David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’: A Retelling in Prose” — Act 1, Scene 3

— 1.3 —

The Countess, a Steward, and a professional Fool, whose job was to entertain the Countess, were in a room of the palace in Rousillon.

The Countess said to the Steward, “I will now hear what you have to say about this gentlewoman: Helena.”

The Steward replied, “Madam, the care I have had to make your life even and unruffled I wish might be found in the record of my past endeavors because we wound our modesty and make foul the clearness of our deservings, when of ourselves we ourselves publish them. People ought not to praise their own good deeds and qualities.”

By mentioning “publish,” aka “making known publicly,” the Steward was hinting that what he had to say ought to be said in private. He did not want the Fool present when he talked about Helena.

Getting the hint, the Countess looked around and noticed the Fool. She said, “What is this knave doing here? Get you gone, sirrah.”

“Sirrah” was a way of addressing a male of lower social rank than the speaker.

Although the Fool had a lower social rank than the Countess, the Fool did have privileges, such as being able to speak frankly to those of a higher social rank. This Fool took advantage of that privilege and did not leave immediately. He would use the opportunity to engage in foolery, and then he would leave.

The Countess continued, “The complaints I have heard of you I do not all believe, but it is because of my slowness and lack of mental acuity that I do not because I know that you don’t lack the folly to commit them and I know that you have ability enough to make such knaveries yours. You are both a fool and a knave.”

“It is not unknown to you, madam, that I am a poor fellow,” the Fool said.

“Well, and so what of it, sir?” the Countess asked.

“No, madam, it is not so well that I am poor, although many of the rich are damned, but if I may have your ladyship’s good will to go to the world, Isbel the serving woman and I will do as we may.”

“To go to the world” meant “to get married.” The Fool wanted to do as married people in the world do: “To do” meant “to have sex.”

“Will you need to be a beggar?” the Countess asked, aware that having a wife involves expenses.

“I beg your good will in this case,” the Fool answered.

“In what case?” the Countess asked.

“In Isbel’s case and my own,” the Fool said.

In this society, one meaning of the word “case” was “vagina.”

The Fool continued, “Service is no heritage.”

This proverb meant that servants neither inherit an estate nor leave behind an estate to be inherited after they die.

The Fool continued, “And I think I shall never have the blessing of God until I have issue of my body; that is, until I have children. People say that bairns — children — are blessings.”

“Tell me your reason why you will marry,” the Countess said.

“My poor body, madam, requires it,” the Fool replied. “I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go whom the Devil drives.”

“Is this all your worship’s reason?” the Countess asked.

“Indeed, madam, I have other holy reasons such as they are,” the Fool said.

The Fool was punning. “Holy” referred to “hole,” or “vagina.” In this culture, the word “reasons” was pronounced much like the word “raisings,” which in this context referred to “erections.”

“May the world know those holy reasons?” the Countess asked.

“I have been, madam, a wicked creature, as you and all flesh and blood are,” the Fool replied, “and, indeed, I marry so that I may repent.”

“You will repent your marriage sooner than you repent your wickedness,” the Countess said.

“I am out of friends, madam, and I hope to have friends for my wife’s sake,” the Fool said.

“Such friends are your enemies, knave,” the Countess said.

Such friends would commit adultery with his wife.

“You’re shallow and superficial, madam, in judging great friends,” the Fool said, “for the knaves come to do that for me which I am weary of. He who plows my land spares my team and gives me leave to bring in the crop; if I be his cuckold, he’s my drudge.”

The Fool was speaking metaphorically. Other men would plow his wife and allow him to bring in the harvest: a child. By doing his plowing for him, the other men would make the Fool a cuckold: a man with an unfaithful wife.

He was also willing to completely reverse his position in order to create comedy. Just a moment ago, he had said that he desperately wanted to marry Isbel so he could have sex with her. Now he was talking about being weary of having sex with Isbel and therefore being happy when other men did his husbandly duty.

The Fool said, “He who comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood; he who cherishes my flesh and blood loves my flesh and blood; he who loves my flesh and blood is my friend; ergo, he who kisses my wife is my friend. If married men could be contented to be what they are — cuckolds — there would be no fear in marriage.

