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Table of Contents
II. Fairy tales in Early Modern England
III. Fairy tale structures in All’s Well That Ends Well
a. The Cure-for-a-husband Deal
b. The Fulfilling of the Tasks
c. Supposed Death and Return
d. The Fairy Bride Tradition
The main plot of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (first published in 1623) is heavily inspired by the ninth story of the Third Day of Boccaccio’s Decameron, but that is not the only source the famous playwright used while writing this comedy. There are many similarities to English and Italian folktales to be discovered, but it can be difficult to trace back where the different tales came from and exactly how the stories used to be told. One reason for this is, that they were mainly transmitted orally up to the 19th century (cf. Buccola 2007: 73). Only then, scholars like the brothers Grimm started collecting popular tales and writing them down. Also, “England did not systematically use popular lore to assert national identity” (Buccola 2007: 74). During Queen Elizabeth I’s “aggressive colonization campaign” (Buccola 2007: 74) in Ireland and Scotland, the cultures mixed and so did the fairy tales.
As “the fairies came in for discussion with everything else” (Briggs 1959: 6), they were an omnipresent subject around people in the Early Modern period. Playwrights and other literary figures often included references and allusions to typical fairy motives in their works, to boost their popularity and multidimensionality. The supernatural can also appear mysterious and fascinating to the audience, so Shakespeare, for example, used fairies, ghosts, and witches multiple times in his plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Macbeth. Still, for his stories, he always came up with new variations of the known tales. In All’s Well That Ends Well the link to fairy tales it not as obvious, “but in the Early Modern period, “people were likely more accustomed to reading such markers associatively, drawing connections to popular lore” (Buccola 2007: 82). Today, some of the aspects that were clear to Shakespearean audiences are lost or overlooked. This different background knowledge also influenced the interpretation of plays and their realizations in performances, as people “were more callous of some things and more sensitive to others” (Briggs 1959: 6). The hidden meanings in the connections to fairy lore of All’s Well That Ends Well can help understanding why the characters' actions, especially Helena’s, were widely accepted and not as problematised as they are now. Then again, this different viewpoint might also just complex the play further. Still, “the literary treatment of fairy beliefs at that time is of both intellectual and social interest” (Briggs 1956: 6) as it helps to see the play with new eyes or at least to consider other possible interpretations.
II. Fairy tales in Early Modern England
In Early Modern England, fairy tales were widely popular. Often, these stories were told by old women who took care of children while the parents were at work (cf. Spufford 1981: 4), as well as generally grandmothers and mothers. England was a mainly agricultural country during Shakespeare’s time, so tales were useful to pass time, especially during winter, when farms did not need as much attention (cf. Rawnsley 2013: 142). Consequently, almost everyone was familiar with the main characteristics of fairy narratives, as they usually remained the same, even though all “folklore and folk practices do change and mutate over time” (Gillespie and Rhodes 2006: 141). Despite fairy lore being so popular and universally present, it was unwise to exhibit too much fairy knowledge, because one could easily be accused of being a heretic by the church (cf. Briggs 1959: 6). An important point to note is that the tales we consider fairy tales nowadays would have fallen under the category of ‘romance narratives’ in the 17th century. The term ‘fairy tale’ solely stood for tales involving fairies, and also, as opposed to today, happy endings were not usually required (cf. Buccola 2007: 73).
Even though now fairy tales are also typically associated with children, in the Early Modern period, there were many dark aspects present and so they made up “tale[s] which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner” (Sidney 2002: 92). They explored “one’s most secret dreams and deepest anxieties” (Rawnsley 2013: 141) and also provided emotional support as people used to be a lot closer to disease, death and social injustice than we are now. But, besides all the gloomy motives, one main aspect in almost every fairy tale is the hope to overcome those fears and anxieties with courage and wits (cf. Rawnsley 2013: 144-145).
