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Sacred and Sexual Motifs in All's Well That Ends Well*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018


Whatever scholars may think of its value as a work of poetic literature, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is remarkably entertaining in the theater. Perhaps this is so because it fulfills the fundamental generic responsibility of comedy; it overcomes the death of the fathers through a bawdy emphasis on youthful sexuality and love, and it manipulates mythical plot elements that are subconsciously familiar to any audience in Western civilization. The play skillfully diverts our attention from death and burial to the “little death” of sexual orgasm, from age, illness, and the destruction of war to marriage and the joy of new life. Above all, it is not so much a “problem play” in the Shavian sense as it is a typical work of Renaissance comic art that attempts to unite both the physical and the spiritual elements of human existence within a single structure of the imagination.

Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 1989

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My thanks to Susan Snyder, who kindly read an earlier version of this essay and provided many helpful suggestions, and to Richard P. Wheeler, who did the same on behalf of Renaissance Quarterly. The section on Erasmus and Shakespeare was previously read at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association meetings in Atlanta in fall 1984. The original version of this paper was presented at the Shakespeare Association of America meetings of 1983 in Ashland, Oregon.


1 A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950) A 164.

2 See Stone, Lawrence, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York, 1977)Google Scholar 135-36; Bullinger, Heinrich, The Golden Booke of Christian Matrimony, trans. Coverdale, Miles (London, 1560)Google Scholar; Smith, Henrie, “A Preparative to Marriage,” in The Sermons of Maister Henrie Smith, Gathered into one volume (London, 1594) 1-3Google Scholar; Becon, Thomas, Workes, 3 vols. (London, 1560)Google Scholar; and Cleaver, Robert, A Godlie Forme of Householde Government: for the Ordering of Private Families (London, 1598)Google Scholar.

3 “Sexual Love in Elizabethan Comedy,”Renaissance Drama, 15 (1984):1-29.

4 G. Knight, Wilson, The Sovereign Flower (London; 1958)Google Scholar 131-57. M. C. Bradbrook notes that “the language of religion is used with particular frequency by Shakespeare in this play,” in her fine thematic study “Virtue is the True Nobility,” repr. in Shakespeare, The Comedies, ed. Kenneth Muir (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965) 131. See also the theological interpretations of Hunter, Robert Grams, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York, 1965 Google Scholar), and of Halio, jay, who rightly calls Helena a “Minister of Providence” in “ All's Well That Ends Well,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1961)Google Scholar:33-43. Much less convincing is David S. Kastan, “All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” English Literary History, 52 (1985)1575-89. Aside from ignoring the tragicomic precedent of Euripides’ Alcestis in theater history, Kastan joins a long line of male critics, including Richard A. Levin, in finding the play unpleasant because he finds Helena's tenacity “predatory” (p. 579). One suspects that a similar tenacity in achieving his goal by a dramatic hero would be praised by this critic and others as commendable heroic determination. But Shakespeare seems to be more tolerant than his critics of women in love, and he makes the majority of his most attractive romantic heroines into notably aggressive man-chasers, which is about all they were allowed to chase in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: witness Rosalind, Viola, Imogen, as well as Hermia and Helena of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

5 Although Venus inspires music and the arts in her celestial form, the presence of Cupid in the painting accentuates as well her earthly fecundity. The dominion of Venus over the vegetable world and human sexuality is symbolized in the background of the picture by the garden with its satyr fountain, the leaping deer, and the pair of lovers strolling away from the viewer.

6 See Spitzer's, Leo comprehensive study, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony (Baltimore, 1963)Google Scholar. The organ is also an attribute of Saint Cecilia and thus can stand alone as a symbol of music and of the sense of hearing.

7 Edgar Wind emphasizes the manner in which Titian differentiates between the two types of beings which occupy the same couch: “In the Holkham Venus (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the corresponding paintings by Titian in Madrid and Berlin, the disparity between mortal and goddess is heightened by a paradox of posture. While the courtier plays music under the inspiration of love (cf. Erasmus, Adagia s.v. Musicam docet amor), he does not face the goddess directly, but turns his head over his shoulder to ‘look back’ at her; he thus enacts the Platonic , the reversal of vision by which alone a mortal can hope to face transcendent Beauty” (Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, rev. ed. (London, 1968)143, n.7. See also the somewhat different views of Erwin Panofsky, Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic (New York, 1969) 122-25.

