Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well

by William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends Well Essay - All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 38)

All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 38)


All's Well That Ends Well

For further information on the critical and stage history of All's Well That Ends Well, see SC, Volumes 7 and 26.

Scholars generally believe that All's Well That Ends Well was written between 1600-1605, although some believe Shakespeare wrote it earlier. The source story for the play was an episode from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1349-50); a story based on a common folkloric theme of achieving what is thought to be an unobtainable goal. Early critics of All's Well That Ends Well focused on the incongruous plot elements and the thematic concerns of merit and rank, virtue and honor, and male versus female. Beginning in the nineteenth century, scholars found it necessary to justify Helena, especially her aggressiveness and her questionable use of the bed-trick. It was not until the twentieth century that critics began commenting on the balance of tone and structure, and the heretofore overlooked connections between the dark elements of Shakespeare's play and the source story.

In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena, a physician's daughter, must first cure the King of France, and then consummate her marriage to Bertram, the unwilling object of her affections. Although there are several other characters and subplots in the play, the themes of virtue, honor, and redemption can be seen in these central characters. The conclusions of the play's subplots, and that of the primary conflict, are seen by many as unsatisfactory, and as leaving the audience with mixed feelings about the characters and the story. Although the play was written as a comedy, it is commonly referred to as a "problem play" because of the somber and tragic elements found in it, and because of the general lack of satisfaction at the ending. Critic James L. Calderwood (1963) calls All's Well "the most problematic of the so-called 'problem plays'," and Joseph G. Price (1968) finds that while the balance of the play is exceptional, All's Well lacks the "characteristic mood" by which Shakespeare's plays can be identified.

The ending of the play has received much critical attention, with scholars divided on the issue of whether the play does, in fact, end well. Several critics call attention to the fact that due to the title of the play, expectations of the ending are heightened. Some believe that Shakespeare ended his play prematurely, in order to meet a production goal or for financial needs. Others debate the idea that the ending is not acceptable, and suggest viewing the play in terms of Elizabethan conventions. In 1977, Ian Donaldson argued that All's Well has not been studied as the complex play that it is. In what he calls Shakespeare's "play of endings," Donaldson contends that "the notion of the end dances elusively ahead, always just appearing. . . ." Thomas Cartelli (1983) suggests that the conclusion of All's Well was an experiment by Shakespeare, to keep the ending in rhythm with the "eccentric design" of the rest of the play. Maintaining that the ending of All's Well confronts the traditional romantic ending, Gerard J. Gross (1983) questions whether the ending of the play is happy, as a comedy is expected to be, in part because Helena's attraction for Bertram is not entirely believable, and also because the audience is never positive that Helena and Bertram will have a happy life together.

The sexuality of the play is another controversial and much-debated theme. Critics point to the unlikelihood of Helena pursuing a husband who is not only clearly above her rank, but who is portrayed as a selfish, seemingly unlikable man. Early commentators on the play criticized Helena for pursuing a man at all. Recent critics, however, have been more favorable to Helena. E. A. J. Honigmann (1989) views All's Well as a play of female dominance, and one illustrating the contrast of male and female. Likewise, Marilyn L. Williamson (1986) contends that the bed-trick allows Helena to be more sexual than normally allowed in romantic comedies, without being lustful, because the sex is achieved for chaste motives. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) sees the separation of sexuality and marriage in the play as the foundation for other sources of corruption, and cites the bed-trick as death and rebirth, both sexually and psychologically, for Bertram and Helena.

Modern criticism of the play also addresses Shakespeare's intention of commenting on the social role of women, the similarities between Helena's feelings for Bertram and Shakespeare's feelings for his lover in the sonnets, and whether or not stage productions should attempt to explain the holes in the plot through non-verbal cues. The primary debate continues, however, over whether All's Well illustrates Shakespeare's ability to fuse together drastically different characters and seemingly unrelated elements, or whether it exposes lack of unity and forethought on the playwright's part.


James L. Calderwood (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "The Mingled Yarn of All's Well," in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXII, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 61-76.

[In the following essay, Calderwood surveys the principal themes and ambiguous conclusion of All's Well That Ends Well.]

Perhaps the most problematic of the so-called "problem plays," All's Well That Ends Well has been received, both in the theater and in the study, with nearly unanimous disfavor. The principal objection of its critics, that the play lacks unity, would appear to be well-founded, for the relatively few serious attempts to elicit some sort of order have been largely selective, extorting a partial and particular coherence at the expense of major considerations which would vitiate the critical performance. W. W. Lawrence has presented a valuable but somewhat limited study of the analogues of the plot material, indicating the combination of the two folktale plots, "the healing of the king" and "the fulfilment of the tasks," and concluding that the use of such material, freighted as it is with traditional meanings, requires from the audience a relatively uncritical response: Helena is to be seen as noble throughout, the "bedtrick" as entirely acceptable, and the final reconciliation as portending unmitigated happiness. 1 Such a view, unfortunately, imposes upon Shakespeare the function less of a transmuter than of a transmitter of his sources, and by emphasizing the idealized fairytale qualities of plot ignores the pointed qualifications made upon these qualities by tonal realism and structural ironies. Lawrence's findings are accepted by Mark Van Doren, but are enlisted for purposes of disparaging the play; Shakespeare's commitment to the fable plot, Van Doren feels, caused him to subordinate both poetry and characterization to the mechanical requirements of the story.2 On the other hand, E. M. W. Tillyard finds that the play is admirably constructed and its characters effectively delineated, but feels that Shakespeare's imagination operated rather fitfully, failing to invest the crucial moments of action with verse that rises above the merely conventional and sententious.3 And finally, G. Wilson Knight has sought a unifying principle in the play in the pervading opposition between "feminine love in virgin purity [and] male values of prowess linked to sexual laxity."4 Like Lawrence's argument from plot, Knight's argument from theme results in a whitewashing of Helena's character; indeed, Knight considers her scarcely less than a Saint Joan marching forth under the banner of her goddess Diana to encounter and defeat the forces of Mars led by the hapless Bertram. However, against this black-or-white, essentially melodramatic conception of character we can profitably set the lines of the First Lord (IV.iii.68-71):

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp'd them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish'd by our virtues.5

In reading a play whose title makes an assertion, we can scarcely avoid questioning the validity of that assertion, can scarcely avoid asking ourselves if all really ends well here or if the patent falseness of the title as a general proposition should alert us to following ironies. To what extent in this play is the end influenced by the means through which it is reached? And if all does end well, what is all? Certainly one of the critical irritants in All's Well has been the problem of deciding what, if anything, does end in the play, let alone whether it ends well or badly.

