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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: July ::
Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1660  Thursday, 18 July 2002

[1]     From:   Michael Yawney <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 17 Jul 2002 18:01:52 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

[2]     From:   Paul Swanson <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 17 Jul 2002 22:36:14 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

[3]     From:   Anna Kamaralli <
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        Date:   Thursday, 18 Jul 2002 16:02:22 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Yawney <
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Date:           Wednesday, 17 Jul 2002 18:01:52 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

This talk of the hand of god reminds me of British director Richard
Jones' extraordinary production of Alls Well at the Delacorte Theater
(Shakespeare in the Park) in New York in the mid-1990s. Images of
death/resurrection and inevitability/providence were strongly
foregrounded by the staging.

There was an actual golden hand over the stage that shone brightly
(under lights) and moved across the stage at the end of the first
half--leading Helena on her journey from Rousillion.

However, this was only the cap of a strongly insistent movement pattern
throughout. In the first part all entrances were stage left and exits
stage right. This reversed for the second part.

The bed trick was better handled than I have ever seen it. In the first
half, the staging of the kings cure suggested a resurrection and in the
second half Helena's preparation for sex with Bertram recalled the
staging of the cure, but reversed to suggest a sort of death. This
somehow made the denial of her own name and hiding of her face during
sex very sad and moving.

At the start of the play the body of the Count was buried, at the end
the visibly pregnant Helena made her entrance from this same grave. This
entrance was shocking, but made providence, grace, and the cycle of
life/death/birth tangibly present on that stage.

Though this sounds like a very schematic approach, I found this
production tremendously moving. Reflecting the imagery of a play so
strongly in the staging risks redundancy, but in this case it liberated
the play into something more beautiful and haunting than any other
staging of it I have seen.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul Swanson <
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Date:           Wednesday, 17 Jul 2002 22:36:14 EDT
Subject: 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

Brian Willis asks of Helena in AWW "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)?"

If I understand him correctly, Brian seems to suggest that when Helena
makes her final entrance of the play, Bertram sees her appearance and
consequential announced pregnancy as a "miracle" of sorts, and that
having witnessed this "miracle" and having been profoundly changed by
it, Bertram is now prepared to accept Helena as his wife. (Brian, please
correct me if I misunderstand your interpretation.)

This is a thought-provoking interpretation, but it also seems to me that
the text does not strongly clarify this. (Of course, the text likely
supports AND undermines most interpretations -- it's the nature of the
play).  All Bertram says after seeing Helena again is "If she, my liege,
can make me know this clearly / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever,
dearly" (5.3.309-310).  Bertram could be sincere, but we can still see
how this remark could be as insincere as his promise to accept her in
Act 2, another forced acquiescence no different than that which he faked
earlier in the play. Bertram does not address Helena at all here; his
comment is directed to the King, not Helena.  This is hardly evidence of
a newly discovered love or affection for her.

I agree with Brian's observation that Helena's behavior, especially when
compared to the other characters of the play, is understandable. There
just aren't too many likable characters in the play, and it could be
that Helena is the least objectionable one of the bunch. I cannot,
however, see that her behavior is morally pure. She has cured the King
-- but with the implicit understanding that she is going to do so and
"get" something for it.  She lies numerous times. She involves Diana in
a conspiracy and facilitates Diana's dishonesty so that she (Helena) can
be with Bertram and improve her social status. In this, we must see her
as a parallel to Parolles, who also uses Bertram in an attempt to climb
the social ladder. Of course, Parolles is revealed to be a cheat and a
fraud -- I'm not certain that Helena would be revealed any differently
if the play was six acts instead of five...

I fully recognize that the ambiguity of this play is what makes it the
"problem play" that it is. But my initial observation about Helena's
alignment with the hand of heaven is, I believe, not duplicated in
Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. Helena is unique among the
characters of the problem plays. Unlike Larry Weiss and perhaps Matthew
Baynham, who notice a connection of Helena with Measure's Duke, I see
some similarities between Helena and Isabella in that each of them seem
to place themselves (or are characterized by others) as being morally
superior to the society in which they live.

I still see a major gap between the Helena's behavior and the
imagery/lines associated with her character.

Paul Swanson

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anna Kamaralli <
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Date:           Thursday, 18 Jul 2002 16:02:22 +1000
Subject: 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1654 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

Re:

>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.

and also:

>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.
>
>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.

Weak? Feeble?  I know you're describing the construction not the
character, but they seem strange words to use in relation to one of
Shakespeare's most dynamic and life-affirming women.  Why would
Shakespeare lay on the divine references so thick, and from so many
directions, if not to create a connection between what Helena achieves
and a divine power?  Harriet Walter, who played the role, was convinced
that it was not just the medicine, but Helena's vitality that convinced
the King to live.  I think Brian is spot on about the resurrection
image.  All Shakespeare's characters have questionable motives, and his
plays are liberally sprinkled with examples of the redemptive power of
deception.  Given Helena's "Our remedies oft' in ourselves do lie, which
we ascribe to heaven..." speech, the play could be seen as a lesson in
the ability of humans to create their own miracles.

Why contradicted?  Why not complex?  People, in my experience, tend to
be contradictory, and not wholly good or bad.  How can it be a flaw in
the characterization that, instead of writing types, Shakespeare made
them individual personalities, with weaknesses as well as glorious
strengths?
(I am thinking of Isabella and Helena here, I have trouble seeing a
relationship to Malcolm.)

What's so hard to accept (or dare I suggest, like) in a heroine who
draws elements from allegorical figures, but cannot be contained by
them?

For a sense of the complex power of these characters, Carol Rutter's
--Clamorous Voices-- is a great read.  Harriet Walter discusses Helena
and Juliet Stevenson describes her engagement with Isabella.

Regards,
Anna.

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