Still, fairies used to be very ambiguous characters, as they could be both guardians of true love and unrequited love, as well as the source of either lifelong blessing, or menace (cf. Buccola 2007: 72). Because they were considered capable of evil and there was a danger inherent in openly naming them, it was common that fairies or fairy motives were only gestured at, for example in plays. Early Modern audiences though, were able to understand this code and recognize characters that were in some way connected to the supernatural creatures (cf. Buccola 2007: 73). If someone was identified as having a relationship with fairies, it did not necessarily mean that this character was directly distinguished as a fairy, but fairy narratives rather relied on certain characteristics to mark out the ‘mystical woman’ (cf. Buccola 2007: 82). Many fairy tales privileged the central female character or characters, which led to criticism and the dismissive attribution of the faith in spirits, including fairies. It was said that only “children, fools, women, cowards, sick, or blacke, melancholicke, discomposed wits” (Buccola 2007: 72) believed in such tales, mainly because they went against the gender norms of the time. Sometimes fairies were also used as an easier, more socially acceptable, even though supernatural explanation for relationships going awry. Rather than naming the real reasons: marital infidelity or abandonment, it was claimed that the wife had been abducted by fairies and was sometimes even considered dead after a while (cf. Buccola 2007: 81). But this could benefit both parties, as it offered a possibility to escape an abusive relationship, or enabled the partners to remarry. Nevertheless, fairy tales were then, as well as now, to be taken lightly, even though people used to believe there was more reality behind them than today (cf. Briggs 1959: 6).
III. Fairy tale structures in All’s Well That Ends Well
a. The Cure-for-a-husband Deal
The first fairy tale motive that comes up is Helena’s cure for the King of France. The nature of this cure is kept suspiciously vague in All’s Well That Ends Well, as it is not further discussed of what nature the cure is other than that Helena’s father, a famous physician, “On ’s bed of death / Many receipts he gave [her]” (2.1.102-3)1. So, it can be suggested that the cure is of magical origin, especially since all other doctors the king had talked to before, have declared him incurable (cf. 2.1.113-122). Connecting this to fairy lore, specifically from Ireland, some legends attribute healing powers to fairies (cf. Thompson 1956: F344). One Irish myth that fits particularly well here is the one where a fairy offers aid to a mortal if he will marry her (cf. Thompson 1956: F302.3.2.1.). Helena’s goal is to marry Bertram, who is currently under the protection of the King. So, she offers to make a deal with him, as he is the person who is in the best position to grant her request. The cure-for-a-husband deal states, that if she is able to cure the King, Helena may choose a husband for herself from the French court (cf. 2.1.191-196). After she succeeds in her quest, she, of course, chooses Bertram out of the selection of men.
Helena reveals to be a rather feministic and self-governed character from the very beginning, especially when considering the time Shakespeare wrote the play in. During the Early Modern period, usually, men had the prevalence in marriage and Renaissance handbooks on it almost exclusively speak of the ‘choice of a wife’, never of a husband (cf. Buccola 2007: 79). So, Helena strikes against both gender norms and religious practices.
Also, this initial success reminds of the common fairy tale motive when the hero gains the princess’ hand in the end, by accomplishing a task. This is typically associated with a man as the hero as well. So, for Bertram does not accept Helena as his bride and complains “A poor physician’s daughter my wife!” (2.3.116), the real task is yet to be done, although the motive repeats itself in the end. Bertram’s reason for the rejection of Helena is her social status, even though all the other characters in the play seem very favourable of her, especially the King. He practically forces Bertram into the marriage, because he does not understand why Bertram would not want to marry Helena as “She is young, wise, fair;” (2.3.132). “Tales illustrating the cleverness of the heroine both before and after marriage are, however, very common” (Lawrence 1922: 448) and known as “The Clever Wench” (Lawrence 1922: 448). Helena, who has now proven her ingenuity, appears to deserve her reward, a husband, but is denied of it and has to prove herself once more.
b. The Fulfilling of the Tasks
After Helena and Bertram’s wedding, to which Bertram had to agree after the King’s threat to throw him from his care forever (cf. 2.3.163), he still refuses to bed her, and therewith to finalize the marriage. Instead, Bertram flees to fight in the Tuscan wars (cf. 2.3.274). Helena, who has to go back to Roussillon by her husband’s orders, worries about his death in battle, that he may be “for ever gone” (3.2.44). Another counterpart in fairy lore can be discovered here when a fairy mistress prophesies the mortal lover's fate in battle (cf. Thompson 1956: F302.7) and rescues the hero from battle (cf. Thompson 1956: F302.9), just like Helena does when she goes after him. Still, Bertram sends her a letter, burdening her with a task, to make him accept her as his wife. The letter reads:
‘When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me hus- band. But in such a “then”, I write a “never”.’ (3.2.57-60)
This, of course, seems impossible to achieve as to his knowledge, he is off fighting in a war in Italy while Helena stays in Roussillon, and he even acknowledges this in the last line. “It is a fairy tale problem, with certain conditions understood or given that must be fulfilled” (Doran 1963: 251) and the reward, of course, is a husband. Helena, who has already proven herself to be clever, develops a plan to try and accomplish these impossible tasks. She decides to follow her husband to Italy disguised as a pilgrim.
