Sophism, sex, and Shakespeare's "All's Well": Across the great rhetorical chasm
Renaissance dramatists created plays which incorporated a great complexity of vision precisely because of the sophistic rhetorical training they received in the grammar schools. Trained in antithetical methods, the dramatists consistently juxtaposed rhetorical strands designed to arouse passion against others constructed to investigate truth or command assent. While scholars have attempted to unravel these strands to discover the relationship of dramatic art to everyday Renaissance life, in many cases the paradoxical structure of the plays has left them with many unresolved questions. Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is a case in point. But by superimposing twentieth-century rhetoric over the sophistic episteme articulated in the Renaissance, we can determine that in All's Well Shakespeare resolves the play's controlling paradox through careful rhetorical devices that guarantee reader/viewer identification with an unconventional heroine and that this identification promotes a reassessment of traditional social and moral codes of conduct for both men and women.
In All's Well, Shakespeare essentially accomplishes his argument through character, which he skillfully creates through his rhetorical devices. Helena's speech and actions advocate one means of behavior for women while Bertram's speech and conduct advocate another. Through dissociate reasoning, Shakespeare makes the Renaissance realities of behavior for women appear to be only conventions. Thus, unconventional Helena is identified with virtue while conventional Bertram is identified with vice. Since the audience will not listen voluntarily to someone whom they consider reprehensible, the audience discounts the strength of Bertram's argument, for the argument's force depends not on its strength or validity but with the way the argument is received. The rule of formal justice requires that essentially similar situations or beings be treated in the same manner. Since the argument--the code of conduct for a wife prevails in one situation, the argument a simili or a fortiori allows the audience to apply it successfully in a new situation. Hence, Shakespeare's validation of Helena's behavior as virtuous suggests that other women who behave in the same way are similarly virtuous.