Marriage is a central element in the construct of Renaissance comedy. In the Shakespearean canon, a number of the comedies include marriages, placing them (or implying that they impend) close to or at the plays’ ends as a reaffirmation, restoration and promise for the continuation of society. Other comedies deal with married women as in The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor; or they move the marriage forward, thus foregrounding it and making it precipitate further action in the main plot as in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing. What makes All’s Well That Ends Well’s foregrounded marriage unique is the undeniable fact that Bertram does not want Helena regardless of how much she wants him or how much the members of the nobility—most notably the King, the Countess, and Lafew— want him to want her. Further, in its institution, its mixing of high personages with low, and the alliances between social groups, the foregrounded marriage in All’s Well That Ends Well subverts the comic by creating discomfiting inversions in the play’s social spheres. While the concept of marriage as regenerative force via Helana’s pregnancy obtains in principle at the end, when the ‘‘broken nuptial’’ comes together, no wonder we, along with the King in the epilogue, feel little if any delight: things but ‘‘seem’’ well; we have no guarantees. We cannot be certain even there that Bertram truly wants her.
A distinction that contributes to my thesis is that All’s Well That Ends Well stands apart from the Shakespearean comedic mainstream in that Helena and Bertram, however estranged their relationship, remain the single couple in the play. Elsewhere Shakespeare provides us with sets of couples: twins who marry and woo in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, two men in pursuit of one woman in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two married women who plot to outwit one man and teach another a lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rosalind and Celia with their loves in As You Like It, and a triad of lovers in The Merchant of Venice. Even Measure for Measure, the play most often closely linked to All’s Well That Ends Well, provides us pairings. All’s Well That Ends Well gives us two windows, a virgin, and a wife in name only. While all these pairings deal with power in relationships, they do not constitute the exact marked hierarchies of power that All’s Well That Ends Well presents to us.
The foregrounded marriage in All’s Well That Ends Well differs from those in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing in origination and ordination. While Kate in The Taming of the Shrew has no more choice than does Bertram about whom each marries (Baptista and Petruchio merely strike a bargain as do the King and Helena), Petruchio and Kate as a pair remain this play’s focal point. We observe the battle of wit and will between them, and the entire fourth act centers on them. Whether we grant or disallow the concept of mutuality of consent, whether the production relies on Zefferellian horseplay or a more restrained production concept, The Taming of the Shrew provokes laughter—the sine qua non of the comic—because of the physical and verbal interaction between the principal characters. The same holds true for Much Ado about Nothing. Like Kate and Petruchio, Beatrice and Benedick command our attention, their wit and wordplay amuse and distract us, and they are more interesting to us than the play’s other couple Claudio and Hero. Even in that relationship, the comedy of Much Ado about Nothing remains more comic than does All’s Well That Ends Well. Claudio and Hero agree to marry, an important distinction between their relationship and that of Helena and Bertram. The distasteful circumstances of the broken nuptial notwithstanding, the separation between Claudio and Hero fails to disrupt wholly the play’s overall comic spirit for two reasons: first, we know Dogberry and the Watch hold the key to reconciliation; second, as well as more important, the comic Beatrice and Benedick remain our primary focal point.
Helena and Bertram appear on stage together in but five scenes. Their exchanges generally indicate the dynamic of power in their relationship as Helena oozes subservience to her lord and master, while Bertram, until the final scene, plays his superiority, both of class and gender, for all it’s worth. In three scenes where they appear together, they speak to or about one another but engage in no dialogue. In 1.1 Bertram in one and a half lines commands that Helena, ‘‘Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, / And make much of her’’ (76– 77). In 2.3 she subserviently offers herself to him in two and a half lines:
I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power
The remainder of this scene has them each talking to the King, but not to one another. In a third scene (3.5), Helena merely views Bertram from a distance as the army passes and asks about him. Only two scenes have them exchanging dialogue. In 2.5, comprising thirty-five lines, Bertram, without having consummated the marriage and refusing Helena’s modest request for a departing kiss, dismisses his bride by sending her back to Rossillion. His language is primarily in the command form, hers acquiescent. She comes ‘‘as [she] was commanded from [him]’’ (2.5.54). She declares herself Bertram’s ‘‘most obedient servant’’ in a scene that allows for no possible irony (2.5.72). Even when she musters the courage to hint at a parting kiss, she hesitates and stumbles as a young woman very much in love and unsure of herself. In 5.3, the reconciliation, they exchange two lines each, and arguably Bertram’s ‘‘If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly’’ is addressed more to the King than to Helena. These two encounters comprise but thirty-nine lines all told.
