All’s Well That Ends Well
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: The Countess’s delight on hearing the news of the marriage quickly turns sour when she receives a letter from Bertram declaring that he has fled. Helena announces that she has also received a letter from Bertram, in which he states that he will agree to be her husband only if she removes the ancestral ring from his finger and bears his child – both of which, he boasts, are impossible to accomplish. Helena reflects that her only option is to disappear, and heads to Italy disguised as a pilgrim. She arrives to mixed news: Bertram has proved himself to be a brilliant soldier, but he has also been trying to seduce Diana, daughter of the Widow Capulet. (Capulet!) Revealing her identity to Diana’s mother, Helena suggests the old bed-trick: Diana will agree to sleep with Bertram but will be replaced at the last minute by Helena. MEANWHILE…Parolles’ boastfulness has irritated the other soldiers so much that the Dumain brothers decide to humiliate him in public.
Back in Act One, Helena, wittily diverting Parolles’ obscene on the idea of virginity had asked him, “How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking!” Her determination to do just that, to take responsibility for losing her own virginity is what drives the second phase of the play’s plot. (Could this be one idea why historically critics, the vast majority of whom are men, feel uncomfortable with the play and with Helena?) Like Rosalind in As You Like It, she puts on a disguise in order to get what she wants, but unlike Rosalind remains a woman throughout – her own “cover,” in a rather touching gesture to her “sanctifying” of Bertram at the play’s beginning, is in the cloak of a pilgrim.
But her stratagem requires that she wear that devout costume rather ironically. Once arrived in Italy, she quickly discovers that Bertram has been attempting to seduce the beautiful Diana – and though Diana has so far managed to resist his advances, she is clearly tempted to give in. Pointing out Bertram in the passing parade of soldiers, she sighs, “Tis a most gallant fellow,”
I would be loved his wife. If he were honester
He were much goodlier.
To which it might be replied that Bertram’s problem is too much honesty, not too little – far from pretending to be in love with a wife forced upon him, he takes the first opportunity to flee the country and look elsewhere.
“Honest,” a destructive and dangerous word in Othello (honest Iago indeed), resonates loudly at this point in Shakespeare’s career, and in All’s Well, it is put under unusual pressure. Helena, still in disguise, describes how Bertram’s “poor lady” has a “reserved honesty” (guarded chastity); the Widow speaks of Diana’s “honestest defence” against Bertram’s advances. But Helena’s solution to the problem that afflicts them both will involve not honesty but cold-blooded, calculated betrayal. Suggesting that Diana agree to sleep with Bertram (but only after he gives in to her demands for his precious ring), Helena advises a covert assignation with him – for which she, not Diana, will turn up. In the dark Bertram will be none the wiser, and before he knows it, he will have consummated his marriage, given his wife a child, AND surrendered the ring. His scoffing challenge to Helena will have been met, point by point. “Let us essay our plot,” Helena urges the Widow after paying her off,
which if it speed
In wicked meaning in a lawful deed
And lawful meaning in a wicked act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful act.
As the Duke pronounces in Measure for Measure, “the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof” (3.1.59-60); or, as Helena (and the play’s title) repeatedly expresses it, “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown./Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.” (4.4.35-6)
The paradoxes Helena describes – that a deed can be both “lawful” and “wicked,” both “sinful” and virtuous, that something so completely morally questionable can yet “wend well” – are brought into unpleasant proximity through the use of the bed-trick. All’s Well is the second and only other comedy in which Shakespeare uses the device, though numerous plays, including Much Ado, Othello, The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline, take a hard look at apparent sexual deceit by women. The difference here, of course, is that the deceit – though accomplished by Helena with what seems to her only the best of intentions – is completely real. And while commonplace in the tales that were Shakespeare’s sources for both Measure for Measure and All’s Well, on stage the bed-trick can seem like an unrealistic and uneasy technique, a somewhat unsettling combination of intimacy and distance. It implies that sex – even love – is dizzyingly unspecific, so much that Bertram will fail to even realize he has slept with the wrong woman. (Of course, Shakespeare has often seemed to indicate that who one loves is utterly a matter of chance, and one’s objects of love can be completely interchangeable – see the lovers in Midsummer Night’s Dream as an example). Some critics have defended it on the same grounds (more or less) as Helena: it aligns her “liking” with his, and encourages Bertram back to the marital straight-and-narrow despite himself. But for most audiences, including most contemporary ones I’d guess, it remains an immensely troubling scene, maybe even an insurmountable stumbling block, the crowning problem in a play rich with them. It is so not in the least because, I think, Helena’s love for Bertram seems to raise even more questions than it answers. Is her contentedness to let her husband sleep with (what he thinks is) someone else a good thing or not? Is her unwavering devotion to such a lunkhead a sign of strength or weakness? (I am suddenly reminded of Francois Truffaut’s great film, The Story of Adele H, again about the unwavering love and devotion of a woman to a man not at all worthy of it.) Is she open-eyed to her husband’s many flaws, or is she willfully blind to them? Will her hoped-for triumph over Bertram alter Diana’s recognition that “Tis a hard bondage to become the wife/Of a detesting lord”
When thou can’st get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband, but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never.’
