William Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well.
The young Count of Rousillon, his mother the Countess, Helena (a gentlewoman and ward of the Countess), and elderly Lord Lafeu converse in the Count’s palace. A feature of a comedy not a ‘history play,’ ‘Rousillon’ isn’t exactly the real Roussillon. Claimed by Charlemagne and his heirs among the French kings during the Middle Ages, by Shakespeare’s time the real Roussillon had been ruled by the Spanish Hapsburgs since 1516 and would remain under their rule until the French king obtained it in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, following a long war. There hadn’t been a count of Roussillon since the twelfth century. Shakespeare’s ‘Rousillon’ anticipates the future French conquest in the sense that the Count in his play owes allegiance to France. Shakespeare’s ‘Rousillon’ serves the purposes of comic semi-fiction.
As so often in Shakespeare, the play doesn’t begin comically. The Count has been called to the King’s court, and his widowed mother regrets it: “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” (I.i.3). The play begins with a paradox—delivery, a metaphor for birth, described in funereal terms. Lafeu attempts to console her, and her departing son, by saying that the King’s virtue will make of the King a husband to her and a father to the young Count. But the King’s kind step-fatherly status won’t last long, it seems; he is mortally ill; his physicians can do nothing for him. The Countess believes that Helena’s father, a physician “whose skill was almost as great as his honesty,” could have prolonged the King’s life “so far” that he “would have made nature immortal” (I.i.17-18). But this physician evidently could not heal himself, as he too has died, leaving Helena under the Countess’s protection. Lafeu knew the man, saying, “he was skillful enough to have liv’d still, if knowledge could be set up against mortality” (I.i.26-27). Lafeu discreetly reminds the Countess of the limits of what we now call ‘scientific’ knowledge, which can indeed be set up against mortality but not eternally. God might make nature immortal, but physicians cannot.
The Countess claims another kind of knowledge, moral knowledge. Helena has inherited honesty and more generally goodness from her father. “The remembrance of her father never approaches her heart but the tyranny of her sorrows takes all livelihood from her cheek” (I.i.43-44). Perhaps alerted by the word “tyranny,” Lafeu makes bold to correct the Countess and also her protégé. “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead: excessive grief the enemy to the living” (I.i.48-49).
Bertram interrupts their philosophizing. “Madam, I desire your holy wishes” (I.i.52). His mother blesses him, exhorting him to “succeed thy father in manners, as in shape!” (I.i.54-55). “Thy blood and virtue / Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness / Share with thy birthright!” (I.i.55-57). That is, a young aristocrat’s spirited “blood,” which elevates him above commoners, may rival his moral virtue as he reaches the age of self-rule. Accordingly, she gives him moral advice that will strengthen his virtue against his “blood,” if he chooses to follow it: “Love all, trust a few, / Do wrong to none; be able for thine enemy / Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend / Under thy own life’s key; be check’d for silence, / But never tax’d for speech. What heaven more will, / That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down, / Fall on thy head!” (I.i.57-62) Reduced to simple English, her advice is sound. Christianity commands us to love all, but to trust God; humans may be trusted provisionally, after testing. Be just, and match your enemy’s power but not his customs, his habits—the practices that make him your enemy. Guard your friend with your life. Speak but do not chatter. Beyond that, God will do as He will do, and I will pray that His blessings will fall upon you.
Countess, Count, and Lafeu depart, leaving Helena alone. We learn that in truth her sentiments align with Lafeu’s wise precept: she “think[s] not on my father” (I.i.73). “I have forgot him; my imagination / Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s” (I.i.76-77). Her tears and her pallor are for his departure to the royal court, not for her father’s departure from this earth, six months earlier. In her mind she has followed the Biblical injunction to leave her father and join with her husband, but as with ‘Rousillon’ itself, imagination isn’t reality. Nor is it likely to become reality, as Count Bertram is far “above me,” a commoner, like a star above the earth (I.i.81). Her “blood” does not equal his. For this reason, her love, like the funereal “delivery” of the Count to the King by the Countess, contradicts itself. “Th’ ambition in my love thus plagues itself: / The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love” (I.i.84-85). Helena initially takes the “blood” of aristocratic birth to be a part of nature; aristocrats are a different ‘species’ than commoners, and to contradict nature only invites nature to enforce this natural limit by killing the thing which contradicts it. Like her father, Helena has contracted an illness that threatens to be fatal, although in her case she might cure herself by refusing to dream of marrying above her putatively natural limit. Her own nature, however, makes that supremely difficult for her to do, as she loves him.
The question, then, is, what is her natural limit? Should she love him? Is social and political rank more natural than virtue? Is her beloved’s virtue worthy of her love? Is her virtue worthy of his love? She admits to herself that she loves him for his body, not his soul—for “his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls” (I.i.88). She knows she indulges in “idolatrous fancy,” idolatry being precisely devotion to bodies instead of souls and worse, the divinization of the inanimate (I.i.91). She calls into question her own virtue, which is now tested.
Tested in the person of Parolles, Count Bertram’s attendant. Helena says, “I love [Parolles] for his sake”—for Bertram’s sake—yet “I know him a notorious liar” and “think him a great fool, soley a coward” (I.i.93-95). The pun is apt: Parolles’ soul will indeed prove entirely pusillanimous. Parolles’ name means “speech”—highly suspect speech, in Helena’s opinion; in this she follows the Countess’ admonition about the right and wrong use of speech and silence. Parolles immediately proves himself an ironist, addressing her as “fair queen” (I.i.100)—with a likely pun on ‘queen’ as ‘whore,’ a false wish that has fathered the evil thought. He proceeds impudently but not Socratically, asking if she’s “meditating on virginity” (I.i.105). In a way she has been, so she answers by taking up his theme while rejecting his imputation, replying, “Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricade it against him?” (I.i.108-07). After some punning and suggestive badinage, Parolles speaks his mind: “It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature to preserve virginity. Loss of virginity is rational increase; and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost. That you were made of is metal to make virgins. Virginity by being once lost may be ten times found; by being ever kept, it is ever lost. ‘Tis too cold a companion; away with’t,” being “against the rule of nature” (I.i.120-125, 127). All true enough. Scarcely against perpetual virginity, Helena then asks, now speaking her mind, how might a woman “lose [virginity] to her own liking?” (I.i.141). Parolles doesn’t answer her question, instead urging her to abandon her virginity in haste, presumably to himself.
