All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 86)
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, 55, 63, and 75.
Likely composed and first performed between 1602 and 1605, All's Well That Ends Well has long been considered a problem play. The drama has resisted 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. The play centers on Helena, who becomes the ward of the Countess of Roussillon after the death of her father, a famous physician. Helena falls in love with the Countess's son, the pompous Bertram, who regards her as socially inferior. After she heals the King, Helena requests as her reward Bertram's hand in marriage. Unhappy at being coerced to marry a woman he does not love, Bertram sets a series of impossible tasks that Helena must accomplish if she wants him to accept her as his wife—she must become pregnant with his child and take the ring from his finger. By conspiring with Diana, a woman Bertram is trying to seduce, and taking her place in Bertram's bed, Helena accomplishes her tasks and Bertram is forced to accept her as his wife. All's Well was inspired by a story from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1353). Scholars have noted that the drama retains some of the traditional folktale motifs of its source, including the healing of the king and the fulfillment of impossible tasks. Although traditionally viewed by critics as one of Shakespeare's least successful dramas due to its numerous unresolved issues, ambiguous ending, and largely unsympathetic characters, All's Well That Ends Well has risen in esteem among contemporary scholars. In an attempt to overturn the play's designation as a flawed work, many modern critics have endeavored to reevaluate All's Well's dramatic structure, genre, themes, and characters.
As in many of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, the central figure of All's Well That Ends Well is a determined young woman. Unlike such esteemed Shakespearean heroines as Rosalind or Viola, All's Well's Helena has frequently perplexed or disappointed commentators. Surveying past critical perceptions of Helena, Susan Snyder (1993) describes her as an unorthodox female protagonist, and remarks on the traditional critical apprehension of her sexual aggressiveness in pursuing an unwilling, and perhaps undeserving, Bertram. Snyder also considers Helena's role in challenging patriarchal gender conventions that expect passivity and submissiveness from women. David Haley (1993) stresses the significance of Bertram as the main focus of All's Well That Ends Well. According to Haley, Bertram's personal maturation from a “proud, scornful boy” to a young nobleman possessed of at least a degree of self-knowledge and a sense of personal responsibility forms the thematic arc of All's Well. Michael D. Friedman (1995) focuses on the tension between Bertram's individualized sexual desires and the social necessity of legitimate procreation. Principal among the minor characters in All's Well That Ends Well is Bertram's dubious companion Parolles. Robert Hapgood (1965) associates Parolles with a life of shame, viewing him as a debauched liar in the tradition of Falstaff, but bearing none of the redeeming features of Shakespeare's exuberant tavern knight. For Hapgood, the ignoble rogue Parolles quite simply sacrifices honor in favor of unrestrained living. R. J. Schork (1997) claims that Parolles is a clever adaptation of several stock types from Roman New Comedy: the cowardly braggart soldier, the crafty servant, and the archetypal pimp.
Although never a favorite with audiences, All's Well That Ends Well's popularity on the stage has increased since the second half of the twentieth century. The drama is a challenge to directors, who must create psychological coherence and dramatic resolution out of the play's incongruous elements, such as its ambiguous ending and unsympathetic characters. Eric Grode (see Further Reading) reviews the minimalist staging of director Andrew Grosso's 2000 production of the play at the HERE Theater in New York. Grode praises the director's incisive rendering of the drama's darker themes, but laments the loss of the its much-needed comedic elements. In another unfavorable review, Peter Marks (2003) critiques director Richard Clifford's 2003 staging at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. Although the critic acknowledges the inherent difficulties of successfully staging All's Well That Ends Well, Marks contends that Clifford's production was a conventional, drab, and lifeless effort that failed to elicit audience sympathy. Unlike these two relatively disappointing presentations, Gregory Doran's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, which featured an outstanding Judi Dench in the supporting role of the Countess of Roussillon, received the highest praise of reviewers Matt Wolf (2003) and Patrick Carnegy (2003). In addition to offering accolades to Dench for making emotional sense of the play through her compelling performance, Wolf commends workable interpretations of both Helena and Bertram, and an innovatively comic Guy Henry as the garrulous Parolles. Carnegy lauds Doran's brilliant ability to effectively lead audiences through this notoriously obscure stage drama, and notes that “Doran keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering why the play's making better sense than you might have imagined.”
