All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 63)
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, 38, and 55.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote All's Well That Ends Well between 1602 and 1605, though some commentators propose an even earlier composition date. The play is based on a story from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1353), which deals with a common folktale motif—the achievement of an impossible task. Critics have long considered All's Well to be a “problem play” because of its questionable plot elements, unlikable characters, and unsatisfactory ending. In the late twentieth century, however, scholars began to view the play as a bridge between Shakespeare's earlier festive comedies and his later tragedies; many adherents of this view now praise All's Well as a compelling dramatic experiment on Shakespeare's part. While earlier critics focused on such themes as social rank, virtue, and intergenerational strife, commentators from the nineteenth century onward have emphasized Helena's dynamic role in the dramatic action, the relationship between the sexes, and the interplay between romance and realism in the comedy.
Twentieth-century critics have demonstrated a continuing interest in Shakespeare's sophisticated characterization in All's Well. For example, Anthony Brennan (1980) discusses Helena in relation to the concept of time implicit in the play, noting that she alone of all the younger characters has a strong connection with the older generation. According to Brennan, this bond enables her to challenge the constraints of time and to accomplish her aim of winning Bertram as her husband. Susan Snyder (1988) focuses on the overt aggressiveness of Helena's quest to win Bertram. Snyder points out how this aggressiveness reveals an undercurrent of sexuality in the play, particularly through indirect and suppressed speech. The critic contends that ultimately the play illustrates the difficulties of being an assertive woman in a patriarchal setting. Some of the minor characters in All's Well also have attracted critical attention. Christopher Roark (1988), for example, probes the characterization of Lavatch as an indicator of the play's unresolved themes. According to Roark, Lavatch represents a “wise fool” who fails to serve his master because he is incapable of providing counsel, just as the play itself ultimately holds out no answers to the moral questions it poses.
Closely associated with critical analyses of the problematic relationship between Helena and Bertram are discussions of gender issues. Carolyn Asp (1986) maintains that Helena challenges the notion of “woman-as-subject-of-desire” and surmounts “attitudes and theories of female deprivation and inferiority.” Asp then focuses on the reversal of power—inspired by Helena's desire—that allows Helena to succeed in her plans to win Bertram. Critic Barbara Hodgdon (1987) examines the gender theme on a structural level, revealing how Shakespeare's use of the various instances of doubling and substitution—most notably in the bed-trick scene—help to bring about the marital compromises that conclude the action of the play. David McCandless (1997) also emphasizes the bed-trick as a motif that Shakespeare used to exploit assumptions about gender. In addition, McCandless traces the evolution of gender roles, particularly those of Helena and Bertram, throughout the course of the play.
Connected to the gender issues in All's Well is the theme of betrothal and marriage. Many twentieth-century scholars have turned to Shakespeare's historical milieu in an effort to understand the playwright's complex treatment of matrimony in the play. Margaret Loftus Ranald (1963) studies historical documents, such as Elizabethan matrimonial contracts, in order to demonstrate how Shakespeare both criticized the matrimonial practices of his time and made use of them to explain the actions of Helena and Bertram to his audience. Like Ranald, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1989) examines both the classical precedents as well as Renaissance matrimonial texts to illuminate how Shakespeare's audience might have reacted to the characters of Bertram and Helena. In a similar context, Susan Bassnett-McGuire (1984) discusses marriage in terms of the social issues of Shakespeare's day, examining the nature of the marriage contract itself and, more broadly, the role of the individual in relation to the state. Taking a different approach, W. Speed Hill (1975) explores the marriage of Helena and Bertram in the context of their familial situations, pointing out that their union “symbolizes on both parts an acceptance of their own faulty parental experiences.” According to Hill, it is only when Bertram comes to terms with his past that he is finally freed to assume his proper role within the comic plot of All's Well.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1, March, 1971, pp. 21-41.
[In the following essay, Leggatt explores the tension between elements of romance and elements of realism in All's Well That Ends Well, noting that this tension is never resolved and therefore lends an experimental quality to the play.]
