When I was an English major at Whitman College we used to say “a done paper is a good paper.” That wasn’t true and neither is all well that ends well. I found this to be a sour play with a depressing ending a wee bit too close to home.
When it opens, we meet the Countess, her son Bertram and her adopted daughter Helena. We learn that Helena’s father was a brilliant physician who died when Helena was a child. The Countess adopted her and raised her as a much beloved daughter. We learn that Helena never stopped mourning her father: “the tyranny of her sorrows takes all livelihood from her cheek.” And finally we learn that Helena pines after Bertram:
“I think not on my father. . .
I have forgot him. My imagination
carries no favor in’t but Bertam’s. . .
a bright particular star.”
That was all the information I needed. She says she has forgotten her father and clearly she idealizes Bertram. Those are the ingredients for an obsession that a woman might call love but is actually a longing for a father. It’s an obsession one does not easily give up.
Sigmund Freud said that wherever he went he found the poets had preceded him. Even so, I found myself a bit stunned at Shakespeare’s perspicuity in this play. He seems to have an understanding of female sexuality that I’m not sure is even all that common today. It certainly wasn’t mentioned in any commentaries I looked at. They mostly wondered what Helena could possibly see in Bertram. To me it seemed obvious that what she sees is her own idealization since Bertram is vapid, arrogant, and shallow. His own mother sees that. But that is the nature of obsession. One idealizes the object without regard for any clear assessment of his qualities or for how he treats her.
In the second act, Helena goes to the dying king of France with secret medicinal preparations that her doctor father left to her in his will. She thinks she can offer the king a cure. She is introduced to the king by a lord who refers to himself as “Cressid’s uncle.” This would be a reference to Pandarus, the pimp, from Troilus and Cressida. With its hint of sexual exploitation, it further suggests Helena’s fatherless vulnerability to men.
She does provide the cure the king needs and in gratitude, he offers to reward her with whatever she wants. She says she wants to marry Bertram. At this point, I am holding my own head and groaning. Even if Bertram wasn’t a dickhead, this is not the way to experience love in one’s life.
Bertram is appalled. Him marry a doctor’s daughter? He refuses. The king forces the marriage. Bertram leaves for the wars without so much as kissing Helena. He gives her a nasty note saying “when thou canst get the ring from 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.”
This kind of humiliation is nothing to a woman obsessed. Helena is determined to have the object of her obsession. She follows Bertram and meets Diana, a woman with whom he is trying to conduct an affair. Diana persuades Bertram to give her his ring and then the two women hatch The Bed Trick whereby Bertram thinks he is bedding Diana, but Helena slips between the sheets instead. So Bertram is stupid on top of everything else.
When it all gets untangled, Bertram, because he is again forced to by the king, promises to “love her dearly–ever, ever dearly.” Those “evers” sound pretty oily to me. Since Helena finally possesses the object of her obsession and since she says (twice) that all’s well that ends well, scholars and critics have been unable to class this play as a tragedy. I think it’s a tragedy when any person (male or female) thinks so poorly of herself that she settles for a loveless relationship because she thinks this is the best life has to offer.
Here are some lines to throw around at social gatherings:
*Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven. (I, i)
*I should love a bright, particular star. (I, i)
*He must needs go that the devil drives. (I, iii)
*Countess: Marry, that’s a bountiful answer that fits all questions.
LaVatch: It’s like barber’s chair that fits all buttocks. (II, ii)
*The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together. (IV, iii)
*Simply the thing that I am shall make me live. . .there’s place and means for every man alive. (IV, iii)
*All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. (IV, iv)
(It helps here to know that the word fine means “the end,” like the Fine in music. Now read it again. It’s elegant, no? I still don’t think Helena is happy.)