All’s Well That Ends Well – Pivot Point

Using Professor Rodes’ midpoint theory, let’s take a look at All’s Well That Ends Well.

There are 2807 lines in in the play, which means the midpoint is at line 1404, or at Act Three, Scene Two, line 104. According to Dr. Rodes’ theory, you could find at this midpoint (or within twenty lines either way) a speech that perfectly sums up a major theme of the play. The 20-line leeway was to help remove the differences in prose line lengths between individual editions; and since All’s Well That Ends Well has over 48% of its lines in prose (I mean, that’s almost half, people), I’m a little concerned this forty-line window may not be enough. Let’s find out…

Act Three, Scene Two is where Helena returns to Rossillion from the French court, married but not yet a wife, abandoned by a husband who in the same scene will be virtually disowned by his own mother. Both letters from Bertram, to his mother and Helena, have been read and lamented by the women in his life.

As the exact midpoint hits, Helena has been left alone on stage and has just began a soliloquy in which she realizes that she has inadvertently sent Bertram to war, where “his death (may be) so effected” (III.ii.114). She calls upon the bullets he’ll find there, “you leaden messengers” (III.ii.106), to “fly with false aim” (III.ii.108). Even though “angels officed” (III.ii.124) their marriage, she will leave in hopes that news of her flight will bring Bertram home. The speech is her longest of the play. It is also the last soliloquy spoken by her.

I look at this play’s midpoint, and I find it different than most of the other plays. While those midpoints do point to a theme, this seems to be more about structure. There is such a dichotomy between the first half and the second half that this is the pivot point for the entire play.

In the first half of the play, marriage is defined as an equal partnership, but when Helena’s and Bertram’s is anything but, the second half’s matrimonial references all have to do with the meeting of Bertram’s terms of marriage. In the first half of the play, the younger generation is subjected under the older generation; in the second half, the younger generation–left to their own devices–attempts to break free from these subjections. Up until this midpoint, this speech, Helena acts in a stereotypically male way, as an agent of change, while Bertram is in the usually female role of submission. His only “manly” acts–seduction and sex–take place in the second half of the play, when Helena’s agency ends and she becomes less an actor than a playwright, setting up situations but no longer driving them forward herself. Finally, in the first half the “miracle” is virtually incredible but human-based–Helena’s use of her physician father’s cure on the king–but in the second half, the miracles are just unbelievable: the Bed Trick, Helena’s return from the dead, and her pregnancy after only one sexual encounter.

In the discussion of letters and writing, I noted how the almost meta use of the epistolary form was more about the construction of the play than about the plot of the play itself. That meta-ness extends into this midpoint as well. More than any other play I can remember, All’s Well That Ends Well changes on the midpoint. Is this a pivot point preview for the tragicomedies?

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