All's Well That Ends Well
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote All's Well That Ends Well between 1602 and 1605, though some commentators propose an even earlier composition date. The play is based on a story from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1353), which deals with a common folktale motif—the achievement of an impossible task. Critics have long considered All's Well to be a “problem play” because of its questionable plot elements, unlikable characters, and unsatisfactory ending. In the late twentieth century, however, scholars began to view the play as a bridge between Shakespeare's earlier festive comedies and his later tragedies; many adherents of this view now praise All's Well as a compelling dramatic experiment on Shakespeare's part. While earlier critics focused on such themes as social rank, virtue, and intergenerational strife, commentators from the nineteenth century onward have emphasized Helena's dynamic role in the dramatic action, the relationship between the sexes, and the interplay between romance and realism in the comedy.
Twentieth-century critics have demonstrated a continuing interest in Shakespeare's sophisticated characterization in All's Well. For example, Anthony Brennan (1980) discusses Helena in relation to the concept of time implicit in the play, noting that she alone of all the younger characters has a strong connection with the older generation. According to Brennan, this bond enables her to challenge the constraints of time and to accomplish her aim of winning Bertram as her husband. Susan Snyder (1988) focuses on the overt aggressiveness of Helena's quest to win Bertram. Snyder points out how this aggressiveness reveals an undercurrent of sexuality in the play, particularly through indirect and suppressed speech. The critic contends that ultimately the play illustrates the difficulties of being an assertive woman in a patriarchal setting. Some of the minor characters in All's Well also have attracted critical attention. Christopher Roark (1988), for example, probes the characterization of Lavatch as an indicator of the play's unresolved themes. According to Roark, Lavatch represents a “wise fool” who fails to serve his master because he is incapable of providing counsel, just as the play itself ultimately holds out no answers to the moral questions it poses.
Closely associated with critical analyses of the problematic relationship between Helena and Bertram are discussions of gender issues. Carolyn Asp (1986) maintains that Helena challenges the notion of “woman-as-subject-of-desire” and surmounts “attitudes and theories of female deprivation and inferiority.” Asp then focuses on the reversal of power—inspired by Helena's desire—that allows Helena to succeed in her plans to win Bertram. Critic Barbara Hodgdon (1987) examines the gender theme on a structural level, revealing how Shakespeare's use of the various instances of doubling and substitution—most notably in the bed-trick scene—help to bring about the marital compromises that conclude the action of the play. David McCandless (1997) also emphasizes the bed-trick as a motif that Shakespeare used to exploit assumptions about gender. In addition, McCandless traces the evolution of gender roles, particularly those of Helena and Bertram, throughout the course of the play.
Connected to the gender issues in All's Well is the theme of betrothal and marriage. Many twentieth-century scholars have turned to Shakespeare's historical milieu in an effort to understand the playwright's complex treatment of matrimony in the play. Margaret Loftus Ranald (1963) studies historical documents, such as Elizabethan matrimonial contracts, in order to demonstrate how Shakespeare both criticized the matrimonial practices of his time and made use of them to explain the actions of Helena and Bertram to his audience. Like Ranald, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1989) examines both the classical precedents as well as Renaissance matrimonial texts to illuminate how Shakespeare's audience might have reacted to the characters of Bertram and Helena. In a similar context, Susan Bassnett-McGuire (1984) discusses marriage in terms of the social issues of Shakespeare's day, examining the nature of the marriage contract itself and, more broadly, the role of the individual in relation to the state. Taking a different approach, W. Speed Hill (1975) explores the marriage of Helena and Bertram in the context of their familial situations, pointing out that their union “symbolizes on both parts an acceptance of their own faulty parental experiences.” According to Hill, it is only when Bertram comes to terms with his past that he is finally freed to assume his proper role within the comic plot of All's Well.