It has been commonly observed that romance and realism are in conflict in All's Well That Ends Well.1 But, to a surprising extent, critics have been content to state the fact and then drop it, while they pursue issues relating to the play's ideas, its characterization, its source material, or what have you. Perhaps this is because we are so much in the habit of searching Shakespeare's plays for abstract ideas or for characterization which is psychologically explicable. The idea that the play's form may in itself be the controlling factor, the key to understanding, has not received the attention it merits. But these other lines of investigation inevitably become involved with the peculiar tensions of the play, and much debate has ensued. The play has been denounced and defended to the point where, if one sets oneself the task of reading a range of criticism on it, one rises with a feeling of having spent the day in a police court.
Much of the debate centers on the characters. Is Bertram a...
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SOURCE: “Motive and Meaning in All's Well That Ends Well,” in “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions”: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton, Methuen, 1987, pp. 26-51.
[In the following essay, Nevo asserts that All's Well That Ends Well should not be classified as a problem play since its structure resembles that of Shakespeare's earlier maturation comedies.]
All's Well That Ends Well has been classified among the problem comedies, perhaps mainly because Bertram has failed to captivate; he has been found even more devoid of charm than Angelo in Measure for Measure, the companion ‘problem’ comedy. Bertram is, as my students invariably inform me, a creep. And in this they have the critics on their side: that he is ‘a thoroughly disagreeable, peevish and vicious person’ (Lawrence, 61) seems to be the consensus. One is hard put to it, indeed, to think of a fictional character less popular than the young Count of Rossillion. Yet Helena has come in for her share of criticism too. She is forward, obstinate, manipulative, opportunistic. She does not heal the king out of patriotic fervour but because she has an eye for the main chance. And so on. To rebellious, feminist Katherine Mansfield,
Helena is a terrifying female. Her virtue, her persistence, her pegging away after the odious...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: “Helena versus Time's Winged Chariot in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, Summer, 1980, pp. 391-411.
[In the following essay, Brennan discusses Helena in relation to the notion of time in All's Well That Ends Well, noting that she alone of the young people in the play has a strong connection with the older generation and that she actively struggles against the constraints of time to achieve her goals.]
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, A great-sized monster of ingratitudes. Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devoured As fast as they are made, forgot as soon As done. Perseverance, dear my lord, Keeps honor bright; to have done, is to hang Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail In monumental mock'ry.
(III, iii, 145-153)
These opening lines of Ulysses' great speech in Troilus and Cressida are the locus classicus of Shakespeare's constant preoccupation with the nature of time. The politician endeavours to arouse the lethargic Achilles by characterizing Time as an insatiable cannibal looming over us who can only be appeased by fresh deeds, fresh meat from the battlefield outside the Trojan walls. This image of Time as an implacable tyrant is presented with endlessly varied ingenuity by Renaissance writers. Of all the extraordinary changes that took place in...
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SOURCE: “Lavatch and Service in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 241-58.
[In the following essay, Roark asserts that Lavatch is an indicator of the failure of All's Well That Ends Well, noting that “[t]he fool fails to serve in the same way the play fails to serve.”]
And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be consider'd. That's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.
Of Shakespeare's wise fools, Lavatch in All's Well that Ends Well has been the most expendable in performance, and the most superfluous to critics. Tyrone Guthrie's 1953 production of All's Well at Stratford, Ontario, eliminated Lavatch's role.2 Robert H. Goldsmith remarks, “he is unlike Shakespeare's other fools in that his role bears no significant relationship to the meaning of All's Well. He is in no way a measure of the play's meaning, as Touchstone, Feste, and Lear's fool are for their plays.”3 Hamlet's advice to the players tells us that...
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SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 66-77.
[In the following essay, Snyder probes the characterization of Helena as a sexually aggressive woman through instances of indirect and suppressed speech in the play.]
I'm going to move into my speculations from two different directions. One point of departure is a set of gaps, disjunctions, and silences in All's Well, places where we lack an expected connection or explanation in the speeches or actions of the main character, Helena. The other is, on the contrary, an unexpected coincidence, a connection between that somewhat mysterious Helena and a character in another play which on the face of it is quite unlike All's Well.
