All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 55)
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, 26, and 38.
Although it is typically categorized among Shakespeare's comedies, most scholars consider All's Well That Ends Well a “problem play” or “dark comedy” because of its somber and tragic elements. The play, based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), relates the tale of a young woman's pursuit of a reluctant lover. The principal figures of Helena and Bertram have often been viewed negatively, while the overall tone of the work—despite its ostensibly happy conclusion—has been considered bleak and marred by unresolved issues. Critics have frequently discerned problems of sexuality and gender conflict in All's Well That Ends Well. In particular, the work's concentration on a strong, somewhat unconventional, and passionate heroine has prompted feminist critics of the late twentieth century to see in the drama a variety of themes related to sexual roles and feminine disruptions of social order. Overall, while numerous topics in the drama have drawn modern critics to the play, the subjects of gender, Helena's character, and the work's problematic status as a comedy continue to provide the focus of much recent scholarly commentary on All's Well That Ends Well.
Feminist analysis, and its consequent concerns with the themes of gender and sexuality, has provided the dominant model of contemporary critical interest in All's Well That Ends Well. The thematic implications of Helena's pursuit of Bertram and her bold use of the so-called “bed-trick,” in which she disguises herself in order to win Bertram as her lover, have long been recognized as central to the play. Peter Erickson (1991) examines the gender dynamics of All's Well That Ends Well and their relation to politics and society, commenting on how Helena's sexualized actions toward Bertram upset the dominant patriarchal order. David McCandless (1994) studies Helena's infamous “bed-trick” and the tensions it raises concerning conventional distinctions between masculine and feminine roles. Jonathan Hall (1995) takes a somewhat different approach, seeing Helena's active sexual pursuit of Bertram as posing a symbolic threat to patriarchy that—in her later renunciation of “ambitious love”—ultimately serves to reestablish traditional social hierarchies. Irene G. Dash (1997) offers a thorough feminist critique of All's Well That Ends Well, which finds a demarcation of the limits of feminine sexual choice within the patriarchal confines of the play.
A perennial critical interest in Shakespeare's representation of women has resulted in a number of analyses of Helena, who has elicited widely differing opinions. Richard A. Levin (1980) has a cynical view of the play's heroine. Acknowledging a dilemma between her virtue and ambition, Levin argues that Helena uses guile and dissimulation throughout the drama, seeing her as a master of intrigue who carefully orchestrates Bertram's acquiescence to her passions. David McCandless (1990) takes an opposing point of view. Interpreting All's Well That Ends Well as essentially a romance, rather than a “defective festive comedy,” McCandless perceives Helena's chastity as an indication of the play's romantic theme of redemption. Robert Ornstein (1986) considers the play's protagonist as a complex character, largely devoid of romantic idealism. For Ornstein, Helena is not only virtuous and noble (despite the fact that most other characters in the play generally fail to perceive this), but also single-minded and manipulative in achieving her goals.
In addition to questions of character, the status of All's Well That Ends Well as a comedy figures prominently in many recent critical assessments of the play. Comparing the drama with several of Shakespeare's earlier works, Richard P. Wheeler (1981) comments on the unprecedented shift in the play's comic form, due in part to its treatment of issues generally reserved for tragedy. David Scott Kastan (1985) has a similar view of the play, observing that while All's Well That Ends Well does provide a happy ending, its failure to resolve its own internal tensions points to Shakespeare's commentary on the palliative nature of comedy. Considering comic sources, Robert S. Miola (1993) places All's Well That Ends Well within the tradition of Latin New Comedy—inaugurated by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence. Mary Free (1994) acknowledges the play's comic form, but characterizes All's Well That Ends Well as a “noncomic comedy” due to its strong emphasis on dramatic and linguistic expressions of power.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, Associated University Presses, 1986, pp. 173-94.
[In the following essay, Ornstein surveys the plot and principal characters of All's Well That Ends Well.]
