All’s Well That Ends Well
Act Five, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Bertram returns to France and is pardoned by the King. When he offers an engagement ring for Lafew’s daughter, however, the King recognizes it as one he has given Helena and arrests Bertram on suspicion on having killed her. At that moment, a letter arrives from Diana, revealing Bertram’s promise to marry her on Helena’s death; Diana and her mother appear, and produce his ring. Bertram admits to knowing them but denies offering to marry Diana, who he claims is a whore. Parolles does his level best to confuse matters even more, but everything is resolved when the pregnant Helena makes her appearance. In the neatest of ironies, Bertram, unknowingly, has managed to fulfill his own contract, and has no choice but to accept Helena.
What an ending. Bertram has already proved that he is false to his word, abandoning Diana to return home – while Helena compounds her own dishonesty by arranging for a priest to put out word in France that she has died. As Bertram returns to the French court, all is seemingly resolved: his wife is apparently dead; he is forgiven by the King and is on the point of marrying Lafew’s daughter. But then the King sees that the ring he is about to give his new bride is the same one that he gave Helena. The plot kicks into overdrive: Suspecting foul play, the King is about to accuse Bertram of her murder when a note arrives from Diana, quickly followed by Diana herself. The court becomes a kind of courtroom as the King tries to figure out exactly what is going on. Rejecting Diana’s paradoxical evidence, he roars, ‘To prison with her.’ But then her ‘bail’ appears:
Is there no exorcist
Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?
Is’t real that I see?
No, my good lord,
‘Tis but the shadow of a wife you see,
The name and not the thing.
Helena’s final miracle is to raise herself, just as she raised the King, from the dead, but to do so she has had to divorce her “name” as wife from her real identity.
Her next question, to Bertram, reunites them: ‘Will you be mine,” she asks, “now that you are doubly won?” He has little choice but to surrender, but it striking, and also strikingly sad – that he does not even answer her directly. “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,” he tells the King, “I’ll love her dearly, ever ever dearly.” The audience is left to work out the consequences of that single “if” – the play refuses to resolve it for us.
“The play protects Helena from our skepticism by presenting her monomania in heroic dimensions. Does anyone else in Shakespeare, woman or man, struggle so incessantly and at last so successfully to surmount every impediment to the fulfillment of an ambition? Only the hero-villains rival Helena – Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Macbeth – and they all at least are slain or undone. Helena triumphs, even if we are dismayed by her choice of reward. Yet what a complex struggle she has undergone, to recapitulate, it is to see that her agon to win Bertram is the total structure of the play, except for the saga of Parolles, whose defeat and subsequent will to survive constitute the parodic echo of Helena’s victory and will to marry. Freud learned a scandalous proportion of his own supposed originalities from Shakespeare, one of them is the idea that fulfillment, if not happiness, depends upon the bringing to realization of our deepest ambitions when we were still children. Helena attains completion, and so presumably will be content. And yet Shakespeare deliberately makes us uneasy with the final exchange between wife and husband:
O my good lord, when I was like this maid
I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring,
And, look you, here’s your letter. This it says:
When from my finger you can get this ring
And is by me with child &c. This is done;
Will you be mind now you are doubly won?
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever, dearly.
If it appear not plain and prove untrue
Deadly divorce step between me and you!
These edgy couplets are among Shakespeare’s most rancid, and provoke an alienating comic effect. Of all Helena’s audacities, the most outrageous is ‘O my good lord, when I was like this maid/I found you wondrous kind,’ an innuendo so distasteful, in context, that something in our spirit abandons Helena. As for the insufferable Bertram, he goes out on the right note of ludicrous insincerity: ‘I’ll love her dearly, ever, every dearly,’ which is at least one ‘ever’ too many. The King’s final couplet, except for the Epilogue, expresses the saving reservations both of Shakespeare and the audience:
“All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”
The Epilogue goes beyond this, by making us the actors, so that our applause becomes an ironic celebration of the play, the players, and the playwright’s own ironic reservations. A curious dying fall accompanies Shakespeare’s withdrawal from a resolution that remains purely Helena’s:
The king’s a beggar, now the play is done,
All is well ended if this suit be won.
That you express content, which we will pay
With strife to please you, day exceeding day
Ours be your patience then and yours our parts,
Your gentle hands lend us and take our hearts.
The players become audience, and must take their contentment, if any, from us. Though the compositional sequence of the three comedies is disputed among scholars, All’s Well That Ends Well, to me, is seen best as a crossing between Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. It is not the equal of either nihilist masterwork, yet it carries us, via Helena and Parolles, from Ulysses and Thersites to Lucio and Barnardine, from the idea of order at Troy to the idea of order at Vienna. There is no idea of order in the France and Italy of All’s Well That Ends Well. Either, like Helena, you break through every barrier and have your will, or like Parolles you are found out and have the will to survive despite it. Is this a difference that veritably makes a difference? Shakespeare, in this freest if also slightest of his trinity of problematic comedies, will not give us any unequivocal answer.”
