All’s Well: A Male Power Play

Yesterday, I touched on the subject of subjection in All’s Well That Ends Well. Today, I want to flip that coin, and look not so much at submission but rather at the imposition of power, especially male power.

Within seconds of play’s opening, we see the our first aspect of male power. With the old Count of Rossillion dead, the king calls for his son Bertram to be his ward, effectively becoming his “father” (I.i.7), but just as importantly a “husband” (I.i.6) to his mother. This is the essence of male power: to reign over wife and children, just as a king reigns over his nation.

But it’s not just a king who has such power. Even Lavatch the clown knows that men are ranked above women. He laughs at the idea “that a man should be at woman’s command, and yet no hurt done!” (I.ii.90-1). Only bad things (“hurt”) can come from a woman giving commands. The countess understands this, knowing that a man, even an employee (the house physician), may “bequeath” (I.ii.98) his daughter to her own care. A father may leave his children to anyone he wishes for their care, it seems, without the new caretaker’s consent.

And this child? Even though her father, remembered “admiringly” (I.i.28) by others, had “left (her) some prescriptions // Of rare and proved effects” (I.iii.117-8), she cannot expect to be respected as much as her father, a man. Or any man, really: the countess questions,

 How shall the (other male doctors) credit
A poor unlearnèd virgin, when the schools
Emboweled of their doctrine have left off
The danger to itself?
  • I.iii.235-8

The only entré into the king’s court is by her relation to her father, certainly not the skills she may have on her own.

When the king agrees to allow her to try her cure on him, he gives her an ultimatum: she “ministers (her) own death if (he) die(s)” (II.i.187). Now, that’s power: the ability to say help me or die.

But more about that later.

Of course, when she succeeds, he can’t kill her; instead, in thanks, he can extend his “sovereign power and father’s voice” (II.iii.53) on her behalf. Note the–literally–paternal bent his show of support takes.

Bertram, the chosen, wants to use the power his gender affords him in such matters: “to use // The help of (his) own eyes” (II.iii.106-7). Bertram feels, as a man, that he should be able to choose his own bride, especially in terms of stature. He disdains her rank as “a poor physician’s daughter” (II.iii.114), a status even Helena must admit in her first soliloquy when she refers to him as “so above” (I.i.89) her. There is a definite hierarchy involved here, from king to subject. Likewise, there is another difference in status, from husband to wife, one to which Helena willingly submits. When Bertram tells Helena, “You must not marvel, Helen, at my course” (II.v.57) of action, he is essentially telling her what she is allowed to think. For him to even consider saying this, he must be certain of this difference in status between men and women. His certainty is not ill-founded, as Helen responds as his “most obedient servant” (II.v.71), “I shall not break your bidding, good my lord” (II.v.87).

Bertram, even when married, feels the right or power to attempt to seduce the virgin Diana and “flesh… his will in the spoil of her honor” (IV.iii.16). This is why he voices no regret of what he’s done. He feels none as he’s only taken what his gender has given him power over. Man is greater than woman–why else would the insult he pays to Parolles–”he weeps like a wench” (IV.iii.106)–take on such a degrading feminine slant.

In terms of marriage, unless the woman is empowered by the king, the bride is something to be bartered, as Lafew proves when he “moved the king (his) master to speak in behalf of (his) daughter” (IV.v.69-70) to be Bertram’s new (next) wife. It’s funny to see that after the king “hath promised” (IV.v.73) the make the marriage happen, Lafew asks the countess, “How does your ladyship like it?” (IV.v.75). As if her disagreement (or that of Lafew’s daughter) would carry any weight with the two men.

When the king meets Diana, he is at first moved by what he perceives is a wrong against her. Her double-speak when later answering (or more precisely not answering) his questions, however, causes him to state, “Take her away, I do not like her now” (V.iii.278); worse, he says that if she doesn’t answer the question regarding the ring, she “diest within this hour” (V.iii.281). Sound familiar? If Helena didn’t cure the king, she would have secured her own death. The king is more than willing to snuff out the life of a woman who fails to cure him (something his male physicians could not accomplish) or answer his question clearly (as Parolles was unwilling to do). Yet when Bertram defies the king and his power, the king merely threatens to “throw (Bertram) from (the king’s) care forever” (II.iii.161). Exile is the extent of the king’s “revenge and hate” (II.iii.163) toward a male; death the punishment for a woman he “do(es) not like.” The difference is striking.

All of this wouldn’t be so bad if the king saw the errors of his ways, if he learned a lesson from all this, but he doesn’t. In his last speech of the play, he offers to “pay th(e) dower” of Diana if she will “choose … (her) husband (both V.iii.324). The king is willing to force his will upon a new husband in the name of another woman, virtually ensuring the restart of this cycle of pseudo-comedy.