“All yet seems well…”

All’s Well That Ends Well

Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


alls-well-that-ends-well act fiveTo conclude our examination of this most problematic of plays, All’s Well That Ends Well, I’d like to start with this from A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare The Thinker, which does, I think, give a very interesting overview of the entire play:

The End of Comedy:  “All’s Well That Ends Well”

“’Wars it so strife/to the dark house and the detested wife’ (II, iii, 291-92). Bertram is speaking. By ‘dark house’ he means ‘married life.’ Rosalind pretended that she thought lovers deserved confinement of this kind; in Twelfth Night those who marry (for Maria marries Toby) impose it on one who never will. Now the phrase is applied, with a degree of social realism, to marriage without love. Bertram is not thinking of a Bedlam. He is thinking of an ordinary Elizabethan or Jacobean house, ill-lit, smelly, loud with the ranting of oppressed women. It is a vivid expression of a distinctively male horror of marriage.

Bertram has been trapped by comedy plotting, by the logic of fairy-tale, and is not unnaturally resentful. Helena, the daughter of a physician and therefore several steps below Bertram, Count of Rossillion, emerges from obscurity to cure the King by means of a remedy she learned form her father. The King’s disorder is less than glamorous. He has a fistula – that is, either piles, or, more loosely, an abscess. Before the cure is applied, Helena makes a bargain with the King: if she is successful, she is to be married to the man of her choice, whoever that may be, so long as he is not of the royal house. The King agrees, his fistula is cured, and Helena claims the Count of Rossillion. The King sees no problem: ‘Why, then, young Bertram, take her, she’s thy wife.’ Bertram is aghast: ‘In such a business, give me leave to use/The help of my own eyes.’ Already Shakespeare is deliberately bringing out the ‘lack of fit’ between fairy-tale and real life. Later in King Lear he will do it again, in a more frightening manner, as an old king, confronted by two bad daughters and one good one, thinks he can proceed by the logic of fairy-tale and reward the good daughter – and is suddenly engulfed by psychological and political realism. Here Bertram is saying in modern terms, ‘Marriage is a serious business, in which the parties concerned must surely – in the real world – be allowed some say!’ The King is baffled, thinks that Bertram must be upset about Helena’s low social status, and happily explains that this is something that he, as king, can ‘build up.’ Bertram is brought to heel; he says he had thought Helena base but thinks so no longer. The wedding is performed on the spot. Bertram emerges from the ceremony to tell Parolles, ‘I will not bed her.’ His overwhelming wish is to run, if need be into the cannon’s mouth, from marriage with Helena. It is here that he speaks of ‘the dark house and the detested wife.’

I have said that the fairy-tale opening breaks upon human reality, and this might seem to imply the flimsiness of fairy-tale. In practice, however, in the theatre, these ancient patterns have their own enormous power. We know from our prior knowledge of stories, not of life, that Helena is the heroine, that Bertram is uncomprehending in his pride and must be reclaimed for the happy ending. Helena catches him at last exactly as she caught the goodwill and compliance of the King, by a bargain. This time, however, the bargain is not one proposed by Helena. Bertram, having fled to the wars, left a letter in which he said he would never accept Helena as his wife until she got the ring from his finger and a child fathered by him. For Bertram this was merely a cruelly picturesque way of saying, ‘Never.’ For Helena, the clever physician’s daughter, it is of course a deal – and a challenge. She gets the ring and the child by a ‘bed-trick,’ that is, by taking the place of another woman under cover of darkness. Bertram thinks he is having his way with one Diana, a lady he encountered while campaigning, but is in fact impregnating his lawful wife.

Of all the women in the comedies who set out on the road to hunt down the desired man, Helena is the most formidably determined. Neither Julia in Two Gentleman of Verona nor Rosalind in As You Like It has the gall to run down a man who has made his dislike crystal-clear, but that is what Helena does. The modern reader thinks, ‘Has she no pride?’ Indeed in a way she has none. When Helena sets out in pursuit of Bertram, she is ‘habited like a pilgrim, ‘in the garb of humility. But her action is authorized by the fact of marriage. The marriage is itself like a chunk of fairy-tale plotting transposed to the plane of efficacious reality. The wedding was at once humanly hollow (with one psychologically unconsenting party) and Platonically sovereign. It justifies any low trick performed in its service.

