Yesterday, I talked a little about the heavy use of letters and writing in All’s Well That Ends Well. This was an offshoot of my usual look at a play assisted by the concordance at OpenSource Shakespeare. But there’s another concept that I found repeatedly in my reading of the play…
If you combine the variations of god, heaven, fortune, divine, providence, grace and miracles, the play sits just above the middle of the pack in the Canon. If that doesn’t sound impressive, note that it has more references than any “problem play” and the second most of any comedy; all the other plays above it on the list are histories, tragedies, and tragicomedies. If we talk about just “heaven” references, it ranks in the top seven, tied for the most among comedies, and second among the “problem plays.” And if we look only at the use of “fortune” and its variances, the play is in the top four, tops in both comedies and “problem plays,” and more than any tragicomedies.
- “heaven, n.; 7a”
Oxford English Dictionary Online.
Oxford University Press,
Web. 16 September 2015.
- “fortune, n; 1a”
At the end of the opening scene, Helena soliloquizes,
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense and do suppose
What hath been cannot be. Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?
The King’s disease—my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fixed and will not leave me.
- I.i.214-27 (emphases mine)
We believe in heaven, fate and fortune, she says, but “our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.” She is confident, almost stereotypically masculine in her fixed intents. For her, Fortune is “no Goddess” (I.iii.108), as the steward of the countess overhears her saying. Bertram, however, is close to a god in her eyes, as it is he “next unto high heaven” (I.iii.189) whom she loves.
When her “strumpet’s boldness” (II.i.172) is not enough to convince the king to try her cure, she resorts to speaking of “miracles” (II.i.142), imploring him to then “of heaven, not (her), make an experiment” (II.i.155). This heavenly invocation is what convinces the king, and in return “by (his) scepter and (his) hopes of heaven” (II.i.193), he will grant her what she desires. If the power of heaven will grant him a cure, then his power will grant her a husband.
The cure is effected, and Helena is seen less the cause of it than an agent of “miracles” (II.iii.1) and “a heavenly effect” (II.iii.23). When Lafew and the prospective husbands speak of Helena, it is with references to “heaven” (II.iii.31 and 64), but when she speaks of herself and these men, she talks of chance or luck, “fortune” (II.iii.81 and 91). Fortune is what Bertram has, too, according to the king (II.iii.159 and 176) as he bullies Bertram into the wedding.
The opinion is not shared.
While Helena is a “fortunate lady” (II.iv.14), one whose seemingly poor future fate (her “homely stars” [II.v.74]) are outshined by her “great fortune” (II.v.75), Bertram sees himself as an “unfortunate son” (III.ii.25), one who has been “undone” by her miracle of “recover(ing) the king” (both III.ii.20).
She may have married Bertram, but his becoming a husband isn’t so easy. He tasks her with virtual impossibilities: to
Bertram writes to Helena that this will “never” (III.ii.59) happen, and he lets his mother know that “bedd(ing)” (III.ii.21) Helena, necessary for the pregnancy required, will not happen, and swears “to make the ‘not’ eternal” (III.ii.21-2).
I’d call this a Herculean task (as befitting the gender role she assumes in the first half of the play), but it is grander than that. It’s really a Virgin Mary-an task (not a real thing, I know, but you get my point): a miraculous if not Immaculate conception.
Helena then leaves Rossillion, ostensibly to go to Saint Jaques in Spain, yet (surprisingly for the audience, at least) she finds herself in Florence, Italy, which is almost exactly in the opposite direction from her pilgrimage’s shrine. In Florence, she just so happens to meet a girl who can get the ring from Bertram’s finger and get him into bed, a bed into which Helena will substitute herself sexually without Bertram’s knowledge.
Literally incredible… the story just isn’t credible.
Yet this is still not as unbelievable as arriving in Rossillion at the end of the play, simultaneously risen from “death” (IV.iii.57) and descended from “heaven” (IV.iii.53), AND “by (Bertram) with child” (V.iii.310) after just the one sexual encounter. What are the odds? It would take a miracle, divine and heavenly.
Much more than being merely fortunate.