We need to talk about Helen

Obsession: a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly: compelling motivation

Stalking behavior :They refuse to believe that a victim is not interested in them or will not rekindle their relationship and often believe that the victim really does love them, but just doesn’t know it and needs to be pushed into realizing it. As long as they continue pursuing their victim, the stalker can convince themselves they haven’t been completely rejected yet.

Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well is thought to have been penned in the early 1600’s, around the time of Hamlet. Modern scholars point to the mature style of writing and dark nature of the comedy play as proof of an older, more polished writer than one sees in early Shakespeare plays.

Scholars also agree that Shakespeare’s source for the plot is from Boccaccio’s Decameron. The original plot goes like this:

Giletta, a physician’s daughter healed the French King of a fistula, for reward she demanded Beltramo, Count of Roussilon to husband. The count, being married against his will, flees to Florence, and is loved by another. Giletta, his wife, found means to lie with him in place of his lover and conceived of twins. When Beltramo finds out his wife has bore him sons, he receives her and they live in great honor.

If you feeling less than favorable towards this plot you are not alone. This is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, one that is rarely performed, yet one ripe for debate. This is because Shakespeare reshapes this older play, adds some adult fairy tale like qualities, flips genders, and then sticks it all in a blender so that the finished product is a little hard to pin down. Any message Shakespeare has for us is lost in his inability to give us a cohesive narrative. Is this satire? A warning? Or a little of both?

The problem with this play centers on its main character Helen, whose actions and single-minded motivation drive the play. Her stalking behavior and obsession towards Bertram compels the story towards a finish that may not end as well as the title suggests. After all, this is a play about a woman who manipulates situations and people in order to get what she wants. Shakespeare seems to understand that Helen is not one we would naturally feel sympathy for as he “hides” her in the middle of the play and adds a sub-plot that acts as a distraction; he doesn’t want the audience to think to hard about her decision to do anything to win the heart of a man who has rejected her.

We are introduced to Helen in the very first scene. Here is the basic set-up.

Following his father’s death, Bertram, the young Count of Rossillion, is preparing to leave home in order to attend the court of the ailing King of France. As the Countess of Roussilion is saying goodbye to her son the conversation moves to the ailing King. It is revealed that Helen’s late father was a physician, who in his time was greatly renowned for his healing gifts. As the talk about the late doctor goes on the Countess notices Helen’s tears and praises her for them but cautions her against the tyranny of sorrow: “No more of this, Helen. Go to, no more lest it be rather thought you affect a sorrow than to have-“. Helen interrupts the Countess by saying; “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too.” Now if this reminds you a little of Hamlet, you are not far off. Especially given that later in the scene the countess gives her son some very Polonius sounding advice.

Being introduced to a tearful young woman might endear us to sympathy, but the next time she speaks, her words leave us a little cold:

O, were that all! I think not on my father;
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him: my imagination
Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s.
I am undone: there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away.

Thinking of her father, no. It sounds like she is offended by the Countess’s words. So much for him! No, it is the loss of Bertram that makes Helen weep. And in her words, “there is no living, none”, we are given a clear view as to her feelings for Bertram.

It would do us well to keep in mind that even if Bertram had stayed, Helen would have had no chance of marriage to him. Social norms dictated that a girl of her class could never marry a count. We are never given any indication that Bertram had ever led her on, and given his aversion to a union with her later in the play, it is safe to assume Helen only has herself to blame for her desire to be near him.

Helen recognizes her dilemma, when she confesses her love to the Countess

Be not offended; for it hurts not him
That he is loved of me: I follow him not
By any token of presumptuous suit;
Nor would I have him till I do deserve him

Now this would make for a good set-up for a gender bending hero’s tale in which another offers Helen a task that upon completion, will prove she deserves Bertram. But this is not what Shakespeare does. As we will see below, she exhibits some obsessive ideas on how to solve her own problem.

The king’s disease–my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix’d and will not leave me. (
Sounds a little obsessive, no?)

