Shakespearience 3: Helena’s Fantasies (Part Two)

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Today I want to explore further that strange speech of Helena’s from All’s Well That Ends Well that I shared with you in my last post. You’ll recall that Paroles says of virginity,‘’tis a withered pear. Will you anything with it?’, to which Helena answers:

Not my virginity yet—
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,
A phoenix, captain, and an enemy,
A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,
A counselor, a traitress, and a dear;
His humble ambition, proud humility,
His jarring-concord, and his discord-dulcet,
His faith, his sweet disaster; with a world
Of pretty, fond adoptious christendoms
That blinking Cupid gossips. Now shall he—
I know not what he shall. God send him well!
The court’s a learning place, and he is one—
(1.1.167-79)

Last time we saw how the speech suggests that Helena is imagining herself holding back at the same time as she imagines giving herself recklessly away—AND at the same time as she insists that her virginity is not hers but her lover’s to do things with.

There shall YOUR MASTER have a thousand loves.

But… sex roles in Shakespeare, as in life, are more complex and various than they’re supposed to be and the next thing to notice is that such avid passivity proves tremendously self-realising. THERE, in what is — despite Paroles — an UNwithered, fructifying place, are multitudinous selves! ‘A mother, and a mistress, and a friend, a phoenix, captain, and an enemy…’ This galaxy of identities goes beyond fixed subject positions — of class, gender, even humanity (goddess, phoenix). And they are constellated in relationship in all sorts of ways — by maternity, monarchy, divinity, treachery. ‘And a dear’, I must say, I find particularly affecting. Because Helena’s speech gives us no picture of her lover, and she, in this instance, is presented only in — only AS — her dearness to him, it evokes a kind of pure relatedness. As if love could be isolated from lovers.

And this emphasis on relatedness resonates with the speech as a whole because none of the selves Helena evokes are selves in or for themselves. They are all selves to be HAD — although what complicates Helena’s sexual imaginings further is that they include such transcending powers as a sovereign and a goddess. Maybe we need to think more in terms of what Shakespeare, in the Sonnets, calls ‘mutual render’….

Still, the point would seem to be that you become yourself most richly when you give yourself away.

Here again the WITHINNESS of Shakespearience challenges received wisdom. For though we might very well assume that becoming HIS would be to become a lesser thing, that’s probably not how it appears to any impassioned inamorata, and maybe we should listen to experience a bit. So, imagine BEING—

His humble ambition, proud humility,
His jarring-concord, and his discord-dulcet,
His faith, his sweet disaster!

Is there not an Ariel-like mobility, beauty and freedom in such a varied and textured life? It gains, I think, from not being attached to its own substance — a boring, identifiable self — but instead dancing around his. It’s greatly to Helena’s credit that she, unlike Troilus, can go BEYOND the fear of losing distinction in her joys. And we’re very far from any kind of school-girl (or boy) sentimentality here. Consider that ecstatic ASCENT toward ‘his sweet disaster’! Self-gifting doesn’t end in saccharine union, but more of an amoral, Dionysian delight.

Doesn’t it make you SHIVER?

And there’s still more of this strange speech to come. All these selves and gifts of Helena’s virginity come with nothing less than ‘a world’. A world! The line-break uncompromisingly confronts us with the shift into universal expansiveness that Helena contemplates and experiences in this her fore-tasting of sex.

The most difficult bit of the whole speech follows, turning that world into ‘a world of pretty, fond adoptious christendoms that blinking Cupid gossips’.

Eh? Now this really requires some code-breaking, even though there’s a sort of delighted profusion in its sound which sort of speaks for itself. ‘Christendoms’ are names given at baptism and what’s imagined would seem to be a multitudinous birth. ‘Gossips’ fits in inasmuch as they are early modern godparents.

Cupid as blinking godparent I find a lovely idea. As if profanity had been surprised into piety and were slightly overwhelmed!

‘Adoptious’ means adopted, which indicates that all this life is given to rather than made by the male lover to whom it’s presented. It’s Helena’s gift to him, not what he (offensive phrase) begets on her. The point is that Helena the virgin’s self-gifting is not capitulation but is enormously creative.

But what is born here? All sorts of new Helenas, some far removed from ordinary identity, all engendered in the first Helena’s simple act of giving herself away.

But ‘Christendoms’ might, perplexingly, also mean what it usually means: all Christian countries. What does this add? Well, Helena may be seeing and suggesting that new life—incarnation—is the central Christian promise; she may be remembering that in Christianity virginity (Mary) is made fruitful. And perhaps it is that which leaves blinking, blindsided Cupid gossiping at an extraordinary, unexpected kind of eros?

One maxim of Shakespearience is this: there is ALWAYS more, always more meaning in our lives than any bald paraphrase could convey. We might even want to dwell on ‘Christendoms’ PLURAL, which seems to suggest that Helena’s opening sexuality discovers new, alternative realms for religious experience, religious experience beyond religion’s usual pale.

So don’t patronize this young virgin, Paroles!

Her fantasies take her to strange and rarefied places, even while the strangest most rarefied place of all remains that intimate place where ‘your master shall have a thousand loves’. Sex becomes wonderful and new—and paradoxically much more than just sex—in this great, peculiar Shakespearean speech.

It’s left to its speaker to recover herself as she can:

Now shall he—
I know not what he shall. God send him well!
The court’s a learning place, and he is one—

But of course she can’t really recover herself. The ‘real world’ seems ridiculous compared to what she has seen, and she is not yet ready to return to it.

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Author:EwanFernie

Ewan Fernie is Chair and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. His books include critical and creative works and he is General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the provocative Shakespeare Now! series.
  • Wmyers4224

    Your excellent post further confirms that the women of Shakespeare’s middle period plays are exceptionally sexually detailed–Viola and the sexual chaos she unleashes in “Twelfth Night,” the manipulative Cressida (and Helen as a “placket”) in “Troilus and Cressida,” the vivid and dangerous fantasy world of Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Isabella, a ruthless moral absolutist and perhaps the perfect match for Angelo, in “Measure for Measure,” the doomed Desdemona, whom many men obsess over and desire in “Othello,” Goneril and Regan, who both want Edmund in “King Lear,” and the goddess-whore Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra.”  

  • Adam Seddon

    I’m really interested in this idea of abstracted relatedness. You sense the offensive potential of the idea. One might object to the notion that their identity entirely consists in how they relate to others. And yet isn’t there something convincing about that notion? Don’t we understand ourselves through the canted mirrors of the people we encounter and live alongside? Isn’t that inter-subjectivity most intense in the act of sex? Isn’t the encounter that dethrones virginity the same one that dethrones any self-contained notion of the self, so that the breaking of the seal is double? We learn that we are not an object perceived by other subjects with an underlying ‘true’ form but rather that we are created by the gaze of the other through which we see ourselves at the same time that we learn our bodies can be interconnected and that we can experience the most private sensations from an ‘other’ with which we forge a singularity. 

    The best thing about this blog is that it covers emotionally evocative ground in a way that isn’t afraid to discuss emotionality – for me that is a way of approaching topics that is much needed in modern criticism. This is cool Ewan, you should do more of these 

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