With perfect equanimity, Helena doesn’t respond to his suggestion, instead turning the conversation to Parolles’ “master” (I.i.154). She worries that when he gets to the King’s court he’ll have “a thousand loves” and therefore a mind whose attention will divide itself into many directions and distractions, from friends to enemies and, most pertinently in her own mind, “a mistress,” “a traitress,” and “a dear” (I.i.154-58). He will become self-contradictory, a man of “humble ambition” and “proud humility,” a being of “jarring concord” and “discord dulcet” and “sweet disaster”—in sum, no fit master at all (I.i.159-61). She has given Parolles every reason to suspect that she worries less that the Count will be a fit master for him as that she can never be a fit mistress for his master. The arrival of a page, advising him of his master’s summons to accompany him to the King’s court, rescues her from any further self-betrayals. In their farewells she distracts him by ridiculing his self-proclaimed warlikeness, to which he can only rejoin that he intends to “naturalize” her upon his return (I.i.195), unless she gets herself “a good husband” before then (I.i.200-01). Indeed, she will try.
Helena’s dialogue with oily Parolles, her only true rival for the Count’s affections, has roused her fighting spirit. Alone again, she no longer mopes over impossibility of reaching to the star that is her beloved. The stars do not rule us. “The fated sky / Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull / Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.” (I.i.203-05). The power that “mounts my love so high,” enabling me to see him even when he isn’t here, also enables me to distinguish fortune from nature. The distance between us is a matter of fortune, a thing of the fated sky, but nature enables her not only to imagine but to think. “Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?” (I.i.212-13). I know how to cure the King’s disease, and therefore can justify my own presence in his Court.
At the Court, in Paris, the King of France has made a geopolitical decision. Two Tuscan city-states are at war—Florence and Siena. And indeed they were, throughout the decade of the 1550s. At that time, France was resisting the ambitions of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was also Charles I of Spain. The Hapsburgs ruled Roussillon, although the native Catalans remained restive under their rule. In search of allies, France sided with the Lutherans in Germany and the Ottomans; in 1555 Pope Paul IV tilted toward France, ruining the Hapsburgs’ hopes for a worldwide empire. In the following year, Charles divided his kingdom between the Spanish Hapsburgs (headed by his son, Philip II) and the Austrian Hapsburgs (headed by Charles’s brother, Ferdinand). Siena would lose its war with Florence and be surrendered to Spain, Florence’s ally.
In the play, the French King knows he will receive a request from his cousin, the Austrian Hapsburg monarch, to deny aid to Florence. This means that the Austrian Hapsburgs are indirectly opposing the ambitions of the Spanish Hapsburgs. The King, who must know that many of the residents of Siena are of French origin, intends to go along with his cousin’s request, but, hedging his bet, will allow French gentlemen to fight on either side, as they choose. As one of the King’s attendants observes, this “may well serve / A nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit” (I.ii.15-17). That is, the young aristocrats grow restive; abroad, they will hone their battle skills against foreigners and (it might be thought) not against the King at home; those who survive will return better officers in the army of France.
Count Bertram, Parolles, and Lafeu arrive at the King’s Court. In terms of the history of the time, this is anomalous not only because there were no more Roussillonian counts but because Roussillon was ruled by the Hapsburgs, owing no allegiance to France and indeed forming part of Spain, France’s rival. However, it may be that these men, all of whose names are French and therefore would number among the substantial French population of Roussillon (as well as ‘Rousillon’) do feel stronger loyalty to the King of France than to any Hapsburg.
The King greets the young Count cordially but with prudent caution. He is no Helena, his judgment swayed by physical appearance. “Youth, thou bear’st thy father’s face,” a face well formed by “frank nature”—the word “frank” meaning both vigorous and Frankish, French (I.ii.19-20). Nature is “curious”—that is, careful—never working “in haste”; that is why his face is so “well compos’d” (I.ii.20-21). But the King knows that a face is only a face. “Thy father’s moral parts / Mayst thou inherit too!” he hopes (I.i..21-22). Having served in battle with the Count’s father, the King judges him as having been “Discipled of the bravest” (I.ii.28); his wit was equal to today’s “young lords,” but unlike them he exhibited neither “contempt nor bitterness” (I.ii.33,36). “His honor, / Clock to itself, knew the true minute when / Exception bid him speak, and at this time / His tongue obey’d his hand” (I.ii.38-41). In all this, and especially in “his humility,” he “might be a copy to these younger times” (I.ii.44-46). Merely speaking of him is medicine to the ailing King; “it much repairs me” (I.ii.), even as his example, if followed by young French aristocrats, would considerably improve them and repair France. Unfortunately, the “judgments” of today’s young are often “mere fathers of their garments,” and their “constancies / Expire before their fashions” (I.ii.61-63). Finally, the memory of the old Count reminds the King of the Count’s physician, Helena’s father, who might have cured the King, had he still lived.
Back at the Count’s palace in Rousillon, the palace clown, Lavache, asks the Countess’s blessing to marry Isbel, a commoner lass with a regal Spanish name. “I am driven on by the flesh” (I.iii.28), and as a sinner “I do marry that I may repent” (I.iii.35-36), as marriage is a sacrament. What is more, marriage may gain him friends, which he has not now. And if cuckolded, why then he will profit, as the lover will cherish his wife, who according to the Christian teaching is of ‘one flesh’ with himself. Cuckoldry unites even Puritans and Catholics, “howsome’er their hearts are sever’d in religion, their heads are one” because their cuckholds’ horns tangle together like jousting deer in a herd. He even has a ballad to celebrate the thought: “Your marriage comes by destiny, / Your cuckoo sings by kind” (I.iii.59-60). Marriage may be destined but cuckoldry is natural; destiny is really chance, as the odds of drawing a good woman in the marriage lottery are, he estimates, one in ten. “La Vache!” in French slang is an expression of astonishment, as in the English phrase immortalized in America by Phil Rizzuto, ‘Holy Cow!’ Offended and amused at this perpetually surprising man, the Countess sends him to fetch Helena. Before he goes, Lavache compares her to Helen of Troy, whose “fair face” may have caused the Greeks to sack Troy, whose son, Paris, had seduced her and carried her off from her husband, King Menelaus Sparta (I.iii.67). But this Helen has already resisted the advances of Parolles, although she does intend to go to Paris.
