All’s Well That Ends Well begins with a number of patriarchal deaths, both recent and seemingly imminent. The widowed Countess mourns not only the loss of her husband but of her son as well, since he is off to become the “ward, evermore in subjection” (I.i.5) to the dying king. If the death of a father is what frees the son to take on the mantle of manhood–as in the tales of kings–it certainly doesn’t seem so in Rossillion.
This king, a dying man, still holds all the power.
Save for that over death.
Helena, physician’s daughter, with her father’s “prescriptions // Of rare and proved effects” (I.iii.217-8), holds the power over death (at least in the case of the king). Once wielded, this power seems to grow; with rights granted by the king, Helena now “hast power to choose (a husband), and they none to forsake” (II.iii.55).
Now we have a woman, usually the one to be chosen (think of Portia back in The Merchant of Venice, allowed no choice but must marry whomever opens the “right” casket), as the chooser. She has the agency, the men “none.” If the roles had been reversed, it would have been a situation typical for Shakespearean comedy (Kate really has no say in the decision to marry her off to Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew; so, too, must Helena–Helena!–conform to her father’s choice of husband in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
When Bertram, now in the role of chosen, attempts to wrest back some of his expected gender role superiority–the ability “to use // The help of (his) own eyes” (II.iii.106-7) to choose a wife–he finds himself “in subjection” to the king’s newly restored “power” (II.iii.149), a power to which Bertram has no choice but “submit” (II.iii.166). Reduced to the submissively feminine role, Bertram takes on the more typically female action of “flight” (II.v.91), and making every attempt to keep her from his bed.
Helena, on the other hand, must take on the traditionally male, sexually aggressive role; she must pursue, she must write sonnets (yes, her letter telling the countess of her supposed pilgrimage takes that form), she must stalk, she must capture, she must fool her prey.
Much has been said of Bertram’s callowness, his immaturity, his arrogance. But had the gender roles been reversed, and the king demanded that Helena marry Bertram with no option, and Helena stood up for herself and refused, would we be discussing her shallowness or arrogance, or would we be praising her assertiveness as a symbol of proto-feminism?