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The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide


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The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide
Cambridge University Press
9780521195232 - The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide - By Emma Smith

All’s Well that Ends Well

Unsettling romantic comedy which poses the question, is all well that ends well?

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Key Facts

Date: 1604–5

Length: 3,075 lines

Verse: 55% / Prose: 45%

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Plot and characters

Helena (or Helen), daughter of a recently deceased physician, is in love with Bertram, Count of Roussillon, whose father has also just died, making him a ward of the King of France. While his mother, the Countess, is sympathetic to her affections, Bertram is not. Bertram attends the King at court, accompanied by the Countess’s friend Lafew. In exchanges with the clown, Lavatch, the Countess comments on the unfolding plot at a distance. The King has been suffering from a terminal illness that baffles all of his doctors. Helena, armed with her father’s prescriptions, persuades him to try her remedy, on condition that she be given the husband of her choice if she is successful. On his recovery, the King agrees to her request to marry Bertram. Bertram himself is horrified by the prospect of marrying so ignobly, but is forced, unwillingly, to accede. He immediately leaves Helena to go off to war with his braggart companion Parolles. Bertram’s letter to her refuses to recognise the marriage until she has the ring from his finger and a child of his body. Helena is undeterred. Under cover of going to Santiago de Compostela on pilgrimage, she follows Bertram and learns that he is attempting to seduce Diana. She arranges with the Widow, Diana’s mother, that, unbeknownst to Bertram, she will herself substitute for Diana in a bed trick, and Diana arranges the assignation with the ardent Bertram. Meanwhile, Parolles’ cowardice is revealed when he is tricked by the Lords of Dumaine and other soldiers, speaking a comic nonsense language, into believing he has been captured by the enemy. It is announced that Helena is dead and Lafew and the Countess plan for Bertram to marry Lafew’s daughter. Lafew agrees to employ the disgraced Parolles as a fool. Bertram returns and agrees to the new marriage, producing an engagement ring which the King recognises as one he gave to Helena. Bertram cannot explain how he got this ring, and is arrested on suspicion of killing Helena. A letter arrives from Diana claiming that Bertram had seduced her on the promise of marrying her on Helena’s death, and the Widow and Diana arrive at court to confront him. Eventually Helena is brought in to explain, and Bertram has to accept that, since she has got his ring and says she is pregnant with his child, he must acknowledge her as his wife.

Context and composition

The play shares linguistic patterns, particularly vocabulary, with Othello, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, and was probably written around 1604–5. Along with Measure and Troilus (and, more rarely, Hamlet) it is often identified as a so-called ‘problem play’, and it shares its sexualised plot culminating in a bed trick with Measure, its cynicism about war and male camaraderie with Troilus, and its defiantly anti-heroic presentation of its characters with both plays. There have also been suggestions of a later composition date of 1607–8, which would place the play between the romantic comedies and the late plays (Pericles, Tempest, Winter’s Tale) with which it also shares some of its fairy-tale plot elements. It was first printed in the First Folio of 1623. Shakespeare’s source for the play is a story from the Italian collection of novellas, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron – via a sixteenth-century English translation. His major additions to the source are the comic roles: the clown Lavatch and Parolles, who has something of Falstaff’s boastfulness (see Henry IV parts 1 and 2).

One notable – and audible – feature of All’s Well is its frequent use of rhyme – as in Helena’s interview with the King in Act 2 – alongside other formal moments such as her letter in the form of a sonnet. This artificiality contrasts effectively with the cynicism of the play-world and its characters, as its attempts at make-believe idealisation – the King’s miraculous cure, the winning of a mate through cleverness – are repeatedly undercut by the seedy realities of human motivation.