If we turn to the opening line we discover that one kind of end, death, is being played off against one kind of beginning, birth: "In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband," the Countess says, and Bertram replies, "And I in going, madam, weep o'er my father's death anew." In fact, the entire first part of this scene is preoccupied with the theme of life and death. Lafew informs us that the king has abandoned himself to death, refusing any longer to delude himself with hopes that his sickness can be cured (11. 14-15). Helena's father, had his skill as a physician equalled his honesty as a man, "would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work" (11. 19-20); his life, were he living, would have been "the death of the king's disease" (1. 22). Bertram's father is dead; Helena's father is dead; and their contemporary the king is fast nearing death. Bertram's departure from Rossillion signals a new life for him but a form of death for Helena: "there is no living, none, / If Bertram be away" (11. 82-83). For one who loves, separation is death; yet, in the overworked Elizabethan pun, sexual union may also be death: "The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love" (1. 89). And so, to achieve the "little death" of love, Helena renounces death-from-separation and sets out to acquire married "life" with Bertram.

Perhaps we should pause at this point and examine Helena's decision more closely. Her two soliloquies in I.i are separated by her dialogue with Parolles regarding virginity. Since this dialogue has often been regarded as dramatically irrelevant, it might be profitable to consider it in relation to Helena's attitudes before and after Parolles' appearance. In the first soliloquy (11. 77-103) we find Helena in despair. She has no thought of pursuing Bertram, of actively pressing her love, no more hope of success than if she "should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it," but, instead, is unhappily resigned to a form of private worship at a distance—"my idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his relics." This style of love—passive, contemplative, worshipful—makes no claims upon its object, nor issues in any kind of action, except insofar as it seeks a mystical union with the beloved in the realm of mind. Innocence and purity are retained, guaranteed by passivity, but only at the price of sexual discontent, for the hind that must die for love aspires to a union that is not of the mind. But if Helena's position involves discontent—the frustration of sexual desire which strives against the apparently insuperable barrier between count's son and physician's daughter—yet she is resigned to it, and her lines just before Parolles' entrance are an endorsement of passivity.

Parolles, however, serves as a catalyst, and the ensuing conversation both crystallizes the issues and provides an index to Helena's changing state of mind. Virginity, to Helena, is something one preserves by inaction, a passive honor acquired at birth; to Parolles, it is something one uses, a marketable commodity which can best be employed in the service of self-interest: "Off with't while 'tis vendible; answer the time of request" (11. 150-51). However, there is an ambiguity in Helena's thoughts about virginity which mirrors her dilemma about the innocence of passivity (love-as-worship) and the potential contamination of action (sexual desire consummated), for though she professes the values of virginity she nevertheless cannot refrain from asking, "How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?" Throughout their talk we see Helena trying obliquely to determine how virtuous virginity really is and how corruptive active love may be. Although she has committed herself to love-as-worship, in her dialogue with Parolles—himself the embodiment of material values, of rationalism, of calculation—the religiosity of Helena's earlier attitude is subjected to the test of secular pragmatism, spiritual love to the claims of concupiscence. She states the problem of mind and body clearly when she says it is a pity

That wishing well had not a body in't
Which might be felt, that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends,
And show what we alone must think, which never
Return us thanks.


In other words, the passive virtues inherent in loveas-worship ("wishing well") go, as they have gone from Bertram, unrecognized and unrewarded; acknowledgement of merit can be obtained, apparently, only if one demonstrates that merit by some kind of physical action. The line about the "baser stars" which shut the poorer born up in wishes—the fate which condemns love for one's social superior to hopeless worship—implies the philosophic basis for Helena's passivity: in a world of determinism personal initiative is futile. But of course determinism offers, as she is well aware, the consolation of innocence: men's lives, and lovers', are like "their birth[s]—wherein they are not guilty."

If we sum up the conflicting attitudes and ideas in Helena, they consist on the one hand of determinism, passivity, innocence, and love-as-worship, and, on the other, of personal initiative, action, potential contamination, and sexual love "to her own liking"; on the one hand, the cold comforts of chastity, on the other, the hope of practical human fulfilment; on the one hand, honor without pleasure, on the other, pleasure without honor. Parolles' importance in Helena's changing position can be inferred from her observations about him as he enters and just before he leaves. She first observes that although he is wholly contaminated—a liar, fool, and coward—nevertheless "these fix'd evils sit so fit in him / That they take place when virtue's steely bones / Looks bleak i' th' cold wind." If evil is here contrasted with good to the latter's disadvantage, yet there is a clear conception of what is evil. At the end of their talk, however, Helena renders a different judgment of "fix'd evil": "the composition that your valour and fear makes in you is a virtue of a good wind, and I like the wear well." Evil has moved, at least rhetorically, into the camp of virtue. The change in terminology suggests a change in Helena's values, a movement toward Parolles; and the suggestion is reinforced by Helena's use of what is conspicuously a Parolles figure of speech: "and I like the wear well." The essentially religious attitude toward values has been modified by the secular one emphasizing appearances. Parolles, the man who can change values as easily as he changes clothes, and for the same reasons, has, without knowing it, induced Helena to tailor her own values in the light of newer and more utilitarian fashions.

In her second soliloquy Helena rejects the views to which she was resigned in the first. Her acceptance of responsibility now requires a partial renunciation of her earlier determinism: the "sky" remains "fated," but within the territories mapped out by fate one has "free scope" for action (11. 213-14). Moreover, the greatest social distances established by fortune can be bridged by the natural human desire for union with the beloved (11. 218-19). And yet in implementing the desire for union one can remain honorable: "Impossible be strange attempts to those / Who weigh their pains in sense, and do suppose / What hath been cannot be." That is, difficult enterprises which seem impossible if contemplated rationally and which are likely to entail a loss of honor ("What hath been"), will be undertaken only if we allow the force of our desires to dominate all other considerations. So Helena sets out on the difficult enterprise of winning Bertram without compromising her innocence. And just as Bertram's departure from Rossillion was his birth into a new life, so Helena's decision is a rejection of death in favor of a new mode of life.

Let us pursue this life-and-death opposition a little further. Like Helena in her first soliloquy, the king has abandoned himself to death. However, Helena, risking her life on the success of her cure, restores the king to life and thereby furthers her own plan of achieving life in marriage. Bertram, forced against his will to marry Helena, willingly risks his life also, not for love, but for military honor. In reaction to his flight and continuing danger, Helena again accepts death in order to save life in another (III.iv.16-17). Diana is willing to die for Helena, provided she retains her virginity ("honesty"): "Let death and honesty / Go with your impositions, I am yours" (IV.iv.29-30). And finally, Parolles can be made to reveal the true nature of his life only under the apparent threat of death (IV.iii).

