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All's Well That Ends Well

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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.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Halio, Jay. “All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 1 (winter 1964): 33-43.

[In the following essay, Halio examines the sources, dramatic structure, and characters of All's Well That Ends Well, and contends that although fascinating and complex, the play is a failure.]

Certainly W. W. Lawrence's complaint about the criticism of Shakespeare's problem comedies—or the lack of it1—has steadily been remedied. Not only do we have Lawrence's own extensive research, but the plays have elsewhere won treatment, notably in E. M. W. Tillyard's book2 and many times in articles and whole chapters of works on Shakespeare. This new interest parallels a rather considerable revision in our critical approach to Shakespeare and to literature in general, and one might speculate with good cause on how much this new approach is, in fact, responsible for the attention the problem comedies have recently attracted. But such speculation is not here intended. Despite the new interest, some questions of interpretation remain still unanswered, or inadequately answered. This paper will deal with the questions concerning the least of the group, All's Well That Ends Well. No apology for choosing this play is necessary, for we must agree with Tillyard that though All's Well is a failure, it is a most “interesting” and “complicated” failure, if unfortunately not a “heroic” one.3

The kinds of questions which still demand attention in All's Well fall roughly into four groups: the relationship of the relevant source material (including questions of rhetoric, atmosphere, and dramatic emphasis); the function of the minor characters; the role of Bertram; and the underlying unity (if any) between the two main divisions of the dramatic structure. These questions, let it be remarked at once, should not be dealt with separately, for herein is the root of much mischief; they must be treated as complementary and mingled parts of the basic critical problem. For example, most critics and scholars have noted Shakespeare's addition of the Countess and Lafew, and several of them have distinguished a little between the King in Painter's translation of Boccaccio and the one in All's Well.4 But the reason usually mentioned to explain these additions or changes seems strangely literal-minded: they are introduced simply to build up audience sympathy for Helena.5 Consistently overlooked is Shakespeare's effort to give these characters some existence of their own, if not individually, then at least as a special group important for the play's thematic development. They are all old and all uncommonly given to dwelling upon their age, their decline, and (pre-eminently in the example of the King), their approaching death. This emphasis cannot be pointless. It does not derive fundamentally from Boccaccio (who may have suggested it), and, except to accentuate her youth, it has little to do with our feelings about Helena. Again, critics have often noted the two-part structure of this play; but they have either considered one part without the other6 or, when they tried to establish some interrelationship between the parts, have in most cases stuck with Lawrence and his discussion of the Clever Wench legends.7 But a more basic thematic link between these parts is suggested which so far has gone largely unnoticed and which makes the play, as a dramatic poem, much more intelligible. If it does not save All's Well, it at least helps us better to account for the play's failure.

To understand the play more completely, then, we must analyze in detail its structure, themes, and language, keeping in view the source-relationships of these aspects as well. The opening lines at once introduce the theme of disease, death, and decay—the recent death of the old Count of Rossillion, the King's fistula, the passing of Helena's father six months ‘previously, the young lords’ need for “breathing and exploit”. This theme is stressed throughout the first two acts, which constitute the first part of the play and deal mainly with the healing of the King. Shakespeare may have found a suggestion for this emphasis at the beginning of Boccaccio's tale of Giletta of Narbona in Painter's Palace of Pleasure:

In Fraunce there was a gentleman called Isnardo, the counte of Rossillione, who because he was sickely and diseased, kept always in his house a phisition, named maister Gerardo of Narbona.

(Novel 38)

Shakespeare begins shortly after the death of “Isnardo” and, unlike his source, gives no explicit reason for the fact that Helena grew up with Bertram. But the idea of constant illness (hardly developed by Boccaccio except for the King's fistula) may have stirred his imagination and may in part explain the creation of the old Countess and Lafew. To accent the idea of decay, Shakespeare places the death of Helena's father earlier than Boccaccio does; the opening dialogue thus becomes a veritable dirge, lamenting not only the death of the old Count and the King's disease, but Gerardo's death, too (I.i.19-26). The keynote is struck in the first line; there is something both morbid and unnatural in the Countess' speech: “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.”

Only Helena seems unaffected by the idea of death: her preoccupation with her passion for Bertram—Lafew has to remind her to think on her father (I.i.88)—appears at first merely a malady of a different sort, but emerges at the end of the long scene as the only healthy thing in it. The contrast is significant: in this way Shakespeare prepares us for Helena's role as the “providence of the play”, to use Dowden's term,8 or as the dominant restorative force amidst all the sickness. Restorative, but also regenerative. For closely associated with the theme of individual death and disease is another theme, the passing of generations, introduced and more fully developed by the King in the second scene, as we shall see presently. Hence another reason for creating the Countess and Lafew and for more carefully portraying the King: the universe of All's Well contrasts two worlds—the old order represented by the aged nobility and centered in France; the new order represented by the aspiring young bourgeois (Helena and Parolles) and centered mainly in Florence. Bertram is the link between the two worlds: it is through him that regeneration will occur when he synthesizes the best of both.9 But before he can effect this synthesis, he must be able to perceive the “best” and embrace it, and unfortunately Bertram is himself diseased. His ailment is more serious than that of the other young nobles who, stifled in France, need only the Tuscan wars for physic (I.ii.15-17; III.i.17-19). Bertram's sickness (in a larger, metaphorical sense) colors his judgment and affects his actions, and thus requires a more searching remedy.

According to this pattern, then, Bertram is to be the central character of the play; but he does not assume this importance dramatically until after his marriage to Helena, when the action shifts to Florence.10 Shakespeare first defines the true instrument of regeneration and the difficulties it must encounter and overcome. He does this directly by opposing Helena and Parolles (another new character): their wit combat on virginity (I.i.121-179) prefigures the more serious struggle in which they will soon engage, and Helena's victory prefigures, too, her ultimate success. The dialogue occurs in the middle of the first scene where—despite a light-hearted tone—their respective views on procreation are made clear.11 The quibbling sequence near the end of this dialogue takes on added significance when viewed with regard to the conflict between the regenerative and degenerative forces in the play: Helena claims Parolles must have been born under a retrograde Mars—he goes “so much backward” when he fights (I.i.204-214). But not only in the wars is Parolles “retrograde”; in his emphasis on clothes, manners, and mere words he exemplifies the degenerate influence at work among the younger members of French society.12 When Bertram first appears at Court, the King almost immediately launches upon an extended eulogy of the older generation, represented by Bertram's father, to the discredit of the younger set. He speaks of the dead Count before Bertram, Lafew, and Parolles (who is silent throughout):

                                                                                          It much repairs me
To talk of your good father. In his youth
He had the wit which I can well observe
To-day in our young lords; but they may jest
Till their own scorn return to them unnoted
Ere they can hide their levity in honour
So like a courtier. Contempt nor bitterness
Were in his pride or sharpness. If they were,
His equal had awak'd them; and his honour,
Clock to itself, knew the true minute when
Exception bid him speak, and at this time
His tongue obey'd his hand. Who were below him
He us'd as creatures of another place;
And bow'd his eminent top to their low ranks,
Making them proud of his humility,
In their poor praise he humbled. Such a man
Might be a copy to these younger times,
Which followed well, would demonstrate them now
But goers backward.


