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Helen is the orphaned daughter of a famous doctor. In the play, she cures the king of France's deadly (and disgusting) disease and is rewarded by being allowed to choose any husband she wants.
Let's face it. If Helen were a real person living in the US today, we might see her on the Dr. Phil Show. She'd go on and on about how she fell in love with a guy who treated her like garbage and didn't love her back... so she stalked him and tricked him into staying with her by getting pregnant. It's not a pretty story. Helen can seem like a schemer, which is why some modern day readers have a hard time sympathizing with her baby-daddy drama.
That's not all. In the play, Helen can also come off as a social climber. She reminds us way too often that her social status is below Bertram's, and then the king gives her a new title and a bunch of money when she gets married. Let's put it this way: Kanye West would probably call Helen gold digger.
If Helen seems like a sleazy, social climbing schemer, then why do 99% of the characters in the play think she's so awesome? Seriously. Every time we turn around, someone is telling us that Helen is virtuous, smart, beautiful, and more than worthy of Bertram's love? Why are there so many literary critics who think Helen is a gutsy heroine worthy of our admiration and respect? Well, because these things are all true. Let's discuss.
Let's start by talking about how Helen challenges traditional sixteenth- and seventeenth-century attitudes about gender and sexuality, which say that good girls should be chaste, obedient, and silent. It's clear from the beginning of the play that our heroine doesn't plan on being any of these things.
In the middle of the first act, Helen has an R-rated conversation with a pretty sleazy guy. When Paroles comes out of nowhere and asks her if she's "meditating on virginity," he's being an aggressive jerk. Still, Helen doesn't blush, stammer, or change the subject. Instead, she makes a snappy retort and uses the language of warfare to talk about how virgins like her are always defending themselves against guys like Paroles:
Are you meditating on virginity?
Ay. You have some stain of soldier in you: let
me ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity.
How may we barricado it against him?
Keep him out.
But he assails, and our virginity, though
valiant in the defense, yet is weak. Unfold to us
some warlike resistance.
There is none. Man, sitting down before you
will undermine you and blow you up. (1.1.115-124)
Here, the conversation suggests that virgins are like towns that gets "assail[ed]" (attacked), penetrated, and then "blown up" (impregnated) by enemy soldiers. The whole dialogue is like a back and forth battle, and, obviously, Helen can hold her own.
Helen is not the first Shakespearean heroine to be confronted by an aggressive guy who wants to talk about sex. Here's the thing, though. Most Shakespearean heroines do NOT talk dirty back. (That stuff is usually reserved for shady ladies like Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet. Hmm. That must be why some literary critics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge say that Helen is "not very delicate." (Source).
What? You want some examples? Of course you do. Let's start with Ophelia, Hamlet's long-suffering girlfriend. When Hamlet tries to talk to her about "country matters" (sex), she flat out refuses to acknowledge his sexual innuendo (Hamlet, 3.2.123). Why? Because if she did, she'd be accused of knowing too much about sex. (You can read more about this in our "Steaminess Rating" of Hamlet.)
What about the notoriously sharp-tongued Katharine Minola from The Taming of the Shrew? She's famous for her quick wit and verbal sparring chops, right? Right. Still, not even Katharine talks dirty. Whenever Petruchio says something crude during a fight (like his famous "my tongue in your tail" comment), Katharine totally backs down because she doesn't want to be accused of being the kind of woman who talks to men about sex. (Find out more by reading the “Writing Style” section for this play.)
Does this mean there's something wrong with Helen? Nah. It just means that she's unique and not afraid to back down from a fight. It also means that her character is unlike anything we've seen before, which is a pretty big deal.
Helen's blunt conversation about sex isn't the only thing that makes her unique. You've probably already noticed that Helen's quest to cure the king and score a husband sort of looks like a classic folktale. You know the kind. There's always some poor young man who wins a princess by completing some impossible task, like, say, curing a king, slaying a dragon, or answering some kind of crazy riddle. (This folktale plot even shows up in classic video games like Super Mario Brothers, where an Italian-American plumber has to make it through Mushroom Kingdom and kill a fire-breathing, dragon-like turtle before he can collect his prize, Princess Peach Toadstool.)
The difference is that Helen is a girl who pursues a guy, which places Bertram in a traditionally feminine role while Helen goes after him. (Just imagine if Princess Peach Toadstool was a girl-plumber out to rescue "Prince Mario.") Shakespeare is asking us to think about what happens when you take a classic quest-romance plot and then flip-flop the characters' genders.
Here's what happens in All's Well That Ends Well. Helen, the female quester, can come off looking like an overly aggressive man-eater (especially because Bertram doesn't want anything to do with her). Is Shakespeare using Helen to point out that there's a double standard when it comes to the pursuit of love? It sure seems that way. Literary critic Katharine Eisaman Maus thinks so, too. She points out that "in the customary masculine version [of the quest-romance story], no one inquires into the feelings of the noblewoman who is the champion's prize. But in All's Well, when a man becomes the reward, he reacts with astonished anger" (source.)
Okay. We know what you're probably thinking. It's obvious that the girl has a lot of guts, but why does she insist on acting like a doormat after she marries Bertram? Come on! She lets him treat her like garbage and she still wants to be with him after he runs away and cheats on her, right?
Well, it's true that Helen often takes the whole obedient wife routine a little too far. After she gets hitched to Bertram, she's always saying stuff like "In everything I wait upon his will" (2.4.56). At one point, she even says "I am your most obedient servant" (2.5.78). So, does her willingness to act like her husband's doormat undermine all of her character's strong qualities (her ingenuity, boldness, and willingness to take risks)? For modern audiences, it's hard not to think so.
Still, before we write Helen off as a wimpy wife, we might want to think about this. Shakespeare scholar W.W. Lawrence famously argued that Helen is a classic "clever wench" figure and that, back in Shakespeare's day, she was most likely a very sympathetic figure to audiences. (Source) The "clever wench" was a popular figure in Elizabethan drama and folklore; there were boatloads of stories about faithful and patient wives whose husbands treat them like dirt and sometimes even run out on them. The wives have to come up with some kind of clever and ingenious way to get them back (like Helen does when she pulls the old bed trick on Bertram).
What about that "bed trick"? What kind of a person tricks a guy into getting her pregnant? Like we've said, for modern readers and playgoers, Helen's scheme seems like a really lousy thing to do. Still, original audiences may have thought it was okay; after all, Helen did it to save her marriage, considered by many to be a sacred union. The idea behind the whole "clever wench" theory is that Helen is doing Bertram a big favor by making him grow up and settle down with his lawfully wedded wife. (By the way, something similar happens in Measure for Measure when Angelo is tricked into sleeping with Mariana, which seals the terms of their engagement and possibly their marriage.)
Some literary critics like Stanley Wells have even gone so far as to say that Helen is Bertram's "moral salvation."