Sense and Nonsense in All’s Well That Ends Well

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve been depositing them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the fifth, from September 2011.]

Francis Wheatley, Helena, Bertram and the King of France (1793) [i.e. Bertram indicates his disdain for Helen], Folger Shakespeare Library
All’s Well That Ends Well is a riddle that begins with the title. As a proverb, as a piece of folklore, the phrase draws attention to the role played by ancestral wisdom in the plot (the heroine, Helen, uses her father’s knowledge of medicine to cure the King of a terminal illness). It informs us that the play is concerned with happy endings, which are a distinguishing feature of the comic genre; but it also implies that happy endings justify the means to bring them about, and that these means may not always be ethical, safe or funny. And it also invites us to consider what ‘wellness’ is, both morally and physically speaking. There’s an air of uncertainty about the title, then, that suits it to this troubled comedy, which seems to pose the question of whether comedy can be brought off at all in a culture as self-absorbed as that of early modern Europe.

The play has much to say about the difficulty of dialogue; indeed it contains some of Shakespeare’s trickiest poetic language, parts of it quite literally nonsense. Verse is its medium, and much of that verse is rhymed. Helen uses rhyme often, and this gives her lines a proverbial feel, like the title, as if she is voicing long-established certainties. ‘Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?’ she asks, and the question becomes an assertion by virtue of the euphonic link between striving and desire. ‘He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister’, she tells the King as she undertakes his cure, and the rhyme lends authority to her claim. The other great users of rhyme in the play are the Countess of Roussillon and the King himself; and their rhymed exchanges with Helen make all three sound as if they were singing from the same hymn-sheet. The King and Helen, in particular, understand each other perfectly as they rhyme in spite of reason – engaging in a melodious contest between sound and sense that gets revived by the King in the final act when he celebrates Helen’s return with a tentative restatement of the title: ‘All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’. Here, then, is yet another meaning of the title: that a conversation goes well when its metrical units end in rhyme. There’s clearly something contrived about this claim – it isn’t ‘true’ in any obvious sense. But its very contrivedness stresses the determination of the rhymers to stage a happy ending against all odds.

John Massey Wright, Helena and the Countess (c 1815), Folger Shakespeare Library

All’s Well is full of elderly people who lament the passing of old-time excellence: the Countess, the old courtier Lafeu, the clown, the King. Their nostalgia is for a very distant past, a golden age when miracles occurred (as they do again in this play: the miracles of the King’s recovery, of Helen’s seeming resurrection) and goddesses walked the earth (as they do again here, embodied by the girl Diana). Above all, they speak of the time when words were linked with their meanings, as Helen insists they are when she addresses Diana. But of all the good things of the past, this exemplary use of language is the hardest to recover. Words and meanings have grown so far apart that one must speak in riddles if one wishes to convey one’s meaning without risk of misunderstanding – what Shakespeare calls ‘misprision’. Helen speaks ‘riddle-like’ to the Countess when she confesses her love for Bertram; and in the final scene, Diana speaks in riddles to the King in her efforts to explain the convoluted paths by which a happy outcome is being accomplished. Riddles are the dialect of oracles, another ancient source of knowledge resurrected by Helen. When she promises the King that she can heal him, she invokes the ‘help of heaven’, just as the priestess did at Delphos when she begged Apollo for answers to his worshippers’ questions. The King is impressed by Helen’s confidence: ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak’, he tells her, ‘And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way’. Her claims to occult knowledge seem to him senseless, like the verses uttered by Apollo; yet the ‘sense’ of the Delphic verses was always confirmed by the outcome of events, just as the sense of Helen’s riddles will assert itself before the play is done. And Helen is only one of the characters in All’s Well to extract sense from a senseless world by uttering apparent nonsense.

