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 immaturity and brings about his acceptance of responsibility as an adult male. This interpretation is not far from the love-conquers-all scenario found in most romantic comedies. It may be considered merely a pleasant change that the woman, rather than the man, is the active pursuer who resorts to doing all that is necessary to achieve her desire. The basic underlying plot of traditional comedy remains intact.
A closer scrutiny of this, however, reveals that the gender change creates a much messier play. Innumerable questions about Helena’s motivations and behavior come to mind. In the first act alone, Helena mentions several times, in her soliloquy and in speaking to the countess, that she is deeply conscious of the class difference between Bertram’s position in society and her own. Nevertheless, she decides to try to win him anyway. Having used her personal knowledge and skill inherited from her physician father to get Bertram, only to find that he does not want her, she then exacerbates her initial mistake in judgment by continuing to pursue him. She lies to those who care about her, pretending to take a pilgrimage when she is actually on her way to find Bertram in Italy. When she gets there, she is willing to pay to degrade herself to substitute for Diana. Though it is quite conventional for comic characters—and, more often, their servants—to resort to all manner of guile and deception to overcome obstacles, it seems troubling to some critics over the years that it is a woman who determines the man she wants and then sets out to get him by any means available.
The object of all her travails is another source of unease in the play because Bertram is such an unattractive male character. Granted that his position in the beginning is pitiable, since he is forced by the king into a marriage he does not want, his subsequent actions seem both reprehensible and inconsistent. He behaves in a hateful manner, taunting Helena with two impossible tasks, running away to war, and abandoning his mother, estate, and country to escape his wife. He seduces young women, and then, as in the case of Diana, denies responsibility for his behavior, casting aspersions on their characters. His repentance and newfound love for Helena upon hearing of her death are, at the very least, patently insincere and, at best, a mysteriously sudden and inconsistent change of heart. This young man, with so few discernible attractive personality traits, seems to have little but noble birth to recommend him. Helena’s determination to have him anyway is sometimes interpreted to mean that she is a social climber. This motivation links her to Parolles, one of Shakespeare’s great comic creations, morally questionable but theatrically vital to the comic atmosphere of the play. This viewpoint alone makes the play unusual, for though other characters in Shakespeare’s plays have attempted to move up in class, Helena is the only one who succeeds, to general approval.
From being a simple comic tale of sturdy and faithful love surviving all obstacles, the meaning of All’s Well That Ends Well thus begins to shift and waver, starting with the ambivalence of the title. The play can only ironically be said to end well, when the heroine tricks the hero into staying with her. That the hero cannot distinguish between Diana, the woman he ostensibly desires, and Helena, the wife he rejects, is unromantic, at the very least. Instead of sounding like a simple exclamation of relief that troubles have been successfully endured, the title can take on a more morally ambiguous shade: that all—including the means—is justified by the end.
The concept that merit, as in the case of Helena’s independent and courageous spirit, counts as much as or more than the inherited position of Bertram seems startlingly modern. That and the combination of comic and puzzling characterizations make All’s Well That Ends Well one of Shakespeare’s more thought-provoking plays.