All's Well That Ends Well Essay - All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 63)

William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 63)

Introduction

All's Well That Ends Well

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

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 8428 words.)

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 9813 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Anthony Brennan (essay date 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 6653 words.)

Christopher Roark (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 8013 words.)

Susan Snyder (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 4942 words.)

Criticism: Gender Issues

Carolyn Asp (essay date 1986)

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!

I.iii.92

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...

(The entire section is 8353 words.)

Barbara Hodgdon (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 10187 words.)

David McCandless (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 21092 words.)

Criticism: Marriage

Margaret Loftus Ranald (essay date 1963)

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...

(The entire section is 5191 words.)

W. Speed Hill (essay date 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 6531 words.)

Susan Bassnett-McGuire (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 3224 words.)

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 10815 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

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...

(The entire section is 731 words.)