Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3965
The plot of All's Well That Ends Well is a tissue of traditional folk motifs. The story of the abandoned wife who performs a seemingly impossible series of tasks in order to regain her husband is at least as old as the myth of Eros and Psyche. It has analogues in many of the literatures of the world. The hero or heroine who achieves great good fortune by knowing how to cure the sickness of the king when everyone else has failed, the bed-trick, the exchange of rings, and the association of virginity with magical power are all story elements with reverberations orginating far back in the past. In shaping them into a dramatic plot, Shakespeare was strongly influenced by the story of Giletta of Narbona, told as the ninth story of the third day in Boccaccio's Decameron. It is possible that he read the Italian original, but his chief source was probably the English translation, in William Painter's collection The Palace of Pleasure (1566-67, 1575).
Giletta of Narbona is the daughter of a wealthy and celebrated physician. She falls in love with Beltramo, the only son of the noble count by whom her father is employed. The count dies and Beltramo goes to Paris as a ward of the French king, who is suffering from an apparently incurable disease. When Giletta's own father also dies, she follows Beltramo to Paris, heals the king with the help of a remedy she has inherited, and then claims Beltramo as her reward. Beltramo himself is horrified by the idea, and even the king is reluctant to agree to a marriage so unequal. He keeps his word to Giletta, however, and Beltramo is forced to yield. Immediately after the wedding, Beltramo flees to Italy and enters the service of the Florentines against the Sienese. Giletta, an unhappy virgin wife, remains for a time in Rossiglione, where she wins the love and respect of all her husband's subjects. Hearing, however, of Beltramo's bitter jest, that he would consent to live with his wife when she possessed herself of a ring from which he was never parted and came to him with their son in her arms, conditions impossible (as he thought) to fulfill, she disguises herself as a pilgrim and journeys to Florence. There, discovering that Beltramo is paying court to the daughter of an impoverished gentlewoman of the city, she persuades the two women to help her. The daughter exacts Beltramo's ring as the price of her surrender, and Giletta then, for some time, secretly supplies her place in Beltramo's bed. When she is sure she is pregnant, she puts an end to these nocturnal meetings, rewards the gentlewoman and her daughter, and sends them out of Florence. Beltramo returns to Rossiglione where, some time later, Giletta suddenly appears to confront him with the ring and twin sons so like their father that Beltramo cannot help but recognize them as his own. All the courtiers and ladies of Rossiglione plead that Giletta should be accepted, and Beltramo, "perceiving her constant mind and good wit, and the two fair young boys," gladly agrees: he sets up a great feast and "from that time forth he loved and honored her as his dear spouse and wife."
As told by Boccaccio and Painter, this story has a simple shape and a clarity which are satisfying and wholly unproblematic. Everyone, even the king, is agreed at the beginning that Giletta, though wealthy, is too low-born to be Countess of Rossiglione. In her first attempt, made as the physician's daughter, she fails to win anything more than the outward appearance of rank. Subsequently, while administering Beltramo's estates, and then in Florence, she demonstrates an innate aristocracy of wit and enterprise so compelling that it annihilates the class barrier. She wins over Beltramo's household and subjects, then Beltramo himself, through sheer intellect and resourcefulness. No one in the story blames Beltramo for his initial repudiation. The king forced him into a demeaning marriage, and it rests entirely with Giletta to prove by her "diligence" that there might be something to recommend such a misalliance after all. It is true that the reader wants Giletta to succeed, but no blame attaches itself to Beltramo for being hard to persuade. Only through sheer intelligence, and by demonstrating that she can give her husband sons who inherit his face as well as his name, can Giletta make herself Beltramo's equal, his wife in fact and not in law only.
As usual, Shakespeare greatly compressed the timespan of Boccaccio's story, reducing it to a more manageably dramatic compass. He also made some significant changes in the situation and characters of the two protagonists. Helena, unlike Giletta, is poor as well as low-born, and she lacks the total self-sufficiency and some of the cunning of her prototype. Bertram, her reluctant husband, stands convicted of faults considerably more damning than Beltramo's aristocratic pride. He is callow and insensitive, a lecher, an oath-breaker, and a liar, who not only misprizes Helena but makes other serious mistakes of judgment as well. Shakespeare also added four major characters for whom there were no equivalents in his source: the old Countess of Rossillion, Lafeu, Parolles, and the fool Lavatch. All four have one thing in common: they operate in their different ways, throughout the comedy, to raise Helena in our estimation and to degrade Bertram. The play that results has sacrificed the simplicity and clear emotional emphasis of the folk-tale from which it derives. Indeed it seems positively to stress the incompatibility between characters who are sophisticated and complex and a plot which is neither of these things. Like its successor Measure far Measure, All's Well That Ends Well often seems to be questioning its own story material and, particularly in the final scene, to look ironically at its own title and at the very nature of comedy.
It is virtually axiomatic in comedy since the time of Menander that when a young man or woman wishes to marry purely for love, overleaping disparities of birth, wealth, and position, the older generation represented by fathers, mothers, uncles, and guardians will strenuously oppose such an attempted infringement of the laws of established society. All's Well That Ends Well with no help whatever from its source, insists upon inverting this pattern. Boccaccio's king, though grateful for his cure, did not relish bestowing Beltramo upon a rich physician's daughter. Shakespeare's King, by contrast, is warmly approving of the match, even though Helena, unlike Giletta, is not only a commoner but poor. The old lord Lafeu, the most eminent of the King's courtiers, also adopts the attitude that nothing can be too good for her. Most surprising of all, the old Countess of Rossillion, Bertram's mother, greets the news that her only son has been married to her waiting-gentlewoman with unfeigned delight. In this play it is the old who are generous and flexible in their social attitudes while the young—Bertram, Parolles, and (according to one view) the young lords whose constraint and inner fear at the prospect of being chosen by Helena are mocked by Lafeu—tend to be class-conscious snobs.
All's Well That Ends Well is a play filled with nostalgia for the past, concerned to evoke the remembrance of better times. Rossillion, where the action begins and ends, is an almost Chekhovian backwater, elegiac and autumnal, a world preserved in amber. It derives its character chiefly from the old Countess, from the shrewd and "unhappy" fool favored by her late husband, and from memories of the dead: Bertram's father, or that wonder-working physician Gerard de Narbon whose skill, ultimately, was not proof against his own mortality. It is understandable, to some extent, that young Bertram should be impatient to leave this place, even as it is understandable that he should experience an initial psychological shock when told he must marry a girl he has known there all his life as a dependent, a kind of inferior sister. Yet neither Paris nor Florence, the two places to which he tries to escape, functions for him as that heightened, more extraordinary world familiar in so many of Shakespeare's comedies. In neither is he transformed.
In Paris as at Rossillion, the Golden Age lies in the past. The king is old and fretful, a man who has outlived his health, his friends, and his pleasure in living. The court which surrounds him is hard-headed and rational and Lafeu summarizes its ordinary way of thinking when he complains, from the standpoint of an older generation, that
They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.
Into this sceptical, hard-headed world comes Helena, offering something quite alien to it, in the form of a miraculous cure, and demanding a fairy-tale marriage as her reward. The cure, achieved by way of a secret transmitted to her from the past, is unexpectedly successful. The marriage is not. Bertram refuses to accommodate himself to the archetypal story pattern, to recognize any return of the Golden Age. A struggle develops between the demands of romance, or comic form, and the stubborn resistance set up by a realistic, everyday world in which merit is not always rewarded, or even recognized for what it is. In this world, unicorns do not exist to testify to the mystic power of virginity, and Prince Charming is likely to prefer the fashionably dressed elder sisters to beauty in rags. Love itself is not simply the servant of a fantastic plot, but a matter of complex adjustments within the personality.
From Paris, Bertram flees to Florence, a place to which his thoughts inclined him even before Helena's arrival. Like the other young lords, he is susceptible for all his rationalism to the glamour of war, and the Florentines and the Sienese are, as the King puts it, "by th' ears" (I.ii.1). The phrase suggests a dogfight more than it does an epic combat out of the pages of chivalry, but the noble youth of France are still eager to go and fight on either side of this dispute, purely for the sake of personal honor. Honor is an important word in All's Well That Ends Well generally, but it is also one that takes some hard, Falstaffian knocks. The King of France will have nothing to do himself with the Italian imbroglio, for hard-headed political reasons, nor does he care if his courtiers join the Florentines or the Sienese. The First Lord tells the Duke of Florence at the beginning of Act III, after he has heard (but the theatre audience has not) "the fundamental reasons of this war," that "Holy seems the quarrel / Upon your Grace's part; black and fearful / On the opposer," and the words are recognizably a parody of what anyone involved in any war, for whatever reason, always says. Basically, Italy is a kind of gymnasium where the youth of France may exercise idle limbs and minds and indulge the only romanticism in which they still believe. The conflict itself ends in a peace treaty of an unspecified kind, after the usual quantity of bloodshed and embarrassing accidents: "There was excellent command—to charge in with our horse upon our own wings, and to rend our own soldiers!" (III.vi.48-50). Helena comes close to echoing Falstaff's words at Shrewsbury, although the emotion which prompts them is very different, when she laments that "honor but of danger wins a scar, / As oft it loses all" (III.ii.121-22). Moreover, as Lavatch points out (IV,v.94-101), even honor's scar may be ambiguous. The velvet patch on the face of the returning warrior may conceal wounds inflicted by syphilis rather than the sword.
Although Lafeu, the King, and the old Countess fondly remember an age in which martial honor was something tangible and significant, it seems to have declined now into a matter of game-playing and mere words. Honor is not the only quality to be trivialized in this way. Shakespeare is concerned throughout to contrast a vanished world of the past in which words were subordinate to facts with a debased, present-day society in which language has become an empty and often a lying substitute for deeds. The King remembers and praises Bertram's father, his dead friend, as a man whose "tongue obey'd his hand" (I.ii.41). This proper subservience of speech to behavior tends now to be reversed or else, even more disturbingly, there is simply no connection at all between what people say and what they think and do. The King, Lafeu, and the Countess constantly stress the rightful primacy of facts and intrinsic qualities over misleading verbal descriptions. All these members of an older generation know what the King later tries to tell Bertram, that
Is good, without a name; vileness is so:
The property by what it is should go,
Not by the title.
"The mere word's a slave," he goes on, trying to make Bertram see that the fact that Helena is young, wise, and fair matters far more than the superficial social description of her as "a poor physician's daughter." He wastes his breath, however, on a young man whose best friend and greatest influence is called, entirely accurately, Parolles.
Parolles is an embodiment of that discrepancy between words and deed which plays so important a part in the play as a whole. The glorious, swashbuckling past upon which he lives, dines out at ordinaries, and attracts rich young patrons like Bertram is nothing but a verbal construct. He is really a parasite and a coward, sheltering behind a facade of language and fine clothes. He talks constantly of honor but has none, of guns and drums and wounds but in fact is timorous as a mouse. Parolles descends from a venerable line of braggart warriors, talkers and not doers, who originate with Aristophanes and then swagger their way through Menander, Plautus, and Terence into Elizabethan comedy. Shakespeare had already experimented with the miles gloriosus type in Don Armado, Ancient Pistol, and (with a difference) Falstaff. Parolles, however, is the most severely criticized of them all. He bears a heavy weight of moral blame for encouraging Bertram to corrupt "a well-derived nature" (III.ii.88), for upholding snobbery and vice. Lafeu is entirely accurate when he declares that "there can be no kernel in this light nut; the soul of this man is his clothes" (II.v.43-44). Here, as elsewhere in the comedy, an extravagance of dress concealing emptiness or corruption within is used as a variant on the theme of fine words cloaking innate baseness. It is the way of the world that, for a time, the deception should pass, that Parolles should convince Bertram with words and clothes, while "virtue's steely bones / Looks bleak i' th' cold wind" (I.i.103-4). Lafeu, Helena, Lavatch, and the Countess are never deceived by him, however, and ultimately he is subjected to a public exposure and humilitation that is crushing in a manner more usually associated with the "comical satires" of Ben Jonson than with Shakespeare. At the end, this "manifold linguist" is forced ignominiously into the position that Helena has maintained gracefully all along: "Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live" (IV.iii.333-34).
Helena herself is prized by the older generation not only because they recognize her intrinsic worth, but because she is a living example of the attitudes of the past. Certainly she makes her distrust of disembodied words plain from the start. In her imagination, the court to which Bertram has been despatched is a place of verbal conceits, "Of pretty, fond, adoptious Christendoms" (I.i.174) which dress love up in fashionable disguises, losing the substance in the show. Left behind at Rossillion, she worries with some cause about what may happen to Bertram there and laments, characteristically, that "wishing well had not a body in't, / Which might be felt" (I.i.181-82). In Paris, she achieves the man she loves through an action, the healing of the King, and then discovers that her victory is hollow, a matter of words alone. She is only "the shadow of a wife...The name, and not the thing" (V.iii.307-8). Defeated and self-accusing, she attires herself as a pilgrim and makes her way towards Saint Jaques le Grand. Unlike Giletta, who intended quite specifically to find her husband and accomplish the task set, Helena seems to arrive in Florence more by accident than purpose. Once there, however, she proceeds to make the same use of Diana and her mother that Giletta had done, and with the same success. It is at this point that problems of a kind nonexistent in Boccaccio's story rear themselves in Shakespeare's play.
Although some scholars have tried to identify All's Well That Ends Well with the mysterious Love's Labor's Won, a play mentioned by Meres in 1598 among the other early comedies of Shakespeare, its whole quality and verbal character really argue for a date around 1602-3, after Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida and just before Measure for Measure. The verse of All's Well That Ends Well—compressed, elliptical, abstract, often tortuous and obscure—is very different from the fluid, concrete, and playful language of the early comedies but, in some respects, like that of Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. Even more important, the comedy ends by using the folk-motif of the bed-trick to force a clash between those opposing elements of fairy-tale and realism, of romance motivation and psychological probability, which have existed in so uneasy a harmony throughout. In the final scene of All's Well That Ends Well, romance wins a kind of pyrrhic victory, even as it does, again through the bed-trick, in a blatantly fictional last act of Measure for Measure a year later. Both victories are disturbing, because they raise in a particularly acute and deliberate fashion doubts as to the validity of comedy as an image of truth.
Bertram pays adulterous court to Diana with vows and false promises which she recognizes as such: "therefore your oaths / Are words and poor conditions, but unseal'd" (IV.ii.29-30). Back in France, he will deny that he ever made them. Helena, by contrast, takes words which Bertram originally intended only as a formula, a heightened way of declaring that he would never accept her as his wife, and interprets them literally. She forces language to become fact and confronts Bertram at the end not with words but with two talismanic things: the ring and the child she has conceived. Thematically, in terms of the debate between words and deeds which has been sustained throughout the play, this resolution is entirely right and proper. Psychologically, and in dramatic terms, it is difficult in ways that Shakespeare seems to have wanted to emphasize rather than to conceal.
In Boccaccio's story, Giletta is never believed to be dead. She reappears at Rossiglione after a long absence but not, as Helena seems to do, from the grave. Helena's supposed death is credited by other characters in the play on the best evidence: letters received from her at Saint Jaques le Grand describing her grief and illness and finally, confirmation of her decease from "the rector of the place" (IV.iii.58-59). Critics who do not like Helena often point out that she has apparently not only concocted a monstrous lie in these letters but, apparently, has bribed the rector to forge a death certificate. Helena's "death," however, will not bear investigation in such literal terms, any more than will Hermione's in The Winter's Tale, and for much the same reasons. Helena dies so that Diana in the final scene can expound her riddle, "one that's dead is quick" (V.iii.303), and so that the transformation of Helena herself from a condition of nothingness—a "ghost," a "shadow," a wife in name alone—into a condition replete with life and joy may be as striking as possible. There is a powerful emotionalism in the last scene of this play. It derives, however, from an accord which, unlike the wholly consistent ending of The Winter's Tale, seems to ignore and leave unresolved the major issues of the play.
By introducing Helena's mock-death and resurrection, Shakespeare debased Bertram in a way for which there was no precedent in his source. In Boccaccio, the poor gentlewoman and her daughter remained in Florence after helping Giletta. Diana and her mother, on the other hand, appear in Rossillion to remind Bertram that he has sworn to marry Diana after his wife's death, and to claim fulfillment now of that promise. Bertram's behavior in these straits is very like that of Angelo when faced with Isabella and Mariana at the end of Measure for Measure: he turns and twists, lies and calumniates, providing an entirely realistic demonstration of just how far he can go in prevarication and meanness. The revelation of Helena, her fairy-tale task accomplished, clears him of a murder charge, but it does not elicit from him anything but the most perfunctory indication of acceptance and apology. Shakespeare might easily have made Bertram eloquent here, but he did not choose to. He was perhaps too conscious of the fact that the second winning of Bertram, although more arduous, nonetheless belongs to exactly the same world of fairy-tale and romance as the first. In terms of psychological truth, there is no more reason for Bertram to accept Helena because of the bed-trick than because of the miraculous healing of the King. This second clash between realism and fable, the old world and the new, is suggested but comes to no issue. Instead, the entire scene gradually fades away and becomes dim, retreating visibly into the realm of romance.
The character of the verse of All's Well That Ends Well alters markedly in the last fifty lines of the play. It becomes simple, direct, and archaic: the transparent language of riddle-games and fables. Most of it is further distanced by being cast in the form of rhyming couplets whose inevitability of sound and rhythm help to characterize the larger inevitability of the archetypal happy ending. Diana plays with the situation like a good fairy about to restore a princess who vanished long ago, teasing the baffled King, enjoying mystification for its own sake. By the time Helena appears with her two talismans, the ring and the unborn child, the comedy has loosed its moorings and floated off into a poignant, but attenuated, world of unbelief. Blithely, the King turns to Diana and enjoins her to select any husband she fancies from among the nobles of his court. One might think that the misfortunes of Helena would make him wary of this particular matrimonial method, but no one moves to break the spell. Only in the odd conditional introduced into the King's final couplet, the unexpectedly tentative "seems" and "if," is a shadow of doubt allowed to return:
All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The butter past, more welcome is the sweet.
The tide of the comedy itself, referred to now by the King as it was previously, but more confidently, by Helena herself (IV.iv.33-36, V.i.25), was proverbial. Like the proverbs continually employed in a perverse and contradictory fashion by the bitter fool Lavatch—traditional bits of lore existing uneasily in a world grown too complex for such simplifications—it serves as a gentle reminder that fairy-tales, ultimately, are not true.
SOURCE: "All's Well That Ends Well," in The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by J. J. M. Tobin, Herschel Baker, and G. Blakemore Evans, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997, pp. 499-503.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7998
The starting point for this essay is Susan Snyder's recent characterization of All's Well as a "deconstructed fairy tale": lurking beneath the folkloric narrative of the poor physician's daughter who deploys magic and cunning in order to overcome a dashing count's disdainful resistance are the unrepresentable specters of female sexual desire and male sexual dread. Indeed, the play invests the fairy-tale motifs that W. W. Lawrence believes undergird All's Well—"The Healing of the King" and "The Fulfillment of the Tasks"—with potent erotic subtexts. In adapting "The Healing of the King," Shakespeare, like his model Boccaccio, departs from tradition in making the King's healer a woman. Lawrence barely mentions this innovation, but it seems to me highly significant, especially since Shakespeare, unlike Boccaccio, makes Helena's gender—more particularly her sexual ardor and allure—indispensable to the cure.
Integral to the narrative of "The Fulfillment of the Tasks" is the bed-trick, an explicity sexual event in which a disprized wife wins back her husband by making love to him incognito, taking the place of another woman, in some versions the wife herself in disguise, whom he has wooed. All's Well deconstructs this folkloric device by wedding it to genuine sexual perturbation. The bed-trick is not simply the consummation of a marriage, in which Helena cleverly satisfies Bertram's seemingly impossible conditions, but an act of prostitution, in which Helena services Bertram's lust and submits to humiliating anonymous "use," and a type of rape, in which Helena coerces Bertram into having sex with her against his will.
Yet, as many critics have noted, the play seems to suppress its own erotic subdrama. Certainly Shakespeare idealizes and mystifies the sexual arousal that empowers Helena's cure of the King. He lends Helena magical and hieratic powers, giving her the capacity to effect a supernatural cure. He similarly desexualizes her erotic agency in the bed-trick, allowing Diana to serve as Helena's sexualized double. Diana suffers Bertram's degrading slander in the final scene, thus allowing Helena to reenter the play as a saintly resurrected figure whose visible pregnancy sanctifies her sexuality and who elicits an instantaneous reformation from Bertram. The bed-trick becomes a transcendent event, vastly removed from bodies groping in the dark, from the kind of event imaged as "defil[ing] the pitchy night" (IV.iv.24).
In performance the bed-trick is fuither removed from sexual experience precisely because it is undramatized, not part of the play's visceral theatrical life, a plot mechanism scarcely capable of disconcerting audiences as it has critics. I want to examine how staging the bed-trick can assist in dramatizing the "deconstructed fairy tale" that lies at the heart of All's Well, thus bringing to the surface the erotic subdrama that the play represses, and, in so doing, extend the play's provocative interrogation of gender roles.
Helena has been a puzzle and provocation to critics because she occupies the masculine position of desiring subject, even as she apologizes fulsomely for her unfeminine forwardness and works desperately to situate herself within the feminine position of desired object. Bertram, too, poses problems because he occupies the feminine space of the Other, even as he struggles to define himself as a man by becoming a military and sexual conqueror. He is the desired object, the end of the hero's—or in this case heroine's—gendered journey of self-fulfillment. Helena's opening soliloquy conveys the plight of a woman trapped between active ("masculine") and passive ("feminine") modes of desire. She clearly expresses her desire to consummate a sexual love, calling herself a "hind" who wishes to be "mated by the lion" (I.i.85-92). At the same time, she adopts a "feminine" posture: she cannot mate but can only be "mated." Furthermore, as a hind desiring a lion, she cannot mate at all. Helena thus naturalizes the culturally established distinctions of gender and class that make Bertram a forbidden object. In addition, Helena appropriates the masculine privilege of the gaze, submitting her "curled darling" to rapturous objectification, only to affirm a "feminine" helplessness, lamenting the impossibility of eliciting her beloved's look. Her gaze becomes masochistic: it is pleasurable torment—"pretty, though a plague"—to survey his beauteous, unattainable form every hour" (ll. 92-93).
Once galvanized by Parolles' bracing antivirginity jape, however, Helena resolves to "feed" her desirous gaze, to make the object of worship an object of consumption:
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes, and kiss like native things.
That Helena imagines a sexual feeding here seems plausible, given the imagery of "joining" and "kissing," not to mention the suggestive phraseology of "mount[ing] my love." The "space" separating her and Bertram she portrays as a product not of nature, which favors their "join[ing]," but of "fortune," which seems here to mean "standing in life" and thus to represent culture.
The language Helena employs is characteristically elliptical, stemming from her guarded, coded, sexually charged dialogue with Parolles. The obscurity of her discourse perhaps reflects the unspeakability of her desire. Her exchange with Parolles begins as a theatrical turn, with Helena playing straight man for the swaggering poseur. As straight man Helena channels her unspeakable desire into the discourse of male bawdry, seeking a kind of release through the sublimated pleasures of naughty talk, even if her lines serve principally as cues for Parolles' ribaldry. At a certain point, however, Helena seems to take seriously Parolles' aspersion of virginity—or, more specifically, his vision of the naturalness and regenerativeness of sexuality; she steps outside the scene's theatrical frame and trades the role of straight man for that of surprised pupil: "how might one do, sir," she asks, "to lose it [her virginity] to her own liking?" (ll. 150-51). She disregards his censure of her wish to choose rather than be chosen ("Off with't while 'tis vendible; answer the time of request" [ll. 154-55]) and answers his challenge—"Will you anything with it?"—decisively if obscurely:
Not my virginity yet:
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,
A phoenix, captain, and an enemy,
A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,
A counsellor, a traitress, and a dear;
His humble ambition, proud humility;
His jarring concord, and his discord dulcet;
His faith, his sweet disaster; with a world
Of pretty, fond, adoptious Christendoms
That blinking Cupid gossips.
Modern editors have been inclined to assume a missing line between Helena's terse defense of virginity and her expansive list of lovers' endearments. "There" is usually taken to mean "at the court," and the speech is explained as Helena's anxious contemplation of courtly rivals whose enchantments may well stir Bertram's desire. The speech may perhaps be better understood, however, as a coded disclosure of Helena's own erotic stirrings. That she speaks cryptically and elliptically may simply reflect the difficulty of articulating female desire. If one gives up the idea of a missing line, the sense of Helena's response is captured in G. Wilson Knight's paraphrase: "'I shall not part with my virginity to anyone yet, because therein your master has an infinite love." Knight, however, backs away from the aggressively sexual connotations of this decoding and asserts, "I do not think that, at this early stage in her story, it can mean 'In giving your master my virginity I shall give him a thousand loves,' since she has no good reason at this stage to expect such an event." Helena's lacking any reason to expect "such an event" is surely beside the point; she clearly desires to "mate" with Bertram, and, stoked by Parolles' libidinous exhortations, she presumably builds on the tantalizing possibility of losing her virginity to her own liking, that is, to Bertram. The speech thus becomes the link between this heretofore unthinkable idea and the conception of her bold plan for winning him. Perhaps "at the court" has seemed the best candidate for Helena's imagined "there" because virginity—or rather the impenetrated female territory it predicates—has been perceived, within a phallocentric register of meaning, not as a "there" but as a "nowhere," a "nothing-to-be-seen," in Luce Irigaray's striking phrase.
Thus the key to the speech may lie not in a missing line but in a missing language—one that embodies a woman's "thereness" and enables the articulation of a distinct female desire. From a Lacanian perspective, female desire is literally unspeakable, inconceivable within a phallocentric linguistic system that makes woman a signifier of man, reducing her difference to opposition, reconfiguring her desire as the desire for his desire. The unspeakability of Helena's passion perhaps compels her to express it evasively and mystically. She thus characterizes her "virginity" as a kind of philosopher's stone, a "tinct and multiplying medicine" (V.iii.102) that blesses Bertram with a supernally expansive love and allows her, for his sake, to assume all the guises of the courtier's beloved, to become a kind of shape-shifting superwoman. Helena, however, continues to believe that she must be "mated": she cannot unleash this mystical female power—cannot become Bertram's idealized courtly lover—until Bertram "has" her maidenhead, discovers her wonders "there." Once more the play seems to dramatize the contradiction of female subjectivity: Helena expresses an active (masculine) longing to consummate her passion in terms that betray a "feminine" urge to empower and sustain Bertram, to fit herself to his fantasies—or at least to his received images of femininity. Helena's (feminine) hope that Bertram might find her desirable after "having" her sexually eventually impels her (masculine) orchestration of the bed-trick.
Helena continues to feminize her desire throughout her campaign to win Bertram, offering compensatory performances of exemplary chastity to atone for the unchaste boldness of her plan. Forced by the Countess to confess her love for Bertram, Helena disclaims the desire to win him that we know she harbors, reviving the self-abasing hopelessness of her first soliloquy, once more portraying Bertram as an unattainable heavenly body that she worships (I.iii.204-7). In conversation with the King she betrays a similar compulsion to appear normatively chaste, instantly withdrawing her suit when he taints her proffered cure with imputations of prostitution, "Humbly entreating" a "modest" thought—requesting the King's belief in her chastity—as she prepares to take her leave (II.i.127-28). Her willingness to suffer a prostitute's punishment if her cure fails seems designed to dispel any lingering suspicions of unchastity, to distance her holy magic from wanton witchery (ll. 170-73).
In II.iii, the scene in which Helena is to choose a husband, Helena's status as desiring subject becomes public. The King, parading a contingent of eligible wards, formally confers on her the power of the gaze: "Fair maid, send forth thine eye....Peruse them well" (ll. 52, 61); he also lends her the masculine privilege of choice: "Thou hast power to choose, and they none to forsake" (l. 56). Her public position as dominant woman is so unprecedented that Lafeu mistakenly believes the young lords have rejected her rather than vice versa: as a woman she cannot be the chooser but only the object of choice. Helena's singular ascent requires another compensatory performance of "femininity." Though she has, in fact, "command[ed] the King to grant the fulfillment of her desire (II.i.194), she protests her chastity to the assembled suitors and blushingly retires before the King ratifies her authority and compels her to continue. In Susan Snyder's words, "when [Helena] finally addresses Bertram, she does her best to deny her role as aggressive, desiring subject and to recast herself properly as object." ("I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live, / Into your guiding power" [II.iii.102-4]). Bertram, however, discerns and resists this implicit emasculation, dismissing her protestations of vassalage and demanding the return of masculine-looking power: "I shall beseech your Highness, / In such a business, give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes" (ll. 106-8).
