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All's Well That Ends Well

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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.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26168

James L. Calderwood (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "The Mingled Yarn of All's Well," in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXII, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 61-76.

[In the following essay, Calderwood surveys the principal themes and ambiguous conclusion of All's Well That Ends Well.]

Perhaps the most problematic of the so-called "problem plays," All's Well That Ends Well has been received, both in the theater and in the study, with nearly unanimous disfavor. The principal objection of its critics, that the play lacks unity, would appear to be well-founded, for the relatively few serious attempts to elicit some sort of order have been largely selective, extorting a partial and particular coherence at the expense of major considerations which would vitiate the critical performance. W. W. Lawrence has presented a valuable but somewhat limited study of the analogues of the plot material, indicating the combination of the two folktale plots, "the healing of the king" and "the fulfilment of the tasks," and concluding that the use of such material, freighted as it is with traditional meanings, requires from the audience a relatively uncritical response: Helena is to be seen as noble throughout, the "bedtrick" as entirely acceptable, and the final reconciliation as portending unmitigated happiness. 1 Such a view, unfortunately, imposes upon Shakespeare the function less of a transmuter than of a transmitter of his sources, and by emphasizing the idealized fairytale qualities of plot ignores the pointed qualifications made upon these qualities by tonal realism and structural ironies. Lawrence's findings are accepted by Mark Van Doren, but are enlisted for purposes of disparaging the play; Shakespeare's commitment to the fable plot, Van Doren feels, caused him to subordinate both poetry and characterization to the mechanical requirements of the story.2 On the other hand, E. M. W. Tillyard finds that the play is admirably constructed and its characters effectively delineated, but feels that Shakespeare's imagination operated rather fitfully, failing to invest the crucial moments of action with verse that rises above the merely conventional and sententious.3 And finally, G. Wilson Knight has sought a unifying principle in the play in the pervading opposition between "feminine love in virgin purity [and] male values of prowess linked to sexual laxity."4 Like Lawrence's argument from plot, Knight's argument from theme results in a whitewashing of Helena's character; indeed, Knight considers her scarcely less than a Saint Joan marching forth under the banner of her goddess Diana to encounter and defeat the forces of Mars led by the hapless Bertram. However, against this black-or-white, essentially melodramatic conception of character we can profitably set the lines of the First Lord (IV.iii.68-71):

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp'd them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish'd by our virtues.5

In reading a play whose title makes an assertion, we can scarcely avoid questioning the validity of that assertion, can scarcely avoid asking ourselves if all really ends well here or if the patent falseness of the title as a general proposition should alert us to following ironies. To what extent in this play is the end influenced by the means through which it is reached? And if all does end well, what is all? Certainly one of the critical irritants in All's Well has been the problem of deciding what, if anything, does end in the play, let alone whether it ends well or badly.

If we turn to the opening line we discover that one kind of end, death, is being played off against one kind of beginning, birth: "In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband," the Countess says, and Bertram replies, "And I in going, madam, weep o'er my father's death anew." In fact, the entire first part of this scene is preoccupied with the theme of life and death. Lafew informs us that the king has abandoned himself to death, refusing any longer to delude himself with hopes that his sickness can be cured (11. 14-15). Helena's father, had his skill as a physician equalled his honesty as a man, "would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work" (11. 19-20); his life, were he living, would have been "the death of the king's disease" (1. 22). Bertram's father is dead; Helena's father is dead; and their contemporary the king is fast nearing death. Bertram's departure from Rossillion signals a new life for him but a form of death for Helena: "there is no living, none, / If Bertram be away" (11. 82-83). For one who loves, separation is death; yet, in the overworked Elizabethan pun, sexual union may also be death: "The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love" (1. 89). And so, to achieve the "little death" of love, Helena renounces death-from-separation and sets out to acquire married "life" with Bertram.

Perhaps we should pause at this point and examine Helena's decision more closely. Her two soliloquies in I.i are separated by her dialogue with Parolles regarding virginity. Since this dialogue has often been regarded as dramatically irrelevant, it might be profitable to consider it in relation to Helena's attitudes before and after Parolles' appearance. In the first soliloquy (11. 77-103) we find Helena in despair. She has no thought of pursuing Bertram, of actively pressing her love, no more hope of success than if she "should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it," but, instead, is unhappily resigned to a form of private worship at a distance—"my idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his relics." This style of love—passive, contemplative, worshipful—makes no claims upon its object, nor issues in any kind of action, except insofar as it seeks a mystical union with the beloved in the realm of mind. Innocence and purity are retained, guaranteed by passivity, but only at the price of sexual discontent, for the hind that must die for love aspires to a union that is not of the mind. But if Helena's position involves discontent—the frustration of sexual desire which strives against the apparently insuperable barrier between count's son and physician's daughter—yet she is resigned to it, and her lines just before Parolles' entrance are an endorsement of passivity.

Parolles, however, serves as a catalyst, and the ensuing conversation both crystallizes the issues and provides an index to Helena's changing state of mind. Virginity, to Helena, is something one preserves by inaction, a passive honor acquired at birth; to Parolles, it is something one uses, a marketable commodity which can best be employed in the service of self-interest: "Off with't while 'tis vendible; answer the time of request" (11. 150-51). However, there is an ambiguity in Helena's thoughts about virginity which mirrors her dilemma about the innocence of passivity (love-as-worship) and the potential contamination of action (sexual desire consummated), for though she professes the values of virginity she nevertheless cannot refrain from asking, "How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?" Throughout their talk we see Helena trying obliquely to determine how virtuous virginity really is and how corruptive active love may be. Although she has committed herself to love-as-worship, in her dialogue with Parolles—himself the embodiment of material values, of rationalism, of calculation—the religiosity of Helena's earlier attitude is subjected to the test of secular pragmatism, spiritual love to the claims of concupiscence. She states the problem of mind and body clearly when she says it is a pity

That wishing well had not a body in't
Which might be felt, that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends,
And show what we alone must think, which never
Return us thanks.


In other words, the passive virtues inherent in loveas-worship ("wishing well") go, as they have gone from Bertram, unrecognized and unrewarded; acknowledgement of merit can be obtained, apparently, only if one demonstrates that merit by some kind of physical action. The line about the "baser stars" which shut the poorer born up in wishes—the fate which condemns love for one's social superior to hopeless worship—implies the philosophic basis for Helena's passivity: in a world of determinism personal initiative is futile. But of course determinism offers, as she is well aware, the consolation of innocence: men's lives, and lovers', are like "their birth[s]—wherein they are not guilty."

If we sum up the conflicting attitudes and ideas in Helena, they consist on the one hand of determinism, passivity, innocence, and love-as-worship, and, on the other, of personal initiative, action, potential contamination, and sexual love "to her own liking"; on the one hand, the cold comforts of chastity, on the other, the hope of practical human fulfilment; on the one hand, honor without pleasure, on the other, pleasure without honor. Parolles' importance in Helena's changing position can be inferred from her observations about him as he enters and just before he leaves. She first observes that although he is wholly contaminated—a liar, fool, and coward—nevertheless "these fix'd evils sit so fit in him / That they take place when virtue's steely bones / Looks bleak i' th' cold wind." If evil is here contrasted with good to the latter's disadvantage, yet there is a clear conception of what is evil. At the end of their talk, however, Helena renders a different judgment of "fix'd evil": "the composition that your valour and fear makes in you is a virtue of a good wind, and I like the wear well." Evil has moved, at least rhetorically, into the camp of virtue. The change in terminology suggests a change in Helena's values, a movement toward Parolles; and the suggestion is reinforced by Helena's use of what is conspicuously a Parolles figure of speech: "and I like the wear well." The essentially religious attitude toward values has been modified by the secular one emphasizing appearances. Parolles, the man who can change values as easily as he changes clothes, and for the same reasons, has, without knowing it, induced Helena to tailor her own values in the light of newer and more utilitarian fashions.

In her second soliloquy Helena rejects the views to which she was resigned in the first. Her acceptance of responsibility now requires a partial renunciation of her earlier determinism: the "sky" remains "fated," but within the territories mapped out by fate one has "free scope" for action (11. 213-14). Moreover, the greatest social distances established by fortune can be bridged by the natural human desire for union with the beloved (11. 218-19). And yet in implementing the desire for union one can remain honorable: "Impossible be strange attempts to those / Who weigh their pains in sense, and do suppose / What hath been cannot be." That is, difficult enterprises which seem impossible if contemplated rationally and which are likely to entail a loss of honor ("What hath been"), will be undertaken only if we allow the force of our desires to dominate all other considerations. So Helena sets out on the difficult enterprise of winning Bertram without compromising her innocence. And just as Bertram's departure from Rossillion was his birth into a new life, so Helena's decision is a rejection of death in favor of a new mode of life.

Let us pursue this life-and-death opposition a little further. Like Helena in her first soliloquy, the king has abandoned himself to death. However, Helena, risking her life on the success of her cure, restores the king to life and thereby furthers her own plan of achieving life in marriage. Bertram, forced against his will to marry Helena, willingly risks his life also, not for love, but for military honor. In reaction to his flight and continuing danger, Helena again accepts death in order to save life in another (III.iv.16-17). Diana is willing to die for Helena, provided she retains her virginity ("honesty"): "Let death and honesty / Go with your impositions, I am yours" (IV.iv.29-30). And finally, Parolles can be made to reveal the true nature of his life only under the apparent threat of death (IV.iii).

While instructive in itself, this life-and-death opposition is perhaps more important as it bears on other themes. For example, if we know what it is that characters are willing to die for, we have an excellent indication of the values they endorse, and hence we can begin to understand the motives which urge them to particular kinds of action. Helena is willing to die for love and Bertram; and Diana and Bertram are willing to die for honor. Parolles, however, is unwilling to die for anything: "Let me live, sir, in a dungeon, i' th' stocks, or anywhere, so I may live" (IV.iii.235-36). Indeed, if others are willing to sacrifice life for honor, Parolles is willing to sacrifice honor for life:

First Lord. If your life be saved will you
undertake to betray the Florentine?
Parolles. Ay, and the captain of his horse,
Count Rossillion.


This leads us into the themes of love and honor. Under the general head of honor the play makes several distinctions, especially in the king's lengthy remonstrance to Bertram in II.iii (11. 117-44). The king's speech is meant to distinguish between inherited honor ("name," "additions," "title") and merited honor ("virtue"), between the appearance and the reality of honor: "Good alone / Is good, without a name; vileness is so: / The property by what it is should go, / Not by the title." In its context, the distinction thus made calls attention to Bertram's lack of both honor and moral insight in failing to acknowledge the superiority of Helena's "virtue"—particularly in saving the king's life—to the passive honor of "name." In addition to these, however, there are two other kinds of honor emphasized in the play—virginity and military prowess. In III.v Maria says that "the honour of a maid is her name, and no legacy is so rich as honesty" (11. 12-13). Thus, just as Bertram's "name" is his legacy, so Helena's and Diana's virginity is their legacy; and just as Helena's "virtue" is a merited honor, earned by action, so Bertram's military prowess is a merited honor, earned in battle.

If we consider the play in these terms it is apparent that the king is the fountainhead of honor, containing in himself all of its forms. At the opposite extreme is Parolles, who lacks all forms of honor, but who, because he can counterfeit them effectively, retains Bertram's approval and gets along well enough in the world of the court. Between the two extremes are Bertram and Helena, and it is here, in the thematic middleground of the play, that honor will be tested dramatically in its different forms.

Before examining this theme in any detail we might observe how it contributes to the structure of All's Well. As Lawrence has noted, the first part of the play deals with the "dealing of the king"; that is, it deals with Helena's attempt to convert passive honor into active honor, virginity into virtue. In the latter part of the play, notably Acts III and IV, the Florentine-Senoy war and Bertram's role in that war are dominant; that is, this part focuses upon Bertram's attempt to convert passive honor into active honor, "name" into military prowess. The end of each movement is marked by a kind of peripeteia that we might call the failure of apparent success. Thus Helena's saving of the king successfully leads to the wedding she had hoped for, but the marriage itself becomes an immediate failure. Thus Bertram goes to war to escape Helena and to win honor, apparently succeeds in both, yet surrenders his honor unwittingly to Helena in the "bed-trick." Although less important, Parolles' actions mirror those of Bertram as he makes a pretense, which becomes a parody, of seeking active honor by recapturing the drum—"this instrument of honour," Bertram labels it (—and, instead, is brought to disaster by his fellow soldiers.

The failure of apparent success characterizing each movement clearly directs our attention to the motives underlying these sustained actions and to the goals desired. Self-deception becomes an issue. In assuming that to win Bertram's love she has only to save the king's life and make her choice, Helena is, as the play demonstrates, radically deceived. Principally, she fails to realize the extent to which Bertram is devoted to the purity of his "name." But she is also partly deceived about her own motives. The credo which she stated in I.i—"The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love" (11. 89-90)—is, as mentioned earlier, significantly ambiguous, at the literal level implying the courtly ideal of entirely selfless devotion to the beloved, and, in the punning sense, emphasizing the altogether wordly instigations of the flesh. In setting out to marry Bertram, Helena attempts, as we have seen, to engage herself in the world of action while retaining the innocence inherent in passivity. At the opening of I.iii, however, we find the purity of her intentions undercut by the comic parody of the clown Lavatch. He too seeks marriage, but he is perfectly conscious of his motives: "My poor body, madam, requires it; I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives" (11. 25-28). Like Helena, however, he has "other holy reasons, such as they are" (1. 30); that is, Lavatch, though undeceived about the sexual basis of his urge to marry, is aware that to be politic one must have "other holy reasons," even "such as they are." Accused of being a "foul-mouth'd and calumnious knave" by the Countess, he claims to be "A prophet I, madam; and I speak the truth the next way" (1. 54 ff). In his little ballad Lavatch speaks "the truth the next way":

For I the ballad will repeat
Which men full true shall find:
Your marriage comes by destiny,
Your cuckoo sings by kind.

The last two lines are reminiscent of Helena's earlier dilemma: destiny that separates; sexual desire that joins. Kind refers here, of course, to "nature," and, in this context, to sexual nature, which is pitted against "destiny" as being a more fundamental force. So the flesh was the more fundamental force urging Lavatch to marry, although he could produce "other holy reasons." What the parody suggests, then, is that although Helena professes the courtly ideal of selfless devotion—the willingness to die literally for the beloved—she is, without fully realizing it, more basically motivated by the urge to die sexually with the beloved. The parody thus reinforces the implications apparent in Helena's dialogue with Parolles—that in exploring the uses to which virginity might be put she was particularly wondering, as she said, "How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?"

This undercurrent of sexual desire, together with the same themes which have been considered thus far, emerges again in the curing of the king episode. In essentially the same position that Helena was in following Bertram's departure, the king has abandoned life and hope, has passively given in to his apparently fated death. His answer to Lafew's question—"will you be cur'd / Of your infirmity?"—is a flat and unqualified "No" (II.i.67 ff.). When Helena proposes her cure, he rejects it partly from despair, partly from fear that his reputation will suffer ("to dissever so / Our great self and our credit"—(11. 121-22). Helena's problem now is to persuade the king, as she had earlier persuaded herself, from passivity to action, from despair to hope; and her arguments suggest that she is not unaware of the parallels between them: "Oft expectation fails . . . / and oft it hits / Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits" (11. 141-43). In venturing the cure, the king stands to lose both life and reputation; and in return, Helena hazards her life and her "maiden's name." It might be observed that she makes her hazard in terms that are excessively disproportionate to the nature of the situation:

Tax of impudence,
A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame,
Traduc'd by odious ballads; my maiden's name
Sear'd otherwise. . . .


Now although there is some evidence that Helena's virginity is associated with magical powers, as G. K. Hunter notes,6 still her virginity cannot be dissociated from its primary sexual significance. In other words, Helena is engaging in an action that, by her own definition, may result in a metaphoric loss of virginity. Her verbiage about hypothetical sin—"strumpet's boldness," "divulged shame," "odious ballads," "Sear'd"—helps further to define the situation as one tainted, at least in her mind, by overtones of sexual promiscuity.

These overtones are still present when Helena chooses among the young nobles. In rejecting one of them, she says, "Blessing upon your vows, and in your bed / Find fairer fortune if you ever wed" (II.iii.91-92); and to another: "You are too young, too happy, and too good /To make yourself a son out of my blood" (96-97). Blood here is capable of referring either to Helena's social rank or to her "passion"; thus in both passages she seems partly conscious of violating "destiny" and chastity. This sequence of imagery culminates in another significant ambiguity when Helena, choosing Bertram, says: "I give me and my service, ever whilst I live, / Into your guiding power. This is the man." As in the earlier line, "The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love," here we have on the one hand the courtly ideal of service as devotion, and, on the other, the sexual pun upon service as fornication.7

This is not to suggest that Shakespeare regards sexual desire in itself as being impure, that he is applying the moral standards of Malvolio; but that Helena's sexual desire is "impure" in terms of the ideal of courtly love which she has been professing to follow. The two codes of love, courtly and naturalistic, are brought together with a clash when Helena offers Bertram her "service." In the naturalistic sense of the pun, "service" implies the element of love which receives fuller definition in Sonnet 129:

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action.

"Lust in action," of course, by no means characterizes Helena; but even so, ever since her encounter with Parolles in Act I, there has been an undercurrent of sensuality in her motives running counter to the mainstream of courtly love. Neither code, however, is being dramatically sanctioned. If the naturalistic view of love seems a descent from the courtly ideal of love-asworship, its insistent presence nevertheless exposes the essential sterility of the courtly ideal—its impracticality, even impossibility, in view of the fundamental force of the sexual nature to which Lavatch's ballad called attention. Ultimately, both views of love are inadequate, and later in the play we shall find Helena moving beyond them to a position which is best described in the first seventeen sonnets and in which the element of lust in the sexual act is subordinated to a desire for procreation in marriage:

So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
Unlook'd on diest, unless thou get a son.

(Sonnet 7)

A discussion of that development in Helena must be deferred until later. For the moment I am only suggesting that Helena's motives are complex—that their web is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together—and cannot be accounted for merely by reference to the folktale plot. We should not forget, for instance, that although her healing of the king is intrinsically virtuous, it is, after all, virtue with a design and not simply altruism. As Helena told the Countess in I.iii.227-30:

My lord your son made me to think of this;
Else Paris and the medicine and the king
Had from the conversation of my thoughts
Haply been absent then.

For the king, of course, all's well that ends well; the fact that the restoration of his life is only the means to another end is unimportant. For Helena, however, all does not end well at this point, but very badly indeed; and the reader seeking explanations is forced to examine means and motives more closely than the king. To a large extent, then, the measure of Helena's actions in saving the king and choosing Bertram lies in their paradoxical outcome. What she receives is the letter, not the spirit, of her desires. If her success confirms the "virtue" of her action in saving the king, the failure of her success confirms the self-deception, the underlying faultiness of motive, which has been suggested in the imagery up to this point.

The initial failure of the marriage is augmented by Bertram's abandonment of Helena and by his ultimatum stating the unlikely conditions under which he will accept her. In III.ii, Helena starts on her pilgrimage with a sense of contamination which is illustrated in the letter that she leaves for the Countess (III.iv.4-17):

Ambitious love hath so in me offended
That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon,
With sainted vow my faults to have amended.


Bless him at home in peace, whilst I from far
His name with zealous fervour sanctify.

With these last two lines we should compare the conclusion of her first soliloquy in the play:

But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.


She has clearly forsaken the mode of action and returned to her original attitude of love-as-worship. In her realization that Bertram's flight from her may cause his death—"And though I kill him not, I am the cause / His death was so effected" (III.ii.115-16)—she has had a type of tragic anagnorisis, which has led to her present penitence, her desire "With sainted vow [her] faults to have amended." Thus if Helena's motives in healing the king were in accord with the sexual interpretation of her credo—"The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love"—her motives in leaving France now accord with the credo as a statement of the courtly ideal of pure selflessness in love. The "little death" in union succumbs to death-by-separation: "He is too good and fair for death and me; / Whom I myself embrace to set him free" (III.iv.16-17). And so at this point Helena has come full circle in her movement from passivity to action and back to passivity. She is not, of course, literally back at the beginning, for she has moved also from innocence to contamination, and her recognition of guilt, her penitence, her desire to amend her faults signal her progress from self-deception to an enlarged consciousness both of herself and of the world of action. The product of this enlarged consciousness will be found in the so-called "bed-trick," where she finally discovers the way in which innocence can be made to attend action.

The failure of Helena's marriage cannot, of course, be attributed entirely to failures of motive on her part; the major cause is Bertram. With respect to Bertram we again find Shakespeare employing the passivityaction pattern and linking it both to the honor and to the self-deception themes. Like Helena, Bertram has his legacy of honor in the "name" he has inherited, and, again like Helena's, his honor is of the passive type, a mere birthright. In this sense, then, his "name" is equivalent to her virginity; and certainly he protects his "name" with all the assiduity of one who believes a virgin status is about to be violated: "A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!" (II.iii.115-16). Bearing his father's face, as the king observed in I.ii, Bertram has not, however, inherited his father's "moral parts," as the king had hoped. Throughout the play Bertram's rejection of Helena is clearly intended to contrast with the king's description of his father, whose primary virtue was his humble disregard for social distinctions: "Who were below him / He us'd as creatures of another place" (I.ii.41-42). Thus, in his long remonstrance about honor in II.iii, the king pointedly suggests Bertram's failure to conduct himself as his father would have: "that is honour's scorn / Which challenges itself as honour's born / And is not like the sire" (11. 133-35). In his strenuous defense of his own honor of "name," Bertram ironically proves himself deficient in honor, by failing both to accede to the king and to recognize genuine honor ("virtue") in Helena. Like Hotspur and like Faulconbridge early in King John, Bertram regards honor less as the inherence of ethical values than as a transferable award which one can receive through inheritance or merit through physical exploit. For him, as Parolles says, "He wears his honour in a box unseen / That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home" instead of rushing off to war (II.iii.275-76). Hence, just as Helena attempted to convert her passive honor of virginity into the active honor of "virtue," so now Bertram sets out to convert his passive honor of "name" into the active honor of military prowess.

There is still another parallel between his and her actions here, in that the war, which hardly becomes at any point a dramatic reality, is linked with the lifeand-death opposition discussed earlier. In I.ii the Second Lord said of the war: "It may well serve / A nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit" (11. 15-17). And in III.i the First Lord says to the Duke of Florence: "But I am sure the younger of our nature / That surfeit on their ease will day by day / Come here for physic" (11. 17-19). The implications are clear enough: the war is a symbolic one, and we are to regard it in the same light as Helena's healing of the king. As she cured his sickness and proved her "virtue," so the war cures the sickness of an idle nation whose young men are absorbed in vanities of dress and superficialities of thought. Like Helena, then, Bertram also risks his life, and he proves himself "virtuous" in the masculine arts.

Unfortunately, Bertram is not content to restrict his prowess to the battlefield but insists upon assailing the maid Diana's chastity as well. At this point the honor theme receives its strongest emphasis in the exchange of the rings. Bertram refers to the ring which Diana demands as being

an honour 'longing to our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i' th' world
In me to lose.


And Diana replies:

Mine honour's such a ring;
My chastity's the jewel of our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy Γ th' world
In me to lose.

Thus the "bed-trick" involves the exchange of Bertram's passive honor of "name" and Helena's passive honor of virginity.

The "bed-trick" has produced a good deal of critical displeasure; and it is no doubt true that this sort of sexual shell-game, even though it is an integral part of the source material, is rather out of taste. However, there is much to be said for it in terms of theme and character. What happens to Bertram is, of course, wholly consistent with our knowledge of his character. His inability to distinguish one body from another not only emphasizes the superficial values upon which his lust is based, but also confirms his general lack of discernment. From the first he has been deceived in his opinion of Helena, has lacked the maturity of judgment to perceive her genuine virtues, has been blinded by his own selfish concern for "name," which is itself a superficial value. Unable to "see" Helena's spiritual qualities—ironically, in refusing her, he begged the king to give him "leave to use / The help of [his] own eyes" in the choice of a fitting wife (II.iii.107-108)—he is now unable even to recognize her physical self. Moreover, when he imposed the conditions under which he would accept Helena—the "tasks"—Bertram voluntarily and foolishly put himself into the position of one who could be defeated only by an act of deception. The "bed-trick," then, is a fitting culmination to a series of self-deceptions under which he has labored throughout the play.

The "bed-trick" is also important structurally, for it displays the relationship between Bertram's behavior in the latter part of the play and Helena's behavior in the earlier part. I have already suggested that Helena's essentially virtuous action in saving the king was compromised by the undercurrent of sexual desire in her choice of Bertram, and that the climax of this sexual imagery was reached at the moment of choice when Helena offered Bertram her "service." In Bertram's wooing of Diana now, his sole motive is sexual desire, sheer lust, although he professes (as Lavatch could profess) "other holy reasons"—his oaths of pure love and eternal fidelity. The parallel is made exact when Bertram tells Diana that he loves her "By love's own sweet constraint, and will for ever / Do thee all rights of service" (IV.ii.16-17). We have seen, however, that Helena came to a recognition of her faults and, by implication, a greater understanding of the relationship between action and contamination. In the "bedtrick," lust is entirely absent from her motives; sexual pleasure for its own sake—"How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking"—is wholly subordinated to the necessity of meeting Bertram's conditions, to the getting of the ring and the begetting of the child. In other words, as Adams has pointed out,8 lust is impure because it turns sex to selfish and idle purposes; honorable sex consists in having procreation as its object. Thus Helena's much-criticized deception is not only lawful, as she herself insists (III.vii.45-48), but chaste as well. She has found the one irreproachable use for virginity and, at the same time, the way in which innocence can accompany action.

Although the "bed-trick" has an important bearing on Bertram's behavior in the final scene of the play, let us now consider Bertram in terms of another character in whom he has been deceived—Parolles. In IV.iii the plan to expose Parolles is carried out. Early in the scene Bertram's fortunes are apparently at their zenith, and in a gush of hubris he says:

I have tonight dispatch'd sixteen businesses a month's length apiece. By an abstract of success: I have congied with the duke, done my adieu with his nearest, buried a wife, mourn'd for her, writ to my lady mother I am returning, entertain'd my convoy, and between these main parcels of dispatch effected many nicer needs; the last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet.

He does not know, of course, that this last, "nicer" piece of business with Diana has turned out otherwise than he anticipated, nor that his estimate of Parolles is about to turn out differently from what he expects. Just as Helena has deceived him in order ultimately to undeceive him as to her own merits, so the lords deceive Parolles in order to undeceive Bertram as to Parolles' merits as friend, soldier, and adviser. In both deceptions, symbols of honor are central—the ring and the drum.

The interrogation of Parolles does as much to expose Bertram as it does to expose Parolles, and the two men are in some respects equated. For example, Parolles says about the validity of one of his answers, "I'll take the sacrament on't" (1. 133), but sacraments have no binding effect on such a word-changer as he, nor has the sacrament of marriage had any binding effect upon Bertram. Naturally enough, Parolles is excessively concerned about truth: "a truth's a truth," he declares, and "I will tell true" (11. 152, 157). In this he is trading a form of honor to gain his ends, just as Bertram traded his family honor to gain his ends with Diana. Both plead their cases and maintain that they are the soul of honor at the very moment that their conduct gives them the lie. And finally, Parolles' desperate lying in this scene has its parallel in Bertram's equally desperate lying in the final scene of the play.

It is in this final scene that critics have found Bertram's conduct—and hence the play itself—inexplicable. Throughout the play an undiscerning adherent of superficial values, Bertram now becomes almost despicable in his Parolles-like squirmings to avoid exposure. He lies about Helena's ring, lies about having bedded Diana, and, when forced to admit the latter, tries to pass her off as a whore. In short, he is utterly without honor. And yet when Helena enters and gives her explanations, Shakespeare apparently means for us to accept Bertram as a reformed man and the conclusion as a happy ending. The strain upon the reader's credulity is excessive indeed.

This conclusion is perhaps no less difficult to accept, but somewhat easier to understand, if we observe that Bertram's conduct here is consistent with the symbolism of the "bed-trick" episode. In giving his family ring to Diana, Bertram relinquished his honor symbolically, and in (supposedly) bedding Diana out of pure lust he relinquished his honor in fact. However, thanks to Helena's substitution of herself for Diana, Bertram's honor passed into her keeping both symbolically and actually: the discarded ring now remains in the family, and the act of lust now becomes an act of lawful procreation. In the final scene, then, Shakespeare maintains this merger of actual and symbolic by presenting us with a Bertram entirely devoid of honor. In other words, so long as his ring (family honor) is in Helena's possession and so long as he is ignorant of the child within Helena (which exonerates the act of lust), Bertram is literally incapable of honorable behavior. As soon as she restores the ring and informs him of her pregnancy, his honor is redeemed, and he is able to say:

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.

Thus, as she had miraculously healed the king, so Helena also heals Bertram. We may well feel that if Bertram is actually cured it is a more impressive miracle than that which cured the king; but there is little doubt that Shakespeare is asking us to grant the success of the cure. As the king says in conclusion:

All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.


1 W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931).

2 Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1939).

3 E. M. W. Tilyard. Shakespeare's Problem Plays (London, 1957).

4 G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (London, 1958).

5 I am using the New Arden edition (London, 1959), ed. G. K. Hunter.

6 New Arden edition, "Introduction," p. xlii.

7 In his excellent article, "All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation," SQ, XII (1961), John F. Adams makes some keen observations about the puns upon service in the play.

8Ibid., Adams perceptively analyzes the sexual imagery and its relationship to the medieval concept of the rosa sine spina.

Joseph G. Price (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "A Defence of All's Well That Ends Well in The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well That Ends Well and Its Critics, University of Toronto Press, 1968, pp. 133-72.

[In the following excerpt, Price analyzes the structure and exposition of All's Well That Ends Well, and argues that the play is excellently balanced.]

What is the nature of All's Well that Ends Well? Does that nature, justify the coexistence of these various literary modes? We have three pieces of evidence: the text of the play, its source, and a general knowledge of Shakespeare's artistic methods as dramatist and poet.2 Presumably, the text provides the final version of a play prepared for performance on stage. Variations between the text and its source provide clues to the intention of the playwright; deliberate changes suggest specific effects. Shakespeare's general method as a dramatist provides the foundation for particular judgements in this play. His methods as a poet have significance in that his artistry in imagery and symbol, in irony and vision, may surpass the immediate comprehension of a theatrical audience. I propose, then, to examine the nature of All's Well on the basis of this evidence.

The first scene of All's Well is excellent exposition. Mood, plot, character, and theme are deftly sketched in lines which, characteristic of Shakespeare's economy, serve several functions. The Countess's mourning for her late husband and her melancholy at the departure of her son, the regretful recollections of Gerard de Narbon and his medical skill, the despairing talk of the King's disease, and the tears of Helena establish a sombre mood. The deaths of the two fathers set up a parallel between hero and heroine which is extended throughout the play as the structural basis for the plot. Bertram and Helena are both wards: Bertram, we are told, will find in the King a second father; Helena has already been bequeathed to the Countess's overlooking. As the plot develops, both, ironically, object to their wardships. Because of her love for Bertram and her fear of acknowledging him as brother, Helena protests against the Countess's use of the title 'mother'. Because of his contempt for Helena, Bertram protests against the father-king's arrangement of his marriage. The marriage forces Bertram to flee from King and Court as a soldier; his desertion forces Helena to flee from Countess and home as a pilgrim. Only in the final scene are the young people reconciled to an acceptable relationship: Helena's 'O my dear mother' (v. iii. 313) is uttered not to her mother-guardian, but to her mother-in-law. In addition to the structural function in the plot, references to the deceased fathers characterize the children. The Countess describes Helena in terms of inherited and acquired virtues:

I have those hopes of her good that her education promises her dispositions she inherits—which make fair gifts fairer; for where an unclean mind carries virtuous qualities, there commendations go with pity; they are virtues and traitors too. In her they are the better for their simpleness; she derives her honesty and achieves her goodness.

(I. i. 36-42)4

Helena is praised for perfecting those natural qualities which she has derived from her father. This characterization, moreover, elicits from the Countess a theme of the play: inherited qualities must be nurtured before goodness is achieved. If they are ruled by an 'unclean mind', they become traitors to our characters. The dramatic elaboration of this theme is the basis for the characterization of Bertram, who fails to cultivate his inherited nobility. Thus the Countess's praise of Helena is restated as dispraise of Bertram in Act IV. In a thematic judgement upon mankind generally and Bertram specifically, the Second Lord defines us as 'merely our own traitors . . . so he [Bertram] that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o'erflows himself (IV. iii. 20-24). At this early moment in the play, however, we have only to realize that Bertram has yet to develop inherited qualities, that he has yet to achieve that goodness which is Helena's. The terms of his conflict are made explicit in the hopeful farewell of his mother:

Be thou bless'd, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape! Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright.

(I. i. 57-60)

The talk of death and departure characterize the elders as well. In 'the most beautiful old woman's part ever written', a widow's grief and a mother's anxiety are mollified by the dignity of the Countess, a 'breeding' which, as another instance of the thematic nurturing of inherited qualities, prefigures the potential maturity of Bertram. Lafeu's concerned responses to her demonstrate his warm amiability. His role as court councillor is implicit in his description of the King's virtue and of the disease which plagues the King. The description not only introduces the King but also prepares the audience for the first major action. For, the Countess's reply, 'Would for the king's sake, he [Gerard de Narbon] were living! I think it would be the death of king's disease' (I. i. 20-22), serves the plot in two ways. It suggests to the thoughtful Helena a means of fulfilling her love; as an exclamation of faith, it makes the consequent cure of the King more plausible to the audience.

The lines of the hero and heroine in the first part of the scene do little to extend the characterizations beyond the delineations of the Countess. In her only line, Helena hints at a motive of grief which is comprehensible only in her first soliloquy. Bertram's lines have been interpreted as indications of a vicious temperament, but this premature view of his personality destroys the dramatic effect of Helena's revelation of her love. His 'Madam, I desire your holy wishes' (I. i. 55) may be a brash interruption in the discussion of grief, but, even as such, it is no worse than might be expected from an 'unseason'd courtier' (I. i. 67). In itself, the line is indifferent; the suggestion of a faulty text, the insertion of stage business, or merely the intonation of the voice obscures Shakespeare's intention. Indifferent too are his parting words to Helena, 'Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her' (I. i. 73-74). But surely in this case, their indifference is the very point of the lines. There is neither warmth nor scorn. From Bertram's view, the departing son bids the household dependant to assist his mother. An indifferent Bertram intensifies the effect of Helena's soliloquy.

In a brief seventy-six lines, the exposition has prepared the audience for the play's primary interest, the seemingly futile love of Helena:

O, were that all! I think not on my father,
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him; my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.
I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away; 'twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
Th' ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. 'Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart's table—heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour.
But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.

(I. i. 77-96)

In the revelation of her love, Helena sketches such an attractive portrait of Bertram that the attention of the audience is redirected to the hero. The rather indifferent young man who has just left the stage now assumes a romantic image.5 Shakespeare makes use of this device throughout All's Well. More typical of Shakespeare's dramatic technique is the introduction of a major character, through the speech of another, before he appears on stage. In All's Well, however, Helena constantly follows Bertram on stage to interpret his conduct through her love. The reason for the device is clear: the reaction of the audience is not to be fixed by his conduct; rather, the conduct is to be reconsidered in the light of her love. This device, of course, does not prevent Shakespeare from foreshadowing the actions of Bertram. Bertram's later objection to Helena because of class distinction gains some legitimacy in this speech by Helena's admission that the difference in social rank constitutes an apparently insuperable obstacle to her love. This kind of foreshadowing makes more acceptable the subsequent reconsideration demanded of the audience.

The entire first scene shows a gradual shift in mood from darkness to light. The soliloquy is pivotal in that shift. (Helena's soliloquy initiates a change in mood which brightens as the scene progresses.) The sombre response to death is not to be extended into the play, and Helena's dismissal of it, 'O, were that all! . . .' leads us into the world of comedy. With Helena, we are not to be involved in death, in the potentially tragic circumstances of the opening lines, but in life and love. The romantic exaggeration of her loss—the departure of Bertram outweighs death—lightens the tone. Even a serious concern for the futility of her love is undermined by the sentimental picture which Helena draws of herself sketching Bertram's features in her heart. In the same spirit of young love is her worshipful 'my idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his relics'. Both imagery and diction reinforce the shift in mood. Images of death and darkness yield to 'bright particular star' and 'Bright radiance and collateral light'. The Countess's 'I bury a second husband' is now vitalized in Helena's:

The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love.

As a striking instance of Shakespearian compression, the sentence not only contributes to the mood, not only defines the distinctive quality of the love and Helena's awareness of it, but also foreshadows the plot on two levels. On the denotative level of 'die', Helena is mated to Bertram, then feigns death, and finally wins him; on the sexually connotative level of 'die', Helena is mated to Bertram, but wins him only after the 'death' of sexual union.

The soliloquy is interrupted by the entrance of Parolles, and the comic mood shines more brightly. For Parolles is colourful and alluring:

Who comes here?
One that goes with him; I love him for his sake,
And yet I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, solely a coward;
Yet these fix'd evils sit so fit in him
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak Γ th' cold wind; withal, full oft we see
Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.

(I. i. 97-103)

In a choral role, Helena, who has just delineated Bertram for the audience, now indicates the intended response to Parolles. Although he has serious faults, we are not to consider them seriously. In fact, in the world of comedy, these faults 'sit so fit' in him that the absurdity of the character dismisses any moral judgement. Other evidence supports his attractiveness. Parolles mixes freely with the other young lords at court and appears to deceive them temporarily (II. i); the First Lord attributes a seductive charm to him (III. ii. 90-91); and, even Lafeu admits the disgraced braggart into his household (V. ii. 49-51). Helena's assessment of Parolles establishes a basis for the justification of Bertram. The structural link between Bertram and Parolles is made later, but Helena's acceptance of the vices of the braggart anticipates her willingness to accept the faults of her beloved. Although Helena's motivation is love, the contributing congeniality of Parolles must surely be matched or surpassed by the external charm of Bertram. Until his defiance of the King, there is nothing in the text to support a disagreeable Bertram. He is escorted to Court by the King's chief adviser, welcomed affectionately by the King, and is adopted as a comrade by the other lords. After his defiance, he is still received warmly wherever he goes. He is commissioned general of the troop by the Duke of Florence, praised by the Widow and her neighbour, and is attractive to Diana. He is readily forgiven by the Countess, the King, and Lafeu; Lafeu's daughter is willing to marry him. Most important, his appeal is essential to Helena's love. In this speech, Shakespeare paints the broad stripes of Parolles's personality as a hint of the finer lines in Bertram.

There is little need to justify the humour of the virginity repartee which follows. It has a comic appeal for the modern audience as well as the Elizabethan, if not for the Victorian. What has been obscured in the argument over propriety, however, is the structural function of the duologue.7 Just prior to it in her first soliloquy, Helena has expressed the futility of her love; just after it in her second soliloquy, she resolves to fulfill her love. What happens between these two speeches must account for the difference in attitude. In the interim, Parolles has engaged Helena in a typically Elizabethan wordplay upon the term virginity. How does Helena react? At first, she falls in with his banter. To his question, 'Are you meditating on virginity?' she poses a question which will feed the exchange, 'Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?' The question and her next few replies serve the comedy, but we note that there is little interchange thereafter. Parolles dominates the stage, delights the audience with his argument against virginity. Meanwhile, the topic has dropped Helena into a reverie which links her two soliloquies. Parolles's first exclamation, 'Away with't!' intrudes upon her thoughts and her answer reflects the first soliloquy, 'I will stand for't a little, though therefore I die a virgin.' After another exhortation, his second exclamation, 'Away with't!' intrudes again, but this revealing reply foreshadows her second soliloquy, 'How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?' The singular, personal form of both lines contrasts with Helena's general applications to virgins at the beginning of the duologue.

There are several ironies in the exchange between Parolles and Helena. The couching of the discussion in military terms is natural to the braggart-soldier, but the assault of man and the barricade of woman are reversed in Bertram and Helena. It is Bertram who flees before the offer of Helena; moreover, he prefers war to a conquest of her virginity. It is ironic that Parolles prompts the plan that leads to his young master's flight. So too, his urging, 'Out with't! Within the year it will make itself two' is actualized in an 'increase' which brings Bertram to accept his wife. There is irony in that Parolles assists Helena in the loss of her virginity, for he acts as pander between Bertram and Diana. The duologue, although many critics have insisted to the contrary, is demonstrably not an interpolation.

Editors have generally agreed that the speech of Helena's which follows shows signs of textual corruption because of its abrupt shifts, the ambiguity in its second line, and its obscure dramatic function:

Not my virginity; yet . . .
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,
A phoenix, captain, and an enemy,
A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,

A counsellor, a traitress, and a dear;
His humble ambition, proud humility,
His jarring-concord, and his discord-dulcet,
His faith, his sweet disaster; with a world
Of pretty, fond, adoptious Christendoms
That blinking Cupid gossips. Now shall he—
I know not what he shall. God send him well!
The court's a learning-place, and he is one—

(I. i. 161-73)

Mr. Hunter is hesitant to concede a textual corruption and annotates the lines to suggest a pattern of continuity. Helena is 'fooling the time'; she uses abrupt transitions to conceal her deeper meanings from Parolles. The annotation, however, raises a problem for the actress who must convey these deeper meanings to the audience while she conceals them from Parolles. I believe that a restoration of the first line as it appears in the First Folio may make the speech intelligible and prompt a solution to the actress. The Folio reads, 'Not my virginity yet:'. Literally, the line is a satisfactory answer to Parolles's question, 'Will you anything with it?' If the line is delivered in the same distracted manner as I have suggested for the duologue, with a slight stress upon 'yet', it likewise reveals to the audience what has absorbed Helena—the formulation of a plan which involves an action precedent to the loss of virginity, a plan which is made explicit in the second soliloquy, the cure of the king as a remedy for her love. The vocalization of her thought before Parolles startles Helena, however, and she quickly redirects the conversation. The redirection is marked stylistically by a shift from prose to verse. With a gesture that indicates the Court, or at least the departure of Parolles and Bertram (Parolles might very well have set down baggage to which Helena points), Helena engages Parolles in courtly, fashionable talk of love and its conceits. Eager for a new line of wordplay, Parolles, amused, waits to reply. When Helena places Bertram in this love cult, however, her own feelings break over this witty patter and she cannot continue, 'Now shall he—I know not what he shall.' Her awareness that 'The court's a learning-place, and he is one—' frightens her. The recital of love titles which were meant to conceal the hint of the first line has instead built up an anxiety which strengthens her reason for action. Her anxiety is apparent even to Parolles, who responds not with banter, not with a bawdy analysis of love at court, but with unaffected questions that seek an explanation. Helena's reply is a riddle to Parolles but it conveys to the audience her desire that her love might manifest itself tangibly to Bertram. The entrance of the Page cuts off further questions and the scene falls back into prose.

The exchange adds credibility to the love of Helena and to the later developments of the plot. Helena recognizes traits in Bertram which make him easy prey for courtly fashions and courtly love. Despite these traits and the anxiety which they arouse in her, she determines to win him. Her insight and her acceptance prepare the audience for Bertram's conduct and weaken any condemnation of him.

The interruption by the Page marks a return to the bantering style at the beginning of the virginity duologue. Her quick retorts illustrate the wit and zest by which Helena easily overcomes Parolles, as she did not do when distracted by her own thoughts. Her jests underscore the braggart's cowardice which will be exposed later. As Helena knows Bertram, so she knows Parolles. In fact, it is she, not Lafeu as so many critics argue, who is the first to see through him.

The scene ends with Helena's second soliloquy in which she reveals her resolution to win Bertram and hints at the King's disease as the means. Her thoughts and images link this soliloquy closely to the first. If earlier she had sighed, 'I am undone', she now decides, 'Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.' If she had regretted the distance which made Bertram a 'bright particular star', she now decides, 'the fated sky / Gives us free scope'. If she had blamed the ambition in her love 'which thus plagues itself, she now asks, 'What power is it that mounts my love so high?' and suggests nature as the answer. If she had decided earlier that 'the hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love', she now sees that only those 'who weigh their pain in sense' refuse the attempt. The hind and lion have now become 'like likes'. Is Helena now the aggressive female condemned by so many critics?

I do not think so. What has Shakespeare done, what can the actress do, to protect Helena during this transformation? First, Shakespeare has tied these soliloquies together so that the second recalls the first, and the actress can reinforce this by posture and gesture. The Helena of the second soliloquy recalls the loving maiden of whom we all approved in the first soliloquy. Second, Shakespeare has made Parolles the unwitting source of the idea; through his bawdiness, as a scapegoat, he carries away any reproach which decorum might dictate. Third, Helena's introductory association of Parolles with Bertram gives a psychological validity to her absorption in Bertram while Parolles jests about virginity. Fourth, because of that absorption, Shakespeare preserves her indecorous participation in ribaldry. While Parolles roguishly delights the audience with his wordplay, Helena indifferently serves as a foil to his wit and ponders the problem of her love. Finally, Shakespeare softens her resolution in the soliloquy by couching it in a general romantic 'truth':

Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?

(I. i. 222-3)

The structure of All's Well displays superb craftsmanship; as so often in the plays of Shakespeare, balance is the principle of construction. The second scene creates the background for the hero's interest—military honours and the adventures of war; the third scene promotes Helena's interest—her love for Bertram. The interview at Court gains credit for Bertram through the King's eulogy of the deceased Count Rousillon. The commendation of the Countess and the tenderness of the scene at Rousillon gather sympathy for Helena. The King concludes his scene by expressing his regard for Bertram, 'My son's no dearer' (I. ii. 76); the Countess ends the third scene with full approval of her ward:

and be sure of this,
What I can help thee to, thou shalt not miss.

(I. iii. 250-1)

Shakespeare has begun both scenes along lines which quite similarly introduce the sub-plots. The second scene opens with a sketchy discussion of the Florentine war. Some critics have seen in the vagueness of the reports a cynical attitude on the part of the dramatist to the war, and consequently to masculine poses of honour. Rather, the vagueness indicates to the audience its degree of concern. We are not to bother about the merits of the opposing forces, nor about the tragic potential of war, for the dramatic function of the Florentine battle is merely setting for the involvements of Bertram and the exposure of Parolles. The third scene begins with the Clown's request for permission to marry, but this too we are not to take seriously. The request touches off the customary parody of the main plot by the Shakespearian clown. His interview with the Countess just prior to Helena's interview reminds us of the mimicry between Prince Hal and Falstaff which anticipates Hal's audience with his father in I Henry IV. The effect is much the same: the comic burlesque heightens the dramatic intensity but undermines the tragic potential of the ensuing confrontation. The Clown presents his request in the form of an old proverb, 'Service is no heritage', which expresses Helena's present state. His paraphrase however, 'and I think I shall never have the blessing of God till I have issue a' my body', looks ahead to Helena's state after Bertram has decreed his conditions. We have already heard the sweet strains of Helena's love in her soliloquies; soon, that love will be strengthened by divine support. The Clown explains his love simply as the needs of his body and adds 'other holy reasons, such as they are' (I. iii. 30-31). Among these holy reasons, the Clown includes, ''I do marry that I may repent', and his words will echo in the last scene of the play when Bertram falls to his knees before Helena. The Clown's eager acceptance of his wife's 'friends' looks back to Helena's affection for Parolles and forward to the parasite's betrayal of that affection. Lavache amusingly formulates a theme of the play when he says, 'That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done' (I. iii. 89-90). In its context, it is an admission that he has served under the command of the Countess and has survived through her kindness. As a theme, it announces that no harm shall come to the hero through the manipulations of the heroine. We are told, in effect, that All's Well is a comedy. His line is paraphrased throughout the play; in her interview with the Countess, Helena protests:

Be not offended, for it hurts not him
That he is lov'd of me.

(I. iii. 191-2)

If the phrasing by the Clown has a sexual connotation as some editors believe, there is still significance to the main plot. If 'hurt' connotes the loss of virginity, then Bertram who 'should be at woman's command' upon the authority of the King fulfills the Clown's 'no hurt done' by his flight from Helena. If 'hurt' connotes the loss of chastity, the 'command' of Helena in substituting herself, his lawful wife, in the attempted seduction of Diana preserves both Bertram and Diana from 'hurt'.

Yet, to regard the Clown as a choral commentator upon the love of Helena and the major plot, to ascribe his cynicism to Shakespeare's philosophy, is to ignore the text and the role of the clown in the plays. Quite clearly, the Clown uses marriage as a means to sensual satisfaction; Helena uses the loss of virginity as a means to gain her 'bright particular star'. The critic who confuses the two reveals his own cynicism, not Shakespeare's. Lavache's reasons for marrying Isbel no more tarnish the love of Helena than the same reasons of Touchstone for marrying Audrey tarnish the love of Rosalind. Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night, Lucio in Measure for Measure, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Lavache in All's Well, all comment upon life with varying degrees of cynicism. To identify the Fool with the dramatist is to reduce the vision of Shakespeare to a single focus.

