All's Well that Ends Well: Characters

As you probably already know, Shakespeare didn't get the characters' names from his source, Boccaccio's Decameron; in Painter's translation of the story Helena's name is "Gileta," Bertram is "Beltramo" and there is no character corresponding to Parolles.

BERTRAM (COUNT ROSSILLION): HUMANKIND in the made-up morality; the HUMAN SOUL in Christian tradition. His name in the source is Beltramo.
A bertram is a kind of herb, Pellitory of Spain; the name is a Germanic corruption of pyrethrum which comes from the Greek word for fire, so his name combines two of the play's images, fire and plants. To gather medicinal herbs is part of Helen's tasks as a doctor-magician, and she certainly puts herself out to gather the Bertram, and she feels she'll die if she can't get him. See HELENA below.

Bertram, a count (the corresponding English noble rank is earl), apparently outranks Lord Lafew, whose exact title we are never told. His rank is inferior to that of the Duke of Florence, and of course to the King of France. Samuel Johnson says that Bertram is the King's ward because he is under the age of controlling his inheritance. For our purposes, we are to understand that Bertram is very young, probably under 18 years. See Johnson's Comments on Shakespeare's Comedies (retrieved May 25, 2016).
COUNTESS ROSSILLION: COURTESY in the made-up morality; VIRTUOUS (but unredeemed) NATURAL HUMANITY in Christian tradition. Rossillion (French: Roussillon) is a region in the southwest of France, bordering on Spain.
We never learn the Countess' name; the importance of her character's name is that she and her son, the new Count, are noble, and Helena isn't. George Bernard Shaw described the part as "the most beautiful old woman's part ever written," to which all I can say is "errrrr . . . " Since, as near as I can tell, the Countess represents the condition of Unredeemed Humanity, a Virtuous Pagan, she has the natural virtues of Justice, Temperance, Prudence and Fortitude--but she lacks Faith, Hope and Charity.

The easiest way to show her lack of Charity is by pointing out her grudging, ungenerous blessing to her son Bertram at I.1.57. Like all unredeemed humans (compare her to the Shepherds in the Second Shepherds Play, retrieved April 25, 2016), her manner is rough and ungentle, especially when she determines to force the truth out of Helena, by, for example, attributing to Helena "sin and hellish obstinacy," holy cow!
Now to all sense 'tis gross
You love my son; invention is ashamed,
Against the proclamation of thy passion,
To say thou dost not. Therefore tell me true;
But tell me then, 'tis so; for, look, thy cheeks
Confess it, th' one to th' other; and thine eyes
See it so grossly shown in thy behaviours
That in their kind they speak it; only sin
And hellish obstinacy
tie thy tongue,
That truth should be suspected. Speak, is't so?
If it be so, you have wound a goodly clew;
If it be not, forswear't; howe'er, I charge thee,
As heaven shall work in me for thine avail,
To tell me truly.

                     Good madam, pardon me.

Do you love my son?

                     Your pardon, noble mistress.

Love you my son?

                     Do not you love him--madam?

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 appeached.

HELENA     (kneels)
            Then I confess,
Here on my knee, before high heaven and you,
That before you, and next unto high heaven,
I love your son.                     (Long pause while HELEN waits to see if the Countess will order her to be executed.)
My friends were poor, but honest; so's my love Etc.

DIANA: she shares her name, appropriately, with the Roman virgin goddess of women and childbirth. But I suspect that if we could find the morality play which Shakespeare invented as a structure for All's Well, her name would be Venus, like the temptress who causes Tannhäuser so much trouble. See also Violenta, below.

DUKE of FLORENCE: he doesn't have much to say, but he persuades others that his cause is that of right and virtue (and the Siemese the party of wrong and sin). In the morality he's DUKE MICHAEL, conveniently named after the archangel who led God's army and defeated Satan (Revelations; retrieved May 5, 2016).

So that, from point to point, now have you heard
The fundamental reasons of this war;
Whose great decision hath much blood let forth,
And more thirsts after.