The palace steward reports that he overheard Helena talking to herself about her love for Bertram. The Countess is not surprised, and is in fact pleased, regarding the nature of Helena to be sound. Helena understands her nature to be the nature of youth, when “love’s strong passion is impress’d” (I.iii.124). The Countess calls her in and teases her by saying, “I am a mother to you,” knowing that if she really were Helena’s mother Bertram would be the girl’s brother, and unmarriageable (I.iii.128). It takes some doing, but she extracts the confession, “I love your son” (I.iii.185). Unworthy of him by convention, by social standing, “I follow him not / By any token of presumptuous suit, / Nor would I have him till I do deserve him,” but I “never know how that desert should be,” and so “love in vain” (I.iii.188-92). Why then do you intend to go to Paris and the King’s Court? Because “my father left me some prescriptions / Of rare and prov’d effects, such as his reading / And manifest experience had collected / For general sovereignty” (I.iii.212-15). Among these is a remedy that can cure the King. In curing the King, she might prove herself worthy of the Count. The Countess blesses her mission, possibly suspecting the young lady’s ulterior motive, and approving it.
In Paris, the King bids farewell to the young and older lords who are off to the Tuscan war; in victory, he assures them, they will be rewarded. “See that you come / Not to woo honor, but to wed it,” so that “fame may cry you aloud” (II.i.14-15,17). And beware “the girls of Italy,” who may make you “captives before you serve” (II.i.22). To his indignity, Bertram is judged too young to go. Parolles urges him to disobey, to “steal away bravely” (II.i.29), and Bertram determines do it, “though the devil lead the measure,” as Parolles somewhat self-revealingly intones.
The King next receives a different kind of rhetorician, one who would persuade him to be saved, not hazarded. Telling him that the esteemed physician Gerard de Narbon was her father, Helena describes the medicine he had, which can cure his illness. The King doubts this, since his own “most learned doctors” have failed, concluding “that laboring art can never ransom nature / From her inaidable estate” (II.i.115). He knows the peril he faces, and also knows that she has “no art,” only a lesser sort of knowledge passed down from her good father (II.i.132). True, Helena replies, but “what I can do can do no hurt to try, / Since you set up your rest ‘gainst remedy” (II.i.133-34). More, “He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister” (II.i.135-36). Unlike Parolles, Helena appeals to reason—the medicine can do no harm to a dying man—and piety—the God who can make all things end well can readily pour his through a weak vessel. What is more, God is not only omnipotent but also all-knowing; therefore, “Of heaven, not me, make an experiment” (II.i.133). I am willing to make it, on pain of death; if I fail, “with vilest torture let my life be ended” (II.i.173). It may well be that her faith is in nature, in the medicine, that her rhetoric of piety originates only from an intention to counteract the King’s skepticism concerning her competence, but that is still more solid, and undoubtedly better-intentioned, than the rhetoric of Parolles, which is mere verbiage.
She has persuaded the King. “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak; / And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way” (II.i.174-77)—reasoning founded on uncommon premises also persuades. He is especially impressed with her Christlike willingness to sacrifice her life after torture: “Sweet practiser, thy physic I will try, / That ministers thine own death if I die” (II.184-85). He hasn’t reckoned on the serpentine prudence Christ commends along with dovelike innocence. “If I help,” Helena ventures, “what do you promise me?” (II.i.188). And will you “make it even,” repay my life-saving service to you with something equally vital to me? The King agrees. Very well: if my medicine cures you, “Thou shalt give me with thy kingly hand / What husband in thy power I will command” (II.i.192-93)—aside from a man of French royal blood, she assures him. The King again agrees.
Comic piety enters in, in a more obvious way, in dialogue between the Countess and her Clown. The Countess has a mission for him. “I shall now put you to the height of your breeding,” she says (II.ii.1). “I will show myself highly fed and lowly taught,” he promises, anticipating that she will send him to the King’s Court (II.ii.3). The Countess demands to know what “makes you special,” to suppose that he would have business there (II.ii.5). Why, because “I have an answer will serve all men,” the highest as well as the lowest (II.ii.14). You mean “your answer [will] serve all questions,” “an answer of such fitness for all questions?” the Countess inquires (II.ii.18,27). But of course, and he invites her to try him with questions. He answers each with “O Lord, sir!” But what if your impudence leads to your whipping? “I ne’er had worse luck in my life in my ‘O Lord, sir!’ I see things may serve long, but not serve ever.” (II.ii.52-53). Not all appeals to God will answer all questions, especially if the appeal provokes corporal punishment. In this, the Clown is less than Christlike, although not altogether lacking in prudence, either. The irony is that the Countess does in fact have business for him in the King’s Court, namely, to deliver a letter to Helena, for whom she continues to care and whom she will continue to advise.
There, Helena’s cure has worked, and the remaining personages at the palace marvel at it. Pious Lafeu remarks, “They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make modern”—commonplace—and “familiar things supernatural and causeless” (II.iii.1-3). This causes us “to make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear (II.iii.3-5). This, Bertram and Parolles concede (Parolles a bit too volubly), puts into question the authority of the great physicians Galen and Paracelsus. Helena and the audience know that the fated sky gives us free scope, and evidently so does God, since the King’s cure came from nature.
The King in his grace, and according to his contract, grants Helena her choice of bachelors, one of which she takes to be the cure of her own illness, her love-sickness. “This is the man,” she says, indicating Bertram, in an echo of the Gospel announcement of our Savior (II.iii.102). Bertram wants none of it. “Your Highness, / In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes” (II.iii.104-06). In this he reveals his rebellious character to the King, apparently preferring his natural judgment to the King’s obligation, but in fact objecting to her inferior social standing (“A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!”) (II.iii.113-14).
But the King is the King. He can exalt those of low degree, grant noble status to Helena. It is, after all, only a convention, and one within his power to mend. More seriously, he continues, you mistakenly rate convention over nature. “Strange it is that our bloods, / Of color, weight, and heat, pour’d all together, / Would quite confound distinction, yet stand off / In differences so mighty” (II.iii.116-19). In nature there is no such thing as ‘blue’ blood. “If she be / All that is virtuous—save what thou dislik’st, / A poor physician’s daughter—thou dislik’st / Of virtue for the name; but do not so.” (II.iii.119-22).
