Listening to Helena: Shakespeare and Writing from Memory

I’ll admit it. I’m stuck. All’s Well That Ends Well is very challenging to listen to. And that’s why I love it. So far, it is beyond my ability to fully grasp. Every play takes some time to learn, but this one is barely leaving a trace. Part of this experiment is to write from memory. Let me explain.

When you draw from memory, it is a lot different than when you draw from life or from a photograph. Drawing from memory requires a different kind of concentration and the same is true with writing. The process is much different. Your attention is fixed on one process. You don’t go back and forth, there’s no looking things up, no interrupting the flow of thought. Just like when you draw from memory and all your attention goes into the drawing, when you write from memory you understand better what you really understand.

It is one thing to be able to research and ask questions, it’s another skill set to be able to remember what you have learned and to recreate it for someone else. That is another level of mastery. Understanding a few texts well gives you the tools you need to write well from memory. Why experiment with this method of writing?

Internet culture is so fragmented and decontextualized that it is training our minds to make huge leaps quickly. Because we are overwhelmed with information about the world, there is a pressure to move with speed. We counter our fear of missing out by spreading our attention thin. If we think about culture like exercise, then every direction we push in we should also build in the opposite direction. That’s how bodies work. It’s how cultures work too. We need a dynamic balance between our opposing strengths.

So, writing from memory is a way to form a continuous uninterrupted thought about a subject without introducing a lot of other voices and opinions. They will come later, and a dialogue is the desired outcome. To really form your opinions, though, you must sit with the noise of your memory and sort out what you really think.

Writing from memory is a strange kind of listening. How do you access what you know? It requires effort. You must think about how the play opens. What is the context? Who are the characters? There is a discussion of the king’s illness. There is a conversation about the daughter of a recently deceased surgeon. This is Helena. She will eventually talk her way into many different situations. Choosing a character gives you a way to navigate your thoughts about the play. Helena is the most interesting character in the play because she motivates all the action, she makes all the successful moves. 

First, she must get past the doubt instilled in the king by his expert physicians. They believe that his malady is beyond remedy and so when Helena seeks to give him treatment, there is a reluctance to take her seriously. Helena doesn’t take no for an answer, though, and she persists in convincing the king that she can help him. Not only was her father a highly skilled doctor, but he left behind a book of notes about everything he cured. She has some research to use to her advantage and she does. What really cures the king, though, is her dogged persistence. If she were not so determined to be effective, then he would never have allowed her to attempt to cure him. 

Helena goes further than simply curing the king, she does so under the condition that he will grant her the right to marry whomever she chooses if she is successful. Helena is not from a noble family. She is poor. Still, she manages to assert her will and to use the king’s power to marry the man she wants. 

She also wins over her husband Bertram’s mother. When Bertram abandons his new wife–whom he married against his will–to fight in a war in Italy, his own mother writes him out of existence and replaces him with Helena. Helena pursues what she wants and speaks her value into existence. Because Helena wants to marry Bertram, she cures the king. Because Bertram leaves her, she first gets his mother to take her side and then she plots to get him back from Italy.

One of the themes I’ve noticed in Shakespeare’s Comedies so far is the interplay between love and war as psychological forces. In the comedies, there are some dark and violent moments. The power of love is shown to be more powerful, however and ultimately wins the day. The will to love is the dominant force in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and Helena is the voice that brings it into being.

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