1/ In Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode says All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are twins.
Both are problem plays. Both have lots of scheming and deception. Both use the same plot device.
2/ See this line about virginity:
“PAROLLES […] ‘Tis a commodity will lose the gloss with lying; the longer kept, the less worth.”
(Act 1 scene 1)
Earlier, also about virginity:
“PAROLLES […] Keep it not; you cannot choose but lose by’t. Out with’t! Within ten years it will make itself ten, which is a goodly increase, and the principal itself not much the worse. Away with’t!”
Now look at this exchange:
“COUNTESS Tell me thy reason why thou wilt marry.
CLOWN My poor body, madam, requires it. I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives.”
(Act 1 scene 3)
Hahaha I like the honesty.
3/ Helena, in her hopeless and foolish love, reminds me of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My first impression was that there’s something pathetic about it.
In her confession to the Countess, she says “I know I love in vain, strive against hope” (Act 1 scene 3). That reminds me of a line from Great Expectations:
“I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.”
In All’s Well That Ends Well, it is hopeless because Bertram is a count and Helena is the daughter of their family physician—after her father’s death, she’s been the Countess’s ward. He’s very much above her.
“HELENA […] my imagination
Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s.
I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away; ‘twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star,
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere….”
(Act 1 scene 1)
But she is different from the Athenian Helena. In this same speech, an image rather stands out to me:
“HELENA […] Th’ ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love.”
Note that: “mated”. She is horny.
As the story unfolds, we see that she isn’t weak or pathetic as she initially seems—to an ignoramus like me, it comes as a surprise that in a Jacobean play, such a female character appears before the King, asserts herself, and makes a deal where, if she wins, she may be granted any husband she chooses. There is even a scene where the King has several lords standing in line for Helena to pick and she picks Bertram—he objects, but cannot disobey the King. I can’t help wondering what the audience in Shakespeare’s day thought about it.
However, after the (forced) marriage, Helena refers to herself as his “most obedient servant” and Bertram right away goes to war to avoid his wife—something a woman under similar circumstances cannot do.
4/ This is a great line:
“FIRST LORD [Aside] Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?”
(Act 4 scene 1)
Parolles is a liar, braggart, and coward, but without the wit and charisma of Falstaff (from the Henry IV plays) and without the charm of Lucio (from Measure for Measure). Tony Tanner’s analysis of Parolles is particularly fascinating (I’m being deliberately vague so you have to check out the essay for yourself).
It is significant that Bertram misjudges Parolles when everyone else can see through him—Bertram is not a good judge of character. I think it’s also meaningful that Helena can clearly see Parolles’s faults, so her love for Bertram may not be (entirely) foolish.
5/ All’s Well That Ends Well cannot be dated with certainty—assuming that it’s from around the same time as Measure for Measure and Othello, All’s Well That Ends Well cannot compare in terms of poetry or dramatic power. But Shakespeare still does something interesting with the language.
For example, look at these lines:
“KING Wherefore hast thou accused him all this while?
DIANA Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty;
He knows I am no maid, 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.”
(Act 5 scene 3)
That reminds me of the equivocation in Macbeth, especially the language of the witches.
6/ At first, Bertram seems sympathetic. He is a snob and may be rude, but he is a young man forced to marry a woman for whom he does not care. Helena is not like Angelo in Measure for Measure, but she does marry Bertram against his will and has not only the King but also Bertram’s mother on her side. She appears more sympathetic because everyone praises her virtue and Shakespeare gives us access to her private thoughts but not his, but we can still understand the way he feels.
Later in Florence, he courts Diana and we may say it’s wrong, especially to Diana, but can we really say that he betrays Helena when he has never said he loved her and never chosen to marry her? Note too that at this point, he thinks Helena is dead.
The complex, problematic part of Helena’s plot is her speech to the widow, Diana’s mother:
“HELENA […] 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.”
(Act 3 scene 7)
For those of you who find the passage confusing, this is the explanation in my edition: “the point of this passage is that Bertram’s intention is wicked, though his deed—copulating with his wife—will be lawful; Helena’s intention and her act will be good, and the deed will not be a sin though in Bertram’s mind he will be sinning”.
Even if we don’t look at it through the lens of modern standards about consent, there is manipulation and deception, lawful or not. Morally, it seems more questionable than the bed trick in Measure for Measure.
Now several questions must be raised: does Helena, for example, intend to follow Bertram to Florence from the start, or does she go to the monastery as she tells the Countess, and later wander to Florence? Note that she says she’s going to be a Saint Jacques’s pilgrim, which means going to the shrine in Compostela, and Florence is not on the way from Rousillon to Compostela—it’s in the other direction.
In addition, at the beginning of the play, Helena says that she wants to go to court to treat the King’s health, but it’s clearly not about saving him as much as about striking a deal with him and getting him to arrange the marriage. Later, it is uncertain, but she must be the one spreading rumours about her own death, and she is the one that plans the bed trick with Diana. She pulls all the strings, like the Duke in Measure for Measure. Is she intelligent and resourceful, or scheming and manipulative?
(Either way, that’s a lot of scheming just to get in bed with Bertram).
In the final act, however, Bertram turns out to be contemptible—in his willingness to marry Lafew’s daughter and his despicable treatment of Diana. The final scene of All’s Well That Ends Well seems to mirror the final scene of Measure for Measure—the despicable men may easily get away with their bad deeds and get everything they want if not for the evidence Helena has in All’s Well That Ends Well and the Duke’s full knowledge in Measure for Measure.
This leads to other questions: why does Helena want Bertram, and how should we interpret his final line?
Let’s look at it:
“HELENA 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 mine, now you are doubly won?
BERTRAM If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.”
(Act 5 scene 3)
Some readers have complained about Bertram’s sudden conversion in this scene, but I don’t think there’s a conversion as such. Perhaps it’s the psychological realism reader in me speaking, but firstly, there is an “if” in his sentence, and secondly, I don’t think he’s being truthful. If you look at it and consider how he has offended the King: he has objected to the arranged marriage, run away from his wife, flirted with another woman, chosen to sleep with her (the switch is beside the point), lied about her in front of the King and everyone else, lied about the ring… Now, in front of everyone and with them all on her side, Helena reads out loud the seemingly impossible challenge from Bertram that she has fulfilled, do you think he has any other option but return to her and obey the King?
Whether they can be happy together is another question. Like Measure for Measure, it seems to be an ambiguous ending. But who knows, maybe they would be happy together—he seemed to enjoy the sex with her after all.
7/ It is interesting, whenever I finish reading a Shakespeare play, to read Tony Tanner’s essay about it and learn about how Shakespeare uses his sources and always complicates and deepens the stories.
One of the changes here is that in the original, Giletta (the Helena figure) arranges the bed trick several times and, when confronting her husband Beltramo, brings with her 2 sons who look just like him. In Shakespeare’s play, the bed trick is a one-time affair and at the confrontation, Helena is pregnant.
“Without pushing the matter too pointlessly fair, 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 the end is that it is, indeed, a conclusion ‘pregnant’ with possibilities.” (Introduction)
8/ As Tony Tanner points out, Helena herself says “All’s well that ends well” twice, in Act 4 scene 4 and Act 5 scene 1.
The King’s final speech however says: “All yet seems well…” (Act 5 scene 3).
That “seems” is significant.