Kevin O'Brien examines the scriptural themes that run through All's Well that Ends Well
All's Well and Scripture
All's Well and Scripture
Young Helena secretly pines for Bertram, but knows she can not marry him due to the disparity of their social standing, for Bertram is of the nobility; he is a count, and Helena but a mere gentlewoman under the protection of the Countess, Bertram’s mother.
Helena, however, intervenes to save the life of the King of France, who is dying from a condition that his doctors can not cure. Using a medicine that her late father developed, Helena cures the King, but first she must revive the King’s spirits, a harder task; for the King has slid into despair, and in a wonderful scene of rhyming couplets, Helena revives the King’s hope, as later offstage she will revive his health.
In return for saving the ailing King, Helena is allowed to choose a husband out of any of the King’s courtiers. She chooses Bertram, and the king decrees that Helena, noble in character, is indeed a fitting match for the nobly born young count, the disparity of birth by divine decree wiped away (this being analogous to Baptism, which gives us new birth and entitles us to a claim on God’s Kingdom).
But Bertram, we now discover, unlike all of the other young men at court, wants nothing to do with Helena. He is blind to her inner beauty and angry that the King insists he marry her.
Bertram submits to the King and marries Helena, anyway (for we soon learn that he lacks even the courage to stand up for his convictions openly). He then sneaks away to fight as a mercenary in a foreign war, before even consummating the marriage, leaving Helena a very nasty letter, avowing that he will never live with her as her husband until she can get his ring from off his finger and conceive his child in her womb – a clearly impossible task now that he has deserted her, refuses to sleep with her, and wants nothing to do with her.
We then follow some of Bertram’s adventures with the Florentine forces, while Helena strives somehow to win him back. Bertram’s companion at the wars is the ridiculous Parolles, a bombastic braggart, who in an elaborate jest, is tricked by his own cohorts into revealing his traitorous character and his willingness to deny even his brothers-in-arms for his own selfish and cowardly ends. And while we hear of Bertram’s nobility on the battlefield, we see more and more the baseness of his heart, for he and Parolles are clearly parallels to one another and well suited as companions.
Bertram’s main objective after the fighting ends is to seduce a Florentine virgin. He beguiles the chaste Diana with false oaths and lies, and eventually convinces her to bed him in the dark, in exchange for his ring, a family jewel that he casually trades in exchange for Diana’s chastity, the “jewel of [her] house”.
Bertram’s lust, however, plays right into Helena’s virtuous ends. Helena substitutes herself for Diana, and in the dark receives from her husband both his ring and the seed that makes her quick with the life of their child. Bertram is finally confronted with this by the play’s end, and sees that indeed the conditions he set for loving his wife and living with her have been met. He has (albeit unwittingly) given her the ring of his ancestors and the firstborn of his descendants. Helena then claims her rightful stake in the line of Bertram’s nobility, past, present and future.
But in the midst of it all, the depths to which Bertram is willing to sink to feed his own selfish ends are revealed in a way that echoes the unmasking of Parolles the fool. And while the ending is technically comedic – for the marriage is effected and new life procured – the ending is as troubling as it is satisfying. We are left with the feeling that perhaps all is not well even when it ends well.
What is the primary character trait we see in young men in our world today? Selfishness. What is wrong with selfishness? It is a way of squandering our patrimony. What is our patrimony? The gifts from our fathers that we are entrusted to pass along to our sons. In passing along the Kingdom to which we have been entitled, we not only procreate life (which any randy “gangsta” can do), but we also cooperate in the fulfillment of an order that is greater than our flesh and its wayward desires, and in submission to which we find all of our contentment and meaning.
In other words, in losing our lives we find them, but in clinging to them we lose them. When an adolescent disdains the gifts you’ve given him and sets out on a path that is one of mere indulgence in his own laziness and lust, we know the mess he makes and the heartbreak he causes. And how do these unwed fathers, who don’t even acknowledge their paternity, answer the charge these days that they are leaving a mess of devastation – orphans, single mothers, a culture in shambles – in their wake? They respond with arrogance and conceit. We are surrounded by ignoble Bertrams, by Parolles-es who do not even attempt the pretense of honor that Parolles does.
How does this fit into a Christian worldview? First, it is important to note that All’s Well That Ends Well is evocative of two biblical stories, one in the Old Testament, and the other in the New.
In the Old Testament, we have the story of Judah, Onan and Tamar (Genesis 38). Tamar is Judah’s daughter-in-law. When her husband, Judah’s eldest son, dies, it becomes the responsibility of Onan, Judah’s second-eldest, to bed her and “raise up offspring” for his late brother’s estate. Onan is reluctant to contribute to an order that is not his own, and so he lays with Tamar, but “spills his seed”, preferring to frustrate the ends of the Kingdom, abrogating a self-giving end and making it a supremely selfish end, an end that is so selfish it is literally unproductive, an end that becomes the archetype for such behavior (masturbation and coitus interruptus having been known ever since as “onanism”). Onan’s reward for this is to be struck dead by God.
