All’s Well That Ends Well
Life is a gamble and no one seems to be more aware of that than Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well. She knows what three things she has to stake – her virginity, her medical knowledge and her life. The prize? Bertram. Someone should have told her, “Be careful what you wish for…”
No one did.
In the first scene she pines for Bertram, “a bright particular star…so above me…” but her longing lament is interrupted by Bertram’s friend Paroles who immediately starts a saucy exchange about virginity in which Helen participates with as much gusto as Paroles. He declares that it’s an unnatural useless state, “too cold a companion”, and Helen knows that “man is enemy to virginity” and wonders if there is a “military policy how virgins might blow up men…“ But knowing she is undoubtedly destined to lose hers she wonders, “How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?” This is a key line in the play. No shrinking violet, Helen wants sex and she knows who she wants it with. As Katherine Eisaman Maus points out in the introduction to the Norton edition, Helen is “premaritally chaste but intensely sexual, tenacious in the pursuit of the man she desires” (page 2194) and at the end of Act 1.1 we see Helen take the matter into her own hands:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven…
…Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?
The king’s disease – my project may deceive me,
But my interests are fixed and will not leave me (Act 1.1).
Off she goes then to the ailing king to offer her medical expertise, learned from her physician father. The king is reluctant, convinced he is dying and nothing will help. He doubts her skills. She is persuasive. He asks:
Art thou so confidant…
…Upon thy certainty and confidence
What dar’st thou venture? (Act 2.1)
Certainly aware that it’s unacceptable for women to be so knowledgeable and forward, especially if they fail, Helen replies confidantly:
Tax of impudence,
A strumpet’s boldness, a divulgèd shame;
Traduced by odious ballads, my maiden’s name
Seared otherwise, nay – worse of worst – extended
With vilest torture, let my life be ended. (Act 2.1)
The king is impressed and says OK. But if I die, you die. Helen: Fair enough. “But if I help, what do you promise me?” King: “Make thy demand.” Her demand, surprise surprise, is:
Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command. (Act 2.1)
The stakes are wagered. The prize is set. And in short order the king is cured and Helen is betrothed to Bertram.
But there is no happily ever after yet. In the traditional “male hero overcomes great odds to win the princess” we never, as KEM reminds us, get to hear what the princess thinks about it (page 2193), but in this gender reversal we most certainly get to hear the handsome young aristocrat’s reaction:
A poor physician’s daughter, my wife? Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever (Act 2.3).
This is in front of the whole court. Nice for Helen…
After the wedding: “I will not bed her” (Act 2.3). And in his letter to her:”When thou canst 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’...Till I have no wife, I have nothing in France” (Act 3.2).
If this was a poker game I’d say Helen has lost. And any reasonable woman would say, “What a creep. I’m better off without him. King, give me an annulment!”
But not our Helen. Resourceful lass that she is, she follows Bertram to the wars, finds a couple of allies in the widow and her daughter Diana, arranges the old bed swap trick with Diana who woos the more than eager Bertram to her bed but Helen takes her place and…
Well, it works. They all end up in court. Diana proves to be a clever plucky young miss who defies the king and helps Helen reveal the bed-switching hoax. Bertram is caught. Helen has put the ring on his finger and gotten herself pregnant by him. Bertram gives in and declares – how sincerely depends on the actor’s interpretation, I suppose – “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly I’ll love her dearly, ever dearly” (Act 5.3). The king gives Diana the same offer he’d given Helen – the pick of her choice among the young nobles – and all’s well that ends well.
Helen has gambled everything – her virtue, her future, her life. And she has won – a jerk for a husband, a particularly mean one at that, but she finds him sexy and gets to go to bed with him from now on.
And in fact she has also won, officially and legally, an aristocratic mother-in-law of whom she is very fond. Helen’s last words in the play are not a declaration of love for Bertram but an exclamation of joy to the countess: “O my dear mother, do I see you living?” (Act 5.3)
She has won the king’s support, she has been raised from “a poor physician’s daughter” to a significant personage in the court based on her vast medical skills and her determination.
She has probably gained a good friend in Diana.
We can’t help but admire Helen. Not only does she break down the class barriers of her rigid society but overturns the gender norms which are even more rigid. It’s a neat trick and once again Shakespeare pulls it off. As Bloom puts it: “Only the hero-villains rival Helena – Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Macbeth – and they all at last are slain or undone. Helena triumphs, even if we are dismayed by her choice of reward” (page 355).
Choice of husband, yes. But all the rest? The winner, Helen, takes is all.
All’s well, indeed.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare - the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Eisaman Maus, Katherine. Introduction, Norton edition.
- BBC, 1980. Directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Cast: Helen – Angela Down; Bertram – Ian Charleson; Paroles – Peter Jeffrey; Countess – Celia Johnson; King – Donald Sindon; Lafeu – Michael Hordern; Diana – Pippa Guard; Widow – Rosemary Leach; First Fench Lord – Robert Lindsay. Not a bad production. Not especially scintillating though and Angela Down is, sadly, a disappointment as a very bland Helen.
- The Globe production, 2012. Directed by John Dove. Cast: Helen – Ellie Piercy; Bertram – Same Crane; Paroles – James Garnon; Countess – Janie Dee; King – Sam Cox; Lafeu – Michael Bertenshaw; Diana – Naomi Cransten; Widow – Sophie Duval; First French Lord – Peter Hamilton Dyer. It almost feels like we are at the Globe again. The memories are fresh. What a fantastic idea to film some productions. I hope they get to every play eventually. This one is great fun to watch. Sadly it’s too fun. They gloss over the dark aspects of the play completely and even imply that Bertram is in love with Helen from the start. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Otherwise the cast is mostly very good. A much better Helen than the BBC. James Garnon, Sam Cox and Peter Hamilton Dyer were all in the production of The Tempest we saw at the Globe less than two weeks ago. It’s like seeing old friends.
Seen on stage: no.