Let it be known that when I started All’s Well That Ends Well, I was fully prepared to like it. Actually, I was fully prepared to love it. When I was young – maybe fourteen or fifteen – a friend of mine gifted me both Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well. I have always associated the two with each other, probably because I was handed both plays at once. But if I’ve learned anything over the past five days of reading this play, it is that I was wrong.
Macbeth is my least favorite play (I know, I know), but All’s Well That Ends Well is a close second. I could spend this entire post complaining about the play – and I will, a little – but I also want to try to talk through different ways for us to look at it. Ways that, you know, make it suck less.
Before I start, I want to talk about Harold C. Goddard’s book The Meaning of Shakespeare. Similar to psychology, I find that there are multiple schools of thought Shakespeare lovers can subscribe to. There’s Tina Packer, Harold Bloom, Harold C. Goddard, and hundreds more that I’ve yet to discover. I like Tina Packer well enough, hate Harold Bloom with a burning passion, and have recently fallen head over heels with Harold C. Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare helped me to understand Troilus and Cressida – an incredibly difficult play – and even All’s Well That Ends Well. Goddard’s analyses are fantastic, and free of the self-indulgent air that comes with reading Bloom’s work. I highly, highly recommend you buy both volumes – check out your used bookstore (I got mine there for $4, though it literally just fell apart in my hands before I started this post), or buy them off Amazon here and here.
Anyway, now that my sales pitch is over, let’s talk about All’s Well That Ends Well.
We open in Rossillion, where we find out that Count Bertram has become a ward of the court. His father has recently passed.
Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee. Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence,
But never taxed for speech. What heaven more will,
That thee may furnish and my prayers pluck down,
Fall on thy head. [To Lafew.] Farewell, my lord.
‘Tis an unseasoned courtier. Good my lord,
This particular passage reminded me very much of the lecture Polonius gives Laertes in Hamlet. Other than that, there is literally no comparing Polonius and the Countess of Rossillion. The Countess is a sweet and gentle woman. Polonius was a nosy fool. But I digress.
It seems that Bertram’s father was a lovely person. We’ll find out quickly enough that looks are all that Bertram inherited from the departed count.
Helena, our heroine, is devastated to see Bertram go. You see, she’s very much in love with him. But Bertram has to go, and so he does. He makes his way to the court of the King of France, who is deathly ill.
In Rossillion, the Countess finds out that Helena is wildly in love with her son. Now, Helena is the daughter of a late physician, so there is definitely a difference in rank between her and Bertram. The Countess coaxes a confession of love out of Helena.
Then I confess
Here on my knee before high heaven and you
That before you and next unto high heaven
I love your son.
My friends were poor but honest; so ‘s my love.
Be not offended, for it hurts not him
That he is loved of me. I follow him not
By any token of presumptuous suit,
Nor would I have him till I do deserve him,
Yet never know how that desert should be.
I know I love in vain, strive against hope,
Yet in this captious and intenible sieve
I still pour in the waters of my love
And lack not to lose still.
Helena is very aware that Bertram is out of her sphere. But what she doesn’t seem to grasp is that she really isn’t. Helena is intelligent, self-sacrificial, and gracious. She is exactly the kind of woman that Bertram should want to marry. The Countess sees these qualities in her, fortunately, and is not offended by Helena’s love for her son. In fact, she encourages it. It’s almost as if she knows that Bertram needs someone like Helena by his side. Need and deserve are two different things, however.
The plot is revealed: Helena will make her way to Paris and, using all of the knowledge she picked up from her father, will cure the King of his malady. I have to say that I thought that this would be the plot of the entire play. Maybe it should have been.
Bertram, meanwhile, has been forbidden go to war. He’s upset about this, but I really can’t find it in myself to care after having read the entire play. But, like I said, we can try to redeem Bertram, even if Shakespeare fails to do so. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Why, Doctor She. My lord, there’s one arrived,
If you will see her. Now, by my faith and honor,
If seriously I may convey my thoughts
In this my light deliverance, I have spoke
With one that in her sex, her years, profession,
Wisdom, and constancy hath amazed me more
Than I dare blame my weakness. Will you see her –
For that is her demand – and know her business?
