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  • The Natural Rights Exerted in Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks

The bed-trick in William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure asserts the heroines' autonomy in determining what lies in their best interests. When understood within the early modern framework of natural rights, particularly those promulgated by Hugo Grotius, the actions of Helen and Mariana, respectively, establish their perspicacity in pursuing a goal that betters their person and connection to the community. This argument lauds the exercise of their rights in both operating within and overcoming the patriarchal standards imposed on them. Indeed, the slippage between detachment and participation within accepted customs defines their very identity.

The theatrical device of the bed-trick occurs fifty-two times in forty-four plays during the English Renaissance.1 Just as in the first two plays employing it, Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany (1594) and Grim the Collier of Croyden (1600), male characters arrange 60 percent of the bed-tricks used in gaining control over women. Shakespeare's heroines in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, then, appear to mark a decisive break from the bed-trick's evolutionary pattern. Helen and Mariana, respectively, persevere in their endeavors in spite of a male-dominant hierarchy. Yet, upon closer inspection, men are the ones who create the circumstances that prompt the necessity of using the device. They impose such absurd conditions or egocentric claims that few other options exist for the wife or betrothed. As a result, critics often decry these scenes as indicative of a "phallocentric framework" or fulfillment of "the masculine fantasy of parthenogenesis."2 [End Page 76]

This essay, however, maintains that pursuing an action that offers no guarantee to produce the sought-after effect—personal or legal—asserts these heroines' autonomy. It puts into praxis their natural right to acquire what is essential to their well-being. The bed-trick thus functions as an exemplum of feminine agency, not a paean to happy marriages, particularly since both prospective husbands display a pronounced immaturity. The tension generated by the deployment of these rights integrates the women more prominently into the social structure. While this structure takes the form of a marital unit, the marriage is prized for its capacity to satisfy each heroine's desire for communal stability rather than emotional bliss.

Broadly speaking, natural rights are those liberties guaranteed to every person so that they can lead a productive, meaningful life.3 In the context of Shakespeare's two comedies, they fortify the sanctity of a monogamous union, striking a delicate balance between desire and practicality. The ruse of the substituted bedmate may expose the extremes to which men force women to go, but the decision to consummate the act brings to light Helen's and Mariana's power to do what is best for them individually. It underscores their imbued right "to use [their] own power . . . for the preservation of [their] own nature" by becoming a vital part of a respected relationship.4

Although these rights apply to both genders, they do not apply with transparent equality to the heroines, even under the eternal precepts of natural law. Consequently, enacting them extols their perspicacity in simultaneously overcoming and operating within patriarchal constraints. By orchestrating a pitch-dark tryst to achieve their goals, the heroines exercise a distinct moral right in doing something in relation to another person that proves best for both themselves and society. Fostering these rights lies at the core of early modern thought as articulated by Richard Hooker and Hugo Grotius. This critical approach does not generate a revisionist reading of character interaction but rather a renewed, optimistic gender perspective saturated in a specific intellectual environment.

When pursuing a right endowed to all humans—such as sharing one's life with another in order to become an integral part of the community—early modern thinkers maintained that each person can pursue that right without the permission of any political or religious authority. Grotius's theory revolves around the individual's power to access these rights on her own: "It is not, then, contrary to the nature of society to look out for oneself and advance one's own interests, provided the rights of others are not infringed."5 Each person's "life, limbs, and liberty" [End Page 77] belong to him alone and confer the right to use whatever nature provides to satisfy his demands, barring an injustice to another (LWP, p. 36).

While these rights lie within each person's own sphere of interest, they complement the common good rather than antagonize the different facets of the human condition. The community incorporates the goods of its individual members. Although no Western philosopher, medieval or early modern, believes that a person can establish an effective standard to measure goodness without some discernible direction, thinkers akin to Grotius locate this direction within the will's rectitude. Since it can pursue an action with "unchecked liberty . . . , [its] quality of autonomous mediation" proves its value by instilling a steadfast commitment to satisfy one's basic needs.6 Upon heeding reason's dictate, it can align itself with objects such as preservation of life, upbringing of children, and reasonable conduct.

A review of its evolution shows Grotius as the highpoint of a strain of thought sown in the Middle Ages. Springing from the writings of twelfth-century-canon lawyers, William Ockham (c. 1288–1347) was the first to develop a systematic theory.7 His theory, which derives from a critique of papal power, maintains that people cannot confer absolute power upon any ruler because they do not command this kind of power over each other.8 In other words, they cannot grant what they do not possess: their purview governs only their own acts. Any interference with these "temporal rights and liberties [as] conceded by God and nature" undermines the symbiosis between communal and individual needs.9 If the individual cannot freely exercise her rights, then society sputters under the oppression of dictatorial or meritocratic rule.