Why not? “From lowest place when virtuous things proceed, / The place is dignified by the doer’s deed; / Where great additions swell’s, and virtue none, / It is a dropsied honor.” (II.iii.123-26). Being “young, wise, and fair,” Helena is heir to nature, and her natural virtues “breed honor” (II.iii.129-131). To lack virtue is to dishonor honorable parent, and virtue exhibits itself in acts; “the mere word’s a slave,” a “lying trophy”—as Parolles would rather not believe, and as Bertram misleads himself insofar as he follows Parolles’ advice (II.iii.135,137). “If thou canst like this creature as a maid, / I can create the rest. Virtue and she / Is her own dower; honor and wealth from me.” (II.iii.140-42).
It is an irrefutable argument, but Bertram rejects it: “I cannot love her, nor will strive to do’t” (II.iii.143). But in invoking his own honor as a count, Bertram only provokes the King to invoke his own greater honor. “My honor’s at the stake; which to defeat, / I must produce my power.” (II.iii.147-48). Bertram quickly seems to yield, and the King marries them on the spot.
Bertram remains obdurate. Married, he determines to go to the wars “and never bed her” (II.iii.266). Parolles, unchastened by a severe scolding by Lafeu, presses him on, offering his version of practical wisdom: “A young man married is a man that’s marr’d. / Therefore away, and leave her bravely; go, / The King has done you wrong.” (II.iii.291-93). He goes next to Helena to inform her that her husband will depart tonight “on very serious business” (II.iv.38). She contents herself to say only, “On everything I wait upon his will” (II.iv.52).
In the struggle for Bertram’s mind and heart, Parolles seems to have won, twice calling Bertram his “sweetheart” (II.iii.261,264). Just before his departure he tells the dismayed Lafeu that Parolles is “very great in knowledge, and accordingly valiant” (IV.v.6-7). On the contrary, the elderly lord insists, in front of Parolles, Parolles is a liar and a coward. “There can be no kernel in this light nut the soul of this man is his clothes; trust him not in matter of heavy consequence” (IV.v.41-43), such as the war you are about to fight in. He walks away, Helena walks in, and Bertram refuses to kiss her goodbye.
In Florence, the Duke receives two French lords, who head a troop of soldiers. They are brothers, the captains Dumain. As ‘Parolles’ means speech, words, ‘du main’ means ‘of the hand’; these are men of deeds, not words. Given that “the fundamental reasons of this war” strike the lords as “holy,” the Duke wonders why “our cousin France” does not support him (III.i.2,4). For reasons of state, the lords cannot disclose the reasoning of the King, who prefers not to offend his other cousin, the Austrian monarch who opposes Florence. They content themselves to observe that the young French lords, “that surfeit on their ease” (like the French King, they’ve been described as diseased), “will day by day / Come here for physic” (III.i.17-18). When Bertram arrives a short time later, the Duke makes him the general of his cavalry, whereupon the young Count swears by “Great Mars” to “make me but like my thoughts,” that “I shall prove / A lover of thy drum, hater of love” (III.iii.9-11). Indeed, he has already written to his mother to tell her that while he has deferred to the French King’s command to marry Helena he will never consummate the marriage and instead has gone to war.
The Countess is not amused. “This is not well,” she tells the Clown, when her “rash and unbridled boy” takes it upon himself “to fly the favors of so good a king,” angering him “by misprizing… a maid too virtuous / For the contempt of empire” (III.ii.26-27,29-30). Bertram has gone so far as to lay down a sort of love-test for the woman who is already his bride: If she can remove the ring from his finger, “which shall never come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write ‘never’” (III.ii.55-58). The Countess blames her son’s corruption on Parolles, “a very tainted fellow and full of wickedness” (III.ii.85). My son “can never win” on the battlefield “the honor that he loses” in turning his back on the King and his wife (III.ii.92-93).
Faced with an apparently impossible challenge, Helena first prays (and not to Mars) that her husband will survive the war, feeling guilty at the thought that she has caused to go (which is not true) and risk his life. She thinks that if she now leaves France he will return to it, and to safely; in this, her love is selfless, a desire for what is good for him. She writes to the Countess, announcing her intention to set out on her own mission as a pilgrim to the shrine of Saint Jaques le Grand “with sainted vow my faults to have amended” (III.iv.7). Bertram “is too good and fair for death and me; / Whom I myself embrace to set him free” (III.iv.16-17). Upon reading this intention in Helena’s letter to her, the Countess can only hope that this will indeed induce her son to return, and for Helena then to reverse her course and return as well.
It turns out that Helena will soon form other plans, if indeed she hadn’t already done so at the time she wrote her farewell letter to the Countess. As before, she does not intend entirely to leave matters up to God. She heads not for the saint’s shrine, west of Rousillon, but in exactly the opposite direction, to Florence. Outside that city, the elderly Widow Capilet, her daughter Diana, and their friend Mariana converse. Parolles has been courting Mariana, who rightly regards him as “a filthy officer” unworthy of her attention (III.v.15). She warns Diana against both Parolles and Bertram, whose words in her judgment are only “engines of lust” (III.v.18). Diana, named after the chaste goddess of the hunt, assures her: “You shall not need to fear me” (III.iv.26). Helena approaches them, ostensibly on the way to the shrine, and the widow invites her to lodge at her house. The lady also asks if she knows Count Rousillon and expresses her pity for his new wife, as the Count has been courting Diana, rather in contradiction to his vow to Mars. Not knowing that she is speaking with that wife, the Widow suggests that Diana may be able to do the wronged woman “a shrewd turn” (III.v.64).
With perfect comic timing, Bertram and Parolles appear, at the head of the army—Parolles in the unheroic role of drummer. Playing along with her disguise, Helena asks her companions which one is “the Frenchman,” that is, the Count. Diana points him out, asking “Is’t not a handsome gentleman?” (III.v.77). “I like him well,” Helena admits; “‘Tis pity he is not honest,” Diana ripostes, not intending to wound anything better than the Count’s reputation. As for Parolles, “Were I his lady / I would poison that vile rascal” (III.v.81). The men march past, the women retire to the Widow’s house.