                     Holy seems the quarrel
Upon your Grace's part; black and fearful
On the opposer.      (III.1.1-6)

CAPTAIN DUMAIN or FIRST LORD ("LORD G" in the Folio, CAPTAIN COURAGE in the morality)

and his brother

CAPTAIN DUMAIN or SECOND LORD ("LORD E" in the Folio; CAPTAIN LUST in the morality): the two brothers are so similar in their love of goodness and morality that even Shakespeare had trouble telling them apart while he was writing the play, which is why they're called Lord G and Lord E in the Folio, so that he always knew which one he was writing about. "Why didn't he call them, par exemple, 'Lord A' and 'Lord B'?" Oh, I bet you can figure out what "G." and "E." stand for. I have been tedious about it in the Introduction.

HELENA: all the editions I've seen give this as her name, and it's wrong.
She shares her name with the famous Helen who caused the Trojan war, a fact which Lavatch refers to.
"Was this fair face the cause," quoth she,
"Why the Grecians | sackèd Troy?" (I.3.67-8)

I take this as a hint that she's physically very beautiful. If she had three noses or some other unusual feature, Bertram's reluctance to marry her would be more logical. But we can tell from the reaction of Lafew and the Lords (in II.3 and elsewhere) that Helena is drop-dead gorgeous, so Bertram must have other reasons (to be discussed).

In the morality play structure she is Grace, the Good Angel involved in the struggle for Bertram's soul.

But Helen is not the simple lovesick Gileta of Boccaccio's tale. Helen feels that she will die if she cannot marry Bertram. Jesus knew from some early age--since he was God, he probably knew it at birth--that his purpose on earth was to die for our sins. Helen, whom I have called "Grace" in the morality play has taken the role usually reserved for Jesus, and made the knowledge of her certain death specific to and contingent on her inability to marry Bertram. Note, also, that in Shakespeare, love is generally what we used to call "moral"; characters who truly love each other get married and have children. Even Romeo and Juliet, rushed as they are, manage to get married before they tumble into bed. The characters in Troilus and Cressida are of course a glaring exception to this.

Helen has many expressions of her death-wish, which will be annoyingly pointed out as we come to them in the text, but here's one of the first: Helena musing how she can never marry Bertram because of the difference in their stations:

I am undone. There is no living, none
If Bertram be away. 'Twere all one            'Twere = it were
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is | so above me:            85
In his bright radiance and collateral | light
Must I be comforted, not in his | sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion            hind = female deer
Must | die for love.            (I.1.82-90)

Why Helena's name is always spelled wrong: In the morality play structure, Helena is the Good Angel, ready to lay down her life so that Bertram will leave the war and come back to France and safety. But Shakespeare always meant his characters to be human beings, not symbols. Helena the rational human realizes that if she dies, there is nobody else who could save Bertram from a life that, in the morality play structure, leads to eternal damnation. She also realizes that she has to take strong measures to save him--and not necessarily moral measures. Example: she pimps out Diana to Bertram, though it is Helena herself who will get into bed with Bertram. She's thereby apparently fulfilling Bertram's condition under which he will accept her as his wife (see Bertram's letter at III.2.56). In fact she doesn't fulfill his conditions at all, and lies about the fact, but that's for later. So Helena, the Good Angel, behaves in an immoral way, even though her intentions are good. Shakespeare himself points out that Helena's double set of standards suits the structure of the play.

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.
Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not;
and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.

All the editions I have seen change her name to "Helena," which is what she is usually called in the dialogue, but in the Folio stage directions her name is often spelled Hellen, which I take as an obvious reference to the fact that her nature is not entirely heavenly.
INTERPRETER: I found no way to fit this character into my little morality play, but he--or she--is vitally important to the play.
The Interpreter translates Parolles words into the nonsense language which the other soldiers pretend to speak. As I hope to show, the made-up language has meaning, and mostly isn't nonsense. Shakespeare is following the tradition--also found in Dante's guide-book to hell--that in hell all communication is lost. What Pluto (Inf. 7.1), Nimrod (Inf. 31.67) and the other denizens of hell speak is incomprehensible to Dante, as the language of the soldiers into whose hands Parolles falls is unintelligible to him, and therefore requires an Interpreter. In the morality, it is the endangered human soul, Humankind, that falls into the hands of the devils. But Shakespeare is writing a comedy in which all ends well, and it is the Vice who falls into the devils' hands.
KING OF FRANCE: Shakespeare gives him no first name, but his title is significant for the play's structure--and for that of the underlying morality play, in which his role is that of God. On at least one occasion in this play he fulminates like Jehovah himself (see II.3.149-66).

