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Written by Timothy Sexton
“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.”
Like Shakespeare's other plays, All’s Well that Ends Well features a cast of characters that represent humanity right down to its core: there is both good and bad in all of us. While it might be difficult to find goodness in Parolles, at least you can say he’s honest with himself. Maybe not everyone else, sure, but he wears no peaky blinders when looking inward. One might also question whether there is much about Helena that does not rise to goodness, but one way of looking at her pursuit of the utterly unworthy Bertram is through the perspective of a respectable woman who reasons unknown seems to debase and humiliate herself publicly. This quote is a summation of the underlying motif that recurs throughout the Bard’s canon: one must accept the darkness of others along with the light if one is to survive in society.
“Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?”
The play is absolutely rife with metaphorical language situation the pursuit of romance within the vernacular of war. Proving once again that she is not bound by gender conventions, Helena joins the male soldiers who routinely view vying for the affections of a woman as though it were siege against the enemy.
"That I should love a bright particular star And think to wed it, he is so above me: In his bright radiance and collateral light Must I be comforted, not in his sphere."
One of the great mysteries of Shakespearean drama is just what in the heck does Helena see in Bertram. In fact, Shakespeare does provide something of an answer; albeit one that is bound to be less than satisfying to modern audiences. Helena is of the same elevated status as Bertram and it is clear she has been properly conditioned to associate aristocratic privilege with genuine character since this passage make it quite clear she fails to view herself as deserving of his love. Words and action prove otherwise to everyone but Helena and Bertram though in the end even Bertram seems to get it.
“…simply the thing I am Shall make me live.”
As indicated here, Parolles may not have much light to contrast with his dark, but no one can deny that Parolles is not intensely intuitive about his own shortcomings. As a braggart, he puts forth an illusion of himself to the world, but at least he recognizes that everything about him is a show. And, even more than that, he is so acutely attuned to this show that with this quote he admits that what else is inside is no substantial enough to ensure his survival.
“That you are well restored, my lord, I'm glad: Let the rest go.”
Helena addresses this quote to the King of France’s response to Bertram’s assertion that he cannot love her and, what’s more, won’t even try. The significance part is the last: she says the King should just let the situation go, but her meaning is clearly the opposite. Throughout most of the play, Helena is positioned in the masculine role of every relationship, but with the King she here reveals herself as quite the master of feminine wiles to achieve what she wants.
“We must away; Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us: All's well that ends well.”
Almost alone among Shakespeare’s protagonists is Helena as a portrait of success in attaining something wanted so badly that required the overcoming of so many different obstacles. And, of course, most of those others who equaled her success did so at the eventual cost of their life. It is worth noting at this point that the mingled yarn creating the web of Helena’s life is one in which overcoming some of those obstacles may call into question for some the universal appreciation of Helena’s virtues. The suggestion that things are well because they end well is a rationalization that seems more likely to come out of the mouth of Parolles than Helena, and that says something.
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