The plot of All's Well That Ends Well is a tissue of traditional folk motifs. The story of the abandoned wife who performs a seemingly impossible series of tasks in order to regain her husband is at least as old as the myth of Eros and Psyche. It has analogues in many of the literatures of the world. The hero or heroine who achieves great good fortune by knowing how to cure the sickness of the king when everyone else has failed, the bed-trick, the exchange of rings, and the association of virginity with magical power are all story elements with reverberations orginating far back in the past. In shaping them into a dramatic plot, Shakespeare was strongly influenced by the story of Giletta of Narbona, told as the ninth story of the third day in Boccaccio's Decameron. It is possible that he read the Italian original, but his chief source was probably the English translation, in William Painter's collection The Palace of Pleasure (1566-67, 1575).
Giletta of Narbona is the daughter of a wealthy and celebrated physician. She falls in love with Beltramo, the only son of the noble count by whom her father is employed. The count dies and Beltramo goes to Paris as a ward of the French king, who is suffering from an apparently incurable disease. When Giletta's own father also dies, she follows Beltramo to Paris, heals the king with the help of a remedy she has inherited, and then claims Beltramo as her reward. Beltramo himself is horrified...
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Gender Issues and Desires
The starting point for this essay is Susan Snyder's recent characterization of All's Well as a "deconstructed fairy tale": lurking beneath the folkloric narrative of the poor physician's daughter who deploys magic and cunning in order to overcome a dashing count's disdainful resistance are the unrepresentable specters of female sexual desire and male sexual dread. Indeed, the play invests the fairy-tale motifs that W. W. Lawrence believes undergird All's Well—"The Healing of the King" and "The Fulfillment of the Tasks"—with potent erotic subtexts. In adapting "The Healing of the King," Shakespeare, like his model Boccaccio, departs from tradition in making the King's healer a woman. Lawrence barely mentions this innovation, but it seems to me highly significant, especially since Shakespeare, unlike Boccaccio, makes Helena's gender—more particularly her sexual ardor and allure—indispensable to the cure.
Integral to the narrative of "The Fulfillment of the Tasks" is the bed-trick, an explicity sexual event in which a disprized wife wins back her husband by making love to him incognito, taking the place of another woman, in some versions the wife herself in disguise, whom he has wooed. All's Well deconstructs this folkloric device by wedding it to genuine sexual perturbation. The bed-trick is not simply the consummation of a marriage, in which Helena cleverly satisfies Bertram's seemingly impossible conditions, but an act...
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Eileen Z. Cohen
Western literature abounds in characters who have arranged bed-tricks—from Lot's daughters to Iseult, and by the seventeenth century the bed-substitution was a commonplace convention of English drama. Yet it is Shakespeare's use of the device in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure that disturbs us, doubtless because of the women who perpetrate it, Helena, a virgin-bride, and Isabella, a would-be nun. We seem unwilling to accept that Shakespeare deliberately intends to disrupt our sensibilities. Scholars have told us that we must accommodate ourselves to conventions or fairy tale traditions that are outmoded, or they call these heroines sluts, or saints and tell us to forget about the bed substitutions.
Shakespeare, however, does none of these. Instead, he requires us to believe that virtuous maidens can initiate and participate in the bed-trick. He insists that it saves lives and nurtures marriage, that it leads the duped men out of ignorance and toward understanding, and that the women who orchestrate it end with a clearer image of themselves. Thus, we have a simple theatrical device that effects complex response in the characters and in us, the audience. The convention "deconventionalizes" and makes the world of each play and the characters therein more real. Paradoxically, a device associated with lust abets love and marriage; it...
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...The alien, ineradicable element of All's Well that Ends Well and the source of its darkness is the barrier of class. Class debases the characters of Bertram and Helena throughout the play, and in the final scene it determines their fates and that of Parolles, despite the measure of virtue and vice each character possesses. At that point Helena, "a maid too virtuous / For the contempt of empire" (II.ii.30-31), must plead with a pampered husband, Bertram's fellow-prodigal Parolles appears beaten into due submission, and Bertram is, in Johnson's words, "dismissed to happiness." The difference between All's Well and the comedies that preceded it lies in its greater darkness, for class pervades the action and influences all the main characters.
Shakespeare's Helena hardly resembles the heroine of William Painter's tale of Giletta of Narbona, the likeliest source of the play. In the first place, she has been deprived of the wealth and independence that made Giletta her spouse's equal in all respects save those of blood. Giletta, "diligently loked unto by her kinsfolke (because she was riche and fatherlesse)," clearly managed her own affairs. Having "refused manye husbandes, with whom her kinsfolke would have matched her," she journeyed to Paris alone and unaided, and there sealed her bargain with the King. Once married, she "went to Rossiglione, where she was received of all his subjects for their Lady. And perceyving that through...
