Bertram’s Betrayals: Rape Culture in All’s Well That Ends Well

All’s Well That Ends Well is a play of transgressions. The character Bertram takes the quickest fall from grace imaginable shortly after the passing of his father. He is the ultimate fuck boi. Bertram is a victim of circumstance, but he refuses to be limited by other people’s plans for him to the extent that he betrays his widowed mother and his king. Why does he sacrifice all his social bonds? For some action with the ladies, Bertram burns all his bridges.

Why is Bertram such an unlikable character? He loses his father and grieves and consoles his mother. That gives us an opening for empathy from the introduction, but Bertram quickly shows that he is uninterested in anything other than pursuing the freedoms of youth. He is not out of the shadow of his father’s passing when he is married to a woman he doesn’t choose and these compounding forces of unfreedom are too big of a challenge for him to face, so he flees the country with his friend, Parolles.

Running away could seem to be cowardly, but Bertram flees to Italy to fight in a war which requires physical courage. He manages to perform some important service in the battle and is enjoying a moment of fame. For Bertram, the war offered an escape and a stage for him to show his value and to attract sexual companions. While he has gained some notoriety, the woman he is interested in has no interest in him. When Helena arrives to Italy, she meets this woman, and they conspire to trick Bertram.

Bertram’s energy toward the young Italian woman Diana is nothing short of predatory. The women come together to defend Diana against Bertram’s sexual advances. The reason we dislike Bertram so much it turns out is because he has the mind of a rapist. He can be forgiven for not wanting to marry a woman he didn’t choose, but when he attempts to coerce a woman who doesn’t want him, he becomes a villain. She is a task to him, something he considers part of the business of war. Having done something heroic he feels entitled to sexual rewards.

Betram’s sexual desperation is made obvious when Diana manages to get him to give her his ring. Like a simp, he’s fooled by their trick. Helena has paid Diana’s mother to have her attempt this move, and Bertram is so driven to have sex with Diana that he falls right into their trap. Driven by libido to the point that he is willing to give up his most prized heirloom to a stranger, we see how out of control Bertram really is.

When Helena and Diana switch places, Bertram ends up inadvertently planting his seed in his lawful wife. He is tricked into becoming a father. He thinks he is fulfilling his fantasy of sexual exploits, but he is impregnating Helena. 

Difficult circumstances seem not to justify a character’s bad behavior. Helena uses all kinds of manipulative tactics to get what she wants, but we empathize with her because her goal is aligned with her people. She brings healing and peace to every situation she attends. Because of her limitations of power, she must use deceptive techniques, but her effect is for the common good. She cures the king of his disease, but to even get his attention she must be willing to wager her life. Helena risks her life to marry Bertram and Betram risks his life to find sexual freedom. 

Bertram is a narcissist known for his heroism and his dishonesty. He needs a conspirator, though. His friend Parolles is a funny caricature of bro culture. He’s all for the exploits, but when he falls victim to a prank and is kidnapped, we see just how little courage he possesses. These two together make a pair of fools who are driven by their lust and are blind to the gravity of their situation. 

Bertram the unlikable antihero is nothing more than a pawn to show the cunning and courage of Helena. Not only does she orchestrate their marriage, but she also grieves having caused him to run away. She overcomes her emotions to do the right thing for the common good and that is why she is a beloved character. Bertram is a character who desires freedom more than his responsibilities or other people’s rights. The play, All’s Well That Ends Well shows us that deception is not as important as intention through the transgressions of Helena and Bertram. They both use dishonest techniques, but Helena does so for the common good and Bertram does so for his personal gain.

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