While instructive in itself, this life-and-death opposition is perhaps more important as it bears on other themes. For example, if we know what it is that characters are willing to die for, we have an excellent indication of the values they endorse, and hence we can begin to understand the motives which urge them to particular kinds of action. Helena is willing to die for love and Bertram; and Diana and Bertram are willing to die for honor. Parolles, however, is unwilling to die for anything: "Let me live, sir, in a dungeon, i' th' stocks, or anywhere, so I may live" (IV.iii.235-36). Indeed, if others are willing to sacrifice life for honor, Parolles is willing to sacrifice honor for life:

First Lord. If your life be saved will you
undertake to betray the Florentine?
Parolles. Ay, and the captain of his horse,
Count Rossillion.


This leads us into the themes of love and honor. Under the general head of honor the play makes several distinctions, especially in the king's lengthy remonstrance to Bertram in II.iii (11. 117-44). The king's speech is meant to distinguish between inherited honor ("name," "additions," "title") and merited honor ("virtue"), between the appearance and the reality of honor: "Good alone / Is good, without a name; vileness is so: / The property by what it is should go, / Not by the title." In its context, the distinction thus made calls attention to Bertram's lack of both honor and moral insight in failing to acknowledge the superiority of Helena's "virtue"—particularly in saving the king's life—to the passive honor of "name." In addition to these, however, there are two other kinds of honor emphasized in the play—virginity and military prowess. In III.v Maria says that "the honour of a maid is her name, and no legacy is so rich as honesty" (11. 12-13). Thus, just as Bertram's "name" is his legacy, so Helena's and Diana's virginity is their legacy; and just as Helena's "virtue" is a merited honor, earned by action, so Bertram's military prowess is a merited honor, earned in battle.

If we consider the play in these terms it is apparent that the king is the fountainhead of honor, containing in himself all of its forms. At the opposite extreme is Parolles, who lacks all forms of honor, but who, because he can counterfeit them effectively, retains Bertram's approval and gets along well enough in the world of the court. Between the two extremes are Bertram and Helena, and it is here, in the thematic middleground of the play, that honor will be tested dramatically in its different forms.

Before examining this theme in any detail we might observe how it contributes to the structure of All's Well. As Lawrence has noted, the first part of the play deals with the "dealing of the king"; that is, it deals with Helena's attempt to convert passive honor into active honor, virginity into virtue. In the latter part of the play, notably Acts III and IV, the Florentine-Senoy war and Bertram's role in that war are dominant; that is, this part focuses upon Bertram's attempt to convert passive honor into active honor, "name" into military prowess. The end of each movement is marked by a kind of peripeteia that we might call the failure of apparent success. Thus Helena's saving of the king successfully leads to the wedding she had hoped for, but the marriage itself becomes an immediate failure. Thus Bertram goes to war to escape Helena and to win honor, apparently succeeds in both, yet surrenders his honor unwittingly to Helena in the "bed-trick." Although less important, Parolles' actions mirror those of Bertram as he makes a pretense, which becomes a parody, of seeking active honor by recapturing the drum—"this instrument of honour," Bertram labels it (—and, instead, is brought to disaster by his fellow soldiers.

The failure of apparent success characterizing each movement clearly directs our attention to the motives underlying these sustained actions and to the goals desired. Self-deception becomes an issue. In assuming that to win Bertram's love she has only to save the king's life and make her choice, Helena is, as the play demonstrates, radically deceived. Principally, she fails to realize the extent to which Bertram is devoted to the purity of his "name." But she is also partly deceived about her own motives. The credo which she stated in I.i—"The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love" (11. 89-90)—is, as mentioned earlier, significantly ambiguous, at the literal level implying the courtly ideal of entirely selfless devotion to the beloved, and, in the punning sense, emphasizing the altogether wordly instigations of the flesh. In setting out to marry Bertram, Helena attempts, as we have seen, to engage herself in the world of action while retaining the innocence inherent in passivity. At the opening of I.iii, however, we find the purity of her intentions undercut by the comic parody of the clown Lavatch. He too seeks marriage, but he is perfectly conscious of his motives: "My poor body, madam, requires it; I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives" (11. 25-28). Like Helena, however, he has "other holy reasons, such as they are" (1. 30); that is, Lavatch, though undeceived about the sexual basis of his urge to marry, is aware that to be politic one must have "other holy reasons," even "such as they are." Accused of being a "foul-mouth'd and calumnious knave" by the Countess, he claims to be "A prophet I, madam; and I speak the truth the next way" (1. 54 ff). In his little ballad Lavatch speaks "the truth the next way":

For I the ballad will repeat
Which men full true shall find:
Your marriage comes by destiny,
Your cuckoo sings by kind.

The last two lines are reminiscent of Helena's earlier dilemma: destiny that separates; sexual desire that joins. Kind refers here, of course, to "nature," and, in this context, to sexual nature, which is pitted against "destiny" as being a more fundamental force. So the flesh was the more fundamental force urging Lavatch to marry, although he could produce "other holy reasons." What the parody suggests, then, is that although Helena professes the courtly ideal of selfless devotion—the willingness to die literally for the beloved—she is, without fully realizing it, more basically motivated by the urge to die sexually with the beloved. The parody thus reinforces the implications apparent in Helena's dialogue with Parolles—that in exploring the uses to which virginity might be put she was particularly wondering, as she said, "How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?"

This undercurrent of sexual desire, together with the same themes which have been considered thus far, emerges again in the curing of the king episode. In essentially the same position that Helena was in following Bertram's departure, the king has abandoned life and hope, has passively given in to his apparently fated death. His answer to Lafew's question—"will you be cur'd / Of your infirmity?"—is a flat and unqualified "No" (II.i.67 ff.). When Helena proposes her cure, he rejects it partly from despair, partly from fear that his reputation will suffer ("to dissever so / Our great self and our credit"—(11. 121-22). Helena's problem now is to persuade the king, as she had earlier persuaded herself, from passivity to action, from despair to hope; and her arguments suggest that she is not unaware of the parallels between them: "Oft expectation fails . . . / and oft it hits / Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits" (11. 141-43). In venturing the cure, the king stands to lose both life and reputation; and in return, Helena hazards her life and her "maiden's name." It might be observed that she makes her hazard in terms that are excessively disproportionate to the nature of the situation:

Tax of impudence,
A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame,
Traduc'd by odious ballads; my maiden's name
Sear'd otherwise. . . .


