All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 75)
All's Well That Ends Well
For further information regarding the critical and stage history of All's Well That Ends Well, see SC, Volumes 7, 26, 38, 55, and 63.
All's Well That Ends Well, which features a young woman's pursuit of a reluctant lover of higher social standing, was inspired by the story of Giletta of Narbonne, from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1353). Shakespeare's play retains some of the traditional folktale elements found in its source material, such as the healing of the king and the fulfillment of impossible tasks. It is generally considered a problem play due to its unresolved issues, ambiguous ending, and unsympathetic characters. All's Well resists categorization because it features elements of the comic, tragic, and romantic; indeed, the play has been variously regarded as a dark comedy, tragicomedy, and romantic comedy. In addition to considering issues of genre, modern critics focus on the heroine Helena's role in the play, and often examine her attraction to the snobbish Bertram. Critics are also interested in Bertram's unscrupulous friend, Parolles, who has been compared to other Shakespearean comic villains, such as Shylock and Malvolio. Despite the play's problems, All's Well exhibits an interrelatedness of structure, language, and theme that modern scholars find both complex and compelling.
In order to account for what he perceives as the play's failure, Jay Halio (1964) analyzes the sources, dramatic structure, and characters of All's Well That Ends Well. The critic contends that in spite of its shortcomings, the play is both fascinating and complex. Halio focuses on Bertram as the connection between the old, noble social order of France and the new social order, mainly centered in Florence and embodied by the young bourgeois characters. Through Bertram, Halio demonstrates, the revitalization that integrates the best of both of these social orders will occur. In addition, Halio assesses the characters of Helena and Parolles, studying in particular the opposition between these two characters and Helena's ultimate victory in the struggle for Bertram's favor. Like Halio, J. Dennis Huston (1970) is concerned with the relationship between Helena and Parolles. Huston maintains that while both Helena and Parolles are full of youthful energy, Parolles's energy generates darkness and deception; Helena, on the other hand, puts her energy to constructive use in the regeneration of society. Jeremy Richard (1986) traces Shakespeare's transition from comedies of plot to tragedies of character through an examination of Parolles's character. Like Shylock and Malvolio, Richard argues, Parolles is depicted with psychological depth and emotional complexity. Concentrating on Helena's character, Dorothy Cook (1990) demonstrates the ways in which Shakespeare depicted the heroine in a realistic manner. Cook finds that Helena is a major force in All's Well; her character establishes the play's value system and generates and resolves the majority of the play's action.
Although All's Well That Ends Well has traditionally been one of the least performed of Shakespeare's plays, its reputation has improved since the 1950s. One of the most noteworthy recent productions is Peter Hall's staging of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992. Martin Dodsworth (1992) describes the production as “intense and powerful,” and contends that Hall successfully blended the realism and folktale elements of the play. Robert Brustein (1993) and Jeremy Gerard (1993) both review the production of All's Well directed by Richard Jones for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Brustein observes the production's particularly dark tone, which reflects Jones's tragicomic approach to the play, and offers high praise for Miriam Healy-Louie's portrayal of Helena. Gerard also singles out Miriam Healy-Louie's Helena as particularly praiseworthy and notes that the production emphasized the play's troubling and ambiguous nature while retaining the play's comic features. Grevel Lindop (1996) is less than enthusiastic in his comments on Matthew Lloyd's production for the Royal Exchange Theatre, which he finds lacking in emotional warmth. Lindop also notes that Trevyn McDowell's Helena was ineffective in conveying the psychological depth of her character. In a review of Irina Brook's production of All's Well, Robert Smallwood (1998) applauds the performances of Rachel Pickup's Helena and Emil Marwa's Bertram, but contends that the director failed in her attempt to create a setting in which the play's folklore elements could be explored.
