The imagery of her speech of departure makes this parallel explicit:
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 officed all.
Only by Helena's descent into the world can Bertram be saved from the world, the flesh, and the Devil, and be led back to his holy home.
Once we see Helena as a Christ-figure, Bertram's continued recalcitrance can be understood in religious terms as a means of demonstrating the wonder of Christ's love. The more stubborn and sinful the man, the more miraculously unlimited is Christ's love for him shown to be. In theological terms we might call the delaying of Bertram's repentance an illustration of the doctrine of the felix culpa. Had Bertram changed earlier, before Helena's trials and sacrifices, we would have been deprived of the fullest demonstration of divine agape.
The uneasiness that the reader may feel in Bertram's undeserved good fortune results, then, from the strangeness of the Christian view of God's relation to man, from the divine illogic that lies at the heart of the idea of grace. If it bothers us that a worthless man should be given not only his wife's love but the love of God, and that his contrition alone is enough to secure both his wife and his salvation, then we are bothered by a central tenet of Christian thought. Our objections are like those of the workers in the vineyard in Christ's parable (Matthew 20:1-16). We repeat the complaint of the day-long workers that their master is unjust in giving the same wages they received to a late-comer who worked only the last hour before sunset. The moral that Christ draws suspends human notions of justice: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first; for many are called but few are chosen.” Under the rule of grace, the death-bed repenter can receive a higher place in God's kingdom than the man who lives a lifetime of righteousness. As Helena twice expresses it, as she pursues Bertram, “All's Well that Ends Well.”
Arthur Sherbo (ed.), Johnson on Shakespeare (Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Vol. VII, Yale, 1968), p. 404.
Citations from All's Well that Ends Well in this essay are to The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, 1968).
Muriel Bradbrook, in her useful essay, “Virtue is the True Nobility” (Review of English Studies, 26 , pp. 298-301), points out how the issue of “high birth versus native merits” is a central one in the play.
G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (London, 1958), p. 156.
Perhaps one may say Helena also dies figuratively in the sexual sense as a substitute sacrifice to Bertram's lust.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5715
SOURCE: Shapiro, Michael. “‘The Web of Our Life’: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 71, no. 4 (October 1972): 514-26.
[In the following essay, Shapiro examines the theme of mutual redemption derived from self-knowledge in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Toward the end of his Introduction to the New Arden edition of All's Well That Ends Well, G. K. Hunter outlines the case for considering the “problem plays” as precursors of the late romances.1 Looking backward as well as forward, one can also approach All's Well and Measure for Measure as the last of Shakespeare's love comedies and see these “problem plays” as a transition from a relatively realistic mode to the predominantly symbolic mode of the final romances. Considered as a transitional work, All's Well is an exciting, if not altogether successful, experiment.
Most of the major critics of the play have either seconded Samuel Johnson's famous attack on Bertram, or followed Coleridge in adoring Helena as Shakespeare's “loveliest creation.”2 Some have done both at once. The inevitable minority backlash against Helena is perhaps best represented by A. H. Carter.3 Unfortunately, such partisanship on behalf of one or the other of the main characters eclipses the symmetrical pattern of the play, a pattern we associate with many love comedies. When hero and heroine are presented symmetrically, or in parallel fashion, like the four Athenian lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Beatrice and Benedick, and Ferdinand and Miranda, they are more or less equally disposed or indisposed to falling in love, share common or similar ideals, aspirations, or inadequacies, and pass through similar or equivalent trials to achieve their union.
Such a symmetrical or parallel presentation of Bertram and Helena seems to be part of the design of All's Well. Within the first sixty lines of the play, for example, we hear the Countess speak twice on the theme of “blood and virtue”—that is, heritage and character, once about Helena and twenty lines later to Bertram:
I have those hopes of her good that her education promises her dispositions [which] she inherits—which makes fair gifts fairer.
[To Bertram] Be thou bless'd, Bertram, and succeed thy father In manners as in shape! Thy blood and virtue Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness Share with thy birthright!
In other words, both Helena and Bertram have yet to demonstrate personal qualities worthy of their blood, and both must strive to distinguish themselves through impressive achievement, as Muriel Bradbrook has pointed out.4 Individually, they travel to court, the seat of recognition for worldly attainment, and then assert themselves in ways likely to lead to distinction: Helena undertakes to cure the King, and Bertram goes off to war. However, while both Helena and Bertram achieve what they set out to achieve, they lose something more valuable in the process: Through her miraculous cure of the King, Helena wins Bertram's hand but not his heart; in Italy, Bertram wins glory on the battlefield but loses most of his honor in the boudoir and the remainder at court.
A fugue-like pattern emerges when one isolates those episodes which develop the theme of the success and failure of self-assertion with respect to Bertram and Helena. Bertram and Parolles, and then Helena, leave Rossillion for the court. First Helena and then Bertram embark on a quest for honor, while Parolles parodies their aspirations by seeking and sporting the outward tokens of distinguished achievement—“the name but not the thing.” Restating and developing the subject in stretto, Helena and Bertram assert themselves in separate episodes, as mounting complications quicken the tempo. At the end of the play, the King invites Diana to choose a husband from among his courtiers, nearly sending the play back to II.iii to be repeated.5 Finally, Helena's and Bertram's individual efforts, like independent melodic lines, come together in a magnificent close, when both characters acknowledge the ultimate failure of their attempts to achieve distinction, thereby proceeding, as I shall presently argue, to redeem themselves and each other.
When one begins to think of the two central characters in this play as being roughly symmetrical or parallel, Bertram becomes more sympathetic and Helena more human. For example, as the Countess' speeches in the opening scene suggest, both Helena and Bertram are under considerable pressure to prove themselves worthy of their legacies. But this problem is more acute for sons, who must demonstrate virtù by displaying physical courage, than for daughters, who can demonstrate virtue somewhat more passively through chastity. The Countess, in the parallel speeches on blood and virtue already quoted, seems more hopeful that nurture will perfect Helena's nature than that Bertram will succeed his father “in manners as in shape.” Similarly, the King welcomes Bertram to the court with a prayer that challenges him to live up to his descent:
Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face; Frank nature, rather curious than in haste, Hath well compos'd thee. Thy father's moral parts Mayest thou inherit too!
Like Hamlet and Prince Hal, both Bertram and Helena carry the burden of an illustrious father, but only Bertram is suspected of not meriting his heritage while being restrained from demonstrating his merit. His mother would keep her “unseasoned” son safe at home if she could, while the King, a substitute father, forbids him to go off to war for another year. Significantly, Shakespeare has added these roles to the original tale, evidently to heighten our sympathies with Bertram's struggle to grow into manhood. Ironically, the society which tries to prevent him from doing so desperately needs rejuvenation by the young, as John Arthos has pointed out.6 Bertram's father is dead, the King is dying, the Countess and Lafew feel the approach of death, and an autumnal, elegiac tone suffuses the entire play. Given these internal and social pressures on Bertram to manifest his mettle, coupled with the overprotectiveness of his mother and surrogate father, it is hardly surprising that Shakespeare makes the young Count decide to run off to Italy even before Helena's arrival at court. Once he has joined “the big wars that make ambition virtue,” to borrow Othello's memorable phrase, his prowess and bravery earn him the distinction he pursues:
It is reported that he has taken their great'st commander, and that with his own hand he slew the duke's brother.
A moment after we learn of these brilliant achievements, we learn of his dishonorable attempts to seduce Diana.
Helena too has human desires and defects. In her case it is not parental pressure or Oedipal rivalry but her love for Bertram that makes her regard healing the King's fistula as an opportunity for gaining the distinction she feels will make her worthy of Bertram's love:
… Nor would I have him till I do deserve him; Yet never know how that desert should be.
In light of the action of the play, the first of the two lines just quoted can be taken to mean, “When I deserve him then I'll have him.” Helena's strivings for desert, like the Florentine exploits that bring Bertram both honor and shame, lead directly to distinction and, as we shall see, to disaster.
It could be objected that symmetrically presented lovers are the exception rather than the rule in Shakespearean comedy. More often than not, heroines like Portia and Rosalind possess a greater awareness of themselves and their situations than do their lovers, whom they gently steer toward the mutually desired union. Helena is often ranked among them: “She is the fifth and last in the succession of heroines who—all practisers, overpeerers, proprietors of central secrets about which large actions revolve, and in varying degrees controllers of their worlds—stand in the line of Prospero.”7 Some critics feel that Shakespeare matches Helena's strategic advantages with moral and spiritual superiority over the other characters, especially Bertram, and such critics eagerly agree with the Countess that Helena “deserves a lord / That twenty such rude boys might tend upon / And call her, hourly, mistress” (III.ii.80-82). Whereas Helena's nineteenth-century admirers like Shaw praised human qualities such as “exquisite tenderness and impulsive courage,”8 more recent devotees incline toward canonization and deification. G. Wilson Knight describes Helena as “a semi-divine person, or some new type of saint,”9 while R. G. Hunter argues that Helena has the interceding and redeeming powers of the “literary descendants of the Virgin in the medieval narrative and dramatic ‘Miracles of Our Lady.’”10
I do not think that this exalted view of Helena can survive close scrutiny. It is true that Helena is a girl of rare virtue—intelligent, chaste, courageous, and determined. From the start she is humble about her birth and her qualities. In the conversation with Parolles about virginity near the end of I.i. she implies that virginity is less a passive state to be preserved from the onslaughts of men than an active force to be employed in redeeming them.11 Helena herself takes no credit for the King's recovery, modestly describing herself as the mere agency of super-human power, but writers on magic generally insist that such agents must first attain a high level of moral and spiritual development.12
But what have these impressive gifts to do with romantic love? Helena has striven to make herself deserving of Bertram's love, as if love were a reward for outstanding accomplishment or, worse still, something to be commanded by the successful. As John Russell Brown has argued, Helena violates the ethos of Shakespearean love comedy in failing to understand that love must be freely and voluntarily given, not extracted by force, even force of merit.13 She realizes her error an instant after she claims Bertram as her prize, watching him recoil, and she vainly tries to correct her mistake, but by that time the King sees his own “honor at the stake” and compels Bertram to accept the match. Except for the snobbery about social rank, Bertram's reluctance to marry her under such conditions is quite understandable, for not only has he been crushed by the King's authority but he sees in marriage the death of all his aspirations to masculine forms of honor.14 Parolles articulates Bertram's fears when he argues that sexual energy should be sublimated into martial flurry, not dissipated in marital union:
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.