Particularly illustrative of the parallel development in these two scenes are the speeches of the Countess and the King. Before the entrance of Helena, the Countess comments, 'Her father bequeath'd her to me' and prepares the audience for Helena's success, 'She herself, without other advantage, may lawfully make title to as much love as she finds; there is more owing her than is paid, and more shall be paid her than she'll demand' (I. iii. 97-101). At the entrance of Bertram, the King comments, 'Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face' and prepares the audience for Bertram's conflict, 'Thy father's moral parts / Mayest thou inherit too!' (I. ii. 19-22). As the King then recalls his own youth, he describes Bertram's father as the greatest of soldiers and the humblest of men. The King has just noted the physical identification of father and son; his words now anticipate the military reputation which Bertram is to achieve as general of the troop and justify the final submission of Bertram when he fits the moral image of his father. So too, the Countess's recollection of her youth and 'love's strong passion' (I. iii. 123-31) serves as anticipation of Helena's plan and justification for her love. The confession of that love is preceded by Helena's amusing opposition to the term 'mother'; Bertram's struggle to become his father's son is lightly and ironically parodied in Helena's refusal to remain her adopted mother's daughter. As the King has prepared us for Bertram's success in battle, the Countess's response to Helena's confession prepares us for her successful cure of the King:

Why, Helen, thou shalt have my leave and love,
Means and attendants, and my loving greetings
To those of mine in Court. I'll stay at home
And pray God's blessing into thy attempt.

(I. iii. 246-9)

A touching similarity in the speeches of the King and Countess is their simple expression of humility and insight: Royalty realizes, 'I fill a place, I know't' (I. ii. 69), and Wisdom recalls, 'Even so it was with me when I was young' (I. iii. 123).

At the end of Act I, what did the 'first-night' audience make of All's Well that Ends Well? An attractive young lord departs fondly but impatiently from his charming mother. He sets out for adventure and manhood with experience and folly as companions. He arrives at Court and is greeted affectionately by his benevolent King. Meanwhile, he is loved without his knowledge by a virtuous dependant in his household. She is deeply and seemingly futilely in love with him. Despite the barrier of rank, she elects to risk all dangers to win him. She knows that she has the support of his mother and she senses the approval of heaven (I. iii. 237-41). Has not Shakespeare led his audience to three questions which excited its suspense: in terms of romance, will the beautiful and virtuous maiden win her nobleman? in terms of a morality tradition, will the noble youth be led by experience or folly? in terms of philosophical theme, can virtue be equated with nobility of birth?

That Shakespeare has intended romance at this point of his play may be demonstrated by the changes which he has made in Boccaccio's rather realistic Giletta, the source-counterpart for Helena. Giletta has not seen Beltramo for a number of years; she has come of age, is independently wealthy, and has many suitors. The report of Beltramo's comeliness, however, increases her ardour for him, and she seeks a method of escaping the surveillance of her kinsmen to pursue her love. On her arrival in Paris, she visits Beltramo before she cures the King. Although she tells the King that God will aid her in the cure, she has already diagnosed the disease as one which her father's medicine will easily cure. By eliminating the kinsfolk and wealth, Shakespeare has made his heroine more dependent upon her virtue and has heightened the romantic barrier between heroine and hero. By omitting the rival suitors and reducing Helena's age, Shakespeare has preserved the youthful innocence of her love. Giletta, capable, knowledgeable, self-sufficient, wins her husband through the force of her personality. Helena performs much the same deeds, but always with greater hesitation, greater risk, and greater humility. Helena is motivated by the irrepressible force of young love which ignores decorum as the simple directness of a child ignores it. Giletta, confident of her power, will compound medicine to heal the King; Helena, confident of her love, will call upon heaven to cure him. Boccaccio makes realistic the clever wench of fable. Shakespeare, on the contrary, fashions his heroine out of romantic aspirations and places his realism elsewhere in the play. . . .

The major problem in the denouement of All's Well is Bertram's reconciliation with Helena. Although the trial of Parolles prefigures the trial of Bertram, the braggart's exposure is merely a preparation for the solution of the problem, not a justification of it. Both men are crushed by plots, but the hero must rise to love. In Boccaccio's narrative, Giletta has many rendezvous with Beltramo in the guise of his Florentine love. When she is certain of her pregnancy, she hides herself from Beltramo and awaits the birth of her child in Florence. Beltramo, disappointed by the loss of his mistress, returns to his own home. Giletta delivers twins who strongly resemble the Count. After a while, she returns to France to confront the Count with the fulfilment of his conditions. On the Feast of All Saints, Beltramo entertains an assembly of knights and ladies. Giletta, in pilgrim's garb, rushes to the feet of her husband with the twins in her arms. Beltramo is astonished. Giletta's story wins the admiration of the Count and all the guests. Because of her wit and constancy, his delight over his sons, and the entreaties of the ladies Beltramo embraces Giletta and they live happily ever after. Boccaccio has solved the problem of the denouement through realistic plot details and literary legend.

Shakespeare solves the problem through realistic characterization. Although the number of meetings in the novella increases the likelihood of pregnancy, although the proof which Giletta offers is a more obvious demonstration of the fulfilment, although her simple plea to the mature Count is a more plausible method of presenting her case, none of these details would induce the young Bertram to accept Helena in Shakespeare's version. Time and pressure are both vital to the dramatist's characterization.21 Until Bertram matures, he cannot value his wife's virtues. His maturity must be forged under the successive strokes of adversity. To allow a number of years to pass, as in Boccaccio, destroys the entire effect of Parolles's exposure. In All's Well, before Helena can submit to Bertram, the young nobleman must submit to her. Only then can we believe in his love. Shakespeare has sacrificed realistic action for psychological motivation, but in the theatre the loss is inconsequential. The complications of the plot remain incredible even in Boccaccio; the many meetings between Giletta and Beltramo scarcely make the success of her disguise plausible.

The first step in the explanation of the psychology of Bertram is the reiteration of the strong influence which Parolles formerly held on him. Lafeu's insistence that, had it not been for Parolles, Bertram would have won advancement at Court by now makes evident the inherent capability and attractiveness of the young Count. The second step in the psychological justification for the denouement is the exhilaration of the hero as he comes before the King. His fortunes have reached their apex. As I have noted, he has been received back into the household of his mother; he has been offered the daughter of a leading nobleman in marriage; he fears no consequences from his escapade in Florence; he has been assured of the King's pardon. His desertion of his wife, his disobedience to the King, his neglect of his mother's pleas, and his venture as a lover have had no consequences. Even the exposure of Parolles may bolster his ego; he has surpassed his former idol. For Bertram, his noble birth, his handsome appearance, his amiable personality, and his courage in war have overcome all obstacles. He has won 'honour' in the limited sense which the word has for him. Even the King acknowledges, 'I have letters sent me / That set him high in fame' (V. iii. 30-31). We can imagine Bertram's supreme confidence as he answers the King's question about Lafeu's daughter:

Admiringly, my liege. At first
I stuck my choice upon her, ere my heart
Durst make too bold a herald of my tongue;
Where, the impression of mine eye infixing,
Contempt his scornful perspective did lend me,
Which warp'd the line of every other favour,
Scorn'd a fair colour or express'd it stol'n,
Extended or contracted all proportions
To a most hideous object. Thence it came
That she whom all men prais'd, and whom myself
Since I have lost, have lov'd, was in mine eye
The dust that did offend it.

(V. iii. 44-55)

Bertram speaks of Lafeu's daughter in the same affected language with which he wooed Diana. He feels that he has mastered the courtly style. Psychologically as well as morally, Bertram is ripe for a fall. The series of events which follow in this last scene, so often condemned as contrived, are essential to the breakdown of Bertram's ego to the point where he has an awareness of self and an understanding of true nobility.

When Lafeu asks for a token of love for his daughter, Bertram hands to him a ring which he has received from Diana. Both Lafeu and the King identify it as Helena's. Bertram's first response is a matter-of-fact denial. But, as they press their questions, the youth passes to irritation and then anxiety that their 'mistake' may threaten his newly won prosperity. The significance which the King attaches to the ring puzzles both Bertram and the audience. The audience had not been informed of this second ring, and its place in Helena's plan creates suspense. Shakespeare deliberately compounds the action of this crowded scene in order to manage the total response of the audience.

Bertram's lies begin his exposure. Fearfully, he attempts to explain away the ring. The King, however, suspecting that Bertram has killed his wife, orders him to be seized and ted into custody. (We are reminded of Parolles's seizure and exit under guard before his trial.) In a few minutes, Bertram has seen his fortune plunge and his very life endangered. While he is off-stage, the second blow strikes at his new fame. Diana accuses Bertram of seduction and dishonour; he is summoned before the King to answer this charge. In rapid sequence which recalls the wild lies of Parolles, he first denies intimacy with her, then brands her as a campfollower, discredits any testimony of Parolles, and finally accuses Diana of seducing him. His desperation to salvage some remnant of 'honour' only reveals that same pride which initiated his predicament:

She knew her distance and did angle for me,
Madding my eagerness with her restraint,
As all impediments in fancy's course
Are motives of more fancy; and in fine
Her infinite cunning with her modern grace
Subdu'd me to her rate.

(V. iii. 211-16)

The evidence, however, is overwhelming. With the entrance of Parolles, Bertram begins to crumble. He admits that he has lied, that the ring is Diana's. The entrance of the chastened Parolles at just this moment emphasizes the humiliation of the Count. But the play is not a tragedy, and Shakespeare moves swiftly for Bertram's redemption. The audience, because of its superior knowledge, has not taken seriously any of the charges and counter-charges. Even the mood, darkened by the grim desperation of Bertram, is now lightened. A rattled Parolles blurts out absurd replies to the questions of the King. Laughter at the scapegoat relieves the pressure upon the hero. In addition, the effect of Bertram's slanders is minimized by the new tone which Diana adopts. To the King's questions about the ring, Diana answers in exasperating riddles. Dr. Johnson concluded that there was no reason for puzzling the King, and, within the logical demands of the plot, he is correct. There is a most important reason, however, for the comic tone of the play. The banter of Diana dispels the potentially tragic atmosphere. The audience delights in the perplexity of the King, the bewilderment of Lafeu, and the amazement of Bertram.

Just as the King's anger mounts, Diana assures him that no harm has been done (V. iii. 293). The appearance of Helena solves the riddle and completes the transformation of Bertram. He who had lost all hope of favour, reputation, love, even of life, suddenly sees redemption. He does not understand the manner, but he knows that his wife lives and is somehow allied with Diana. In recognition of his own faults, he begs pardon of Helena. He realizes the virtue of his wife before he knows of its dedication to him. The explanation of the ring and the child increases his feeling; it does not cause it as in Boccaccio. All is well that ends well. Lafeu weeps for joy and turns to 'Good Tom Drum' for a handkerchief (how subtly does Shakespeare improve Parolles's fate!). Helena and the Countess embrace. And the King, in the spirit of romance which stresses the comic nature of the play, promises a husband now to Diana!22

All's Well that Ends Well is a play which includes many elements, but they are not incongruous. To isolate a few examples, I point to the romance of the first act with its strong emotional sense of loss and frustrated love; consider the realistic characterization in the second act as the characters respond to Bertram's rejection of Helena; consider the melodramatic moments of the third act, Helena's expression of selfless love, her exile, her discovery of her husband's passion in Florence; consider the fabulous elements of the fourth act with the fulfilment of tasks; consider the symbolism of the fifth act as it centres upon the ancestral ring and the jewel of chastity. These elements, however, cannot be isolated nor can any one be imposed upon the others as a unifying device without damage to Shakespeare's play. Shakespeare has given unity to All's Well. He has unified the play through its structure: the play is tightly knit through parallels, parodies, anticipations, and commentaries. He has unified the play through its theme: the word honour rings throughout the play and synonyms increase its force. As he does in other plays, Shakespeare weaves together character and incident with variations upon his theme in much the same manner as the composer of a symphony. Variations sound in Bertram, who misunderstands honour; in the King, who demands honour; in the Countess and Lafeu who have lived honour; in the Clown, who preaches honour; in the surprisingly serious young lords, who recognize the dilemmas of honour; and in Helena, whose virtue gains honour. The play is unified moreover by the development of its subject. All's Well is not the demonstration of an ideological struggle between male and female concepts of honour, as G. Wilson Knight suggests. More simply, Shakespeare tells the story of a foolish young man who is brought to a true understanding of honour through the love of a virtuous girl. She is aided by all the other characters of the play, male and female, young and old, with the exception of Parolles. The subject is unified by its tight progression from the Countess's opening comment to her son, 'Thy blood and virtue / Contend for empire in thee' (I. i. 58-59) to the final reconciliation of Helena and Bertram when nobility of birth shares the empire with nobility of virtue.

Perhaps the major factor in the failure of All's Well to rival As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or The Tempest is its mood. The great Shakespearian comedy is unified by a characteristic mood by which, in itself, we can identify the play. All's Well lacks that distinctive quality. But the imposition of a single mood from without, the adoption of a single approach to the play, may be more damaging than critical resignation to this lack. All's Well fares far better if each of its elements is exploited rather than ignored. I suggest that the director who draws out each character, each situation, each parallel, each seemingly diverse element, will solve many of the problems of past productions. I believe that the ideal production will trust to Shakespeare: the serious scenes will be played with respect for the gravity of the issues; the comic scenes will give full play to both wit and farce; the suspense of the plot will swing the audience along the road of high romance, untroubled by the fabulous complications; most important, the human qualities of all the characters will be affectingly unfolded. For All's Well that Ends Well is a very human play.


2 The critical history of All's Well includes many analyses which are based upon other material, particularly upon biographical details and philosophical outlook of the dramatist. Even were these not conjectural, they are still subservient to the primary evidence of play, source, and general artistic method. . . .

4 In his note to this passage, Mr. Hunter maintains, 'The antithesis between mind and virtuous qualities is between inherited nature and the qualities imparted by training. Virtuous qualities does not mean "fine moral qualities", but "the qualities of a virtuoso, skill, capacity, technical prowess"' (p. 5).

5 Clearly, the actor who plays Bertram must be physically attractive. A handsome young hero not only explains his appeal to Helena and Diana but also compensates somewhat for the defect in his personality. . . .

7 Mr. Hunter mentions the structural function but relates it to the virginity theme; for his interpretations of the function, see pp. xli-xliii. . . .

21 Dr. Johnson's note that Shakespeare is 'hastening to the end of the play', that he 'wanted to conclude his play', ignores the necessary pressure upon Bertram.

22 Critics who see this as sheer cynicism on Shakespeare's part disregard a similar ending in The Comedy of Errors where a new confusion between twin masters and twin servants comically concludes the play.

Roger Warren (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Why Does It End Well? Helena, Bertram, and The Sonnets," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 22, 1969, pp. 79-92.

[In the following essay, Warren maintains that the personal emotions found in Shakespeare's sonnets provide some explanation of the puzzling conclusion of All's Well That Ends Well.]

An extreme version of the general modern reaction to All's Well occurs in a review of Tyrone Guthrie's 1959 production: 'the tone of the play and its confusion of values . . . raises a dozen issues, only to drop them all with a cynical, indifferent 'all's well that ends well'. No wonder Shaw liked it so much'.1 Now I am convinced that whatever else the ending of this play may be called—puzzling, unsatisfactory, even bungled—Shakespeare was by no means 'indifferent' and certainly not 'cynical'. I think that his own personal poetry, in the Sonnets, sheds an interesting light on exactly why he thought the play ended well, and accounts, especially, for his uncompromising treatment of Helena and Bertram. G. K. Hunter rightly calls it a 'peculiar' play, but he emphasizes 'the peculiar force' of both the idealism and the satire.2 Forceful writing does not reflect 'indifference'; and E. M. W. Tillyard, in finding the play 'full of suffering',3 isolates the most important characteristic of Helena's love and Bertram's reactions, upon which the Sonnets provide an illuminating commentary.


First, though, certain general problems require clarification, not least the choice of the story in the first place. What meaning did Shakespeare wish to convey through dramatizing Boccaccio's story of Giletta of Narbonne? M. C. Bradbrook tries to explain it. That the ending is 'neither hypocritical nor cynical, can be granted only if the play is seen as a study of the question of "Wherein lies true honour and nobility?"'4 But she has to account for the fact that Shakespeare 'found himself saying more, or saying other, than his purely structural purpose could justify' and so in her terms 'all did not end well'.5 But what if the debate on virtue and nobility is purely subordinate, achieving forcible expression to place the Helena-Bertram story in perspective? For the incontestable fact is surely that the play cannot adequately be called a morality or a debate, because the extraordinarily vivid characterization of both Helena and Bertram force us to share in their fortunes. It is basically a play about them, not about a moral theme: and the ending stands or falls as it relates to them.

The gnomic passages and stiff, odd outbursts of rhyming couplets led G. Wilson Knight into an extravagant mystical interpretation: Helena functions 'almost as Christ .. . as a medium only'.6 But surely nothing else in the play suggests that Helena has so symbolic a role. On the contrary, what is so striking about her is the human intensity of her love, and her capacity for all-too-human suffering. Still, I think the formality of the verse in the healing scene is meant to suggest some sort of faith healing, in the limited sense that the King must be persuaded that she can cure him. It has the further effect of establishing how Helena's love strengthens her courage and determination. The King explicitly makes the point: she has

Youth, beauty, wisdom, courage—all
That happiness and prime can happy call.
Thou this to hazard needs must intimate
Skill infinite, or monstrous desperate.

(II, i, 180-3)

In fact, she has both: she can heal the King by her father's prescriptions and has the courage to risk all for her overpowering, and in that sense 'desperate', love. Elsewhere, the formal and gnomic elements, though admittedly odd in what is otherwise so 'realistic' a play, may be explained by Shakespeare's anxiety to underline matters which seemed to him to be important:

Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?

(I, i, 222-3)

and, even more,

All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown.
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown

(IV, iv, 35-6)

seem to be placed at strategic moments to emphasize the story of Helena and her love. The awkward or (to us) worrying aspects of the plot are scarcely glossed over, and in the finale especially they are dwelt upon. This manner of writing, together with the apparently perplexing blackening of Bertram's character, which, as Hunter says, 'a historical understanding of Bertram in an Elizabethan context cannot remove',7 bring us back to the question, 'What was it in the story that so interested Shakespeare?'

The clear-eyed, merciless presentation of Bertram supports Tillyard's suspicion that Shakespeare's 'personal feelings, unobjectified and untransmuted'8 have slipped into the writing. Bradbrook, too, notices that not only is 'the figure of Bertram, so radically changed from that of Boccaccio's Beltramo, . . . drawn with a . . . kind of uncynical disillusion',9 but that Helena 'is a voice of despair breaking into the play'; and although she rightly warns against too 'crude and direct [a] personal equation . . . ; Shakespeare would certainly not wish to unlock his heart on the public stage', she brings us to the heart of the matter:

In All's Well the juxtaposition of the social problem of high birth versus native merit and the human problem of unrequited love recalls the story of the Sonnets; the speeches of Helena contain echoes from the Sonnets . . . The way in which Bertram is condemned recalls also the plain speaking which is so unusual a feature of the Sonnets.10

By the standards of ordinary romantic heroes, Bertram is a 'failure', but as a consistent character he is brilliantly successful, so much so that I think we must assume that Shakespeare meant him that way, and that the worrying effect is intentional. Wilson Knight stresses the play's Sonnet affinities which argue a peculiarly 'personal'11 interest in the story. By developing these suggestions, and noticing the resemblances and verbal echoes between play and poems, I hope to account for much of the 'peculiarity' of All's Well, including the effect of its finale, and to suggest the reasons why there is so much intensity and heartbreak—but not 'indifference' or 'cynicism'—and, in the end, perhaps, a curious worrying uncertainty.


However the play is interpreted, the centre must surely be Helena's passionate love and the power of its expression. In her speeches there is an extremity of utterance which is so powerful that it goes far beyond conventional compliment in its attempt to express an emotional intensity which is almost inexpressible, as Shakespeare himself so often strives in the Sonnets.

Better 'twere
I met the ravin lion when he roar'd
With sharp constraint of hunger; better 'twere
That all the miseries which nature owes
Were mine at once.

(A.W., III, ii, 116-20)

But in the onset come; so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune's might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compar'd with loss of thee will not seem so.

(Sonnet 90)

There could be few better mottoes for Helena's love than

Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right myself will bear all wrong.

(Sonnet 88)

And Wilson Knight12 notes the same intense suggestion of devotion in Shakespeare's loving his friend 'next my heaven the best' (Sonnet 110) and Helena's loving Bertram 'next unto high heaven' (I, iii, 188). But he takes this as another proof that Shakespeare is examining sainthood in Helena, while I take both as similar attempts to suggest an overwhelming human passion by hyperbolical means—hyperbolical, that is, in the intense, exclusive, serious manner of the tragedies rather than in the witty, half-amused manner of the earlier comedies.

Helena's first soliloquy plunges us into that uncompromising obsession with her beloved that many of the Sonnets show:

my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.

(I, i, 80-1)

This is paralleled, in a simple way, by the disturbed rest with which the friend's 'shadow' torments Shakespeare:

my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.

(Sonnet 27)

The preoccupation with Bertram has an intensity, in words like 'plague', which is reflected in the Sonnets by the vivid impression of an overpowering obsession, especially in words like 'surfeit' and 'gluttoning', or

Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look
(Sonnet 75, italics mine)13

The desperate fervour of Helena's

I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away

(I, i, 82-3)

has a very similar ring to the 'You are my all the world' and

You are so strongly in my purpose bred
That all the world beside methinks are dead

of Sonnet 112. When Helena says 'my idolatrous fancy/ Must sanctify his relics' (I, i, 95-6) she uses an image which aptly describes both her love and Shakespeare's own. Shakespeare's denial, 'Let not my love be call'd idolatry' (Sonnet 105) only serves in fact to stress that element of 'religious adoration' which is so strong in them. Both he and Helena devote the whole of their praises 'To one, of one, still such, and ever so' (105). J. B. Leishman, calling Shakespeare the lover 'indeed a worshipper',14 says that many of the Sonnets are 'religiously idolatrous'; and though Helena makes only a single comparison, she echoes that particularly Shakespearian idea that the old loves are reincarnated in the friend, as well as the 'holy' tears and image of the beloved.15 Helena returns to phrases of religion in her next scene:

Thus, Indian-like,
Religious in mine error, I adore
The sun that looks upon his worshipper
But knows of him no more.

(I, iii, 199-202)

Helena's combination of unhappiness and abject devotion is echoed in the two Sonnets 57 and 58, which perhaps more than any others seem to be very close to Helena's expression of her love:

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?

(Sonnet 57)

Those Sonnets, moreover, in their almost heartbreaking simplicity of statement, remind us that passionate hyperbole is not the only style in the sequence. That simplicity which is so marked a feature of Shakespeare's undeceived lovers in the earlier comedies (the finale of Love's Labour's Lost, Beatrice and Benedick in the church, above all Viola's 'sister' speech to Orsino) and which suggests so much emotion and awareness of potential unhappiness makes a powerful impression both here and in Helena's language too. What J. W. Lever calls Shakespeare's 'extreme capacity for self-effacement'16 in the Sonnets, the simple quietness and lack of self-display, 'painting', or 'ornament' in much of the language, is clearly shown in

Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour,
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu.

(Sonnet 57)

The same humility which conceals anguish, the same reticence in proclaiming a bond between the beloved and the speaker is evident in all Helena says to Bertram (''I am not worthy of the wealth I owe', 'Sir, I can nothing say But that I am your most obedient servant', ''I shall not break your bidding, good my lord'). There is a marked contrast between the 'ornament' of Parolles's deceitful remarks about Bertram,

Whose want and whose delay is strew'd with sweets,

Which they distil now in the curbed time,
To make the coming hour o'erflow with joy
And pleasure drown the brim

(II, iv, 42-5)

and her utter simplicity ('What's his will else?', 'What more commands he?', 'In everything I wait upon his will'). Her fear of being 'refused' is typical of her humble, fearful approach to Bertram, reflected in her actual words to him:

I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power.

(II, iii, 102-4)

The statements of service here are closely paralleled, again in Sonnets 57 and 58 ('Being your vassal bound to stay your leisure', 'O, let me suffer, being at your beck') and in Sonnet 87 ('My bonds in thee are all determinate').

Against her own simplicity or intensity is Helena's picture of a more superficial kind of love which Bertram may meet at the court, expressed in the conceited language of flattering Elizabethan love poetry such as is also used by the muddled lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream (cf. II, i, 220-6; III, ii, 58-61, 137-44, etc.):

His humble ambition, proud humility,
His jarring-concord, and his discord-dulcet,
His faith, his sweet disaster; with a world
Of pretty, fond, adoptious Christendoms
That blinking Cupid gossips.

(I, i, 167-71)

The conventional oxymorons and the 'blinking Cupid' are so superficial, so different from Helena's powerful self-expression, that Hunter must be right in taking all this to refer to the courtly lovers: 'Helena's refusal to trade on her virginity leads to the sense that others elsewhere may be less scrupulous, which leads directly to her evocation of the amorous dialect of the court.'17 And the point of such an evocation is that it leads to a fear about Bertram himself:

Now shall he—
I know not what he shall. God send him well!
The court's a learning-place, and he is one—

(I, i, 171-3)

Hunter notes that 'What is suppressed must be something like "all too apt to learn courtly ways'". This realistic fear, even while she adores Bertram, is very similar to Shakespeare's own saddened awareness that his beloved was by no means a paragon:

But why thy odour matcheth not thy show,
The soil is this—that thou dost common grow.

(Sonnet 69)

And when Bertram actually justifies Helena's fears, he woos Diana in conventional complimentary phrasing like 'Titled goddess; And worth it, with addition' and 'holy-cruel' which have a very different ring from Helena's statements of her love and service: Bertram will love

By love's own sweet constraint, and will for ever
Do thee all rights of service . . .
Diana: Tis not the many oaths that makes the truth,
But the plain single vow that is vow'd true.

(IV, ii, 16-22)

Such a vow is Helena's

I will be gone,
That pitiful rumour may report my flight
To consolate thine ear

(III, ii, 126-8)

or Shakespeare's own

I am to wait, though waiting so be hell.

(Sonnet 58)

Helena emphasizes that her love depends upon a real concern for desert; it is this which is proper to a servant:

Nor would I have him till I do deserve him;
Yet never know how that desert should be.

(I, iii, 194-5)

An exactly similar feeling of unworthiness underlines several of the Sonnets, all of them very sad, as when Shakespeare guards 'Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass':

Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear,
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part.

(Sonnet 49)

The final couplet,

To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause,

parallels Helena's strikingly sympathetic use of 'poor' elsewhere ('poor lord', 'poor thief).18 If the similarities between her language and that of the Sonnets indicate anything, it would seem to be that Shakespeare intends Helena's passion to have an all-consuming, overpowering intensity which makes descriptions like 'cynicism' and 'man-hunting' very unsuitable.


The most extraordinary feature of All's Well, surely, is the curiously unsympathetic portrait of its hero. Tillyard comments:

The irony and the truth of Helena's situation are that with .. . so firm a mind she can be possessed by so enslaving a passion for an unformed, rather stupid, morally timid, and very self-centred youth.19

As well as the irony, though, Tillyard stresses the 'truth' of the situation. For Shakespeare, the source seems to have provided a story of essential truth: and it seems to have been a peculiarly personal response to it which suggested his notorious alterations to Boccaccio's Beltramo, which, as Bradbrook notes, consistently show 'greater dependence, humility, and enslavement on Helena's part and greater weakness and falsehood on Bertram's'.20 Bertram stands universally criticized, and what is so interesting is that this criticism corresponds with even the details of the suggested 'fault' of the friend of the Sonnets. Though the friend is praised for his outward show, his 'sensual fault' provokes criticism as well: others

In other accents do this praise confound
By seeing farther than the eye hath shown.
They look into the beauty of thy mind,
And that, in guess, they measure by thy deeds.

(Sonnet 69)

So Bertram's own mother condemns the deeds of this 'rash and unbridled boy', and suggests that his 'wellderived nature' is being corrupted (III, ii, 26-31, 88). Helena herself had feared what Bertram would 'learn' from the court. Bertram is shown sinking lower and lower into unworthiness, and is presented much more harshly than Shakespeare's love will allow him to present his friend. Though the friend lives 'with infection', he graces 'impiety' (Sonnet 67).21

Far more central to the play is the constantly emphasized contrast in rank between Helena and Bertram. This is the cause of some of the most harsh utterances in the play and it has a strong parallel with some of the most deeply felt and unhappy Sonnets. Helena's feeling of utter social separation from Bertram:

My master, my dear lord he is; and I
His servant live, and will his vassal die

(I, iii, 153-4)

is closely paralleled by the 'vassalage' shown to Shakespeare's own 'Lord of my love' (Sonnet 26). The image of the star is used by both:

'twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.

(I, i, 83-5)

The 'comfort' sought by Helena from Bertram's 'bright radiance' is echoed in Shakespeare's personal hope for some 'good conceit' of his friend,

Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tattered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect.

(Sonnet 26, italics mine)

Bertram emphasizes the social gulf in violently humiliating terms:

But follows it, my lord, to bring me down
Must answer for your raising? I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father's charge—
A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever!

(II, iii, 112-16)

In Sonnet 49, Shakespeare feared that time

When I shall see thee frown on my defects, . . .
. . . that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye.

The insulting aspersion cast on the 'physician's daughter' is paralleled in Shakespeare's emphasis of his 'fault' which seems to depend chiefly on his being 'a motley to the view', an actor who depends on

public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand.

(Sonnet III)

Shakespeare's saddened awareness of the social gulf leads him to the admission that, love or no love, he cannot be acknowledged in public:

I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame;
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name.

(Sonnet 30)

But Shakespeare will not put his lover in this position:

But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

Similarly, Helena, discovering too late that Bertram cannot show 'public kindness' in any way, tries to save him:

Bertram: I cannot love her nor will strive to do't. . , .
Helena: That you are well restor'd, my lord, I'm glad.
Let the rest go.

(II, iii, 145-8)

Shakespeare's Sonnets stress the unhappiness stemming from the friend's public behaviour, and, especially, some kind of rejection of the poet as is suggested in the near-bitter anguish of Sonnet 87:

Thy self thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav'st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.

Though there is giving as well as taking back here, the actual suggestion of taking back on a question of legal ('patent') worth is chilling, as is the suggestion of utter deception in the conclusion:

Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter:
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

The implied rejection of the poet seems to have been a shatteringly humiliating one: and something of the same discomfort is surely felt by any audience as it hears Bertram speak of his 'clog' whom he will not 'bed', or, worse:

Wars is no strife
To the dark house and the detested wife.

(II, iii, 287-8)

And one of the most disturbing scenes in all Shakespeare (disturbing not because it is horrifying or tragically shattering, but because it is so coldly formal) is that in which Bertram refuses Helena a kiss. His clipped language reminds us of such sad phrases in the Sonnets as the suggestion that the friend will 'strangely pass', 'frown on my defects' and speak with 'settled gravity'. If ever there was 'settled gravity' it is in Bertram's denial to Helena of

The ministration and required office
On my particular. Prepar'd I was not
For such a business; therefore am I found
So much unsettl'd.

(II, v, 60-3, italics mine)

Those abstract nouns have the coldly legal ring suggested in Sonnet 87 by 'the charter of thy worth', 'my bonds', 'my patent', and 'misprision'. That sonnet touches a bitterness which Shakespeare never shows elsewhere in the sequence, and which Helena does not show in her reply. Indeed, she reaffirms her service—'Sir, I can nothing say But that I am your most obedient servant'—in terms which recall the absolute selfeffacement of 'Being your slave, what should I do but tend' (Sonnet 57).22

The icy unpleasantness of Bertram's curt 'Come, come; no more of that', 'My haste is very great. Farewell. Hie home' and 'What would you have?' is so unavoidable as to suggest something like the 'wakened hate' which Shakespeare so feared from his own beloved (Sonnet 117). But not even this can destroy Helena's love, though the suffering as well as the passion emerges as she begs the kiss:

I am not worthy of the wealth I owe,
Nor dare I say 'tis mine—and yet it is;
But, like a timorous thief, most fain would steal
What law doth vouch mine own.

(II, v, 79-82)

The verbal echoes of Sonnet 40 serve to underline, not an exact parallel, but a similarity of devotion between Helena and Shakespeare himself:

I do forgive thy robb'ry, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty.

Her terror of calling Bertram hers echoes the disenchanted 'The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting' (Sonnet 87) and the simple hesitation of

Something, and scarce so much; nothing indeed.
I would not tell you what I would, my lord

(II, v, 83-4)


I shall not break your bidding, good my lord

(II, v, 88)

are closely parallel to the utterly simple, unaccusing misery of

And patience, tame to sufferance, bide each check,
Without accusing you of injury.

(Sonnet 58)

And Bertram's heartless refusal, 'I pray you, stay not, but in haste to horse' is the kind of remark which seems sufficiently brutal to provoke such a reaction as Sonnet 58. The scene is a masterly one. It is horrifying in human terms, but it is not cynical or indifferent. There seems a confident, open-eyed realism about the portrayal of both characters that suggests that Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing. The parallel with the Sonnets is intended to suggest no more than that it was a personal awareness of this kind of unequal relationship that made him believe that he could convincingly bring Giletta's story to the stage. Whether he in the end succeeded depends on how the final scene is interpreted; but the kiss scene is so unflinchingly presented, that to play it with Bertram almost giving the kiss until recalled by a 'psst' from Parolles, as happened in two recent productions, is a piece of cheap sentimentalism which only serves to remind us how searingly painful the original writing is.


The complex turns of the finale, both here and in Measure for Measure, seem intended to twist the tension so that the key moments—Helena's reconciliation and Isabella's plea for Angelo—may be almost unbearably poignant. Neither case is wholly successful. Though Shakespeare attempts to maintain the unyielding realism of Bertram to the end, there is just too much weight of honesty for the romantic situation to carry. There is, indeed, no other description than Hunter's 'cryptic fustian'23 for Bertram's

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.

(V, iii, 309-10)

Determined not to falsify, and to maintain Bertram's shallowness to the end, Shakespeare has imperilled the impression of reconciliation he needs at this point. I believe that his determination stemmed from his conviction that, from his own experience, Bertram's story was a meaningful, possible one.

The mature, melancholy poetry with which the King sets the tone of this scene echoes those images in the Sonnets by which Shakespeare conveys his sense of loss and hence of love,24 and especially the very intense Sonnets 33 and 34. The King's

I am not a day of season,
For thou may'st see a sunshine and a hail
In me at once. But to the brightest beams
Distracted clouds give way

(V, iii, 32-5)

strongly recalls the imagery of those two Sonnets of disappointment at—and forgiveness of—the friend's fault: after the glorious sun has flattered the mountain tops, and kissed the meadows, he will

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face 

(Sonnet 33)

but then, in the next Sonnet, the 'rotten smoke' of the 'base clouds', as in the King's image, gives way:

through the cloud thou break
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face.

(Sonnet 34)

At first, this is 'not enough' to Shakespeare 'to dry the rain'. In this impressively honest Sonnet, Shakespeare gives his disappointment rein:

For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace.
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss.

Helena never reminds Bertram of her earlier humiliation before the court; but as Bradbrook notes, 'her devotion (is) tinged for the first time with bitterness'25:

O my good lord, when I was like this maid
I found you wondrous kind.

(V, iii, 303-4)

When she says

'Tis but a shadow of a wife you see;
The name and not the thing

(V, iii, 301-2)

one is reminded of the constant recurrence of the word 'shadow' in Shakespeare's presentation of his relationship with his friend; of the suggestion of deception and uncertainty in 'Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter'; and of implied sexual betrayal:

For thee watch I, whilst thou doth wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.

(Sonnet 61)

Helena surely refers back to that remarkable speech made after sleeping with Bertram:

But, O strange men!
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night.

(IV, iv, 21-4)

It is an extraordinary statement of her awareness that this act, 'strange' and 'defiling' the darkness of night in a 'saucy', not a 'tragic' way, is oddly insignificant.

It is dismissed ('But more of this hereafter') to give place to her confidence in the future:

But with the word: 'the time will bring on summer'—
When briars shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp.

(IV, iv, 31-3)

The freshness of this speech has to be set against the 'pitchy', defiling night: that is over, and in itself has not been intensely important. What Helena relies upon is the power of her own love. In this play, love is a matter both of 'pitchy' night and 'sweet' leaves; both thorns and flowers are used to evoke the complex experience of love:

this thorn
Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong.

(I, iii, 124-5)26

Yet, however much his vices may be stressed, it is made clear that Bertram is not wholly beyond redemption,27 and it is because Helena is aware by the end of his whole personality that she may redeem him. So, to return to Sonnet 34, after Shakespeare has given full vent to his 'wound', as Helena does less sharply, he concludes on a totally forgiving note:

Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.

So Bertram's direct 'Both, both. O pardon!' gives hope. That, at least, is not 'cryptic fustian': yet perhaps it is even more convincing because combined with the fustian, suggesting that the direct outburst is real because he speaks like his former self as well. If Helena had a speech at this point like her Rossillion one in III, ii, we might be fully convinced that her love is enough to make the marriage work; but the problem is that in front of the court this just cannot be said. M. C. Bradbrook is quite right: the emotional situation does require 'another mode of expression than the last dozen lines allow',28 something like that final couplet of Sonnet 34. But such intensely personal feeling cannot be spoken in public. What we long for her to say she cannot say—but not because Shakespeare did not know how to say it; the Rossillion soliloquy expressed her love perfectly. But in this formal finale the situation is too intense for Helena's (as opposed to Bertram's) emotion to be made clear. To this extent, the King's cautious, slightly uneasy 'All yet seems well' and his wistful epilogue have to close the play, and leave us dissatisfied. We have to refer back to Helena's earlier speeches, and though this does not excuse flawed stagecraft, it explains, I think, why Shakespeare felt that it ended well. Sonnet 34, because it states grievance as well as passion, convinces in its reconciling couplet. If the Sonnets in general state anything, it is surely Shakespeare's conviction that to love, and to forgive, is what is important, not necessarily to receive. For, as Leishman says,

nowhere . . . is there unmistakable evidence that Shakespeare really believed that his friend, in any deep and meaningful sense of the word, loved him at all. At most, perhaps, his friend 'quite liked him'. Saddest of all . . . are those sonnets where Shakespeare speaks of their difference in rank . . . as an insuperable barrier between them, for they suggest that he may actually have had to endure (and to forgive) . . . slights and insults.29

And the poignant unhappiness of such a relationship is the basic situation Shakespeare found in the story of Giletta of Narbonne.

Shakespeare's problem was to transform Boccaccio's wit into serious emotion, presumably because he did not want to tell Helena's story wittily, since it contained emotions he understood and could express in powerful poetic terms. Helena, in the end, survives her humiliations, not through resilient, witty gaiety, but through a completely clear-eyed view of herself and Bertram. Shakespeare invests her with a near-desperate fervour to communicate unmistakably that her love is sufficiently powerful to enable her to overcome all humiliations: and the key is the 'Rossillion' soliloquy. The most impressive writing occurs at the most crucial moment of the play when the strength of Helena's love must be made unforgettable. And unforgettable it is. The tone of mingled sadness and tenderness in

Poor lord, is't I
That chase thee from thy country, and expose
Those tender limbs of thine to the event
Of the none-sparing war?

(III, ii, 102-5, italics mine)

recalls the self-effacement of

That god forbid that made me first your slave
I should in thought control your times of pleasure.

(Sonnet 58)

Helena's sad, simply-expressed resolve,

I will be gone,
That pitiful rumour may report my flight
To consolate thine ear. Come, night; end, day;
For with the dark, poor thief, I'll steal away

(III, ii, 126-9)

has the same immensely quiet but immensely unhappy note as

I'll myself disgrace, knowing thy will . . .
Be absent from thy walks.

(Sonnet 89)

The whole speech is crowned by the memorably intense hyperbole of

Shall I stay here to do't? No, no, although
The air of paradise did fan the house
And angels offic'd all

(III, ii, 124-6)

which has an eloquent grandeur similar to Shakespeare's great manifesto of what he understood by 'love':

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

(Sonnet 116)

Helena's love is sorely tried; her suffering and her hint of reproach, though it is barely perceptible, in the finale, do not however destroy it. Shakespeare's love in the Sonnets seems to have undergone similar trials and overcome them. He seems to convey both Bertram's cruelty and Helena's ecstasy and anguish in the kind of language which he had used to express his own passion and his friend's behaviour. If in the finale he failed to provide a powerful and reassuring speech for her, he may have felt that it was not necessary; that what he had already given her to say would convince his audience that despite—maybe because of—everything, her single-minded love would ensure that all ended well.

All's Well, it must be admitted, is not a complete success; if it were, it would not have worried so many, nor have taken so many words here. But since so much of it is very impressively written, it can tease the mind. The uncompromising power with which Bertram is drawn and the memorable intensity of Helena compel attention and, because of the last scene, explanation. In suggesting that the Sonnets cast a revealing light on Shakespeare's attitude to Helena and her story, I have tried not to excuse dramatic weaknesses. The play remains a 'peculiar' one; but Helena's passion, which always emerges as the centre-piece in performance, has so much in common with the Sonnets that this may indicate why Shakespeare chose the story. I think that he made Helena so intense, and presented her beloved with such relentless honesty, because he had something especially personal to say about the power of love to prevail over all 'alteration' and humiliation, even if it proved less easy to show matters ending well in dramatic than in non-dramatic terms.


1Leamington Spa Courier, 24 April 1959.

2All's Well That Ends Well, The Arden Shakespeare (1959), pp. xxix, liii. All quotations from All's Well are from this edition; those from the Sonnets are from Peter Alexander's 1951 edition of the Complete Works.

3Shakespeare's Problem Plays (1951), p. 104.

4 'Virtue Is the True Nobility', R.E.S, XXVI (1950), p. 301.

5Ibid. p. 290.

6The Sovereign Flower (1958), pp. 146, 154.

7 Hunter, op. cit. p. xlvii.

8 Tillyard, op. cit. p. 106.

9Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (1951), pp. 169-70.

10R.E.S, XXVI (1950), p. 290.

11 Wilson Knight, op. cit. p. 132.

12 Wilson Knight, op. cit. p. 136. Cf. also A. W., I, i, 8990, and Sonnet 92, lines 2-4.

13 Cf. A.W., I, i, 93-4, and Sonnet 113, lines 9-12.

14Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets, 2nd edn. (1963), p. 133.

15 Cf. A.W., I, i, 77-81, and Sonnet 31, lines 5-8.

16The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (1956), p. 185.

17 Hunter, op. cit. pp. 13-14.

18 Cf. also A.W., I, iii, 196-9, and Sonnet 87, lines 4-8.

19 Tillyard, op. cit. p. 112.

20R.E.S, XXVI (1950), p. 291.

21 But cf. A.W., I, i, 97-103.

22 Cf. also A.W., II, V, 73-6, and Sonnet 58, lines 9-12.

23 Hunter, op. cit. p. lv.

24 Cf. A.W., V, iii, 38-42, and Sonnets 77, line 8, and 65, lines 11-12.

25R.E.S, XXVI (1950), p. 301.

26 Cf. Sonnet 35, lines 1-4.

27 Cf. A.W., IV, iii, 68-71, and Sonnet 35, line 5.

28R.E.S., XXVI (1950), p. 301.

29 Leishman, op. cit. p. 226.

E. A. J. Honigmann (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "All's Well That Ends Well: A 'Feminist' Play?" in Myriad-minded Shakespeare: Essays, Chiefly on the Tragedies and Problem Comedies, Macmillan Press, 1989, pp. 130-46.

[In the following essay, Honigmann considers All's Well That Ends Well as a play that examines the consequences of female dominance, and studies Helena as an aggressive female character.]

Shakespeare is sometimes blamed because he expected woman to be beautiful and biddable in a male-dominated world. How unreasonable of him! His heroines, we are told, perpetuate the male myth of woman, as sanctified by the Bible and the marriage-vows of the Church of England; in so far as his feminine ideal was imprinted upon the consciousness of Europe, and later of the world, he was at least as guilty of the enslavement of woman as St Paul, who wrote that 'the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church' (Ephesians 5:23).

Poor, mindless Shakespeare! At one time he was seen as a 'child of Nature' who, according to John Ward, a vicar of Stratford in the 1660s, 'was a natural wit, without any art at all'.1 In our century E. M. W. Tillyard rehabilitated him as a man of ideas—second-hand ideas about authority and obedience, previously preached by spokesmen of the Tudor government, popularised by the dramatist. No sooner have we learned that Shakespeare was not necessarily uncritical of 'the Elizabethan world picture', even if he found it convenient to make use of such political platitudes in his plays, than we make the same mistake in the domestic sphere: Shakespeare popularised sexist platitudes about male authority and female obedience, once more repeating mindlessly. So we say to Shakespeare, as Hal said to Poins, 'thou art a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks' (2 Henry IV, II.2.52).

What is the truth? In his comedies Shakespeare taught women how to sparkle: he encouraged them to see themselves as intellectually equal to men, frequently more perceptive, more quick-witted in repartee. Far from restricting woman to a single man-pleasing stereotype, he delighted in those who shatter male expectations (Kate the Shrew, Beatrice in Much Ado) and, more than any other writer, he understood every kind of woman, from Juliet to Cleopatra. More than any single politician he helped to liberate woman, by portraying the infinite variety of femaleness. As he grew older he also brought out more clearly that women are often morally stronger than their men-folk. That is already implied in Romeo and Juliet but not demonstrated in any clash between hero and heroine, whereas focal moments make the point quite explicit in later plays: 'Kill Claudio' (Much Ado, IV.1.287ff), Portia's wound, which quells her husband's resistance (Julius Caesar, II.1.296ff), Desdemona's attempt to shield Othello (V.2.127). It may be no more than a temporary ascendancy; in the plays that followed, however, it became more centrally important and psychologically meaningful. Cordelia, forced into the role of mother to her father; Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Volumnia, who dominate their men and decisively alter the course of events—in all of these cases the woman's moral victory is not fudged by an immediate flip-over into traditional sexual thinking. On the contrary: the woman's strength, and its effect on her father, lover or son, engaged Shakespeare's imagination seriously, at the highest level.

All's Well That Ends Well has been called 'the unfortunate comedy'. Its greatest misfortune, I think, is that it is always discussed together with Measure for Measure, largely because the two plays are influenced by folk-tale and there is a 'bed-trick' in both. One might just as well compare All's Well and King Lear—again, two plays influenced by folk-tale, with a rejected wife in both. Instead of attaching significance to superficial resemblances, I want to place All's Well where it more properly belongs, with a series of major plays that all explore the consequences of female dominance. Let us coin a phrase and call it Shakespeare's Thatcher phenomenon.

Helena's moral strength only reveals itself gradually, and can only be fully appreciated in retrospect. When the Countess charges her to confess her love—

You love my son; invention is asham'd,
Against the proclamation of thy passion,
To say thou dost not. Therefore tell me true 


—she is caught in a trap, exactly as Bertram is later. We know the facts, as in Bertram's case, and yet, although we observe her wriggling in discomfort, she wins our protective sympathy, then our respect.

I charge thee,
As heaven shall work in me for thine avail,
To tell me truly.
HELENA. Good madam, pardon me.
COUNTESS. Do you love my son?
HELENA. Your pardon, noble mistress.
COUNTESS. Love you my son?

HELENA. Do not you love him, madam?
COUNTESS. Go not about; my love hath in't a bond
Whereof the world takes note. Come, come, disclose
The state of your affection; for your passions
Have to the full appeach'd.
HELENA. Then I confess,
Here on my knee, before high heaven and you,
That before you, and next unto high heaven,
I love your son.


In this brilliant exchange, almost prose in its simplicity, we sense the strain of confession, not unlike the soul-crushing strain experienced by Bertram when he entangles himself in lies (V.3.80ff.). Helena has the moral strength to meet the Countess's challenge, and discovers that strength begets strength—

COUNTESS. Had you not lately an intent—speak truly
To go to Paris?
HELENA. Madam, I had.
COUNTESS. Wherefore? Tell true.
HELENA. I will tell truth; by grace itself I swear.


As we appreciate more completely later, being able to 'speak truly' in a difficult situation is in itself a moral victory.

Helena's strength is also disclosed in decisions forced upon her by unexpected events. When Bertram rejects her, after the king's cure ('I cannot love her, nor will strive to do it'—II.3.143), she quietly makes a momentous offer.

That you are well restor'd, my lord, I'm glad.
Let the rest go.


And when Bertram is about to leave her, she quietly demands recognition as his wife.

HELENA. Pray, sir, you pardon.
BERTRAM. Well, what would you say?
. . . what would you have?
HELENA. Something; and scarce so much; nothing, indeed.
I would not tell you what I would, my lord.
Faith, yes:
Strangers and foes do sunder and not kiss.


She demands a kiss, and brings her relationship with him to a crisis. Each of the three passages (Helena's interview with the Countess, her offer to surrender Bertram, her asking for a kiss) was added to the story by Shakespeare; in each case Helena, under pressure, in so far as she is threatened with displeasure, skilfully redefines her rights, forcing the other party to support or reject her. Though seemingly at a disadvantage, she always makes a calculated counter-move—a gamble, which could wreck all her hopes, quietly resolved upon, forewarning us of a remarkable inner strength.

Before any of these episodes Shakespeare placed her encounter with Parolles, another addition to his sourcestory, the first of her many dialogue duels.

PAROLLES. Are you meditating on virginity?
HELENA. Ay. You have some stain of soldier in
you: let me ask you a question. Man is
enemy to virginity; how may we barricado
it against him?


