All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends Well book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What happens in All's Well That Ends Well?

In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena wants to marry Count Bertram. After she forces him into the marriage, he runs off to Italy, saying he'll never accept her until she wears his ring and carries his child. Though these conditions seem impossible at first, Helena manages to fulfill them through much trickery. In the end, Helena and Bertram are happy, and all's well that ends well.

  • The king is suffering from a seemingly incurable malady. Helena, the daughter of a great healer, cures the kind and is allowed to pick any man she wants as her reward. She picks Count Bertram, the son of her ward, the Countess of Rousillon.

  • Bertram doesn't like being forced into the marriage. He runs away, declaring that Helena will not truly be his wife until she wears his ring and carries his child—impossible things, given that he never intends to see her again.

  • By switching places with one of Bertram's love interests, Diana, Helena is able to fulfill both of his requirements. The two then live happily ever after, and Diana gets her pick of a husband, just as Helena did.

Download All's Well That Ends Well Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

Helena, the play's protagonist, has been raised in France as a ward of the Countess of Roussillon. She is in love with Bertram, the countess's son, but understands that they are not equal in status.

Bertram leaves for Paris, and it is comforting for Helena to talk with Parolles, one of Bertram's associates, for his connection with Bertram. Parolles talks to her about virginity and indicates that it is a demerit rather than a merit. Helena brushes off his vulgar words.

Helena learns that the king of France is critically ill and decides to go to Paris. She takes with her a remedy that her late father, a wise doctor, gave her. She knows that the king has already asked Bertram about her father and has been upset to learn that he is no longer living.

At first, the king flatly refuses Helena's offer of help; the best doctors have just declared his illness incurable. Helena is willing to be executed, however, should the remedy fail, and a hope is born in the king's heart. When Helena asks about her reward if the remedy works, the king promises to grant her anything, and Helena asks for permission to marry a noble of her choice from the king's court.

Helena manages to cure the king. She asks him to give her in marriage to Bertram. However, Bertram refuses to marry her, thinking that to be bound in wedlock with a physician's daughter is a disgrace. The king says,

Strange is it that our bloods,
Of colour, weight, and heat, pour’d all together,
Would quite confound distinction, yet stands off
In differences so mighty. If she be
All that is virtuous, save what thou dislik'st,
A poor physician's daughter,—thou dislik'st—
Of virtue for the name. But do not so.

Helena responds to Bertram's refusal in a dignified manner, but the king's honor is offended. He promises to raise Helena and punish Bertram. Bertram must consent to the marriage, but he is going to war in Tuscany and leaves his intended behind.

Helena soon receives a letter from him, which states,

When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a "then" I write a "never."

The countess disowns her son and calls Helena her own only child. Helena, however, blames herself, thinking that she needs to leave so that Bertram might return home.

Dressed as a pilgrim, Helena leaves France and arrives in Bertram's camp. There, Helena learns that her husband courts a young Florentine named Diana. Helena meets Diana and her mother, and the women decide to help her. Helena disguises herself as Diana and has a tryst with Bertram. Thus, Helena and Bertram's marriage is consummated, and she receives from him the ring that his letter mentioned. She, in turn, gives him the ring that the king had presented her with.

Then, Helena spreads a rumor about her own death. Bertram returns to France, where the old Lord...

(The entire section is 2,831 words.)