That done, laugh well at me.
Helena has just arrived at court and Lafew is already taken with her. This is a common trend – literally everybody who meets Helena falls in love with her immediately. There is something about her that just sparkles and draws people in. They can’t help themselves.
The King is 100% sure that he’s going to die, and doubts Helena’s ability to cure him. But she is confident, and keeps pushing.
If I break time or flinch in property
Of what I spoke, unpitied let me die,
And well deserved. Not helping, death’s my fee.
But if I help, what do you promise me?
Make thy demand.
But will you make it even?
Ay, by my scepter and my hopes of heaven.
Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command.
Exempted be from me the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name to propagate
With any branch or image of thy state;
But such a one, thy vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow.
In return for a cure, all Helena asks is that she be allowed to choose a husband from the King’s court. We all know that she’s thinking of Bertram and, to be honest, I was thrilled with her little plot. In my mind, simply seeing Helena confidently pulling off a seemingly impossible feat should have brought Bertram to his knees before her. It is impossible not to be dazzled by her.
HELENA, [to Bertram]
I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service ever whilst I live
Into your guiding power. – This is the man.
Why then, young Bertram, take her. She’s thy wife.
My wife, my liege? I shall beseech your Highness
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
Know’st thou not, Bertram,
What she has done for me?
Yes, my good lord,
But never hope to know why I should marry her.
I found myself being very, very wrong about this play multiple times. Instead of being dazzled by Helena, Bertram is disgusted by the match. He refuses to marry below his rank. He comes off as selfish and arrogant – clearly a terrible match for Helena.
The King, understandably, isn’t having any of this. He tears into Bertram for being such a brat. Helena is everything Bertram should want – she is wise, beautiful, and young. But Bertram refuses to budge.
I cannot love her, nor will strive to do ‘t.
Thou wrong’st thyself if thou shouldst strive to choose.
That you are well restored, my lord, I’m glad.
Let the rest go.
Goddard says that Helena’s last four words up there are her moral peak. He isn’t wrong – I loved her immediately for that line. She is willing to let all of this go, even if it does hurt her and break her heart. Goddard is sure that if Helena had continued to refuse to take the unwilling Bertram, that “there is no question that we would have admired her more, or that, however secretly, Bertram would have also. Might he not have gone away from such a rejection to dream of the spirited girl who had had the self-respect both to love and to refuse him?”
I would honestly have loved this play if it had gone in this direction. The King of France, however, refuses to let things go. He made a deal with Helena, and he wants to make good on it. Helena doesn’t fight the King because she simply can’t. I admire her for even bothering to mention her willingness to let Bertram go – and, honestly, this should have captured Bertram’s attention as well. Helena may not have fought the King on this, but the fact that she voiced those four little words tells us a lot about who she is.
In any case, Bertram and Helena become man and wife. Bertram refuses to bed her, and plans to ditch her in favor of the war.
It shall be so. I’ll send her to my house,
Acquaint my mother with my hate to her
And wherefore I am fled, write to the King
That which I durst not speak. His present gift
Shall furnish me those Italian fields
Where noble fellows strike. Wars is no strife
To the dark house and the detested wife.
I really don’t understand why Bertram hates Helena so much. I would be just fine if he simply resented her, but this unbridled hate is ridiculous. He is such a brat – so full of himself that he sees himself as being miles above Helena and hates her for even daring to love so above herself.
So far, I haven’t tried to redeem Bertram. It’s actually very difficult – so difficult, in fact, that I’m going to focus on a very small exchange to make my point.
Bertram sends Helena off to Rossillion with a letter to his mother. But before she goes, this happens:
Sir, I can nothing say
But that I am your most obedient servant –
Come, come, no more of that.
And ever shall
With true observance seek to eke out that
Wherein toward me my homely stars have failed
To equal my great fortune.
Let that go.
My haste is very great. Farewell. Hie home.
