Monday, August 23, 2010

The End of Magic

All’s Well that Ends Well lives between an era of fairy tales and the age of science and rationality. Within the play there is a mystical power in virginity, and love that conquers riddles and performs feats believed impossible.

Helena is in love with Bertram. The problem is that he is a nobleman and she is a lowly physician’s daughter. Bertram goes to attend the king of France at court. The king is deathly ill. Helena devises a cure from medicines that her father instructed her to use and goes to the court to cure the king, her reward is that she can choose any husband for herself and the king will force him to marry her. She chooses Bertram, who resists, but marries her and promptly runs away with the intention of never consummating the marriage. He later challenges her to two tasks saying he won’t call her wife until she can get his precious family ring off his finger and get pregnant with his child. Helena is smart and tricks him into giving the ring to a hot girl named Diana, and then sleeps with him when he thinks he's sleeping with Diana. In a fairy tale ending, Bertram swears he will love her and we are maybe expected to believe that they are going to live happily ever after.

Early in the play, Helena has an argument with Parolles about virginity. She begins:

Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him? (1:1)

Parolles responds in tirade that she is being foolish:

Loss of virginity is rational increase, and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost. (1:1)

There is no defense for it, man is its enemy and it is natural that he will conquer virginity so that the world will be peopled with further virgins. The circle of virginity. But nearing the conclusion of their argument, we have a mysterious incomplete line. Helena says:

Not my virginity yet: [….] (1:1)

There is debate about how much of the text is lost here, because the proceeding line picks up an entirely new thought. All that is known is that something is missing, and we have no idea what it is.

So what should we make of this missing line? I'm going to jump to a conclusion that serves my present purposes and could be completely wrong. Helena is resolving not to lose her virginity yet. I would think that the missing lines unfold the plan that yet requires her virginity. Namely, she must cure the king of his ailment and marry Bertram. These are monumental tasks, and she needs virgin magic to achieve them.

After Helena cures the king, Lafew observes:

They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear. (2:3)

Helena’s virginity brought about the miracle to which Lafew refers. The idea of virginal power persists in this play at the end when the virgin girl Diana goes before the king to argue in Helena’s stead. She is the one who corners Bertram and sets up Helena's arrival as the mastermind behind this plot to win Bertram's love. Why doesn't Helena administer these arguments in disguise the way that Portia wins freedom for Antonio at the end of The Merchant of Venice? I shall tell you. It's because Helena loses her virginity to her husband in the middle of Act 4. With her virginity go her magical powers. The brilliant miracle-worker utters a mere 13 lines in her husband's presence in the lackluster final scene of the play.

Loss of virginity is the loss of magic. I remember this from something else I read.

In the last book of The Prydain Chronicles, The High King by Lloyd Alexander, Taran, Assistant Keeper of the Oracular pig HenWen, defeats the forces of Arawn, Lord of Death, and in a somber twist, the magic that had ruled their age dies out and has to go away (much like the way the elves go to the Grey Havens at the end of The Lord of the Rings).

Unfortunately for Taran, he is in love with the enchantress Princess Eilonwy who must also go away since she has magical powers. Happily it is revealed that she can wish away her magical powers by using a ring she was given in one of the earlier books. Without her magical powers she’ll be able to stay and marry Taran. Throughout the series, Eilonwy also carried around a magical golden bauble that was in part the source of her powers, much like a wand.

Here is the passage where she loses her magic:

Wondering and almost fearful, Eilonwy closed her eyes and did the enchanter’s bidding. The ring flared suddenly, but only for a moment. The girl gave a sharp cry of pain. And in Taran’s hand the light of the golden bauble winked out.

Eilonwy blinked and looked around her. “I don’t feel a bit different,” she remarked. “Are my enchantments truly gone?” (Alexander, The High King, p. 246)

I once dated a girl who, like me, had waited for a long time before having sex. She said she didn’t know why she waited so long and that one day she just looked around and was like what am I holding onto this V-card for?

I was a virgin for a long time, first because I was waiting to be in a relationship with someone I loved, then because I was too hapless and self-conscious to know how to coax someone into physical intimacy. And then I went back to my old fallback of waiting to be in love. The whole virginity-losing process could have been helped along so well if I would have just started drinking beer at an early age like a normal American.

As it happens, it all worked out and I was in love when I first had sex. The girl had warned me that sex is a strange beast. I was a bit brash, and too excited to get on with it at that point to pay her warning much heed. I loved her, I was more than ready, and I downplayed any possible fallout.

Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear. (2:3)

In the way that Eilonwy’s bauble blinks out and she doesn’t notice her enchantments are gone, sex doesn’t change you in the instant. Gradually, it unlocks so much that didn’t exist before. It shined a light on the empty spaces of my life and filled them with hope and opportunity. It was great. Until my heart got broken and it all fell apart.

You go to a very dark place when you grow close to someone, imagining a parallel future on and on to golden horizons. And then she diverges. Leaves you. You feel foolish for not having anticipated her needs. You feel like a moron for wanting her when she doesn’t want you. You feel weak when you realize how reliant your happiness was upon her presence.

Helena's heart breaks before she even attains love. But she fights back. Tricking her husband into sleeping with her, and then appears in the end trusting that he'll honor this loose promise:

I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly. (5:3)

Almost with a vengeance does she win his husbandship, which may turn out to be a bitter one.

Maybe her scarce stage-time at the end of the play is intentional. As one of his last (possibly last) comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well isn’t bright. It’s littered with the difficulties of maturation, and it comes as Shakespeare’s mind was leaning into the great tragedies, Othello among them.

Othello tiptoes so close to being a romantic comedy, Iago’s plot of convincing Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity is nearly the same as Don John’s plot to convince Claudio of Hero’s infidelity in Much Ado About Nothing. But in Iago’s universe there was no wit as fierce as his to undo his mischief. Otherwise that play might have ended well for the Moor. What subtle turns kept All's Well That Ends Well from ending in a manner most heinous?

The period is placed firmly on this comic chapter of Shakespeare’s writing with the King’s epilogue. Which makes it plain that this play, where the low class women were able to rise in ranks and in fairy tale fashion conquer men of nobility, is nothing more than a great fantasy. The actor who plays the King removes his crown and says:

The king’s a beggar, now the play is done;

All is well ended, if this suit be won,

That you express content; which we will pay,

With strife to please you, day exceeding day.

Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts;

Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts. (epilogue)

A play is similar to a seduction. Disbelief momentarily suspended, at the end, the crown of the seducer is removed revealing a person with flaws alike your own. They lend you their gentleness, in hands and in speech, and then take your heart. Or at least a small piece.

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