The clock metaphor, really a conceit, boldly if obliquely insists upon the purport of the entire passage: a noble era is passing, yielding to a less noble, more “reactionary” time (note goers backward), a time which the King describes more fully in his speech on virtue in Act II (II.iii.124-151). The inference is clear: Parolles, for all his fashionable clothes and language, represents those “whose judgments are Mere fathers of their garments” (I.ii.61-62). To this extent only is he capable of regeneration. Yet it is he whom Bertram retains as his guide throughout most of the play.13

If Parolles is “kept under” by the stars that govern him (I.i.209), Helena is determined not to be. After earlier but momentary resignation to her position of shining in Bertram's “collateral” light but not in his sphere (I.i.96), she recognizes the true relationship of human will and heavenly restraint:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.


Here begins what has sometimes been called the “morality” pattern in All's Well: the struggle between Helena and Parolles for Bertram's favor.14 Parolles is patently an ass, detected by all save Bertram; but Helena must prove herself to her idol, to the other characters in the play, and to us. Hence she devises her plan to heal the King. Upon reaching Paris, she overcomes the King's doubts and is recognized as a minister of Providence even before she succeeds in curing him (II.i.178 f.). To be sure, Helena herself understands her ministry as something more than human (I.iii.248-249; II.i.139ff.), and at least one critic has explained the peculiar incantatory verse in this scene as therefore appropriate.15 But we need not repeat Tillyard's version of the theme of Bertram, natural man, redeemed by Helena, the agent of grace (pp. 118-122). We may simply note that at this point Helena proves her ability to heal in a literal sense, and the cure seems miraculous to all. Even Bertram and Parolles admit the wonder of it when Lafew shrewdly comments on the nature of event (II.iii.1-9).

By healing the King, Helena merits her bounty, as stipulated in the terms of the venture she chose to undertake: she may select her husband from among the King's wards. This precipitates the first major crisis in the play—a crisis no less severe for critics trying to understand Shakespeare than it is for Bertram. Many have found Helena's conduct blamable,16 and still more have condemned either (or both) Bertram and the King.17 Several have tried valiantly, if unconvincingly, to defend Bertram, notably A. H. Carter in a recent article.18 But no one, it seems, has adequately followed Dowden's hint to place the action subsequent to the healing of the King in its proper relationship to the first action in the play:

A motto for the play may be found in the words uttered with pious astonishment by the clown, when his mistress bids him to begone, “That man should be at woman's command, and yet no harm done”. Helena is the providence of the play; and there is “no hurt done,” but rather healing—healing of the body of the French king, healing of the spirit of the man she loves.19

Bertram's refusal to accept Helena as his wife and his later renegade conduct must be understood in the context of what has preceded; and Helena's influence upon him must be seen as following closely the pre-set pattern of her healing of the King—the initial refusal to believe in and accept her, the eventual success after what seems a “miracle”.

This early, repeated reference to the miraculous nature of the King's cure may also explain the “blackening” of Bertram's character, a problem pondered by all who have compared Bertram with Boccaccio's Beltramo.20 Bertram is blind to the real virtues of Helena—and in this sense ill, for no one else (except Parolles) fails to recognize her worth. His judgment is corrupted and his idea of nobility, as the King says, diseased:

Where great additions swell us, and virtue none,
It is a dropsied honor.

(II.iii.134 f.)

Earlier, at the suggestion of Parolles and two young lords (II.i.25-36), he falsely believes he will gain honor by disobeying the King and stealing from the court to fight in Florence, and after his marriage he actually does run off. His debauchery in Italy and especially his treatment of Diana seriously detract from his service on the battlefield and argue further this sense of “dropsied honor” (see III.v.3-87). Helena follows her husband to Florence, as the requirements of the traditional story demand; but she follows also to “cure” his affliction.

For Helena's effect upon Bertram, like her effect upon the King, is restorative. It is a long-standing error, as noted above,21 to regard Bertram as utterly without principle or virtue apart from his martial prowess—a man upon whom Helena, quite inexplicably (except for social ambition), is throwing herself away. Yet this error may be avoided—not by recourse (with Clifford Leech) to a theory of irrational love,22 nor by overstating (with Carter) Bertram's case against his bride (pp. 21 ff.), but by a close attention to the text: to Helena's explicit statement as to why she finds Bertram worth her labors (and the serious risks they entail); to supporting statements from other characters; and finally to a basic concept stated, quite forthrightly, at two or three important points in the action. As Helena implies, the distance which separates her from Bertram in the social hierarchy is purely artificial; there is no essential difference between them in character:

What power is it which mounts my love so high?
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.


Only after Bertram leaves for the court, the “learning place” as Helena calls it (I.i.91), and falls heavily under the influence of Parolles, does his character really suffer. Lafew has some good words to say for Bertram at the beginning of the play (I.i.7-12), but these may betoken mere courtesy and at any rate appear directed more to the Countess than to her son. Nevertheless, the old Countess' comment on Bertram's desertion of Helena is unequivocal; she blames Parolles for the failure of her son's nobility—

My son corrupts a well-derived nature
With his inducement.

(III.ii.90 f.)

These statements suggest, however inadequately, that Bertram has a more complex character than he has generally been credited with. As has sometimes been pointed out, one motif of the play is that pronounced by the French Lord, Captain Dumain:

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.


Our very excellences, moreover, may become ambiguous, as the Countess says regarding Helena:

I have those hopes of her good that her education promises. Her dispositions she inherits, which makes fair gifts fairer; for where an unclean mind carries virtuous qualities, their commendations go with pity—they are virtues and traitors too.


But this ambiguous character describes the Countess' own son (as he develops in the play) more closely than it does Helena. Diana tells us this much as she and Helena watch the Count pass in parade through the streets of Florence (III.v.81-85). Later, at the precise moment Bertram believes he is seducing Diana, the two lords reflect upon his misconduct:

2. Lord.
Now God delay our rebellion! As we are ourselves, what things are we!
1. 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.


Bertram, then, must be understood as not altogether a cad, but someone who, once rescued from the self-treason caused by his particular affliction (Parolles), may well merit Helena's devotion. Indeed, the theme of sin (or vice) as self-treason emerges as the dominant theme of the latter and more important part of the play.23 Where Shakespeare errs is in his failure to dramatize the brighter aspects of Bertram's character: though we hear of his better qualities, we never see them translated into action.24 Shakespeare might otherwise have saved matters to some extent had he sufficiently carried over the disease imagery from part one to make the point clear about his hero's behavior; but the most we get is a hint from Bertram about his “sick desires” for Diana (IV.ii.35). Of course, much of what we find wanting in the study may be provided on the stage—the play is said to act better than it reads.25 With only the text before us, however, we find Shakespeare depending far more than usual upon the implications of structural relationships to suggest his “meaning” in All's Well; depending too much, in fact, for we strain to comprehend.26

To resume our analysis: the theme of self-betrayal is most obviously dramatized through the plight of Parolles. Here the poet-dramatist, quite in control of the technique developed in his earlier plays, utilizes the comic sub-plot to underline the ideas he tries to convey more seriously in the main action, an aspect of the structure of All's Well which Lawrence and Quiller-Couch entirely miss.27 Parolles' special virtues—his gift of words, his military aspirations—ultimately prove “virtues and traitors too”; they ruin him, as on the very eve of his disaster he himself suspects will happen (IV.i.30-47). The specific way he subverts himself is to betray the instigators of the plot, as 2. Lord says, to themselves (IV.i.101). This betrayal, which Parolles promises to make faithfully (IV.i.94)—that is, “accurately” with an ironic play on the sense “loyally”—includes in the actual event revealing to the “enemy” not only the size of the Duke's forces, but the moral characters of his principal lieutenants, specifically, their vices, or self-treasons, as they may now be called. Self-treason thus leads to self-knowledge, the theme anticipated in the subplot by Lafew's earlier penetration into the character of Parolles and repeatedly pointed to by quibbles on the word find (II.iii.217, II.iv.32-39; V.ii.45-48). Parolles discovers that simply the thing he is shall make him live (IV.iii.369 ff.), and the two lords are doubtless the wiser for their own exposure. As for Bertram, the experience of witnessing his friend's perfidy represents but the beginning of his own self-knowledge: his ill-tempered comments during Parolles' unmasking clash with the good-humored spirit of the others involved in the interrogation and reveal as yet only partial insight into the nature of ethical conduct and mature judgment.28

Helena's attempt to fulfill the conditions Bertram has set for their reunion—obtaining his ring and bearing his child—carries through the theme of self-treason in the main plot and leads directly to the resolution of the action. Helena now reveals herself as something more than the “simple” maid that others have considered her and that she herself has pretended to be.29 Her use of the bed-trick does not demand the usual explanation here, and besides, much convincing apology has already been made in her behalf.30 By apparently satisfying Bertram's lust and violating the chastity symbolized by her name, Diana gives the illusion of self-treason, but actually Helena is the one who behaves as the traitor, in an ironic and hitherto unrecognized manner. It is a central paradox of the play that what is often a worthy or lawful objective may have to be obtained through somewhat dubious means. In order to unmask Parolles, for example, the brothers Dumain resort to “honest” deception. Earlier, Helena describes her paradoxical situation when she pleads for some token of affection from Bertram before leaving for Rossillion without him: like a “timorous thief” she would steal what, through marriage, she already has a right to (IV.v.84-87). The paradox becomes acute when she formulates her plan with Diana and Diana's mother to get Bertram's ring and perform the bed-trick:

Let us assay our plot; which, if it speed,
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a wicked act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.


After lying with Bertram, Helena comments further on the irony of the situation: his “cozen'd thoughts” have allowed her husband to enjoy—and thoroughly to enjoy!—that which he loathes (IV.iv.21-25). Finally, by taking Diana's place Helena proves to be her own traitor in precisely the way that Lafew jokingly suggests when he introduces her to the King:

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.


Lafew plays upon the two senses of traitor “disloyal person” and “lewd person, naughty-pack” (Cotgrave).31 By sleeping with Bertram under the guise of his paramour, Helena appears to identify herself more fully with the others of her generation by becoming a “traitor” to herself, too.

In the last act all the treasons in the play are detected and the promised restoration fulfilled: what was perhaps dubiously begun is at length well ended. Helena returns to Paris and with Diana's help once more forces Bertram out of the King's good favor. But it is no part of her purpose to leave Bertram, with his added sins upon him, in this state. Like Vincentio in Measure for Measure, she teaches him to understand the ways of true judgment and honor and human nature, including his own nature. There is, of course, no doubt that Helena can settle all Bertram's suspicions of his being “doubly won”, or that Bertram will recover from his erring ways and show himself molded, like Angelo, into a much better man for being “a little bad”.32 If his recovery appears miraculous, it was, as we have seen, supposed to appear thus, a complement to Helena's healing of the King and a testimony to the power of innate virtue.33 Helena herself undergoes a “rebirth,” though less miraculous than the King and court at first believe, when she emerges alive again after her reported “death”. Nevertheless, she carries within her in Bertram's unborn child the ever-new and ever-unchanging miracle of regeneration through which the nobility of Rossillion and bourgeois excellence join in final synthesis. Bertram's ring, the legacy of Rossillion that now appears on Helena's hand, symbolizes in another way this consummation. Also launched upon a new and truer life is Parolles. His nickname, “Tom Drum” (V.iii.322), earned by the unmasking episode, is a last reminder of the contrast between his hollowness, his sterility—and Helena's rich burden of life. Seeing the change that has come over the braggart-turned-fool, Lafew admits him into his household where Parolles will henceforth be able—in quite another way than he had once hoped—to “eat, speak, and move under the influence of the most receiv'd star” (II.i.56-57). And if Lafew can accept the emergence of the true Parolles, can we not accept the recovery of the “true” Bertram?

So H. S. Wilson (pp. 236-238), among others, would have us do. It has been the thesis of this paper to show that we, in fact, must accept Bertram if we understand rightly the main thematic patterns and structural relationships in the play. Helena has good cause to pursue Bertram for her husband, over and above what some critics have described as her desire to climb the social ladder.34 That she is genuinely in love with him is revealed with utmost clarity in the opening scene; that he is an object worthy of her love is also indicated, if somewhat inadequately. At court, under the influence of Parolles, Bertram corrupts his “well-derived nobility” and is unable to perceive the real virtue which Helena holds out to him. The healing of the King, meanwhile, not only provides Helena with the opportunity to land the one man she loves; it also paves the way for us to understand her function in the second part of the action. Like any good wife, she tries to “cure” her husband of his bad conduct because she realizes better than anyone else the excellent man he really can be. If Shakespeare fails to supply us with sufficient verbal clues as to Bertram's true character (he does not neglect them altogether), it is quite possible that he depended (if unduly) upon the implications of his plot and (more plausibly) upon the acting itself. At the end, Helena triumphs. Bertram's last unworthy deeds, his perjury, his calumny of Diana, are, as it were, the final exhalation of his distemper. But with his concluding remarks, once again we strain to comprehend, not so much the meaning, which is clear, but a different breakdown in technique. Bertram's acceptance of Helena might be at least a little more gracious:

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


Perhaps the critics are right: Shakespeare may have been in a hurry to finish.35 Or the couplets at the end are vestiges, along with those in Act II, of some early version of All's Well.36 In any event, judgment here seems impossible, and from the point of view of this paper, irrelevant. Though all evidence indicates our acceptance of Bertram at the end is intended, we may yet reject him, along with much else in the play, as seriously beneath the reach of Shakespeare's greatest art. Nor need we lament these shortcomings overmuch: failure is always in itself instructive. Its value for Shakespeare we cannot, of course, ascertain; its value for critics (and biographers who may wish to indulge in a little bardolatry) can only be salubrious.


  1. “There is a special reason for discussing these comedies afresh … Oddly enough, they seem never to have been studied minutely and dispassionately as a group, and their complexities probed in the light of modern knowledge”, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931), p. 9; cf. pp. vii-viii.

  2. Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto, 1949).

  3. Tillyard, p. 94.

  4. Kenneth Muir's comments in Shakespeare's Sources (London, 1957), I, 99-100, are typical.

  5. See, e.g., T. M. Parrott, Shakespearean Comedy (New York, 1949), p. 350, or John Middleton Murry, Shakespeare (London, 1936), p. 299. An important exception is H. B. Charlton; see his Shakespearian Comedy (London, 1938), pp. 219-222.

  6. See M. C. Bradbrook, “Virtue Is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well”, RES, [Review of English Studies] N.S., I (1950), 289-301.

  7. H. S. Wilson's article, “Dramatic Emphasis in All's Well That Ends Well”, HLQ, [Huntington Library Quarterly] XIII (1949-50), 217-240, is only a subtler presentation of Lawrence's main thesis.

  8. Edward Dowden, Shakespeare, His Mind and Art, 3rd ed. (New York, 1881), p. 76.

  9. Tillyard, pp. 12, 110-112, notes the same opposition but is far less cheerful about its resolution.

  10. Cf. Wilson, p. 226. Also compare Oscar J. Campbell's discussion of the role of Angelo, similarly described as the central character of Measure for Measure, in Shakespeare's Satire (New York, 1943), pp. 124-141.

  11. Cf. Lavatch's comments, I.iii.19 ff. and elsewhere. Lawrence allies the Clown, the fourth significant addition to the dramatis personae, with Parolles in the statement of vulgar cynicism developed in the play to contrast with Helena's “bright virtue” (pp. 63-67). But in so doing, he overlooks some important differences: Lavatch may with as much justice be allied with Helena and Lafew as among the first to detect the hollowness of Parolles (see II.iv.17-38); and unlike the braggart he earns Lafew's praise (IV.v.72; cf. Parolles and Lafew, II.iii.191 ff.). The Clown's speeches pose some interesting problems of interpretation which scholarship has left almost entirely ignored; until they are worked out, it seems wise to reserve comment on the true function of this character.

  12. Actually, Shakespeare's criticism here is directed (as usual) to English society. See the excellent but neglected article by G. P. Krapp, “Parolles”, in Shaksperian Studies by Members of the Department of English and Comparative Literature in Columbia University (New York, 1916), pp. 291-300.

  13. The contrast is again with the old Count, who chose, for his fool, the perspicacious Lavatch. Cf. Bradbrook, p. 295.

  14. Bradbrook, p. 301; Tillyard, pp. 114-115. Cf. H. C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), p. 425.

  15. Tillyard, pp. 104-105; cf. Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in All's Well That Ends Well”, ELH, XXI (1954), p. 20.

  16. See, e.g., Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, All's Well That Ends Well, New Cambridge edition (1929), pp. xxix-xxxi.

  17. Samuel Johnson's often quoted comment on Bertram seems to have established the particular bias against him; see Lawrence, p. 35.

  18. “In Defense of Bertram”, Shakespeare Quarterly, VII (1956) 21-31. Cf. F. G. Schoff's discussion of this article in “Claudio, Bertram, and A Note on Interpretation”, Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959), 11-23.

  19. Shakespeare, His Mind and Art, p. 76. Lawrence, p. 66, quotes this passage, but only to criticize Dowden for taking the Clown's remark out of context.

  20. See Lawrence, pp. 59-64; Murry, Shakespeare, pp. 298-303; Quiller-Couch, pp. xxvi-xxviii; Wilson, p. 225, note.

  21. See note 17.

  22. Leech, p. 23; cf. E. C. Pettet, Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition (London, 1949), p. 138.

  23. The theme of self-treason as it involves Bertram and Parolles is mentioned briefly by M. D. H. Parker, The Slave of Life (London, 1955), p. 122, and John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies (London, 1957), p. 191. Cf. Two Gentlemen of Verona, IV.iv.10.

  24. Hazelton Spencer remarks: “It is perhaps regrettable that Shakespeare failed to invent some scene in which the recreant husband might help an old lady across the street or throw his purse to a deserving beggar or perform some other good turn that would prove him the owner of a heart of gold at least the equal of Tom Jones's” (The Art and Life of William Shakespeare [New York, 1940], p. 298).

  25. Muir, I, 101. Cf. Tillyard, p. 94; Wilson, pp. 239-240; and especially Gervinus, Shakespeare Commentaries: “Only by seeing this work of art and by trusting the eye, can we be sensible of its full and harmonious effect. But that even the eye may be convinced, a great actress is required. Bertram also demands a good actor, if the spectator is to perceive that this is a man capable of rewarding efforts so great on the part of a woman, a man whose painful wooing promises a grateful possession. That this unsentimental youth has a heart, this corrupted libertine a good heart, that this scorner can ever love the scorned, this is indeed read in his scanty words, but few readers of the present day are free enough from sentimentality to believe such things on the credit of a few words. The case is entirely different when, in the acted Bertram, they see the noble nature, the ruin of his character at Florence, and the contrition which his sins and his simplicity call forth; when, from the whole bearing of the brusque man, they perceive what the one word ‘pardon’ signified in his mouth, when they see his breast heave at the last appearance of Helena bringing ease to his conscience. Credence is then given to his last words; for the great change in his nature—of which now only a forlorn word or two is read and overlooked—would then have been witnessed. Seldom has a task so independent as the character of Bertram been left to the art of the actor; but still more seldom is the actor to be found, who knows how to execute it” (cited by F. E. Halliday, Shakespeare and His Critics [London, 1949], p. 430). For an account of the recent performance of All's Well by the Old Vic which (if nothing else) bears out Gervinus' comment on Bertram's role, see Richard David, “Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant”, Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955), pp. 134-136.

  26. Cf. M. C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (New York, 1952), pp. 169-170. Miss Bradbrook's discussion of All's Well in this book is mainly a condensation of her earlier article, referred to above; but in the pages cited she adds some important criticism on Shakespeare's handling of Bertram.

  27. Lawrence, p. 33; Quiller-Couch, pp. xxiv-xxv. More recent critics have noticed the parallel; see, e.g., Goddard, pp. 430-433, for an analysis different from that presented here.

  28. Cf. Carter, p. 23: “Despite Helena's and Lafew's revelation of Parolles' worthlessness, Bertram has been constant to his friend. But by the middle of the play (, he is willing to put him to the test, and his rejection of Parolles (IV.iii), like Hal's of Falstaff, is symbolic of an increased maturity and establishes the probability that he will be able to change his mind and accept Helena.”

  29. See I.i.48-51, II.1.140-144, II.iii.72-73. Earlier, her opening lines (I.i.62, 90 ff.), the debate with Parolles, her rhetoric before the Countess (I.iii.143 ff.), and the plot to win Bertram, have suggested something more than the “innocence of babes”, though the last point may be disputable.

  30. See Lawrence, pp. 51-54. The argument there is well seconded by Murry, p. 300, and Tillyard, p. 102. Cf., however, Leech, p. 26.

  31. See my article, “Traitor in All's Well and Troilus and Cressida”, MLN, LXXII (1957), 408-409.

  32. Measure for Measure V.i.444-446.

  33. Cf. Bradbrook, “Virtue Is the True Nobility”, p. 301: “Bertram's conversion must be reckoned among Helena's miracles.” Wilson, p. 236, also uses the term “conversion”. As I have tried to show, we miss an important theme in the play if we regard Bertram's change as a “conversion” instead of a “recovery”. Closer to the mark is Goddard's comment (p. 425): “With the penetration of love, his good angel, Helena, alone sees through from the first to what this perverted youth is under what he has become. By keeping her faith in that vision, in spite of the evidence against it, she brings about a resurrection of himself within himself through the miracle of what seems to him her own literal resurrection. Her sudden appearance in the flesh after being reported dead shocks him back into what he has really been all along.” Cf. also Lafew's remark in the final scene:

                                                                                                                  the young lord
    Did to his Majesty, his mother, and his lady,
    Offence of mighty note; but to himself
    The greatest wrong of all.


  34. Bradbrook, “Virtue Is the True Nobility”, p. 297; Tillyard, p. 106.

  35. See, e.g., Muir, I, 101; Leech, p. 20; and cf. Murry, p. 304.

  36. For two sharply opposed views on stratification in All's Well, see J. Dover Wilson's argument, “The Copy for All's Well That Ends Well, 1623” in the New Cambridge ed., pp. 101-113, and Tillyard's reply, Appendix E, pp. 161-163. The evidence on either side is at least doubtful; and ultimately criticism must deal with the play as it exists in the only form we have. And for this, whether or not he revised his own early work, or accepted the original work or revision of some other person, Shakespeare must still assume responsibility.

J. Dennis Huston (essay date autumn 1970)

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SOURCE: Huston, J. Dennis. “‘Some Stain of Soldier’: The Functions of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Quarterly 21, no. 4 (autumn 1970): 431-38.

[In the following essay, Huston studies the way Parolles, with his unchanneled youthful energy, draws attention to Shakespeare's development of the idea that the energy of society's youth, in order to be constructive and productive, must be directed into the orderly structure of social institutions.]

There is in the personality of Parolles, the fashion-minded courtier and pseudo-soldier of All's Well That Ends Well, a curious mixture of the corrupt and the commendable. His conversation is vain, his carriage foolish, and his conduct disgraceful; repeatedly he maligns the heroine, slandering her before her husband, and even more frequently he misguides the hero as he “instructs” him in the ways of courtly life. Yet in spite of all these failings, Parolles still has something to recommend him: he possesses an immense amount of energy, which periodically infuses his world with dramatic life and which, even more significantly, focuses attention on the thematic development of All's Well as a whole1—where Shakespeare argues that the energy of youth can be constructively and productively incorporated into society only by being channeled into the ordered forms of traditional social institutions.

Parolles' vital energy is first apparent, and perhaps most obviously noticeable, in the opening scene of the play. At the palace of Rousillon, where the rooms are hung with black curtains of mourning and where the atmosphere is dominated by a sense of death and decay, he appears suddenly, “some stain of soldier” (I.i.122)2, a bright blot of color against a sombre background. And as he stands in the dark hall of the palace, Parolles radiates a dramatic light that contrasts markedly with the world presented before his entrance. The people who have just exited after dominating the opening dialogue are old; he is young.3 They have talked quietly and formally; he speaks, probably in a high-pitched voice, very informally. They have been attired in simple, black dress, and he wears the gaily colored and elaborate fashions of the court world. And, most important of all, the people of Rousillon have been obsessed with death, while Parolles talks energetically of life and “rational increase” (I.i.139). Clearly, this courtier-soldier is the representative of values that are alien to the older generation at Rousillon: he looks different, and he speaks and dresses differently from them. He acts differently, too, for he decries the responsibilities of both wardship and marriage, and obeys no laws except those of his own self-interest. But in pursuing his self-advancement, Parolles merely advertises his foolishness, because he cannot control his wagging tongue. His pretenses of courage and courtliness are recognized as fraudulent by nearly everyone he sees, nearly everyone, that is, but Bertram, who is deluded by the superficialities of the braggart's speech and dress. The young Count, though, has a habit of making this kind of mistake. Foolishly, he puts his trust in superfluities—“words” and not deeds, clothes and not the “steely bones” (I.i.114) of virtue that should underlie a man's appearance.

Bertram's injudiciousness is recognizable from the time of his first appearance, when he prepares to leave Rousillon for Paris. Behind him in his father's palace hang the dark colors of mourning; beside him stand the mourners, old people who delay his departure with their talk of death. In language that is involuted and devoid of energy, they speak of one decease after another—the old Count's, his physician's, and that which threatens the King. Bertram has no interest in their concerns or in the society of Rousillon that now conspicuously lacks an energetic leader. Though he is the only person who seems qualified to revive a social order grown infirm, he chooses instead to abandon the small world of Rousillon for the excitement of one larger and more fashionable.

But the realm into which Bertram moves differs only in superficial splendor from the palace at Rousillon. In essence, the two worlds are the same, because within the walls of the King's, as well as the Count's palace, death keeps his court. In Paris an old and diseased ruler laments the passing of his former friends, wonders about his own usefulness, and worries about the immaturity of the younger generation. Here, as at Rousillon, the young men who should be readying themselves to assume the burdens of social responsibilities are instead departing, with hopes that they will find a more exciting and interesting life elsewhere. Clearly, the disease which afflicts the King of France has a symbolic significance: it is the reflection, in physical terms, of a figurative disease which is ravaging his whole realm, robbing it of order and energy.

The forces of death which threaten the order of society at the beginning of All's Well are, however, successfully countered during the course of the play. Through the operation of natural process, artfully combined with particular human endeavor, the order of society is eventually renewed. The King is cured of his disease and of the afflictions common to old age in general, for by the end of the drama he no longer remains confined to his bed, or even to his palace. Instead he travels about his realm, as if he were again a young man. Other characters, too, seem reborn out of death into a new identity. They are not, of course, all saved in the same way, nor do all their recoveries have the same kind of thematic importance, but they all contribute in varying degrees to the regenerative tone of the ending. Helena, who is supposed to have died in Saint Jaques' monastery, returns to Rousillon to become a wife and mother; and Parolles, who blindfolded has heard the order for his own execution, discovers when his blindfold is removed—symbolically as well as actually—that he is not really going to be killed. Bertram, too, like the King, Helena, and Parolles, is recalled from death in the course of the play. Threatened with a sentence of execution for the murder of his wife, he is finally acquitted by the apparently miraculous arrival of a living and forgiving corpus delicti. And in Bertram's encounter with death, images of darkness again have thematic significance.