At one time this 'indelicate' passage was cut in production—a disastrous amputation for the unfortunate comedy, since the dramatist here shapes our response to all that follows. Parolles springs his question on her (compare Lucio to Isabella, 'Hail virgin, if you be'—Measure for Measure, 1.4.16); she decides almost instantaneously that she can handle this kind of impertinence: it chimes in with her mood. By means of this dialogue, the first real testing of Helena's intellectual and moral fibre, Shakespeare possesses us of several essentials all at once. Helena, who has just soliloquised about her hopeless passion for Bertram, is not a romantic fool: sex, and what we today would call sexual psychology and know-how, holds no mysteries for her. She is able to switch from romantic day-dreaming to earthy masculine humour, which traditionally makes a woman a sex-object and virginity a joke. And, even more important, she swiftly takes control of a conversation that began as an attack upon her, willingly allowing the masculine joke to drag on ('How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?'—1.1.141), finally making use of Parolles to send signals to Bertram.

Not my virginity yet.
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend. . . .


Although she seems to be on the defensive in her later exchanges with the Countess, the King and Bertram, and speaks quietly, we are meant to remember her skilful fencing with Parolles and consequently to be aware of hidden strengths—whilst, locally, her interlocutors are more impressed by her modesty and deference ('Your pardon, noble mistress'; 'Pray, sir, your pardon', to Bertram). They accept her more or less as she presents herself ('I am a simple maid'—II.3.64); we, the theatre-audience, begin to suspect that she is also a formidable opponent, something of a Britomart.

Just before the virginity-dialogue Shakespeare placed Helena's first soliloquy, in which an attendant lady, who had previously spoken only once, suddenly drops the mask of maiden modesty and unpacks her heart.

O, were that all! I think not on my father;
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him; my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.
I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away.


Her ability to cut loose from conventional thinking ('I have forgot him'), and to sort out her priorities, prepares for her breath-taking directness in the virginitydialogue, and the soliloquy and dialogue together give us glimpses of the less 'maidenly' parts of her character, which she is careful to screen from her social superiors.

The bed-trick in All's Well, sometimes described as a mere plot-mechanism taken over from the source and regrettably out of key with the play's realism, may be seen as Helena's very personal choice, reflecting the complicated character that Shakespeare created for her. For All's Well also resembles Measure for Measure (and of course several other plays) in dealing with overmastering sexual impulses; Helena's predicament is not unlike Angelo's, and, even if she cannot be accused of judicial rape, it is not unfair to describe her as sexually rapacious. Shakespeare does not wish to antagonise the audience, therefore sets to work discreetly, preparing for the bed-trick step by step, as a dynamiter assembles his time-bomb. Helena thinks of herself as 'The hind that would be mated by the lion' (I.1.85; note the force of that 'by'); in imagination she has languished for his physical charms ('His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls'—88); later, when he has gone to the wars, she worries about 'those tender limbs of thine' (III.2.103). She allows the virginity-dialogue to continue a little longer than is seemly, at last closes the door on it ('Not my virginity yet'), then rapturously flings it open again—'There shall your master have a thousand loves'. (Where, exactly?) Hers is very much a physical passion. The fact that the Steward overheard her confess it, 'in the most bitter touch of sorrow that e'er I heard virgin exclaim in' (1.3.109), that the Countess is also aware of it, and that she herself drops hints to Parolles, confirms that her impulses are violent; they drive her to Paris, to Florence, to the bedding of Bertram. Like the clown she is 'driven on by the flesh', and she 'must needs go that the devil drives' (28).

Shakespeare would never have considered a bed-trick as appropriate for Rosalind or Beatrice. Other tricks are used in their plays, expressive of their characters; Helena's bed-trick expresses hers, and we should notice in how many ways it differs from its counterpart in Measure for Measure (where . . . Shakespeare also took some trouble to relate it to character, particularly the Duke's and Mariana's). She stage-manages the whole affair, persuades the Widow, instructs Diana—even, we must suppose, anticipating Bertram's reluctance to part with his ring and devising a verbal trick to overcome it ('Mine honour's such a ring: / My chastity's the jewel of our house'—IV.2.45). All her managerial and adversarial skills are brought into play. Shakespeare, quite exceptionally, intimates that the physical consummation was a success, a point not to be taken for granted when the woman is a virgin and the man may 'Remain there but an hour' (58).

But, O strange men!
That can such sweet use make of what they hate. . . .


The credit for this success must probably go to Helena, whose afterglow once more reminds us of her highly sexed nature. Despite all her phrases of maidenly modesty, therefore, Shakespeare portrayed her from the beginning as an unconventional woman, the only woman in all of his plays who is right for this particular bed-trick—because she is so single-minded in her pursuit of Bertram. As she ringingly proclaims in the last lines of the first scene,

my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me!

Why did Shakespeare choose to make a play out of the short story translated by Painter from Boccaccio? The bed-trick is its focal event, and must have appealed to him—if only as a trial of his ingenuity, having to metamorphose the two-dimensional characters that are acceptable in a short story into more credible human beings. Helena becomes what she is because of the bed-trick—but Shakespeare chose the story, I believe, because he saw that she might speak for the New Woman of his age, who challenges Man in his timehonoured prerogatives. Had England not been ruled for forty-five years by Queen Elizabeth? And France, more briefly, by Catherine de Medici? Although the universities and inns of court did not admit women, many titled ladies were social and intellectual leaders—Sir Philip Sidney's sister, Lord Burghley's wife, George Herbert's mother—and others, high and low, shook off traditional female roles and sought equality with men. Mary Fitton, one of the Queen's maids of honour, used to dress as a page, so it was said, to slip away from the court and meet her lover. Moll Cutpurse dressed as a man, swaggered as a man, intimidated her sexual admirers, and had a play written about her by Middleton and Dekker (published 1611, written earlier). Foreigners who visited England marvelled at the emancipation of its women: 'they have more liberty than in other lands, and know how to make good use of it', going constantly abroad while 'the men must put up with such ways, and may not punish them for it'.2 Perhaps Anne Hathaway, who married a boy eight years her junior when she was twenty-six, was an 'emancipated' woman; the Dark Lady of the sonnets must certainly have been one.

Long before All's Well That Ends Well Shakespeare had already flirted with the New Woman. In his first signed publication the heroine, Venus, is sexually aggressive, but the interest centres on situation-comedy, not psychology. Rosalind and Beatrice dare to challenge men in their thinking, even to outwit them in verbal duels, and they may claim to be the most 'liberated' women in English drama at the turn of the century. Thereafter the New Woman took two different roads: one the primrose path trodden by Cressida, Cleopatra and other 'white devils'; the second the way of self-confident virtue chosen by Helena and the Duchess of Malfi.

Helena is a special case, for, apart from her other talents, she has some professional skill. She may not be a qualified doctor but she was educated by her father (I.1.34), a famous doctor, who left her his prescriptions—

Of rare and prov'd effects, such as his reading
And manifest experience had collected. . . .


She understands their application, and knows that one of them will cure the king.

COUNTESS. Dost thou believe it?
HELENA. Ay, madam, knowingly.


The modern reader may misinterpret these hints, modern medicine being a closed shop. In the Elizabethan period one could count on a great variety of semitrained and untrained practitioners (for example, Simon Forman, who set horoscopes and offered his female patients sexual services, as well as more traditional aids3)—and they included many women. 'Carry his water to th' wise woman!' cries Fabian, when Malvolio appears to be demented (Twelfth Night, III.4.97). The wise woman of Brainford (Merry Wives, IV.5.10ff.), the wise woman of Hogsdon, and midwives generally, were credited with more than a little medical knowhow, not to mention witchcraft and other forbidden arts.

In Shakespeare's age women competed with men in the medical world, as does Helena when all the most renowned doctors despair of curing the French king. A contemporary audience would understand that her success, although spoken of as if miraculous (II.3.1ff.), need not be a miracle—except in so far as 'miracle cures' have always had their place in the history of medicine. It suited Shakespeare to let bystanders talk of miracles, since he wanted Helena to impress us as, figuratively, a 'miracle-worker', triumphing over one impossible task after another; nevertheless, two-day cures (II. 1.160) are by no means unheard of, and her success with the French king should be taken as possibly resulting from natural causes—and from a woman's professional brilliance, defeating the most learned doctors in their own masculine territory.

Helena also challenges a masculine prerogative when she demands, as her reward, the right to choose her own spouse. The idea comes from the source-story, significantly changed.

'Because thou are a maiden and unmarried [said the French King], if thou heal me according to thy promise, I will bestow thee upon some gentleman, that shall be of right good worship and estimation. . . .' [She replied,] 'I beseech your grace, let me have such a husband as I myself shall demand.'4

In the play she herself broaches the subject, unprompted.

HELENA. But, if I help, what do you promise me?
KING. Make thy demand. . . .
HELENA. Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command.


Shakespeare made her more direct, more masterful. Notice the ambiguity of 'in thy power': she will demand a husband who is in the king's power, and she will do this by commanding it 'in thy power'. She will assume his authority. Her switch to 'thou' and 'thy' at this point is noteworthy.

It was Shakespeare's idea to have a beauty-parade of young lords. In the source Helena simply named her choice ('I have then, my lord, quoth she, deserved the Countie Beltramo of Rossiglione'); the parade again reverses sexual prerogatives, for it is usually the ladies who are on show, the men who select. We today are familiar with the Miss World meat-market and similar rituals, where the livestock has to show off its paces before a smirking male; the original audience might think of plays such as Godly Queen Hester or Peele's Judgement of Paris—or of dances or may-games, where it is also the man's prerogative to choose. The uncomfortableness of the lords should not be overlooked. Lafeu wonders, 'Do all they deny her?'; they respond politely, not enthusiastically, partly because the parade offends the dignity of the male.

Helena later pursues her chosen mate to his bed, in Florence. This, again, is thought to be a male prerogative ('Man is the hunter, woman is his game'), as exemplified by Bertram, 'a whale to virginity' (IV.3.203), who forces his way dishonestly into 'Diana's' bed. In the final scene Helena comes to her husband's rescue, the strong helping the weak. The ending was radically altered by Shakespeare, partly to make this point—Helena appearing at the very last moment, a dea ex machina, radiant, triumphant, just when Bertram's fortunes are at the lowest. In the source she returns to Bertram's palace,

to the place where the count sat, falling down prostrate at his feet, weeping, saying unto him, 'My lord, I am thy poor infortunate wife. . . . Therefore I now beseech thee, for the honour of God, that thou wilt observe the conditions which [you] did command me. . . .

She presents him with twin sons and his ring, and he embraces her—'and from that time forth, he loved and honoured her as his dear spouse and wife'. Shakespeare swept away the wifely submissiveness, and Bertram's spontaneous change of heart. Instead, Diana and the Widow are brought to France and Bertram reveals the full odiousness of his character—

She's impudent, my lord,
And was a common gamester to the camp


—sinking to his lowest, it should be observed, after he has broken with Parolles, who is sometimes blamed for misleading him. Shakespeare also reintroduced the King, Lafeu and the Countess, authority-figures in whose absence Bertram might have rid himself of Diana less unpleasantly. Everything possible has been done, in short, to drag down Bertram, placing him in a position of weakness, reversing the normal relationship of husband (protector) and wife (the protected). He has to ask her pardon; she comforts him, if that is the right word, with a smiling allusion to his performance in bed:

O, my good lord, when I was like this maid
I found you wondrous kind.


—the type of remark that men more often make to women. (Compare Iago: 'You rise to play, and go to bed to work'—Othello, II. 1.115.) If Bertram actually kneels when he asks for pardon, as would be natural—overwhelmed as he is by the certainty that all of his deceptions must now be exposed—then the husband kneels to the wife, another reversal of sexual prerogatives. Wives knelt to their husbands (Taming of the Shrew, V.2.136ff, Julius Caesar, II. 1.278, Othello, IV.2.31); Bertram's kneeling to Helena, when sexual roles were so stereotyped, would seem as extraordinary as Lear's to his daughters (King Lear, II.4.152;IV.7.59).

From the first stage-direction Shakespeare signals to the audience that All's Well is to be an unconventional comedy: the characters enter 'all in black', and black was the colour of tragedy ('Hung be the heavens with black'—1 Henry VI, 1.1.1). The Countess's husband has recently died, Helena mourns for her dead father, the French king 'hath abandoned his physicians' and is not expected to live. A strange beginning for a comedy! The sex-reversals that I have described were an equally deliberate break with comic convention, I believe, supported by other adjustments to the story: Shakespeare invented the Countess, 'the most beautiful old woman's part ever written', according to Bernard Shaw,5 and made more of Diana's mother, a 'gentlewoman' in the source who also becomes a widow in the play. (All of the play's secondary characters lack a sexual partner, except for a clown, driven by the flesh, and Diana, solicited by Bertram: what would be considered normal domestic and romantic love is excluded, and predatory sexuality accentuated.) The Countess, Widow and Diana, being remarkably business-like, help to suggest that Helena's efficiency is not necessarily unfeminine, and the four ladies together, opposing the irresponsible Bertram and Parolles, tip the whole play firmly towards a feminine point of view. The King and Lafeu ensure that the men are not completely disgraced, but cannot restore the balance: already in the husband-choosing scene we sense that Helena is in control, and even more so in the final scene, where the King is reduced to the rank of a baffled spectator. His parting words to Diana, 'Choose thou thy husband, and I'll pay thy dower', may be meant to indicate that women have proved their worth, but also suggests that men will go on making the same mistakes, being more status-conscious than sensitive to the mutuality of love.

The Countess and Widow have other important functions. Conventional morality did not allow a girl to love, let alone love passionately, until the man had declared himself. (Helena, said the source, 'fervently fell in love with Beltramo, more than was meet for a maiden of her age'; she 'burned' in love.) By not condemning Helena's love the Countess establishes that it is not unfeminine ('Even so it was with me when I was young'—1.3.119); by actually encouraging her to go to Paris, that a poor physician's daughter might be socially acceptable as a count's wife. Shakespeare added the Countess's moral support and removed the King's disapproval (in the source, the King 'was very loth to grant [Bertram] to [Helena]'). Similarly, the Widow's support guarantees that the bed-trick will not strike us as scandalous; here Shakespeare closely followed his source, adding 'Violenta and Mariana', two friends of the Widow. Mariana's advice that 'the honour of a maid is her name', and warning against the 'engines of lust' (III.5.11ff.), defines the Widow's circle as morally conventional. Attaching Helena to a group of four women (27), Shakespeare created a feminine power-centre, corresponding to the Countess in Rousillon; and the five women together, observing the army as it passes (71), underline the sexist division of the play. I would repeat this visual point when Helena, the Widow and Diana arrive in France by making their 'two attendants' women, and, again, by arranging the women as a closed group at the end, when Helena and the Countess embrace (V.2.313). Perhaps the women should be dressed 'all in black', as at the beginning, surrounded by colourfully costumed creatures, male peacocks.

The Parolles sub-plot, added by Shakespeare, appears to contribute little to the play's 'sexist' concern, apart from an insistently physical view of male-female relations. Parolles initiates the virginity dialogue, and loses no opportunity to degrade sex—

He wears his honour in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars's fiery steed.


'Kicky-wicky' is not recorded elsewhere, says the Arden editor ('keecky', though, is a term of endearment for a wife in Mrs Centlivre's The Basset-table, 1706). Unlike Cleopatra, who jokingly compares herself to a happy horse ('O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!'—Antony and Cleopatra, I.5.21), Parolles imagines sexual activity as equivalent to masterful horsemanship (hence 'kicky-wicky'?). After encouraging Bertram in his follies, a Vice-figure counterpoising Helena's Virtue, Parolles becomes more important in himself in the 'drum' episodes, which some critics consider tedious. One sees, of course, that they have a structural function: blindfolded, he betrays his friends, abjectly hoping to save his skin, and this conditions our response to Bertram when he goes through similar motions in Act V, also 'blindfolded', equally dishonourable and cowardly as he tangles himself in lies. Later, Bertram's contempt for Parolles will rebound upon himself. The sexist function of the drum episodes is not quite so obvious, and may be illustrated from The Alchemist (III.3.38ff.): Face brutally tells Doll to get ready for a lustful Spaniard, who is to be thrown in a down-bed—

Where thou shalt keep him waking with thy drum;
Thy drum, my Doll; thy drum; till he be tame.

Either 'drum' was slang for hymen and vagina, or Shakespeare, ever inventive in his sexual imagery, gave Parolles the 'impossible task' of retrieving a drum as a suggestive analogy. At any rate it cannot be an accident that Parolles pretends to seek for the drum in the very night when Helena loses her virginity—indeed, that the lords persuade him to 'undertake this business' (III.6.79) just before Helena persuades the Widow, who is 'Nothing acquainted with these businesses' (III.7.5). Shakespeare had already looked forward to the drum's usefulness as a resonating symbol in Bertram's farewell to Helena—

Go thou toward home, where I will never come
Whilst I can shake my sword or hear the drum.


A modern dramatist might have called the play The Sword and the Drum, but Shakespeare trusted his spectators to catch the cross-references. The ladies elaborately plan their bed-trick while the men plan a different trick, also a night ambush. The ladies are serious, the men amuse themselves; in both plots a drum is valued high and low: 'My chastity's the jewel of our house' (IV.2.46); 'A pox on't; let it go; 'tis but a drum' (III.6.40).

The Parolles sub-plot, added by Shakespeare, reinforces the play's feminist emphasis. Returning now to this larger theme, the play's patterned contrast of male and female, I have to acknowledge a problem. If Helena is as sensible as has been suggested, and Bertram as worthless, how can she love him? Does that not discredit her? Not initially, since the stage-response shields her: everyone admires or loves Bertram (the Countess, Lafeu, the King, as well as Helena). He is the image of his 'good father' (I.2.19ff.), just as Helena appears to repeat hers, and, the King's afterthought notwithstanding ('Thy father's moral parts/Mayst thou inherit too!'), there is no reason to think ill of Bertram. His overvaluation of Parolles only becomes worrying in Paris, and his other errors of judgement follow after she asks for him as her husband: until he rejects her everyone considers him, as she does, 'a bright particular star' (I.1.80). His faults thenceforth are carefully graded. He disdains her as his wife—unpleasant. He sulks and defies the king ('I cannot love her, nor will strive to do it')—unwise, yet no more so than Romeo and Juliet, and other lovers who wish to choose for themselves. He decides 'I will not bed her', writes to the king 'that which I durst not speak', promises Helena to join her in two days, and rides to Florence. Here, in his first batch of faults, the audience observes his lies and moral cowardice, but Helena remains ignorant of the worst. In Florence, his 'wanton siege' of Diana is more reprehensible; Helena knows about it, and still loves him. Back in France the inner logic of his character emerges fully as he tries to protect himself against Diana (and here Shakespeare departs from his source); all of his most selfish tendencies converge—disdain, cowardice, untruthfulness, treachery. Even if Helena is not a witness, she clearly stagemanages the humbling of Bertram; can she—should she—still love him?

It may not be sensible, but she does. Or, at least, she offers her love ('Will you be mine now you are doubly won?'—V.3.308) and, in a 'feminist' play, love may be allowed to triumph over sense as the highest good. Yet Dr Johnson was right: we cannot reconcile our hearts to Bertram—the sharp contrast of male and female continues to the end. In response to Helena's appeal he turns away from her, addressing the King, for he still feels threatened—

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.


He means: if she can convince me that the child is mine—and not before. He must be the only person who remains doubtful. To his credit, though, he does not pretend a love that he does not feel. We are left wondering whether the most impossible task of all, the winning of a husband's love after so public a disgrace, is not beyond Helena, and beyond human nature. The title All's Well That Ends Well could be just as ambiguous as Measure for Measure.

Should Helena reappear with a child 'in her arms', as in the source, or heavily padded and visibly pregnant? Bertram's letter required her to 'show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to' (III. 1.56). The second time round we hear

And looke you, heeres your letter: this it sayes,
When from my finger you can get this Ring,
And is by me with childe, &c. This is done,
Will you be mine now you are doubly wonne?

(V.3.305, F)

Shakespeare knew that audiences would not remember the exact wording of a letter, so felt free to introduce minor changes. Yet the difference between 'show me a child' and 'is by me with child' could involve a significant change in staging, perhaps second thoughts by the dramatist.6 But not necessarily: the second reading may refer to Helena's tasks, not to her return. She could therefore show a child, as Shakespeare certainly intended while writing Act III, or a bundle containing a child. I prefer this to a pregnant Helena, for nothing high-lights the division of the sexes better than the handling of a baby. She gives the bundle to Bertram, her female triumph, or holds it out to him, and, caught in this final trap, what can he say? what should he do? He will have to wait a couple of centuries for advice—from August Strindberg.

I have not paid much attention, so far, to the folk-tale elements in the play. Some readers may complain that my approach is too psychological and 'realistic'—to which I reply that the play's language must take the blame. One half of the dialogue consists of prose, and much of the verse is 'prosaic', in the sense that it serves for interrogations, information-giving, chat, and avoids the poetical. The language has the qualities that Dryden admired in Beaumont and Fletcher: 'they understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better [than Shakespeare]. .. . I am apt to believe the English language in them arrived to its highest perfection.'7 More than in most of his Jacobean plays Shakespeare aimed at naturalness in the language of All's Well, an easy 'modern' style uncluttered by mixed metaphors and syntactic snarls. No wonder that Caroline Spurgeon found so little to say about the play's imagery! This is a sign not of linguistic inadequacy but of deliberate choice, as—mutatis mutandis—with the language of Julius Caesar (cf. p. 29 above): 'natural' speech begat life-like men and women, which begat a life-like play.

No one will think, I hope, that natural speech must be artless. The Countess's examination of Helena merely repeats one word to prize open her defences, and by this means, though both women dissimulate, Shakespeare reveals their characters. 'I am a mother to you.—Mine honourable mistress.—Nay, a mother. / Why not a mother? . . . I say I am your mother' (I.3.130). An extraordinary tension builds up and explodes in 'Yes, Helen, you might be my daughter-inlaw!' Three possible relationships interact in their minds. The fact that the Countess actually feels a motherly affection, and that Helena dare not confess her feeling, makes this little scene a double-bluff rather like Lear's interrogation of Cordelia, and yet the true characters of the participants show through the chinks quite differently.

In addition to its natural language All's Well contains an unusual number of rhyming speeches, the effect of which is the very opposite. At one time these were thought to belong to an earlier version of the play, fossil-deposits in an archaic style—a view that no longer prevails. G. K. Hunter has shown that Shakespeare oscillates between a 'remote, impersonal, and hieratic presentation of his subject, and a more immediate and human treatment of it', as in some of his other plays. But Hunter erred, I think, in concluding that 'there is a general failure in All's Well to establish a medium in verse which will convey effectively the whole tone of the play':8 the tone of the play depends on this oscillation. Switching from rhymed verse, or from occasional passages of knotted syntax, to what I have called natural language, Shakespeare invests these lines of plain, direct speech with even more power.

HELENA. I am a simple maid, and therein wealthiest
That I protest I simply am a maid.
Please it your Majesty, I have done already. . . .
Blessing upon your vows; and in your bed
Find fairer fortune, if you ever wed!
LAFEU. These boys are boys of ice; they'll none have her. Sure, they are bastards to the English. . . .
HELENA [to Bertram]. I dare not say I take you; but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power. This is the man.
KING. Why, then, young Bertram, take her; she's thy wife. 


Such effects are particularly important in All's Well thanks to the sheer quantity of prose and rhymed verse, and, in key-scenes, the rapid alternation of natural and heightened language. The proximity of 'folk-tale' elements and more 'natural' action has a similar impact: one that is meant to be noticed, even though they are intermingled carefully, as is the language. And the division of male and female, which I think persists to the very end, must be part of the same design. If All's Well followed after the romantic comedies and preceded Measure for Measure, as is generally thought, this play should be venerated as one of the most consciously innovative in Shakespeare's long career.


1 See E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems II, 249, 1930.

2 See Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare's Audience (ed. 1961) pp. 76-7.

3 See A. L. Rowse, Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age: Simon Forman (1974).

4 I quote the source, 'Gietta of Narbon' (the thirtyeighth story in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure), from G. K. Hunter's edition of All's Well, New Arden Shakespeare (1959) p. 145ff.

5 Quoted from Joseph G. Price, The Unfortunate Comedy: a study of All's Well That Ends Well' and its critics (Liverpool, 1968) p. 41.

6 Perhaps Helena reads two separate extracts from the letter, skipping some lines: 'this it says—/ "When from my finger you can get this ring, / . . . And is by me with child"—and this is done!'

7 John Dryden, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy.

8 G. K. Hunter (ed.), All's Well, pp. xxiii, lix.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23553

Joseph Westlund (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "All's Well That Ends Well: Longing, Idealization, and Sadness," in Shakespeare's Reparative Comedies: A Psychoanalytic View of the Middle Plays, The University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 121-46.

[In the excerpt below, Westlund examines the character of Helena, particularly in regards to her longing for Bertram, and her sexuality.]

The play most often defines character and action, like the language out of which they are created, by "striving through intractable material for effects which hardly justify the struggle." Let us begin with Helena, the most fully developed character. In the first scene she responds to Lafew's kindly farewell remark, "you must hold the credit of your father," by launching into a soliloquy beginning: "O, were that all!" To underscore this negation of what we expect she says "I think not on my father. . . . What was he like? / I have forgot him; my imagination / Carries no favour in't but Bertram's" (1.1.77-81). Why must she deny the memory of her father to concentrate on Bertram? This is quite unlike Rosalind's roughly similar remark to Celia when reporting that she spoke to her own father without his knowing who she was: "But what talk we of fathers, when there is such a man as Orlando?" (3.4.34-35). Part of the brittleness of Helena's remark may result from her father being dead, or from her attempt to replace him with Bertram, as her riddling earlier comment indicates: "I do affect a sorrow indeed, but 1 have it too" (1.1.50). It is also characteristic that she feels strain where we would never expect it. She denies her father, sets forth her new love for Bertram, and then immediately despairs of gaining him: 'twere all one / That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it" (1.1.83-85). No one can marry "a bright particular star"; her paradoxes persist into the action itself and haunt us to the very end. So far, all we have seen of Bertram is his vague attention to the elders' talking about loss and death. Helena, as so often during the play, "follows Bertram on stage to interpret his conduct through her love"; perhaps his "conduct is to be reconsidered in the light of her love" (as Price concludes).9 But this would be yielding to her idealization; instead, we should attend to her activity, not simply to his conduct.

Helena severely restricts the terms by which she evaluates Bertram, and talks only about his noble birth and his good looks. On these points she cannot be controverted. She attempts no assessment whatsoever of his honor (apart from birth), his virtue, or his goodness—or any of those qualities so crucial in the discussion which precedes her soliloquy and which concern characters throughout the play. She describes him as ideal without ever employing the terms which she and other characters find so essential. This clearly indicates that she creates him mostly out of her wish. Since she quietly ignores the standards of her world, she more easily deceives herself—and the viewer. She continually evaluates every character except Bertram in terms of honesty, virtue, and goodness. She also condemns herself for her failings in such matters, but only rarely—and late—does she hold Bertram to these standards. Because she idealizes him, viewers are encouraged to do so, and thus to seek what the play will not render up: a clear sense of Bertram being worthy.

Critics attempt to find Bertram honorable, or at least not objectionable. We expect that Helena, someone presented as good and wise, must have found a worthy beloved, especially since she remains painfully loyal to him. From the start she persists in seeing Bertram as "so above me. / In his bright radiance and collateral light / Must I be comforted, not in his sphere" (1.1.85—87). Since we hardly know anything about him when she tells us of her love, we can easily be fooled. The play delays letting us know what Bertram is like so that we can appreciate her invention of someone eminently good. And yet we know how dangerously idealized her view is by her treatment of Parolles, Bertram's supposed friend. He enters, ironically, as a "relic": Helena finishes her soliloquy by saying that Bertram has gone "and my idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his relics. Who comes here?" Helena knows the contradictory nature of her fancy: it is both idolatrous and yet sanctifies. I see no reason to assume that she "despises herself for it" (Arden edition). She seems simply to appreciate the paradox, as she does when she says "I love him [Parolles] for his [Bertram's] sake," although she knows Parolles to be a liar, a fool, and a coward. She labors to transform this wretched stuff into someone whom she can like, which results in her turgid comment:

Yet these fix'd evils sit so fit in him
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak i'th' cold wind; withal, full oft we see
Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.


Perhaps the text is corrupt, but such involuted passages usually occur at moments when a character tries to make someone better than he is.

Helena manages to like Parolles, despite his faults—-just as she manages to love Bertram, although in his case she rarely notes how far he is from ideal. Such adaptability is heroic, and crucial to the preservation of a sense of goodness; yet it becomes dangerous, for she deceives herself. Her deception seems almost conscious. She knowingly suppresses her distaste for Parolles; we cannot be sure she does not do the same with Bertram later on. Somehow, it would be easier to tolerate her blinkered response to Bertram if we felt that she unconsciously denied his faults, rather than consciously suppressed them in an effort to find someone extremely good. That she may know his failings makes her seem not only sadly self-deceived, but willfully wrong headed. The play never clarifies this, and indeed makes us believe that her whole society shares her propensity for delusion. The elders—the King, Countess, and Lafew—see Bertram's faults, but never try to dissuade Helena. They fail to point out that he is not so desirable or suitable; nor do they suggest that her pursuit may be quixotic, or unseemly. No other Shakespearean comedy has so many parental figures who actively support a love match—and no other match is so inappropriate. Helena and her society are at one in their willful idealizing.

When Parolles and Helena talk they bandy sexual jokes in a way which led the scene to be excised for a long time as too ribald for an audience, and too improper for Helena. Because she discusses something real, sexual attraction, without trying to deny or idealize it, the language suddenly becomes comprehensible (if we can keep up with the bawdy puns), and utterly dissimilar to the gnomic quality of most of the dialogue. Sex is real to her and to Bertram, their only shared interest. Helena talks about sex and marriage without relating them to the moral worth of the husband. She deludes herself by testing only one aspect of reality, and is "realistic" at the expense of losing her bearings. In this Helena and Bertram share an ominous trait, for he later resorts to similarly narrow reality testing when he beds, as he thinks, Diana.

In talking to Parolles, Helena suddenly decides that her situation only appears hopeless. With that practicality which makes her at once admirable and, because of the circumstances, willful, she realizes that she can use her virginity to gain Bertram. When Parolles asks "Will you anything with it?" (1.1.159), she creates an extraordinarily expansive account of what she will become:

Not of my virginity yet:
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend.


(I see no need to emend the Folio punctuation as the Arden editor does: "Not my virginity; yet. ..") She will not give up her virginity yet: "there," in her virginity, "shall your master have a thousand loves." Rather than present a catalogue of the varieties of love available to Bertram at court (as Hunter and many others suggest), Helena creates "a definition of perfect love, which labours for its object's good" (Knight, p. 140). She defines her role, not his. Knight thinks that "Helena's love sees Bertram as he potentially is," but she dwells only on the actual, sexual attraction. She speaks about moral and social attributes only in relation to herself, to what she might be: "A mother, and a mistress, and a friend." She will be "his humble ambition, proud humility." We learn nothing at all about what she thinks of his character, or his potential for growth at court. She concentrates upon herself and what she might become, which is why she begins with "a mother," the only unfamiliar term in the courtly titles and phrases which follow (phoenix, goddess, traitress). The word "mother" strikes interpreters as out of place (Arden edition), but not if we realize she talks about herself, not court ladies. When Bertram takes her virginity he shall find her a mother: this is the whole point of the task which he later sets her. Again, this mismatched couple have one thing in common, sex, but she thinks of it positively as the means to becoming an ideal wife—and he as the means to negate her longing.

At the end of this wonderfully inclusive catalogue of paradoxical roles, Helena turns to Bertram's role:

Now shall he—
I know not what he shall. God send him well!
The court's a learning-place, and he is one—


Her abrupt, mysterious shifts may reflect reticence before Parolles, yet she could easily fool him—or resort to soliloquy—if she wanted to articulate her feelings. She clearly does not want to assess what Bertram is, or might become. This seems to be sensible, for no one can guess what a young lover may turn out to be; it is wise not to pride oneself on the excellent effect one might have. Still, Helena refuses to evaluate him as a person of certain achievements and propensities. Parolles tries to pursue her remark that Bertram "is one" by asking: "What one, i' faith?" She dodges: "That I wish well. 'Tis pity" (1.1.173-75). Parolles persists: "What's pity?" and she turns from Bertram himself to her wish:

That wishing well had not a body in't
Which might be felt, that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends,
And show what we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks.


Again, the contortions in the verse suggest the strain of her thinking. She apparently indicates a desire to "show the effects of [her] wishing in terms of physical action" (Arden edition); she persists in dwelling on her wish, not on who he is or what he might be.

Helena's feelings progress during this key scene. First she thinks it impossible to gain Bertram, then the bawdy talk about her virginity being used leads Helena to list active roles which she could play as his wife. In her second soliloquy her longing grows less passive, the physical aspect of love more real, and finally she becomes active and hopeful: "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie" (1.1.212-25). She abandons her crucial awareness of the difference between longing for something good, and finding it. We all need to believe that "the fated sky / Gives us free scope," yet this can be a dangerous wish: it ignores real-life limitations and verges on omnipotent thinking. No one can be certain, although Helena says she is, that "only doth backward pull / Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull." She attempts to deny the play's insistent awareness of the inevitable tension between hope and loss (one established again and again during the first sixty lines of the play):

Who ever strove
To show her merit that did miss her love?
The king's disease—my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me.


Her project will deceive her in a way which she never anticipates: she will gain merit without gaining Bertram's love. From this point onward Helena's comic mode, with its emphasis on remedial action and taking chances, begins to diverge from the ironic mode of All's Well and its implacable insistence upon the difference between conception and realization.10

The play, however, never allows us to forget this gap. In the following scene Bertram decides to win merit in a war which has its own vagaries and produces its own deceptive gain; of this more later. The third scene completes our sense of the distinguishing traits of Helena's love. The bawdy talk about marriage and cuckoldry by the Countess and her Clown makes an earthy and deceptively realistic background for Helena's idealization. Her taut and complex discussion with the Countess, like the Countess's exchange with Lafew earlier, creates a sense of community in their mutual acceptance of the difficulties of those in love.

Here, long before she learns how sorely Bertram will wound her, we find Helena's last full assessment of her love. She still dwells not on how it might be returned, but on what she feels. "I love your son," she confesses to the Countess, and at once dwells upon the negative: "Be not offended, for it hurts not him / That he is lov'd of me" (1.3.189, 191-92). Although we and the Countess know Helena plans to go to Paris and cure the King, Helena says: "Nor would I have him till I do deserve him; / Yet never know how that desert should be" (1.3.194-95). "My project may deceive me," she has said, "but my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me." Her speech about her endless ability to pour out love is at once heroically selfless and, in the light of future events, painful:

I know I love in vain, strive against hope;
Yet in this captious and inteemable sieve
I still pour in the waters of my love
And lack not to lose still.


She explicitly refers to her hope, and imagines Bertram as "the sun that looks upon his worshipper / But knows of him no more." She obsessively sees herself as a worshipper, knows nothing particular about her idol, and vaguely feels some error: "Indian-like, / Religious' in mine error, I adore / The sun." Her metaphor "inteemable sieve," is startlingly appropriate: she claims to "strive against hope," yet only by her image do we guess why; she never voices doubt. Helena thinks of herself as giving all in the most quixotic of gestures, pouring the waters of her love into a sieve which can neither contain nor return that which she pours into it; Rarely does a lover see her beloved as a sieve so early in the game—and without, apparently, giving much attention to the utter irrationality of her hopes about him. For Helena the problem lies simply in Bertram being of higher rank, but for us there are weightier problems: so far he has given no indication of being interested; soon he shows that he does not love her—or respect the King—and has no intention of keeping his word to either of them.


9 Joseph G. Price, The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of "All's Well that Ends Well" and Its Critics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), 140. Like Price and many others, I see Helena as the central character. Richard P. Wheeler continues another tradition by emphasizing Bertram: "the forced marriage to Helena deflects [Bertram] from his quest for a masculine identity and toward a sexuality he fears" (Shakespeare's Development, 40). Wheeler argues that Shakespeare's treatment of Bertram expresses the hostile component of a deep ambivalence that in the sonnets has been suppressed or turned back against the poet's self (p. 73).

10 Roy Schafer correlates Northrop Frye's four literary modes to psychoanalytic views of life in A New Language for Psychoanalysis, chap. 3, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).

Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Power and Virginity in the Problem Comedies: All's Well That Ends Well," in Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays, Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 58-104.

[In the following excerpt, Neely argues that as a "problem play, " an often corrupt sexuality, rather than romantic love, drives action and informs imagery, language, character, and plot of All's Well That Ends Well.]

In the problem plays, . . . there are no male disguises for the heroines, no green worlds, no fairies, no parody couples to express desire and protect the main couples; even the bawdy is changed in tone. Sexuality is now frequently dissociated from marriage and procreation. It finds expression in seduction (Troilus and Cressida and All's Well), aggressive lust (Measure for Measure), prostitution (Measure for Measure, Othello), promiscuity (Troilus and Cressida), and, perhaps, adultery (Hamlet). Instead of being connected with imagery of growth and fertility, sexuality is associated with corruption, loss, disease, death.10 It also plays a larger part in the language, imagery, characterization, and plot of these plays than it did in the comedies. Meanwhile, romantic love, which is less pervasive than it was in the comedies, no longer controls desire and, suitably qualified, engenders the mutuality that brings about happy marriages. In the problem plays, romantic love is easily manipulated and easily shattered. Troilus and Bertram use its rhetoric to seduce Cressida and Diana. Hamlet and Othello manifest its corruptibility. Women withdraw from idealizing love. Helen and Mariana come to pursue romantic desires in practical ways; Ophelia, in madness, hallucinates seduction and betrayal and Diana anticipates them; Cressida seems to eschew ideals altogether and Isabella, sexuality.

Stripped of the adornments of romantic love and no longer a guarantee of controlled or satisfied desire, marriage is put under even more pressure as its social and institutional complications are emphasized. In the romantic comedies the external social impediments to marriage were conventional and conventionally flimsy: male disguise, easily removed; the father's will, easily complied with; the father's veto, easily canceled. But in the problem plays, marriages are beset with tangled social, economic, and legal problems: the coercive power of wardship, the radical incompatibility of race and social class, the absence of dowries, the intricate legalities of contracts and precontracts, the sin of incestuous second marriage. There are, of course, other kinds of social and moral problems in the plays besides marriage—the deflation of heroism and honor in Troilus and Cressida, for example, or Hamlet's inability to act to avenge his father's murder. But even in these two plays the dissociation of sexuality from marriage and the disruption of marriage underlie other sorts of corruption.

As sexuality becomes more central and more debased in the problem plays and as marriage becomes legally and socially more difficult, the protection of virginity, an underlying assumption in the festive comedies, becomes a matter for debate. On the one hand, virginity is seen as a value and a virtue; on the other, as a commodity to be exchanged. Ophelia and Diana are lectured on the necessity of the vigilant defense of theirs. Isabella values hers over her brother's life. Hamlet urges abstinence upon Gertrude even in marriage. But Parolles argues that Helen should lose her virginity expeditiously, and she and Cressida do so. Mariana, likewise, loses her virginity under deceitful circumstances to achieve the marriage she desires. But the loss of virginity, while enabling the women in these plays to achieve their goals, also endangers them: they lose the kinds of power they could take for granted in the romantic comedies.

The inevitable virginity of the heroines of the festive comedies generated desire, tempered it, and constrained it within the context of marriage and procreation. In the problem plays loss of virginity constricts or compromises women's power in three ways. First, at the crudest level, virginity is power, seductive power, as Angelo learns, and bargaining power, as Cressida knows. Her well-known expression of this—"Men prize the thing ungained more than it is; . . . Achievement is command; ungained beseech" (I.ii.296-300)—is validated in all the problem plays. Her value falls precipitously after she is won, as does that of Diana and Isabella. After apparent seductions they are vilified as whores—as are Gertrude and Desdemona even within marriage. Second, when women lose their virginity, they lose their position as idealized beloveds and hence their ability to inspire male adoration and mitigate male anxieties, to keep men "amiable" (the virtue of the handkerchief in Othello). In the problem plays, even when participating in loving and faithful marriages, the women trigger male fears of female sexuality and wantonness, of male impotence and degradation. Invariably they are "bewhored" by the men in the plays. Third, women's loss of virginity is the emblem of their social transformation from beloved to wife and of the changed status this entails. "Ay, so you serve us / Till we serve you" (IV.ii.17-18), Diana's wry retort to Bertram's protestations of eternal service, has implications beyond sexual ones for courted beloveds who become wives. The consequent loss of independence, initiative, and control is apparent in the submission of Desdemona to her husband, and in the partial, potential, or pretended submissions of Helen and Diana, Mariana and Isabella.

Like the romantic comedies, All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure specifically dramatize broken nuptials that culminate in achieved marriages. In these problem comedies, romantic love, sexual union, and social accommodation are again examined, but arranged in a different balance, put under more pressure, and brought more profoundly into conflict with one another than in the romantic comedies. In the earlier plays, love provides the crucial link between the personal imperatives of desire and the social imperatives of marriage and procreation. But in the problem comedies love is peripheral and unrequited, sexuality is corrupted and divorced from love and marriage, and the social pressures enforcing marriage are enormous. Hence the reconciliation between the couple's desires and society's demands is more difficult to achieve than in the earlier comedies. In All's Well That Ends Well, I shall argue, a precarious reconciliation is achieved with full acknowledgement of its cost. The marriages that conclude Measure for Measure, however, are enforced, joyless, and without promise. All's Well transforms the motifs of the comedies, while Measure for Measure anticipates the themes, attitudes, and conflicts of the tragedies.

All's Well dramatizes fully all of the strains in courtship and marriage that were potential or muted in the festive comedies: the older generation's attempt to control marital choice, the men's corrupted views of women and sexuality, the women's consequent powerlessness and conflicting need to pursue their desires aggressively. In this play the older generation is prominent and authoritative. More fully drawn than in the romantic comedies, it is more emphatically in decline and hence dependent on the marriages of youth for its own rejuvenation. But parent figures in the problem comedies endanger nuptials more by insisting on them than fathers and rulers in earlier comedies did by impeding them. Because the apparently dying king and Bertram's mother are implicated in the broken nuptials, they must participate directly in their restoration. This intervention by the elders is necessary partly because the young couple is unable to negotiate marriage themselves as the couples of the romantic comedies could. Helen's11 anxieties are more deeply rooted and less easily dispelled than was the proud resistance to love of earlier heroines. Her sense of personal unworthiness and social inadequacy are reinforced by Bertram's rejection. In him, the witty misogyny of the heroes of comedy deteriorates into revulsion against women, and erotic desire turns into irresistible lust seeking satisfaction outside of marriage. Bertram's attitudes are reinforced by the military environment to which he flees (one never central in the romantic comedies) and by his relations with Parolles, a bond more corrupt and corrupting than earlier male friendships.

In order to counter Bertram's misogyny and lust and his flight from social responsibilities, Helen must combine the roles of chaste beloved (through her idealizing rhetoric, her pilgrim's disguise, and her mock death), of sexual partner (through the bedtrick), and of wife (through her legal betrothal, marriage ceremony, and pregnancy). She must cooperate with other women, change places and identities with Diana, and undergo the losses and gains which are the consequence of her mock death and of the bedtrick. Bertram must, however perfunctorily, undergo sexual initiation, the exposure of Parolles, the loss of his wife, and submission to the authority of his elders. The marriage that is ratified at the end of the play is presented not as a joyous lovers' union but as a compromised bargain, not as a happy ending but as a precarious beginning.

Although All's Well ends as vexed comedy, it begins as attenuated tragedy. The themes of its first scene are those of Hamlet: the death of fathers, the power and impotence of kings, and the future of a young son, an "unseasoned courtier" (I.i.72). Like Hamlet, Bertram is urged to heed platitudinous advice, assume the virtues of his dead father, and submit to the authority of his king, ensuring in this way the stability of family and state. Bertram, like Hamlet and other tragic heroes, is the focus of a variety of demands; unlike these others, however, he does not make demands of his own. Bertram remains throughout most of the play "evermore in subjection" (I.i.5) to his elders. Unlike both the heroes of the comedies, who are usually parentless,12 and those of tragedy, who often struggle with fathers or father figures, Bertram either submits or flees.

Although All's Well opens by sketching dilemmas that might be enlarged to full tragic dimensions, this enlargement emphatically does not happen. Early in the first scene the play denies expectations13 by its abrupt shift of attention from Bertram to Helen, who, as a poor female orphan, is not likely to be the repository of familial or social expectations. Her first soliloquy transfers the focus of the play from education to love, from social demands to personal desires, from the dead and dying to the living: "I think not on my father" (I.i.82). Throughout the rest of the first act Helen establishes herself as the protagonist, the play's subject as marriage, and its genre as comedy.

The first scene, moreover, reveals sharp differences from the romantic comedies as well as from Hamlet and the tragedies. Helen's soliloquy is characteristic of the tragic heroes; exactly like Hamlet's first soliloquy, it reveals that it is not only her father's death that is upsetting her. In it, surprisingly, she, like the heroes of the romantic comedies, is a Petrarchan lover, idealizing Bertram as a "bright, particular star" (89), providing a conventional blazon of his beloved parts, and humbly lamenting her inadequacy and the unattainability of her beloved. But she is more self-conscious about the excessiveness of her posture than an Orsino or an Orlando—"My idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his reliques" (100-01)—and her lament is grounded in the real difference in social status between her and her beloved. Her hopelessness is therefore realistic as well as conventional; precisely this blend of romantic conventionality and shrewd realism characterizes Helen throughout the play.

One means of overcoming the distance between Helen and Bertram is obliquely implied by Parolles in his dialogue with Helen on virginity. Demystifying chastity, the virtue honored by romantic love, he defines it as a valuable commodity that can be spent for personal and social gain: "Within ten year it will make itself ten which is a goodly increase and the principal itself not much the worse" (Li. 149-51). Under Parolles's tutelage Helen rapidly comes to recognize her own desires and potential and moves from vowing to die to protect her virginity to wishing to "lose it to her own liking" (152)—from worshiping distant stars to finding "remedies" within herself. Her two soliloquies are not, however, simply opposites; both contain Helen's characteristic ambiguousness. The first soliloquy testifies, however humbly, to "Th' ambition in my love" (93), while the second voices its assertions only tentatively in a couplet sonnet composed of obscure images and nervous questions: "Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?" (I.i.237-38). In both soliloquies, as throughout the rest of the play, Helen is paradoxically proud and humble, self-assertive and self-effacing, passionate and chaste, vigorous and passive. Her particular blend of idealized virtue and urgent desire differentiates her from the comedy heroines and accounts for the critics' sharply contrasted responses to her.14 Her actions are, however, the result not only of her complex character but of the complex situation in which she finds herself. Unlike most of the heroines of the romantic comedies, she is not the pursued but the pursuer; the shape her pursuit takes is in part forced on her by her constricted social role, by the interventions of the elders, and by the fragmented and paradoxical attitudes toward women held by the men in the play.

Helen's dialogue with Parolles on virginity reveals some aspects of this attitude and provides the impetus for Helen to conceive her strategy of pursuit. It also introduces the play's emphasis on the sexual component of marriage, sets the subject and tone of its extensive bawdy, and manifests its central thematic paradox—loss in gain and gain in loss. The dialogue's subject is the loss of virginity—intercourse; its metaphors are martial and commercial, and its tone is realistic, crude, somewhat funny; this tone is neither as good-natured as the bawdy in the romantic comedies nor as bitter as that in Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. Sexual encounters are imaged as mutual aggression with mixed victory and defeat on both sides.

Parolles. Man, setting down before you, will undermine you and blow you up.

Helen. Bless our poor virginity from underminers and blowers-up! Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men?

Parolles. Virginity being blown down, man will quickly be blown up; marry, in blowing him down again, with the breach yourselves made you lose your city.


The dialogue's reiterated image of tumescence and detumescence encapsulates a central pattern of the play. An alternation of fullness and emptiness characterizes the plot with its gaining, losing, and regaining (the general theme of Boccaccio's Third Day, present in the source tale15 but expanded here), the development of the characters with their alternating potence and impotence, confidence and collapse, and the verse with its alternating compression and slackness.

The scenes in which Helen proposes her cure to the King and chooses Bertram manifest her blend of virtuous modesty and sexual energy, of self-confidence and self-deprecation. The sexual innuendo that imbues both scenes is not, I think, intended to undermine the audience's sympathy with Helen or to impugn her motives, but to reveal the mixed nature of both her motives and her power, the result of the mixed nature of the love that drives her and of the goal she seeks.16 The combination of Helen's high-minded virtue and seductive sexuality is apparent in comments made about her by others, in her own language, and in the structuring of the two scenes. When Lafew announces Helen to the King, he praises her "wisdom and constancy" (II.i.87) and later refers to the cure as a "miracle" (II.iii.1). However, his innuendo as he describes her as one "whose simple touch / Is powerful to araise King Pippen, nay, / To give great Charlemain a pen in's hand, / And write to her a love-line" (II.i.78-81), his allusion to Pandarus as he leaves her alone with the King, and his lecherous jests in the choosing scene about the frigidity of the young courtiers, all call attention to her rejuvenating sexual appeal rather than to her intellectual or spiritual powers. As the scene with the King progresses, Helen, although restrained and moderate at first, gains warmth and passion.17 Significantly, the King is moved to consider her services not when she appeals to the power of her father's art or to the possibility of divine aid, but when she asserts her confidence in her own art to effect his cure: "But know I think, and think I know most sure / My art is not past power, nor you past cure" (II.i. 160-61). He is persuaded to attempt her remedy only after she has associated her cure of his "parts" with the renewing forces of nature as well as of faith—"The greatest grace lending grace, / Ere twice the horses of the sun shall bring / Their fiery torcher his diurnal ring" (II.i. 163-65)—and has promised to risk for him her chaste reputation, or even her life. She will venture: "Tax of impudence, / A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame, / Traduced by odious ballads; my maiden's name / Seared otherwise; ne worse of worst, extended / With vilest torture, let my life be ended" (II.i. 173-77). In the first of the play's many agreements, the King and Helen agree to risk death together, to serve each other's "will" with their "performance" in couplets that are both hieratic and sexually suggestive:

Sweet practicer, thy physic I will try
That ministers thine own death if I die.