Pragmatically, this is Shakespeare’s invitation to the bed trick, the substitution of one woman for another in the dark, that helps bring about a rancid resolution, both here and in Measure for Measure. The sportive formula – in the dark they are all alike – is partly Shakespeare’s satire upon the male’s propensity scarcely to distinguish one woman from another, but it also carries a burden of bitterness with it. When Isabella accepts the bed trick, with Mariana substituting for her, in Measure for Measure, at the instigation of ‘the Duke of dark corners,’ we are not startled at her moral complicity because, like nearly every other character in the play, she is at least half crazy. But we necessarily are bothered when Helena proposes the bed trick, where she is to be the sexual performer under another person’s name.”
And to continue from Tony Tanner:
“In the event, Bertram and the other young French blades decide to fight for Florence, but not, we understand, from any feelings of siding with an honourable (or even holy) cause. Boredom seems to be one motive (they ‘surfeit on their ease,’); while Bertram has his own determinants.
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.
The word ‘drum’ does not appear in the translation of Boccaccio’s tale; it occurs more often in this play than in any other by Shakespeare. Such foregrounding of the ‘drum’ might seem to suggest that Shakespeare wants to invoke the martial and heroic values – perhaps to set up a tension between the masculine claims and appeal of Mars against the feminine enticements and allure of Venus. This could make for a perfectly good drama (there is something of it in Antony and Cleopatra), but it is not the case in this curiously skewed play. The next voiced concern about the drum comes from Parolles, as the Florentine army re-enters the city, presumably returning from battle. ‘Lose our drum! Well’. It is his only line in the scene. Now, it was well know that for a regiment to lose its drum (which bore the regimental colours) was some form of ultimate military disgrace. But here, it appears that only Parolles cares about the loss. The general attitude of the soldiers is expressed by the Second Lord, speaking, as it were, without velvet. ‘A pox on’t, let it go, ‘tis but a drum.’ As though only he feels the dishonour, Parolles grandiloquently vows to recover the lost drum. But if empty, say-anything-noisy, Parolles is the only voice speaking up for traditional notions of honour, then one has to feel that the old values are in a parlous state. In the event, his vainglorious boast that he will go and reclaim the drum is used by the other drum-indifferent officers to trick Parolles and catch him out in all his hypocrisies, mendacities, treacheries, betrayals, cowardices, and whatever else of abject baseness a man is capable of. Parolles is caught out all right; but whatever military dignity and honour may have been associated with the drum is entirely sullied and degraded by its being the central point in this farcical exposure of the least brave and heroic of men. But truly, no one here gives a damn about ‘the drum’ and whatever traditions of valour and honour it may symbolize.
Parolles, the manifestly pseudo courtier and soldier, a ‘counterfeit module’ (IV, iii, 104), a creature of ‘scarves’ (military sashes) and ‘bannerets’ is, variously and then comprehensively, seen though, ‘smoked,’ and ‘found’ out. This, it should be noted, is exactly what happens to the one man willing to believe in him and accept him as a companion, if not a guide – Bertram. Where Parolles is literally blindfolded and bamboozled and frightened into revealing the extent of his utter cowardice, Bertram is more subtly, and elaborately hoodwinked before his final, devastating, unmasking. Not for the first time in Shakespeare, the subplot parodies the main one, with worrying, undermining consequences. It becomes something of a question to what extent Parolles and Bertram (for all his true blue blood) might not be two of a kind. But where Bertram, for the most part, seems to alternate between sullen aphasia and a crude or cloddish manner of speaking (Helena is ‘my clog’ – II, v, 55), Parolles, as his name suggests, has any number of words at his disposal. And as we listen to his facile, improvising, opportunistic, unprincipled loquaciousness, we realize that this is a new voice in Shakespeare.
