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Deception is an element that Shakespeare quite often uses throughout his plays, whether it is women posing as men or deaths actually being murders. But what is his reason for using deception, not only between characters, but on the readers also? It may be to show the reader that sometimes you have to deceive others in order to achieve personal happiness. In William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, deception is an occurring theme among the characters. In this play, deception is caused by trickery and miscommunication and used by some characters for personal gain.
The reader gets the first taste of deception early on in the play after learning that the king is ill. Helena thinks of a plan to exploit the king in order to marry the Count Bertram. Helena knows that Bertram is of higher ranking than she is and "considering the disparity of rank and fortuneâ€¦and contrives a stratagem, the success of which could have bound Bertram neither in law nor in honor."(Lawrence 34) Proceeding an argument she has with Parolles, Helena states, "The King disease-my project my deceive me, but my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me."(I.i 228-9). She has her mind set on carrying out her plan knowing that all the King's other doctors have given up hope for curing him. Helena comes out and admits her love for Bertram, along with her plan on healing the king in Act I scene III. "I'ld venture/ The well-lost life of mine on his grace's cure."(I.iii. 240-1) Helena knows that her plan to heal the king is modest and vows to give up her life if she cannot reverse the effects of his illness, "the maimed Fisher King of Arthurian legend is echoed" (Shakespeare Quarterly 434)
Helena is driven by her love for Bertram, and although it may seem as though she is so determined to cure the king, going as far as putting her life on the line for him, she is actually being manipulative because she knows that she can cure him and that he will reward her. Carol Thomas Neely says this scene, "manifests her blend of virtuous modesty and sexual energy, of self-confidence and self deprecation." (Neely 68) William Witherle Lawrence also states something similar say, "Helena's obsession of love makes her blind to the results of her actions." (Lawrence 420) Helena has her mind made up on what she wants, and uses deception to get ahead in situations that could help her. This also could be thought of nothing is as what it really seems when it comes to women, backed by Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, "for example, she says "No!" to our advances, but we can never be sure that this "No!" does not really mean a double "Yes!"-an appeal to an even more aggressive approach; in this case, her real desire is the very opposite of her demand." (Schwarz 202)
The King then grants Helena her wish of any suitor she wants for marriage. She then makes a witty statement reminding the king that her life was on the line for the king by stating, "And well deserved: not helping, death's my fee;/ But, if I help, what do you promise me?"(II.i 200-1) The king is tricked by Helena into giving her exactly what she wants, unusual because no actual miracles happened in curing the king. She is only giving the king a medicine that her father, a famous and successful doctor, left behind. Helena is very manipulative in this low-risk, high-reward situation, asking the king, "Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand/ What husband in thy power I will command,"(II.i 205-6) Of course she chooses Bertram, unbeknownst to him, strange because he has little respect for her lower ranking than him. Joseph G. Price address this when he says, "she loves a man who is far her superior in rank, who repays her love with indifference, and rejects her and with scorn."(Price 85)
When getting into the character of Bertram, one could say that his deception had a purpose. He is the only son of his father, "Of six preceding ancestors, that gem," (V.iii.195), so he doesn't take the job of finding a wife too lightly. He realizes that Helena is of a lower rank, "two fine strands make fine children."(Berkeley and Keesee 248) The king who owes Helena forces Bertram into marrying her. To keep from combing the two "strands" of blood Bertram agrees to finalize the marriage only after "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."(III.ii 56-8) In other words, he gives her impossible tasks to ensure he will never, but making it seem as though he has intentions of marrying her to others.