[II. i. 188-89]

Here is my hand; the premises observed.
Thy will by my performance shall be served.


The choosing scene manifests still more explicitly the erotic energy that has rejuvenated the King. The scene is framed by Lafew's innuendos and his description of the King as "Lustig" and "able to lead her a coranto" (II.iii.42, 44). Helen commences her choice by an explicit leave-taking of "Dian's alter" and each of her rejections of the lords is more sexually explicit than the one before, as she refers to her "suit" (77), to "great Love" (86), to "your bed" (92), and "mak [ing] yourself a son out of my blood" (98). This series emphasizes the modesty and submissiveness of Helen's final offer of herself to Bertram. Her extraordinary seductiveness mitigates our sympathy with him in his violent rejection of her and focuses attention on the sexual as well as the social basis for it.

Bertram is not yet even at the beginning of the journey toward sexual maturity that Helen is already embarked on. Hence, he is an utterly recalcitrant beloved, aptly characterized by Parolles's definition of narcissistic virginity: "Peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love which is the most inhibited sin in the canon" (I.i. 144-48). Self-love leads to Bertram's rejection of Helen and of all three components of marriage: love, sex, and social union. His first response to her choice—"I shall beseech your Highness / In such a business, give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes" (II.iii.107-09)—shows the absence of romantic "fancy"; its necessary subjectivity is often symbolized by eyes in the earlier comedies. The bawdy innuendos of his second exchange with the King manifest Bertram's revulsion from Helen's sexuality, his sense of his own sexual inadequacy, and his understandable refusal to be a surrogate for the King, repaying his debts and acting on his desires.

King. Thou know'st she has raised me from
my sickly bed.
Bertram. But follows it, my lord, to bring me down
Must answer for your raising.

[II.iii.1 12-14]

Bertram's anxieties are emphasized by Lafew's commentary, which associates the imagined rejections of the other lords with the unnatural frigidity of "eunuchs," "boys of ice," and asses. Finally, articulating and disguising his sexual recoil, Bertram expresses contempt for her social class: "A poor physician's daughter; my wife! Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!" (II.iii.116-17). The King futilely fixes on the third component of the refusal, the only one he has control over, and agreeing to "create" social eminence in Helen, enforces the marriage.

The nature of Bertram's capitulation only confirms the sexual roots of his aversion. He submits to the social disgrace of the wedding ceremony but evades love and sexual consummation. Although he weds Helen, he emphatically refuses to "bed" her—or even kiss her. Parolles encourages and articulates his distaste for sexual union, warning: "He wears his honor in a box unseen, / That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home / Spending his manly marrow in her arms" (II.iii.282-84). His perversity in the matter is highlighted, too, by Shakespeare's alteration of Boccaccio's story, in which the count, Beltramo, seems to find Giletta, the heroine, attractive but rejects her for social reasons.18 And there is in the source none of the emphasis on the seductiveness of Helen, which Shakespeare includes in both the cure and the choosing scenes. The impossible condition under which he would reestablish his marriage—"show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband" (III.ii.59-61),—both expresses his sexual loathing and suggests that if Bertram could desire Helen and prove himself with her, the marriage would be acceptable. But before this can happen, Bertram must escape the suffocating authority of his mother and the King. He must prove his manhood as a warrior before risking it as a lover—as do Claudio, Benedick, and Othello. He must be sexually initiated not in a marriage sanctioned by his elders but in an illegitimate liaison in which he appears to act as the seducer.

Bertram must begin his education anew in the "nursery" (I.ii.16) of the Italian wars. But it is Helen who brings it to completion through her flight, her mock death, her doubling with Diana, and the bedtrick. She puts to use literally now the erotic power that metaphorically played a part in the King's recovery, but at the same time she mutes the expression of it. She wins Bertram by both submitting to his commands and actively fulfilling her desires. Her ambigous self-effacement permits Bertram's growth:

Nothing in France until he has no wife!
Thou shalt have none, Rousillion, none in France;
Then thou hast all again.


This is a prophecy of her flight from France, but (by virtue of the parenthetical, "none in France") also of the play's end.

The witty overtones of Helen's mock death connect it, by means of the familiar Renaissance pun, with her sexual death in the bedtrick and embody the double role she must play to win Bertram. Both the bedtrick and the "death" combine aggressiveness and humility in a constructive deceit that is characteristic of Shakespearean mock deaths. Helen's pilgrimage and her mock death acquire double meaning in her sonnet letter to the Countess, through the confusion about the destination of her journey, and by the precise placing of the bedtrick in the structure of the play. Having soliloquized that she would rather die herself than be the cause of Betram's death (III.ii.99-129), her letter to the Countess declares that she will relinquish Bertram and make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Jaques; however, its sonnet form and its Petrarchan rhetoric imply that she will pursue him and hint at the means she will use. Helen presents herself in the conventional image of a lover as pilgrim—humble ("Ambitious love hath so in me offended"), penitent ("Barefoot trod I the cold ground upon"), in search of forgiveness and death. She does not, however, plan to renounce love: "Bless him at home in peace, whilst I from far / His name with zealous fervor sanctify" (III.iv.4-17). The sonnet, in fact, seems as much metaphorical as expository, rendering futile debates about whether Florence is really on the way to Spain, just which Saint Jaques's shrine is meant, what Helen's real intentions are. Perhaps these matters are as unclear to her as to the audience; she only knows that she wants to die for Bertram. The Countess's response ignores geography. Discounting the literal meaning of the sonnet, she hopes it may promise the couple's reconciliation.

The "death" Helen seeks may likewise be metaphorical. The sonnet's couplet, viewed in the context of the play as a whole and of the sonnet tradition, may hint that the death will be sexual, not literal: "He is too good and fair for death and me, / Whom I myself embrace to set him free." The fuzziness of its pronouns (whom and him), usually straightened out in glosses, suggests deliberate confusion about whether Helen will embrace death or Bertram. In fact she will do both, and the letter wittily hints that Helen's passion will be fulfilled, not renounced. The suggestiveness is comparable to the clever overtones the tale of Giletta gains when read in the context of the other stories of the Decameron's Third Day, in which religious strategems are repeatedly used to further sexual gains, in which bedtricks are less high-minded than Giletta's, and in which religious and courtly language is ripe with sexual innuendos.19 The ambiguity of Helen's "death" is further emphasized by its timing. The announcement of her "death" by the Lords occurs (without preparation or explanation) at precisely the moment of her assignation with Bertram.20 This death, then, is a clever "unmetaphoring," to use Rosalie Colie's apt term, of the conventional pun on die.21 Helen is a passionate pilgrim who dies for love. Her double "death" is not merely a nasty trick but a rich metaphor expressing her loss of virginity and identity and her gain of a new identity for Bertram and for herself.

The bedtrick's success requires the presence of Diana, Helen's "Motive / And helper to a husband" (IV.iv.20-21). The chaste virgin and the whore embody men's polarized fantasies of women. But the play, through the women's names, their role reversals, the substitution, and their identification with each other, controverts the fragmented views of the men and affirms the reconciliation or potential reconciliation of sexual partner and loving wife in both.

Helen's name carries implications of wantonness; Diana's implies militant virginity. These associations are emphasized in the play. The clown's song links Helen with her famous predecessor, mocking both: "Was this fair face, the cause, quoth she, / Why the Grecians sacked Troy? / Fond done, done fond, / Was this King Priam's joy?" (I.iii.71-74). Shakespeare's audience may have connected her especially with the silly and sensual Helen of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, probably written and produced at about the time of All's Well.22 More generally, Helen of Troy was, for the Renaissance, the exemplum of a bad wife. But this Helen, belying her name, begins the play as a virgin resigned to unrequited and unconsummated love. In contrast, Diana, namesake of the goddess of chastity, seems, when we first see her, ripe for seduction by the "handsome," "gallant," and "brave" gentleman Bertram (III.v.51, 78-79), as the caustic warnings against him by Mariana and her mother suggest. But soon the two switch places to move into roles more consonant with their names. Helen's persuasion of the king and her choice of Bertram are both presented as metaphorical seductions. When Bertram flees her, she must, in effect, prostitute herself in the bedtrick, engaging in an anonymous sexual encounter and receiving his ring as payment. Diana, meanwhile, becomes a militant virgin, defending herself adamantly against Bertram's advances, wittily attacking his protestations of love, and expressing generalized distrust of men, which leads her to vow, "To live and die a maid" (IV.ii.74), Helen's original resolve. In the last scene yet another reversal occurs, as Diana assumes, for Helen, "a strumpet's boldness" (II.i.174) and accepts the slander that Helen had once risked; Helen assumes her desired role as a chaste wife. If Diana were to accept the King's offer of her choice of husband, the identification between the two would be complete.

Not only does the play identify Helen and Diana, but all the women also identify with each other, feeling sympathy and offering help where hostility and rivalry might have been expected. The Countess warmly supports the affection of her poor ward for her son and heir, remembering the passions of her own youth. Diana's attraction to Bertram is qualified by her sympathy for his unknown wife even before she meets Helen, and her private and public attacks on Bertram are on Helen's behalf as well as her own. The Widow, seeing Helen's plight, plants the idea of the bedtrick: "This young maid might do her / A shrewd turn, if she pleased" (III.v.66-67). Helen has only to extend the Widow's suggestion, recognizing that she might shrewdly turn Bertram's unlawful purpose into "lawful meaning" (III.vii.46). Following the bedtrick the bonds of sympathy between the women deepen. The Widow and Diana become pilgrims with Helen, and Helen, in her reflections on the experience and in her remark, "When I was like this maid . . ." (V.iii.309), acknowledges her connection with and dependence on Diana. The three women are "maid, widow and wife" (MM.V.i.177) illustrating the marriage paradigm and comprising the socially acceptable roles for women in the period. Though Diana is Helen's rival and Helen makes use of her, there is no envy or hostility between them. Intimacy, mutual aid, and instinctive sympathy are characteristic of most female relationships delineated by Shakespeare. Women's sympathy for and identification with each other cross boundaries of age, class, role, and value, existing between Julia and Sylvia, Beatrice and Hero, Desdemona and Emilia, Cleopatra and her waiting women, Hermione and Paulina. But at the same time, female friendships consistently support and further women's bonds with men. Unlike male friendships, they are not experienced or dramatized as in conflict with heterosexual bonds.

Bertram and Parolles, like Helen and Diana, are parallel and contrasted figures whose friendship serves as a defense against women and sexuality far more explicitly than did the male friendships in the comedies. Parolles's attitude toward sexuality as a degrading commodity influences or perhaps merely reflects and supports Bertram's. He looks to sex for profit—either money or children—and so he instructs Helen in the market value of her virginity, encourages Bertram's decision not to "spend" his "manly marrow" (II.iii.284) by bedding her, gratuitously uses or invents the sexual exploits of his companions to please his imagined captors. As a hypocritical pander in his truncated sonnet letter to Diana, he urges her to be paid in advance for the loss of her virginity:

When he swears oaths, bid him drop gold, and take it;
After he scores, he never pays the score.
Half won is match well made; match and well make it;
He ne'er pays after-debts, take it before.


At the same time, he woos her himself in a parody of the bargain Bertram wishes. Self-interest rather than desire motivates his wooing, for, as Parolles knows, Helen and Diana see through him; a relationship with either would end Parolles's easy exploitation of his "sweetheart" (II.iii.271).

The friendship of Bertram and Parolles is as hypocritically self-serving on both sides as their heterosexual relationships. Instead of bailing each other out, as Helen and Diana do, each attempts to sell the other out to save his own skin. Nor is there any hint of identification or sympathy between the two for their parallel predicaments. Although the exposure of Parolles's hollow martial rhetoric is placed to emphasize the parallel with Bertram's similarly hollow amorous rhetoric, and although each is exposed, asks pardon, and embraces shame, they acknowledge no connections with each other. Diana is a conscious, willing scapegoat for Helen; Parolles is an unwitting and unwilling one for Bertram.

As Parolles attempts to protect himself by condemning his comrades and Bertram, so the characters and the play seek to exonerate Bertram by attacking and exposing Parolles. A number of characters blame Bertram's faults on Parolles's influence, although, as many critics note, these faults are in fact not created by Parolles. The contrasts between the two do, however, have the effect of making Bertram look better than he otherwise might have.23 Parolles's cowardice makes Bertram's lauded courage the more impressive, and Parolles's willingness to embrace shame if it will help him to survive perhaps turns Bertram's arrogance into a kind of virtue. Most importantly, Parolles's "fixed evils" (Ii. 105) underline Bertram's malleable immaturity, his potential for growth. The comic setpiece of the exposure of Parolles distracts attention from Bertram's treatment of Diana, and Parolles's attacks on Bertram there and in the last scene engender some sympathy for the Count. His dissociation from Parolles at the end of the play serves as a manifestation of Bertram's reform—which is not much dramatized in other ways.

Bertram's final severance from Parolles and Helen's enduring bond with Diana are both essential to the completion of the marriage that culminates an extended series of separations and affiliations. Comic action characteristically weakens or breaks old bonds to make way for new ones. In the romantic comedies the younger generation easily loosens its ties with the older: benignly, as through Rosalind's disguise; cruelly, as through the elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo; or inevitably, as through the death of the King in Love's Labor's Lost. All's Well recapitulates these separations. At the beginning of the play, Helen's father has recently died, and she has put aside remembrance of him to dote on Bertram. She symbolically rejects the Countess as a mother (desiring her as a mother-in-law) and, after her marriage, she leaves the Countess and the King to seek Bertram. Bertram, too, forgets the memory of his father's virtue and flees his mother and his King.

But whereas in the romantic comedies heterosexual bonds begin forming early in the plays, Helen and Bertram are isolated from each other throughout most of All's Well; they have only three curt exchanges, and none between the fifth scene of act 2 and the third scene of act 3. Apart, they associate themselves with separate male and female communities that function as a prolonged respite between their participation in a family as children (the role each emphatically plays at the start) and their creation of a new family as husband and wife and as parents (the project they embark on at the end). But the communities are joined for different reasons and function differently for the two protagonists. Bertram flees to the brotherhood of military life to evade love, marriage, and responsibility, and he gives up the ring that symbolizes his father's heritage. In contrast, Helen uses the skill inherited from her father to cure the King and later joins the Widow and Diana in an association which encourages her marriage and her own growth. Bertram must be separated from Parolles and military life, whereas Helen's cooperation with the Widow and Diana continues to the end of the play. Diana enacts seduction and betrayal and absorbs shame for Helen in the last scene. Her presence allows Shakespeare to mute in Helen's characterization the polarized traits—aggressive manipulation and degraded submission—required of the protagonists of the tales on which the play draws.

In all the variations on the motifs of the Fulfillment of the Tasks and the Substitute Bride examined by W. W. Lawrence,24 the huband's flight and the tasks imposed express the husband's fears of female sexuality and marital responsibility along with his contradictory desires for illegitimate satisfaction and the achievement of family continuity through an heir. The central task requires the production of an heir by the wife, and the supplementary tasks all involve obvious symbols of male and female sexuality—the obtaining of rings, swords, or the husband's stallion, the digging of a well, construction of a hall or throne, the filling of a trunk. The entire burden of sexual union is symbolically placed on the woman, who must contrive to fulfill both halves of it. In order to do so, she must be both aggressive and submissive, both "clever" and a "wench." In several of the tales, the wife in fact disguises herself as a man, gains access to her husband, beats him at cards, and offers to provide him with a woman, displaying traditional male qualities of ingenuity, stamina, and courage. But to fulfill the female part of the bargain and to put to rest their husbands' sexual anxieties, the women must be helpless, seduceable, whores. The wives hence take on the roles of lower-class, powerless, or degraded women—a cowherd's daughter, a slave, an imprisoned princess, a poor Florentine maid—women who, like whores, can be used contemptuously to supply sexual satisfaction and abandoned with ease without concern for consequences or heirs. In this connection, it seems significant that Diana's mother is a poor widow; the daughter's lack of paternal or financial protection puts her in an especially vulnerable position in a patriarchal society. In these tales the women must be still more manipulative and ingenious than Helen, whose stratagem presents itself to her accidentally. And while the sexual component of Helen's achievement is emphasized in her cure of the King, the presence of Diana allows it in certain ways to be deemphasized, as she does not directly seduce nor is she seduced by Bertram.

At the same time, however, the bedtrick by which Bertram is won is presented so as to be more troubling and richer than those in the folktale sources, in Boccaccio's tale, or in other analogues. This irregular nuptial both completes and further complicates the marriage of Helen and Bertram. It is the center of the "mingled yarn" of the play, the point where good and ill, loss and gain are most intricately intertwined. The encounter is, in numerous ways, a "death" for both Bertram and Helen, culminating their isolation, humiliation, and loss of identity but also commencing their union. To achieve his desires, Bertram must give up his ring, the emblem of his social rank and family connections. We learn later that Helen, too, has given up the King's ring, emblem perhaps of her dependence on him as a surrogate father. It also symbolizes her honor, which, Diana argues, has a social value for women equal to the male heritage embodied in Bertram's ring: "mine honor's such a ring; / My chastity's the jewel of our house / Bequeathed down from many ancestors" (IV.ii.45-47). Both embark on the sexual encounter without the sanctioning contexts of family, rank, secure marriage. But the loss of virginity is riskier and more irrevocable than the loss of the ring, and Helen has nothing else to bargain with. The nature of the bedtrick necessitates that Bertram, in accord with his wishes, be bereft of all connections with his beloved other than the sheerly sensual one and that Helen, against her wishes, be a substitute body in the dark who gives up name and speech and employs nakedness as a disguise. She is unaccommodated woman at the place where divine aid, the King's authority, rank, role, and identity have been cast off. The bedtrick both depends on and expresses the radical anonymity of sexual union, its separation from love and marriage. And the union itself, as the bawdy in the play graphically shows, means a physical loss for both—the loss of Bertram's "manly marrow" and Helen's virginity.

But from these losses come gains—or at least the promise of gains. First at the physical level with Helen's pregnancy, which the play has anticipated through Lavatch's and Parolles's witticisms: "The danger is in standing to't; that's the loss of men, though it be the getting of children" (III.ii.41-42) and "Loss of virginity is rational increase, and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost" (I.i.130-32). Their marriage and the getting of a child reunite sexuality with family. There are more immediate gains as well. Bertram's seduction of the "wondrous cold" Diana ( 116) completes his rebellion against the authority of his mother, the King, and Helen: "he fleshes his will in the spoil of her honor; he hath given her his monumental ring, and thinks himself made in the unchaste composition" (IV.iii.16-18). His cheerful dispatch of "sixteen businesses" (IV.iii.86) in conjunction with the encounter manifests the energizing effects of his sexual initiation and adolescent rebellion. These accomplished, perfunctory reform follows; he is able to claim to have loved his dead wife and mourn for her, to ask forgiveness of his elders and reconcile himself with them, even to agree to marry a woman of their choosing.

But if the impersonal nature of the encounter satisfies Bertram, its deceitful anonymity disillusions Helen in her extraordinary reflection on the event:

But, O strange men,
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozened thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night! So lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away.


The fact that Helen seems alone among the perpetrators of bedtricks in expressing her humiliation and defilement emphasizes the cost of her stratagem, not its success. But she also acknowledges the sweetness of her pleasure and the growth that will ensue: "the time will bring on summer, / When briars shall have leaves as well as thorns, / And be as sweet as sharp" (IV.iv.31-33). This affirmation by Helen of the ordinary fruition that will accompany her painful initiation qualifies the cynicism of Diana's anticipation of deflowering: "Ay, so you serve us / Till we serve you; but when you have our roses, You barely leave our thorns to prick ourselves / And mock us with our bareness" (IV.ii. 17-20) and corroborates the Countess's realistic and parodoxical memory of youthful desire: "Even so it was with me when I was young; / If ever we are nature's, these are ours; this thorn / Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong" (I.iii.129-31). All three women use the image of the thorn in the flower to express the mingled pain and pleasure of sexual experience. Only Helen imagines not just the antitithetical rose and thorn but the development of sustaining leaves as the consequence of sexual experience.25

The bedtrick is a sexual and psychological death and rebirth for both Bertram and Helen. It is also a symbolic prostitution and the central bargain of All's Well That Ends Well. Like the many other agreements in the play, it is both fraudulent and fair, both corrupt and restorative. Helen uses her erotic potency to cure the King, and he in return agrees to satisfy her desires (and sublimate his) by granting her a husband: "If thou proceed / As high as word, my deed shall match thy deed" (II.i.212-13). Bertram eventually complies with the match in order to retain the King's favor: "As thou lov'st her, / Thy love's to me religious; else does err" (II.iii. 183-84). Bertram in turn enters into an agreement with Helen: "When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of my body that I am father to, then call me husband" (III.ii.58-60). To meet Bertram's conditions, Helen strikes a bargain with the Widow: "Take this purse of gold, / And let me buy your friendly help thus far, / Which I will over-pay and pay again / When I have found it" (III.vii.14-17), providing Diana with a dowry in return for her help in the consummation of Helen's marriage. In the bedtrick, there are three layers of agreement which, like the other bargains, involve deceit. Bertram falsely promises marriage to Diana in return for her loss of honor; Diana falsely promises the loss of her honor in return for marriage and Bertram's ring. Helen deceives Bertram in order to fulfill his conditions and transform sin into law, creating the paradoxes of the bedtrick which "Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact" (III.vii.45-47). The deceitfulness of Bertram's deal is mocked by Parolles's warning to Diana: "He ne'er pays after-debts, take it before" (IV.iii.231).

The two rings participate in all these contracts. They become associated with chastity and sexuality, with betrothal and consummation, and with the commercial flavor of the transactions. They embody the sexual, social, and emotional aspects of marriage and symbolize their fragmentation and degradation. The King gives one ring to Helen as reward for her cure. Helen gives it to Diana to give to Bertram in return for his ring; he, in turn, tries to send it to Maudlin as an "amorous token" in preparation for the "main consents" (V.iii.68-69) of their betrothal, which he agrees to in return for his reconciliation with his elders. The recognition of the ring by the King and Lafew precipitates the entrance of first Diana and then Helen, Bertram's two wives. The ring and the series of contracts lead to the reestablishment of Helen's and Bertram's marriage at the play's end; this marriage itself is viewed as a conditional bargain, an agreement in which each party pays something and receives something, and one that has consequences that spread beyond the couple to others who both contribute to the nuptial and benefit from it. The final benefit (and final bargain) of the play is potentially Diana's, as the King offers to repay her contribution to the fulfillment of his bargain with Helen by entering into an identical one with her and providing her with a husband. . . .

The socially conventional, parentally arranged nuptial is, however, disrupted by its antithesis—Diana's claims on Bertram as a result of their (supposed) sexual coupling. She asserts (falsely) that Bertram has completed all of the nuptial requirements with her and demands that their union be confirmed by the King:

If you shall marry,
You give away this hand, and that is mine;
You give away heaven's vows, and those are mine;
You give away myself, which is known mine;
For I by vow am so embodied yours
That she which marries you must marry me,
Either both or none.

[V.iii. 169-75]

Bertram denies Diana's claims by vicious denigration of her as a "common gamester" (188) and by his cowardly characterization of their union as prostitution, a commercial transaction instituted by her:

Her infinite cunning with her modern grace
Subdued me to her rate. She got the ring,
And I had that which any inferior might
At market-price have bought.


This denigration reveals Bertram's lust for the whore beneath the goddess he praised, manifesting yet again his polarized view of women.

The King and Lafew echo Bertram's attitude as they join him in his attack on Diana: "This woman's an easy glove, my lord; she goes off and on at pleasure"; "I think thee now some common customer" (V.iii.277, 286). Her maddening equivocations delineate the fragmented roles that rigid social expectations and uncontrolled male sexual fantasies impose on women: "Great King, I am no strumpet; by my life / I am either maid or else this old man's wife" (292-93). Diana, through her identification with Helen, both is and is not a maid and a wife and hence must accept the title of whore. A woman, the extended scene suggests, is not acceptable as a wife if she is a whore who serves men's lust, but cannot be accepted as a wife without risking whoredom. This last rupture of nuptials, however, has the power to generate completed ones.

Both Bertram and Helen are now ready to transform their views of each other and marriage. Bertram's nasty clarification of the nature of his encounter with Diana seems cathartic and may prepare him for a fuller and more permanent sexual relationship. His false avowal of love for the dead Helen suggests that he may be able to learn to love a live Helen. His humiliation in the final scene reciprocates hers in the bedtrick. But Helen, at her entrance, testifies to her irreconcilable roles, her fragmented identity: "'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see, / The name and not the thing" (V.iii.307-08). She has the name of wife conferred by the marriage ceremony and the shadowy sexual death in the pitchy dark, but these remain separate. They are potentially mediated, however, by the child that kicks within her, and Bertram, finishing her line, affirms the reconciliation of her hitherto mutually exclusive roles of wife and sexual partner: "Both, both, O, pardon!" (308), acknowledging her as fully his wife before the fulfillment of the tasks is proved.28 Helen, in turn, alters her view of their sexual encounter, tenderly describing Bertram as "wondrous kind" (310). . . .


10 Dover Wilson talks about "the strain of sex-nausea in the plays after 1600" (Essential Shakespeare, p. 118);Rossiter emphasizes the importance of the "sex-theme" in the problem plays (Angel with Horns, p. 125); Wheeler explores the "anxious mistrust for the sexual dimension of living" that "pervades All's Well and Measure for Measure" (Shakespeare's Development, p. 19).

11 Muriel Bradbrook, in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London: Chatto & Windus, 1951), pp. 162-70, summarizing her article, "Virtue Is the true Nobility," Review of English Studies, n.s. 1 (1950): 289-301, calls the heroine of All's Well, "Hellen," which she did not do in the original article. She explains, in n. 2, that "Her name is so spelt throughout the Folio text" (p. 264). The heroine of All's Well does indeed seem to be named "Hellen" or "Helen" (both spellings are used, apparently indiscriminately, throughout the Folio text). So she is named in 16 of the 17 references in the Folio text and in 9 of the 12 references in Folio stage directions. She is "Helena" only in the first stage direction, in the text of act 1, scene 1 (one reference, in prose, by the Countess), and (after intervening stage directions use "Helen") in two other stage directions, in act 2, scene 4, and act 2, scene 5. From this point on, the heroine is consistently "Helen" (or "Hellen") in both text and stage directions. The early indecision about Helen's name is perhaps not surprising in a text which has many puzzling features about names and speech prefixes, most notably a tendency for names to be established late: e.g. "Rinaldo" for "Steward" (III.iv.19), "Lavatchi" for "Clown" (V.ii.1), and brothers "Dumaine" for First and Second Lords (IV.iii.187). In the first edition after the Folio, Nicolas Rowe, The Works of Mr. William Shakespeare (London: Jacob Tonson, 1709), the heroine's name is regularized as "Helena" in the Dramatis Personae, the text, and the stage directions. So she has been called in all subsequent editions. I call her Helen throughout, restoring her Folio name.

12 None has a mother except for the twins in Comedy of Errors, whose mother does not appear until the last minutes of the play; only they, Lucentio in Taming, and Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona have fathers, who play small and not very influential parts.

13 R. G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), p. 109 and following. Hunter discusses the ways in which the play repeatedly disappoints the audience's expectations.

14 The spectrum of critical opinion on Helen ranges from the view that she is ambitious, scheming, unappealing (see, for example, Dover Wilson . . . and Clifford Leech, "The Theme of Ambition in All's Well," English Literary History 21 [1954]: 17-29) to the view that she is an admirable representative of virtue or heavenly grace (see, for example, G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower [New York: Macmillan, 1958], pp. 95-160). Joseph G. Price, The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well and Its Critics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), chapters 5, 6, and 7, traces the critical fortunes of the play and of its characters. G. K. Hunter, in his Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1959), implies that the divided opinion on Helen reflects the divided nature of her role (pp. xxx-xxxii).

15 The source is the ninth tale of the Third Day of Boccaccio's Decameron, translated and included by William Painter as Novel 38 in his Palace of Pleasure (1575). The tale is told by Neifile, who herself has set the day's topic, tales of "Such persons as have acquired, by their diligence, something greatly wanted by them, or else recovered what they had lost." Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare 's Plays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 2:377. Bullough reprints Painter's translation of the tale; all subsequent references to the source will be to this edition and will be indicated in the text.

16 Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 134-37, discusses the "creativeness as well as the procreativeness of [Helen's] erotic energy" (p. 135) and the paradoxes of her love. Kirsch's essay, which I first read when mine was already drafted, focuses on the theme of sexuality in the play and illuminates its paradoxical, tragicomical complexities, seeing the play, as I do, as a blend of realism and romance, sadness and wit. His detailed comparison of All's Well with Montaigne's essay "Upon Some Verses of Virgil" is especially useful.

17 Isabella's scene with Angelo in Measure for Measure (II.ii) has similar dynamics, a similar rhythm of advances and retreats, and a similar increase in its erotic energy as it proceeds, heightened by Lucio's suggestive urgings: "You are too cold" (lines 45, 56). But Isabella does not control the movement of the scene and engenders not a cure but a disease.

18 "The Counte he knew her wel and had already seen her, although she was faire, yet knowing her not to be of a stocke convenable to his nobility, skornefully said unto the king, ' Will you then (sir) give me a Phisition to wife?'" (Bullough, 2:391).

19 For a detailed discussion of ironic relationships among the tales of Boccaccio's Third Day, see Howard Cole, "Dramatic Interplay in the Decameron," in The All's Well Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), pp. 12-32.

20 Helen's death is announced by the First Lord in IV.iii.55-59. The beginning of the Lords' conversation has emphasized that Bertram has left for his assignation with Diana (lines 16, 30, 31, 36), and, at the end of the conversation, Bertram enters directly from it: "the last [of the sixteen completed businesses of the night] was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet" (96-97).

21 Rosalie Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), chapter 3, passim. "One of the most pleasurable, for me, of Shakespeare's many talents is his 'unmetaphoring' of literary devices, his sinking of the conventions back into what, he somehow persuades us, is 'reality,' his trick of making a verbal convention part of the scene, the action, or the psychology of the play itself (p. 145).

22 The dates of both plays are conjectural. There is no external evidence for the date of All's Well. Although first published in the First Folio, it is usually assumed, on the basis of internal thematic and stylistic evidence, to have been written after Hamlet (1600—01) and before Measure for Measure (1603-04). The February 1603 Stationers ' Register entry for Troilus and Cressida suggests that it was completed and acted in late 1602. See G. K. Hunter, Arden edition, All's Well, p. xviii-xxv, and Kenneth Palmer, Arden edition, Troilus and Cressida (London: Methuen, 1982), pp. 17-22.

23 Kirsch, Shakespeare, discusses the intricate relationship between the two: "But the erotic significance of [Bertram's] role is also indirectly represented through the subtly modulated character of Parolles, who at once intensifies the implications of Bertram's behavior and dilates our response to him" (p. 128).

24 W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, pp. 39-49.

25 This insight is Janet Adelman's. . . .

28 Michael Shapiro, "'The Web of Our Life': Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well, " Journal of English and Germanic Philology 71 (1972): 522, similarly stresses the positive implications of Bertram's words.

Marilyn L. Williamson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Problem Plays: Social Regulation of Desire," in The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies, Wayne State University Press, 1986, pp. 55-110.

[In the following excerpt, Williamson explores All's Well that Ends Well in light of the social and legal conventions used to control desire in the younger generations of the seventeenth century.]

In 1603 Shakespeare's most important audience changed with the death of the old queen and the accession of James I. By May 1603 Shakespeare's company, The Chamberlain's Men, became The King's Servants and Grooms of the Chamber. In 1604-5, the year of Measure for Measure, the company performed eleven times at court, and seven of the plays they presented, including Measure, were Shakespeare's.1 Representations of the patriarchal ruler were natural subjects to interest the new king, who came to the throne with a theory of kingship about which he had published The Basilicon Doron. So All's Well that Ends Well and Measure are part of a wider discourse about patriarchal authority which flourished in the first decade of the seventeenth century. As we shall see, plays of this period frequently dealt with the relation of the father to his children, and when they represented the ruler, he was often the "nourishe-father" to his subjects, an image of kingly authority James promoted in The Basilicon Doron.2 The problem plays accept this vision of the ruler and explore the questions of power that such an interpretation of the ruler-subject relationship presents. Partly because they represent the ruler as parent, the authority who makes marriages and constrains sexuality, All's Well and Measure can use sexuality and the making of marriages as the central conflict in dissecting patriarchal authority. In this they also relate to another discourse for a wider audience than king and court, one which thematizes the relation of power to sexuality—the use of power to compel or direct desire. All's Well and Measure represent this theme in two forms: the enforced marriage and the bed trick, which in Measure becomes a radical vision of the loss of personal autonomy to the ruler.

The problem plays and the subgenres to which they belong—the drama of enforced marriage and the disguised-ruler play—form part of a culture preoccupied with problems of sexuality and the restraint of desire by authority. Why did these themes have a particular hold on the audiences of this period? Many factors gave urgency to these concerns for parents and children after the turn of the century. Although the details of the issues will be explored throughout this chapter, an introduction may also be helpful. Then, as now, the principal means of regulating sexuality was marriage, but that institution was under particular strain from a variety of generational pressures. Explosive population increases meant that parents were greatly outnumbered by their children and anxious about maintaining control of them,3 especially in the most critical of all actions, marriage, which was, except for the will, the last gesture of parental control. Because the whole society was wealthier, their marriages were financially more critical.4 As the parents grew more desirous to control them, the children, better educated than their parents,5 became more aware of their alternatives and more eager to control their own lives. Scattered protests about the enforcement of marriage in the 1580s grew to a chorus by the first decade of the seventeenth century. In 1603 people did not wake up one morning worried about these long-standing problems. Instead, the Petrarchan structures gradually lost their meaning with the death of Elizabeth and gave way to comedie fantasies that portray a male ruler coping with increasingly urgent problems involving sexuality and marriage.

On the darker side, Jacobean society faced urgent social problems which appeared to lie in unrestrained sexuality.6 As the number of people increased, the price of food rose and the wages of the laborer fell because of a surplus in the labor force. The conditions converged to produce more poor. The number of bastards born in England doubled during the last half of the sixteenth century, and magistrates saw caring for them in local parishes as a strain on funds intended for the aged and impotent poor. Although the Poor Laws of 1597 and 1601 show an intent to cope with these problems, commentators frequently observed that local authorities were lax in enforcing the laws and that scofflaws made a mockery of justice. This impression seems to have been reinforced by the growing sense of Englishmen that their new king was really not ruling the country and that he was as liberal with pardons as with honors. The urgings of Puritan reformers that fornication be punished by death formed one response to these conditions. At the same time the Puritan element in Parliament attempted to address the same problems through legislation about personal conduct, including bills to control bastardy. Yet many parliamentarians, eager to control the sexuality of the poor, were concerned that laws aimed at them would fall instead on gentlemen, who might be harassed by whores or socially inferior justices. So they frequently defeated bills which, in an effort to constrain the poor, might threaten the rest of the social order. Other commentators feared that the hunting of sin or the partiality of magistrates would distort the even application of the law. Each law proposed, each measure debated or passed raised the fundamental question of the relation of authority to personal conduct generally, frequently to sexuality specifically. In The History of Sexuality Michel Foucault describes the impact of the notion of population as an economic and political problem in eighteenth-century France:

At the heart of this economic and political problem of population was sex: it was necessary to analyze the birth rate, the age of marriage, the legitimate and illegitimate births, the precocity and frequency of sexual relations. . . . Things went from ritual lamenting over the unfruitful debauchery of the rich, bachelors, and libertines to a discourse in which the sexual conduct of the population was taken both as an object of analysis and as a target of intervention. . . . Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less; a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it.7

The reaction of seventeenth-century English people to their surplus of people was not the systematic one described by Foucault, but it nonetheless gave rise to attempts by authority—parental or parliamentary—to regulate the desire of the more numerous younger generation. My argument is that All's Well and Measure are part of a larger discourse that creates and addresses this crisis.

To deal with these themes of authority and sexuality Shakespeare uses identifiable subgenres. All's Well and Measure can be read along with similar plays of the time, and, because they are part of the same discourse, they gain from being read against one another. All's Well is a drama of enforced marriage in which the wife's patience redeems the prodigality of the husband. The structure expresses rebellion at the constraints put on male desire and then resolves the conflict through the suffering of the wife. Through the process the play reconciles the male to the regulation of his desire and rewards the female for her suffering. Part of Helena's humiliation is arranging the bed trick, but in doing so she is following Bertram's conditions for earning him. When we compare Measure to All's Well, the change in the bed trick is immense: no longer are the engineers of the trick related to the participants—its designer is the ruler enforcing an old contract of an entirely passive woman.8 Moreover, the Duke also forces marriages, but only at the end of the play when there is no assurance of the curative process necessary to reconcile a Lucio or an Angelo to his rejected mate. In fact, this ruler tries to compel his own marriage to a declared novice in a highly ambiguous conclusion. These changes, as we shall see, are not required by the disguised-ruler subgenre. How problematic Shakespeare has made the structures of Measure becomes readily apparent as soon as it is read against All 's Well. While All's Well reconciles the male to his marriage, it still questions patriarchal authority, but Measure radically interrogates patriarchal institutions. The full argument awaits detailed discussion of both plays with their subgenres. First All's Well as a drama of enforced marriage.

Enforced Marriage

That parents and guardians made marriages for young people in Shakespeare's England goes without saying, but All's Well is unique in the canon as one play in which the king forces a ward to marry in disparagement. Such a marriage represents an abuse of wardship, a sort of marriage deeply feared and much lamented by Shakespeare's contemporaries. Concern about enforced marriage had been widespread for decades, but it became acute at the turn of the century, as we have said.9 In Cornucopiae (1612), Nicholas Breton sees the forcing of marriage as a departure from past custom:

For 'tis not now as erst in elder daies,
When marriage was contracted by affection,
For kindred now so much the matter swaies,
The parties have small choice in loves election;
But many times, ere one behold the other
An unadvised match the friends do smother
And howsoever they two can agree,
Their friends have woo'd, & they must married be.10

Writers like Dekker in Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606), Barnabe Rich in Faultes Faults (1606), and Thomas Heywood in A Curtaine Lecture (1637) warn against enforcement as cruel.11 But among the most eloquent on the question were Puritan divines, for whom marriage was the crucial institution in society. In A Good Wife Gods Gift (1623) Thomas Gataker explains that God's providence is more special in a wife than in wealth and that love must be free: "The verie offer of enforcement turneth it oft into hatred."12 Such sentiments are echoed by William Gouge in Of Domestical Duties (1622) and earlier by William Perkins in Christian Oeconomie (1609).13 For Shakespeare, however, a striking formulation occurs much earlier in George Whetstone's An Heptameron of Civili Discourses (1582), a source for Measure. I quote in full because Whetstone provides several terms the dramatists develop: "I cry e out uppon forcement in Marriage, as the extreamest bondage that is: for that the rausome of libertie is y death of the one or y other of the married. The father thinkes he hath a happy purchase, if he get a riche young Warde to match with his daughter. But God he knowes, and the unfortunate couple often feele, that he byeth sorrow to his Childe, slaunder to himselfe, and perchaunce, the ruine of an ancient Gentleman's house, by the riot of the sonne in Lawe, not loving his wife."14 This statement is part of the whole second day's discourse devoted to enforced marriage, which carries the marginal gloss, "Love will not be constrained," repeated forty years later in Gataker's marriage sermon.

In his city comedies Thomas Middleton portrays the conflicts between interest and desire experienced by the generation at the turn of the century, but the outcomes are those of Terentian comedy, in which the prodigal young men and their mistresses beat the old ones at their own avaricious game.15 The desire for money and sex are mixed, and the conflicts are generational. In the plays of enforced marriage, however, the sexual desire of the young conflicts with the parental desire for wealth, and so the plots develop in terms of money: the guardians or fathers of the forced couple repay what the prodigal husband has wasted, as we shall see. In this variation of the Terentian model the fathers are not tricked, as in Middleton, but express in monetary terms their repentance at having enforced the match.

Although his contemporaries interpret enforced marriage as a plot motivated by money, in All's Well Shakespeare follows his Italian sources in making the play's basic motivations sexual desire. Shakespeare also follows Boccaccio in presenting Helena as a lover who surmounts overwhelming obstacles to achieve her mate through ingenuity, as do all the central figures in the stories of the third day of The Decameron. In transforming the terms of the enforced marriage drama with its male prodigality and the female social gain and patient suffering into sexual terms, Shakespeare takes the artistic risks which have consigned All's Well to the status of a problem play. The other artistic structures, fiction or drama, usually mask the social or economic profit of the Griselda with her patience and suffering, while others control her choices. Shakespeare's Helena exceeds most audiences' sense of limits on women's assertiveness. These problems are further detailed in the section below on "Patient Wives."


As Whetstone's small narrative implies, wards were frequent victims of enforcement. Shakespeare's contemporaries were acutely aware of abuses of wardship: in 1604 and 1610 Parliament requested that James abolish the Court of Wards,16 which was eventually ended in 1646. Its survival despite enormous unpopularity and corruption depended largely on its being one of the few independent sources of revenue for the crown. A feudal institution, wardship was founded on the right of the king to service from a tenant of his land. If a tenant who held any part of his land by knight service died with minor heirs, the king possessed wardship of the land (to hire substitute service) and the heirs. He could control the upbringing of the heirs and make their marriages, to ensure that they did not marry persona ingrata. For centuries sale of these rights provided major income for the crown and landed aristocracy who enjoyed the same rights with regard to their tenants. The Court of Wards,17 established in 1540 to deal with problems of disposing of church lands, became the focus of much corruption during Elizabethan and Stuart times.

The reason that wardship is so closely linked to enforced marriage should be clear from the following description:

Not only the wardship of the minor holding by knight service, but also his marriage, was within his overlord's jurisdiction; and where any part of the lands inherited was held in chief of the crown, the king's right to the marriage was paramount over the claims of those lords of whom the rest was held.

So it came about that the crown was able to accompany grant of wardship by grant of marriage; and indeed, from the purchaser's point of view, it was the latter, with the prospect it offered of providing for daughters or other dependents, that proved so infinitely attractive. It was the sale of marriages, however, that constituted the most spectacular evil of the whole system administered by the Court of Wards.18

Thus wardship amounted to a system of forced marriages unless the wards paid heavy fines to obtain freedom of choice. The only restriction on the crown or guardian in arranging the ward's marriage was medieval legislation against disparagement: a ward could not be married beneath his or her rank and could sue if the guardian attempted such a match.19 King James advises his son Henry about the importance of a first marriage, especially that it should not disparage a man; we should recall that the king or guardian made only the first marriage of a ward:20 "Remember also that Manage is one of the greatest actions a man doeth in all his time, especially in taking of his first Wife: and if hee Marie first basely beneath his ranke, he will ever be the lesse accounted of thereafter."21

Why the landowning classes tolerated such a custom for centuries is beyond our scope here, but we do need to understand that concern had been building about wardship before the request to the new king in 1604. In De Republica Anglorum (1583) Sir Thomas Smith says,

Many men doe esteeme this wardship by knightes service verie unreasonable and unjust, and contrarie to nature, that a Freeman and Gentleman should be bought and solde like an horse or an oxe, and so change gardians as masters and lordes: at whose governement not onely his bodie but his landes and his houses should be, to be wasted and spent without accounts, and then to marie at the will of him, who is his naturali Lorde, or his will who hath bought him, to such as he like not peradventure, or else to pay so great a ransome. This is the occasion they say, why many gentlemen be so evil brought up touching vertue and learning, and but onely in deintinesse and pleasure: and why they be maried very young and before they bee wise, and many times do not greatly love their wives.22

What seems to have intensified resentment of the Court of Wards toward the turn of the century was a great increase in the number of wardships and marriages sold. During the sixteenth century there was an increase of thirty-one times in the number of sales, and under James the average seems to have been about twice that under Elizabeth.23

When All 's Well opens, Bertram is a ward of the King, "evermore in subjection." His mother expresses the well-known distress of the widow, who is bereft first of her husband and then has her child taken from her as a ward. When he arrives at court, Bertram resists being told he is too young to go to war. Thus his resentments and subjection are well established when the King forces him to marry Helena. In doing so the King makes Bertram a clear victim of disparagement. He, a nobleman, is forced to marry a physician's daughter he perceives as a servant in his mother's household. Helena, for her part, is ambitious both sexually and socially. In her revealing conversation with Parolles, Helena says she is not only eager for a sexual relationship, but that she would lose her virginity to her choosing. Parolles's response to her admission of desire is a stock expression of mutuality in marriage: "Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee" (1.1.229-30). Helena does exactly as Parolles suggests, to the lasting consternation of her critics.

Bertram's resistance to marrying Helena is more than social snobbery. He has been deprived of his one right as a ward, and because Helena was raised in his mother's house and is much beloved by her, Bertram can also feel some incestuous inhibitions in a sexual relationship with Helena. She certainly expresses a similar anxiety to the Countess. The King, moreover, springs the proposal on Bertram, and then making it a point of honor, enforces the wedding with deep anger and over Helena's offer to withdraw the request. There seems every reason to read All's Well along with other plays of enforced marriage. . . .


As we have already seen, prodigality was both a cultural code and a life script for the Elizabethans.25 It is interesting to notice how the vocabulary of prodigality alters when it is imported into the plays of enforced marriage after its appearance in a play like The Merchant of Venice. Bassanio's prodigality is an expression of his courtliness and romantic bravery. His extravagance denies its need for Portia's wealth as the leaden casket denies marriage for money. In the plays of enforced marriage the husband's prodigality expresses his rebellion at the world of property, which has bought and sold him like chattel. He wastes that for which his freedom has been sacrificed, but his life is ultimately saved by his faithful wife and his wealth restored by his repentant elders. This pattern reverses that of the prodigal tradition in early Tudor drama, where, as Helgerson says, "The prodigality of a son who defies his father's counsel is ruinous, not momentarily, in the third act of a play that will surely end happily, but forever."26 Even when they are not disastrous for the prodigal, the early plays always represent a triumph for the elder generation and their values. Lusty Juventus is rescued at the last minute by Good Counsel, repents and so is saved by God's Merciful Promises.27 In The Disobedient Child the son who marries an incontinent wife against his father's will is taken home briefly when he repents but then sent back to the wife. The audience is told: "By your loving parents always be ruled, / Or else be well assured of such a fall, / As unto this young man worthily chanced."28 The plays of enforced marriage, as we have seen, follow the Terentian model of the triumph of youth.

By deserting Helena, Bertram is following the prodigal pattern, although Shakespeare makes the terms of his rebellion sophisticated. Bertram's rejection of the patriarchy is thoroughgoing: he leaves the court for the wars, having been forbidden to go; he refuses to return to his family home or to France while his wife is alive; he gives away his family ring; he is disowned by his mother; and he tries to be unfaithful to his wife. He incurs "the everlasting displeasure of the King," and his fellow soldiers understand his behavior for the rebellion it is:

Second Lord He hath perverted a young gentlewoman here in Florence, of a most chaste renown, and this night he fleshes his will in the spoil of her honor. He hath given her his monumental ring, and thinks himself made in the unchaste composition.

First Lord Now, God delay our rebellion! As we are ourselves, what things are we!

Second Lord Merely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves, till they attain to their abhorr'd ends, so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility in his proper stream o' erflows himself.


In Parolles Bertram has a mirror figure to show him the consequences of inconstancy to other males and to help him mature thereby. The image of the drum, which lies at the center of the action involving Parolles, conveys the empty values espoused by both Bertram and his follower, who is exposed by Bertram's colleagues in arms. The scapegoating of Parolles contributes to the resolution of Bertram's prodigality.

But Bertram's cynical and exploitive sexual morality, which distresses his fellow soldiers, is necessary if Helena's bed trick is to work. Helena's deception aside, the bed tricks in both All's Well and Measure are disturbing because they suggest "no difference," that to the desiring male in bed in the dark one woman is no different from another. Yet, paradoxically such must be Bertram's attitude if he is to come to love what he loathes. That Helena accepts him for what he is, that like Mariana she wants no better man, forms a social or affective balance for the fact that Helena, not the King alone, has been responsible for the enforced marriage. In Painter, the King "incontinently" promised Guetta a husband of her choice, but when she chose Beltramo, "the king was very loth to graunt him unto her."29 Although Shakespeare softens Helena's assertiveness by having her desist when Bertram protests and having the King angrily make the marriage a question of his honor, the audience and Bertram cannot forget "that man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!" Because Bertram's negative behavior is regarded as a rebellion against his marriage, the play assumes that his conduct is temporary, a state from which he will recover. This sense is important in our accepting his change at the end of the action. We know that all is to end well.