“Young Charbon the Puritan and old Poysam the Catholic Papist, however much their hearts are severed in religion, their heads are both one and the same — horned. They may knock horns together, like any deer in the herd.”

“Charbon” means “good meat,” and “poysam” means fish. In this culture, Puritans ate meat and Catholics ate fish on Fridays. But married Puritan men and married Catholic men, despite their difference in religion, are alike in being cuckolds — according to the Fool, all married men are cuckolds. Cuckolds were said to have horns that were invisible to them.

The Countess asked the Fool, “Will you always be a foul-mouthed and calumnious knave?”

“I am a prophet, madam; and I speak the truth the nearest, shortest, most direct way,” the Fool said.

He sang:

For I the ballad will repeat,

Which men very true shall find:

Your marriage comes by destiny,

Your cuckoo sings by kind.

A man marries by individual destiny, but when it comes to a cuckoo singing its song to a married man, that is something that happens by nature — it is natural for every married man to become a cuckold and therefore it is natural for the cuckoo to sing its song to mock him.

Cuckoo birds were thought to mock cuckolds by singing, “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and so the other birds end up raising the cuckoos’ offspring.

“Get you gone, sir,” the Countess said to the Fool. “I’ll talk more with you soon.”

“May it please you, madam, that he tells Helen to come to you,” the Steward said. “I am going to speak to you about her.”

The Countess said to the Fool, “Sirrah, tell my gentlewoman that I want to speak with her. Helen, I mean.”

The Fool sang:

Was this fair face the cause, quoth [said] she,

Why the Grecians sacked Troy?

Fond [Foolishly] done, done fond [foolishly],

Was this King Priam’s joy?

With that she sighed as she stood,

With that she sighed as she stood,

And gave this sentence [wise saying] then;

Among nine bad if one be good,

Among nine bad if one be good,

There’s yet one good in ten.

In Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, Faust says these lines to a demonic spirit impersonating Helen of Troy:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips,

And all is dross that is not Helena.

I will be Paris, and for love of thee,

Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;

And I will combat with weak Menelaus,

And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;

Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,

And then return to Helen for a kiss.

O, thou art fairer than the evening air

Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;

Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter

When he appear’d to hapless Semele;

More lovely than the monarch of the sky

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;

And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

The Fool’s song and Marlowe’s poetry were in part about the Trojan War. Paris, Prince of Troy, had foolishly run away with Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, and brought her back to Troy. The Trojan War was fought to get Helen of Troy back for her legal husband.

“Ilium” is another name for “Troy.”

In the Trojan War, Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, died after a poisoned arrow struck his heel.

Semele was the mortal mother of the god Bacchus; Jupiter, King of the gods, was his father. He promised to give Semele anything she wanted if she would sleep with him. After they had slept together, she told him that she wanted to see him in his full divine glory rather than just in the form he took when he appeared to mortals. Because he had sworn an inviolable oath, he did as she requested. Unable to endure the sight, she burst into flames. She was already pregnant with Bacchus, but Jupiter rescued the fetus and sewed it in his thigh until it was ready to be born. Because Bacchus had been “born” from an immortal god, Bacchus was himself an immortal god.

Arethusa was a nymph who was pursued by the river-god Alpheus. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she was transformed into a stream. According to Marlowe’s poem, she had sex with Jupiter, god of the sky.

“One good in ten?” the Countess said. “You corrupt the song, sirrah.”

She knew that the Fool’s song really ended in this way:

Among nine good if one be bad,

There’s yet nine good in ten.

The original song had presumably been about men — King Priam’s sons born to his Queen, Hecuba — but the Fool clarified that he was singing about women.

The Fool replied, “One good woman in ten, madam; this is a purifying of the song. I wish that God would serve the world so all the year! We would find no fault with the tithe-woman, if I were the parson.”

The parson was entitled to take possession of the tithe-pig: one pig in every ten. The Fool was saying that if he were the parson he would be happy if one woman out of ten was a good woman.

