Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024
Commentary on the issues of gender and desire necessarily centers on the character of Helena, although some mention of Bertram is warranted as he is directly involved in what some critics call the reversal of gender roles in the play. More recent critics focus less on whether Helena was justified in her actions—bartering with the King to gain Bertram as a husband, following Bertram to Italy, engaging Diana in the bed-trick to fulfill Bertram's otherwise impossible conditions and thus tricking him—and instead confront such issues as Helena as subject rather than object, as desiring rather than desired, as pursuer rather than pursued, and she embodies both activity and her passivity.
Several critics note the similarity between the masculine quest-romance or the theme of the knight-errant and the plot of All's Well That Ends Well, only in the latter the initiator of action, the savior, the hero, is a woman. Helena possesses the knowledge and skill to influence events and other characters and thus is able to secure Bertram as a husband. However, she cannot force him to love her, and his repudiation of her necessitates her pursuing an alternate plan of action. Some critics note that Helena's active role, her ability to go out and get what she wants (Bertram), is motivated only by physical, sexual desire. Others excuse her perhaps unorthodox means of fulfilling Bertram's conditions because they were created with the intent of being impossible to fulfill and because she had no other recourse after having been publicly humiliated by Bertram.
Some commentary takes note of the dual nature of Helena's character— she has elements of both the "traditional," passive female character and the more "masculine" active character. Helena, as desiring subject, sets out to gain Bertram for a husband by curing the King. Yet when it comes time for her to select a husband as payment for curing the King, she emphasizes her low social status and how unworthy she is. When Bertram rejects her and humiliates her in front of the entire court, she retracts her choice. When Bertram leaves her to go to the wars in Italy, for a time she passively sits at home and then wanders off as a pilgrim so that Bertram can remain unfettered. Even when Bertram sends the letter with the conditions of his acceptance of her as his wife, conditions that he believes she could never fulfill, Helena is not angered but takes pity on him instead, noting how she "stole" rank by marrying him. Finally, once Helena has completed the tasks Bertram required of her and he takes her as his wife, she is satisfied with the role of wife and mother.
The issue of the bed-trick in All's Well That Ends Well pervades much of the commentary on the play and necessarily intersects with any discussion of marriage. Commentators tend to focus on whether Helena's use of the bed-trick is justified and lawful and whether it provides a means for a satisfactory ending to the play. Critics who believe Helena's switching places with Diana is justified and warranted argue that as Bertram's wife, Helena had every right to take Diana's place and consummate their marriage, thus saving both Diana and Bertram from dishonor. Helena saves a virgin maiden from what would have been a grave mistake, and she keeps Bertram from committing what would have been an unlawful act of adultery. By thus "saving" Bertram and, as a result, securing his ring and carrying his child, Helena is an agent in restoring the dying kingdom. Those who find Helena's actions unlawful note that Helena is in actuality encouraging Bertram to engage in an act of adultery (even though Helena knows that what she is doing is technically lawful). They note that although Helena satisfactorily fulfills Bertram's requirements in his letter, this does not necessarily dictate a happy ending, since their sexual union was based on deception.
Commentators on the element of social class in All's Well That Ends Well generally remark on this issue within the context of the relationship between Helena and Bertram. Helena, we are told early on in the play, possesses "true" nobility and honor, which cannot be obtained by birth. Bertram, though born with wealth and status, has no nobility or honor to speak of. The noble and honorable "older generation," represented by the King, the Countess, and Lafeu, recognize Helena's virtues and Bertram's lack of them. Thus the King orders Bertram to marry Helena when he initially refuses to do so.
A few commentators have noted that wealth and rank actually mean little to either Helena or Bertram. Helena wants Bertram, not his money, and Bertram wants his freedom, not a marriage to a woman everyone considers noble and virtuous, the daughter of an esteemed physician. If Bertram were truly in pursuit of great rank, he would have accepted Helena, whom the King has endowed with wealth to make her Bertram's equal (although a few critics note that this is actually unnecessary, for Helena's fine qualities erase the social gap between her and Bertram). Bertram also would not engage in a friendship with Parolles, a man of notably low birth and, worse, base and vile qualities.
Commentary regarding the ending of All's Well That Ends Well usually centers on whether all really does "end well." Most modern critics conclude that the ending is unsatisfactory and unconvincing, even though it provides the required comedic resolution whereby the hero and heroine are joined at last. Early commentators, however, tended to have less trouble accepting the abrupt ending and argued that Elizabethan audiences would not have found the ending lacking.
Of those critics who find the ending poorly done, one has argued that Shakespeare's interest in the character of Helena waned when she had succeeded in securing Bertram, and he proceeded to a hasty closing scene. Several critics find it difficult to believe that only happiness lies ahead for Helena and Bertram, especially when there is no apparent change of heart or character in Bertram and his acknowledgment of her as his wife takes place in half a line.
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