LAFEW (LORD): he's a lord, which is important.
Everybody agrees that his name is a corruption of the French le feu, "the fire," which is why I named him Lord Hellfire in the reconstructed morality play, in which his role is that of Satan.
LAVATCH (called CLOWN in the Folio): some smart editor figured out that his name probably derives not from the French la vache (meaning "the cow"), but lavage ("washing") because he makes moral comments about situations in the play. His moral pronouncements are vitiated by his touting an immoral existence. The web of our life is of a mingled yarn.

MARIANA: she appears in only one scene to caution Diana strongly against Bertram's designs and Parolles, Bertram's go-between.
But I suspect if this were not a morality in which everybody is good, she would counsel Diana about how to get money out of Bertram, presumably in exchange for sex. Her morality-play name, "Worldly Wisdom," is appropriate in either case.
PAROLLES: (pronounced with three syllables, pa-RO-lees) his name looks like the French paroles "words," which certainly suits Parolles' garrulous nature. But the French word "parole" derives from "parables," because the only important words in medieval French were the words of Jesus, and he often spoke in parables.
In the underlying morality he's a Vice, named by me Vainglory, the Bad Angel struggling with the Good Angel for Bertram's soul. Helen and Parolles struggle for Bertram's soul in this play, too. Their rivalry is, among other things, sexual.

Parolles is in fact not entirely evil. Far from it. He tries to persuade Helena to abandon her useless and self-destructive love for Bertram, and apparently talks he out of committing suicide (see particularly I.1.148ff). And Shakespeare has told us that he is not entirely evil by his name: the first syllable of Parolles name is the same as the first syllable of paradise, and the his name itself derives from the teachings of Jesus. This statement would likely subject me to scorn, derision and general opprobrium, so I offer the discussion of Helena's name in support.
RYNALDO: he is the Countess' steward and I have no idea of the significance of his name.
In the morality play I originally gave him the name Humility, but the actor who played him, Ward Nixon, persuaded me that his name should more properly be Discretion, so I changed it.
Discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee: --Proverbs 2:11
When he tells the Countess that he overheard Helena confessing her love for Bertram, the Countess immediately sends for Helena. Do not be fooled. The Countess, and everybody else on the grounds of the chateau at Rossillion, has seen lovesick Helena trailing along behind Bertram everywhere he went. The Countess even knows--before Rynaldo speaks--that Helena was planning a trip to Paris to try to cure the King and win Bertram's hand. But Rynaldo's intention is, like all the characters in the play, a good one. He is apparently moved by Helena's grief and brings the matter to the Countess in hope that that lady can help out. And she does.
VIOLENTA: the Folio stage direction at the beginning of II.5 reads, "Enter old Widdow of Florence, her daughter, Violenta and Mariana, with other Citizens."
This might mean that at some point Shakespeare thought of calling Diana "Violenta." I suspect that the name Shakespeare didn't use is related to the word "violate," related to the French viol ("rape"), but of course I'd have to prove that. (I've tried to: see the page "Improving Shakespeare.")
THE WIDOW CAPILET, Diana's mother.
I assume in the underlying morality play, she is the vice of Cupidity or, more coarsely, Greed. Despite her care for Diana, she is perfectly willing to allow Helena to pimp Diana out to Bertram, and if she shows any squeamishness, Helena gets around it by offering her more money.
                    Now I see
The bottom of your purpose.

You see it lawful then. It is no more
But that your daughter, ere she seems as won,
Desires this ring; appoints him an encounter;
In fine, delivers me to fill the time,
Herself most chastely absent.
          (The WIDOW shows signs of hesitation, I assume.)
                                After this,
To marry her, I'll add three thousand crowns
To what is passed already.

                              I have yielded.  (III.7.28-36)

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