Two characters under the same inky cloak

As I dive back into the first scene of All’s Well That Ends Well, I’m struck by Helena’s first words:

I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too.
  • I.i.53-4

Compare this to Hamlet’s response to his mother’s question as to why mourning seems so particular to him:

“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
  • Hamlet, I.ii.76-86

Both protagonists bring forth the duality of both the sorrow and its affectation. In my Penguin Shakespeare text (edited by Claire McErchern), Helena says her first line as an aside (though this differs in other texts, like the Folger); so, too, does Hamlet. They speak to us, instantly linking us to their goals and struggles. Part of those struggles are external perceptions of their acts. Lafew tells Helena, “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy to the living” (I.i.55-6), with the Countess agreeing, “If the living be enemy to grief, the excess makes it soon mortal” (I.ii.57-8). Meanwhile, Claudius tells Hamlet,

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father.

 But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven
  • Hamlet, I.ii.92-95


To solidify this connection between the plays, the next exchange in All’s Well That Ends Well also has Danish echos. The Countess sends off Bertram with a list of advisory nuggets, including

 Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key Be checked for silence,
But never taxed for speech.
  • I.i.64-8

These call to mind the “precepts” (Hamlet, I.iii.57) Polonius uses to advise Laertes upon his departure:

 Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,
Bear ‘t that th’ opposèd may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
  • Hamlet, I.iii.58-68, 77-79

Why create these connections? Why link Hamlet to Helena? Are we meant to use these to compare the characters, or to contrast them, the one against the other? I’m leaning toward the latter. On the simplest, most surface level, we have gender: Hamlet male, Helena female. More importantly, though, is their philosophical approach to life and action: Olivier in his film famously reduced the play to “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” The same cannot be said of Helena. Instead, her single-minded pursuit of Bertram is what drives the play.

In terms of taking action and the typical gender stereotypes, Helena is more manly than Hamlet.

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