Patient Wives

In the earlier prodigal plays women are the corruptors of the youths, the reverse of their role in the plays of enforced marriage. In Misogonus, for example, the prodigal is primarily tempted by women:

Through wanton education he began to be contemptuous,
And sticked not with taunting terms his father to miscall;
And straightway, in lascivious lust, he waxed so licentious
That's father he did often vex, and brought him to great thrall.30

Misogonus's punishment is to have his long-lost elder brother recovered and so the play ends with him repentant but with a smaller share of his father's wealth. Helgerson detects a distinctly antifeminist tinge in the Tudor dramas: "women appear in prodigal son plays only as vicious harlots, shrewish wives, or criminally indulgent mothers."31 In the Jacobean plays, this changes: the wife is not a temptress, and, moreover, she redeems her husband and saves her marriage, all through patience.

The woman's lot in these plays is not so bleak as first it may seem, if she is the legal wife. If she is the man's object of desire, like Clare in The Miseries, Aspatia in The Maid's Tragedy, or Penthea in The Broken Heart, she perishes out of fidelity to that relationship. If she is the wife put through the testing and suffering of a Griselda, and she bears all with patience and loyalty, she gains economic and social status. By the seventeenth-century Griselda's story in drama and fiction had become an example of how a country girl might get ahead in the world, as the subtitle of a romance version tells the reader: The Ancient True and Admirable History of Patient Grisel, a Poor e Mans Daughter in France: Showing How Maides, By Her Example, in Their Good Behaviour May Marrie Rich Husbands; And Likewise Wives By Their Patience and Obedience May Gaine Much Gloire (1619).32 The narrative, like Patient Grissel (1603) of Dekker, Chetile, and Haughton, clearly illustrates that Grisel earns her high place in society as the admired wife of a marquis. We may also remember that in Boccaccio's version of Patient Griselda the Marquess does not want to marry but is persuaded by his vassals' prayers. He tells them he is angry "to have at your entreaty taken a wife against mine own will."33 Griselda's trials seem to follow from the constraint of his will and the difference in their social status.

The literal payoffs at the end of Miseries and London Prodigal are similar economic gains for the family as a result of the wives' constancy. In The Honest Whore after the Duke forces Matheo to marry the reformed Bellafront, Matheo goes through the same phase of prodigality, and Bellafront earns her reformed status in society by remaining faithful and forgiving to her original seducer. The point is that the suffering of the women and their patient fidelity is not simply exemplary, but socially and economically profitable. This practical and institutional notion of marriage may be more difficult for modern audiences to accept than the sexual implications of the bed trick. Yet the profit motives in both the enforced marriage and the role of the patient wife are encoded in the subgenre, even though the patient wives never display crass motives. The payoff is part of the structure.

In converting this pattern from economic to sexual terms, Shakespeare reverts to the early Tudor pattern: the prodigal is tempted by a woman. Therefore, Shakespeare splits the female figure into Diana and Helena and also makes Bertram the aggressor in relation to Diana. Moreover, although he retains the social discrepancy which results in Bertram's disparagement, Shakespeare also retains Boccaccio's theme for the third day, which deals with objects of desire obtained or recovered through diligence, where all objects are sexual and most are attained through trickery. Diana serves Bertram's prodigality, but at the command of Helena. Diana is the old temptress of the Tudor plays in the service of the new structure.

In creating Helena, Shakespeare complicates and makes problematical the patient wife of the enforced marriage by combining her with Boccaccio's clever wench, whose motives are ambitious and overtly sexual.34 As we have seen, Helena follows Parolles's advice: she gets a husband and uses him as he uses her. When Bertram makes a vow to her that he does not keep, she uses his sexuality to meet hers by substituting the object. He lies to her, and she deceives him about her death and his bedfellow. As the clever wench she engineers the consummation of their marriage, shows Bertram he can love her, and binds him to her with rings and progeny. As the patient wife she behaves according to his prescribed riddles, gains the love of his people, and earns a place in his family by bearing his heir.

The audience's sense of Helena's assertiveness may be increased by Shakespeare's assigning her the language of the male in a courtly situation when she says to Bertram, "Sir, I can nothing say / But that I am your most obedient servant" (2.5.72-73). Wives are obedient, to be sure, but here Helena has reversed the usual roles of courtier and lady, a gesture which ambiguously emphasizes her support from the King, while seeming to deny any power with reference to Bertram, who is made nervous by her words and more anxious to flee the court. If we have any doubts that Bertram understands Helena's code in using the word servant, we have only to listen to his own courtship of Diana: "I love thee / By love's own sweet constraint, and will for ever / Do thee all rights of service" (4.2.15-17). Diana's reluctance to put faith in Bertram's golden words is wise in view of his later attitude toward her.

Helena does not just want Bertram as a lover, but as a husband. Although, like Lavache, she acknowledges physical need, she would lose her virginity as she does, chastely in marriage, a relationship designed not only for husband and wife, but for progeny as well. And so in All's Well the bed trick is not just the consummation of a marriage, complete with a wedding ring, it is also an act of procreation.35 Following out the suggestion from Boccaccio about Giletta's presenting Beltramo with sons, Shakespeare more subtly turns sexuality into fecundity—marriage into family—at the end of the play.

First, Shakespeare charges with family significance the ring Helena must obtain from Bertram. Beltramo's ring had a special virtue and so he never took it off. Bertram's is a family ring, bearing presumably his family crest, the symbol of his heritage. In his rebellion, Bertram gives his monumental ring to the woman he has chosen. Second, Shakespeare adds a ring, the one given to Helena by the King and by her to Bertram. This is clearly a symbol of Helena's virginity, as we understand from Diana's lines to Bertram:

Mine honor's such a ring.
My chastity's the jewel of our house.
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i' th' world
In me to lose. Thus your own proper wisdom
Brings in the champion honour on my part,
Against your vain assault.


Bertram's possession of Helena's ring enforces his responsibility for having had sexual intercourse with her, a responsibility he would later wish to deny when confronted by Diana. By the possession of the rings, an illicit assignation which should depend on "no difference" becomes a family affair in which wedding rings establish lasting identities. These are necessary because the next generation has been conceived and must be legitimated. Thus in the final scene Shakespeare presents both aspects of the female object: Diana, the object of desire, who has been given the family ring, and Helena, the wife and future mother, who has given Bertram her ring and her virginity. In this scene one leads to the other as her "bail."

Although Shakespeare is careful to drench the end of the play with the legitimating family aspects of sexuality, it has continued to trouble readers. Diana's insistence on her riddling exposure of Bertram's gentleman's morality has irritated critics like Quiller-Couch,36 and her attitudes reveal one of the problematic aspects of the problem comedies. With Diana, Shakespeare creates a situation he will repeat in Measure: women using male sexual cynicism to gain their objects of desire. Both Bertram and Angelo assume that they may use Diana and Isabella without being used in return. They have only to impugn a woman's reputation to ruin and discard her. Yet what Helena and Mariana desire is a relationship with Bertram and Angelo, and this they gain in the bed tricks. Both are substituted for the objects of desire: Diana and Isabella. Yet Helena has more assurance of love than Mariana. After Helena appears at the end and Bertram chooses her as a wife, she assures him that he has loved her: "O my good lord, when I was like this maid, / I found you wondrous kind" (5.3.310-11).

By translating the drama of enforced marriage from economic to sexual terms through the bed trick, Shakespeare exposes its problematic structure. The patient wife's suffering, often her pretended death, transforms her into a new object that the husband can desire. Her enduring commitment to him during his extended prodigality assures the husband that she desires him and not the profit she will gain by the relationship. All these elements Shakespeare includes in this version of the structure, while making overt the substitution of the wife for the chosen woman. Yet Shakespeare understands, too, that this structure provides the wife not only with profit from the relationship, but also with social power in that she is her husband's means of reconciliation with the patriarchy. So Shakespeare gives Helena the resourcefulness of Giletta, the support of the patriarchy in the King, the Countess, and Lafew, her father's medical knowledge, and the help of the Widow and Diana. Having given her such a substantial endowment, Shakespeare balances it through a series of devices: the doubling by Diana, Bertram's casualness, lying, and cynicism, and the King's angry partisanship.

The doubling of the female figure mitigates Helena's power. Helena may have won Bertram through her wits, but Diana is sexually attractive to him. The doubling avoids giving one woman social, intellectual, and sexual power, especially where her intelligence is exercised on her own behalf. Portia, who has everything, uses it all for Bassanio, as we have seen.

But Helena, who is clever on her own behalf, must substitute herself for an attractive double whom her husband woos. We have observed that Bertram's sexual cynicism is necessary to the bed trick, but it nevertheless demeans his wife.

Bertram's cynicism continues past the bed trick into the final scene where it has caused audiences centuries of discomfort.37 As Shakespeare makes the terms of the enforced marriage structure clear, the husband must be able to change objects of desire at the end if the action is to work. Moreover, his actions must be reprehensible and forgiven by the wife to earn her social gain. Having given him a sound motive (disparagement) for rejecting Helena originally, Shakespeare continues Bertram's negative behavior to balance Helena's considerable social power. The greater Helena's resources and gains, the greater the excesses she must forgive. Bertram's lies about his behavior carry into the final scene the earlier negative comments about Bertram by his fellow soldiers. The King's criticism of him mitigates the strong bond the ruler has had with Helena and prepares for her alliance with her spouse. Bertram's casualness makes sense if he is to change objects at the end, and his jingling statement to the King accents the ritualistic character of the marital reconciliation: "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly" (5.3.313-14). Diana has spoken in riddles of the rings and proposals of marriage. Helena has performed the riddles which Bertram has prescribed and labeled him as doubly won by the ring and her pregnancy. All this is a large order to accept in a trice. The scene is not for spontaneous, powerful feelings, but a ritualistic moment in which a highly structured, formulaic response is appropriate.

Even if we accept these arguments, Shakespeare seems to have strained the genre: Helena has seemed too scheming and Bertram too uncaring to audiences of many eras. In this reaction may be seen the wisdom of Shakespeare's contemporaries, who mask the wife's power by her deprivation and suffering. The King's partiality for Helena upsets the power relations in the play and increases Helena's difficulties and Bertram's resistance to their union. Shakespeare arranges the play so that although its structures are intended to reconcile males to patriarchal institutions, Bertram is never fully reconciled to the patriarchy. This feature intensifies our sense that the play is critical of the King. First, his marriage of a ward in disparagement is a tyrannical action, especially if it is done in anger. Secondly, although he pardons Bertram for his rebellion, the King becomes as deeply angry about Helena's ring as he was when he forced the marriage, and on flimsy evidence he accuses Bertram of killing Helena (5.3.115-20). He then threatens Diana with death when she will not tell how she got Helena's ring. But no sooner are Bertram and Helena united than the King will repeat the process by providing a dowry for Diana after she has chosen her husband. We hope that she is wiser for Helena's experience. By making the King's relationship to Helena slightly erotic and very partial, Shakespeare calls in question the ruler's acting as father to his subjects. If marriages of wards are an example for such conduct of regal authority, the patriarchal model is inauspicious. Moreover, parental affection, as in Lear, could wreak havoc with royal judiciousness, just as the King's partiality for Helena makes him violently angry here. Thus, although its structures may reconcile the male to the enforced marriage after his rebellion, the play still invites its audience to ponder the use of kingly power in regulating personal relationships. The play implies that it may be easier to assert that the king is a father to his subjects than to rule that way. Although its processes deal with the issues of desire and marriage, the questions of the misuse of patriarchal power remain. . . .


3 Lawrence Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 218.

4 Lawrence Stone, "Social Mobility in England, 15001700," Seventeenth-Century England: Society in an Age of Revolution, ed. Paul Seaver (New York: Franklin Watts, 1976), pp. 42-43.

5 Lawrence Stone, "The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640," Past and Present 28 (1964): 68-70.

6 All documentation for this complex argument is cited in the discussion of Measure.

7 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), pp. 25-26.

8 Shakespeare's use of the bed trick is acknowledged to be unusual by Rosalind Miles, The Problem of "Measure for Measure ": A Historical Investigation (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976), pp. 236-46.

9 Glenn H. Blayney, "The Enforcement of Marriage in English Drama 1600-1650," PQ 38 (1959): 469.

10 Quoted in Blayney, "Enforcement," p. 469.

11 Thomas Dekker, Seven Deadly Sins of London in The Non-Dramatic Works, ed. A. B. Grosart (1885; reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), 2:7072; Barnaby Rich, Faultes Faults and Nothing Else But Faultes ed. M. H. Wolf (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1965), pp. 26ff; Heywood is quoted in Blayney, "Enforcement," p. 471.

12 Thomas Gataker, A Good Wife Gods Gift: and A Wife Indeed Two Marriage Sermons (London: Printed by John Haviland for Fulke Clifton, 1623), p. 11.

13 William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties (London: Printed by I. Haviland for W. Braden, 1622), p. 585, and William Perkins, Christian Oeconomie, trans. T. Pickering (London: E. Weaver, 1609), sig. Fi.

14 George Whetstone, An Heptameron of Civili Discourses (London: Richard Jones, 1582), Sig. Fir.

15 See Margot Heinemann, who says, "Middleton's city comedies, like much of the major drama of the period, present a society changing from one regulated by inherited status to one ruled increasingly by the power of money and capital, with much greater social mobility, and hence with an increasing sense of opportunity and insecurity"(Puritanism and Theatre:Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama and the Early Stuarts [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980], p. 66).

16 "The land-owning classes, well represented in the House of Commons, had celebrated the arrival of the new king with a strong demand that the long standing abuse of wardship should be dealth with once for all" (Joel Hurstfield, The Queen's Wards: Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I, 2d ed. [London: Frank Cass, 1973], p. 315).

17 See H. E. Bell, An Introduction to the History and Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), pp. 1-15.

18Ibid, p. 125.

19Ibid., p. 126; see also Hurstfield, Wards, chap. 8, "Marriage."

20 Sir Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorum, ed. Mary Dewar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 87.

21The Political Works of James I, ed. C. H. Mcllwain (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1918), p. 36.

22 Smith, De Republica, pp. 128-29.

23 See Bell, Introduction, pp. 114-15; Hurstfield, Wards, pp. 181-217; Glenn Blayney, "Wardship in English Drama (1600-1650)," SP 53 (1956): 471. . . .

25 Richard Helgerson, The Elizabethan Prodigals (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1976).

26Ibid, p. 35.

27 Richard Wever, Lusty Juventus, The Dramatic Writings of Richard Wever and Thomas Ingelend, ed. J. S. Farmer (1905; reprint, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), pp. 36-37.

28Ibid, p. 90.

29Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), 2:391.

30Misogonus, Six Anonymous Plays, ed. J. S. Farmer (1906; reprint, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1958), 2:391.

31 Helgerson, Prodigal, p. 35.

32 Edited by H. B. Wheatley (London: Villon Society, 1855).

33 Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. John Payne (New York: World Publishing, 1947), p. 687.

34 Howard C. Cole reads Helena as a self-deceived deceiver, manipulative, but naive about her own motives: "Regarded without reference to her sisters' pious deceits, Helena's manipulations of truths into illusions and people into puppets have been viewed as intimations of two of her more powerful though radically different successors, either the 'fantastical Duke of dark corners' . . . or the far more sympathetic Prospero. . . . The All's Well story, on the other hand, encourages us to look for duplicities we may not be able to prove, a heroine who is a self-deceived deceiver, intriguing as shrewdly as a ruthless Vincentio while honestly seeing herself as a benevolent Prospero" (The 'All's Well" Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare [Urbana, III.: University of Illinois Press, 1981], p. 131).

35 See John F. Adams, "All's Well that Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation," SQ 12 (1961): 261-70.

36 See his famous introduction to All's Well (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929), p. xxxi. Quiller-Couch also found Helena very hard to take, calling her a "heroine of the pushing, calculating sort." His reaction is characteristic of many male critics, as well as others who dislike Helena's rise in social station: "Be it observed that all Shakespeare's heroines, save Helena, have royal or noble blood; that she alone belongs to what we call the upper-middle class; that the quarry on which Venus so ruthlessly attaches herself is a prey with two heads. She is perhaps too 'efficient' to engage our full sympathy" (see Clifford Leech, "The Theme of Ambition in All's Well that Ends Well, ELH 21 [1954]: 17-29). If the reactions of Leech and Quiller-Couch are representative, we understand the wisdom of authors of the Griselda stories: clearly Helena does not suffer enough to earn her titled station. Apparently, the male may profit by marriage, if choosing or chosen, but the female may only profit if chosen.

37 See Joseph G. Price, The Unfortunate Comedy (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1968).

Mary Bly (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Imagining Consummation: Women's Erotic Language in Comedies of Dekker and Shakespeare," in Look Who 's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach, 1994, pp. 35-52.

[In the following essay, Bly examines the role the bedtrick plays in defining Helena as an uncommon Renaissance heroine.]

Renaissance comedies of love are inherently both erotic and chaste. They must begin with desire in order to lead to marriage; they must end with love in order to qualify as comedy. The whole can be reduced to an echoing formula: "[they] no sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved . . . and in these degrees have they made a pair of steps to marriage."' The disturbing potential of turning this simple progression into a play has never been ignored. Sixteenthcentury critics warned of wanton speeches and lascivious delights; twentieth-century critics delineate the crucial erotic investment that seduces a willing audience. Thus despite the fact that many comedies of the English Renaissance retrace a pattern beginning with love and ending in marriage, very few lovers express physical desire at the same time as love. Although comic plots often revolve around thwarted love, consummation—and explicit reference to it—is generally delayed until the play's conclusion. By endowing lovers with felicitous, wrought descriptions of pure love, an author avoids condemning his characters with the shadow of lust, particularly at issue if a woman is speaking. When it occurs, desiring rhetoric spoken by a woman provides a focus for public anxiety and condemnation.2 It is exceptional for there to be a sexual encounter within the five acts of a comedy, but it is even rarer for there to be a revelation of desire spoken by a woman.3 In contrast to comedy, however, Renaissance tragedy manipulates these anxieties, often using a woman's invitation and the ensuing sexual act as the prelude to death. When, in Dekker's Lust's Dominion [1600], his lascivious Queen calls to her black lover Eleazar "Come let's kisse . . . In my all-naked arms, thy self shalt lie" [I.i.14, 60], the audience knows that the Queen's lust will be punished. Dekker's Queen compounds the sexual guilt of Shakespeare's Desdemona: the love affair is both interracial and adulterous. The play is able to dramatize the Queen's cajolery precisely because of its subtitle: "A Tragedie." A comedy cannot allow such a fall from rectitude into lust; it is difficult to refashion a lecherous woman into the chaste model demanded by patriarchy. Playwrights often address this problem by effecting a rapid repentance at the end of a play. In Lust's Dominion the Queen's son is able to announce that he will "with Comick joy . . . end a Tragedie," due to the Queen's recantation in Act V, Scene 6. Such a capricious turn to remorse transforms a tragedy into a tragicomedy, essentially by allowing piety to redeem a condemned woman.4

But there are several comedies, written around 1600, that experiment with a female expression of desire not answered either by death or repentence. Shakespeare's Helena in All's Well that Ends Well [1604] is a master of Petrarchan idiom, yet her initial sonnet-like revelation of love for a "bright particular star" is immediately followed by a jest regarding her virginity: "How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?" a question far from lyrical chastity [I.i. 147]. Helena's blunt demand for "what law doth vouch mine own" expresses a desire literally unspeakable in Petrarchan simile. For the most part, lovers in comedies clothe desire in extravagant phrases distilled from Petrarch. The use of Petrarchan code turns the lover's rhetoric to a mannered display of idealization, sustained by reiterations of female beauty.5 So Fontinelle in Dekker's Blurt, Master Constable [1602] sees Violetta and cries: "her glorious eyes / Can make as lightsome as the fairest chamber / In Paris Louvre: come, captivitie, / And chaîne me to her lookes" [Li. 165-8].6 At the same time, the code's limited stock of conceits—physical in that they refer to body parts (such as eyes), but wholly uncorporal in that they eschew erotic desire—prohibits any sexual coloring. Yet like Helena, Imperia in Blurt, Master Constable does not use the distancing language of Petrarchan verse when she invites Fontinelle: "come, come, come; will you condemne the mute rushes to be prest to death, by your sweet body? downe, downe, downe, heere, heere, heere" [V.ii.21-3].7 Imperia's words deliberately evoke action; the audience is directed to imagine consummation.

In Shakespeare's and Dekker's two comedies, the heroines insistently pursue a sexual encounter to the point of trickery. Both comedies follow similar lines: a maiden obstinately marries the man she chooses, her young husband importunes another woman, a bed-trick is enacted by the deserted wife, and the husband turns abruptly from the woman he desired to the wife now confronting him. Both plays deliberately juxtapose Petrarchan rhetoric, bawdy jokes and a recusant female stubbornness in matters of sexuality; both are laden with sexual language, foregrounding women whose desiring voices are not quelled by repentance. Unlike the transformative ending of Lust 's Dominion, at the close of Blurt, Master Constable Imperia refuses a proffered marriage and remains brazenly unrepentent.

Violetta and Helena, on the other hand, manage secretly to consummate the marriages they demanded. Since their desire is not subdued, the plays are marked by that experiment with female erotic rhetoric: they may also be destroyed by it. . . .

At the heart, both Alls Well that Ends Well and Blurt, Master Constable speak to the magic of the bed-trick—the substitution of one body for the expected lover. Violetta, requesting that she, rather than Imperia, join Fontinelle in the back room: "lodge me in thy private bed, / Where (in supposed follie) he may end / Determin'd sinne" [V.ii. 127-9], is sister to Helena, who anticipates "wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act" [III.vii.45-6]. Bedtricks generally fall into the provenance of fairy stories and Italian novelle. They are contrived with a clear objective, often impregnation as in Boccaccio's story of Giletta of Narbonne, Shakespeare's source fox All's Well that Ends Well.19 Yet fairy tales retain a romantic sweetness which Shakespeare and Dekker discard. Such tales have a self-contained timelessness and evade the explicit:

The next evening the [disguised] wife . . . told the prince that she would send him a beautiful female slave. Retiring to her tent, she then assumed that disguise and came back to her husband. He was inflamed with love for the supposed slave and lay that night with her. [Qtd. in Lawrence: 68]

In fairy tales, intercourse is a spare factual occurrence; the motivation, the exchange and the event itself can be told in the same sentence. Essentially, they rely on an evasion of explicit reference similar to that employed by Petrarchan rhetoric. The conclusion of Boccaccio's tale provides a particularly good example of the assumptions of genre: the final paragraph is fable shorthand, an expected, rounded ending coming after the individuality of the clever tale itself. In William Painter's translation [1575], the husband "abjected his obstinate rigour, causing her to rise up, and embraced and kissed her . . . and from that time hee loved and honoured her as his dere spouse and wyfe" [Bullough: 396]. In endings such as this, the body of creativity is assumed by the crafty plot, and the end reverts to generic expectation. Problematic aspects of the substitution and the miraculous declaration of love by an erring husband are dismissed. The audience assumes that love will appear and thus it does not need to be believable. Consummation guarantees that the husband will express love; the sexual act itself takes on a magical efficacity, a control over the man's emotions.

Both Dekker's and Shakespeare's transformations of the simple clarity of a fairy tale depend on emphasizing the suggestiveness behind the bed-trick, keeping basic events untouched, but adding a leavening catalyst of sexual detail. Whereas Dekker makes Violetta both bold and further emboldened by her doubled position with Imperia, Shakespeare continuously forces Helena to express a physical awareness of Bertram. Helena is the lynchpin on which Shakespeare's interpretation of the fairy tale depends, and she is both singularly talkative about sex and brilliantly Petrarchan in her language.20 As noted above, in the first scene Helena's lyrical ability—"he is so above me. / In his bright radiance and collateral light / Must I be comforted"—is coldly juxtaposed with her intention to lose her virginity to her own liking [I.i.85-7]. The language of this first scene is very sexual: "'Tis pity—" says Helena, "That wishing well had not a body in't / Which might be felt" [I.i. 175-8]. The scene between Parolles and Helena is one which debunks a traditional heroine's behavior; her buoyant responses to Parolles wittily defend her virginal status, but not in a coldly chaste and unawakened fashion.21 Her wish is "To join like likes, and kiss like native things" [I.i.219]. Shakespeare has created a heroine with a demanding and explicit relation to the man she chooses to marry, very similar to Violetta's. As in Dekker's play, an accompaniment of minor characters—the Clown, Parolles, Lafew, the Dumain brothers—contribute to an ongoing sexual commentary. Incidental details are bawdy in themselves: Parolles's declaration that one Lord was a "botcher's prentice in Paris, from whence he was whipp'd for getting the shrieve's fool with child, a dumb innocent that could not say him nay," and the Clown's quibbles with "old lings" and Isbells of the country and court [IV.iii. 180-3]. Similarly, subplots bolster the sexual current of Blurt, Master Constable, most remarkably in Lazarillo's importuning of Imperia: "Venus, give me sucke, from thine owne most white and tender dugs, that I may batten in love" [II.ii.308-9]. And, as Dekker's play focuses in the end not on the illicit marriage but on the scorning of the marital bed, so All's Well constantly returns its focus to consummation as the cornerstone of marriage. Virtually every character in All's Well that Ends Well, from Helena and Parolles to the Countess and King, is drawn into an erotic commentary on the story. Boccaccio's tale has multiplied from a fable-like singularity to a wealth of suggestive characterizations, from a King made "Lustick" by a virgin's magic, to a hero who is "a whale to virginity" and a heroine who marvels at the "sweet use" men make "of what they hate."

Bertram's verdict after his marriage is immediate sexual refusal: "I will not bed her . . . I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her" [II.iii.266; 269]. Parolles answers in proper vein: "He wears his honour in a box unseen / That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home / Spending his manly marrow in her arms" [II.iii.275-7]. Parolles, leaving the scene in which Bertram has determined never to bed Helena, says "A young man married is a man that's marr'd. / Therefore away, and leave her bravely; go" [IIiii.294-5]. Yet Parolles in fact becomes the mouthpiece acknowledging the conjugal bliss which should belong to Helena: "The great prerogative and rite of love, / Which as your due time claims, he does acknowledge, / But puts it off to a compell'd restraint" [II.iv.39-41]. Bertram tells Helena herself not to marvel that he does not fulfil his "ministration and required office" [II.v.60]. Helena's response is to ask for a kiss, again a demand for sexual demonstration: "most fain would steal, / What law does vouch mine own" [II.v.81-2]. The complex relations entwined around Helena's legal right to consummation make love seem a literary commonplace, celebrated by Helena's vaunting and lucid verse, yet even in her most poetic revelation, tainted by a covetous note: "Th'ambition in my love thus plagues itself: / The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love" [I.1.88-90].

What emerges is a powerful erotic undercurrent—the question of who will "[flesh] his will" in the spoil of another's honour. Will Bertram, that "dangerous and lascivious boy," cure his "sick desires" with Diana or will Helena, as Bertram sees it, trick him into bed? The reasoning behind sexual acts comes up over and over again: "Loss of virginity is rational increase," Parolles tells Helena [Li. 125] and Bertram rebukes Diana: "now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got." But Diana points out, "My mother did but duty" [IV.ii.9-10, 12]. When Bertram rejects his (supposed) sexual relations with Diana as nothing more than an encounter with "a common gamester to the camp," he abolishes the assumption that a consummated relationship must be a loving one:

Certain it is I lik'd her,
And boarded her i' th' wanton way of youth . . .
she got the ring,
And I had that which any inferior might
At market-price have bought.


The fact that Bertram, in the last scene, declares that he earlier had "stuck [his] choice" on Lafew's daughter, and when requested hands over the ring Diana gave him, as a favour "to sparkle in the spirits" of that daughter, remorselessly undermines the expected fairy tale closure, so weakly resolved by his couplet: "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly" [V.iii.309-10].

The simple plot-line of a love story, then, has been embroidered with conscious carnal knowledge, a duality clear in the text itself. We can see it in Helena's plea to the Countess:

My dearest madam .. . if yourself,
Whose aged honour cites a virtuous youth,
Did ever, in so true a flame of liking,
Wish chastely and love dearly, that your Dian
Was both herself and love—O then, give pity

[I.iii.202, 204-8]

Helena's "flame of liking," in other words, is both that of Diana, goddess of virginity, and of Eros, god of erotic love.22 She makes this even clearer when she chooses her husband: "Now, Dian, from thy altar do I fly, / And to imperial Love, that god most high / Do my sighs stream" [II.iii.74-6]. Significantly, Diana the maiden guards her virginity; Helena, substituted for that maiden, does not. For Helena, intercourse seems to be the primary reason for marriage, whether accompanied on both sides by romantic love or not. She "would be mated by the lion"; without consummation, she is "but the shadow of a wife . . . The name and not the thing" [I.i.89; V.iii.301-2].

Violetta's bed-trick, like Helena's, is explicitly linked to the heroine's physical desire for her husband. Her exchange has even less rationale behind it than Helena's: she has no direct need for impregnation or a ring. The bed-trick is enacted due to her desire. When Violetta pleads with Imperia to allow the exchange to take place, she has no object beyond consummation: "give me leave to love him, and IIe give him a kinde of leave to love thee" [V.ii.1 15-6]. There is no implication in her words that consummation will magically result in a faithful husband, nor that his love will be bound to the woman he slept with. She swears, in fact, not to scold or "my pennaunce shall bee to see him kisse thee, yet to holde my peace" [V.ii.120-2]. Imperia responds directly to Violetta's ambition: "thou shalt injoy my bed, and thine owne pleasure this night" [V.ii.138-9]. The transgressive element of these two bed-tricks, I would argue, lies precisely in the expression of sexual desire by the women.23 Helena's determined pursuit of "what law doth vouch mine own," and Violetta's plea to "love him," cast the bed-trick not in the light of a mechanism undertaken to achieve a further object but in the light of one enacted for the pleasure of intercourse itself.

How are we to characterize these comedies? Can they be termed a radical experiment—a bold effort to place on the comic stage women who show sexual desire, pursue consummation, have intercourse during the five acts, and are celebrated at the end? Essentially, are we still in the realm of romantic comedy, a genre insistent on the division between "true love" and disreputable desire? The fact that both husbands, so easily false, rely on Petrarchan verse to seduce various women suggests that the plays may debase that rhetoric in order to devalue the idea of true love. Bertram importunes Diana in Petrarchan terms—"A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee" [IV.ii.66]. His easy use of Petrarchan idiom parallels Fontinelle's adroit flexibility in the same situation. The purity of Petrarchan idealism is debased by context; Petrarchan rhetoric has become a tool contaminated by proximity to sexual desire. Here the bed-trick is brilliantly self-damning. Pulled from Imperia's bed, Fontinelle breaks into rhapsodic verse. He will die for the woman he thinks to be Imperia, for she has "immortal joyes" in her eyes. Yet the eyes he indicates are the eyes of a different woman. The irony of such empty language may preclude the truth of any emotion other than lust, reducing "love" to a linguistic construct used to manipulate situations governed by sexual desire. The genre slides, then, from romantic comedy into burlesque. Both dramatists' insistence on Helena's and Violetta's physical desire would seem to bolster this generic distinction. In fact, were the two women purely lascivious, the result would certainly be burlesque. The disjunction between professed (Petrarchan) love and lustful desire—between language and emotion—would rule our interpretation of every character. The effect would ensure the audience's scorn, but we are not led to scorn Helena or Violetta. If Fontinelle and Bertram issue compliments in a particularly serial manner, Helena's and Violetta's language is sternly referential. Helena's odd mix of Petrarchan charm, deliberate manipulation, and extraordinary self-knowledge does not lend itself to a judgment of caricature. As G.K. Hunter points out, to fit Helena into the play is a central interpretative problem; neither she nor her love for Bertram can be dismissed: "I am undone; there is no living, none, / If Bertram be away" [I.i.82-3] [Hunter: 1]. Similarly, Violetta's response to Imperia's scorn gives weight to her claim to love truly: "What loosenes may terme dotage (truelie read) i Is love ripe gather'd, not soone withered" [V.ii.130-1: my emphasis]. Clearly the plays skirt on the edge of burlesque, but neither dramatist allows his heroine to overbalance into pure lust; both are endowed with an earnest, interpretative gift of their own. Because the women claim the ability to "truelie read" the difference between love and lust, they force us to take their claims of love seriously, thereby disqualifying the view that the plays deride the whole idea of romantic love. I would argue that these plays, which are so intently similar in their focus on the bed-trick, script the women's manipulation ofthat consummation (as opposed to Measure for Measure, for example, where the Duke organizes the trick) through an emphasis on the heroines' interpretative stance towards the conventions of romantic love. Violetta insists on her ability to truly read the signs of love; Helena dismantles the conventions of the bed-trick itself:

strange men!
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away.


Helena acknowledges in five lines not only her enjoyment of Bertram's "sweet use," but his continued hatred and loathing for her person. She knows, then, that "sweet use" and lust have no magical effect on love; in the last scene she tells Bertram that, disguised as Diana, she found him "wondrous kind." Her frankness is remarkable. When Renaissance heroines discuss their loss of virginity, it is in terms of honor lost, rarely in terms that encompass their enjoyment of that event. Shakespeare has imposed a contemplative gift on his heroine that is incompatible with the generic commitment of fairy tales to the silent marriage-to-sex-to-love progression. Yet both women must be so expressive in order to explain their manipulation of a sexual encounter while remaining romantic heroines. Even as their husbands deflate Petrarchan oaths, Violetta's and Helena's interpretative stance allows them to claim that their own oaths, truly read, fall outside convention and are thus genuine.

Thus these plays on the one hand avoid characterizing their heroines as lustful, and on the other, portray those women as more desiring than is normal in romantic comedy. I would argue that they are able to achieve this due to the dramatic role of the bed-trick. The bedtrick presents a sexual act undertaken by the woman for just, chaste motives. The act of intercourse is cleansed of wanton impact; consummation is allowed on the stage—and in the play—without the threat of an over-seductive effect on the audience. Dekker's and Shakespeare's experiment in comic eroticism is fundamentally reliant on the presence of the bed-trick, which navigates between the extremes of chastity and lust. Because this convention carries with it certain assumptions, namely the purity of the woman's intentions and the ensuing love of the man, the dramatists were able to allow Helena and Violetta an explicitly desiring presence on the stage. Yet I would also suggest that the very mechanism which allowed that frankness is defeated by it. Because these plays focus so acutely on the expression of sexual desire, the bed-trick is no longer reducible to a prank, praiseworthy for its cunning trickery. Instead, it takes on a shadowy sexuality, an erotic weight of its own. The bed-trick alters its tone with its context; when decorum is lost, our delight in the trick is lost. The audience's imagination turns to "sweet use" in the "pitchy night," to Imperia's promise of "thine owne pleasure." A play pervaded by desire, and denied the rapid magic of instantaneous Petrarchan love, sits uneasily in the genre of romantic comedy. When the simplicity of the bed-trick is dispelled, so too is dispelled the efficacity of its finish—the ready promise of true love by the deceived husband.


1 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, V.ii.31-32;35-36.

2 A point that has been thoroughly addressed. See Valerie Traub, who addresses the erotic component of male anxiety; Coppella Kahn, who traces problems of desire to changing conceptions of Eve; and Clifford Davidson, who discusses the fear of emasculation bred by sexually demanding females.

3 Carol Neely's argument that convention in romantic comedies acts to "contain sexuality and . . . mitigate its threatening aspects" is very interesting in this regard. Neely: 61. Paula S. Berggren points out that Shakespeare rarely writes a scene delineating female sexual longing. It should be noted, however, that there were in fact few love comedies written before 1590 (see Jensen).

4 By tragicomedies, I refer to plays in which a plot leading to death is almost magically coerced into a comic ending. I think, for example, of The Laws of Candy, in which Erota passionately importunes Antonius, but ends by disclaiming her "too passionate thoughts." Characters such as Erota are transformed rather than reformed, a standard practice in Fletcherian tragicomedies. For "sexualized" tragicomedy, see McLuskie.

5 My truncated summary of "Petrarchan" refers to its use as an idiom within a larger discourse, a fragment of Petrarchan verse as used in a play, rather than in a Petrarchan sonnet. See Evans; Jones and Stallybrass; Vickers. See Leonard Foster for a discussion of the Petrarchan rejection of sexual implication (as opposed, for example, to the explicit sexuality of troubadour genres).

6 Critical opinion now gives this play to Dekker, not Middleton. See Lake: 66-90.

7 Imperia's "downe, downe, downe" is reiterated by another courtesan two years later. Bellafronte in The Honest Whore I, a play on which Dekker and Middleton collaborated, sings "Downe, downe, downe, downe, I fall downe, and arise I neuer shall" [II.i.27]. . . .

19 See Simonds and Honigman for discussions of bedtricks occuring in a variety of genres. Robert S. Forsythe lists 21 bed-tricks in extant English plays; it is interesting to note that only one bed-trick is earlier than 1602 (Grim's The Collier, 1576); all 20 follow Alls Well that Ends Well. He does not mention Blurt, Master Constable. 330-331.

20 See Brooke: 12-13 who argues that Shakespeare allows the "natural" to govern the romance plot, and Hunter: xlix-1 who analyzes Helena as a fairy tale heroine incompatible with a realistic setting. Richard Levin attempts to settle the argument about Helena's character by portraying her as a cruel and effective schemer.

21 Lisa Jardine writes of this scene that Helena betrays herself as too "knowing" for the innocent virgin she professes to be, linking sexual unruliness to Helena's position as a learned woman. Susan Snyder approaches Helena's indecorous speech by suggesting that her "peculiar situation" as a locus of active desire may be complicated by implicit reference to Helen of Troy.

22 David McCandless discusses the "simultaneous heightening of Helena's sexuality and chastity," arguing that the two are not in opposition, but complementary.

23 Janet Adelman sees the bed-trick as the center of the All's Well problem, arguing that it reveals a deep ambivalence towards female sexuality. Adelman: 78-86.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers. London: Routledge, 1992.

Berggren, Paula S. "The Woman's Part: Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare's Plays." The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Lenz et al. University of Illinois Press, 1980, 17-34.

Brooke, Nicholas. "All's Well That Ends Well," Aspects of Shakespeare's Problem Plays, eds. Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells. Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Davidson, Clifford. "Antony and Cleopatra: Circe, Venus, and the Whore of Babylon." Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches, ed. Harry R. Garvin. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980, 31-55.

Dekker, Thomas. A Critical Old-Spelling Edition of Thomas Dekker's Blurt, Master Constable (1602), ed. Thomas Leland Berger. Austria: Salzburg Institute, 1979.

——. Lust's Dominion or, the Lascivious Queen. Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, IV, ed. Fredson Bowers. Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Dekker, Thomas, and Thomas Middleton. The Honest Whore, Pt. I. Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, II, ed. Fredson Bowers. Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Evans, Malcolm. '"In Love with Curious Words': Signification and Sexuality in English Petrarchism." Jacobean Poetry and Prose, ed. Clive Bloom. London: Macmillan, 1988, 119-150.

Forster, Leonard. The Icy Fire. Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Forsythe, Robert S. The Relations of Shirley's Plays to the Elizabethan Drama. Columbia University Press, 1914.

Honigmann, E.A.J. "Shakespeare's Mingled Yarn and 'Measure for Measure."' Proceedings of the British Academy 67 (1981): 101-121.

Jardine, Lisa. "Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: 'These are old paradoxes.'" Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 1-18.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. "The Politics of Astrophil and Stella." Studies in English Literature 24 (1984): 53-68.

Kahn, Coppèlla. "Whores and Wives in Jacobean Drama." In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, eds. Dorothea Kehlen and Susan Baker. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1991, 246-260.

Levin, Richard A. "All's Well that Ends Well and 'All Seems Well.'" Shakespeare Studies XIII (1980): 131-144.

McCandless, David. '"That Your Dian / Was Both Herself and Love': Helena's Redemptive Chastity." Essays in Literature 17 (1990): 160-178.

McLuskie, Kathleen. Renaissance Dramatists. Herfordshire, Eng: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989.

Neely, Carol Thomas. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. Yale University Press, 1985.

Shakespeare, William. All's Well That Ends Well, ed. G.K. Hunter. London: Methuen. 1959.

——. As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham. London: Methuen, 1975.

——. Romeo & Juliet, ed. Brian Gibbons. London: Methuen, 1980.

Simonds, Peggy Munoz. "Overlooked Sources of the Bed Trick." Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 433-434.

Snyder, Susan. "All's Well that Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object." English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 66-77.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Vickers, Nancy. "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme." Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 265-279.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23532

Ian Donaldson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 34-55.

[In the following essay, Donaldson examines the numerous "endings" throughout the play, and argues that All's Well That Ends Well is more complex than it first seems.]

All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown.
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.


There is some irony in the fact that a play which so often reminds us of the importance of ending well should itself end in a way which has given unease to many of its commentators. Dr. Johnson could account for the ending of All's Well That Ends Well only in terms of an artistic impatience which he believed often overtook Shakespeare in the closing stages of a work:

It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.1

Johnson was much exercised by the psychological and moral problems presented by endings, both in art and in life. 'We never find ourselves so desirous to finish, as in the latter part of our work', he writes in Rambler 207, 'or so impatient of delay, as when we know that delay cannot be long'. To end well is seen as a duty for writers as for all human beings. Characteristically, Johnson associates the problems of writing with those of living: the end of Rasselas, for example, mirrors in its formal inconclusiveness the necessary inconclusiveness of any search for human happiness; while the last Idler paper explores the relationship between the conclusiveness of literature and the ultimate conclusiveness of life: 'This secret horrour of the last is inseparable from a thinking being whose life is limited, and to whom death is dreadful'. Johnson's dissatisfaction with the last act of All's Well seems in many ways justly founded; to an extent I share what I take to be the common verdict, that in human and artistic terms all is not entirely well at the end of All's Well. Yet I want also to argue that the ending of All's Well is more complex than either Johnson or most modern criticism concedes, and that it is the culmination of a more extended treatment throughout the play of the notion of ending: a treatment which involves a somewhat Johnsonian consideration of the several significances of endings both in art and in life. All's Well might indeed be called Shakespeare's play of endings.

The complexity of Shakespeare's treatment of this notion in All's Well may perhaps be brought out, to begin with, by way of contrast. In certain sorts of plays—but not in All's Well—the shape of the drama and the shape of the life that is the subject of the drama are allowed to correspond in some obvious and easily recognizable ways. At the beginning of the play of Everyman, for example, the Messenger announces:

The story saith,—Man, in the beginning,
Look well, and take good heed to the ending,
Be you never so gay!

The audience is asked to observe the beginning and ending of the play, and the beginning and ending of Everyman's life, which is also of course the life of each of us, every man and woman watching the play. The attention demanded is at once aesthetic and moral, recalling the words of the Psalmist: 'Lord, make me to know mine end' (Ps. 39:4). At the opening of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus we find Faustus seeking to know his end, but in a somewhat more secular sense; his wish is to 'level at the end of every art' (i.4). Faustus fails imaginatively to grasp the fact that this quest involves the end of his spiritual life, and the further fact that his natural life must also one day have an end. Yet these multiple senses are grimly evoked for us in Faustus's words as he seals his pact with Mephostophilis: 'Now will I make an end immediately. . . . Consummatum est: this bill is ended' (v. 72, 74). The end of Marlowe's play depicts the end of Faustus's life; and in the last lines the Second Scholar remarks that 'Faustus' end be such / As every Christian heart laments to think on' (xx.13-14). The chief cause for lament, as Faustus himself has told us, is that 'no end is limited to damned souls' (xix.171): though the work is finished, Faustus's punishment is without end. Terminât hora diem; terminat Author opus runs the motto in the earliest printed texts of Doctor Faustus, before the last and eloquent word, 'FINIS'.2 The hour ends the day, the author ends his work, Faustus ends his quest for knowledge by ending his earthly life, beginning the torment which has no end.

Such a neat concordance of dramatic form and theme may in its own way be rich and satisfying. In All's Well That Ends Well, however, Shakespeare produces some altogether more subtle and unusual effects by means of what may perhaps be described as a dislocation of dramatic form and theme. To some extent, such dislocation may be thought inevitable in comedy. A comedy can scarcely end as Doctor Faustus ends, with a heavy sense of finality, its central character lowered into the grave or dragged despairingly off to hell. Comedy by its very nature seems often rather to assert continuities, the resilience and onward movement of life. Hence there may often be an element of paradox about the end of a comedy, arising from the sense that the end of the play is merely an end of tension or misunderstanding in the characters' lives; not a definitive ending but a happy pause for recognition and reunion, a supper or a song. Life presses firmly on; the end may in some ways be merely a beginning. In All's Well, however, Shakespeare appears audaciously to heighten this element of paradox which in other comedies may be subdued or merely latent; and he does so by concentrating to an unusual degree on the idea of endings, of 'last things'.3

'Last things' are indeed the first things of which the play puts us in mind, opening with a sight we might more readily associate with the fifth act of a tragedy: 'Enter young Bertram, Count of Rossillion, his mother, and Helena, Lord Lafew, all in black'. The sense of what I have described as formal dislocation—funereal events invoked at the very outset of the play—is immediately in evidence. In the opening lines of the play we learn that Bertram's father has recently died, that the King of France is near death, and that the only physician who might have saved him is Helena's father, Gerard de Narbon, who is himself dead.

This young gentlewoman had a father—O that 'had', how sad a passage 'tis!—whose skill was almost as great as his honesty; had it stretch'd so far, would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work. Would for the king's sake he were living! I think it would be the death of the king's disease. (I.i. 16-22)

' . . . the death of the king's disease': were Gerard de Narbon not dead he would be the death of the disease that will now instead be the death of the King of France. From the opening of the play, the idea of death is intensified and multiplied through the means of metaphor: 'In delivering my son from me', says the Countess, 'I bury a second husband'. The Countess sees Bertram's departure for Paris in terms of a second bereavement; yet it is also, in the first of the play's many 'riddles', a delivery: with the death of his father, Bertram is at last born into the larger world that lies beyond Rossillion. The beginning of All's Well is thus concerned with an apparent ending which turns out on closer examination to be indeed a beginning. The effect here may perhaps be compared with that achieved in the opening scenes of two other works, worlds away from Shakespeare. Maxim Gorky's Childhood and Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago each opens with a scene depicting the funeral of the child's father: in each case the paternal death brings to the child not merely a heavy sense of loss but also a new realization of the extent of his own selfhood, solitude, and independence, and in this sense forms a striking starting-point for narrative.

This first scene sets a pattern which is repeated throughout the play. Endings are continually feared or wished for or spoken of in All's Well: the ending of life, the ending of love, the ending of a marriage, the ending of honour, the ending of a problem, the ending of a quest; yet by apparently miraculous shifts and revolutions, the endings often turn out to be no endings; life pushes unpredictably and unaccountably on. This element must not be exaggerated. Of the central truth that we all must one day meet our endings, the play reminds us again and again, with uncommon insistence: nature is not immortal, and death, alas, will never have play for lack of work. What All's Well does repeatedly show us is that endings may nevertheless often fail to come when we most expect them.

In this connection, the first scene of the play is worth scrutinizing a moment longer. Helena is overcome as the Countess speaks of the virtues of her father, Gerard de Narbon:

LAFEW. Your commendations, madam, get from her tears.

COUNTESS. 'Tis the best brine a maiden can season her praise in. The remembrance of her father never approaches her heart but the tyranny of her sorrows takes all livelihood from her cheek. No more of this, Helena; go to, no more; lest it be rather thought you do affect a sorrow than to have—

HELENA. I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too.

LAFEW. Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead; excessive grief the enemy to the living.

COUNTESS. If the living be enemy to the grief, the excess makes it soon mortal.


The play of words, 'makes it soon mortal', again alerts us to the opposition of dying and living, ending and reviving, that is to become more pronounced as the play proceeds. In some ways, Helena may remind us of Olivia at the opening of Twelfth Night, grieving for the death of her father and brother; Olivia is said to

. . . water once a day her chamber round
With eye-offending brine; all this to season
A brother's dead love . . .


Yet Helena is not, like Olivia, seasoning with her tears' 'brine' a memory of the past, salting away experience that is dead and gone. The irony of the whole exchange—though Lafew and the Countess do not realise it—is that Helena's tears are for a present, not a past, event:

I think not on my father,
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him; my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.
I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. . . .


No living: Helena's sensation of loss is like a sensation of death; and it is death that Helena fights throughout the play, risking death to restore the king's life and to restore to herself the love whose loss feels like death; feigning death to save Bertram's life, and ultimately her own love.

Helena is thus a more active and vigorous character than Olivia in Twelfth Night; one might call Helena a force for life, were it not that that phrase would imply that she is a more static and resolute character than is actually the case. It is Helena's humanity rather than any symbolic significance of which we are made most vividly aware in All's Well: a humanity which allows her to waver, to be abashed at her own temerity, to withdraw as well as to advance, to seek at times, Olivialike, the consolations of the past rather than the apparently impossible challenges of the present and the future. Throughout All's Well the shifts in tense, in the ways in which characters care to think about time ( 'O that "had", how sad a passage 'tis!') are of critical significance:

But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.


'Sanctify', 'relics': Helena chooses to see Bertram as though he were a departed saint, 'gone' not merely on a journey but from life itself. What Helena painfully confronts is the apparent ending of her hopes for Bertram's love; and what her metaphor figures is the ending of his life. Precisely on this line, Parolles enters; and it is Parolles who draws Helena back into the present, into a consciousness of her own life and energies. Parolles argues cheerfully against the doctrine of keeping, hoarding, and enshrining, and against the doctrine of virginity, which 'murthers itself: 'by being ever kept it is ever lost' (I.i. 136-7; 129). Parolles's actual arguments scarcely affect Helena, who is able to parry their specious logic with affectionate ease. It is rather his vitality to which she responds, his genial readiness to seize the moment: 'answer the time of request' (I.i.151). The meeting with Parolles galvanizes Helena's decision that she must take her hopes and her life in her own hands ('Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie', I.i.212), that her love for Bertram should not be allowed to flag to an ending, that she may follow him to court. And to the court Helena goes as a doctor, a bringer of new life.