Critics of All's Well That Ends Well are interested in the play's treatment of love, redemption, and honor as well as its evocation of the destructive forces of old age, decay, and death. Carl Dennis (1971) illuminates a religious theme in All's Well associated with the Christian conceptualization of agape, or divine love. Dennis discusses the play's dramatization of an unsympathetic and seemingly unredeemable Bertram saved by the saintly grace of Helena's boundless love for him. Michael Shapiro (1972) presents a variation on this theme, arguing that redemption in All's Well begins with self-knowledge, but is only achieved through mutuality. In this reading, Helena saves Bertram with her love and intelligence, and Bertram returns the favor to Helena by offering her his own redemptive forgiveness. David M. Bergeron (1973) focuses on the play's allusions to the tumultuous affair of the classical gods of love and war, Venus and Mars. Associating these figures respectively with Helena and Bertram, Bergeron declares that the play offers a final triumph of love over discord and conflict. Vivian Thomas (1987) stresses Shakespeare's deeply ambiguous treatment of honor and virtue in All's Well That Ends Well, claiming that the play features a clash of personal and public moral perspectives that remain largely unresolved at its conclusion. Finally, Lynn M. Simpson (1994) concentrates on the psychological dynamics of All's Well and its themes of separation, identity, and memory. Simpson contends that Helena's character, caught between romance and reality, illustrates a repressed failure to adequately mourn for her dead father. According to the critic, Helena insulates herself against her grief by denying it, and outwardly compensates with bold self-assertion in a reckless sexual pursuit of the reluctant, but ultimately willing Bertram.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Thomas, Vivian. “Virtue and Honour in All's Well That Ends Well.” In The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problems Plays, pp. 140-72. London: Croom Helm, 1987.
[In the following essay, Thomas stresses Shakespeare's deeply ambiguous treatment of honor and virtue in All's Well That Ends Well and claims that the play features a clash of personal and public moral perspectives that remain largely unresolved at its conclusion.]
A striking feature of All's Well is the way in which the play opens by specifying relationships and engaging the theme of virtue as an intrinsic quality which may be complementary to or in conflict with nominal status. In the opening line of the play the Countess expresses sorrow at the imminent departure of Bertram, but does so by emphasising the fundamental nature of family bonds: ‘In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband’. Bertram acknowledges his debt of affection to his dead father but counterbalances it with his duty to the King and his ‘subjection’ (line 5). However, this statement of Bertram's is to sound like a hollow formula in the light of his later disregard of the King's authority. No sooner has Bertram expressed himself formally than Lafew speaks of the King as a ‘husband’ to the Countess and ‘father’ to Bertram: formal bonds are to be affective ties. Lafew's confident reassurance to the Countess is based on...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Hapgood, Robert. “The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well.” Essays in Criticism 15, no. 3 (July 1965): 269-78.
[In the following essay, Hapgood studies Parolles as a representation of shame in All's Well That Ends Well and notes that the character sacrifices honor in favor of unrestrained living.]
The wit of Parolles's name is in the ‘s’—which Irvine and Kökeritz in their pronouncing dictionaries agree in sounding, along with the ‘e’. Altogether of Shakespeare's invention, the name has generally been taken to derive simply from ‘parole’ in the sense of ‘word’ (Lafew plays upon it thus, V, ii, 39). Wilson Knight suggests, in addition, a possible overtone of ‘word of honour’,1 which seems to me apt; for Parolles is no more a man of his word than a man of few words. To his shame, he is a man of many words. Yet his vivacious talkativeness is also a form of his most redeeming trait—a love of life so strong that it can make him welcome (all too easily, it's true) even the prospect of living safest in shame. It may not be too fanciful, then, to find in the pluralness of Parolles's name, suggesting as it does a conjunction of liveliness with shame, the essence of his character, and perhaps of the play.
The main difference between Parolles in the study and Parolles in the theatre is the force of his...
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SOURCE: Snyder, Susan, ed. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-67. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Snyder examines the diverse critical assessments of All's Well That Ends Well's Helena from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.]
All's Well that Ends Well has never been a favourite with audiences and readers. No allusions to it from Shakespeare's own time have been found, and evaluations by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics tend to be at best defensive; more often their tone is embarrassed or denunciatory, and some, like Quiller-Couch, Tillyard, and Josephine W. Bennett, do not hesitate to label the play a failure. Eighteenth-century audiences enjoyed the Paroles plot, but the Garrick version they saw displaced and dimmed the heroine and her trials of love to highlight the braggart soldier. Though nineteenth-century productions restored Helen to centre stage, it was in adaptations designed to distance her from sexual aggressiveness, and indeed from sexuality itself; yet in spite of all this anxious care, the play was performed only seventeen times in the entire century, considerably less than the fifty-one performances of the preceding century. Recent decades, however, have seen frequent productions: Shakespeare Quarterly records fifty-six since World War II. In the best of...
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SOURCE: Haley, David. “Bertram at Court.” In Shakespeare's Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in All's Well That Ends Well, pp. 1-51. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Haley interprets All's Well That Ends Well as a moral play depicting Bertram's path to self-discovery and his transcendence of a courtly “crisis of honor.”]
PROUD, SCORNFUL BOY
In its structure and dramatic emphasis, All's Well That Ends Well looks like Helena's play. Her intellect and force of personality dominate every scene in which she appears, and the audience is kept aware of her extraordinarily active presence even after she has been reported dead, in the latter part of the play. Yet critics persist in discussing Bertram as though his persona, rather than hers, held the key to the play's design. This is because the playwright everywhere solicits our concern for the young Count. Within the society of the play, Bertram is the theme of every tongue, his conduct a common topic of discourse. The heroine, hoping he will acknowledge her for his countess, implicitly takes part in the argument over Bertram's merits. Her formidable will fixes our attention upon her object, and our opinion of Bertram cannot be separated from Helena's unwavering belief in him.
Shakespeare's own estimate of Bertram is not easy to discover from the...
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SOURCE: Friedman, Michael D. “‘Service Is No Heritage’: Bertram and the Ideology of Procreation.” Studies in Philology 92, no. 1 (winter 1995): 80-101.
[In the following essay, Friedman focuses on the tension between Bertram's individualized sexual desires and the social necessity of legitimate procreation portrayed in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Ah, if thou issueless shalt hap to die, The world will wail thee like a makeless wife; The world will be thy widow and still weep, That thou no form of thee hast left behind .....No love toward others in that bosom sits That on himself such murd'rous shame commits.
(Sonnet 9, ll. 3-6, 13-14)
In contrast to the argument employed in the first eight of Shakespeare's procreation sonnets, Sonnet 9 abandons the strategy of exhorting the young man to beget a son for the benefit of his own self-perpetuation and turns instead to the concerns of “the world,” which maintains a keen interest in his failure thus far to produce an heir. This social dimension of the procreative process takes the form of familial pressure on the young man to carry out his duty to pass down the honor of his house for others' sake as well as his own. Robert Crosman, who recently argues for Southampton as the target of Shakespeare's exhortations, suggests, “If the sonnets are not addressed to Southampton, then they are addressed to someone very much...
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SOURCE: Schork, R. J. “The Many Masks of Parolles.” Philological Quarterly 76, no. 3 (summer 1997): 203-09.
[In the following essay, Schork claims that All's Well That Ends Well's Parolles is a clever adaptation of several stock types from Roman New Comedy: the cowardly braggart soldier, the crafty servant, and the archetypal pimp.]
As a romantic comedy there are a number of very odd twists to All's Well That Ends Well. Its adolescens hero is a reluctant lover, delinquent husband, and a liar. The King of France practically forces the youthful Count of Rossillion to marry a poor, but beautiful and intelligent commoner; Bertram's noble mother thoroughly approves of this match. In terms of the stock roles of the genre, the play's villain is an even greater bundle of contradiction. Parolles is acknowledged as part miles gloriosus, part parasite, and all rogue. The purpose of this note is to add aspects of two additional New Comedic roles to the list of type-characters which he enacts in the play. At times Parolles inverts the duties of a servus callidus; he also briefly appropriates the manner (and the morals) of a leno. The presence of an unscrupulous word-wizard and a procurer manqué in All's Well That Ends Well adds a new level of complexity to the action—and to our perception of Shakespeare's adaptation of classical motifs to the needs of his...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Marks, Peter. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Washington Post (6 November 2003): C4.