Judah, meanwhile, shows himself equally capable of such pristine selfishness. He neglects to marry Tamar to his third-eldest son, although he is obligated to do so, eventually allowing her to languish on the verge of becoming childless. Tamar then comes up with the “bed trick” that Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well is later to use (as are many other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, and as did Boccacio in the Decameron, who furnishes Shakespeare with much of his source material). The bed trick consists of this: Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute; Judah, not recognizing who she really is, avails himself of her services, but first she demands of him pledges of payment, including his signet. Tamar conceives, and when Judah discovers that his daughter-in-law is pregnant, he attempts to have her burned as a whore, until she presents him with his signet, demonstrating that he himself – her own father-in-law - has impregnated her and produced offspring for his son, thereby fulfilling the Order of the Kingdom, in what he thought was a mere dalliance with a streetwalker.
As sordid as this story is, it is remarkable to note that the younger of the twins that Tamar has thus conceived by the unwitting Judah, using the patriarch’s own lust against him and likewise using it for the sake of a greater and selfless end - that the younger of the twins is crucial to the genealogy of Our Lord. The tribe of Judah leads to David, and the Davidic line leads to St. Joseph, and through St. Joseph Jesus inherits his claim to the Davidic covenant. Thus the twin Perez, born of this incestuous and debased encounter, is one of the linchpins in the ancestry of Jesus Himself (see Matthew 1). God thereby writes straight with our crooked lines. And the selfishness of men such as the seed-spilling Onan and the whoremongering Judah, is channeled, despite their own narrow hearts, into something for which their selfish lust must be sacrificed, sacrificed to a greater end, the true end for which these desires were made, and for which we have been ordained as stewards, the end which is our patrimony - the Order of the Kingdom of God.
Likewise in the New Testament we see, in Luke chapter 15, the story of the Prodigal Son - who runs off with his patrimony and squanders it among sluts and swine, until he comes to his senses and repents.
Both of these stories hover about the backdrop of Shakespeare’s play, as does one other noteworthy allusion. In Helena’s healing of the king we hear an echo of the Fisher King, the mythic tale that resounds with imagery which Malory and others Christianize in such a sublime way in the Arthurian saga of the Holy Grail. Helena, in healing an ailing and despondent king, and in restoring his hope, is clearly a figure filled with Christian virtue. In the Arthurian legend, it was the Grail itself and thereby the very blood of Christ that kept the wounded king alive; here we see something very similar in Helena. In her name she represents the greatest of pagan beauty, but unlike her namesake Helen of Troy, the Helena of All’s Well is a pure virgin, one who leads even the greatest among us to hope and new life. Helena is a profoundly Christian symbol, indeed a kind of Mary, who herself, in her virginity and charity, brings us hope and life by leading us to Christ and to His healing grace.
But this Mary’s fiat is not shared by Bertram. Bertram is perhaps, therefore, not merely the typical adolescent, an Onan out for himself, a Prodigal Son who does not repent; he is also the new blood at the court of Elizabeth in Shakespeare’s day, who were blind to the Catholic order and the beauty of Mary, and who were out for mere plunder and rapaciousness.
But even if we don’t see in this play the analogy of its historical context, we at least see a world in which the powers of redemption and hope, so beautifully used in healing the king, are mightily frustrated by the bone-headedness of young nobles behaving ignobly. Bertram is but a hair’s breadth removed from being as much of a scoundrel and fool as the traitor Parolles; in some ways he is worse. And Bertram’s rehabilitation is brought about despite all of his efforts to the contrary, without any repentance or intention of amendment on his part. The technically comedic but forced conclusion to this play is highlighted by Shakespeare in the irony of the title, which unlike the title of Shakespeare’s other comedies, is quoted a few times during the course of the action, thereby drawing attention to it.
Is this a recognition that, with young nobles as corrupt and complacent as this, Mary’s function becomes harder, and with the disdain for the means of salvation and sanctification (i.e., the Elizabethan sponsored disdain for the sacraments), the hardened hearts of the young and selfish become more and more difficult to crack? Is all well when it ends well even despite any interior conversion of heart? And without such openness to grace, we know at least that the King himself would never have been healed; indeed the drama that we see played out in Act II Scene iii is not Helena’s physical healing of the King, but her battle to save him from his own self-pity, her battle to convince him to open his heart to grace, the healing grace that Helena has received from her father. Bertram never really does this; and while he is saved from his own folly, the audience is not left with the sense that salvation in the midst of such a rejection of grace can long be counted to endure.
- First published in the St. Austin Review. Used by permission.