But it does not follow that al is harmonious. Helena’s humility is fused with steely, domineering courage. No man stands a chance against this alpha female. If it is all right to be shocked by Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, perhaps it is al right to be shocked by Helena also. Someone should write a play – The Taming of the Snob – about the marriage, in a parallel universe, of Helena and Petruchio. I think Helena would win. I have already suggested that male spectators find Helena positively frightening. If the authority of the wedding is deeply grounded in popular culture, so too is the myth that weddings are occasions on which women trap men, not vice-versa. The traditional humor of the stag-night party, an all-male get-together held on the eve of the wedding, attests to this: ‘Another good man gone’ and the like. I was told in my youth that it was bad form to say, ‘Congratulations!’ to a newly engaged woman precisely because the expression was too tactlessly close to the truth (hers the triumph, his the loss). The tone of stag-night merriment, meanwhile, was one of rueful condolence and acceptance of the inevitable. Perhaps this is true no longer, in 2007.

All’s Well That Ends Well is a strange fusion of cynicism and idealism. That Shakespeare’s intelligence is working in a skeptical or even destructive manner can be seen from the speech on virginity he gives to Parolles. Parolles to be sure is a contemptible character, but it is characteristic of Shakespeare to give some of his most challenging intuitions to such despised persons. ‘Virginity is peevish,’ he says, ‘proud, idle, made of self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the canon.’ With remarkable directness Parolles confronts an ethical difficulty that has been lurking in Christianity for centuries. The chaste lady who, in order to secure her place in heaven, scorns sex and marriage, is held up as supremely virtuous. At the same time selfishness is a sin. The cult of virginity is hopelessly entangled with a peculiarly ungenerous form of self-interest. In the words of the old hymn,

Whatever, Lord, we give to thee

Repaid a thousandfold will be.

Then gladly, Lord, we give to thee.

We may insist that Parolles has simplified the situation, that the virtuous virgin behaves as she does not out of love of self but out of love of God. Yet Parolles’s dart draws blood. It is partly a matter of lost innocence. If one has a system of immense rewards in heaven for good behavior in this world, then that good behavior, once the agent has become award of the reward, will cease to be innocently disinterested. The form of Parolles’s speech on virginity mirrors that of Falstaff’s speech on honour (1 Henry IV, V.i.129-41). Falstaff’s ‘deconstruction’ of honour is countered in the same play by the presence of the painfully conscientious Prince Hal. But All’s Well That Ends Well is a marriage comedy. This means that the deep logic of the play backs Parolles. The comedy celebrates marriage, and marriage is not for virgins.

Parolles, the liar and coward, is the site of active intellection in this play. When he is on stage Shakespeare is thinking aloud and thinking hard. In general, fools in Shakespeare are players within the plays who are never seen ‘out of the part.’ They have few soliloquies. We do not see them, for example, trying to think of good gags to use in tomorrow’s performance. There is a half-exception to this rule in King Lear, where we are allowed to glimpse the Fool as an ordinary being – when we are told how, since Cordelia’s departure to France, the Fool has not been looking well. Both Falstaff and Parolles are given soliloquies. This immediately marks them off from the professional clown. In Act 4, meanwhile, Parolles is granted that curious thing, an overheard soliloquy. (IV.i.24). He racks his brains, aloud for a way to escape humiliation, and the two brothers, the Lords Dumaine, hear every word he utters. They are astounded because they find that Parolles, the congenital fraud, is actually capable of speaking truthfully about his actions – if only to himself. The second lord asks, ‘Is it possible he should know that he is, and be that he is?’ He means, partly, ‘How can he be aware of his own behavior and not change it?’ But there is a deeper puzzle: ‘How can a man be systematically mendacious in all his social relations and yet be, in isolation, a person with a full grasp of what is actually the case?’ Henri Bergson thought comedy was essentially bound up with ‘thinghood’ and automatism, and therefore with unconsciousness. Parolles’s slippage from hilarious unbroken mendacity into self-awareness marks a shift out of the comic into the serious. Naturally it brings Dumaine up short in his tracks. This Parolles is no longer funny, can no longer be used as a butt in an unproblematic fashion. The second lord’s question also reactivates the preoccupation, so strong in Richard II, with the difference between public, relational identity and ‘core identity.’ Which comes first? Parolles offers an answer to the question a couple of scenes later. Richard II wondered for a moment whether to be ‘unking’d’ meant annihilation, but Parolles is clear that utter disgrace (the equivalent in his case of deposition) means nothing of the sort. ‘If my heart were great,’ he says, ‘’Twould burst at this,’ and adds, ‘Simply the thing/I am shall make me live.’ There is a Parolles behind the grotesque composite of false boasts (his name means ‘words’). This Parolles is a physical body that eats and drinks – and will continue to do so. In As You Like It Corin, the true voice of nature in the play, countered the shimmering verbal dexterities of the courtly party with a near-tautology: ‘The property of rain is to wet’ (III.ii.26). Parolles is given the subjective equivalent appropriate to a poltroon – again, a near tautology: ‘I shall continue to be because I am a continuous being.’ Considered as articulate propositions, tautologies are nonsense. But a tautology can be used to hint a pre-articulate truth. The ‘Parolles strand’ in All’s Well That Ends Well is skillfully drawn out. It is Shakespeare’s last skirmish on the problem of paroles, words.