Encamped in front of Florence, the French lords warn Bertram of Parolles. “He’s a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality worthy your lordship’s entertainment” (III.vi.8-11). Bertram agrees to test him with a task less daunting than the one he assigned his wife. Parolles lost his drum during Florence’s victorious battle with the Sejoys and has vowed to recover it. Let him try, but have him intercepted by a troop of Florentines; they will pretend to be Sejoys and interrogate him. “Be but your lordship present at his examination,” at which Parolles will be blindfolded; “if he do not, for the promise of his life and in the highest compulsion of base fear, offer to betray you and deliver all the intelligence in his power against you, and that with the divine forfeit of his soul upon oath, never trust my judgment in anything” (III.vi.23-28). Having settled on this plan, Bertram confides to one of the lords that the fair Diana, though “wondrous cold”—having returned his love-letters—will receive a return visit from him (III.vi.103). The lord is eager to come with him and look her over.
The women will be ready for them. Helena admits to the Widow that Bertram is her husband. She enlists the lady’s help. Since the Count “woos your daughter,” let her consent to his suit but demand his ring as a token of his love (III.vii.17). This is nothing more than a “lawful” plot, since your daughter will then deliver the ring to me and “herself most chastely absent,” as her namesake the goddess would do (III.vii.33). With the ring in her possession, Helena will then be able to consummate her marriage in a dark bedroom. Her husband will intend wickedly while acting lawfully, prey to his wife’s noble deception.
The deceptive plot Bertram is in on proceeds as planned, in Bertram’s absence. On orders from the Second Lord, the men who seize Parolles will speak gibberish, nonsense words that Mr. Words, Mr. Speech, cannot understand. One soldier will act as ‘translator.’ During the stakeout, the men hear Parolles talking to himself, trying to find the words with which he can cover his failure to recover his drum. He wishes he hadn’t promised to retrieve it in the first place. “I find my tongue is too foolhardy; but my heart hath the fear of Mars before, and of his creatures, not daring the reports of my tongue” (IV.i.28-29). He has lied not only to others but even to himself: “What the devil should move me to undertake the recovery of this drum, being not ignorant of the impossibility, and knowing I had no such purpose?” (IV.i.31-33). The Second Lord wonders, “Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?” (IV.i.41). It is. Clever but imprudent, Parolles out-talks himself, deceiving himself more than he deceives anyone other than those (like Bertram) whom he tells what they want to hear. Seized by men who evidently speak some foreign language he doesn’t know, Parolles exclaims, “I shall lose my life for want of language,” although he knows five languages (IV.i.66). For the man who depends upon mere words alone, there are not always words enough; Shakespeare himself was not only a playwright but an actor. “O, let me live,” Parolles pleads with his captors, through the ‘translator,’ “and all the secrets of our camp I’ll show, / their force, their purpose” (IV.i.80-82). The Second Lord considers him a woodcock, a bird easily trapped, synonymous with a fool, a dupe. The con artist is a fool; in trying to fool others with words he won’t live up to, he ends by fooling himself with words he can’t live up to, and getting fooled by others with words that mean nothing at all.
Meanwhile, Bertram is pursuing his other, romantic, plot. At the Widow Capilet’s house, he tries Diana with Parollian sophistries. “You should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got” (IV.ii.9-10). “She was then honest,” Diana says, irrefutably (IV.ii.11), adding, “My mother did but duty; such, my lord, / As you owe to your wife” (IV.ii.12-13). Not so, the Count replies: “I was compell’d to her, but I love thee” (IV.ii.15). He vows loyalty based upon that loving consent. Diana ventures to doubt his honesty. “Be not so holy cruel,” Bertram pleads, for “love is holy” and I am in love with you (IV.ii.33). Pretending to yield, the lady demands the ring, which he will lend her, not give her, as it is an heirloom “which were the greatest obloquy i’ th’ world / In me to lose” (IV.ii.44). Yes, well, “Mine honor’s such a ring,” and my chastity “the jewel of our house,” the “greatest obloquy i’ th’ world / In me to lose,” the lady rejoins. At this Bertram gives up: “Here, take my ring; / My house, mine honor, yea, my life, be thine; / And I’ll be bid by thee” (IV.51-53). In mock betrothal, she gives him a ring off her own finger in exchange; it is really Helena’s ring, given her by the King as a marriage gift.
Springing the trap, she tells him to visit her bedroom at midnight, but to stay absolutely silent. I shall return your ring later on, with an explanation for this strange lack of speech among lovers, which we know is necessary because it will be Helena in the bed. The required silence is not only necessary but fitting. The problem with Bertram and Parolles is that they talk too much. The plot against Parolles takes advantage of that. The plot against Bertram requires him to act silently in a good way, if with bad intent. If Judaism is said to be a religion of law and outward compliance to it, and Christian a religion of release from the consequences of bad actions with the insistence on right intentions, Helena’s plot executes her rightful intention with respect to Bertram while duping him into acting in accordance with the law, against his own wrongful intention. After he leaves, Helena reflects that Mother told me men talk and act this way; quite understandable, she decides to “live and die a maid” (IV.ii.74).
Back in the Florentine camp, the French lords have learned that a peace has been concluded. The lords discuss Bertram, who has now received the letter of reprimand from the Countess. “There is something in’t that stings his nature,” the First Lord remarks; “for on the reading it he chang’d almost into another man,” rather as conversion to Christianity changes a sinner into a new man (IV.iii.2-3). This is just, the Second Lord says, as “he has much worthy blame laid upon him for shaking off so good a wife and so sweet a lady,” especially by so “incurr[ing] the everlasting displeasure of the King,” the First Lord adds. (IV.iii.5-7). Worse, he has “perverted a young gentlewoman here in Florence,” giving her his ring; worst of all, he has caused his wife to die of grief (one of the lords has heard) at Saint Jaques le Grand. “I am heartily sorry that he’ll be glad of this,” the First Lord (IV.iii.60); “how mightily some times we drown our gain in tears!” (IV.iii.63-64).
Despite his courage on the battlefield, in love Bertram is as much a traitor as Parolles, and the Second Lord asks if it is not damnable in themselves to continue to cooperate in the plot against his vile adviser. The First Lord suggests that in doing so they serve justice, inasmuch as the Count has farther to fall than Parolles: “The great dignity that his valor hath here acquir’d for him”—something cowardly all-talk Parolles has so conspicuously failed to acquire—shall “at home be encount’red with a shame as ample” (IV.iii.64-65). The Second Lord draws the moral: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together. Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipt them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” (IV.iii.69-72).
