(Shakespearean Criticism)


All's Well That Ends Well has traditionally been one of the least admired and least performed plays in the Shakespearean canon. It's fusion of folk-tale and comic elements with a cynical presentation of character has baffled critics and directors alike in their attempts to perceive psychological coherence and dramatic resolution in the work. Until recently, Muriel Bradbrook's judgement of the play as one "which is of its age rather than for all time" has represented the opinion of most commentators. Since the 1950s, however, the play's reputation has risen, and this has been reflected on the stage in a number of innovative productions that have underscored aspects of the drama previously overlooked in the study.

The early stage history of All's Well That Ends Well is exceptionally meager. Scholars have noted that the taste of seventeenth-century audiences had veered away from Shakespeare's comedies, and there is no record of the play ever having been performed before Henry Giffard presented it at the Goodman's Fields Theatre in 1741. Giffard himself advertised the play as "written by Shakespeare and not acted since his time." Although little is known with certainty about this production, it is believed that an intact version of the text was used. Additionally, it appears that the play was well received by the audience. Giffard and his wife played Bertram and Helena, and Joseph Peterson took the role of Parolles. Peterson was so popular in this role that he enacted it in the provinces in subsequent years. For the remainder of the play's history on the stage the character of Parolles has generally been viewed as the focal point of the drama. In 1742 Theophilus Cibber and Charles Macklin fought over who would portray the braggart soldier in a production at DRURY LANE. Cibber's success in the role was documented by the poet William Shenstone, who wrote "young Cibber's exhibition of Parolles …elicited from me as sincere a laugh as I can ever recollect." This revival was nevertheless so plagued by a series of illnesses among the cast that the play became known as "the unfortunate comedy." Cibber again played Parolles in the 1742-43 season, when Giffard moved his theater to LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS. He also intended to enact the role at COVENT GARDEN in 1746, but decided to return to Drury Lane shortly before the production's opening. Henry Woodward assumed the role in Cibber's absence and became famous as Parolles until his retirement from the stage in 1777.

David Garrick's 1756 revival of All's Well That Ends Well at Drury Lane initiated a trend in which the farcical elements of the play were accentuated at the expense of characterization. Chiefly concerned with the effective pacing of his productions, Garrick substantially altered the text of Shakespeare's drama, eliminating much of the poetry in the original and focusing solely on the character of Parolles. The readjustment of the play's plot and characterization particularly reduced the role of Helena, who became nothing more than a comic foil for Parolles. Although Garrick had employed a fine cast—including Henry Woodward as Parolles, Richard Yates as Lavatch, and Hannah Pritchard as the Countess—the production failed to please audiences and was performed only eleven times between 1756 and 1758. An even more aggressive attempt to present the play as a farce occurred in John Bannister's revival at the HAYMARKET THEATRE in 1785. The play had been adapted by Frederick Pilon, who cut virtually all of the first three acts in order to concentrate the comic stage business of Bannister's Parolles.

Several years later, however, John Philip Kemble inaugurated a new approach to All's Well That Ends Well that remained dominant until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1793 Kemble published an adaptation of the play's text that made Helena the focus of the drama. This new conception of the play replaced the traditional emphasis on farce with the Regency taste for sentimentality. Kemble staged the play in 1794 at the newly built Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Kemble himself took the part of Bertram; the cast additionally included Mrs. Jordan as Helena and John Bannister as Parolles. Although critics and audiences responded favorably to the staging, the play was not revived again for fifteen years. Charles Kemble, the manager of Covent Garden, used his brother's text in his lavish 1811 production of All's Well That Ends Well. The reviewer for the European Magazine and London Review noted enthusiastically that "the Florentine costume of the age was well attended to in the dress of the character; and the scenery was illustrative of the subject." The cast included Kemble himself as Bertram, Mrs. H. Johnston as Helena, Joseph Munden as Lafew, and John Fawcett, Jr. as Parolles. Charles Lamb singled out for particular praise Munden's acting: "in the grand grotesque of farce, Munden stands out as single and unaccompanied as Hogarth. … Can any man wonder like he does?" The European Magazine and London Review similarly praised the production's performances, asserting that "the character of Parolles is wrought up with the hand of a master, and the situations of Helena are so delicately supposed and finished, that the auditor follows her, in the vicissitudes of her fortunes, with sympathy." Favorable reviews notwithstanding, the play was abandoned after a second performance later in the year.