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The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together: Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipt them not, and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherish'd by our virtues.
The title of All's Well That Ends Well, a title which epitomizes comic or romantic endings, invites us to pay special attention to the ending of this play, to examine it against the norm of comic ending. Some critics take the sense of the tide at face value, and believe with Hazelton Spencer that all does indeed end well, that "the play's title clinches the argument against its detractors." Others would see the meaning as wholly ironic, or would agree with the reviewer of a 1959 Tyrone Guthrie production that the play "raises a dozen issues, only to drop them all with a cynical, indifferent 'all's well that ends well.'" The intent of this study will be to examine not simply whether all ends well, for our reactions at the end of any play are often complex, but rather what factors in the play and its ending contribute to our total response to the ending. I hope in my analysis to emphasize effects which were intended by Shakespeare, and to be comprehensive enough to avoid the criticism Richard Levin raises against an ironic approach which "operates at such a high level of abstraction that it can easily pass over such concrete details as the dramatic rhythm and its emotional effect." I will be very much...
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It is not easy to say why Shakespeare wanted to write a play about characters as limited and uninspiring as Helena and Bertram. A relatively straightforward dramatization of Boccaccio's tale of Giletta and Beltramo, All's Well is the only comedy that centers on a single love—or rather, a single love-hate—relationship. No Hero, Nerissa, or Celia stands by Helena's side; for most of the play she is a solitary figure who keeps her own counsel and pursues her ends without confiding them to any other person. For a time Bertram has Parolles as a companion, but he is nearly incapable of intimacy or emotional attachment. The minor characters of All's Well are, by and large, more attractive than its romantic protagonists, but none are as fully realized or as important to the plot as Leonato is in Much Ado. Nevertheless, the warm-heartedness of the Countess, Lafeu, the King, and Bertram's fellow officers is important to the emotional resolution of the play precisely because it is a quality somewhat lacking in Helena and completely absent in Bertram.
Compared to the comedies I have discussed already, All's Well seems gray if not bleak, not because its viewpoint is jaded or disillusioned but because its chief characters do not delight us by their verve or humor or expansiveness of thought. Bertram is the least philosophical and perhaps the least intelligent of the heroes of the comedies. He does not reflect on his experiences,...
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Shakespeare's decision to base a comedy on Boccaccio's story about a young man who flees rather than pursues his eventual wife, despises rather than adores her, creates for All's Well That Ends Well an altered set of comic conflicts. Instead of accommodating the marital aspirations of a Bassanio or an Orlando, the play's action must bring Bertram to accept Helena as his wife. Before this action is completed, the young count is identified at various moments as a nobleman of great promise, an object of adoration, a complete fool, a snob, an ungrateful son and subject, a whimpering adolescent, a warrior of heroic stature, a degenerate rake, a liar, a moral coward, a suspected murderer, and, perhaps, a regenerate husband. Few characters in Shakespeare's comedies are called upon to fit so many different images, certainly none of Bertram's more compliant comic predecessors. Partly because he has often been seen through responses he generates in other characters, who repudiate him as son, subject, and comrade, Bertram has long held a reputation among critics as a "thoroughly disagreeable, peevish and vicious person." Recent attempts to brighten Bertram's character have often accompanied attempts to salvage the play from a long tradition of critical discontent, to demonstrate "that All's Well is a good play," that in fact, "All does end well." I think instead that a close look at All's Well as it is experienced by Bertram can help identify unresolved...
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Shakespeare's plays often include characters ready to save us the bother of seeing for ourselves. Generally speaking, the higher their social status, the more chance they have of being listened to. Maria's character-sketch of Malvolio in Act II, Scene iii of Twelfth Night would not have enjoyed so much success if her mistress hadn't already pronounced him "sick of self-love." When in Act III, Scene ii of All's Well That Ends Well the two French lords deliver Bertram's unpleasant letters to Rossillion, the Countess asks who is with him in Florence and, on hearing that it is Parolles, complains, "A very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness;/My son corrupts a well-derived nature/With his inducement." This interpretation receives some support from the Florentine ladies watching the soldiers go by in Act III, Scene v. Diana remarks that it is a pity such a good-looking young man as Bertram is not honest and adds, "Yound's that same knave/That leads him to these places. Were I his lady/I would poison that vile rascal." The context makes clear that she is shifting to Parolles some of the blame for Bertram's "dishonesty" in paying court to her when he is already married. But much weightier confirmation of the Countess's belief that Bertram has been led astray comes from Lafeu. With the war in Tuscany over and Helena supposed dead, Act IV, Scene v opens in Rossillion as Lafeu is saying,
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