[In the following review of director Richard Clifford's 2003 staging of All's Well That Ends Well at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., Marks finds the production conventional, drab, and lifeless.]
Even on the most accommodating of slopes, All's Well That Ends Well would be rough sledding. Perverse is not too strong a term for the vein in which Shakespeare is working in this peculiar “comedy” about a woman creepily pursuing a snooty punk of a nobleman who can barely stand the sight of her.
Over the years, literary critics have taken up the cause of this rarely performed piece as a small, misunderstood gem. George Bernard Shaw thought its spirited heroine, Helena, was a prototype for Ibsen's Nora in A Doll's House, and other analysts have obsessively puzzled over the play's eccentric plots for clues to a nasty streak in the dramatist's psyche.
Whatever its magnetic properties for scholars, however, All's Well That Ends Well is a bear to sit through. The latest confirmation of this is the new production at Folger Theatre, where a talented director, Richard Clifford, and an accomplished cast led by Catherine Flye, Holly Twyford, Rick Foucheux and Rick Hammerly fail to light an innovative spark under a play that's in desperate need...
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SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Variety 393, no. 6 (22 December 2003): 55-6.
[In the following review, Wolf suggests that director Gregory Doran's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon was held together by a spectacular Judi Dench in the role of the Countess of Roussillon.]
Judi Dench comes out alone, briefly, at the start of the new Royal Shakespeare Co. production of All's Well That Ends Well, and a good thing, too: It's not easy looking anywhere else when Dame Judi is on stage. On this occasion, the collective gaze has been especially keen, since Gregory Doran's lively, audience-grabbing production marks Dench's return for the first time in 24 years to Stratford, where the actress has had abundant triumphs in a professional career spanning 46 years.
Just turned 69, Dench has reached the point in a classical actress's life where the Shakespeare roles are few and far between. (Pretty much all that remains for her is the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet.) But this singular performer always leaves a lasting imprint on a role, allowing her to make up in the quality of her Shakespearean forays what may be lacking in quantity. And when she emerges as the Countess of Rossillion, richly costumed in robes that seem to sweep her across the stage, Dench elicits a giddy intake...
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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Spectator 293, no. 9151 (27 December 2003): 42-3.
[In the following review, Carnegy lauds director Gregory Doran's 2003 production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, highlighting outstanding performances by Judi Dench as the Countess of Roussillon and Guy Henry as Parolles.]
You know at once from the title that nothing's going to end well, and nor has it for this, the perhaps least loved of Shakespeare's comedies. There's a permafrost at the heart of the story of the girl who ensnares an unlovely husband, is justly rejected, and after both have undergone unpleasant trials is reunited with him, leaving them to face as bleak a life together as you could imagine.
Yeats saw Helena as one of Shakespeare's ‘glorious women who select dreadful or empty men’. Some have found her a paragon of the Romantic heroine, while others, more understandably, have recoiled from her as an adolescent fantasist stirring up nothing but trouble. Bertram has found few champions, Dr Johnson writing him off as a bad lot whose fate was, in a devastating phrase, to be ‘dismissed to happiness’. It has been argued that the intolerable mess of the young people (who remain totally unchanged by their trials) is redeemed by the sagacity of their elders, prominent among them the King of France and the...
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SOURCE: Dennis, Carl. “All's Well That Ends Well and the Meaning of Agape.” Philological Quarterly 50, no. 1 (January 1971): 75-84.
[In the following essay, Dennis discusses the religious themes of fidelity and divine love in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Dr. Johnson's criticism of All's Well that Ends Well has never been effectively answered. Its hero, Bertram, is too fault-ridden to attract the reader's sympathies, and his final good fortune in getting back the good wife he unjustly spurns seems grossly unmerited. Bertram, as Dr. Johnson writes, is “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.”1 And where Bertram repels us by his faults, Helena pains us by her blind devotion to a man in no way worthy of her. Pursuing someone incapable of appreciating her virtues, she seems to be casting the pearl of her love before a swine. A few critics have responded to these problems by defending Bertram as a man unfairly forced into marriage or by attacking Helena as an aggressive schemer; but in doing so they must overlook not only the main emphasis of the action but also all the judgments made about the two protagonists by the...
