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Today in order to get a date, the guy customarily calls the girl and asks her out. If their relationship become very serious, the guy will get on one knee and ask the girl to marry him. It does not matter how much money the other person makes or even his or her family background. Basically, everyone is equal and treated the same as to what he or she can personally do to bring honor or disgrace to his or her name.
Unfortunately, the marriage process in Shakespeare’s time was a little bit different, because of the feudal system. One character in All’s Well that Ends Well breaks all the rules and traditions usually accustomed to her time period. Helena, who lives in a fairy-tale fantasy, seeks the affection and love from Bertram, a spoiled nobleman, through her good virtue and high aspirations. To begin with the main character, Helena, wants someone whom she cannot have.
Bertram, the object of her lust, grew up with her in his household.
His family took her under their wing when Helena’s father, the physician for the Count of Rossillion, passed away. He was thought of by the king as “much famed” and “if he were living, [he] would try him yet” as his doctor. Unfortunately, having a well known father who was a physician did not help to make someone higher in the social status. Bertram, the new Count of Rossillion after his father passed away, possess more money and nobility than ten times Helena’s wealth. “This low station is unique among Shakespeare’s comic heroines” (Scott 427). Surpassing anyone’s wildest fantasies, Helena confesses her devout love of Bertram to the Countess, his mother. According to some critics, they find it “troubling” to see Helena as a “woman who determines the man she wants and then sets out to get him by any means available” (Meaning 74). However it is truly admirable to even the Countess, who gives the consent and love to Helena for her journey. Helena, full of ambition, travels to the King’s place where she knowingly has a premeditated plot to win Bertram. She sets out on a task to cure the king of his illness, although she has no medical experience, and uses her late father’s instruments to help him.
The surprising fact happened when the king trusts Helena enough to allow her to attempt to cure him of the disease. He sees “the honor which Helena possesses through her own virtue” (Dusinberre 36). When her plan works and saves the king’s life, he grants her the choice of any lord in his courtship. After all that she had done for the King of France, all of the men, or shall I say immature boys, treated her so rudely that even Lafew, shocked at their reaction of rejection, said “And they were sons of mine, I’d have them whipped”. Helena’s virtuous heart clearly reveals itself here, because the older, wiser people of the court realize how honorable Helena really is. According to J. M. Massi, the “younger generation must… replace their elders in order to attain their reasonable and acceptable desires.” This statement contradicts the fact that Helena followed the guidance of her elders to get where she was headed. She chooses Bertram as her husband, although he denies his love for her forever, and the king has them wed at once. Bertram’s selfish pride causes readers to dislike him and feel more sympathy and understanding for Helena as she achieves her goal for Bertram as her husband. Out of complete stubbornness, Bertram will not agree to consummate their marriage, but becomes influenced by Parolles, a character foil of Bertram, to leave the country and fight in the war. Richard Wheeler may see his flight from Helena as a “quest for autonomous selfhood [to deal with his] psychological issues,” but he is clearly just a coward who refuses to stand up to his problems. Parolles, a deceiver and a liar, uses Bertram to work both sides of the enemy lines. Shakespeare overemphasizes his evilness because he uses him to bring out Bertram’s ugly and childish side. Parolles is also thought of as his “bad angel” by Goddard. Although Helena’s first and most important task has been accomplished, she is left empty handed again and has not fulfilled her main goal: to receive the affection from her true love. After proving to herself and others that she could achieve the impossible, Helena had to overcome a new obstacle. Bertram wrote to her concerning: When thou 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.’ This time her wit took her to another country to try and bring her bridegroom home.
Helena traveled on a pilgrimage to Florence, Italy only to come face to face with her fate. A young, innocent lady named Diana, meets Helena and happens to be courted by Bertram as well. She is confronted “with an utterly incredible chance to attain her heart’s desire” (Goddard 43). Cunningly, Helena develops another plan to meet the requirements of Bertram’s letter,by convincing Diana to follow through by a bribery of money. Diana trades rings with Bertram, receiving his family ring and giving him Helena’s ring received from the king in exchange for her virginity. When the lights are off in the evening Bertram sneaks back to receive his end of the bargain, Diana and Helena trade places so Helena is the actual sexual performer. This is called a “bed-trick” which becomes a key element in the plot of the play. Levin Schucking writes in honor of Helena’s act of “such a humiliating situation is aproof of a great love.” However other critics are “strongly against any facile acceptance of the bed-trick” (Hunter xlv). Surprisingly leaving the scene of the play, Helena stages her death which causes much grief to all that knew her. Some critics think that Bertram truly regrets ever leaving and “has come to love [her] now that she is dead” (Goddard 39), but I believe that it was only an act he put on to cover up his real feelings of happiness that he was free of Helena at last and perhaps he felt guilty for not giving her a chance in the first place.
Most readers at this point in the play are confused as to why Helena would pull a crazy disappearing act when she had accomplished everything the letter told her to do, the impossible. R. L. SmallWood states that “Shakespeare obviously wants the tenderness and love for the rather awkward young [person] to be reflected [by] the audience… to put them in a frame of mind in which they are more likely to accept [rest of the] chain of events. This absence in the scenes creates a sort of longing for Helena to come back and prove her accomplishments. By bringing Bertram back home, it creates a good setting for Helena to reveal her secrets to everyone all at one time and which forces Bertram to accept her as his only one for ever, her ultimate goal. However before she returns, the Rossillion’s family friend Lafew offered his daughter to Bertram’s hand as an engagement (How most marriages are arranged in that day). In an unplanned frenzy, Diana appears unexpectedly to stand up for how Bertram had wronged her by using and losing her. Catching him in the act, the two-sided Bertram should hold his head low in disgrace for the fallacies of his digressions. The scene is mass chaos and nobody completely understands what has happened until our heroine Helena arrives, a classic example of situational irony, and reveals her “secret weapon” (Hillman 74). The play instantaneously flips upside down and some character’s roles reverse. Helena becomes quiet and passive in apprehension of the outcome she needs and Bertram falls into a trance of remorse and maturity. Without even questioning Helena’s authenticity of pregnancy, he confesses “If she, my Liege, can make me know this clearly, I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V. iii. 365-367] exposing a change of heart and a new found devotion. Although the critic Samuel Johnson was not fully convinced that Bertram’s admission to Helena was authentic: I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness (Bloom 345). I believe most men just need a slap in the face, metaphorically or physically speaking, to make them come around and see things the way they are and how they should have always been.
In conclusion to the effects of the “happily-ever after” ending to a “fairy-tale” beginning, Helena, through perseverance and a positive attitude to get her goals accomplished, found or should I say made her dreams a reality. By reversing the role of the man chasing after the woman, Helena knew what she wanted from the start and got her man in the end. She never gave up or settled for second best, which was not being loved in return by her true love. Although even the king may think “all [only] seems well” (V. iii. 385), the design of Helena’s destiny came true. This only goes to prove that women can get what they want and do not need to sit around waiting for the man to get over his immature stage because it may never happen. Contrarily, women should go out and make an effort to achieve what they are rightfully destined to posses with an honest heart and a pure purpose at steak.
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