8 Panofsky's, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origin and Character (Cambridge, MA, 1953)Google Scholar remains one of the best studies of Renaissance aesthetics with its meticulous surface realism in juxtaposition with elaborate symbolism and religio-mythic allusions. A recent essay by john N. Wall, Jr., has enlarged on Panofsky's insights by pointing out that the realistic style and iconographic content of pictures such as Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait actually work together as a Renaissance proclamation that Christian “abstractions have significance only in their specific and particular manifestations.” As Christ entered into “historical specificity” in order to redeem fallen humanity, so the moral behavior of specific individuals in later time repeats the Fall and then does or does not merit the Redemption. See Wall, “ The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait as Christian Proclamation,” Renaissance Papers (1981):71-81.

9 A11 quotations from Shakespeare are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

10 Stone, Family, Sex, Marriage 182.

11 See The Poems of Catullus, trans. F. W. Cornish, Loeb Classical Library (New York, 1918) 85-89. Further references to this poem will be noted in the text.

12 Peter Demetz, “The Elm and the Vine: Notes Toward the History of a Marriage Topos,”PMLA, 13 (1958):521-32. Further references to this article will be noted in the text.

13 Imperial Love and the House, Dark: All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley, 1981)Google Scholar 35-91.

14 All's Well, ed. Hunter (London, 1959) 9 n. 104-105, 10 n. 126-27, 12 n. 148.

15 Erasmus, A Modest Meane to Marriage, trans. N. L. (London, 1568), sig. Civ. The sexual desires of Pamphilus can be summed up in the following line: “As for myselfe, if God so woulde, it were unto me a pleasure, even to end my life in your armes” (sig. Cii). Since the beloved is named Maria, the remark simultaneously evokes an image of the Pietà. All further signatures from this work by Erasmus will be noted in the text.

16 According to Hunter in the Arden ed. of All's Well 10 - 11 n. 126-27, “The idea probably goes back to Jerome's ‘Laudo nuptias, laudo coniugium, sed quia mihi virgines generant.’ ” Hunter also notes that the same argument that virgins bring forth virgins is used by Venus in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (lines 203-204) and by Ferardo in Lyly's Euphues.

17 For a persuasive study of Shakespeare's Erasmian ideas, see Hassel, R. Chris, Jr., Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens, GA, 1980)Google Scholar.

18 Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981) 140.

19 Booty, John E., ed., The Book of Common Prayer 1559 (Charlottesville, VA, 1976) 293Google Scholar. Further page references to this work will be noted in the text.

20 Kirsh, Experience of Love 10.

21 I have used the Huntington Library copy (STC 15230) of Combe, Thomas, The Theater of Fine Devices (London, 1614)Google Scholar.

22 Cleaver, Godlie Forme, 13.

23 See Ripa, Cesare, Iconologia (Padua, 1611; New York, 1976) 74Google Scholar.

24 Smith, “Preparative to Marriage” 28.

25 See G. K. Hunter, introduction, All's Well, Arden ed., xliv.

26 See my note “Overlooked Sources of the Bed Trick,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983):433—34, and John E. Van Domelen, “Genesis, Boccaccio, and Shakespeare,” The Shakespeare Newsletter (May 1965)124, which unfortunately never appeared in the indexes.

27 For the story of the bed-trick as practiced by Uther Pendragon on the Duchess of Tyntagil, with the help of the enchanter Merlin, see Book I of “The Tale of King Arthur” in Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver, 2d ed., (London, 1971) 3-6. Sir Lancelot is similarly enchanted into spending a fruitful night with Elaine, daughter of the Fisher King. According to the prophecy, the parents of Galahad (the perfect knight and a second Christ) were to be descendants of Joseph of Arimathea and the Fisher King, which meant Lancelot du Lac (who would sleep only with Queen Gwenyver) and the Lady Elaine. The story is told in “The Booke of Sir Tristram de Lyones” of how Sir Lancelot is shown a ring belonging to the queen “lyke as hit had com frome her” (480). He is told where to meet her, and then is given wine to prevent him from recognizing the substitution in the bedchamber of Elaine (479-80). Galahad is named after Gilead, whose balm was a universal “panacea,” like Helena's. In this case, the “balm of Gilead” is the blood of Christ, which Galahad later applies to the wound of the Fisher King to cure him.

28 Smith, “Preparative to Marriage” 6.

29 Ibid., 36.