Helena may be the representative of the transcendental in Bertram's life, as G. Wilson Knight calls her, but as even Knight remarks, “We need not wish to be married to it” (p. 156), much less have it shoved down our throats. Helena herself acknowledges the presumptuousness of claiming love by desert when she accepts responsibility for Bertram's flight and possible death:
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? … 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.
At this point in the play, Helena resembles Viola more than she does Portia or Rosalind. Confronted by a problem, both Viola and Helena take brisk, assertive steps to control the situation. Shakespeare is very explicit about Helena's abandonment of passivity for action:
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.
Like Viola, Helena resolves to act audaciously and meets with great initial success, only to discover, very shortly, that she has entangled herself in a fresh set of complications without having extricated herself from the first. But Helena outdoes Viola in assertiveness. Whereas Viola forsakes any notion of solving her problems through her own actions and flings herself on the mercy of the future—
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me t' untie!(15)
—Helena is more resilient. Instead of collapsing into passivity when her first scheme boomerangs, she embarks on a second course of action—the pilgrimage to St. Jaques le Grand, or Santiago of Campostella, Spain. Actually, it makes little difference to the play whether Helena ever journeyed to St. Jaques, whether she crosses Bertram's path by chance or by design, or whether she had the bed-trick, or something like it, in mind when she left Rossillion or hatched the plan only after hearing of Bertram's attempt to seduce Diana; for the entire scheme is a failure.16 That is, whether we see her as a penitent pilgrim or as a keen-eyed huntress, her second attempt to win Bertram's love by self-assertion is no more successful than the first.
In the first place, the plan depends on such ethically shabby tactics as the false rumor of her death certified by the rector of the shrine, and the bribing of the Widow and Diana. As Clifford Leech says, “The words of Helena are too full of high sentence for us to be amused by her obliquity.”17 Moreover, very few of us can still accept W. W. Lawrence's defense of the bed-trick as a conventional device of folk tale and novella.18 G. K. Hunter, pointing to the realistic features of the play that differentiate it from folk tale and novella, concludes, “Elements of the play fight strongly against any facile acceptance of the bed-trick” (p. xlv). Furthermore, even if one sympathizes with the Clever Maid who fulfills the Impossible Conditions, surely one must grant the possibility of sympathy for the Roguish Gallant who evades the Predacious Wench. To these considerations one might add that Helena's repeated insistence on the lawfulness of the bed-trick suggests the need to shore up the dubious ethicality of the whole scheme with legality. Finally, we come to the point which has evaded all of the play's critics: The bed-trick may seem from our point of view to resolve all of the complications of the play, and viewed retrospectively it certainly has led to such tidy resolution, but Helena feels that the bed-trick is unsuccessful, almost tragically so, or is at best irrelevant to her desire to gain Bertram's love.
Let us examine the climatic moment. Diana has been disgraced and is about to be imprisoned; Helena, still unreconciled with Bertram, now bears his child; and Bertram has been disowned by his mother, dishonored before the King, and is now under guard on suspicion of having murdered his wife. The stage is now set for the heroine to enter in triumph and blithely resolve all the complications. Diana asks her mother to fetch her bail, that is, Helena, then smugly teases the King with riddles. The curious thing about Helena's entrance, however, is that it lacks even the least shred of triumph:
Is there no exorcist
Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?
Is't real that I see?
No, my good lord;
'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see;
The name and not the thing.
Diana's riddles and the King's fanfare introduce not a jubilant Helena but a Helena who is humble and contrite, and who has good reason to be so. She may be the living answer to Diana's riddles, but in her answer to the King she admits her failure to solve her most urgent human problem—how to win Bertram's love—and her squalid efforts to solve this problem are in part responsible for the suffering of others. Furthermore, she now knows that she can no more deserve Bertram's love by fulfilling his conditions than she could by curing the King. In short, she has married Bertram, slept with him, acquired his ancestral ring, and conceived his child, but she has not won his love.
Bertram's response to the lines just quoted—so short that most critics overlook it—is nothing less than the climax of the play:
Both, both. O Pardon!
With the first two of these four words, Bertram accepts her as his wife—both the name and the thing—before Helena or anyone else mentions his impossible conditions. In so doing, he implicitly forgives her for attempting to claim his love by desert and for the near-tragic consequences of that attempt. With the last two of these four words, he asks her to forgive his obstinate perversity. Thus, while Helena may be responsible for Bertram's redemption, he is also the agent of hers. Had Bertram not forgiven Helena and accepted her as his wife, she would have suffered a part of the fate attendant on her failing to cure the King in her first plan to win Bertram's love—and with more cause:
Tax of impudence, A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame, Traduc'd by odious ballads; my maiden's name Sear'd otherwise.
Helena's identity as a woman depends on Bertram, whose free and unconstrained forgiveness and acceptance of his wife turns a sordid deception into a ratification of their marriage bond. Helena's relinquishing of her claim to be Bertram's wife and Bertram's validation of that claim are mutually redemptive acts of love and lead them out of the morass they have made of their own lives and onto the high ground of mutual forgiveness, where they can sustain the nobler parts of their natures. Furthermore, Shakespeare prevents this highly emotional scene of mutual redemption from wallowing in bathos by making Lafew's comic weeping parody lachrymose sentimentality and by using a series of “if's” to suggest the fragility of the lovers' reconciliation.
If the play is to succeed on stage, or at least this interpretation of it, Bertram's “Both, both. O Pardon!” must strike us as a spontaneous outburst of pure love, and not as a gesture calculated to save his neck. The stark simplicity of these four words in their context suggests that we are expected to grant the authenticity of the sentiment, especially when we contrast this line with the patent insincerity of Bertram's earlier acceptance of Helena at the King's command:
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.
My emphasis on Bertram's redemptive role in the play connotes no slighting of Helena's, which has been noticed by most modern critics of the work. Indeed, in their symmetrical, or parallel, relationship to one another they are mutually redemptive, for each of them regains through humility and submission what has been lost through self-assertion. Although the apotheosis of Helena, more than any other critical tendency, has obscured this symmetry, I would stress that she redeems Bertram and is in turn redeemed by him not as a saint or goddess, but, in Keats's words, as “a real woman, lineal indeed / From Pyrrha's pebbles or old Adam's seed.”19
Despite its structural affinities with some of Shakespeare's earlier love comedies, All's Well seems to differ from them in presenting the humanness of the lovers so candidly that they seem too deeply flawed for their conventional roles. Bertram, the boy who is trying to prove his manhood, is inseparable from the philandering cavalier who lies shamelessly to evade the King's wrath; while Helena, the gifted, courageous virgin blends into the Clever Wench of folk tale and novella—in a context which reveals the duplicity and futility of her wiliness. This intertwining of strengths and weaknesses makes Bertram and Helena palpably human, nearly too much so for the play, and yet this sense of their human frailty leads us to the very heart of the play. As one of the French lords says,
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp'd them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish'd by our virtues.
In All's Well, as in some of Shakespeare's earlier comedies, romantic love is the redemptive force that untangles this mingled yarn.
Redemption in All's Well begins with self-knowledge; Helena's dejected entrance in the final scene indicates an awareness of her moral failure, and Bertram's sins are publicly exposed. Whereas the Countess, like many a parent, would attribute the corruption of her son's well-derived nature to Parolles' inducement (III.ii. 88-89), Shakespeare forces Bertram to bear the responsibility squarely on his own shoulders. From self-knowledge the redemptive process leads hero and heroine through repentance to mutual forgiveness and finally into a relationship that will enable them, to adopt Knight's phrase, to serve and rebuild their better selves (p. 144). Yet Shakespeare never lets us forget that in the mingled yarn of human life, redemptive forces are rooted in human sexuality. Thinking he is in bed with Diana, the Count fathers the child that will enable Helena to fulfill his impossible conditions, while Helena, by virtue of the unsavory bed-trick, prevents her husband from violating his marriage vows and his honor. In a way that anticipates the final romances, redemption through love occurs despite yet through the characters' imperfect, humanly blundering efforts to attain their goals.
Like redemption in a more strictly theological sense, redemption through human love in All's Well occurs only after characters show a willingness to sacrifice worldly achievement for spiritual humility. Just as in theological views of grace, where repentance and humility precede union with God, so too in Shakespeare's conception of redemption through love, repentance and humility generally precede marital union. Early in All's Well, however, the Clown places marriage before repentance, wishing to marry in order to repent:
I have been, madam, a wicked creature, as you and all flesh and blood are, and indeed I do marry that I may repent.
The Countess may be partly correct in interpreting this remark to mean that he will regret having married, as Bertram will do, but the statement foreshadows Bertram's fate in another way, for it is only through marriage that the Count learns genuinely to repent his own misconduct. While repentance and humility precede marital union in most love comedies, in All's Well they are the necessary conditions for the true union—both the name and the thing—that Bertram and Helena achieve after marriage.
There is a special resonance in another of the Clown's utterances—the ironic commentary on his master, the devil, which is really a sermon on humility and repentance:
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 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 speech not only anticipates the mutual redemption of Bertram and Helena, but also casts its light forward onto Parolles, as one who is too chill and tender for the humility and repentance that must precede redemption. Instead of transcending his baser inclinations at the end of the play, he sinks down into them, but at least has been freed from the compulsion to pass himself off as a noble warrior. Although he has fallen short of redemption, he has achieved self-knowledge, not the self-knowledge that he is a cowardly braggart—for that he has always known—but the knowledge that pretension is enslaving and exposure inevitable. Released from the strain and fear inherent in his earlier posturing, he can revel in his true self, play the fool without hypocrisy or deceit, and be “simply the thing I am” (IV.iii. 322)—an example of wayward humanity untouched by the redemptive power of human love. On this basis Parolles is accepted into the community of human fellowship, where “there's place and means for every man alive” (IV.iii. 328):
It lies in you, my lord, to bring me in some grace, for you did bring me out.
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. … Sirrah, inquire further after me. I had talk of you last night; though you are a fool and a knave you shall eat. Go to: follow.