Helena's career strangely mixes aggressive initiative and passivity. She begins All's Well in a state of social and psychological constriction: a physician's orphaned daughter silently in love with a young nobleman who cares nothing for her and is about to leave Roussillon for the court. Helena can only grieve passively. She is interrupted by Parolles, who engages her in a joking conversation, advancing the standard arguments against women retaining their virginity; and by the end of the scene she is suddenly resolved to go to Paris herself and offer a medicine of...
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Criticism: Gender Issues
SOURCE: “Subjectivity, Desire, and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 4, 1986, pp. 48-63.
[In the following essay, Asp focuses on the reversal of power—inspired by Helena's desire—that allows Helena to succeed in her plans to win Bertram.]
“That man should be at a woman's command and yet no hurt done!”
According to prevailing opinion, All's Well That Ends Well is a “problem play” whose major difficulty is located in the very assertion that the title makes in summarizing the action. In the opinions of many critics the play does not “end well” because the resolution remains on the structural level rather than moving to the psychological level.1 The frog prince remains a frog until the end and the princess chooses to overlook his slimy skin. If the reader or theater-goer expects the romance of heterosexual coupling that concludes Shakespeare's “high comedies,” disappointment is inevitable.
Singular among the plays in Shakespeare's canon, All's Well That Ends Well is written out of the history of the female subject and this history is the history of her desire. The inadequacy of the male as subject is not only NOT repressed; it is emphasized. In this, the play challenges both culture and...
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SOURCE: “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes, and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 47-71.
[In the following essay, Hodgdon examines the gender theme on a structural level, revealing how Shakespeare's use of the various instances of doubling and substitution—most notably in the bed-trick scene—help to bring about the marital compromises that conclude the action of the play.]
In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena stands, much like As You Like It's Rosalind, at the center of the internal drama as well as the critical drama—that is, its critical controversies concerning meaning and language.1 Both plays share significant story elements; both are fictions of an ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary. Both Rosalind and Helena disguise their sexuality—the one by assuming a mask which permits her to explore male as well as female roles and attitudes through verbal wit and situational jokes; the other by foregrounding—even flaunting—her most vulnerable quality—her virginity. Both achieve their ends (Is it possible to talk of sexuality without creating a secondary sexual discourse?) by taking on the drive and ambition usually associated with males, by insisting on their intelligence, by using themselves (and their “magical” powers) in order to gain and...
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SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well,” in Gender and Performance in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, Indiana University Press, 1997, pp. 37-78.
[In the following essay, McCandless focuses on the evolving gender roles of Helena and Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well, discussing Shakespeare's handling of the bed trick as a tool for exploring gender myths.]
The starting point for my discussion 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 spectres 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 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: “The Betrothals of All's Well That Ends Well,” in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, February, 1963, pp. 179-92.
[In the following essay, Ranald discusses the nature of Elizabethan matrimonial contracts in order to elucidate the marriage theme of All's Well That Ends Well.]
Of Shakespeare's three so-called problem comedies, All's Well That Ends Well has been the most neglected. Some of the situations (notably the bed trick) undoubtedly do repel some readers, and scholars have largely concentrated on explaining their significance to the play. One allied topic has, however, gone almost unnoticed: the betrothals and resultant matrimonial situations. Certainly W. W. Lawrence discusses them in his study of this play, and G. K. Hunter appends some thought-provoking annotations to the new Arden edition of Shakespeare; but in general too much attention seems to have been paid to the bed trick, while the nature of matrimonial contracting, a topic which appears continuously throughout the play, has been largely ignored.
The aim of this paper is, therefore, to study the somewhat confused yet generally accepted laws surrounding Elizabethan matrimonial practice and to examine their relevance to the marriage of Bertram and Helena. The marriage contracts seem to be largely representative of English practice, so it would appear that Shakespeare has “Englished”...
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SOURCE: “Marriage as Destiny: An Essay on All's Well That Ends Well,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 344-59.
[In the following essay, Hill explores how familial relations and marriage eventually enable Bertram to assume his proper role within the comic plot of All's Well That Ends Well.]