Many modern critics have noted that All's Well That Ends Well, while ostensibly a comedy, contains tragic and romantic elements. Josephine Waters Bennett (1967) contends that the play is more a comedy than a romance, and that it should not to be viewed simply as a romantic comedy gone awry. Concerns regarding the play's genre are intimately linked with issues related to the play's structure and themes. J. M. Silverman (1973) examines the dual nature of the play's structure, demonstrating the way the comedic action of the play moves from simple and naïve to a more complex and insidious form. Vivian Thomas (see Further Reading) argues that Shakespeare used the structure of romantic comedy in order to highlight the moral and social values the play depicts, and to explore the dramatic mode in which those values are presented. David M. Bergeron (1972) maintains that through the course of the play, structure and theme become unified. Bergeron focuses on the theme of healing and outlines the structural movement of the healing process as it occurs in the play. In this process, Bergeron explains, Shakespeare moved from Helena's literal, physical healing of the King to the metaphorical healing of Bertram and Parolles. As individuals in the play are cured, Bergeron contends, the larger world of the play is renewed. Patricia Parker (1992) suggests linkages between characters, scenes, and themes in All's Well, arguing that the sexual terms “increase” and “dilation” have economic, verbal, hermeneutic, and familial implications. Maurice Hunt (1987) discusses the disintegration of the relationship between language and action in the play. Hunt notes that “[t]hrough his portrayal of the King of France, alternately preferring words and deeds, Shakespeare indicates that any actual wedding of word and deed in the play will be difficult.”
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Halio, Jay. “All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 1 (winter 1964): 33-43.
[In the following essay, Halio examines the sources, dramatic structure, and characters of All's Well That Ends Well, and contends that although fascinating and complex, the play is a failure.]
Certainly W. W. Lawrence's complaint about the criticism of Shakespeare's problem comedies—or the lack of it1—has steadily been remedied. Not only do we have Lawrence's own extensive research, but the plays have elsewhere won treatment, notably in E. M. W. Tillyard's book2 and many times in articles and whole chapters of works on Shakespeare. This new interest parallels a rather considerable revision in our critical approach to Shakespeare and to literature in general, and one might speculate with good cause on how much this new approach is, in fact, responsible for the attention the problem comedies have recently attracted. But such speculation is not here intended. Despite the new interest, some questions of interpretation remain still unanswered, or inadequately answered. This paper will deal with the questions concerning the least of the group, All's Well That Ends Well. No apology for choosing this play is necessary, for we must agree with Tillyard that though All's Well is a failure, it is a most “interesting” and “complicated” failure, if...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: 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.
[In the following essay, Huston studies the way Parolles, with his unchanneled youthful energy, draws attention to Shakespeare's development of the idea that the energy of society's youth, in order to be constructive and productive, must be directed into the orderly structure of social institutions.]
There is in the personality of Parolles, the fashion-minded courtier and pseudo-soldier of All's Well That Ends Well, a curious mixture of the corrupt and the commendable. His conversation is vain, his carriage foolish, and his conduct disgraceful; repeatedly he maligns the heroine, slandering her before her husband, and even more frequently he misguides the hero as he “instructs” him in the ways of courtly life. Yet in spite of all these failings, Parolles still has something to recommend him: he possesses an immense amount of energy, which periodically infuses his world with dramatic life and which, even more significantly, focuses attention on the thematic development of All's Well as a whole1—where Shakespeare argues that the energy of youth can be constructively and productively incorporated into society only by being channeled into the ordered forms of traditional social institutions....
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SOURCE: Richard, Jeremy. “‘The Thing I Am’: Parolles, the Comedic Villain, and Tragic Consciousness.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 145-59.
[In the following essay, Richard traces Shakespeare's transition from comedies of plot to tragedies of character through an examination of the comedic villains of the problem plays, focusing in particular on Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well.]
If, as F. P. Wilson puts it, Shakespeare at the start of the Jacobean decade is looking for a “style that could express the mind as it was in action,” then the “problem” comedies illustrate the troubled labor that will forge that style.1 The earlier “festive” comedies depend on characters overcoming obstacles that the outside world places in the way of a happy ending. Caskets must be properly judged before there can be a marriage, groups of twins must assemble before families are reunited, and younger sons must prove their merit before acceding to their proper public status. Such plots are predicated on characters who maintain a generally constant personality, though it may mature in the course of the action; it is the world that finally relents, in a sequence of plot developments. Comedic dialogue aims at a clear definition of the current status of the plot rather than at the depiction of what Henry James might call a free associative life. But in the world of tragedy, characters realize the...
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SOURCE: Cook, Dorothy. “Helena: The Will and the Way.” Upstart Crow 10 (1990): 14-31.
[In the following essay, Cook assesses Shakespeare's portrayal of Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, contending that she generates and resolves a major portion of the play's action and establishes the play's principal values.]