One might object that the view of All's Well just presented overtaxes his faith in the power of human love to redeem lovers as deeply flawed as Bertram and Helena. Much depends of course on the actors playing these roles to keep before us the essential goodness of Bertram and Helena, and to suggest that their flaws result from youth and immaturity, which are stressed throughout the play, from Bertram's desperate need to fill his father's shoes, from Helena's ardent quest for the man she loves. Even the best acting may not make the conventional love-comedy ending seem any less facile or pat, and it may well be that in affirming the power of Eros to redeem such typical specimens of fallen humanity, Shakespeare has reached the limits of the genre. To put it another way, Shakespeare has raised serious psychological and moral questions but has answered them—inadequately—by resorting to conventions of love comedy. Nevertheless, this familiar observation about All's Well (and Measure for Measure) becomes less damning than would appear when one notes that Shakespeare does virtually the same thing in the late romances, but has simply found or created a different set of dramaturgical conventions through which to express his vision of the redemptive power of human love guided by Providence. Love in the final romances is not exclusively romantic or sexual, and frequently is filial; children as well as lovers are the agents of redemption. The germ of this idea may be found in All's Well, where Helena—pregnant with Bertram's child—carries in her womb the living proof of her marriage bond, which when freely accepted will redeem both husband and wife. Moreover, imputations of facile endings are avoided in the final romances in part by greater emphasis on the suffering, penance, and contrition that precedes redemption and regeneration. Here too the germ of the idea exists in All's Well, where Bertram's wriggling and Helena's humiliation anticipate the searing spiritual agonies of Leontes and Alonzo.
If the play is a failure, as we are frequently told, it is a particularly illuminating one. Representing a transitional phase in the development of Shakespearean comedy, it was written at a time when Shakespeare had mastered, perhaps exhausted, the possibilities of the love comedy but had not yet discovered the artistic potentialities of the romance. But one need not invoke the evolution of Shakespeare's career to justify the play's existence, for All's Well That Ends Well is a carefully balanced and delicately wrought work of art, in which Shakespeare reveals the human substance beneath the idealizations of conventional love comedy and celebrates the capacity of humanity to transcend itself through love.
G. K. Hunter, ed., All's Well That Ends Well (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), pp. liv-lvi. I quote throughout from this edition.
Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. (London, 1960), p. 84; Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 2nd ed. (London, 1960), I, 102. The trend continues in recent criticism. See R. G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York, 1965), pp. 106-31.
A. H. Carter, “In Defense of Bertram,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 7 (1956), 21-31. See the reply to Carter by F. G. Schoff, “Claudio, Bertram, and a Note on Interpretation,” SQ, 10 (1959), 11-23. In recent criticism, the most balanced views of Helena are offered by Alexander Leggatt, “All's Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance,” MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly], 32 (1971), 21-41; and Walter N. King, “Shakespeare's ‘Mingled Yarn,’” MLQ, 21 (1960), 33-44. Leggatt describes the play as a courageous if unsuccessful attempt to blend the romantic and realistic modes, but his view ultimately depends on the feeling—which I do not share—that Bertram's final repentance is incomplete. My reading of the play parallels King's at many points, but he stops far short of mutual redemption and self-transcendence, and thus fails to see the play's relationship to the late romances.
Muriel Bradbook, “Virtue Is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,” RES [Review of English Studies], n.s., 1 (1950), 289-301.
Although Miss Bradbrook has argued that Elizabethan guardians did have the right to choose husbands for their wards, love comedies generally encourage us to disapprove the exercise of such rights. But the King in All's Well, who is partially responsible for the suffering in the play, as he forces Bertram to marry Helena even after Helena abandons her claim to her reward, has learned nothing. In popular comedy of our own day, it is quite common for an ending to take us back to the beginning or to an earlier point in the work, like a repeat in a musical score. Cyclic form in comedy invokes the dismaying feeling of “here we go again,” suggests the futility of any attempt to extract wisdom from suffering, and points to the recurrence ad infinitum of the kinds of problems such comedies deal with. Other examples of cyclic form in Shakespearean comedy occur at the end of The Comedy of Errors, where a renewal of the confusion of identities undermines the stability of the final reunions and reconciliations; and at the end of The Merchant of Venice, where Antonio, who has just escaped death because he staked his flesh on Bassanio's fidelity to the bond with Shylock, now offers to stake his soul on Bassanio's fidelity to the marriage bond with Portia.
John Arthos, “The Comedy of Generation,” Essays in Criticism, 5 (1955), 101.
Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), p. 149.
Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (New York, 1961), p. 12.
G. Wilson Knight, “The Third Eye,” in The Sovereign Flower (London, 1958), p. 146.
R. G. Hunter, p. 130. Helena is even called “a surrogate for Christ” by Carl Dennis, “All's Well That Ends Well and the Meaning of Agape,” PQ [Philological Quarterly], 50 (1971), 83.
This is especially true if one retains the Folio punctuation of lines 161-62:
Not my virginity yet: There shall your master have a thousand loves, …
Knight (pp. 137-39) argues with great persuasiveness that “there” refers to “my virginity.” King (p. 39) quotes the following comment by Steevens: “Parolles has been laughing at the unprofitableness of virginity, especially when it grows ancient, and compares it to withered fruit. Helena, properly enough, replies, that hers is not yet in that state, but that in the enjoyment of her his master should find the gratification of all his most romantic wishes.”
“There is moreover a most necessary and secret thing which is absolutely necessary for a magician, and which is the key to all magical operations, and this is ‘the Dignification of man for such high virtue and power.’ It is through the intellect, the highest faculty of the soul, that miraculous works are done, and it is by an ascetic, pure, and religious way of life that is to be achieved the dignification necessary for the religious Magus” (Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition [London, 1964], p. 138). Miss Yates is translating a passage from Henry Cornelius Agrippa, De occulta philosophia, III, 3. Lynn Thorndike (A History of Magic and Experimental Science [New York, 1923-41], I, 311), citing a work attributed to a Neo-Platonist named Iamblichus (d. a.d. 330), Liber de mysteriis, I, 12, comments that invocations used in theurgical operations are intended to “purify those who employ them from their passions and impurity and exalt them to union with the pure and the divine.” Similarly, E. J. Holmyard (Alchemy [Harmondsworth, 1957], p. 157) quotes the following passage from a poem about alchemy, “Upon the Sacred Art,” written early in the eighth century by the Byzantine Greek alchemist Archelaos:
The work which thou expectest to perform Will bring thee easily great joy and gain When soul and body thou dost beautify With chasteness, fasts and purity of mind, Avoiding life's distractions and, alone In prayerful service, giving praise to God, Entreating him with supplicating hands To grant thee grace and knowledge from above. … Thy body mortify by serving God: Thy soul let wing to look on godliness: So shalt thou never have at all the wish To do or think a thing that is not right. For strength of soul is manliness of mind, Sagacious reasoning and prudent thought. All passions purify and wash away The stain of carnal joys with streams of tears. …
(trans. C. A. Browne)
John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies, 2nd ed. (London, 1962), pp. 187-88, 192.
Richard Wheeler, “A Psychological Study of All's Well That Ends Well,” unpub. diss. (State University of New York at Buffalo, 1969-70), pp. 17-64. See his forthcoming article, to be published in Bucknell Review.
Twelfth Night, II.ii.41-42. Brown (p. 186) and Evans (p. 150) also notice Helena's resemblance to Viola.
For a recent discussion of the ambiguity surrounding Helena's motives, see J. C. Maxwell, “Helena's Pilgrimage,” RES, n.s., 20 (1969), 189-92.
Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in All's Well That Ends Well,” ELH, 21 (1954), 26.
W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (New York, 1931), pp. 48-61.
“Lamia,” Part I, ll. 332-33. For a recent attempt to stress the humanness of Helena's love, see Roger Warren, “Why Does It End Well? Helena, Bertram and the Sonnets,” Shakespeare Survey, 22 (1969), 79-92. Although Warren finally sees Helena as the play's sole redemptive figure, he argues that her relationship with Bertram shares many of the fears and frustrations of the poet's relationship with his beloved in the sonnets.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4145
SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “The Mythical Structure of All's Well That Ends Well.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14, no. 4 (winter 1973): 559-68.
[In the following essay, Bergeron focuses on All's Well That Ends Well's allusions to the tumultuous affair of the classical gods of love and war, Venus and Mars, and associates these figures respectively with Helena and Bertram.]
Critics have frequently discussed the symbolic structure of Shakespearean comedy, whether they suggest the pattern of the journey into the “green world,” a structure perfectly realized in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or the ritual structure of reconciliation in the late romances. Though the approaches to the structure of All's Well that Ends Well have been richly varied,1 I find in the play a symbolic structure that has gone largely unnoticed. Through both language and action Shakespeare endows this play with a mythical structure representing the story of Mars and Venus. Bertram and Helena are not, of course, the exact equivalents of Mars and Venus, but they bear certain resemblances and they ultimately participate in this myth that transcends the mundane limits of their human quarrel. This paper seeks to answer how and why this particular myth is at work in All's Well.
Though some of the references in the play to the Mars-Venus story seem quite incidental, others reveal on the part of the principal characters a self-conscious awareness of the myth, suggesting that the dramatist is himself working out a design. The concept, and later the actual character, of Diana intrudes in the play also, offering another variable in the mythic equation. What emerges is a structure built on the idea of opposites with the Helena-Bertram (Venus-Mars) story at the center. Faithful to myth, Shakespeare has Venus win the victory over Mars, thereby resolving one of the play's fundamental issues by ultimate reconciliation. Life and love, epitomized in Venus and Helena, triumph over death and war, symbolized in Mars and Bertram; out of the struggle comes a peaceful union. By examining the play and by looking at certain representative precedents or analogues for the treatment of this myth, we can add another dimension to our understanding of how this play sloughs off the shackles of tragedy and becomes a comedy.
The person of Mars is represented chiefly by Bertram but also tangentially and ironically by Parolles. Through soldierly ventures Bertram seeks honor and fulfillment, but his companion Parolles understates and finally parodies the heroic military quest. In the midst of the play's opening scene Helena asks Parolles what sign he was born under; he replies that he was born “under Mars.”2 With considerable wit Helena suggests that Parolles was born when Mars was “retrograde” because Parolles goes “so much backward” when he fights (l. 194). Mars as a concept is thus introduced early in the play, if somewhat humorously, as Helena hits at the cowardice of Parolles, this most unlikely devotee of Mars. But the influence of Mars exists as a positive force in the action, as we shall see in Bertram, not simply a matter of planetary determination.
