All’s Well That Ends Well
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: The King agrees to Helen’s treatment and to her request that if she succeeds, he will guarantee her the husband of her choosing. He rapidly improves under her care, and summons all his lords so that she can make her choice. When she picks Bertram, however, he scornfully turns her down, refusing to touch a low-born doctor’s daughter. And even though the King orders him to wed, Bertram decides to leave the marriage unconsummated and escapes to the Italian wars, accompanied by his disreputable companion, Parolles.
The King, obviously, is at first suspicious of Helena’s claims to be able to use her father’s wisdom to cure him, but when she offers to submit herself to death if her powers fail, he becomes convinced – or at the very least, convinced enough to give it a try.
And while his medical advisers have informed him that “labouring art” has little chance against the course of nature, Helena seems to offer him something different – the kind of “immortal” power that the Countess claims was invested in her father. There is something undeniably magical about this “Doctor She,” as Lafeu remarks to the King:
I have seen a medicine
That’s able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With sprightly fire and motion…
(And a question for the group: Note the scene when the King enters with Helena after she has cured him – there is this odd exchange between Parolles and Lafeu:
Parolles: Mort du vinaigre! Is not this Helena?
Lafeu: Fore God, I think so.
Lafeu’s response is just as puzzling as Parolles’ nonsensical oath. How can he be learning for the first time that the King’s savior is the young women he had met earlier at Roussillon, when he himself introduced her into the royal presence in Act 2, Scene 1? Some commentators have attributed it to irony, or a change in dress and mood after her success that transforms the Helena of old – others have suggested that the “Doctor She” who presents herself in court in Act 2 Scene 1 is in disguised and so is not recognized at that time by Lafeu. So what do you think – disguise? Or, is she just a “different” woman than the woman who enters in Act 2?)
There is one man, though, and only one, who refuses to give in to Helena’s powers. When the King grants her “power to choose” a husband from among his lords as his reward for her “magic,” Bertram obstinately refuses to take part:
My wife, my liege? I shall beseech your highness,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
Know’st thou not, Bertram,
What she has done for me?
Yes, my good lord,
But never hope to know why I should marry her.
Bertram’s disgusted, snobbish explanation, that he will not “debase” his nobility by being forced to marry a “poor physician’s daughter,” is unappealing at best, and is part of what has earned him a consistently bad press; but, as always, Shakespeare muddies the moral water. Looked at from Bertram’s perspective, it is the honest response of a man being forced to play along, to play a role in someone else’s bizarre fairy tale. Though Helena has brought life to the King, in Bertram’s eyes, what faces him is a life sentence of marriage to a woman he does not love.
But Bertram has little choice but to consent, although no sooner is he married than he announces his intention to leave France immediately and head off to the Tuscan wars. He leaves the marriage unconsummated, a state of affairs he has every intention to preserve, vowing in a letter to the Countess that ‘I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ internal.’ (3.2.21-2) His callous pun (“not eternal for “knot eternal”) does not impress his mother, but his boastful crowing message to his wife proves altogether more fateful: ‘When thou can’st get the ring upon my finger, which shall never come off,” he writes, “and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband.” (3.2.57-9). Helena’s quest to make those words come true will exercise all her drive, intelligence, and ingenuity, but she never swerves from her goal.
“Much admired by George Bernard Shaw as an aggressive, post-Ibsenite woman, Helena has little laughter in her; and so is not very Shavian. She is formidable indeed, well-nigh monomanical 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, who simply threatens the young man into an arranged marriage. Humanly, Bertram has been wronged to an extreme, he is the prize set by Helena as her fairy-tale reward for curing the King of France. This ought to be abominable, but since Bertram is abominable, we are not distressed. Shakespeare’s art in handling Helena’s outrageousness is extraordinary; she carries off her weird project with verve and sprezzatura:
I cannot love her nor will strive to do’t.
Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose.
That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad.
Let the rest go.
‘Let the rest go’ is wonderful, in its admixture of despair and cunning, since Helena knows, as does the King, that the royal honor and power alike are at stake. Provoked, authority speaks out in tones that prophesy the admonishing God of Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Obey our will which travails in thy good;
Believe not thy disdain, but presently
Do thine own fortunes that obedient right
Which both thy duty owes and our power claims;
Or I will throw thee from my care for ever
Into the staggers and the careless lapse
Of youth and ignorance; both my revenge and hate
Loosing upon thee in the name of justice,
Without all terms of pity.
Bertram’s revenge, after he has capitulated, is properly childish: ‘I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her.’ The play’s most poignant moment, at the close of Act II, juxtaposes Bertram’s petulance and Helena’s dignified despair:
Sir, I can nothing say
But that I am your most obedient servant.