For example, the all-important “bed-trick”, which indirectly precipitates the young Count's inquisition before the King, takes place in a completely dark room, where Bertram mistakes Helena for Diana. The darkness that is the setting for this rendezvous is, obviously, demanded by the dictates of dramatic plausibility, but it has thematic functions as well. It suggests that the Count, like his boastful companion who is blindfolded at the time of the “bed-trick”, moves in a figurative as well as a physical darkness. So inadequate are Bertram's powers of moral perception that he cannot see people as they really are. His condition is, symbolically, that of a lustful young man in a dark room, where he cannot tell a true wife from a “common gamester to the camp” (V.iii.188).

The darkness, however, is not only a reflection of Bertram's moral blindness; it is also a symbolic presentation of expanding social dissolution. Earlier the palaces at Rousillon and at Paris have been threatened by the decay attending old age. Now the rejuvenating powers of the younger generation are menaced by the irresponsibility attending youth. Rashly pursuing his desires, Bertram ignores his responsibilities as a husband, because his intentions are adulterous. More important, he betrays his obligation as a member of society, because his action has as its goal the immediate satisfaction of sexual appetite and not the eventual regeneration of the social order. Although man's duty to society—as the dramatic accounts and implications of the King's sickness have made clear—is to maintain its order by producing an heir to his position, Bertram has no such thoughts when he meets “Diana”. Following the self-interested teachings of Parolles, he surrenders to the demands of lust and unknowingly betrays himself, by destroying his identity as a human being. He treats the woman who is with him as if she were merely an object, a commodity that he has sought on the open market and bought for one very particular purpose. But by thus dehumanizing “Diana”, Bertram also sacrifices his own identity as a man. He becomes little more than an animal, a creature of appetite.

The forces of order, however, still retain the capacity to work miracles, and because of the miraculous power of human love, Count Rousillon is rescued from self-betrayal. The honor of his name—represented by the family ring which he thoughtlessly exchanges for an hour of pleasure—is not as he soon thinks irrevocably lost, for he unintentionally gives it to his own wife. Thinking to exchange one kind of ring for another, Bertram instead provides for the continuing family possession of both rings. At the same time, the honor of the family name is insured actually as well as symbolically by the young Count's action; as a result of the “bed-trick”, Helena becomes pregnant.

The child that she carries in her body when she returns to confront Bertram at Rousillon is thematically important for a number of reasons. First, as an outward and visible sign of the union that Helena has achieved with her husband—fulfilling the conditions of his letter—the child gives promise of the inward and spiritual union that can be established between Bertram and his wife. Second, Helena's pregnancy announces that the younger generation has come of age. No longer is their energy to be irresponsibly dissipated in play. Instead they are prepared to assume a productive role in society, replacing their parents as its leaders. Third, the child draws attention to the motifs of rebirth which are developed in the play. Only shortly before this scene, Parolles has appeared as a new man, reborn after his encounter with death. He is, in fact, so newly returned from his recreation that he carries the smell and markings of earth about him still. Then Helena, presumed dead, arrives—not as a humble physician's daughter who is a countess in name only, but as Bertram's true wife, pledged in act as well as word. By her arrival, Helena thus provides for the regeneration of her husband. He, like Parolles earlier, has proven himself a coward and a liar, under the pressure of the King's inquisition, and though his cowardice has been moral and not physical as the braggart's was, it has had the same result. He is threatened by a sentence of death. Then, suddenly and miraculously, he is recalled to life. The figurative blindfold is removed from his eyes; the darkness of error dissolves, and he sees that he has been a fool. But though he has been deluded, his mistakes have done no harm. Mercifully granted a second chance, he resolves to become a new man, and even his speech is affected by the spiritual rebirth: at least momentarily, he can manage little more than baby-talk:

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


Where once Rousillon was oppressed by darkness and sterility, it is now infused with light and fertility. The dark colors of mourning no longer hang about the palace, and no one is dressed in black. Talk that formerly concerned itself with death now deals with the subject of life, with marriage and the child that Helena carries in her body. And the young Count, who was departing from Rousillon when the play began, has now returned, somewhat wiser than the eager, but self-deluding boy who left. A world that earlier appeared to be disintegrating now rests secure, on a newly ordered foundation: the younger generation shows evidence of its productivity, and no one questions their capacity to assume social responsibilities. All at last has ended well. The general movement of the play is clear.

This outline of All's Well is, however, an oversimplification, and it has distinct limitations. Because of the complexity of the dramatic world in this play, at least one important problem is left unresolved by such a general thematic study. That problem is how to define the nature and meaning of the relationship between Helena and Parolles. Clearly, these two characters engage in a struggle for the control of Bertram's personality during the course of the play, and at first Parolles enjoys the ascendancy in this conflict: he misguides the young Count, whose immaturity is strikingly emphasized by the company he keeps. Only one whose capacity for perception was decidedly limited by inexperience could be fooled by such an obvious fraud. Also, as an obvious result of his decision to embrace Parolles as a friend, Bertram begins to assume some of the braggart's most dissolute characteristics. The young Count's errors of immaturity are thus subsequently compounded by a good deal of moral cowardice. Symbolically, then, as well as actually, Bertram travels with Parolles, who draws attention to the Count's weaknesses by manifesting them in an exaggerated degree. But since Bertram is too thick-headed to recognize his own failings, even when they are exposed in the contemptible conduct of his companion, he can be rescued only by human endeavor conjoined with enduring love. The emissary of that love is Helena, who possesses an apparently unlimited capacity for forgiveness and an unearthly ability to work miracles. So, though Bertram is for a time influenced by Parolles, he is eventually rescued from self-destruction by his wife's love. In the struggle to control the young Count's personality, the final victory is Helena's, not Parolles'.

This clear opposition between the braggart and the heroine is not, however, consistently maintained throughout All's Well, for sometimes the essential differences between these two characters are blurred, and momentarily their similarities become important. At these times, it is apparent that Parolles is Helena's ally as well as her enemy, for he possesses qualities that she needs to develop before she can win Bertram. A suggestion of the complexity apparent in the dramatic relationship between Parolles and Helena is to be found near the end of the first scene.

During the time when the young Count prepares to leave for Paris, Helena silently contends with her grief. She speaks only once, and then in answer to a direct inquiry from the Countess. When she at last is left alone, however, Helena gives full voice to her sorrow:

                                                                                          … 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.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. …


Two characteristics of this soliloquy are particularly notable. First, it emphasizes Helena's youthfulness and inexperience, for it is marked by the radical thought characteristic of a young mind. There is no moderation at all in this speech: life without Bertram is “death”; her imagination has room in it only for his image; she might as well hope to wed a star as this young Count. Helena's world, as she describes it here, is composed only of extremes, and she is soon to learn that her youthful analysis of the situation has greatly oversimplified it. Second, the speech suggests Helena's temporary emotional commitment to the powers which are encircling the old Count's palace. She, like Lafeu and the Countess, seems too much in love with easeful death; and though this fascination results from the rashness of youth rather than from the impotence of age, it testifies to the expanding dissemination of darkness, which threatens even the younger generation at Rousillon.

