An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525
My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature. His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost (which, strangely, is never called a “problem play”), are his masterworks. All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.
One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda. They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society. In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.
But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage. In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.
Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.
The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her. As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate. A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer. She pursues Bertram relentlessly. As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her. Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play. Quite the opposite, as I shall contend. Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i]. And yet, does obsession ever end?
When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i]. She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.]. Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father… I have forgot him. My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.]. All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.
Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i]. Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status? I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated. I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.
When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii]. Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii]. No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be. Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii]. Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram? Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram. Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him? Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.
The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram. As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play. The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.
And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive. And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.
Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram. Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage. She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].
Why not take Helena at her word? On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her. She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart. On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own. She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law. All’s well that ends well. She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body. Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]? She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband. She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.
It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana. He is revolted by Helena. The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea. Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her. In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii]. He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].
Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century. Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign. However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor. Again, he finds her physically repellent.
Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent. Is this not rape? According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.
And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology? There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother. But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother? They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.
The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v]. Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.
Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv]. Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate. When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.
Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences. Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality. Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors. The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]). The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii]. A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status. One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena. Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.
Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i]. She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays. Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated. His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time. This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii]. The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think. Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL. Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.
For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v]. (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena. Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.) (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena. He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].) Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around. (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.) Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.
Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France. When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more. The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.
When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition. It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.]. It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.
The King is revived from the dead. Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena. Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram. In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena. I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.” The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision. Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority. Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne. This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.
Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction. Desire cannot be systematized. We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.
Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not. Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection. Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her. Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii]. When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired. It is not a statement of resignation. Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal. Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.
It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her. However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy. Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.” Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother. To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement. She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.
Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him. The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective. The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern. Treachery is circular; treason is circular. This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:
We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].
I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves. We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal. As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.” According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603. All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605. If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.
All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves. We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.
Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.
Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse. Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage. She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society. In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong. Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win? Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality? A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else. No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.
Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself. He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.
From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case. In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin. All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner. It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii]. And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v]. “Fine” here means “ending.” The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it. The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning. The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.
No one is innocent, and no one is guilty. Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii]. The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.
One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite. Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii]. Language kills. That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean. When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication. When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.
Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect. For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii]. He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.]. He often cannot finish his sentences. Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis). And yet there is some sense in his nonsense. When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar? When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i]. And yet are they gabbling? Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest. Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble. Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless. There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning. Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.
At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii]. In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.” He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion. Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father. The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test. It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law. Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.
Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage? Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition. But was Kant incorrect? All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing. It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.
When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii]. This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.
“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine]. There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending. Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy. All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well. All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well. All’s ill that ends well.