All's Well That Ends Well
All's Well That Ends Well, which features a young woman's pursuit of a reluctant lover of higher social standing, was inspired by the story of Giletta of Narbonne, from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1353). Shakespeare's play retains some of the traditional folktale elements found in its source material, such as the healing of the king and the fulfillment of impossible tasks. It is generally considered a problem play due to its unresolved issues, ambiguous ending, and unsympathetic characters. All's Well resists categorization because it features elements of the comic, tragic, and romantic; indeed, the play has been variously regarded as a dark comedy, tragicomedy, and romantic comedy. In addition to considering issues of genre, modern critics focus on the heroine Helena's role in the play, and often examine her attraction to the snobbish Bertram. Critics are also interested in Bertram's unscrupulous friend, Parolles, who has been compared to other Shakespearean comic villains, such as Shylock and Malvolio. Despite the play's problems, All's Well exhibits an interrelatedness of structure, language, and theme that modern scholars find both complex and compelling.
In order to account for what he perceives as the play's failure, Jay Halio (1964) analyzes the sources, dramatic structure, and characters of All's Well That Ends Well. The critic contends that in spite of its shortcomings, the play is both fascinating and complex. Halio focuses on Bertram as the connection between the old, noble social order of France and the new social order, mainly centered in Florence and embodied by the young bourgeois characters. Through Bertram, Halio demonstrates, the revitalization that integrates the best of both of these social orders will occur. In addition, Halio assesses the characters of Helena and Parolles, studying in particular the opposition between these two characters and Helena's ultimate victory in the struggle for Bertram's favor. Like Halio, J. Dennis Huston (1970) is concerned with the relationship between Helena and Parolles. Huston maintains that while both Helena and Parolles are full of youthful energy, Parolles's energy generates darkness and deception; Helena, on the other hand, puts her energy to constructive use in the regeneration of society. Jeremy Richard (1986) traces Shakespeare's transition from comedies of plot to tragedies of character through an examination of Parolles's character. Like Shylock and Malvolio, Richard argues, Parolles is depicted with psychological depth and emotional complexity. Concentrating on Helena's character, Dorothy Cook (1990) demonstrates the ways in which Shakespeare depicted the heroine in a realistic manner. Cook finds that Helena is a major force in All's Well; her character establishes the play's value system and generates and resolves the majority of the play's action.
Although All's Well That Ends Well has traditionally been one of the least performed of Shakespeare's plays, its reputation has improved since the 1950s. One of the most noteworthy recent productions is Peter Hall's staging of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992. Martin Dodsworth (1992) describes the production as “intense and powerful,” and contends that Hall successfully blended the realism and folktale elements of the play. Robert Brustein (1993) and Jeremy Gerard (1993) both review the production of All's Well directed by Richard Jones for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Brustein observes the production's particularly dark tone, which reflects Jones's tragicomic approach to the play, and offers high praise for Miriam Healy-Louie's portrayal of Helena. Gerard also singles out Miriam Healy-Louie's Helena as particularly praiseworthy and notes that the production emphasized the play's troubling and ambiguous nature while retaining the play's comic features. Grevel Lindop (1996) is less than enthusiastic in his comments on Matthew Lloyd's production for the Royal Exchange Theatre, which he finds lacking in emotional warmth. Lindop also notes that Trevyn McDowell's Helena was ineffective in conveying the psychological depth of her character. In a review of Irina Brook's production of All's Well, Robert Smallwood (1998) applauds the performances of Rachel Pickup's Helena and Emil Marwa's Bertram, but contends that the director failed in her attempt to create a setting in which the play's folklore elements could be explored.
Many modern critics have noted that All's Well That Ends Well, while ostensibly a comedy, contains tragic and romantic elements. Josephine Waters Bennett (1967) contends that the play is more a comedy than a romance, and that it should not to be viewed simply as a romantic comedy gone awry. Concerns regarding the play's genre are intimately linked with issues related to the play's structure and themes. J. M. Silverman (1973) examines the dual nature of the play's structure, demonstrating the way the comedic action of the play moves from simple and naïve to a more complex and insidious form. Vivian Thomas (see Further Reading) argues that Shakespeare used the structure of romantic comedy in order to highlight the moral and social values the play depicts, and to explore the dramatic mode in which those values are presented. David M. Bergeron (1972) maintains that through the course of the play, structure and theme become unified. Bergeron focuses on the theme of healing and outlines the structural movement of the healing process as it occurs in the play. In this process, Bergeron explains, Shakespeare moved from Helena's literal, physical healing of the King to the metaphorical healing of Bertram and Parolles. As individuals in the play are cured, Bergeron contends, the larger world of the play is renewed. Patricia Parker (1992) suggests linkages between characters, scenes, and themes in All's Well, arguing that the sexual terms “increase” and “dilation” have economic, verbal, hermeneutic, and familial implications. Maurice Hunt (1987) discusses the disintegration of the relationship between language and action in the play. Hunt notes that “[t]hrough his portrayal of the King of France, alternately preferring words and deeds, Shakespeare indicates that any actual wedding of word and deed in the play will be difficult.”