Nadia Fusini has suggested that Parolles is related to the picaro (= rogue, scoundrel) figure who was emerging in Spanish fiction (and probably in European cities) in the second half of the sixteenth century (the first ‘picaresque’ novel is usually taken to be the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes, 1554). The picaro is a deracinated, lower-class figure (an orphan, a discharged servant, some piece of social flotsam), with no family, belonging nowhere, owning nothing, who moves on, takes whatever is going, and lives by his wits. He has no aims, ambitions, or goals – or rather, he has one: survival. In the form of Parolles – I think Nadia Fusini is right – he has found his way onto the Shakespearian stage. Wise old Lafew sees him for what he is from the start – not deserving the title of ‘man.’ ‘Yet art thou good for nothing but taking up, and thou’rt scarce worth’ (II, iii, 208-9). For Lafew, Parolles is totally transparent: ‘thy casement I need not open, for I look through thee. Give me thy hand’ (II, iii, 215-16). (I would just note that this sort of quite unanticipated shirt of tone – you’re obviously a total fraud; shake hands – occurs quite often. Having promised to deny Florence any help, the King immediately says his men can fight for whom they like; similarly, in the last scene, when Bertram offers an incredibly contorted and implausible explanation of his conduct, the King says ‘Well excused’ and then goes on to describe the excuse as totally inadequate – V, ii, 55-72. That somewhat unnerving, unpredictable discontinuity of response is another characteristic of this strange play.)”
And to expand on Shakespeare’s view of war as seen in All’s Well, this from the introduction to the Oxford edition, by Susan Snyder:
“Indeed, the whole presentation of the war prevents our taking it unproblematically as a stage for heroic achievement. Shakespeare takes over the conflict from his source. He may conceivably have known that Florence and France were allies in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and used that knowledge in inventing the letter from Florence requesting the French King’s assistance; but he does not appear to be referring to any particular hostilities between Florence and Sienna. The grounds of this war seem of now importance when the King offhandedly introduces it (‘The Florentines and Senois are by th’ ears,’ ); he takes no side himself and allows his young lords to use service in either army as an opportunity for the ‘breathing and exploit’ their restless youth makes desirable. In this situation, apparently the means justifies the end: any armed hostilities will do as the scene for martial bravery, and the political issues are irrelevant. Yet in Act 3, Scene 1, the Duke of Florence concludes an exposition of these issues for the French lords and presses them not only for approval of his cause but for an explanation of why France is not giving official support. When the First Lord assures the Duke, ‘Holy seems the quarrel/Upon your grace’s part, black and fearful/On the opposer’ (3.i.4-6), he is presumably being tactful rather than sincere; certainly his disclaimer of knowledge about the French king’s decision not to support Florence is a diplomatic lie, as he was on hand in Act I, Scene 2, when the King acceded to Austria’s request not to intervene. But to raise moral/political issues at all gives more substance to this war than it seems to require for its comic-opera function. Yet we hear no more about the holy cause, and in the next act the hostilities are abruptly ended by a casually mentioned ‘peace concluded’ (4.3.40). We never find out who wins, if anyone does. Even the French lords’ conversation with the Duke undercuts the just-cause notion almost as soon as it is enunciated, for the First Lord smoothes over his king’s lack of co-operation by saying that young Frenchmen will no doubt be quick to follow the colors, not because of the rightness of the cause but for ‘physic’ against to much ease. We are back to ‘breathing and exploit.’ But to bring up and then suppress the causes of the hostilities creates a different effect from just omitting them. The effect is to expose the fictional basis of the war, pointing not to the playwright’s plot device but beyond dramaturgy to the public relations fictions of actual Renaissance princes in justifying armed action, fictions which have to be advanced and ritually assented to but have no compelling reality. If this Florence-Siena war is to be seen as a typically tawdry bit of military adventurism, it is no wonder that the one battle action we hear about is a muddle in which the Florentine cavalry destroyed some of their own soldiers by mistake: friendly fire, in our modern oxymoron. Furthermore, the comment of the First Lord that the calvary’s mistake in charging its own army’s wing was not bad generalship but ‘a disaster of war that Caesar himself could not have prevented’ suggests that the lethal muddle is endemic to the enterprise. That’s war for you. In the army camp as in the court and the bedroom, All’s Well is poised uneasily between the high endeavors of honor, the world of miracle and chivalric romance, and the ‘modern and familiar’ world of Shakespeare’s own time when miracles were past (2.3.1-3) and human motives often less than idealistic.”
Thoughts on the play so far?
Our next reading: All’s Well That Ends Well, Act Four
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning