Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well

by William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends Well Essay - All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 75)

All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 75)

Introduction

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 unfortunately not a “heroic” one.3

The kinds of questions which still demand attention in All's Well fall roughly into four groups: the relationship of the relevant source material (including questions of rhetoric, atmosphere, and dramatic emphasis); the function of the minor characters; the role of Bertram; and the underlying unity (if any) between the two main divisions of the dramatic structure. These questions, let it be remarked at once, should not be dealt with separately, for herein is the root of much mischief; they must be treated as complementary and mingled parts of the basic critical problem. For example, most critics and scholars have noted Shakespeare's addition of the Countess and Lafew, and several of them have distinguished a little between the King in Painter's translation of Boccaccio and the one in All's Well.4 But the reason usually mentioned to explain these additions or changes seems strangely literal-minded: they are introduced simply to build up audience sympathy for Helena.5 Consistently overlooked is Shakespeare's effort to give these characters some existence of their own, if not individually, then at least as a special group important for the play's thematic development. They are all old and all uncommonly given to dwelling upon their age, their decline, and (pre-eminently in the example of the King), their approaching death. This emphasis cannot be pointless. It does not derive fundamentally from Boccaccio (who may have suggested it), and, except to accentuate her youth, it has little to do with our feelings about Helena. Again, critics have often noted the two-part structure of this play; but they have either considered one part without the other6 or, when they tried to establish some interrelationship between the parts, have in most cases stuck with Lawrence and his discussion of the Clever Wench legends.7 But a more basic thematic link between these parts is suggested which so far has gone largely unnoticed and which makes the play, as a dramatic poem, much more intelligible. If it does not save All's Well, it at least helps us better to account for the play's failure.

To understand the play more completely, then, we must analyze in detail its structure, themes, and language, keeping in view the source-relationships of these aspects as well. The opening lines at once introduce the theme of disease, death, and decay—the recent death of the old Count of Rossillion, the King's fistula, the passing of Helena's father six months ‘previously, the young lords’ need for “breathing and exploit”. This theme is stressed throughout the first two acts, which constitute the first part of the play and deal mainly with the healing of the King. Shakespeare may have found a suggestion for this emphasis at the beginning of Boccaccio's tale of Giletta of Narbona in Painter's Palace of Pleasure:

In Fraunce there was a gentleman called Isnardo, the counte of Rossillione, who because he was sickely and diseased, kept always in his house a phisition, named maister Gerardo of Narbona.

(Novel 38)

Shakespeare begins shortly after the death of “Isnardo” and, unlike his source, gives no explicit reason for the fact that Helena grew up with Bertram. But the idea of constant illness (hardly developed by Boccaccio except for the King's fistula) may have stirred his imagination and may in part explain the creation of the old Countess and Lafew. To accent the idea of decay, Shakespeare places the death of Helena's father earlier than Boccaccio does; the opening dialogue thus becomes a veritable dirge, lamenting not only the death of the old Count and the King's disease, but Gerardo's death, too (I.i.19-26). The keynote is struck in the first line; there is something both morbid and unnatural in the Countess' speech: “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.”

Only Helena seems unaffected by the idea of death: her preoccupation with her passion for Bertram—Lafew has to remind her to think on her father (I.i.88)—appears at first merely a malady of a different sort, but emerges at the end of the long scene as the only healthy thing in it. The contrast is significant: in this way Shakespeare prepares us for Helena's role as the “providence of the play”, to use Dowden's term,8 or as the dominant restorative force amidst all the sickness. Restorative, but also regenerative. For closely associated with the theme of individual death and disease is another theme, the passing of generations, introduced and more fully developed by the King in the second scene, as we shall see presently. Hence another reason for creating the Countess and Lafew and for more carefully portraying the King: the universe of All's Well contrasts two worlds—the old order represented by the aged nobility and centered in France; the new order represented by the aspiring young bourgeois (Helena and Parolles) and centered mainly in Florence. Bertram is the link between the two worlds: it is through him that regeneration will occur when he synthesizes the best of both.9 But before he can effect this synthesis, he must be able to perceive the “best” and embrace it, and unfortunately Bertram is himself diseased. His ailment is more serious than that of the other young nobles who, stifled in France, need only the Tuscan wars for physic (I.ii.15-17; III.i.17-19). Bertram's sickness (in a larger, metaphorical sense) colors his judgment and affects his actions, and thus requires a more searching remedy.

According to this pattern, then, Bertram is to be the central character of the play; but he does not assume this importance dramatically until after his marriage to Helena, when the action shifts to Florence.10 Shakespeare first defines the true instrument of regeneration and the difficulties it must encounter and overcome. He does this directly by opposing Helena and Parolles (another new character): their wit combat on virginity (I.i.121-179) prefigures the more serious struggle in which they will soon engage, and Helena's victory prefigures, too, her ultimate success. The dialogue occurs in the middle of the first scene where—despite a light-hearted tone—their respective views on procreation are made clear.11 The quibbling sequence near the end of this dialogue takes on added significance when viewed with regard to the conflict between the regenerative and degenerative forces in the play: Helena claims Parolles must have been born under a retrograde Mars—he goes “so much backward” when he fights (I.i.204-214). But not only in the wars is Parolles “retrograde”; in his emphasis on clothes, manners, and mere words he exemplifies the degenerate influence at work among the younger members of French society.12 When Bertram first appears at Court, the King almost immediately launches upon an extended eulogy of the older generation, represented by Bertram's father, to the discredit of the younger set. He speaks of the dead Count before Bertram, Lafew, and Parolles (who is silent throughout):

                                                                                          It much repairs me
To talk of your good father. In his youth
He had the wit which I can well observe
To-day in our young lords; but they may jest
Till their own scorn return to them unnoted
Ere they can hide their levity in honour
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. Who were below him
He us'd as creatures of another place;
And bow'd his eminent top to their low ranks,
Making them proud of his humility,
In their poor praise he humbled. Such a man
Might be a copy to these younger times,
Which followed well, would demonstrate them now
But goers backward.

(I.ii.30-48)

The clock metaphor, really a conceit, boldly if obliquely insists upon the purport of the entire passage: a noble era is passing, yielding to a less noble, more “reactionary” time (note goers backward), a time which the King describes more fully in his speech on virtue in Act II (II.iii.124-151). The inference is clear: Parolles, for all his fashionable clothes and language, represents those “whose judgments are Mere fathers of their garments” (I.ii.61-62). To this extent only is he capable of regeneration. Yet it is he whom Bertram retains as his guide throughout most of the play.13

If Parolles is “kept under” by the stars that govern him (I.i.209), Helena is determined not to be. After earlier but momentary resignation to her position of shining in Bertram's “collateral” light but not in his sphere (I.i.96), she recognizes the true relationship of human will and heavenly restraint:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.

(I.i.231-234)

Here begins what has sometimes been called the “morality” pattern in All's Well: the struggle between Helena and Parolles for Bertram's favor.14 Parolles is patently an ass, detected by all save Bertram; but Helena must prove herself to her idol, to the other characters in the play, and to us. Hence she devises her plan to heal the King. Upon reaching Paris, she overcomes the King's doubts and is recognized as a minister of Providence even before she succeeds in curing him (II.i.178 f.). To be sure, Helena herself understands her ministry as something more than human (I.iii.248-249; II.i.139ff.), and at least one critic has explained the peculiar incantatory verse in this scene as therefore appropriate.15 But we need not repeat Tillyard's version of the theme of Bertram, natural man, redeemed by Helena, the agent of grace (pp. 118-122). We may simply note that at this point Helena proves her ability to heal in a literal sense, and the cure seems miraculous to all. Even Bertram and Parolles admit the wonder of it when Lafew shrewdly comments on the nature of event (II.iii.1-9).

By healing the King, Helena merits her bounty, as stipulated in the terms of the venture she chose to undertake: she may select her husband from among the King's wards. This precipitates the first major crisis in the play—a crisis no less severe for critics trying to understand Shakespeare than it is for Bertram. Many have found Helena's conduct blamable,16 and still more have condemned either (or both) Bertram and the King.17 Several have tried valiantly, if unconvincingly, to defend Bertram, notably A. H. Carter in a recent article.18 But no one, it seems, has adequately followed Dowden's hint to place the action subsequent to the healing of the King in its proper relationship to the first action in the play:

A motto for the play may be found in the words uttered with pious astonishment by the clown, when his mistress bids him to begone, “That man should be at woman's command, and yet no harm done”. Helena is the providence of the play; and there is “no hurt done,” but rather healing—healing of the body of the French king, healing of the spirit of the man she loves.19

Bertram's refusal to accept Helena as his wife and his later renegade conduct must be understood in the context of what has preceded; and Helena's influence upon him must be seen as following closely the pre-set pattern of her healing of the King—the initial refusal to believe in and accept her, the eventual success after what seems a “miracle”.

This early, repeated reference to the miraculous nature of the King's cure may also explain the “blackening” of Bertram's character, a problem pondered by all who have compared Bertram with Boccaccio's Beltramo.20 Bertram is blind to the real virtues of Helena—and in this sense ill, for no one else (except Parolles) fails to recognize her worth. His judgment is corrupted and his idea of nobility, as the King says, diseased:

Where great additions swell us, and virtue none,
It is a dropsied honor.

(II.iii.134 f.)

Earlier, at the suggestion of Parolles and two young lords (II.i.25-36), he falsely believes he will gain honor by disobeying the King and stealing from the court to fight in Florence, and after his marriage he actually does run off. His debauchery in Italy and especially his treatment of Diana seriously detract from his service on the battlefield and argue further this sense of “dropsied honor” (see III.v.3-87). Helena follows her husband to Florence, as the requirements of the traditional story demand; but she follows also to “cure” his affliction.

For Helena's effect upon Bertram, like her effect upon the King, is restorative. It is a long-standing error, as noted above,21 to regard Bertram as utterly without principle or virtue apart from his martial prowess—a man upon...

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Criticism: Character Studies

J. Dennis Huston (essay date autumn 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 4457 words.)

Jeremy Richard (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 6899 words.)

Dorothy Cook (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 8002 words.)