The Fool continued, “One in ten, did he say! If we might have a good woman born every time a blazing star — a comet or a nova — was seen or every time an earthquake occurred, it would mend the lottery well — it would improve the odds of a man finding a good woman to be his wife. Right now, a man may draw his heart out before he plucks a good woman out of the lottery that is marriage.”

“You’ll be gone, Sir Knave, and do as I command you,” the Countess said.

“That man should be at woman’s command, and yet no hurt done!” the Fool said.

In 1 Corinthians 11:13, St. Paul wrote this: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (King James Version).

The Fool continued, “Though honesty be no Puritan, yet it will do no hurt; it will wear the surplice of humility over the black gown of a proud heart.”

In this society, laws required ministers to wear a surplice, a white linen vestment worn by Anglicans. Puritan ministers often wore a Genevan black gown, the clerical garb of Calvinists, under the white surplice. Thus, they rebelled under a show of obeying the law.

The Fool was saying that he would obey the Countess’ orders, but that he would continue to do his job as a Fool: to make her laugh and to provide satire — humorous criticism — as necessary.

The Fool said, “I am going, indeed. The business is for Helen to come hither. I will go and get her.”

He exited.

“Well, now,” the Countess said.

“I know, madam,” the Steward said. “I know that you love your gentlewoman Helen entirely and sincerely.”

“Indeed, I do,” the Countess said. “Her father bequeathed her to me, and she herself, without other advantage, may lawfully make title to as much love as she finds. More is owing to her than has been paid to her, and more shall be paid to her than she’ll demand.”

The Countess was using financial language. “Bequeathed” means “bestowed [like property].” “Advantage” means “financial profit or interest.” “Title” means “legal possession.”

Definitely, the Countess thought very highly of Helena.

The Steward said, “Madam, I was very recently much closer to her than I think she wished me. She was alone, and she was talking to herself. She thought, I dare say, that she did not know that her words were reaching any other person’s ears.

“The content of her talk was that she loved your son, Bertram. Lady Fortune, she said, was no goddess, not when she had put such difference between her estate and Bertram’s estate.

“Love, she said, was no god, not when he would not exert his might except only where social ranks were even.

“Diana, she said, was no Queen of virgins, not when she would allow her poor knight — Helena herself — to be surprised and captured, without Diana providing a rescue in the first assault or a ransom afterward.

“These words Helena delivered in the most bitter depth of pain and sorrow that I ever heard a virgin exclaim. This I held my duty to speedily acquaint you with, since, in the loss — the loss of Helena’s virginity, or the loss of your son in marriage — that may happen, it concerns you to know it.”

“You have performed this honestly,” the Countess said. “Keep it to yourself. Many signs informed me of this previously, but they hung so tottering in the balance that I could neither believe nor misdoubt. I was unable to be sure that Helena loved my son or that Helena did not love my son. Please, leave me. Keep this information in your bosom and don’t share it. I thank you for your honest care, and I will soon speak further with you.”

The Steward exited.

Helena entered the room.

The Countess said quietly to herself, “Even so it was with me when I was young. I was in love then just like Helena is now. If ever we are nature’s, these pangs of love are ours. This thorn rightly belongs to our rose of youth — it is natural to fall in love, although falling in love brings pain. We are born with red blood, and passionate disposition is born in that blood. A passionate disposition is the show and seal of nature’s truth, where love’s strong passion is imprinted in youth. It is entirely natural to be passionate when one is young. We remember days long past, and we know that our passions were our faults, but we did not think then that they were faults.

“Helena’s eye is sick with love. I see that she is now in love.”

“What is your pleasure, madam?” Helena asked. “What do you want?”

“You know, Helen, that I am a mother to you,” the Countess replied.

“You are my honorable mistress,” Helena said.

Among other definitions, a mistress is a woman who is the guardian of a minor.

Helena did not want to call the Countess her mother because if the Countess were her mother, then Bertram would be her brother and she could never marry him. She would, however, like for the Countess to be her mother-in-law.

“No, I am a mother,” the Countess said. “Why not a mother? When I said ‘a mother,’ I thought you reacted as if you saw a serpent. What’s in the word ‘mother’ that you startle when you hear it? I say that I am your mother, and I put you in the catalogue of those who were born from my womb.

