(Shakespearean Criticism)

All's Well That Ends Well

Although it is typically categorized among Shakespeare's comedies, most scholars consider All's Well That Ends Well a “problem play” or “dark comedy” because of its somber and tragic elements. The play, based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), relates the tale of a young woman's pursuit of a reluctant lover. The principal figures of Helena and Bertram have often been viewed negatively, while the overall tone of the work—despite its ostensibly happy conclusion—has been considered bleak and marred by unresolved issues. Critics have frequently discerned problems of sexuality and gender conflict in All's Well That Ends Well. In particular, the work's concentration on a strong, somewhat unconventional, and passionate heroine has prompted feminist critics of the late twentieth century to see in the drama a variety of themes related to sexual roles and feminine disruptions of social order. Overall, while numerous topics in the drama have drawn modern critics to the play, the subjects of gender, Helena's character, and the work's problematic status as a comedy continue to provide the focus of much recent scholarly commentary on All's Well That Ends Well.

Feminist analysis, and its consequent concerns with the themes of gender and sexuality, has provided the dominant model of contemporary critical interest in All's Well That Ends Well. The thematic implications of Helena's pursuit of Bertram and her bold use of the so-called “bed-trick,” in which she disguises herself in order to win Bertram as her lover, have long been recognized as central to the play. Peter Erickson (1991) examines the gender dynamics of All's Well That Ends Well and their relation to politics and society, commenting on how Helena's sexualized actions toward Bertram upset the dominant patriarchal order. David McCandless (1994) studies Helena's infamous “bed-trick” and the tensions it raises concerning conventional distinctions between masculine and feminine roles. Jonathan Hall (1995) takes a somewhat different approach, seeing Helena's active sexual pursuit of Bertram as posing a symbolic threat to patriarchy that—in her later renunciation of “ambitious love”—ultimately serves to reestablish traditional social hierarchies. Irene G. Dash (1997) offers a thorough feminist critique of All's Well That Ends Well, which finds a demarcation of the limits of feminine sexual choice within the patriarchal confines of the play.

A perennial critical interest in Shakespeare's representation of women has resulted in a number of analyses of Helena, who has elicited widely differing opinions. Richard A. Levin (1980) has a cynical view of the play's heroine. Acknowledging a dilemma between her virtue and ambition, Levin argues that Helena uses guile and dissimulation throughout the drama, seeing her as a master of intrigue who carefully orchestrates Bertram's acquiescence to her passions. David McCandless (1990) takes an opposing point of view. Interpreting All's Well That Ends Well as essentially a romance, rather than a “defective festive comedy,” McCandless perceives Helena's chastity as an indication of the play's romantic theme of redemption. Robert Ornstein (1986) considers the play's protagonist as a complex character, largely devoid of romantic idealism. For Ornstein, Helena is not only virtuous and noble (despite the fact that most other characters in the play generally fail to perceive this), but also single-minded and manipulative in achieving her goals.

In addition to questions of character, the status of All's Well That Ends Well as a comedy figures prominently in many recent critical assessments of the play. Comparing the drama with several of Shakespeare's earlier works, Richard P. Wheeler (1981) comments on the unprecedented shift in the play's comic form, due in part to its treatment of issues generally reserved for tragedy. David Scott Kastan (1985) has a similar view of the play, observing that while All's Well That Ends Well does provide a happy ending, its failure to resolve its own internal tensions points to Shakespeare's commentary on the palliative nature of comedy. Considering comic sources, Robert S. Miola (1993) places All's Well That Ends Well within the tradition of Latin New Comedy—inaugurated by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence. Mary Free (1994) acknowledges the play's comic form, but characterizes All's Well That Ends Well as a “noncomic comedy” due to its strong emphasis on dramatic and linguistic expressions of power.

Peter Erickson (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Political Effects of Gender and Class in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 57-73.

[In the following essay, Erickson examines Helena's disruption of the patriarchal order in All's Well That Ends Well.]

One of the most striking features of All's Well That Ends Well is its full rendering of specifically male frustration in the person of Bertram, a besieged and recalcitrant Adonis writ large.1 But the problem of Bertram cannot be adequately discussed at the level of individual character, as though our response hinged exclusively on the question of...

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David McCandless (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Helena's Bed-trick: Gender and Performance in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 449-68.

[In the following essay, McCandless analyzes All's Well That Ends Well's concern with sexuality, and the importance of Helena's bed-trick to “the play's provocative interrogation of gender roles.”]

