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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: July ::
Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1686  Wednesday, 24 July 2002

[1]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 23 Jul 2002 09:36:20 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1678 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

[2]     From:   Anna Kamaralli <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 Jul 2002 09:45:23 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1670 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

[3]     From:   Paul Swanson <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 23 Jul 2002 22:04:56 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1678 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 23 Jul 2002 09:36:20 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1678 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1678 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

>I was struck by what Sean Lawrence said, and I don't
>know if my reaction
>is intellectual or personal/social.  He equates
>Isabella's refusal of
>sexual coercion with Bertram's refusal of marriage.
>I would argue that
>there is a distinct difference: Bertram has no
>problem with committing
>adultery, as I understand him.

Actually, Bertram's character is much closer to Angelo's than
Isabella's. He tries to force a maid to intercourse and has a bed trick
played upon him.

If this equates Helena to a degree with Mariana, it is a favorable
comparison. Rather than sit around in a moated grange and weep all day,
Helena gets out there and does something about it.

Brian Willis

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anna Kamaralli <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 Jul 2002 09:45:23 +1000
Subject: 13.1670 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1670 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

>In a thread on the morality of All's Well, Anna Karnaralli argues that
>our assessment of Isabella  "just depends on whether you think refusing
>to be sexually coerced, and getting angry about it, is regarding oneself
>as morally superior."
>
>Isn't that more or less what Bertram is doing, refusing to be coerced
>into marriage?

This brings up a really interesting and sticky issue.  These days it is
legally considered rape to obtain consent from someone through threats
(including threats to a third person associated with the victim) or
deception (by pretending to be someone else).  While this means that
Angelo could be convicted of raping Isabella, had she gone through with
it herself, it also means that, technically, Mariana actually raped
Angelo!

Of course, Renaissance sex and marriage laws were very different from
ours, and I don't honestly think Bertram and Isabella's situations
compare, unless you regard every arranged marriage of the period as
rape.  Technically they may have been, but the term ceases to be useful
in analysis.  In Bertram's case, he is publicly instructed to marry
Helena by the person who had the legal right to decide who he married.
In Isabella's case, Angelo solicits a sexual bribe through making
threats that render him legally corrupt.

I would be very interested to hear where others think the line is drawn.

Regards,
Anna.

P.S. As I was attempting to send this the automatic spell check on my
system questioned "Isabella" and suggested as a replacement "Usable".

Out of the mouths of cyborgs!

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul Swanson <
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Date:           Tuesday, 23 Jul 2002 22:04:56 EDT
Subject: 13.1678 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1678 Re: Heaven and Christ Images in All's Well

Sean Lawrence raises, I think, a fair and insightful point in comparing
the plight of MM's Isabella and AWW's Bertram: they are facing similar
types of coercion. If you argue that Isabella's sense of personal
freedom and choice are being taken from her by the Duke, can we not see
Bertram as the same rights taken from him? I am not making a comparison
of a type of rape with a forced marriage like Bertram/Helena, but I am,
however, supporting Sean's observation that in general terms, Isabella
and Bertram are victimized in the same general way.

This observation also directly impacts the our discussion about
perceptions of Helena's moral standing. Anna Kamaralli rightfully points
out that we oversimplify the play to see Helena (or any other character)
as purely "good" or purely "bad." She makes a fair and important point.
However, we do not need to see Helena as morally "good" or "bad" to
reject the idea that she is any type of hero in the play.

Many female characters in Shakespeare comedy have an educational
influence on the men around them, but Helena doesn't fit into this
mold.  Rosalind, both in AYL and LLL, and Viola bring out wisdom and
eventual kindness in the men around them, but unlike Helena, they do not
impose their will on Berowne, Orlando, and Orsino in a way that results
in a loss of personal freedom for their respective men. In the end,
Orsino, Orlando and Berowne CHOOSE to embrace the learning Viola and the
Rosalinds offer them; Bertram never has a choice.

The argument on behalf of Helena also includes two other points: 1)
Helena is heroic because in implementing the bed trick, she prevents
Bertram from committing adultery, and 2) Helena is heroic because she
redeems Bertram at the end of the play.

The first argument seems to hinge on all kinds of dubious foundations.
Can an action (like Bertram's bedding of the person he thinks is Diana)
be judged to be beneficent when its intent is wicked? If this is so,
shall we judge Angelo's sexual blackmail of Isabella to be beneficent
because her sexual acquiescence will save her brother's life? Obviously
not. Further, can a person who intends to commit a "wrong" be acquitted
of blame simply because he/she made a mistake and didn't commit the
wrongful action he/she intended to? If I intend to steal a ten dollar
bill that I believe has fallen from my friend's pocket, but I mistakenly
and unknowingly take one that has fallen from my own pocket, am I really
clear of any wrongdoing?

The second argument is more complicated, but the bottom line is that the
text  does not conclusively support that Bertram is "reformed," and we
cannot give Helena credit for doing something she hasn't done. All
Bertram does is realize and maybe acknowledge at the end of the play
that he is "caught" again and will consequently acquiesce to the King
again. Anna and Mari Bonomi point to the end of MM and indicate that
Isabella is victimized by the Duke. Well, again, it's a matter of
interpretation: Isabella is perhaps only "victimized" if you reject the
idea that the Duke has "reformed" or "bettered" Isabella by helping her
to discover the joy of love, warmth, and even physical longing. If you
do not believe this, as is certainly an interpreter's right, then you
say she has suffered sexual coercion. Likewise, if you believe that
Bertram has been turned into a new and better man, then you also believe
he has not been "victimized" or coerced. But if Bertram does not choose
moral redemption on his own, then all is NOT well which ends well.

Shakespeare shows us that while we can punish wrongdoing, we cannot
compel virtue.

Paul Swanson

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