“But Shereen,” you say, “this is an incredibly rude exchange.” Taken at face value, it absolutely is. How should an actor play Bertram so as to transform him into a character that we are actually willing to forgive later on?
The lines “Come, come, no more of that.” and “Let that go.” are very interesting to me. Clearly, these lines are meant to be said with impatience. He wants to get rid of her. But what if they’re said with a twinge of guilt? What if seeing Helena before him, speaking the way she does, makes Bertram feel slightly guilty for his rude rejection of her? Is he trying to get rid of her because her presence fills him with hate? Or is it because having her speak so sweetly to him reminds him what a terrible person he is?
I propose that these lines be spoken sheepishly – until Bertram shakes himself out of it and very firmly says, “My haste is very great. Farewell. Hie home.” We need there to be a glimmer of humanity in Bertram because otherwise, he’s a lost cause. Let us say that around Helena, Bertram is reminded of his own failings as a person. Away from her, he is able to continue to indulge in his terrible tendencies. After all, it isn’t like Parolles is going to make him guilty.
Speaking of Parolles, a lot of Bertram’s bad behavior is blamed on him. This is very similar to Hal and Falstaff – except there were qualities to love in both of those characters. In Parolles, Shakespeare pours his disdain for gentlemen. In Bertram, he seemingly writes a lost cause. Is Bertram terrible because of Parolles? Or is he just terrible?
Back in Rossillion, the Countess is disappointed with her son’s behavior. His letter to her tells her that he hates Helena. The thought of hating Helena is something that none of the characters can bring themselves to entertain. Bertram has also sent a letter to Helena herself.
Look on his letter, madam; here’s my passport.
[She reads.] ‘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.”‘
This is a dreadful sentence.
A dreadful sentence indeed. Poor Helena. Her love is truly wasted on Bertram. He refuses to act as her husband unless she obtains his ancestral ring and becomes pregnant by him. An impossible set of tasks, because he is off to war and refuses to bed her even when they are together.
Honestly, at this point, I would not have blamed Helena in the slightest for giving up on Bertram. But it’s as if she sees something in him that the rest of us cannot see. Whatever it is, Shakespeare isn’t making it easy for us to understand it.
Helena decides to leave Rossillion. She leaves the Countess a letter outlining her plans to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James. Why a pilgrimage, you ask? To make amends for being so overambitious by falling in love with Bertram in the first place.
Shakespeare lost me at this point. This seems insanely out of character for him – I was so sure that Helena would don a disguise, go to the field, and cause Bertram to fall in love with her. Instead, Helena seems to lose a lot of her spirit. She blames Bertram’s rejection on herself. She knows that if she leaves, then he will be free to return to Rossillion. He won’t be forced to stay out in the field, she thinks. He won’t get hurt.
I think we can still admire Helena despite this. She may not be the kind of character that throws on a disguise a la Viola and Rosalind, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss her entirely. If who she is requires her to deal with her sadness in this way, then I have no choice but to accept it.
During her travels, Helena comes across a widow and her daughter, Diana. It seems like everybody knows how much Bertram hates his new wife.
Alas, poor lady,
‘Tis a hard bondage to become the wife
Of a detesting lord.
I warrant, good creature, whereso’ever she is,
Her heart weighs sadly. This young maid might do her
A shrewd turn if she pleased.
Helena’s heart does weigh sadly indeed. But what is the widow talking about?
HELENA, [as pilgrim]
How do you mean?
Maybe the amorous count solicits her
In the unlawful purpose?
He does indeed,
And brokes her with all that can in such a suit
Corrupt the tender honor of a maid,
But she is armed for him and keeps her guard
In honestest defense.
Oh, for God’s sake. Bertram has been trying to seduce Diana despite being legally married to Helena. With every passing act, Shakespeare makes it harder and harder for us to forgive Bertram. Clearly, Bertram is fine having sex with women from all walks of life. He insists on being married to someone equal to him in rank, though.
What a charmer.