There is a sub-plot of the play, which provides a sort of comic relief to all that has transpired in the previous acts, "I think it becomes clear that Parolles could not be represented otherwise without weakening the plot."(Price 63) Many of the characters are fed up with Parolles' dishonesty and boasting, when in all actuality none of what he actually says is true. While thinking of a plan to reveal Parolles' deceit, the soldiers first try to inform Bertram of his friend's true motifs. Bertram soon begins to have his doubts when he ask, "Do you think I am so far deceived in him?"(III.vi 6) The soldiers plan a surprise attack on Parolles, sneaking up on him speaking in a made up language. Parolles' true character-"an echo of the braggart soldier of Renascence comedyâ€¦"(Price 64)-comes about when he cries "O, let me live! And all the secrets of our camp I'll show, Their force, their purposes; nay, I'll speak that Which you will wonder at. (IV.i 78-81). Upon his capture Parolles is tortured and quick to offer up any secrets that he knows. This goes on for awhile until the soldiers have had enough and reveal to Parolles that he has not really been captured. Parolles can do nothing but sit there, embarrassed and looking like a fool. His embarrassment is punishment enough and he is sent off from the soldiers. He accepts this punishment in stride, presumably learning his lesson when he states, "Let his fear this, for it will come to pass/that every braggart shall be found an ass./Rust, sword? cool, blushes! and, Parolles,/Live safest in shame! being fool'd, by foolery thrive."(IV.iii 316-19)
The central part of the play comes with what is known as the bed-trick, "an explicitly sexual event in which a disprized wife wins back her husband by making love to him incognito, taking the place of another woman, in some versions the wife herself in disguise, whom he has wooed."(McCandless 449), called the "transcendent event" (Shakespeare Quarterly 450). In this stage of the play Bertram promises the poor maid Diana everything to get her to sleep with him. "I love thee By love's own sweet constraint/, and will for ever /Do thee all rights of service." (IV.ii 18-20) By getting her to succumb to his seductions he believes that she is deceiving her. The reader is led to believe that Diana gives in to his seductions when she states, ""You have won/ A wife of me, though there my hope be done," (IV.ii. 73-4).
It is later revealed that Diana is in fact the one who deceives Bertram. "I live and die a maid:/Only in this disguise I think't no sin/To cozen him that would unjustly win." (IV,ii 83-5) She knows that Bertram is lying, but by letting him think he has won, she ultimately ends up the winner. She gives him a simple set of directions to knock on her window and not speak to her. Diana is shown to be a stronger character than one might have thought.
The bed-trick consists of Helena essentially sleeping with Bertram by getting him to think he is laying with Diana, and the two switching places in the dark. She also will get Diana to get Bertram's ring-"his signet" (Shakespeare Quarterly 434)-from him, which will be easy because he is so fixated on her. Helena is successful with her plan and thanks Diana for her assistance, "That can such sweet use make of what they hate,/ When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts/Defiles the pitchy night."(IV.i 24-6) With the help of Diana she is able to complete her otherwise impossible tasks and finalize her marriage. Also Bertram has ultimately been deceived by two women of a lower ranking than he is.
The very eventful last act of the play is where the penultimate act of deception occurs. Helena shows up alive and well, with the tasks completed. The king also discovered the ring that he had given to Helena. A confused Bertram explains to the king, "You are deceived, my lord; she never saw it:/In Florence was it from a casement thrown me,/Wrapp'd in a paper, which contain'd the name/Of her that threw it." (V.iii 107-110) Bertram is thinking of lie on top of lie to cover up the fact that he took Diana's virginity, abandoning her afterwards, not being able to get away from the truth. Diana is little by little revealing what actually took place saying, "Because he's guilty, and/he is not guilty:/ He knows I am no maid, and he'll swear to't;/I'll swear I am a maid, and he knows not." (V. iii 303-5) There is nothing that Bertram can do and he is left looking like a fool in the same fashion that Parolles was. It is at that moment that Helena enters, with the proof of her completed tasks and says, ""This is done:/ Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?" (V.iii 330-331) Bertram, seeing that all his "requirements" have been met, has no other choice and accepts Helena as his bride.
From beginning to end it is shown that none of the characters are who they were at first believed to be. Helena is shown to be the determined women, filled with love, using deception to ultimately gain the hand of her husband. Diana is shown to be a clever woman, much more capable than her low ranking would lead the reader to believe. Bertram is a man who kept his word, but the reader is left wondering was it from embarrassment or dignity? Then there was Parolles who in the end was left looking like a fool. All of the characters, with the exception of Parolles, in some way had to use deception in order to make personal leaps forward.