Midway through Shakespeare’s career, Renaissance playwrights became increasingly discontented with the contemporary generic limitations of comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare’s solution, as always, was to completely ignore the structure of both genres and write plays that could fit into neither. Thus, during the early years of the reign of King James I, he wrote three so-called ‘problem plays,’ or ‘dark comedies’ which were neither uplifting enough to be called comedies, nor mortal enough to be called tragedies: Troilus and Cressida (1602), Measure for Measure (1604), and All’s Well that Ends Well (1604-1605). Though early critics rejected these plays as sloppy form or poor writing, modern scholar Paul Yachnin argues that they were the natural production of Shakespeare’s characteristic “populuxe drama,” or a kind of playwriting that provided popular versions of elite goods, such as the vision of aristocratic life, according to the demands of the market (Yachnin 46,52). Thus, these problem plays are sites of cultural revolution that capture the transformation between comedy and tragedy and present a darker version of society that ultimately addresses playwright Ben Johnson’s view that England is past saving as a mirthful community (Yachnin 46). The formal and verbal brilliance, treatment of character, and orchestration of ideology indicate an artist whose imagination was being challenged and stretched by the competitive writing of other artists. In Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare innovated the dramatic form in many ways, chiefly by breaking from the traditional comic structure in reconceiving the protagonist and restructuring the role of women.
Helen, in All’s Well that Ends Well, escalates the power of the female protagonist in comedies to an unprecedented level. She is the most powerful of Shakespeare’s women and, certainly, more powerful that some of Shakespeare’s tragic men. In traditional comedies, the characters travel to a green space and the couples are paired off into romantic marriage, many times directed by a woman disguised as a man. Marriage is the solution to social ills, and a woman drives the plot. Not only does Helen control the plot and manipulate it to lead to a wedding at the end, as many comic heroines, such as Viola and Bianca, do, but she also is a physician, wooer, and merchant. Like Portia, she plays a professional role in curing the King of his fistula in order to claim her husband, but she does so without the mediation of a male disguise. In seeking out the King and asking for Bertram’s hand, she woos her lover as Rosalind woos Orlando, however, again, she does not hide herself under a “doublet and hose” (As You Like It, II.4.5). Helen performs the roles of men clearly as a woman, unprecedented in earlier comedies. Beyond all other comic heroines, and, in fact, closer to the economic machinations of Lucentio, Hortensio, and Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew, Helen also wins her husband as payment for medical services. She tersely asks the King, “But if I help, what do you promise me?,” and, when the King asks her to name her price, she responds, “Then thou shalt give me with thy kingly hand/ What husband in thy power I will command” (2.1.187-193). Bertram is a commodity, bestowed as a reward for service. Furthermore, many comic heroines select their own husbands. As scholar Barbara Howard Traister notes, however, All’s Well is only comedy in which a woman selects an unwilling marriage partner, systematically removes obstacles to the match, and claims her mate against his own will. (Howard Traister 333). In fact, Helen’s journey to marry Bertram through curing an incurable fistula, replicates a traditional hero’s journey to defeat the invincible monster in order to win the hand of the fair maiden. Therefore, as a professional, wooer, and heroic knight, she usurps the positions traditionally held by men without the guise of a boy.
More than just a superbly powerful female character compared to her predecessors, however, Helen is more powerful than the men in All’s Well, and this power is predicated upon her femininity. Helen’s romantic coupe d’etat is her ability to cure the King’s disease. Importantly, the king’s doctors have abandoned his treatments, and “the congregated College” has agreed that a cure was impossible (2.1.115). The “congregated College” refers to the Kings College of Physicians, a school, union, and licensing agency that controlled which doctors could practice legitimately in England ( Doran 415). Helen stands firmly outside of this institution. Her gender and her promise of a specific cure for a disease, instead of a reasoned analysis of the body in accordance with medical theory, set Helen up as an ‘empiric,’ or an unorthodox doctor. Thus, “Doctor She,” the “poor unlearned virgin,” succeeds where the patriarchal medical hierarchy fails (2.1.77; I.3.226). Moreover, as Helen herself admits, her cure has “something in’t/ More than [her] father’s skill” (1.3. 228-229). Her cure takes on a quasi-miraculous character. She connects herself to God as she persuades the king—“He that of greatest works is finisher/ Oft does them by weakest minister”—, which is sustained in a subsequent scene by Lafeu (2.1.134-135; 2.3.22). Though Helen’s invocation can be viewed as a marketing ploy in order to win the King’s favor and marry Bertram, the fact that other characters believe that her medicine is miraculous further increases her power as a character, clearly demonstrating her superiority to the most learned men.