Now although there is some evidence that Helena's virginity is associated with magical powers, as G. K. Hunter notes,6 still her virginity cannot be dissociated from its primary sexual significance. In other words, Helena is engaging in an action that, by her own definition, may result in a metaphoric loss of virginity. Her verbiage about hypothetical sin—"strumpet's boldness," "divulged shame," "odious ballads," "Sear'd"—helps further to define the situation as one tainted, at least in her mind, by overtones of sexual promiscuity.

These overtones are still present when Helena chooses among the young nobles. In rejecting one of them, she says, "Blessing upon your vows, and in your bed / Find fairer fortune if you ever wed" (II.iii.91-92); and to another: "You are too young, too happy, and too good /To make yourself a son out of my blood" (96-97). Blood here is capable of referring either to Helena's social rank or to her "passion"; thus in both passages she seems partly conscious of violating "destiny" and chastity. This sequence of imagery culminates in another significant ambiguity when Helena, choosing Bertram, says: "I give me and my service, ever whilst I live, / Into your guiding power. This is the man." As in the earlier line, "The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love," here we have on the one hand the courtly ideal of service as devotion, and, on the other, the sexual pun upon service as fornication.7

This is not to suggest that Shakespeare regards sexual desire in itself as being impure, that he is applying the moral standards of Malvolio; but that Helena's sexual desire is "impure" in terms of the ideal of courtly love which she has been professing to follow. The two codes of love, courtly and naturalistic, are brought together with a clash when Helena offers Bertram her "service." In the naturalistic sense of the pun, "service" implies the element of love which receives fuller definition in Sonnet 129:

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action.

"Lust in action," of course, by no means characterizes Helena; but even so, ever since her encounter with Parolles in Act I, there has been an undercurrent of sensuality in her motives running counter to the mainstream of courtly love. Neither code, however, is being dramatically sanctioned. If the naturalistic view of love seems a descent from the courtly ideal of love-asworship, its insistent presence nevertheless exposes the essential sterility of the courtly ideal—its impracticality, even impossibility, in view of the fundamental force of the sexual nature to which Lavatch's ballad called attention. Ultimately, both views of love are inadequate, and later in the play we shall find Helena moving beyond them to a position which is best described in the first seventeen sonnets and in which the element of lust in the sexual act is subordinated to a desire for procreation in marriage:

So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
Unlook'd on diest, unless thou get a son.

(Sonnet 7)

A discussion of that development in Helena must be deferred until later. For the moment I am only suggesting that Helena's motives are complex—that their web is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together—and cannot be accounted for merely by reference to the folktale plot. We should not forget, for instance, that although her healing of the king is intrinsically virtuous, it is, after all, virtue with a design and not simply altruism. As Helena told the Countess in I.iii.227-30:

My lord your son made me to think of this;
Else Paris and the medicine and the king
Had from the conversation of my thoughts
Haply been absent then.

For the king, of course, all's well that ends well; the fact that the restoration of his life is only the means to another end is unimportant. For Helena, however, all does not end well at this point, but very badly indeed; and the reader seeking explanations is forced to examine means and motives more closely than the king. To a large extent, then, the measure of Helena's actions in saving the king and choosing Bertram lies in their paradoxical outcome. What she receives is the letter, not the spirit, of her desires. If her success confirms the "virtue" of her action in saving the king, the failure of her success confirms the self-deception, the underlying faultiness of motive, which has been suggested in the imagery up to this point.

The initial failure of the marriage is augmented by Bertram's abandonment of Helena and by his ultimatum stating the unlikely conditions under which he will accept her. In III.ii, Helena starts on her pilgrimage with a sense of contamination which is illustrated in the letter that she leaves for the Countess (III.iv.4-17):

Ambitious love hath so in me offended
That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon,
With sainted vow my faults to have amended.


Bless him at home in peace, whilst I from far
His name with zealous fervour sanctify.

With these last two lines we should compare the conclusion of her first soliloquy in the play:

But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.


She has clearly forsaken the mode of action and returned to her original attitude of love-as-worship. In her realization that Bertram's flight from her may cause his death—"And though I kill him not, I am the cause / His death was so effected" (III.ii.115-16)—she has had a type of tragic anagnorisis, which has led to her present penitence, her desire "With sainted vow [her] faults to have amended." Thus if Helena's motives in healing the king were in accord with the sexual interpretation of her credo—"The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love"—her motives in leaving France now accord with the credo as a statement of the courtly ideal of pure selflessness in love. The "little death" in union succumbs to death-by-separation: "He is too good and fair for death and me; / Whom I myself embrace to set him free" (III.iv.16-17). And so at this point Helena has come full circle in her movement from passivity to action and back to passivity. She is not, of course, literally back at the beginning, for she has moved also from innocence to contamination, and her recognition of guilt, her penitence, her desire to amend her faults signal her progress from self-deception to an enlarged consciousness both of herself and of the world of action. The product of this enlarged consciousness will be found in the so-called "bed-trick," where she finally discovers the way in which innocence can be made to attend action.

The failure of Helena's marriage cannot, of course, be attributed entirely to failures of motive on her part; the major cause is Bertram. With respect to Bertram we again find Shakespeare employing the passivityaction pattern and linking it both to the honor and to the self-deception themes. Like Helena, Bertram has his legacy of honor in the "name" he has inherited, and, again like Helena's, his honor is of the passive type, a mere birthright. In this sense, then, his "name" is equivalent to her virginity; and certainly he protects his "name" with all the assiduity of one who believes a virgin status is about to be violated: "A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!" (II.iii.115-16). Bearing his father's face, as the king observed in I.ii, Bertram has not, however, inherited his father's "moral parts," as the king had hoped. Throughout the play Bertram's rejection of Helena is clearly intended to contrast with the king's description of his father, whose primary virtue was his humble disregard for social distinctions: "Who were below him / He us'd as creatures of another place" (I.ii.41-42). Thus, in his long remonstrance about honor in II.iii, the king pointedly suggests Bertram's failure to conduct himself as his father would have: "that is honour's scorn / Which challenges itself as honour's born / And is not like the sire" (11. 133-35). In his strenuous defense of his own honor of "name," Bertram ironically proves himself deficient in honor, by failing both to accede to the king and to recognize genuine honor ("virtue") in Helena. Like Hotspur and like Faulconbridge early in King John, Bertram regards honor less as the inherence of ethical values than as a transferable award which one can receive through inheritance or merit through physical exploit. For him, as Parolles says, "He wears his honour in a box unseen / That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home" instead of rushing off to war (II.iii.275-76). Hence, just as Helena attempted to convert her passive honor of virginity into the active honor of "virtue," so now Bertram sets out to convert his passive honor of "name" into the active honor of military prowess.

