The King and the Physician's Daughter: All's Well That Ends Well and the Late Romances


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In his now classic formulation of "The Argument of Comedy," Northrop Frye called attention to the unusual tum Shakespeare gives the typical comic pattern in All's Well that Ends Well - and noted the difficulties this alteration has posed for critics:

The normal comic resolution is the surrender of the senex to

the hero, never the reverse. Shakespeare tried to reverse the

pattern in All's Well that Ends Well, where the king of France

forces Bertram to marry Helena, and the critics have not yet

stopped making faces over it.1

This curious inversion of comic action is all the more remarkable in the light of Frye's suggestion that New Comedy dramatizes a "comic Oedipus situation" in which a young man ( the son in the Oedipus triangle) outwits a father to win the love of a young woman (p. 58). The heroine is unconsciously linked to an image of the youthful mother that a son loved and thought himself to possess as a young child. In this framework, the comic movement toward marriage builds on fantasies of triumphant return to a time in which a boy thought himself in secure and complete possession of a mother's love and the father could still be regarded as an unwelcome intruder, susceptible, at least in the child's imagination, to magical exclusion.2

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