Although All's Well That Ends Well was revived in Bath in 1821 and again at Covent Garden in 1832, scholars believe that the Kemble brothers' emphasis upon the romantic theme of the play was considered offensive to the tastes of the nineteenth-century theater-going public. Frederick Reynolds's operatic adaptation for Covent Garden in 1832 strove to blend the comic, romantic, and fairy-tale elements of All's Well That Ends Well into a coherent and more decorous whole. Reynolds excised the text's darker overtones and farcical scenes and inserted a number of musical pieces from such plays as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labour's Lost, and Twelfth Night. The result, however, was deplored by the critic for The Times, who suggested that "to leave out all that makes [the play] unfit for representation would be to leave a little behind." The reviewer for the Court Journal castigated the production on quite different grounds: "The revival at all, at this time of day, of the only play of Shakespeare that is really exceptionable in its moral tone and tendency, is a sufficient blunder."

The next major revival of All's Well That Ends Well was that of Samuel Phelps, the actor-manager of SADLER'S WELLS, in 1852. Prior to opening, the production excited considerable interest. The Times commented that "the Islington establishment is a sort of museum for the exhibition of dramatic curiosities, and we have no more right to be astounded at finding some Elizabethan crudity within its precincts than at finding a Buddhist idol in a missionary collection." Harking back to John Philip Kemble's 1793 adaptation of the text, Phelps presented a successful version of All's Well That Ends Well that emphasized the play's romantic and picturesque qualities. Contemporary critics writing for The Athenaeum and The Illustrated London News praised the scenery and tastefulness of the mise en scène, both of which were felt to alleviate the "obvious crudities" of the play. The staging was further enhanced by several outstanding performances. The reviewer for The Illustrated London News described Fanny Cooper's rendering of Helena as "beautifully sustained" and praised her "careful elocution" of the soliloquies. Similarly, Mrs. Ternan was praised for her dignified performance as the Countess of Rossillion. Critics were unanimous in asserting that the most memorable performance was that of Phelps himself in the role of Parolles. The Athenaeum stated that "the situation after his capture was perfectly realized; and the picture of the coward turned traitor was complete." Although the play was staged a further eleven times in the 1852-53 season, Phelps did not revive it thereafter.

After a hiatus of some forty-two years, Henry Irving presented All's Well That Ends Well twice in January 1895 with the Irving Dramatic Club. Irving's staging failed to win favor with the two prominent critics William Archer and George Bernard Shaw. Both objected strenuously to the director's use of an abridged text. Archer wrote that the play "had been so carefully bowdlerized … that the story would scarcely have been comprehensible to any one who did not know it beforehand." Similarly, Shaw, who deprecated Irving's striving after scenic effects, wrote that "the whole play was vivisected, and the fragments mutilated, for the sake of accessories which were in every particular silly and ridiculous." The central performances in this production were also the subject of negative criticism. While Archer approved of Olive Kennett's portrayal of Helena and Len Heinekey's Countess, Shaw found both renderings to have been without merit. The critics were in agreement, however, that the male performances were undistinguished, with Shaw judging that "Mr. LewinMannering did not for any instant make it possible to believe that Parolles was a real person to him."

Frank Benson's 1916 production of All's Well That Ends Well at the SHAKESPEARE MEMORIAL THEATRE in Stratford-upon-Avon was the first modern staging to attempt a unified presentation of the play without doing excessive violence to the text. Employing the original version of the drama for the first time since 1741, Benson himself played Parolles in a performance that was ecstatically received. It appears that this enthusiasm stemmed more from the recent knighthood of the actor than from any appreciation of the intrinsic merits of the drama itself. Four years later, William Poel's revival of All's Well That Ends Well at the Ethical Church, Bayswater, sought to impose a modern social significance on the play by presenting it as a plea for women's liberation. Robert Speaight commented that this staging presented a Helena whose "wooing of Bertram was free from any restraint of code; it was the expression of a love, religious in impulse, which no convention could repress." Poel's production was faulted for being unusually dismal and was cooly received by critics. In the following year, Robert Atkins presented a less ideologically motivated version of the play at the OLD VIC THEATRE. Opening on 28 November 1921, Atkins's presentation of All's Well That Ends Well featured a restored text and an emphasis on the comic elements inherent in the work. Harking back to eighteenth-century versions of the play, Atkins replaced the scenes that had offended Victorian sensibility, while maintaining the Victorian conception of Helena as a sweet and delicate character. Although the comic scenes were generally admired, the majority of critics faulted Jane Bacon's portrayal of Helena. For John Francis Hope, the production was at once "interesting and disappointing." The critic maintained that Atkins's reintroduction of the comic scenes was hampered by a failure to express the nature of Elizabethan humor frankly. This tendency was most evident in Ernest Milton's rendering of Parolles, which Hope characterized as being "like someone skating on very thin ice, as though he were trying to spare Helena's blushes instead of provoking them." At the Arts Theatre Club in 1932, Atkins revived the play in a staging that retained the traditional interpretation of Helena and reaffirmed that critical opinion of the play as mediocre. James Agate, for example, asserted that it was "Shakespeare botching and bungling at his worst." Atkins revived the play for a third time in 1940 at the Vaudeville Theatre, London. Once again, the production received mixed responses. Catherine Lacey as Helena garnered qualified praise from Ivor Brown, who wrote, "you need not believe in her, but love her you must—and love her you will." Atkins himself took the part of Lafew, making this role the focal point of the play. Herbert Farjeon wrote that he handled the character "with ease, amiability and good understanding." Owing to this staging's coinciding with World War II, melodrama was emphasized at the expense of the play's comic scenes. Despite acknowledging Atkins's competent direction, critics concurred with Alan Dent's sentiment that the play "may be put by for another twenty years without great loss."