It is not easy to say why Shakespeare wanted to write a play about characters as limited and uninspiring as Helena and Bertram. A relatively straightforward dramatization of Boccaccio's tale of Giletta and Beltramo,1All's Well is the only comedy that centers on a single love—or rather, a single love-hate—relationship. No Hero, Nerissa, or Celia stands by Helena's side; for most of the play she is a solitary figure who keeps her own counsel and pursues her ends without confiding them to any other person. For a time Bertram has Parolles as a companion, but he is nearly incapable of intimacy or emotional attachment. The minor characters of All's Well are, by and large, more attractive than its romantic protagonists, but none are as fully realized or as important to the plot as Leonato is in Much Ado. Nevertheless the warm-heartedness of the Countess, Lafew, the King, and Bertram's fellow officers is important to the emotional resolution of the play precisely because it is a quality somewhat lacking in Helena and completely absent in Bertram.
Compared to the comedies I have discussed...
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Criticism: Feminism And Gender
SOURCE: “The Political Effects of Gender and Class in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 57-73.
[In the following essay, Erickson examines Helena's disruption of the patriarchal order in All's Well That Ends Well.]
One of the most striking features of All's Well That Ends Well is its full rendering of specifically male frustration in the person of Bertram, a besieged and recalcitrant Adonis writ large.1 But the problem of Bertram cannot be adequately discussed at the level of individual character, as though our response hinged exclusively on the question of his personal defects and of his capacity to overcome them in the end. The analysis must rather be extended to the larger cultural forces operating on, and embodied in, Bertram. This latter approach can be opened up by noting the cultural overlap between Bertram's situation and that of the Essex-Southampton group: in both cases an emphatically military definition of masculinity is placed under intense pressure and ultimately frustrated. Yet the equation of Bertram with Southampton in G. P. V. Akrigg's reading of All's Well That Ends Well constitutes a methodological obstacle to this interpretation.2 Treated as literal topical allusions, such connections are impossible to prove and are readily dismissed by a stringently...
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SOURCE: “Helena's Bed-trick: Gender and Performance in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 449-68.
[In the following essay, McCandless analyzes All's Well That Ends Well's concern with sexuality, and the importance of Helena's bed-trick to “the play's provocative interrogation of gender roles.”]
The starting point for this essay is Susan Snyder's recent characterization of All's Well as a “deconstructed fairy tale”:1 lurking beneath the folkloric narrative of the poor physician's daughter who deploys magic and cunning in order to overcome a dashing count's disdainful resistance are the unrepresentable specters of female sexual desire and male sexual dread. Indeed, the play invests the fairy-tale motifs that W. W. Lawrence believes undergird All's Well—“The Healing of the King” and “The Fulfillment of the Tasks”—with potent erotic subtexts.2 In adapting “The Healing of the King,” Shakespeare, like his model Boccaccio, departs from tradition in making the King's healer a woman. Lawrence barely mentions this innovation, but it seems to me highly significant, especially since Shakespeare, unlike Boccaccio, makes Helena's gender—more particularly her sexual ardor and allure—indispensable to the cure.
Integral to the narrative of “The Fulfillment of the...
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SOURCE: “‘Adoption Strives with Nature’: The Slip of Patriarchal Signifiers in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 127-48.
[In the following essay, Hall investigates Helena's “upwardly mobile” desire in All's Well That Ends Well, contending that “her actions restore the very patriarchy which she seems to threaten.”]
In this chapter I want to examine the way in which the romance narrative of All's Well That Ends Well (1599), together with the archaizing representation of the feudal court of France, in fact addresses the anxieties of the centralizing kingdom of England of Shakespeare's time, for this play is by no means a merely idealizing or escapist fantasy. The archaism itself is the locus of a contemporary breakdown, and the mobile heroine, Helena, emerges as the agent of an extremely precarious restoration.
The plot of All's Well That Ends Well is taken from Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1350), though the immediate source may well have been Painter's version, “Giletta of Narbona,” in The Palace of Pleasure (1556). The story is of a bourgeois heroine, Helena, who is adopted into a noble family, and falls in love with the son, Bertram, whom she pursues to the court in Paris. There she cures the dying King with healing powers learned...
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SOURCE: “When Women Choose: All's Well That Ends Well,” in Women's Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays, Associated University Presses, 1997, pp. 35-63.