Bertram, on the other hand, encounters a run of bad luck after leaving Helena. In fairy lore, a man loses his luck when he leaves his fairy wife (cf. Thompson 1956: F302.5.3), and the first time this becomes apparent in All’s Well That Ends Well is during the bed trick, when Bertram sleeps with his loathed wife instead of his love interest. Later he discovers that his companion Parolles is a liar and a fraud, and in the end when Bertram returns to his home at the French court, he is publicly scolded, humiliated, and returned to his rightful wife.
During his time in Italy, Bertram woos a young girl called Diana, the daughter of a widow. Helena, however, meets her and is able to use Diana to attain Bertram’s impossible tasks. Diana defers to Bertram’s wooing but has to make some demands according to Helena’s plan. Bertram agrees to them because he desperately wants to bed Diana. First, she claims his family ring, which he willingly gives to her. Then, during the bed trick, that has to be executed in total darkness and silence, Helena slips him her ring in exchange. Two fairy tale parallels stand out here. The first is, that a mortal gives the fairy a ring after a night spent with her in fairyland (cf. Thompson 1956: F302.1.2) which both characters do, as an exchange is happening. Secondly, fairies are known for mandating special circumstances in which the mortal lover can interact with them (cf. Buccola 2007: 75). Bertram conforms to this with the requirements he sets up for Helena, but she does too, in placing the demands for the bed trick through Diana. Helena maintains the upper hand in the sexual encounter, while Bertram is oblivious of who he actually sleeps with. In fairy lore, fairies are often believed to govern “early modern women’s sexuality and fertility” (Buccola 2007: 72). But, we can see, both Helena and Bertram exhibit fairy attributes, which makes their characters more mystical and multifaceted.
c. Supposed Death and Return
Helena feigns her death after the bed trick and follows Bertram back home to the court of Roussillon with Diana and her mother. This supposed death has numerous links to fairy tales. People were often assumed dead when they were just passing time in fairyland (cf. Thompson 1956: F6), partly because time passes differently there. Seven days in fairyland equal seven years in the mortal realm (cf. Briggs 1959: 20). Humans are abducted by fairies, while they are in a death-like trance and their body is replaced by a log of wood or some ugly, deformed creature that is left behind in the mortal world (cf. Briggs 1967: 123).
This idea is, for example, mentioned in the tale of Selena Moor, where the former lover of the farmer, who was long thought dead warns him not to take any sustenance from the fairies he encounters at night. If she had not done that, he would have been trapped in eternal servitude to them, just like her. Despite her longing for him, she saves him, rather than letting him meet the same fate as her, although then, they would have been reunited (cf. Buccola 2007: 74). Helena deals with Bertram in similarly self-abnegating ways.
Generally, fairies are associated with death in multiple ways. Sometimes they are seen as the souls of the dead, and sometimes as overseers of a spiritual half-way house between heaven and hell (similar to the Catholic purgatory) (cf. Buccola 2007: 75). Another well-fitting story here is the one of a girl who is abducted by fairies but miraculously restored to her family a year later. They have already assumed her dead, and are reluctant to accept the daughter back. But as they see the ring on her finger and a mole on her neck, they are convinced it is her (cf. Buccola 2007: 79). At the end of All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena’s ring on Bertram’s finger is at first taken as proof that she is dead, not that she lives. However, when Helena finally returns with Bertram’s family ring and pregnant with his child, everyone is not only assured that she is alive, but also that she has secured Bertram as her husband.
Furthermore, fairies are known to avenge their wrongs on the man who scorns her love and on an inconstant lover or husband (cf. Thompson 1956: F302.3.3 and F302.3.3.1). In the final scene, Helena’s revenge consists of publicly exposing Bertram’s wrongdoing, and him getting scolded and humiliated by the King and his court. After all, she finally succeeds in her desire to have Bertram as a husband. But, after he swears his love to her, she still makes sure that she will have the upper hand in their marriage by declaring almost threateningly “If it appear not plain, and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you.” (5.3.317-318).
d. The Fairy Bride Tradition
The Welch Fairy bride tradition connects many already touched upon aspects of fairies but adds some more specific and some new points. There are about three dozen variants of the tale known, dating from the tenth to the twentieth century, which reveals its icon-like status (cf. Wood 1992: 56). A fairy bride is usually seized or decoyed by a mortal man, but there are also instances of human wives stolen by fairy husbands (cf. Briggs 1967: 123). Focusing on fairy wives, “the bride brings with her the positive benefits of children and material wealth but carries the stress of the taboo” (Wood 1992: 60), so the relationship with a fairy wife is primarily beneficial, as long as the taboo she set up is not violated and she is treated with respect. The dowry Helena brings into the marriage with Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well is her healing ability. In the fairy bride tradition, it is common that descendants become doctor-magicians (cf. Wood 1992: 56) and Helena inherited her medical knowledge and receipts from her father, who of course was very mortal.