Prior to the World War II, there were several productions of All's Well That Ends Well that displayed anew the comic potential of the drama. W. Bridges-Adams's 1922 production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was successful primarily as a result of Baliol Holloway's Parolles, which St. John Ervine hailed as "a piece of comic acting as fine as I have seen for some time." Five years later, Barry Jackson revived the play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in a modern-dress production that was notable for containing a young Laurence Olivier in the role of Parolles. J. C. Trewin characterized Olivier's conception of the character as "an amiable, too smart young man, a sommelier's scourge." In 1935, Ben Iden Payne's presentation of All's Well That Ends Well at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre strove to achieve highly delineated characters. Kenneth Wicksteed's Lavatch, for example, was described by Gordon Crosse as "a bore" and "a life-like portrait of a professional funny man who is not very successful in his profession." This production was indifferently received by critics, and led J. C. Trewin to comment that the play was "more brilliant in its parts than in its whole."

For the opening of the STRATFORD FESTIVAL in Ontario in 1953, Tyrone Guthrie staged one of the most significant productions in the history of All's Well That Ends Well on the stage. J. L. Styan has characterized it as a "water-shed" moment that "identified a unity of theme and style, and suggested possibilities for future productions." Setting the production in the Edwardian era, Guthrie aimed at presenting the play as a high comedy that united fantastic plotting with a realistic portrayal of characters' psychology. Perhaps the most innovative feature of the production was Irene Worth's portrayal of Helena as an intelligent and determined woman capable of successfully achieving her goals in a world of men. Critics additionally praised the performances of Alec Guinness as the King; Douglas Campbell as Parolles; Eleanor Stuart as the Countess; and Michael Bates as Lafew. Six years later, Guthrie revived the play at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. In this production he further emphasized the elements of farce in the play, expanding the humorous dialogue and making use of dumb-shows for comic effect. A. Alvarez enthusiastically characterized the presentation of the play as "almost as perfect as we are likely to see."

Michael Benthall's revival of All's Well That Ends Well at the Old Vic in 1953 sought to impose a very different kind of unity on the play. This production focused on the folkloristic origins of the narrative and presented Shakespeare's play as a comic fairy-tale. This atmosphere was achieved in part by Osbert Lancaster's ingenious set designs, which resembled the illustrations found in children's books. While this approach offered a unifying and coherent conception of the drama, critics generally felt that it did so at the expense of the play's serious undertones. This was especially evident in Laurence Hardy's portrayal of the King of France as a figure of fun. Commentators were similarly made uneasy by Claire Bloom's Cinderella-like rendering of Helena, which both J. C. Trewin and Audrey Williamson felt displayed poor taste. Richard David maintained that despite her grace and deft handling of the soliloquies, "her performance made no coherent impression, and the spectator was left in irritated puzzlement as to what exactly the actress had been driving at." Michael Hordern's Parolles, however, won universal praise from critics. David described it as "brimful of vitality, and a masterpiece of comic invention."

