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.