The Count arrives, announcing that of his remaining business in Florence, “the greatest” remains unresolved (IV.iii.86); he of course doesn’t specify that this is his recently concluded tryst with Diana—in fact the unwitting consummation of his marriage to Helena—not knowing that the lords know exactly what he means. But now he would hear the continuing interrogation of Parolles. He listens as blindfolded Parolles says he speaks truth regarding his estimate of the number of horsemen under the Count’s command, and in indeed he does, the Count confirms, “But I con him no thanks for’t in the nature he delivers it” (IV.iii.144). That is, for once Parolles speaks truly, but the nature of his intent in doing so is false, treasonous. His treachery extends to Bertram’s private affairs, as well; he’s written to Diana, again quite truly, saying “the Count’s a fool, and full of gold” (IV.iii.196).
Having decided that Bertram is to blame for his predicament (after all, he tells himself, he wouldn’t have been captured if he hadn’t been trying to impress the Count), he is happy to betray him. As he tells his interrogator, “I knew the young Count to be a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity, and devours up all the fry it finds” (IV.iii.203-05). In calling Parolles a “damnable, both-sides rogue,” Bertram also speaks the truth and not incidentally does not deny the truth Bertram has spoken (IV.iii.206). In learning the truth, the nature, of Parolles, Bertram begins to learn the truth of himself. He also begins to learn the truth about, the nature of, parole, of speech itself, which can be true or false, honest testimony or a both-sides rogue, subject to yet another form of speech, the speech of judgment, the speech of vindication and of damnation.
As Parolles rattles on, disclosing information on the number of foot soldiers and slandering both of the French lords (cowards, rapists) the second lord finds him oddly entertaining. Parolles says of the First Lord,”He has everything that an honest man should not have; what an honest man should have, he has nothing”; “I begin to love him for this,” the Second Lord admits (IV.iii.242-44). The man “hath out-villain’d villainy so far that the rarity redeems him” (IV.iii.255). After assuring his captors that he will readily betray both the Duke of Florence and Count Rousillon, Parolles has his blindfold removed. He sees the Count. “You are undone, Captain,” the soldier-‘translator’ says—”all but your scarf,” which is still knotted around his throat (IV.iii.300-301). The empty suit has nothing but his clothes left.
When his interrogators leave him alone, he soliloquizes. True to his nature, he gives his truest confession yet: “If my heart were great, / ‘Twould burst at this” (IV.iii.307-08). Since it isn’t it doesn’t. “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live,” although he does draw a modest moral: “Who knows himself a braggart, / Let him fear this; for it will come to pass / That every braggart shall be found an ass” (IV.iii.310-13). “Parolles,” he advises himself, “live safest in shame. Being fool’d, by fool’ry thrive. / There’s place and means for every man alive” (IV.iii.315). Knowing himself, he concludes that even rogues have their place in the natural order, in his own way echoing the Second Lord’s moral. It isn’t only speech, the distinctively human part of human nature, that’s double-sided; nature is, too, and therein lies its comedy and its tragedy, both.
Helena sees this, too. Her plot successful, her marriage consummated without her husband’s knowledge—a sort of just and lawful cuckoldry—she thanks her allies at the Widow’s house, who will be rewarded when she receives the King’s promised reward. There will be justice among the women. Not so much among men, however. She reflects: “O, strange men! / That can such sweet use make of what they hate, / When saucy trusting of the cozen’d thoughts / Defiles the pitchy night” (IV.iv.21-24). But with her female allies at hand and their joint mission accomplished, “All’s Well That Ends Well” (IV.iv.35). Reason, in line with nature, can make sense of nature’s apparent self-contradictions and, if it guides human actions, share in its telos, which is served by many means, among them the natural increase that results from mating. The women will travel to Marseilles to meet with the King, who has stopped there on his way to Rousillon.
At the Count’s palace in Rousillon, the Countess, Lafeu, and the Clown await the return of the prodigal son. They too have heard that Helena has died. Lafeu blames Parolles, whose villainy “would have made all the unbak’d and doughy youth of a nation in his color,” which is the “saffron” yellow of cowardice (IV.v.2-3). The Countess agrees, saying his machinations caused “the death of the most virtuous gentlewoman that ever nature had praise for creating” (IV.v.7-9). Lefeu engages in badinage with the Clown, who plays on the fact that ‘le feu’ means fire by announcing himself to be in the service of the great Prince of this world, a prince even greater than the French King, the prince who “ever keeps a good fire” (IV.v.43). The Clown tells Lafeu that any tricks he plays “are their own right by the law of nature” (IV.v.55)—the concordia discors, the law that admits contraries as servants of its telos, the end that is well.
Sending the Clown away, Lafeu confides to the Countess that he has asked the King to “speak in the behalf of my daughter,” Maudlin, as a bride for the widower, Bertram (IV.v.64). The Countess approves. The King will arrive at Rousillon tomorrow. Bertram is there now, and they go to see him. For her part, having missed the King in Marseilles, Helena has sent a letter to him, a letter signed by Diana, which will further her plot.
Parolles is already in Rousillon, hoping that Lafeu will intervene mercifully in his favor. He runs into the Clown and describes himself as “muddied in Fortune’s mood, and smell[ing] somewhat strong of her strong displeasure” (V.ii.3-5). The Clown is more than equal to a battle of words with Mr. Speech. “Fortune’s displeasure is but sluttish, if it smell so strongly as thou speak’st of”; stand aside, sir (V.ii.6-7). “Nay, you need not stop your nose, sir; I spake but by a metaphor,” Parolles protests (V.ii.9-10). “Indeed, sir, if your metaphor stink, I will stop my nose; or against any man’s metaphor” (V.ii.11-12). The Clown, being a comedian, knows the doubleness, the ambiguity, of words very well. He understands Parolles, that living pun, that walking metaphor of the potential duplicity of speech.