While others leave for the Florentine war, Bertram remains behind, at least temporarily, much against his own wishes. He chafes under the restraint, not getting to use his sword as a true follower of Mars, and he finally determines: “By heaven, I'll steal away!” (II.i.33). The Lords and Parolles encourage this rebellion, and Parolles cries out to the departing soldiers: “Mars dote on you for his novices!” (II.i.47). The influence of Mars is obviously strong and in striking contrast to the power embodied in Helena, who, later in this same scene, meets the King and makes preparations for her healing act. From early in the play, then, military might (Mars) which is bent largely on destruction is set in opposition to the spiritual force of life represented by Helena.
In the pivotal scene, II.iii, that ends one of the play's dramatic problems and gives rise to another, Bertram reluctantly accepts Helena as his wife, an acceptance that yields to the King by observing the outward form of marriage but not the inner reality, neither physical nor spiritual. The union here between Mars and Venus is superficial and imposed, not a genuine reconciliation of opposites. At the close of the scene Bertram tells Parolles that he has wedded Helena, but will not bed her: “I'll to the Tuscan wars, and never bed her” (l. 267). War (Mars) is seen as the alternative to marriage. Naturally Parolles encourages this myopic vision of Bertram's: “To th' wars, my boy, to th' wars!” According to Parolles, Bertram ought to leave his “kicky-wicky” at home, using his “manly marrow” to “sustain the bound and high curvet / Of Mars's fiery steed” (ll. 276-277). At the close of Act II when Bertram takes dispassionate leave of Helena, he vows never to return home “Whilst I can shake my sword or hear the drum” (II.v.89). Bertram is firmly committed to marching in the army of Mars, to trying to transcend the mundane world with Mars's fiery steed. The culmination of this commitment comes in III.iii, where Bertram takes command of the Duke of Florence's troops. And Bertram pledges: “This very day, / Great Mars, I put myself into thy file. / Make me but like my thoughts, and I shall prove / A lover of thy drum, hater of love” (ll. 8-11). To love the drum and hate love is to be at the opposite end of the scale from Venus.
The final explicit reference to Mars is made by Parolles shortly before he is “captured.” He chides himself for having a tongue that is foolhardy, “but my heart hath the fear of Mars before it, and of his creatures, not daring the reports of my tongue” (IV.i.29-30). In this scene and in IV.iii, Parolles as disciple of Mars is thoroughly discredited, raising questions about all those who readily embrace Mars. In turn the dramatist makes Bertram more susceptible to change by his coming to understand what his comrade in arms is really like. For Parolles by the end of the play the chariot of Mars has run aground, and for Bertram it has encountered an opposing force to which Bertram ultimately yields, now willing to march to a different drummer.
That opposing force in the mythic structure is the play's central character, Helena. As her character is more subtly presented than Bertram's, so is her role in the Mars-Venus myth more complex. She appears as both Venus and Diana with the role of Venus triumphing, which is the dramatist's way of setting up another series of opposites. One could argue that beneath the breast of the chaste Diana beats the heart of Venus; or, in terms of other kinds of Renaissance representations, “infolded” in Helena are both Diana and Venus. In the first scene of the play Helena reveals that she has been meditating on virginity, and she asks Parolles: “Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?” (I.i.108-109). To be contemplating virginity is to be busy about the role of the chaste Diana. By the end of the scene this Diana has fixed her sights on Bertram, suggesting something of the role of the hunter associated with Diana. More likely it shows that Diana may be a kind of pose while Venus seeks for a strategy to find her fulfillment in Bertram. Like Hamlet, Helena needs to suit the form to the conceit.
When the name Helena is mentioned in I.iii, Lavatch breaks into song about Helen of Troy, whose fair face was the cause of the ancient war. While the song may seem ironically inappropriate for Helena, it may also anticipate her role as Venus figure. When later in this scene Helena confesses her love of Bertram to his mother, the Countess Rossillion, she urges the Countess not to hate her:
… but if yourself, … Did ever in so true a flame of liking, Wish chastely and love dearly, that your Dian Was both herself and Love, O, then give pity To her whose state is such that cannot choose But lend and give where she is sure to lose. …
Diana and Venus are mingled in the image, as Helena indicates the tension between these compelling forces.
After Helena cures the King, which could also be a manifestation of her Diana role since Diana is sometimes presented as a healer, she reaches the point of making her choice of husband, the reward for her act of healing. Here she makes an explicit, self-conscious statement about her mythic role: “Now, Dian, from thy altar do I fly, / And to imperial Love, that god most high, / Do my sighs stream” (II.iii.73-75). The dramatist makes explicit what had been implied, and we as audience cannot ignore Helena's own awareness of her Diana-Venus role. She here forswears Diana in order to embrace the new deity Love, but the dramatic action is not that simple, as Bertram refuses to aid the cause of love.
By Act III, scene v, Helena has put on her disguise of the holy pilgrim, a disguise that lets her pass unnoticed in Florence and suits well the “religious” aspect of her character, seen most clearly in the healing of the King and in the Countess' words in III.iv. The concept and image of the holy pilgrim also correspond to the Diana pose, and Helena in fact observes in conversation that her chief merit “Is a reservèd honesty …” (III.v.60). In this scene Helena meets the Widow's daughter named Diana, who, interestingly, is being sought by Bertram. What the dramatist succeeds in doing is to take the implied and infolded concept of Diana and give it concrete realization in a character who could have been given any number of other names. The naming of this girl Diana is deliberate, not arbitrary.
The actual Diana now both figuratively and literally frees Helena to pursue her Venus role, and Helena's pursuit and “capture” of Bertram is accelerated. The strategy is for Helena to take Diana's place in bed when Bertram comes to seduce Diana, who will remain “most chastely absent” (III.vii.34). The assignation takes place; in mythic terms Mars and Venus meet, though of course Bertram believes that he is conquering Diana. He is in fact being conquered by Helena as Venus, for this event ultimately meets the restrictive conditions set up by Bertram earlier and gives Helena control over the outcome of events. Here in Act IV word is sent out that Helena is dead, again a dramatic strategy but also symbolically appropriate since the chaste Helena-Diana is now dead and Helena-Venus lives.
All forces gather in the closing scene of the play where Bertram's lies are exposed; the character Diana is instrumental in exposing him. Chastity or honesty tears to shreds Bertram's desperate defense of his actions. Before the “dead” Helena is “resurrected,” Diana offers the puzzling riddle:
He knows himself my bed he hath defiled, And at that time he got his wife with child. Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick. So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick— And now behold my meaning.
After these words Helena appears, resolving Diana's paradox. Venus is very much alive, and Mars acknowledges her victory, proclaiming that he'll “love her dearly—ever, ever dearly” (l. 313). In the mythic structure of the play Mars and Venus have participated in a fertility ritual, absolutely necessary if life is to be renewed and re-created—as Parolles reminds us, “It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature to preserve virginity” (I.i.121-123).
Various analogues illustrate how other artists have dealt with the myth, both the Venus-Diana and Mars-Venus stories, each suggesting a bringing together of traditional opposites. Spenser in the proem to Book III of The Faerie Queene, a book that celebrates chastity, claims that the virtue of chastity “is shrined in my Soveraines brest, / And formd so lively in each perfect part, / That to all ladies, which have it profest, / Neede but behold the pourtraict of her hart, / If pourtrayed it might bee by any living art.”3 As we know, Elizabeth was associated with Diana by Spenser and by many other writers.4 But in the proem to Book IV Spenser focuses on another quality: “… to that sacred saint my soveraigne Queene, / In whose chast breast all bountie naturall / And treasures of true love enlocked beene, / Bove all her sexe that ever yet was seene: / To her I sing of love, that loveth best. …” Spenser infolds the goddess of chastity and the goddess of love into one person, Elizabeth, who may be a historical prototype of the joining of Diana and Venus. In addition, in Book III, canto vi, Spenser describes the birth of Belphoebe (maydenhed) and Amoret (womanhed), twins born of Crysogone and nurtured by Diana and Venus, respectively. Here the fusion of opposites is unfolded into these two figures.
Lamenting the loss of Elizabeth's favor, Walter Raleigh, writing to Sir Robert Cecil, recalls former pleasures: “I that was wont to behold her riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, walking like Venus, the gentle wind blowing her fair hair about her pure cheeks, like a nymph. …”5 The association of Elizabeth with Diana and Venus as triumphant over Mars comes in Friar Bacon's closing prophetic speech in Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Until the birth of Elizabeth, Bacon says,
… Mars shall be master of the field; But then the stormy threats of war shall cease. .....Drums shall be turn'd to timbrels of delight. …
(sc. 16, ll. 49-52)6
The flowers of the goddesses shall bow to this “matchless flower”: “Venus' hyacinth shall vail her top,” and all in consort “Shall stoop and wonder at Diana's rose.” While Greene, and other writers, may emphasize Elizabeth as Diana, they cannot avoid speaking also of her love and beauty, the power of Venus. The galaxy of Mars-Venus-Diana was personified in a masque presented before Elizabeth as part of the pageant entertainment at Norwich in 1578; each offered gifts to the Queen. Mars acknowledged that Elizabeth was a “Prince of Peace”; Venus said that in looking at the Queen a man “may another Venus see”; Diana referred to her as “chaste Dame” who in body and mind is “free from staine.”7
In the realm of Renaissance art Professor Edgar Wind discusses this union in a medal of Giovanna degli Albizzi in which Venus is disguised as a nymph of Diana. As Wind observes: “The union of Chastity and Love through the mediation of Beauty is now expressed by one hybrid figure in which the two opposing goddesses, Diana and Venus, are merged into one.”8
In other literary works we find this union of opposing goddesses with a character named Helen also included. From the drama preceding All's Well one can turn to George Peele's The Araygnement of Paris (c. 1581-1584) for such an example. Pallas, Juno, and Venus each in turn present a show to Paris before he makes his judgment. The directions for Venus' show indicate: “Here Helen entreth in her braverie, with 4. Cupides attending on her. …”9 Helen comes as representative of Venus, but in the Italian song that she sings she compares herself to Diana. In Book II, chapter 21 of the Arcadia (1590 text) Sidney also makes the association of a Helen figure, here the queen of Corinth, with both Diana and Venus as he describes this Helen's control and guidance of her court:
… she using so straunge, and yet so well-succeeding a temper … made her people by peace, warlike; her courtiers by sports, learned; her Ladies by Love, chast. For by continuall martiall exercises without bloud, she made them perfect in that bloudy art. Her sportes were such as caried riches of Knowledge upon the streame of Delight; & such the behaviour both of her self, and her Ladies, as builded their chastitie, not upon waywardnes, but by choice of worthines: So as it seemed, that court to have bene the mariage place of Love and Vertue, & that her selfe was a Diana apparelled in the garments of Venus.10
As Peele and Sidney make a mythical association between Helen-Diana-Venus, so Shakespeare years later could make his Helena mythically representative of both Diana and Venus.
