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...
(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 scene she responds to Lafew's kindly farewell remark, "you must hold the credit of your father," by launching into a soliloquy beginning: "O, were that all!" To underscore this negation of what we expect she says "I think not on my father. . . . What was he like? / I have forgot him; my imagination / Carries no favour in't but Bertram's" (1.1.77-81). Why must she deny the memory of her father to concentrate on Bertram? This is quite unlike Rosalind's roughly similar remark to Celia when reporting that she spoke to her own father without his knowing who she was: "But what talk we of fathers, when there is such a man as Orlando?" (3.4.34-35). Part of the brittleness of Helena's remark may result from her father being dead, or from her attempt to...
(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 well should itself end in a way which has given unease to many of its commentators. Dr. Johnson could account for the ending of All's Well That Ends Well only in terms of an artistic impatience which he believed often overtook Shakespeare in the closing stages of a work:
It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.1
Johnson was much exercised by the...
(The entire section is 23532 words.)
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 scene of All's Well, a moment in any case subject to neglect because of the audience's yet unfocused attention. The Countess is losing her son, not because in the ordinary course of the life of a peer he must go off to the kind of civil finishing school constituted by court attendance, but because his father has died. What adds to her grief at the loss of her husband is that the Countess is being treated as a non-mother, for purposes of law an unperson, and her son—foolish as she knows him to be—made a kind of artificial orphan. When she says that her son is an 'unseasoned' courtier, the Countess is concerned with Bertram's particular limitations, but she is also stating that he is simply not ready to leave the nest. This accounts...
(The entire section is 9129 words.)
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.
Bergeron, David M. "The Structure of Healing in All's Well That Ends Well." South Atlantic Bulletin XXVII, No. 4 (1972): 25-34.
Argues that understanding the structure of the play is crucial to understanding the themes of renewal and healing.
Cole, Howard C. "Helena and Her Sisters: A Comparative Reading of All's Well That Ends Well." In The All's Well Story From Boccaccio to Shakespeare, pp. 114-37. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Studies the history of the source story for All's Well as well as Shakespeare's manipulation of the audience's familiarity with the tale.
Fraser, Russell, Introduction to All's Well That End's Well, by...
(The entire section is 1032 words.)