In the Renaissance, the ideal of same-sex friendship between men was highly valued (cf. Kaplan 312). William Shakespeare referred to this theme in many of his literary works. In particular, his sonnets dedicated to the “Fair Lord” have provoked debates about the writer’s own sexuality. But the idea of “the other I” presented in the sonnets and included in most of Shakespeare’s plays is not limited to male friendship alone. Shakespearean drama offers many instances of affection or at least solidarity between women as well. “[J]ust as Shakespeare seems to pull free of the strictly classical dramatic forms, so too does he free himself of the purely neo-Platonic expression and uses of friendship” (Longo 8).
Feminist criticism perceives the women in Shakespeare’s plays, in particular in the comedies, as powerful and dominant (cf. Berggren 18). Often cross-dressing appears to be the strategy that allows them to break with the traditional female role comprising the in the Renaissance still prevailing “virtues of silence, obedience and chastity” (McFeely 8) . “By obscuring their own sex, the heroines gain extraordinary access to the men they love…” (Berggren 22). But besides male disguise, relationships among women give strength to each other. All in all, nineteen of Shakespeare’s plays include intimate talks between women which take place in private and refer to very personal issues (cf. McKewin 119).
In the following, I will analyse the relationships that exist among the women in Shakespeare’s problem play All’s Well That Ends Well. They can be considered particularly important, as due to the complete absence of cross-dressing in the play, they play an exceptional role in empowering the heroine. Helena “breaks out of both the cultural (historical) and psychic (transhistorical) strictures applied to women … by the assertion of desire” (Asp 75). Her determined way of wooing Bertram makes him an object and thus a reversal of traditional roles takes place. The audience experiences All’s Well That Ends Well from a female desiring perspective. That makes the play unique within Shakespeare’s canon (cf. Asp 74) and makes the careful consideration of the background allowing this changed perspective inevitable.
In All’s Well That Ends Well the relationships between female characters are crucial for the play’s final solution. Playing the bed-trick on Bertram, Helena finally succeeds in getting what she wants or at least believes to desire. She initiates “an action in which she relies both on her own cunning and on bonding with other women” (emphasis added, Asp 75). Consequently, the relationships between women in Shakespeare’s play have to be analysed as a central element of the plot and the dramatic structure.
Generally, in Shakespearean drama mother-daughter-relationships are rare. All’s Well That Ends Well provides an exception in portraying even two of them in form of Diana and her mother the Widow Capilet and the Countess of Rossillion and Helena (cf. Asp 81).
The Countess is not Helena’s biological mother, but she insists on behaving like a mother to her. This is indicated clearly by the chiasm uttered by the Countess: “You ne’er oppressed me with a mother’s groan, / Yet I express to you a mother’s care” (All’s Well That Ends Well, I.iii.119-120). Saying “I am a mother to you.” (I.iii.10) and repeating “I say I am your mother” ( I.iii.114, I.iii.125), she emphasises the wish for having such a close relationship to her protégée. After first refusing to be the Countess’ daughter (as her love for Bertram would then be incest), Helena finally is happy to agree (I.iii.133-134). In order to highlight the family relationship the Countess uses many instances of figurative language such as the metaphor “choice breeds / A native slip to us from our foreign seeds” (I.iii.117/18) or the personification “Adoption strives with nature” (I.iii.117). That Helena cares as much about the Countess as she does about her may be evidenced by Helena’s last words in the play: “O my dear mother, do I see you living?” (V.iii.309). Addressing her confidante instead of the husband she has been fighting for so long could be a proof for Carolyn Asp’s hypothesis “that in the pursuit of a husband Helena has actually found a mother” (88).
In spite of her higher social status, the Countess is able to identify with Helena and to guess her innermost thoughts, as she has also experienced lovesickness when she was young. This can be seen in “Even so it was with me when I was young.” (I.iii.100). Helena and the Countess are a perfect example of mutual affection between the same sex ranging even before consanguinity. This is reflected in juxtaposing her appreciation of Helena and the lack of understanding for her own son Bertram who refuses to marry Helena. She even declares to “wash out his name out of [her] blood” (III.ii.60) and wishes that “[she] had not known him” (IV.v.7) when she believes him to be responsible for the death of Helena. At the king’s court, the Countess is not willing to keep the truth for herself in order to defend her own son, who is denying the ring to belong to Helena, and confirms that “on my life, I have seen her wear it” (V.iii.89-90).
Christy Desmet concludes that “[s]ince the symmetry between virtue and blood … is skewed … in All’s Well That Ends Well, human relations lack an ethical logic” (156). It can be argued that this way of forming “bonds on less analytical grounds” (156), such as the common experience of lovesickness, can even strengthen mutual affection and thus be the explanation for the extraordinary power female bonding has in Shakespeare’s comedy.
 Five of Shakespeare’s surviving plays involve a woman cross-dressing as a man of importance for the plot: Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Portia and Jessica in The Merchant Of Venice, Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night and Imogen in Cymbeline.
 Regarding the dramatis personae “mothers are conspicuously absent” (Rose 292) from most of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies anyway. The few mothers in general mostly have sons. The only plays, except from All’s Well That Ends Well, where an explicit mother-daughter-relationship can be found are: The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline. Like Mary Beth Rose I exclude the History Plays due to their dynastic particularities here (292).
- Quote paper
- Anja Hempel (Author), 2009, On the importance of female bonding in Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/168085