To call attention to Helena's "performative" femininity is not to accuse her of hypocrisy or willful deception. To point out that her self-effacements are self-serving is not to rehearse the tired, limited characterization of her as a two-faced, manipulative manhunter. It seems to me more helpful to understand Helena's hyperfemininity as a kind of Lacanian misrecognition that she persistently reenacts. Helena performs femininity so convincingly because she has successfully internalized a culturally imposed image of Woman. When Helena seems to affect femininity for the sake of covering her unfeminine, predatory tracks, she may not be crudely dissembling but rather, like a good method actress who loses herself in the role, truthfully simulating, thereby authenticating the role demanded of her. "The action of gender," Judith Butler suggests, "requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established." Butler is not alone in contending that subjectivity entails a subjection to cultural norms, predicating a process by which socialization is mistaken for individuation. Helena challenges a restrictive standard of feminine chastity, but, while doing so, she must answer to the chaste self-image shaped by patriarchal society. As John Berger puts it, a woman is "almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself." One reason, no doubt, that critics have so often discerned two Helenas—saintly maiden and cunning vixen—is that Helena so vividly embodies the contradiction that Teresa de Lauretis identifies as essential to female subjectivity: self and cultural mirror, woman and Woman.
In performance one way to call attention to that contradiction would be to assign two actors to the role of Helena: a woman and a man in drag who would step in whenever Helena "acts feminine." These two Helenas would then take turns, sometimes within the same scene (Helena's interview with the King in II.i, for instance) or even the same speech (for example, the first soliloquy), while at other times a single Helena would dominate (the female for Helena's combative exchanges with Parolles, the cross-dressed male for her doleful evasions of the Countess). In a modern-dress production of All's Well, costuming could accentuate this duality, with the cross-dressed male (as cultural mirror) far more unerringly "feminine" in appearance than the female, whose attire could be freer and more individualized, even androgynous. The prettified, feminine (male) Helena then becomes kin to the lavishly festooned Parolles, a culturally constructed gender image compelling imitation. Such a choice dramatizes the process of misrecognition, participating in a postmodern fragmenting of subjectivity. A less ostentatious approach might, however, prove even more theatrically potent. Since Helena's essential provocation lies in her capacity for forcing masculine and feminine modes of desire to collide, the director might prefer to capture her doubleness not through double casting but through the concentration of its contradictory effects in a single actor, making her as self-possessed and un-self-consciously sensual in her "masculine" moments as she is self-effacing and studiously chaste in her "feminine" ones.
Helena's "masculine" desire is no less subject to cultural construction than her "feminine" chastity. As Foucault has argued, sexual desire is derived as much from culture as from nature. Accordingly, Helena's desire is directed toward the culturally approved goal of marriage, an institution that, at least according to the "Protestant doctrine" of Shakespeare's time, confirms a woman in femininity by delivering her to permanent chastity—and subservience. In II.iv, her only scene with Bertram prior to the play's final moments, Helena seems to savor "feminine" subservience as the reward for her "masculine" boldness. She embraces wifely subjugation with a fervor that mortifies Bertram. "Come, come, no more of that," he protests when she pronounces herself his "most obedient servant" (ll. 72-73). From a Freudian perspective, she accepts—even flaunts—a neutered passivity for the sake of eliciting male love. When Bertram annuls the marriage she has taken such pains to effect, she takes the desexualization one step further, embracing a monastical chastity by reconfiguring herself as a penitent whore getting herself to a nunnery, disavowing her desire and receding into iconicity, inspiring the Countess to compare her, I would argue, to the Virgin Mary (III.iv.25-29).
The sexual renunciation ends when Helena locates another mirror of misrecognition: Diana, the young Italian woman who defines femininity for Helena by virtue of her attractiveness to Bertram. As Catherine MacKinnon asserts, "socially, femaleness means femininity, which means attractiveness to men, which means sexual attractiveness, which means sexual availability on male terms." In order to win Bertram, Helena the devoted would-be wife must refashion herself as sexual object. Her goal shifts from the fulfillment of desire to the achievement of desirability. Her desire is no longer simply the desire to wed but the desire to be desired. She thus identifies with, and acts through, the woman whom Bertram covets. In a Lacanian context, Helena says not "I wish to become a woman" but rather "I wish to be like her whom I recognize as a woman." Her deputization of Diana offers an extreme instance of Helena's need to conceal her desire. Only when she secures the services of a surrogate who agrees to embody that desire and risk the "tax of impudence" that Helena herself carefully dodges does Helena manage to secure Bertram.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the distance between Helena and Bertram comes when Parolles, urging Bertram to "steal away" to the wars in order to avoid the emasculation of marriage, characterizes Helena's "virginity" in terms radically different from her own:
He wears his honor in a box unseen,
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars's fiery steed.
The site of Helena's miraculously generative sexual love becomes a "box unseen," a lack that threatens to contain and consume Bertram's manly essence, an effeminizing, contemptible "kicky-wicky" that would preclude his purchase of masculine honor. The opportunity to mount Mars's fiery steed in manly combat rescues Bertram from an emasculating stint as "forehorse to a smock" (II.i.30)—that is, a woman's beast of burden—a humiliating reversal of the roles of man/woman, rider/horse, master/slave that had become homologous in Shakespeare's England.
Parolles embodies a fiction of masculine grandeur that Bertram attempts to actualize, a mirror of misrecognition in which Bertram insists on seeing himself, a narcissistic reflection of an idealized self that confers an illusion of wholeness. In particular, the supposedly battle-tested, sumptuously plumed Parolles offers Bertram an image of military glamor and promotes participation in the Italian war as a rite of passage into manhood. Thus he praises Bertram's determination to fight as evidence of potency: "Why, these balls bound, there's noise in it. Tis hard!" (II.iii.297).
Yet the Countess and the King both define manhood for Bertram as the imitation of his father, the true "perfect courtier" (I.i.61-62 and 207; I.ii.19-22 and 36-48). Parolles becomes a rival father-figure whom Bertram's own father, speaking through the King, indirectly disparages with his criticism of meretricious fashionmongers who beget nothing but clothes ("whose judgments are/Mere fathers of their garments" [I.ii.61-62]). Later, Lafeu implies that Parolles was begot as clothes, that he was not born but made—by a tailor (II.iv.16-19). These images impute to Parolles and his like both sterility and unmanliness and—through the emphasis on costume—imposture and barren theatricality. Parolles functions as a symptom of the tailoredness of gender, performing a masculinity that seems as much a caricature of the cultural norm as does the performed femininity of Helena. In following this counterfeit soldier-courtier, Bertram appears to be doing what Helena has already done: internalizing and authenticating a culturally inscribed myth of gender, saying not "I'm a man" but rather "I'm like him whom I recognize to be a man."
Despite exhorting Bertram to emulate his father, the King denies him the opportunity to do so by forbidding his soldiership, rendering him unable to prove himself the son of a worthy Frenchman (II.i.11-12). Rather than being allowed to "woo" and "wed" honor (to use the King's language to his departing soldiers), Bertram becomes an object of a woman's wooing and wedding. The King, at Helena's behest, subjects Bertram to the very calamity he urged his soldiers to avoid—bondage to female sexuality:
Those girls of Italy, take heed of them.
They say our French lack language to deny
If they demand. Beware of being captives
Before you serve.
Bertram is captive before he serves, in thrall not to one of those "girls of Italy" whom the King stigmatizes but to the girl from Rossillion, the girl next door. While he is primed to resent any imposed responsibility that keeps him from going a-soldiering, marriage to Helena is the very worst of fates, taking him even further back into boyhood by returning him to the maternal domination he presumably escaped by ending his constrictive "marriage" to the Countess. ("In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband" [I.i.1-2], she asserts as the play begins.)
Bertram protests that he "cannot" love Helena. She cannot be an object of his sexual desire, cannot be a "real girl," in Havelock Ellis's terms. This fact is striking, since she so easily achieves that status with the other men in the play, sexually provoking Parolles, Lafeu, and the King alike. Lafeu considers Helena so much a "real girl" that he would like to consign those seemingly standoffish suitors to the fate of castration (II.iii.86-88). From Lafeu's perspective, anyone who would not consider Helena a "real girl" is not a real man.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, Bertram cannot love Helena because she is a forbidden object. The Count's responsibility for "breeding" Helena (II.iii.114) reinforces her status as a sister-figure. The Countess' sponsorship of Helena's matrimonial campaign makes Helena a kind of mother-surrogate as well. The Countess sees in the passionate Helena an image of her younger self (I.iii.128-31). By colluding in Helena's plot, the Countess aims to help Helena secure her son as husband and thus to revive by proxy the relationship she herself has lost. Helena may also be considered a maternal figure by virtue of her status as partner to Bertram's surrogate father, the King. In a reversal of a Freudian plot, in which the son sacrifices the mother as the price of masculine autonomy, the King blocks Bertram's achievement of manhood by forcing on him the woman whom Bertram sees as the object of the King's own sexual interest: "follows it, my lord," Bertram protests, "to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?" (II.iii.112-13).
In addition, the first of the identities Helena hopes to derive from marriage to Bertram is the one conspicuously removed from the realm of courtly love that engenders them: "mother" ("There shall your master have a thousand loves, / A mother, a mistress, and a friend"). On one level, of course, Helena simply invokes a biological fact: she may become pregnant as a consequence of intercourse with Bertram. On another, she explicitly identifies with the very maternal image that repels Bertram and, by raising the specter of castration, drives him to the wars. In one sense, then, Bertram's military campaign represents a retreat: like Parolles, he runs away for advantage when fear—in this case fear of Helena's sexuality—proposes the safety (I.i.201-3). Lavatch later characterizes Bertram's campaign in precisely the same terms: Bertram will not be "killed"—his manhood will not be lost—because he runs away from Helena: "The danger is in standing to't; that's the loss of men, though it be the getting of children" (III.ii.37-42, esp. 41-42).
In appointing Helena her impossible tasks, Bertram sets up a fairy-tale framework only for the sake of demolishing it. While the tasks themselves present a fairy-tale challenge—"do these things and 'then call me husband'"—his decoding of them precludes a fairy-tale solution: "but in such a 'then' I write a 'never'" (III.ii.57-60). Helena, however, insists on the fairy-tale framework, reading his metaphor of rejection as a scenario of acceptance and orchestrating the bed-trick, a folkloric convention, in order to secure him as husband. Helena, however, describes the actual event in anything but fantastical terms:
O, strange men,
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
"When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away.
Helena here configures Bertram as male Other, as personification of difference, as a creature from whom she is estranged. In addition to the folkloric narratives that Lawrence identifies, All's Well also discloses affinities with other "old tales" that more directly address this problem of difference. I am thinking, in particular, of The Loathly Lady, which deals with male fear of female sexuality, and Beauty and the Beast, which dramatizes the female's struggle with male sexuality. In each tale, the protagonist's love—acceptance of the loathliness or beastliness (that is, sexual difference) of their opposite—converts ugliness into beauty. Beauty and the Beast depicts a young woman's transference of love from father to Beast, the sexually menacing male Other. According to Bruno Bettelheim, "only after Beauty decides to leave her father's house to be reunited, with the Beast—that is, after she has resolved her oedipal ties to her father—does sex, which before was repugnant, become beautiful." At the start of the play, Helena has already made this transference. "What was...[my father] like?" Helena muses. "I have forgot him. My imagination/Carries no favor in't but Bertram's" (I.i.81-83). Moreover, far from fearing male sexuality, Helena embraces Bertram's beastliness as the play begins, portraying him as a lion with whom she wishes to mate. Indeed, by portraying herself as a hind, Helena both affirms her own sexuality and evokes a fundamental difference in "kind" that divides them. The bed-trick forces Helena to confront the un-kind Beast within Bertram and to undertake his taming, Bertram, by contrast, recoils from Helena's loathliness, her menacing sexual difference ("what [he] hate[s]"), seeing in her an image of the old crone or castrating mother.
Helena's story—and by implication All's Well itself—also contains intriguing parallels to what Jane Yolen identifies as the common features of the traditional "Cinderella" tale: "an ill-treated though rich and worthy heroine in Cinders-disguise; the aid of a magical gift or advice by a beast/bird/mother; the dance/festival/church scene where the heroine comes in radiant display, recognition through a token." Helena fits this profile to a significant degree: a worthy yet socially undesirable young woman who finds herself, thanks to a magical gift, miraculously conveyed to and radiantly displayed at a royal public ceremony ("Mort du unaigre!" exclaims Parolles, apparently stunned by her glamorous appearance, "is not this Helen?" [II.iii.44]). Indeed, it is surely no accident that both Tyrone Guthrie and Trevor Nunn, directors of two celebrated modern productions of All's Well, staged this scene as a lavish ball and costumed the poor physician's daughter in an elegant gown, effectively portraying her as Cinderella-turned-Princess. And, while she fails to enchant the Prince at first, she does become the object of his desire at another clandestine encounter, which she later proves publicly by means of a token that seals their marriage. The token in this instance is a ring, as it is in several versions of the traditional tale.
In a psychoanalytic context, the Cinderella tale presents a heroine coming to terms with her own sexuality. Her cinders-guise externalizes her dread of the dirtiness of her own sexual drives. Her awareness of the underlying dirtiness impels her to exit the dance prematurely three times, unable to yield to her sexual longing for the reciprocally desirous prince. (The midnight deadline that prompts her departure is not part of the traditional tale but rather the invention of Charles Perrault, whose seventeenth-century version provides the source for the well-known Disney movie.) In the climatic scene she affirms her sexuality by meeting the Prince in her cinders-guise and, in an overtly phallic gesture, triumphantly inserting her foot into the slipper. In All's Well, by contrast, the Prince runs from the heroine, whose active sexuality begrimes her chaste feminine persona. She wins the Prince by catching him and taking him into the cinders with her.
Traces of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella may be found in the twentieth-century romance novel, a kind of fairy tale that also sports parallels to All's Well. The "new heroine" of those novels
is no longer split between two archetypal female characters: the plain-naive-domestic-selfless-passive-chaste heroine and the beautiful-sophisticated-worldly-selfish-assertive-sexually active Other Woman. Instead, the New Heroine is both good and sexual.
Helena holds in unresolved tension the roles of good girl and sexual adventuress that the new heroine has apparently successfully assimilated. A motif of "taming the beast" figures prominently in these modern tales: a seemingly beastly—that is, hard and unyielding—man loses his heart to the worthy heroine and becomes a sensitive lover. As though ruled by this fantasy, Helena endeavors, through the power of her love, to transform the beastly Bertram into the Prince Charming of her fantasy. Helena's own narrative of self-fulfillment—and a narrative pressure of the play itself—resembles a romance novel in which the cruel hero's callous disregard of the desirous heroine masks a depth of adoration he ultimately avows. The romance novel—and possibly All's Well—predicates a retributive fantasy of benign dominance-and-submission. As Tania Modleski puts it:
A great deal of our satisfaction in reading these novels comes, I am convinced, from the elements of a revenge fantasy, from our conviction that the woman is bringing the man to his knees and that all the while he is being so hateful, he is internally groveling, groveling, groveling.
It may be said that Helena seeks to transform Bertram's fantasy by enabling it, replacing the pornographic narrative of violating an idealized virgin with the romance-novel plot of eliciting a redemptive kindness from an unyielding male.
Indeed, if the bed-trick were dramatized, it would literally dislocate the narrative of Bertram's debauchery: "I will tell you a thing," the Second Lord confides to his brother, "but you shall let it dwell darkly with you" (IV.iii.10-11). This report of female victimization would then give way to the dramatization of female desire. "The place and time of feminine desire," says de Lauretis, are "nowhere" and "now," which are repre-sentable only from an "elsewhere of vision" and within "a different narrative temporality." In virtually all performances of All's Well, the place of the bed-trick is precisely "nowhere" or "elsewhere." Its narrative temporality is other than the play's—parallel but not precisely coincident with that of the French captains' gossip. Indeed, the literal death they ascribe to Helena (IV.iii.47-59) becomes the only means of registering the metaphorical death she experiences during the bed-trick, for manhood into the timeless "now" of her desire, replacing the march of "masculine" time with the occupation of "feminine" space. The site of the bed-trick emblematizes female difference, expresses the "unseen wonders" of the woman's own enclosed space and thus is not only unrepresented but unrepresentable within a phallocentric framework that associates that site with a "nothing-to-be-seen." In that sense Helena's reported death—signifying her ultimate absence—becomes symbolic of the "lack" culturally inscribed on her body. How then does one stage an event whose place is unseen and unseeable ("nowhere") and whose subject—female sexuality—is unrepresentable? Can one theatrically embody or evoke the "there" to which Helena cryptically alludes?
As Jeanie Forte notes, contemporary feminist performance artists have instinctively searched for the theatrical equivalent of the distinctive female language imagined by Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous, a mode of representation that would liberate women from a phallocentric signifying economy. These artists aim to "perform the body" in much the same spirit that Cixous exhorts feminists to "write the body," achieving what Forte calls "erotic agency," either by dramatizing a bodily "pleasurability" or enacting a resistance to bodily oppression, in the first instance asserting subjectivity, in the second defying objectification. As an example of the former, Forte cites the work of Marianne Goldberg, whose dance texts celebrate "her subjective pleasure in her own body and its possibilities for movement"; for instance, in "Hudson Rover" (1987) "she rolls on the floor, slowly wrapping and then unwrapping her (clothed) body in blue fabric, seemingly oblivious to anything other than the feel of hard and soft surfaces." As an example of the latter, Forte points to Karen Finley, whose penchant for smearing her body with food, candy, and ashes evokes "both self-abuse and self-pleasuring" and confounds an objectifying gaze that equates looking with consuming.
"While the tactics and techniques of feminist performance art offer fascinating possibilities for deconstructive stagings of Shakespeare, they are not well suited to Helena's bed-trick, which unfolds within the very realm of desire that these artists reject and thus precludes exclusive focus on a pansexual, performed female body. By maintaining rather than abandoning the phallocentric system of representation, however, one may stress the singularity of Helena's ascent to the position of desiring subject in order to accentuate her contradictory status within the play's narrative and, in doing so, underline the contradictory position of women within patriarchy's limited signifying economy. This effect seems in accord with de Lauretis's notion that feminism must
redirect identification toward the two positionalities of desire that define the female's oedipal situation; and if the alternation between them is protracted enough...the viewer may come to suspect that such duplicity, such contradiction cannot and perhaps even need not be resolved...The most exciting work in cinema and in feminism today is not anti-narrative and and anti-oedipal. It is narrative and oedipal with a vengeance for it seeks to stress the duplicity of that scenario and the specific contradiction of the female subject in it.
In staging the bed-trick, one might actually make explicit Helena's dominance, a dominance that the text only hints at. Helena effectively inscribes a condition of lack onto Bertram's body. The restrictions that she imposes—darkness and silence—deprive him of the two patriarchal capacities that define him as (masculine) subject: the gaze and speech. She positions Bertram so that he lacks the language to deny what she commands. The language of bodies now prevails, and Helena, like Diana in IV.ii, secures control of Bertram partly through manipulation of the lust she elicits.
An often-overlooked marker of Helena's control is her curious post-coital detention of Bertram. "When you have conquer'd my yet maiden bed," Diana says on Helena's behalf, "Remain there but an hour, nor speak to me" (IV.ii.57-58). What, one must ask, is the point of this detention? What takes place during that hour? Does the dilation of the trick create a space for the operations of a less propulsively phallic, consumptive sexuality? Does it summon the freer, more resourceful and expansive processes of female desire? Certainly it seems that Bertram is being set up for something—but that something is never explicitly revealed. This ellipsis perhaps offers yet another register of unrepresentable female desire which a staged bed-trick could represent.
The staged bed-trick could, for example, begin with Diana's placing a blindfold on Bertram and yielding her place to Helena. The blindfold would not only provide a realistic explanation for Bertram's inability to distinguish her from Diana but also visually link him with his double, Parolles, who is likewise blindfolded and tricked in the very next scene. The blindfold would both deprive Bertram of the gaze and signify his blindness to the threat of castration that originally drove him away from Helena.
The principal strategy in staging the bed-trick would be to present a kind of suspended foreplay, Helena deflecting Bertram's propulsive, lust-driven energies into more dilatory, sensual rhythms, with Helena positioned as gazing subject and Bertram as gazed-upon object. Helena's masculine gaze, initially frustrated by her feminine powerlessness, would here operate freely and powerfully.
The play provides other possibilities for reinforcing such a gaze. Just as Diana, her mother, and Mariana all positioned themselves as spectators to the triumphal procession of soldiers in III.v, with Diana sending forth her eye over the glistening combatants, one could turn Bertram's attempted seduction of Diana into a spectacle by positioning Helena, the Widow, and Mariana as spectators, concretizing the female frame of reference that contains the scene. Within this play-within-a-play, Diana acts the part of sexual tease, defamiliarizing the role of "the-girl-who-says-no-but-means-yes" by exposing it as performative, presenting herself instead as "the-girl-who-says-yes-but-means-no." The concealed female audience also marks Bertram's incipient masculinity as performative: "My mother told me just how he would woo," exclaims Diana, "As if she sate in's heart. She says all men / Have the like oaths" (IV.ii.69-71). Like Helena in her hyper-feminine mode, Bertram enacts a culturally inscribed script without knowing it, affirming his kinship with "all men" by venting unctuous oaths and fulsome endearments in order to arrange a one-night stand. Since the play's audience not only watches Bertram's performance but also watches women watching it, the scene parallels that of Parolles's capture, in which concealed pranksters also watch their victim walk into a trap.
Even if the voyeurism and fetishism of this gaze reverse rather than overturn masculine-feminine polarities, the powerful position of gazing subject afforded Helena by the staged bed-trick would not only empower her desire but perhaps also momentarily free her from a process of representation that enables her consumption as sexual object. There are at least two scenes, in particular, that position Helena, the desiring subject, as desired object: her early skirmish with Parolles and her interview with the King. Performance could make clear the extent to which Parolles not only jests with Helena but also cheekily flirts with her, launching, behind the cover of licentious badinage, an assault on her own virginity. In the latter scene, performance could also emphasize the erotic arousal enveloped by magical incantation and miraculous faith healing. Some productions have, in fact, attempted to bring the scene's erotic undercurrents to the surface. In John Barton's 1967 production Helena was "a tease of a girl," titillating the King by sitting on his bed and fluffing up his pillows, and in Elijah Moshinsky's BBC version she was a very proper young woman whose provocation of the King—culminating in a lingering, erotic kiss—seemed utterly unintentional. Barry Kyle, in his 1989 RSC production, apparently attempted both to accent the scene's eroticism and to preserve its mysticism: his Helena "kick[ed] off her shoes to perform a circling, energetic, sexually assertive, slightly fey dance," exuding an aura of "white witchery."
In both scenes Helena claims the only kind of female power available in a phallocentric economy by activating and frustrating male desire, "blow[ing] up" both Parolles and the King, making them swell with desire (I.i.118-26, esp. 118-19). Helena's active sexuality is discernible throughout the play but, beyond the space of the bed-trick, is constricted not only by internalized notions of normative femininity but also by the external operations of an objectifying gaze.
As befits Helena's status as desiring subject, the ultimate goal of her bed-trick seems to be that of "taming difference." In the immediate aftermath of the trick, she recoils from male lust and affirms Bertram's strangeness ("O, strange men, / That can such sweet use make of what they hate"). In the play's final scene, however, she emphasizes his kindness, a word that connotes kindredness as well as gentleness or generosity. "O my good lord, when I was like this maid, / I found you wondrous kind" (V.iii.309-10). Helena needs to claim Bertram as one of her kind, needs to create him in her own image—the same image she has sought doggedly to impose despite all his obstinate assertions of alienness. In the final scene, Helena tries to confirm Bertram in kindness by "crush[ing]" him "with a plot."
Helena avenges her earlier humiliation at Bertram's hands by orchestrating his utter ruin: he is censured, disgraced, and threatened with execution. She enacts a version of the romance-novel retributive fantasy, bringing Bertram to his knees—a posture he has, in fact, assumed in more than one production—abusing him in order to please him, positioning him to savor the bondage he initially abhorred. It appears that Helena schemes to rescue Bertram from the calamity she has herself created in order to elicit feelings of indebtedness conducive to capitulation. She depends on his feeling like the rescued sinner of the medieval morality plays to ensure her reception as savior and wife. Her strategy, which recalls Duke Vincentio's determination to make Isabella "heavenly comforts of despair" (Measure for Measure, IV.iii.110), appears to work: in penitently promising love and accepting her as wife, Bertram accepts transformation from beast to Prince Charming, at long last consenting to actualize her fantasy (V.iii.315-16 and 308).
The success of Helena's plot does not, however, guarantee a successful marriage with Bertram, for it validates neither the sincerity of his conversion nor the seemliness of their union. Critics have lamented the paltriness of Bertram's conversion speech, but the problems with the play's final scene run much deeper. Since Bertram has twice before falsely professed admiration for Helena (II.iii.167-73, V.iii.52-58), no words of his, no matter how eloquently or torrentially penitential, could ever suffice to confirm his sincerity. Nor, for that matter, could his actions. Even the most extravagant self-abasing gestures may simply be symptoms of feverish gratitude rather than of genuine conversion. Helena may be able to work up feelings in Bertram that simulate and even enable love but do not actually generate it. And of course Bertram may simply cunningly simulate a penitential swoon. In either case, Helena manipulates Bertram into affecting a kindness that he may quickly discontinue upon assuming his male prerogatives in marriage. Perhaps Bertram functions here as a male Kate—a seemingly tamed lout who performs the submissive role his dominant spouse has taught him, but who may, after all, only be performing. Since, in the play's second half, Helena's aim seems to shift from wedding Bertram to eliciting his desire, it may be that, for the second time in the play, her goal eludes her even as she appears to achieve it.
Moreover, Helena's success seems mitigated by not only the dubiousness of Bertram's conversion but also the dubiousness of her own objectives, her willingness to deliver herself unequivocally to normative femininity. Her dominance of Bertram ultimately enables her to submit to him in marriage. Ever in thrall to Bertram, she wins him only by putting him temporarily in her thrall so that she may put herself permanently in his. Although Helena's narrative dominates Bertram's and allows her to construct him as the Other out of whom she creates herself, at the same time her fundamental, culturally prescribed desire is to become the object of his desire, the Other out of whom he creates himself:
The end of the little girl's journey, if successful, will bring her to the place where the boy will find her, like Sleeping Beauty, awaiting him, Prince Charming. For the boy has been promised, by the social contract he has entered into at his Oedipal phase, that he will find woman waiting at the end of his journey.
Indeed, while Bertram may or may not gratify Helena's fantasy, Helena seems prepared to embrace Bertram's. His "impossible conditions" essentially ask for assurance that Helena can conceive a child without sexually contaminating herself or surrendering maternal purity.
Bertram's apparent acceptance of Helena's success in meeting his conditions subjects them to a final reinterpretation: "I'll be your husband if you can have sex with me—without shaming or emasculating me." Through the bed-trick Helena allows Bertram to fulfill his forbidden desire for her involuntarily, assimilating for his sake the seemingly unassimilable roles of wife and lover, mother and "real girl."