SUBALLS-articleLargeBut at the end of the play we have pre-articulate thought of a different kind. It manifests itself first as a curious discomfort. I tried to make sense of it in an essay dealing primarily with The Winter’s Tale. At the close of the comedy Bertram is abruptly reunited with Helena, the lady he has scorned and, until this moment has believed dead. Shakespeare’s comedies, we all know, end with weddings. All’s Well That Ends Well began with a wedding – but it came to pieces. Now it is made solid. ‘One that’s dead is quick.’ We expect to be told how Bertram came to repent of his rejection of Helena, became aware slowly of how much he loved her, as preparation for this moment. There is no question but that Shakespeare could easily have done this had he wished to. In Sidney’s Arcadia (1593, i.17), when Parthenia, having recovered her lost beauty, comes as a disguised suitor to Argalus, Argalus persists in fidelity to the supposedly dead Parthenia but at least perceives with joy that she is standing before him. This is the humanly satisfying version of the story-pattern. Shakespeare himself used it later in The Winter’s Tale. But here he works against the natural logic of the comedy. The odious, shallow Bertram is entirely willing to marry (as he sees it) another lady altogether until only minutes before he is joined to Helena. He says, indeed, that he will love her, but observe how he says it: ‘If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,/I’ll love hear dearly, ever, ever dearly.’ (V.iii.315-16). He says it to the King, not to Helena. The future tense, ‘I’ll love her,’ is substituted for the expected present tense, ‘I love her.’ The undertaking is technically conditional (there is an ‘if’ – clause). Yet we sense an incipient warmth in the repeated ‘ever.’ [MY NOTE: Which Bloom saw as “at least one ‘ever’ too many.] Most important, the tone is not so much that of profound love discovered in the end as that of dazed incomprehension. Bertram had set the action in motion with a lofty, mocking ‘if’ clause – if Helena could get the ring and a child from him, he’d take her. Now we have another condition laid down, as if it were some sort of tic that Bertram cannot help, but the position is now reversed. Bertram can no longer pretend to himself that he is in imperious control. He has been grossly abused, overtaken, and outplayed by a comedy plot. No wonder he is saying, ‘Will someone please explain?’ Shakespeare has gone out of his way to emphasize the bare theatricality, the artificiality, of the denouement: the comic plot reaching its proper resolution not in alliance with deep human motivation but independently.

Has Shakespeare, then, turned formalist? Has he joined those for whom final wisdom consists in a confession that all is merely text or verbal invention? Not so. The effect of the heightening of the theatrical stratagem at this point is not to satirize or ‘deconstruct’ marriage itself but to make one feel the reality of marriage at a level deeper than that of conscious relationships. There is perhaps one sense in which Shakespeare might after all be called a formalist here – a Platonic sense. But there is a huge difference between a Platonic Form and the forms proposed in modern critical theory. The substitution in our time of culturally variable, fluid form for essence is seen – and sold – as a draining away of substance; the Platonic Form on the contrary is super-objective, epistemologically ‘hard,’ more real than concrete objects.

At this moment in the text the modern reader is aghast. In the theatre, mysteriously, the old magic works. Everyone suddenly smiles. Shakespeare knew that they would. They smile because these imperfect persons are getting married. It is as simple as that. I have called this ‘comedic alienation.’ The term is Brechtian. Bertolt Brecht wanted the ‘human detail’ of his plays to recede in importance; what mattered was the Marxist pre-personal laws of historical and economic causation. So he deliberately imparted to the individual persons of his plays an air of cardboard artificiality. The underlying laws for Brecht are rather like Platonic Forms but are now charged with causal efficacy. They are profoundly objective, not cultural fictions but that which underlies all subsequent fictions, all subsequent knowledge. We expect of a happy ending that the parties should love one another, and we think that in order to love one another they should at least know each other. Shakespeare says, ‘But as often as not they don’t, really; yet marriage is marriage; that is how the world goes on.’ In the background is a sense that early modern people thought of love not as something that happens to a person but rather as something that a person might do. By the older logic it makes sense to undertake to love someone, to promise love, as people still do in the marriage service. Bertram undertakes – once his head has cleared – to love Helena. The original audience might have thought, ‘He can damned well do so.’ But I believe the discomfort we feel today was always there in the play, deliberately planted by the dramatist.