And here is where the play really gets going. In brief, Helen travels to France and cures the King, who in turn promises to grant her the hand of marriage to any man she wishes. Helen demands Bertram, and though her curing of the King does not make her worthy in Bertram’s eye, the two wed. Bertram flees the country and then sends Helen a letter in which he informs her that he cannot be her true husband until she can get the family ring from his finger and conceive of his child.

Finally, the task given by another that all good hero stories must follow! But not so fast, for you see Bertram tells her these things thinking there isn’t a chance in hell that she will see them through. His leaving proves it. He’s gone off to war thinking he has seen last of Helen.

While away Bertram falls for Diana, who he tries desperately to seduce. Oh but Helen will not be deterred. While Bertram’s story is playing out, Helen is behind the scenes manipulating the events. And here we are going to get to the heart of the problem. As promised I will skip the blow-by-blow scenes and sub-plots and briefly outline Helen’s actions:

After she is rejected by her new husband Helen lies and says she is going on a pilgrimage.
Helen really follows Bertram.
Helen then starts a rumor that she has died.
Helen secretly befriends Diana and her mother.
Helen bribes Diana to not only give her Bertram’s family ring (he gives it to Diana as a token of love) but to allow Helen to take her place in Bertram’s bed.

Bertram, thinking his wife dead and Diana seduced (he had no intention of marrying her either) goes back home thinking he is safe from his female problems only to learn Helen is there with his ring and two infant sons. Mission accomplished! Helen has won the man of her dreams, and though Bertram is less than an ideal mate, he agrees that yes, he did write the letter and yes, he will be her faithful husband. All’s well that ends well. Or does it? Why does this play matter to us? Let’s look at Helen’s actions through a modern lens.

Now the idea of seduction by deception is not a novel idea or alien to modern audiences. The story of King Arthur’s conception comes to mind. According to legend, Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, fell in love with or lusted after Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall. Uther managed to persuade Merlin to use his magic to fulfil his desire of sleeping with Igraine. Merlin transformed Uther into the image of Gorlois, enabling Uther to enter Tintagel Castle to seduce the queen.

No matter the gender, the idea of tricking someone into bed makes us feel uneasy and rightly so. What does this say about the woman or man who is tricked? How could Igraine not know it wasn’t her husband who was making love to her? Was Bertram so blinded by lust that he didn’t notice who he was in bed with? What does that say about Helen, that she would allow herself to be with a man who was thinking of another, and of the sexual power-struggle between the two?

What has she really won if anything? Helen weaves a tapestry of desperate threads in order to get what she wants. It is left to the audience to untangle the threads and determine if we think the means are worth the gains.

Modern audiences must view this play, and specifically Helen’s actions as a warning. Psychiatrists would probably label Helen as an obsessive stalker; a woman so convinced that if she would only try harder, her victim will fall for her even when deception is involved. She goes out of her way to manipulate situations so that she is viewed in a favorable light, even if this means resorting to tricking a man into bed and lying about her own death.

I bet everyone reading this has known at least one person in his or her life who has resorted to some type of deception in order to sleep with another. When men do it we call them players, women, we call whores (modern language is not fair, I know). Neither are well-respected aspects of the human condition. Yet this type of sexual conquest continues today, usually with disastrous results and only hurts those involved.

Some may argue that Helen is using the only power that she has in order to rise above her station and win the man she loves. But this argument holds little water when we consider Helen is not just fighting against society but the very man she hopes to win. This is no hero’s tale in which there is an eager prize waiting to be won.

If we are uneasy with this play it is because it still hits close to home. In our modern society there are those who will do anything, say anything to win fame, money, position, or a mate. We hear true-life horror stories about obsessive “love” gone wrong and with the invention of the Internet, stalking has been taken to a whole new level.

Though this play is not widely performed it should be taught in high schools and colleges and given to anyone who displays obsessive thoughts about another. The play could be used as a lesson for those who think love will come if they do more, say more, or be someone they are not.

Helen’s story should be a warning that we don’t, and shouldn’t, always get what we want. That the pursuit is not always worth the chase, and far too often what we lose is hardly worth the gain. When we look at it closely we see that this play does not end well at all.

Works Cited

Merriam’s Dictionary online

Shakespeare, William All’s Well That End’s Well, Oxford World Classics edition

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

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