#YouToo, Helena?: All’s Well That Ends Well and Sexual Consent

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By Kelsey Ridge, The Shakespeare Institute


Helena and Count Bertram before the King of France by Francis Wheatley, 1793

There are many questions inspired by Shakespeare’s problem play of dubious decision-making, All’s Well That End’s Well, but foremost among them must be, “What the hell, Helena?” Any production has to grapple with Helena’s moral character and determine what motivates her. Some, like Ellen Terry, see her as a doormat, while others, like Sheldon Zitner find her simultaneously submissive and manipulative. In light of modern concerns about consensual relationships between men and women, recently exemplified by the #MeToo movement, there is a darker, aggressive side to her relationship with Bertram to consider.

Although Helena has opportunities to explain her thought processes to audiences, it can be hard to track her reasoning throughout the play. Her goals and intentions appear to change from scene to scene with little warning or provocation. One is almost left to wonder if even she knows what she is doing and why. What could possibly be going through Helena’s mind when she asks the king to command her a husband?  The text gives precious little information on the subject, but any actress portraying the character needs to know the answer. Notably, as the king attempts to strong-arm Bertram into the marriage, Helena volunteers, “That you are well restored, my lord, I’m glad:/ Let the rest go,” as though she has suddenly realized shanghaiing a man into a marital union is a poor strategy for a happily ever after. However, by that stage in her ill-thought-out scheming, it is too late to stop the king from enforcing her bad bargain.  She could, of course, respect her husband’s “no” the dozens of times he gives one, but she does not.

Instead, Helena, claiming to be on a holy pilgrimage, stalks Bertram to Florence, where he fled to escape her, and embarks on the infamous bed-trick. Or, to use modern legal parlance, “causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent.”  Sex without consent is rape, though extant British law presumes rape can only be committed by an individual with a penis. That he did not consent is explicit in the text, where he repeatedly vows he “will not bed her” and will “never bed her.”  Helena proceeds as though what he wants is not an issue, and Diana and Diana’s mother assist Helena in this endeavor like having forced him to marry her entitled her to his body.

There is a moral world separate from what the law allows or required.  However, were legalities the only condition that mattered, Helena’s assault of Bertram is apparent: she intentionally causes Bertram to engage in an activity, the activity is sexual, Bertram does not consent to engaging in the activity, and she does not reasonably believe that Bertram consents. After all, consent with one individual in no way implies blanket consent for all times or consent with any other individual.  A ‘yes’ manufactured under false pretenses, like pretending to be someone else, is not a ‘yes.’  She does not have his consent.  If, despite that fact, anyone imagines she could presume Bertram consented, despite his repeated avowals that he did not want to have sex with her, according to British law, “it is to be conclusively presumed— (a)that the complainant did not consent to the relevant act, and (b)that the defendant did not believe that the complainant consented to the relevant act” in the event that “the defendant intentionally deceived the complainant as to the nature or purpose of the relevant act” – he did not know her purpose was to secure a pregnancy and forced marriage – “the defendant intentionally induced the complainant to consent to the relevant act by impersonating a person known personally to the complainant” – she was pretending to be Diana, a woman with whom Bertram did want to have sexual intercourse. A “bed trick” is both morally and legally non-consensual.

Under modern law, Helena would be “liable, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for life.”  This, though, is a dark and disturbing play, and so Bertram is sentenced by his sovereign to life in matrimony with the woman who assaulted him. If really all is well that ends well, one may presume that nothing is indeed well.

Helena twice manages to assert that all is well that ends well.  Her use of this expression, both times involving her scheme to entrap Bertram into a marriage he is desperate to avoid, suggests she feels the ends justify the means, means that include faking her death (which results in his arrest for her supposed murder) and using a bed-trick to get sex from a man without his consent. The end itself appears to be trapping him with her for the rest of his life.  Considering 21st-century concerns about sexual consent in interpersonal reactions, her actions ought to make any modern viewer squeamish.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:Kelsey Ridge

Kelsey Ridge is currently working towards her Ph.D. at the Shakespeare Institute. She received her M.A. in English (Shakespeare in History) at University College London and her B.A. at Wellesley College, where she studied English and East Asian Studies. Her research interests include feminist theory, the War on Terror, and Shakespeare.
  • msb

    Well, this is an interesting view. And all you need to do to hold it is to ignore the social-class problems of Helen declaring her love for Bertram and Bertram’s appalling treatment of every woman, except possibly his mother, in the play. In particular, his letter to Helen is a bet, setting the conditions on which he would consent to be her husband. (He loses.) It also helps to call Helen a hypocrite in trying to withdraw once she realizes his reluctance. This is less a #MeToo take than a rehash of Bernard Shaw’s attitude towards the play, minus his contempt for Bertram. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, Circumstances Alter Cases, might also apply.
    Further, this view places an awful lot of weight on a play that seems to ask, what would it be like for real people to “live a fairytale”, and to answer, “very hard”. Recent NT and RSC productions have stressed this interpretation and it works well on stage.
    A more interesting question might be, how would audiences feel about the bed tricks in All’s Well and Measure, if the genders of the participants were reversed? Would trapping a female sexual predator look less laudable than forcing Angelo to keep his word and preventing his rape of Isabella, and Helen’s winning Bertram’s bet and preserving Diana’s chastity?

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