Helena is too young to think of death for long, however, and she is soon encouraged to act by the conversation and bearing of Parolles. When the braggart enters, dressed in gay colors and walking with self-assurance, Helena has just finished her soliloquy of despair: Bertram has left, and her situation is hopeless—“there is no living, none …”. Yet by the time that Parolles has left, Helena has changed her mind completely. Instead of staying at Rousillon and feeling sorry for herself, she resolves to follow the Count to Paris and to win him by healing the sick King. Since the conversation with Parolles clearly precipitates this decision, the braggart's action and manner must in some way affect the heroine's view of her situation; some of the color of his personality must rub off on her.

The most important quality that Helena derives from Parolles is an energetic commitment to life. Until his appearance she has been completely influenced by the oppressive atmosphere of the palace. Her talk has been only of death and of the hopelessness of her situation. But as soon as Parolles begins to speak of “rational increase” and sexual intercourse, Helena realizes that she is too young to surrender to death. Instead of repressing her vital energy, she gives it conscious expression by engaging the braggart in an interplay of wit at his level and by trading double-entendres with him: “I will stand for't a little, though therefore I die a virgin” (I.i.145-146). In this exchange with Parolles, too, the eventual result of Helena's decision to follow Bertram is suggested, for the debate involves a kind of verbal “bed-trick”. By matching wits and trading puns with the braggart—who, as the Count's friend, can go to the court where Helena wishes to travel—she can get imaginatively closer to the world that her love inhabits: Helena initially admits (lines 110-111) that she converses with Parolles only because he is one of Bertram's companions. Since he wants to talk lewdly about virginity in the pun-filled language fashionable at court, she plays his game and, as a result, enters vicariously into the world where Bertram is going. Using references to her virginity and to intercourse, Helena moves momentarily into the young Count's sphere; significantly, she will later actually use her virginity and intercourse as the means of becoming a permanent member of his world.

But although the energetic affirmation of life that Helena suddenly makes in the first scene is precipitated by Parolles, it differs significantly from his vigorously self-interested philosophy. Her newly acquired vitality is used in an essentially productive manner. In the process of winning Bertram for her husband, she heals the sick King, whose land has become sterile; she rechannels into socially productive action the Count's youthful sexual energy that would have dissipated itself in lust; and she brings life, in the form of a child, back into a world threatened with dissolution by the encircling powers of death. Parolles' energy, on the other hand, is basically destructive in nature, for his apparent vitality ultimately proves to be misdirected. Like the “lust in action” of Sonnet 129, it is “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”. So often does Parolles' pose force him to disparage other human beings that, eventually, he comes to disparage himself as well, probably because of his common bond, as man, with those whom he criticizes. And the result of this self-disparagement is finally “waste” or inaction—because energy that would ordinarily be employed to meet the challenges of the outside world is turned inward and expended in useless self-incrimination. At one time, particularly, Parolles sharply criticizes himself for being a fool. Wondering why he has been imprudent enough to boast that he could capture the enemy's drum, he soliloquizes:

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? I must give myself some hurts, and say I got them in exploit: yet slight ones will not carry it; they will say, ‘Came you off with so little?’ and great ones I dare not give. Wherefore, what's the instance? Tongue, I must put you into a butter-woman's mouth and buy myself another of Bajazet's mule, if you prattle me into these perils.


While the braggart continues to wonder about his foolhardy behavior, he is suddenly seized, blindfolded, and bound, so that he is made actually, as well as figuratively, incapable of acting upon his environment. When he is subsequently freed of his fetters, it is only after he has publicly, though unknowingly, declared his impotence and cowardice to his associates. Because his conduct before the “Muskos” captors has clearly revealed his true nature, the braggart can at last accept himself as he really is. Resolving to be “Simply the thing I am”, he no longer is to be compelled by hidden, self-critical impulses to disguise his limitations beneath the superficial color of a fashionable rhetoric and dress.

Because Parolles' energy—until the time of his unmasking—is misdirected, the color that he brings into the darkened world of Rousillon during the first scene of All's Well is deceiving. It is not a natural brightness, but only the luster of a superficial “stain”. So long as he depends for his impressiveness upon a false art that covers rotten materials with a surface coating of bright color, Parolles is, beneath the fashionable clothes and rhetoric, a “general offence” (II.iii.267). Consequently, the apparent resemblances between Helena and him are really superficial similarities that make the differences more apparent. These differences are now worth noting.

Both characters are young and energetic, but not in the same way. Helena reflects a life force that works for the regeneration of society. Parolles, on the other hand, possesses all the failings characteristic of youth: the love of passing fashions, irresponsibility, and moral cowardice. He is, in short, the dramatic actualization of all the King's fears about the characteristics of the younger generation, who seem “But goers backward” (I.ii.48). Both Helena and Parolles, left to fend for themselves in the world, depend for success upon their wit and initiative: their art. But the braggart's art covers nature with a superficial stain; he depends upon fashionable superfluities to hide the liar and fool beneath. Conversely, Helena's art uses, rather than covers, nature: she cures the King by utilizing her knowledge of medicine, and she saves Bertram by productively directing his natural impulses. Helena's art does, like Parolles', make use of deception. Many of the words that she addresses to the sick King are intended to sound much like the mumbo-jumbo of a witch-doctor (cf. II.i.163-171), and she very elaborately tricks Bertram. But since deception is a necessary element of all art, there are both good and bad kinds of deception, a fact which this play makes perfectly clear. It is wrong, for example, for Parolles to assume the dress of a courtier-soldier and deceive Bertram, but it is right for Helena to assume the undress of Diana and deceive him. And as deception can sometimes achieve good, so truth can, upon occasion, do great harm: all the truthful information that Parolles gives to his “Muskos” captors is a betrayal of his duty as a soldier to remain silent.

But however ignoble Parolles' attitude and conduct in this instance may be, however destructive his designs may appear, he still escapes death. Nothing that he does justifies his salvation, but that salvation is granted nevertheless. Parolles is undoubtedly lucky. Yet he is not the only character in All's Well who fares better than he deserves, for Bertram, too, is eventually saved from ruin, in spite of all that he does to precipitate it. Like Parolles before him, he experiences one of the great ironies of life—that man, who so often would do great harm to himself and others by acting rashly, is now and again granted second chances, to right these wrongs. There is usually no way of predicting when these chances will come, or why; but come they do. And whether one considers them miracles or merely the result of life's complexity is not important. What matters is that one make the most of them, realizing that rewards are not always commensurate with virtues. In the dramatic world of All's Well, as in life, there is no formula for finding happiness, only the fact that it comes, and passes, unpredictably through the web of life that is “a mingled yarn, good and ill together” (IV.iii.83-84). When happiness is encountered, questions about its advent are unnecessary, for it is enough to know all's well that ends well; and when it passes, questions about its sources are unanswerable: “as we are ourselves, what things are we!” (IV. iii. 23-24). One cannot know why. But one can learn that however corrupt man may seem, he may yet be saved. Parolles, mercifully granted a new life, resolves to become a new man. Bertram, who would have sealed himself off from the world of meaningful human relationships, is brought back to that world by the love and forgiveness of one whom he so foolishly considered a “clog”. And in being so reconciled to life, the young Count is able to see that his earlier judgment has been a great, though not irreconcilable error. Miraculously given another chance, Bertram chooses to expunge from his character all traces of that “stain of soldier” which he derived from the companionship of Parolles.