The starting point for this essay is Susan Snyder's recent characterization of All's Well as a “deconstructed fairy tale”:1 lurking beneath the folkloric narrative of the poor physician's daughter who deploys magic and cunning in order to overcome a dashing count's disdainful...

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Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Adoption Strives with Nature’: The Slip of Patriarchal Signifiers in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 127-48.

[In the following essay, Hall investigates Helena's “upwardly mobile” desire in All's Well That Ends Well, contending that “her actions restore the very patriarchy which she seems to threaten.”]

In this chapter I want to examine the way in which the romance narrative of All's Well That Ends Well (1599), together with the archaizing representation of the feudal court of France, in fact addresses the anxieties of the...

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Irene G. Dash (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “When Women Choose: All's Well That Ends Well,” in Women's Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays, Associated University Presses, 1997, pp. 35-63.

[In the following essay, Dash discusses the subject of women's sexual options within the patriarchal society of All's Well That Ends Well.]

How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?


Although the phrase “catch 22” had not yet entered the language, Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1898 described the concept with precision—as it applies to women's lives. She noted that even though the young girl “is carefully educated and trained to realize in all ways her...

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Richard P. Wheeler (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Imperial Love and the Dark House: All's Well That Ends Well,” in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 45-56.

[In the following excerpt, Wheeler examines the comic patterns of All's Well That Ends Well, claiming that they “radically change the comic spirit of All's Well from that of earlier comedies.”]

lavatch That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!

Northrop Frye, in “The Argument of Comedy,” called attention to the unusual turn Shakespeare gives the typical comic pattern in All's Well:


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David Scott Kastan (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy,” in ELH, Vol. 52, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 575-89.

[In the following essay, Kastan explores the problematic view of comedy presented in All's Well That Ends Well.]

Renaissance theories of comedy generally stress its moral function: “Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life,” says Sidney, which the comic poet “represents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.”1 Comedy, then, is at once critical and corrective, holding the mirror up to degenerate nature so that the viewer may see...

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Robert S. Miola (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “New Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 23-43.

[In the following essay, Miola studies Shakespeare's adaptation of Latin New Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well.]

We are all familiar with the traditional understanding of sources: a source is a previous text that shapes a present one through authorial reminiscence and manifests itself in verbal iteration. As the seminal works of Baldwin, Muir, and Bullough amply demonstrate, this definition has served us long and well, but every element in it has undergone intense scrutiny and reevaluation. Scholars now recognize the potential limitations...

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Mary Free (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well as Noncomic Comedy,” in Acting Funny: Comic Theory and Practice in Shakespeare's Plays, edited by Frances Teague, Associated University Presses, 1994, pp. 40-51.

[In the following essay, Free maintains that despite its conformity to comic formulae, comedy is thwarted in All's Wells That Ends Well through the play's representation of the power dynamics of marriage and metalanguage.]

The title of All's Well That Ends Well suggests potential for mistaken identity, intrigue plot, thwarted romance—the stuff that makes comedy and the comic—and in its way the play fulfills those potentials. All does end well at...

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Richard A. Levin (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “All's Well That Ends Well, and ‘All Seems Well’,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XIII, 1980, pp. 131-44.

[In the following essay, Levin argues that Helena accomplishes her goals in All's Well That Ends Wellthrough guile and deceit, thus contributing to the play's categorization as a “problem comedy.”]

Critics have offered two very different assessments of Helena, and hence of All's Well That Ends Well.1 Some regard her as a genuine romantic heroine—resourceful, yes, but also virtuous, feminine, charming, and modest. She never behaves cynically, and her motives are above reproach. She cures the king's physical ailment...

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David McCandless (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘That Your Dian / Was Both Herself and Love’: Helena's Redemptive Chastity,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Fall, 1990, pp. 160-78.

[In the following essay, McCandless sees Helena as a compelling romantic heroine whose chastity and sexual passion are inseparable elements of her character and important components of the play's theme of redemption.]

Any discussion of chastity might well start with the simple assertion that, while often mistaken as a synonym for virginity, chastity actually connotes a kind of achieved purity, an absence of sexual corruption rather than an abstinence from sexual experience. Indeed, sexuality and chastity are...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Asp, Carolyn. “Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All's Well That Ends Well.” Literature and Psychology XXXII, No. 4 (1986): 48-63.

Employs psychoanalytic theory to assess the effects of Helena's sexual desire on the patriarchal order of All's Well That Ends Well.

Friedman, Michael D. “Male Bonds and Marriage in All's Well and Much Ado.” In Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 231-49.

Considers male bonding in All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado About Nothing as it relates to audience perceptions of Bertram and gender issues in the plays.


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