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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Heart Wants What It Wants
Helena is one of the Shakespeare’s most winsome heroines. She is strong, determined, faithful, intelligent and even quietly ambitious without ever lapsing for a moment into the pool of vice that is Lady Macbeth. Her only failing is a quite specific lack of judgment. The one single question that nearly everyone will be prompted to ask is: what on earth does Helena see in Bertram? If such a question were not asked of hundreds of millions of women throughout history about the men to whom they have given their heart, All’s Well That Ends Well might seem utterly absurd. Instead, the play seems to answer its most pointed unanswered question with the simple suggestion that the heart wants what it wants.
Shakespearean comedies delved into issues of transgender studies long before it became hip. In most of of those cases, however, the bending of gender roles is accompanied by transvestic disguises. All’s Well That Ends Well features no cross-dressing and so addresses gender conventions and expectations strictly from a sociological perspective. To Helena are given all the finest and most noble attributes traditionally inhabited by males. Helena also subverts gender convention by being the pursuer in matters of love whereas the courtly soldier Bertram is the pursued. So complete is the gender bending that Helena’s pursuit is not couched in madness as if she were a stalker unable to overcome her emotions; her pursuit Bertram is intellectually charged with logic and crafty ambition. On the other hand, Bertram displays many of the hysterical emotional outbursts typically manifested by pursued women.
Love Is a Battlefield
Oddly enough, All’s Well That Ends Well shares a strong thematic bond with Elvis Costello's seminal punk rock album Armed Forces. Both creative endeavors sustain an allegorical comparison of the pursuit of romance with the elements of war. Helena’s pursuit of Bertram is presented as a strategically planned military maneuver that underscores its gender-bending aspect through comparisons of traditional male pursuit as a case of slowly eroding the opponent’s defenses and resistances. Indeed, liberal use of metaphorical language can be found throughout the play in which wooing a lover is compared to besieging a fortress. When soldiers return home after celebrating victory in battle, they are usually rewarded by the King whereas in this instance both Helena and Diana receive rewards from the king in the form of essentially being given the choice of any man they desire as a husband.
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