Lafeu comes by, and Parolles turns to him. “I am a man whom Fortune hath cruelly scratched,” he begins, altering his metaphor (V.ii.28). Lafeu is quick to defend Fortune’s honor: “Wherein have you played the knave with Fortune, that she should scratch you, who of herself is a good lady and would not have knaves thrive long under her?” (V.ii.30-32). He knows all about the tale of the drum, mocking Parolles because of it. He does show mercy, however, telling Parolles, “Though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat” (V.v.50-51). “I praise God for you,” Parolles replies, in a rare show of piety (V.ii.52).
Lafeu is off to the Count’s palace, where he meets with the King, the Countess, and the French lords, none of whom know Helena is alive. “Your son, / As mad with folly, lack’d the sense to know / Her estimation home,” that is, her true worth (V.iii.2-4). The Countess attributes her son’s misjudgment to “natural rebellion, done in the blaze of youth,” when passion overcomes “reason’s force” and burns the one who is impassioned (V.iii.6-7). She had warned her son of exactly this danger, how his “blood” contended with virtue for empire over his soul, but he heeded Parolles’ tempting words instead of her parental ones. The King assures her of his forgiveness, and Lafeu observes that for all the injuries Bertram has done, he did “the greatest wrong of all” to “himself” (V.iii.14-15). And in answer to the King’s query, Lafeu reports that Bertram has consented to marry Maudlin, in submission to the King’s intention. The King mentions the Duke of Florence’s letters of commendation; the young Count’s soul has some important warlike virtues in, virtues no king, no defender of the realm, would rightly overlook. This marriage can serve France.
Bertram enters, repentant, pleading for mercy. The King grants it, and asks if he remembers the daughter of Lord Lafeu. He does, “admiringly,” as she had been his first choice in marriage, so much so, he claims, that he underestimated the beauty of all other women, including Helena. “Thence it came / That she whom all men prais’d, and whom myself, / Since I have lost, have lov’d, was in mine eye / The dust that did offend it” (V.iii.51-54). He thus radically changes his earlier story. Initially, he had argued that Helena was unworthy of him because beneath him in social standing, a mere physician’s daughter. Helena had proved her merit to the King by curing him, by her knowledge of nature, a knowledge more valuable than any convention. Now, if Bertram’s account is to be credited, it transpires that Bertram’s aversion was also natural, not conventional, an attraction to Maudlin’s beauty which “warp’d” his perception of Helena’s beauty, making her seem “hideous” (V.49,52).
The politic King does credit, or at least says he credits, the Count’s account. “Well excus’d,” he judges (V.iii.55). As always, he draws a moral: “Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust, / Destroy our friends, and after weep their dust; / Our own love waking cries to see what’s done, / While shameful hate sleeps out the afternoon. / Be this sweet Helen’s knell.” (V.iii.63-67). But for a King, the dead past must bury its dead, lest those who continue to live under his rule be ruined. “And now forget her” (V.iii.67), he commands, and marry Maudlin. The Count consents, asking for heaven’s blessing on his second marriage to his first love, without which divine blessing he would be better off dead, his “nature ceased” (V.iii.72). To sensibilities steeped in romance, the King’s command and the Count’s consent jar. But the romance in which ‘we’ have steeped ourselves, stemming from the courtly love of the Middle Ages, ignores facts that Shakespeare knew. In the courtly romances, love was a passion pursued outside marriage; married love was at best Christian-agapic, often politic, but seldom erotic-sentimental. For Shakespeare and especially for Shakespeare’s monarchs and aristocrats, married love is less serious in ‘our’ sense, but much more serious in another way, a way ‘our’ modern understanding of politics doesn’t readily understand, except as a form of cynicism.
But not so fast. Lafeu asks for “a favor” from Bertram, a token of his love for his daughter, an engagement ring. Bertram gives him the ring Diana had given him in exchange for his own family heirloom. Lafeu and the King immediately recognize it as the wedding gift the King bestowed on Helena. His enraged Majesty asks, How did you despoil Helena of that ring? Not knowing about the gift-ring in the first place, the hapless young Count denies that it belonged to Helena, but his mother sternly corrects him: “I have seen her wear it; and she reckon’d it / At her life’s rate” (V.iii.89-91).
Afraid to admit his (as he believes) tryst with Diana—one of those ladies in Italy Helena had rightly worried might attract him—Bertram claims that he obtained the ring from a lady in Florence who threw it from her window to him, wrapped in a paper with her name written on it. But I explained my marital condition to her, and although she dropped her infatuation she nobly insisted that he keep her ring. This utterly implausible tale, worth of Parolles, scarcely convinces the King, who no longer extends his credence to the words of the young Count. He too had heard Helena say “she would never put it from her finger / Unless she gave it to yourself in bed” (V.iii.109-10). You must have murdered her. He orders the guards to take Bertram away; “we’ll sift this matter further” (V.iii.123). In his own defense, Bertram rejoins, “If you shall prove / This ring was ever hers, you shall as easy / Prove that I husbanded her bed in Florence, / Where she never was” (V.iii.124-25). Right on the first part, wrong on the second.
The comedy sharpens still again, as the King receives a letter from the Widow Capilet, denouncing Bertram as a seducer. The lady and her daughter then enter the King’s presence, Diana claiming that she is Bertram’s wife. Still trying to lie his way out, entangling himself further, Bertram calls her “a common gamester of the camp” (V.iii.186). Why would a prostitute have the ring? With fine irony, Diana calls none other than Parolles as her witness. But the man is “a most perfidious slave,” Bertram sputters, a man “whose nature sickens but to speak a truth” (V.iii.203,205). A man of nothing but empty, deceiving words, Parolles’ nature is so unnatural that it falls ill if forced to speak truly, the lying Bertram truly protests. In the event, Parolles testifies honestly that Bertram was indeed “mad for” Diana, although the King gets little more out of him and quickly dismisses him as worthless (V.iii.255).
But “she hath that ring of yours,” the King suggests, the heirloom ring you would no more part with than Helena would part with the ring I gave to her (V.iii.207). Thinking quickly, Bertam concocts another word-invention. “Certain it is I lik’d her,” he allows, “and boarded her i’ th’ wanton way of youth” (V.iii.208-09)—the excuse his mother had offered to the King. But it was all her fault. Diana “did angle for me, / Madding my eagerness with her restraint”—truly a creature of “infinite cunning” (V.iii.210-11,214). She received the heirloom in exchange for a commonplace ring such as one might purchase at market. When Diana identifies the ring His Majesty has in his possession, the one he gave to Helena and no ordinary ring at all, the pretense evaporates and he confesses.