Treacherous modern words are a kind of nonsense, but they can bring people together if properly handled, like the patter of a crafty pimp. This is confirmed by the example of Paroles: a braggart soldier who leads Helen’s husband Bertram astray, but who also helps him return to his wife. As his name suggests, Paroles embodies the way words work in the present, leading people away from truth, yet accidentally restoring truth to those who have lost it. This double action can be detected in almost everything he says. In the first act, for instance, he lectures the virgin Helen on the uselessness of virginity (‘there was never virgin got till virginity was lost’); yet despite his salacious motives (he wants to sleep with her himself), Helen is not so much offended by his logic as liberated by it, asking: ‘How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?’ The lecture later serves Bertram’s turn as well: the young man parrots Paroles when he courts Diana:

When you are dead, you should be such a one
As you are now, for you are cold and stern;
And now you should be as your mother was
When your sweet self was got.

Paroles, in other words, speaks both for Helen and disloyal Bertram. He gives voice to Helen’s desire, which she cannot easily voice herself; and he furnishes Bertram with the language of seduction, thus initiating him into the pleasures of sex – the first step on the road back to his wife. This dual action is apparent, too, in the message Paroles delivers to Helen after her marriage, explaining that Bertram has left for the Italian wars. Paroles describes this abandonment as a deferral of the couple’s pleasure, an erotic technique for enhancing their future love-making (it will ‘make the coming hour o’erflow with joy / And pleasure drown the brim’). And despite the fact that Paroles doesn’t mean it – he never expects the couple to meet again – his quasi-pornographic fantasy proves as prophetic as Helen’s promises to the King. The King’s last words before the epilogue (‘The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’) repeat Paroles’s sentiment. Paroles, then, like Helen, is a vehicle for truthful utterance; an inadvertent prophet, as Bertram points out when the braggart’s lies are finally exposed: ‘this counterfeit model has deceived me like a double-meaning prophesier’.

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Act 4, scene 3 of All’s Well that Ends Well (c 1860) [i.e. Paroles Exposed], Folger Shakespeare Library
If Paroles acts as a prophet, then Helen and the older generation sometimes act as pimps. When Lafeu leaves Helen alone with the King he compares himself to the greatest of go-betweens, Pandarus: ‘I am Cressid’s uncle, / That dare to leave two together’. The newly cured King then acts as a pimp with Helen as his client, parading his courtiers before her like rent-boys, then using threats to make Bertram accept her advances. Lafeu expresses his disgust at the courtiers’ failure to respond as compliant rent-boys should: ‘An they were sons of mine […] I would send them to th’Turk to make eunuchs of’. And Bertram is appalled by the role reversal whereby a woman becomes the client and himself the sex object: ‘In such a business’, he says, ‘give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’. Later, Diana’s widowed mother uses the same word, ‘business’, to refer to prostitution: she tells Helen that she is too well brought up to be ‘acquainted with these businesses’. At this point Helen is urging her to work as a madam on her behalf, so that she can substitute herself for Diana between Bertram’s sheets. Helen’s plot to sleep with her own unwilling husband inspires yet another redemptive riddle; she describes it as ‘wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act; / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact’. In a world where men react with horror to lawful sex and instead seek pleasure with unlawful partners, pimping, prostitution and the playing of sexual practical jokes may be legitimate practices, and dealing in double meanings may be the only way to circumvent more damaging forms of duplicity.

In this world Bertram finds himself bewildered. A snob, he cannot see why he should be forced to marry a woman beneath his station, whatever service she may have rendered to his monarch. Twice he finds himself pimped out, so to speak, against his will; once when the King gifts him to Helen, and once when Helen pays the widow to let her bed him in Diana’s place. He lies often, but where other people get away with it (even Paroles, whose lies become his stock-in-trade when he becomes a clown), Bertram’s untruths are always laid bare to humiliating scrutiny, until by the end of the play he has no choice but to become what everyone thinks he should be: a loyal husband to his lady. Everyone else in the play can adapt themselves to the ways of this fallen world; only Bertram cannot deal with it. But he is young, as the King and the Countess insist. We can hope at the end that he has learned from his experiences; just as we can hope that we too have learned from this remarkable piece of theatre, despite all the nonsense we ourselves get up to.

[For a more detailed account of All’s Well, see here.]

Michael Goodman, Helena and the King (1880) [i.e. Helen chooses a husband]