'All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown.' A curious point about this adage is that it has two more or less contrary meanings. The first meaning, which one might expect to be dominant in a comedy, relates to happy endings: 'we feared loss, damage, injury, death, but our fears were misplaced; in the end all was well: we survived'. The second meaning relates not to survival but death, to ending well morally or spiritually when one is ending once and for all. 'Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it', says Malcolm of Cawdor in Macbeth (I.iv.7-8), touching on a belief—pre-Christian as well as Christian—that the last acts and words of a dying person have power to affect and redeem the quality of his entire life. 'The end crowns the life, and the evening the day', runs the proverb;4'La fin couronne les œuvres ' are the last words of Clifford as he lies mortally wounded by York in the final act of Henry VI, Part 2 (V.ii.28). Finis coronai is a legend which may be found engraved upon tombstones.5 And in a common variant on the sentiment, a life well-ended is compared with a play well-ended:

The first Act's doubtfull, (but we say)
It is the last commends the Play.
(Herrick, The Plaudite, or end of life')6

When Helena arrives at the French court, it is to meet a king who has determined to end well, in the second of these proverbial senses; his end, he believes, has come, and he will not sully his last days with false hopes and expectations: his end will crown his life. Meeting with Bertram, the king has recalled a saying of the old Count Rossillion: ' "Let me not live", quoth he, / "After my flame lacks oil . . .'".

This he wish'd.
I, after him, do after him wish too,
Since I nor wax nor honey can bring home,
I quickly were dissolved from my hive
To give some labourers room.

(I.ii.58-9, 63-7)

Helena's arrival angers the king, disturbing as it does his composure for death. Teasingly, mischievously, and with disconcerting buoyancy of spirits, Lafew brings before the king the quite unlooked-for prospect of continuing life, the possibility that the end may not be yet:

But good my lord, 'tis thus: will you be cur'd
Of your infirmity?
KING. No .
LAFEW. 0, will you eat
No grapes, my royal fox? Yes, but you will
My noble grapes, and if my royal fox
Could reach them. I have seen a medicine
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With sprightly fire and motion. . . .


It is not the king but Lafew who is playing the fox here, like a benign version of Jonson's Volpone, 'Letting the cherry knock against their lips,/And draw it, by their mouths, and back againe' (Volpone, I.i.89-90). The king's refusal of Helena is fiercer than the occasion might seem to warrant, a firm insistence that that which is concluded is concluded:

We thank you maiden;
But may not be so credulous of cure,
When our most learned doctors leave us, and
The congregated college have concluded
That labouring art can never ransom nature
From her inaidible estate. I say we must not
So stain our judgement or corrupt our hope,
To prostitute our past-cure malady
To empirics, or to dissever so
Our great self and our credit, to esteem
A senseless help, when help past sense we deem.


'Past' is the word that catches one's attention here (occurring, perhaps significantly, more often in this play and The Winter's Tale than in any other work by Shakespeare): 'past-cure', 'past sense', 'past power' (line 157); 'They say miracles are past', exclaims Lafew at the opening of the following scene. 'O that "had", how sad a passage 'tis': the passage is the process by which present events are passed, become the past; the movement of time itself. Helena's lesson is that what seems past may not in fact be past at all: that endings are not always where we think we see them. Helena brings the king out of the past into the present.

What I can do can do no hurt to try,
Since you set up your rest 'gainst remedy.
He that of greatest works is finisher
Oft does them by the weakest minister.


The idea which Helena advances here of God as finisher—scarcely a word dictated by the rhyme—is of some interest. The primary reference, as I take it, is to the notion of Christ as 'the author and finisher of our faith' (Heb. 12:2), a notion particularly fully developed in the gospel of St. John: 'My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work' (John 4:34); 'the works which the Father hath given me to finish . . . bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me' (John 5:36); 'I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do' (John 17:4); 'It is finished' ('consummatum est'; John 19:30). Of more fundamental relevance here, however, is the idea that while man is free to initiate action, such action may be terminated only by God, who alone can say when our efforts and our days are over: man proposeth, God disposeth. Helena reminds the king that it is not his prerogative but God's to declare that his life is at an end; what in fact may be demanded of him now is a new beginning. The king's dawning realization of this truth, his wavering between a sense of ending and of beginning, between pious resignation and a new understanding of the spiritual legitimacy of hope, form one of the play's most wonderful and complex moments. On the king's recovery, Helena wagers her own life; should his life end as a result of her ministrations, then 'With vildest torture, let my life be ended' (ILL 173).

'If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well/It were done quickly': in Macbeth, much hangs on this critical 'if; things finished, Macbeth finds, are far from finished; the consequences of an action may tragically reverberate, multiply, and grow in strength in ways utterly unpredictable. All's Well is also a play dependent upon many 'ifs', tentatively reaching out to an unknown future; and it is to 'if constructions that the exchange between Helena and the king now moves:

Sweet practiser, thy physic I will try,
That ministers thine own death if I die.


If I break time . . . unpitied let me die . . .
But if I help, what do you promise me?


If thou proceed
As high as word, my deed shall match thy deed.


It is in a different but related sense that Bertram tries to believe throughout the play that the complications besetting his life and actions are easily ended, that things are done when they seem done. He believes when he leaves Rossillion that he has finished with Helena; when, grudgingly, he marries her in Paris and departs at once manfully for Florence, he believes once again that things are ended:

I have writ my letters, casketed my treasure,
Given order for our horses; and tonight,
When I should take possession of the bride, End ere I do begin. 


To his mother he writes: 'I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the "not" eternal' (III. ii. 20-1); Bertram attempts to negate a future and a marriage to which, as the pun alerts us, he is indissoluably bound. After his assignation with Diana in Florence, Bertram is again anxious to sweep the consequences of his actions briskly into the past:

I have tonight dispatch'd sixteen businesses a month's length apiece. By an abstract of success: I have congied with the duke, done my adieu with his nearest, buried a wife, mourn'd for her, writ to my lady mother I am returning, entertain'd my convoy, and between these main parcels of dispatch effected many nicer needs; the last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet.

SECOND LORD. If the business be of any difficulty, and this morning your departure hence, it requires haste of your lordship.

BERTRAM. I mean, the business is not ended, as fearing to hear of it hereafter.


How Bertram will hear of this business hereafter he does not yet know; it is not (what presumably he fears) the pregnancy of Diana but the pregnancy of his own wife which will affect his future. 'A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee', Bertram has exclaimed on Diana's consenting to a meeting with him; 'For which live long to thank both Heaven and me!' responds Diana; 'You may so in the end' (IV.ii.66-8). One of the recurrent questions of the play is where this 'end' is located; where the consequences of one's actions have their final limit; whether things are done when they seem done. The notion of the end dances elusively ahead, always just appearing, always just receding into the realm of 'not yet'.

Parolles is another who believes that the end is at hand:

FIRST SOLDIER. There is no remedy, sir, but you must die. The general says you that have so traitorously discover'd the secrets of your army, and made such pestiferous reports of men very nobly held, can serve the world for no honest use; therefore you must die. Come, headsman off with his head.

PAROLLES. O Lord, sir, let me live, or let me see my death!


What Parolles sees when he is unmuffled is not his death but his shame; a shame that is of less consequence, however, than the wonderful and quite unlooked-for prospect of continuing life. Like the King of France, Parolles finds that the threatened ending is not yet:

Yet am I thankful. If my heart were great
'Twould burst at this. Captain I'll be no more,
But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live. Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this; for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.
Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and Parolles live
Safest in shame; being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive.
There's place and means for every man alive.


'Live', 'thrive', 'alive': the triplet gently emphasizes Parolles's exuberant realization of the blessings of life. In many ways, the King of France, with his sombre resolution for death ("Let me not live .. .") and Parolles, with his anxious pleas for life ('Let me live, sir, in a dungeon, i' th' stocks, or anywhere, so I may live', IV.iii.235-6) may be seen as polar opposites; yet both are allowed to share the same gratitude for the chance of prolonged life, of new beginnings. Death, the ultimate end, is not yet.

Helena meanwhile has been facing death in several forms. She has wagered her life on curing the king; she has reckoned to die of shame if refused by Bertram (II.iii.68-72). Married but deserted by Bertram, Helena leaves the court; leaves it (a fact often overlooked) because she feels that it is her presence there which drives Bertram to the wars, to the peril of his life. In one of the play's most intricately imagined speeches, Helena invokes the bullets which assault her husband, attempting by a mental act to deflect them from their aim; yet her imagination is overpowered by the thought of Bertram's death, and of her responsibility for that death:

O you leaden messengers,
That ride upon the violent speed of fire,
Fly with false aim; move the still-piecing air
That sings with piercing; do not touch my lord.
Whoever shoots at him, 1 set him there;
Whoever charges on his forward breast,
I am the caitiff that do hold him to't;
And though I kill him not, I am the cause
His death was so effected.


With characteristic and astonishing generosity, Helena sees herself not as Bertram's victim—as well she might in the circumstances—but as an accomplice in his murder, picturing to herself his death with such force and sorrow that she is prepared to deny her own life, undergoing a form of death, ending (it appears) when she might begin:

Come, night; end, day;
For with the dark, poor thief, I'll steal away.


At moments such as these, All's Well takes on a depth and resonance of feeling that is not often encountered in so sustained a way in Shakespeare's other comedies. The notion of dying for love, so briskly and humorously treated by Rosalind in As You Like It (IV.i.89-103), is repeatedly explored in All's Well with a more profound and sympathetic understanding; in an important imaginative sense, Helena knows well what that casual phrase may mean. None of Shakespeare's comedies (until The Winter's Tale) so steadily and consistently confronts and attempts to assimilate the fact of death. All's Well is in this respect quite different from a play such as (say) Much Ado About Nothing, whose opening lines lightly banish the thought of a war in which people actually get themselves killed ('How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?'—'But few of any sort, and none of name') in order to concentrate upon the 'kind of merry war' that exists between Beatrice and Benedick, a war fought with 'quips, and sentences, and these paper bullets of the brain' (II.iii.217-18). The bullets of All's well—'leaden messengers, / That ride upon the violent speed of fire'—are, by contrast, real bullets that can kill real people.

The question of Helena's precise motivation, and the further question of the precise direction of her pilgrimage, have been the subject of fierce critical dispute.7 Does Helena resign her claims to Bertram or does she in fact pursue them? Why, after vowing herself to be 'Saint Jaques ' pilgrim ', does she turn up in Florence, which is, as Dr. Johnson remarked, 'somewhat out of the road from Rousillon to Compostella'?8 The difficulties here are not easily resolved; but there are indications that some at least of the doubts concerning Helena's actions are quite deliberately introduced, directing our attention sharply to questions of motive. Earlier in the play, for example, the Countess has been bothered by the ambiguity of Helena's announcement that she wishes to go to Paris. What is Helena's precise motive? asks the Countess; does she want to cure the king, or does she want to be with Bertram? Had Bertram not been in Paris, answers Helena frankly, the scheme of going there never would have occurred to her. Yet the blunt verdict often passed on Helena, that she is a woman out to catch her man, will scarcely do. Helena quite explicitly declares that her love for Bertram is love without hope and without design. She sees herself as one

. . . that cannot choose
But lend and give where she is sure to lose;
That seeks not to find that her search implies,
But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies!


(A 'riddle' of central importance to the play as a whole.) Shakespeare prompts us here to think not only about endings but also about ends, and the means by which those ends are obtained. 'Love without end hath no end', runs the proverb; 'meaning' (said Bacon) 'that if it were begun not upon particular ends it would last'.9 Helena's love is quite without 'particular ends', just as it seems to be without temporal or emotional limits:

I know I love in vain, strive against hope;
Yet in this captious and intenable sieve
I still pour in the waters of my love
And lack not to lose still.10


To pour water into a sieve is a task which is apparently without end, in the sense that it has no evident purpose, and in the further sense that, like an infernal punishment, it can never be efficiently completed.11 Bertram's pursuit of Diana, on the other hand is specific, limited, and dishonourable; the Second Lord compares it significantly with the plotting of traitors to achieve 'their abhorr'd ends' (IV.iii.22).

Throughout the play similar means are often used to accomplish ends which are morally contrary. Bertram resorts to lying and deceit, but so too do Helena and Diana; indeed, when Diana declares roundly in the final scene of the play, 'I have spoke the truth' (V.iii.229) she has just told a lie. The ends (or lack of ends) incriminate or justify the means. The bed-trick, says Helena, 'Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act' (III.vii.45-6): the mental attitude, the motive or end, is different for different actors; and it is the end that counts, that crown's one's acts. This use of similar means to accomplish dissimilar ends creates several 'riddles', ambiguities, and ironical identifications throughout the play. The principal characters achieve their ends with the help of accomplices, means to their ends. The actions of these accomplices are justified in accordance to the justice of the larger ends they serve. Parolles acts on behalf of Bertram in the suit for Diana—'I did go between them as I said' (V.iii.253-4)—yet in fact tries to woo Diana for himself: his ends are doubly unjustified. Lafew acts as a go-between in bringing Helena to the king, for altogether more justifiable ends; and it is remarkable that Lafew should use the same words that Pandarus uses to Cressida (Troilus and Cressida, III.ii.44), 'Nay, come your ways', the echo being reinforced by explicit comparison:

A traitor you do look like, but such traitors
His majesty seldom fears; I am Cressid's uncle
That dare leave two together. Fare you well.

(II.i.93, 95-7)

The Widow of Florence acts like a professional madam, accepting Helena's money to permit a sexual act, for an end which she judges nevertheless to be good.

The play is thus much concerned with ends and means as well as with endings and beginnings; and the two kinds of'ends' are brought together in Helena's words in the final act:

All's well that ends well yet,
Though time seem so adverse and means unfit. . .
I will come after you with what good speed
Our means will make us means.

(V.i.25-6, 34-5)

('Means' is one of the play's busier words: 'There's place and means for every man alive.') Helena is here whistling in the dark, for the play has not ended yet; one might almost say that Helena seems to wish that it would end. The same might be said of the King of France in the fifth act, preparing for his encounter with Bertram:

Well, call him hither;
We are reconcil'd, and the first view shall kill
All repetition. Let him not ask our pardon;
The nature of his great offence is dead,
And deeper than oblivion we do bury
Th'incensing relics of it.


'Kill', 'dead', 'bury', 'relics': the sustained metaphor is again significant; the king wants bygones to be bygones, wants to destroy all trace of the past. Here is Dr. Johnson's comment on the speech just quoted:

Shakespeare is now hastening to the end of the play, finds his matter sufficient to fill up his remaining scenes, and therefore, as on other occasions, contracts his dialogue and precipitates his action. Decency required that Bertram's double crime of cruelty and disobedience, joined likewise with some hypocrisy, should raise more resentment; and that though his mother might easily forgive him, his king should more pertinaciously vindicate his own authority and Helen's merit: of all this Shakespeare could not be ignorant, but Shakespeare wanted to conclude his play.12

But is it Shakespeare or is it the King of France who is showing such haste to conclude? For the play does not in fact end here, as it might have done; with the entrance of Diana, new complications are set in train, to the distress of the king—and also, interestingly enough, of Dr. Johnson himself. The dialogue between the king and Diana, writes Johnson,

.. . is too long, since the audience already knew the whole transaction; nor is there any reason for puzzling the King and playing with his passions; but it was much easier than to make a pathetical interview between Helen and her husband, her mother, and the King.13

Johnson thus has two objections to the last act of All's Well, first, that the action concludes too abruptly, and secondly, that it is too drawn out. What are we to make of these objections, and of the whole concluding section of the play, from the entrance of Diana and the Widow of Florence midway through the last scene?

One powerful impulse that is often found in comedy—and that is to be found, as we've seen, in this comedy—is that of seizing the moment; of realizing that one lives in the present, that life is there to be embraced. Thus Rosalind to Phebe in As You Like It:

But mistress, know yourself. Down on your knees,
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man's love;
For I must tell you friendly in your ear:
Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.
Cry the man mercy, love him, take his offer;
Foul is most foul, being foul to be a scoffer.


Thus Parolles in All's Well: Off with't while 'tis vendible; answer the time of request' (I.i.150-1). And thus the King of France:

All is whole.
Not one word more of the consumed time;
Let's take the instant by the forward top;
For we are old, and on our quick'st decrees
Th'inaudible and noiseless foot of time
Steals ere we can effect them.


The king's instinct is in many ways an admirable one. Yet as we have seen, Shakespeare makes us acutely aware throughout All's Well of the complex ways in which time and the perception of time govern human affairs; of the psychological significance of small shifts in the characters' awareness of time, of gentle lapses into the past ('O that "had" . . .') and resolute confrontations of the future. Above all, Shakespeare makes us aware of the difficulty involved in keeping past events out of present reckonings; of saying to oneself: Of this business I have made an end'. The king's impulse to bring things to a conclusion is much like the impulse of which Dr. Johnson writes in Rambler 207; we are never 'so impatient of delay, as when we know that delay cannot be long'. Diana's interview with the king, her teasing and riddling answers, tantalizingly interrupt his determined course of action, pushing it away into the realm of 'not yet', increasingly (and almost humorously) provoking the king's anger: 'Take her away. I do not like her now' (V.iii.275). It is an anger which we have glimpsed once before in the play, when Lafew and Helena brought before the king the prospect of continuing life. In each case the anger is that of one who has determined to make a clean and perfect end to the task in hand, and who is compelled to realize that the end is not yet. All's well that ends well, indeed, yet the king's notions of the nature and timing of this good ending are once again misplaced. The ending seems no ending, as the maid seems no maid, as Parolles is a knave and no knave, as Bertram loved Diana and he loved her not, and as the dead wife seems suddenly and miraculously alive:

Dead though she be she feels her young one kick.
So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick. . . .


With the final entry of Helena, the idea of an ending seems still curiously to recede: while past conditions have been met, new (though milder) future conditions are proposed:

HELENA. There is your ring.
And, look you, here's your letter. This it says:
When from my finger you can get this ring
And is by me with child, etc. This is done;
Will you be mine now you are doubly won?
BERTRAM. If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
HELENA. If it appear not plain and prove untrue
Deadly divorce step between me and you!—


'When', 'If', 'If'; and the king continues the sequence, turning to Diana:

If thou beest yet a fresh uncropped flower
Choose thou thy husband and I'll pay thy dower. . . .

All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.

(V.iii.321-2; 327-8)

' .. . if it end so meet': odd words for the penultimate line of the play, which is ending but not ending. Unlike the play of Everyman, unlike Doctor Faustus, All's Well That Ends Well speaks constantly of an end which is not finally realized within its dramatic framework, but pushed forward beyond the play into an undramatized future, in a manner in some ways reminiscent of Love 's Labour's Lost:

KING. Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an' a day,
And then 'twill end.
BEROWNE. That's too long for a play.


The ending of the play may have been reached, but—by the same process of formal dislocation of which I spoke earlier—Shakespeare reminds us that not all of the problems are ended; difficulties and differences still remain; as in life itself, 'Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending' (George Eliot, Middlemarch, 'Finale'). Shakespeare sustains the notion of apparent endings into the very last moments of the theatrical experience; for beyond the formal closure of the play lies the Epilogue, in which the actor playing the part of the King of France comes forward to address us:

The king's a beggar, now the play is done;
All is well ended if this suit be won,
That you express content.
. . .

The play is done, all is well ended: if... : the play pauses finally on yet another conditional. And if we do 'express content', then the actors will gladly in the future begin again, and again:

. . . we will pay
With strife to please you, day exceeding day.

For a play which continues to please its audiences there may indeed be no ending.

I have attempted to pursue a single theme throughout All's Well That Ends Well, and it is always tempting when one has proceeded in this way to assume that the presence of such a theme must in itself be a guarantee that the work is a coherent and unproblematical whole. This is not my conclusion. I believe All's Well That Ends Well is conceptually and structurally a more complex play than it is conventionally taken to be; yet it is hard not to share at least some of Dr. Johnson's discomfort about the play's closing movement. The difficulties seem to lie not in the whole of the long last scene, as Johnson thought, but in the drastic foreshortening of its final twenty-five lines, where with an odd mixture of caginess and shortwinded romantic afflatus Bertram for a second time abruptly capitulates to the king on Helena's behalf, addressing few words to Helena herself; and where, with an equally ominous recall of another past event, the king blandly invites Diana to pick herself a husband from amongst the young lords. There is an uneasy comicality about the way in which the king, recently so determined to 'kill all repetition', seems now to be courting old perils anew.

It would be easy to accuse Johnson of simply refusing to accept certain perfectly familiar conventions and traditions of comedy. At the end of a comedy, as everyone knows, the most powerful obstacles to happiness are often dissolved with magical and pleasing rapidity, a rapidity not always ascribable merely to authorial impatience or fatigue. Jane Austen plays lightly with this convention in the last chapter of Northanger Abbey: 'my readers . . . will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity'. And it is equally traditional (to take Johnson's second point, that the last scene is unnecessarily protracted) for the comic writer to introduce some new complication at a near-final moment of his work, just as we think we can see our way out of the wood. The wretched stagecritic Damplay in Ben Jonson's The Magnetic Lady objects at the end of the play's fourth act that here the author's

. . . Play might have ended, if hee would ha' let it; and have spar'd us the vexation of a fifi Act yet to come, which every one here knowes the issue of already, or may in part conjecture. (Chorus after Act IV, lines 21-4)

But Dr. Johnson is not Damplay, and the strength of his criticism of All's Well consists precisely in his reluctance supinely to accept the conventions of comedy; in his characteristically restless appeal from art to life. What Johnson did not see is the extent to which All's Well can survive such appeals, its problems of ending being not merely formal problems but also the problems of life itself.


1 'Preface to Shakespeare', Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, VII (New Haven and London, 1968), pp. 71-2.

2 On the tag, 'terminat hora diem . . .', see E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trs. W. R. Trask (New York, 1953), 'Topics of the Conclusion', p. 91.

3 Jay L. Halio, 'All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964), pp. 33-43, shows some of the ways in which the play is occupied with ideas of sickness, decline, and death. Roger Warren, 'Why Does it End Well? Helena, Bertram and the Sonnets', Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969), pp. 79-92, adduces noteworthy parallels from the sonnets. The best modern accounts of All's Well are G. Wilson Knight's The Third Eye' in The Sovereign Flower (London, 1958), pp. 93160, and Barbara Everett's introduction to the New Penguin edition of the play (Harmondsworth, 1970). My quotations are taken from the Arden Shakespeare edition (London, 1962) of G. K. Hunter, whose treatment of the play is particularly helpful.

4 M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), E 190.

5 See the engraving accompanying Jacob Cats's autobiographical poem, An Eighty-Two-Year-Long Life (Leyden, 1732), reproduced in Devils, Demons, Death and Damnation, ed. Ernst and Johanna Lehner (London and Toronto, 1971), p. 174.

6The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford, 1956), p. 94. Cf. Herrick's two poems entitled 'The End', Poetical Works, pp. 123, 293.

7 For a judicious comment, see J. C. Maxwell, 'Helena's Pilgrimage', RES, xx (1969), pp. 189-92.

8Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Sherbo, p. 392.

9 Tilley, A Dictionary of Proverbs, L 533.

10 Hunter: 'inteemable sieve'; F: 'intemible'; F2: 'intenible'; Everett: 'intenable'.

11 Such a punishment was inflicted upon the Danaides in Hades for the murder of their husbands. They 'were compelled to fill with water a vessel full of holes, so that the water ran out as soon as poured into it, and therefore their labour proved infinite, and their punishment eternal': J. Lemprière, A Classical Dictionary (Halifax, 1865), s.v. 'Danaides'. A common trial for heroines of folk-tale—an 'impossibility' like the various 'impossibilities' proposed in All's Well—is to carry water in a sieve; see, for example, 'The Well of the World's End', in Joseph Jacobs's English Fairy Tales (London, etc., 1968), and Jacobs's note on analogues, pp. 316-17. The best-known classical story of this kind is of the Vestal Virgin Tuccia, who, when accused of unchastity, established her innocence by carrying water from the Tiber in a sieve: see Pliny, Nat. Hist. XXVIII.iii, Valerius Maximus, VIII.i.5, St. Augustine, The City of God, X.xvi. In the emblem-books, the sieve—sometimes with water running through it—is taken as an attribute of chastity: see e.g. Ripa, Iconologia (Hertel edn.), ed. E. A. Maser (New York, 1971), no. 48.

12Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Sherbo, p. 400.

13 Ibid., p. 403.

Gerard J. Gross (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Conclusion to All's Well That Ends Weir in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 257-76.

[In the following essay, Gross analyzes the ending of All's Well That Ends Well, and addresses the debate abut whether the audience should receive the convention of a "happy ending" with regard to this play.]

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.

First Lord

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 title 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."1 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'."2 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."3 I will be very much concerned with "dramatic" aspects of the play, not only with what is said, but with how it is said, with action, with characterization, and with rhythm or pacing in the ending.

Previous studies of the ending of All's Well have concentrated on some limited aspect of the ending. Roger Warren's analysis in 1969 emphasized the light which the sonnets shed on the characteristic of Helena's love and Bertram's reaction to it.4 More recently, Ian Donaldson has found throughout the play a concentration on endings and beginnings, on ends and the means to those ends.5 His article, though intimately concerned with the problem of "ending well," does not devote extensive detail to the final scene itself. I would look on my attempt to analyze the entire context of the ending of All's Well as a means of complementing and extending these previous analyses.

A close look at the title can help identify two separate, though related, aspects of comic ending which will play an important role in the discussion to follow, for the cliché, "all's well that ends well," can be taken in two distinct senses. First, comedies and romances usually entail a great many complications, reversals, and perils before a resolution and happy conclusion are reached. Where the pure spirit of comedy reigns, the ending generates a feeling that all that went before can be reckoned at naught as long as the story has ended happily. The trials and tribulations are worth it. It is the end that counts—the sense of Helena's statement midway through the play:

All's well that ends well! still the fine's the crown;
What e'er the course, the end is the renown.


An emphasis on the "all" of "all's well that ends well" yields a second sense of the phrase, one close to the notion "they all lived happily ever after." In romances and fairy tales, and in comedies derived from these types, audiences are invited to believe that the marriage or reunion at the end is the panacea to all problems raised in the story, and that thereby future happiness is assured. Because the story ends well—in marriage or betrothal—all will be well. Beyond the end of the story lies a prospect of nothing but bliss. These two aspects of the title are related: the stronger the feeling that the final happiness has conquered any sadness or anxiety encountered during the story, the stronger will be our conviction that the happiness will endure. Conversely, if we are somehow led to suspect that the goal for which the hero or heroine has travailed so arduously has not been worth the effort—as E. K. Chambers reacts to Helena's conquest, "but after all it is a poor prize for which she has trailed her honour in the dust"7—we would also be inclined to have some doubts about the future happiness of that hero or heroine.

A question that may legitimately be raised is whether we are ever justified in speculating on the future happiness of the hero and heroine in a story such as All's Well. Thomas Marc Parrott voices a stricture against peering beyond the end of the play:

We may be fairly sure that Shakespeare's audience accepted the performance as an entertaining example of the old saying: 'all's well that ends well.' To ask whether the marriage of such an ill-matched pair was likely to be a happy one is to confuse drama with contemporary life, much in the fashion of a small boy at a performance of Hamlet who asked his father why Mr. Evans didn't marry Ophelia.

Yet, though it is undoubtedly over-naive to confuse drama and real life, it would also seem overly simplistic to rule out from drama or fiction any concern whatever for what happens beyond the end of a story. The writer of romance is generally not concerned about the psychological plausibility of events or of their consequences. If he tells us that the villain was suddenly converted, we believe him. And if he tells us that the couple lived happily ever after, we have no reason to doubt his word. But in a story where psychological plausibility has a legitimate place, where the motivation of characters is a clear concern of the author, and where the characters themselves examine or question their beliefs, feelings, or reasons for action, we have every reason to question the plausibility of the ending. This is not to say that we should speculate about some specific action of a character well beyond the conclusion of the plot. But if an author tries to tell us, "The marriage was a happy one," while the characters themselves, by their behavior or by what they tell us of themselves, preclude the possibility of that ever being so, we can well question the artistic integrity of the ending. As Barbara Smith points out in her study of poetic closure, marriage may not be an effective theme of closure when all that follows after marriage is not felt by the reader to be predictable.9

These distinctions suggest that our response to the ending of All's Well depends to a large extent on what kind of play it is. For the most part, critics who see no real problems with the ending are those who are satisfied with a limited interpretation of the play, usually with an emphasis on romantic fable, or those who would emphasize the difference between the expectations of Elizabethan audiences and of modern audiences. Thus, for Hazelton Spencer, "it was in a later age, when the old romances were no longer human nature's daily food, that it occurred to anyone to question whether the ending is really a happy one."10 There is a danger, however, of underestimating both the sophistication of Elizabethan audiences and of Shakespeare's intentions in the drama. Joseph Price, in his thorough review of critical reaction to All's Well, has identified six categories of interpretations of the play: "farcical comedy, sentimental romance, romantic fable, serious drama, cynical satire, and a thematic dramatization."11 After presenting capsule summaries of the play as it might be acted with each of the six major interpretations dominant, Price concludes as follows:

Such constricted interpretations of All's Well have achieved at times a unity of form, but only at the expense of Shakespeare's intention, only by distortion of his play. For, the very recurrence of six major approaches throughout its history suggests a complexity which cannot legitimately be reduced to a single focus Criticism generally has insisted that these elements jar, that only by the elimination of several can an artistic unity be imposed. But the very essence of Shakespearean comedy is variety, a blending of seemingly jarring worlds.12

I would agree, with Price, on the valid existence in All's Well of all the elements identified here. There may even be a certain unity or artistic coherence in the very juxtaposition of romance and realism in the play, in the tension between these aspects. G. B. Harrison has stated of All's Well that Shakespeare "has asked himself the question: if this story had really happened, what sort of people would these characters have been?"13 As I hope to show, not only in character portrayal, but in other aspects of romance, particularly that of the typical happy ending, Shakespeare seems to be holding the conventions up to the scrutiny of realism.

In examining the aspects of romance and realism, it is particularly important to recognize the difference between the play itself and the romance narrative from which the plot is drawn. If we look specifically at the ending of All's Well, in terms of simple plot line we recognize the conclusion of a traditional "fulfillment of the tasks" episode, of which Boccaccio's tale of "Giletta of Narbona" is the nearest source. A nobleman, forced to marry a woman beneath him in rank, imposes on her what he thinks are impossible conditions before he will accept her love. The woman cleverly and resourcefully fulfills the conditions, and the nobleman, faced with her presentation of the fait accompli, is moved to a change of heart, agrees to love her, and they live happily ever after. At the level of Boccaccio's tale we are not inclined to inquire about the motivation of either person in loving or not loving, about the worthiness or unworthiness of either person for the other's love, or about whether we have a right to suppose that they really did live happily ever after. If the ending of the story, including the hero's change of heart, occurs abruptly, our attention is not attracted to it in the fable because of the pace of the entire fable. But if we attend with some degree of sensitivity to the play All's Well, I would maintain that on all the accounts mentioned above we have, at least potentially, some cause to pause and wonder. Because the characters have come alive for us, have involved us in their motivations throughout the play, and because the play seriously addresses such themes as the problem of birth versus merit, the role of the woman as pursuer, and the differing male and female perspectives on honor, we find ourselves, with justification, concerned at the end of the play with how believable Bertram's conversion is, how believable Helena's and Bertram's love for each other is, and whether we are meant to feel that their lives will be happy ever after. And if events seem to conclude abruptly, we are warranted in asking why, or to what effect, since the rest of the play has been developed at a comparatively sophisticated level of psychological and motivational detail.

The potential problems with the ending, then, cluster around the two distinct, yet closely related aspects of the conclusion: the effect of the actions of both Bertram and Helena near the end on their relationship with one another, and the brevity or abruptness of the conclusion, especially the thirty lines after Helena's final entry. Since Bertram, but not Helena, is on stage in the last scene before the final thirty lines, it is natural to start with his part in the scene.

Bertram has been castigated by numerous critics, beginning with Samuel Johnson,14 and has been defended by others as an acceptable romantic hero, even as "almost a model youth."15 One way of getting close to Shakespeare's intentions in establishing Bertram as a romantic hero is by comparing his treatment of Bertram with that of Beltramo in the source story by Boccaccio, retold by William Painter. The final episode of "Giletta of Narbona" is the aspect of the tale most modified by Shakespeare. In the original tale, after Giletta has obtained the ring and conceived twin sons, Beltramo hears that she has left Rossiglione, and he returns there, taking his place as rightful lord, and presumably ruling in prosperity for several years. Giletta, after having borne twin sons, returns to Rossiglione, arriving at an All Saints Day feast, at which are present many ladies and knights. Falling prostrate at the count's feet, Giletta begs to be received as his wife, and tells the whole story of how she fulfilled the conditions. (Though her dialogue is not repeated in the tale, we can imagine this retelling taking a long time, and the count gradually responding with greater and greater admiration.) Beltramo reacts in a way that in no way diminishes his stature, but rather raises him in our esteem at the end:

For which cause the Counte knowing the thinges she had spoken, to be true (and perceiving her constant minde, and good witte, and the twoo faire young boyes to kepe his promise made, and to please his subjectes, & the Ladies that made sute unto him, to accept her from that tyme foorth, as his lawefull wife, and to honour her) abjected his obstinate rigour: causing her to rise up, and imbraced and kissed her, acknowledging her againe for his lawefull wyfe. And after he had apparelled her, according to her estate, to the great pleasure and contentation of those that were there, & of al his other frendes not onely that daye, but many others, he kept great chere, and from that time forth, hee loved and honoured her, as his dere spouse and wyfe.16

Shakespeare, however, instead of allowing Helena simply to appear before Bertram and beg to be received by him, as in the original tale, devises the entire episode where Diana confronts Bertram with the evidence of their supposed affair. By so doing, Shakespeare, instead of heightening Bertram's stature as "romantic hero," permits him to sink lower and lower in our estimation and in that of the characters of the play who are present. Even more significant, Bertram's exposure occurs just at that point in the play where he is beginning to rise in esteem. At the opening of Act V, the King is ready to allow Bertram a new start:

My honor'd lady,
I have forgiven and forgotten all,
Though my revenges were high bent upon him,
And watch 'd the time to shoot.


The Countess and Lafew argue that Bertram's deeds were "done i' th' blade of youth" (V.iii.6) and are ready to give him the chance to prove himself wiser and more virtuous. We are at that stage in the plot where a typical romance might show the hero reformed, reconciled to the heroine, and where we would, with reason, expect him from that time forth to love and honor her as his dear spouse and wife. If Helena entered at this moment, we would have a typical happy ending with little to complain about other than its being somewhat expected and lacking in suspense.

But Shakespeare consciously (since it required considerable change from the original plot) chose not to end the play at this point. First Lafew, then the King, then the Countess notice that Bertram has Helena's ring, and Bertram tells a half-truth to explain his way out. Then Diana enters, and Bertram lies, then lies again in futile attempts to defend himself. His stature diminishes perilously from the promise shown at the beginning of the scene. It is obvious that Bertram has lost his composure and is thoroughly rattled: "Countess. He blushes, and 'tis hit" (V.iii.195). "King. You boggle shrewdly, every feather starts you" (V.iii.232). What sort of candidate is this lying, shaken creature for the "happily ever after" romantic ending? Bertram bears little resemblance to Beltramo, and seems to have gone far beyond the "few mistakes before he straightens out and settles down" posited for the romantic hero by Spencer.17

We might sense in Bertram's degradation a degree of burlesque of romantic heroes and plots, a deliberate inversion of the expected progress of a romantic hero. Viewed against the ideal image of a romantic hero, Bertram's actions have a comic cast. One can imagine a performance in which the actor, taking a cue from the King's "You boggle shrewdly," stutters and overplays his responses in an obvious, desperate attempt to fabricate a story. Yet the comic aspect can be carried too far. The more we laugh at Bertram, the less believable he is as a beloved of Helena. A totally comic, over-acted Bertram would destroy any sense of romantic reconciliation between Helena and Bertram in their final reunion.

The question of how Bertram can be what he is, and still be attractive to Helena is, indeed, one of the knottiest in the play, and it is a problem demanding the utmost sense of balance in the actor playing the part of Bertram. Bertram has so many faults that it would be easy to play him at the opposite extreme, not as a comic figure, but as a totally unsympathetic character—an arrogant, conceited, headstrong, lecherous, deceitful, shallow cad. Such a characterization would likewise make Helena's love for Bertram look absurd. There are, however, clear indications in the text that Bertram possesses attractive qualities. A key scene is Helena's arrival in Florence. We learn immediately from Diana that Bertram has indeed shown the bravery, won the "honor," which he had dreamed of. Perhaps most significant is Diana's spontaneous exclamation at Bertram's appearance as the French soldiers march by (even though she has been warned of his dishonest solicitations):

'tis a most gallant fellow.
I would he lov'd his wife. If he were honester
He were much goodlier. Is't not a handsome gentleman?


This is in one sense a variation upon the statement of the First Lord, "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together" (IV.iii.71-72). But its principal effect is to emphasize the credibility of Bertram as an object of Helena's love. Throughout the play, despite Bertram's dishonorable acts, there must be that flair, that presence—and it must show through in the acting of the part—that elicits the response, "'tis a most gallant fellow."

If Bertram is, at least to some degree, credible as a person whom Helena might love, what can be said of the course of that love throughout the play? It is crucial for an understanding of the conclusion of the play to have some sense of the progress of the love between Bertram and Helena. I would like to turn, therefore, to a closer look at Helena, first at her love for Bertram, and then at her as a possible object of Bertram's love.

In Helena's meditation on Bertram in the first scene she appears the typical young romantic heroine, perhaps slightly self-consciously so, and concerned perhaps too much with appearance:

'Twas pretty, though a plague
To see him every hour, to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls.


She is at once idealistic and adolescent in her adoration, and also aware of her excesses. If Bertram is unseasoned, Helena is also, in matters of love. Both will mature; their romantic ideals will be tempered in the course of the play.

After Bertram's shameful treatment of Helena following the marriage, we may have difficulty understanding her unswerving adulation for him, expressed immediately after reading his disdainful letter to her at Rossilion:

Poor Lord, is't I
That chase thee from thy country, and expose
Those tender limbs of thine to the event
Of the none-sparing war?


Helena here lapses into romantic sentiment similar to that expressed in the first scene, and we may find that the dichotomy between what we know of Bertram and how Helena responds to him makes this one of the most difficult moments of the play. However, this soliloquy again reinforces the feeling that Bertram possesses some quality which inspires such devotion.

In the bed-trick episode, Bertram reaches a low in honor, which contrasts with his "honorable service" on the battlefield, when he parts with the family ring in exchange for an expected night with Diana. We do not, of course, witness the bed scene with Helena, but we are allowed as close an approach as possible to the event, one which pushes Elizabethan decorum to the limit, in Helena's reflections after lying with Bertram. Her comments in IV.iv are significant in two ways. They serve to emphasize the distance of this play from pure romantic fable, a story told for story's sake. The play is at this point perhaps farthest removed in spirit from its source tale. Can we imagine any heroine in a romance reflecting and expressing her thoughts in terms such as these?

But O, strange men,
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away—
But more of this hereafter.


Here Helena, aware that Bertram's sexual advances were made to one he thought to be Diana, most vividly reveals herself capable of feelings, reflections, and changes of mood. It is this change of mood that is the second important aspect of this speech. There is present an unmistakable sense of disillusion which contrasts sharply with Helena's earlier idolatry of Bertram. She has heard talk, from the women of Florence, of Bertram's lust; now she has experienced it herself. What a contrast this first union of Helena and Bertram is to the typical romantic meeting of lovers, and what a contrast to the union she would have idealized in her daydreams at Rossilion. It has been a union from which their child will be born, but on Bertram's part there has been no love in it, only lust. Helena, it is true, takes up the pursuit with her customary zeal—"All's well that ends well yet" (V.i.25)—but I would claim that from this point on some doubt has been cast, in Helena's mind, on whether the prize will, in fine, be worth the effort of the chase.

The words "prize" and "chase" underscore the fact that in this play it is definitely the woman who takes the initiative in seeking a mate. This active role of Helena has, however, been overplayed by some analysts. One strain of criticism sees her as relentlessly pursuing Bertram by a plan carefully thought out and consciously executed at every point in the play. Thus, for E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare has turned "man's tender helpmate, like Mr. Bernard Shaw's Anne Whitefield, into the keen and unswerving huntress of man."18 Bertrand Evans has espoused this view of Helena (though her pursuit is seen as ultimately for the good of Bertram),19 and a recent article by Richard A. Levin carries the interpretation of Helena as deceptive schemer to even greater extremes.20 Such an interpretation, however, though supportable at certain points in the play, strains for credibility at other points, and even posits a kind of perversion of theatrical conventions.21 Moreover, this view of Helena as huntress does little to make her a plausible object of Bertram's love at the end of the play.

Granted that Helena is the initiator of the "romance" with Bertram, her dominant qualities appear to be vitality (we have seen the like in Bertram), shown both in her actions and her speech, and a remarkable resourcefulness—an ability to spot and take advantage of circumstances to further her ends. An important example of this is the scene of Helena's first arrival in Florence. After some discussion of a countryman of Helena's, it is the widow, and not Helena, who first suggests the possibility of Diana's aiding Bertram's wife to regain her husband: "This young maid might do her / A shrewd turn, if she pleas'd" (III.v. 67-68). The story of what unfolds after Helena's meeting with the women of Florence is much more plausible, as well as more fascinating and appealing, if seen as an instance of Helena's exceptional ability to seize the occasion and respond to opportunities as they arise, rather than as a plot preplanned in every detail. Up to at least this point in the play the evidence suggests that Shakespeare intended Helena as an engaging, sympathetic character, whose love includes a strong concern for the good and happiness of Bertram.

With the information from the widow that Bertram is soliciting Diana's favors, Helena's ready wit conceives the plan of having Diana agree to a meeting, and then substituting herself for Diana in the dark. At this point there is no doubt that the sudden prospect of fulfilling Bertram's seemingly impossible conditions is a strong motive for Helena. The conditions were stated as a cruel, cynical jest by Bertram; but since they were set down in writing, she will hold him to them, if she can. Yet even here, motives of Bertram's better welfare are not entirely absent. Bertram is, after all, bent on committing adultery. Conveniently, Helena can save Bertram from sin in deed, if not in intent, while at the same time fulfilling his conditions. By this time she is clearly bent on helping herself to win a husband. However, the progress of her pursuit has not manifested the stealthy, predatory quality that many commentators find so unlikeable.

The final scene of the play, when Bertram is confronted with his misdeeds, contains the instance where Helena's scheming is the most deliberate and calculating. We can ask, now, what effect the actions of this final scene have on Helena's character and on the possibility of Bertram's loving her. Whatever her motivation, Helena has placed Bertram in an extremely tight spot in the moments before the conclusion of the play. It has been observed that Helena's absence from the stage till the final moments, with Diana managing the exposure of Bertram (after the careful instructions of Helena, of course), keeps our sympathies from being turned too strongly from Helena. This piece of plotting is theatrically effective in keeping our attention from Helena; yet she is the person directly responsible for planning Bertram's confrontation with his own misdeeds.

Helena's actions are explained by some critics on the basis that Bertram must reach some extreme limit of psychological or moral shock before he can be "converted" by the virtuous or providential Helena. Her motives are mainly a redemption of Bertram. As Harold Wilson says,

Helena in All's Well is not seeking justice of the King but Bertram's love. In Boccaccio's tale, the heroine's fulfillment of the tasks is enough to win her happy union with the hero. In Shakespeare, Helena's efforts would go for nothing did not Bertram experience a change of heart. In the climax, everything is directed toward this end; and this is the abundant psychological justification of the means used, for Bertram is still far from penitent as we see him in the opening of the last scene.22

And according to Bertrand Evans, "Helena's subtly designed torture inexorably compels him to indulge in an orgy, a last wild spree of falsehood, so violent that it must purge his system of vileness for ever."23 This view makes of Helena an admirable confessor or spiritual advisor, but says little of her role as a lover. Though repentance does not exclude love, love does not follow as a necessary consequence. Bertram, who is in danger of the direst penalties from the King, may be exceedingly relieved to see Helena alive; he may devoutly repent his past lies and lechery; he may be eternally grateful to Helena for extricating him from the predicament he was in (though it may later dawn on him that it was Helena herself who placed him in it); but it does not follow, solely on the basis of Helena's actions towards Bertram, that he should love her.

Yet there is evidence that Bertram has come to love Helena, evidence that occurs well before Bertram is faced with Helena's reappearance. At the beginning of the last scene, when Bertram first meets the King, under no prompting or pressure, in the course of explaining a previous affection for Lafew's daughter, he refers to Helena:

Thence it came
That she whom all men prais'd, and whom myself,
Since I have lost, have lov'd.


Though the reference is made obliquely, Shakespeare seems to have intended the audience to advert to it, for he has the King repeat the reference to Bertram's love for Helena, and so reinforce the impression:

Well excus'd.
That thou didst love her, strikes some scores away
From the great compt.


Shakespeare, then, seems to have fashioned the latter part of the play as it relates to Bertram's love for Helena with the following effects. The audience is told that Bertram has finally come to love Helena—and this in conditions in which they would have no strong reasons to suspect the statement. Then Bertram undergoes the unexpected reversals, some schemed by Helena, that lead up to her sudden appearance. At this point, Bertram has lied himself into a position from which he cannot escape without help. He is, independent of what Helena's intentions are, trapped. There is nothing in what immediately preceded, or in what Helena has contrived, to motivate Bertram's love or to support our belief that he means his later claim to love her "ever dearly." Yet we know from his previous statement that he did profess to love her. He is at one and the same time in a state of having previously inclined towards love of Helena, yet forced to submit by actions which have not served to reinforce that love, but if anything, to undermine it. Bertram could not be blamed if he went back on his statement at the beginning of this scene and turned a cold heart towards Helena.

Furthermore, Bertram has lied so much that he is in danger of being in the position where no one will believe anything he says thereafter, much like the shepherd in the fable who cried "Wolf! Wolf!" On Helena's part, though Bertram had shown qualities that made her love for him believable, most recently he has behaved so despicably that we are entitled to serious doubts about how Helena or anyone could now accept and cherish such a creature. She has already expressed signs of disillusionment after her midnight tryst with Bertram. The possibility of a "happily ever after" ending may still be within reach, but considerable dialogue and action would seem to be needed to present such a happy ending convincingly to an audience. Yet, as presented by Shakespeare, what do we have? Thirty lines of compressed dialogue, much of it stated in negative or conditional language. A close analysis of the final section of the dialogue will help identify some of the effects it produces.

First, I have noted an apparent change in Helena's attitude towards Bertram with her earlier words, "But O, strange men." I would maintain that this same bitter-sweet mood, tinged with melancholy, is manifested in the final scene. Helena's entry is not triumphant, jubilant. Her opening words, spoken to the King, are

No, my good lord,
'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see,
The name, and not the thing.


Though the sense refers directly to the fact that her marriage (in Bertram's and the world's eyes) was never consummated, is there not some connotation that she will never now quite attain "the thing" of wifehood, the ideal of love she had sought so earnestly? The words imply that her love is now but a shadow of what it once was. Her words to Bertram,

O my good lord, when I was like this maid,
I found you wondrous kind,


do not overtly claim that he is not "wondrous kind" now, but the implication is there. Helena has fulfilled the conditions, reached her goal—

There is your ring,
And look you, here's your letter. This it says:
"When from my finger you can get this ring,
And are by me with child, etc." This is done.


But missing is the sense of victory we may have earlier been led to expect from her words, "the fine's the crown .. . the end is the renown." One senses a hint of weariness at so long and arduous a chase after an object of ever diminishing brightness and value.

As for Bertram, we might ask what effects in his final words lend credibility to his professions of repentance and love. One way in which a character caught in falsehood might convince his hearers that what he now says should be believed is by lengthy explanations, giving reasons for his past conduct and emphatic assurance of reform in the future. But the very opposite strikes us in the concluding lines of the play. The extreme brevity of both Bertram's and Helena's speeches contrasts with the duration of dialogue we might expect, given the seriousness of the complications to be resolved. Some critics have seen this brevity as a defect on Shakespeare's part. For example, Kenneth Muir would have preferred more explanation by Bertram—"If the clown were given better jokes and Bertram a better speech at the end, the play would leave us with feelings of greater satisfaction."24 On the positive side, it must be conceded that seeing and hearing the actor express repentance can make the scene more effective on the stage than in reading. Also on the side of believability for Bertram, his speech patterns, despite the brevity, have a ring of sincerity. The repetitions—"Both, both. O, pardon!" and "I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly"—seem intended by Shakespeare as an earnest mode of speech. A similar example might be Cordelia's "No cause, no cause"( Lear, IV.vii.74).

Yet, in spite of these positive aspects, there is still a sense of something missing from Bertram's protestations. They lack weight: three lines in all to accomplish repentance, reconciliation, and assurance of love.25 Also countering the earnestness given the lines by the repetition of words is the curious fact that Bertram's expression of love is stated as a condition:

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.


