William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well is among his plays that defy easy genre classification and are often grouped under such categories as dark comedy and problem play. Though more comic than tragic, these plays contain troublingly dark aspects or resolutions whose very glibness causes unease. Some of these plays received very little attention until the twentieth century, when the unflagging interest in Shakespeare caused critics to turn to the less familiar works in his canon. The modern interest in these more difficult plays is also quite natural because modern literature often focuses on uncertainty, ambiguity, irony, unstable characters, and mixed moods. Those aspects of Shakespeare’s plays that may have puzzled his contemporaries and repelled even his greatest fans invite creative attention from modern readers and audiences.
Among such plays, All’s Well That Ends Well presents several distinctive problems of interpretation. The history of the critical reception of this play, though covering many other aspects, identifies fairly clearly three key subjects of controversy: the active character of Helena, the surprisingly ungracious character of Bertram, and the bed trick to which the heroine turns in order to win back her reluctant husband, a trick that raises grave questions about the moral center of the play.
One way that scholars have tried to ease their discomfort about issues in the play is to consider the folk tradition underlying the plot. Several have noted that tales of women who endured much hardship for love and of wives who were sorely tested were extremely popular. Stories about women who manipulated events in order to get what they wanted often presented such women in a favorable light. That Shakespeare might have wanted to preserve this point of view for those in his audience not familiar with the folk tradition seems likely, given his depiction of the older characters in the play. Unlike traditional comedies, where the older people are obstructions to the younger ones, in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helen has the support of the countess and of the king. Such support serves two purposes. Within the plot, it allows Helena to concentrate her efforts on winning Bertram, and the approval of the older characters places Helena in a positive light, subtly persuading the audience to accept her desires and actions favorably.
These differences from other comedies give rise to controversies in interpretation. On one hand, Helena can be seen as the agent of a double healing action in the play. She effects the physical cure by healing the king and then spiritually “cures” Bertram of his...
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