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Friday, November 25, 2011

All’s Well That Ends Well–Manipulative Women and Mediocre Men

All’s Well That Ends Well is a play with no heroes or no villains, unusual for Shakespeare; and instead, as one critic has said, he has given us – again - manipulative women and mediocre men. As Bloom has written:

Portia happily settles for Bassanio, an amiable and perfectly useless fortune hunter, presumably because she thus implicitly gets back at her odd father, who imposed the casket ritual upon her (Merchant of Venice).

Julia, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is foolishly in love with Proteus, but a Protean lover comes in so many guises that a much wiser woman might make the same blunder.  Hero, in Much Ado About Nothing,marries the feckless Claudio, but she is too young to know that there is nothing to him.  In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has one beautifully wild: the charming but zany Viola is delighted by the absurd Orsino, while Olivia snaps up Sebastian simply because he is Viola’s twin; as another zany, he is pleased to be so devoured. (Shakespeare, Invention of the Human).

Helena, however, is not quite so amiably guided in her pursuit of men, and she falls much closer to the women of the Histories who fight tooth and claw to assure their place and more importantly, their sons, in the monarchy.  It is the result of her aggressive and determined quest to secure the higher status and wealth that a marriage to Bertram will confer which places her in the same category as the women mentioned above.  Many critics, such as Bloom question Helena’s choice.

Bloom again:

Like Dr. Johnson, we cannot abide Bertram, the caddish young nobleman whom the evidently admirable Helena loves….Bertram has no saving qualities; to call him a spoiled brat is not anachronistic.  Dr. Johnson particularly represented the happy ending with Bertram settling into supposed domestic bliss:

“ I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness”

This isn’t the point, however.  Helena plots and manipulates (quite ingeniously, and with all the hidden exchanges of rings, love under cover with the duped man, carefully playing the King of France and her benefactor, seducing the widow and her pliable daughter, Diana) to get what all the women in the Histories (and tragedies, lest we forget Lady Macbeth, Goneril, and Regan among others) want – greater wealth, power, or station. 

Helena was born a commoner, but raised by an aristocrat, the Countess of Rosillion.  There she had a chance to see how rank hath its privileges, and nothing in a commoner’s life can compare with the influence, respect, wealth, and position afforded the aristocracy.  Forget the pastoral idylls of The Winter’s Tale or As You Like It – living high is always better than living low. 

References to class distinctions are common in the play.  Not many lines into Act I, Scene 1, Helena laments her low status and the impossibility of seducing an aristocrat like Bertram:

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

The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. (I.i)

She says her father, a commoner, has gone from her memory; and her sights are set on the noble Bertram.  She has not yet begun to plot, but the seeds of the takeover are already germinating.  Or, a little later in the same, early scene:

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/Return us thanks.

At the end of Act 1, Scene 1, she begins the plot – she, with her father’s medical knowledge and potions, can cure the King of France, and get from this genial but weak monarch all she wants – Bertram 

Much later in Act 4, Scene 4, her plot well underway and nearing completion, she is at her most honest and forthright:

Yet, I pray you:
But with the word 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 wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown;
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown..

So, we should have no pity for Helena who has been treated miserably by Bertram. She got exactly what she wanted and deserves.

It is interesting so see how some critics, too academic for my taste and incessantly in love with Freud, have dug into recesses I never would have thought of.  Here is Bloom on motives for Helena’s actions:

It is important to note Helena’s love for the dowager Countess of Rossillion, protector of the orphaned Helena.  Freud, Shakespearean in this also, divided object choices into two types, narcissistic and propped against, and Helena’s choice of Bertram participates strongly in both modes.  Narcissistically Bertram, an earliest playfellow [son of the Countess and with whom Helena grew up], is what Helena longed to be, the authentic child of her foster mother, while in the leaning-against mode, Bertram would have symbolized both lost fathers, his and hers.  Helena’s love therefore is overdetermined to a degree unusual even in Shakespeare, where the contingency of sexual passion is almost established for us.  It does not matter who Bertram inwardly is or what he does.  Helena is locked into loving him [my italics]. 


Some critics, Bloom and Nuttall included, actually begin to feel sorry for Bertram by the end of the play.  Whatever her motivation, Helena is a terror. Bloom likens her to Richard III, Iago, Edmund, and Macbeth.  Nuttall says “No man stands a chance against this alpha female”.  Bloom goes on:

[Helena] is formidable indeed, well-nigh monomaniacal in her fixation upon the glittering emptiness of Bertram.  Since her high-handedness in obtaining him is so outrageous, we can wonder why we are not moved to some sympathy for him, despite the usurpation of his choice by Helena’s alliance with the King….Humanly, Bertram has been wronged to an extreme…

There is even Helena’s own suggestion (and Shakespeare’s throughout his plays; and what we all know) that 'men will be men’ – lust-driven and insatiable.  I am reminded of the line spoken by Kathleen Turner in the movie Body Heat when she sees that William Hurt has, despite his demurral, been pursuing her.  “Some men when they get the scent of it…”.  She doesn’t have to finish the line.  Shakespeare simply changes ‘some men’ to ‘all men’.

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. You, Diana,
Under my poor instructions yet must suffer
Something in my behalf.

Men don’t even care who they are having sex with, which makes the ruse of substituting herself for Diana, plausible. So Bertram should be forgiven.

Another critic who feels somewhat sorry for Bertram is Mark Van Doren who writes:

Here [in the court of Rousillion] there is no surplus energy of any sort.  The atmosphere at Rousillion is one of darkness, old age, disease, sadness, and death; and of superannuated people who nevertheless hold on to the chill edges of their former styles.

Bertram, an “unseason’d courtier”….leaves this place where he has been crushed under the weight of death and generations to flourish in the freer air of the French court.  But even at Paris he meets a sick king who wants to talk only of other days…(Shakespeare).

In a famous and oft-quoted line, Bertram expresses his horror at “the dark house and the detested wife” (II.iii.309) – forced for one reason or another to lead a confined, unhappy domestic experience.  How many men have had similar thoughts both before and during their marriages?

In conclusion, the play is well-balanced.  There are no real heroes nor no real villains.  Helena gets the prize she has sought, but gets very damaged goods.  Bertram gets what he deserves – the wife that he hates and a consignment to his own hell (“the dark house, etc.).  As in most of Shakespeare’s Comedies, we are left with the feeling that after the happy marriage and celebratory wedding, the couples will fight and bitch and eventually end up in divorce.  These endings, for me and many critics, require a great deal of willing suspension of disbelief.  We don’t feel this way in All’s Well That Ends Well.  The reason why this play is never categorized as a pure comedy, but a ‘problem play’ is just because the dark forces persist and pervade.  We know that life is the way it is depicted; that we all may have self-serving dreams and needs, but the likelihood of a happy ending is scant.  Even Helena, in her “All’s Well” passage does not really say is well, but implies may be well.

I don’t like this play as well as the villain plays, because villainy is always more interesting than either romance or nihilism.  We are ineluctably drawn to Richard III.  We cannot take our eyes off him, can’t wait to see what unimaginable atrocity he will commit.  We love Goneril, Regan, and Albany because we want to see just how far human depravity will go.  We admire Cordelia, but we are not paying much attention to her.  “Oh, yeah, right.  She’s in exile in France, isn’t she?”

We are not exactly riveted to the fortunes of either Helena or Bertram, but I like this play – it is dark, plotting, and without unrealistic passion or hope.  Not electric spark villainy, but the way life usually is.

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