In the 1950s two productions on either side of the Atlantic emphasized the darkness implicit in All's Well That Ends Well. Noel Willman's 1955 staging at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre sought to achieve this end by focusing on Joyce Redman's morally indignant rendering of Helena. T. C. Worsley, however, faulted this performance, declaring that Redman displayed a "pertinacity worthy of the Royal North-West Mounted Police." Equally innovative was Willman's decision to have Keith Michell's Parolles portrayed as a hunchbacked cripple. While this served to accentuate the grim atmosphere of the production, other directorial decisions appeared to contradict such a mood. Critics cited such examples as the use of lavish scenery and costumes that evoked the seventeenth-century, as well as Michell's Parolles, which T. C. Worsley characterized as "a natural romantic juvenile." As a response to Willman's presentation of the play, Alan Downer concluded that "the conventional director can only attempt to smother [All's Well That Ends Well] in verisimilitude and trust that the audience will accept its conventional edified boredom as a cultural experience." A similarly sombre approach was chosen for the successful North American revival of All's Well That Ends Well by John House man in 1959 for the AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE THEATRE in Stratford, Connecticut. By highlighting the passion of Helena, without diminishing the deceitfulness of the bed-trick scene in Act III, scene vii, Houseman was considered to have exploited effectively the melodramatic potential of the play, but only at the expense of Parolles's comic scenes. Joseph G. Price deprecated the shift in conception of Parolles "from the braggart-soldier to a coward-villain who failed to draw his first real laugh from the audience until his capture." Nevertheless, the majority of reviewers concurred with Henry Hewes's assertion that Houseman had "made this unpopular play work by filling it with genuine passion."

The next major English revival of All's Well That Ends Well was John Barton's 1967-68 production with the ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY. Aiming for directness and narrative clarity, Barton's staging featured a heavily reduced text and stressed the tension between old and young in the play. The costumes were set in the early seventeeth century and the set consisted of a neoclassically inspired wooden archway. The conflict between generations was accentuated through the depiction of the elderly characters in a state of decrepitude, while "the young," wrote Peter Ansorge, strutted "around the French court like nimble flamingos." Particular emphasis was given to the character of Bertram, played by Ian Richardson. John Peter asserted that Richardson brought to the role "an unobtrusive physical virtuosity, communicating endless masculine distress with a drop of his jaw." For Hilary Spurling, Brewster Mason's Lafew provided a second focal point of the production. She described him as a "master of the graceful insult, the thrust and lazy flick, prodding Parolles as he would a ripe and squashy insect." The least successful performance was generally judged to have been Estelle Kohler's Helena. J. C. Trewin found her "repetitive and mannered," and Spurling argued that "Miss Kohler remains a principal boy at heart, a youthful version of Miss Mary Martin in Hello, Dolly!"

In recent years, All's Well That Ends Well has received noteworthy renderings on both the stage and television. Elijah Moshinsky's 1980 BBC Television version of the play is considered by many commentators to have been among the most successful productions in the BBC Shakespeare series. Critics particularly praised the director's highlighting of the domestic nature of the play through a sensitive use of lighting and the framing scenes in a manner that evoked seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Reviewers were less united in their appraisal of the production's performances, however. While Kenneth S. Rothwell deemed Ian Charleson "superb as the snotty Bertram," G. M. Pearce maintained that Charleson's sullen portrayal of the young man struck "the only discordant note" in the production. Critics were similarly divided over Donald Sinden's fruity rendering of the King, which Jeremy Treglown characterized as both lecherous and "hammy." Angela Downs's Helena impressed commentators with her crafty intelligence and serenity. Rothwell noted that her "plain, spinsterish, puritanical face with the unruly strands of hair conceals a volcanic disposition." Other favorably reviewed performances were Michael Hordern's Lafew, Celia Johnson's Countess; and Peter Jeffrey's Parolles. In explaining the success of Moshinsky's translation of the play into the medium of television, G. K. Hunter concluded that it seems "to accept the inevitable diminution in theatrical power that the translation involves, and tries to invent new relationships which will … compensate for that loss." By contrast, Trevor Nunn's RSC production in 1981-82 placed All's Well That Ends Well in a modern context. Opening the play with a waltz, Nunn's production was set in Edwardian England and fin de siècle Europe. Commentators praised John Gunter's set designs, which consisted of structures of articulated glass and wrought-iron and served variously as a café, a conservatory, a gymnasium, and a train station. The martial trappings of the production evoked the Crimean War and highlighted what Benedict Nightingale called the officer "caste's callow preoccupation with military glory." For several commentators, this atmosphere added depth to the characterization of Bertram as portrayed by Mike Gwilym. Nicholas Shrimpton argued that "everybody's least favourite Shakespearian hero appeared as an overgrown adolescent desperate to escape from home and mother, and live in a world of men." Stanley Wells argued that Bertram's "evident immaturity assists the credibility of his response to Helena's choice of him for a husband," and maintained that the most interesting relationship in the play became that between Bertram and Parolles. The latter role, rendered by Stephen Moore, received particular praise. Sheridan Morley characterized Moore's performance "as the Parolles against which all others in our life-time will have to be measured—a marvelous mix of braggart and tragic buffoon, whose subplot unexpectedly takes over and controls the whole of the second half of the evening." Additionally commended was Harriet Walter's Helena, whom Nunn had conceived as being motivated rather by an all-encompassing love than by social ambition. The majority of the critics lauded the production as a whole; Roger Warren praised it as "the finest and most illuminating interpretation of a Shakespeare play for many years." The cast also included Peggy Ashcroft as the Countess; Geoffrey Hutchings as Lavatch; John Franklyn Robbins as the King; and Cheryl Campbell as Diana. In 1982 the production was transferred to the Barbican Theatre in London, where Philip Franks enacted the part of Bertram. In the following year the production ran for a short time at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York.