Renaissance thinkers do not negate Ockham's ties to Christianity. In fact, the pivotal figures of Jean Gerson, Hooker, and Grotius embrace to varying degrees the knowledge acquired through reason and Scripture. They maintain that these rights, implanted by God, exist within the nature of every person, informing what one is at liberty to do, not what she must do. Hooker locates these guiding principles within natural law:

Law rational therefore, which men commonly use to call the Law of Nature, meaning thereby the Law which human Nature knoweth itself in reason universally bound unto, which also for the cause may be terms most fitly the Law of Reason; this Law, I say, comprehendeth all those things which men by the light of their natural understanding evidently know, or at leastwise may know, to be beseeming or unbeseeming, virtuous or vicious, good or evil for them to do.10 [End Page 78]

According to Hooker, each of us possesses the cognitive capacity to recognize virtue. Even if strong emotion or an evil disposition momentarily clouds one's judgment, the practical rationality of these laws is accessible to every person and must be fostered. If sin had not obscured the light of reason, it would have been adequate in itself to govern all human conduct. Whatever difficulties arise, the individual must be conscientious not only in ascertaining what delineates good from evil but also acting upon this knowledge. These actions stem not from duty or obligation but the simple desire to better one's condition. Implementing this theory, however, becomes transmogrified by cultural norms, which prompts the women to refine their notion of justice. Only by doing so can they insert themselves more effectively into customary paradigms and improve their state.

In his work, the fifteenth-century French scholar Gerson spells out the distinction between natural law (lex) and its accompanying rights (ius): "Ius is an immediate faculty or power pertaining to anyone according to the dictate of primal justice. . . . Lex is a rule in conformity with right reason."11 For him, ius signifies a power over one's self or another to ensure or protect the value of human life. It relies upon reason to acquire those objects or perform those actions necessary to achieve this goal. Primal justice, "primae justitiae," qualifies this right as a subjective one, inhering in the individual. Here, the term "subjective" does not refer to arbitrariness but rather that a "subject" exists to whom the right belongs. "Lex" is an objective rule acquired through the conjoined use of reason and conscience. It governs human affairs, placing the onus upon the agent to account for her moral behavior in the context of Christian principles. By determining which actions and proximate goods are suitable to her, this reasoning process establishes a proper relation between one's well-being and the particular act or good. Balancing a holistic concept of community with an individualistic doctrine of subjective rights is fundamental to early modern thought.

The Dutch thinker Grotius illustrates the international prevalence of this concept. In his contemporaneous work De jure praedae (1605) he writes that since God wills creation's existence, each individual inherently possesses those powers needed to thrive. As such, "It is licit to acquire and retain the things useful for life."12 In that our existence springs from an expression of love, he maintains that true and divinely inspired self-love prompts each person to care for another (DJP, p. 9). Only mutual love engenders the harmony necessary to cultivate a love of self and for others. Each person becomes responsible not only [End Page 79] for her welfare but also for that of the community. Ultimately, Grotius argues, the community's well-being is the paramount object because its good includes those of its individuals (DJP, pp. 105–9). In his most famous work, De juri belli ac pacis, he reiterates the idea that the state's purpose is to allow each person to exercise rights over her own possessions (LWP, pp. 34–35). Each person can "have zealous consideration for its own condition and for those things which tend to preserve it," and he concludes that everyone would "prefer to have all the parts of his body in proper order and whole rather dwarfed or deformed" (LWP, p. 25). The community can prosper only if its members care for one another. As Brian Tierney writes, "Grotius does not confront us with isolated individuals facing an omnipotent state but with human persons, sociable by nature, bound by ties of friendship and mutual support, each acknowledging a duty to respect the rights of others."13

Just as the origins of natural rights center upon limiting a sovereign's power through the liberties granted its citizens, Helen and Mariana strive to negotiate their own spheres of power in an otherwise rigid, male-dominated ruling class. Even though the challenges facing them give rise to uncertainty and moral ambiguity, the dedication to engendering a harmonious union attests to an innate goodness. It preserves their self-worth and fosters a concord aligned with Christian belief. By precluding them from isolation, deception enables them both to express their individuality and to assimilate into the community. The exclusivity of patriarchal codes validates this circumnavigation of its strictures.

Sadly, the kind of communal support lauded by Grotius and his philosophical confreres remains painfully lacking in Helen's husband and Mariana's betrothed. Worse, even when the physical union is achieved, neither woman can bask in the afterglow of romance. Both scurry off with no acknowledgment of their participation. The higher truth underlying their actions may not facially correlate to one founded upon Christian faith. Yet, as their autonomy disrupts sexual mores, it conversely promotes harmony by legally fortifying the men's willingness to respect their vows—when they discover their role in the bed-trick. The women's intent displays an informed grasp of the symbiosis between personal agency and the communal need to uphold solemn vows. Unilaterally dismissing them tears apart the social fabric.

