Why do many critics consider the title of this play to be deceptively ironic?
While not necessarily universally shared, the overwhelming critical consensus on the issue of Bertram is that he is simply not worthy of the love of Helena. They may well become a greatly matched pair, but a happy ending that leaves everything well because it has ended well seems to be greatly at odds with the potential for what happens later in the lives of these two. Bertram has revealed on a number of occasions that he is less than mature and certainly has shown himself to hardly be the equal of Helena on that score. In order for everything to end up well between these two, a lot of work is going to need to be done on the part of Bertram. So, perhaps the title is ironic in its implicit connection to an ending in which all’s well that hasn’t end up in tragedy.
Why is this work often considered one of the so-called “Problem Plays” of Shakespeare?
Inevitably, the play ends up being categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “comedies” but the inescapable truth is that it could very well have ended up as a tragedy. Only the ending in which there isn’t a bloodbath of death really succeeds in making it belong among Shakespeare’s more overt comedies since it lacks the distinct humor of those more obviously belong to the genre. Like Measure for Measure, the “problem” with this play is that it makes it way down through some very dark narrative passageways before winding up in the light at the end. And, as suggested, even that light at the end of the tunnel is a bit shady as the question lingers in the minds of many: what is the deal with Helena? She’s hardly Shakespeare’s most innocent and ladylike protagonist, but it is precisely that depth to her character that creates perhaps its bigger problem. What on earth is that someone so clever actually sees in Bertram?
How might the questions of what is the deal with Helena be answered through an interpretation that Shakespeare was actually writing about men who pursue unworthy women?
The problem of Helena’s attraction to Bertram has served over the centuries to make All’s Well that End’s Well one of Shakespeare’s least popular and rarely-performed works and thus many scholars have attempted to explain this striking failure that is the centerpiece of the narrative. One unique interpretation is that Shakespeare was actually writing not about an unworthy man being pursued by a clearly superior woman, but rather a clearly superior man pursuing an unworthy. At this point, the interpretation then splits off into two different approach. The more mundane argument suggests that switching gender increased the humor because there just wasn’t enough comedy to be mined from a man pursuing an unworthy woman. The other line of reasoning is more insidiously Freudian. In this approach, Shakespeare purposely sets out to write about a woman pursuing an unworthy man, but unconsciously reversed genders by endowing Helena with more traditionally masculine traits that were in turn excised from Bertram. This interpretation also makes much of the reversal of typical gender expectations with the introduction of Bertram as being committed to an arranged marriage over which he has no control; a situation typically exploited for dramatic effect using the potential bride rather than groom.
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