After a twenty-year absence form the RSC, Peter Hall returned to direct All's Well That Ends Well in 1992. This was a brisk and fluent production that sought to underline the play's ambiguities rather than resolve them. Most critics agreed with Michael Coveney that the choice of Caroline costumes and John Gunter's use of architectural models in the set design complemented the director's "emblematic, austere approach" and took the audience "right to the heart of every knotty speech and twist of plot line." For Martin Dodsworth, however, the production's coherence was purchased at the expense of comedy and characterization, particularly in Sophie Thompson's portrayal of a child-like Helena and in Michael Siberry's uncomic rendering of Parolles. Taking the contrary view, Coveney appreciated the tragic nuances which were thus revealed in Parolles's character, maintaining that the braggart's torture and humiliation became "the most powerful sequence in the play, and one where Bertram sees the turpitude of the times." Played by Toby Stephens, Bertram was depicted as maturing from a callow youth to an individual wise enough to abandon Parolles and follow Helena. Other notable performances included Barbara Jefford as the Countess, Alfred Burke as Lafew, Anthony O'Donnell as Lavatch, and Richard Johnson as the King. Despite certain qualifications, critics found much to commend in the production. Dodsworth concluded: "It all makes for an enthralling three hours of theatre, and for the most part it convincingly holds together the odd blend of realism and folk-tale in the play."

Reviews And Retrospective Accounts Of Selected Productions

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Samuel Phelps • Sadler's Wells • 1852-53


Relying on John Philip Kemble's 1793 adaptation of the text, Phelps presented a successful version of All's Well That Ends Well that emphasized the play's romantic and picturesque qualities. Contemporary critics writing for The Athenaeum and The Illustrated London News praised the scenery and tastefulness of the mise en scène, both of which were felt to alleviate the "obvious crudities" of the play. The staging was further enhanced by several outstanding performances. The reviewer for The Illustrated London News described Fanny Cooper's rendering of Helena...

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Comparisons And Overviews

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Harold Child (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "The Stage-History of All's Well That Ends Well," in All's Well That Ends Well, Cambridge at the University Press, 1929, pp. 187-89.

The stage-history of this comedy is brief and inglorious. There is no record of its performance (or of any performance of Love's Labour's Won) before the closing of the theatres; and although it appears in the list (of January, 1669) of plays allotted to Killigrew for the King's Company … , he seems to have made no use of it. The first known performance was at Goodman's Fields Theatre on March 7, 1741, seven months before 'a Gentleman (who never appeared on any Stage),' in other words...

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Staging Issues

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Thomas Davies (essay date 1784)

SOURCE: "All's Well that Ends Well," in Dramatic Miscellanies, 1784, pp. 4-6.

[Davies was a bookseller and actor, as well as the author of a Life of David Garrick (1780) and Dramatic Miscellanies: Consisting of Critical Observations on Several Plays of Shakespeare (1784). Below, Davies comments on the handling of several roles in eighteenth-century productions of All's Well That Ends Well, including Theophilus Cibber's Parolles.]

A Physician's daughter curing a king, distempered with a fistula, by a recipe of her dead father, is the history on which this play is founded; a plot strange and...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Berry, Ralph. "Stratford Festival Canada." Shakespeare Quarterly 29, No. 2 (Spring 1978): 222-28.

Praises individual performances in David Jones's 1978 staging of All's Well that Ends Well, but describes the production as a whole as "unsatisfying."

Edinborough, Arnold. "A New Stratford Festival." Shakespeare Quarterly V, No. 1 (Winter 1954): 47-50.

Favorable review of Tyrone Guthrie's 1954 production of All's Well that Ends Well

Review of All's Well that Ends Well. The European Magazine and London Review 27 (January 1795): 48.


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