There is still another parallel between his and her actions here, in that the war, which hardly becomes at any point a dramatic reality, is linked with the lifeand-death opposition discussed earlier. In I.ii the Second Lord said of the war: "It may well serve / A nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit" (11. 15-17). And in III.i the First Lord says to the Duke of Florence: "But I am sure the younger of our nature / That surfeit on their ease will day by day / Come here for physic" (11. 17-19). The implications are clear enough: the war is a symbolic one, and we are to regard it in the same light as Helena's healing of the king. As she cured his sickness and proved her "virtue," so the war cures the sickness of an idle nation whose young men are absorbed in vanities of dress and superficialities of thought. Like Helena, then, Bertram also risks his life, and he proves himself "virtuous" in the masculine arts.

Unfortunately, Bertram is not content to restrict his prowess to the battlefield but insists upon assailing the maid Diana's chastity as well. At this point the honor theme receives its strongest emphasis in the exchange of the rings. Bertram refers to the ring which Diana demands as being

an honour 'longing to our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i' th' world
In me to lose.


And Diana replies:

Mine honour's such a ring;
My chastity's the jewel of our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy Γ th' world
In me to lose.

Thus the "bed-trick" involves the exchange of Bertram's passive honor of "name" and Helena's passive honor of virginity.

The "bed-trick" has produced a good deal of critical displeasure; and it is no doubt true that this sort of sexual shell-game, even though it is an integral part of the source material, is rather out of taste. However, there is much to be said for it in terms of theme and character. What happens to Bertram is, of course, wholly consistent with our knowledge of his character. His inability to distinguish one body from another not only emphasizes the superficial values upon which his lust is based, but also confirms his general lack of discernment. From the first he has been deceived in his opinion of Helena, has lacked the maturity of judgment to perceive her genuine virtues, has been blinded by his own selfish concern for "name," which is itself a superficial value. Unable to "see" Helena's spiritual qualities—ironically, in refusing her, he begged the king to give him "leave to use / The help of [his] own eyes" in the choice of a fitting wife (II.iii.107-108)—he is now unable even to recognize her physical self. Moreover, when he imposed the conditions under which he would accept Helena—the "tasks"—Bertram voluntarily and foolishly put himself into the position of one who could be defeated only by an act of deception. The "bed-trick," then, is a fitting culmination to a series of self-deceptions under which he has labored throughout the play.

The "bed-trick" is also important structurally, for it displays the relationship between Bertram's behavior in the latter part of the play and Helena's behavior in the earlier part. I have already suggested that Helena's essentially virtuous action in saving the king was compromised by the undercurrent of sexual desire in her choice of Bertram, and that the climax of this sexual imagery was reached at the moment of choice when Helena offered Bertram her "service." In Bertram's wooing of Diana now, his sole motive is sexual desire, sheer lust, although he professes (as Lavatch could profess) "other holy reasons"—his oaths of pure love and eternal fidelity. The parallel is made exact when Bertram tells Diana that he loves her "By love's own sweet constraint, and will for ever / Do thee all rights of service" (IV.ii.16-17). We have seen, however, that Helena came to a recognition of her faults and, by implication, a greater understanding of the relationship between action and contamination. In the "bedtrick," lust is entirely absent from her motives; sexual pleasure for its own sake—"How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking"—is wholly subordinated to the necessity of meeting Bertram's conditions, to the getting of the ring and the begetting of the child. In other words, as Adams has pointed out,8 lust is impure because it turns sex to selfish and idle purposes; honorable sex consists in having procreation as its object. Thus Helena's much-criticized deception is not only lawful, as she herself insists (III.vii.45-48), but chaste as well. She has found the one irreproachable use for virginity and, at the same time, the way in which innocence can accompany action.

Although the "bed-trick" has an important bearing on Bertram's behavior in the final scene of the play, let us now consider Bertram in terms of another character in whom he has been deceived—Parolles. In IV.iii the plan to expose Parolles is carried out. Early in the scene Bertram's fortunes are apparently at their zenith, and in a gush of hubris he says:

I have tonight dispatch'd sixteen businesses a month's length apiece. By an abstract of success: I have congied with the duke, done my adieu with his nearest, buried a wife, mourn'd for her, writ to my lady mother I am returning, entertain'd my convoy, and between these main parcels of dispatch effected many nicer needs; the last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet.

He does not know, of course, that this last, "nicer" piece of business with Diana has turned out otherwise than he anticipated, nor that his estimate of Parolles is about to turn out differently from what he expects. Just as Helena has deceived him in order ultimately to undeceive him as to her own merits, so the lords deceive Parolles in order to undeceive Bertram as to Parolles' merits as friend, soldier, and adviser. In both deceptions, symbols of honor are central—the ring and the drum.

The interrogation of Parolles does as much to expose Bertram as it does to expose Parolles, and the two men are in some respects equated. For example, Parolles says about the validity of one of his answers, "I'll take the sacrament on't" (1. 133), but sacraments have no binding effect on such a word-changer as he, nor has the sacrament of marriage had any binding effect upon Bertram. Naturally enough, Parolles is excessively concerned about truth: "a truth's a truth," he declares, and "I will tell true" (11. 152, 157). In this he is trading a form of honor to gain his ends, just as Bertram traded his family honor to gain his ends with Diana. Both plead their cases and maintain that they are the soul of honor at the very moment that their conduct gives them the lie. And finally, Parolles' desperate lying in this scene has its parallel in Bertram's equally desperate lying in the final scene of the play.

It is in this final scene that critics have found Bertram's conduct—and hence the play itself—inexplicable. Throughout the play an undiscerning adherent of superficial values, Bertram now becomes almost despicable in his Parolles-like squirmings to avoid exposure. He lies about Helena's ring, lies about having bedded Diana, and, when forced to admit the latter, tries to pass her off as a whore. In short, he is utterly without honor. And yet when Helena enters and gives her explanations, Shakespeare apparently means for us to accept Bertram as a reformed man and the conclusion as a happy ending. The strain upon the reader's credulity is excessive indeed.

This conclusion is perhaps no less difficult to accept, but somewhat easier to understand, if we observe that Bertram's conduct here is consistent with the symbolism of the "bed-trick" episode. In giving his family ring to Diana, Bertram relinquished his honor symbolically, and in (supposedly) bedding Diana out of pure lust he relinquished his honor in fact. However, thanks to Helena's substitution of herself for Diana, Bertram's honor passed into her keeping both symbolically and actually: the discarded ring now remains in the family, and the act of lust now becomes an act of lawful procreation. In the final scene, then, Shakespeare maintains this merger of actual and symbolic by presenting us with a Bertram entirely devoid of honor. In other words, so long as his ring (family honor) is in Helena's possession and so long as he is ignorant of the child within Helena (which exonerates the act of lust), Bertram is literally incapable of honorable behavior. As soon as she restores the ring and informs him of her pregnancy, his honor is redeemed, and he is able to say:

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.

