Kaplan, Z. A. (2020). "The end is [not] the renown": Reading and Re-Reading Helena in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.14418/wes01.1.2165
This thesis examines William Shakespeare’s All’s Well not to focus on its ending but rather to argue that its ending is made “well” through Helena’s actions; the play illustrates a radical demonstration of female agency even when the heroine’s actions ultimately fulfill roles a patriarchal ideology expects her to. The first two chapters examine Helena’s two main actions, the King’s cure and the bed-trick: first, Helena overcomes gender and class bias to win the ability to marry Bertram, second, she acts on her own desire to have a sexual encounter with him. Yet as Helena works by her own authority to win and bed the man she desires, her actions allow her to become a wife and mother by the play’s end, just as early modern society expects her to. The thesis then explores how we view Helena’s actions at present, arguing that her acts of agency in a modern context can be read as both violating and manipulative. I look to modern productions of All’s Well to discover how current staging of the play grabbles with the actions we now find problematic, and whether all can end “well” at present. Ultimately, I offer an alternative way to re-read All’s Well. Rather than focusing on end “well,” we can embrace an “unwell” ending in the present to explore and examine how Helena’s actions—however problematic we deem them now—make the ending of All’s Well possible.