[In the following essay, Dash discusses the subject of women's sexual options within the patriarchal society of All's Well That Ends Well.]
How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?
Although the phrase “catch 22” had not yet entered the language, Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1898 described the concept with precision—as it applies to women's lives. She noted that even though the young girl “is carefully educated and trained to realize in all ways her sex-limitations and her sex-advantages” with the ultimate aim of marriage,
she must not even look as if she wanted it. … What one would logically expect is a society full of desperate and eager husband-hunters, regarded with popular approval. Not at all! (emphasis added, 581-82)
And the irony is compounded, for our hypocritical society practices a “cruel and absurd injustice of blaming the girl for not getting what she is allowed no effort to obtain” (582). The writer thus describes the contradiction immediately facing young women, contrasting their support system with that of young men, who are encouraged to pursue their goals. Moreover, she distinguishes...
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Criticism: All's Well As Comedy
SOURCE: “Imperial Love and the Dark House: All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 45-56.
[In the following excerpt, Wheeler examines the comic patterns of All's Well That Ends Well, claiming that they “radically change the comic spirit of All's Well from that of earlier comedies.”]
lavatch That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done! (I.iii.87-88)
Northrop Frye, in “The Argument of Comedy,” called attention to the unusual turn Shakespeare gives the typical comic pattern in All's Well:
The normal comic resolution is the surrender of the senex to the hero, never the reverse. Shakespeare tried to reverse the pattern in All's Well That Ends Well, where the king of France forces Bertram to marry Helena, and the critics have not yet stopped making faces over it.1
In Shakespeare's comedies, however, the senex is rarely a competing suitor, and never is this role of central importance. Although the aged and wealthy Gremio courts Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio has his future wife's father—a more typical role for old men in Shakespearean comedy—on his side in courting Kate. Shakespeare regularly takes pains to see...
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SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” in ELH, Vol. 52, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 575-89.
[In the following essay, Kastan explores the problematic view of comedy presented in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Renaissance theories of comedy generally stress its moral function: “Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life,” says Sidney, which the comic poet “represents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.”1 Comedy, then, is at once critical and corrective, holding the mirror up to degenerate nature so that the viewer may see and repudiate its images of human folly.
Thomas Heywood similarly conceives comedy's function:
either in the shape of a clown to shew others their slovenly and unhandsome behaviour, that they may reforme that simplicity in themselves which others make their sport, lest they happen to become the like subject of generall scorne to an auditory; else intreates of love, deriding foolish inamorates, who spend their ages, their spirits, nay themselves, in the servile and ridiculous employments of their mistresses.
But Heywood knows that Sidney's moral claims for comedy will not fully account for its strategies and structure. Comedy does provide examples of...
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SOURCE: “New Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 23-43.
[In the following essay, Miola studies Shakespeare's adaptation of Latin New Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well.]
We are all familiar with the traditional understanding of sources: a source is a previous text that shapes a present one through authorial reminiscence and manifests itself in verbal iteration. As the seminal works of Baldwin, Muir, and Bullough amply demonstrate, this definition has served us long and well, but every element in it has undergone intense scrutiny and reevaluation. Scholars now recognize the potential limitations of a linear, author-centered, and largely verbal approach and have become attuned to the likelihood of intermediation, the encodings implicit in genre and language, the more oblique and more satisfying evidence of configuration—both rhetorical and dramatic. Within the spacious perspectives provided by scholars like Leo Salingar, Emrys Jones, Gordon Braden, Harry Levin, Alan Dessen, and Louise George Clubb (who has coined the term “theatergram” for certain kinds of configuration), we may well reexamine the sources of Shakespearean comedy. I shall study here the influence of New Comedy on All's Well, particularly the shaping presence of stock situations and characters including the important and enormously flexible traditions...
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SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well as Noncomic Comedy,” in Acting Funny: Comic Theory and Practice in Shakespeare's Plays, edited by Frances Teague, Associated University Presses, 1994, pp. 40-51.
[In the following essay, Free maintains that despite its conformity to comic formulae, comedy is thwarted in All's Wells That Ends Well through the play's representation of the power dynamics of marriage and metalanguage.]
