The term “toxic masculinity” is an emotionally charged one that can lead to a lot of heated arguments, but I feel it is one that fits Bertram from All’s Well That Ends Well perfectly. When folding these buzzwords into an academic discussion, it is often best to start by defining the term. Generally, toxic masculinity refers to the traditionally masculine traits that are considered harmful to men specifically or society in general. These include things such as violence, expectation of sex, repressing emotions, etc.
It is entitlement to sex (in a way) that plagues Bertram and nearly ruins his life. Bertram, being a member of the nobility, would traditionally marry a woman of similar status. Helena, a physician’s daughter, does not fit that criteria, so Bertram gets angry at the prospect of marrying her. Then, he finds a partner that he considers suitable, Diana. She is of a higher standing, and more desirable to Bertram. He has no problem lying to her to get her to sleep with him. How he treats these two women and the other people in his life is an excellent example of how this entitlement can be toxic.
Now, this analysis of Bertram is not intended to ruin Shakespeare or be a statement on men as a whole. Rather, it is an exercise in applying a modern lens to an Elizabethan text. Few would argue that Shakespeare is just as relevant today as he was 400 years ago. Shakespeare’s characters have a truly human quality that allows us to relate to them even though they were written centuries ago. Many things have changed in 400 years, but there are aspects of human nature that haven’t. As we become more aware, as a society, applying modern knowledge to an old text can provide unique insight into that character. It doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate Shakespeare. In fact, I believe it helps us appreciate his works even more.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about Bertram…
Bertram and Helena
According to nearly everyone in the play, Helena is the epitome of a perfect woman. Even Bertram occasionally admits she’s pretty great. The Countess, Bertram’s mother, goes on at length about how beautiful and virtuous she is. Then, she goes on to cure the King without any formal education. She was able to take her father’s notes and use them to cure the King, which none of the doctors he consulted could do. Not only that, but she was able to concoct some ingenious plans to get what she wants. First, she gets the King to promise she can have her choice of nobles as a husband. Then, she pulls off the ultimate deception to fill Bertram’s requirements of getting his family ring on her finger and getting pregnant with his child. It’s all rather cunning. Helena’s only real flaw appears to be loving Bertram.
Bertram, however, wants nothing to do with this nearly perfect woman strictly because of her social standing. As mentioned above, Bertram’s status as a Count would ordinarily guarantee him a wife of similar standing. Marriages were arranged as a sort of alliance to the benefit of both families. In addition, the man would typically do the choosing and the woman would be told who to marry by her father. So, when Bertram is told he has to marry Helena, he is not too happy about it. She is not of the social standing he feels he deserves. The King promises to fix this issue by bestowing riches and titles on Helena. That’s not good enough for Bertram though, she would still be lesser. Bertram obviously doesn’t see a problem with this thought process because he assumes his mother will be understanding. He wrote her a letter explaining that he was abandoning Helena and then seem surprised when his mother sent a reply scolding him.
Bertram is willing to tear his entire life apart to avoid Helena, giving us a glimpse into his twisted mindset. First off, he blatantly goes against the King’s wishes in a way that will inevitably lead to Bertram losing the King’s favor. You do not want to lose the King’s favor, and you especially do not want to make him as angry as Bertram makes him. Bertram has made himself a powerful enemy, who has the power to quickly ruin his life. It’s an odd move since he claims to be so concerned with status and power. He doesn’t just lose the King’s favor. His own mother disowns him (sort of). Upon receiving the news, she declares Helena as her only true child and sends a letter to Bertram, presumably to that effect. It isn’t until Helena dies that she accepts him back into her life. On top of them, it appears that the general population believes Bertram is in the wrong. Random citizens of Florence are aware of what he did. His friends talk about it behind his back. Lafeu expresses his disappointment, despite wanting him as a son-in-law. His path to self-destruction only makes sense if we consider his offense at being found into a disadvantageous marriage.
And then there’s Diana…
Bertram abandons his wife and sets off for Florence. The moment he arrives in Florence, he sets his sights on a new woman, Diana. She is just as virtuous and from a family of better standing than Helena, so she seems a better choice. Diana, however, seems to have little say in the matter. She repeatedly sends back his tokens of love and telling him she is not interested, but he doesn’t seem to be dissuaded in the slightest. Once Diana begins to show a little interest (on Helena’s behalf), Bertram goes above and beyond in his promises. He swears he loves Diana and essentially marries her. Bertram gives Diana his family’s heirloom ring to get her to sleep with him. It seems as though it could be about more than just sex, but…
The minute Bertram learns he can return to France, he abandons Diana to presumably chase better marriage prospects. The worst part is, he doesn’t just abandon Diana, he sleeps with her knowing that he’s leaving for France. It’s made very clear that all of Bertram’s friends think he is wrong for even pursuing Diana. However, it isn’t until he returns to France that everything really falls apart for him. He tells lie after lie to cover up all of his wrongdoing, making everyone mad at him all over again. He even tries to tell them Diana is a common prostitute. It’s made clear to everyone that Bertram is not a nice person. It’s too bad he doesn’t end up suffering any real consequences.
Bertram’s attitude hurts himself most of all
If Bertram had accepted Helena as his wife, he could have spent many years in a happy marriage to a loving wife. However, he believed he deserved something better, so he gave up all the advantages given to him. He asserts that social status matter to him, but in practice that doesn’t appear to be true. If status truly mattered to him, he wouldn’t risk his own status just to avoid Helena. The truth is he is offended that the King would even suggest Helena as a bride for him. It is an insult to ask him to marry someone of such a low standing. It is so offensive that it’s worth abandoning his entire life. Bertram cannot cope with not getting his own way.
Then, when he is in pursuit of what he wants, anything is acceptable. There is nothing Bertram won’t do to win over Diana. He gives away the ring he claimed to prize so dearly. Even Parolles warns Diana against Bertram’s advances. Everyone, including Diana, can see that Bertram is just trying to get her into bed. Bertram appears to have no shame. It’s what he wants and what he feels he deserves and it doesn’t matter if he ruins lives in the process. He’s nearly giddy to learn that Helena died and doesn’t seem perturbed that he ruined the reputation of a lovely young woman. It is clear that Bertram’s idea of what he deserves is not just skewed, but detrimental to his own life and the lives of others.
It is this attitude and a disregard for consequences that, to me, makes Bertram fit the term “toxic masculinity”. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.