While unfair, even criminal, circumstances prompt the women to utilize the bed-trick in asserting their marital claim, the manner in which they manipulate this device transforms its negative qualities into a productive act. It encourages a cooperative understanding and, in the [End Page 80] process, mirrors the theory propounded by Grotius: pursuing what is essential benefits both the individual and those around her. Although no ecclesiastical remedy guarantees that Mariana will be recognized as Angelo's wife, creating a situation that urges Angelo to accept responsibility for his breach of trust maintains the tenets of honesty and decency. She declaims, "I have known my husband, yet my husband / Knows not that ever he knew me."14 Similarly, even though Helen cannot predict if consummation with Bertram will result in pregnancy, her proactive approach derives from a wife's innate right to fortify her marriage, and compels those around her to acknowledge its validity. The heroines' initiative prevents moral skepticism from permeating these scenes; subjective rights transform morally ambiguous acts into licit ones that expose the debilitating weaknesses of patriarchal notions of natural law.

These rights operate both apart from and within the sphere of natural law. As Constance Jordan states, "There were very few ways to interpret contemporary concepts of natural law that were not prejudicial to woman."15 This prejudice arises from interpreting the law as ordaining a hierarchy of creatures, which in the hands of antifeminist tracts placed man above woman.16 These laws, then, prove more likely to reference local and conventional practices instead of universal truths. If freed from these social constructs, then they become "the product of human intelligence rather than the basis for human reason" (RF, p. 66).

Early modern writer Rachel Speght exercises this intelligence by noting the similarities conjoining the two sexes: "For as God gave man a lofty countenance, that hee might looke up toward Heaven, so did he likewise give unto woman. . . . And (that more is) in the Image of God were they both created; yea and to be briefe, all the parts of their bodies, both externall and internall, were correspondent and meete each for other."17 It thus becomes the responsibility of each person to assess and act upon what he or she deems proper, regardless of whether it separates or unites them with others. If founded upon genuine need, its merit will prove itself eventually. Since the bed-trick runs counter to conservative morality, utilizing this ploy in realizing one's goal attests to each woman's perspicacity to express herself as independent and just. It shows that the established hierarchy is in need of revolt and restructuring. Scholar Margaret Ezell notes, "In theory and by law, women were 'subject to' men; in practice, controversy raged over exactly what 'to be subject to' encompassed.'"18 Only by stepping outside the parameters of natural law conventions can they reveal what comprises goodness on a broader scale. [End Page 81]

Perhaps the more obvious proponent of these rights is Helen. Early in All's Well That Ends Well she avers her individual right to pursue an object—Bertram—that lies beyond her socially prescribed role. The basis of this right stems in part from her romantic desire to be with him, her wish to be the "hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love."19 This passion, however, does not blind her to his shortcomings. In her own words, she knows him to be "a notorious liar, / Think him a great fool, solely a coward" (AW 1.1.102–3). Since any pursuant relationship will be indelibly marked by this puerility, choosing Bertram as a prospective husband reveals something morally valuable in his person that she deems essential to her happiness.

This happiness is not founded upon a naïve perception of marriage as a paradisiacal bond. Despite the official position that marriage is a constant source of joy, Catherine Belsey points out, "the clerical texts, as well as the marriage furniture and the plays, can all be read as indicating that the conjugal bedchamber, like the God-given Garden, turns out to be a good deal more dangerous than the official analysis was formally willing to allow."20 Rather, it derives largely from his ability as husband to ensconce Helen within society's purview as a dignified, productive individual. Bertram's worth thus revolves around an ability to validate her romantic and public aspirations.

The conviction to be part of a marriage that intertwines communal and individual needs distinguishes Helen's as much as Bertram's failure to see beyond class barriers. He sees her only as a "poor physician's daughter" (AW 2.3.116). This jejune obduracy contrasts starkly with her earnestness in pursuing a cooperative attempt that betters her person. His rejection, though it brings to light the gender constraints imposed upon her, does not make Helen succumb to self-pity. Responding with aplomb, she asks the King not to press the matter, urging him, "Let the rest go" (2.3.149).

This retraction demonstrates a sound understanding that both parties must volitionally accept a marriage proposal. In case her seeming audacity in proposing to him (and not vice versa) is the source for his reticence, she expresses a willingness to assume the stereotypical role of the wife: "I am your most obedient servant" (AW 2.5.73); "In every thing I wait upon his will" (2.4.55). Her submissiveness illustrates a flexible disposition as the right holder, which ultimately serves her well as his wife. This flexibility allows Helen to enact the bed-trick as a means to secure the sovereignty underpinning each spouse's natural rights. The forwardness in initiating the bed-trick juxtaposed with the quiet [End Page 82] acceptance of Bertram's mistreatment underscores an adaptability to optimize those chances to fulfill her essential needs. This dual nature both defies predetermined protocol and provides the opportunity for Bertram to act justly.