The title of All's Well That Ends Well suggests potential for mistaken identity, intrigue plot, thwarted romance—the stuff that makes comedy and the comic—and in its way the play fulfills those potentials. All does end well at least in the sense that girl does get boy despite all obstacles.1 In gross structure and plot, All's Well That Ends Well also conforms to comedy's basic outlines as they appear in other Shakespearean plays. Bertram's flight from authority figures—King, Countess, Helena—and their rules and dictates to pursue the Florentine wars echoes flight to the saturnalian green world. His abandoning the woman he scorns along with his later pursuit of one who scorns him has precedent in both The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Proteus and Demetrius forswear their former vows (“In number more than ever women spoke” as Hermia prophetically reminds us, 1.1.176)2 to woo Silvia and...
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SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well, and ‘All Seems Well’,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XIII, 1980, pp. 131-44.
[In the following essay, Levin argues that Helena accomplishes her goals in All's Well That Ends Wellthrough guile and deceit, thus contributing to the play's categorization as a “problem comedy.”]
Critics have offered two very different assessments of Helena, and hence of All's Well That Ends Well.1 Some regard her as a genuine romantic heroine—resourceful, yes, but also virtuous, feminine, charming, and modest. She never behaves cynically, and her motives are above reproach. She cures the king's physical ailment and later brings Bertram to spiritual health. This daughter of a middle-class physician is rewarded, like patient Griselda, with a man of high degree. The alternative view is that Helena mercilessly pursues Bertram. Whether she is at first motivated by love, sex, ambition, or, in Tillyard's fine phrase, “the humour of predatory monogamy,” she suffers “degradation” as she “passes from dishonour to dishonour on her path to final victory.”2 She sets out to trap Bertram, succeeds, and—when he flees her—captures him again. She gets the husband she deserves, a spoiled aristocrat.
These two accounts of Helena and of the play could not be more different; and yet, despite innumerable attempts, no one has...
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SOURCE: “‘That Your Dian / Was Both Herself and Love’: Helena's Redemptive Chastity,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Fall, 1990, pp. 160-78.
[In the following essay, McCandless sees Helena as a compelling romantic heroine whose chastity and sexual passion are inseparable elements of her character and important components of the play's theme of redemption.]
Any discussion of chastity might well start with the simple assertion that, while often mistaken as a synonym for virginity, chastity actually connotes a kind of achieved purity, an absence of sexual corruption rather than an abstinence from sexual experience. Indeed, sexuality and chastity are not necessarily antithetical. Theoretically, at least, one might lose one's physical virginity and still remain spiritually pure. As Juliet Dusinberre explains, this was precisely the point that the humanist reformers of Shakespeare's era endeavored to make.1 They opposed to the Catholic ideal of monasticism the Protestant ideal of marriage, defining chastity not as an exaltation of cloistered virginity but as a sanctification of marital union. According to this view, one attains the loftiest spiritual state through the wholesome integration of spirit and flesh rather than through their fanatical segregation.
This notion of chaste sexual love is, I believe, crucial to an appreciation of the lamentably...
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Asp, Carolyn. “Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well.” Literature and Psychology XXXII, No. 4 (1986): 48-63.
Employs psychoanalytic theory to assess the effects of Helena's sexual desire on the patriarchal order of All's Well That Ends Well.
Friedman, Michael D. “Male Bonds and Marriage in All's Well and Much Ado.” In Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 231-49.
Considers male bonding in All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado About Nothing as it relates to audience perceptions of Bertram and gender issues in the plays.
———. “‘Service Is No Heritage’: Bertram and the Ideology of Procreation.” Studies in Philology 92, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 80-93.
Explores ideological conflicts between individual desire and social consequence in regard to Bertram's conduct in All's Well That Ends Well.
Haley, David. Shakespeare's Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in All's Well That Ends Well. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 1993, 314 p.
Principally argues that in All's Well That Ends Well Shakespeare presents “a dialectic between prudence and Providence.”
Hillman, Richard. “All's Well That Ends Well.” In William...
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