This only leads to a new perplexity: How did Diana come into possession of Helena’s ring. Knowing that Helena is waiting in the wings, Diana answers with riddles—exhibiting for one last time the ambiguity of words, even when deployed honestly. When in frustration he orders her to prison, she calmly turns to her mother and asks her to post bail, and offers one last riddle, which recalls the play’s opening paradox of the “delivery” that is also a burial, but in reverse: “He knows himself my bed he hath defil’d; / And at that time he got his wife with child. Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick; / So there’s my riddle: the one that’s dead is quick— / And now behold the meaning”—the cue for living Helena to enter, pregnant (V.iii.293-98).
The King can only ask, “Is’t real that I see?” (V.iii.299). So much to hear, so many lying, deceptive, metaphorical, words, some empty of content, others pregnant with meaning: Is seeing really believing? As always in this play, yes and no. “No, my good lord,” Helena answers, focusing attention on the meaning the phrase “is’t” (V.iii.300). “‘Tis but the shadow of a wife you see, / The name and not the thing” (V.iii.301-02). I am married legally, in words, but rejected by my husband. Bertram protests, “Both, both,” we are married both in name and in reality, in convention and in nature. “O, pardon!” (V.iii.302). As a matter of fact, Helena, says, you are right: I have your heirloom ring and I also have your words in your letter, promising that when I get the ring from your finger and you have gotten me with child, you can then call me husband, put the word to the thing. Beaten, bewildered Bertram turns to the King. “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (V.iii.309-10). She can and doubtless will explain how she pulled them off—both the ring and the plot.
Critics who complain that the Count may still lack sincerity overlook the fact that this is a comedy; true romance isn’t the point, and it never was. Sure enough, good old Lafeu announces, “My eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon,” and asks Parolles, that man of mere cloth, to lend him a handkerchief. Does he weep for the reconciliation, for his now-ignored daughter, Maudlin, or both?
The King too wants a coherent, step-by-step telling of the plot, “to make the even truth in pleasure flow” (V.iii.319). He makes amends to Diana, offering her the same opportunity he’d granted to Helena, to choose her husband; she will soon come over to the side of nature, leaving virginity behind but in legal, verbal propriety and securing her widowed mother’s prosperity too.
All’s well that ends well? The King remains prudent to the end: “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (V.iii.326-27). Discord will serve concord, maybe.
This is the point of the Epilogue. “The King’s a beggar, now the play is done” (E.1). That is, in the penultimate reversal of roles, yet another upending of convention, the King, who lives a life of command, can only hope for the best, having reached the limits of both rule by decree and rule by advice. “All is well if this suit be won, / That you express content; which we will pay / With strive [effort] to please you, day exceeding day” (E.2-4). Shakespeare, ruler of all words, himself depends upon something beyond his control, audience approval. “Ours be your patience, then, and yours our parts; / Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts” (E.5-6). We are now the audience to your wordless, unambiguous action, your ‘play,’ which is your applause. With this final reversal of roles, of rulers being ruled, Shakespeare and his players are done.
Only if Shakespeare has persuaded his audience with words and plot they deem fitting, only if he has succeeded in ruling their sentiments with his reasoned, playful argument and action will they consent to judge his work as he wishes it to be judged. Judgment first came to sight in the contrast between the authority of elders, with their advice, their piety, and their plans, and the passions and plans (often schemes) of the young, who seek to evade authority. Authority based on the experience won over many years and on piety (the ‘faith of our fathers’) finds its criterion in nature. There is the authority of medical knowledge or ‘physic,’ rightful authority over bodily nature. There is also the authority of moral knowledge, knowledge of the virtues that make men and women human or human. Moral knowledge distinguishes ‘blood’—thumoerotic passion, the fight for love and glory—with virtue, especially courage (Bertram, Helena) against cowardice (Parolles), prudence (the King, the Countess, Helena) against folly (Bertram, Parolles), justice (the women generally, the King, the French lords) against injustice (the young men, especially Bertram with his failure to form a just estimate of Helena’s worth), and finally moderation (Lafeu, the Countess) against immoderation (the young generally, gripped by their passions).
Speech aimed at persuasion, rhetoric, may be true or false. Speech to oneself, soliloquy, may also be true or false, insightful or self-deceptive. Speech ‘meets’ or ‘courts’ action especially in love, in courtship. Helena deceives in her actions but usually speaks the truth, and for virtuous ends. Parolles speaks lies at the service of passions, and finds a ready audience in Bertram. Helena and Parolles are love-rivals, seeking to win the heart of their Count. Helena asks him the crucial, comic question: How to lose one’s virginity to one’s own liking? (And therefore to one worthy of your liking, else your liking will soon turn to disliking.) This is a physical question involving bodies and passions but also a moral question involving good and bad. To answer it, you will need to confront the problem of appearance and reality, deception and unmasking, revealing. As a wise ruler, the King knows that already, but the young lovers need to learn it.
Nature also raises the question of free will, and especially reasoned choice, against fatality (fortune, chance) and perhaps divine providence. The clown Lavache sees this in his cynical or ‘reductionist’ way, by calculating the odds of a good marriage as one in ten. Helena sets her prudent plotting not so much against fate as within its framework. She is right to see that her beloved is ‘above her’ in conventional social standing, but the overarching question is to know one’s place within the order of nature, to have self-knowledge. More, as the French lord asks, as he considers vile Parolles, is it possible to know that one is a coward, a liar and a fool, and still to be all those things? Evidently so, as Parolles illustrates. But he too knows his place in nature. If nature is a concordia discors, and order encompassing disorder, conflict, then even a knavish fool has his place. Virtue, a kind of strength, needs vice to test it, to ‘prove’ it in both senses of the term.
All’s well that ends well insofar as reason out-plots passion, bringing the convention of marriage into line with natural passion, in a condition of mutual correction. But reason’s victories are temporary because the discors remains—as it must, if the virtue aiming and the good will not weaken. The comedy of All’s Well That Ends Well sustains itself throughout, because the audience knows that the wise plotters have the foolish scoundrels firmly under their rule. Any utopian tendency to suppose that this will always be so is wisely deprecated by the King, who has ruled too long, learned the limitations of wise rule too well, to think otherwise.
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