While we’re ruminating on All’s Well That Ends Well, and Gil’s comments, I thought I’d invite a “literary light” into the discussion: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In one of his briefer table talk pieces, Coleridge takes Bertram’s side, explaining that Bertram is not an intolerable jerk because he has every reason to be disgruntled with an arrangement that finds him forced to marry a woman he has previously considered only a friend. Coleridge calls the king’s decree “tyrannical.” Of “Helena,” he opines the following:
“Indeed, it must be confessed that her character is not very delicate, and it required all Shakespeare’s consummate skill to interest us for her; and he does this chiefly by the operation of the other characters,–the Countess, Lafeu, etc. We get to like Helena from their praising and commending her so much” (Hawkes 254).
Really? That’s a pretty odd argument, that we only engage with a character because others are there to prompt us. Let’s take a couple scenes where this is demonstrably not possible: Act 1 scene 1 and Act 3 scene 2. Those are the scenes in which we find Helen’s soliloquies. Often, soliloquies define what is compelling about a character – Iago’s gleeful villainy (“And what’s he, then, that says I play the villain, when this advice is free I give and honest”); Hamlet’s incapacitating grapple with suicide and despair (“O that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”); Hal’s lawyerly crash course in Medieval public relations (“If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work, but when the seldom come, they wished-for come, and nothing pleaseth but rare accidents”); Juliet’s crisis of confidence regarding the reliability of those who would protect her (“What if it be a poison which the Friar hath subtly ministered to have me dead, lest in this marriage he should be dishonored because he married me before to Romeo?”). And soliloquies establish this character while he/she is alone on the stage.
Do Helen’s soliloquies reveal a depth of character? Here’s the first:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense and do suppose
What hath been cannot be. Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love? (1.1.222-233)
There’s a sexist tang to Coleridge’s assessment, as if the concerns of women (love and matrimony) do not carry the weight of men’s. Yet here we find concerns about fate, free will, and the restrictive boundaries of social class. And parsed in couplets, too. If her thoughts lack gravitas, what do we make of the first lines’ similarity to Cassius’s comment in Julius Caesar?
Men at some time are masters of their fate.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.146-148)
Helen’s ambition is to marry above her station; Cassius’s is to assassinate a Roman leader. Both challenge socio-political order. And isn’t that what we find most compelling about Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines? Their fearlessness in confronting the cosmos and seeking to reorder it? Her comment, “Impossible be strange attempts to those that weigh their pains in sorrow and do suppose what hath been cannot be,” shows just how far she’s willing to beyond the established order of things. Her quest will be “strange,” out of the ordinary, uncommon, remarkable, the kind of thing others have failed at because they lacked imagination or were defeatist – a hero’s vision. Her final question, it seems to me, is rhetorical, not plaintive. She’s saying “if I strive, I will succeed” – a hero’s stance.
I’ll save a close reading of the second soliloquy for another time.
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