An Interesting Character Study: Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well

Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Helena, the heroine of All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare’s ‘loveliest character’ while the Victorian actress Ellen Terry called her ‘despicable’ and a ‘doormat’. Perhaps the former judgment of Helena’s character is a little over-charitable; perhaps the latter is too harsh. Helena is unscrupulous in her single-minded determination to get what she wants (Bertram, for some mysterious reason). Yet she also shows herself to be resourceful, clever, and cunning in achieving this one thing – on the way, succeeding where all the male physicians of the play have failed, in curing their king of his ailment. Helena is a complex character, and it’s worth analysing why she is so complex.

As Barbara Everett observes in one of the finest introductions to the play (in All’s Well That Ends Well (New Penguin Shakespeare S.)), what makes Helena stand apart as a Shakespearean heroine – and as different from her namesake from the earlier A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, or from Rosalind and Viola and others – is that she is an ‘internal’ character rather than one whose meaning dwells on the surface. Shakespeare’s other heroines (in his comedies at least) are relatively straightforward in terms of their desires and aims (which is not to say they are simplistic characters), and Shakespeare externalises them through action and plot. They act, but they don’t think – or at least, they don’t talk to us about their thinking. They don’t think things through before our very eyes. By contrast, Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well is the only female Shakespearean character to be given long soliloquies in which we gain access to her thoughts. However, as Everett also suggests, such access only succeeds in revealing how opaque Helena as a character really is: or, to put it another way, the more we learn about her, the more complex she becomes, and thus the more out of reach.

George Bernard Shaw – who had few kinds words to say about Shakespeare otherwise, popularising the term ‘Bardolatry’ as a derogatory term for Shakespeare-worship and penning a short puppet-play, Shakes vs. Shav, which pits himself against the man from Stratford –  admired All’s Well That Ends Well, not least because he found Helena to be a strong heroine who foreshadowed late nineteenth-century female characters such as Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). For Shaw, Helena was a New Woman nearly three centuries before the term was even coined. (Fittingly enough, Frederick Boas, the one who coined the term ‘problem play’ in his 1896 book about Shakespeare, applied the term to Shakespeare because of a similarity he detected between certain difficult-to-categorise plays of Shakespeare, including All’s Well, and the work of Ibsen.)

Certainly, Helena is unusually confident. The King of France says as much, in II.1, when Helena refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer when trying to persuade him to let her try to cure him. She is willing to lay her reputation and her life on the line in attempting to heal him, even when the King’s (male) physicians have failed to do so and have given up hope. To declare that she, a ‘mere woman’, can do what trained physicians have failed to do is an act of supreme confidence. In healing her king and winning the husband she so earnestly desires, she lifts herself up from the ranks of a lowly physician’s daughter to the rank of Countess of Roussillon.

Helena: a female Hamlet?

One final thought about the character of Helena: to what degree we are invited to see Helena as a sort of female Hamlet is difficult to say. In many ways, the two characters are utterly unlike, and for all its ‘problematic’ aspects, All’s Well That Ends Well is, as its title proclaims, a comedy, albeit a different kind of comedy from Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is not a tragedy as Hamlet is. Yet there are some intriguing local echoes of Hamlet in Helena’s character and speech which make the comparison seem a little less frivolous and far-fetched.

For example, when she first appears on stage, the very first line Helena delivers, like Hamlet’s first line of speech, is a one-line riddle addressed to a parent-who-is-not-a-parent: ‘I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too’ (compare Hamlet’s ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind’ – but also his later words to his mother, Gertrude: ‘Assume a virtue, if you have it not’). Helena speaks this line to the Countess, who asks Helena in this scene to view her as her own mother. Both Helena and Hamlet have lost their fathers before the play begins, and both are asked by surrogate or step-parents to accept them as such (the Countess asks that Helena accept her as her mother, just as Claudius has stepped into the role of father to Hamlet, having killed Old Hamlet and married Hamlet’s mother). Both characters grant us an insight into their feelings through long soliloquies. Are Helena’s words in II.3 (‘All the rest is mute’) a deliberate echo of Hamlet’s dying words, ‘The rest is silence’? A superficial one, perhaps, and a knowing wink to one of Shakespeare’s earlier characters – but a deliberate one, all the same? Hamlet is thought to have been written in 1600-1, while All’s Well probably dates from around 1602-3. The Prince of Denmark would have been fresh in the original audience’s minds, in an age when verbal memory among the average playgoer was considerably greater than it is now, as Frances Yates’s book The Art of Memory argues. This comparison wouldn’t come to determine who Helena is as a character, but it raises the possibility that one of the things Shakespeare is doing with the character of Helena is offering a female, comic revision of his earlier, great tragic hero from a few years earlier.

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