And from Garber:
“To what extent is it just, in terms of Shakespeare’s play, to say that Bertram’s resistance is based upon overfamilarity? ‘I know her well,’ Bertram responds to the King. The question of as quasi-incestuous relationship is never mentioned, either by him or by Lenea, and such arrangements, of persons unrelated by blood but brought up together in near proximity, were common rather than uncommon in early modern England. Coleridge’s word ‘dependant’ implies a retainer, attendant, subordinate, or servant, a character more like Lucy Snow or Jane Eyre than like the daughter of a famous physician, however ‘low’ physicians might have ranked on the feudal social scale. Helena is a ‘gentlewoman’ (the word is applied to her twice in the first thirty-five lines) who has been ‘bequeathed to [the Countess’s] over-looking.’ But Helena is not exciting, or exotic, or even romantic to Bertram, who seeks adventure, sexual provocation, and an exogamous relationship. They may not be brother and sister, but they are mothered by the same woman. Bertram seeks to escape his mother by not marrying the bride she chooses for him. And he is undeniably a social snob, although the term had not been invented in his time. But the process of estrangement and reconciliation followed in the course of the play, where Bertram first disdains Helena and then ultimately pleads to have her reinstated as his wife (‘I’ll love her dearly, ever ever dearly’), may represent more than a lesson learned or a change of heart. [MY NOTE: Pleads? Really?]
The theme of reclamation from the dead itself appears twice, first with the dying King and then with the supposedly dead Helena Like the bemused Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, who also rejected his wife-to-be and then ‘lost’ her to apparent death, Bertram is offered a second chance in the form of an arranged marriage to another lady – in this case Lafew’s daughter Maudline, who has not been mentioned previously and does not appear in the play. The scene, indeed, has as much in common with The Winter’s Tale as it does with either Much Ado or Measure for Measure. ‘I am not a day of season,’ observes the King in the climactic final scene,
For thou mayst see a sunshine and a hail
In me at once.
He does not know whether to be happy or sad. Mourning the supposedly dead Helena (‘Praising what is lost/Makes the remembrance dear,’ and gladdened at the news that Bertram, now repentant and obedient, has agreed to an arranged marriage with Lafew’s daughter, the King is captive to mixed emotions. His remark about sunshine and hail anticipates a key moment in King Lear when (in the Quarto text of the play) the anonymous First Gentleman reports that Cordelia’s smiles and tears were like “[s]unshine and rain at once.’
Both the poetry and the dramaturgy of this last act seem to gain in pace and power as the events drive toward a conclusion. Bertram’s acknowledgement of his ‘warped’ viewpoint and ‘scornful perspective’ comes as close to elegance as this odd character can attain:
Thence it came
That she whom all men praised and whom myself,
Since I have lost, have loved, was in mine eye
The dust that did offend it.
And the King’s response is in a similar key:
Our rash faults
Make trivial price of serious things we have,
Not knowing them until we know their grave.
Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust,
Destroy our friends and after weep their dust.
His subsequent change of tone and topic – ‘Be this sweet Helen’s knell, and now forget her./Send forth your amorous token for fair Maudlin’ – anticipates Paulina’s artful stage management of the statue scene in The Winter’s Tale, with the crucial difference that Paulina knows the ‘dead’ Hermione is still alive. The emotional turmoil of this long scene in All’s Well depends to a certain extent upon the King’s ignorance of what the audience knows. His later lament, ‘I am wrapped in dismal thinkings’ maintains the sense of dramatic tension, holding off the comic conclusion and replacing it, however briefly, with further forbodings.
Lafew, the father of the ‘fair Maduline’ (and from the outset of the play Helena’s great champion), begins the unraveling process, by asking Betram for
A favour from you
To sparkle in the spirits of my daughter,
That she may quickly come.
The ring that Bertram tenders is, as Lafew immediately recognizes, the former property of ‘Helen that’s dead’:
Such a ring as this,
The last that ere I took her leave at court,
I saw upon her finger.
Bertram’s quick denial gets him into deeper trouble, for the ring originally belonged to the King, who says:
This ring was mine, and when I gave it Helen
I bade her, if her fortunes ever stood
Necessitied to help, that by this token
I would relieve her…
‘Confess ‘twas hers,’ the King demands.
and by what rough enforcement
You got it from her. She called the saints to surety
That she would never put it from her finger
Unless she gave it to yourself in bed,
Where you have never come…
A baffled Bertram, who has no idea the woman he spent the night with in Florence was Helena, is led off by guards, echoing the King’s lines with his defiance:
If you shall prove
This ring was ever hers, you shall as easy
Prove that I husbanded her bed in Florence,
Where yet she never was.
