All’s Well That Ends Well by Jaime Calahan (3rd place Literary Analysis)

All’s Well That Ends Well?

Boy meets girl; boy wants girl; boy takes girl, is a story so drilled into us that we barely stop to question the morality of it. It is a story well-worn in our minds. We accept it without hesitation. This is the way of things; this is how it’s always done. Shakespeare changes one thing and in doing so, changes the way we experience it, forcing us to ask ourselves deeper questions about the narratives we typically accept without examination. In one of his most uncomfortable comedies, All’s Well That End’s Well, Shakespeare subverts gender norms to help us analyze the morality of the actions taking place and forces us to confront the question: do the ends justify the means?

The story begins with obsession. As soon as we meet our heroine, Helen, we are introduced to her fixation on Bertram: “I am undone. There is no living, none, / If Bertram be away…The hind that would be mated by the lion / must die for love. ‘Twas pretty, though a plague, / to see him every hour, to sit and draw his archèd brows, his hawking eye, his curls” (1.1.89-90, 96-99). Bertram, for Helen, is an object to desire. He has become something she would like to possess, “That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it, he is so above me” (1.1.91-92). She pines over him and yet never interacts with him. She fails to show any care of what Bertram is like as a person. It is his curls that have caught her eye. We are more familiar with this narrative when the genders are reversed. We are comfortable seeing a man view a woman through the lens of only her physical beauty with little to no care for her personality or her character.

When he is called away to be with the King our heroine doesn’t just devise a way to be near Bertram, she plots her way into marrying him: “Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand / What husband in thy power I will command” (3.1.214-215). She shows no interest in Bertram’s agency as an individual person with his own feelings. She never speaks to him a single time in the play until she, with the help of the King, is forcing his submission in marriage, “Thou hast the power to choose, and they none to forsake” (2.3.57). Even in this moment, she does not ask Bertram what he desires, she just chooses him, saying, “This is the man” (2.3.112). This entitlement is not remarked on by the other characters in the play. No one objects to her demands, other than Bertram. If Helen were a man no one would question these circumstances, but she is not. Her gender is forcing the audience to question behaviors that, in men, have always been accepted.

Bertram responds to this in much the same way as many heroines who have found themselves in similar situations. He protests, “I cannot love her, nor will strive to do ‘t” (2.3.156). Then, when his protests are ignored and he is threatened by the King, he refuses to consummate the marriage and he runs, “Although before the solemn priest I have sworn, / I will not bed her…I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” (2.3.284-285, 288). Once gone, Bertram sends a letter to Helen that lists two impossible things that must occur for him to acknowledge their marriage, “When though canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband. But in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never’” (3.2.58-62). Though no one has asked him, he has made the strength of his feelings clear. He does not want this marriage.

This challenge doesn’t deter Helen from pursuing the possession of Bertram. She goes on a pilgrimage in the general direction of Bertram. On her journey she meets a woman named Diana and her mother, a widow. While staying with the widow, she learns of Bertram’s desire for Diana. This knowledge leads her to conspire with the women to trick him into a non-consensual sexual act, “It is no more / But that your daughter, ere she seems won, / Desires this ring, appoints an encounter, / In fine delivers me to fill the time, / Herself most chastely absent” (3.7.35-38). This will give her the opportunity to acquire the ring and hopefully to become pregnant. In the social order of the time, a man doing such a thing might be seen as upright and moral. He needs to protect the family name by consummating the marriage, even if he does so with an unwilling partner. By changing the gender of the one forcing consummation, Shakespeare creates enough discomfort to cause his audience to at least question the morality of the behavior. Forced intimacy can never be true intimacy. Helen’s actions are destroying the very closeness she hopes to achieve with Bertram.

At this point, Shakespeare has broken down the gender norms and social order and must restore these things in order to have a comedy. He attempts to do this, after first accusing Bertram of wronging Diana, by revealing that Helen is alive and has fulfilled the list of tasks given her by Bertram. His vague response, “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (5.3.360-361), doesn’t feel genuine. Helen has pursued him and tricked him into non-consensual sex. We would expect Bertram to despise her more, to feel angry, to rebel against the system that has brought him here. His acceptance feels abrupt and confusing. Again, we see no reaction or objection to Helen’s behavior from the other characters in this play. Everyone sees what Helen has done and no one questions the morality of it.

We, as an audience, are uncomfortable with the fate that has been forced on Bertram, even though we don’t particularly like him. This should cause us to feel uncomfortable with the current way social order, by way of marriage, is forced upon women.

Shakespeare wants his audience to feel the discordance of the ending with the events that have occurred. He is forcing his audience to get outside what is comfortable, so that they can see the social order from a new perspective and therefore critique it more objectively. He does this effectively by allowing the conqueror of the story to be a woman. The immoral actions taken by his heroine in order to achieve and maintain marital social order forces the question of whether the ends can truly justify the means. The title, All’s Well That Ends Well, would be better served with a question mark at the end.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, et al. All’s Well That Ends Well. New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2020.