All’s Well That Ends Well remains a comedy in structure, yet Helena’s agency in the enforced marriage, as well as the subsequent separation and ploys, distances us from the comic. Other elements distance us as well. When the Countess learns that Helena loves Bertram, we have the perfect occasion for a traditional blocking figure, but no. The Countess not only enjoys, but also encourages Helena in her aspirations. No witty bantering about sex, love, fidelity in wedlock—that which might create the comic within the matrix of comedy—takes place between Helena and Bertram, the play’s only couple. Certainly some comic playfulness occurs within the play. No one will deny its presence in the virginity dialogue between Helena and Parolles, nor in the choosing scene as Helena walks from budding youth to budding youth before ‘‘giving’’ herself to Bertram, nor in Parolles’s humiliation. Nevertheless, what lightness exists remains apart from the focal couple. Of added significance is how little of the playfulness associated with earlier comedies takes place among the women. Beyond the Countess’ hope for Helena’s love, her brief acknowledgement of her own past, and her teasing in the ‘‘I say I am your mother’’ dialogue (1.3), women’s dialogue as they assess man’s fecklessness has a more brittle edge than do similar assessments given in the earlier comedies.
Helena’s actions set her apart from her Shakespearean sisters. Other independently acting heroines—Viola, Rosalind, Portia—play at their love-games and are, in some cases, willing to leave Time to fadge things out. They also employ masculine disguise to effect the amount of control or empowerment they enjoy. Helena does what she does without disguise. In some respects Helena and Portia are the most closely akin. Portia is willing to comply with her father’s will; Helena is willing to submit herself to Bertram’s. Both work purposefully to achieve their goals. However close that kinship, differences obtain. Allies from the play’s outset, Portia and Nerissa plot to test true love’s faith; Helena, who must create her allies, has yet to gain mere acceptance as wife. To achieve her goals, she acts with what Western culture sees as male prerogatives. As A. P. Riemer has said, she acts with a ‘‘male purposefulness’’ (Riemer 1975–76, 54). In order for her to succeed undisguised, she must perform these actions in a way that the empowering male structure (i.e., the King and Lafew as members of the ancien re´gime) fails to recognize as violating sex or class differences.
In All’s Well That Ends Well Helena follows Bertram to Paris. There she originates the marriage by striking a bargain with the King and curing him. Unlike the other pairings and marriages in the comedies, however, no tacit nor overt mutuality exists between this nuptial pair. Here the King must ordain an enforced marriage of his ward Bertram to comply with the terms of the bargain. Such ordination violates the usual circumstances that we find in the festive comedies. In those comedies, ordination, directed against a woman, may initiate the flight from authority into the saturnalian world of comic license.
Bertram’s response to the King’s command is like that of Silvia or Hermia: forced into marriage ordained against his will, a marriage that is originated by a spouse who is not loved, he runs away, as do the heroines. Bertram’s running away to Florence offers a different kind of escape from that of the heroines. Not only is his escape to a city but to one associated with sexual licentiousness. The King himself warns his courtiers against ‘‘Those girls of Italy.’’ When Helena discovers Bertram in Florence, she entraps him by means of the bed trick, which inverts predicated male-female sex roles just as ‘‘girl gets boy’’ inverts what we would recognize as the cliche´d phrasing. Her action substitutes the legal for the licentious. Helena entraps Bertram a second time as well in 5.3 by her further employment of Diana before the King. Even the King becomes confused as Helena employs her skills. What allows everyone to escape prison is Helena’s ability to use the language of empowerment without disturbing the status quo.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007
Mary Free, ‘‘All’s Well That Ends Well as Noncomic Comedy,’’ in Acting Funny: Comic Theory and Practice in Shakespeare’s Plays, edited by Frances Teague, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994, pp. 41–45.