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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: July ::
Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1654  Wednesday, 17 July 2002

[1]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Jul 2002 09:51:23 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1651 Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Jul 2002 16:02:14 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1651 Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

[3]     From:   Matthew Baynham <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 17 Jul 2002 09:31:14 +0100
        Subj:   Helena and the hand of heaven


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Jul 2002 09:51:23 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1651 Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1651 Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

> My trouble with the equation of Helena to the "hand
> of heaven" -- and
> hence my question for SHAKSPERians -- is that these
> images do not seem
> at all congruent with the end of this play. Given
> the ambiguous nature
> of this play -- the dubious ending, Helena's
> questionable moral state
> (she bribes numerous people in the play to get what
> she wants, she
> deceives Bertram in a mighty way) -- how are we to
> interpret what seems
> to me to be a pretty clear alignment of Helena with
> heaven's will?
>
> Much thanks for your comments and ideas.
>
> Paul Swanson

Several ideas pop into mind for this ending and the religious strand.
Perhaps a closer look at the text might reveal something to us.

Isn't Helena's appearance a sort of resurrection in Bertram's eyes? And
isn't her pregnancy an immaculate conception, one which Bertram was so
sure would never take place that he wagered his marriage on it? After
all, how can she get pregnant by him if they never have sex (or so he
thinks)?

I'm also personally not sure that Helena's nature is so dubious. There
is clear motivation for her actions and surely hers are not more dubious
than the actions and motivations of the other characters in the play.

Ideas merely, but I think this reading of the play has merit and hidden
richness. I hope we continue it.

Brian Willis

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Jul 2002 16:02:14 -0400
Subject: 13.1651 Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1651 Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

I also am not sure what to make of Helena.  She seems to be a weak
sketch for the Duke in M/M, WS's next play.

As for the heavenly references, I doubt that they were intended to call
up Christ images.  Rather, they seem to be a feeble attempt to explain
what to others is an inexplicable ability of Helena to effect a cure.
Helena herself makes no claim of special access to heaven, those
comments are made by others who have no idea of the science behind her
cures. Helena cured the king with a medicine, not divine intervention.
And the medicine was passed down to her from her father.  Evidently,
physicians at the time preferred to keep their secrets in the family
rather than publish them in NEJM.

Cerimon in Pericles has a better claim for a Christ-like ability to
resurrect the dead.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Matthew Baynham <
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Date:           Wednesday, 17 Jul 2002 09:31:14 +0100
Subject:        Helena and the hand of heaven

My own feeling is that this is often true of allegorical or typological
interpretations of Shakespeare's characters: they go so far but are
ultimately undone by some contradiction. This is not to say that there
is not merit in these understandings; nor even, if we may use such
language, that he didn't intend the typological content. It just seems
to me that when the necessities of plot and characterisation demand
something which doesn't fit with the typology, the dramatic necessity
wins out.

I think Paul Swanson's post is a good example, too, of an interpretive
problem which such characters often set for the audience. Because their
characterisation is distorted by the limitations of the typology, they
become difficult to like or to believe in. Malcolm in Macbeth and
Isabella in Measure would be the two outstanding examples for me. Both,
I suspect, have the same kind of typological function as Helena; but in
each case the typology is incomplete or partly contradicted and the
character becomes very hard to accept.

Matthew Baynham
Chaplain
Bishop Grosseteste College

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