As suggested earlier, the larger mythic structure of All's Well is concerned with the contention between Mars and Venus with Venus victorious. Renaissance painters delighted in giving visual embodiment to the myth as one can observe in paintings by Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, Paolo Veronesse, and Francesco Cossa, all indicating that the god of war is inferior in strength to the goddess of grace and amiability.11 Pico della Mirandola writing “On the general nature of Beauty” argues that it is necessary for union to overcome strife; hence, “for this reason is it said by the poets that Venus loves Mars, because Beauty, which we call Venus, cannot subsist without contrariety; and that Venus tames and mitigates Mars, because the tempering power restrains and overcomes the strife and hate which persist between the contrary elements.”12 Centuries earlier Plutarch in De Iside et Osiride had written that “in the fables of the Greeks, Harmony was born from the union of Venus and Mars: of whom the latter is fierce and contentious, the former generous and pleasing.”13 How closely Bertram and Helena parallel Plutarch's distinction of Mars and Venus. Lucretius in the opening of De Rerum Natura writes of the pacifying power of Venus, noting in particular her relationship to Mars: “For thou alone canst delight mortals with quiet peace, since Mars mighty in battle rules the savage works of war, who often casts himself upon thy lap wholly vanquished by the ever-living wound of love, and thus looking upward with shapely neck thrown back feeds his eager eyes with love, gaping upon thee, goddess, and as he lies back his breath hangs upon thy lips.”14
The victory of Venus over Mars survives in various dramatic forms including some of the popular pageant entertainments of the sixteenth century. The scanty evidence for the Christmas revels of 1522-1523 indicates that on Twelfth Night a “triumph” of Cupid, Venus, and Mars was presented.15 Venus was brought in on a “chaire trivmfall,” and Mars came in heavily armed. Apparently there was some kind of débat with Venus defeating the Misrule's Marshal; the role of Mars in all of this is indeterminate. Later pageants show Elizabeth in a Venus-like role bringing peaceful union to warring or contentious forces (the manifestation of Mars). In the tiltyard at Whitehall in 1581 the Foster Children of Desire, including among them Philip Sidney, besieged the Fortress of Perfect Beauty, the specially constructed residence for Elizabeth. The full martial fury could not topple the place of beauty, though the attacks were fierce and there was much “shivering of the swordes.”16 The allegorical pageant ended with a representative of the Children of Desire being sent to the queen with an olive branch, which, the speaker said, was offered “in token of your [Elizabeth's] Triumphant peace, And of their peaceable servitude” (sig. C2). Symbolically, Venus has triumphed over Mars. One could offer a similar interpretation for some of the events that occurred during the Elvetham progress pageant in 1591. The warring forces of the wood gods and sea gods were stilled by the peaceful presence of Elizabeth, who is regarded as a friend to peace and enemy to war.17 The entire pageant offers a grand apotheosis of Elizabeth who, like Venus, tames Mars, overcomes conflict, and generates peace.
Looking at Shakespeare's early comedy, one might perceive something of the struggle between Mars and Venus in Love's Labour's Lost, at least symbolically. Those well-intentioned but foolhardy men of Navarre are called to the task of celibate contemplation in highly martial terms. The King bids the men to rally round the scholarly flag, “brave conquerors—… / That war against your own affections / And the huge army of the world's desires—” (I.i.8-10). If the men may be viewed as militant scholars, the Princess and her retinue possess the redeeming qualities of love and beauty (Venus), not to mention common sense. These women lay siege to the Fortress of Militant Scholarship and quickly blunt the sharp edge of discipline; seldom has Venus won so easily over Mars. Eventually the men own up to the demand of love, and the King in IV.iii offers a new rallying cry: “Saint Cupid then! And, soldiers, to the field!” (l. 361). Disarmed, their academy dismantled, these former scholars, now wiser, respond to the call of love and life.
The theme of peaceful union growing out of conflict pervades the paintings of Mars-Venus, especially the ones by Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo where the Mars figure is stripped of his armor and cupid figures play with it as Mars sleeps and Venus watches. In Piero's more pastoral rendering there is a distinction between background and foreground of the painting that may function as a symbol for All's Well. The background, and we are given a view of some distance, is barren with a solitary hill and a few scraggly trees, whereas the foreground where Venus and Mars lie is lush with vegetation. This distinction of symbolic landscape is common in Renaissance painting and may suggest here the difference between the period of contention (barrenness) and the period of union and reconciliation (fruitfulness). Or perhaps the arid background is the area from which Mars has come to arrive at the flourishing world presided over by Venus.
In either case the symbolism is appropriate to All's Well where the play begins in barrenness—death and decay abound and the King has a seemingly incurable illness. By the end of the drama the world of Rossillion is flourishing—even Helena, our Venus figure, is fruitful—pregnant with Bertram's child; the King has been cured; and Helena takes note of the Countess: “O my dear mother, do I see you living?” (V.iii.316). As the King says at one point earlier in the final scene, “All is whole” (l. 37). The characters have passed through the wasteland of tragedy (the background of Piero's painting) into the land of comic regeneration and renewal (the foreground). One of the play's fundamental questions—how does one restore a decaying world?—has been resolved, and the hopes are clearly resting on the union of Helena and Bertram. If they are indeed Mars-Venus, then their child should be Harmony. Shakespeare has understood that in the myth of Mars-Venus there is strife and contention (essential for any drama), but there is also ultimately peace and union. One might argue that Bertram and Helena's relationship resolves into discordia concors.
If we may accept the myth of Mars-Venus as a viable structure in All's Well, then we may more readily understand the contentious nature of Bertram and the generative force of Helena as she heals the King and subdues her Mars. The mythic pattern offers a paradigm of union wrought by love and of the renewing power of love, echoing experiences from Spenser's Temple of Venus and Garden of Adonis. Such a final paradigm demonstrates how far All's Well moves away from its tragic potential into a comic realization, foreshadowed by Helena's own awareness that “time will bring on summer, / When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns, / And be as sweet as sharp” (IV.iv.31-33).
Joseph Price, The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of ‘All's Well that Ends Well’ and Its Critics (Toronto, 1968).
The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, 1969), I.i.185. All quotations from Shakespeare are from this edition.
The Complete Poetical Works of Spenser, ed. R. E. Neil Dodge (Boston, 1936).
See E. C. Wilson, England's Eliza (Cambridge, Mass., 1939), pp. 167-229.
Letter from the Tower, July, 1592, in The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh, ed. Edward Edwards (London, 1868), II, 51.
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, ed. Daniel Seltzer (Lincoln, Neb., 1963).
John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth (London, 1823), II, 160-163.
Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New Haven, Conn., 1958), pp. 73-74.
Dramatic Works of George Peele, ed. R. Mark Benbow (New Haven, Conn., 1970), III, 83 (Act II, scene ii).
The Prose Works of Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1922), I, 283. I am indebted to Professor Gerald Snare for this reference and for other advice about this paper.
See Wind, Pagan Mysteries, for reproductions of these paintings, illus. 54-57. For further discussion see Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York, 1962), pp. 162-164.
Quoted in Wind, Pagan Mysteries, p. 83.
Ibid., p. 82.
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1966), p. 5.
Sydney Anglo, Spectacle Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford, 1969), pp. 312-313.
Henry Goldwell, A briefe declaration of the shews … (London, 1581), sig. C1.
For further discussion of these pageants see David M. Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 (London & Columbia, S.C., 1971), pp. 44-46, 57-61.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6218
SOURCE: Simpson, Lynne M. “The Failure to Mourn in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 172-88.
[In the following essay, Simpson probes the psychological and thematic function of loss, grief, and mourning in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to the psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back.
—Sigmund Freud, “On Transience”
For Coppélia Kahn, Shakespearean romantic comedies examine the issue of grief; however, she places this concern in terms of Blos's outline of adolescent development as biphasal and characterized by mourning:
Confronted with the great imperative of finding someone to love, the adolescent must give up the strongest love he has known thus far, his love for his parents. To give it up, he must mourn them, and in mourning them, he has recourse to the usual mechanism of mourning: he identifies with them, or one of them.1
Her analysis is illuminating but limited by making largely symbolic that which occurs literally—the death of a parent. Shakespeare is not merely symbolic; he does not simply equate the loss of a parent with the death of childhood. Incomplete, unwhole (and frequently unwell) families characterize the Shakespearean canon. Helena's substitution in All's Well That Ends Well of Bertram for her dead father has been so successful it produces guilt. A central issue for me is Helena's inability to mourn: “How mightily sometimes we make us comforts of our losses!” (4.3.62-63).2
To win Bertram, Helena numinously cures the dying king of France despite “all the learned and authentic Fellows” that counted him incurable (2.3.12). The procreative power associated with the cure will restore a dying man with not only life but virility; “your dolphin is not lustier” than the king after Helena's tender ministrations (2.3.26). The king may “lead her a coranto” (2.3.43) but will not keep the maid for himself as in the other “problem comedy,” Measure for Measure. In the economics of risk taking, the “tax of impudence” and “fee” (2.1.169,188) for failure is her death, but Helena also perceives that failing would mean a ruined reputation:
A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame Traduc'd by odious ballads; my maiden name Sear'd otherwise …
Susan Snyder rightly notes the oddness of staking sexual identity on the cure; yet, this seems apropos to me at both a literal and psychological level.3 I take the terms of Helena's venture as central to her self-definition and to our understanding of the play. Honor is at stake, and “the honor of a maid is her name” (3.5.12). Feminine honor in the Renaissance means chastity (counterpointed throughout by the juxtaposition of male honor in the Italian war).4 Furthermore, her virginity is de rigueur—part of the fairy tale element and a prerequisite of her power to heal. Yet “maiden's name” should not only be read as virginity; after all, she means it literally. Helena heals through virginity as well as patriarchal sanction:
With that malignant cause, wherein the honour Of my dear father's gift stands chief in power, I come to tender it and my appliance.