The finale of All's Well could be said to dramatize the amelioration of castration anxiety. Helena steps forward as the eroticized mother-figure of Bertram's dreams. Her resurrection at the play's end represents the final mystification of her own sexuality, an unthreatening eroticizing of the saintly guise she assumed for the pilgrimage. She replaces her own degraded double, rescuing and retiring the wayward desiring self that the beleaguered Diana personifies. Her pregnancy—that is, her status as mother—purifies the sexuality it affirms. It also ratifies Bertram's manhood, signaling his conquest of her, his success in "blowing her up." Moreover, given the belief circulating in Shakespeare's day that a woman could conceive only if she experienced an orgasm, Helena's pregnancy serves as the proof not only of his potency but also of her pleasure, of her satisfaction by him. The bed-trick thus becomes Bertram's initiation into manhood, with Helena serving as his initiator. This fact may simply mean that, in this world of absent fathers, no viable model of manhood exists for Bertram. His father's masculinity, as Bertram confronts it in I.ii, may be no more authentic than that of Parolles, for it is also derived from a performance, from the King's dramatic, deathbed celebration of the Count. The King constructs an exceptional figure, a hero/courtier of fabulous proportions who seems partly a product of the King's intense nostalgia for a lost youth. Bertram is thus left with a choice between two equally fantastical images of manhood: the inaccessibly legendary and the insidiously fashionable. In marrying Helena, Bertram finds his manhood affirmed through a reassuring maternal presence and gets what he may have wanted all along: a wife/lover/mother who allows him to become a man by remaining a boy.
The play's refusal to dissipate its tensions or substantiate its tentative resolutions leaves its drama of sexual difference suspended, arrested in an unresolved but provocative, even poignant tension. Helena's attempt to tame difference meets with uncertain success, and Bertram seems to reaffirm difference in the play's final moments, confronting a female strangeness that mystifies rather than repels. When he declares, "if she, my liege, can make me know this clearly" (V.iii.315), the "this" he wishes to know surely encompasses a good deal more than the details of Helena's fulfillment of his conditions: it must include the mystery of female otherness. The body Bertram used and discarded returns in the person of a would-be wife, a once and future lover, to claim him like an avenging spirit. Helena brings him, however obscurely, new knowledge of female sexuality, offering tantalizing allusions to their time in bed and visible proof of their mutual gratification. Bertram may wish to know more, to see the unseen wonders to which he was previously blind. Bertram's "this" becomes homologous with Helena's "there," suggesting that the performance of sex has possibly solved his problem with sexuality. Yet this solution and the knowledge it assumes are simply intriguing possibilities. As the play ends, Helena and her body remain unknown and perhaps unknowable to Bertram—objects of fascination, further knowledge, perhaps even desire.
Helena remains a mystery to be solved by the reader and spectator—and director and actor—as well. So too does Bertram. Both characters aim to ground themselves in genders that the play suggests are groundless—or at least unstable, fluid, performative. Neither manages to forge a stable identity or secure a clear destiny. Modern performance could underline Helena's and Bertram's status as subjects-in-process, active agents inextricably engaged with subjugating myths of gender. And a staged bed-trick, by fetishizing the male body and empowering a female gaze, could underline the instability of the genders that Helena and Bertram seek to stabilize, taking the play's provocative dramatization of difference to startling and invigorating lengths.
SOURCE: "Helena's Bed-trick: Gender and Performance in All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 449-68.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10721
Eileen Z. Cohen
Western literature abounds in characters who have arranged bed-tricks—from Lot's daughters to Iseult, and by the seventeenth century the bed-substitution was a commonplace convention of English drama. Yet it is Shakespeare's use of the device in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure that disturbs us, doubtless because of the women who perpetrate it, Helena, a virgin-bride, and Isabella, a would-be nun. We seem unwilling to accept that Shakespeare deliberately intends to disrupt our sensibilities. Scholars have told us that we must accommodate ourselves to conventions or fairy tale traditions that are outmoded, or they call these heroines sluts, or saints and tell us to forget about the bed substitutions.
Shakespeare, however, does none of these. Instead, he requires us to believe that virtuous maidens can initiate and participate in the bed-trick. He insists that it saves lives and nurtures marriage, that it leads the duped men out of ignorance and toward understanding, and that the women who orchestrate it end with a clearer image of themselves. Thus, we have a simple theatrical device that effects complex response in the characters and in us, the audience. The convention "deconventionalizes" and makes the world of each play and the characters therein more real. Paradoxically, a device associated with lust abets love and marriage; it utilizes illusion and deception to bring perception and understanding. In so doing, it strips away stock responses to the women who design the deception. Shakespeare apparently does not associate virtue in women with blindness or passivity—or even predictability. He will not allow the audience to generalize about female virtue. Given popular sixteenth-century attitudes towards women, Helena and Isabella must have been as disturbing to their original audience as they have been to subsequent ones, and the bed-trick, because of its ultimate affirmation of the complexity of virtue, just as jarring.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the controversy concerning women was part of the literary and social experience of the middle and upper classes of society. It surfaced in the 1540s and again at the beginning of James I's reign, with reprintings of various pieces throughout these decades. What emerges from the debate, whether the writer was a critic or a defender of women, is that he or she rarely considers women except in the most general ways. Devil or angel, she is a stereotype. A flurry of popular pamphlets was precipitated by the publication of Schole House of Women, which went through four editions between 1541-1570, and is alluded to in several other pamphlets. Here, women are "loud and sour" (Aiii), gossipy (Aiv), adulterous (Bii), frail, crooked, crabbed, lewd (Cii), and weak and feeble in body (Cii). A female's function, because she is made of man's rib, "in every nede / Shulde be helpe to the man, in word and dede" (Biii). There is a remedy for each of man's afflictions, except gout and marriage ([London: John Kyng, 1560], Biii).
Responses to this attack abound. Readers were assured that woman was not created out of dog bones, but from man—the crown of creation. There have been many good women, a fact to which the Bible, the classics, and their very own Queen attest. Anthony Gibson, in addition to cataloguing great women, ebulliently lists their virtues: Women are beautiful and their voices are soft (20). Since they are by nature inclined to sadness, they are wiser than men (21), and more charitable (30). Philip Stubbes, too, had a good word to say for virtuous women—or rather, a virtuous woman, in a eulogy to his dead wife, A Crystal Glasse for Christian Women (London: R. Ihones, 1592). He describes her as a perfect pattern for virtue: modest, courteous, gentle, and zealous for truth. (A2). "If she saw her husband merry, then she was merry: if he were sad, she was sad: if he were heavy or passionate, she would endeavor to make him glad: if he were angry, she would quickly please him so wifely she demeaned herselfe towards him" (A3). In both Stubbes and Gibson, the burden of virtue is as heavy as that of vice.
Very few of the writers in this controversy approach women as other than very good or very bad. Perhaps the most aggressive of those who do blur the stereotypic perceptions of both men and women is the author of Jane Anger Her Protection for Women (London: Richard Jones, 1589). "She" is less rigid than most of her contemporaries with regard to male and female characteristics. "Jane Anger" lowers the barriers between the sexes in that she does not say that women are necessarily more or less virtuous than men. Rather, she equalizes the sexes by suggesting that women pay men in just coin. "Deceitful men with guile must be repaid..." (B2). Woman's greatest fault is that she is too credulous (B2). Though "Jane Anger" still deals in stereotypes, she perceives the weaknesses and strengths of men and women in different ways from most of her contemporaries. She condemns men for failing to see women in terms of these strengths, "We being well formed, are by them fouly deformed" (B3).
Even though many of these pieces are satiric and were probably written because there was a ready market for them, rather than out of sincere beliefs, their popularity indicates an interest in the nature of women and an insistence that their virtues were different from those of men. From these pages and more, there emerges an ideal woman in whom the virtues were chastity, patience, piety, humility, obedience, constancy, temperance, kindness, and fortitude—all passive characteristics. Even her supporters urged her to suppress assertiveness. The ideal male virtues were justice, courtesy, liberality, and courage. For a man the ideal was self-expansion and realization of self; for a woman, self-abnegation and passivity. For a man chastity was unimportant; for a woman it was everything. Her honor and reputation were defined in terms of it. The educator Vives frankly states, "As for a woman [she] hath no charge to se to, but her honestie and chastitie."
Helena and Isabella offer a marked contrast to many of the prevailing presumptions about women that the popular literature manifests, and in some ways a sharp difference from the portrayals of Rosalind and Viola, both in earlier plays. If art does hold a mirror up to nature, then Shakespeare's drama reflects, refracts, and re-focuses the ideas of his time. In Twelfth Night and As You Like It, the remover of affectation from the other characters is a woman, who for much of the play is disguised as a man. Necessarily, disguise was inherent in the role even before the play began since the woman was played by a male actor. But now the deception is double because we have a male actor, dressed as a woman, disguised as a man, and in the case of Rosalind, sometimes pretending to be a woman. Disguise, instead of conveying ambiguity, gives the audience distance from the characters, whose dialogue is now ironic and conveys double meanings. Our response thus becomes intellectual rather than emotional, as perhaps it had been when we were faced with Rosalind's exile and Viola's grief—before they donned male clothing. In these comedies disguise thus clarifies and helps to confirm the point of view of the play.
However, in All's Well and Measure for Measure Shakespeare alters this presentation of illusion. Rather than wearing male clothing, Helena and Isabella assume another form of disguise, the bed-trick Isabella perpetuates the disguise because she believes in the legality of Marianna's plight-troth and Helena because she is a married woman. Among Shakespeare's most interesting and courageous characters, they reverse traditional female behavior, invert stereotypes, and turn apparent lechery into the service of marriage. The ultimate irony, or secret hidden behind illusion, is that resourceful, autonomous women shore up marriage. Helena and Isabella show why they force us to redefine virtue, rather than simply lowering our opinion of them. They encourage the audience to reevaluate virtue, chastity, honesty, and honor in the context of character development. Stock responses to these characters, merely to like or dislike them, will not do because their subtlety demands that the audience respond with subtlety as well.
The bed-trick can be thought of as a kind of disguise since the female lover is disguised by darkness and silence from the male lover. In that sense it is no more or less deceptive than disguise. Like Rosalind and Viola, Helena and Isabella know who they are—a wife and novice, respectively; the characters whom they trick do not see them as they see themselves. One might here use the defense of "Jane Anger" that deceitful men should be repaid in kind, that to men for whom all women are the same in the dark, deception is exactly what they deserve. The bed-trick is, however, far more significant and more "theatrical" than that. Disguise is obviously conventional, but the bed-trick is even more unrealistic if we concede that disguise—that is, role playing and putting on uncharacteristic clothing—is the reality of actors and plays. The bed-trick serves, in addition to its obvious plot function, as the inherent symbol of the play, comparable to Hermione's statue coming to life. Life, death, fertility, and renewal cannot easily be portrayed realistically on the stage. Bertram and Angelo do not get what they deserve. In fact, they get far better, and the bed-trick provides the opportunity to effect their union with feeling and harmony. Lust may have driven them to their ignorance of the women with them, but these women in their love both demand recognition.
Ironically, as the disguise device that is embodied in the bed-trick becomes more theatrical, the plays in which the bed-trick appears are more realistic than the earlier comedies in which the disguise is of a more conventional nature. Here, we have sickbeds, barracks, courtrooms, and cities instead of pastoral forests and imaginary seacoasts. The heroines, themselves, are less mannered and witty, instead they have the drive and zeal of conviction. Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting in these later comedies that the male protagonists, who are also not typical and indeed are very unlikely heroes, make obvious disguise impossible. Their corruption ought to be confronted directly. Male disguise establishes Viola and Rosalind as the friends of Orsino and Orlando, and it momentarily submerges their feminine identity. Bertram and Angelo cannot be treated in the same way. For Isabella and Helena to put on male clothing is to create a visual similarity between them and their antagonists. Such disguise would imply amicable relationships. Perhaps, too, Shakespeare is suggesting that in ethical confrontations such as these, one cannot stare down ruthlessness in someone else's clothes. One must take a stand in one's own person. Isabella and Helena must simultaneously be themselves and more daringly theatrical in order to reinforce the differences between them and the men they confront. The bed-trick affirms the feminine sexuality of these women and, in part, their identities. Helena must be recognized as wife and consummate her marriage, and Isabella must be recognized as virgin and not consummate the relationship with Angelo. They will also ensure that the men will honor their vows as a result.
With this peculiar merging of the realistic and the theatrical, Shakespeare redefines societal expectations of female virtues. Role playing, identity, and integrity of self are examined through the characters involved in this obviously sexual disguise, in plays that are about life and death, marriage, fertility, and renewal—all of which are tied together by the image of the bed.
Both Helena and Isabella are associated with and ultimately effect recovery and generosity in their respective plays. The outcome of their machination is marriage. Thus the stereotypic female roles—nurturing and insuring generation—are at the heart of the plays. However, the rare, unstereotypic personalities of these women and the use of the bed-trick—a seemingly adulterous theatrical device, establishes them as unconventional. The bed-trick, with its secrecy, silence, and deceit, is the device that strips away illusion and ignorance, and confirms truth and understanding. It uses carnal knowledge to effect compassion and knowledge of the spirit. Thus, the use of the bed-trick to beget marriage and the miracle of loving confirms what is unique in these women.
Both the stereotype of nurturer and the more complex and realistic portrait of a passionate-virtuous woman are established very early in All's Well. A litany of family designations begins this play as the Countess says, "delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband" (I.i.1-2), thus initiating the rhythm of family, generation and death—in short, all of life. In the ensuing exchange between her and Lefeu, family designations recur, father, child, husband, as they will in Act I, Scene ii, when the King greets Bertram, and again in Act I, Scene iii, when the Countess and Helena have their exchange between mother and daughter. Also in Act I, Scene i, Helena and Parolles discuss virginity. Though chaste, Helena does indicate that virgins do fall in love and do passionately feel desire.
The stereotyping and unstereotyping of Helena is further established in her two "miracles." She takes her legacy from her father to the court to heal the King and her love to Bertram's bed to give him the blessings of life. She does not perform a miracle in either case unless the human capacities to cure and to love are miracles. If the healing and loving are wondrous, then the bed-trick is a misnomer and is the bed-miracle, instead, just as the King's recovery apparently is. Miracle or not, loving sets people apart from the rest of the natural world, and both the King and Bertram benefit from Helena's precipitation of event. Indeed, Helena anticipates the similarities between her two miracles, both occurring in bed as they do. She acknowledges her daring in her venture to heal the King and tells him that should she fail she will feel the "Tax of impudence, / A strumpet's boldness, a devulged shame, / Traduc'd by odious ballads; my maiden's name / Sear'd otherwise" (II.i.169-172). In short, her reputation will be destroyed. Like her discussion about virginity with Parolles and her asking for a husband in payment for curing the King, this speech reveals Helena's many facets, not the least of them being her vulnerabilty. She acknowledges the sexuality of love and marriage; indeed, she welcomes it. She also acknowledges that there are risks of failure, suffering, and public disgrace in acts of daring. There are hazards in shaping destiny.
Helena later decides to make her pilgrimage to save her husband from the dangers of war by encouraging him with her absence to come home. This decision, made from love, will lead to resolution of events by the bed-trick. Helena's motive for leaving Rousilhon is quite different from Giletta's in The Palace of Pleasure, where the latter planned to seek and bed her husband from the outset of her journey. In All's Well, as in the variation from the source in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare gives greater complexity to his character. Indeed, fate seems to approve of Helena's love and generosity for it introduces her to the Widow and Diana, the means to love Bertram. Had ambition been her motive for marriage, she would not have denied herself the comforts of her new station in life. At Rousillion she has the name of wife without the excess baggage of a petulant boy-husband.
However, she cares about Bertram's well-being and off she goes. She ruefully describes herself to Diana and the Widow as being "too mean / To have her name repeated; all her deserving / Is a reserved honesty, and that / I have not heard examin'd" (III.iv.60-63). As with Parolles in Act I, Scene i, her virginity is the topic of discussion, but now the stakes are quite different. Then the question was how a modest maid might pursue the man she loved; how virginity should no longer be the normal condition of her life. As before when she declined modesty in favor of Bertram, she is aware of the ambiguities of what she is about to do. She acknowledges that her plan may be misunderstood and must be defended, "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" (III.vii.44-47). With it all, she will save Bertram from adultery and give him love....
The men whom Helena and Isabella confront expect stereotypic replies from them; Bertram and Angelo judge by appearances and are taken in by the bed-trick while it asserts complexity and reality over superficiality and mere appearances. George Bernard Shaw described Bertram as a very ordinary young man with "unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality." Bertram certainly seems to embody some of the attitudes toward women that the sixteenth century expressed. He expects that Helena will passively accept the role of virgin-wife which he assigns to her and that his superior intelligence will defeat her. For him women are wives to be rejected, or wenches to be seduced. When Diana defends her honor and equates her chastity with his aristocratic legacy, he is so enmeshed in his lust that he gives away the symbol of that legacy. Want of feeling marks his behavior throughout, culminating in his description of his night's work. He has "buried a wife, mourn'd for her, writ to my lady mother I am returning, entertain'd my convoy, and between these main parcels of dispatch effected many nicer needs; the last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet" (IV.iii.85-89). The last is the liaison with Diana-Helena.
Bertram will not accept his good fortune, either in marrying Helena or in the contingent good will of the King. He sees her not as herself, but as his "father's charge / A poor physician's daughter" (II.iii.114-115). The King, recognizing her virtues, in gratitude defines honor in terms of deeds, not heritage. "Honours thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers" (II.iii.135-37). He makes a distinction that the myopic Bertram cannot see, "Virtue and she / Is her own dower; honour and wealth from me" (II.iii.143-44). Bertram rejects her and goes off to be a soldier, to be brave, and to wench. Thus, he even makes a stereotype of himself. Parolles delivers his lord's message in conventional courtly love language—serious business has called Bertram away from his "rite of love" (II.iv.39). Bertram later smugly declares, "I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the 'not' eternal" (III.ii.20-1). He is too arrogant to realize that his decision may not be Helena's, and he anticipates that she will do as she is told. Lavatch had sung, "marriage comes by destiny" (I.iii.60). Surely the action of this play denies that platitude. It comes to Helena in name and in actuality through her own actions. Bertram will not bed her; so she will bed him.
As the bed-trick is being planned, so is the drum-trick. Both Parolles and Bertram will be in the dark, literally and metaphorically. Neither will know that his "friends" are beside him. One will speak and hear nothing and the other will be blindfolded and hear foreign sounds. By agreeing to the strictures of darkness and silence, Bertram acknowledges his lust. Love seeks and knows the differences between people; lust makes them all the same. Ultimately, each will reveal his worst when caught. It is Parolles who says, "Yet who would have suspected an ambush where I was taken?" (IV.iii.291-92). Bertram could as well have said the same thing.
When Bertram makes his assignation with Diana, his language is once again that of the highly conventional, literary, courtly tradition. He will do "all rights of service" (IV.ii.17); Diana is "holy-cruel" (IV.ii.33); and he suffers from "sick desires" which only her acquiescence will cure (IV.ii.35-36). He vows "for ever" (IV.ii.16). The darkness then disguises Helena from Bertram, but he also does not know himself, so caught up is he in the roles of lover and warrior. The bed-trick will open him up to feeling and an understanding of his own vulnerability.
Helena, through her active assertion of first, her role as physician, and then her role as wife, acts as restorative for Bertram and will perhaps enable him to cultivate the kinds of feelings that do heal and comfort, that do express humanity and the complexity of the human experience, "a mingled yarn, good and ill together" (IV.iii.68). Helena brings intelligence, compassion, and fertility to the world of Bertram and Parolles. Theirs is the world of battle and of superficial friendship based on flattery and self-seeking....
Like the bed-trick, the endings of All's Well and Measure for Measure are at once conventional and unconventional. They both end with marriage, but "happily ever after" may not rule the day. Equally, the heroines who have effected these endings and revealed the subtleties of a world in which the illusions of the characters who have expected stereotypic behavior have been removed elude arbitrary classifications.
In All's Well, when morning comes, after the bed-trick, Helena anticipates better times, "When briars shall have leaves as sweet as thorns / And be as sweet as sharp" (IV.iv.32-33). Thus she expresses hope but is also mindful of the "mingled yarns of life" (IV.iii.74). Even in the final scene when it is full daylight and many voices of propriety and family are heard, the bed-trick seems re-enacted as it had been anticipated by the King's illness, with the exchange of rings, the substituted women, the oaths, the lies—all until the light comes and the truth is revealed. Once more the ambiguities of life are defined. In an ideal world, all would be well. Here all is well only if Helena can make the riddle clear to Bertram (V.iii.310). If she cannot, divorce will follow (V.iii.311). The play is a success if the suit for applause is won (Epilogue, 1-2). Of course, she will prove the consummation, there will be no divorce, and we will applaud when the player asks us to. With the introduction of the ifs, however, comes the confirmation that people behave in individual ways. There are mitigating circumstances, and not to recognize them condemns us to a life based on appearances and assumptions. Bertram thought he got an evening's fling; what he got instead was blessing and love. The ifs tell us that life can go sour; it can also rise and bake sweet.
Women like Helena are more risky to love than passive, conformable women. They ask for more—that their husbands be as chaste as they for one thing—and give more. They are reckless and dare to assert themselves with the means available in order to give their gifts. The convention of the bed-trick confirms and enriches their specialness. Further, it ties together the past and present, dying and fertility, role playing and disguise, all of it, to deny the ordinary and unimaginative.
The final discovery in Measure for Measure, like that in All's Well, exposes a man who has misjudged the subtleties and complexities of the personality of the woman who confronts him. Isabella, to expose Angelo's misuse of power, allows her good name and reputation to be tarnished. She publicly denounces him but must say that he has seduced her in order to do so. For her, reputation of chastity is not the same as chastity itself. And virtue means much more than chastity as she risks public disgrace to expose evil. Throughout, however, Angelo remains alienated. He is given love and marriage, neither of which he wants. Because he cannot tolerate public shame, he requests death, which is denied him. Finally, Isabella makes her grandest assertion for life, and once more her sincerity and directness surface. Angelo's death will not revive Claudio; therefore she pleads for his life. As she had participated in the bed-trick to save her brother's life, so she now pleads for Angelo's out of compassion for Marianna.
As in All's Well, the ending of Measure for Measure is precarious. None of the marriages seems ideal. We do not believe that distress is over and happiness necessarily follows. Instead, there is sense of a beginning, of new opportunities and second chances, rather like life. We have arrived at this realization in part by having had our sensibilities shocked. Chastity typically demands reticence and passivity, but Shakespeare says no in these plays. The bed-trick is unseemly to the unimaginative, indecorous to the conventional and undemanding. These plays ask of their heroines that they be virtuous and assertive, chaste and outspoken; that they search for the harmonies of life. These characters and their participation in the bed-trick shock, disorient and ultimately extend a reality—that part of virtue which actively reaches for the elusive commitment to life. In creating plays in which the stereotypes are distorted, Shakespeare, via an old and much-used convention, seeks to define honor, chastity, virtue—not as abstractions but as realities.
SOURCE: '"Virtue Is Bold': The Bed-trick and Characterization in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 171-86.
In the midst of Hamlet's attack on deceptive female sexuality, he cries out to Ophelia, "I say we will have no moe marriage" (III.i.147). Hamlet begins with the disrupted marriage of Hamlet's mother and father; by the end of the play both the potential marriage of Hamlet and Ophelia and the actual marriage of Claudius and Gertrude have been destroyed. This disruption of marriage is enacted again in the tragedies that follow immediately after Hamlet; the author of Troilus and Cressida and Othello seems to proclaim with Hamlet, "we will have no moe marriage." But the comedies written during this period— All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure—end conventionally in marriage; in them Shakespeare was, I think, experimenting to discover by what means he might make marriage possible again.
Marriage rests on the legitimization of sexual desire within society; insofar as sexuality is felt to be illicit, marriage itself will be equivocal at best. As Hamlet proclaims the abolition of marriage, he repeatedly orders Ophelia to a nunnery (III.i.120-49). Here the double sense of nunnery as religious institution and bawdyhouse explicates perfectly the sexual alternatives left when marriage is abolished; or rather, it explicates the sexual alternatives—absolute chastity or absolute sexual degradation—that make the middle ground of marriage impossible. These are the sexual alternatives for the male protagonists of both problem comedies, where the middle is absent and sexual desire is felt only for the illicit. Bertram and Angelo are both presented as psychological virgins about to undergo their first sexual experience. In the course of their plays, we find that both can desire only when they imagine their sexuality as an illegitimate contamination of a pure woman, the conversion in effect of one kind of nun into the other. Both plays exploit this fantasy of contamination. The drama of the last scene in each play depends heavily on the sexual shaming of the supposedly violated virgins. The public naming of Diana as a "common gamester to the camp" (All's Well That Ends Well, V.iii.188); Lucio's comment that Mariana, who is "neither maid, widow, nor wife," maybe a punk (Measure far Measure, V.i.179-80) and his extended joke about who has handled, or could handle, Isabella privately (V.i.72-77); even Escalus's claim that he will "go darkly to work" with Isabella, a claim that Lucio promptly and predictably sexualizes (V.i.278-80)—all assume the instantaneous transformation of the virgin into the whore, the transformation implicit in Hamlet's double use of "nunnery." Though the contamination is apparently undone in these scenes insofar as the continuing status of Diana and Isabella as virgins is eventually revealed, these revelations do not undo the deeper fantasies of sexual contamination on which the plots rest; at the end, as at the beginning, male sexual desire is understood as desire for the illicit, desire to contaminate.
Since the impediment to the conventional festive ending in marriage in both comedies is thus the construction of male sexual desire itself, the ending turns on the attempt to legitimize sexual desire in marriage—an attempt epitomized in both plays by the bed trick, in which the illicit desires of men are coercively directed back toward their socially sanctioned mates. (See Neely 1985, Kirsch 1981, and Wheeler 1981 for very similar accounts of the problem and the solution in both plays; of these, Neely and Kirsch tend to be more sanguine than I am about the effectiveness of the cure.) In the bed tricks in both plays the act imagined to have been deeply illicit is magically revealed as having been licit all along—but only at the expense of the male protagonists' sexual autonomy. Through a kind of homeopathic cure both Bertram and Angelo are allowed to enact fantasies of the sexual soiling of a virgin and are appropriately shamed for these fantasies, only to find out that their sexual acts have in fact been legitimate and that the soiling has taken place only in fantasy. Bertram and Angelo are thus saved from their own imaginations; presented with legitimate sexuality as a fait accompli, they can—or so we might hope—go on to accept the possibility that they have been tricked into: the possibility of sexuality within marriage. But given the status of the bed tricks as tricks and the characters' failure to provide much evidence that they have been transformed by them, our hope seems frail indeed and the marriages at the end of both plays remain equivocal. Moreover, because they so clearly betray the desires of the male protagonists, the bed tricks in both plays tend to become, not a vehicle for the working out of sexual impediments, but a forced and conspicuous metaphor for what needs working out.
Comparison with Shakespeare's source for All's Well—there is no bed trick in the sources for Measure for Measure—can help us to gauge the tonality of the bed trick in both plays. In The Palace of Pleasure, William Painter's translation of Boccaccio's Decameron (day 3, story 9), the bed trick is a rather well-mannered and genial affair, repeated often and with affection. We are specifically told that the count (equivalent to Bertram) "at his uprising in the morning...used many courteous and amiable words and gave divers fair and precious jewels" (Bullough 1958, 2:395). In both All's Well and Measure for Measure the bed tricks are portrayed as one-night stands that the male protagonists have no desire to repeat—and not only, I think, for reasons of dramatic economy and credibility. Both Bertram and Angelo lose desire for their virgins as soon as they have ravished them; for both, apparently, the imagined act of spoiling virginity is the only source of sexual desire. In both plays the prohibition against speaking (AWW, IV.ii.58; MM, III.i.247) and the male recoil from the object of desire utterly transform the encounter reported in Painter, so that it becomes the epitome not only of the dark waywardness of desire but also of its depersonalization, the interchangeability of the bodies with which lust plays (AWW, IV.iv.24-25). The potentially curative affectionate mutuality of the source is utterly absent: these bed tricks demonstrate the extent to which sexuality is a matter of deception on the one side and hit-and-run contamination on the other. They do not bode well as cures.
