English 431B: Advanced Shakespeare

A survey of the works from the second half of William Shakespeare's career

Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 notes

Act 2, Scene 1
Line 106 +

King’s Palace in Paris
Helena presents herself as possessed of the physician’s secrets
She says her father gave her knowledge of how to cure diseases

King refuses Helena’s offer to heal him

Line 136 +
Helena: “What I can do can do no hurt to try, … He (God) that of greatest works is finisher.”

King still dismisses her offer.
After Helena’s speech Line 150 + King becomes convinced

King’s Speech Line 177 +
Condition: You (Helena) surrenders her life if she fails to save the King
Fairy-tale quality of this agreement (hyperbolic drama)

Line 192 + She says if I help you, what will you give me? King replies, I’ll give you anything you want if you’re successful. She wants a husband (Bertram).

King agrees to Helena’s terms.

Most readers feel at this point feel she will be successful, and guess the identity of the man she has in mind.

In Act 2, Scene 3 the King is healed.

Helena toys with guys, before making the selection at Line 105 +

Bertram is not enthusiastic about the marriage agreement. Bertram says he wants to choose his own wife. He says she’s inappropriate because she is not the same class as him.

King responds by saying he will build up Helena’s title. Bertram is still adamant about not marrying Helena. King has a decision to make – honor Bertram’s or Helena’s requests. He will look bad if he doesn’t honor the agreement he made with Helena.

King uses strong words/threats to convince Bertram to marry Helena.

Bertram agrees to marry her, but doesn’t plan to follow through, beyond the wedding ceremony.

Line 63 + Bertram conceals his real motives

He tells Helena to wait for him at home because he has important business that’s private

Act 3, Scene 2

Line 58 +

Bertram reveals his true colors: tells Helena two conditions must be met in order for her to be his “true” wife

Script doesn’t explicitly say why Helena still wants Bertram after he’s a “dog.” The interpretation is left up to the director/players.

Q: How as we the audience learn who Bertram (or any character) is?

A: Actions, speech, connection with other characters (such as Parolles)

Q: What is the difference between the way we learn about Helena’s character and Bertram?

A: Helena talks more about herself, given soliloquies, Bertram doesn’t have soliloquies, audience don’t have insights into the way his mind works like we do with Helena. Bertram’s character is more reactive, while Helena’s is proactive. First perspective of Bertram is through Helena’s eyes. Bertram’s inner-thoughts come across in letters, but still interpreted through the eyes of recipient. Helena defines herself by what she is not. Both Helena and Bertram are oblique characters.

Q: Why does Helena pursue Bertram so relentlessly?

A: Sexual desire? To rise the social class ladder?

Q: Why did Shakespeare make Bertram and Helena so mysterious when other plays revealed identities of characters worked so well in the past?

A: No good answer. Challenging himself as a playwright?

Bertram is judged mostly by what he does, not what he says. His actions are abhorrent, which raises mystery of her infatuation.

Bertram first makes a significant action/speech in Act 2, Scene 3 when he defies the King.

“All’s Well” has been dubbed a ‘problem play.’ Problems for interpretation the play raises, i.e. who the heck is Bertram? Don’t have a glimmer of who he is until half-way through the play. Bertram is a hypocrite.

Act 4, Scene 3

Line 90 +


Helena’s speeches are mostly in poetry, while Bertram’s are mostly in prose

Artful vs. formal

He makes no big deal about burying a wife of a Duke.

In Act 1, Scene 1 Helena does not ever describe his character. Describes him as an “ideal” but doesn’t explain why. Is this ideal imaginary? She values other characters based on their honesty, virtue and goodness, but not Bertram. Bertram is viewed by audience through Helena’s lens. Bertram seems incapable of introspection. He doesn’t reflect on the world. Even though his conduct upsets those he loves, he has no shame. He can be callous and is incapable of tenderness.

Shakespeare creates a play full of challenges.

Act 2, Scene 5

Lafew points out Parolles as “miles glorious” type character

Source story for this play: continental story by Boraccio titled “The Decameron”

Parolles is from a stock character from Roman literature (Miles glorious – braggart warrior, fraud)


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