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SOURCE: Shapiro, Michael. “‘The Web of Our Life’: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 71, no. 4 (October 1972): 514-26.
[In the following essay, Shapiro examines the theme of mutual redemption derived from self-knowledge in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Toward the end of his Introduction to the New Arden edition of All's Well That Ends Well, G. K. Hunter outlines the case for considering the “problem plays” as precursors of the late romances.1 Looking backward as well as forward, one can also approach All's Well and Measure for Measure as the last of Shakespeare's love comedies and see these “problem plays” as a transition from a relatively realistic mode to the predominantly symbolic mode of the final romances. Considered as a transitional work, All's Well is an exciting, if not altogether successful, experiment.
Most of the major critics of the play have either seconded Samuel Johnson's famous attack on Bertram, or followed Coleridge in adoring Helena as Shakespeare's “loveliest creation.”2 Some have done both at once. The inevitable minority backlash against Helena is perhaps best represented by A. H. Carter.3 Unfortunately, such partisanship on behalf of one or the other of the main characters eclipses the symmetrical pattern...
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SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “The Mythical Structure of All's Well That Ends Well.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14, no. 4 (winter 1973): 559-68.
[In the following essay, Bergeron focuses on All's Well That Ends Well's allusions to the tumultuous affair of the classical gods of love and war, Venus and Mars, and associates these figures respectively with Helena and Bertram.]
Critics have frequently discussed the symbolic structure of Shakespearean comedy, whether they suggest the pattern of the journey into the “green world,” a structure perfectly realized in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or the ritual structure of reconciliation in the late romances. Though the approaches to the structure of All's Well that Ends Well have been richly varied,1 I find in the play a symbolic structure that has gone largely unnoticed. Through both language and action Shakespeare endows this play with a mythical structure representing the story of Mars and Venus. Bertram and Helena are not, of course, the exact equivalents of Mars and Venus, but they bear certain resemblances and they ultimately participate in this myth that transcends the mundane limits of their human quarrel. This paper seeks to answer how and why this particular myth is at work in All's Well.
Though some of the references in the play to the Mars-Venus story seem quite...
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SOURCE: Simpson, Lynne M. “The Failure to Mourn in All's Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 172-88.
[In the following essay, Simpson probes the psychological and thematic function of loss, grief, and mourning in All's Well That Ends Well.]
Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to the psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back.
—Sigmund Freud, “On Transience”
For Coppélia Kahn, Shakespearean romantic comedies examine the issue of grief; however, she places this concern in terms of Blos's outline of adolescent development as biphasal and characterized by mourning:
Confronted with the great imperative of finding someone to love, the adolescent must give up the strongest love he has known thus far, his love for his parents. To give it up, he must mourn them, and in mourning them, he has recourse to the usual mechanism of mourning: he identifies with them, or one of them.1
Her analysis is illuminating but limited by making largely symbolic that which occurs literally—the death of a parent. Shakespeare is not merely...
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Babula, William. “The Character and the Conclusion: Bertram and the Ending of All's Well That Ends Well.” South Atlantic Bulletin 42, no. 2 (May 1977): 94-100.
Argues that Bertram's “conversion” or “rebirth” at the end of All's Well That Ends Well is an indication of his first steps toward personal maturation.
Briggs, Julia. “Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks.” Essays in Criticism 44, no. 4 (October 1994): 293-314.
Studies Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick (a clandestine exchange of sexual partners) for the purposes of legitimizing sexual transgression in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.
Cole, Howard C. “Preliminary Concerns: Tradition and Innovation in the All's Well Story.” In The All's Well Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare, pp. 1-11. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Claims that critical dissension over All's Well That Ends Well may be reconciled when the work is considered within its proper literary and social contexts. The critic also notes that the complicated drama is deeply concerned with the religious and political issues of its time.
Cosman, Bard C. “All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Treatment of Anal Fistula.” Upstart Crow 19 (1999): 78-95....
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