Thus, as she had miraculously healed the king, so Helena also heals Bertram. We may well feel that if Bertram is actually cured it is a more impressive miracle than that which cured the king; but there is little doubt that Shakespeare is asking us to grant the success of the cure. As the king says in conclusion:

All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.


1 W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931).

2 Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1939).

3 E. M. W. Tilyard. Shakespeare's Problem Plays (London, 1957).

4 G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (London, 1958).

5 I am using the New Arden edition (London, 1959), ed. G. K. Hunter.

6 New Arden edition, "Introduction," p. xlii.

7 In his excellent article, "All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation," SQ, XII (1961), John F. Adams makes some keen observations about the puns upon service in the play.

8Ibid., Adams perceptively analyzes the sexual imagery and its relationship to the medieval concept of the rosa sine spina.

Joseph G. Price (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "A Defence of All's Well That Ends Well in The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well That Ends Well and Its Critics, University of Toronto Press, 1968, pp. 133-72.

[In the following excerpt, Price analyzes the structure and exposition of All's Well That Ends Well, and argues that the play is excellently balanced.]

What is the nature of All's Well that Ends Well? Does that nature, justify the coexistence of these various literary modes? We have three pieces of evidence: the text of the play, its source, and a general knowledge of Shakespeare's artistic methods as dramatist and poet.2 Presumably, the text provides the final version of a play prepared for performance on stage. Variations between the text and its source provide clues to the intention of the playwright; deliberate changes suggest specific effects. Shakespeare's general method as a dramatist provides the foundation for particular judgements in this play. His methods as a poet have significance in that his artistry in imagery and symbol, in irony and vision, may surpass the immediate comprehension of a theatrical audience. I propose, then, to examine the nature of All's Well on the basis of this evidence.

The first scene of All's Well is excellent exposition. Mood, plot, character, and theme are deftly sketched in lines which, characteristic of Shakespeare's economy, serve several functions. The Countess's mourning for her late husband and her melancholy at the departure of her son, the regretful recollections of Gerard de Narbon and his medical skill, the despairing talk of the King's disease, and the tears of Helena establish a sombre mood. The deaths of the two fathers set up a parallel between hero and heroine which is extended throughout the play as the structural basis for the plot. Bertram and Helena are both wards: Bertram, we are told, will find in the King a second father; Helena has already been bequeathed to the Countess's overlooking. As the plot develops, both, ironically, object to their wardships. Because of her love for Bertram and her fear of acknowledging him as brother, Helena protests against the Countess's use of the title 'mother'. Because of his contempt for Helena, Bertram protests against the father-king's arrangement of his marriage. The marriage forces Bertram to flee from King and Court as a soldier; his desertion forces Helena to flee from Countess and home as a pilgrim. Only in the final scene are the young people reconciled to an acceptable relationship: Helena's 'O my dear mother' (v. iii. 313) is uttered not to her mother-guardian, but to her mother-in-law. In addition to the structural function in the plot, references to the deceased fathers characterize the children. The Countess describes Helena in terms of inherited and acquired virtues:

I have those hopes of her good that her education promises her dispositions she inherits—which make fair gifts fairer; for where an unclean mind carries virtuous qualities, there commendations go with pity; they are virtues and traitors too. In her they are the better for their simpleness; she derives her honesty and achieves her goodness.

(I. i. 36-42)4

Helena is praised for perfecting those natural qualities which she has derived from her father. This characterization, moreover, elicits from the Countess a theme of the play: inherited qualities must be nurtured before goodness is achieved. If they are ruled by an 'unclean mind', they become traitors to our characters. The dramatic elaboration of this theme is the basis for the characterization of Bertram, who fails to cultivate his inherited nobility. Thus the Countess's praise of Helena is restated as dispraise of Bertram in Act IV. In a thematic judgement upon mankind generally and Bertram specifically, the Second Lord defines us as 'merely our own traitors . . . so he [Bertram] that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o'erflows himself (IV. iii. 20-24). At this early moment in the play, however, we have only to realize that Bertram has yet to develop inherited qualities, that he has yet to achieve that goodness which is Helena's. The terms of his conflict are made explicit in the hopeful farewell of his mother:

Be thou bless'd, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape! Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright.

(I. i. 57-60)

The talk of death and departure characterize the elders as well. In 'the most beautiful old woman's part ever written', a widow's grief and a mother's anxiety are mollified by the dignity of the Countess, a 'breeding' which, as another instance of the thematic nurturing of inherited qualities, prefigures the potential maturity of Bertram. Lafeu's concerned responses to her demonstrate his warm amiability. His role as court councillor is implicit in his description of the King's virtue and of the disease which plagues the King. The description not only introduces the King but also prepares the audience for the first major action. For, the Countess's reply, 'Would for the king's sake, he [Gerard de Narbon] were living! I think it would be the death of king's disease' (I. i. 20-22), serves the plot in two ways. It suggests to the thoughtful Helena a means of fulfilling her love; as an exclamation of faith, it makes the consequent cure of the King more plausible to the audience.

The lines of the hero and heroine in the first part of the scene do little to extend the characterizations beyond the delineations of the Countess. In her only line, Helena hints at a motive of grief which is comprehensible only in her first soliloquy. Bertram's lines have been interpreted as indications of a vicious temperament, but this premature view of his personality destroys the dramatic effect of Helena's revelation of her love. His 'Madam, I desire your holy wishes' (I. i. 55) may be a brash interruption in the discussion of grief, but, even as such, it is no worse than might be expected from an 'unseason'd courtier' (I. i. 67). In itself, the line is indifferent; the suggestion of a faulty text, the insertion of stage business, or merely the intonation of the voice obscures Shakespeare's intention. Indifferent too are his parting words to Helena, 'Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her' (I. i. 73-74). But surely in this case, their indifference is the very point of the lines. There is neither warmth nor scorn. From Bertram's view, the departing son bids the household dependant to assist his mother. An indifferent Bertram intensifies the effect of Helena's soliloquy.

In a brief seventy-six lines, the exposition has prepared the audience for the play's primary interest, the seemingly futile love of Helena:

O, were that all! I think not on my father,
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him; my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.
I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away; 'twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
Th' ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. 'Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart's table—heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour.
But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.