Overcoming marital dilemmas requires an innovative intelligence. Helen's solution lies beyond sanctioned moral or legal bounds. It depends upon creating her own social microcosm, one capable of protecting and supporting her rights as a wife. The Widow and Diana help her to negotiate the obstacles imposed by Bertram and see the bottom of Helen's purpose (AW 3.7.28–29). Since the bed-trick is undramatized, the reasons explicating this purpose far outweigh any sensational imagery associated with this device. This intelligence discloses those objects most clearly aligned with goodness, namely, preservation of a sanctified union and reasonable conduct between a husband and wife.

Since both parties possess this cognitive faculty, the resolution achieved by Helen affirms each spouse's power to enforce his or her subjective rights. With the Widow and Diana's aid, Helen shows how sex can foster a mutually productive end as opposed to a selfish one (AW 3.7.43–47). The actions taken do not seek to change Bertram's character but simply to prompt him to accept the responsibility aligned with the consent underpinning the marital vow. This consent enables Helen to exert herself as dominus without sacrificing her integrity. By implementing this device to advance her rights, she proves singularly capable and just. As a result, her marriage becomes founded upon the ability to circumvent social constraints and prescriptive gender roles, exposing the fault lines in these "dominant" discourses.

Bertram's lascivious actions toward Diana to "corrupt the tender honour of a maid" undermine his authority as husband to determine what is best for the marriage (AW 3.5.72). In effect, his betrayal of responsibility forces Helen to take action. She explains how deploying the bed-trick violates no laws: "wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a wicked act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact" (3.7.45–47). The chiasmus of "sin" and "law" nullifies positive law and customary practices. An inexpressible void arises between social and individual desires, exposing the poverty of expansive decrees to address the intricate designs underpinning personal acts, specifically feminine ones. As a result, Helen's initiative portrays her as a dynamic, not static, being who has the facility to engage in certain actions that supersede conventional ones. No other person can refute this "faculty" or "aptitude" (LWP, p. 25). The sexuality employed in carrying out this [End Page 83] act becomes subsumed into an appreciation for the reason employed in preserving those rights granted to her in this marriage. It discloses a nuanced understanding of a heterosocial alliance and how it incorporates the disparate facets of spouse and self.

The wedding transforms Helen's body into something that each can call their own. It gives birth to a commutative justice where each has a right to the other. Bertram's cruelty, however, undercuts the fact that their vow substantiates a cooperative act of the will. Maintaining its vitality needs to foster a public virtue dependent upon private morality. Following their sexual encounter, she ponders how a man's carnal impulses can blind him so completely to a woman's goodness:

But O, strange men,That can such sweet use make of what they hateWhen saucy trusting of the cozened thoughtsDefiles the pitchy night! So lust doth playWith what it loathes for that which is away.

(AW 4.4.21–25)

Helen suffers no illusion about the delicate balance between love and shame. While critics debate if the defilement alludes to the yielding of her body, his disrespect, or the manner in which the act was conducted, no one questions her unease about Bertram's casual disregard for the emotional vulnerability inherently attached to this physical act.21 She witnesses firsthand that he cares little, if at all, for her well-being. His "hate" loses itself in lust, refusing to allow the virtuous elements of the act, such as consideration or selflessness, to take hold.

A culturally infused hierarchy of power supports the loathing for what he enjoys. In his 1640 treatise, Richard Brathwaite comments upon the subservience of women by finding similarities between early modern wives and their biblical progenitor, Eve: "Subject whereof she was made begot not in her a crookednesse, but pliablenesse of nature: ever ready to bend her will, and apply her affection to the mould of Man: not cruelly to domineere, but constantly to adhere to her Mate."22 Such a perception of wifedom breeds an attitude of superiority. Bertram's arrogance testifies to Helen's need to define herself as an individual before accommodating this ingrained bias and then redefining the concept of marital justness. Pondering the motivation underlying Bertram's contempt discloses her conviction to delineate the virtuous from the vicious. As W. David Kay observes, "Helen's wording seems to direct our attention to the strangeness of male sexuality, rather than to lament her own predicament."23 [End Page 84] By striving to resolve this sexual paradox, she neither fixates upon its negative expressions nor condemns Bertram, for she later describes him as "wondrous kind" (AW 5.3.310).

This contrary conclusion does not mean that she represses the knowledge of his insensitivity. Instead, she accepts that "briars shall have leaves as well as thorns" (AW 4.4.32). The imagery mirrors that of her female compeers: the Countess of Roussillon recalls her early experience with physical love as "this thorn / Doth to our rose of youth right belong" (AW 1.3.129–30), and Diana states that, if given the chance, men will take "our roses / You barely leave our thorns to prick ourselves / And mock us with our baseness" (4.2.18–20). However, only Helen uses the metaphor to reference something positive, namely, "the development of sustaining leaves as the consequence of sexual experience."24

This optimism testifies to a firm belief in the propriety of her actions, painful as they may be, and the opportunity to pursue something that should not be denied to any spouse. Her agency ensures that the marital bond harmonizes with those rational laws promulgated by nature. As Kathryn Schwarz observes, "By representing Helen's desire as the force that restores and sustains social stability, All's Well disables the conventional misogynist distinction between 'good' feminine passivity and 'bad' feminine action."25 It vivifies both her interior and her spousal worth.

