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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: July ::
Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1667  Friday, 19 July 2002

[1]     From:   Janet T. O'Keefe <
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        Date:   Thursday, 18 Jul 2002 15:14:39 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1651 Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

[2]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Thursday, 18 Jul 2002 20:59:49 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1660 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

[3]     From:   Anna Kamaralli <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 Jul 2002 15:10:49 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1660 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Janet T. O'Keefe <
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Date:           Thursday, 18 Jul 2002 15:14:39 -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?

It is true that Helena deceives Bertram, but by doing so she keeps him,
and Diana, from committing the sin of adultery.  Couldn't that be seen
as acting as the hand of heaven?  Personally, I think she's a bit of a
wimp to go chasing after a jerk who doesn't want her, but from a
Christian point of view she had made a vow to be a faithful wife to him
and she is keeping that vow.  It has been some time since I read the
play, but I don't recall that any of her actions were truly immoral,
annoying yes, but not immoral.

Janet T. O'Keefe

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Thursday, 18 Jul 2002 20:59:49 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1660 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1660 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

>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.)

Paul, you are absolutely correct in your interpretation of my
suggestions. I am indeed implying that Bertram is converted at the end
of the play.

>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).

Indeed, the text does support both readings of Bertram's intentions. I
just find the "I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly" to be too
emphatic for a scornful reply. I read it as an amazed and humbled
(finally!) subjugation of himself into the role of a courtier.

I read the play as an evaluation and vivisection of courtly life. I
wrote a paper entitled "Not To Woo Honour, But To Wed It": Resurrecting
Nobility in AWTEW" and explained how I read the play as a direct
commentary on Castiglione and source material, Painter's translation of
Boccaccio's Decameron story.  The play is set in France, home of the
Troubadours and Chretien de Troyes. I read Bertram as sprezzatura taken
too far, a grace tinged with scorn for all other mere mortals. Remember
that Bertram is "an unseasoned courtier" (I. i. line 71), immature and
unaware. He is constantly compared unfavorably with his father. He is
not even aware that his King has a fistula. The older generation - the
King and Lafeu - are constantly putting the younger - Bertram and
Parolles - in their place.

Helena is out of his sphere. She takes it upon herself to pursue
Bertram. Is it possible that we are uncomfortable with this play because
the female pursues, humiliates and subdues the male? She is the most
heroic person in the court when she arrives and cures the king and the
courtiers remain speechless and dumbfounded. She catches Bertram
attempting to commit adultery and substitutes herself - his rightful
wife - in her own rightful place. Bertram matures by the end of the
play, while Parolles is humiliated. The very diminished Cliff Notes
version of my paper...whew.

But this raises serious issues about Helena. Is there any other play
where a woman so frankly and openly expresses her sexual desires as she
does in the first scene to Parolles? A very explicit discussion about
losing and taking virginity.

Another point: we may frown upon arranged marriages today but remember
that Shakespeare's time was still rife with them. Even above this, the
King orders Bertram to marry Helena and Bertram REFUSES. Hardly the
actions of a true courtier. Remember too that she says she is happy with
the king's health restored, giving up on Bertram and the king finds it a
point of honour that Bertram must marry her.

I'm not sure where the numerous lies of Helena are in this play. I
actually find her to be the most honest person in the play, at least as
far as her words are concerned. The only morally dubious act is the bed
trick, but are we really supposed to be shocked at that or thrilled at
the ingenuity of our heroine? Or is it merely imported from the source
story and are we pressing our disgust at it onto the character?

Diana by the way is not involved in a conspiracy.  She has been
"involved" by Bertram's actions, and agrees that Helena's plan is the
right thing to do.  She merely tells Bertram to arrive at night and he
will get what he wants. Yes, Helena is attempting to improve her social
status but why are afraid of that mobility considering the fools
(Parolles chief among them) who are above her?

>She involves Diana in
>a conspiracy and facilitates Diana's dishonesty so
>that she (Helena) can
>be with Bertram and improve her social status.

I think it's hard to pin dishonesty on Diana for this act and deception
of Bertram. It is Bertram who is the deceiver. And Diana is named after
the virgin goddess of wisdom after all. If I'm not mistaken, Diana is
not taken from the source but invented by Shakespeare.

I find it hard to fault Helena when she is making Bertram into a better
man. As even Parolles can see, "the court's a learning place" (I. i.
179) and Bertram and Parolles learn the lessons.

Brian Willis

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anna Kamaralli <
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Date:           Friday, 19 Jul 2002 15:10:49 +1000
Subject: 13.1660 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1660 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

Paul Swanson writes:

>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 don't want to imply that Bertram's redemption, or even Helena's
redemptiveness, are unproblematic, but Paul is not quite accurate here.
After Helena's entrance, she describes herself as the shadow of a wife,
"The name and not the thing", to which Bertram replies: "Both, both. Oh
Pardon."  Not a flowery speech, but quite expressive nonetheless.

>I cannot, however, see that her behavior is morally pure.

Who says we need to?  The implication seems to be that imagery of
divinity, resurrection or redemption is inappropriate unless Helena is
spotless, but what a shallow and tedious play would have resulted had
that been the case.  Why can't she be a figure of grace AND subterfuge?
This is the play with the line about life as a "mingled yarn",
remember.  Would you argue that Portia should not have donned her
lawyer's robes?  That Prospero is an unsatisfactory protagonist because
he is clearly dabbling in the black arts? That Oberon has no right to go
plying potions to unconsulted Athenians?

>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.

There is a big difference between someone placing themselves on a higher
moral plane and others doing it.

Helena is certainly lauded by all who know her, but I don't think the
text stands up to the interpretation that she is doing the same for
herself.  She constantly describes herself as beneath Bertram, is
terrified that Bertram's mother will condemn her for her presumption in
loving him, expresses feelings of great guilt at being the cause of
Bertram running away to war, and is actually quite nice and chummy with
Parolles, and not at all patronizing towards him, as everyone else is.

Isabella is a trickier issue.  There are plenty of ways she obviously is
'morally superior' to the society in which she lives, but rather than
seeing herself that way, she seems more inclined to see her society as
better than it is.  When she finds out that Claudio has got Juliet
pregnant, all she says is "Oh, let him marry her."  No moralizing, no
squeamishness - it doesn't even occur to her that there is a problem.

When she rails at Claudio it is for not living up to their father's
standard, not for falling below hers.

It takes a long time for her to accept that Angelo is not as moral as he
seems, and she then gets the shock of her life when she finds her
brother has weaknesses, too.  She trusts Mariana, she trusts Lucio, she
trusts the shadowy Duke, she shows very little willingness to see less
than the best of everyone.  It just depends on whether you think
refusing to be sexually coerced, and getting angry about it, is
regarding oneself as morally superior.

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