In like manner, Shakespeare refuses to back the second half of the happy ending formula, ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ Touchstone and Audrey, as we saw, are actually promised a life of quarreling at the end of As You Like It.  The refusal to hand out post-marital happiness to all comers can look cynical. But meanwhile the conception of marriage is, in the philosophical sense of the word, idealist.

Soren Kierkegaard thought that the difference between ancient and modern tragedy lay in the fatal hypertrophy of subjective consciousness in modern times. The Greek chorus an embarrassment to the modern sensibility ‘expresses the more which will not be absorbed in action and situation.’ The post-classical tragic hero is responsible for his downfall with a sense of individual agency we never see in Greek tragedy; modern tragedy leaves behind a clarified despair, ancient an open sorrow: ‘Our age has lost the substantial categories of family, state and race.’ It is odd how much of this applies to Shakespeare’s systematic reduction of the subjective in All’s Well That Ends Well. That he should do it in a comedy and not in a tragedy is somehow predicable. Tragedy for Shakespeare has indeed become the territory of the isolated individual, as Kierkegaard says. But comedy is the genre of a larger social continuity.

An incipient Platonism is at work within the dramaturgical art. I suggested that the substitution of Hymen, the god of marriage, for the all-controlling Rosalind at the end of As You Like It was caused by a quiet shock, experienced by the working dramatist, at the growth under his hand of a kind of transcendence, the transcendence of marriage itself, prior to the accident-prone flux of human, conscious life. It may seem that I am accusing Shakespeare of reifying a simple legal contract, but the glowing value associated with the marriage event suggests a greater ontological strength. Nevertheless, when I speak of an incipient Platonism I have to add at once that, though a kind of transcendence is discernible, the hard Platonic chorismos, the severe separation of the Form from the turbulent half-reality of the sensuously available world, is not there, in Shakespeare’s mind. All remains this – worldly, fully human.”


And to conclude, highlights from Tony Tanner:

Ian Richardson Bertram“…Helena has attracted something more than admiration from the commentators. For Coleridge, she was ‘Shakespeare’s loveliest character;’ Bullough finds her ‘entirely good’ (though not witty after the first scene); Wilson Knight, never one to modify his raptures, found her ‘almost beyond the human…almost a divine or poetic principle’ – certainly a ‘miracle worker,’ and ‘a channel, or medium, of the divine, or cosmic posers.’ She is, he says, ‘the supreme development of Shakespeare’s conception of feminine love.’ Most find her a ‘ministering angel’ (healing the King); though some have regarded her use of the bed trick as rather odiously manipulative. Clearly she is the central character (though Charles I found Parolles the chief attraction!), and the whole play revolves and evolves around her. And she is various. Angelic she may be; but she certainly wants to go to bed with Bertram. As the anonymous ballad unambiguously reminds us, she is an ‘earthly actor.’ (Act 2, Scene 3) And the first Act reveals that she certainly commands a number of different styles and voices – at least three – and we will start there.

Her first words are something of a quibble – ‘I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too’ – suggesting that she is aware that the emotions you show are not always in synchrony with the emotions you feel. Her first soliloquy starts, rather strikingly, with the admission that paternal venerations has been somewhat dislodged – ‘I think not on my father’:

I have forgot him; my imagination

Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s.

But, she realizes, doting on him is like loving a ‘star’ (there are lots of stars in this play), ‘he is so above me,’ she is ‘not in his sphere.’ Since he has left for Paris, all she can do, she rather extravagantly says, is ‘my idolatrous fancy/Must sanctify his relics,’ as if to turn desire into hagiolatry. Then Bertram’s friend Parolles enters, and Helena reacts:

