Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England

By Dennis Taylor; David Beauregard | Go to book overview

13
Helena and the Reformation
Problem of Merit in
All's Well That Ends Well

by Maurice Hunt

Baylor University, Waco, Texas

IN THE CHARACTER of Helena of All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare most fully represents the problematical complication of merit occasioned by the Reformation Protestant revaluation of the term in its debate with Catholicism. A preliminary examination of the topic in Love's Labor's Lost and Othello provides a context useful for the analysis of Helena's merit in All's Well. Early in act 4 of Love's Labor's Lost, the Princess of France jokes with a Forester. When at a deer hunt, he directs her to ""a" stand where "she" may make the fairest shoot," she purposely misunderstands him in order to coin a punning jest: "I thank my beauty, I am fair that shoot "release my arrow/shoot up (grow)", / And thereupon thou speak'st the fairest shoot "bowshot/blooming spray of a tree or flower (myself)"" (4.1.10–12).1 When the anxious Forester replies, "Pardon me, madam, for I meant not so" (4.1.13), the Princess, playfully giving him some money for telling her a supposedly unpleasant truth, exclaims, "Fair payment for foul words is more than due" (4.1.19). "See, see, my beauty will be sav'd by merit," she concludes; "O heresy in fair, fit for these days! / A giving hand, though foul, shall have fair praise" (4.1.21–23). This jest registers Shakespeare's engagement early in his career with the Reformation debate over salvation by Protestant faith versus Catholic meritorious deeds.

In the above-quoted three-verse passage, the Princess jokes that her beauty—to use G. Blakemore Evans's phrasing—will be saved "(1) by its own deserts; (2) by my giving of gratuities" (Shakespeare, The

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