Insofar as the bed tricks represent sexuality in these plays, it is portrayed as deeply incompatible with the continuing relationship of marriage; the very trick that imports sexuality back into marriage reveals the incompatibility. In "Upon Some Verses of Virgil," an essay that some have found a source both for Othello and for All's Well, Montaigne registers a similar sense of incompatibility. (See Cavell 1979, 474, for Othello and Kirsch 1981, 122-27, for All's Well; I am particularly indebted to Kirsch's account.) Montaigne says, "Nor is it other then a kinde of incest, in this reverent alliance and sacred bond, to employ the effects and extravagant humor of an amorous licentiousness" (1928, 72). Here Montaigne seems to me to come very close to the psychological core of the "problem" that I find definitive of the problem comedies. "When Montaigne registers his sense of the incompatibility between the sexual and the sacred by calling that incompatibility incest, he associates the soiling potentiality of sexuality with the prohibitions surrounding the male child's first fantasies of soiling a sacred space; insofar as marriage is felt as sacred, sexuality within it will replay those ancient fantasies and their attendant anxieties. Angelo's anguished self-questioning upon the discovery of his own desire reiterates powerfully the core of Montaigne's concern: "Having waste ground enough, / Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary / And pitch our evils there?" (MM, II.ii.169-71). For the male sexual imagination represented in both Bertram and Angelo, sexuality within marriage is, I think, an ultimately incestuous pollution of a sanctuary; they can desire only when they can imagine themselves safely enacting this pollution outside the familial context of marriage. In both plays, however, the very fact of sexuality binds one incestuously to family, so that all sexuality is ultimately felt as incestuous. I want to look at this incestuous potential within both plays and then to suggest the ways in which they finally seem to me to undercut the accommodations to sexuality apparently achieved by their bed tricks.
The recoil from a sexuality felt as the soiling of a sacred space is split in two in All's Well and analyzed in two separate movements. Bertram's flight from, and slander of, Diana analyze his recoil from the woman felt as whore once his own sexuality has soiled her; even at the end of the play the deep shaming that Diana undergoes makes her the repository for his sense of taint. But the flight from Diana curiously echoes Bertram's earlier flight from Helena. This initial flight analyzes his aversion toward sexual union with a woman who is terrifying to him partly insofar as she is identified with a maternal figure and thus with the incestuous potential of sexuality. In the end, I shall argue, the splitting of the sexual object into the legitimate but abhorred Helena and the illegitimate but desired Diana will be undone as Helena and Diana begin to fuse; their fusion will serve the deepest of the play's sexual paradoxes. But before the end Diana seems the solution to the problem created by Helena: the problem of sexuality within a familial context.
Bertram's initial flight from Helena is phrased in terms that suggest a flight from this familial context. Here, too, Shakespeare's management of his source emphasizes issues central to the play: the figure of the Countess and the crucial association of her with Helena are his additions to Boccaccio/Painter. All's Well begins with the image of a son separating from his mother, seeking a new father (I.i.5-7) and new possibilities for manhood elsewhere. The formation of a new sexual relationship in marriage is ideally the emblem of this separation from the family of origin and hence of independent manhood. But marriage with Helena cannot serve this function, both because of the association of her with Bertram's mother—an association so close that Bertram's only words to her before their enforced marriage are a parenthesis within his farewell to his mother ("Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, / And make much of her" [I.i.77-78])—and because she becomes the choice of his surrogate father. Marriage to her would thus be a sign of his bondage to the older generation rather than of his growing independence. In Richard Wheeler's brilliant account of the play—an account to which this discussion is much indebted—Bertram's flight from Helena and his attraction to a woman decidedly outside the family structure become intelligible as attempts to escape the dominion of the infantile family (Wheeler 1981, especially 40-45; see also Kirsch 1981, 141, and Neely 1985, 70-71).
Bertram's exchange with the king suggests the extent to which marriage with Helena threatens to obliterate necessary distinctions between father and son, mother and wife:
Thou know'st she has rais'd me from my sickly bed.
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!
Bred by his father, Helena is virtually his sister. Moreover, she becomes in the king's words virtually a surrogate mother. Lafeu's reference to himself as a pander ("I am Cressid's uncle, / That dare leave two together" [II.i.97-98]) and the earlier sexualization of "araise" (II.i.76) combine to make the sexualization of the king's "she has raised me from my sickly bed" almost inevitable here (see Wheeler 1981, 75-76, and Kirsch 1981, 135). Bertram imagines himself sexually brought down by the woman who has raised up his surrogate father (see Neely 1985, 70). Beneath his social snobbery, I think we can hear a hint of the ruin threatened should Bertram become sexually allied with his surrogate father's imagined sexual partner. The escape from the parents' choice thus becomes in part an escape from the incestuous potential involved in marriage to a woman who is allied to his mother not only by their loving association but also by her position as fantasied sexual partner of his surrogate father. Bertram's response to the king suggests his terror at losing the social and familial distinctions that guarantee identity, distinctions protected by the incest taboo. His terror is unlikely to be assuaged when the king answers him by denying the distinction between Helena's blood and his: "Strange is it that our bloods, / Of color, weight, and heat, pour'd all together, / Would quite confound distinction" (II.iii.118-20). Bertram's fear is, I think, exactly that the mingling of bloods (see The Winter's Tale, I.ii.109) in his sexual union with Helena would confound distinction.
Bertram faces an impossible dilemma: he must leave his family to become a man, and yet he can take his full place as a man in this society only insofar as he can be reconciled with his mother and the king, hence with the woman they have chosen for him. Moreover, the play insists on the full impossibility of the task facing Bertram by emphasizing at once the distance between him and his father and the social expectation that he will turn out to be like his father. From the first, Bertram's manhood is the subject of anxious speculation on the part of his mother and the king, speculation expressed in the desire that he be like his father in moral parts as well as in shape (I.i.61-62; I.ii.21-22). For them—hence for the ruling society of the play—manhood is defined as living up to one's father, in effect becoming him. Bertram himself unwittingly plays into this definition: he will accept the validity of the marriage only when Helena can show him "a child begotten of thy body that I am father to" (III.ii.58-59). This stipulation in effect makes his own achievement of paternity the condition of his resumption of adult status in France: he can become a man only by becoming his father, and he becomes his father only by assuming his role as father—by becoming a father himself. But if paternity is imagined as becoming one's own father, then one's sexual partner again takes on the resonance of one's mother. The social world of the play and his own fantasy of himself as father finally allow Bertram his place as a man only insofar as he can form a sexual alliance with the woman he and the play identify with his mother. The route toward manhood takes Bertram simultaneously away from the mother and toward her; hence the incestuous double bind in which Bertram finds himself.
Given Bertram's association of Helena both with his mother and with his surrogate father's sexuality, we can begin to make sense of both the impossible conditions Bertram sets for Helena: the act by which Helena simultaneously makes Bertram a father and gets his father's ring is, I think, a fantasized replication of the act of parental intercourse by which Bertram himself was bred. Hence the complex logic governing the exchange of rings in the dark: Bertram's father's ring is given unawares to Helena, the mother's choice, and the ring taken from Helena turns out to have been the father king's. Even here, when poor Bertram thinks that he has escaped his family, the exchange of rings is in effect between father and mother; in the last scene the ring play turns out to have been a symbolic sexual exchange between surrogate parental figures. (On the sexualization of the rings see Adams 1961, 268-69.) In attempting to define his manhood by locating it elsewhere, Bertram thus finds himself returned to his mother's choice; flee as he might, there is no escaping Helena. Indeed, in its portrayal of Helena the play seems to me to embody a deep ambivalence of response toward the mother who simultaneously looks after us and threatens our independence. Astonishing both for her willfulness and her self-abnegation, simultaneously far below Bertram's sphere and far above it, apparently all-powerful in her weakness, present even when Bertram thinks most that he has escaped her, triumphantly proclaiming her maternity at the end, Helena becomes the epitome of the invisible maternal power that binds the child, especially the male child, who here discovers that she is always the woman in his bed.
Insofar as All's Well splits the sexually desired woman from the maternally taboo one, the project it sets for itself in reinstituting marriage is to legitimize desire, to import it back into the sacred family bonds. The bed trick is, as I have suggested, an attempt at such importation. But the bed trick as Shakespeare presents it here fails to detoxify or legitimize sexuality, instead it tends to make even legitimate sexuality illicit in fantasy, a "wicked meaning in a lawful deed" (III.vii.45-47). Despite Shakespeare's apparent attempt to rescue sexuality here, he seems incapable in this play of imagining any sexual consummation—legitimate or illegitimate—that is not mutually defiling. Musing on the bed trick that technically legitimizes sexuality, Helena makes this sense of mutual defilement nearly explicit:
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.
It's very hard to say just what is defiling what here. The sexual interchange itself is replaced in Helena's words by a defiling interchange between "saucy trusting" and "pitchy night," in which "saucy trusting" seems to stand in for Bertram's part and "pitchy night" for Helena's. We might imagine that the defilement here is the consequence of Bertram's belief that he is committing an illicit act; but in fact Helena suggests that the very trusting to deception that legitimizes the sexual act is the agent of defilement. The defilement thus seems to be the consequence of the act itself, not of its status as legitimate or illegitimate. Moreover, in her odd condensation of night, the bed, and her own apparently defiled body, Helena seems to assume the mutual defilement attendant on this act. In the interchange, Bertram/trust defiles Helena/night. But the night itself is "pitchy;" and as Shakespeare's frequent use reminds us, pitch defiles (see, for example, Much Ado About Nothing III.iii.57, Love's Labor's Lost, IV.iii.3, and Henry IV, II.iv.413). Bertram thus defiles that which is already defiled and that which defiles him in turn; that is, in the process of trying to sort out legitimacy and defilement, the play here reveals its sense of the marriage bed as both defiled and defiling. The bed trick thus works against itself by locating the toxic ingredient in sexuality and then replicating rather than removing its toxicity.
It is, moreover, revealing that both the sexual act and the bed tend to disappear in Helena's account, the one replaced by the mental process of trusting to deception, the other by the pitchy night. The sexual act at the center of All's Well is absent; its place in our imagination is taken by the process of working out the deception. One consequence of this exchange is the suggestion that mistrust and deception are at the very root of the sexual act, as though the man is always tricked, defiled, and shamed there, as though to engage in sexual union is always to put oneself into the manipulative power of women. At the same time, the disappearance of the sexual act in Helena's musing on the bed trick points toward the larger disappearance of the sexual act enabled by the bed trick. Ultimately, that is, the bed trick in All's Well seems to me as much a part of a deep fantasy of escape from sexuality as it is an attempt to bring the married couple together; as its consequences are unraveled in the last scene, it allows for a renewed fantasy of the flight from sexuality even while it seems to be a means of enabling and legitimizing sexual union.
Just before Helena appears in the last scene, Diana says, "He knows himself my bed he hath defil'd, / And at that time he got his wife with child" (V.iii.300-301). In effect she separates the mental from the physical components of the sexual act, Bertram's intentions from his actual deed, ascribing the shame and soil to herself and the pregnancy to Helena. This split in part explains the insistence on Diana's shame in the last scene; her words here identify her role as substitute strumpet, the figure onto whom Bertram and the play can displace the sense of sexuality as defilement, thus protecting Helena from taint. The structure of the last scene is calculated to replicate the magical legitimization of sexuality in the bed trick insofar as it substitutes the pure Helena for the shamed Diana in our imaginations; we are put through the process of imagining a defiling sexual contact with Diana and then released from that image by the magical reappearance of Helena. (Hence, I think, the lengthy insistence on the mutual shame of Diana and Bertram, which is not strictly necessary for the plot.) But in the process of repudiating the taint attaching to sexuality, the last scene enables a fantasy repudiating sexuality itself. As Diana begins the process of repudiating her shame, the sexual act is done and then undone in our imaginations as the ring—emblematic of the sexual encounter—is given ("this was it I gave him, being a-bed" [V.iii.228]) and ungiven ("I never gave it him" [V.iii.276]). The business of the ring makes this portion of the last scene into a ritual of doing and undoing, from which the soiled Diana emerges purified, not a "strumpet" but a "maid" (V.iii.290-93). Diana's last words—the riddle to which the appearance of Helena is the solution—again hint at this ritual of doing and undoing: in substituting the pregnant wife for the defiled bed—"he knows himself my bed he hath defil'd, / And at that time he got his wife with child"—Diana comes close to making the bed itself disappear, as though the act of impregnating did not take place in that bed at all. Her words suggest the almost magical quality of the act by which Bertram impregnates Helena: defiling one woman, he impregnates another. The pregnancy is thus presented as the result of Bertram's copulation with Diana, as though the child were Helena's by a magical transference through which Diana gets the taint and Helena gets the child.
Diana's riddle reinterprets the bed trick in effect as an act split into a defiling contact and a miraculous conception. As the defiled bed disappears, the sexual act itself seems to vanish, to become as imaginary as Bertram's knowledge of defilement. The stress throughout the scene has been on the undoing of the sexual act rather than on conception. In the logic of fantasy here, I think that the sexual act has not happened at all, not with Diana and not with Helena. The prestidigitation expressed in Diana's riddle brings the promised birth of Helena's child as close to a virgin birth as the facts of the case will allow. The sense of miracle that greets Helena's return is not wholly a consequence of her apparent return from the dead; it also derives partly from the apparently miraculous conception that Diana's riddle points toward. At the end Helena can thus assume her new status as wife and mother without giving up her status as miraculous virgin; she can simultaneously cure through her sexuality and remain absolutely pure. This simultaneity should seem familiar to us: it in fact rules the presentation of Helena's cure of the king, where her miraculous power depends equally on her status as heavenly maid and on the sexuality that could "araise King Pippen" (II.i.76). (See Neely's fine discussion of Helena's various roles, 1985, especially 65-70.) The play asks us nearly from the beginning to see Helena both as a miraculous virgin and as a deeply sexual woman seeking her will: thus the early dialogue with Parolles, in which we see her meditating both on how to defend her virginity and on how to lose it to her liking (I.i.110-51). Helena's two roles are ultimately the reflection of the impossible desire for a woman who can have the powers simultaneously of Venus and of Diana—who can in effect be both Venus and Diana, both generative sexual partner and sacred virgin. (Adams [1961, 262-64] finds the desire possible insofar as procreation legitimizes sexuality.) This is the fantasy articulated in Helena's recreation of the Countess's youth, when "your Dian / Was both herself and Love" (I.iii.212-13). The role of the character Diana should ultimately be understood in this context. As Helena chooses Bertram at court, she imagines herself shifting allegiance from Diana to Venus (I.iii.74-76). The emergence of the character Diana shortly after Helena renounces her allegiance to the goddess Diana suggests the complexity of the role that Diana plays: if Bertram can vest his sense of sexuality as soiling in her, Helena can also vest her virginity in her. Both as the repository of soil and as the preserver of virginity, she functions as a split-off portion of Helena herself: hence, I think, the ease with which her status as both maid and no maid transfers to Helena in the end. Both in the bed trick and in the larger psychic structures that it serves, Helena can thus become Venus and reincorporate Diana into herself.
The buried fantasy of Helena as Venus/Diana, as secular virgin mother, is the play's pyrrhic solution to the problem of legitimizing sexuality, relocating it within a sacred familial context. The solution is pyrrhic insofar as it legitimizes sexuality partly by wishing it away; it enables the creation of familial bonds without the fully imagined experience of sexuality. But this is exactly what Bertram has told us he wants. The impossible condition that Helena must meet stipulates that she can be his wife only when she can prove herself a virgin mother, that is, prove that she is with child by him without his participation in the sexual act. This condition suggests that she can be safely his only when she can remove sexuality from the establishment of the family and hence sanctify and purify the family itself. The slippery riddle of the bed trick satisfies this condition both for Bertram and for the audience: he knows he has not had sexual relations with Helena; and we have watched the sexual act be defined out of existence in the last scene. Here sexuality can be allowed back into the family only through a fantasy that enables its denial: the potentially incestuous contact with Helena is muted not by denying her association with his mother but by denying the sexual nature of the contact. The fantasy of Helena as virgin mother thus allows Bertram to return to his mother and surrogate father; he can now accept his mother's choice and achieve paternity safely, in effect becoming his father without having had to be husband to his wife/mother.
In the multiple fantasies of All's Well the marriage can be consummated only insofar as Bertram can imagine himself as defiling a virgin or insofar as the act itself is nearly defined out of existence, so that it becomes a fact without act as it becomes a sin without sin, a "wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin and yet a sinful fact" (III.vii.45-47). Despite the overt attempt to make sexuality curative, suspicion of sexuality remains the dominant emotional fact of the play. Even here, where Shakespeare attempts Pandarus-like to bring two together, we are left with a sense of failure about the sexual act itself and with a final queasiness about the getting of children....
If we take the bed tricks of All's Well and Measure for Measure as diagnostic of the two plays, then the shift in their management can point to the ways in which Measure for Measure is an undoing of All's Well (Both Neely 1985, 92-95, and Wheeler 1981, 12-13, 116, compare these bed tricks in terms very similar to mine.) In All's Well marriage is a cure, even if an enforced cure; in Measure for Measure it is a punishment. Despite its final muted fantasy of Helena as virgin mother, All's Well had seemed to promise that legitimate sexuality could be redemptive; in Measure for Measure the relationship between legitimate and illegitimate sexuality itself becomes vexed and all sexuality seems corrupting. Characteristically, then, the bed trick in All's Well functions dramatically to enforce marriage, while the bed trick in Measure for Measure functions to protect virginity. The direction of these differences is summarized in the shift in the agent through whom the bed tricks are realized. The bed trick in All's Well is under the management of Helena, a powerfully sexual woman. But exactly this management seems to be the central image that calls forth male fears in the play—fears of being drained or spent (see, for example, II.iii.281 and III.ii.41-42), ultimately fears of being absorbed into a female figure imagined as larger and more powerful than oneself, fears that Lavatch localizes in his "That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!" (I.iii.92-93). Measure for Measure responds to the fears released in All's Well by redoing the bed trick so that it is under the management of a powerful and asexual man, in whose hands the women are merely cooperative pawns (see Riefer's discussion of the diminution of Isabella's power, 1984). That is, the play takes power back from the hands of the women and consolidates it in the Duke; and it allows him special power insofar as it represents him as a ghostly father, divorced from the bonds of natural family. In effect, then, Measure for Measure redoes the sexual act under the aegis of the protectively asexual father rather than of the sexually intrusive mother; in the end it is the pure father rather than the sexual mother who proves to have been everywhere unseen. That the doing and undoing in this pair of plays so closely anticipates that of The Winter's Tale and The Tempest suggests the centrality of these issues in Shakespeare's imagination.
SOURCE: "Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 151-74.
...Marriage is a central element in the construct of Renaissance comedy. In the Shakespearean canon, a number of the comedies include marriages, placing them (or implying that they impend) close to or at the plays' ends as a reaffirmation, restoration and promise for the continuation of society. Other comedies deal with married women as in The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor; or they move the marriage forward, thus foregrounding it and making it precipitate further action in the main plot as in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing. What makes All's Well That Ends Well's foregrounded marriage unique is the undeniable fact that Bertram does not want Helena regardless of how much she wants him or how much the members of the nobility—most notably the King, the Countess, and Lafeu—want him to want her. Further, in its institution, its mixing of high personages with low, and the alliances between social groups, the foregrounded marriage in All's Well That Ends Well subverts the comic by creating discomfiting inversions in the play's social spheres. While the concept of marriage as regenerative force via Helena's pregnancy obtains in principle at the end, when the "broken nuptial" comes together, no wonder we, along with the King in the epilogue, feel little if any delight: things but "seem" well; we have no guarantees. We cannot be certain even there that Bertram truly wants her.
A distinction that contributes to my thesis is that All's Well That Ends Well stands apart from the Shakespearean comedic mainstream in that Helena and Bertram, however estranged their relationship, remain the single couple in the play. Elsewhere Shakespeare provides us with sets of couples: twins who marry and woo in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, two men in pursuit of one woman in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream, two married women who plot to outwit one man and teach another a lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rosalind and Celia with their loves in As You Like It, and a triad of lovers in The Merchant of Venice. Even Measure for Measure, the play most often closely linked to All's Well That Ends Well, provides us pairings. All's Well That Ends Well gives us two windows, a virgin, and a wife in name only. While all these pairings deal with power in relationships, they do not constitute the exact marked hierarchies of power that All's Well That Ends Well presents to us.
The foregrounded marriage in All's Well That Ends Well differs from those in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing in origination and ordination. "While Kate in The Taming of the Shrew has no more choice than does Bertram about whom each marries (Baptista and Petruchio merely strike a bargain as do the King and Helena), Petruchio and Kate as a pair remain this play's focal point. We observe the battle of wit and will between them, and the entire fourth act centers on them. Whether we grant or disallow the concept of mutuality of consent, whether the production relies on Zefferellian horseplay or a more restrained production concept, The Taming of the Shrew provokes laughter—the sine qua non of the comic—because of the physical and verbal interaction between the principal characters. The same holds true for Much Ado about Nothing. Like Kate and Petruchio, Beatrice and Benedick command our attention, their wit and wordplay amuse and distract us, and they are more interesting to us than the play's other couple Claudio and Hero. Even in that relationship, the comedy of Much Ado about Nothing remains more comic than does All's Well That Ends Well. Claudio and Hero agree to marry, an important distinction between their relationship and that of Helena and Bertram. The distasteful circumstances of the broken nuptial notwithstanding, the separation between Claudio and Hero fails to disrupt wholly the play's overall comic spirit for two reasons: first, we know Dogberry and the Watch hold the key to reconciliation; second, as well as more important, the comic Beatrice and Benedick remain our primary focal point.
Helena and Bertram appear on stage together in but five scenes. Their exchanges generally indicate the dynamic of power in their relationship as Helena oozes subservience to her lord and master, while Bertram, until the final scene, plays his superiority, both of class and gender, for all its worth. In three scenes where they appear together, they speak to or about one another but engage in no dialogue. In I.i Bertram in one and a half lines commands that Helena, "Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, / And make much of her" (76-77). In II.iii she subserviently offers herself to him in two and a half lines:
I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power
The remainder of this scene has them each talking to the King, but not to one another. In a third scene (III.v), Helena merely views Bertram from a distance as the army passes and asks about him. Only two scenes have them exchanging dialogue. In II.v, comprising thirty-five lines, Bertram, without having consummated the marriage and refusing Helena's modest request for a departing kiss, dismisses his bride by sending her back to Rossillion. His language is primarily in the command form, hers acquiescent. She comes "as [she] was commanded from [him]" (II.v.54). She declares herself Bertram's "most obedient servant" in a scene that allows for no possible irony (II.v.72). Even when she musters the courage to hint at a parting kiss, she hesitates and stumbles as a young woman very much in love and unsure of herself. In V.iii, the reconciliation, they exchange two lines each, and arguably Bertram's "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly" is addressed more to the King than to Helena. These two encounters comprise but thirty-nine lines all told.
All's Well That Ends Well remains a comedy in structure, yet Helena's agency in the enforced marriage, as well as the subsequent separation and ploys, distances us from the comic. Other elements distance us as well. When the Countess learns that Helena loves Bertram, we have the perfect occasion for a traditional blocking figure, but no. The Countess not only enjoys, but also encourages Helena in her aspirations. No witty bantering about sex, love, fidelity in wedlock—that which might create the comic within the matrix of comedy—takes place between Helena and Bertram, the play's only couple. Certainly some comic playfulness occurs within the play. No one will deny its presence in the virginity dialogue between Helena and Parolles, nor in the choosing scene as Helena walks from budding youth to budding youth before "giving" herself to Bertram, nor in Parolles's humiliation. Nevertheless, what lightness exists remains apart from the focal couple. Of added significance is how little of the playfulness associated with earlier comedies takes place among the women. Beyond the Countess' hope for Helena's love, her brief acknowledgement of her own past, and her teasing in the "I say I am your mother" dialogue (I.iii), women's dialogue as they assess man's fecklessness has a more brittle edge than do similar assessments given in the earlier comedies.
Helena's actions set her apart from her Shakespearean sisters. Other independently-acting heroines—Viola, Rosalind, Portia—play at their love-games and are, in some cases, willing to leave Time to fadge things out. They also employ masculine disguise to effect the amount of control or empowerment they enjoy. Helena does what she does without disguise. In some respects Helena and Portia are the most closely akin. Portia is willing to comply with her father's will; Helena is willing to submit herself to Bertram's. Both work purposefully to achieve their goals. However close that kinship, differences obtain. Allies from the play's outset, Portia and Nerissa plot to test true love's faith; Helena, who must create her allies, has yet to gain, mere acceptance as wife. To achieve her goals, she acts with what Western culture sees as male prer
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8220
The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together: Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipt them not, and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherish'd by our virtues.
The title of All's Well That Ends Well, a title which epitomizes comic or romantic endings, invites us to pay special attention to the ending of this play, to examine it against the norm of comic ending. Some critics take the sense of the tide at face value, and believe with Hazelton Spencer that all does indeed end well, that "the play's title clinches the argument against its detractors." Others would see the meaning as wholly ironic, or would agree with the reviewer of a 1959 Tyrone Guthrie production that the play "raises a dozen issues, only to drop them all with a cynical, indifferent 'all's well that ends well.'" The intent of this study will be to examine not simply whether all ends well, for our reactions at the end of any play are often complex, but rather what factors in the play and its ending contribute to our total response to the ending. I hope in my analysis to emphasize effects which were intended by Shakespeare, and to be comprehensive enough to avoid the criticism Richard Levin raises against an ironic approach which "operates at such a high level of abstraction that it can easily pass over such concrete details as the dramatic rhythm and its emotional effect." I will be very much concerned with "dramatic" aspects of the play, not only with what is said, but with how it is said, with action, with characterization, and with rhythm or pacing in the ending.
Previous studies of the ending of All's Well have concentrated on some limited aspect of the ending. Roger Warren's analysis in 1969 emphasized the light which the sonnets shed on the characteristic of Helena's love and Bertram's reaction to it. More recently, Ian Donaldson has found throughout the play a concentration on endings and beginnings, on ends and the means to those ends. His article, though intimately concerned with the problem of "ending well," does not devote extensive detail to the final scene itself. I would look on my attempt to analyze the entire context of the ending of All's Well as a means of complementing and extending these previous analyses.
A close look at the title can help identify two separate, though related, aspects of comic ending which will play an important role in the discussion to follow, for the cliche, "all's well that ends well," can be taken in two distinct senses. First, comedies and romances usually entail a great many complications, reversals, and perils before a resolution and happy conclusion are reached. Where the pure spirit of comedy reigns, the ending generates a feeling that all that went before can be reckoned as naught as long as the story has ended happily. The trials and tribulations are worth it. It is the end that counts—the sense of Helena's statement midway through the play:
All's well that ends well! still the fine's the crown;
What e'er the course, the end is the renown.
An emphasis on the "all" of "all's well that ends well" yields a second sense of the phrase, one close to the notion "they all lived happily ever after." In romances and fairy tales, and in comedies derived from these types, audiences are invited to believe that the marriage or reunion at the end is the panacea to all problems raised in the story, and that thereby future happiness is assured. Because the story ends well—in marriage or betrothal—all will be well. Beyond the end of the story lies a prospect of nothing but bliss. These two aspects of the tide are related: the stronger the feeling that the final happiness has conquered any sadness or anxiety encountered during the story, the stronger will be our conviction that the happiness will endure. Conversely, if we are somehow led to suspect that the goal for which the hero or heroine has travailed so arduously has not been worth the effort—as E. K. Chambers reacts to Helena's conquest, "but after all it is a poor prize for which she has trailed her honour in the dust"—we would also be inclined to have some doubts about the future happiness of that hero or heroine.
A question that may legitimately be raised is whether we are ever justified in speculating on the future happiness of the hero and heroine in a story such as All's Well. Thomas Marc Parrott voices a stricture against peering beyond the end of the play:
We may be fairly sure that Shakespeare's audience accepted the performance as an entertaining example of the old saying: "all's well that ends well." To ask whether the marriage of such an ill-matched pair was likely to be a happy one is to confuse drama with contemporary life, much in the fashion of a small boy at a performance of Hamlet who asked his father why Mr. Evans didn't marry Ophelia.
Yet, though it is undoubtedly over-naive to confuse drama and real life, it would also seem overly simplistic to rule out from drama or fiction any concern whatever for what happens beyond the end of a story. The writer of romance is generally not concerned about the psychological plausibility of events or of their consequences. If he tells us that the villain was suddenly converted, we believe him. And if he tells us that the couple lived happily ever after, we have no reason to doubt his word. But in a story where psychological plausibility has a legitimate place, where the motivation of characters is a clear concern of the author, and where the characters themselves examine or question their beliefs, feelings, or reasons for action, we have every reason to question the plausibility of the ending. This is not to say that we should speculate about some specific action of a character well beyond the conclusion of the plot. But if an author tries to tell us, "The marriage was a happy one," while the characters themselves, by their behavior or by what they tell us of themselves, preclude the possibility of that ever being so, we can well question the artistic integrity of the ending. As Barbara Smith points out in her study of poetic closure, marriage may not be an effective theme of closure when all that follows after marriage is not felt by the reader to be predictable.
