All’s Well… Subject-ively speaking

Yesterday, I looked at the concept of marriage (if not wedded bliss) in All’s Well That Ends Well. Today, I want to look at a subject that in other plays can be inextricably tied to matrimony: subjection.

[see what I did there? subject… subjection]

The concept of subjection is raised in only the second speech of the play as Bertram tells his mother, “I must attend his majesty’s command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection” (I.i.4-5). While this is the only time the root “subject” is used in the play, it certainly isn’t the last we’ll hear of the concept. The same “submission, obedience; homage” (“subjection, n; 1” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 27 August 2015.) Bertram owes the king is on display in their first meeting when the young count’s greeting to the monarch is “My thanks and duty are your majesty’s” (I.ii.23).

Bertram later attempts to shake off this subjection when, in his denial of Helena’s proposal, he tells the king, “I cannot love her, nor will strive to do’t” (II.iii.144). This is no mere denial (cannot love) but an insubordinate refusal (nor will strive). This is not accepted well by the king, and after being threatened with the king’s “revenge and hate” (II.iii.163), Bertram relents, “I submit // My fancy to your eyes” (II.iii.166-7). His use here is interesting: it is the second of only two uses of the word “submit” (or its variants) in the play. The other comes earlier in the scene when Lafew, in speaking of the “miracle” (II.iii.1) about the king’s restoration of health, says that modern man protects himself

into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear
  • II.iii.4-6

Submission is man’s correct response to a greater force. This is the truth of Lafew’s older generation (who, of course, wants the younger generation’s submission).

The same submissive hierarchy is not limited to a subject-to-king relationship, but also to wife-to-husband. When Parolles delivers to Helena the news that the consummation of their marriage is delayed and that she must wait for Bertram, she responds, “In everything I wait upon his will” (II.iv.54), and that she “shall not break (Bertram’s) bidding” (II.v.87), statements of total subjection and befitting her self-proclaimed position of “most obedient servant” (II.v.71).

The last overt statement of subjection comes at the close of the letter Bertram sends his mother, “My duty to you” (III.ii.24). If that feels tossed off, purely perfunctory, I’d argue that’s the intention. This subjection is just “some necessity or obligation” (“subjection, n; 4.b” OED Online.), not the willing subjection of earlier. Interesting that this weaker statement is made by Bertram to his mother, to the generation that came before him.

From this point on, through the second half of the play, this younger generation will attempt to break free of these subjections. Helena will no longer wait patiently for Bertram; instead, she is willing to break convention (and even commit “a sinful fact” [III.vii.47]) to create a marriage which has been denied her. Bertram will attempt to break free of his servitude to the king by fighting in a non-sanctioned war for the Duke of Florence, and break the vows of the marriage he was subjected to join.

“All yet seems well” (V.iii.329) at the end of the play. So says the king, the no-longer-dying remnant of the older generation. What does that bode for the generation of Helena and Bertram (or for that of their unborn child, for that matter)?