Even more curious, these words are spoken not to Helena, the one he is professing to love, but to the king. Bertram's only statement directly to Helena is the brief "Both, both. O, pardon!" Despite the desirability of not allowing the audience to dwell too much on Bertram's faults, it would have been easy for Shakespeare, if he had wanted, to have given Bertram more words, if not of explanation, at least of positive profession of his love.

If Bertram's dialogue is brief, Helena's is somewhat fuller. There exists, however, the same shortage of direct address to Bertram, and the same conditional tone. Her first words, on entering, are addressed not to Bertram, but to the King, which may be natural enough, since the King raises the question, "Is't real that I see?" (V.iii.306). But then, in response to Bertram's conditional statement of love, her reply is phrased not only as a condition, but also in strongly negative words:

If it appear not plain and prove untrue,
Deadly divorce step between me and you!


The conditional phrasing may be meant, in part, with the rhyming couplets, to balance Bertram's statement. But if the balance and repetition have any effect of emphasis, what they call attention to is the very conditional nature of the statements.26 Then, after Helena's statement, "Deadly divorce step between me and you," almost in the same breath it would seem, Helena turns to the Countess and exclaims, "O my dear mother, do I see you living?" (V.iii.319). The Countess's love for Helena must, of course, be acknowledged; but the quickness with which Helena turns from Bertram to the Countess says little for the capability of Bertram to hold her attention.

Finally, Helena's attention to the Countess raises the interesting question of when, if at all, Helena and Bertram might be expected to embrace. If the words of the conclusion are abrupt, but the playwright intended a fully genuine feeling that all is well, we could expect this to be shown by a kiss and embrace between Bertram and Helena. But if one reads the final lines beginning from Helena's "No, my good lord, / 'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see," to the end, and tries to imagine plausible stage action, there is no moment when Helena and Bertram might reasonably embrace without doing violence to the dialogue or interrupting it awkwardly with stage action. Bertram might fall on his knees with "Both, both. O, pardon!" but it is difficult to imagine them kissing at this point.27 The last plausible moment when they might embrace is at Helena's final words to Bertram, "Deadly divorce step between me and you!" Fine words on which to hug and kiss. We can imagine Helena falling on the Countess's neck at the words, "O my dear mother, do I see you living?," but not upon Bertram's neck.

The inescapable impression from the final thirty lines is one of a deliberate holding back of effects which could easily have produced a much more convincing, resounding ring of all being well than we now have in the play. One feels that Shakespeare has taken the standard romantic happy ending, and if not stood it on its head, has at least abbreviated it and diluted its impact so much that we are forced to question whether the simple fact that hero and heroine are united at the end is any guarantee of their achievement of happiness. If such is the effect of the ending, is it to be seen as entirely skeptical on Shakespeare's part? An example of Northrop Frye's category of irony; a cynical demonstration of the impossibility of all ending well? Thus far in this analysis I have discussed solely the main plot, and have said nothing of the subplot of Parolles. I believe, however, that this subplot has an important role in the play, not only thematically, but also in determining how the ending works.

Though Parolles is undoubtedly a secondary character, he is in some ways the most memorable in All's Well.28 Whatever else may be said of Parolles, he is not lacking in faults. He is boastful, vain, ostentatious, untruthful, lecherous, and under all that, cowardly. Do we like him? Well, yes. Our sympathies turn more towards him after his exposure; but even at his worst he has a quality that attracts us to him. As Helena remarks early in the play,

Yet these fix'd evils sit so fit in him
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak F th' cold wind.


But what primarily maintains our liking for Parolles is his vitality of spirit. Parolles is enthusiastic; he lives. He may be eager about the wrong things—the latest clothes; the latest words; the esteem of the court; the esteem of his fellow soldiers—but he is constantly eager. His vitality virtually bursts its bonds when he senses the chance of accompanying Bertram to the Tuscan wars: "To th' wars, my boy, to th' wars!" (II.iii.278). Perhaps Parolles's vitality shows forth most prominently in his language. Though he is an aspirer after the status of courtier, and though being fashionable is of highest concern, he is no Witwoud, no mere imitator of the fashionable wit of others. Even when being held blindfolded at the hands of his supposed captors, the inventiveness of his language is irrepressible. Descriptions such as his claim of the first Captain Dumaine's corruptibility—"Sir, for a cardecue he will sell the fee-simple of his salvation, the inheritance of it, and cut th' entail from all remainders, and a perpetual succession for it perpetually" (IV.iii.278-81)—elicit the admiration of his captors: "He hath outvillain'd villainy so far, that the rarity redeems him" (IV.iii.273-74). Finally, and most important, when Parolles has been beaten as low as anyone can be, it is his supreme vitality that sparks his recovery.

Up to the beginning of Act IV we had seen much of Parolles the braggart. Now, in the first scene of Act IV, with Parolles on his solitary foray at night near enemy lines, we are allowed to peer a little into his soul. We find out that Parolles realizes he is a braggart and a coward: "I find my tongue is too foolhardy, but my heart hath the fear of Mars before it, and of his creatures, not daring the reports of my tongue. . . .

What the devil should move me to undertake the recovery of this drum, being not ignorant of the impossibility, and knowing I had no such purpose?" (IV.i.28-36). With his overhearers we respond in amazement, "Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?" (IV.i.44-45), and we may begin to have some compassion for Parolles.

The double-talk scenes are some of the funniest in Shakespeare, not only because of Parolles's wit in his responses, but because of the ironies and the asides of his captors. But when Parolles shows his abject cowardice, and when his blindfold is removed and he is completely humiliated by the revelation that his captors are his friends, the humor changes. We have an instance, common in Shakespeare, of a baiting where the edge is allowed to become too sharp. The departure first of Bertram and the Lords, and then of the Interpreter and Soldiers, becomes cruel. Parolles, left alone on stage to face his humiliation, is a pathetic sight. It would not be surprising if he were to remain crushed, completely undone. But there are still remnants of his irrepressible esprit. In his touching speech of self-knowledge and acceptance, he resolves to make the best of what he has:

Yet am I thankful. If my heart were great,
Twould burst at this. Captain I'll be no more.
But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft
As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live.


Rust sword, cool blushes, and, Parolles, live
Safest in shame! Being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive!
There's place and means for every man alive.
I'll after them.


Parolles not only achieves self-acceptance; he is also accepted by Lafew, previously his sharpest critic. Though Lafew still teases Parolles, he concludes their meeting after Parolles's return affectionately and encouragingly: "Sirrah, inquire further after me. I had talk of you last night; though you are a fool and a knave you shall eat. Go to; follow" (V.ii.52-54). As E. M. Blistein observes of Parolles, "from artificial captain he has become a nobleman's genuine fool, and he does not mind. He is, in fact, grateful. The audience has laughed at him for pretending to be something he was not. Lafew henceforth will laugh with him for being what he is."29

The parallel between Parolles's exposure and humiliation at the hands of his comrades and Bertram's later exposure at the hands of Diana has often been commented upon. Both are liars, and both are confronted directly with the evidence of their lies. There is stark irony in Bertram's disavowal of Parolles's testimony at the very moment when Bertram is speaking lies of much more serious consequences:

He's quoted for a most perfidious slave,
With all the spots a'th' world tax'd and debosh'd.
Whose nature sickens but to speak a truth.
Am I that or this for what he'll utter,
That will speak any thing?


The fact that Bertram has been blind enough to be "misled with a snipt-taffeta fellow" (IV.v.1-2) may lessen his stature in our eyes; yet it contributes to making his blindness to Helena's worth more believable. One might expect that being made aware of the possibility of deception by Parolles might open Bertram's eyes to his lack of perception elsewhere, specifically to the meanness of his behavior towards Helena. In fact, the failure of Bertram to profit from the lesson of Parolles has been seen by some critics as a flaw in the play. G. K. Hunter, for example, states that Parolles, as well as Helena, the Countess, the King, and Diana, all have to face an "acceptance of death leading to fuller life," a point of reconciliation "reached only by self-sacrifice, by an acceptance of oneself as outcast and despised." Hunter concludes, "that the pattern is not fully achieved by Bertram is the major thematic failure of the play."30 Shakespeare, however, chose not to complete the parallel in such a neat fashion as this.

Though a relationship between the lesson learned by Parolles in the sub-plot and the concluding action of the main plot is not made explicit by Shakespeare, the episode of Parolles is intended to affect the way the ending works for us. What the unmasking of Parolles and his conversion to foolery adds is a badly needed note of optimism. We have seen that Bertram and Helena have achieved, at the conclusion of the play, a state of outward, but not entirely convincing, reconciliation. The conclusion lacks the weight and positiveness required to assure us that all indeed will be well, given the obstacles that seem to exist to a happy union between Bertram and Helena. But this uncertainty is relieved by Parolles—by his presence and by the memory of his previous scenes.

Parolles does not have a part in the dialogue at the very conclusion of the play, the last thirty lines. Yet he is not only present, but definitely a part of the concluding action of the play. Shakespeare's technique here, though used with less emphasis, is reminiscent of his ending Much Ado with the conclusion of the Benedick-Beatrice story. He turns the audience's attention from potential problems to a more satisfying emotional resolution. Parolles, accepting himself as he is, had earlier been received into the graces of Lafew. Now our attention is again directed toward this part of the plot, though it is a sub-plot.

Lafew's final speech aids the conclusion in several ways. His emotional reaction, "Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon" (V.iii.320), though comic, convinces us, as neither Bertrams's nor Helena's words have, that there is something genuine in this reunion. His request of a handkerchief from Parolles (rather than from someone else) is not without purpose: "Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher. So, I thank thee; wait on me home, I'll make sport with thee. Let thy curtsies alone, they are scurvy ones" (V.iii.321-24). The reference to "Good Tom Drum" is a brief reminder of the scenes where Parolles was humiliated because he offered to recapture his drum. The sight of Parolles dressed in smelly, muddy clothes is an additional reminder of his disgrace, and also of his self-acceptance. In the simple gesture of asking for a handkerchief, Lafew indicates his complete acceptance of Parolles. His scorn at the end is entirely good-humored, and his invitation to "make sport" is an invitation to laugh with him and not at him.

Parolles's "conversion" has helped establish the spirit of this comedy, and his presence in the last scene, a symbol of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, cannot but help influencing the audience's reaction to the scene. Even though Helena and Bertram do not make explicit application of Parolles's dictum, "There's place and means for every man alive," the audience should be in such a frame of mind. Bertram may have proved that Parolles's earlier description of him, "a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish" (IV.iii.215-16), was all too true, and he may now, in Helena's eyes, be far from the romantic hero she had doted on. Helena, for all the fine qualities the Countess had admired in her, may have become too persistent in her pursuit in the end. "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." But, if there's place and means for such as Parolles, there can well be place and means for such as Bertram and Helena to find happiness, in spite of their shortcomings.

In the ending of All 's Well, Shakespeare seems to have directly confronted the traditional romantic ending, where the marriage or reunion of hero and heroine is assumed to guarantee that all problems are resolved and that bliss will ensue for ever after. The ending of All's Well is constructed so that we cannot possibly project for Bertram and Helena the ecstatic happiness of the traditional romance—the happiness that was perhaps naively expected by Helena at the start of the play. But neither is the play entirely cynical about any possibility of happiness. Helena has matured, and Bertram may at least be at the threshold of maturity. We may expect happiness, but a much more subdued happiness than posited by romance—neither mate will be a perfect person. The happiness foreshadowed for Bertram and Helena may be similar to that expected by Parolles. He has not now the esteem he'd had; his goals and expectations are greatly reduced. But he has also not the constant pressure to seem a courtier nor the fear of being found out. He can live at peace with himself. "Though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat." So with Bertram and Helena, their goals and expectations may be modified. But within these limitations, why not expect that they will be happy? All may be well at the end of the play, but on very different terms from what was projected earlier in the play and from what romantic convention would tell us.


1 Hazelton Spencer, The Art and Life of William Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1940), p. 298.

2Leamington Spa Courier, vol. 24, April, 1959.

3 Richard Levin, "Refuting Shakespeare's Endings," MP 72 (May 1975):346.

4 Roger Warren, "Why Does It End Well? Helena, Bertram, and the Sonnets," Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969):79-92.

5 Ian Donaldson, "All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings," EIC 27, 1 (January 1977):34-55.

6 All quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

7 E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1925), p. 207.

8 Thomas Marc Parrott, Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949), pp. 351-52.

9 Barbara H. Smith, Poetic Closure (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 35, 121.

10 Spencer, p. 293.

11 Joseph G. Price, The Unfortunate Comedy (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1968), p. 133.

12 Ibid., p. 136.

13 G. B. Harrison, Introduction to All's Well in Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1948), p. 1019.

14 "I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram, a man noble without generosity, and young without truth, who marries Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness." Samuel Johnson, Notes to Shakespeare, 3 vols., the Augustan Reprint Society, vol. 1, no. 59-60, Comedies (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Univ. of California, 1956), p. 121.

15 Spencer, p. 298. A slightly more recent, though more qualified case for Bertram is made by Albert H. Carter, "In Defence of Bertram," SQ 7 (Winter 1965): 21-31.

16 Painter's version of the tale is reprinted in the Arden edition of All's Well, ed. G. K. Hunter (London: Methuen, 1959), pp. 145-52.

17 Spencer, p. 298.

18 Chambers, p. 203.

19 Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), pp. 153-66.

20 Richard A. Levin, "All's Well That Ends Well, and 'All Seems Well'," Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 131-44.

21 As an example, Bertrand Evans believes Helena's plan to be so stealthy that even in her soliloquies she is hiding her true motives from the audience (pp. 153-54). Such an assumption seems unwarranted; when a character voices a thought on stage with no other characters present to hear it, we typically interpret the soliloquy as a true expression of that person's state of mind. Thus, when Helena says, alone on stage,

No, come thou home, Rossilion,
Whence honor but of danger wins a scar,
As oft it loses all. I will be gone.
My being here it is that holds thee hence,

(III..ii. 120-23)

we can safely assume that she is not trying to hide from us a cunning plan to chase Bertram in Florence. Richard A. Levin asks, "does she cross paths with Bertram in Florence by chance or design?" (p. 137). I would claim that her going there in the hope of catching some glimpse of her beloved, but not necessarily with a preconceived plan of entrapment, is a sufficient motive, and also in character with her earlier-expressed spirit of adulation for Bertram.

22 Harold S. Wilson, "Dramatic Emphasis in All's Well That Ends Well," HLQ 13 (May 1950):236.

23 Evans, p. 166.

24 Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Sources (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 101.

25 Michael Shapiro dissects the line, "Both, both. O Pardon!" which he admits is "so short that most critics overlook it," claiming that it is "nothing less than the climax of the play." In the first two words he sees Bertram's full acceptance of Helena as his wife, both the name and the thing, and an implicit forgiveness of any wrongs of Helena; and in the second two words a request for forgiveness of all his former perversity. Granted the potential for meaning all these things, this seems a large burden for four words to bear when not pored over in the study, but heard spoken on the stage, no matter how gifted the actor. "The Web of Our Life: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well" JEGP 71 (October 1972): 522.

26 It may still be argued that the conditional phrasing of Bertram's and Helena's speeches was coincidental on Shakespeare's part. However, a close reading reveals other conditional statements at the close. The King's final words are strongly conditional: "All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet" (V.iii.33-34, emphasis mine). In the 1981 BBC production of All's Well, the King did emphasize "seems." And then, in the Epilogue, the King still speaks in the conditional: "All is well ended if this suit be won" (Epilogue, line 2).

27 Conceivably Helena could raise Bertram at this moment, and they could then embrace, as has been done in modern productions. But I would maintain that then the confrontation of Bertram by Helena with the evidence of her fulfillment of the conditions, ending with her question, "Will you be mine now you are doubly won?" (V.iii.314), would seem out of place and anti-climactic. In the 1981 BBC production, they embraced after Bertram's "ever, ever dearly." Such an action, however, interrupts Helena's balancing statement, "If it appear."

28 That Charles I found him the most memorable is indicated by the words "Monsieur Parolles" written opposite the title in his copy of the second folio.

29 E. M. Blistein, "The Object of Scorn: An Aspect of the Comic Antagonist," WER 14 (Spring 1960):212.

30 Hunter, pp. xxxvii-xxxviii.

Thomas Cartelli (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's 'Rough Magic': Ending as Artifice in All's Well That Ends Well," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 117-34.

[In the following essay, Cartelli suggests that the "problematic" ending of All's Well That Ends Well was purposely created by Shakespeare to prompt the audience to recognize its role as theater-goer, and notice the art of play making.]


The problem of closure in All's Well is not a new one. It has been with us since Dr. Johnson first characterized the play's ending as "improbably produced or imperfectly represented" and endures in such forms as Richard A. Levin's recent contention that "At the conclusion of All's Well, we look around the stage and see that a real reckoning has not taken place."1 And yet, as Ian Donaldson tells us, in no other play of Shakespeare's is the playwright more concerned with the problems of ending and endings as they concern both drama and life.2 Appropriately enough, Donaldson also tells us that despite Shakespeare's preoccupation with ending, the formal problem of dramatic closure is never fully resolved by the play-proper. Rather, "All's Well That Ends Well speaks constantly of an end which is not finally realized within its dramatic framework, but pushed forward beyond the play into an undramatized future, . . ."3 In short, the problem remains a problem still, at least insofar as we—as readers, as audiences—require the endings of our plays to confine themselves within the bounds of their dramatic frameworks.

Those who see All's Well trying to do just that, however imperfectly, have rationalized the play's predicament by associating the play with Shakespeare's more obviously successful experiments in kind. As G. K. Hunter has it:

Much of the perversity of the dénouement disappears if we see it as an attempt at the effects gradually mastered in the intervening comedies, and triumphantly achieved in The Winter's Tale, an attempt foiled in All's Well by stylistic and constructional methods inappropriate to the genre.4

Working from much the same perspective as Hunter, Richard Wheeler instructively looks backward as well as forward in his own testimony to All's Well's failure to achieve the "controlled unity" only a minority of scholars has claimed for it. Placing the play against the backdrop of Shakespeare's earlier comedies, Wheeler argues that 'All's Well... is unable to absorb entirely the pressures of a changed psychological condition with dramatic strategies rooted in festive comic form."5

Briefly summarized, the arguments broached by Hunter and Wheeler commonly designate All's Well as a transitional moment in Shakespeare's development as a playwright, as a rather shaky bridge between the festive comedies and the late romances. Employing an unbalanced mixture of the now inappropriate strategies of festive comedy and the insufficiently mastered methods of late romance, All's Well is incapable, the composite argument goes, of resolving the problems it raises in any psychologically convincing or smoothly stylized manner. Important and illuminating as this argument is, it does not, despite Hunter's suggestion to the contrary, make much of the perversity of the dénouement disappear, much less help us to contend with whatever perversity (if perversity it be) remains after the relevance of the argument is exhausted. An auditor or reader of All's Well who is, for instance, unversed in the triumphant achievement of The Winter's Tale is not likely to be consoled by being told that the best comes later. Comparisons of All's Well with the festive comedies and late romances are, in this respect, most helpful when they enable us to isolate and distill exactly what effects the play is aiming at on its own, and to determine how and in what peculiar way it attempts to achieve them.


It is common currency that the endings of plays generally tend to call attention to the artifice of playmaking itself. In Shakespeare especially, an audience or reader is always and ever made aware that a play is moving towards closure when loose threads begin to be tied, mysteries unraveled, and heroes and villains meet their respective noble and ignoble ends. This awareness usually effects the gradual withdrawal of the audience from complete engagement with the cultivated illusion on the stage and prepares it, in Erving Goffman's terms, to forego its role as involved "onlooker" in favor of reassuming the more disinvolved role of "theatergoer" in which status the audience first entered the theater.6 In the festive comedies and late romances, Shakespeare negotiates his audience's transformation with no discernible difficulty. The fact that most of us have little problem accepting the endings of these plays as endings attests to his success in integrating the artifice of closure with the reassumption of our original roles as disillusioned theatergoers and with the expectations about closure we have conceivably developed in the course of the production. The endings of such plays are, in the words of Barbara Herrnstein Smith, 'clinched' or 'secured' in a manner that conforms rather faithfully to the generic description of closure, in Smith's words,

In most novels and plays the themes are defined in the reader's perception with considerable certainty as the work unfolds, and his experience of the conclusion follows accordingly. If the conclusion confirms the hypothesis suggested by the work's thematic structure, closure will be to that extent secure; .. . In other words, the end of a play or novel will not appear as an arbitrary cut-off if it leaves us at a point where, with respect to the themes of the work, we feel that we know all there is to know.7

As Smith describes it, secure closure depends upon and is virtually synonymous with the intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction of the audience. It is a form of artifice that calls attention to its own status as skillful contrivance, but remains sufficiently consistent with the themes it brings to conclusion that it does not strike the audience as unduly artificial or contrived.

If it is, indeed, secure, closure also maintains an ongoing rhythm with the audience's emerging self-consciousness as it sheds the illusion of involvement in anticipation of the sundering of the world of the play. In his deliberately controversial article on contemporary refuters of Shakespeare's endings, Richard Levin defines this rhythm as "the rhythm of the ending," which rhythm Levin finds "unmistakable in most of Shakespeare's plays and those of his contemporaries":

The repentances and reformations, the reconciliations and restitutions, the distribution of rewards and punishments, the marriages, the festive dance or feast, .. . all operate together very powerfully to create it, and as we get swept along in it we naturally tend to assume—unless there are equally powerful indications to the contrary—that the reformations are genuine, that the marriages are permanent . . . that any leftover details will be taken care of, and the final settlement is final.8

The predictable response to Levin's defense of Shakespeare's endings, at least insofar as All's Well is concerned, involves arguing that there are, indeed, "powerful indications to the contrary" in the play which, as it were, break the rhythm of its ending and add a dissonant note to its closural proceedings. If this were the case, then in Smith's terms, the ending of All's Well would present itself as "an arbitrary cut-off," a distinctly ungratifying disclosure that subverts the play's dramatic integrity.

Although I am quite willing to concede that the closure of All's Well is problematic, I am unwilling to do so on the grounds that it is inorganic, arbitrary, rhythmically disruptive, or insufficiently worked-up. Rather, I proceed from the assumption that the problem of closure in All's Well involves the possibly oversubtle operation of Shakespeare's self-consciousness about the role of the playwright as problem-solver upon our conventional expectations about what makes dramatic closure secure, what constitutes the appropriate rhythm of an ending. The entire movement towards closure in All's Well effectively represents a self-reflexive experiment in ending which Shakespeare seems to have undertaken in an effort to maintain a rhythm consistent with his play's eccentric design. What conspicuously distinguishes the ending of All's Well from the endings of the festive comedies and late romances is, of course, its apparent suddenness and speed, what Donaldson calls "the drastic foreshortening of its final twenty-five lines," which foreshortening communicates a psychological as well as dramatic compression.9 This foreshortening is, however, symptomatic of the prevailing design of the play as a whole which, unlike the designs of the late romances, does not explicitly smooth out whatever wrinkles the action of the drama may occasion in the minds of its beholders. As Richard Wheeler has noted, "whereas the late romances achieve a design that calls out the fullest dramatic possibilities of. . . immersion in the miraculous and which protects it from the psychological hazards it evokes, All's Well does not."10

All's Well's failure to protect itself "from the psychological hazards it evokes" has the virtue of drawing out into the open the ever-simmering conflict between the roughness and intractability of human nature and the smoothness and stability that the artful magic of dramatic manipulation would like to impose upon it. It forces the audience into an enhanced awareness of the seams and joints of playmaking devices and compels the audience to play a more attentive role in its own transformation from onlooker to theatergoer. Indeed, as early as IV,iv Shakespeare begins to divide our collective attention between the ongoing process of Helena's problem-solving (which is itself predominantly concerned with the problem of closure) and the far end of the course she has set for herself: "All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown./Whate'er the course, the end is the renown" (IV,iv,35-36).11 Moreover, what we experience through Helena, from the very start of the play, is the charting of a difficult course of fantasy-fulfillment which, like playmaking itself, thrives as much on obstacles, setbacks, and confusion as on ends and means.

In its basic outlines, All's Well constitutes a very elaborate confirmatory fantasy: that is, a fantasy that not only desires, but requires, confirmation. Although the idea is my own, it is partially indebted to Roger Warren's persuasive documentation of the closeness of this play's emotional interests to the passions that frequently break the surface of the more private world of the sonnets.12 As a dramatic utterance, artfully crafted and skillfully sublimated, All's Well, of course, operates in a broader, more public field of reference than do the sonnets: in a field of 'others' who resist and recoil from the impulse towards mastery and possession. It is, in short, a play, first and foremost, and, as a play, must rely on the most conventional dramatic strategies to have its starting fantasy—namely, the 'rightness' of Helena's love for Bertram—fulfilled. Fulfilling the fantasy dramatically is clearly a more involved task than simply dwelling upon it privately or poetically. Not only must the immediate object of desire—in this instance, Bertram—be won over, but so too must a correspondingly resistant audience that is less apt than Helena to believe unconditionally in the justice of her dramatic cause. In order to counter this resistance and, eventually, to break it down entirely, Shakespeare needs to make the audience an accomplice in the common quest for an ending that fulfills the audience's need for dramatic and emotional satisfaction, but does not do so at the expense of protecting the audience fully from the psychological disproportion such satisfaction entails. He requires to this end the audience's surrender of its conventional expectations about dramatic wholeness, about closures so securely enforced that no loose ends peep out: a surrender that becomes equivalent to a theatrical act of faith in the rough magic of artifice by which the play effects its confirmation of Helena's fantasy. Helena's confidence that her fantasy will be confirmed—"Though time seem so adverse and means unfit"—is, for that matter, the same kind of confidence we all bring with us when we go to the theater to see a comedy. It exploits, in other words, our reason for going to the theater in the first place, reminds us that the play is a play, is play. Helena is, in this respect, an obvious playwright-figure insofar as her attempt to master, control, and otherwise manipulate a cast of characters that ranges from the Duchess, the King, and Bertram at the start of the play to Diana, the widow, and Bertram again at the end, gives us insight into the ways in which Shakespeare attempts to master, control, and manipulate our own response to the broader fantasy that is the play as a whole.13


All well and good, but given the abundance of critical dissent on the ending of the play, it would seem that Shakespeare has not made his reminder nearly explicit enough. In placing so great a burden on the ending, Shakespeare has, perhaps, cast in overly bold relief what generally constitutes the most fragile and vulnerable device in the fine art of playmaking. And unconventional considerations to the contrary, what is really potentially dark about this play is not its theme or themes so much as its insistence on confirming an extravagant romantic fantasy which most of us assume could not be confirmed outside the framework of the play-proper, or would not be confirmed in so sudden and promising a manner if it could be confirmed at all. I employ the proverbial designation "dark" in this context because it seems to me that our anxieties as playgoers are not only aroused by what we discern to be "too realistic," but can be provoked when our inmost, hence, most frequently forsaken fantasies are made capable of realization in a world not totally divorced from, but significantly foreign to, our own. To the extent that the world of All's Well remains or becomes foreign to us as the play moves towards closure, our own remains or becomes "dark," empty of the possibilities the play confirms.

My logic here is, admittedly, tricky, so I will try another angle. If the closure of All's Well is deemed more ingenious than ingenuous, the reader or spectator is apt to become more aware than he would be normally of the disparities between art and life, illusion and reality. His sense of ending as a variety of cheating fantasy may darken his conception of the already comparatively restricted possibilities of life outside the theater and, moreover, may undercut the mimetic claims and capacities of the play itself. If, on the other hand, the artifice of ending is felt to be relatively inobtrusive, if it sufficiently transcends its obvious condition as dramatic device so as to seem ingenuous, the reader or spectator is apt to remain relatively unconcerned about the disparities between art and life and is apt, moreover, to engage himself more unconditionally in the fantasy fulfillment afforded by the play-at-hand. Having gone this far, I should now like to take perhaps the even more untenable step of contending that in the last scene of All's Well Shakespeare manages a balancing act that bridges the gap between my two paradigmatic possibilities: makes us acutely conscious of the artifice of ending as a means towards gratifying our desire for emotional satisfaction and secure closure.

Broadly speaking, V,iii presents us with three successive versions of ending: the first a "false" happy ending; the second an equally false tragi-comic ending; and the third our ever problematic ending-proper which is, I believe, "true" insofar as it is earned, but which spills over into a fourth, extra-dramatic ending in the person of the Epilogue. The first version of ending constitutes a rather brutal parody of the conventional happy ending and requires—without being able to command—the same kind of forgiving and forgetting as the endings of the festive comedies require and usually command. As such, it calls immediate attention to its palpable falsity, to its status as an artificial construct imposed from on high by the King of France who records a veritable inventory of the rhetoric of ending as he sets about the business of closure: "I have forgiven and forgotten all" (9); "We are reconcil'd" (21); "The time is fair again" (36); "All is whole" (37). An attentive audience should, for its part, remark the grudging, uneasy undertone at the base of each of these statements, and should especially recoil at the transparently artificial cast of so blatant a piece of rhetorical cant as "All is whole." Cant, however, is the word of the day in this first movement towards closure and, if it is grudgingly delivered by the King, Bertram virtually luxuriates in the rhetoric of courtly duplicity as he protests his love for the ever-behind-the-scenes Maudlin and the long-suffering Helena:

. . . At first
I stuck my choice upon her, ere my heart
Durst make too bold a herald of my tongue;
Where, the impression of mine eye infixing,
Contempt his scornful perspective did lend me,
Which warp'd the line of every other favour,
Scorn'd a fair colour or express'd it stol'n,
Extended or contracted all proportions
To a most hideous object. Thence it came
That she whom all men prais'd, and whom myself
Since I have lost, have lov'd, was in mine eye
The dust that did offend it.


What Shakespeare is doing here is providing his audience with a supremely negative representation of the artifice of closure; he is compelling the audience to remark and register the beguiling ways in which style can impose itself on and blot out substance.

But substance will out, even in the midst of the King's attempt to eschew it once and for all. And when it does, this little scenario begins to melt before our willing eyes:

. . . Our rash faults
Make trivial price of serious things we have,
Not knowing them until we know their grave.
Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust,
Destroy our friends and after weep their dust;
Our own love waking cries to see what's done,
While shameful hate sleeps out the afternoon.
Be this sweet Helen's knell, and now forget her.


"Helen's knell," indeed! How do we forget it once it starts ringing? The first seven lines of this passage cut out the ground beneath the eighth and turn the King's desire to "make an end" on its head as comic forgetfulness sinks beneath the weight of tragic awareness. And as it sinks, so too perhaps does our conventional faith in comedy's smooth ways of dealing with the resistance of tragic circumstance. It is, I submit, with an answering sigh of relief from all of us that the King proceeds to tear his own poor excuse for an ending to tatters over the question of Helena's ring. This temporary sundering of falsity has the added effect of schooling the audience in the psychology and mechanics of ending, of making it ill-at-ease with easy solutions and the most palpable devices of plays. Having witnessed the King's own anxiety about patching the holes of a tragic reality with the cloth of comic forgetfulness, the audience conceivably gains insight into the inadequacy of wrapping complicated dramatic packages into neat bundles, brightly be-ribboned and pleasant to look upon. It consequently becomes more skeptical and more demanding as the difficulties of making a satisfactory end mount.


Shakespeare contends with these difficulties not by intensifying the tragic dimensions of the situation, but by reverting to the even more artificial device of the play-within-a-play, beginning with the entrance of the wronged Diana. Upon the reading aloud of her letter—which is, of course, scripted by the true deviser of these revels, Helena—the audience is cued to the commencement of a more satisfactory movement towards closure. Whether it takes that cue or not is, however, dependent upon its response to Bertram whose callousness in side-stepping Diana's indictment makes him seem increasingly not worth the effort expended upon him. Yet effort is expended, and it is expended in a remarkably playful way, given the superficial seriousness of the proceedings. Within the appropriate confines of the play-within-a-play, Shakespeare places Bertram's continued resistance to Helena's wish-fulfillment fantasy in a context in which he is, in the words of Diana, "guilty" and "not guilty" at one and the same time. A completely unsavory Bertram is clearly not in the best interests of secure closure, but neither is a Bertram who is redeemed or redeemable before the time allotted to his dramatic redemption. His present resistance, though it issues in the baldest lies and continues to fasten on the worst excesses of aristocratic chauvinism, is in its way analogous to our own in the face of unconvincingly mediated closure. Although Diana serves as an attractive and appealing stand-in for Helena, she neither embodies for Bertram the moral force soon to be commanded by Helena, nor for the audience the dramatic goal towards which the energies of the play have been tending. Appropriately, as soon as this playlet reaches its climax—with Parolles' testimony on behalf of Diana—it too begins to break apart. This second version of ending fails, as it must, when Diana refuses to fulfill the perverted fantasy she has had Parolles confirm and implicitly calls attention to the artifice of her own playmaking. Even more appropriately, the frustrated King responds to Diana's apparent double-dealing like a fickle playgoer who has not heard what he has come to the theater to hear: "Take her away. I do not like her now" (V,iii,275).14 In stepping out of her allotted role, Diana puts another crimp in the King's attempt to "make all whole" and again alerts the audience to the inherent difficulty of making things whole within either the province of drama or life. Her reversion to paradox in the face of both the King's and the audience's need for facts to hang on to operates as a conditioning device in regard to our reception of the next attempt at ending which ensues. Wholeness may not, she seems to instruct, be a commodity that is ours for the asking, given the skewed logic of the turns of the heart and, especially, of the turns of this play.

With the ruins of two false endings littering the stage and the language of paradox sounding in all ears—"Dead though she be she feels her young one kick./So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick" (V,iii,296-97)—Helena is finally resurrected in grand fashion to the instant puzzlement and relief of the King and Bertram respectively. I note the responses of these two representatives of the play's onstage audience in the same breath because each of them embodies the competing impulses of our hypothetical offstage audience that conceivably looks on with a greater sense of understanding and detachment than the two characters can command. The King is at once a frustrated stagemanager and spectator whose desire for secure closure and the appearance of wholeness has made him incapable of fully recognizing and confirming the "true" ending when it actually occurs: "Is there no exorcist/ Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?/Is't real that I see?" (V,iii,298-300), he asks as the appearance of someone for whom he has made no provision disarms him of any control over the situation. For his part, Bertram embodies, in a paradoxical manner, both the audience's previous resistance to confirm Helena's romantic fantasy and its newly-schooled resistance to the artificial endings negotiated first by the King, and then by Diana. Consequently, when he now confirms Helena's fantasy by giving body to "the shadow of a wife" the King had conjured up but could not give life to much earlier in the play, we too are encouraged to overcome our own earlier resistance and confirm that fantasy with him:

Helena. No, my good lord;
'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see;
The name and not the thing.
Bertram. Both, both. O pardon!


Although this is precisely the moment in the play to which the now conventional designation "dark comedy" is indebted, I see Bertram's response documenting the exact moment when what amounts to secure closure in this play is clinched. The suddenness of his apparent transformation may remain a problem for normative psychology to solve, but not insofar as the psychology of theatrical experience is concerned.15 For Bertram is not simply speaking for himself as the words "Both, both" leave his mouth. Rather, he is speaking as well for an audience that has now been conditioned to receive so sudden and seemingly spontaneous a turn as the only acceptable way of negotiating this play's closure. Given its status as privileged spectator, endowed with ample knowledge about the behind-thescenes maneuvering of Helena, the audience cannot be expected to reciprocate the sense of surprise or intimation of the miraculous that informs Bertram's response to Helena's "resurrection." But it can, in all likelihood, respond in kind to the sudden breakdown of Bertram's resistance to Helena and to the fulfillment of her dramatic design which that breakdown confirms.

We are, I believe, meant to be surprised and surprised pleasantly by the simplicity of Bertram's response which follows in the track of so much complexity and complication: surprised by the simple fact that two bodies coming to terms with each other on the stage can do more to persuade us than a more prolonged interaction or a greater showering of words. At the same time we are meant to (indeed, made to) remain aware that the apparent simplicity of this ending is only apparent, that it is indebted to the most conventional and conspicuous theatrical devices: a bed-trick, the confused exchange of rings, mistaken identities, etc.—indebted to, but, significantly, not finally identified with them since these devices provide only a means to an end. This cultivated sense of simplicity encourages us to accept the few last words allotted to Bertram—"If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly/I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly" (V,iii,309-310)—not with the smirk of superior sophistication, or with condescension for Bertram's inability to turn a well-honed blank-verse epigram, but with relief that he says nothing more studied to disturb our collective gratification at a fantasy fulfilled.

If I have presented Bertram as little more than a cipher in an elaborate theatrical design, it is not because I am unaware of the threat he has traditionally posed to the play's attempt to secure closure, but because I believe that Shakespeare has mastered or, at least, controlled that threat by making the breakdown of Bertram's resistance a shared dramatic event. Bertram responds positively to the revelation of Helena, not because he has in the space of three stage-minutes come to terms psychologically with a problem which would probably remain unresolvable in life outside the theater, but because in the foreshortened drama of the stage he has been made capable of distinguishing true endings from false ones. Like the audience—and, moreover, with it—he has been schooled to recognize the true face of closure when he sees it. Drama, and the drama of closure particularly, is the therapy that breaks down his and, conceivably, our own resistance. Bertram's inability to believe is, in short, mastered when he is given something to believe in that makes dramatic sense, however great the psychological disparity between his starting and concluding positions remains.16

The breakdown of Bertram's resistance does not, in other words, make Bertram whole, a completely realized or thoroughly understandable character or commodity. But making things whole is not, finally, the purpose or intention of this play, a lesson that the King, who continues to arbitrate the ending, has failed to master. If, in our scheme of things, Bertram's response embodies the collective breakdown of the audience's resistance to the dramatic fulfillment of Helena's fantasy, then the King, in his lust for wholeness, embodies the competing desire, which we attribute to playwrights and audiences alike, to tie all loose threads together in the manner of the conventional comic ending: "Let us from point to point in this story know / To make the even truth in pleasure flow" (V,iii,319-320). The King is operating here like a frustrated playwright who needs to realign the steps to conclusion in order, first, to make the truth "even" and, then, to make it yield the kind of "pleasure" which he clearly feels is lacking in the present state of resolution. He is also operating in much the way that an audience, weaned on the general satisfactions of the festive comedies or late romances, might operate in the face of a dramatic resolution that has insufficiently combined psychological truth with dramatic pleasure. In either respect, he is calling the latest device of ending into question, "darkening" the dramatic resolution that has just been achieved by distrusting its efficacy and staying power, and by communicating that distrust to the audience.

He communicates his distrust by reintroducing a note of complexity into the now simplified rhythm of an ending that can hardly brook question if it is to maintain its newly-acquired balance. Observe, for instance, his reversion to the play's characteristically inverted syntax in the last two lines he utters within the confines of the play-proper: "All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,/The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet" (V,iii,327-28). The King's replacement of Helena's "All's well" refrain with "All yet seems well" has given many a reader and scholar pause, especially given the phrase's crucial placement at the exact close of the drama. But the syntactical ambiguity of what immediately follows—"and if it end so meet,/The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet"—is even more striking since it represents the King's defensive attempt to manufacture positive significance and pleasure out of an alliance of "bitter" with "sweet" with which he is clearly uneasy. This casting about by the King on the shoals of rhetorical inversion, as the "flourish" signaled by the stage-direction sounds around him, threatens to undercut, rather than to confirm our faith in the closure Helena has already negotiated. I say "undercut" because in attempting to smooth out paradox and redeem retrospectively the plain facts as we know them, the King proposes an obviously rationalized formula for ending that promises the kinds of conventional satisfactions that are not actually offered by the ending-at-hand. The King is, indeed, a playwright-figure as he goes about the tricky business of trying to bring the "bitter past" to a "more welcome" close. But he is not, for that reason alone, a surrogate for the playwright, Shakespeare, who seems to prefer the comparatively improvisatory art of Helena which promises only a "plain" and not necessarily "even" truth. The King is a character in the play, first and foremost, a character who from start to finish is preoccupied with attempts at mastering or controlling uneven circumstances and events. And it is as such a character that he attempts to encapsulate and formularize the resolution of an event that resists the retrospective imposition of wholeness just as surely as it resisted the false endings that preceded it.

In an apparent effort to qualify the King's notions about what does and does not constitute secure closure, Shakespeare takes the not unusual expedient of having the King step out of character in the play's Epilogue:

The king's a beggar, now the play is done;
All is well ended if this suit be won,
That you express content; which we will pay
With strife to please you, day exceeding day.
Ours be your patience then and yours our parts;
Your gentle hands lend us and take our hearts.

In his altogether indispensable essay on All's Well as a "play of endings," Ian Donaldson sees Shakespeare sustaining here "the notion of apparent endings into the very last moments of theatrical experience:" that is, the notion that since all endings in this play are equally "apparent," they are all equally open, incomplete, unresolved, and unresolving.17 Although I owe an obvious debt to Donaldson's observations, I cannot follow him in praise of inconclusiveness. In the first place, the speech spoken out-of-character in the Epilogue does not really echo or amplify the sentiments expressed in the speech spoken in character by the King of France a few moments before. In each instance, we do have, as Donaldson notices, a marked emphasis on the "if-ness" or conditionality of things. But in the second speech we have also a subtle displacement of the King's "seems" by the Epilogue's "is", a substitution that is notably consistent with the form of the phrase favored by Helena. In short, if the Epilogue echoes anyone, it echoes Helena for whom the play is well ended when Bertram speaks the magic words "Both, both," whose analogues the Epilogue is soliciting from the audience when it sues for an expression of contentedness. The point is that what the King, in character, could not retrospectively order or command can only be legislated by the audience itself in its willingness to accept the dramatic foreshortening of the play's ending and to become active participants in securing the play's closure. The Epilogue thus serves the extra-dramatic function of having reconfirmed by the theatergoer what has, presumably, been already confirmed by the onlooker. Although we are, as Donaldson states, "beyond the formal closure of the play" in the province of the Epilogue, we are not there to elongate the ending into eternal inconclusiveness. Rather, we are there to register our own triumph as theatergoers over the darkness that descends upon those who, like the King, cannot take the ending for what it is: a form of rough magic, that is no less magical for being rough.


We are now ready to return to an earlier point that has, perhaps, been lost sight of and so make an end of our own. I argued earlier that to the extent that the device of ending sticks out as a form of "arbitrary cut-off or transparent artifice, our conception of the play as a whole and of its ending in particular is apt to darken. Now I believe that Shakespeare was, in his way, every bit as aware as we are of this possibility, and that the measure of his awareness can be taken by seeing the King as its exponent. I would contend, moreover, that the crucial role delegated to the King in closing out the play-proper, in having what becomes the penultimate word in respect to the Epilogue that follows, suggests that Shakespeare did not wish to drown dark possibility in the warm bath of secure closure. The darkness is there, and will remain there so long as we have this play before us. It constitutes a conspicuous and instructive reminder that the artifice of ending is, in the end, no more than artifice and cannot, therefore, be of much help to us in negotiating our own endings in our lives outside the theater. But "dark possibility" is not, finally, the prevailing impression with which the play, as play, is geared to leave us. The felt closure carefully cultivated by Shakespeare in the prolonged movement towards ending and the reconfirmation of that closure ingenuously effected by the Epilogue frame and contain the King's and our own uneasiness in a more than merely linear manner. They master and control it by means of one of the strongest appeals commanded by drama—theatrical appeal, the invitation to participate in a fantasy fulfilled—in much the way that the artifice of ending breaks down and, eventually, masters our original resistance which is conquered, finally, by the gratification of our desire—as theatergoers and onlookers alike—to make truths that are and always will remain uneven "in pleasure flow."


1 Samuel Johnson, "Preface to Shakespeare" in Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), pp. 71-72; Richard A. Levin, "All's Well That Ends Well, and 'All Seems Well'." ShakS 13 (1980), p. 142.

2 See Ian Donaldson, "All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings," EIC 27 (1977), pp. 34-55.

3 Donaldson, p. 52.

4 G. K. Hunter, "Critical Introduction," New Arden All's Well That Ends Well (London: Methuen, 1967), p. iv.

5 Richard Wheeler, "The King and the Physician's Daughter: All's Well That Ends Well and the Late Romances," CompD 8:4 (1974-75), p. 324; see also Wheeler's expanded analysis of the play in his recent Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 35-91. The term "controlled unity" belongs to Nicholas Brooke who is, perhaps, the most formidable of that minority of scholars to which I refer. In an essay entitled "All's Well That Ends Well," ShS 30 (1977), Brooke contends that "far from being a play that falls apart," All's Well "has a controlled unity of a kind rare even in Shakespeare" (83).

6 See Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), pp. 129-130. I am indebted to Duncan Harris for bringing Goffman's distinction to my attention in his contribution to the seminar on the psychology of theatrical experience in which we both participated at the recent International Shakespeare Congress. Harris applies the distinction to the endings of plays in the following passage from his unpublished essay, "Ending the Play and Leaving the Theater: The Dissolution of Audience": " . . . one might expect to find in the closing movement of a play features which, while consistent with or required by the action and aesthetics of the fiction, also affect one of the difficulties specific to the situation of the audience as audience: the transformation of the dominant role of a member of an audience from onlooker to theatergoer."

7 Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 120.

8 Richard Levin, "Refuting Shakespeare's Endings," MP 72:4 (1975), p. 345.

9 Donaldson, p. 53.

10 Wheeler, "The King and the Physician's Daughter," p. 324.

11 All quotations from the text of the play are taken from the New Arden All's Well That Ends Well (London: Methuen, 1967), edited by G. K. Hunter.

12 See Roger Warren, "Why Does it End Well? Helena, Bertram, and the Sonnets," ShS 22 (1969), pp 79-92.

13 See Richard A. Levin, "'All Seems Well'," whose entire essay is devoted to demonstrating how Helena manipulates the other characters throughout the course of the play.

14 Cf. Donaldson: "Diana's interview with the king, her teasing and riddling answers, tantalizingly interrupt his determined course of action, pushing it away into the realms of 'not yet,' . . ." (51).

15 One of the problems encountered by the psychoanalytically inclined critic of drama is the temptation to impose normative psychological constructs upon the abnormative conditions of theatrical experience. There is, I would argue, a crucial difference between how characters behave in plays and how people behave in everyday life—between how audiences behave in theaters and how they behave in their homes—that must be observed if psychoanalytic criticism is to prove as potent an interpretive instrument as it can be. In the present instance, Bertram's abbreviated response to Helena is a direct consequence of the conventional shorthand employed by dramatists to compress the normally slow transformations of mood or character we all experience into the necessarily brief stage-moment that is all the time drama can afford to portray them. Responding to this shorthand on its own terms, as an attempt to simplify and distill an otherwise complicated psychological event, and not as an incomplete behavioral profile that poses many more questions than it resolves, is what ultimately distinguishes the psychology of theatrical experience from normative psychology.

16 Cf. Brooke: "The ending here is . . . right for the dominant tone of the play, the limiting and very precise application of a naturalistic vision to a magical motif (79).

17 Donaldson, p. 52.

Social Class

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9129

Sheldon P. Zitner (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Power and Status," in Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, pp. 40-86.

[In the following excerpt, Zitner examines the contemporary social conventions that underscore the action of All's Well That Ends Well.]

All's Well opens with a social thunderclap which has been muffled by the passage of social history. It is doubtful that historical reconstruction alone will enable a modern audience to feel at once, though it may help us to 'appreciate', the intensity that hovers about the speeches at the very beginning of the first scene of All's Well, a moment in any case subject to neglect because of the audience's yet unfocused attention. The Countess is losing her son, not because in the ordinary course of the life of a peer he must go off to the kind of civil finishing school constituted by court attendance, but because his father has died. What adds to her grief at the loss of her husband is that the Countess is being treated as a non-mother, for purposes of law an unperson, and her son—foolish as she knows him to be—made a kind of artificial orphan. When she says that her son is an 'unseasoned' courtier, the Countess is concerned with Bertram's particular limitations, but she is also stating that he is simply not ready to leave the nest. This accounts for the gracious warmth of Lafew's reassurances. It accounts, too, for the very presence of Lafew, an old comrade of the King's, as the King's agent. Sending him is a royal compliment also intended as reassurance to the Countess.

The seriousness of the occasion—which Elizabethan audiences would have grasped as modern audiences do not—somewhat mitigates the petulance of Bertram's first speech. Bertram, too, in going mourns again his father's death because of its effect on his future; if only the old man had lived until Bertram was twentyone! (Like Helena he overlays mourning with a more selfish reflexive grief.) The old Count of Rossillion should have died hereafter, when Bertram was twentyone and could have inherited, and had the management of himself and his estates. Now Bertram 'must attend his majesty's command', to whom he is 'now in ward, evermore in subjection'. The rhythm of the clause, three almost equally long units, parallel in the speaking and hence cumulatively emphatic, each unit ending on a significant word, 'command', 'ward', 'subjection', conveys its heavy tone. What an actor does with the phrase 'evermore in subjection' will depend on his sense of Bertram's virtual age. A Bertram of twenty saying 'evermore' is petulant; a Bertram of seventeen, with four years of fending off authority ahead of him, might be excused the phrase.