An example of a taboo can be found in Marie de France’s lai, where it is placed upon Laval. He is not supposed to tell anyone about his fairy mistress but fails to do so, as he begins to boast about her to Guinevere. (cf. Buccola 2007: 75). In the case of taboo-violation, like Laval’s, the fairy bride will return to the supernatural realm and take the dowry (that often consists of fairy cattle) with her, leaving the husband and her children behind. She may return to visit her children every once in a while, and can also fully come back to her family, but only on her conditions and upon her forgiveness. Connecting this to All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena forgives Bertram in the end, but still sets the condition of “Deadly divorce” (5.3.318). Generally, she keeps prevailing throughout their relationship, just like fairy brides, who were believed to take control of marital arrangements and to govern daily spousal interaction (cf. Buccola 2007: 77). This predominance also includes fairy wives ruling the marital bed, not unlike Helena during the bed trick.
A mortal man acquires a fairy wife by using deception to learn a secret about her. This secret is often her name, as it holds power, in either danger or in giving the human the ability to control her (cf. Buccola 2007: 77). Just like fairies, who don’t want to be owned by a mortal, Helena hides her identity multiple times throughout the play. When she follows Bertram to the French court in the very beginning, Parolles seems surprised when seeing her, exclaiming “Mort du vinaigre! Is not this Helen?” similarly followed by Lafeu “Fore God, I think so.” (2.3.45-46). Later, during the bed trick, her identity is concealed again and in the final scene when everyone believes her to be dead, “her status as a living woman” (Buccola 2007: 78) is hidden.
Another method of gaining a fairy wife is via object possession. In the Welch stories, there is talk of the Seal Woman, who sometimes takes on animal form and the loss and recovery of her animal skin motivate her marriage and return (cf. Wood 1992: 56). In some other legends, this has been extended to the possession of clothing, which connects more obviously to the ring exchange in All’s Well That Ends Well. Both Helena and Bertram use tokens to attempt to control their relationship. He uses the ring to deflect Helena, as he thinks it is impossible for her to obtain it. She, however, in slipping her ring to him during the bed trick ultimately secures Bertram as her husband. The ring stands for her succession of all his tasks in the end.
One quality that is omnipresent in Helena’s character is her assertiveness, which offers another similarity to fairy brides (cf. Wood 1992: 63). She is an active heroine who gets what she wants and sets up her own conditions until the end. The tales of fairy brides, like many other fairy stories, focus on the main female character. Considering that many stories were invented by women, and how few rights and power they had in the Early Modern period, these stories reveal marital wants, needs, and desires.
After having observed many of the parallels between All’s Well That Ends Well and popular fairy narratives, it becomes clear that drawing such a connection not only complexes the potentially fairy related characters, but also the perception of the play. Helena, who offers the most similarities, is also the most controversial character. Her actions are neither completely benevolent nor entirely malicious and self-serving. Still, all the other characters in the play act very much in favour of her, from the King forcing Bertram to marry Helena because “She is young, wise, fair;” (2.3.132), the Countess saying that “There’s nothing here that is too good for [Bertram] / But only she;” (3.2.79-80) and the Widow and Diana helping her with the bed trick (although not without the adequate payment of a purse of gold (cf. 3.7.14-37)). This leads to the conclusion that the audience is also supposed to sympathize with Helena and forgive her actions, that otherwise could be considered immoral. The disapproval of Helena’s actions is more of a modern problem, as she may have been perceived as “at once highly desirable and potentially dangerous” (cf. Buccola 2007: 73) by an Early Modern audience, who recognized the fairy valence. She is a very strong female character but due to her clear connection to fairy lore, she stays inscrutable.
The elements of the plot that are connected to fairy tales are today seen as problematic, which makes sense considering the converseness that is inherent in fairies. In losing the connection of All’s Well That Ends Well to fairy tales, the understanding of the reasons for the specific series of events is also lost. This leads to different and potentially interesting interpretations, and although the original perception can never be fully recreated, it is still important to take it into consideration.
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1 All quotes from drama are from All’s Well That Ends Well.