Like most of the heroines in the romantic comedies, Helena, in All's Well That Ends Well, creates and resolves much of the action. She establishes many of the principal values in the play. She is different from earlier Shakespearean women because she is initially less successful and generally more fallible. Appropriately, she moves in a realistic world.1 Helena should therefore not be viewed sentimentally as wholly charming,2 parochially as a shameless “harpy,”3 or cynically as a mere “schemer.”4 Rather she is a youthful woman who actively seeks a husband whom she desires. In the first half of the play she makes the mistake of trying to secure Bertram publicly, before she attempts to win him privately. In the second half of the play, however, Helena redeems herself and Bertram, achieving for herself and him sexual fulfillment, greater personal maturity, and a renewal of social purpose. Clearly, Helena provides the play with much spontaneous, humorous, and exciting drama. Shakespeare's sympathetic tone makes Helena's role and...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Dodsworth, Martin. “Grace Notes.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4658 (10 July 1992): 18.
[In the following review, Dodsworth discusses Peter Hall's production of All's Well That Ends Well, describing it as deeply powerful and moving.]
Its unattractive young hero—silly, selfish, snobbish—makes All's Well That Ends Well a notoriously difficult play; there seems to be so little in Bertram for Helena to love. By a desperate stratagem she forces him to marry her, but after the ceremony he will have nothing more to do with her; she remains faithful, suffers humiliation and indignity for his sake, and in the end is reunited with him. Readers of the play are apt to ask why this should have to be; Bertram hardly seems worth all the trouble he causes. The challenge for actors and directors is to show us that it does have to be. One of the many virtues of Sir Peter Hall's new production is that it manages to bring out an underlying necessity in the action.
For one thing, this Helena is not quite a paragon. Sophie Thompson plays her as a wide-eyed innocent, slightly awkward in bearing, wholly intent on getting what she wants, wanting nothing that can be discreditable to her because she is so innocent, but quite capable of wanting what will harm her. She is very close to a child and has the power to impose her childish conviction on others. When, at the end of it all,...
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SOURCE: Gerard, Jeremy. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Variety 352, no. 2 (23 August 1993): 23.
[In the following review, Gerard assesses the New York Shakespeare Festival production of All's Well That Ends Well directed by Richard Jones. Gerard comments that the production emphasized the play's troubling and ambiguous nature while retaining the play's comic features.]
Death silently stalks the players in Richard Jones' mesmerizing production of “All's Well That Ends Well” in Central Park. But like the cruel, cynical world of this “problem play” of Shakespeare's, this Death boasts a comic gloss, being impersonated by a little boy in a Halloween skeleton costume. Sometimes he slips, unnoticed, scythe in hand, into courtly processions at Rousillon and Paris; sometimes he peers down at the action from a perch in a row of spectators above and behind the proceedings.
For all that he represents, this pint-size portent is hard to take too seriously. Other intimations of death are harsher, particularly in Act 1, which concludes with a wedding procession that bears a chilly resemblance to the funereal opening Jones offers to begin the play. While not shortchanging the comic elements, this production utterly refuses to soft-pedal its—or Shakespeare's—disturbing ambiguity (the chief mistake with “Measure for Measure” last month in this theater).
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SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. New Republic 209, no. 14 (4 October 1993): 32-4.
[In the following review, Brustein examines the New York Shakespeare Festival production of All's Well That Ends Well directed by Richard Jones, noting that Jones's tragicomic approach emphasized the play's dark and serious tones.]
After a spirited Measure for Measure in July, the New York Shakespeare Festival produced a haunting All's Well That Ends Well in August. Much of the credit for these triumphs, surely among the best productions yet seen in Central Park, must go to JoAnne Akalaitis, who first conceived of pairing two of Shakespeare's most difficult problem plays with directors imported from England (the Texas-born Michael Rudman is an English resident). Akalaitis was not allowed to enjoy the fruits of her planning, having been removed from her job last spring, but she deserves a valedictory salute for helping to bring the Shakespeare Marathon to its maturity.
All's Well is the third American production directed by Richard Jones, who staged La Bete on Broadway in 1991 and a less succesful production of Bulgakov's Black Snow with my own company last December. From his previous work in theater and opera, Jones was known as a stylist with a special flair for farce. Recently, he has been applying more tenebrous tones to his...
