In contrast to six prior productions of The Taming of the Shrew, the Festival has produced All’s Well that Ends Well only once before. G.B. Harrison, mid-century scholar and editor, wrote, “The play seems never to have been popular; scholars have found no contemporary mention or quotation. . . . [It] is rarely acted, and it has seldom received much praise from critics” (Shakespeare, The Complete Works [Harcourt, 1980] 1018-19). The great Samuel Johnson despised Bertram, the “hero” of the play, as “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth, who married Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate” (quoted in Harrison, 1019). Helena, the “heroine,” equally questionably, poses as strumpet to get pregnant by a man who has already insultingly rejected her, married her under great duress, then run away to war to avoid being with her. So, we must ask, is either Helena or Bertram heroic; or are they even worth having?
Why would Helena even want Bertram, much less chase him around Europe to sneak into his bed? True, her “bed trick” saves Bertram from an adulterous affair inspired by youth, hot blood, and Parolles. Yet until the last scene, when Bertram expresses dismay at the supposed death of Helena and attempts feeble amends, hardly a soul in the play has said anything positive about him. The countess, the king, and Lafew soundly criticize him; what makes Helena so dense?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that, in this play at least, Shakespeare’s time teeters between modern ideas and medieval traditions it had not yet sloughed. Helena represents the modern view that merit is measured by individual achievement, while Bertram carries the weight of tradition. The countess praises Helena’s education, natural qualities, “fair gifts,” and straightforwardness: “she derives [inherits] her honesty and achieves her goodness” (l.l.44-51). Helena, although acknowledging rank—“he is so above me” (1.1.98) and “I am from humble, he from honored name” (1.3.162)—uses her medical skills as an excuse to follow Bertram to Paris, and then to secure him as husband when emboldened to exact a reward for healing the king. She seeks love, not social mobility when she makes her request, but she can accept mobility as an earned reward.
On the other hand, Bertram does not reject Helena as a childhood playmate, nor does he object to her person, but to her class. He answers the king: “But follows it, my lord, to bring me down / Must answer for your raising? . . . / A poor physician’s daughter my wife!” (2.3.119-22). The fact that she grew up in his parents’ home, heals the king, and is dearly beloved of his mother cannot mitigate her deficiency of status.
Bertram represents the ancient tradition of the Great Chain of Being, composed of links ranging in order from the least significant (mote) to the greatest (God). The Great Chain ranks humans between angels and animals, and just as some species of animals seem superior to others, medieval Christians found nine orders of angels. Why, then, should not humans belong to superior or inferior “species” along the Chain? In this system, they did: monarchs shared divinity, higher nobility shared less, lesser nobility even less, and so on down the social scale to where the lowest of us more nearly resembled animals. This hierarchy, moreover, was not entirely social, but expressed God’s order, with those more like Him at the top.
Everything about Bertram in the early scenes adheres to this tradition. Because his father has died and he has not yet reached majority (or maturity, either, it seems), he becomes a ward of the king. As only son, he inherits the title and lands; and, without an adult male to guide him, the nearest worthy mentor for a young man of his status is the king.
As ward, he owes obedience to his guardian, just as he would as son to his father. Further, as subject, he owes obedience to the king. Both these powers are expressed when the king says: “This youthful parcel/ Of noble bachelors stand at my bestowing,/ O’er whom both sovereign power and father’s voice/ I have to use” (2.3.58-61). We consider Bertram snobbish to refuse Helena, but to Shakespeare’s audience, refusing one’s guardian was sinful pride and disobedience; refusing the king amounted to treason, punishable by death.
Bertram’s dilemma pits a direct order of his king and guardian against a popular belief in which he has been well-trained because of his rank in the upper-nobility. The only way he can avoid execution is to marry outside his class; by leaving with the military immediately after his wedding, he satisfies both the king’s demand and the sanctity of his own blood, though at the expense of his title and estates.
Helena’s view that she can “earn” a husband, even though supported by the king and the countess, is as presumptuous as Bertram’s refusal. By becoming a pilgrim, Helena takes responsibility for Bertram’s refusal to return to France if she is there. Outside France, her survival choices are a religious life or a husband. She announces that she is headed for the former, while she, in fact, goes for the latter. Bertram’s challenge provides the rules (the ring and his begotten child) and piques her cleverness as one of Shakespeare’s most determined heroines.
Most important for Helena, however, are the rights due her as a legal wife, the consummation of her love for Bertram. As the wife of a count, she no longer lacks means to live, but she does lack, as Parolles calls it while explaining Bertram’s departure for Florence, “the great prerogative and rite of love, / Which, as your due, time claims, he does acknowledge” (2.4.41-43).
The coincidence that the widow who helps Helena trick Bertram is the mother of Bertram’s dalliance is perhaps a sign that Providence is aiding Helena in her lawful pursuit. That the widow and Diana believe her stretches credibility; but, as Diana is namesake of the goddess of virginity, she might happily preserve her own by joining the scheme. With the widow and Diana as “bawds,” Helena gets the heirloom ring and conceives Bertram’s child.
So, is Helena worth having? She more than matches Bertram in intelligence and commitment. Devoting herself so intensely to winning the game wherein he is the prize, she becomes a greater prize than he. According to popular tales of clever women in love, once she is married, she is entitled to her rights and rites as a wife, by whatever means she obtains them. Harrison adds, “If she is forced into trickery, that is the fault of her husband” (1019).
And, is Bertram worth having? In a traditional way, yes. He’s a count. He has money and property. He is humbled by Helena’s supposed death and overwhelmed by her meeting his challenge. Also, his waywardness is attributed to his youth; and, in the absence of Parolles, the true scoundrel of the piece, he may yet grow up.
We should also look at Shakespeare’s title for this troubling tale: All’s Well that Ends Well translates to “the ends justify the means.” For that theme, the play is perfect.