Helena has been the companion and ward of the Countess of Rousillon since her father’s death. The play opens when Bertram, the young son of the countess, and his friend Parolles leave for Paris to enter the service of the King of France. The countess discovers that Helena has fallen in love with Bertram and encourages her to follow Bertram to the French court.
By means of a rare prescription that her father left to her, Helena cures the King of a fistula and is given her choice of a husband. When she chooses Bertram, he rejects her because of her low rank. After their marriage, he sends her home to Rousillon. She receives a letter from him saying that he will never live with her until she obtains the ring from his finger and shows him a child begotten of his body.
By coincidence, Bertram’s troops are entering Florence just as Helena returns from a pilgrimage. Bertram is trying to seduce Diana, the daughter of a widow who offers Helena lodging. Helena tells the two women who she is and asks for their assistance.
Diana begs the ring from Bertram and agrees to an assignation with him, but Helena takes her place. Believing Helena to be dead, the countess writes to Bertram, urging him to return. Before he leaves, he discovers the cowardice of his foppish companion Parolles.
Just as Bertram is about to be married to another woman, Diana and her mother appear and insist that he is already married. When Helena is finally led forth, she explains that she has met both the conditions imposed upon her. Bertram promises that if she “can make me know this clearly/I’ll love her dearly, ever dearly.”
Shakespeare complicates the folktale motif of a repudiated wife who fulfills impossible tasks to win her husband by using the circumstances to explore the values of the characters. Ironically, it is the older generation who perceives Helena’s worth despite her low birth. In the play, the nobility of a past society is juxtaposed with a present-day world in which fine clothes and rank are valued more than virtue.
Adams, John F. “All’s Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 7, no. 3 (Summer, 1961): 261-270. Includes a discussion of the human worth and the nature of honor in the play. Stresses the importance of the bed-trick in understanding the play.
Charlton, H. B. “The Dark Comedies.” In Shakespearian Comedy. London: Methuen, 1938. Approaches the comedy from the point of view of the older people and their role in the play. Useful for discussions of characters.
Cole, Howard C. The All’s Well Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981. A unique source for tracing the different versions of the basic story, starting with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1348-1353). Detailed discussions include a chapter on Shakespeare’s handling of the tale.
Lawrence, William Witherle. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies. London: Macmillan, 1931. One of the earliest, and most influential, studies to connect the play with the narrative and dramatic traditions preceding it. Explains the basic folktale underlying the plot.
Zitner, Sheldon P. All’s Well That Ends Well. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989. An excellent critical introduction to many aspects of the play. Considers the stage history, critical reception, sources, and the main critical issues of the play. A good starting point for study.