A Love Most Cunning in All’s Well That Ends Well

All’s Well That Ends Well is a comedy of uneasy reversals. The most significant of these amounts to a low-born, but virtuous woman who struggles to win the heart of a man a class above her. The most glaring problem in this reversal plot, however, unravels to the fact that the heroine wins a nobleman who is hardly noble of character. All’s Well That Ends Well is a title that suggests duplicity, which figures as the only truly acceptable means where Helen can triumph over the impulsive Bertram. In the end, Helen resorts to a “bed-trick” to win Bertram, the only viable means which a woman in her position can navigate through society suffering some form of cognitive dissonance. At the core of the play’s problematic romance, Helen’s desire for increased social status engenders her pursuit of Bertram; but in reality, Helen’s pursuit allegorizes a society where status precedes moral character — a society where, peculiarly, feminine virtue can also win the love of a nobleman — but only if a woman is cunning enough.

All’s Well’s problematic romance is a reversal that essentially reveals masculine qualities in its heroine, Helen. Shakespeare’s sardonic comedy reverses the well-worn chivalric plot in favor of the following: rather, it is a low-born woman who must woo a man of higher social standing (Maus). But in order for this plot to have any substance, the heroine must be just that — virtuous, possessing admirable qualities, no less than a knight must be chivalrous. In this play, Helen, although born to a poor physician, is appraised by both the King and his counselor to have a worthy character. Lafeu, who acts as the King’s counselor, vouches for Helen. To be sure, Lafeau’s words convince the King that he should give her a chance at healing him. Lafeu tells the King, “[i]f seriously I may convey my thoughts /… [Helen’s] years, profession, / Wisdom and constancy” are noteworthy (2.1.79–82). When Helen proposes to heal the King (who, by the way, suffers from a very un-kingly fistula) he at first relents. After all, his retinue of male physicians has up until now failed. Helen, however, is unflappable, determined to heal the ill, wishy-washy King. When she responds to the King that “[i]spired merit so by breath is barred,” she is really saying that her virtue transcends society — and, by logical extension — the world of men (2.1.146–147). With poetic flourish, she affirms that “… most it is presumption in us when / The help of heaven we count the act of men” (2.1.149–150).

Following the King’s healing, we see that Helen’s confident, virtuous character is offset by the young nobleman’s, Bertram, whom she has chosen as her reward. Bertram must do as the recuperated King commands him, but his unbending will elicits an interesting if irate response. “But follows it, my lord,” Bertram retorts, “[that] bring[ing] me down / Must answer for your raising?” (2.3.110–111). Poetically speaking, this line reveals that in spite of the King’s miraculous healing, Bertram fears his social status will be compromised by Helen. Bertram prefers public disdain over having his noble status “corrupted” by a commoner (2.3.114–115). The King’s words that follow cannot abet Bertram’s rage, even after he argues that “[s]trange is it that our bloods / Of color, weight, and heat, poured all together, / Would quite confound distinction” (2.3.115–118).

At the core of All’s Well’s thorny romance underlies undeniable cognitive dissonance. Both Helen and Bertram present a dichotomy between truly noble, or virtuous qualities of character pitted against social statuses that are “noble”. These are hardly mutually exclusive; if anything, Bertram’s rejection of Helen, his poor counsel in his lascivious friend, Parolles, and his lustful desires clash against his so-called “nobility”. At the same time, Bertram places little stock in the King’s ability to raise Helen’s status even though this would “quite confound distinction” (2.3.118). Bertram might quaff that he considers the King’s words well, but his actions in Florence, later on, prove otherwise. What is most troubling still is that Bertram’s impulsive rejection of Helen not only betrays a character lacking virtue- but suggests he believes that a noble status cannot be raised. But would not virtue of character be more intrinsic than social title? This deviation from social norms suggests a double standard where gender is concerned. In the world of All’s Well, Helen’s chastity cannot outweigh Bertram’s higher status. There is a generic uneasiness presented by this situation which “might be taken as reflecting badly on the hero and heroine” (Maus). Certainly, by no means is this a play with a moral agenda. However, Bertram reveals through his words and actions to be a character where society reflects poorly in him.