“Sear'd” evokes the image of cauterization, a treatment associated with the healing of an external abscess like the king's fistula. Worth noting that Shakespeare infrequently uses “sear,” but when he does, it occurs in the context of usurped royal title and position. For example, Anne in Richard III, lamenting both her dubious status as queen and marriage to a usurper, cries:
O would to God that the inclusive verge Of golden metal that must round my brow Were red-hot steel, to sear me to the brains!
At the sight of Banquo's ghost, Macbeth recalls the prophecy with horror: “Down! The crown does sear mine eyelids” (4.1.113).5 In All's Well no one steals a crown; however, in terms of this play, knowledge is power:
Many receipts he gave me; chiefly one, Which, as the dearest issue of his practice, And of his old experience th' only darling, He bade me store up as a triple eye, Safer than mine own two …
Rare and precious as “a triple eye,” the cure handed down from father to daughter is not unlike a royal diadem. As “th' only darling,” the inherited cure is imagined—like Helena herself—as an only child.
Be careful what you wish for … you just might get it. From a psychoanalytical point of view, wanting “a baby from the father” is normal: obtaining it spells trouble. (Shakespeareans who disbelieve Freud should refer here to Pericles.) For Freud, the castration complex in females signals the onset of the Oedipal complex and not its resolution as with the male.6 A wish for a baby with the father replaces the absent penis:
Not until the emergence of the wish for a penis does the doll-baby become a baby from the girl's father, and thereafter the aim of the most powerful feminine wish. … Often enough in her combined picture of ‘a baby from her father’ the emphasis is laid on the baby and her father left unstressed.7
“A baby from her father” is realized in the cure—and this baby is highly “emphasized.” Regarded as more valuable than Helena, it is also the mainspring of the plot. Two substitutions will occur. By the resolution of the play, impregnation by Bertram replaces “the baby from her father.” This pregnancy will in turn be obtained by exchanging a hymen for a wedding ring.
One could imagine a Freudian arguing—given the passage from “Femininity” I cited—that Helena has a particularly resilient case of penis envy judging from her “masculine” pursuit of courtship. Feminist studies celebrate this character for actively pursuing the male love object, a gender reversal of the norm of patriarchal courtship.8 Albeit, no gal's perfect. Sans the self-conscious femininity and coyness that characterize her namesake and predecessor in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena has been similarly taken to task (by feminists and nonfeminists) for her own spaniel-like devotion.
David Scott Kastan argues that as a “shadow of a wife,” Helena “is forced to admit once again that her notion of love as something that can be earned—either by healing the King or by satisfying the conditions—is inadequate.”9 Barbara Hodgdon in a psychoanalytic study finds that “denied as both virgin and wife, she is nothing.”10 Her self-sacrifice, faulty masochism, and humiliation are the result of ambivalence over willful desiring; Helena's name alone connotes the sexuality of Helen of Troy rather than the idealized chastity of her double in the play, Diana. Richard P. Wheeler, though locating his discussion on the Oedipal anxieties of Bertram, fascinatingly compares Helena to Shakespeare himself:
In Sonnets 71 and 72, Shakespeare contemplates his own death as a means of freeing the friend from the shame of his overreaching love; Helena, in a sonnet, announces her impending death as a means of freeing Bertram from her “ambitious love”: “He is too good and fair for death and me; / Whom I myself embrace to set him free.”
For Wheeler, Helena suffers from what Freud describes as idealization in love in which “the object has, so to speak, consumed the ego.”12 Snyder locates the gaps between Helena's self-assertion and self-abnegation in her success, noting the embarrassed and self-denigrating language when she chooses among the king's courtiers.13
Descriptions of Helena's suffering through her trials range from self-abnegation to the loss of ego, suggesting, in my opinion, a psychological dilemma: guilt. Expected from one who emerges a winner from an Oedipal battle, and yet the fact that she accepts the substitute for the father in Bertram would seem to argue a successful conclusion—in Freudian terms—to her Oedipal complex.
Freud cautions in “Femininity” that while the wished-for baby is emphasized, the father is “left unstressed.” Helena inherits the cure used to win Bertram from her father “on's bed of death” (2.1.103). Helena cries after being reminded of “her education” which “she inherits” (1.1.36-37)—in short, her father's medical knowledge. Yet the tears she sheds are not simply for the dead father:
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 …
Forgetting a father? No wonder she feels guilt as long as she assumes the utter substitution of Bertram for her father.
But after all, mourning finally must end. Freud notes that there is nevertheless something mysterious about its passing, which he acknowledges in mourning's “spontaneous end”:
Mourning, as we know, however painful it may be, comes to a spontaneous end. When it has renounced everything that has been lost, then it has consumed itself, and our libido is once more free (in so far as we are still young and active) to replace the lost objects by fresh ones equally or still more precious.14
Mourning the lost object is followed by reparation through the choice and idealization of a new object. Bertram certainly is an idealized love for Helena; however, has she truly renounced everything that has been lost? On the contrary, in seeking a substitute, she in effect denies the death of the father by “forgetting” him despite the prominent and constant reminders by those around her. Hans W. Loewald, in exploring the relation of the termination of analysis to the mourning process, concludes, “Such denial is the opposite of mourning”:
Loss of a love object does not necessarily lead to mourning and internalization. The object lost by separation of death may not be mourned, but either the existence or the loss of the object may be denied.15
In using the inherited cure to obtain the desired love object, Helena must re-remember the father:
Th' ambition in my love thus plagues itself: The hind that would be mated by the lion Must die for love … .....But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy Must sanctify his relics.
Despite her protestations to the contrary, Helena's glaringly imprecise use of the masculine pronouns (which occurs not only in this soliloquy but throughout the remainder of the scene) betrays an unconscious admission that the substitution of Bertram for the father has been incomplete. “Idolatrous fancy” refers not only to Helena's ambitious love for Bertram, above her in social station, but also its improper replacement for the father.
“Sanctification” of the father's memory will occur first in the appropriation of his cure to secure the love object. Should we interpret this cure as divine or secular? Lafew offers the first report: “They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless” (2.3.1-3). In the king's cure, it would seem, is that unlooked-for modern miracle, allowing Lafew to hearken back to a mystical past. The public report of the broadsheet ballads apparently sides with him: “A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor” (2.3.23)—a suitably ambiguous headline not unworthy of The National Inquirer. Do we witness a heavenly outcome or does “effect” here mean only an impression produced by an artifice or manner of presentation? Inquiring minds want to know. Helena tells the countess that if the king accepts her aid, “his good receipt / Shall for my legacy be sanctified [emphasis mine] / By th' luckiest stars in heaven” (1.3.239-41). Only after successfully curing him does she insist, “Heaven hath through me restor'd the king to health” (2.3.64). Helena, by announcing divine sanction, asserts patriarchal approval—a fatherly benediction—of her choice of Bertram.
Sanctification next requires forgiveness—Helena must forgive herself for forgetting the father, for forgetting “a maiden's name” in seeking a married one. We might argue that her choice of a love object alone guarantees self-imposed penance for this guilt, as the critics uniformly harangue Bertram. The inimitable Dr. Johnson, for example, complains in his Prefaces:
I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.16
G. K. Hunter points out that Shakespeare rewrites Boccaccio in such a way as to “depress Bertram in our estimation.”17 Or as Carolyn Asp recently put it, “The frog prince remains a frog until the end and the princess chooses to overlook his slimy skin.”18 The plot tests Helena's resolve in an unconsummated marriage in which prince not-so-charming runs off to an Italian war and the pursuit of the chaste (happily) Diana.
Helena's trials for her failure to mourn are enacted publicly through her tribulations with Bertram, but at a more profound level, are self-imposed and internal tests. She stages her own death, symbolically substituting herself for her father in paying for the cure:
And though I kill him not, I am the cause His death was so effected. 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.
Not hyperbole for Helena because obtaining Bertram was at the cost of a father—being the inadvertent cause of Bertram's death would be psychically unbearable. From the beginning, “the hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love”; now, however, a substitution is envisioned: her life for Bertram. She in turn flees in what I take to be a genuine renunciation of Bertram: “He is too good and fair for death and me; / Whom I myself embrace to set him free” (3.4.16-17). Her “death” marks the end of the sanctification.
For Helena, totally orphaned, restoration must necessarily occur outside the family structure in order to reconstitute it. She harbors a fear of “a divulged shame” in obtaining the love object (2.1.170). Hence her insistence that “The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother,” that Bertram “must not be my brother” (1.3.150,154). Helena repeatedly must deny a potential surrogate mother in the countess because of the taboo (see 1.3.134-62). Incestuous prohibition allies with social stratification as he is above her in class.
Helena's wooing has an atypically frank sexual component which psychologically exacerbates her guilt over the pursuit of Bertram, a pseudo-brother. Parolles charges that she is “meditating on virginity” (1.1.108); as the following bawdy exchange between the two makes clear, she rather contemplates its loss. Helena envisions a siege of virgins against would-be seducers (1.1.110-31). Although this is a common topoi, I would argue that for Helena, the real war is internal: “How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?” (1.1.147).
Will you do anything with it [virginity]?
Not my virginity; yet …
Although the break in the line may be attributed to textual corruption, the ellipse richly suggests daydreaming about the loss of maidenhead—not with Parolles but “one that goes with him” (1.1.97). Her later cryptic remark to Parolles reveals this longing: “'Tis pity … That wishing well had not a body in't / Which might be felt” (1.1.175,177-78). Yes, she hopes Bertram is well, but the real wish is for gratified desire. Helena's stress on losing her virginity in the opening scene suggests to me heightened awareness of anatomical distinction. The real complaint contained in the war metaphor of assault is feminine passivity: what active role may a woman play when biologically speaking, virginity must be “taken?”
The bed tricks problematize for many critics the moral virtue of Helena and, in Measure for Measure, of Isabella. In both plays, the third act concludes with similar riddles whose punning, repetition, and simple rhyme scheme (a a b b) seek dispensation:
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.
