2 of Cups - Helena & Bertram
Dramatis Personae: Helena; Bertram, Count of Rousillon; Parolles; The King of France; The widowed Countess of Rousillon.
Text & Context: All's Well That Ends Well is, along with The Merchant of Venice, The Winter's Tale, and King Lear, a play in which Shakespeare uses the tropes of fairy-tale and comedy plotting and applies to them the attributes of reality and naturalism of character. The result is, by definition, unusual; and usually uncomfortable. Like Bertram, the viewer is entrapped by this plotting, and not perhaps unnaturally resentful.
Initially, Bertram refuses Helena on the grounds that she is socially several degrees inferior to him, a Count. When the King of France, recovered from his rather embarrassing malady, "builds up" his benefactress' status, Bertram acquiesces to the wedding but not the marriage. Akin to Mercutio, disdaining the distaff, Bertram decamps with his band of brothers into the male world of military service. But in true fairy-tale fashion - as a villain, recounting his evil deeds, affords the hero time enough to escape - Bertram leaves a letter in which he vows to never accept Helena until she gets the ring from his finger and pregnant with his child.
That one so callow and poor a judge of character is so adeptly hoist by his own petard is hardly surprising. Instead, what nags, is why a woman of such humility and industry would persist in pursuing such a cad. Indeed, can a woman so single-minded be said to also personify humility? Innocence and ignorance are not synonyms, it must be remembered; nor are femininity and effete. Humility always seems false to those who don't have it. If the male ego feels put upon here, it's meant to, for simply put: All's Well That Ends Well is a gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare ends the turmoil of his comedies with the unexamined platitudes of marriage. Here, however, as with the Cups suit itself, he begins with a wedding and proceeds to prod and probe the less than comic battle of the sexes which afflicts wedlock. Helena and Bertram, each in their own way, are two isolated individuals, more like characters in a Shakespeare tragedy, trapped here in comedy's milieu of social continuity.
In Bertram's mother, the newly widowed Countess of Rousillon, can be seen a matronly corollary of the newly orphaned Helena. In the mendacious Parolles, whose name in French means words, can be seen the vainglorious corollary of Bertram, the young man who refuses to live up to his word. The difference is Parolles, unlike Bertram, knows himself for what he is. In his verbal jousting with Helena, Parolles appears to make palpable hits against her defense of woman's honour. But by asserting that in her dedication to God a nun's virginity is mere selfishness, Parolles ends by holding up a mirror to his own selfishness and defective service. In his overheard soliloquy, Parolles looks into this mirror and sees what, in a greater heart, would burst. In stark contrast to Bertram then, whose heart is nowhere to be seen, Parolles avers, "the thing I am shall make me live." Will Bertram, despite all appearances, mature to embrace a true relationship with another? Or can anything end well for a man resolutely averse, having avowed "the thing I am shall never make me love"?
Subtext: The answer may be found in the real world. William Cecil was elevated by Queen Elizabeth to 1st Baron Burghley prior to the author wedding Cecil's daughter Anne. Soon after the marriage, de Vere bolted to Flanders against the Queen's wishes. Upon returning, the young Earl (the equivalent of Count in France) planned to visit Ireland, but settled on a year and a half long tour of France and Italy instead. En route home, he stayed at Rousillon.
Edward de Vere returned to England to find his wife had, in his absence, bore him a child. He refused to acknowledge himself as sire, claiming to have refrained from sexual relations with his wife before his long journey's departure. The Queen banished the young viscount of French descent from court [the name Bertram was taken to England by the Normans; the de Veres originated from Lower Normandy]. Eventually a rapprochement was reached, and the official story was, before leaving England, de Vere had had played on him a "bed-trick". Whether this actually happened or was concocted that those involved might save face, the story's plausibility relies on a royal visit to Hampton Court Palace in October 1574, when Anne Cecil requested additional lodgings of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, that she might entice her husband to join her,
“I heartily beseech your good Lordship to show me your favour in your order to the ushers for my lodging; that in consideration that there is but two chambers, it would please you to increase it with a third chamber next to it … for the more commodious my lodging is, the willinger I hope my Lord my husband will be to come hither.”
Thus, as time and again in Shakespeare, what seems extravagant invention turns out to be a matter of historical fact. And time and again, the attempt to obfuscate these facts - be it by decrying the accepted and often more convenient mode of travel by water than land in 16th Century Northern Italy or Bohemia's 13th Century coastline - is reitereated here with the Stratfordian observation that the bed-trick was a common feature of English Renaissance drama. While true the bed-trick was a device utilized over 40 times in dramas of the period, it was not used prior to 1597. All's Well That Ends Well, with its simplicity of language, plot, and character, is clearly an early play, probably dating from the 1580s. The bed-trick is used again by the author in two other early works - Measure for Measure, and Two Noble Kinsmen.
All's Well That Ends Well is a young man's apology. The male anti-hero's appalling treatment not only of his wife - one of Queen Elizabeth's Maids of Honour - but also of the Old Widow Capilet's daughter Diana - metonym for Elizabeth - suggests the effrontery the Queen felt leveled at herself, in real life, by the author. Along with Pericles, Cymbeline, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, All's Well That Ends Well is a bitter cup of mea culpa. Like the coward and liar Parolles, Shakespeare turns his character around. And like paroles - a prisoner of war's written promise that if released he will not again take up arms against his captor - Shakespeare uses words to redeem himself.