Furthermore, her power takes on an explicitly sexual tone, which inherently connects it with her gender. First, a fistula was an abscess that was usually anal, which would have been well understood by Shakespeare’s audience. Therefore, when Helen exits with the King to administer his treatment, we can assume that her treatment is, if not actually sexual, then incredibly intimate. This dynamic is reinforced by the fact that the cure happens in secret, so we are left to speculate what it is. The surrounding characters also aid in the sexual interpretation of the cure. As Lafeu exits in 2.1, his parting words to the King and Helen are “I am Cressid’s uncle/ That dare leave two together” (2.1.96-97). He invokes Pandarus, not only the go-between between Troilus and Cressida, but also the archetypal pimp, creating the strong innuendo (Shakespeare 2215, footnote 5). The King and Helen pick up on the sexual language, the former denying Helen’s service as not wanting to “prostitute our past cure malady/ To empirics” and the latter invoking “a strumpet’s boldness, a divulgéd shame;/ Traduced by odious ballads, my maiden’s name/ Seared otherwise” as her grounds for confidence (2.1.119-120, 170-172). Her punishment for failing would be to be declared a whore, stripped of her honor, and put to death. Thus, through the insinuations of male characters and her own admission, Helen’s medical prowess is linked to her sexuality, which is rooted in her gender.
Finally, All’s Well places a non-aristocratic female at its center (she is “a poor physician’s daughter”) who commands some of the most poetic soliloquies of the comedies. She is a Petrarchan idol worshipper, again, a position traditionally held by men, painfully aware of her own blasphemy. She admits to the audience,
‘Twere all one
That I should love a bright peculiar star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself.
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love”
She echoes the masochism and lovesickness characteristic of Petrarch’s sonnets. She continues in this vein, stating that “[her] idolatrous fancy/ Must sanctify his relics,” and admitting to the Countess of Rossilion in a subsequent scene, ““thus, Indian-like,/ Religious in mine error, I adore/ The sun that looks upon his worshipper/ But knows of him no more” (1.1.92-3; 1.3. 188-191). Thus, she captures the romantic spirit that had been monopolized by men beforehand. One need only think of Orland’s invocations to Rosalind, Romeo’s prayers to the sun vis-à-vis Juliet, and Lucentio’s “I burn, I pine, I perish” as satirical melodramatic examples of Petrarchan love. In these instances, Helen not only uses it for her own purposes, but does so honestly, evading the same satire that the comic—or tragic—lovers encounter.
Furthermore, her soliloquizing links her with aristocratic characters, in a linguistic expression of her social climbing ambition (in which she is ultimately successful). Unlike many other heroines, or, indeed comic characters, she presents the audience with her inner thoughts, in a way that most closely resembles Hamlet’s soliloquizing. As Paul Yachnin argues, “[For Hamlet, Orlando, and Prince Hal], inwardness arises because of the introspection they undertake in order to authenticate both their spiritual bond with their fathers and their legitimacy as their fathers’ sons” (Yachnin 59). Helen, however, is free from the aristocratic pressure that would demand her to justify her claim to be a descendant of a noble race. Yhus Bertram becomes the object of remembrance and reverence, rather than her father, as is the case in Hamlet—as is also assumed by Lafeu and the Countess. She admits to the audience, “I think not on my father/ And these great tears grace his remembrance more/ Than those I shed for him. What was he like?/ I have forgot him. My imagination/ Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s” (1.1.74-78). She concisely unites the soliloquizing that usually accompanies a tragic moment or reflection about primogeniture with the fantastical emotions of Petrarch’s love poetry and bridges the gap between the romance in the comedies and the inner strife in the tragedies. Furthermore, unlike Hamlet and many other reflections by men in Shakespeare, Helen is able to prosper from the process of inner reflection. Her “our remedies of in ourselves do lie/ Which we ascribe to heaven….The mightiest space in fortune nature brings/ To join like likes and kiss like native things” is her equivalent of Hamlet’s “let my thoughts be bloody or nothing worth,” except she follows through on her promise to act (1.1.201-206). Thus, in All’s Well, Shakespeare transforms the “language of social difference,” the high poetry of the Petrarchan sonnet and the philosophical musings of aristocratic soliloquies into the interior struggle of an individual who intends to transgress the hierarchical system of rank (Yachnin 60). Essentially, in All’s Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare presents us with an unprecedented, socially subversive, social-climbing, articulate female protagonist who never disguises herself as a man to achieve her goals of marriage, success, and love.