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The Shakespeare Sisterhood: Helena

In Helena we have the remarkable case of a very interesting female character, which is, nevertheless, deficient in one of the chief charms of womanhood; her virtue is above suspicion; her mind well balanced, and marked by sterling good sense, rather than brilliancy; she has ardent affections, deep devotion, indomitable energy, and genuine modesty -- but with scarcely a trace of that higher order of delicacy which should be first in such a combination.

This formidable accusation is sustained by the simple fact that Helena permits herself to be married to a proud man against his will, even in spite of his expressed abhorrence of the union and dislike of herself; yet it must be confessed that she maintains this graceless position with marvellous tact.

In mitigation of so coarse a shock to the finest instincts of the sex which must "be wooed, and not unsought be won," it may be argued for Helena that in her self-abandonment to a controlling passion, on which her every emotion, every thought, are concentrated, all her other feelings, instincts even, are for the time repudiated, except as they tend towards the one great aim of her life -- the happy consummation of her love.

Yet however intense and absorbing her passion may be, she is as guiltless of senseless sentimentality as ... Rosalind; she has staked her life on its successful issue, and to that end she is ready to sacrifice every consideration, short of honor.

She never, for an instant, permits herself to entertain a doubt of her ultimate triumph -- because she knows that her only hope lies in her own unwavering conviction that she is capable, in herself, of achieving it. This proud self-reliance is a marked feature of Helena's character, and is finely portrayed in her soliloquy after Bertram's departure:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky
Gives us free scope -- only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high --
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes, and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense, and do suppose
What hath been cannot be. Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?
The king's disease -- my project may deceive me;
But my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me.
No heroine could desire a more flattering passport to general favor than that afforded by the friendship for Helena of the noble old countess, who is never more staunchly devoted to her foster-child than when she is returned to her -- a daughter-in-law, and a bride, but worse than widowed. The closeted interview between Helena and the countess is very characteristic of both women: Helena's conduct throughout is distinguished by candor and simplicity; she exhibits, at first, a natural reluctance to declare plainly that she loves the young Count of Rousillon, but she prepares his mother by unmistakable innuendoes for a confession which, when it comes, is full of chaste dignity:
Count. I say I am your mother.

Hel. You are my mother, madam; 'Would you were
(So that my lord, your son, were not my brother,)
Indeed my mother! -- or were you both our mothers
I care no more for than I do for heaven,
So I were not his sister: Can't no other,
But, I your daughter, he must be my brother?


Count. Go not about; my love hath in 't a bond
Whereof the world takes note. Come, come! disclose
The state of your affection; for your passions
Have to the full appeach'd.

Hel. Then I confess,
Here on my knee, before high heaven and you,
That before you, and next unto high heaven,
I love your son.
My friends were poor, but honest; so 's my love.
Be not offended; for it hurts not him
That he is lov'd of me: I follow him not
By any token of presumptuous suit;
Nor would I have him till I do deserve him --
Yet never know how that desert should be.
I know I love in vain, strive against hope;
Yet, in this captious and intenible sieve,
I still pour in the waters of my love,
And lack not to lose still; thus, Indian-like,
Religious in mine error, I adore
The sun, that looks upon his worshipper,
But knows of him no more.
Side by side with this passionate picture we place another, even more intensely painted; its beauty is vouched for by its universal popularity:
I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. It were all one
That I should love a bright particular star,
And think to wed it -- he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself;
Tho hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. 'Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour -- to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart's table -- heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favor;
But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.
Not less characteristic than her deportment with the countess, is Helena's bearing during the very trying ordeal of the husband-choosing; nothing can be more modest than her manner of forcibly taking possession of her beloved Bertram -- for it amounts to that, as she well knows:
I dare not say I take you; but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power. -- This is the man!
Yet she is none the less persistent in her purpose, for all his scorn of her low origin, and his assertion that he neither loves her "nor will strive to do't" -- his "recantation" to the king's anger being a mere satire, even more insulting than his plain-spoken rejection.

Once married, however, Helena is all discretion, modesty, sweetness; there is a world of plaintive tenderness in her reception of Bertram's letter -- her self-reproach the more bitter because in the realization of her dearest hopes she finds only the source of endless sorrow:
Hel. Till I have no wife, I have nothing in France.
Nothing in France, until he has no wife!
Thou shalt have none, Rousillon, none in France;
Then hast thou all again. Poor lord! is't I
That chase thee from thy country, and expose
Those tender limbs of thine to the event
Of the none-sparing war? and is it I
That drive thee from the sportive court, where thou
Wast shot at with fair eyes, to be the mark
Of smoky muskets? O you leaden messengers,
That ride upon the violent speed of fire,
Fly with false aim; move the still-piercing air,
That sings with piercing -- do not touch my lord!
Whoever shoots at him, I set him there;
Whoever charges on his forward breast,
I am the caitiff that do hold him to it;
And, though I kill him not, I am the cause
His death was so effected. Better 'twere
I met the ravin lion when he roar'd
With sharp constraint of hunger; better 'twere
That all the miseries which nature owes
Were mine at once: No, come thou home, Rousillon,
Whence honor but of danger wins a scar
As oft it loses all. I will be gone;
My being here it is that holds thee hence:
Shall I stay here to do 't? no, no, although
The air of Paradise did fan the house,
And angels offic'd all. I will be gone --
That pitiful rumor may report my flight,
To consolate thine...
We should repose more faith in the disinterestedness of Helena's flight from her husband's home, if she did not steer straight for Florence, where she knows he is quartered, and if she were less munificently provided with money and jewels, inappropriate to the estate of pilgrims. But --
All's well that ends well.

How to cite this article:
Palmer, Henrietta L. The Stratford gallery, or, The Shakespeare sisterhood. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1859. Shakespeare Online. 20 Oct. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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Helena. From A Stratford Gallery.