Until Bertram favorably accepts the marriage, however, the cost of radical separatism unduly affects her self-perception. She refers to herself as "the shadow of a wife you see, / The name and not the thing" (AW 5.3.308–9). Even though he begs pardon for his malice, his words carry little weight, since he has already falsely professed his admiration twice before (see 2.3.170–73; 5.3.52–55). To impress upon him the seriousness of the situation, Helen states that if his care does not express itself appropriately, then "deadly divorce step between me and you" (5.3.318). Whether or not Bertram believes it, divorce would unravel both their identities, weakening both their social position and sense of self.

Helen's injunction gains meaning through a political analogy. The similarities between a social and an interpersonal polity lie in the voluntary exchange of power between two parties. Grotius holds that the state derives its authority from the rights of private citizens; and in turn, the ruler strives to create a stable environ allowing the individual to pursue what she deems necessary (DJP, pp. 105–7). Similarly, Helen defines herself by staying true to the principles underpinning their vow. Each party needs the other to flourish, yet this symbiosis cannot exist without a willful transference of one's power. Subsequently, a husband [End Page 85] cannot unilaterally deny the duties accorded to his position without expectation of rebuttal. Whereas early modern theories of marriage locate the woman's purpose in obeisance to the husband's will, the very dominance of this will necessarily acknowledges the fact that disobedience or difference will arise.

This difference validates Helen's actions, situating her firmly within a proper relationship dynamic. Katherine Rowe writes, "As a limb of the marital body, the wife executes the husband's will; but she also ratifies their mutual rights and obligations by doing so."26 Each lives a dual existence founded upon subjective rights and social justice. Any rejection of this truth effectively undoes their person and the bond linking them. The fact that he is not deserving of her trust does not negate her striving for something that she perceives as fruitful. Hence, the primary value of the bed-trick lies not in its success, though the desired effect is ultimately achieved, but in the elicitation of an act that expressly advances Helen's rights.

Although enacting her rights neither resolves nor conceals the inherent prejudice of the marriage, it illustrates how to diminish unfair treatment. By opposing patriarchal conventions, Helen and Mariana become active agents within the limits of their wifely roles. Although Mariana is not the main character in Measure for Measure, she also establishes her value via the bed-trick. Her choices do not receive the same emphasis as Helen's, principally because her betrothal to Angelo remains a point of contention and is never fully determined until the play's final hundred lines. As a result, analyses of this ruse often involve examinations of the marriage contract. A review of her legal tie to Angelo is therefore requisite in assessing if intercourse upholds a mandated vow or rests upon an inherent notion of what is just.27

Two types of contracts essential for a legally binding union are present and future nuptials. Though not solemnized by ecclesiastical authority, the contract's legitimacy is drawn from the words spoken by the couple:

English common law recognized two forms of "spousals." Sponsalia per verba de praesenti, a declaration by both parties that each took the other at the present time as spouse, was legally binding irrespective of any change of circumstances, and, whether the union was later consecrated or not, amounted to full marriage. Sponsalia per verba de futuro, a sworn declaration of intention to marry in the future, was not thus absolutely binding. Failure of certain conditions to materialize, notably failure to furnish the agreed dowry, justified a unilateral breach.28 [End Page 86]

According to the Duke, Angelo's engagement with Mariana is per verba de futuro, founded upon a "pre-contract" (MM 4.1.70). Termination of the betrothal is binding since she cannot meet the future conditional, namely, a dowry. Despite the clarity of "black letter law," Angelo alleges that Mariana's immorality is the cause for calling off the wedding (MM 5.1.222–23). If a "pre-contract" had existed, he would have no reason to attack his fiancée's reputation.29

Yet, without any physical evidence to support his claim, Angelo's attack not only proves unpersuasive but also verifies Mariana's need to exert her rights as a wife to protect her name. His calumny tears apart the organic unity stemming from their pledge to one another and shows the need to take an action that aligns with right reason and sound judgment. Although unorthodox, the bed-trick's deployment adheres to a reason founded upon the right of maintaining an interpersonal relationship conformable to the light of human understanding. Mariana counters, "I am affianc'd this man's wife" (MM 5.1.228). In effect, she asserts that the spousal is a de praesenti contract and should be upheld. More important, it addresses any questions concerning her character. Since she knows that their pledge has been consummated and that a witness can testify to this fact, she relies upon honesty to defend her honor. Her integrity removes any doubt about the morality of participating in the bed-trick; it substantiates her right to the necessities of life—namely, a committed, monogamous relationship.