These distinctions suggest that our response to the ending of All's Well depends to a large extent on what kind of play it is. For the most part, critics who see no real problems with the ending are those who are satisfied with a limited interpretation of the play, usually with an emphasis on romantic fable, or those who would emphasize the difference between the expectations of Elizabethan audiences and of modern audiences.
Thus, for Hazelton Spencer, "it was in a later age, when the old romances were no longer human nature's daily food, that it occurred to anyone to question whether the ending is really a happy one." There is a danger, however, of underestimating both the sophistication of Elizabethan audiences and of Shakespeare's intentions in the drama. Joseph Price, in his thorough review of critical reaction to All's Well, has identified six categories of interpretations of the play: "farcical comedy, sentimental romance, romantic fable, serious drama, cynical satire, and a thematic dramatization." After presenting capsule summaries of the play as it might be acted with each of the six major interpretations dominant, Price concludes as follows:
Such constricted interpretations of All's Well have achieved at times a unity of form, but only at the expense of Shakespeare's intention, only by distortion of his play. For, the very recurrence of six major approaches throughout its history suggests a complexity which cannot legitimately be reduced to a single focus....Criticism generally has insisted that these elements jar, that only by the elimination of several can an artistic unity be imposed. But the very essence of Shakespearean comedy is variety, a blending of seemingly jarring worlds.
I would agree, with Price, on the valid existence in All's Well of all the elements identified here. There may even be a certain unity or artistic coherence in the very juxtaposition of romance and realism in the play, in the tension between these aspects. G. B. Harrison has stated of All's Well that Shakespeare "has asked himself the question: if this story had really happened, what sort of people would these characters have been?" As I hope to show, not only in character portrayal, but in other aspects of romance, particularly that of the typical happy ending, Shakespeare seems to be holding the conventions up to the scrutiny of realism.
In examining the aspects of romance and realism, it is particularly important to recognize the difference between the play itself and the romance narrative from which the plot is drawn. If we look specifically at the ending of All's Well, in terms of simple plot line we recognize the conclusion of a traditional "fulfillment of the tasks" episode, of which Boccaccio's tale of Giletta of Narbona is the nearest source. A nobleman, forced to marry a woman beneath him in rank, imposes on her what he thinks are impossible conditions before he will accept her love. The woman cleverly and resourcefully fulfills the conditions, and the nobleman, faced with her presentation of the fait accompli, is moved to a change of heart, agrees to love her, and they live happily ever after. At the level of Boccaccio's tale we are not inclined to inquire about the motivation of either person in loving or not loving, about the worthiness or unworthiness of either person for the other's love, or about whether we have a right to suppose that they really did live happily ever after. If the ending of the story, including the hero's change of heart, occurs abruptly, our attention is not attracted to it in the fable because of the pace of the entire fable. But if we attend with some degree of sensitivity to the play All's Well, I would maintain that on all the accounts mentioned above we have, at least potentially, some cause to pause and wonder. Because the characters have come alive for us, have involved us in their motivations throughout the play, and because the play seriously addresses such themes as the problem of birth versus merit, the role of the woman as pursuer, and the differing male and female perspectives on honor, we find ourselves, with justification, concerned at the end of the play with how believable Bertram's conversion is, how believable Helena's and Bertram's love for each other is, and whether we are meant to feel that their lives will be happy ever after. And if events seem to conclude abruptly, we are warranted in asking why, or to what effect, since the rest of the play has been developed at a comparatively sophisticated level of psychological and motivational detail.
The potential problems with the ending, then, cluster around the two distinct, yet closely related aspects of the conclusion: the effect of the actions of both Bertram and Helena near the end on their relationship with one another, and the brevity or abruptness of the conclusion, especially the thirty lines after Helena's final entry. Since Bertram, but not Helena, is on stage in the last scene before the final thirty lines, it is natural to start with his part in the scene.
Bertram has been castigated by numerous critics, beginning with Samuel Johnson, and has been defended by others as an acceptable romantic hero, even as "almost a model youth." One way of getting close to Shakespeare's intentions in establishing Bertram as a romantic hero is by comparing his treatment of Bertram with that of Beltramo in the source story by Boccaccio, retold by William Painter. The final episode of Giletta of Narbona is the aspect of the tale most modified by Shakespeare. In the original tale, after Giletta has obtained the ring and conceived twin sons, Beltramo hears that she has left Rossiglione, and he returns there, taking his place as rightful lord, and presumably ruling in prosperity for several years. Giletta, after having borne twin sons, returns to Rossiglione, arriving at an All Saints Day feast, at which are present many ladies and knights. Falling prostrate at the count's feet, Giletta begs to be received as his wife, and tells the whole story of how she fulfilled the conditions. (Though her dialogue is not repeated in the tale, we can imagine this taking a long time, and the count gradually responding with greater and greater admiration.) Beltramo reacts in a way that in no way diminishes his stature, but rather raises him in our esteem at the end:
For which cause the Counte knowing the thinges she had spoken, to be true (and perceiving her constant minde, and good witte, and the twoo faire young boyes to kepe his promise made, and to please his subjectes, & the Ladies that made sute unto him, to accept her from that tyme foorth, as his lawefull wife, and to honour her) abjected his obstinate rigour: causing her to rise up, and imbraced and kissed her, acknowledging her againe for his lawefull wyfe. And after he had apparelled her, according to her estate, to the great pleasure and contentation of those that were there, & of al his other frendes not onely that daye, but many others, he kept great chere, and from that time forth, hee loved and honoured her, as his dere spouse and wyfe.
Shakespeare, however, instead of allowing Helena simply to appear before Bertram and beg to be received by him, as in the original tale, devises the entire episode where Diana confronts Bertram with the evidence of their supposed affair. By so doing, Shakespeare, instead of heightening Bertram's stature as "romantic hero," permits him to sink lower and lower in our estimation and in that of the characters of the play who are present. Even more significant, Bertram's exposure occurs just at that point in the play where he is beginning to rise in esteem. At the opening of Act V, the King is ready to allow Bertram a new start:
My honor'd lady,
I have forgiven and forgotten all,
Though my revenges were high bent upon him,
And watch'd the time to shoot.
The Countess and Lafeu argue that Bertram's deeds were "done i' th' blade of youth" (V.iii.6) and are ready to give him the chance to prove himself wiser and more virtuous. We are at that stage in the plot where a typical romance might show the hero reformed, reconciled to the heroine, and where we would, with reason, expect him from that time forth to love and honor her as his dear spouse and wife. If Helena entered at this moment, we would have a typical happy ending with little to complain about other than its being somewhat expected and lacking in suspense.
But Shakespeare consciously (since it required considerable change from the original plot) chose not to end the play at this point. First Lafeu, then the King, then the Countess notice that Bertram has Helena's ring, and Bertram tells a half-truth to explain his way out. Then Diana enters, and Bertram lies, then lies again in futile attempts to defend himself. His stature diminishes perilously from the promise shown at the beginning of the scene. It is obvious that Bertram has lost his composure and is thoroughly rattled: "Countess. He blushes, and 'tis hit" (V.iii.195). "King. You boggle shrewdly, every feather starts you" (V.iii.232). What sort of candidate is this lying, shaken creature for the "happily ever after" romantic ending? Bertram bears little resemblance to Beltramo, and seems to have gone far beyond the "few mistakes before he straightens out and settles down" posited for the romantic hero by Spencer.
We might sense in Bertram's degradation a degree of burlesque of romantic heroes and plots, a deliberate inversion of the expected progress of a romantic hero. Viewed against the ideal image of a romantic hero, Bertram's actions have a comic cast. One can imagine a performance in which the actor, taking a cue from the King's "You boggle shrewdly," stutters and overplays his responses in an obvious, desperate attempt to fabricate a story. Yet the comic aspect can be carried too far. The more we laugh at Bertram, the less believable he is as a beloved of Helena. A totally comic, over-acted Bertram would destroy any sense of romantic reconciliation between Helena and Bertram in their final reunion.
The question of how Bertram can be what he is, and still be attractive to Helena is, indeed, one of the knottiest in the play, and it is a problem demanding the utmost sense of balance in the actor playing the part of Bertram. Bertram has so many faults that it would be easy to play him at the opposite extreme, not as a comic figure, but as a totally unsympathetic character—an arrogant, conceited, headstrong, lecherous, deceitful, shallow cad. Such a characterization would likewise make Helena's love for Bertram look absurd. There are, however, clear indications in the text that Bertram possesses attractive qualities. A key scene is Helena's arrival in Florence. We learn immediately from Diana that Bertram has indeed shown the bravery, won the "honor," which he had dreamed of. Perhaps most significant is Diana's spontaneous exclamation at Bertram's appearance as the French soldiers march by (even though she has been warned of his dishonest solicitations):
'tis a most gallant fellow.
I would he lov'd his wife. If lie were honester
He were much goodlier. Is't not a handsome gentleman?
This is in one sense a variation upon the statement of the First Lord, "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together" (IV.iii.71-72). But its principal effect is to emphasize the credibility of Bertram as an object of Helena's love. Throughout the play, despite Bertram's dishonorable acts, there must be that flair, that presence—and it must show through in the acting of the part—that elicits the response, "'tis a most gallant fellow."
If Bertram is, at least to some degree, credible as a person whom Helena might love, what can be said of the course of that love throughout the play? It is crucial for an understanding of the conclusion of the play to have some sense of the progress of the love between Bertram and Helena. I would like to turn, therefore, to a closer look at Helena, first at her love for Bertram, and then at her as a possible object of Bertram's love.
In Helena's meditation on Bertram in the first scene she appears the typical young romantic heroine, perhaps slightly self-consciously so, and concerned perhaps too much with appearance:
Twas pretty, though a plague
To see him every hour, to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls.
She is at once idealistic and adolescent in her adoration, and also aware of her excesses. If Bertram is unseasoned, Helena is also, in matters of love. Both will mature; their romantic ideals will be tempered in the course of the play.
After Bertram's shameful treatment of Helena following the marriage, we may have difficulty understanding her unswerving adulation, for him, expressed immediately after reading his disdainful letter to her at Rossilion:
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?
Helena here lapses into romantic sentiment similar to that expressed in the first scene, and we may find that the dichotomy between what we know of Bertram and how Helena responds to him makes this one of the most difficult moments of the play. However, this soliloquy again reinforces the feeling that Bertram possesses some quality which inspires such devotion.
In the bed-trick episode, Bertram reaches a low in honor, which contrasts with his "honorable service" on the battlefield, when he parts with the family ring in exchange for an expected night with Diana. We do not, of course, witness the bed scene with Helena, but we are allowed as close an approach as possible to the event, one which pushes Elizabethan decorum to the limit, in Helena's reflections after lying with Bertram. Her comments in IV.iv are significant in two ways. They serve to emphasize the distance of this play from pure romantic fable, a story told for story's sake. The play is at this point perhaps farthest removed in spirit from its source tale. Can we imagine any heroine in a romance reflecting and expressing her thoughts in terms such as these?
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.
Here Helena, aware that Bertram's sexual advances were made to one he thought to be Diana, most vividly reveals herself capable of feelings, reflections, and changes of mood. It is this change of mood that is the second important aspect of this speech. There is present an unmistakable sense of disillusion which contrasts sharply with Helena's earlier idolatry of Bertram. She has heard talk, from the women of Florence, of Bertram's lust; now she has experienced it herself. What a contrast this first union of Helena and Bertram is to the typical romantic meeting of lovers, and what a contrast to the union she would have idealized in her daydreams at Rossilion. It has been a union from which their child will be born, but on Bertram's part there has been no love in it, only lust. Helena, it is true, takes up the pursuit with her customary zeal—"All's well that ends well yet" (V.i.25)—but I would claim that from this point on some doubt has been cast, in Helena's mind, on whether the prize will, in fine, be worth the effort of the chase.
The words "prize" and "chase" underscore the fact that in this play it is definitely the woman who takes the initiative in seeking a mate. This active role of Helena has, however, been overplayed by some analysts. One strain of criticism sees her as relentlessly pursuing Bertram by a plan carefully thought out and consciously executed at every point in the play. Thus, for E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare has turned "man's tender helpmate, like Mr. Bernard Shaw's Anne Whitefield, into the keen and unswerving huntress of man." Bertrand Evans has espoused this view of Helena (though her pursuit is seen as ultimately for the good of Bertram), and a recent article by Richard A. Levin carries the interpretation of Helena as deceptive schemer to even greater extremes. Such an interpretation, however, though supportable at certain points in the play, strains for credibility at other points, and even posits a kind of perversion of theatrical conventions. Moreover, this view of Helena as huntress does little to make her a plausible object of Bertram's love at the end of the play.
Granted that Helena is the initiator of the "romance" with Bertram, her dominant qualities appear to be vitality (we have seen the like in Bertram), shown both in her actions and her speech, and a remarkable resourcefulness—an ability to spot and take advantage of circumstances to further her ends. An important example of this is the scene of Helena's first arrival in Florence. After some discussion of a countryman of Helena's, it is the widow, and not Helena, who first suggests the possibility of Diana's aiding Bertram's wife to regain her husband: "This young maid might do her / A shrewd turn, if she pleas'd" (III.v.67-68). The story of what unfolds after Helena's meeting with the women of Florence is much more plausible, as well as more fascinating and appealing, if seen as an instance of Helena's exceptional ability to seize the occasion and respond to opportunities as they arise, rather than as a plot preplanned in every detail. Up to at least this point in the play the evidence suggests that Shakespeare intended Helena as an engaging, sympathetic character, whose love includes a strong concern for the good and happiness of Bertram.
With the information from the widow that Bertram is soliciting Diana's favors, Helena's ready wit conceives the plan of having Diana agree to a meeting, and then substituting herself for Diana in the dark. At this point there is no doubt that the sudden prospect of fulfilling Bertram's seemingly impossible conditions is a strong motive for Helena. The conditions were stated as a cruel, cynical jest by Bertram; but since they were set down in writing, she will hold him to them, if she can. Yet even here, motives of Bertram's better welfare are not entirely absent. Bertram is, after all, bent on committing adultery. Conveniently, Helena can save Bertram from sin in deed, if not in intent, while at the same time fulfilling his conditions. By this time she is clearly bent on helping herself to win a husband. However, the progress of her pursuit has not manifested the stealthy, predatory quality that many commentators find so unlikeable.
The final scene of the play, when Bertram is confronted with his misdeeds, contains the instance where Helena's scheming is the most deliberate and calculating. We can ask, now, what effect the actions of this final scene have on Helena's character and on the possibility of Bertram's loving her. Whatever her motivation, Helena has placed Bertram in an extremely tight spot in the moments before the conclusion of the play. It has been observed that Helena's absence from the stage till the final moments, with Diana managing the exposure of Bertram (after the careful instructions of Helena, of course), keeps our sympathies from being turned too strongly from Helena. This piece of plotting is theatrically effective in keeping our attention from Helena; yet she is the person directly responsible for planning Bertram's confrontation with his own misdeeds.
Helena's actions are explained by some critics on the basis that Bertram must reach some extreme limit of psychological or moral shock before he can be "converted" by the virtuous or providential Helena. Her motives are mainly a redemption of Bertram. As Harold Wilson says,
Helena in All's Well is not seeking justice of the King but Bertram's love. In Boccaccio's tale, the heroine's fulfillment of the tasks is enough to win her happy union with the hero. In Shakespeare, Helena's efforts would go for nothing did not Bertram expenence a change of heart. In the climax, everything is directed toward this end; and this is the abundant psychological justification of the means used, for Bertram is still far from penitent as we see him in the opening of the last scene.
Yet there is evidence that Bertram has come to love Helena, evidence that occurs well before Bertram is faced with Helena's reappearance. At the beginning of the last scene, when Bertram first meets the King, under no prompting or pressure, in the course of explaining a previous affection for Lafeu's daughter, he refers to Helena:
Thence it came
That she whom all men prais'd, and whom myself,
Since I have lost, have lov'd.
Though the reference is made obliquely, Shakespeare seems to have intended the audience to advert to it, for he has the King repeat the reference to Bertram's love for Helena, and so reinforce the impression:
That thou didst love her, strikes some scores away
From the great compt.
Shakespeare, then, seems to have fashioned the latter part of the play as it relates to Bertram's love for Helena with the following effects. The audience is told that Bertram has finally come to love Helena—and this in conditions in which they would have no strong reasons to suspect the statement. Then Bertram undergoes the unexpected reversals, some schemed by Helena, that lead up to her sudden appearance. At this point, Bertram has lied himself into a position from which he cannot escape without help. He is, independent of what Helena's intentions are, trapped. There is nothing in what immediately preceded, or in what Helena has contrived, to motivate Bertram's love or to support our belief that he means his later claim to love her "ever dearly." Yet we know from his previous statement that he did profess to love her. He is at one and the same tune in a state of having previously inclined towards love of Helena, yet forced to submit by actions which have not served to reinforce that love, but if anything, to undermine it. Bertram could not be blamed if he went back on his statement at the beginning of this scene and turned a cold heart towards Helena.
Furthermore, Bertram has lied so much that he is in danger of being in the position where no one will believe anything he says thereafter, much like the shepherd in the fable who cried "Wolf! Wolf!"; On Helena's part, though Bertram had shown qualities that made her love for him believable, most recently he has behaved so despicably that we are entitled to serious doubts about now Helena or anyone could now accept and cherish such a creature. She has already expressed signs of disillusionment after her midnight tryst with Bertram. The possibility of a "happily ever after" ending may still be within reach, but considerable dialogue and action would seem to be needed to present such a happy ending convincingly to an audience. Yet, as presented by Shakespeare, what do we have? Thirty lines of compressed dialogue, much of it stated in negative or conditional language. A close analysis of the final section of the dialogue will help identify some of the effects it produces.
First, I have noted an apparent change in Helena's attitude towards Bertram with her earlier words, "But O, strange men." I would maintain that this same bittersweet mood, tinged with melancholy, is manifested in the final scene. Helena's entry is not triumphant, jubilant. Her opening words, spoken to the King, are
No, my good lord,
Tis but the shadow of a wife you see,
The name, and not the thing.
Though the sense refers directly to the fact that her marriage (in Bertram's and the world's eyes) was never consummated, is there not some connotation that she will never now quite attain "the thing" of wife-hood, the ideal of love she had sought so earnestly? The words imply that her love is now but a shadow of what it once was. Her words to Bertram,
O my good lord, when I was like this maid,
I found you wondrous kind.
do not overtly claim that he is not "wondrous kind" now, but the implication is there. Helena has fulfilled the conditions, reached her goal—
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, etc." This is done.
But missing is the sense of victory we may have earlier been led to expect from her words, "the fine's the crown...the end is the renown." One senses a hint of weariness at so long and arduous a chase after an object of ever diminishing brightness and value.
As for Bertram, we might ask what effects in his final words lend credibility to his professions of repentance and love. One way in which a character caught in falsehood might convince his hearers that what he now says should be believed is by lengthy explanations, giving reasons for his past conduct and emphatic assurance of reform in the future. But the very opposite strikes us in the concluding lines of the play. The extreme brevity of both Bertram's and Helena's speeches contrasts with the duration of dialogue we might expect, given the seriousness of the complications to be resolved. Some critics have seen this brevity as a defect on Shakespeare's part. For example, Kenneth Muir would have preferred more explanation by Bertram—"If the clown were given better jokes and Bertram a better speech at the end, the play would leave us with feelings of greater satisfaction." On the positive side, it must be conceded that seeing and hearing the actor express repentance can make the scene more effective on the stage than in reading. Also on the side of believability for Bertram, his speech patterns, despite the brevity, have a ring of sincerity. The repetitions—"Both, both. O, pardon!" and "I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly"—seem intended by Shakespeare as an earnest mode of speech. A similar example might be Cordelia's "No cause, no cause" Lear, IV.vii.74).
Yet, in spite of these positive aspects, there is still a sense of something missing from Bertram's protestations. They lack weight: three lines in all to accomplish repentance, reconciliation, and assurance of love. Also countering the earnestness given the lines by the repetition of words is the curious fact that Bertram's expression of love is stated as a condition:
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
Even more curious, these words are spoken not to Helena, the one he is professing to love, but to the King. Bertram's only statement directly to Helena is the brief "Both, both. O, pardon!" Despite the desirability of not allowing the audience to dwell too much on Bertram's faults, it would have been easy for Shakespeare, if he had wanted, to have given Bertram more words, if not of explanation, at least of positive profession of his love.
If Bertram's dialogue is brief, Helena's is somewhat fuller. There exists, however, the same shortage of direct address to Bertram, and the same conditional tone. Her first words, on entering, are addressed not to Bertram, but to the King, which may be natural enough, since the King raises the question, "Is't real that I see?" (V.iii.306). But then, in response to Bertram's conditional statement of love, her reply is phrased not only as a condition, but also in strongly negative words:
If it appear not plain and prove untrue,
Deadly divorce step between me and you!
The conditional phrasing may be meant, in part, with the rhyming couplets, to balance Bertram's statement. But if the balance and repetition have any effect of emphasis, what they call attention to is the very conditional nature of the statements. Then, after Helena's statement, "Deadly divorce step between me and you," almost in the same breath it would seem, Helena turns to the Countess and exclaims, "O my dear mother, do I see you living?" (V.iii.319). The Countess's love for Helena must, of course, be acknowledged; but the quickness with which Helena turns from Bertram to the Countess says little for the capability of Bertram to hold her attention.
Finally, Helena's attention to the Countess raises the interesting question of when, if at all, Helena and Bertram might be expected to embrace. If the words of the conclusion are abrupt, but the playwright intended a fully genuine feeling that all is well, we could expect this to be shown by a kiss and embrace between Bertram and Helena. But if one reads the final lines beginning from Helena's "No, my good lord, / 'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see," to the end, and tries to imagine plausible stage action, there is no moment when Helena and Bertram might reasonably embrace without doing violence to the dialogue or interrupting it awkwardly with stage action. Bertram might fall on his knees with "Both, both. O, pardon!" but it is difficult to imagine them kissing at this point. The last plausible moment when they might embrace is at Helena's final words to Bertram, "Deadly divorce step between me and you!" Fine words on which to hug and kiss. We can imagine Helena falling on the Countess's neck at the words, "O my dear mother, do I see you living?", but not upon Bertram's neck.
The inescapable impression from the final thirty lines is one of a deliberate holding back of effects which could easily have produced a much more convincing, resounding ring of all being well than we now have in the play. One feels that Shakespeare has taken the standard romantic happy ending, and if not stood it on its head, has at least abbreviated it and diluted its impact so much that we are forced to question whether the simple fact that hero and heroine are united at the end is any guarantee of their achievement of happiness. If such is the effect of the ending, is it to be seen as entirely skeptical on Shakespeare's part? An example of Northrop Frye's category of irony; a cynical demonstration of the impossibility of all ending well? Thus far in this analysis I have discussed solely the main plot, and have said nothing of the subplot of Parolles. I believe, however, that this subplot has an important role in the play, not only thematically, but also in determining how the ending works.
Though Parolles is undoubtedly a secondary character, he is in some ways the most memorable in All's Well. Whatever else may be said of Parolles, he is not lacking in faults. He is boastful, vain, ostentatious, untruthful, lecherous, and under all that, cowardly. Do we like him? Well, yes. Our sympathies turn more towards him after his exposure; but even at his worst he has a quality that attracts us to him. As Helena remarks early in the play,
Yet these fix'd evils sit so fit in him
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak I' th' cold wind.
But what primarily maintains our liking for Parolles is his vitality of spirit. Parolles is enthusiastic; he lives. He may be eager about the wrong things—the latest clothes; the latest words; the esteem of the court; the esteem of his fellow soldiers—but he is constantly eager. His vitality virtually bursts its bonds when he senses the chance of accompanying Bertram to the Tuscan wars: "To th' wars, my boy, to th' wars!" (II.iii.278). Perhaps Parolles's vitality shows forth most prominently in his language. Though he is an aspirer after the status of courtier, and though being fashionable is of highest concern, he is no Witwoud, no mere imitator of the fashionable wit of others. Even when being held blindfolded at the hands of his supposed captors, the inventiveness of his language is irrepressible. Descriptions such as his claim of the first Captain Dumaine's corruptibility—"Sir, for a cardecue he will sell the fee-simple of his salvation, the inheritance of it, and cut th' entail from all remainders, and a perpetual succession for it perpetually" (IV.iii.278-81)—elicit the admiration of his captors: "He hath outvillain'd villainy so far, that the rarity redeems him" (IV.iii.273-74). Finally, and most important, when Parolles has been beaten as low as anyone can be, it is his supreme vitality that sparks his recovery. Up to the beginning of Act IV we had seen much of Parolles the braggart. Now, in the first scene of Act IV, with Parolles on his solitary foray at night near enemy lines, we are allowed to peer a little into his soul. We find out that Parolles realizes he is a braggart and a coward: "I find my tongue is too foolhardy, but my heart hath the fear of Mars before it, and of his creatures, not daring the reports of my tongue....What the devil should move me to undertake the recovery of this drum, being not ignorant of the impossibility, and knowing I had no such purpose?" (IV.i.28-36). With his overhearers we respond in amazement, "Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?" (IV.i.44-45), and we may begin to have some compassion for Parolles.
The double-talk scenes are some of the funniest in Shakespeare, not only because of Parolles's wit in his responses, but because of the ironies and the asides of his captors. But when Parolles shows his abject cowardice, and when his blindfold is removed and he is completely humiliated by the revelation that his captors are his friends, the humor changes. We have an instance, common in Shakespeare, of a baiting where the edge is allowed to become too sharp. The departure first of Bertram and the Lords, and then of the Interpreter and Soldiers, becomes cruel. Parolles, left alone on stage to face his humiliation, is a pathetic sight. It would not be surprising if he were to remain crushed, completely undone. But there are still remnants of his irrepressible esprit. In his touching speech of self-knowledge and acceptance, he resolves to make the best of what he has:
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.
Parolles not only achieves serf-acceptance; he is also accepted by Lafeu, previously his sharpest critic. Though Lafeu still teases Parolles, he concludes their meeting after Parolles's return affectionately and encouragingly: "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" (V.ii.52-54). As E. M. Blistein observes of Parolles, "from artificial captain he has become a nobleman's genuine fool, and he does not mind. He is, in fact, grateful. The audience has laughed at him for pretending to be something he was not. Lafeu henceforth will laugh with him for being what he is."
The parallel between Parolles's exposure and humiliation at the hands of his comrades and Bertram's later exposure at the hands of Diana has often been commented upon. Both are liars, and both are confronted directly with the evidence of their lies. There is stark irony in Bertram's disavowal of Parolles's testimony at the very moment when Bertram is speaking lies of much more serious consequences:
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.
Am I that or this for what he'll utter,
That will speak any thing?
The fact that Bertram has been blind enough to be "misled with a snipt-taffeta fellow" (IV.v.1-2) may lessen his stature in our eyes; yet it contributes to making his blindness to Helena's worth more believable. One might expect that being made aware of the possibility of deception by Parolles might open Bertram's eyes to his lack of perception elsewhere, specifically to the meanness of his behavior towards Helena. In fact, the failure of Bertram to profit from the lesson of Parolles has been seen by some critics as a flaw in the play. G. K. Hunter, for example, states that Parolles, as well as Helena, the Countess, the King, and Diana, all have to face an "acceptance of death leading to fuller life," a point of reconciliation "reached only by self-sacrifice, by an acceptance of oneself as outcast and despised." Hunter concludes, "that the pattern is not fully achieved by Bertram is the major thematic failure of the play." Shakespeare, however, chose not to complete the parallel in such a neat fashion as this.