Come, come; no more of that.
And ever shall
With true observance seek to eke out that
Wherein toward me my homely stars have fail’d
To equal my great fortune.
Let that go.
My haste is very great. Farewell. Hie home.
Pray sir, your pardon.
Well, what would you say?
I am not worthy of the wealth I owe,
Nor dare I say ‘tis mine – and yet it is,
But, like a timorous thief, most fain would steal
What law does vouch mine own.
What would you have?
Something, and scarce so much; nothing indeed.
I would not tell you what I would, my lord.
Strangers and foes do sunder and not kiss.
I pray you, stay not, but in haste to horse.
I shall not break your bidding, good my lord.
He is the wealth she owes (owns), sexually speaking, but his rejection of her renders a ‘timorous thief,’ longing to steal what is only legally hers. The starts and stops of her voice here are immensely artful, and restore much of our fondness for her, if not her judgment.”
“The play is often compared to a fairy tale, and with good reason. It follows the general pattern of what is sometimes called the ‘Loathly Lady’ story, familiar from Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale.’ A woman despised by her haughty knight (in Chaucer, because she is old and ugly; in All’s Well because she is not a nobleman’s daughter) knows the answer to a crucial, lifesaving question. Once she has provided the answer, she gets to choose her husband. (In Chaucer, the young knight, known for his aggressive behavior toward women, must learn ‘what women most desire’ in order to save his own life; in All’s Well, the life-and-death issue is the illness of the King, for which Helena provides the cure.) The husband first despises and rejects his wife, but soon learns that he is wrong to do so. Once he accepts her as she is, the lady is transformed, and she fulfills his fantasies as well as her desire. The Countess’s doubts about Helena’s chances of success in curing the King – ‘How shall they credit/A poor unlearned virgin…” (1.3.225-226) – are echoed by the King himself, but they are deftly refuted by Helena in terms that both revisit the theme of virginity and anticipate the bed trick:
Upon thy certainty and confidence
What dar’st thou venture?
Tax of impudence,
A strumpet’s boldness, a divulged shame;
Traduced by odious ballads, my maiden’s name
The King affects to hear a stronger voice within hers – ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak/His powerful sound within an organ weak’ – and whether this is the voice of her father (as Isabella in Measure for Measure claimed to hear her father’s voice in her brother’s) or that of heaven, it clearly does the trick. Shortly, in one of those reporting scenes that would become a Shakespearean specialty in the late romances, we hear Lafew, Parolles, and Bertram discussing the cure of the supposedly incurable king:
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, ensconsing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.
Why, ‘tis the rarest argument of wonder that hath shot out in our latter times.
And so ‘tis.
The same language of ‘wonder,’ that fundamental emotion of the mode of romance, had informed Lafew’s initial conversation with the King, introducing ‘Doctor She,’ the miracle-working Helena:
I have spoke
With one that in her sex, her years, profession,
Wisdom and constancy, hath amazed me more
Than I dare blame my weakness…
Being in the admiration, that we with thee
May spend our wonder too, or take off thine
By wond’ring how thou took’st it.
But to Bertram and Parolles the identity of the wonder worker is itself astonishing (“[I]s not this Helen?’) and the ceremony of husband-choosing that follows her triumphal entry with the cured and newly powerful King a cause for consternation.
It is worth pausing for a moment on the stage management of the scene, bearing in mind that Bertram regards himself as too exalted in birth to marry a humble physician’s daughter, even if the knowledge at her command is life-bestowing. Shakespeare situates the loyal Lafew onstage as a spectator, where he can see but not hear. Helena addresses herself to four nameless ‘lords’ one by one, and each expresses an eager willingness to be her choice in marriage. But Helena, of course, has another lover in view. Helena turns each of them down, while Lafew mistakes what he is seeing for their rejection of her (‘Do all they deny her? An they were sons of mine I’d have them whipped.’), setting the stage for Bertram’s indignant refusal:
I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father’s charge.
A poor physician’s daughter, my wife? Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever.
The King’s vigorous reply speaks directly to the questions of moral and ethical worth, rank, and social distinction:
‘Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which
I can build up. Strange it is that our bloods,
Of colour, weight, and heat, poured all together,
Would quite confound distinction, yet stands off
In differences so mighty…
He intends to supply both ‘title’ and a generous dowry: ‘Virtue and she/Is her own dower; honour and wealth from me’). But Bertram refuses point-blank: ‘I cannot love her, nor will strive to do’t.’
