In this section:
- Shakespeare’s Language
- Shakespeare’s Sentences
- Shakespeare’s Words
- Shakespeare’s Wordplay
- Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse
- Implied Stage Action
Shakespeare’s language can create a strong pang of intimidation, even fear, in a large number of modern-day readers. Fortunately, however, this need not be the case. All that is needed to master the art of reading Shakespeare is to practice the techniques of unraveling uncommonly-structured sentences and to become familiar with the poetic use of uncommon words. We must realize that during the 400-year span between Shakespeare’s time and our own, both the way we live and speak has changed. Although most of his vocabulary is in use today, some of it is obsolete, and what may be most confusing is that some of his words are used today, but with slightly different or totally different meanings. On the stage, actors readily dissolve these language stumbling blocks. They study Shakespeare’s dialogue and express it dramatically in word and in action so that its meaning is graphically enacted. If the reader studies Shakespeare’s lines as an actor does, looking up and reflecting upon...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Rousillon (rew-see-YOHN). Region in southern France in which the play opens. The palace of Bertram, the count of Rousillon, is a scene of mourning and shadows, shot through with beams of love and goodwill, ruled by a man in complete self-absorption, ignorant of the kindness of his mother and the healing qualities of Helena. The problem is presented in this atmosphere of dark ambivalence, and here it will be resolved in the end. However, the mood of uncertainty that opens the play is not completely dissipated, for audiences remain wondering if Helena’s unconditional love and powers of healing will be sufficient to remedy Bertram’s overriding sense of self.
*Florence. Cultural center of Italy. Like Paris, Florence is sick in its soul with war and conspiracy. Bertram attempts to seduce Diana there, but Helena puts herself in the bed (an unhealthy one, like the French king’s sick bed in Paris), and he makes love to her, unwittingly helping to fulfill his impossible conditions: “When thou canst . . . show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband.” Florence embodies the theme of means justifying an end: Bertram achieves the military glory he covets, Parolles is exposed as a liar and a coward, and Helena uses trickery to fulfill the contract promised by the king.
*Paris. France’s capital is a somber and spiritually ill...
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All's Well That Ends Well focuses on what makes a marriage work. Helena is in love with Bertram from the very beginning of the play, and although she recognizes that her class status makes her a modern day American, marriage across classes is a common enough affair, so that Helena's low-born status may seem a superficial reason for Bertram's refusal of her. Certainly, the play makes Bertram himself into a superficial, vain, and arrogant young nobleman. But the class difference between the two is significant to Bertram, Helena, and the society in which they live. What other barriers, in addition to class distinction, exist in our own society?
When Helena wins Bertram in marriage, it is as though the play reaches a fairy-tale ending too soon. She has her Prince Charming, but he is not charming at all: "A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!" (II.iii.l 15- 16). What follows is an exploration of the meaning and value of their marriage. Bertram's challenge to her is to get a ring from his finger and bear his child, as though he believes that these are the elements that constitute the true marriage bond. Helena, on the other hand, begs a kiss from him (II.v.86), and later talks about how pleasurable their experience was in bed (IV.iv.21). Physical desire is a vital element of the bond for her. But she also behaves submissively when he tells her to return without him to Rossillion (II.v): to Helena, being a wife means...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Briggs, Julia. "Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks." In Essays in Criticism XLIV, No. 4 (October 1994): pp. 293-314.
Discusses the influences on Shakespeare in his use of the bed-trick and how Shakespeare used the bed-trick in his own work. Briggs focuses on Arcadia, a work preceding Shakespeare's plays, and Shakespeare's own Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well.
Brown, John Russell. "Love's Ordeal and the Judgements of All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida." In Shakespeare and His Comedies, pp. 183-200. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1957.
Argues that these three comedies—All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida—are, like their Shakespearean predecessors, "informed by Shakespeare's ideals of love's wealth, love's truth, and love's order," even though they are often classified as "problem plays" and set apart from Shakespeare's other comedies. Brown argues that the three plays "refine and extend Shakespeare's comic vision" and that understanding them enhances one's appreciation of the earlier comedies.
Bryant, J. A., Jr. "All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy, pp....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Adams, John F. “All’s Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 7, no. 3 (Summer, 1961): 261-270. Includes a discussion of the human worth and the nature of honor in the play. Stresses the importance of the bed-trick in understanding the play.
Charlton, H. B. “The Dark Comedies.” In Shakespearian Comedy. London: Methuen, 1938. Approaches the comedy from the point of view of the older people and their role in the play. Useful for discussions of characters.
Cole, Howard C. The All’s Well Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981. A unique source for tracing the different versions of the basic story, starting with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1348-1353). Detailed discussions include a chapter on Shakespeare’s handling of the tale.
Lawrence, William Witherle. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies. London: Macmillan, 1931. One of the earliest, and most influential, studies to connect the play with the narrative and dramatic traditions preceding it. Explains the basic folktale underlying the plot.
Zitner, Sheldon P. All’s Well That Ends Well. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989. An excellent critical introduction to many aspects...
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