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SOURCE: Lindop, Grevel. “Cold Wars and Boors.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4878 (27 September 1996): 19.
[In the following review, Lindop offers a rather negative appraisal of Matthew Lloyd's production of All's Well That Ends Well, commenting on the production's lack of emotional warmth and “unwelcoming” set.]
Austerity is the keynote: for the Royal Exchange Theatre itself—relocated, after last June's bombing, to the elegant but bleak caverns of Upper Campfield Market—and for this production, set in a stiff and chilly version of the 1930s and holding throughout to the sombre economies implied by the all-black costumes of its opening stage-direction.
All's Well is the most problematic of problem plays, mixing fairy-tale with grimly unattractive realism. Helena, offered her choice of husbands after healing the stricken King of France, chooses the unpleasant Bertram, a cynical philanderer who rejects her and takes off for the wars, which he views as an inviting opportunity for irresponsible adventures in sex and violence. Helena follows in disguise and wins him back by the predictable bed-trick, standing (or rather lying) in for Diana, the Florentine girl Bertram is bent on seducing. In the process, she fulfils the conditions of Bertram's oath not to see his wife again until he wears her ring and carries his child.
When, back in France, the...
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SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1997.” Shakespeare Survey 51 (1998): 219-55.
[In the following excerpt, Smallwood examines Irina Brook's production of All's Well That Ends Well, finding that the director failed in her attempt to create a setting in which the play's folklore elements could be explored. Smallwood praises Rachel Pickup's energetic and intelligent portrayal of Helena and Emil Marwa's childlike and naïve Bertram.]
From a new ‘problem comedy’ to one for which the epithet is of more venerable vintage—but once again to a director bent on a novel and unexpected reading. Irina Brook's production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Oxford Playhouse in the late summer attempted to create a world in which the folk-story origins of the play might operate more freely by presenting it in a pastiche African world. The attempt, though energetic and forceful, was doomed to failure. Rachel Pickup's Helena, however, was so full of energy, so gracefully and intelligently spoken, and so committed in her love for Emil Marwa's boyishly naive Bertram, that much of this wonderful play's essence seemed to survive the mistaken directorial concept.
From a theatrical property basket the cast of white and black actors were presented, as the play began, with shawls and robes that suggested an African world, and when not actually performing they...
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SOURCE: Bennett, Josephine Waters. “New Techniques of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 4 (autumn 1967): 337-62.
[In the following essay, Bennett investigates the various comic techniques Shakespeare employed in All's Well That Ends Well, and argues that the play is more a comedy than a romance.]
All's Well That Ends Well has long been a problem play in the sense that it presents unsolved problems to modern readers and producers. We have neither quarto nor record of performance to help date it,1 and the variety of recent interpretations suggests that the playwright's intention is not now understood. Professor G. K. Hunter, in his excellent, recent edition, shrewdly observes that “criticism of All's Well has failed, for it has failed to provide a context within which the genuine virtues of the play can be appreciated.”2 In fact, until we understand the intention of the playwright the genuine virtues of the play cannot be recognized. Hunter supplies a helpful hint when he observes that All's Well is the obvious twin of Measure for Measure: “plot, characterization, themes, vocabulary, even the tangles, perplexities, and perversities of treatment [are] shared”.3
Since we know that Measure for Measure was performed, and indeed, created4 to grace the...
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SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “The Structure of Healing in All's Well That Ends Well.” South Atlantic Bulletin 37, no. 4 (November 1972): 25-34.
[In the following essay, Bergeron examines the theme of healing in All's Well That Ends Well, focusing on Helena's physical healing of the King and the metaphorical healing of Bertram and Parolles.]
Since the time of W. W. Lawrence's Shakespeare's Problem Comedies numerous critics and interpreters of All's Well That Ends Well have written about the structure of the play. An excellent summary of the various critical approaches is found in Joseph Price's recent book in which Price also offers his own view: “He [Shakespeare] has unified the play through its structure: the play is tightly knit through parallels, parodies, anticipations, and commentaries.”1 From a different viewpoint Professor Toole argues that “the structure of the play is based on a humanistic modification of the structure of the morality play.”2 Much earlier Miss Bradbrook had offered a different analysis of the play's structure.3 One could go on rounding up the critics, but the point is that the study of this play's structure offers an excellent way of getting at the play's meaning. And few critics deny the skill of construction of All's Well, some in fact granting that that is the play's only claim on our attention....