     I love him for his sake,

And yet I know him a notorious liar,

Think him a great way fool, solely a coward…

— another example of the discontinuous —  not to say contradictory – response I have already mentioned as being strangely characteristic of this play. Her tone then changes radically as she and Parolles engage in some extended, and fairly earthy, banter about ‘virginity’ – how to keep it; when best to lose it. At this point, seemingly irrelevant matters – yet they are to be central concerns of the play. Here, Helena speaks a tolerably tough sort of prose. ‘Bless our poor virginity from underminers and blowers-up! Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men?’ ‘Policie’ was what Gileta employed to regain her husband, and it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Helena rather satisfactorily ‘blows up’ Bertram by the end of the play. Parolles’ response comes in the form of one of dozens of paradoxes and seeming oxymorons which bestrew the play. ‘Virginity by being once lost may be ten times found; by being ever kept it is ever lost.’ More oxymorons follow when Helena imagines Bertram at court:

His humble ambition, proud humility;

His jarring, concord, and his concord, dulcet;

His faith, his sweet disaster; with a world

Of pretty, fond, adoptious Christendoms

That blinking Cupid gossips. Now shall he –

I know what he shall.

She can’t keep it up; and small wonder, since it is not at all clear what on earth she is talking about. (I have [put in bold] another word which only occurs in this play). Not for the last time, one has a sense of an over-ornate language taking over from the speakers and covering part of the play in a thick, semi-incomprehensible, velvet.

When Parolles leaves, Helena, with an utterly different voice, shifts into rhymed couplets for a soliloquy full of that incantatory, apodictic confidence which is often generated by couplets in Shakespeare (it is with just such incantatory couplets that Helena will, effectively, mesmerize the initially skeptical King into trying her ‘remedy’ for him).

Our remedies in ourselves do lie,

Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky

Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull

Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.

What power is it which mounts my love so high,

That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?

The mightiest space in fortune nature brings

To join like likes, and kiss like native things.

Helena here sees and speaks with what we might indeed call almost occult clarity. We do have some ‘free scope,’ though living under a ‘fated sky’ – Helena is recognizing the reality and force of free will in a world of everywhere more powerful influences. Whatever power it is that makes her yearn for Bertram – call it what you like; spiritual, carnal – its strength cannot be denied, even if it unacceptably transgresses an all but sacrosanct class barrier. And yes, — nature can join what fortune seems to have place far apart (the debate about their respective powers is joined again). Helena is clearing her ground for action – already thinking about going to Paris to cure the king:

     my project may deceive me,

But my intents are fixed, and will not leave me.

It is the first scene, and Helena has already started to plot.


When Helena receives Bertram’s ‘dreadful’ letter (‘Till I have no wife, I have nothing in France,’ III, ii, 76), with its apparently impossible conditions, her first reaction seems to be to blame herself and retreat:

     I will be gone;

My being here is that holds thee hence.

Shall I stay here to do’t? No, no, although

The air of paradise did fan the house

And angels officed all. I will be gone.

When Helena speaks such, indeed, ‘angelic’ poetry, one can understand Wilson Knight’s enthusiasm. She suddenly seems to come from somewhere else. In the next scene, the aura of holiness around Helena increases as the Countess reads the letter from her in which she announces:

I am Saint Jaques’ pilgrim, thither gone.

Ambitious love hath so in me offended

That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon,

With sainted vow my faults to have amended.

— as if her love was a sin to be expiated. To the Countess, this makes her son appear, by contrast, even worse.

     What angel shall

Bless this unworthy husband? He cannot thrive,

Unless her prayers, whom heaven delights to hear

And loves to grant, reprieve him from the wrath

Of greatest justice.

slide_29083_290315_largeHelena certainly seems a good deal closer to God than Bertram, and in most readings of the play she does indeed become the ‘angel’ who forgives, blesses, and thus redeems her very ‘unworthy’ husband.’ And perhaps that is right – it is certainly an interpretation the play permits. But there is a point worth noting. In Boccaccio, Giletta, on receiving the rejection from her husband, immediately sets about planning to perform the impossible conditions. Her announcement that she is departing on a perpetual pilgrimage is simply a concealing ruse – she heads straight for Florence and Beltramo. Most readers of Shakespeare’s play think that Helena’s penitential religious feelings are sincere, and her intention to be a pilgrim, genuine. Perhaps they are.  [MY NOTE:  It never occurred to me that she was being sincere.]  But why then did Shakespeare have her say she is ‘Saint Jacques’ pilgrim’ (not mentioned in the source)? To any Elizabethan audience this would mean that she was going to the shrine of Saint James at Compostella. Now, as Dr. Johnson remarked, drily as one feels, Florence is ‘somewhat out of the road from Rousillon to Compostella.’ So it is; but Florence is where Helena turns up in the next scene. By accident; by chance; is she just going a very long way around? Inconceivable, surely. The Arden editor thinks that ‘Saint Jaques’ is simply Shakespeare’s mistake; but I doubt that, too. It looks more like false bait to me. And in Florence she soon has her plot arranged, along with some semi-specious-sounding justifications and rationalizations for it.