At this point, I would have loved for Helena, Diana, and the widow to group up and seek revenge on Bertram. He deserves to be punished, doesn’t he? Instead of doing that, however, Helena sees an opening. If you’ll recall, Bertram refuses to be her husband until she obtains his ring and becomes pregnant by him.
He is sure that this is an impossible task. Helena was sure as well – ‘was’ being the key word.
Take this purse of gold,
And let me buy your friendly help thus far,
Which I will overpay and pay again
When I have found it. The Count he woos your daughter,
Lays down his wanton siege before her beauty,
Resolved to carry her. Let her in the fine consent
As we’ll direct her how ’tis best to bear it.
Now his important blood will naught deny
That she’ll demand. A ring the County wears
That downward hath succeeded in his house
From son to son some four or five descents
Since the first father wore it. This ring he holds
In most rich choice. Yet, in his idle fire,
To buy his will it would not seem too dear,
Howe’er repented after.
Now I see the bottom of your purpose.
You see it lawful, then. It is no more
But that your daughter, ere she seems as won,
Desires this ring, appoints him an encounter,
In fine, delivers me to fill the time,
Herself most chastely absent. After,
To marry her, I’ll add three thousand crowns
To what is passed already.
Diana will demand Bertram’s ring and offer her body to him. However, in the dark of night, Helena and Diana will switch places. Bertram will actually find himself spending the night with Helena.
This plan is clever. From a modern standpoint, this plan is also uncomfortable. I would love to read a dissertation about consent in Shakespeare’s plays. We can argue that Helena is acting the way any folklore heroine would. An Elizabethan audience would have seen no issue with this plan. But, as Goddard says, “a work of art must be judged by the impression it makes on us, not on somebody in the past. Otherwise we are ceasing to take it as a work of art and turning it into a historical document (which, just possibly, this play may have become).”
I still think Helena should have just abandoned Bertram. I have no doubt that he would have come crawling after her at some point.
Diana successfully manages to get everything she wants from Bertram. It wasn’t a challenge, really, because he is just that desperate to spend the night with her.
A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee.
For which live long to thank both heaven and me!
You may so in the end.
My mother told me just how he would woo
As if she sat in ‘s heart. She says all men
Have the like oaths. He had sworn to marry me
When his wife’s dead. Therefore I’ll lie with him
When I am buried. Since Frenchmen are so braid,
Marry that will, I live and die a maid.
Only, in this disguise I think ‘t no sin
To cozen him that would unjustly win.
It’s hilarious to me that the widow told Diana exactly how Bertram would try to woo her. Men have been predictable forever, it seems.
There is a subplot about Parolles in the middle of this play. It is incredibly long, and I don’t really want to discuss it. I have no patience for silly characters. There is nothing lovable about Parolles – and maybe Shakespeare did that on purpose. Goddard has some very interesting things to say about his character, but I’ll let you read that at your own leisure. Let’s get back to the actual plot.
Helena, apparently, is dead. We know she isn’t really, but news of her death has reached the Countess’ ears back in Rossillion. Lafew, who had a lot of admiration for Helena, tells the Countess that he is willing to let his daughter marry Bertram. It’s like no woman can escape Bertram’s wrath.
Helena, of course, is still alive and scheming. But in Rossillion, the King of France is giving Bertram his forgiveness and blessing.
‘Tis past, my liege,
And I beseech your Majesty to make it
Natural rebellion done i’ th’ blade of youth,
When oil and fire, too strong for reason’s force,
O’erbears it and burns on.
My honored lady,
I have forgiven and forgotten all,
Though my revenges were high bent upon him
And watched the time to shoot.
This I must say –
But first I beg my pardon: the young lord
Did to his Majesty, his mother, and his lady
Offense of mighty note, but to himself
The greatest wrong of all. He lost a wife
Whose beauty did astonish the survey
Of richest eyes, whose words all ears took captive,
Whose dear perfection hearts that scorned to serve
Humbly called mistress.
