Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to Heaven.
All's Well That Ends Well (I.1.231-32)
Towards the beginning of All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena decides to take her fate into her own hands. The guy she loves is Bertram. Although he is a Count and thus out of her social sphere, she decides she must have him. As the play unfolds, he treats her rather shabbily—in fact, quite horribly—as he pursues a marriage with someone who can enrich his pedigree. But in the end, the smarter, nobler Helena does get her way—i.e., her man. And the play ends with a promise that these people will kiss and make up at a wedding.
Generally, the weddings that end Shakespeare’s comedies and romances have dark implications, unresolved tensions that suggest the irredeemable compromise involved in a remedy that is hardly a matter of unbridled happiness. For instance, in addition to All’s Well, each of the following plays ends with one or more weddings that were brought about by trickery and abuse that is never explained away or entirely remedied:
· A Midsummer Nights’ Dream
· Much Ado About Nothing
· Merchant of Venice
· Measure for Measure
· A Winter’s Tale
And except for the case of Hippolyta, the Amazonian princess captured by Theseus and essentially forced to marry him at the end of Midsummer, all of the marriages are ones that the morally superior women seem to want. These marriages are, in other words, all instances of an underdog seizing victory from the jaws of defeat by taking charge of her own fate instead of blaming the stars for failing to align. But Shakespeare does not try to suggest that these remedies will truly make anybody whole.
Lawyers have to seize these kinds of compromised, quasi-victories all the time. Otherwise we would go nuts. For instance, the other day I had to dance with joy because the other side of a pro bono appeal I am handling decided not to oppose a motion to stay that I filed in advance of the brief on the merits. This victory does amount to some really good news for my client—but only while the appeal is pending; it is hardly a complete victory or even a suggestion of improved odds. But considering the vagaries of litigation, we must celebrate when we can. Similarly, a friend of mine recently celebrated a quasi-victory of this nature after a seeming loss before the SCOTUS. He was happy at least to have garnered a terrific dissenting opinion supporting his client’s position and to have gotten a holding narrow enough that it gives his client a chance to fight another day on remand.
Taking it upon ourselves to craft remedies that, while imperfect, at least permit us to sustain hope and thus get out of bed in the morning is a worthy enterprise. These kinds of remedies are really quite distinct from the Panglossian impulse to conclude that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” no matter what kind of shitty things happen. These exercises in quasi-optimism are about warding off despair within the confines of what is truly possible—outcomes that are never perfectly fair, good, or beautiful. These are remedies with cracks in them, which, to paraphrase another great poet, Leonard Cohen, will at least let the light get in. See “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.