Critics have differed as to their assessment of Bertram’s response, some finding him churlish, others, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, expressing empathy:
‘I cannot agree with the solemn abuse which the critics have poured out upon Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well. He was a young nobleman in feudal times, just bursting into manhood, with all the feelings of pride of birth and appetite for pleasure and liberty natural to such a character so circumstanced. Of course he had never regarded Helena otherwise than as a dependant in the family…Bertram had surely good reason to look upon the king’s forcing him to marry Helena as a very tyrannical act. Indeed, it must be confessed that her character is not very delicate, and it required all Shakespeare’s consummate skill to interest us for her.’ Coleridge, Table Talk
The heatedness of this response suggests that Coleridge is doing what teachers often warn their students against, and what, contrariwise, directors hope that audiences will do – that is to say, he is ‘identifying’ with a dramatic character. (His own unhappy marriage had been motivated by a utopian scheme invented – and later abandoned – by the poet Robert Southey; Coleridge married the sister of Southey’s fiancée.)”
And finally, this from Tony Tanner:
The best, we feel, is past. The sick king remembers the words of one of his now-dead friends:
‘Let me not live,’ quoth he,
‘After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive sense
All but new things disdain; whose judgments are
Mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.’
(I, ii, 58-63)
We have heard much of garments and fashions in the comedies, and of the besetting problems of changeableness and constancy. For this play, Shakespeare brings on a character who is, effectively, composed entirely of garments and inconstancies, with speech to match. I will come back to this extraordinary creation – Parolles; suffice it here to say that in his cavalier rejection of court values (of all values), he is not to be mistaken for a Falstaff or a Shylock. In their extremely corporeal presence, these two men embody and inhabit a world outside of, if adjacent to, the official citadels of the constituted authorities. Perhaps they have to be vanquished, marginalized, or extruded; but they have an undeniable, potentially damaging and threatening, reality. None of this applies to Parolles – he is something new in Shakespeare. There is a story by Edgar Allen Poe called ‘The Man Who Was Used Up,” concerning a flashy, fashionable socialite. The narrator goes to visit him at his private address, during the daytime. On being admitted to his room, all he can see is a little heap of clothes on the floor. The heap begins to assemble itself, with the aid of all sorts of artificial devices, into the recognizable fashionable figure who haunts the evening salons. But the narrator has seen what there really is to the man. There is something of this about Parolles; though it should be stressed that even when he seems most washed-up, he is never, ever ‘used up.’ There is nothing to him – but he is inextinguishable.
If Bertram is representative of the ‘younger spirits’ poised to take over, then we may well sympathize with the sick king’s wish to be ‘quickly…dissolved from my hive.’ This Bertram is not going to bring any honey home (syphilis is more likely). It is notable that Shakespeare makes Bertram plunge himself far deeper into ignominy and treachery in the perversely protracted fifth Act. Shakespeare certainly seems to want to make Bertram blacker than black, with no extenuations. (The proposition, sometime advanced, that the simple young lad is seduced and led astray by the demon, Parolles, won’t do. Even if accepted, it would only make Bertram even more stupid and corruptible than he already appears. But Bertram is his own man. It just happens that it is a particularly rotten sort of man to be.) Whether, by the same token, Shakespeare wants to make Helena appear whiter than white, is a more complex and interesting question, here deferred. We may, however, note that Shakespeare increases the social distance between Bertram and Helena – in the original, Helena is independently wealthy and much closer to being Bertram’s equal. Whether this goes anyway towards helping to explain her adoration and his revulsion, must be left to individual response (for me it doesn’t, but I can see that for some it might).
It will come as no surprise to anyone even slightly familiar with Shakespeare’s treatment of his sources to learn that he markedly compressed the more leisurely time-scheme of the original. But it worth drawing attention to one particular result of this contraction. In the original, Giletta (the Helena figure), having arranged the ‘bed trick’ with her husband, repeat it ‘manye other times so secretly, as it was never knowen.’ She not only conceives, but is delivered of, ‘two goodly soones’ which ‘were very like unto their father.’ When she produces the two sons at the final revelatory feast, Beltramo (Bertram) accepts the children as his – ‘they were so like hym’ – and ‘abjected his obstinate rigour.’ In Shakespeare’s play, the contrived illicit/licit bedding is a one-night-only affair; and when Helena finally confronts Bertram with ‘evidence’ of his paternity of her child in the final scene, she is – pregnant. Without pushing the matter too pointlessly far, there is surely a signal difference between confronting a man with two bouncing baby boys who are his spitting image, and standing, visibly pregnant, in front of him and asserting that you are carrying his child. Paternity is notoriously difficult to establish incontrovertibly, and this seemingly slight plot change is characteristic of the widespread introduction of uncertainty – or the draining or diffusing away of certainty – which marks this play. All you can feel at that is that it is, indeed, a conclusion ‘pregnant’ with possibilities. We cannot possibly see which way things will turn out – what, if you like, is waiting to be born.
