The Cynical Bard

Shakespeare, like any good poet, knew a thing or two about unrequited or ill-fated love. The speaker in his sonnets lavishes affection on a young man who seems to be oblivious, indifferent, or intolerant to the love. There doesn’t seem to be much hope for the speaker in the sonnets. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Helen is deeply in love with Bertram, who doesn’t seem to even know at the onset of the play. Because of their different social standings, there is little hope for Helen’s love. The first glimmer of hope comes when she devises a plot by which she might be deemed worthy of Bertram’s hand in marriage. One of the turning points in the play is in Act II Scene III when Bertram resists Helen’s advances in spite of the King’s wishes. Where a more reasonable person might have given up and suffered the pain of unrequited love, Helen pursues further measures to win Bertram—if not in love, at least in marriage.

Helen’s love for Bertram has developed over a period of time, and it seems at the onset of the play that she longs for him to return that love. Because of her social status, their match is not likely even if his feelings are reciprocal. Helen sees the chance to help out the King in trade for the favor of making her marriage with Bertram possible. Her interest in Bertram seems genuine and she manages to arrange it so that their marriage is possible. One might think that a reasonable character would give up on a beloved who refuses to return the love, as he so clearly does in this scene. Bertram’s response to the situation in this scene paints a clearer picture for the audience of the sort of man that he is. He is a man of class and status, but the indignant attitude with which he responds to the King and Helen shows him to be much less refined than might be expected. More surprising is the fact that Helen continues to pine after him even when she’s seen him as he is in this scene.

Just as Bertram as a character is shown to be less appealing than he seems in this act, Helen’s love for him seems to be less authentic than it is portrayed to be in earlier scenes. Her love for him is portrayed as having developed over time as a genuine appreciation of his character—character that is shown in this and later scenes to be less than ideal—but the fact that she is relentless might call into question whether her interest is in a relationship with him or a marriage to him. Having lived in Bertram’s home for some time as a person of less class, Helen seems to have identified her lower-class status with her relationship with Bertram. In spite of the rank and money that the King has promised Helen for her services, she will not feel complete until she has won Bertram. On the surface, it appears as though her persistence comes from her desire for him as a husband and lover, but I think that her desire comes instead from a psychological correlation between Bertram and status of respectability.

This scene is important to the play because it really makes the play stand out as an ironic comedy rather than a romantic drama. Bertram, and Helen’s love for him, are both made to seem silly and flawed. When the play begins, the story is of the struggles that must be overcome for love to prevail. Beginning with this scene, Shakespeare seems to poke fun at the idea of love overcoming. When the obstacles have been surmounted, the ideal turns out to be less than ideal. Bertram isn’t the catch that Helen seems to think he is, but on the other hand, her love isn’t quite what traditional literary notions would suggest. All’s Well That Ends Well because her distorted love falls on a flawed love object.

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