All's Well That Ends Well
Recently picked up a collection of material on the Bard's Comedies. Read an essay of interest on AWTEW. Figured the notes may be of interest to someone out there.
The juxtaposition of the social problem of high birth versus native merit and the human problem of unrequited love recalls the story of the sonnets.
Speeches by Helena contain echoes of the Sonnets
Story to which her speeches are loosely tied does not suit their dramatic
Illustrates the nature of social distinctions, of which the personal situation
Only serves as example
Helena’s speech to the countess is the poetic centre of the play
King’s judgment on virtue and nobility are the structural centre
For once in Shakespeare, the poet and the dramatist were pulling different ways
AWTEW expresses in its title a hope that is not fulfilled; all did not end well, and it is not a successful play.
This was an attempt to write a moral play, and because there was no use of allegorically designed characters it fails.
All of the characters have symbolic and extra-personal significance
When compared to Measure for Measure this play appears more confused in purpose, more drab and depressing, if less squalid
Both plays are concerned with what Bacon called Great Place; the one with
The nature and use of power, the other with the nature and grounds of true
King becomes Vox Dei ----> he is merely a voice
At times though, we see deep personal feelings break
This play has its roots in Painter’s translation of Boccaccio.
Great plot description of this play in the article
The Elizabethan code of honor supposed a gentleman to be absolutely incapable of a lie
In law his word without an oath was in some places held to be sufficient
To give the lie was the deadliest of all insults and could not be wiped out except ‘ in blood.
Honor was irretrievably lost only by lies and cowardice ---> more disgraceful than
any crime of violence.
This is not the case with Bertram ---> he is the only hero guilty of the lie
Parolles (or Wordy) is perceived in the end by Bertram himself to be a lie incarnate
The Countess as seen him from the beginning as such: III, ii. 90-92
Even Helena refers to him as “a notorious liar”
Bertram is gulled by Parolles by pure flattery
Shakespeare seems to stand out from Chapman, Jonson, and Middleton in the use
Of the flatterer as a character
The flatterer in Elizabethan times was a figure to be feared and looked down upon
Flatter thrives on detraction, and Parolles’ evil speaking, which finally exposes him, has been anticipated by his double-dealing with Helena and LaFeu.
The perfect courtier was required to be witty, full of counsel and of jests, skilled in music and poetry, a horseman, and a patron of all noble science.
Should also be ambitious of honor, truthful and loyal, kindly and modest.
His life was devoted to glory, and his reward was good fame
As the king was the fount of honor, the young noble’s place was at court; but vanity and corruption of court life were especially dangerous for the young.
The scramble for the preferment of the king was a dangerous game where one
may lose everything
Looking at Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again one can see the glories
And miseries of the court
A sick or aging ruler left the courtiers exposed to all the natural dangers of the
place without restraint.
This is the situation depicted in the beginning of AWTEW
When court is reached in play, all the virtuous characters turn out to be elderly
King describes the perfect courtier as Bertram’s father (I, ii, 18-21)
The speech by King in I, ii. 26 illustrates the embodiment of true nobility
Parolles claims to be courtier and soldier, but his courtliness is entirely speech, as his soldier ship is entirely dress.
Helena is of gentle, though not of noble blood, and all the other young nobles who have been offered to her have been ready to accept her.
Aristotle had said that Nobility consisted in virtue and ancient riches.
Lord Burghley lopped down the phrase to “Nobility is nothing but ancient riches”
King could confer nobility upon anyone, gentility was sometimes held to be
Conferred only by descent ---> “The King cannot make a gentleman”
The idea of nobility could cover, for a period of time, the lack of gentility
Education and example of his ancestors would help the nobleman, but a bad
Education might corrupt him entirely.
Desert for virtue is Helena’s claim to Bertram.
In Helena and Bertram true and false nobility are in contest.
Helena seeks recognition; Bertram denies it
King, Countess, and LaFeu are judges of this
These two are compared and judged throughout the play by these three
Shakespeare removes a good deal of the sting out of the situation by making his social climber a woman.
Helena’s virtues were derived from her father and from heaven
Almost driven off by her first rejection by the King, she responds with a warning to the King that it is presumption to think Heaven cannot work through the weak.
By Bertram’s refusal to notice the divine behind Helena only highlights his follies
His refusal to consummate the marriage plays further more into this.
Bertram rejects Helena not because he naturally dislikes her, but because he knows her as his mother’s servant.
No honor won by the sword could hide his shame in rejecting Helena
Bertram’s “folly” though excused as the fault of Parolle’s ill counsel remains in the eyes of LaFeu a blot upon his honor.
However much Bertram wronged his King, his mother, and his wife it is himself that he has hurt the most.
Like the rings of Bassanio and Portia, the jewels which are bandied about in the last scene are symbolic of a contract and an estate life.
The ring symbolizes all that Bertram has thrown away
Medieval tradition recognized three classes of nobility: 1) Christian
The necessary outcome or effect of Nobility is Virtue: where Virtue exists, Nobility must therefore exist as its cause.
Nobility descends upon an individual by the grace of God and is “the seed of blessedness dropped by God into a rightly placed soul”.
Helena is a jewel which Bertram throws away ---> his rejection of her must no been seen isolation but as linked with his choice of Parolles.
The first dialogue between him, Helena and Parolles must be seen as the good angel/bad angel we see common in Early modern and Medieval Literature.
If this was a morality play they would contend in open for his soul
The finale with a royal judgment, and a distribution of rewards and punishments was a well-established comic convention.
Bertram’s conversion must be marked as one of Helena’s miracles
It is not important that she is happy with Bertrand, the importance seems to stem from the King’s recognition of her nobility.