The last play we discussed, Troilus and Cressida, was a kind of anti-comedy, where if marriage wasn’t a non-issue, then it was the root of a problem (Helen’s kidnapping by Paris from her husband Menelaus). But it’s a new month (actually closer to the second month of our discussion), a new play, and a new view on marriage. All’s Well That Ends Well‘s entire raison d’etre is matrimony. The first half of the play is all about Helena getting her husband, and the second half is all about her getting her husband, if you know what I mean (nudge nudge, wink wink).
But within the confines of the play, what is the meaning of marriage?
When we first hear a discussion of marriage (beyond that of widow-hood), it’s from the buffoonish braggart Parolles, who, after flirting with Helena over the subject of her virginity, tells her, “Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee” (I.i.212-3). This sets the concept of marriage as one of reciprocity and equality. A few scenes later, when the clown Lavatch asks the Countess’ permission for “Isbel the woman and (he to) do as (they) may” (I.iii.18-9) wed, he explains why he feels the need to do so:
If marriage is done by the two of them, he feels the need to wed because of his own singular body, his flesh, which makes him “a wicked creature” (I.iii.35); he states, “Indeed I do marry that I may repent” (I.iii.36-7). The single life is the highway to hell, marriage the road back from the devil.
Up to this point, we have a buffoon and a fool delineating the meaning of marriage: an equal partnership.
Into this, our heroine enters, and disrupts the conceptual equilibrium.
In exchange for her efforts to revive the health of the king, she wishes that he “give (her) with (his) kingly hand // What husband in (his) power (she) will command” (II.i.194-5). A husband chosen by Helena, bestowed by the king. Not exactly a partnership, but the king agrees, telling Helena as she surveys the lords brought before them, “Thou hast power to choose, and they none to forsake” (II.iii.55).
When Helena proclaims Bertram as her choice, the king tells him simply, “Bertram, take her; she’s thy wife” (II.iii.104). It’s a unilateral decision made by Helena, enforced by the king’s power (and his willingness to bestow upon her “honor and wealth” to add to her “dower” [both II.iii.143] of virtue). Facing the king’s “revenge and hate” (II.iii.163), Bertram “submits” (II.iii.166); once he does, the king proclaims this marriage agreement a “contract” (II.iii.177). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Shakespeare’s day, “contract”–especially in reference to marriage–meant “The act whereby two persons take each other in marriage” (“contract, n.1; 3a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 26 August 2015.). As far as the king is concerned, Helena and Bertram have taken each other in marriage.
For the remainder of the first half of the play, however, this marriage seems more like the primary meaning of “contract”: an agreement “that something shall be done or forborne by one or both; a compact, covenant, bargain” (“contract, n.1; 1a” OED Online). Bertram knows what is expected in this wedding contract, but he proclaims to Parolles that he will “never bed her” (II.iii.271), failing to consummate the marriage, therefore nullifying its existence. He knows it, and so does Helena; thus, he sends Parolles to inform her,
Which as your due time claims, he does acknowledge
But puts it off to a compelled restraint
Bertram knows it, Helena knows it, and now she knows he knows it–but he is willing to breach his end of the contract.
Bertram informs his mother that he is not willing to deliver his end of the bargain, noting in his letter:
He will never consummate the marriage, he says, and in doing so, he reveals “not” only his adamant refusal of this marriage but also his knowledge (and tacit) agreement of marriage’s true everlasting partnership; if he is to be married, he will make the “knot” eternal (sounding exactly like “‘not’ eternal”), tying himself to his partner forever. The willingness is there, but not without his own demands in the marriage agreement contract.
His unilateral re-negotiated demands?
Again, his statement here is not against all marriage, but rather this unilateral marriage. If she can put a ring on her finger of his choosing, and show the religious reason for marriage–procreation of the species–then never will become eternal and their marriage will be sanctified.
The rest of the play’s matrimonial references (for the entire second half of the play) all have to do with the meeting of these demands.
When Helena confides her situation to the widow, the widow calls the bed trick a “deceit so lawful” (III.vii.38). And if this isn’t enough to catch the audience’s ear (and bend it toward right [though not completely righteous] act), the Helena hammers home the point in her next speech:
Let us assay our plot, which, if it speed,
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a lawful act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.
Lawful, lawful, lawful is the deed, the intention, and the act; and though the bed trick may be a “sinful” fact, neither Diana (who will remain chaste) nor Helena (who will simply consummate her own “lawful” wedding) will have sinned. Bertram’s second condition–with a little help from Providence–is secured.
When Bertram gives the ring to Diana before their assignation, the first condition is as good as met. But something else will happen that night:
Another ring, that what in time proceeds
May token to the future our past deeds.
Not only will Helena gain access to the ring (the first condition), but Bertram will be linked by an exchange of rings to whomever puts the ring on his finger later that night. And in Bertram’s mind, this exchange of rings does have meaning, as he is concerned later that “the business is not ended as fearing to hear of it hereafter” (IV.iii.95-6). He worries that this new bargain, this new marriage, will come back to haunt him later.
And haunt him it does.
Bertram receives the offer of a third (at least by Bertram’s count) bride in Lafew’s daughter, but before that can happen, the ring on his finger pulls everyone’s thoughts back to his first, now assumed late, wife Helena. Then the note from Diana arrives to proclaim “his vows are forfeited” (V.iii.142), and his ring on her finger points to not only wedding vows but an exchange of rings, thus his mother can only assume, “This is his wife” (V.iii.197).
The offer of the third wife is rescinded, but before the second wife can be legally validated, Helena appears, alive and well. If I were to stage this, I would want Helena to be visibly pregnant, so that when Bertram responds, “Both, both; O, pardon!” to Helena’s statement that she is but “the name and not the thing” (both V.iii.305) of wife, it is because he realizes both conditions of his contract have been met even before the explanation.
He doesn’t have to mention a wedding or marriage; his demands have been met. What he does mention, however, is his “love” which will be hers for “ever” (V.iii.313) after Helena “can make (him) know this clearly” (V.iii.312). She knows the truth and offers “deadly divorce” (V.iii.315) if her story is not the truth. Thus, this truth brings his love, and this meets her only demand: not to “love in vain” (I.iii.197).
All’s well in comedy that ends in a wedding, and as the king says to close the play, “All yet seems well” (V.iii.329).
That’s not ominous, at all…