All's Well That Ends Well
Scholars generally believe that All's Well That Ends Well was written between 1600-1605, although some believe Shakespeare wrote it earlier. The source story for the play was an episode from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1349-50); a story based on a common folkloric theme of achieving what is thought to be an unobtainable goal. Early critics of All's Well That Ends Well focused on the incongruous plot elements and the thematic concerns of merit and rank, virtue and honor, and male versus female. Beginning in the nineteenth century, scholars found it necessary to justify Helena, especially her aggressiveness and her questionable use of the bed-trick. It was not until the twentieth century that critics began commenting on the balance of tone and structure, and the heretofore overlooked connections between the dark elements of Shakespeare's play and the source story.
In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena, a physician's daughter, must first cure the King of France, and then consummate her marriage to Bertram, the unwilling object of her affections. Although there are several other characters and subplots in the play, the themes of virtue, honor, and redemption can be seen in these central characters. The conclusions of the play's subplots, and that of the primary conflict, are seen by many as unsatisfactory, and as leaving the audience with mixed feelings about the characters and the story. Although the play was written as a comedy, it is commonly referred to as a "problem play" because of the somber and tragic elements found in it, and because of the general lack of satisfaction at the ending. Critic James L. Calderwood (1963) calls All's Well "the most problematic of the so-called 'problem plays'," and Joseph G. Price (1968) finds that while the balance of the play is exceptional, All's Well lacks the "characteristic mood" by which Shakespeare's plays can be identified.
The ending of the play has received much critical attention, with scholars divided on the issue of whether the play does, in fact, end well. Several critics call attention to the fact that due to the title of the play, expectations of the ending are heightened. Some believe that Shakespeare ended his play prematurely, in order to meet a production goal or for financial needs. Others debate the idea that the ending is not acceptable, and suggest viewing the play in terms of Elizabethan conventions. In 1977, Ian Donaldson argued that All's Well has not been studied as the complex play that it is. In what he calls Shakespeare's "play of endings," Donaldson contends that "the notion of the end dances elusively ahead, always just appearing. . . ." Thomas Cartelli (1983) suggests that the conclusion of All's Well was an experiment by Shakespeare, to keep the ending in rhythm with the "eccentric design" of the rest of the play. Maintaining that the ending of All's Well confronts the traditional romantic ending, Gerard J. Gross (1983) questions whether the ending of the play is happy, as a comedy is expected to be, in part because Helena's attraction for Bertram is not entirely believable, and also because the audience is never positive that Helena and Bertram will have a happy life together.
The sexuality of the play is another controversial and much-debated theme. Critics point to the unlikelihood of Helena pursuing a husband who is not only clearly above her rank, but who is portrayed as a selfish, seemingly unlikable man. Early commentators on the play criticized Helena for pursuing a man at all. Recent critics, however, have been more favorable to Helena. E. A. J. Honigmann (1989) views All's Well as a play of female dominance, and one illustrating the contrast of male and female. Likewise, Marilyn L. Williamson (1986) contends that the bed-trick allows Helena to be more sexual than normally allowed in romantic comedies, without being lustful, because the sex is achieved for chaste motives. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) sees the separation of sexuality and marriage in the play as the foundation for other sources of corruption, and cites the bed-trick as death and rebirth, both sexually and psychologically, for Bertram and Helena.
Modern criticism of the play also addresses Shakespeare's intention of commenting on the social role of women, the similarities between Helena's feelings for Bertram and Shakespeare's feelings for his lover in the sonnets, and whether or not stage productions should attempt to explain the holes in the plot through non-verbal cues. The primary debate continues, however, over whether All's Well illustrates Shakespeare's ability to fuse together drastically different characters and seemingly unrelated elements, or whether it exposes lack of unity and forethought on the playwright's part.