As I noted in my original plot synopsis for Act One of All’s Well That Ends Well, the opening of the play is saturated with images of dead or dying father figures. In being sent as a ward to the King of France, Bertram “weep(s) o’er (his) father’s death anew” (I.i.3-4), and in this same event, the countess says that she buries “ a second husband” (I.i.1-2).
Of course, even after multiple readings of this, I’m a little confused. Was the late count her “second husband” or is having her son taken from her removing from her life “the male head of a household” (“husband, n.; I.1” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 7 September 2015.)? But if Bertram is young enough to be taken as a ward, could he really be the head of the household? but I digress…
The king, to whom Bertram is now ward and in whom Lafew says Bertram will find “a father” (I.i.7), doesn’t seem long for this world, either, however: his health has deteriorated enough for him to have “abandoned his physicians” (I.i.13), and “los(es his) hope by time” (I.i.16).
If all this wasn’t bad enough, Helena, too, has “had a father” (I.i.17) die within the last “six months” (I.ii.71)–recently enough that the countess notes that “the remembrance of (Helena’s) father never approaches her heart but the tyranny of her sorrows takes all livelihood from her cheek” (I.i.48-9).
While the king is a father-figure, I find it more interesting that he is a father as well: he tells Bertram, “Welcome, count; // My son’s no dearer” (I.ii.75-6). A father, but one who’s more than willing to name the heretofore unseen and unmet son of an old friend as dear as his own son. Does it strike anyone else as odd? The king admits that he is
For thou mayst see a sunshine and a hail
In (him) at once
Is this why we never see the “real” son? Is this why the king is so free in giving his “dear” love?
There’s another father in the play, the “old Lord Lafew” (III.vi.99-100). He, too, seems to have an interesting way of showing his dear love for his offspring, asking the king “to speak in behalf of (his) daughter” (IV.v.70) as the next wife for Bertram. This, even though the young man treated the “late” Helena with a kind of cruel refusal for which Lafew would have had others “whipped, or … ma(d)e eunuchs of” (II.iii.86-7). To his credit, he rescinds the offer when it comes to light that Bertram has “undone” (V.iii.146) Diana (not-so-much to his credit, though, there were the king’s “fears” [V.iii.122] of possible foul play long before Lafew speaks).
Dead fathers. Dying father-figures. Fathers with less than unimpeachable judgment. What is Shakespeare setting up here?