Helena seeks sanctification or “not sin,” countering Bertram's proposed adultery with his marital duty to her. After they marry, she begs—though unsuccessfully—a kiss, trying to engage him sexually (2.5.86). The bed trick expedites her own wish fulfillment of sexual consummation. A woman demands her love-choice with no less than a king to support her: this is the troubled prerogative of the Shakespearean father who chooses his daughter's husband.
Critics note the parallels of All's Well to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.19 Helena's own successful pursuit of the love object recalls the myth of the goddess's conquest of Adonis. Yet the tragic ending of the legend is relevant as well. At the death of Adonis by the wild boar, Venus mixes nectar with his blood to create the red anemone, or wind flower, as annual memorial of the spectacle of his death and her grief. Part of Helena's guilt directly relates to the cure's high cost: “If knowledge could be set up against mortality” (1.1.28-29) rather than be its price.
This drama of death and forgetting, memory and forgiveness, will be repeated in the conclusion of the play. The King of France claims to forgive Bertram for his part in her supposed death in language that echoes Helena's earlier soliloquy:
We are reconcil'd, and the first view shall kill All repetition. Let him not ask our pardon; The nature of his great offence is dead, And deeper than oblivion we do bury Th' incensing relics of it.
Relics now serve only to incense as they are devoid of true forgiveness (or sanctification in the earlier terms of her soliloquy). The king recalls rather than forgets Helena's death—indeed, the pardon fails to mask the obvious aggression indicated by his word choice of “kill” and “bury.”
Restitution must be made. The king concludes that Bertram's prior love for Maudlin “strikes some scores away / From the great compt” (5.3.56-57). But before he consents to a second marriage, the king reproaches Bertram for the next ten lines (57-66) concluding ironically, “Be this sweet Helen's knell, and now forget her” (5.3.67). Bertram's subsequent exposure by Diana and her mother are his punishment for mistreating Helena. But of course Helena is not dead, and whether or not Bertram is sorry is finally anyone's guess. The name of Maudlin must clearly be emblematic, but which does it mean—effusive sentimentality or the tearful repentance of the Magdalene? Shakespeare will restage this scene in earnest in The Winter's Tale so that the genuinely repentant Leontes need not marry some version of a Maudlin.
All's Well sings its own funeral dirge for the dead; it hearkens back to a “golden age” when the Count Rossilion and Gerard de Narbon lived and the king was young and well. This nostalgia establishes a discrepancy between the values of that court and the present one with its dubious involvement in a foreign war as well as the errant behavior of Parolles and Bertram.
In Painter's Palace of Pleasure, Shakespeare's most likely translation of Boccaccio, Bertram's father dies followed by Giletta's. Shakespeare presents the death of both fathers simultaneously. “Succeed thy father,” the countess tells Bertram; “hold the credit of your father,” Lafew counsels Helena. Helena and Bertram are doubles—split aspects of one grieving ego.
For Bertram, impending departure from the mother specifically causes him to “weep o'er my father's death anew” (1.1.3-4). Separation signals potential loss of restoration in that he overvalues the surviving parent. Rather than seeking reparation through marriage and a family of his own, only the apparent death of his wife allows him to return home to his mother and ‘mother’land [“Till I have no wife I have nothing in France”] (3.2.74).
Note simply Bertram's jealous and peevish interruption of the countess's consolation of Helena (1.1.55). Hunter is right in arguing that Lafew's comment in the subsequent line is meant to call attention to Bertram's rudeness.20 I find it significant that the interruption occurs precisely at the start of the countess's lecture on proper mourning (1.1.47-54). Perhaps Bertram too feels the momentary sting of guilt in crying over the ensuing separation from the mother rather than for the dead father.
Bertram's response to the king's panegyric of his dead father underscores the difficulty in being torn between remembrance and a longing for forgetfulness:
His good remembrance, sir, Lies richer in your thoughts than on his tomb; So in approof lives not his epitaph As in your royal speech.
The distance between presence and absence is measured by “royal speech” and silent “epitaph.” The good will not be interred with the bones. Neither the countess (who equates Bertram with a “second husband”) nor the king allow Bertram to forget his father. In Hamlet the Ghost returns from the dead with royal speech for the edification of the son; here the king—surrogate father—who has “both sovereign power and father's voice” (2.3.54) quotes directly the words of the former count:
“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.”
The king identifies with the dead father and expresses his own thanatos: “This he wish'd / I, after him, do after him wish too” (64-65). “Mere fathers” (1.2.62)—fathers apparently too easily forgotten—are at odds with ungrateful whelps.
Bertram ostensibly desires nothing if not to be a dutiful son to mother and dead father; however, he has his share of Oedipal difficulties as his note to his mother reveals. Although he has wedded Helena, he has “not bedded her”—in short, as he closes the note, “My duty to you” (2.2.20-21, 24). For Bertram succeeding the father, as Wheeler aptly demonstrates, results in Oedipal anxieties much as holding the credit, the knowledge of Narbon, does in Helena.21 Like Helena, he seeks a ready substitute—the King of France. Bertram, too, knows what is expected: “You're loved, sir,” he replies to the King (1.2.68). But the transference of love is not so easy. Observe Bertram's difficulty with actually rendering dutiful service; he resents being grounded, unable to go outside and play war with the rest of the boys. To add insult to injury, he is told whom to marry and saddled with a wife beneath him in station and a pseudo-sister, one who “had her breeding at my father's charge” (2.3.114).
In a play proliferate with fathers—dead and alive—it is no doubt significant (a “meticulous analogy” as Harold C. Goddard put it) that Parolles's exposure as a traitor occurs at precisely the same time as Bertram seduces Helena.22 R. B. Parker notes Shakespeare's insistence on time in the overlap of the exposure of Parolles's cowardice and treachery between 10 pm and 1 am (4.1.24) and the bed trick which occurs from midnight to 1 am (4.2.54-58, 4.3.28-29).23 Bertram identifies with Parolles and merges narcissistically with one who mirrors him as the pre-Oedipal parent once did. Identification to recover what is lost grows out of Freud's pioneering conception of the “substitute” in which narcissistic affections such as Bertram displays for Parolles are a “substitution of identification for object-love.”24 Lafew tells the countess her son was misled by “a snipp'd taffeta fellow there, whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbak'd and doughy youth of a nation in his colour” (4.5.1-4)—the opposite of the Count de Rossillion's exemplar. Potential corrupter of no less than an entire generation, Bertram lays to rest yet another father in Parolles.
Bertram has an easier time serving the Duke of Florence where he earns a triumphal war record and is able—at least on the battlefield—to live up to the standard of honor set by his father. Again the inherent gender distinction in the Renaissance's conception of honor provides for different motives and potential redress in Bertram. He dukes it out to win dad's approval. She “dies” symbolically but also figuratively in the loss of her maidenhead (read chastely).
The countess laments, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” (1.1.1.). Giving birth (to a son or to a cure) is equivalent to the death of the father. The clown parodies the larger action of the play as he comments on Bertram's first flight from a substitute father:
… your son will not be kill'd so soon as I thought he would.
Why should he be kill'd?
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.
Bertram flees Helena in terms that suggest an internalization of the play's larger fear that a birth signals the death of a father: “show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband” (3.2.57-58). Bertram will not “die” to replace the father as Helena does; rather the play assures his well being from the countess's first line to Helena's care-taking in the conclusion.
Fleeing the father as well as the mother as well as the sister in Helena, Bertram's seduction of Diana clearly represents a necessary break with his paternal past. The ring he finally relinquishes “downward hath succeeded in his house / From son to son some four or five descents / Since the first father wore it” (3.7.23-25). Bertram accepts his own mortality associated with fatherhood and renounces a family romance recreation of the dead father. In moving outward from the bonds of immediate family, Bertram's pursuit of Diana enacts the frequently difficult biblical stricture that a man shall leave his father and his mother (symbolized in his earlier flight from France) and cleave unto his wife (Genesis 2:24). The marriage ceremony may now occur without incestuous taboo:
Here, take my ring; My house, mine honour, yea, my life be thine, And I'll be bid by thee.
Bertram's submission finally allows a posture not unlike Helena's self-sacrifice. While she has been forced to remember the father, he now is able to mourn and move forward; he symbolically walks away from the gravesite in surrendering “his monumental ring” (4.3.16). All will come full circle like the ring itself. The father will be properly remembered in the begetting of children as the son becomes father in the conclusion of the play.
Yet Diana is hardly his wife, and Bertram's “abstract of success” in Italy includes having “buried a wife, mourn'd for her” (4.3.83, 85). The touching tribute the supposedly dead Helena receives from the countess and her retainers juxtaposes Bertram's callousness (see 4.5.7-16). His homecoming deflates the prior heroism through his association with Parolles (4.5.1-6) and by “a patch of velvet on's face” which may or may not hide a syphilic scar rather than a war wound (4.5.90-92). The ring he offers Diana in his version of the wedding ceremony is suitably mocked but never reduced to parody. Helena (through Diana) has given him her own ring, a token from her surrogate father, the King of France. By possessing it, he stands accused of foul play in relation to her death; however, all's well that ends well, as Helena insists (twice). Bertram may be forgiven, redeemed through Helena's resurrection.
At the end Helena, no longer a “shadow of a wife” but a living, pregnant one, is absolved of her denial, her failure to mourn. She is not only given a husband but another mother in the countess: “O my dear mother, do I see you living?” (5.3.313). A “living” mother has been substituted for a dead father, a mother she was earlier forced to deny to preclude incest. Sanctification must occur first as the countess's earlier lines make clear:
Why not a mother? When I said “a mother”, Methought you saw a serpent. What's in “mother” That you start at it?
The mother may be re-found only after Oedipal guilt is resolved. The post-Edenic world signals a fall from grace otherwise and a breaking of taboo. No freedom from original sin in a world of lapsed fathers; only if Gerard de Narbon had lived then he “would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work” (1.1.19-20).
