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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: All’s Well That Ends Well

Yogi Berra’s philosophy of baseball is “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Shakespeare’s philosophy of comedy is “all’s well that ends well.” In Oedipus the King everything seems to be going well but turns out badly. In All’s Well That Ends Well everything seems to be going badly but turns out well. Here’s how it happened. Helena wants to marry Bertram but he desperately doesn’t want to marry Helena. So Helena cures the King of France from a near-fatal illness and the king promises to give Helena whatever she wants as a reward. She wants Bertram for her husband. Bertram protests: I know her (Helena) well; she had her breeding at my father’s charge; a poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain rather corrupt me ever… However, the king has given his word and here’s his response to Bertram: It is in us to plant thine honour where we please to have it grow. In other words, I’m the king and you’re not, so you WILL marry Helena. The king may be able to force him to marry Helena but Bertram says I will not bed her… Not only does Bertram not love Helena, he almost seems to loathe her: Here comes my clog (Helena).

This marriage is not off to a good start. To make matters worse, before Helena has a chance to sleep with him Bertram takes off to Florence to get away from her. But once in Florence a young Italian lady does catch Bertram’s eye: Diana Capulet. He may not want to sleep with Helena but he sure does want to sleep with Diana. What’s up with this guy? Answer: he’s young. Bertram’s mother (a wise Countess) makes this observation: Even so it was with me when I was young: if ever we are nature’s, these are ours; this thorn doth to our rose of youth rightly belong; our blood to us, this to our blood is born: it is the show and seal of nature’s truth, where love’s strong passion is impressed in youth

A dilemma faced by all young folks is who to partner up with. Diana doesn’t want to give up her virginity to Bertram. Helena does. What difference does it make? It makes a lot of difference to the ladies. Not so much to the guys. Bertram’s “friend” Parolles has this little exchange with Helena: PAROLLES: Are you (Helena) meditating on virginity? ... HELENA: Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men? … PAROLLES: Virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love; which is the most inhibited sin in the canon. Keep it not… Virginity, like an old courtier, wears her cap out of fashion…your old virginity is like of our French withered pears. Of course this is what many men would say. They have a vested interest in sex. The Clown puts it this way: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives. It’s not love that drives Bertram on with Diana, it’s lust. He doesn’t want to marry her; he just wants to bed her.

Is this the hand of fate or just plain old biology at work? Oedipus was driven by fate in a world brooding with the will of the gods. Helena and Bertram inhabit a world where it’s every man for himself; and every woman too. Helena figures it this way: 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… The king’s disease, my project may deceive me, but my intents are fixed, and will not leave me. Helena is determined to get Bertram but that’s not the same thing as fate. Success depends almost entirely on her personal efforts, not the will of the gods. With a little help from her friends Helena gets her way. It wasn’t easy and it took a trick or two but when all is said and done Helena has the last word: All’s well that ends well.


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