From a strictly legal perspective, if their pledge originates from a future conditional, then their physical union makes it enforceable. Indeed, as Martin Ingram notes, "if couples betrothed by conditional or future contracts had sexual intercourse their union became immediately and irrevocably binding."30 Even though a marriage during the Elizabethan and early Stuart England period "was normally a much more formal and public act than the law of spousals would at first sight suggest and when people of whatever social rank thought and spoke of 'marriage,' they usually meant marriage in church," an informal decision between the couple was still legally valid (CC, p. 132).

Despite this legal truth, no assurance exists that the Duke will enforce it. The bed-trick thus attests most forcefully to the recognition of a right more than its fruition. When posing as a friar, the Duke openly admits that this surreptitious act may not result in the desired outcome. He wonders, "If the encounter acknowledge itself hereafter, it may / compel him to her recompense" (MM 3.1.252–53). Although the act strays from standard perceptions of behavior, it underlines an undying [End Page 87] belief in love's inviolability and a wish to become a vital constituent of Vienna. This interleaving of single-mindedness and interdependence illustrates a determination to affirm the priorities of a contract—if not practically, then ethically.

Mariana's action draws a bold line of demarcation between rights and duties. In other words, no matter how much she believes her spousal agreement with Angelo is valid, she has no duty to consummate their relationship. Rather, the decision exhibits a willingness to transfer power from herself to Angelo in hopes to gain access to his. It provides a basis for the development of a stronger commitment between them. That it serves both their own and the community's betterment validates the rectitude of her will. Her virtue creates the possibility for harmony to flourish.

While Grotius's position may revolve around political rule, its import readily emphasizes the same principles underlying Mariana's decision: "Why, then, would it not be permitted to a people having legal competence to submit itself to some one person, or to several persons, in such a way as plainly to transfer to him the legal right to govern, retaining no vestige of that right for itself?" (LWP, pp. 51–52). Just as it is unreasonable to expect a citizen to deny all his personal rights in favor of the state, it is equally irrational to presuppose that an individual will sacrifice his person for another without some expectation of reciprocity. Using her body to express what is right does not indicate subservience to Angelo's will but rather an autonomous choice to transform an inherently unfair act—denying the goodness of Mariana's affection—into something virtuous. Her choice provides Angelo the opportunity to better his person and nurture a caring relationship that would be extolled in a wider collective context. Since both Mariana and Angelo are integral parts of the community, the potential good of each, as realized through the ruse, accrues to the advantage of the whole.

After the Duke takes off his friar's habit and asks Angelo "Wast thou e'er contracted to this woman?" Angelo's affirmative reply confirms both the necessity of Mariana's act and the possibility of his moral redemption (MM 5.1.376). Prior to this moment, Angelo had adamantly denied his involvement in the sexual congress resulting from the bed-trick. He discredited Mariana and her cohort, Isabella, as "poor informal women" incapable of perpetrating such an act (5.1.237). Such a claim implicitly denigrates each woman's capacity either how to protect her station or exert power over a man. It questions their ability to exercise their liberty in a thoughtful manner. Even though the Duke had introduced [End Page 88] the idea when posing as a friar, Mariana and Isabella had to assess its propriety and elect to carry it out. Without asserting her private and public rights by being in a socially valued monogamous bond, Mariana could not claim that Angelo "knew me as a wife" (5.1.231).

Her exertion of power creates the opportunity for Angelo to remedy his wrong and treat her with dignity. The principal condition for mutual respect is valuing another's rights. Grotius holds that the state's authority derives its power from the rights of private citizens; in turn, the ruler strives to create a stable environ allowing the individual to pursue what is essential (DJP, pp. 105–7). Each entity needs the other to flourish, yet this symbiosis cannot exist without a willful transference of one's power. Similarly, a husband or betrothed cannot unilaterally deny the duties accorded to his position without the expectation of rebuttal. The manner in which this rebuttal arises depends upon how the wife chooses to exercise her rights. Each party lives a dual existence founded upon subjective rights and social justice. Any rejection of this truth effectively undoes their person, the bond linking them, and the ability to act justly. Hence, the primary value of the bed-trick lies not in its success, though for each heroine the desired effect is ultimately achieved, but in the freedom to act with the express purpose of advancing her right to be a respected and valued wife.