(I. i. 77-96)

In the revelation of her love, Helena sketches such an attractive portrait of Bertram that the attention of the audience is redirected to the hero. The rather indifferent young man who has just left the stage now assumes a romantic image.5 Shakespeare makes use of this device throughout All's Well. More typical of Shakespeare's dramatic technique is the introduction of a major character, through the speech of another, before he appears on stage. In All's Well, however, Helena constantly follows Bertram on stage to interpret his conduct through her love. The reason for the device is clear: the reaction of the audience is not to be fixed by his conduct; rather, the conduct is to be reconsidered in the light of her love. This device, of course, does not prevent Shakespeare from foreshadowing the actions of Bertram. Bertram's later objection to Helena because of class distinction gains some legitimacy in this speech by Helena's admission that the difference in social rank constitutes an apparently insuperable obstacle to her love. This kind of foreshadowing makes more acceptable the subsequent reconsideration demanded of the audience.

The entire first scene shows a gradual shift in mood from darkness to light. The soliloquy is pivotal in that shift. (Helena's soliloquy initiates a change in mood which brightens as the scene progresses.) The sombre response to death is not to be extended into the play, and Helena's dismissal of it, 'O, were that all! . . .' leads us into the world of comedy. With Helena, we are not to be involved in death, in the potentially tragic circumstances of the opening lines, but in life and love. The romantic exaggeration of her loss—the departure of Bertram outweighs death—lightens the tone. Even a serious concern for the futility of her love is undermined by the sentimental picture which Helena draws of herself sketching Bertram's features in her heart. In the same spirit of young love is her worshipful 'my idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his relics'. Both imagery and diction reinforce the shift in mood. Images of death and darkness yield to 'bright particular star' and 'Bright radiance and collateral light'. The Countess's 'I bury a second husband' is now vitalized in Helena's:

The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love.

As a striking instance of Shakespearian compression, the sentence not only contributes to the mood, not only defines the distinctive quality of the love and Helena's awareness of it, but also foreshadows the plot on two levels. On the denotative level of 'die', Helena is mated to Bertram, then feigns death, and finally wins him; on the sexually connotative level of 'die', Helena is mated to Bertram, but wins him only after the 'death' of sexual union.

The soliloquy is interrupted by the entrance of Parolles, and the comic mood shines more brightly. For Parolles is colourful and alluring:

Who comes here?
One that goes with him; I love him for his sake,
And yet I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, solely a coward;
Yet these fix'd evils sit so fit in him
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak Γ th' cold wind; withal, full oft we see
Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.

(I. i. 97-103)

In a choral role, Helena, who has just delineated Bertram for the audience, now indicates the intended response to Parolles. Although he has serious faults, we are not to consider them seriously. In fact, in the world of comedy, these faults 'sit so fit' in him that the absurdity of the character dismisses any moral judgement. Other evidence supports his attractiveness. Parolles mixes freely with the other young lords at court and appears to deceive them temporarily (II. i); the First Lord attributes a seductive charm to him (III. ii. 90-91); and, even Lafeu admits the disgraced braggart into his household (V. ii. 49-51). Helena's assessment of Parolles establishes a basis for the justification of Bertram. The structural link between Bertram and Parolles is made later, but Helena's acceptance of the vices of the braggart anticipates her willingness to accept the faults of her beloved. Although Helena's motivation is love, the contributing congeniality of Parolles must surely be matched or surpassed by the external charm of Bertram. Until his defiance of the King, there is nothing in the text to support a disagreeable Bertram. He is escorted to Court by the King's chief adviser, welcomed affectionately by the King, and is adopted as a comrade by the other lords. After his defiance, he is still received warmly wherever he goes. He is commissioned general of the troop by the Duke of Florence, praised by the Widow and her neighbour, and is attractive to Diana. He is readily forgiven by the Countess, the King, and Lafeu; Lafeu's daughter is willing to marry him. Most important, his appeal is essential to Helena's love. In this speech, Shakespeare paints the broad stripes of Parolles's personality as a hint of the finer lines in Bertram.

There is little need to justify the humour of the virginity repartee which follows. It has a comic appeal for the modern audience as well as the Elizabethan, if not for the Victorian. What has been obscured in the argument over propriety, however, is the structural function of the duologue.7 Just prior to it in her first soliloquy, Helena has expressed the futility of her love; just after it in her second soliloquy, she resolves to fulfill her love. What happens between these two speeches must account for the difference in attitude. In the interim, Parolles has engaged Helena in a typically Elizabethan wordplay upon the term virginity. How does Helena react? At first, she falls in with his banter. To his question, 'Are you meditating on virginity?' she poses a question which will feed the exchange, 'Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?' The question and her next few replies serve the comedy, but we note that there is little interchange thereafter. Parolles dominates the stage, delights the audience with his argument against virginity. Meanwhile, the topic has dropped Helena into a reverie which links her two soliloquies. Parolles's first exclamation, 'Away with't!' intrudes upon her thoughts and her answer reflects the first soliloquy, 'I will stand for't a little, though therefore I die a virgin.' After another exhortation, his second exclamation, 'Away with't!' intrudes again, but this revealing reply foreshadows her second soliloquy, 'How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?' The singular, personal form of both lines contrasts with Helena's general applications to virgins at the beginning of the duologue.

There are several ironies in the exchange between Parolles and Helena. The couching of the discussion in military terms is natural to the braggart-soldier, but the assault of man and the barricade of woman are reversed in Bertram and Helena. It is Bertram who flees before the offer of Helena; moreover, he prefers war to a conquest of her virginity. It is ironic that Parolles prompts the plan that leads to his young master's flight. So too, his urging, 'Out with't! Within the year it will make itself two' is actualized in an 'increase' which brings Bertram to accept his wife. There is irony in that Parolles assists Helena in the loss of her virginity, for he acts as pander between Bertram and Diana. The duologue, although many critics have insisted to the contrary, is demonstrably not an interpolation.