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We have no details of any early performances – and indeed, there are confusions in the Folio text which have led some scholars to propose it was not actually performed in the early modern period. The play was little revived over the intervening centuries, although the trick played on Parolles was popular during the eighteenth century At the beginning of the twentieth century George Bernard Shaw identified it as a play which had found its time alongside the dark, unflinching work of Ibsen, but it has struggled to establish itself in the repertoire. Subsequent revivals followed Shaw in stressing the play’s uncomfortable modernity, often through contemporary dress, such as Barry Jackson’s 1927 production with a young Olivier as Parolles. More recently the play has achieved stage success where its combination of artificiality and realism has been acknowledged. Trevor Nunn’s 1981 Edwardian production, for example, with Peggy Ashcroft as the Countess, Harriet Walter as Helena and Mike Gwilym as Bertram was praised by one newspaper reviewer for keeping ‘the balance between comic hoopla and emotional pain’ by ‘putting real, suffering people into an unreal situation’. Marianne Elliott’s National Theatre production of 2009 stressed the play as fairy tale with a set out of an illustrated Grimm, complete with ramparts, wolves and magic lanterns and an indeterminate ending with Helena and Bertram caught momentarily in a freeze-frame wedding photograph. The play has not been directed for cinema, but the BBC Shakespeare included a version directed by Elijah Moshinsky (1981), set entirely indoors with elaborate lighting effects and effective performances from Angela Down, Ian Charleson and Celia Johnson as the Countess.

Themes and interpretation

In showing us an interrupted courtship between young people, overlooked by their elders, All’s Well bears a superficial resemblance to the romantic comedies which precede it in Shakespeare’s writing career. But these formal similarities are often seen to be outweighed by tonal discrepancy: that marriage is so ruthlessly divided here into betrothal, consummation and only reluctant acknowledgement perverts the comic plot. Sex, money, disease and casually ignoble warfare undermine that cheerful disposition we like to associate with the genre of comedy. Much criticism of All’s Well has tended to boil down to an assessment of its central couple. Is Helena Shakespeare’s ‘loveliest character’ (Coleridge) or ‘a keen and unswerving huntress of man’ (E. K. Chambers)? Is Bertram, as Dr Johnson felt, a ‘coward’ and ‘profligate’, or is he to be pitied for Helena’s implacable and unsolicited pursuit? Certainly, Shakespeare has here developed the vigorous comic heroine who actively seeks her own romantic fulfilment – Rosalind in As You Like It, Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona – into an often discomforting character who defies expectations from her first soliloquy, revealing that she is not mourning her father but swooning after Bertram. Bantering with Parolles about the value of virginity, cool and unsentimental in making the arrangements with the Widow, Helena does not admit of the vulnerability or insecurity that might make her more likeable. Her credo of self-sufficiency – ‘Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven’ (1.1.187–8) – echoes the radical agency of an Iago (in Othello) or Edmund (King Lear): and these are not happy role models for a comic heroine.

But nor does Bertram garner audience sympathy: at best he is callow, like Much Ado’s Claudio; at worst he is deeply selfish, incapable of empathy, resistant to that impulse towards the re-education of young men that is at the heart of much Shakespearean comedy. If All’s Well complements The Taming of the Shrew, this time offering a pattern of male subjection to female will, its ending is no less problematic than that of the earlier play (the plays are printed consecutively in the First Folio). Bertram’s final acceptance of his role as husband begins with a conditional ‘If’, just as the last iteration of the play’s title in its closing lines introduces a note of contingency: ‘All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’ (5.3.322–3). The qualifications deny us a ‘happy ever after’ resolution to the play’s unsettling narrative.

Shakespeare takes a fairy tale here and systematically darkens it. Helena’s magical healing of the King partakes of a fantasy world, but it is a miracle she exploits for her own agenda, just as her pilgrimage has distinctly earthly aims. Lafew’s remark – ‘they say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless’ (2.3.1–3) – is typical of the play’s knowingness as it deploys an idealised folkloric structure in the shrewd service of human selfishness and need. ‘All’s well that ends well’ seems less the conclusion of a fable and more the amorality of the Renaissance pragmatist Machiavelli, advocating ruthless self-interest at the heart of power politics. ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together’ (4.3.60–1) could seem to stand as an epigraph for the play’s own tragi-comic structure, but in context – the Dumaine Lords discussing Helena’s ‘death’ – it, too, is ironised. Helena, like Hero in Much Ado before her, and Hermione later in The Winter’s Tale, returns from this ‘death’ – the conclusion of a tragedy – and instead claims her comedic marriage promise. But the atmosphere of loss and mourning is never fully dispelled in this bracingly uncomic play.

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