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SOURCE: Silverman, J. M. “Two Types of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 1 (winter 1973): 25-34.
[In the following essay, Silverman examines the dual nature of the play's structure, demonstrating the way the comedic action of All's Well That Ends Well moves from simple and naïve to a more complex and insidious form.]
The willful refusal of certain characters to participate in the final comic harmony, and the manifold paradoxes which inform the “mature” comedies of Shakespeare, confront us with dramatic designs which threaten our usual assurance that disparate elements will ultimately knit together into a single structure. Occasionally, moreover, we find plays which are so obviously bifurcated that to reduce the importance of this structural break and replace it with some broad scheme of unification is to do serious damage. The Winter's Tale is an obvious example, with its hiatus of sixteen years between Act III and Act IV: here the incipient tragedy of Lecontes' jealousy yields to the broad pastoral comedy of Bohemia, so that in the final reconciliations the intensities of the earlier part are recollected through the joys of recognition as an old nightmare transcended through privation. Yet even with this division, we are given certain characters who are called upon to live with memories of separation. The division is made part of the play's...
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SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “Words and Deeds in All's Well That Ends Well.” Modern Language Quarterly 48, no. 4 (December 1987): 320-38.
[In the following essay, Hunt explores the disintegration of the relationship between language and action in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Were playgoers to judge from the King of France's recollection of the deceased Count of Rossillion, any question of competition between words and deeds in All's Well That Ends Well would appear settled during Act I. There, the ailing monarch, nostalgic for the past, praises Bertram's father for a remarkable ability:
So like a courtier, contempt nor bitterness Were in his pride or sharpness; if they were, His equal had awak'd them, and his honour, Clock to itself, knew the true minute when Exception bid him speak, and at this time His tongue obey'd his hand.
By making his tongue obey his hand, Bertram's father never risked becoming a Parolles, a character whose words ridiculously outstrip his capacity for performance. By precisely fitting words to deeds, the Count never sank to braggadocio. Moreover, through his metaphor of a striking clock, the King suggests that Bertram's father was a master of time; his knowledge of the “true minute” included a grasp of timing, of recognizing the opportune moment for wedding a deed to his word.
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SOURCE: Parker, Patricia. “All's Well That Ends Well: Increase and Multiply.” In Creative Imitation: New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Greene, edited by David Quint, Margaret W. Ferguson, G. W. Pigman III, and Wayne A. Rebhorn, pp. 355-90. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.
[In the following essay, Parker suggests linkages between characters, scenes, and themes in All's Well That Ends Well, arguing that the sexual terms “increase” and “dilation” have economic, verbal, hermeneutic, and familial implications in the play.]
All's well that ends well! still the fine's the crown; Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.
In act II of All's Well That Ends Well, Parolles (the Shakespearean character whose name means “words”) advises the curter Bertram to employ more words in his “adieu” to the lords of the French court by taking what he calls a “more dilated farewell”:
Use a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords; you have restrain'd yourself within the list of too cold an adieu. Be more expressive to them, for they wear themselves in the cap of the time. … After them, and take a more dilated farewell. …
(II.i.50-57; my emphasis)1
Parolles, who is...
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Lewis, Cynthia. “‘Derived Honesty and Achieved Goodness’: Doctrines of Grace in All's Well That Ends Well.” Renaissance and Reformation 14, no. 2 (1990): 147-70.
Examines All's Well That Ends Well's concern with faith, discussing the process by which Helena converts the King of France from a skeptic to a believer in hope.
Rothman, Jules. “A Vindication of Parolles.” Shakespeare Quarterly 23, no. 2 (spring 1972): 183-96.
Maintains that Parolles is the primary element of humor in All's Well That Ends Well, and that as the stock figure of the braggart soldier he is insubstantial as a character and not to be taken seriously as a villain.
Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1992.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 3 (fall 1993): 343-62.
Assesses Sir Peter Hall's production of All's Well That Ends Well, noting that Hall's vision is focused on Helena as the play's key to interpretation. Smallwood describes the production as unsentimental, and views Hall's take on the play as straightforward.
Snyder, Susan. “Naming Names in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43, no. 3 (autumn 1992): 265-79.
Investigates the significance of the naming conventions used in All's Well...
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