Editors have generally agreed that the speech of Helena's which follows shows signs of textual corruption because of its abrupt shifts, the ambiguity in its second line, and its obscure dramatic function:

Not my virginity; yet . . .
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,
A phoenix, captain, and an enemy,
A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,

A counsellor, a traitress, and a dear;
His humble ambition, proud humility,
His jarring-concord, and his discord-dulcet,
His faith, his sweet disaster; with a world
Of pretty, fond, adoptious Christendoms
That blinking Cupid gossips. Now shall he—
I know not what he shall. God send him well!
The court's a learning-place, and he is one—

(I. i. 161-73)

Mr. Hunter is hesitant to concede a textual corruption and annotates the lines to suggest a pattern of continuity. Helena is 'fooling the time'; she uses abrupt transitions to conceal her deeper meanings from Parolles. The annotation, however, raises a problem for the actress who must convey these deeper meanings to the audience while she conceals them from Parolles. I believe that a restoration of the first line as it appears in the First Folio may make the speech intelligible and prompt a solution to the actress. The Folio reads, 'Not my virginity yet:'. Literally, the line is a satisfactory answer to Parolles's question, 'Will you anything with it?' If the line is delivered in the same distracted manner as I have suggested for the duologue, with a slight stress upon 'yet', it likewise reveals to the audience what has absorbed Helena—the formulation of a plan which involves an action precedent to the loss of virginity, a plan which is made explicit in the second soliloquy, the cure of the king as a remedy for her love. The vocalization of her thought before Parolles startles Helena, however, and she quickly redirects the conversation. The redirection is marked stylistically by a shift from prose to verse. With a gesture that indicates the Court, or at least the departure of Parolles and Bertram (Parolles might very well have set down baggage to which Helena points), Helena engages Parolles in courtly, fashionable talk of love and its conceits. Eager for a new line of wordplay, Parolles, amused, waits to reply. When Helena places Bertram in this love cult, however, her own feelings break over this witty patter and she cannot continue, 'Now shall he—I know not what he shall.' Her awareness that 'The court's a learning-place, and he is one—' frightens her. The recital of love titles which were meant to conceal the hint of the first line has instead built up an anxiety which strengthens her reason for action. Her anxiety is apparent even to Parolles, who responds not with banter, not with a bawdy analysis of love at court, but with unaffected questions that seek an explanation. Helena's reply is a riddle to Parolles but it conveys to the audience her desire that her love might manifest itself tangibly to Bertram. The entrance of the Page cuts off further questions and the scene falls back into prose.

The exchange adds credibility to the love of Helena and to the later developments of the plot. Helena recognizes traits in Bertram which make him easy prey for courtly fashions and courtly love. Despite these traits and the anxiety which they arouse in her, she determines to win him. Her insight and her acceptance prepare the audience for Bertram's conduct and weaken any condemnation of him.

The interruption by the Page marks a return to the bantering style at the beginning of the virginity duologue. Her quick retorts illustrate the wit and zest by which Helena easily overcomes Parolles, as she did not do when distracted by her own thoughts. Her jests underscore the braggart's cowardice which will be exposed later. As Helena knows Bertram, so she knows Parolles. In fact, it is she, not Lafeu as so many critics argue, who is the first to see through him.

The scene ends with Helena's second soliloquy in which she reveals her resolution to win Bertram and hints at the King's disease as the means. Her thoughts and images link this soliloquy closely to the first. If earlier she had sighed, 'I am undone', she now decides, 'Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.' If she had regretted the distance which made Bertram a 'bright particular star', she now decides, 'the fated sky / Gives us free scope'. If she had blamed the ambition in her love 'which thus plagues itself, she now asks, 'What power is it that mounts my love so high?' and suggests nature as the answer. If she had decided earlier that 'the hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love', she now sees that only those 'who weigh their pain in sense' refuse the attempt. The hind and lion have now become 'like likes'. Is Helena now the aggressive female condemned by so many critics?

I do not think so. What has Shakespeare done, what can the actress do, to protect Helena during this transformation? First, Shakespeare has tied these soliloquies together so that the second recalls the first, and the actress can reinforce this by posture and gesture. The Helena of the second soliloquy recalls the loving maiden of whom we all approved in the first soliloquy. Second, Shakespeare has made Parolles the unwitting source of the idea; through his bawdiness, as a scapegoat, he carries away any reproach which decorum might dictate. Third, Helena's introductory association of Parolles with Bertram gives a psychological validity to her absorption in Bertram while Parolles jests about virginity. Fourth, because of that absorption, Shakespeare preserves her indecorous participation in ribaldry. While Parolles roguishly delights the audience with his wordplay, Helena indifferently serves as a foil to his wit and ponders the problem of her love. Finally, Shakespeare softens her resolution in the soliloquy by couching it in a general romantic 'truth':

Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?

(I. i. 222-3)

The structure of All's Well displays superb craftsmanship; as so often in the plays of Shakespeare, balance is the principle of construction. The second scene creates the background for the hero's interest—military honours and the adventures of war; the third scene promotes Helena's interest—her love for Bertram. The interview at Court gains credit for Bertram through the King's eulogy of the deceased Count Rousillon. The commendation of the Countess and the tenderness of the scene at Rousillon gather sympathy for Helena. The King concludes his scene by expressing his regard for Bertram, 'My son's no dearer' (I. ii. 76); the Countess ends the third scene with full approval of her ward:

and be sure of this,
What I can help thee to, thou shalt not miss.

(I. iii. 250-1)

Shakespeare has begun both scenes along lines which quite similarly introduce the sub-plots. The second scene opens with a sketchy discussion of the Florentine war. Some critics have seen in the vagueness of the reports a cynical attitude on the part of the dramatist to the war, and consequently to masculine poses of honour. Rather, the...

(The entire section is 26168 words.)


Joseph Westlund (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "All's Well That Ends Well: Longing, Idealization, and Sadness," in Shakespeare's Reparative Comedies: A Psychoanalytic View of the Middle Plays, The University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 121-46.

[In the excerpt below, Westlund examines the character of Helena, particularly in regards to her longing for Bertram, and her sexuality.]

The play most often defines character and action, like the language out of which they are created, by "striving through intractable material for effects which hardly justify the struggle." Let us begin with Helena, the most fully developed character. In the first...

(The entire section is 23553 words.)


Ian Donaldson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 34-55.

[In the following essay, Donaldson examines the numerous "endings" throughout the play, and argues that All's Well That Ends Well is more complex than it first seems.]

All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown.
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.


There is some irony in the fact that a play which so often reminds us of the importance of ending...

(The entire section is 23532 words.)

Social Class

Sheldon P. Zitner (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Power and Status," in Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, pp. 40-86.

[In the following excerpt, Zitner examines the contemporary social conventions that underscore the action of All's Well That Ends Well.]

All's Well opens with a social thunderclap which has been muffled by the passage of social history. It is doubtful that historical reconstruction alone will enable a modern audience to feel at once, though it may help us to 'appreciate', the intensity that hovers about the speeches at the very beginning of the first...

(The entire section is 9129 words.)

Further Reading

Adams, John F. "All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation." Shakespeare Quarterly 12, No. 3 (1961): 261-70.

Suggests that the themes of honor and responsibility in the play are centered around the ambiguous question of what is right and honorable, maintaining that an answer can only be reached when considering actions and their consequences in their entirety.

Asp, Carolyn. "Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well." Literature and Psychology XXXII, No. 4 (1986): 48-60.

Examines Helena as rebel female character, symbolic of the way new societal attitudes replace old ones.


(The entire section is 1032 words.)