Should we chalk Bertram’s behavior up to youthful rebellion? I suppose it’s one way of looking at him. I have no idea how old he is supposed to be, but I personally refuse to forgive him just because he’s going through an adolescent phase. Lafew is right – of all the people that Bertram screwed over in this play, he truly screwed himself most of all.
Bertram has this to say on the subject of Lafew’s daughter:
[…] At first
I stuck my choice upon her, ere my heart
Durst make too bold a herald of my tongue;
Where the impression of mine eye infixing,
Contempt his scornful perspective did lend me,
Which warped the line of every other favor,
Scorned a fair color or expressed it stol’n,
Extended or contracted all proportions
To a most hideous object. 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.
I was surprised at this sudden burst of self-awareness from Bertram. Apparently, when he was young and shy, Bertram fell in love with Lafew’s daughter Maudlin, but abandoned his feelings when he found himself growing into his new contemptuous and scornful personality. This means that there was something to Bertram, once. Maybe what has been consumed by scorn is still visible to Helena. Maybe that’s why she loves him.
Bertram gives a ring to Lafew, but everybody in the room immediately notices it as Helena’s ring. This makes no sense to Bertram – after all, he hasn’t seen her since he shooed her away to Rossillion.
You are deceived, my lord. She never saw it.
In Florence was it from a casement thrown at me,
Wrapped in a paper which contained the name
Of her that threw it. Noble she was, and thought
I stood ungaged, but when I had subscribed
To mine own fortune and informed her fully
I could not answer in that course of honor
As she had made the overture, she ceased
In heavy satisfaction and would never
Receive the ring again.
Sure, Bertram. I’m sure that’s exactly what happened. But the King isn’t having it – he is sure that the ring is Helena’s. It looks like Bertram is in hot water.
But it gets worse.
Diana shows up and claims that Bertram is her husband. This causes a bit of a ruckus – Bertram tries to diffuse the situation by being an asshole.
What sayst thou to her?
She’s impudent, my lord,
And was a common gamester to the camp.
That’s right. Bertram, as charming and lovely as he is, dismisses Diana as a prostitute. In front of everybody. Things continue to escalate – Diana is close to being imprisoned, immediately. But then a pregnant Helena appears.
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. [She takes out a paper.] This it says:
‘When from my finger you can get this ring
And are by me with child, etc.’ This is done.
Will you be mine now you are doubly won?
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever, dearly.
Let us forget for a moment how utterly unsatisfying this is and try to make sense of it. Here is what Goddard proposes just happened: “With the penetration of love, [Bertram’s] good angel, Helena, alone sees through from the first what this perverted youth is under what he has become. By keeping her faith in that vision, in spite of the evidence against it, she brings about a resurrection of himself within himself through the miracle of what seems to him her own literal resurrection. Her sudden appearance in the flesh after being reported dead shocks him back into what he has really been all along.”
I find that I have to force myself to see the play like this, because otherwise it’s just one long trainwreck. But who is Bertram, really? If he has been shocked into being a better person, then I want to see who that person is. I think the audience deserves to see Helena with someone who is actually worthy of her.
In Elizabethan England, sudden changes in character were very much accepted. Similar to Oliver in As You Like It, we are expected to forgive Bertram for his faults in this play.
Shakespeare’s failure to make this play successful is honestly shocking to me, given the time at which it was written. It is a clumsy play, one that should have been revised. Maybe it was half-revised. Who knows?
What I do know for sure is that if we are to love this play, then we need to force ourselves to see the humanity that is hidden somewhere in Bertram. Otherwise, we can’t root for Helena and Bertram as a couple. How we see Bertram lies in the hands of the director and actor. Bertram is irredeemable when taken at face value. Small gestures can make him less of a cad, and a Helena that shows us that she knows there is something underneath his faults can transform All’s Well That Ends Well into a play worth loving.
Apparently, there is a 1967 production of All’s Well That Ends Well put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company in which Bertram actually managed to come off as likeable and charming. Sadly, it has been lost to the ages. I’d have liked to see it.
Othello is next – but before that, I’m going to go see Hamlet at the Old Globe! I almost missed it, but the run was extended. Just for me, of course!