Shakespeare's plays persistently treat familial relationships. Neither Jonson's nor Marlowe's do, except incidentally, and from the perspective of Shakespeare, their avoidance is odd. The only characters in The Alchemist who are related to one another in ways prior to the gullings that summon all to the house of Lovewit are Kastril and Dame Pliant, and their relation as brother and sister remains essentially unexplored. The isolation of Faustus is defined by a lack of familial ties: he is a man without parents, siblings, spouse, or children—everyman, yes, but no man, too. By contrast, Webster's Duchess of Malfi, whatever her social isolation as a result of her marriage to Antonio, is seen relationally: the central conflict in that play is between rival family and marital relationships—marriage to her steward versus her sibling-tie to Ferdinand. The dramatist has every reason to exploit these ties, universal in occurrence and primal in strength; the critic finds in family relationships and their reconstitution in marriage useful differentiae for comedy and tragedy....
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SOURCE: “An Ill Marriage in an Ill Government: Patterns of Unresolved Conflict in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, Vol. 120, 1984, pp. 97-102.
[In the following essay, Bassnett-McGuire suggests that All's Well That Ends Well reflects post-Reformation views of the marriage contract and also comments on the individual's relationship to the state.]
All's Well That Ends Well occupies one of the minor positions in the Shakespeare canon, and the map of its critical history reveals a text often held to be problematic, described variously as incomplete or inadequate, and perhaps dismissed most tellingly by Logan Pearsall Smith who declared that “it reads like hack-work.”2 Overall, critical opinions of the play have tended to see it as a flawed text in which disparate element sit uneasily together.
In the eighteenth century a resolution was found by placing emphasis on the farcical elements within the text, and after Garrick's 1756 adaptation for the stage the figure of Parolles acquired central status and was frequently seen as a comic figure rivalling Falstaff in stature. By the end of the eighteenth century the emphasis had shifted to focus this time on Helena, described by Coleridge as Shakespeare's “loveliest character”3, a pattern that was to continue with the advent of an acting style based on concepts of...
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SOURCE: “Sacred and Sexual Motifs in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 33-59.
[In the following essay, Simonds examines several matrimonial texts that were available to Shakespeare and his contemporaries in order demonstrate how Shakespeare's audience might have reacted to the characters of Bertram and Helena.]
Whatever scholars may think of its value as a work of poetic literature, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is remarkably entertaining in the theater. Perhaps this is so because it fulfills the fundamental generic responsibility of comedy; it overcomes the death of the fathers through a bawdy emphasis on youthful sexuality and love, and it manipulates mythical plot elements that are subconsciously familiar to any audience in Western civilization. The play skillfully diverts our attention from death and burial to the “little death” of sexual orgasm, from age, illness, and the destruction of war to marriage and the joy of new life. Above all, it is not so much a “problem play” in the Shavian sense as it is a typical work of Renaissance comic art that attempts to unite both the physical and the spiritual elements of human existence within a single structure of the imagination.
In this essay, I shall examine certain intertextual relations concerned with the subject of matrimony that may help to shed...
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Beauregard, David N. “‘Inspirèd Merit’: Shakespeare's Theology of Grace in All's Well That Ends Well.” Renascence 51, No. 4 (1999): 218-39.
Argues that a Roman Catholic theology of grace influenced the plot and dialogue of All's Well That Ends Well.
Bradbrook, M. C. “Shakespeare's Hybrid: All's Well That Ends Well.” In Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, pp. 84-98. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984.
Contends that All's Well That Ends Well is a dramatic failure in that Shakespeare attempted to write a moral play but only succeeded in creating characters as moral stereotypes.
Ellis, David. “Finding a Part for Parolles.” Essays in Criticism 39, No. 4 (October 1989): 289-304.
Discusses Parolles's various roles in All's Well That Ends Well, contending that ultimately the character defies categorization.
Huston, J. Dennis. “‘Some Stain of Soldier’: The Functions of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 21, No. 4 (Autumn 1970): 431-38.
Focuses on the various roles of Parolles, noting that his main function is to represent the youthful energy capable of transforming the world in All's Well That Ends Well.
Lewis, Cynthia. “‘Derived Honesty and...
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