Diana now appears, claiming that she is a ‘poor maid’ and Bertram her ‘seducer,’ and demanding that ‘Count Roussillon’ marry her, since he is now a widower. Seconded by her mother, the Widow, she confronts him – ‘Ask him upon his oath if he does think/He had not my virginity’ – only to have him dismiss and revile her as ‘a common gamester to the camp’ whom he ‘boarded…I’ th’ wanton way of youth.’ Audiences and readers may again be called upon to suspend their judgment (why does Helena want to marry this lout?) as his language, so recently idealistic and romantic, now turns sharply mercantile:
Her inf’nite cunning with her modern grace
Subdued me to her rate. She got the ring,
And I had that which any inferior might
At market price have bought.
The ring precipitates the next twist in the plot, since Diana’s riddling answer to the King’s questions about its provenance produces royal displeasure:
Where did you buy it? Or who gave it to you?
It was not given me, nor did I not buy it.
Who lent it to you?
It was not lent me neither.
Where did you fid it then?
I found it not.
If it were yours by none of all these ways,
How could you give it to him?
I never gave it him.
This ring was mine. I gave it his first wife.
It might be yours or here for aught I know.
[to attendants] Take her away, I do not like her now.
To prison with her…
Here is where All’s Well most closely resembles Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s other bed-trick play. In Measure for Measure it is Mariana, the betrothed and abandoned spouse of the deputy Angelo, who substitutes for the virginal Isabella in Angelo’s bed. In All’s Well – where again names are significant – it is Helena who sleeps secretly with her husband, while Diana (true to her mythological namesake) remains a virgin.
By Jove, if ever I knew man ‘twas you.
Wherefore hast thou accused him all this while?
Because he’s guilty, and he is not guilty.
He knows I am no m aid, and he’ll swear to’t;
I’ll swear I am a maid, and he knows not.
Great King, I am no strumpet; by my life,
I am either maid or else this old man’s wife.
(The ‘old man’ to whom she refers is Lafew.) This is too difficult for the King to understand – if he were a quicker study he would have figured out the real story long ago – and it takes the visible production of Helena onstage, in concert with Diana’s ‘riddle,’ to explain the real state of affairs:
He knows himself my bed he hath defiled,
And at that time he got his wife with child
Dead though she be she feels her young one kick.
So there’s my riddle; one that’s dead is quick,
And now behold the meaning.
Helena’s entrance, on cue, bearing Bertram’s own riddling challenge to her (‘When from my finger you can get this ring./And are by me with child…’) proves that his condition-contrary-to-fact has been trumped by her stratagem, and by the King’s.
At the end of the final scene Lafew leads Parolles off the stage, promising to ‘make sport’ with him, and cautioning him, ‘Let thy curtisies alone, they are scurvy ones.’
But if Parolles does not ‘end well,’ the play does. As we have seen, All’s Well concludes with an epilogue, spoken by the King to the audience, much in the spirit of other comic epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays, from Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rosalind in As You Like It to Prospero’s in The Tempest. Beginning ‘The King’s a beggar,’ the epilogue invokes, by implication, the old ballad of ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,’ a story of ‘high’/’low’ courtship cited numerous times in Shakespeare’s plays (Love’s Labour’s Lost 4.1; Romeo & Juliet 2.1; 2 Henry IV 5.3), and it concludes with a request for the ‘gentle hands’ of the audience – that is to say, their applause. ‘Ours be your patience then and yours our parts,’ says the King (Epilogue, line 5). The play that began with a dying King whose case had been abandoned by his physicians, and with a stage full of characters dressed in mourning, thus ends with a topsy-turvy reversal in which kingly condescension, a willing descent to the level of the audience, mirrors the multiple comic options of the close: a living, healthy and joyful King and Countess; a husband and wife united and expecting an heir; and a poor virgin (Diana) rewarded with a rich dowry and her choice of a husband. As the play prepares for its own reenactment, ‘day exceeding day,’ audience and actors, like king and beggar maid, just as the haughty Bertram becomes a beggar when confronted with his restored wife, Helena. Whatever our estimation of the callow but promising Bertram and the astonishingly patient Helena, both the genre of fairy tale and the history of noble marriage suggest that ending well – at least onstage – may be the best medicine.”
So what do you all think? For me, I think Garber misreads the last act – this marriage is doomed, Bertram is trapped into it and…what’s Helena going to do once she gets her Bertram? I shudder to think.
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – A last look at All’s Well That Ends Well.