All’s Well That Ends Well: the Age of …

Yesterday, I looked at some of the references to father(-figure)s in All’s Well That Ends Well, in the not-quite-endless variety: dead, (seemingly) dying, and/or lacking in judgment (particularly in regards to their power over the generation that follows). And looking back on that sentence, it appears I love both dashes and parentheses. Anyway, today I want to ponder not just the dying but the aging, not just fathers, but mothers, too.

Before one can become a mother, however, she must have sex. No, this is not a late re-entry into the orifice that is Bawdy in the Bard. It’s a reference to what Parolles calls “your old virginity” (I.i.161). He likens virginity to “an old courtier, (who) wears her cap out of fashion” (I.i.157), a fitting simile for one who himself is quite concerned with fashion (as exposed by Lafew in the next act). Yes, old virginity, like “our French withered pear; it looks ill… it was formerly better” (I.i.161-2,163). Age is bad, according to Parolles, while youth–age’s formerly better incarnation–is good.

The members of that elder generation seem to agree. The king laments how “haggish time (did) steal on” (I.ii.29) both himself and Bertram’s father. Here, a “hag” is not merely an “ugly, repulsive old woman” (“hag, n.1.3.a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 9 September 2015), but an “evil spirit, dæmon, or infernal being, in female form” (“hag, n.1.1.a.” OED Online.). The effect of age isn’t just old, but evil.

Age is a thief, too, and “the old Lord Lafew” (III.vi.99) must admit that he is no longer able to physically beat Parolles as he would want: “for doing I am past, as I will by thee, in what motion age will give me leave” (II.iii.231-2). Remember the importance of names here: Lafew is an Anglicization of the French Lafeu. In French, feu also has two meanings: as a noun, it can mean “fire” or “stove burner”; as an adjective, it means “late” as in recently deceased. He is still fiery, but he’s old, almost “late.” He’s so close in age to death, in fact, that Diana uses his age as a joke to prove her chastity: “I am either maid, or else this old man’s wife” (V.iii.290).

On the other side of the gender divide, Parolles refers to the countess as “old lady” (II.iv.19), as opposed to Helena’s youthful “fortunate lady” (II.iv.14). Of course, the countess doesn’t deny his opinion as she describes herself to her steward, saying, “My heart is heavy, and mine age is weak” (III.iv.41). Within moments of this self-evaluation, we get the entrance of a new character whom Shakespeare’s stage directions describe as “old Widow of Florence” (III.v opening stage direction). When the widow later introduces herself to the king, it is that “age” with which she primarily describes herself before her “honor” (both V.iii.161).

If age defines their generation (and not necessarily in a positive way), then their view of the younger one is not exactly glowing, either. To the king, Bertram is a “proud scornful boy” (II.iii.150); to his mother, a “rash and unbridled boy” (III.ii.27); and to Parolles, “a foolish idle boy…a dangerous and lascivious boy” (IV.iii.211, 216). Bertram is a boy: not a man to have sex with (“to mell with” [IV.iii.224]), but a boy “not (worthy) to kiss” (IV.iii.224).

Question: Is all this “boy Bertram” talk meant to soften our feelings toward him, to make him more palatable as a groom for our heroine? And just what in the name of all that is holy does she see in him? Or is that youthful foolishness on her part as well?

Those two are young, but as the play nears its end, the king proclaims,

For we are old, and on our quick’st decrees
Th’ inaudible and noiseless foot of time
Steals ere we can effect them.
  • V.iii.40-2

Because of his age and nearness to the end of his life, even what he (and though he uses the royal “we,” my opinion is that he’s speaking for his entire generation) does quickly is no match for time and its effect on life. The countess feels this, too, as she “rejoices” that she will see her son again “ere (she) die(s)” (both IV.v.82). Is it any surprise then Helena’s final line, to her mother–both surrogate and -in-law–is “O my dear mother, do I see you living?” (V.iii.316). It’s a question that mixes unintended biting humor and loving concern, care shown for this elder generation only by Helena.

It is Helena, our young heroine, the womb carrying–and thus the only link to–the next generation, who brings together past and future, who is most perfectly positioned to comment upon age. For Helena, age is linked with “honor” (I.iii.206) and “experience th’only darling” (II.i.108), and she with her unborn child represents the best hope for the future, once the aged pass from the earth.

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