All’s Well That Ends Well — Gender bender: Bertram and Helena

I can’t help but think that Shakespeare toys with our gender expectations in the first half of All’s Well That Ends Well. Helena seems to take on the more stereotypical masculine actions while Bertram seems almost demure and feminine in his reactions.

Beyond Helena’s almost Hamlet-like first line in the play (the aside “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I.i.53-4])–and even in that comparison, she takes on a male analog–her first speech is a soliloquy that reveals her love for Bertram. I’ve been racking my brain, thinking back on the other lovesick couples in the Canon thus far. If recollection serves, I believe the vast majority of lovers who first declare their love are from the male side of the equation (and please correct me if you think I’ve gotten something wrong here):

  • Antipholus of Syracuse to Luciana in The Comedy of Errors;
  • Petruchio to Kate (kinda) in The Taming of the Shrew;
  • Love’s Labor’s Lost is kind of a toss-up, I think)
  • Proteus to Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona;
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a wacky mixed-up melange;
  • Romeo to Juliet;
  • Bassanio to Portia (or at least he states his purpose to “win” her) in The Merchant of Venice;
  • Henry to Katherine (kinda) in Henry V;
  • Mistress Anne Page seems to buck the trend in The Merry Wives of Windsor (but only because she has so many suitors);
  • Rosalind and Orlando another toss-up in As You Like It;
  • Claudio and a tricked Benedick to Hero and a further tricked Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing;
  • Orsino to Olivia (though then Viola–but dressed as a boy!–to Orsino) in Twelfth Night; and
  • finally Troilus to Cressida.

I know that ran a bit long, but you get the point: usually it’s the male half who first states his love (or at least his plan for love).

As All’s Well That Ends Well opens, Bertram is a “ward” (I.i.5) to the king. Helena herself is a ward to the Countess of Rossillion, just as a few women before her in the Canon, Rosalind to her uncle in As You Like It, and possibly Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (can anyone tell me why Beatrice is in that Messina household?). Again, I can’t really think of a male ward in the Canon thus far. Possibly Hamlet (being publicly named by Claudius as his successor could be seen as making him his ward, I guess), but regardless he is in a subordinate position, the “evermore subjection” (I.i.5) that Bertram laments. It’s usually the female character who is subjected to this (think Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Portia in The Merchant of Venice).

In this play, however, Helena is no mere subject, she’s the character with a “project” (I.i.226), for which she has the tools, “a remedy, approved, set down, // To cure” (I.iii.224-5) the king. She is special. Lafew calls her the “Doctor She!” (II.i.80) and it is the capitalized “She” that matters (not the exclamation point, as that changes between editions, while the capitalization doesn’t). She is unlike the other doctors, she is unlike the other “she”s. Helena has the courage to go beyond what is usually expected of a woman (even she calls it “a strumpet’s boldness” [II.i.172]… and isn’t it interesting that she uses a term to mean “a debauched or unchaste woman” [“strumpet, n. ; a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 10 September 2015.], when the expectation for the males in the play is less than chaste). Regardless, emboldened by her self and empowered by the king, she even chooses her own husband.

She is the agent of change, she acts.

Bertram, on the other hand, is the acted upon. Instead of being able to “use // The help of (his) own eyes” (II.iii.106-7) in the choosing of his bride, he is the chosen one. And like Hippolyta (is she really a willing bride in A Midsummer Night’s Dream more than a spoil of war?) before him, he has no choice but to consent to the enforced wedding. Then like Rosalind and Celia, his own recourse is flight, only his is to the war and not the woods. He isn’t “man” enough to tell those affected by his flight face-to-face; instead he has Parolles deliver letters with “that which (he) durst not speak” (II.iii.287). Where Helena is bold enough to act, Bertram dares not to even speak. Bertram’s only agency in the play is that which his biological gender allows him to do: the bedding of Diana. Not surprisingly, he references this deed as “the greatest” (IV.iii.90) of his actions, as it’s his only male act of play. While there are reports of a “French count (doing) honorable service” (III.v.3), it’s only reported, not seen (just as his “greatest” deed is unstaged). Interestingly, both take place in the second half of the play.

With Helena’s own flight from Rossillion, on a supposed pilgrimage from which she will feign death, her “masculine” actions end. While she does put into motion the plot to execute the Bed Trick, she is no longer an actor. At best, she becomes a playwright of the play Diana will perform. Helena gets to say the title of the play (one of the few times I can recollect in the Canon that the title is pronounced during the play), but this feels again like the work of a playwright, not an actor: words, not deeds. By the play’s end, even that role seems diminished: she is expected to explain all “this clearly” (V.iii.312), but she’s never given the opportunity.

All’s Well That Ends Well begins with our two major characters acting with swapped gender expectations. It ends with neither acting their stereotypical role, nor its opposite. If Shakespeare has set us up in the first half of the play, what do we make of the second half? What is the pay-off for this set-up?

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