“It is often seen that adoption strives with nature and choice breeds a native slip to us from foreign seeds. Through adoption we make our own what was previously foreign.”

She was comparing adopting a child to grafting a branch onto a tree.

The Countess continued, “You never oppressed and troubled me with a mother’s groan in childbirth, yet I express to you a mother’s care. God’s mercy, maiden! Does it curdle your blood to say I am your mother?”

Helena began to cry.

The Countess said, “What’s the matter that causes this distempered messenger of wet, the many-colored Iris, goddess of the rainbow, which is created by light shining through drops of water, to round your eye? Why shed tears? Why? Because you are my daughter?”

“Because I am not,” Helena said.

She meant that she was crying because she was not the Countess’ daughter-in-law.

The Countess said, “I say, I am your mother.”

“Pardon me, madam,” Helena replied. “The Count Rousillon cannot be my brother. I have a humble origin; his family has an honored name. My parents have no great social standing; his are all noble. My master is my dear lord, and I live as his servant, and I will die as his vassal. He must not be my brother.”

“Then I must not be your mother?” the Countess asked.

“You are my mother, madam,” Helena said. “I wish you were — as long as my lord your son were not my brother — indeed my mother!”

She wanted the Countess to be her mother-in-law, but she was unwilling to openly say this.

Helena continued, “Or if you were the mother of us both, I would care no more for it than I do for Heaven, as long as I were not his sister.”

Perhaps Helena meant that it is impossible to love something more than Heaven and that she would love having the Countess as her mother-in-law equally as much as she loved Heaven.

Helena still was not willing to speak openly of her love for Bertram. If she had been willing, she might have said, “Or if you were the mother of us both, I would care no less for it than I do for Heaven, as long as I were not his sister.” Or perhaps she might not have said that. Soon, Helena would say that she loved Heaven first, Bertram second, and the Countess third.

Helena cared for Heaven; if the Countess were Helena’s mother-in-law and Bertram’s mother, it would be Heavenly.

She continued, “Is there no other option? Must I, being your daughter, have him as my brother?”

“Yes, Helen, there is another option: You might be my daughter-in-law,” the Countess said. “God forbid that you don’t mean it! God forbid that you don’t mean that you love my son!”

The Countess wanted to have Helena as her daughter-in-law.

She continued, “The words ‘daughter’ and ‘mother’ make your pulse race. What, pale in your face again? My fear has caught your fondness.”

The Countess’ fear was that Helena might not love her son. Helena reacted with paleness to the Countess’ acknowledgement that she knew that Helena loved her son.

The Countess continued, “Now I see the mystery of your loneliness, and I find the source of your salt tears. Now to all my senses it is completely obvious that you love my son. Fabricated excuses are ashamed, against the proclamation of your passion, to say you do not love my son. I am completely unable to say that.

“Therefore tell me the truth, but tell me then that it is so, that you do love my son. For, look, your cheeks confess, the one to the other that you love my son, and your eyes see your love for my son so obviously shown in your behaviors that in your eyes’ own manner — by weeping — they speak it.

“Only sin and hellish obstinacy tie your tongue, making it so that truth should be doubted.

“Speak, is it so? Do you love my son? If it is so, you have wound a fine ball of yarn.”

Winding a fine ball of yarn is a positive image. Once the yarn is wound into a ball, it won’t get tangled. Having a son soon married to a good woman is a good thing.

The Countess continued, “If it is not so, forswear and deny it; however, I charge you as Heaven shall work in me on your behalf, tell me truly.”

“Good madam, pardon me!” Helena cried.

“Do you love my son?” the Countess asked.

“Give me your pardon, noble mistress!” Helena pleaded.

“Do you love my son?” the Countess asked again.

“Don’t you love him, madam?” Helena asked.

“Don’t try to avoid answering the question,” the Countess said. “My love has in it a bond of which the world takes note. My love for him is that of a mother for her son. Come, come, disclose to me the state of your affection, for your passions have to the full informed against you.”