The Duke's ruling that Angelo should marry Mariana attests to the inextricable bond between them. This decision could not be delivered if she had not disobeyed the "street statues and most biting laws" (MM 1.3.19). Choosing to participate in this ruse is not an arbitrary act of the will but one designed to expose Angelo's prejudicial bias and the overweening rigidity of Vienna's legislation. Because a person who acts in bad faith may retain legal power (but not justly), her purport is not to subvert authoritarian rule—at least not entirely—but to ensure a more equitable distribution of sovereignty. Her action reveals positive law's inability to address absolutely the essential needs of its citizens. As affection drives her onward—for she "crave[s] no other; nor no better man," nor the material gains attached to marriage—it also highlights how legislation has little bearing in controlling or directing romantic interests (5.1.427). The divide between Angelo and Mariana displays how legal strictures can interfere with a fluid expression of heartfelt desire or doubt. An avenue of dialogue must remain free from external constraints if couples are to resolve their issues, better themselves, and contribute productively to the general good. [End Page 89]

The bed-trick, therefore, proffers Angelo the chance to realize how a woman can help him grasp the purer value of humanus. Its impetus arises from Mariana's need to fulfill personal goals, not satisfy statutory demands. This motivation grants her authority over her own person. As such, her choice appeals to a righteousness extending beyond social dictates. She measures its virtue not by spoken words, but a higher truth:

As there comes light from heaven, and words from breath,As there is sense in truth, and truth in virtue,I am affianc'd this man's wife, as stronglyAs words could make up vows.

(MM 5.1.226–29)

Mariana maintains that reason affirms the legitimacy of her claim. Logic derives from the idea that just as one thing—"light," "words," or "truth"—is inextricably bound to another, Angelo's original proposal and her acceptance conjoin them as one. Light springs from the divine, words issue forth from a living person, truth holds wisdom: these dyads mirror the permanence of their relationship.

Yet the use of the conditional "could" in relation to making a vow reveals language's limitations in expressing the depth of the bond uniting the couple. Language is incapable of taking into account the spirit of the law. This spirit finds its manifestation in their physical union, which underscores the fundamental need for companionship. While her rectitude sanctions its moral permissibility, the ruse simultaneously exposes the broader political problem of establishing justice for the self and state. As Robert Pierce writes, "It is a synecdoche for all the centrifugal forces that threaten the rational order of the state and the individual psyche."31 Employing it brings to light how patriarchal expectations of what defines a licit relationship are tearing apart the very individuality constituting society. In order to prosper, a couple must be allowed to explore their affections without fear of legal denunciation. This freedom empowers the synergism uniting husband and wife, citizen and community.

Since stability arises from the slippage between detachment and participation within accepted customs, Helen's and Mariana's acts unite holist and individualist doctrines. Although these doctrines can be forced to extremes where they seem mutually exclusive, the bed-trick demonstrates that they do not have to be so forced. Their reconciliation occurs by acknowledging one's subjective rights, initiating the appropriate action, and understanding their rational importance. Persevering [End Page 90] in this endeavor creates an inextinguishable relation between seeker and object, man and woman. It ensures that an affectionate wisdom will govern those in a monogamous union. Exercising one's natural rights is not designed to undermine the established order but to foster a broader understanding of interpersonal needs.

The women's persistence in fortifying their men's marital conviction contrasts with their folkloric predecessors, who sought out husbands chiefly to inveigle their way into favor.32 Neither Helen nor Mariana strive to advance a self-centered agenda. Rather, they demonstrate a resourcefulness in capitalizing upon serendipitous events to reinstate their prescribed marital position. The force of their will not only defines their character but also testifies to their liberty in selecting what is best for them as individual women and members of the community. As Schwarz observes, in All's Well That Ends Well, "Helen constructs an intersection of volition and knowledge, her willful acts simultaneously reflecting and constituting the conditions of sexual and social subjectivity" ("CW," p. 207). By channeling intimacy into something valued, both she and Mariana explore the legitimacy of legal and customary practices. This exploration instantiates their rights through the acquisition of those objects necessary for personal fulfillment. Even though patriarchal constructs impose numerous obstacles, some impassible, each woman maintains her independence by forging a marital bond, a paradox underpinning the bed-trick's necessity.

Given the self-centered proclivities of their husbands, neither woman can expect romantic bliss or a credible epiphany. Despite the emotional toll inflicted by the husband's or the betrothed's rejection, their volition serves to protect their dignity, and exemplifies how one can redefine justice. Sinful or sanctioned, exercising their right for martial accord betters the lives of all those involved. It brings to light the idea that the common good springs from the virtue of individuals. By prioritizing their desire for a meaningful commitment, their actions affirm the relationship in the eyes of the public as well as their spouses. Their agency bridges the fissures caused by preordained concepts of duty and inspirits the audience's faith in their capability to delineate virtue from vice. The sought-for resolution produces both a respected union and a heightened sense of self. The interplay between circumventing and accepting social requisites enables them to fulfill those essential desires that the world cannot, or refuses, to satisfy. [End Page 91]

David Strong
University of Texas at Tyler


1. See Marliss C. Desens, The Bed-Trick in English Renaissance Drama: Explorations in Gender, Sexuality, and Power (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), p. 59. Also see Julia Briggs, "Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks," Essays in Criticism 44 (1994): 293–314.

2. David McCandless, "Helen's Bed-trick: Gender and Performance in All's Well That Ends Well," Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 4 (1994): 462.

