Helena is the daughter of the recently deceased court physician, Gerard de Narbon, from whom she has learned his healing secrets. She has become the ward of the Countess of Rossillion, with whom she has a very maternal relationship, though she has fallen in love with the countess’s son, Bertram. She is disturbed by the thought of being considered the countess’s daughter, because that would make Bertram her brother and her romantic interest in him would be unseemly. Because of these concerns, she admits her love for Bertram to the countess, who is sympathetic to the girl’s predicament. Helena is admired by nearly everyone except Bertram for her charm, beauty, intelligence, and honesty. Her name, as several characters in the play remind her, is equivocal with Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman of Ancient Greece, over whom the Trojan War was fought.
Helena is tormented by the thought of being separated from Bertram when he departs for Paris. She takes it upon herself, with the countess’s blessing, to travel to Paris in order to heal the king, who is suffering from an incurable condition, but also because it will keep her in proximity to Bertram. She miraculously heals the king and thereby earns his loyalty, admiration, and a valuable ring that figures prominently in the story when the bed-trick is revealed.
Bertram rejects Helena because of her lowborn status. He is a count, and she is a commoner. No matter how virtuous she may be, it would be improper to marry her. Helena understands this, yet she does not accept it. She takes matters into her own hands and hatches a plan: first, to become Bertram’s wife, and second, to fulfill his demands to obtain his ring and bear his child. Even in the face of repeated rejection, she persists in her goals, so strong is her infatuation with Bertram.
Helena has the gift of healing, as did her father, and bets the king her life that she can make him well, another example of her remarkable self-confidence. He accepts the offer, and as a favor in return, Helena asks for Bertram’s hand in marriage. The king readily complies.
Helena is considered the central figure in the play, and all of the major themes of the play (gender issues, desire, the bed-trick, marriage, and social class) are influenced by her actions. As the heroine of All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is often described by admiring commentators as noble, virtuous, honorable, and regenerative, and by detractors as obsessive and narrow-minded. Her dogged pursuit of Bertram has been both ridiculed (particularly in Victorian times) as unfeminine and commended as being bold, mostly in more recent times. Many wonder why she is attracted to a man who does not like her at all. Nearly all critics agree that she is a complex character.
Fraser and others find similarities between Helena and the real-life historical figure Christine de Pisan, an educated woman of the early fifteenth century who was renowned for her piety, goodness, intelligence, and a type of proto-feminism in which she attributed a woman’s success to her own resourcefulness. Additionally, her father was the well-known doctor and astrologer Thomas of Pisano, who had been called upon in 1365 to heal England’s Charles V. Fraser theorizes that Shakespeare added dimension to the character of Helena by making her a knowingly frail character, as evidenced by her pilgrimage to Saint Jacques le Grand. This suggests that though Helena is strong and brave enough to get what she wants (Bertram), she understands her limitations as a person, and possibly her faults (that is, desiring the flawed Bertram is perhaps not the healthiest thing for her). ‘‘Shakespeare’s Helena is frail in that ‘we are all frail,’’’ Fraser writes, ‘‘and it is this generic human frailty that dictates the pilgrimage to Saint Jacques.’’ Irish playwright W. B. Yeats, quoted by Patrick Carnegy in the Spectator, called Helena ‘‘one of Shakespeare’s ‘glorious women who select dreadful or empty men.’’’
Commentators who unequivocally admire Helena find her guiltless in plotting to wed Bertram and in fulfilling the terms of his letter through the bed-trick. One critic even refers to her as a genius. Scholars who are critical of her character find her obsessed by her sexual passion and an example of noble womanhood degraded, using her abilities as a huntress to realize her plans for a union with Bertram with no thought of their consequences to others (primarily Diana).
Most critics, however, see Helena as a manysided character. Several critics have noted her regenerative and restorative powers; she saves the king from almost certain death, but how she does it remains a mystery. She is the key to restoring a kingdom whose noble elders are dying and who have no honorable replacements. When Helena heals the king, she restores the kingdom at least for a time, and saves Bertram (and Diana) from making what would have been a mistake of lifelong regret. She is pregnant at the end of the play, symbolically the provider of a new generation of nobility. Other critics have noted her embodiment of both feminine passivity and masculine action. She is the desiring All’s Well That Ends Well 10 Shakespeare For Students , Second Edition, Volume 1 subject (the pursuer of Bertram), yet she longs to be the desired object (pursued by Bertram).
(extracted from) 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