What sort of treatment lies ahead of Bertram as ward is evidenced almost at once. 'What is it, my good lord, the King languishes of?' Bertram asks Lafew, taking care that the honorific term of address is extended by the deferential 'my good' and emphasised by its interruption of the typical flow of syntax. Lafew answers considerately but laconically and with the minimal term of politeness. 'A fistula, my lord.' But Bertram persists in this line of questioning, which has rather inconsiderately interrupted the exchange between Lafew and the Countess concerning Helena's late father, the great physician Gerard de Narbon. Not only has young Bertram breached etiquette, but he has intruded on a subject of particular import to old people—health. When Bertram goes on with this breach, commenting on the King's fistula that 'I heard not of it before', he gets a smart flick of the lash. Turning briefly to him, Lafew responds with 'I would it were not notorious', which is as much as to say, 'You, young man, are one of the outsiders I hoped would not be gossiping about the King's intimate affairs'. And then without pause, addressing the Countess, Lafew compounds the slight by actually noticing the lowly Helena. Bertram is triply rebuked. This seems to promise that at the Court his interruptions will get no motherly indulgence; his concern that as a figure of importance he be kept au courant will be treated as presumption, and he will discover that a mere doctor's daughter can be at least as much an object of polite interest as the ward-heir to Rossillion. After the Countess has satisfied Lafew's question and the audience's about Helena, Bertram speaks again, in what may be taken as a further interruption. Lafew again turns on him: 'How understand we that?' The Countess prevents a reply by granting Bertram her blessing, but in a form that initially is also a half-implied rebuke, bidding Bertram succeed his father in manners as he does in appearance. The Countess hopes for her son precisely that character she has just attributed to Helena, but where her description of Helena is hopeful, her wish for Bertram is stated in terms of a struggle unresolved. She follows her blessing with a few practical rules that seem irrelevant in view of the larger unresolved problems she sees in Bertram's character, and the passage ends with a gloomy plea to Lafew: 'good my lord/Advise him.' Lafew's answer, hardly reassuring, is a cryptic prediction that the Count Bertram will get the best he deserves.

Bertram's exit speech, a rather condescending instruction to Helena to be 'comfortable' to his mother, underlines his insistence on her inferior rank in the unnecessary reminder that the Countess is 'your mistress'. The tirelessly alert Lafew makes Bertram's snobbery unmistakable by immediately and graciously addressing Helena: 'Farewell, pretty lady; you must hold the credit of your father.' Both Lafew's epithet and his redefinition of Helena's task as not that of a servant, but an inheritor, and one who must hold, that is continue rather than, as Bertram must, achieve a reputation, are subtle compliments. In this first part of the scene Bertram does not escape Lafew's scrutiny for a moment. His wardship has indeed begun, and we now learn that 'evermore in subjection' can also mean subjection every moment. The BBC All's Well showed Bertram at the Court in Act 2 carrying a large flask evidently filled with the King's urine. The image is a striking visual correlative of Bertram's status as royal ward.

The most telling exercise of the King's power is, of course, his enforcing of Bertram's marriage to Helena. Helena's preparation for her choice is carefully presented. In Painter the King promises Giletta a husband 'of right good worship and estimation', which accurately renders Boccaccio's equally modest and general phrase 'bene e altamente'. As she negotiates her reward for curing the King, the terms she employs indicate that Shakespeare is precisely aware of the King's powers over his wards. Helena will request as husband only 'such a one, thy vassal, whom I know/Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow'. She is careful to eliminate from her choice any of the King's children or 'other of your blood'. Here Shakespeare follows both Painter and Boccaccio. That he can follow his fourteenth-century original so closely on this point and be clearly understood in early seventeenth-century terms is due to a historical anomaly: the long persistence of medieval land-tenure in England. Hence the importance of Helena's use of the triggering phrase, 'thy vassal'. As a tenant-in-chief, Bertram inherits Rossillion in exchange for military service, hence his wardship and his vulnerability to the King's wishes. Helena's, and Giletta's, exclusion of members of the royal house from her choice is a reasonable precaution against 'disparagement'. But is the King free to bestow any of his wards on Helena without risking the objection of misalliance? To pursue the question is not to forget that these are fictive creatures but to consider Shakespeare's imaginative alteration of Boccaccio's materials.

Giletta was rich, an heiress, something of a 'catch' if we are to believe the solicitude of her kinsfolk, her many suitors and the description of her setting off on pilgrimage 'well furnished with silver and precious Jewels, with her maide, and one of her kinsemen'. Giletta may content 'her selfe, with the state of a poor pilgrime', but this is a matter of policy. Helena, however, is heiress only to a set of medical prescriptions. Her 'friends' (i.e. relatives) 'were poor, but honest', as she protests to the Countess. When she sets off to Paris she requires, and receives, 'Means and attendants' from the Countess, on whom she is completely dependent. Helena proclaims herself 'wealthiest' in her modest chastity. Bertram's phrase 'A poor physician's daughter' is echoed by the King, who determines to add honour and wealth to the virtue that is Helena's dowry. In short Shakespeare is at great pains to alter his source in this detail of Helena's wealth—with all its implications for social status—while keeping much else as it is in Boccaccio.

To reinvent the heiress Giletta as a poor physician's Helena was to alter what was marginally conceivable as a marriage in early seventeenth-century England to what was imaginable only in fiction; to alter a social curiosity into something close to a fairy-tale. Around 1604 the terms 'poor physician' and 'poor physician's daughter' would have been almost as much an oxymoron as today. . . .

The scene in which Helena proposes the cure is full of invocations of the spiritual. The introduction of rhymed couplets at II. i. 129 underscores the other-worldliness of the scene. Through several long speeches full of references to the deity, writ and miracles, Helena's argument is that the King's cure must be the work of heaven: 'Of heaven, not me, make an experiment.' We are never told Helena's medical procedure, but it is surely as extraordinary as its result. Giletta's plan goes forward in mechanical fashion; Shakespeare allows for an illusion of providential reward. In Boccaccio the King takes the initiative; in Shakespeare the King grants the initiative to Helena. The cure itself is announced in the next scene but one in Lafew's often-quoted speech:

They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make modern [everyday] and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.

(II. iii. 1-60)

The speech is a crystallisation of the allusions to providence that cluster round Helena's curative powers and her further progress, her fortuitously immediate encounter with the Widow, for example.

This strain of the supernatural distinguishes All's Well from its source; mentions of divinity in Boccaccio are fleeting and bromidic. In All's Well the supernatural has the effect of softening and deflecting Helena's activism from calculating bustle to a more elevated risk-taking. If the social gap between Bertram and Helena opened up by Shakespeare's impoverishing her, seems to cry out for providential intervention, her appeal to it and indeed the very idea of the providential in the play make it possible to suggest a refinement of mind, at least a freedom from bourgeois calculation that justifies her impoverishment as a stroke of dramaturgy. Helena's Hamlet-like self-doubts and self-accusations increase rather than lessen the effect. More important, however, is the transformation in the whole story effected by the presence of the supernatural. Boccaccio's tale, for all its unusual bridging of class disparity, is 'modern and familiar', 'ensconcing' us into 'seeming knowledge'. Once the force of love is set in motion by habitual childhood proximity it is irresistible, using any means as it moves toward its inevitable triumph. That is not quite how Shakespeare wanted to tell his tale. Complicating characters and obscuring motives (why is Parolles obsessed with that drum?), Shakespeare creates a world less easily reduced to a monolithic force that is the sole cause of all effects. To say that 'all's well that ends well' is to give up the pretence of predictable behaviour and outcome that follow from the seeming knowledge of secular law, and instead admit a variable, problematic fortune. For Helena, animated by love and trust in providence, all must end well, as it does with the King's cure. But Lafew is right in thinking that a commitment to secular rationalism tends to make (statistical?) trifles of terrors, and that rejecting it is a submission to an unknown fear, to forces beyond human understanding.

This opens the possibility of some curious happy endings indeed.

An unknown fear seems precisely what Bertram faces in the highly theatrical scene in which he is chosen by Helena and cowed by the King. Helena's choice cannot be staged as it is told in Boccaccio, weightlessly brief and with Beltramo absent. As with the three caskets and the choice of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, the playwright stretches out the act of choosing, ritualises it for emphasis and gives us not only the act itself but commentators with opposite viewpoints.

The King's first words after entering, 'Go, call before me all the lords in court', suggest for a moment the breath-taking possibility that he will offer Helen every unwed courtier in the kingdom. The Folio stage direction reads—fortunately—'Enter three or four lords.' 'This youthful parcel/Of noble bachelors stand at my bestowing, / O'er whom both sovereign power and father's voice / I have to use.' Here is power doubly derived, and perhaps a faint condescension. 'Parcel' is mostly used by Shakespeare of the inanimate or the small detail. When Portia speaks of 'a parcel of wooers' in The Merchant of Venice (I. ii. 97) she does so with tongue in cheek. 'Thou hast the power to choose,' the King tells Helena, 'and they none to forsake.' Helena deals graciously with the inevitable embarrassment of the situation by making a small joke. Lafew, however, greets the occasion with enthusiasm. There follows a small dancing out of what has already been decided. Helena approaches each of the four bachelor lords in turn, making a self-deprecatory and complimentary rhymed rejection of each until at last she comes to Bertram. Him she does not 'take'; rather she gives herself. Helena, despite her power, never forgets her social status.

How shall the scene be played? Joseph Price one of the most acute commentators on the play, has ingeniously proposed (pp. 155-7) that we see the King's parcel of noble bachelors as far from enthusiastic about the possibility of marrying Helena: hence their laconic speech; hence Lafew's annoyance at them. Lafew, Price argues, 'vocalises our feelings [of sympathy] for Helena' and 'tempers our shock' by preparing us for Bertram's rejection. Why would a young courtier want such a marriage in any case?

With a director's ingenuity and an actor's expressiveness, almost anything may be done on stage. Their initial unison response to Helena's reference to the King's cure, 'We understand it, and thank heaven for you', has reduced the bachelor lords to royal cogs, as unison in Hamlet reduced Cornelius and Voltimand. This and their presence in the first instance is designed not only to give weight to the choice-scene, but to serve as concrete evidence of the King's power and to deny Bertram the possibility of special pleading. After their choral self-presentation, the First Lord speaks three words, the Second five, the Third nothing and the Fourth six. In one sense, it hardly matters whether the words are spoken with an intent to ingratiate the speakers with the King and so make a marriage that is bound to be attended by wealth and favour, or—though this would be more difficult for the actors—spoken in bitterness or anger between clenched teeth to convey their unwilling subjection to their royal guardian. If ingratiatingly, Lafew's annoyance can be made to seem directed at the brevity and hence apparently tepid enthusiasm of their statements, an implied rebuke to manhood. If they speak reservedly or ironically, as Price would have them do, Lafew's anger (as before) is directed at a snobbish, milk-and-water generation that has neither ardent loyalty to the King nor a manly yen for a beautiful girl who has done a magnificent deed. Both stagings can convey the misfortunes of wardship and are consistent with the character of Lafew, who has entered the garrulous twilight of male potency. Either interpretation can prepare the way for Bertram's rejection of Helena. But the traditional interpretation is far easier to act, and so preferable. Playing the scene so that Lafew does not hear the young wards and thus misinterprets as rejection Helena's moving on from one to the other avoids the textual questions. How it would avoid audience confusion is hard to imagine. This, however, was Dr Johnson's suggestion. Yet why would Shakespeare have invented such a scene? Freestanding, Lafew's remarks would become a comic distraction occasioned by stage blocking whose one rationale is to permit them. They are significant only in relation to the speech of the wards, and not having Lafew hear them seems an unnecessary complication. Although the difficulty was apparently overcome in Tyrone Guthrie's 1959 production of All's Well, the effect was one of arbitrary comedy with no relevance to the rest of the scene. Willing or trapped, the wards bend to the King's power, and however they say it, nothing the wards say—for they say so little—will please Lafew. His enthusiasm and Helena's little dance of deferential eliminations heightens our expectation of Helena's choice. Perhaps the crucial problem in the scene for the director is Bertram. However the Lafewward relation is staged, the director is faced with slanting it so as to locate Bertram's rejection as either more courageous or more mean-spirited than the responses of the wards.

As Brian Parker has observed, the grounds on which Helena excuses the four young lords are precisely those that should also lead her to excuse Bertram. They suggest another basis for Bertram's conviction that he has been treated unjustly. Helena excuses the First Lord with only thanks for his willingness to hear (and grant) her suit. To the Second Lord she makes a difficult answer whose sense is that he is too high-born and deserves a fortune twenty times better. Helena promises the Third Lord that for his own sake she will never wrong him and hopes that he will find 'fairer fortune' if he weds. The Fourth Lord, she says, is too young, too happy, too good for her to marry. The main argument of Helena's kind dismissals is the difference in honour and fortune between herself and the lords. To overlook it, she says, would be a 'wrong'. Helena is clearly thinking of disparagement. Her other reasons; youth, happiness (good fortune), goodness—spoken to the Fourth Lord—are an odd mixture of the shrewd, the realistic and the idealising typical of Helena. Bertram does seem too young for any sort of intimate heterosexual bond; his circumstances are—or have been—too easy for his own good. Whether Bertram himself can be thought 'good' Helena will discover to her cost. Having given such strong reasons against doing so, Helena humbly offers herself to Bertram.

Bertram's outburst is unpleasant but not wholly unjustified. A plea to use his own eyes in choosing a wife would have found wide agreement in an Elizabethan audience, if not with parental peers of the realm. Romantic union was an idea gaining currency. That the King proposes to 'bring [Bertram] down' with his misalliance is also a valid objection. Bertram's disdain for a 'poor physician's daughter' who was a household dependant is another matter—a reasonable objection to some, vicious to a few. Shakespeare tips the balance and tries to direct judgement with the ironic last sentence of Bertram's speech: 'Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!' The Arden editor reads this as 'I choose that my disdain of her should ruin my favour in your [the King's] sight rather than that I should be brought down by marriage to one beneath me.' As predictive irony the phrase is simpler, with Bertram choosing a snobbery that will set in train a course of self-destructive lies and deceptions. Perhaps he speaks more accurately than he knows.

The King's response to Bertram has been much admired as having 'a complex and bitter music' and expressing a humane and liberal outlook on the issues of class and power so obviously important in the play. The King states eloquently the commonplaces of the running argument over the relation between status and merit typical of deference societies: the irrelevance of status to essential humanity, the natural nobility of merit, the emptiness of rank without it, the likelihood of merit reproducing itself, the emptiness of ancestral title inherited without current merit. To these abstractions Bertram gives the heart's concrete answer, 'I cannot love her nor will strive to do it', and the King the only effective reply: 'My honour's at the stake . . . / I must produce my power.' Bertram sues for pardon.

The King's arguments are solid and reasonable. Who would deny them? Not one but has its counterpart in proverb and its illustration in social history. But upon inspection it appears that Shakespeare has made the solid slippery. Key terms are used too often for clarity: seven instances of 'honour' in some form; five of 'virtue'/'virtuous', each time employed somewhat differently, with virtue as a moral quality contending with virtue as power; honour as a moral quality contending with honour as title or respect given. And in the course of the King's attempt to redefine the idea of status he is forced to appeal to the axiom of identity, 'good alone is good; vileness is so', which makes definition futile. We know well enough what the King is saying: Helena is a marvel, worthy of all the terms of praise and acceptance going. But to say this when and how the King says it, and to whom he says it, is to call into question the validity of the whole apparatus of social distinctions he is trying to rationalise and renew by finding in them a place for Helena. Bertram's unmoved response reveals the arguments as misdirected to callowness, if not to the reason. The King, now livid, uses the word 'honour' twice again in ways that strip the camouflage from the others. When the King declares his honour at the stake he is speaking of his personal reputation (i.e. his claim to absoluteness in rule). To maintain it, he must use his power, the power that enables him 'to plant thine [Bertram's] honour where/We please to have it grow'. The locution occurs again in Macbeth when King Duncan, after loading him with praise and honour, tells Macbeth 'I have begun to plant thee, and will labour/To make thee full of growing.' The whole apparatus of honour, revealed by the logic of the narrative rather than by the logic of argument, is that honour is, finally, what is bestowed by the King in the course of maintaining his own status. This narrative relation between the realities and the rationalisations of power and status is neither inadvertent nor merely a dividend from the Sonnets and the earlier political plays. All's Well provides a fuller and more detailed account of the character and limitations of power and status. But here they are tellingly defined. Bertram picks up the King's ultimate meaning of 'honour' and appears to submit. 'When I consider/ What great creation and what dole of honour/Flies where you bid it,' Bertram allows that Helena is to the manor born. Shakespeare employs a splendidly outrageous pun. Of the six uses of the word 'dole' in Shakespeare's plays five of them mean extreme woe (dolour). Editors struggle with alternatives, toy with an emendation to 'deal', but Bertram is right: the King has given him a great misery of honour. Yet for all his exercise of power, the King cannot quite marry Bertram to Helena. Bertram refuses to consummate the marriage.

Immediately afterward Bertram's resistance is played out as comedy in Parolles' elaborately irritated denial of Lafew's description of Bertram as Parolles' 'lord and master'. 'Well, I must be patient' he says after Lafew exits; 'there is no fettering of authority', and like Bertram he resolves to have it his own way, were Lafew 'double and double a lord'. When Bertram, now suddenly married, re-enters, yet another camouflage meaning of 'honour' reappears in Parolles' ribald assertion that 'He wears his honour in a box unseen/That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,/Spending his manly marrow in her arms'. Bertram agrees, and the two set off for the wars. There is no avoiding the sexual equations honour = penis, box = vagina after the reference to spent marrow. But should one attribute to the playwright a sexual ultimate at the core of the King's politically ultimate understanding of honour as the creation of power—an understanding of status as finally an expression of the gender-based and gendernurtured system of power? Perhaps, but not on this evidence alone. . . .


Parker, R. B., 'War and Sex in All's Well That Ends Well', Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984), pp. 99-113.

Price, Joseph G., The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well That Ends Well and Its Critics, Toronto 1968.

David S. Berkeley and Donald Keesee (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Bertram's Blood-Consciousness in All's Well That Ends Well," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 247-58.

[In the following essay, Berkeley and Keesee study the treatment Shakespeare gives to the cross-class marriage in All's Well That Ends Well, and suggest Helena's position may reflect circumstances in Shakespeare's own life. ]

All Shakespeare's plays exhibit more distancing between his classes—there are but two, armigerous and base—than do his primary sources, and in no play does he present a cross-class marriage such as that between base John Shakespeare and gentle Mary Arden of which he was a product. All's Well That Ends Well is an oddity in that it presents an enforced marriage between armigerous persons, Bertram of the high nobility and Helena, a "mean poor" gentlewoman. But the rule holds even here, as Helena bizarrely describes her yearning for marriage to Bertram as "The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love" (I.i.93-94)1 and in general behaves more submissively toward Bertram than her prototype, Giletta of Narbona2 (whose exact rank we do not know) behaved toward Count Beltramo in William Painter's translation (1579) of Boccaccio's story. This marriage is dramatized in All's Well with overflowing authorial approval seen in the touting of Helena's virtue by the King of France, the Dowager Countess of Rossillion, and Lord Lafew. But young Count Bertram, who represents nobility "native," is very reluctant to marry Helena, gentry "dative" in the language of the time.3 Critics in their democratic egalitarianism have not seen fit (so far as we know) to bestow their attention on Bertram's blood-based reasons—most have instead bespattered him with epithets4—for not wishing to commingle Rossillion with "a poor physician's daughter." To an Elizabethan this classification says it all; there is no need for explaining. Bertram objects to Helena's poverty and to her want of a dower; he objects even more (and is so understood by the King) to her being a physician's daughter ("poor" is adjectival; "physician's daughter," a noun phrase). In effect, he abominates the thought of mingling his rich blood with her poor blood in the production of offspring: two fine strains make fine children. Bertram subscribes to Andrew Boorde's dictum concerning "good blode, in the whiche consysteth the lyfe of man."5 (His objections to poverty and to blood could flow together in that Helena, because of her father's lowly circumstances, has not always enjoyed the state of being "highly fed," to use the Clown's words [II.ii.3]: when at her father's table she presumably has not had her blood enriched with hot foods and wines.)6

Although Bertram, perhaps because of his youth, is not doctrinaire on the mingling of bloods (in this matter unlike the King in All's Well [II.iii.117 ff.] and Polixenes in The Winter's Tale [IV.iv.89 ff.]), and although he makes many mistakes on his own,7 he has much (though not all)8 conventional wisdom for his rejection of Helena. In this Bertram is realistic; the King, the Countess, and Lord Lafew are romantic: blood-consciousness was (and still is in some quarters) a realistic approach to fruitful marriage; marrying upwards under virtually impossible conditions was (and still is) "romance," an eloquent but improbable lie. Bertram speaks for the usual Shakespeare in regulating his behavior by the dictum that "there are severall degrees in Blood,"9 and in his declining to obliterate these degrees. It is in this sense (as well as in prestige and for economic reasons) that Bertram upholds the honor of Rossillion; contrary to John F. Adams10 and a great many others, Bertram does possess (in a Renaissance context) an adequate concept of internal worthiness, and he is in some important senses internally worthy. But Shakespeare, perhaps for personal reasons, arranges the play to show Bertram's realism to be wrong, and France's romanticism to be right.

Bertram is, so far as we know, the only legitimate son of his father and, as Count Rossillion, the present link between six generations (V.iii.195) of noble ancestors and the noble posterity of which he is to be father. It is quite wrong, albeit the error is endemic amongst critics, following the bias of our times, to judge Bertram simply as an individual. His family ring is a visual symbol of his ancestral honor from "the first father" (III.vii.25). Bertram's duty of begetting a noble heir makes his choice of wife a delicate matter. He chooses, apparently before Helena is thrust upon him, to consider the daughter of Lord Lafew as the mother of his offspring (V.iii.45 ff.) although he does not use these words. Bertram's freedom to reconnoiter the field is severely limited by his being a ward of the King of France, who has the right to name Bertram's wife so long as Bertram is not "disparaged"—the word was technical—by the King. But the King does indeed disparage Bertram's blood and berates him in very severe terms for no reason except that the King is in Helena's debt: Bertram is required to pay for the curing of the royal fistula. To prevent the "staining" of his blood, Bertram takes three extraordinary steps toward annulment of the marriage: 1) he refuses consummation unless virtually impossible conditions are fulfilled; 2) he deserts Helena with apparent intention to stay outside France long enough for an annulment (three years in English law); 3) he lives in a place beyond the reach of an ecclesiastical court that could compel cohabitation.11

Bertram, although he knows Helena well, judges the girl by her class, and he knows her to be near-base. His appraisal is correct. Helena is repeatedly said to be "honest." The Countess observes, "she derives her honesty" (I.i.44-45); and Helena declares of her kinfolk, "My friends were poor but honest" (I.iii.192). Honest, to be sure, as applied to a female meant "chaste"; and we must believe that Helena is virginal because there is no evidence to the contrary. Honest also, in a sense especially applicable to the two quotations above, meant integrity of life. But a subaudition of honest in the Shakespearean plays and elsewhere (see Sheridan's The Rivals) imports the peasantlike quality of artlessness and particularly the inclination to discharge upon all and sundry the vast miscellany of one's mind: it was especially applied to the base, persons like Verges, "honest as the skin between his brows," rather than to the gentle, who in the troublous sixteenth century cultivated reserve in speaking and writing. Honest, then, is an indicator of Helena's base origins. More obvious is her rank—"a poor physician's daughter." Her father is Gerard de Narbon, an eminent practitioner; but this man was gentled, like Baldock in Marlowe's Edward II, one gathers, by virtue of his university diploma. Gerard must have been the first of his family to bear a coat of arms; otherwise, Helena, who often contrasts her low birth with Bertram's nobility, would certainly have pointed out that she is descended from many or several generations of gentlemen. Physicians in the sixteenth century did not always derive from gentry or marry into gentry. Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, possessor of a medical degree (in addition to his other doctorates) and famous enough to have his prescriptions made public monuments, was born "base of stock." The father of Ambroise Paré was a barber, a cabinet maker, and valet de chambre to a local nobleman.12 Andreas Vesalius, physician to Charles V, married Anne van Hamme, a bourgeoise.13 These remarks are not intended to suggest that sixteenth-century physicians were invariably base of birth—the great Paracelsus was born into a noble family—but rather that to be a physician did not necessarily signify unquestionable gentility. Shakespeare's physicians are generally seen in a positive light, betokening their gentle status (the French Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor being somewhat of an exception) but there is no reason to believe any of them to possess noble blood or even necessarily to be sons of gentlemen. Bertram judges Helena by the stereotype of "a poor physician's daughter," and he is right to do so: lineally she is near baseness.

Near-baseness of social status intimated that Helena's blood was of tainted or very near tainted condition. The conception of stained or tainted blood inhered in Aristotelian and Galenic conceptions. All parts of the human body—bone, artery, vein, nerve, cartilage, fat, gland, membrane, and marrow—are not blood, Galen states in On the Natural Faculties, but are derived from it.14 Semen, according to Aristotle in Generation of Animals, is concocted blood (I.xix, p. 91), a position often reflected in Renaissance medical literature.15 Both men and women had their sperma to contribute to conception. F.S. Bodenheimer, in The History of Biology, clarifies the matter:

The wisdom of Aristotle describes the male semen as the formative principle, the Causa efficiens, of generation, while the female semen (read: the menstrual blood) is the nutritive principle for growth and development of the embryo. . . . Aristotle's theory of heredity is a pangenesis, wherein the whole organism takes part in the generative act. Minute representative particles from all parts of the body migrate into the semina. Male and female particles mingle and they both exercise their influence, according to their relative strengths, transmitting characteristics of structure, of function, and of behaviour in the developing young.16

Thomas Vicary, a Renaissance physician, summarizes Aristotle's essential position: "the which seede of generation commeth from al the partes of the body, both of the man and the woman."17 Indeed, Giovanni Nenna holds the unusual view that children have more blood from mothers than from fathers.18All's Well recognizes that wives are not simply vessels for moulding and fostering the male element in conception but contribute something to the essential nature of children: the Countess says, "I do wash his [Bertram's] name out of my blood" (III.ii.67), and Helena says to a young lord, "You are too young, too happy, and too good, / To make yourself a son out of my blood" (II.iii.96-97). Galen as a physician does not describe human class structure on the basis of blood, but inferences from humoural physiology, which he does teach, were made a basis of class distinctions. Galen states, "Now, there is certainly to be found in the veins both thick and thin blood; in some people it is redder, in others yellower, in some blacker, and in others more of the nature of phlegm" (On the Natural Faculties, II.viii.169). Lucrece in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, after having been "stained" by Tarquin, a degenerate gentle, is found thus after her death: "Some of her blood still pure and red remain'd, / And some look'd black, and that false Tarquin stain'd" (lines 1742-43). The phenomenon of stained blood, however meaningless (especially to Americans) now, was in Shakespeare's time generally recognized, as may be seen in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi wherein the Cardinal and Ferdinand comment on their sister's marriage to her base steward, Antonio:

Cardinal. Shall our blood?
The royal blood of Aragon and Castile,
Be thus attainted?
Ferdinand. Apply desperate physic,
We must not now use balsamum, but fire,
The smarting cupping-glass, for that's the mean
To purge infected blood, such blood as hers.


By possessing darker blood, Helena, if married to Bertram, has the potentiality of "attainting" his children physically and mentally. In The Winter's Tale Polixenes refuses to permit his son Florizel to marry the supposedly base Perdita, despite her beauty and intelligence, because, it is to be presumed, he is thinking of what will happen to his posterity through the mixture: Perdita's blood, despite appearances to the contrary, hereditarily and recessively harbors staining qualities if she is assumed to be the Shepherd's daughter.20 Consequently, Polixenes strictly forbids his son's marriage to Perdita. In Lodge's Rosalynd, the main source of As You Like It, old Adam Spencer offers the greatly fatigued Rosader the possibility of recruiting his blood-supply by sucking Adam's opened veins: Shakespeare exhibits his usual aversion to mixing base and gentle bloods by excising this matter from As You Like It even though his Adam is for a base preternaturallly virtuous. That base blood was black in the flexible Elizabethan sense of "black" was well known: Edmund Spenser's Malbecco in The Faerie Queene, for example, has portentously "filthy bloud" (III.x.59) in part related, one understands, to his diet of frogs and toads. According to Alexander Read, in The Chirurgical Lectures of Tumors and Ulcers, "Good bloud is discerned by colour, taste and consistence: In colour it is red . . . and consistence mean, between thicke and thin."21 "Unnatural" conditions Read perceived if blood appears "Black . . . unequal, of diverse substances" (p. 55). One may safely postulate that Helena's blood is darker, less sweet, and thicker than Bertram's. Bertram, to be sure, through repeated copulation with Helena would improve her blood. They would become "one flesh" (I Cor. 6:16), therefore,22 one blood (in Renaissance context)—just as Claudius, nine times branded by Hamlet "villain" (then interchangeable with "villein") and damned as "vile King" to his face by Laertes, nightly "villeinizes" Gertrude's blood, formerly enriched by Hamlet père.23 Although Bertram's semen would by common expectation prevail over Helena's in conception, her semen might master his if he were at something less than his physical and mental best through the wounds of war, accident, illness, or age: the result would be that his children would not resemble him or his ancestors—a very embarrassing situation for a nobleman (albeit common amongst the base) because it suggested that his sons were not his sons,24 and favored Helena's nongentle ancestry, thus corrupting the House of Rossillion. The physiological basis of primogeniture rests upon this notion. In the main source of All's Well Giletta was "brought a bedde of twoo sonnes, which were very like their father," and in the play Bertram of course favors his father (I.ii.19). Shakespeare evidently felt so secure in his insistence on Helena's honesty (in the senses of chastity and integrity) that he did not need to include this point. Indeed Helena herself may be baseborn. As that adulator of royal blood Belarius says in Cymbeline, "Base things sire base," a remark that directly applies to Helena if she was conceived before her father was gentled. Her tainted background and hence her tainted nature would also influence Bertram's children if she nursed them herself as noble mothers were urged to do, mother's milk being then regarded as blood in a whitened form.25

Helena's tainted blood variously shows itself. Indeed, she is very calculating, and never does anything for anyone unless she stands to profit. Herein she differs markedly from Bertram who, like Hamlet (Horatio), Sebastian (Antonio), Valentine (Proteus), and Antonio (Bassanio), is involved in the Renaissance cult of male friendship with Parolles, which, because Parolles is unworthy and unequal to Bertram, amounts to parody. Helena herself is in some respects like Parolles. The cult stimulated its devotees to great deeds in order to be worthy of friendship. Bertram by his incredible soldiership bears up his end, and Parolles strives to win honor and to deserve Bertram's love by hazarding his life and honor to recover a drum. But Parolles's ambition is only to seem to deserve well: "I'll no more drumming; a plague of all drums! Only to seem to deserve well, and to beguile the supposition of that lascivious young boy the Count, have I run into this danger" (IV.iii.301-304). This cult involved, among other things, a willingness of one friend to die for another, seen in Horatio, Antonio of The Merchant of Venice, and Antonio of Twelfth Night. But Parolles is a villein by class as well as by ethic, and the Renaissance cult of male friendship in theory (Plato's erotic dialogues), ancient example (David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroklos) and in the Shakespearean plays never involves the base. Parolles bears some resemblance to Helena in class and in ethic: one cannot imagine Helena's offspring, if her blood secured mastery over Bertram's in conception, as being any less self-serving than their mother and her peasant ancestors. Indeed, one cannot imagine either Parolles or Helena as dying for anyone either out of agape or friendship: interêt is at the root of their nature. Bertram appears to share these class-originated thoughts of Helena because, when leaving Rossillion, he bids her "Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her" (I.i.76-77): if Bertram thought that Helena would be tenderly solicitous toward the aged Countess, this remark would be redundant, not to say patronizing. Helena, if she follows ancestral stereotype, would bear the class-characteristic through her blood (not necessarily in her own character) of being highly egocentric and destitute of love toward family members. When Oliver in As You Like It tells Duke Frederick, "I never lov'd my brother in my life," the Duke (though no brother-lover himself) responds, "More villain thou" (III.i.14-15). Helena, although at least once charged with being undutiful toward her father's memory,26 never really does or says anything that she needs to repent of—some of Shakespeare's most eugenic and nondegenerate characters practice remorseless deceit as does Helena—but she might bear offspring who, like Shakespeare's villeins as a class, do villainy and are unable to repent: Iago, styled "Villain" in the Dramatis Personae of Othello, never repents; and the Clown in The Winter's Tale, another villein, feels no need to repent of his being merely an interested spectator at the dismemberment of Antigonus by a bear. Bad blood could not be cured by repentance, and bad blood would not permit repentance. Another sign of Helena's lowered blood-quality in her inability to laugh: she is in this respect not like Portia, Beatrice, and Rosalind. She does not appear to be put in good humor by the family Clown. Bertram, on the other hand, although deceived (unlike Helena) by Parolles, seems attached to him in part by reason of Parolles's free mouth and his rich humor.

Not only does Helena show certain affinities with the base, but as an upstart gentle she would possess a tendency to atavism that Bertram and the young lords fear and that the common wisdom raises as a bogeyman to a marriage like that of Walter and Griselda in Chaucer's highly Christianized "Clerkes Tale." Atavism, besides being based on observation, had theoretical support in Aristotle's Generation of Animals. Writing of the "tainting" that is recessive in the first generation, Aristotle states: "There was at Elis a woman who had intercourse with a blackamoor; her daughter was not a black, but her daughter's son was."27 It would be difficult to deny that such thoughts haunt Brabantio's mind in Othello. On analogy with Shakespeare's other base, one may surmise that Helena's physiological system carries a degree of "villainous melancholy" (King Lear I.ii.138), and that it is in some sense a vessel of cold, sluggish, thick, dark-colored, ill-smelling, bad-tasting blood, given these qualities by the semi-excremental (and unexpellable) lees of Galenic melancholy. Helena, though virtuous herself, has the potentiality, if her blood should prevail over Bertram's blood in conception,28 of "villeinizing" Bertram's children, who would resemble neither Bertram, his ancestors, nor even herself, but favor her base progenitors, uncomfortably close to her and her late father. In other words, dishonorable and disgusting qualities are recessive in her blood and may spring forth in horrid life in her children. And what then would happen to the House of Rossillion? Helena is not simply (and naively) an atomistic individual but the present representative of many generations of her base family. Bertram and the young lords presumably know this—it was an idea in the Renaissance air and required no book learning. The King and the Countess must know this also, but choose to ignore the common wisdom that Bertram would stain his blood by marriage to Helena. Lawrence Stone observes that marriages of nobles with rich merchants' daughters, especially widows, were sometimes undertaken in the period 1558-1641 "after the successful production of a male heir by a first well-born wife had ensured that the hereditary line was saved from any taint of contaminated blood."29 Since Bertram rejects Helena on the basis of her class, he must have class-reasons for so doing, stereotyping the expectation of bad blood: the institutional typing of classes on an economic basis developed after Shakespeare's time as the nineteenthcentury origin of "middle class" (see OED) suggests.

Marriage with Helena, allowing for recessiveness, might villeinize Bertram's children in various ways. Long generations of her ancestors, being base peasants, would not have known or could not have afforded to observe the rules for the production of fine and towardly children.30 Carrying some "villainous melancholy" in her veins, Helena for all her fine appearance might possess and/or transmit body odor as happens to Cloten's body (Cymbeline II.i.17), Cloten being the son of an apparently base father and a gentle mother. Although Helena has a rosy complexion (I.iii.166), her offspring, following the pull of long generations, might be swarthy. More importantly, they might develop delusions: Helena's dream of marrying Bertram is realized under the compulsions of a plot "romantic" in the seventeenth-century sense; had she failed, her dream would have been regarded as a delusion although she certainly would not have been committed to the oubliette like Malvolio for dreaming of marrying the Countess Olivia. A tendency to delusions she could impart to her offspring. From her peasant background her blood would carry ineptitude in social relations and a reduced amount of intuitive awareness: she might beget a Cloten or even an Audrey. Some of Helena's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren might not possess their mother's bravery and intelligence—both gentle qualities—but revert to peasant type with cool, thick, dark, foul-smelling, evil-tasting blood bringing cowardice, lack of honor, foolishness, bastardy, sickliness, ugliness, and many other undesirable qualities.31 And her offspring, like the common people, might not be marked by "generous" (L. generosus, well-born) impulses.

The King of France's offer to ennoble Helena cannot nullify these atavistic liabilities. When France commands Bertram on pain of drastic penalties to marry Helena, he acts in defiance of the common view that it takes generations, perhaps three from the first father, to produce a gentleman: the King in Boccaccio's story "was very loth to graunt him [the Count Beltramo of Rossiglione] unto her [Giletta]."32 The King in All's Well seems to offer nobility to Helena: "I can create the rest. Virtue and she / Is her own dower; honor and wealth from me" (II.iii.143-44). And, of course, in a noble family there must be the first creation; more comprehensively, in a gentle family there must be the first gentleman. But the King does not in fact ennoble Helena. Even if he did, his act might activate the proverb that "The King cannot make a gentleman."33 Helena's paternal grandfather and her ancestors before him were base; her father was base before he was gentled; and Helena may have been born like Shakespeare himself. The young lords whom Helena views with marriage in prospect show no eagerness at all to be married to her, a point made by Lafew, "These boys are boys of ice, they'll none have her." Who can doubt that the young lords are thinking Bertram's thought—"a poor physician's daughter"? And after Helena's supposed death Lafew as a representative of nobility native offers his daughter as a second wife to Bertram, nobility native (V.iii.68-74), and conventionally realistic thinking returns at this point to the play.

In spite of all these possibilities Bertram is wrong in terms of this play. Here Shakespeare departs from his obvious dislike of cross-class marriage, sustained everywhere in his plays, and from his aversion to upstarts, which appears everywhere except in the gentling, enforced by tradition, of Henry V's surviving base soldiery on the eve of Agincourt. In All's Well That Ends Well Shakespeare comes down on the side of Chaucer, Marlowe, Dekker, Webster, and Milton (although not necessarily for their reasons), all of whom depict characters of low degree performing virtuously in leading roles. Perhaps there is a special reason for the poet's departure from his norm. All's Well, as has been observed, several times echoes the sonnets.34 Shakespeare's position in the sonnets with respect to the nameless nobleman he is addressing is exactly the same, that is, the son of a father born base but made a gentleman (in 1596) as Helena's (daughter of a man presumably born base but made a gentle) or, assuming sonnets 1-126 to have been written before John Shakespeare's gentling, almost the same (a base addressing a nobleman). Shakespeare appears to desire to involve himself in the current cult of male friendship with a nobleman who is conscious of and rather rejects the poet's social inferiority, primarily meaning his blood (his essential nature), and secondarily his position as actor and mercenary playwright. Shakespeare, despite his class-bias, was not about to condemn Helena's atten pt to rise from mean gentry to high nobility by mai ying Bertram: her endeavor is almost the same as his own, to establish a friendship, a friendship to be sustained until death (indeed, perhaps to be the cause of death), with a young man greatly his superior in blood, class, title, and estate. Both All's Well and Sonnets 1-126 are appeals of inferior blood to be accepted on the basis of supplicating merit by superior blood, made reluctant by risk.


1 Lineation and quotations from Shakespeare follow The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980).

2 M.C. Bradbrook, "Virtue is the True Nobility," RES 1, 4 (October 1950): 289-301, 291.

3 Ruth Kelso, The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1929), p. 22.

4 Bertram has attracted one all-out defender, Albert Howard Carter, "In Defense of Bertram," SQ 7, 1 (Winter 1956): 21-31. Jay Halio, "All's Well That Ends Well," SQ 15, 1 (Winter 1964): 33-43, is somewhat sympathetic to him.

5 Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a dyetary of Helth (1542), EETS, Extra Series 10, chap. 3, p. 235.

6 Cf. David Shelley Berkeley, Blood Will Tell in Shakespeare 's Plays, Graduate Studies, Texas Tech University No. 28 (Lubbock: Texas Tech Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 16-17.

7 Cf. Jules Rothman, "A Vindication of Parolles," SQ 23, 2 (Spring 1972): 183-96.

8 Bradbrook, pp. 289-301, sets forth historical matter supporting the view of the King and the Countess in All's Well.

9 Francis Markham, The Booke of Honour or Five Decads of Epistles of Honour (London, 1625), p. 46.

10 John F. Adams, "All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation," SQ 12, 3 (Summer 1961): 261-270, 265.

11 Margaret Loftus Ranald, "'As Marriage Binds, and Blood Breaks': English Marriage Law and Shakespeare," SQ 30, 1 (Winter 1979): 68-81, 80.

12 Kenneth Walker, The Story of Medicine (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1955), p. 110.

13 Charles Donald O'Malley and J.B. de CM . Saunders, "Andreas Vesalius Imperial Physician" in Science, Medicine and History, ed. E. Ashworth Underwood, 2 vols. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953), 1: 390.

14 Claudius Galen, On the Natural Faculties, II.iii, trans. Arthur J. Brock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), p. 131.

15 Thus Jacques Ferrand, Ἐρωτομανια; or A Treatise Discoursing of the Essence, Causes, Symptoms, Prognostics, and Cure of Love or Erotic Melancholy (London, 1640), p. 261: "The seed is nothing else but Blood, made White by the Naturall heat." See also Eucharius Roesslin, The Byrthe of Mankynde (London, 1560), The First Book, chap. 10, "The transmutacion of bloudde into sparm"; Alexander Read, The Manuali of the Anatomy or dissection of the body of Man (London, 1638), p. 208.

16 F.S. Bodenheimer, The History of Biology (London: Dawson and Sons, 1958), p. 55.

17 Thomas Vicary, A Profitable Treatise of the Anatomie of Man's Body (London, 1577), EETS, Extra Series 53, pp. 78-79.

18 Giovanni Nenna, A Treatise of Nobility, trans. W. Jones (London, 1595), pp. 7 ff.

19 John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), p. 38.

20 David S. Berkeley and Zahra Karimipour, "Blood-Consciousness as a Theme in The Winter's Tale," Explorations in Renaissance Culture 11 (1985): 89-98.

21 Alexander Read, The Chirurgical Lectures of Tumors and Ulcers (London, 1635), p. 45.

22 Cf. All's Well V.iii.168-74.

23 An argument for Claudius's bastardy is set forth in David S. Berkeley, "Claudius the Villein King of Denmark," Hamlet Studies 11, 1 and 2 (Summer and Winter, 1989): 9-21.

24 See Paulina's defense of Perdita's legitimacy by her detailed likening of the infant's face and figure to Leontes, The Winter's Tale II.iii.99-108; Richard II V.ii.94. The only time Prince Hal hits Falstaff occurs, according to the Hostess, "when the Prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor" (2 Henry IV II.i.87-88), an imputation, of course, of bastardy.

25 Jacques Guillemeau, The Nursing of Children (London, 1612), p. 1: "Thought it were fit, that every mother should nurse her owne child: because her milke which is nothing else, but the bloud whitened (of which he was made and wherewith hee had beene nourished the time hee staide in his Mothers wombe) will bee alwaies more naturall and familiar unto him, than that of a stranger." Mother's milk conveyed dispositions such as tyranny (Titus Andronicus II.iii.144-45) and valor (Coriolanus III.ii.131).

26 R.B. Parker, "War and Sex in All's Well That Ends Well," ShakS 37 (1984): 99-113, 109.

27 Aristotle, The Generation of Animals, I.xviii, trans. A.L. Peck (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), p. 55.

28 On mastery in conception see Hippocrates, Regimen, I.xxviii, Hippocrates, trans. W.H.S. Jones (London: Heinemann, 1931), IV, 267-269.

29 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), p. 628.

30 Berkeley, Blood Will Tell in Shakespeare's Plays, pp. 11 ff.

31 Ibid., pp. 45-58.

32 William Painter, "The Thirty-Eighth Novell" in The Palace of Pleasure, ed. os. Jacobs, 3 vols. (1890; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, 1966), 1:171-79, 173.

33 Bradbrook, p. 296.

34 Bradbrook, p. 290; Roger Warren, "Why Does It End Well? Helena, Bertram, and the Sonnets," ShakS 22 (1969): 79-92.

Further Reading

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Adams, John F. "All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation." Shakespeare Quarterly 12, No. 3 (1961): 261-70.

Suggests that the themes of honor and responsibility in the play are centered around the ambiguous question of what is right and honorable, maintaining that an answer can only be reached when considering actions and their consequences in their entirety.

Asp, Carolyn. "Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well." Literature and Psychology XXXII, No. 4 (1986): 48-60.

Examines Helena as rebel female character, symbolic of the way new societal attitudes replace old ones.

Bergeron, David M. "The Structure of Healing in All's Well That Ends Well." South Atlantic Bulletin XXVII, No. 4 (1972): 25-34.

Argues that understanding the structure of the play is crucial to understanding the themes of renewal and healing.

Cole, Howard C. "Helena and Her Sisters: A Comparative Reading of All's Well That Ends Well." In The All's Well Story From Boccaccio to Shakespeare, pp. 114-37. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Studies the history of the source story for All's Well as well as Shakespeare's manipulation of the audience's familiarity with the tale.

Fraser, Russell, Introduction to All's Well That End's Well, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Offers an overview of the sources, criticism, stage history, and plot of the play.

Friedman, Michael D. "Male Bonds and Marriage in All's Well and Much Ado." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 231-49.

Offers performance criticism of the character of Bertram, particularly his male bonding patterns, and attitude toward marriage.

Hodgdon, Barbara. "The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well" Philological Quarterly 66, No. 1 (Winter 1987): 47-72.

Comments on changes Shakespeare made to the source story, the presence of sexual symbolism and allusions in the story, and the techniques used to sexualize the narrative structure.

Jardine, Lisa. "Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Heroines: 'These are old paradoxes'." Shakespeare Quarterly 38, No. 1 (Spring 1987): 1-18.

Argues that Shakespeare's educated heroines can provide insights into contemporary attitudes toward women's education.

Lewis, Cynthia. "'Derived Honesty and Achieved Goodness': Doctrines of Grace in All's Well That Ends Well." Renaissance and Reformation (new series) xiv, No. 2 (1990): 147-70.

Considers the theology apparent in All's Well in light of the Reformation debate between divine election and free will.

Mukherji, Subha. '"Lawful Deed': Consummation, Custom, and Law in All's Well That Ends Well" In Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 49, edited by Stanley Wells, pp. 181-200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Offers an in-depth look at the marriage, marital consummation, and divorce laws that inform All's Well.

Nevo, Ruth. "Motive and Meaning in All's Well That Ends Well" In "Fanned and Winnowed Opinions": Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton, pp. 26-51. London: Methuen, 1987.

Argues that All's Well is not a problem comedy, and that the complexities of the story make it worthy of being one of Shakespeare's most admired.

Parker, R. B. "War and Sex in All's Well That Ends Well" Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 99-113.

Asserts that the play's conflict is resolved by having the masculine ideal of honor in war and the feminine ideal of honor in love accommodate each other.

Price, John Edward. "Anti-moralistic Moralism in All's Well That Ends Well" Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews XII (1979): 95-112.

Proposes a reading of All's Well as an anti-moralistic play based on the presentation of conflict between youth and age, and characters moving from subservient to dominant positions.

Price, Joseph G. "The Interpretation of Shakespeare in the Theatre." In Directions in Literary Criticism: Contemporary Approaches to Literature, edited by Stanley Weintraub and Philip Young, pp. 70-84. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973.

Examines the relationship between scholarly and theatrical interpretations of several of Shakespeare's plays, including All's Well.

Smallwood, R. L. "The Design of All's Well That Ends Well." In Aspects of Shakespeare's 'Problem Plays ', edited by Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells, pp. 26-42. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Explores changes Shakespeare made to the plot, characters, and conclusion of the source story for All's Well, and suggests that changes were made in order to make the story suitable for drama.

Snyder, Susan. "'The King's not here': Displacement and Deferral in All's Well That Ends Well" Shakespeare Quarterly 43, No. 1 (1992): 20-32.

Discusses the themes of delayed conclusion and substitutions, and considers why Shakespeare introduced these elements into the story of the play.

——. "All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object." English Literary Renaissance 18, No. 1 (Winter 1988): 66-77.

Offers an overview of Helena's character as an "active, desiring subject" and the difficulty of Shakespeare's contemporary audience to view her as such.

Solomon, Julie Robin. "Morality as a Matter of Mind: Toward a Politics of Problems in All's Well That Ends Well." English Literary Renaissance 23, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 134-69.

Concentrates on the controversy over medical practices that were contemporary to Shakespeare's time, and how he used this controversy to comment on society's perception of itself.

Turner, Robert Y. "Dramatic Conventions in All's Well That Ends Well." PMLA 75, No. 5 (December 1960): 497-502.

Calling All's Well "a comedy more for an age than for all time," Turner explicates the play as the product of Elizabethan dramatic conventions and innovations that were popular at the time the play was initially written.

Ure, Peter. "All's Well That Ends Well." In The Problem Plays, pp. 8-18. London: Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1961.

Provides an overview of the play, paying particular attention to Helena and Bertram, and concludes that the ending of the play is "less than satisfying."

Wheeler, Richard P. "Imperial Love and the Dark House: All's Well That Ends Well." In Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn, pp. 35-91. Berkeley: California, 1981.

In this in-depth study of All's Well, Wheeler examines the play's comic pattern in relation to Shakespeare's other comedies; traces the similarities in theme and structure between the Sonnets and the play; and argues that the dramatic design of the play is common to the later romances.

Yang, Sharon R. "Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well." The Explicator 50 (Summer 1992): 199-203.

Considers the character of Lavache and his role in exposing the foolishness of Bertram.

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