All's Well enacts a search for identity through separation with family ties and creating them anew: “As we are ourselves, what things are we!” Viola in Twelfth Night prefigures Helena in that both women—after the death of their fathers—pursue the love object with implied patriarchal sanction. At the Captain's first mention of the duke, Viola implies posthumous endorsement: “Orsino! I have heard my father name him” (1.2.28).25 Shielded by her adopted masculine attire and defined as moldable and frail, she passively woos Orsino. She courts Olivia for him and simply hopes, much like Helena, that all's well that ends well:
Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness, Wherein the pregnant enemy does much. How easy is it for the proper false In women's waxen hearts to set their forms! Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we, For such as we are made of, such we be. How will this fadge? … .....O time, thou must untangle this, not I, It is too hard a knot for me t'untie.
Again the issue is identity in a fallen world, one beset by the “pregnant enemy.” Compare the line “For such as we are made of, such we be” to “As we are ourselves, what things are we!” Viola's conception of identity seems, like her, more passive, more fatalistic. Identity in All's Well, though equally problematic, allows more room for invention in its open-ended questioning. This tension between action and passivity can be felt in the plays' opposing stances toward mourning.
The Countess Olivia would seem to be the picture of grief, a woman ravaged by the recent loss of a father and a brother. Yet her grief is largely posturing—a picture indeed, one she willingly unveils for Cesario (1.5.236-38). This act of removing the black veil signals the end of an affected mourning in which Olivia would “water once a day her chamber round / With eye offending brine” (1.1.29-30) and abjure “the company / And sight of men” (1.2.40-41). These are but the trappings and the suits of woe. The idea of sincerity in mourning is a classical commonplace in both Seneca and Plutarch. In All's Well Helena's grief needs to be established as genuine:
No more of this [crying], Helena; go to, no more; lest it be rather thought you affect a sorrow than to have—
I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too.
Her response is Hamlet's; however, while both are genuine, Hamlet mourns for his father while Helena, as her soliloquy at the end of the scene reveals, grieves over the impending departure of Bertram (see Hamlet 1.2.89-100). Still, the two are not unrelated:
In everyday life, many of us tend to cut short a farewell, perhaps in order to diminish the embarrassment, the ambiguity, and the pain, even though we may be torn between the grief of separation and the eager anticipation of the future awaiting us. Others seem to wish to prolong the farewell; yet it is not the farewell they want to prolong but the presence of the beloved person so as to postpone the leave taking as long as possible. In both cases an attempt is made to deny loss: either we try to deny that the other person still exists or did exist, or we try to deny that we have to leave the beloved person and must venture out on our own. Either the past or the future is denied.26
Feste in his role as critical commentator reduces Olivia to a “fool” by recognizing her posturing in grief (see 1.5.64-70). Yet I think it is most in his lyrical and haunting song that he serves as spokesperson for the play's overarching conception of bereavement:
Come away, come away death, And in sad cypress let me be laid. Fie away, fie away breath, I am slain by a fair cruel maid: My shroud of white, stuck all with yew, O prepare it. My part of death no one so true Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet, On my black coffin let there be strewn: Not a friend, not a friend greet My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown: A thousand thousand sighs to save, Lay me, O where Sad true lover never find my grave, To weep there.
The song seeks to prevent mourning, and as lover's complaint, simultaneously sings its own threnody, providing in itself a lasting memorial. We recall Viola's famous image of “Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief” (2.4.115-16). The act of smiling at once seems to deny grief while the image of the funerary monument relentlessly remembers the dead.
Remembering the dead—not forgetting as in All's Well. Non accettare sostituti! I am reminded of Il Camposanto di Pisa. This stark white cemetery, rumored to contain dirt from Calvary brought back by the Crusaders, was nearly destroyed by an Allied bombing. Its crumbling frescoes by The Master of the Triumph of Death and broken Roman sarcophagi lie in their ruined splendor even more powerful and moving in their tribute. One statue stands out: “L'Inconsolabile.” She never smiles.
Hunter, in editing All's Well, locates the difficulty of critical interpretation in the play's very language. He finds “an attempt to express complex thought within the limits of normal syntax and versification” which will not be solved stylistically until the romances with their “extremely loose parenthetical syntax.”27 In the romances, however, the dead are resurrected most astonishingly. Unlike The Winter's Tale, here we as audience know that all's well because Helena is still alive. We are finally in a “normal” world rather than in the realm of romance. Despite the fairy tale elements of the play, no one returns from the dead.
“The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 218-19. Kahn utilizes Peter Blos's work in On Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation (New York: Free Press, 1962).
All citations of All's Well are from the Arden edition, ed. G. K. Hunter (London: Methuen, 1967).
“All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens,” English Literary Renaissance 18, no. 1 (Winter 1988): 68.
See R. B. Parker's “War and Sex in All's Well That Ends Well,” Shakespeare Survey no. 37, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge: University Press, 1984). Parker pursues G. Wilson Knight's argument in The Sovereign Flower (London: Methuen, 1958) that the play is based on a conflict between masculine and feminine ideas of honor. Parker argues that the ideas of war and love modify one another: Bertram must abandon war to accept his sexuality while Helena must give up her self-abnegation in love by demonstrating increased aggression.
Citations of Richard III and Macbeth are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).
All citations are from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), “Anatomical Sex Distinction,” 19:256.
Freud, “Femininity,” 22:128.
Carolyn Asp concludes, “By the play's end she [Helena] 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 reevaluation of the patriarchal denigration of female desire and a reconsideration of that desire's power and validity in the social order,” “Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well,” Literature and Psychology 32 (1986): 60-61. Barbara Hodgdon asserts “Shakespeare's text generates an incipient critique of patriarchal systems as well as a model of feminized power” in “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well,” Philological Quarterly 66, no 1 (Winter 1987): 66. Susan Snyder finds the conclusion, however, less a feminist triumph than Asp or Hodgdon: “Does All's Well really ‘change the story?’ I don't know. What it does do, I think is to enact … 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” in “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens,” English Literary Renaissance 18, no. 1 (Winter 1988): 77.
“All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” English Literary History 52, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 583.
Hodgdon, “Making of Virgins,” 57.
Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 62.
Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, 65, cf. “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” 18:113.
Snyder, “All's Well,” 67.
Freud, “On Transcience,” 14:307.
“Internalization, Separation, Mourning, and the Superego,” in Papers on Psychoanalysis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 261.
The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 7:404.
Hunter, Arden xxvi.
Asp, “Subjectivity, Desire,” 48.
See especially James Calderwood, “Styles of Knowing in All's Well,” Modern Language Quarterly 25 (1964): 272-94, and Snyder, “All's Well,” 947-48.
Hunter, Arden, 56.
See Wheeler's masterful chapter entitled “Imperial Love and the Dark House,” Shakespeare's Development, 34-91.
The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 2:46.
Parker, “War and Sex,” 104.
Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 14:249.
All Twelfth Night citations are from the Arden edition, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975). For calling this similar sanction to my attention, I am indebted to William Kerrigan.
Loewald, “Internalization, Separation,” 258-59.
Hunter, Arden, lviii.
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Babula, William. “The Character and the Conclusion: Bertram and the Ending of All's Well That Ends Well.” South Atlantic Bulletin 42, no. 2 (May 1977): 94-100.
Argues that Bertram's “conversion” or “rebirth” at the end of All's Well That Ends Well is an indication of his first steps toward personal maturation.
Briggs, Julia. “Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks.” Essays in Criticism 44, no. 4 (October 1994): 293-314.
Studies Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick (a clandestine exchange of sexual partners) for the purposes of legitimizing sexual transgression in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.
Cole, Howard C. “Preliminary Concerns: Tradition and Innovation in the All's Well Story.” In The All's Well Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare, pp. 1-11. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Claims that critical dissension over All's Well That Ends Well may be reconciled when the work is considered within its proper literary and social contexts. The critic also notes that the complicated drama is deeply concerned with the religious and political issues of its time.
Cosman, Bard C. “All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Treatment of Anal Fistula.” Upstart Crow 19 (1999): 78-95.
Claims that All's Well That Ends Well's King of France suffers from a fistula (ulcerous abscess) located on his anus, the location of which was likely intended for comic effect.
Doran, Gregory. “Unhappy Ever After: It Is a Bittersweet Tale of Unrequited Love and Troubled Marriage, But Is All's Well That Ends Well Also Shakespeare's Portrait of Secret Desires?” Guardian (29 November 2003): 18.
Provides a topical reading of All's Well That Ends Well that views Bertram's character as a literary projection of the historical William Herbert.
Grode, Eric. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Backstage 41, no. 8 (25 February 2000): 64.
Offers a mixed assessment of director Andrew Grosso's 2000 production of All's Well That Ends Well at the HERE Theater in New York. The critic praises the director's incisive rendering of the play's darker themes, but laments the loss of its much-needed comedic elements.
Harmon, A. G. “‘Lawful Deeds’: The Entitlements of Marriage in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4, no. 3 (2001): 115-42.
Explores the legal dimensions of legitimacy and the early modern marriage contract as depicted in the coupling of Bertram and Helena in All's Well That Ends Well.
Harrison, G. B., ed. Introduction to All's Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare, pp. 15-20. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1955.
Offers a brief introduction to All's Well That Ends Well.
Leonard, Nancy S. “Substitution in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies.” English Literary Renaissance 9, no. 2 (spring 1979): 281-301.
Probes the dynamics of impersonation and ambiguity as thematic and comic principles in All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida.
Rothman, Jules. “A Vindication of Parolles.” Shakespeare Quarterly 23, no. 2 (spring 1972): 183-96.
Claims that Parolles is the principal source of comedy in All's Well That Ends Well.
Snyder, Susan. “Naming Names in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43, no. 3 (autumn 1992): 265-79.
Examines the significance of such mythological names as Helena and Diana in All's Well That Ends Well.
Styan, J. L. “Youth and Age.” In Shakespeare in Performance: All's Well That Ends Well, pp. 23-29. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
Examines All's Well That Ends Well's elder characters—the Countess of Roussillon, the King of France, Lafew, and Lavatch—as sources of wisdom and wit.
Sullivan, Garrett A., Jr. “‘Be This Sweet Helen's Knell, and Now Forget Her’: Forgetting, Memory, and Identity in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 51-69.
Explores Shakespeare's innovative social construction of memory and forgetting as thematic and structural devices in All's Well That Ends Well.
Wheeler, Richard P. “Marriage and Manhood in All's Well That Ends Well.” Bucknell Review 21, no. 1 (spring 1973): 103-24.
Attributes Bertram's refusal to marry Helena in All's Well That Ends Well to his unconscious sexual anxieties.
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