Though a relationship between the lesson learned by Parolles in the sub-plot and the concluding action of the main plot is not made explicit by Shakespeare, the episode of Parolles is intended to affect the way the ending works for us. What the unmasking of Parolles and his conversion to foolery adds is a badly needed note of optimism. We have seen that Bertram and Helena have achieved, at the conclusion of the play, a state of outward, but not entirely convincing, reconciliation. The conclusion lacks the weight and positiveness required to assure us that all indeed will be well, given the obstacles that seem to exist to a happy union between Bertram and Helena. But this uncertainty is relieved by Parolles—by his presence and by the memory of his previous scenes.
Parolles does not have a part in the dialogue at the very conclusion of the play, the last thirty lines. Yet he is not only present, but definitely a part of the concluding action of the play. Shakespeare's technique here, though used with less emphasis, is reminiscent of his ending Much Ado with the conclusion of the Benedick-Beatrice story. He turns the audience's attention from potential problems to a more satisfying emotional resolution. Parolles, accepting himself as he is, had earlier been received into the graces of Lafeu. Now our attention is again directed toward this part of the plot, though it is a sub-plot.
Lafeu's final speech aids the conclusion in several ways. His emotional reaction, "Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon" (V.iii.320), though comic, convinces us, as neither Bertrams's nor Helena's words have, that there is something genuine in this reunion. His request of a handkerchief from Parolles (rather than from someone else) is not without purpose: "Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher. So, I thank thee; wait on me home, I'll make sport with thee. Let thy curtsies alone, they are scurvy ones" (V.iii.321-24). The reference to "Good Tom Drum" is a brief reminder of the scenes where Parolles was humiliated because he offered to recapture his drum. The sight of Parolles dressed in smelly, muddy clothes is an additional reminder of his disgrace, and also of his self-acceptance. In the simple gesture of asking for a handkerchief, Lafeu indicates his complete acceptance of Parolles. His scorn at the end is entirely good-humored, and his invitation to "make sport" is an invitation to laugh with him and not at him.
Parolles's "conversion" has helped establish the spirit of this comedy, and his presence in the last scene, a symbol of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, cannot but help influencing the audience's reaction to the scene. Even though Helena and Bertram do not make explicit application of Parolles's dictum, "There's place and means for every man alive," the audience should be in such a frame of mind. Bertram may have proved that Parolles's earlier description of him, "a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish" (IV.iii.215-216), was all too true, and he may now, in Helena's eyes, be far from the romantic hero she had doted on. Helena, for all the fine qualities the Countess had admired in her, may have become too persistent in her pursuit in the end. "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." But, if there's place and means for such as Parolles, there can well be place and means for such as Bertram and Helena to find happiness, in spite of their shortcomings.
In the ending of All's Well, Shakespeare seems to have directly confronted the traditional romantic ending, where the marriage or reunion of hero and heroine is assumed to guarantee that all problems are resolved and that bliss will ensue for ever after. The ending of All's Well is constructed so that we cannot possibly project for Bertram and Helena the ecstatic happiness of the traditional romance—the happiness that was perhaps naively expected by Helena at the start of the play. But neither is the play entirely cynical about any possibility of happiness. Helena has matured, and Bertram may at least be at the threshold of maturity. We may expect happiness, but a much more subdued happiness than posited by romance—neither mate will be a perfect person. The happiness foreshadowed for Bertram and Helena may be similar to that expected by Parolles. He has not now the esteem he'd had; his goals and expectations are greatly reduced. But he has also not the constant pressure to seem a courtier nor the fear of being found out. He can live at peace with himself. "Though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat." So with Bertram and Helena, their goals and expectations may be modified. But within these limitations, why not expect that they will be happy? All may be well at the end of the play, but on very different terms from what was projected earlier in the play and from what romantic convention would tell us.
SOURCE: "The Conclusion to All's Well That Ends Well," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 257-76.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8728
It is not easy to say why Shakespeare wanted to write a play about characters as limited and uninspiring as Helena and Bertram. A relatively straightforward dramatization of Boccaccio's tale of Giletta and Beltramo, All's Well is the only comedy that centers on a single love—or rather, a single love-hate—relationship. No Hero, Nerissa, or Celia stands by Helena's side; for most of the play she is a solitary figure who keeps her own counsel and pursues her ends without confiding them to any other person. For a time Bertram has Parolles as a companion, but he is nearly incapable of intimacy or emotional attachment. The minor characters of All's Well are, by and large, more attractive than its romantic protagonists, but none are as fully realized or as important to the plot as Leonato is in Much Ado. Nevertheless, the warm-heartedness of the Countess, Lafeu, the King, and Bertram's fellow officers is important to the emotional resolution of the play precisely because it is a quality somewhat lacking in Helena and completely absent in Bertram.
Compared to the comedies I have discussed already, All's Well seems gray if not bleak, not because its viewpoint is jaded or disillusioned but because its chief characters do not delight us by their verve or humor or expansiveness of thought. Bertram is the least philosophical and perhaps the least intelligent of the heroes of the comedies. He does not reflect on his experiences, much less on life, and he seems incapable of introspection and self-knowledge. He never wrestles with alternatives even though he finds himself repeatedly in difficult predicaments. Although his conduct appalls those who love him, he is never burdened by shame or guilt, and he can be dishonest as well as callous. Because his inner life (if he has one) is hidden from an audience, it knows and judges him by his acts, which are thoroughly unlovely. Helena is a more complex character who is revealed as much through soliloquy as through dialogue. Unlike Bertram she is thoughtful and reflective by nature, yet her speeches lack choric amplitude and range because she is as self-absorbed as he is, forever occupied with her quest to become his wife. More than any other heroine, Helena is single-minded in her romantic dedication, and yet she is the least romantic in temperament of any Shakespearean heroine. As serious as her namesake, Helena of A Dream, she is incapable of light-heartedness or gaiety. Love does not inspire her to flights of whimsical or ecstatic poetry, and she seems nearly incapable of spontaneity. Thus while Helena will dare all for love, the Countess's remembrance of her youthful passion is the most poignant expression of romantic yearning in the play; and the only love scene, ironically enough, is the one in which Bertram attempts to seduce Diana. The hero and heroine are alone together only once and that is when Bertram takes his leave, never expecting to see Helena again. He seems almost incapable of tenderness, and she is almost indifferent to what he desires in her determination to become his wife.
The absence of romantic idealism in All's Well is not an inevitable result of Shakespeare's choice of the Boccaccian tale, which ends with the loving embrace of husband and wife. Even as Petruchio is less attractive than his counterpart Ferando in A Shrew Bertram is less attractive than Boccaccio's Beltramo, although he is not coarsely contemptuous of women, as Petruchio is. Immature and inexperienced, he is quite incapable of seeing through Parolles' preposterous affectations, which he takes for courtly graces. He is also incapable of seeing beyond his immediate desires, but his faults would seem pardonable enough if Helena's determined pursuit of him did not bring out the worst in his character. He wants what most young gentlemen want—to win honor on the field of battle and to sow a few wild oats before he settles down to marriage and adult obligations. His youthful male instinct for freedom and adventure is opposed by Helena's desire to turn the would-be hero into a husband and father. Having just escaped his mother's watchful eye, Bertram yearns to prove himself a man among men. The disclosure in Act V of his earlier attraction to Lafeu's daughter seems almost an afterthought by Shakespeare because one cannot imagine Bertram in love or desiring to share his life with a woman. He does not love Diana or seek to win her love; he wants only the spoil of her maidenhead, which is no less a trophy than the capture of an enemy's drum. After he 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 Lafeu.
Bertram does not pose any problems of interpretation; apart from his gallantry in war, he is incurably ordinary and lacking in scruple. Helena is less easily explained. As the play opens, her situation at Rossillion is comparable to Viola's situation in Orsino's household; both adore a great nobleman who is far above their station in life and who knows nothing of their love. Where Viola is resigned to her unhappy circumstances, Helena is determined to wed Bertram, and her single-minded quest of that goal inspires continuing critical debate. No critics have said of Olivia what distinguished Shakespeareans have said of Helena, that she is enthralled and degraded by sexual passion, even though Olivia's desire for Cesario is more obsessive and reckless than Helena's desire for Bertram. But then Olivia responds to what is beautiful in Viola's character while Helena's attraction to the callow Bertram must necessarily be physical, just as her persuit of him must be calculated and covert. Like Olivia, Helena will accept any humiliation for the sake of love, but she is never impulsive or reckless in seeking Bertram, and she does not, like Olivia, openly declare her love and beg to be loved in return. She has adored Bertram for some time, it seems, without once speaking or even hinting of her feeling for him and without trying to draw his attention to her. "When she confesses her love in soliloquy, she does not speak rapturously of Bertram the way Olivia does of Cesario or Juliet does of Romeo. She does not dream of embraces and kisses; she dwells on, even fantasizes, the hopelessness of her love in lines that seem to belie any immediate physical longing:
I have forgot him [her dead father]. My imagination
Carries no favor in't but Bertram's.
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.
The verse is clumsy in movement and the statements curiously flat and lacking in emotional intensity. Whenever Helena speaks of her desire she feels compelled to abstract it from anything resembling sensual longing. As a result, her poetic figures are stilted and even grotesque in their incongruities: She is a hind that would be mated by a lion, a violent consummation indeed.
It is conventional for poets to speak of a loved one as a star; so Astrophil speaks of Stella in Sidney's sonnets. But Sidney does not, like Helena, at once imagine Stella as a point of light in a distant heaven and speak of wedding this star as if he could yearn for physical union with a galactic sphere. The peculiarity of Helena's lines cannot be ascribed to a failure of Shakespeare's poetic imagination because he knows how to make the traditional conceit of "love's star" a vehicle for romantic ardor. Compare, for example, Helena's soliloquy with Juliet's soliloquy as she awaits her wedding night with Romeo:
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo, and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no attention to the garish sun.
Helena's statement that she cannot live without Bertram does not express a comparable immediacy of longing but rather a determination to be his wife. Even when she is alone her responses are guarded; instead of a spontaneous rush of feeling there is cautious appraisal of possibilities and practicalities. If her passion for Bertram were not all-consuming, it would seem jejune because she dwells on his features as an adolescent might linger over the publicity photo of a movie star. What she describes she reduces to conventional epithets, thereby robbing Bertram of any distinctiveness of face or form:
Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour, to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart's table—heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favor.
Since she will not allow herself to imagine kissing, embracing, and joining bodies with Bertram, Helena's deepest longing for him is expressed not in soliloquy but in her teasing, riddling conversation with Parolles about losing her virginity to her liking. The more directly she thinks of sexual union with Bertram, the more blurred her lines become, until she recovers her self-control and remarks of the pity that "wishing well had not a body in't,"
Which might be felt, that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends.
And show what we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks.
She knows what Parolles is but can appreciate the flair with which he pretends to valor and courtesy. She gives him scope for his scurrilous argument against virginity and pretends to fear the loss of her maidenhead when in fact she is thinking of making love to Bertram; that is, wishing him well with a body that might be felt. She also manages with smiling, gentle mockery to suggest that Parolles is an absolute coward without seeming to insult him. When she is alone again, she represses all sensual longing and coolly assesses in soliloquy the difficulty of the task that lies before her:
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.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes, and kiss like native things.
This kind of rhyming sententiousness is more customary in a choric speech than in a personal meditation, but the very stiltedness of Helena's images is an intimation of the emotional turmoil that lies beneath her seemingly measured and generalized statements. Since she can look up to her high love and feed her eye with Bertram's sight, the unsatisfied appetite that she is determined to "feed" is not for his sight but for his body, an appetite that is half-acknowledged in the murky lines about joining "like likes to kiss like native things."
Helena's incapacity to express her sensual longing for Bertram is analogous to Angelo's recoil from his sexual desire for Isabella in Measure for Measure. Convinced of his superiority to the common sensual herd of men, Angelo is shattered by his longing for a virginal novitiate, and yet an audience realizes that his desire, unlike Helena's, is not immediately physical in origin. He responds to the beauty of Isabella's spirit, her religious ardor and anger at his complacency, even as Olivia responds to Viola's liveliness of mind and depth of feeling. For though Isabella is fair, her physical beauty is in large part hidden by her novice's habit. Only a woman like Isabella, Angelo says, could have aroused his desire, and we believe him, for any calculated or sophisticated sensual appeal would have aroused his contempt and disgust. He hungers to possess Isabella's purity, and since that desire horrifies him, he must hate her for inspiring it. If he could freely accept his passion, he could ennoble it by his genuine admiration for her and turn desire to love. Unable to accept his passion, he is like Helena incapable of appealing for the love he desires. Just as Helena never hints to Bertram of her love, Angelo does not woo Isabella with tender vows or seductive praise. Revolted by his longings, he cannot voice them and would have Isabella catch the drift of his veiled suggestions and submit to his lust without his having to make it explicit. Her ignorance of his desire infuriates him because it forces him to speak frankly; and when he finally does it is with a desire to drag her innocence down into the mire of his lust, to prove that she is like him despite her show of purity. Like Bertram with Diana, he would have Isabella stop playing the modest virgin and put on the destined livery of all women—the soiled garment of a whore.
Like Helena's soliloquies, Angelo's soliloquies have a detached quality, even when he immediately confronts his passion, because he must seek to maintain control or lose his sense of self. His lawyerly assessment of his case is, like Helena's stilted conceits, an attempt to distance himself from sexual desire. When that attempt fails, he necessarily has to satisfy that desire in a way that degrades Isabella and himself. Because Helena can turn sexual longing into a quest to prove her worthiness, she can channel it into a goal that engages the best of her intelligence and daring. And because she can separate that goal from Bertram's nature, she can endure insult and humiliation from him without feeling degraded. We cannot speak then of Helena's love as demeaning her when it expresses what is essential in her nature. Apart from that love, she does not exist for us in the way that Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola do. She lacks their warmth and imagination, their pleasure in others and responsiveness to their worlds. Except for the comedy of the denouement, which she invents and stage manages, and apart from her brief sparring match with Parolles, Helena is without humor. Of course, she is more burdened by circumstances than other heroines but one doubts that she would be playful even if her situation allowed it because she is too earnest and practical by nature.
In fairy tales Cinderellas live happily ever after with their princes because love and fairy godmothers annihilate barriers of money and class. In All's Well, as in Boccaccio's tale, these barriers are not easily waved away with a magic wand. Although Giletta is a wealthy heiress in Painter's version of Boccaccio's tale, she is not of noble blood. The King, therefore, "was very loath" to grant Beltramo to her and would not have allowed it had he not pledged to do so earlier. Beltramo is shocked by the command to marry Giletta and protests that she is not of "a stock convenable to his nobility." Shakespeare increases the disparity of rank between Helena and Bertram by turning Boccaccio's rich heiress into a ward in the Rossillion household whose only dowry is the medical cures left to her by her father. Yet the difference of rank matters only to Bertram in All's Well. The King does not hesitate at Helena's choice of Bertram as a husband, and he immediately condemns Bertram's snobbery in refusing Helena. Praising Helena's virtues, he promises to make her honor and estate at least as great as Bertram's. Lafeu, who watches while Helena chooses a husband, thinks her worthy of the best in France and the Countess, learning that Helena loves her son, welcomes her as a daughter. Only Bertram finds Helena too mean to be his wife, and his objection is prompted less by aristocratic hauteur than by distaste for a woman who was no better than a dependent in his household—"a poor physician's daughter," from whom he parted in Scene I with the command one gives to a servant, "Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress."
Bertram's contemptuous attitude toward Helena is not supported by the choric commentary in the play on aristocratic values. The King's complaints of the decline of courtesy and chivalry invoke a standard of gentility that is the opposite of Bertram's disdain, one of gracious respect for inferiors. Indeed, the King's praise of Bertram's father in I.ii measures Bertram's railing as a courtier, not Helena's lack of nobility. To be sure, Bertram is not by nature rude or arrogant; he does not demand a cringing obedience from servants and retainers. If he were infatuated with the idea of great rank, he would not reject Helena but rather rejoice in having a wife who is a royal favorite and will bring him great wealth and esteem. One suspects that Bertram would have turned as angrily on any marriage that was going to be forced upon him.
If Shakespeare wanted an audience to recognize Helena as a social climber he had only to give her some of Malvolio's hunger for money and status or allow her to lord it over others when she becomes the Countess of Rossillion. Nothing in her words or manner intimates that wealth and title mean much to her. She wants Bertram, not his estates; the goal she aggressively pursues is to submit to Bertram, to surrender her virginity—her body—to him and be accepted as his wife. Parolles, not Helena, is the upstart of the play, the dependent who affects aristocratic airs. Indeed, it is doubly ironic that Bertram, unable to appreciate Helena's virtues, despises her baseness but accepts Parolles, who is all sham and bluster, as his mentor in chivalry. It is doubtful, moreover, that Shakespeare's audiences were scandalized by Helena's desire to wed Bertram, for the vitality of their society depended on its relative openness, on the opportunity it offered men of talent and energy to rise above their birth and enter the ranks of a nobility that had not grown moribund. The New Men whom Elizabethans and Jacobeans despised and feared were the unworthy royal minions who gained power and wealth through a monarch's thoughtless largesse or granting of monopolies.
I have suggested elsewhere that if Hamlet did not keep accusing himself of failing to revenge his father, no reader would think that he hesitates or delays taking revenge against Claudius. Similarly, no reader would be inclined to label Helena a social climber if she did not persist in accusing herself of ambitious and overreaching love. It is she who keeps harping on her humble origin and on Bertram's great height above her and who feels a continuing need to apologize for her presumptuous desire when no one impugns her motives. Proclaiming that she is unworthy of Bertram, she stalks him relentlessly, without seeming to be hypocritical, and she resorts to a bed trick without seeming to degrade herself. If she were conniving by nature, she would rely on the King to make Bertram accept her as wife after their marriage. But she turns neither to him nor to the Countess and Lafeu, who would willingly aid her if she asked. She never desires something for nothing; she offers good value to the King for the reward she seeks, and she is scrupulous in fulfilling the letter of the terms Bertram sets for accepting her as his wife. She would not have him, she says, without deserving him. Since he is a radiant star she will shine forth with her own glowing achievement. She will be a fairy-tale heroine who wins her love by daring and skill as so many fairy-tale heroes win a king's daughter. To succeed she must use guile and deception because his terms leave her no other alternative; or rather the only other choice she has is to be revolted by his mistreatment of her.
It never seems to occur to Helena that success in winning Bertram might depend on his feeling for her; assuming that she is nothing to him, she never attempts to gain his affection. Because she says nothing to him of her love before she publicly chooses him as her royal reward, he is utterly unprepared for and dumbfounded by her choice. Because she conceals her love from everyone it is only by accident that it is discovered and brought to the attention of the Countess; even then she will not readily admit it. Boccaccio's heroine is not, like Helena, a loner by nature as well as circumstance. She is surrounded by relatives before she marries and wins the love and loyalty of all her people after the Count rejects her and departs. From the beginning Shakespeare makes Helena a solitary figure, one who grew up alone on the periphery of a great household in which she had no assured place or station. Accustomed to this aloneness, she does not reach out to anyone except when an alliance with the King or with Diana and her mother will further her goal of obtaining Bertram. Her joyful greeting of the Countess in the final scene is the single occasion when she openly returns the affection of those who love her. At other times she hoards her emotion as if she must channel it all toward Bertram and the task of achieving him.
As soon as she learns of Helena's love for her son, the Countess makes clear her approval by inviting Helena's confidences. "When she asks Helena to think of her as a mother, the response is that the Countess is her "honorable mistress." The Countess persists in speaking of her as her daughter, and Helena persists in denying the possibility of such a relationship. Although she has already concluded that she can deserve to become Bertram's wife, she speaks here as if she would never dare link her name with the Rossillions:
The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother:
I am from humble, he from honored name;
No note upon my parents, his all noble.
My master, my dear lord he is, and I
His servant live, and will his vassal die.
He must not be my brother.
Helena's equivocations are transparent to the audience; she cannot allow Bertram to be her brother because she would be his wife, and she hints more directly at her yearning for him when she says that she wishes the Countess were her mother, "so that my lord, your son, were not my brother ... So I were not his sister." The Countess, having offered her sympathy and love is annoyed by this evasiveness. She declares that Helena's looks, sighs, and tears express her love of Bertram, and "only sin / And hellish obstinacy tie thy tongue, / That truth should be suspected." Although the Countess charges her to speak truly, Helena continues her zigzag course, begging for pardon, refusing to say she loves Bertram until finally she slips to her knees and "confesses":
Here on my knee, before high heaven and you,
That before you, and next until high heaven,
I love your son.
My friends were poor, but honest, so's my love
Be not offended, for it hurts not him
That he is lov'd of me, I follow him not
By any token of presumptuous suit,
Nor would I have him till I do deserve him;
Yet never know how that desert should be.
Since she cannot believe by this point that the Countess will be offended by her love of Bertram, Helena's evasiveness must be prompted by her own emotional needs rather than a fear of rebuke. Her humility is genuine and yet equivocal because she kneels only to declare her intention to pursue Bertram—but not in "any token of presumptuous suit." That is, she will not "have him" till she deserves him. This is the humbleness of one who will not claim great merit as yet, but who is absolutely certain that one day she will deserve a place among the best. This kind of self-effacement is slyly glossed by Lavatch just before Helena enters:
Though honesty be no puritan, yet it will do no hurt; it will wear the surplice of humility over the black gown of a big heart.
Ordinarily humility and simplicity go hand in hand, but there are times when plainness becomes ostentatious and a sign of self-righteous superiority. Repelled by the rich panoply of Anglican worship, the puritan minister wears a simple black gown beneath the showier surplice church law required, thus making his disdain for episcopal finery a gesture of spiritual pride. To say there is a like pride in Helena's humbleness is not to accuse her of hypocritical earnestness, for she must be certain of what she can achieve to dare what she does, and she must also believe in her inferiority to Bertram to bow before his abuse and rejection. If she did not keep telling herself that she is unworthy of him, she could not accept the contemptuous conditions he sets for accepting her as his wife. At the same time, once she has proved her worthiness to be his wife, she is determined to enjoy the prize she has won. Sometimes Helena plays the poor little waif for herself and others, but she invariably slips from this self-image to that of a female knight-errant who will accomplish impossible tasks to win her curled darling.
Helena's proud humility and kneeling pride are vividly expressed in her audience with the King, who must be convinced that he can be cured when his learned doctors have given him up as lost. First she is all humbleness, ready to accept his denials; then she refuses to be denied because she is heaven's emissary, an agent of providence, an instrument of miracles as great as the parting of the Red Sea. Finally she is a high priestess of mysterious powers and incantatory prophesies who promises a cure in less than forty-eight hours. She will wager all on belief in her father's cure, aware, no doubt, that the melodramatic punishments she names as her forfeit would not be imposed should she fail. When she asks what reward she will obtain if she succeeds, she specifies nothing until the King has pledged his scepter and hopes of heaven on his good faith. Then she avoids any hint of guilty presumption by declaring that she would not think of joining her "low and humble name" to the royal blood of France but seeks as husband only a vassal whom the King is free to bestow.
The public ceremony in which Helena pretends to pick and choose among the young noblemen at court before settling on Bertram is not in Boccaccio. It is invented by Shakespeare—or, rather, it is invented by Helena as an ostentatious show of humility in her choice of a husband, and as such it wins the hearts of all save Bertram, who is ignorant of his role in the charade. It also allows him no time to digest the stunning news and no way to protest his fate without open defiance of the King. Since she cannot be sure of Bertram's response, her timidity may be real. She acts as if she were so fearful of rejection that she prefers not to choose, yet she knows that she cannot be refused by any of the lords because the King informs them that Helena has power to choose any and they "none to forsake." When Helena hesitates, the King insists that she make a choice and turns a threatening eye on the assembly: "Make choice and see, / Who shuns thy love shuns all his love in me." So reluctantly, blushingly, shamefacedly, Helena is "forced" to do what she has set her mind on doing. She could choose Bertram outright, but that would be too obvious; she will settle on him only after considering various other young noblemen. One lord, she says, deserves a wife twenty times above herself. Another she would not wrong, for he deserves a fairer fortune in bed. A third she says is "too young, too happy, and too good" to be the father of her son. Only after these lords have protested their willingness to be her husband does she humbly turn to Bertram:
I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power.—This is the man.
What she says is heartfelt but it does not alter the fact that that though she dares not "take" Bertram, she does take him.
Bertram's outcry is understandable. Just before he was deprived of an opportunity to fight in the war by the King, who said he was too young. Now he is being deprived of his right to choose his own wife; although not old enough to be a soldier, he is old enough to be given away in marriage as a royal reward. This is especially bitter to one who complained to Parolles that he must remain at court in the service of women as "the forehorse to a smock." Bertram is probably the only lord foolish and heedless enough to refuse Helena, but his refusal is frank and prompted by the fact that he does not love her. Shall he be denied the right to choose his own wife because Helena is a worthy choice? Or can he not rebel against an enforced marriage with the same justification that Silvia, Hermia, and Juliet rebel? The abuse of wardships through enforced marriages was a scandal in Shakespeare's time, and the misery of enforced marriage was poignantly depicted by contemporary playwrights. The moral issue does not change because a man rather than a woman is thrust into a loveless marriage by a guardian's prerogative.
When Bertram asks leave "in such a business ... to use / The help of mine own eyes," he is a sympathetic figure. When he speaks scornfully of Helena as one who would bring him down, his snobbery is nasty because he speaks of her as if she were a horse or a dog who "had her breeding at my father's charge." This arrogance merits the King's angry reply about the superiority of Helena's active virtue to a dropsied inherited honor. Nevertheless, honor and dishonor become slippery terms when they depend merely on the King's favor or disdain. Helena says she is glad of the King's cure and would let the rest go. That is not possible, however, because his honor is engaged on her behalf and he cannot allow himself to be publicly humiliated. "Obey our will," he commands Bertram,
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.
Threatened in this fashion, Bertram asks pardon, and with just a bit of insouciance declares that Helena, who just before seemed most base to him, is now with the King's praise as noble as if born so. It would be sensible for Bertram to marry Helena and learn to cherish her qualities, but it would also be sensible for Hermia to marry Demetrius rather than risk death by eloping with Lysander. It is not shameful of Bertram to state his feelings openly; what is shameful is the cowardly revenge he takes on Helena afterward.
Furious at Bertram's response to being chosen by Helena, Lafeu takes out his rage on Parolles as if Parolles were responsible for Bertram's callowness. An audience knows, however, that Parolles' influence on Bertram is limited. When he sneers at Lafeu as an idle lord, Bertram bluntly disagrees: "I think not so." His decision never to sleep with Helena or live with her is made without Parolles' assistance, and he shows his contempt for his wife by having Parolles inform her that there will be no wedding night before she returns to Rossillion. Enjoying his role as messenger, Parolles mockingly addresses Helena as "fortunate lady," and assures her that he prayed for her success. He probably also embroiders Bertram's message with a few rhetorical flourishes of his own, promising that the postponed pleasures of the wedding night will be sweeter still when enjoyed later. Helena shows immense composure in the face of Bertram's rejection of her. Wanting Parolles' good will she does not tease him, nor does she protest the fact that she learns her fate from him, not her husband. The quiet with which she accepts Bertram's will suggests a resilience and perhaps a heart already prepared for the blow. Her responses are simple and matter-of-fact: "What's his will else? ... What more commands he? ... In everything I wait upon his will." It is as if she continues to regard herself as Bertram's vassal even after she has become his wife. Her parting from Bertram is equally restrained; she shows no self-pity and makes no appeal. Bertram seems, if anything, more uncomfortable than she, and makes his lame excuses in lines that are sinuous, stilted, and patently insincere:
You must not marvel, Helen, at my course,
Which holds not color with the time, nor does
The ministration and required office
On my particular. Prepar'd I was not
For such a business; therefore am I found
So much unsettled.
Here, as later in the play, Bertram proves to be a bad liar—one of the more hopeful signs of his nature. He is unable to be brutal to Helena face to face, and he is unable to withstand her long-suffering patient humility. When she replies to his threadbare excuses, "Sir, I can nothing say / But that I am your most obedient servant," he says, "Come, come; no more of that." But she has much more to offer; she swears that she shall ever,
With true observance seek to eke out that
Wherein toward me my homely stars have fail'd
To equal my great fortune,
a statement that inspires in Bertram an overwhelming desire to cut short the interview.
