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Shakespeare's Characters: Helena (All's Well that Ends Well)

From The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 3. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.A. Hill and Co.

In the character of Juliet we have seen the passionate and the imaginative blended in an equal degree, and in the highest conceivable degree as combined with delicate female nature. In Helena we have a modification of character altogether distinct; allied, indeed, to Juliet as a picture of fervent, enthusiastic, self-forgetting love, but differing wholly from her in other respects; for Helena is the union of strength of passion with strength of character. . . . Helena; touched with the most soul-subduing pathos, and developed with the most consummate skill.

Helena, as a woman, is more passionate than imaginative; and, as a character, she bears the same relation to Juliet that Isabel bears to Portia. There is equal unity of purpose and effect, with much less of the glow of imagery and the external colouring of poetry in the sentiments, language, and details. It is passion developed under its most profound and serious aspect; as in Isabella, we have the serious and the thoughtful, not the brilliant side of intellect. Both Helena and Isabel are distinguished by high mental powers, tinged with a melancholy sweetness; but in Isabella the serious and energetic part of the character is founded in religious principle, in Helena it is founded in deep passion.

There never was, perhaps, a more beautiful picture of a woman's love, cherished in secret, not self-consuming in silent languishment not pining in thought not passive and "desponding over its idol" but patient and hopeful, strong in its own intensity, and sustained by its own fond faith. The passion here reposes upon itself for all its interest; it derives nothing from art or ornament or circumstance; it has nothing of the picturesque charm or glowing romance of Juliet; nothing of the poetical splendour of Portia, or the vestal grandeur of Isabel.

The situation of Helena is the most painful and degrading in which a woman can be placed. She is poor and lowly; she loves a man who is far her superior in rank, who repays her love with indifference, and rejects her hand with scorn. She marries him against his will; he leaves her with contumely on the day of their marriage, and makes his return to her arms depend on conditions apparently impossible. All the circumstances and details with which Helena is surrounded are shocking to our feelings and wounding to our delicacy, and yet the beauty of the character is made to triumph over all; and Shakespeare, resting for all his effect on its internal resources and its genuine truth and sweetness, has not even availed himself of some extraneous advantages with which Helena is represented in the original story. She is the Giletta di Narbonna of Boccaccio. In the Italian tale, Giletta is the daughter of a celebrated physician attached to the court of Roussillon; she is represented as a rich heiress, who rejects many suitors of worth and rank, in consequence of her secret attachment to the young Bertram de Roussillon. She cures the King of France of a grievous distemper, by one of her father's prescriptions; and she asks and receives as her reward the young Count of Roussillon as her wedded husband. He forsakes her on their wedding day, and she retires, by his order, to his territory of Roussillon. There she is received with honour, takes state upon her in her husband's absence as the "lady of the land," administers justice, and rules her lord's dominions so wisely and so well, that she is universally loved and reverenced by his subjects.

In the mean time, the Count, instead of rejoining her, flies to Tuscany, and the rest of the story is closely followed in the drama. The beauty, wisdom, and royal demeanour of Giletta are charmingly described, as well as her fervent love for Bertram. But Helena, in the play, derives no dignity or interest from place or circumstance, and rests for all our sympathy and respect solely upon the truth and intensity of her affections.

She is indeed represented to us as one

"Whose beauty did astonish the survey
Of richest eyes; whose words all ears took captive;
Whose dear perfection hearts that scorn'd to serve
Humbly called mistress."
As her dignity is derived from mental power, without any alloy of pride, so her humility has a peculiar grace. If she feels and repines over her lowly birth, it is merely as an obstacle which separates her from the man she loves. She is more sensible to his greatness than her own littleness; she is continually looking from herself up to him, not from him down to herself. She has been bred up under the same roof with him; she has adored him from infancy. Her love is not "th' infection taken in at the eyes," nor kindled by youthful romance: it appears to have taken root in her being; to have grown with her years; and to have gradually absorbed all her thoughts and faculties, until her fancy "carries no favour in it but Bertram's," and "there is no living, none, if Bertram be away."

It may be said that Bertram, arrogant, wayward, and heartless, does not justify this ardent and deep devotion. But Helena does not behold him with our eyes; but as he is "sanctified in her idolatrous fancy." Dr. Johnson says he cannot reconcile himself to a man who marries Helena like a coward, and leaves her like a profligate. This is much too severe; in the first place, there is no necessity that we should reconcile ourselves to him. In this consists a part of the wonderful beauty of the character of Helena a part of its womanly truth, which Johnson, who accuses Bertram, and those who so plausibly defend him, did not understand. If it never happened in real life, that a woman, richly endued with heaven's best gifts, loved with all her heart, and soul, and strength, a man unequal to or unworthy of her, and to whose faults herself alone was blind I would give up the point; but if it be in nature, why should it not be in Shakespeare?

We are not to look into Bertram's character for the spring and source of Helena's love for him, but into her own. She loves Bertram because she loves him! a woman's reason, but here, and sometimes elsewhere, all-sufficient.

And although Helena tells herself that she loves in vain, a conviction stronger than reason tells her that she does not: her love is like a religion, pure, holy, and deep; the blessedness to which she has lifted her thoughts is forever before her; to despair would be a crime it would be to cast herself away and die. The faith of her affection, combining with the natural energy of her character, believing all things possible, makes them so. It could say to the mountain of pride which stands between her and her hopes, "Be thou removed!" and it is removed. This is the solution of her behaviour in the marriage scene, where Bertram, with obvious reluctance and disdain, accepts her hand, which the King, his feudal lord and guardian, forces on him. Her maidenly feeling is at first shocked, and she shrinks back:

"That you are well restor'd, my lord, I am glad:
Let the rest go."
But shall she weakly relinquish the golden opportunity, and dash the cup from her lips at the moment it is presented? Shall she cast away the treasure for which she has ventured both life and honour, when it is just within her grasp? Shall she, after compromising her feminine delicacy by the public disclosure of her preference, be thrust back into shame, "to blush out the remainder of her life," and die a poor, lost, scorned thing? This would be very pretty and interesting and characteristic in Viola or Ophelia, but not at all consistent with that high determined spirit, that moral energy with which Helena is portrayed. Pride is the only obstacle opposed to her. She is not despised and rejected as a woman, but as a poor physician's daughter ; and this, to an understanding so clear, so strong, so just as Helena's, is not felt as an unpardonable insult.

The mere pride of rank and birth is a prejudice of which she cannot comprehend the force, because her mind towers so immeasurably above it; and, compared to the infinite love which swells within her own bosom, it sinks into nothing. She cannot conceive that he, to whom she has devoted her heart and truth, her soul, her life, her service, must not one day love her in return; and, once her own beyond the reach of fate, that her cares, her caresses, her unwearied patient tenderness, will not at last "win her lord to look upon her":

"For time will bring on summer,
When briars shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp."
It is this fond faith which, hoping all things, enables her to endure all things; which hallows and dignities the surrender of her woman's pride, making it a sacrifice on which virtue and love throw a mingled incense.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.

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