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"My intents are fix'd": Constant Will in All's Well That Ends Well


This essay focuses on Helena’s constancy, a quality which produces the effects that lead to descriptions of All’s Well as a “problem play.” As a mode of intentional virtue, sexual constancy secures patriarchal and patrilineal agendas, while at the same time exposing them as structures of need. Helena represents the inescapable but intractable problem of feminine volition: she turns her acts of will to conservative ends, performing the prescribed roles of faithful wife and dutiful subject and securing the social logic that informs those roles. At the same time, her acts are acts of will, feminine self-inventions which, as they substantiate masculine authority, explode the fiction of its autonomy. She thus makes explicit the sense in which ideology depends on the informed participation of those it claims to subject. Helena’s performance substitutes knowledge for ignorance, consent for coercion, volitional instrumentality for passive use. The particular difficulties of this play—a female doctor, a compulsory marriage, a bed trick, an apparitional pregnancy—are idiosyncratic only in the degree to which they insist on that which is more comfortably left obscure. Helena’s willful constancy, like intentional feminine virtue more generally, reinforces patriarchal imperatives even as it defines their contingent and partial state. In determined support of the status quo, Helena saves a king, makes a husband, and perpetuates a patriline; she also reveals the extent to which ideological stability rests, perhaps precariously, on a foundation of willing women.

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