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

Shakespeare and the first Gothic novel

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I’m a big fan of Gothic novels, much to the amusement of my friend Michelle who patiently waits as I scour bookstore shelves in search of a good Gothic read. It does not say much about our American bookstore literary acumen that I have to do this but I have yet to ask for recommendations from an employee without getting that deer- in- the- headlights look. Though a special nod must be given to the employees of Reno’s Grassroots Books for looking the term up and suggesting titles based on their new gained knowledge. Two of the ladies gave me several suggestions, but alas, I’ve read them all.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this genre, let me give a brief description:

A novel that (usually) uses medieval buildings and ruins, castles or monasteries equipped with subterranean passages, dark battlements, hidden panels, and trapdoors. There must be a ghostly or paranormal element to the story, otherwise what’s the point of using castles and ruins? The original Gothic novels offered some mystery or twist but the modern Gothic almost always offers a twist.

Some of the best-known Gothic novels:

Dracula
Frankenstein
The Monk
The Turn of the Screw
Jane Eyre
The Thirteenth Tale

There is even an American sub-genre, Southern Gothic that includes two of my all time favorite novels: Robert McCammon’s A Boy’s Life, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Gothic novels begin appearing in the late 17th century. It has been widely assumed the genre started with Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 The Monk and was quickly adopted by other writers because of the success of The Monk. Lewis’ novel touched on varying taboo subjects such as rape, blasphemy, incest, and devil worship. It was sharply criticized by the elites and the Church.

Can you imagine the outcry over this? Modern church members wanted the Harry Potter books banned; I can’t begin to imagine what they would have wanted to do with the book or even Lewis himself. But even with the outcry  it was a hit with the general public and remains on the list as the best Gothic novel of all times.

Though The Monk is accepted as the greatest Gothic novels ever written, and mentioned as the first, it is in fact not the first Gothic novel. This honor goes to Horace Walpole and his short novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, first anonymously, as a “found” Italian manuscript and then after becoming a best-seller, as a novel by Walpole (to the disappointment of the general reading audience who thought they had been reading a semi-true account of some long ago Italian horror).

Horace Walpole, 4th earl of Oxford was born in London on September 24th, 1717 and died on March 2, 1797. Walpole was a celebrated writer and collector, though his passion for collecting became an obsession. Walpole bought a small villa in Twickenham in 1747, where he spent years adding turrets, battlements and cloisters. The estate became known as Strawberry Hill. It was here that Walpole housed his collection of curios (more on that in a minute), pictures, and a large library. He opened it up to the public and it is thought that Hill was the stimulus for the Gothic resurgence in English architecture.

Straweberry Hill The villa that became a castle
Straweberry Hill
The villa that became a castle

Today, Walpole is remembered for two things: his prolific letter writing (over 3,000 and counting have been collected) and his supposed offer of payment to anyone who would bring him Shakespeare’s skull. You may remember I wrote about the story of Shakespeare’s missing skull and how an 18th century story, A Warwickshire Gentleman is the only “proof” that Shakespeare’s grave was robbed. It said that Walpole was the one who put the idea out there, yet the folklore says that when presented with the skull, he drew back in horror and declined to purchase it. Given that Walpole as we know from his letters, venerated Shakespeare and had a taste for the macabre, it is strange that he would recoil in horror. On the other hand, actual grave robbing may have been the line even he refused to cross. But then again, it is so far as we can tell, just a story, so I shouldn’t speculate on his motives for declining such an offer.

Yale University houses a digital version of a 48-volume collection of Walpole’s letters. Thankfully they allow users to search through them by category, date, and subject matter. I spent most of the morning reading letters that mention Shakespeare. After just a few minutes it became clear this man idolized the Bard. One of most humors letters I read concerned the Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, one of Walpoles’ contemporaries. In the letter, Walpole is exchanging ideas about the famous actor. He argues that while Garrick is a “great” actor, he is terrible writer. “His prologues and epilogues and forty such pieces of trash are below Mediocrity.” He then goes on about Shakespeare: It is said Shakespeare was a bad actor; why do not his divine plays make our wise judges conclude that he was a good one?

I am not sure I follow his argument but I did notice his use of the word ‘divine”. This type of description can be found throughout Walpole’s letters. So, given that Walpole worshiped Shakespeare, would it surprise you to learn his idolatry bled into his work of fiction? Of course not.

I don’t want to give too much away in a review of The Castle of Otranto. I read it last night not know much about it myself, other than Walpole borrows from Hamlet. I don’t want to spoil the unease you may feel when first reading about the sinister plot that begins to unravel early in the novel. The basic plot centers on the castle of the Prince of Otranto. His son is killed on the way to his wedding and very quickly paranormal events shape the next few days. Something is haunting the castle, but what and why are only reveled at the end.

To say this play is based only on Hamlet is wrong. Whoever wrote the foreword for the Di Lernia edition must have never read beyond Hamlet. Walpole calls upon many of Shakespeare’s plays in this short novel. The Prince of Otranto’s wife is named Hippolita, an obvious take on Hippolyta from A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The friar who runs the church next to the Castle is a mirror image of the friar of Romeo and Juliet. One of the guards who is tasked with the unfortunate job of explaining a haunting to the unbelieving Prince has a touch of Dogberry in him. There is even a take on Robert Greene’s charge of Shakespeare as an “up-start crow”. Whoever weds Isabella, it shall not be Father Falconara’s started-up son”.

The only Hamlet like elements of the play are the many deaths either shown or recounted. Death by poison, drowning, and mistaken murder by blade are found in this novel. And like Hamlet, all these deaths seem to stem from a prince who cannot keep his emotions in check.

The Castle of Otranto is an entertaining read, though at times it is unintentionally funny. I don’t know if its because as a modern reader I found the “horror” element lacking or because it is truly absurd. Walpole wrote that the idea for the book came to him in a dream. Perhaps like most dreams, what scares us in our sleep sounds silly when we recount the tale. And speaking of dreams, Mary Shelly also claims it was a dream that prompted her to write her own Gothic novel. The Castle and Frankenstein have another common thread. Both are about “monsters” but the real monsters in both come in human form.

I recommend reading the novel for its Gothic historical value and for the pleasure of seeing how many Shakespeare references you can spot. But if you really like reading history from the perspective of the time, I suggest finding some time to read The Yale collection of Walpole’s letters. In them, there is much ado about everything.

Works cited

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto Di Lernia Publishers, e-book edition
Horace Walpole, The Correspondence with Cole, Yale University online edition

Works Referenced

Rev Charles Langston Vicar of Beoley A Warwickshire Gentleman The Argosy, online thanks to Google Books.
Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford, Encyclopædia Britannica online edition