     Why then tonight

Let us assay our plot, which, if it speed,

Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,

And lawful meaning in a lawful act,

Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.

But let’s about it.

Since they are, in fact, arranging for a wife to go to bed with her husband, it is lawful enough. As for the deception – well, ‘craft against vice,’ as the Duke will say in Measure for Measure. Nevertheless, Helena has to find her way to the deed through paradox and ambiguity. But, in the world of this play, that is too often what you need.

The last scene, in which everything is finally, finally made clear, is marked by prolix protractions, elaborate mendacities, futile denials, and maddening evasions. There is also a lot about ‘haggish age,’ forgetting, oblivion, and ‘th’ inaudible and noiseless foot of Time.’ In one extraordinary contorted and mannered speech (fantastically different from his usual semi-literate thuggish mode, V, iii, 44-55), Bertram attempts to convince the court that he has already actually, really, loved Lafew’s daughter, Maudline – the unlikeliest of unlikely stories. When pressed about the second ring (which Helena put on Bertram’s hand during the dark night of their consummation), Diana prevaricates – no, she didn’t buy it; no, she didn’t find it; no, she wasn’t given it; no, she wasn’t lent it. At which point, the exasperated King sends her off to prison – and one can sympathize; the obfuscations seem almost to be getting out of hand. (Of course, Diana simply never had the ring – but, when once we practice to deceive…) Helena finally appears, clearing everything up, and in a dozen, businesslike lines, claims Bertram as ‘doubly won,’ and effects needed clarifications and reconciliations. Even more brusquely, in a couple of peremptory lines Bertram asks pardon and promises love (by this time he seems pretty crushed). There is no sense of great happiness; certainly no feeling of either ecstatic personal reunion, or welcome social regeneration. More a feeling of somewhat weary relief that the rather wretched business has finally been tidied up and is at last all over. ‘All’s well that ends well’ says Helena, optimistically, twice; but the King’s concluding comment ‘All yet seems well…’

This is not intended to be reductive about Helena and her role as saviour (of Bertram, as well as the King); it is possible to see her as an instrument of the Divine, or more than human, Will, without failing to discern that she is a woman who very much wants her man. The final completion of the marriage can be seen as the climax to a mysterious, providential design, as well as clever Helena’s personal triumph. Like other heroines before her, she is resourceful enough to take over the play, thus appearing as some sort of superior power in control; but, for all that, she is an earthly actor. Perhaps it is best to see the advantage she takes of her ‘free scope’ implementing, complementing, working in conjunction with the ‘fated sky.’ She may say, modestly and piously, to the King:

But most is presumption in us when

The help of heaven we count the act of men…

(II, I, 153-4)

but this is her incantatory couplet mode, when she takes on the role of a sort of priestess. Elsewhere, she stakes everything on the acts of women – starting with herself; ‘the help of heaven’ may operate in its own way, but it hardly to be passively counted on. That her acts involve deception (including a feigned death – another one!) is more a comment on the world in which she has to act and find her way, than on her personal morality. It remains something of a puzzle why she should want the despicable Bertram so much; Shakespeare has clearly gone out of his way to make sure he has no redeeming features (though I suppose we are to assume he has patrician good looks). Some thing that Shakespeare does this to make Helena’s love, mercy and forgiveness seem almost divinely beneficent, and that may well be right; for love and forgiveness are miracles – earthly miracles. But there remains a sense of residual mystery to the play – as I suggested, it is as if half of it were concealed by the strange velvet of its language, like Bertram’s handsome but probably pox-scarred face. The play opens with a riddle – ‘In delivering my son from me I bury a second husband,’ thus the Countess bids farewell to her son, playing on ‘delivering’ as ‘giving birth’ and ‘letting go’; and it goes on riddling to the end – thus Diana:

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.

Enter Helena

Helena is the answer to the riddle; but she is herself a riddle. And the riddles are deep. Burials yielding deliveries; the dead strangely transformed to the quick – though the great tragedies are still to come, we are already well on the way to the last plays.”


So…we’ve come to the end of another play. What are your thoughts?  Whose side are you on when it comes to interpreting this play and Helena?  Please…share with the group!



My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning, Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 136.

Our next play is Timon of Athens.  I’ll do an introductory post on that on Sunday evening/Monday morning.

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