Helena knelt and said, “Then, I confess, here on my knee, before high Heaven and you, that more than I love you, and next to the love I have for high Heaven, I love your son.

“My relatives were poor, but honest; so is my love. Don’t be offended, for it doesn’t hurt him to be loved by me. I don’t follow him with any token of presumptuous wooing, nor would I have him until I deserve him, yet I shall never know how that desert should be earned.

“I know I love in vain and strive against hope, yet in this captious and inteemable sieve that is hope I still pour in the waters of my love and lack not to lose still.”

The word “captious” means both “capacious” and “deceptive.” The word “inteemable” means “unretentive.”

She was saying that her hope of marrying Bertram is a sieve that “takes in” in two senses: 1) it takes in all the emotion and love she pours into it (the sieve is capacious), and 2) it takes her in — it fools her into thinking, aka hoping, that marrying Bertram is possible (the sieve is deceptive). Because it is a sieve, it is unretentive — it does not retain water (or love) and it can never be filled up.

Helena continued, “Thus, Indian-like, religious in my error, I adore the Sun, which looks upon his worshipper but knows of him no more.”

She meant that she looked at and loved Bertram, but although Bertram sometimes saw her, he knew little about her — he certainly did not know that she loved him.

Helena continued, “My dearest madam, let not your hate encounter with my love for loving where you do, but if you yourself, whose aged honor is evidence of a virtuous youth, did ever in so true a flame of liking wish chastely and love dearly that your Diana was both herself and love — that Diana was the goddess both of chastity and of love — oh, then, give pity to a woman — me — whose state is such that she cannot choose but lend and give love where she is sure to lose, a woman — me — who seeks not to find that which her search implies, but riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies! I seek only to love your son and live where he lives so I can at least see him and be happy in that although I know that I cannot marry him and that makes me feel like dying.”

The Countess was intelligent. Bertram was in Paris, and Helena wanted to be where Bertram was, and so the Countess asked, “Haven’t you had recently the intention — tell me the truth — of going to Paris?”

“Yes, madam, I have.”

“Why? Tell me the truth.”

“I will tell you the truth,” Helena said. “By grace itself I swear I will. You know that my father left me some prescriptions — instructions on how to make medicines — of rare and proven effects, such as his reading and true experience had collected for general effectiveness, and you know that he desired me to carefully preserve them and employ and distribute them, as these are prescriptions whose great powers are greater than are generally recognized. Among all these prescriptions, there is a remedy, proven and set down, to cure the desperate languishings that the King suffers from and which are thought will kill him.”

“This was your motive to go to Paris, was it?” the Countess asked. Helena had not mentioned her son. She commanded, “Speak.”

Helena said, “My lord your son made me think of this; otherwise, Paris and the medicine and the King would perhaps have been absent from the conversation of my thoughts.”

“Do you think, Helen,” the Countess said, “that if you should offer your supposed aid, the King would receive it? He and his physicians are of the same mind. He believes that his physicians cannot help him, and they believe that they cannot help him. How then shall they give any credence to a poor unlearned virgin, when the schools, which have emptied their learning into the physicians, have left the King’s disease to run its own course?”

“Here’s something more than my father’s skill, which was the greatest of his profession,” Helena said, “and that is that his good prescription shall because of my legacy be sanctified by the luckiest stars in Heaven.”

Her legacy was that she was the daughter of the greatest physician of her father’s time. Because of her father’s skill, and because she was the daughter of her father, it made sense to think that the Heavens would smile on her attempt to cure the King.

Helena continued, “If your honor would only give me permission to try my success at curing the King, I would venture the well-lost — lost in a good cause, if I should lose — life of mine on his grace’s cure by such a day and hour.”

“Do you believe you can cure the King?” the Countess asked.

“Yes, madam; in fact, I know I can.”

“Why, Helen, you shall have my permission and love, means and attendants, and my loving greetings to those of my family and friends in court. I’ll stay at home and pray for God’s blessing on your attempt to cure the King. Leave tomorrow, and be sure of this, whatever I can do to help you, you shall not miss.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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