All's Well That Ends Well - Stephen Orgel, William Shakespeare For me All’s Well That Ends Well is an ironic title. At its conclusion, events appear to have concluded successfully but you can’t help but wonder how long anyone’s happiness is going to last. This is especially true in the case of Helena and Bertram. How likely is it that after five acts of boorish, callow and mendacious behavior Bertram will love Helena “dearly, ever, ever dearly” (Act 5, scene 3)? (I can only hope that, having grown up with him, Helena can see something worthwhile in Bertram that readers/audiences cannot.)

But that aside, Helena – the daughter of a poor, but brilliant and now dead physician and the just-as-good-as-adopted child of Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Roussillon – is one of the strongest female characters in the canon, and she doesn’t even have to dress up as a man to accomplish her plan. For whatever reason (and we’ll accept that she has a good one), Helena loves Bertram but realizes that she can never marry because their social positions are too far apart:

“O, were that all! I think not on my father;
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him: my imagination
Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s.
I am undone: there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. ‘Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. ‘Twas pretty, though plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
Of every line and trick of his sweet favor:
But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his reliques.”
(Act 1, scene 1)

Events conspire, however, to aid her: Bertram becomes a ward of the King of France, who lies mortally ill. Helena goes to the court armed with her father’s wisdom and cures the king. In his gratitude, he grants her wish to choose a husband from among his wards, and she chooses Bertram.

Which sits not well with the man:

“KING: Thou know’st she has raised me from my sickly bed.

BERTRAM: But follows it, my lord, to bring me down
Must answer for your raising? I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father’s charge.
A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever!”
(Act 2, scene 3)

He vows that he will never bed her, and will only acknowledge her his wife when she can take a ring from his finger while abed and conceives a child by him.

The marriage sits so ill with Bertram that he flees the country to the war in Tuscany. There, Bertram falls in lust with a widow’s daughter, Diana, whose mother just happens to be the host of Helena, who has come to Florence disguised as a pilgrim. Helena conceives of a plot to trick Bertram into her bed using Diana as the lure.

The plot succeeds brilliantly and Bertram’s perfidy is exposed before the king and his mother, and Helena gets her desire – becoming the wife in all senses of the word of Bertram.

I haven’t even mentioned the second plot involving Bertram’s man, Paroles, or the trenchant comments of the Clown, Lavache, or the king’s speeches on age and growing old. But there were two things (out of all the themes and meanings one might perceive) that struck me most in this first reading of the play. The first was the wealth of strong women (none of whom had to dress like men): Helena (as mentioned), the Countess and Diana. The second thing that struck me was the idea that the ends justified any means, most clearly expressed by Helena in Act 4, scene 4: “All’s well that ends well: still the fine’s the crown; / Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.”

I read this play in conjunction with Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, after reading Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare, Sex, & Love, and am glad I did. All the sexual themes Wells raised in his book are there, of course, but they’re also examples of Shakespeare’s extraordinary breadth since they deal with themes of age, politics, friendship and loyalty, justice and mercy, among others that I’m sure are there but that I’m not in the correct frame of mind to perceive.

I like ambiguity, and one of the things Shakespeare excels at (and why I like him) is that he raises questions about what it means to be human but never makes the mistake of answering them. Each reader or member of the audience must wrestle with how they would respond in like circumstances and acknowledge the grey areas in any situation.