Once again Helena's humility seems sanctimonious and manipulative, a denial of self calculated to make Bertram squirm. Yet the acceptance of her situation is real; she timidly begs for a parting kiss as if she recognizes that affection cannot be earned or "achieved," it can only be given or begged for. The Countess's response to the letter in which Bertram swears never to have Helena as his wife is unequivocal. She is angry and also fearful for this "rash and unbridled boy" who risks the King's wrath by "misprising of a maid too virtuous / For the contempt of empire." When Helena reads aloud her "passport" from Bertram, the Countess is ready to disown him: "He was my son." Helena will not permit herself any outcry; the most she will say is that Bertram's decision is a dreadful sentence and "bitter." Even when she re-reads the letter alone on stage she cannot acknowledge its brutality. She must pity Bertram rather than pity herself; indeed, she must accuse herself of being the reason he fled his home and country for the Italian wars or else face the reality of his contempt. Her pity is like the pity Julia feels for Proteus when she discovers his faithlessness to her. Julia, however, can admit the ugliness of Proteus's behavior, whereas Helena must heap abuse upon herself so that she can blot out the callousness of Bertram's actions. Melodramatizing her guiltiness, she declares that it will be her fault if he dies in battle. For his sake she will renounce all claim to him and steal away like a "dark, poor thief" so that he can return to Rossillion; yet like the Countess she speaks of him as if he were a defiant child who has run away from home because she was too harsh, one whose "tender limbs" are being exposed "to the event / Of the none-sparing war." It would be more appropriate, she thinks, if she met a ravenous lion than he be a mark for smoky muskets. Helena's self-accusations become more unctuous still in the letter she leaves for the Countess when she departs Rossillion. Once again she speaks of the offense of her ambitious love that only a barefooted pilgrimage can expiate. Ignoring Bertram's mistreatment of her, she promises to sanctify his name "with zealous fervor," begs forgiveness for driving him to the war, and declares that she will go away because "he is too good and fair for death and me." Can Helena believe that such a letter will soften the Countess's anger at Bertram and bring him home from the war? The Countess notes the "sharp stings ... in Helena's mildest words" and sends a letter to Bertram that is full of praise of his saintly wife.
No letter from the Countess will reform Bertram, who is now openly defiant of his wife and the King. If he is to be redeemed, it will have to be by Helena, who is willing to meet his mocking demands and win him twice. Her pretense of a holy pilgrimage is no more devious than Portia's pretense that she intends a religious retreat when she sets off with Nerissa for Venice. Her attitude of self-sacrifice is very different, however, from Portia's refusal to praise herself or be praised for her effort to rescue Antonio. But then one could not be like Portia and accept the humiliations that Bertram heaps on Helena. To undertake and accomplish Helena's venture, one must have immense self-confidence but not much pride, for one must believe that this "god" has the right to set whatever terms he pleases for his wife.
More alone in Florence than at the start of the play, Helena confides in no one. She will not admit to the Widow that she knows Bertram, much less that she is his wife. When she hears that Parolles has spoken coarsely of her, she agrees that Bertram's wife "is too mean / To have her name repeated." Boccaccio's heroine is more open and direct in managing the bed trick, but Shakespeare does not emphasize Helena's craftiness so much as he does the viciousness of Bertram's attempted seduction. Mariana warns Diana of the deceitfulness of men like Bertram, whose oaths and promises are merely "engines of lust" and who leave the maids they have despoiled to the misery of a ruined reputation. Her appraisal of Bertram's motives is painfully accurate because he is callous as well as unskilled at seduction. First he attempts some conventional Petrarchan flatteries and a bit of Parollesian casuistry about the value of losing one's virginity. When these fail, he swears that he will be her servant, and when she ridicules these vows, he discards the pose of courtly lover and bluntly demands her surrender:
Stand no more off,
But give thyself unto my sick desires,
Who then recovers. Say thou art mine, and ever
My love, as it begins, shall so persever.
Later Bertram will boast of this night's work to his comrades, but it is he—not Diana—who surrenders. Instructed by Helena, she insists on having his ancestral ring—his honor—in exchange for her maidenhead—her honor. He holds out for only a moment and then barters for one night's lust the ring that was "bequeathed down from many ancestors;" such is the regard for name and lineage of one who disdained a poor physician's daughter. The mention of vows and holy oaths and the exchange of rings turn the supposed seduction into a mock nuptial in which Diana acts as Helena's proxy even as Helena will serve as Diana's substitute in bed with Bertram.
The ironies and moral ambiguities that surround the bed trick in Measure for Measure are absent in All's Well. There is no surrender to unlawful coercion, no bribery of justice, no soliciting of a woman for a stealthy assignation by a mock friar. The Widow and Diana will be rewarded by Helena for their part in the duping of Bertram, but they do not agree merely for the sake of reward. The Widow would not put her reputation "in any staining act" and must first be convinced that Helena's purpose is legitimate and will not harm her daughter. Then she and Diana join with Helena as women, as natural allies, against predatory men like Bertram. After listening to Bertram's lying protestations, Diana decides that it is "no sin / To cozen him that would unjustly win." More candid with herself and others than Duke Vincentio is about the bed trick, Helena does not attempt to invest it with high moral purpose. It is lawful, she says, and yet it involves on Bertram's part a "wicked meaning" (that is, vicious intention); she and Bertram will not sin in making love because they are married, and yet the act she knows is "a sinful fact." Diana risks very little and because of Helena's generosity will no longer be dowerless and prey to the enticements of men like Bertram; Helena will lose her virginity to her liking and gain Bertram in the bargain. She has no illusions anymore about her bright star; she knows him well enough now to wager that he will give his ancestral ring "to buy his will," but she does not recoil from that knowledge. Perhaps it is comforting to know the full extent of his shabbiness, because the shabbiness justifies the means she uses to gain him....
Most of the comedy of the final scene derives from Helena's artful choreographing of Diana's accusations against Bertram and her provocative riddling about Helena's ring. Shakespeare aids Helena's cause by allowing Diana to enter just as a bewildered Bertram, suspected of wicked deeds, is being led away under guard. But Helena does not need much help from Shakespeare because she is able to contrive her own masterly version of the discovery scenes that close Errors and Twelfth Night, one in which the clamor of false accusations mounts until the entrance of a single character—Antipholus S. or Sebastian or Helena—resolves all difficulties. Except for Bertram's mistaken assumption that he made love to Diana, none of the supposes in this discovery scene is the result of mistaken identities. Moreover, the crucial issue is not the discovery that Helena is alive but the unmasking of Bertram's moral nature, which resembles the exposure of Parolles down to the extravagant lies each one tells when caught in the trap. Where Parolles rises to heights of comic calumny, Bertram descends to depths of falsehood and vicious slander, but the comic confusion that surrounds his possession of Helena's ring and Diana's saucy manner keep the revelation from becoming so nasty that a happy ending is impossible. The tone is as artfully balanced as in the analogous ring episode in The Merchant, although the dramatic circumstance and moral issue are far more serious.
Things go wrong from Bertram as soon as his love token for Maudlin is recognized by the King as a ring he gave Helena. Although the Countess and Lafeu confirm the identity of the ring, Bertram is convinced that they are mistaken, because he knows that he got it from his Florentine dish. Too tactful to brag of his sexual conquests, he invents the facile lie that the ring was thrown to him from a window by a woman who desired him. Since Helena told the King she would not part with the ring except to her husband in bed, he is incensed by Bertram's falsehood and begins to have dark suspicions about how Bertram obtained the ring. After Diana enters to accuse Bertram of seducing her with false promises of marriage, the King wonders why Bertram wishes to marry Maudlin when he has apparently fled from two other "wives," and Lafeu decides to "buy me a son-in-law in a fair." Bertram admits that he knows Diana but will not admit he attempted her seduction. Even granting his shock and panic, his lines suggest that his view of women has not changed:
My lord, this is a fond and desp'rate creature,
Whom sometime I have laugh'd with. Let your Highness
Lay a more noble thought upon mine honor
Than for to think that I would sink it here.
Sinking lower, Bertram describes Diana as "a common gamester to the camp," but she shows his ancestral ring, and that is enough to convince the Countess that Diana is his wife. Bertram reaches his nadir with the lie that Diana obtained his ring by angling for him, madding his desire with "infinite cunning" until he gave it for that "which any inferior might / At market-price have bought." Since Parolles, who is called to testify, can expose this falsehood, Bertram must also vilify his former companion as
a most perfidious slave,
With all the spots a' th' world tax'd and debosh'd,
Whose nature sickens but to speak a truth.
Bertram seems all the more shabby when Parolles proves reluctant to condemn him and charitable in his assessment of Bertram's character: "My master hath been an honorable gentleman. Tricks he hath had in him, which gentlemen have." According to Parolles Bertram loved Diana "as a gentleman loves a woman ... He lov'd her sir, and lov'd her not." This explanation is less equivocal than the King supposes, for Parolles implies that gentlemen marry ladies but make love to women of no birth without loving them and have no intention of marrying those who surrender to them. If Bertram had been more sophisticated he would not have pursued a virgin; he would have made love to a woman who had already lost her maidenhead and honor and who could not be further degraded by a gentleman.
Parolles' statement, like those which Diana, Helena, and Mariana make about men, make the battle of the sexes in All's Well more explicit than it is in earlier comedies, for here the aggressiveness and callousness of male appetite is opposed to the woman's need to lose her virginity to her liking or husband it as a priceless commodity. Like the cynical Lavatch, the ruttish Bertram travesties romantic ideals by reducing the "service" of love to that which a bull offers a cow. Portraits like Bertram and Lucio of Measure for Measure do not imply, however, that Shakespeare has lost faith in the romantic ideal that informs his earlier comedies; they simply confirm that the ideal of love depends on an ability to cherish others and a capacity for generosity that Bertram does not possess.
Since too much emphasis on Bertram's failings will make a shambles of the denouement, Shakespeare focuses attention on the mystery of Helena's ring after Parolles has spoken. Coached by Helena, Diana, who has already given false testimony about Bertram, responds to the King's questions with such riddling equivocations that Lafeu and the King believe she is, as Bertram claimed, "some common customer," "an easy glove" that goes off and on at pleasure. Threatened with death, Diana grows more impudent; she is cheekily familiar with the King, and hinting that she is still a virgin, she suggests also that Bertram is "guilty and he is not guilty." Her impudence is a welcome note given Helena's willingness to abase herself before Bertram in earlier scenes, for at last the women in the play do not bow before the will of men. At the last moment Diana plays her trump card: she produces a Helena whose pregnant state is the simple truth hinted at by her equivocations: "one that's dead is quick."
No one is more overjoyed at Helena's appearance than Bertram, for she alone can rescue him from ignominious disgrace. Like Hero in the last scene of Much Ado, Helena does not dwell on the wrongs that were done her. When the King asks, "Is't real that I see?" she answers:
No, my good lord,
Tis but the shadow of a wife you see,
The name, and not the thing.
To which Bertram cries out, "Both, both. O, pardon!" Reminding Bertram that she found him "wondrous kind" when he thought he was making love to Diana, she also reads aloud the conditions he set down for accepting her as his wife and asks, "Will you be mine now you are doubly won?" This is not the Helena of earlier scenes who bowed before Bertram's scorn; instead of timidly for affection, she asks Bertram to acknowledge publicly that she deserves him. In a last attempt at masculine pride Bertram makes his answer not to her but to the King:
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
Keeping her emotional distance from Bertram, Helena embraces the Countess, whom she can at last acknowledge as her "dear mother." Diana's future seems assured, for the King promises to provide a dowry when she marries. Wiser than before, he does not propose to enforce her choice of husband with his prerogative, and still wary of her glibness he makes his promise as conditional as Bertram's to Helena: if Diana is still a virgin, he will see that she marries well. Too ready before to jump to erroneous conclusions, now he is cautious about assessing the outcome of events:
All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.
If all is well it is not because Bertram is more mature or more sensitive in the last scene than in the first, but because, after his narrow escapes, he is no doubt ready for a quiet life at Rossillion. He promises that he will love Helena dearly, and no doubt he will, insofar as "loving dearly" can be a matter of deliberate choice. Helena's progress is more certain and significant. She knows more about Bertram than any wife should know about a husband and yet she loves him still. She is not revolted by his desire for Diana because she knows how circumstance affects sexual longing and pleasure. He rejected her out of anger and spite but enjoyed her body in Florence, thinking she was a prize that had been won with difficulty. She can acknowledge the lure of stealthy illicit sex without feeling the need to justify Bertram's lust. Once too ready to proclaim her unworthiness, she now is fully assured of her self-worth. At the beginning, she imagined the attaining of Bertram as an achieving of the impossible, a striving for a star. After the bed trick, she no longer speaks of what she can achieve by a determined will. In a speech to Diana and the Widow, she puts her faith in the passing of time that brings life again to barren twigs and that will confirm the new life that exists in her womb:
... the time will bring on summer,
when briers shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away:
Our waggon is prepar'd, and tune revives us.
All's well that ends well! still the fine's the crown;
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.
Helena's alliance with Diana and the Widow is important to the denouement of All's Well because she is no longer apart from others, absorbed in her determination to nave Bertram. When she embraces the Countess, the familial drama of the play reaches its happy conclusion: an orphaned child raised as a ward in a great household has found a mother as well as a husband at Rossillion. Despite the earlier melancholy sense of lost values, there is hope of better days to come. Bertram is in good hands and Helena carries the child that will assure the future of the noble lineage he very nearly compromised....
SOURCE: "All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 173-94.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3923
Shakespeare's decision to base a comedy on Boccaccio's story about a young man who flees rather than pursues his eventual wife, despises rather than adores her, creates for All's Well That Ends Well an altered set of comic conflicts. Instead of accommodating the marital aspirations of a Bassanio or an Orlando, the play's action must bring Bertram to accept Helena as his wife. Before this action is completed, the young count is identified at various moments as a nobleman of great promise, an object of adoration, a complete fool, a snob, an ungrateful son and subject, a whimpering adolescent, a warrior of heroic stature, a degenerate rake, a liar, a moral coward, a suspected murderer, and, perhaps, a regenerate husband. Few characters in Shakespeare's comedies are called upon to fit so many different images, certainly none of Bertram's more compliant comic predecessors. Partly because he has often been seen through responses he generates in other characters, who repudiate him as son, subject, and comrade, Bertram has long held a reputation among critics as a "thoroughly disagreeable, peevish and vicious person." Recent attempts to brighten Bertram's character have often accompanied attempts to salvage the play from a long tradition of critical discontent, to demonstrate "that All's Well is a good play," that in fact, "All does end well." I think instead that a close look at All's Well as it is experienced by Bertram can help identify unresolved tensions that not only define his position in the action but that shape the play as a whole and indicate the place it occupies in Shakespearean comedy.
Bertram, Marriage, and Manhood
Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face.
Frank nature, rather curious than in haste,
Hath well composed thee.
Thy father's moral parts
Mayst thou inherit too!
Dr. Johnson's indictment of the young count can speak for many:
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.
Johnson's denunciation seems to be exactly the response to Bertram that the moral context of the play demands. But Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch remarked, introducing his edition of All's Well, that Bertram "has something to say for himself against the moralizers":
There is nothing in him, until we come to the final scene, that we cannot find it in our hearts to forgive, if only he will give us the right excuse.... For, consciously or not, we have felt Helena's love pleading his cause with us all the while. The follies of youth—"lusty juventus"—come of nature and mettle, and arrogance of birth may be a fault well on this side of sin. There must be some attractiveness in Bertram to justify such devotion, and this will surely reveal itself, to satisfy us or nearly, before the curtain falls. But the final scene destroys our hope.
The contrast between Quiller-Couch's tolerant view of Bertram and Dr. Johnson's severe indictment is present in the play, without seeming to come under the control of dramatic irony. The tension between these two perspectives, and between each of them and Helena's adoration of the youthful count, can be used to clarify the problem that Bertram poses, not only for All's Well, but for the development of Shakespearean comedy.
The first scene reveals little of Bertram directly beyond the impatience of an "unseasoned courtier" (I.i.66) anxious to realize the promise of manhood in the service of aristocratic ideals. The initial image of Bertram is focused chiefly through Helena's extravagant praise as she celebrates the "bright particular star" (I.i.82) of her imagination. Again at the French court, there is a strong trend to assimilate Bertram to identities that others impose upon him. In his first encounter with the king, Bertram plays an entirely passive role as the king weaves into rambling speeches wistful recollections of the old Count Rossillion, sober thoughts on his own approaching death, and impatient reflections on his youthful courtiers. As the king moves toward a nostalgic identification with the dead count, Bertram, by his mere presence, comes to be invested with a double, partially contradictory role. Bertram becomes, in the eyes of the king, a son ("Welcome, count; / My son's no dearer" [I.ii.75-76]) who represents both the promise of vicarious fulfillment through identification with his youthful promise and the threat posed by a younger generation unworthy of the tradition it inherits. Both of these projected identities become actively important in Bertram's subsequent meetings with the king.
Bertram begins to appear defined by his own presentation of self through action and sentiment in II.i. The young count watches the king issue an official farewell to the lords bound for the wars in Italy, which "may well serve / A nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit" (I.ii.15-17). The king's speech is rich in the idealized rhetoric of ennobling war:
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 honor, but to wed it, when
The bravest questant shrinks: find what you
seek, That fame may cry you loud.
The king pronounces an ideal of honorable combat that promises self-fulfillment, liberation, and fame. These young lords may prove themselves worthy sons, brave men, and esteemed comrades. Opposed to the warlike courtship of honor are the snares of Italian women:
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 presents his lords with a world of masculine activity familiar to our culture and our poetry. War offers sexualized aggressive release, idealization through the commitment to honor, and affectionate communion among men; heterosexual activity brings the threat of emasculation and is to be shunned or carefully subordinated to the masculine ideal. "Our hearts receive your warnings" (II.i.23), the lords reply, while Bertram eagerly looks on.
But Bertram must remain at court: "I am commanded here and kept a coil with / 'Too young,' and 'The next year,' and 'Tis too early"' (II.i.27-28). Denied access to heroic masculine endeavor by the king who has just exalted it, Bertram's forced stay at court takes its shape from his frustration:
I shall stay here the forehorse to a smock,
Creaking my shoes on the plain masonry,
Till honor be bought up, and no sword worn
But one to dance with. By heaven, I'll steal away!
Encouraged by Parolles and the other lords, who join for a moment in the masculine camaraderie from which Bertram is about to be severed, Bertram bristles with resentment toward the court life he now regards as effeminate. Bertram, who went to court to realize himself as a man, as a seasoned courtier, is treated as a boy, a condition Parolles uses to put salt into his barbed advice: "An thy mind stand to't, boy, steal away bravely" (II.i.29). Confined to the court he perceives as womanly, where the sword, the virile means to honor, merely adorns ballroom apparel, Bertram makes his first precocious gesture toward rebellion.
Bertram's implicit son-relationship to the king—who tells him how to be a man and tells him also that he cannot be one yet—and his festering resentment at being "kept a coil" at court furnish essential background for the conflict shortly to develop when, after the king's mysterious cure, Bertram is appointed husband to Helena. His confrontation with the king in II.iii toughens and deepens the presentation of a Bertram just beginning to emerge as a character whose youthful ambitions seem destined for frustration. The scene appears to be heading for a triumphant culmination in Helena's selection of Bertram as husband. Helena's almost coquettishly ritualistic rejection of the other prospects lends comic momentum to her final decision. "This is the man," Helena announces, and the king sanctions the choice: "Why then, young Bertram, take her; she's thy wife" (II.iii.104-5). Because Bertram is caught off-guard, and because he in turn catches the king off-guard, the intensity now injected into the scene has a special emotional authority. Bertram's immediate response is astonishment: "My wife, my liege?" But he is quickly able to channel the logic of his position into a plea for freedom of choice: "I shall beseech your highness, / In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes." The king seems a bit bewildered, but counters with a question that implicitly develops the authoritarian logic of his own position: "Knows't thou not, Bertram, / What she has done for me?" Bertram in turn challenges this argument: "Yes, my good lord, / But never hope to know why I should marry her" (II.iii.105-9).
As this exchange becomes increasingly heated, Bertram fights for his autonomy and the king insists on his own absolute power in a struggle that pits demanding father against rebellious son. The king identifies phallic mastery with honor and power: "My honor's at the stake, which to defeat, / I must produce my power" (II.iii.148-49). Either Bertram bends before the all-powerful father or the king's restored virility is invalidated. Lafeu has already comically injected the castration theme into the scene when, standing apart from the ritual elimination of all suitors but Bertram, he thinks that the courtiers Helena passes over have instead refused her: "Do all they deny her? An they were sons of mine, I'd have them whipped, or I would send them to th' Turk to make eunuchs of" (II.iii.85-87). But in the struggle of wills between Bertram and his king, this anxiety is developed into irreconcilable conflict. When Helena suggests that the marriage be waived, the king erupts in rage at the threat reluctant Bertram poses to his own restored manhood:
Here, take her hand,
Proud scornful boy, unworthy this good gift, ...
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 forever,
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!
Under the shaming force of the king's violent anger, Bertram relents: "Pardon my gracious lord; for I submit / My fancy to your eyes" (II.ii.166-67). Bertram not only is the submissive son viewed from the lofty position of a towering king: he literally sees, for the moment of surrender, the situation through the king's eyes. He becomes, through a radical, forced suspension of self ("Believe not thy disdain"), an extension of the king's person. The validity of his own experience is defined by the king's imperative: "As thou lov'st her, / Thy love's to me religious; else, does err" (II.iii.181-82).
This submissive attitude toward the king must be abandoned, however, largely because the pressures that force Bertram to succumb to him are further complicated by conflict aroused by Helena herself. On the surface, Helena exacerbates Bertram's already expressed resentment at being confined to the effeminizing court. But this, too, builds on deeper dangers that Bertram has no means of understanding or adequately expressing:
Thou know'st she has raised me from my sickly bed.
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!
Bertram interprets his abhorrence of Helena in social terms, but his snobbery covers deeper fears. Helena has raised the king from his sickbed, cured him, and, symbolically, restored his virility, made him erect. But, asks Bertram, must this woman therefore "bring me down" to the marriage bed?
The forced marriage to Helena deflects him from his quest for a masculine identity and toward a sexuality he fears. "Undone, and forfeited to cares forever!" (II.ii.263), he whines, sounding like a little boy because he has been made a little boy through submission to the king. He can reopen future potentialities of manhood only by fleeing the sexual union forced upon him: "Although before the solemn priest I have sworn, / I will not bed her" (ll.iii.265-66). Parolles' defensive rhetoric in counseling flight brings to the surface the unsavory resonance of debasing sexual anxiety, and opposes to it the ideal of war. "France is a dog-hole," advises Parolles, speaking not only to Bertram but for him,
To th' wars, my boy, to th' wars!
He wears his honor in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars's fiery steed. To other regions!
France is a stable; we that dwell in't jades.
Therefore to th' war!
Marriage, from such a view, means dishonor and emasculation, a symbolic mode of castration ("A young man married is a man that's marred" [II.iii.292]); it drains off "manly marrow" better expended in the field of war than in "the dark house and the detested wife" (I.iii.286). Bertram's horror of marital sexuality, his ear of having his precarious masculinity overwhelmed by his wife, drives him to "those Italian fields / Where noble fellows strike" (II.iii.284-85).
The tensions provoked by this marriage are realized dramatically in Bertram's painfully dishonest parting from Helena, a scene brought to an anxious climax when his "clog" desires a farewell kiss. This is only the second time Bertram has spoken to Helena in the play, and the second time he says farewell; he is unable to speak to her at all in the scene in which the marriage is arranged. As he repeatedly bids a persistent Helena to go home without further ado, a squirming Bertram resorts for the first time to the lying that will characterize his behavior in relations to women henceforth. But within the lie he tells Helena, Bertram obliquely expresses a deeper truth about his situation:
Prepared I was not
For such a business; therefore am I found
So much unsettled. This drives me to entreat you
That presently you take your way for home,
And rather muse than ask why I entreat you;
For my respects are better than they seem,
And my appointments have in them a need
Greater than shows itself at the first view
To you that know them not.
Bertram's options are to lie to Helena or lie with her, and the latter is unacceptable to him for reasons he is powerless either to alter or to articulate fully, to Helena or to himself.
All's Well That Ends Well, through those relationships centered subjectively in Bertram, deals with a young man's inevitable problem of freeing mature sexuality from threats that originate in the mutual development of family ties and infantile sexuality. Bertram's exchanges with Parolles and Helena as he prepares to flee France demonstrate how far he falls short of having won that freedom midway through the play. The "need / Greater than shows itself at the first view" that makes the prospect of marital sexuality intolerable is the unconscious dimension of his association of Helena, who "had her breeding at my father's charge," with his own family.
In I.iii, just after Bertram has gone to the French court, Shakespeare suggests the incestuous context of this relationship when the countess teases Helena into acknowledging her love for Bertram; "You know, Helen, / I am a mother to you" (I.iii.130-31). For the two women, Helena's pained protest in this prolonged exchange gives way to a simple resolution:
You are my mother, madam.
Would you were—
So that my lord your son were not my brother—
Indeed my mother! or were you both our mothers,
I care no more for than I do for heaven,
So I were not his sister. Can't no other,
But I your daughter, he must be my brother?
Yes, Helen, you might be my daughter-in-law.
But the countess jests with the very association of Helena with the Rossillion family Bertram fears, and which he cannot so easily resolve.
Bertram mentions his mother nearly every time he talks to or about Helena, casually at first (I.i.71-72), but more compulsively in the press of emotionally intense occasions later on (II.iii.272; II.v.69: IV.iii.85-86). A son's affection for a mother is directed by Bertram toward the countess; a son's fears of female domination and of his own Oedipal wishes are aroused in Bertram by Helena. The situation builds on but complicates childhood circumstances in which an incestuous object-choice must be abandoned, for Bertram is forced to accept a woman unconsciously associated with the object of repressed incestuous impulses. Instead of allowing Bertram to find a sexual love removed from infantile conflict, the forced marriage reopens and concentrates the hazards of an Oedipal relationship that has undergone repression. The marriage to Helena means for Bertram accepting a sexual bond made repugnant by its incestuous associations and abandoning the possibility of achieving a masculine identity independent of infantile conflict. In the typical Oedipal situation, the son protects his own developing autonomy by relinquishing, through repression, the incestuous object to the father; in Bertram's situation, the father's power both transgresses the son's effort to achieve manly autonomy ("It is in us to plant thine honor where / We please to have it grow" [II.iii.155-56]) and compels the son to act out incestuous impulses made intolerable by repression ("I cannot love her, nor will strive to do't" [II.iii.145]). In the Italian war Bertram finds release from the paralyzing force of this situation:
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.
He serves heroically, realizing in action the masculine ideal held up earlier by the French king to his restless courtiers. In place of the overpowering king, Bertram finds in the duke of Florence a family romance father whom he serves and saves, and who rewards him for conduct the king of France has forbidden. The comic exposure and renunciation of Parolles as a "counterfeit module" indicate further Bertram's escape from conflicts that beset him in France, for Parolles, however obviously bogus to others in the play, has been a necessary ally in bolstering the young count's courage at court. No longer in need of Parolles' assistance, Bertram can afford to recognize his duplicity. Among men and the affairs of war, Bertram in Italy becomes "the general of our horse," a "most gallant fellow" who has "done most honorable service," "taken then: great'st commander," and who "with his own hand ... slew the duke's brother" (III.v.).
In affairs of women and sexuality, Bertram also finds a strategy for evading conflict in Italy. Once he has located matters of honor, loyalty, and affection in a context independent of heterosexuality, he attempts to establish a sexual relationship with Diana that is independent of honor, loyalty, affection, and the conflicted impulses that have driven him away from Helena. Bertram attempts to escape infantile undercurrents of sexual inhibition by letting them rise to consciousness in a depersonalized context. He appeals to Diana: "And now you should be as your mother was / "When your sweet self was got" (IV.ii.9-10). Here the maternal association emerges, not as a hidden inner block against marital sexuality, but as Diana's mother, a woman doing the universal, necessary—and therefore justified—act for begetting children. In Florence, Bertram can perform the act he has fled in disgust because he has—or, rather, he thinks he has—removed himself from conditions responsible for his fearful loathing. In his attempted seduction of Diana, however, Bertram is forced to use a symbol that binds his sexuality to his place in a family tradition, a ring that, as Helena explains to Diana, "downward hath succeeded in his house / From son to son some four or five descents / Since the first father wore it" (II.vii.23-25). Bertram relates to Diana his full awareness of the ring's significance, but he soon hands it over: "Here, take my ring! / My house, mine honor, yea, my life be thine, / And I'll be bid by thee" (IV.ii.51-53). In this impulsive gesture, Bertram completes the logic of his rebellion; he repudiates in an instant the inheritance leading back to "the first father" who wore this very ring. Bertram can win a measure of sexual freedom only by symbolically forfeiting his place among those familial bonds that have complicated his relation to Helena.