3. For a history of individual rights, see Annabel S. Brett, Liberty, Right and Nature: Individual Rights in Later Scholastic Thought (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997); and Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

4. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott and Richard S. Peters (New York: Touchstone Books, 2008), p. 84, 1.14.

5. Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, ed. Stephen C. Neff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 36; hereafter abbreviated LWP.

6. Kathryn Schwarz, What You Will: Gender, Contract, and Shakespearean Social Space (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), p. 38.

7. Though critics generally perceive William of Ockham's nominalist philosophy as the framework that gives rise to the theory of subjective natural rights, one prominent exception to this line of thinking is Brian Tierney. Tierney argues that the idea of subjective right is rooted in the canonistic ideas found in the twelfth century; see his "Natural Rights in the Thirteenth Century: A Quaestio of Henry of Ghent," Speculum 67 (1992): 58–68, and "Villey, Ockham, and the Origin of Natural Rights," in The Weightier Matters of the Law: Essays on Law and Religion, ed. John Witte and Frank S. Alexander (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), pp. 1–31.

8. William of Ockham, Dialogus,, in Monarchia S. Romani imperii, vol. 2, ed. Melchior Goldast (Frankfurt: Conrad Biermann, 1614), p. 923.

9. William of Ockham, An princeps, in Opera politica, ed. H. S. Offler (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974), p. 251, 1.6.

10. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. Arthur S. McGrade (1593; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 74, 1.8.9.

11. Jean Gerson, De potestate ecclesiastica, in Oeuvres completes, vol. 6 (Paris: Desclee, 1965), p. 242.

12. Hugo Grotius, De jure praedae commentarius, trans. Gwladys L. Williams (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), p. 10; hereafter abbreviated DJP.

13. Brian Tierney, Idea of Natural Rights (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997), p. 336.

14. William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, ed. N. W. Bawcutt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.1.86–87; hereafter abbreviated MM. References are to act, scene, and line.

15. Constance Jordan, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 66; hereafter abbreviated RF. [End Page 92]

16. Certainly, the early modern feminists tracts by Joseph Swetnam, The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women (1615), and Roland du Jardin, A Discourse of the Married and Single Life: Wherein, by Discovering the Misery of the One, Is Plainely Declared the Felicity of the Other (1621), chart the negative potential of domesticity. Modern scholars, such as Frances Dolan, study the impact of early modern English discourses about marriage on contemporary understandings of marital violence. See, for example, Frances E. Dolan, Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

17. Rachel Speght, A Mouzell for Melastomus (1607), in The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 19.

18. Margaret Ezell, The Patriarch's Wife: Literary Evidence and the History of the Family (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 162.

19. William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, ed. Susan Snyder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 1.1.93–94; hereafter abbreviated AW. References are to act, scene, and line.

20. Catherine Belsey, Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999), p. 83.

21. Janet Adelman believes that the defilement is the consequence of the act itself, not of its status as legitimate or illegitimate; see her "Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 158.

22. Richard Brathwaite, Ar't Asleepe Husband? A Boulster Lecture (London: R. Bishop, 1640), 4 (sig. B2v).

23. W. David Kay, "Reforming the Prodigal: Dramatic Paradigms, Male Sexuality, and the Power of Shame in All's Well That Ends Well," in Re-Visions of Shakespeare: Essays in Honor of Robert Ornstein, ed. Evelyn Gajowski (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004), p. 116.

24. Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 81.

25. Kathryn Schwarz, "'My Intents Are Fix'd': Constant Will in All's Well That Ends Well," Shakespeare Quarterly 58, no. 2 (2007): 206; hereafter abbreviated "CW."

26. Katherine Rowe, Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 95.

27. See Margaret Scott, "'Our City's Institutions': Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure," English Literary History 49, no. 4 (1982): 790–804; Margaret Loftus Ranald, "'As Marriage Binds, and Blood Breaks': English Marriage and Shakespeare," Shakespeare Quarterly 30, no. 1 (1979): 68–81; and Karl Wentersdorf, "Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure: A Reconsideration," Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 129–44.

28. J. W. Lever, introduction to Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare, ed. J. W. Lever (1965; repr., London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), pp. liii–liv. [End Page 93]

29. Megan Matchinske offers a historical assessment of English marriage law that proves accusations of adultery nullify a martial contract; see her Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England: Identity Formation and the Female Subject (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 92.

30. Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 190; hereafter abbreviated CC.

31. Robert B. Pierce, "Being a Moral Agent in Shakespeare's Vienna," Philosophy and Literature 33, no. 2 (2009): 270.

32. As observed by W. W. Lawrence, heroines in the traditional leitmotif of "Fulfillment of the Tasks and the Substitute Bride" intentionally plot and seduce men to achieve their goal; see his Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York: Macmillan, 1931), pp. 39–49. [End Page 94]

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