Nowhere else is this shown to be most problematic than when Bertram, in a war campaign in Florence, attempts to seduce Diana. Diana, like Helen, enjoys no great social status. In the following sequence, Bertram makes himself out to be a knavish character; unbridled in his lusts. He would gladly give away his family’s wedding ring so that he might consummate his desires with Diana. Never mind that he has fled Helen who should rightfully be his wife. Bertram can hardly be said to possess nobleness of character one might expect from a member of the King’s court. If anything, Bertram comes across as unrestrained when he propositions Diana in Act Four. But Diana, participating in Helen’s bed trick, is no one’s fool. She knows that Bertram will only “serve us / Till we serve you” (4.2.18–19).

Bertram’s avoidance, and ultimately fleeing from Helen, leaves her with little recourse than to be as cunning as a thief (2.5.75). That Helen, for all her chaste virtue and inherent noble qualities, should compare herself to a thief, further demonstrates cognitive dissonance in All’s Well. But at the same time, this could not be any more appropriate. Like thieves, Helen is cunning, operating outside of the law in order to conquer Bertram’s heart. Like a thief, Helen also exists outside the realm of the noble class. Her foothold in the law is merely just the King’s words which Bertram chooses not to honor. All in all, Helen, is like a thief who would “fain steal / What the law does vouch [her] own” (2.5.78–79).

In the end, Bertram is a problematic prize to be had for Helen. His character significantly reverses the archetypal story of a noble, virtuous man courting a chaste virgin. The audience, rather, must look to Helen who assumes the best qualities associated with manly virtue. And to wit, we must remember that in the original, classical sense, virtue is akin virility as much as it is a moral strength. To this degree, where Helen better embodies this classical ideal lies in her sexual restraint: she is a virgin. Diana, employed to fool lusty Bertram at the designated hour that Helen has devised, serves as a mouthpiece for chaste virtue. She might as well be Helen’s avatar (in a way, she is). In Act Four, Diana tells Bertram that “Mine honor’s such a ring; / My chastity’s the jewel of our house” (4.2.45–46). She cautions Bertram to hold caution in his own affairs, and in this way stands on higher moral ground than Bertram. Although Diana is a relatively minor character in the play, she significantly shows, like Helen, that feminine virtue (chastity) is more unshakable than manly lusts.

In her introduction to the play found in The Norton Critical Edition of Shakespeare (3rd edition), Maus wonders how could the all-too-familiar bed trick work out in Helen’s favor? After all, this maneuver forms the most significant part of Helen’s plan to consummate her marriage with Bertram — making it lawfully legitimate. Still, Maus openly wonders how could “such a maneuver possibly convert anyone, much less Bertram, into a loving husband?” (Maus). Shakespeare’s play does not seem too concerned with answering this question. It does not have to, actually; for this motivation, even if it stands as somewhat defective or weak as far as character motivations go, remains consistent with a story where the characters’actions are misaligned, and at times confounding. A story where nobility may claim itself, but doubt the power of a King’s words; where a woman may be borne of virtuous character, appraised acceptable to the courts, but not become fully apart of it; a world, as we have said, full of cognitive dissonances.

In conclusion, All’s Well’s main, romantic plot suggests that marriage, as an institution that can elevate status, struggles within the morally acceptable boundaries where sexual desires ought to find their place. The play’s tone is sardonic, and pessimistic. In the end, Shakespeare poses hard-to-answer questions: can marriage restore a woman’s dignity or can it elevate both sexes to equal stature? All’s Well may also remind us that the ends might justify the means to love but only if they are ennobled by virtue. Never mind that both hero and heroine live in a society where social titles precede one’s character.

Bibliography

Maus, Katharine. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” The Norton Shakespeare, 3rd ed., edited by, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, et al., W. W. Norton, & Company, 2016. Digital Edition,

https://digital.wwnorton.com/3013/r/goto/cfi/904!/4

Shakespeare, William. All’s Well That Ends Well. The Norton Shakespeare, 3rd ed., edited by,

Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, et al., W. W. Norton, & Company, 2016. Digital Edition,

https://digital.wwnorton.com/3013/r/goto/cfi/904!/4

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Allen Bauman

Allen Bauman

Raconteur and essayist with a funny bone. Educator by profession.