I have mentioned that Shakespeare added a clown – given, deliberately one supposes, the rather unpleasant name of Lavatch. His is a sneering, bawdy, nihilistic voice; and as a figure he is closer to Thersites than to Touchstone and Feste. We are a long way from Arden and Illyria. The other figures to be added by Shakespeare are some French captains and Florentine soldiers. This is more interesting than it perhaps sounds, and pursuing the matter a little further may provide us with an oblique approach to the strangeness of this play. In Boccaccio’s little story, the unwilling Beltramo, having been virtually forced into marrying Giletta, pretends to be returning home but immediately takes flight into Italy. This is what we are gold ‘And when he was on horseback hee went not thither but took his journey into Tuscane, where understanding that the Florentines and Senois were at warres, he determined to take the Florentines parte, and was willing received and honourablie entertained, and was made captaine of a certain nomber of men, continuing in their service a long time.’ And that is all we hear about the wars, and Beltramo’s soldiering. See how Shakespeare elaborates and complicates it.
The Florentines and Senoys are by th’e ears,
Have fought with equal fortune, and continue
A braving war.
So ‘tis reported, sir.
Nay, ‘tis most credible. We here receive it
A certainty, vouched from our cousin Austria,
With caution, that the Florentine will move us
For speedy aid; wherein our dearest friend
Prejudicates the business, and would seem
To have us make denial.
His love and wisdom,
Approved to your Majesty, may plead
For amplest credence.
He hath armed our answer,
And Florentine is denied before he comes;
Yet, for our gentlemen that mean to see
The Tuscan service, freely have they leave
To stand on either part.
The Florentines are fighting the Sienese (Senoys) in Boccaccio, but what is Austria doing here, which was, anyway, in no sense France’s ‘dearest friend?’ Be that as it may – Austria prejudicates the business,’ a word Shakespeare uses nowhere else (this is not mere pedantry on my part – he forces a number of rather awkward and unusual words into service in All’s Well That Ends Well which he does not use elsewhere; this is part of the thick velvet side of the play). But ‘judicating’ all round seems rather precarious and insecure in this play: though Austria apparently deserves ‘amplest credence’ (another rather formal ‘silver’ word, used only in this play and in Troilus and Cressida), and though the King vows he will deny Florence help – he then says he will let his men take whichever side they like. So much for the ‘amplest credence’ of ‘our dearest friend.’ A quite unnecessary scene; unless Shakespeare wants to show that, despite the high-sounding sonorous language, loyalties and friendship are fading all round.
There is a comparably supererogatory-seeming scene somewhat later, in the Duke’s palace in Florence.
So that from point to point now have you heard
The fundamental reasons of this war,
Whose great decision hath much blood let forth,
And more thirsts after.
Holy seems the quarrel
Upon your Grace’s part; black and fearful
On the opposer.
Therefore we marvel much our cousin France
Would in so just a business shut his bosom
Against our borrowing prayers.
Good my lord,
The reasons for our state I cannot yield,
But like a common and an outward man
That the great figure of a council frames
By self-unable motion; therefore date not
Say what I think of it, since I have found
Myself in my uncertain grounds to fail
As often as I had guessed
(III, i, 1-16 – my bold letters)
The quarrel between the holy and the black might certainly be said to be engaged by the confrontation of Helena and Bertram, but we are given no insight into the apparently elemental issues at stake in the war. In this, we are somewhat in the position of the Second Lord. It’s easy enough to get the hang of what he says – I can’t really tell you anything about our reasons of state because I am always outside the council chamber. I just have to make guesses and here I’m as wrong as often as I’m right. But he ‘frames’ his guesses by ‘self-unable motion.’ Not only is this another word (or compound word) that Shakespeare never uses elsewhere; my guess is that this is its only appearance in the whole of English literature. Obviously it refers to some kind, or degree, of incompetence or disability or just inability. But it is an unusual mouthful for a second lord. However we can readily respond to his feeling that he is in ‘incertain grounds.’ In this play, so are we.”
Our next reading: Act Three, All’s Well That Ends Well
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning
And as a quick look at coming attractions: Our next play is Timon of Athens. But then, perfect for a “Summer with Shakespeare” comes the big three: Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra. I can hardly wait.