In Bertram Shakespeare invests in embryonic form the essential components of a romantic rebel who can only thrive by rejecting the society that has shaped him Bertram has written this note to his mother on leavmg France:
I have sent you a daughter-in-law. She hath recovered the king, and undone me. I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the "not" eternal. You shall hear I am run away, know it before the report come. If there be breadth enough in the world, I will hold a long distance. My duty to you.
Your unfortunate son,
Geographical distance here corresponds to the psychological distance Bertram must put between action and inner conflict if he is to pursue a desired identity. To preserve the purity of his deepest loyalty, that to his mother, Bertram must escape the marital claim of her surrogate Helena. He must find a new father, seek action in a land far removed from France, win a woman he can isolate from an unconscious dread of incest. Bertram's disillusionment at court; his flight from France and an unwanted marriage; his success among men at war in a foreign country; his cavalier attempt to seduce Diana; his symbolic repudiation of patriarchal loyalties in giving up the ring—these are gestures belonging to the Don Juan story, which Bertram brings into a comic art deeply committed to the family.
The problem Bertram puts to Shakespeare resides in the nature of the solution Bertram finds for his own intolerable situation at court. Bertram must be reinstated, for he threatens precisely those social and domestic values celebrated in the festive comedies. Although Shakespeare sketches out the logic of romantic flight in Bertram, the young count is released, ultimately, in order to be retrieved. Every step Bertram takes toward seducing Diana is a step toward the bed, and finally the household, of Helena, Shakespeare's chief agent for reclaiming him. But the effort to reassimilate Bertram further intensifies the pressures on comic form in this play. The nature of these pressures becomes clearer if All's Well is understood as a development out of earlier comedies.
SOURCE: "Imperial Love and the Dark House: All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 34-35.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5883
Shakespeare's plays often include characters ready to save us the bother of seeing for ourselves. Generally speaking, the higher their social status, the more chance they have of being listened to. Maria's character-sketch of Malvolio in Act II, Scene iii of Twelfth Night would not have enjoyed so much success if her mistress hadn't already pronounced him "sick of self-love." When in Act III, Scene ii of All's Well That Ends Well the two French lords deliver Bertram's unpleasant letters to Rossillion, the Countess asks who is with him in Florence and, on hearing that it is Parolles, complains, "A very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness;/My son corrupts a well-derived nature/With his inducement." This interpretation receives some support from the Florentine ladies watching the soldiers go by in Act III, Scene v. Diana remarks that it is a pity such a good-looking young man as Bertram is not honest and adds, "Yound's that same knave/That leads him to these places. Were I his lady/I would poison that vile rascal." The context makes clear that she is shifting to Parolles some of the blame for Bertram's "dishonesty" in paying court to her when he is already married. But much weightier confirmation of the Countess's belief that Bertram has been led astray comes from Lafeu. With the war in Tuscany over and Helena supposed dead, Act IV, Scene v opens in Rossillion as Lafeu is saying,
No, no, no, your son was misled with 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. Your daughter-in-law had been alive at this hour, and your son here at home, more advanc'd by the king than by that red-tail'd humblebee I speak of.
The notion of Parolles as a successful corrupter of youth has received wide critical approval despite the obvious vested interest of those figures in All's Well who propound it (Bertram's mother, a young girl physically attracted to him and an old friend of the family). One reason is that critics, unlike ordinary playgoers, have recognised in Parolles vestiges of the medieval Vice. A similar recognition, allied to a similar inclination to trust "the quality," leads several of them to believe those at Henry IV's court who say that Hal has been corrupted by Falstaff. The interpretation is no more satisfactory in one case than it is in the other, but for different reasons. There is never a moment in the Henry IV plays when an audience feels that Hal is in any genuine danger from Falstaff. All's Well begins with a few half-hearted indications that we shall be shown a well-bred young man tempted from the straight and narrow by a flashy companion; but it quickly becomes the tale of a headstrong youth with all the natural gifts for going to the bad on his own.
Joseph Price claims that Parolles "prompts the plan that leads to his young master's flight" and the editor of the Arden edition goes further when he says that Parolles "ships (Bertram) off to the war." They can only refer to the one occasion in the play on which Parolles appears to initiate rather than merely encourage wrongdoing. This is in Act II, Scene i when Bertram is complaining of the King's refusal to allow him to go to the Tuscan wars and Parolles says, "And thy mind stand to't, boy, steal away bravely." Urging a fiery young man to defy authority is perhaps wrong but it is hardly criminal, and any discredit which attaches to the gesture is lessened by the support Parolles receives from the two French Lords. After Bertram has decided that he will indeed steal away, the first of the Lords says, "There's honour in the theft;" and when Parolles interjects, "Commit it, count," the second adds, "I am your accessory." If Parolles is a wicked corrupter, so too are they.
When the two Lords have left the stage, Parolles makes an absurdly affected speech in which he tells Bertram that he ought to have used "a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords" and urges him to go after them to "take a more dilated farewell" (II.i.49-56). Bertram's "And I will do so" is the last serious indication we have of his being under Parolles's influence. There is no suspicion that he is acting on any but his own headstrong authority when in Act II, Scene iii he responds with indignant, snobbish dismay to the idea of marrying Helena ("A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain/Rather corrupt me ever!"); and after the King has forced him to accept her, he takes no one's advice before flatly announcing his intentions, "I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her." Parolles is enthusiastic in Bertram's support and clearly not averse to being the young Count's instrument in fobbing Helena off; but he is a means of bad behaviour not its cause. This remains true for the rest of the play and, as R. L. Smallwood has pointed out, that "Parolles is not the wicked angel responsible for leading Bertram astray is vividly shown in the final scene where, long after he has been made to see his companion for what he is, Bertram goes on to show himself independently capable of his most objectionable behaviour, in that long demonstration of weakness, cowardice, and lying." The demonstration Smallwood refers to also militates against efforts to represent the exposure of Parolles as a necessary stage in Bertram's moral regeneration. "The two scenes which conclude Act III," writes Joseph Price, "prepare for the expulsion of Parolles's influence and the cure of Bertram" and he goes on to claim that, "when Bertram realizes the folly of his model he will begin to understand his own faults." It is true that in Act IV, Scene iii the two French Lords succeed in convincing Bertram that Parolles is not the courageous captain he pretends to be; but the young Count is shown as far less disturbed by this discovery than by the realization (via the letter to Diana discovered in Parolles's pocket) that his messenger in his own double-dealings with women can't be trusted. His indignation reaches its height when he learns that Parolles has not only made a feeble effort to seduce Diana on his own behalf ("Men are to mell with, boys are not to kiss"), but also had the audacity to tell her that a man like Bertram tells lies and doesn't keep his promises.
The failure of Shakespeare's text to support the readings which the Countess, Diana and Lafeu try to impose upon it has clearly led to strange goings-on in the theatre, some of which must be reflected in J. L. Styan's relatively recent commentary on Act II, Scene iv of All's Well in the Shakespeare in Performance series. This is the scene in which Parolles comes to tell Helena that Bertram will be leaving Paris before consummating his marriage. According to Styan, Parolles "takes his time before he breaks the news that Bertram is leaving (Helena), for us an intolerable delay;" he "relishes his secret," "teases Helena with the unaccustomed colourfulness of his notion that this obstacle in the way of her wedded love will make fulfilment all the sweeter when it comes," and ends the scene "beside himself with triumph." Although they purport to be a statement of the theme on which variations could be played, these comments on Act II, Scene iv sound much more like the description of a specific performance. But if Parolles does not immediately deliver his message to Helena it is because he makes the mistake on his entrance of acknowledging the Clown, who happens to be present, "Oh, my knave! How does my old lady?" Lavatch is never complimentary to anyone, but he is particularly scathing with Parolles, calling him a nothing, a knave and a fool in rapid succession. Of the 150 or so words in their exchange, Parolles only has 27. He is too patently the unwilling recipient of a stream of witty insults to be relishing any secret, and would clearly be only too glad to say what he has to say to Helena, if he could only get rid of the Clown. When he is able to speak to her, his language is colourful; but it is difficult to make much of that in a figure who is continually shown priding himself on elaborate speech. There is no convincing evidence in the text that Parolles takes any special pleasure in doing dirty work which, as the following scene shows, Bertram is in any case always prepared to do for himself. Parolles has told Helena that her new husband wants her to take "instant leave a' th' king" and in Act II, Scene v she comes to Bertram to report that she has done so. He assures her that his reasons for going away and not consummating the marriage are better than they seem, when they are in fact much worse (ll.58-69); and after a series of painful exchanges meanly denies her a parting kiss. In productions from the 1950s which Styan describes, Parolles was made responsible for preventing a kiss which would otherwise have come about. It is in the spirit of these productions, or of others like them, that Styan writes his commentary on Act II, Scene iv. To present Parolles as more enterprisingly and, above all, effectively wicked than any lines he is given suggest he should be, makes it easier to turn him into a scapegoat; and if directors often share the same interest as the Countess, Diana and Lafeu in achieving that result it is because it lessens the unattractiveness of a Bertram to whom, as Dr. Johnson memorably complained, it is difficult to reconcile one's heart.
Giving Parolles behaviour which exaggerates his effectiveness also has the advantages of making him seem more coherent. "Character criticism" may be long out of fashion among academics but, in the theatre, actors and directors are still inclined to look for some centre around which they can organise the various manifestations of a Shakespearian role. To see Parolles as the corrupter of youth helps to impose order on what, in the first half of All's Well, is an unusually loose assemblage of comic types. As an addition to the faint indications of the corrupting Vice which he offers, Parolles is also—with varying but never complete conviction on his creator's part—the traditional boasting soldier, the parasite, the foppish would-be courtier, the traveller and, in the feature of his many-sidedness which arbitrarily determines bis name, the man of many words. In other circumstances, this variety of constituents might have been a sign of satisfying complexity, but in All's Well it leaves an audience wondering what or who Parolles is supposed to be. Their puzzlement is only likely to be increased by the fact that no one in All's Well, apart of course from Bertram, believes in any specific part he attempts to play. (So strikingly is this so that Bertram's failure to see through his companion comes to seem more and more of an obvious dramatic convenience.) Parolles moves forward via a series of mortifying encounters as first Helena, then Lavatch and Lafeu successfully call his bluff and oblige him to fall back on lame expostulation or excuse. The ineffectuality of his efforts to impose upon the world, and his lack of success in trying to hold his own in any company other than Bertram's, make it impossible to credit him with the force to corrupt anybody, least of all a young nobleman capable of replying to his king as impudently as Bertram does in Act II, Scene iii (111-3).
Parolles has too many features for Helena's accusation of cowardice in Act I, Scene i (186-202) to fix him in the mind as the miles gloriosus, and Lavatch's refusal to take him seriously as a gentleman (II.iv.17-36) doesn't determine how he should be taken. In remarks which excite Parolles to unwise and untypical self-defence, Lafeu casually assumes that Bertram must be his "master" (II.iii.84-230), but servant is too broad a category to be usefully defining. These bruising encounters are effective in demonstrating that Parolles is not what he pretends to be but they fail to make clear what he is. The illusion of what a Shakespearian character "is" most frequently establishes itself through monologue or soliloquy. The various parts which Iago plays in Othello, for example, are put into perspective by the explanation of his intentions which he offers in private to the audience. It is not until Act IV, Scene i of All's Well that Parolles is found communing with himself and on that occasion the consequence is not the tardy discovery of some "key" to his character but engaging confirmation of an audience's feeling that—qua Captain, in this instance—he is not much of an actor. "They begin to smoke me, and disgraces have of late knock'd too often at my door" (27-8). With the First Lord and his associates listening in, Parolles curses his habit of talking himself into situations which he has no means of handling. Since Bertram's enterprise and his own general ineffectuality up to this point prevent Parolles from being perceived as a serious threat, it is hard not to feel some stirrings of sympathy for him in his dilemma: "I must give myself some hurts, and say I got them in exploit; yet slight ones will not carry it. They will say, 'Came you off with so little?' And great ones I dare not give" (37-40). This sympathy is important because of the fine balance Shakespeare achieves during the great scene (IV.iii) in which the blindfolded Parolles is interrogated in the presence of Bertram and the two Lords.
The comedy in Act IV, Scene iii depends not only on the irrepressible fatuity of Parolles in a "life-threatening" situation but also on the way the balance of power shifts towards him as the conditions of the joke oblige Bertram and the two Lords to stand by helpless whilst he insults them. As the scene progresses, a vital difference emerges, which is not merely comic, between the first Lord's amused tolerance of the outrageous lies Parolles tells about him and Bertram's anger at characterizations ("lascivious boy," etc.) which are broadly accurate. Like the great Boar's Head Tavern scene (II.iv) in I Henry IV, Act IV, Scene iii of All's Well gets even better after the reader or spectator is persuaded it has reached its climax. The play is a long way from being Shakespeare's most successful work, but there are few more effective moments in his drama than when Parolles is "unmuffled." With a laughing audience on one side and the social superiors he has just been betraying and abusing on the other, no one's situation could be more humiliating. His first reaction is to protest with some justice that anyone can be crushed with a plot. But after the officers have bid him their ironic farewells, and the interpreter has left him alone on the stage with the ominous, "Fare ye well, sir. I am for France too; we shall speak of you there," what every reader or spectator of All's Well remembers is the first half of Parolles's full response to his plight:
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.
Every critic of the play refers to these famous lines, but there is considerable confusion and disagreement over what to make of them. This is partly because the most striking of them—"Simply the thing I am/Shall make me live"—depend for their full effect on everything that has gone before. But a further difficulty for many has been that the lines have to be reconciled with the strong moral disapproval of Parolles which has become part of the orthodox interpretation of this play, and which is usually sustained by adding to a sense of his egregious shortcomings much of the blame for Bertram's. How the reconciliation is effected can be traced back at least as far as H. B. Charlton who, in the tone of a superior officer criticising a disgraced subaltern for failing to blow his brains out, described Parolles's response to his final discomfiture as "his ignominious acceptance of mere existence." The critical climate which this remark suggests was evident in Michael Hordern's Parolles at the Old Vic in 1953, or at least in Richard David's account of that performance:
When Parolles is finally un-blindfolded, and discovers his captors to be his own comrades, Hordern managed an immediate and breathtaking transition from farce to deadly earnest. At the discovery he closed his eyes and fell straight backward into the arms of his attendants; then, as with taunts they prepare to leave him, he 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.
David's whole description is vivid enough for its essentials to have found their way into Robert Hapgood's "The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well" a short piece, published in these pages in 1965, which usefully reminded its readers that Charlton had called Parolles, "that shapeless lump of cloacine excrement." (At the height of his anger in Act IV, Scene iii, even Bertram could only manage, "I could endure anything before but a cat, but now he's a cat to me.")
At the beginning of Act IV, Scene iii the first Lord shakes his head over Bertram's conduct and complains, "As we are ourselves, what things we are!" His "things" here are human beings who are spiritually degraded because they ignore the teachings of religion. It is unlikely that Parolles ever paid much attention to these teachings either, but it is hard to see why so many commentators have found his celebration of being a "thing" memorable if the intended sense is the same as the first Lord's. Harder still to understand is how a good proportion of these commentators could find something exhilarating in the celebration if all it revealed was, "an essential meanness not only in Parolles but in human nature as a whole." Robert Hapgood was justified in refusing to believe that "Shakespeare intended an effect simply of revulsion." He attributes the positive way in which many people respond to Parolles's soliloquy to the character's comic vitality, describing as "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." Like Falstaff, Parolles turns his back on the precept "Death rather than dishonour" and celebrates not the meanness of human nature but its resilience and powerful instinct for survival—its "all-surviving tensile-strength," as Hapgood puts it.
His remarks are helpful but insufficiently specific—after all, many other comic figures, apart from Parolles, have a jack-in-the-box resistance to misfortune—and they don't do enough to counter Charlton's charge that Parolles's thankful acceptance of life, after being deprived of any respectable social identity, is "ignominious." The memorability of Parolles's soliloquy, and its exhilarating effect on some, cannot only be dependent on his delighted relief that all his desperate efforts to stay alive—"Let me live, sir, in a dungeon, i'th' stocks, or anywhere, so I may live" (IV.iii. 235-236)—have been successful. What they depend on more is implied in his witty recognition that escaping death would not have done him much good had he in fact been the great-hearted captain the joke was designed to prove he wasn't. "If my heart were great/'Twould burst at this." One certainly responds to the instinct for survival in his words, but even more to the feeling of relief in having to throw off a social role which had become a burden. Being a captain was especially burdensome to Parolles because, as the audience recognized and he himself acknowledged in his first soliloquy, he was such a poor performer in the part; but the oppressiveness of a defined social position is something which everyone occasionally feels from captains to authors with bad reviews ("Author I'll be no more/But I will eat and drink ... etc."). Shakespeare has already instructed us in these matters earlier in All's Well. The King of France has consulted all the best doctors as only Kings can and is so convinced he is dying that his first instinct is to refuse Helena's offer of a cure:
I say we must not
So stain our judgement or corrupt our hope,
To prostitute our past-cure malady
To empirics, or to dissever so
Our great self and our credit, to esteem
A senseless help, when help past sense we deem.
These lines are good enough to bring to mind the intolerable dilemma of someone in the last stages of a fatal illness who is trapped between "What harm could it do?" on the one hand and "Have I not the courage to face up to the truth?" on the other. The King believes that he owes it to himself as a rational creature to reject what would constitute—and what in fact turns out to be—"a miracle cure." Impossible to disentangle in his lines (especially as they move from the first-person singular to the first-person plural) is what he expects from himself as the individual who happens to be King, and his awareness of the general responsibilities of his position; but his sense of the latter is plain enough in his reference to the dangers of separating his "great self" from his "credit," or reputation. What he might think of himself if he welcomed Helena's offer is inextricably bound up with his sense of what other people would think of a King who accepted "A senseless help." In his case, the oppressiveness of a defined social position comes near to having fatal effects and it is evident that, if he could have followed the example Parolles is later to give and said, "King I'll be no more," his resistance to his good fortune would have disappeared more speedily.
Parolles offers a momentary glimpse of a world where people have to play, not Jaques's "many parts," but no part at all. In the best Falstaffian tradition, he turns the tables on his recent captors, emerging triumphantly from his ordeal like a Brer Rabbit thrown into the briar patch of non-identity by those who failed to realise how far his previous experiences would incline him to welcome it as his natural habitat. He makes of necessity an exhilarating virtue as does also, one might reasonably say, the Shakespeare who, up until this point in All's Well, has given Parolles a number of different personae—none of which has proved wholly satisfactory. Now he both explains and excuses the relative failure of Parolles as a "character" by allowing the audience to share in a Utopian escape from the necessity of having any character at all: "Simply the thing I am/Shall make me live." In general, Shakespeare is always inclined to be more interested in immediate dramatic effect than larger questions of consistency or coherence. It is as if he wrote his parts in the foreknowledge that there would one day be a Coleridge to lay the foundations of a method for filling in all gaps and explaining away all discrepancies. Here he can be taken as using Parolles to entertain very briefly the notion of a "thingness" which would absolve the dramatist from the duty of giving his figures adequate social definition. There can of course be no such absolution just as, when "dropping out" is always as firmly defining as social conformity, Parolles can have no realistic hope of living both off and free from society. Shakespeare is obliged to draw back from having a "thing" on the stage and Parolles will have to re-integrate himself into social life. The two processes are simultaneous and have already begun in the second and less memorable half of Parolles's soliloquy:
Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this; for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.
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.
The move here into a different and, for modern ears, more conventional idiom exemplifies the struggle between two different kinds of drama which goes on throughout All's Well. The conflict is easiest to locate in Helena and has given rise to much dispute as to whether the emphasis should fall on revelations of a delicately sensitive inner-life (as in III.ii.99-129, for example), or on the actions to which she is committed by Shakespeare's sources and which, when the point of view remains psychological, mark her out as a predatory schemer. In Parolles's soliloquy the change of manner is evident in the appearance of couplets, but also in his reminder of one of the several stock types ("braggart") with which he has been loosely associated. Now all of these are no longer serviceable, either for himself or Shakespeare, there is a hint of what will replace them ("being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive"), but as yet no clear or obvious indication. His decision to follow his recent tormentors into France ("I'll after them") is nevertheless a plain enough sign that the release from association of any kind, which he has just been celebrating, is imaginary.
"Simply the thing I am/Shall make me live" may be a defiant assertion of freedom from social definition, but by the end of his soliloquy Parolles is already referring to the "place" which exists for every man alive. It is significant that in his quest for a new "place," and in Shakespeare's final efforts to place or characterise him, the first person Parolles should meet is Lavatch. In a play in which many figures are problematic, Lavatch is not the least puzzling. This is not because, like Parolles, the impression he initially makes is indeterminate. On the contrary, the dominant features of his composition are immediately apparent on his first entrance and only become more so with each subsequent appearance. The difficulty lies rather in trying to follow the by-now well-established custom of thinking of him along with the other domestic fools Robert Armin is assumed to have played: Touchstone, Feste and the Fool in King Lear. When the Countess excuses Lavatch to Lafeu by saying, "My lord that's gone made himself much sport out of him" (IV.v. 61-62), she is paying a very considerable tribute to the sturdiness of her late husband's sense of humour. To an even greater extent than the other three Fools, Lavatch has his order's earthy cynicism, especially on sexual matters; and his Fool status is confirmed by the memories and threats of whipping in Act II, Scene ii. Several important similarities between the four figures can be established, but Lavatch is unlike the others in that at no point in All's Well does he offer the slightest hint of mental unbalance. Touchstone and Feste can lay claim to being the cleverest people in their respective plays: they are much more clearly than the Fool in King Lear "artificial." But neither of them abandons completely a protective colouring of madness without which their manner of talking to social superiors would become unacceptable. Lavatch is different in that he never appears to feel he needs folly as a stalking horse, and one consequence is that Lafeu's question in Act IV, Scene v—"Whether dost thou profess thyself—a knave or a fool?"—becomes a highly pertinent enquiry. The knave/boy collocation found in King Lear is obviously irrelevant and the dialogue which follows Lafeu's question—the one in which Lavatch expounds the bawdy implications of his claim to be a fool at a woman's service and a knave at a man's—makes it clear that the issue is not whether Lavatch is a domestic fool or an ordinary servant or menial. "So you were a knave at (a man's) service indeed," says Lafeu, after Lavatch has explained that he would give the man's wife his bauble "to do her service;" and he has then to admit, "I will subscribe for thee; thou art both knave and fool."
In the official designations of All's Well, Lavatch is more Fool than knave and Parolles the opposite. Their second encounter (V,ii) temporarily justifies the old adage that fools and knaves divide the world. Lavatch is even more scathing to the ragged and dishevelled Parolles than he had been on their first meeting and Parolles is only saved from his scorn by the entry of Lafeu. After first of all failing to recognize the former dandy, Lafeu offers Parolles a symbolic handshake. Earlier in the play, he had asked Parolles to acknowledge that he had been detected as a fraud by shaking hands: "So, my good window of lattice, fare thee well; thy casement I need not open, for I look through thee. Give me thy hand" (II.iii.212-214). The offer had been indignandy rejected. There is now no reason for Parolles not to acknowledge openly that all his disguises have been stripped away, but despite Lafeu's "though you are a fool and knave you shall eat," what if anything they will be replaced by is not yet clear. The process of clarification is interrupted by the entry of the King and the final scene of reconciliation between Bertram and Helena. Parolles's minor role in this includes humbly accepting the King's reference to Bertram as his "master," and then talking himself of the tricks "which gentlemen have" in a way which makes it obvious that he no longer aspires to be one of them (V.iii.233-239). But it is only after Helena and Bertram have been finally brought together that his own fate is decided. "Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon," says Lafeu, and then to Parolles, "Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher. So, I thank thee. Wait on me home, I'll make sport with thee. Let thy curtsies alone, they are scurvy ones" (314-318). That the Countess's husband enjoyed making sport with Lavatch strengthens the impression that Parolles is here being adopted as Lafeu's household fool and confirms the appropriateness of his advice to himself in his great soliloquy: "being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive." Looking back over All's Well in the light of this conclusion, it becomes evident that Parolles has already shown several attributes of the Fool or Clown, the most easily identifiable being his opening discussion with Helena on virginity (I.i.104-160). When this dialogue is compared with the one in Act I, Scene iii in which the Countess plays the straight-man for Lavatch and when the topic is also sexual (7-93), it is hard not to feel that, in comparison with the Countess, Lafeu has arranged for himself the better, or at least more comfortable, deal. Now that there are two Fools, it is also hard not to conclude that the official account of who is more knave than fool will have to be reversed.
From experimenting with various roles—none of which, either singly or in combination, he is much good at—Parolles moves to an exhilarating shedding of all social categorization, and is then finally accounted for as a domestic fool. Like the recovery of Bertram, his reintegration into society is a sign of that "tolerance" so often stressed in dramatic accounts of All's Well: "There's place and means for every man alive." Yet the ending to his career is no more unambiguously happy than the one which in the final scene unites the two protagonists. The lesson it provides as to what it means to be social—the stress on our inevitable dependence on the social group—is sobering. Interiorized social norms are always more likely to govern our behaviour than the promptings of some putative essential self.
The progress of Parolles is also illustrative of a problem of casting which Shakespeare appears to be struggling with, or at least working on, throughout All's Well. In the first part of the play the figure is too unfixed and ineffectual to be capable of the serious knavery of corrupting Bertram, a task for which Shakespeare does not give him the necessary character. As he moves from one humiliating encounter to another, his efforts to find himself a place in a world of gentlemen are too unsuccessful to be seriously threatening. The decisive contribution to the problem of how Parolles should be regarded is probably made in Act IV, Scene iii by the First Lord. When the blindfolded Parolles first begins to talk about the First Lord and suggests he was whipped from Paris "for getting the shrieve's fool with child, a dumb innocent that could not say him nay" (181-182), Bertram has to restrain his fellow officer from violent retaliation. But after Parolles has slipped into his comically abusive stride and made a long speech on the First Lord's "honesty," the latter's response is, "I begin to love him for this" (253). A few lines later the First Lord says of Parolles, 'He hath out-villain'd villainy so far that the ranty redeems him" but the truth is rather than his insults are so outrageously and ineptly wide of the mark that they are laughable. It is this ability to provoke laughter which, after Shakespeare's brief euphoric toying with a drama of "things," marks Parolles out as a Fool or Clown.
In As You Like It, Jaques is "ambitious for a motley coat" (II.vii.43) and in Twelfth Night Malvolio is reduced to the status of a "poor fool" (V.i.368); but only at the end of All's Well is there a genuine doubling of the number of Fools. In the traditional method for distinguishing one kind of fool from another, "natural" refers to those who are mentally deranged and "artificial" to those who only pretend to be. The distinction can also be extended to refer to Fools whose humour is either inadvertant or deliberate. Lavatch is very clearly "artificial" in that he tells jokes and exercises full control over the comedy of the situations in which he is involved. Parolles has some control in his opening dialogue with Helena but, in general, he might well have said of his rival Lavatch's fooling what Sir Andrew Aguecheek says of Sir Toby's, "Ay, he does well enough, if he be disposed, ... but I do it more natural' (II.iii.82-84). Perhaps the disapproves of Parolles, and latter-day Johnsonians anxious for Shakespeare to demonstrate more clearly his antipathy to vice, can be comforted with the thought that his likely role in Lafeu's household would be less to make his new master laugh than to be laughed at by him.
SOURCE: "Finding a Part for Paroles," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, October, 1989, pp. 289-303.
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