  1. This view opposes most critical estimations of Parolles, which treat him very harshly. Of those critics who have attacked Parolles' effectiveness as a dramatic creation, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson are the most violently critical. In their “Introduction” to the New Cambridge Shakespeare All's Well (Cambridge University Press, 1929), they dismiss Parolles as “on the whole, with all his concern in the play, about the inanest of all Shakespeare's inventions” (p. xxiv). Other critics prominent in the attack against this braggart are: G. K. Hunter in his “Introduction” to All's Well, The New Arden Shakespeare (Methuen and Co., 1959), pp. xlvii-xlviii; Brander Matthews, Shakespere As a Playwright (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), p. 225; and Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (Henry Holt and Co., 1939), p. 213. Recently, however, dissent against Parolles’ general critical condemnation has come from G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (Barnes and Noble, 1958), pp. 93-160; A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns, ed. Graham Storey (Theatre Arts Books, 1961), pp. 82-107; and E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (University of Toronto Press, 1950), pp. 109-110.

  2. All references to All's Well are from Hardin Craig's, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Scott Foresman and Co., 1961).

  3. This observation cannot be conclusively proven by any references in the text of the play, but Parolles acts like a young man, and his youth is nearly a thematic necessity.

Jeremy Richard (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6899

SOURCE: Richard, Jeremy. “‘The Thing I Am’: Parolles, the Comedic Villain, and Tragic Consciousness.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 145-59.

[In the following essay, Richard traces Shakespeare's transition from comedies of plot to tragedies of character through an examination of the comedic villains of the problem plays, focusing in particular on Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well.]

If, as F. P. Wilson puts it, Shakespeare at the start of the Jacobean decade is looking for a “style that could express the mind as it was in action,” then the “problem” comedies illustrate the troubled labor that will forge that style.1 The earlier “festive” comedies depend on characters overcoming obstacles that the outside world places in the way of a happy ending. Caskets must be properly judged before there can be a marriage, groups of twins must assemble before families are reunited, and younger sons must prove their merit before acceding to their proper public status. Such plots are predicated on characters who maintain a generally constant personality, though it may mature in the course of the action; it is the world that finally relents, in a sequence of plot developments. Comedic dialogue aims at a clear definition of the current status of the plot rather than at the depiction of what Henry James might call a free associative life. But in the world of tragedy, characters realize the way the world is—the unbridgeable abyss between heroic intention and grim actuality. Tragic worlds are tragic in that they refuse to adapt to man and instead force man to accommodate to their indifference. The resulting tragic awareness presupposes a dynamic formation of character, which in turn requires a style that “could record thought at the moment it arose in the mind”2: to chart the reality of the thwarted intention, the dramatist depicts the minute-by-minute response to an unchangeable or deteriorating situation. The problem plays represent a transition between Shakespeare's comedies of plot and his tragedies of character.

The metamorphosis of the comedic villain signals the change in Shakespeare's dramatic intentions. In the early comedies, either the villain is dismissed from the plot by being circumvented, as happens to the Duke of Milan in Two Gentlemen of Verona, or he is given a change of heart, at times scarcely credible, as is the case with Proteus in the same play. Though dramaturgically weak, the latter method corresponds to the general change in Shakespeare's dramatic style. The early villains live in a responsive world, a world that adapts to the strong personalities of the heroes and heroines. But the responses of the world grow harsher and more obscure as Shakespeare's vision darkens. Shylock, who reveals scenes of an extraordinary inner life juxtaposed with moments of the shallowest simplification, emblematizes the pattern recurrent in plays of this period. Despite the generally harmonious conclusions of these festive comedies, a subtext of doubt, failed vision, and thwarted intention prevents any complete resolution. When Oliver is forced to admit that he does not know why he so dislikes Orlando, when the Falstaff of Merry Wives is made to look ridiculous and old, and when Olivia confesses that Malvolio has been most notoriously abused, the easy victories of the happily paired lovers whose marriages ring down the curtain seem false. In the course of the play the villains have come to realize the inadequacy of the world. To dismiss the lovers into that same inadequate world, even with their mutual support, undermines the value system of the play. It is a tribute to Shakespeare's genius that the songs and poetry of the fifth acts can cover over the uncomfortable moments of the fourth acts. But the villains of the problem plays have discovered the world that resists all efforts to thrive, as the tragic heroes Hamlet, Macbeth, and Antony will come to realize.

The most suggestive line of development, then, is not Proteus-Parolles-Iago, but rather Shylock-Parolles-Othello.3 Such villains as Shylock, Malvolio, and especially Parolles are Shakespeare's experiments in the depiction of psychological immediacy. He is concerned with how they respond to the resistance that the outside world mounts to their intentions. A comedic villain who engages the audience through an emotional complexity rather than through a one-dimensional manipulation of the plot certainly establishes the direction of Shakespeare's drama in this decade: our very inability to dismiss Parolles and the manner in which he suggests that all is not well that ends well creates a new Shakespearean drama of the pitfalls of the mental world rather than the pratfalls of the physical.4

Parolles, the villain of All's Well That Ends Well, stands near the end of these lines of development.5 He, like Falstaff, a stock character of Plautine comedy—the miles gloriosus—bursts the limits of his type. For Parolles is a man in the process of becoming himself. The ambiguities of his character are first indicated by the name: Parolles would not be out of place in the dramatis personae of a Jonsonian comedy of humors.6 When Rowe, in his listing of the characters, underlines Parolles' “parasitical” relationship to Bertram, he raises the question of the relationship of language to action, of language as a proper medium to reflect or record action. That question will haunt this character throughout the play. When language is unmasked as a faulty medium for conveying truth—in this case, the wretched personality of the fellow—language joins the ranks of love-making, marriage, or the solid wedding ring itself as an inadequate vehicle for trust. Furthermore, when Parolles discovers how his tongue is his own worst enemy, he relates the inadequacy of language to the uncertainty of his own identity. For although language should be the bridge by which the world of intentions helps shape the resistant outer worlds of society and nature, Parolles' words cannot support the necessary weight.

At his entrance, Helena carefully defines Parolles for the audience:

                              I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, soly a coward.(7)


Because Helena's brief appearance on the stage has already established as a credible witness, she determines the audience's point of view. But her positioning of Parolles within the miles gloriosus tradition (foolish boast as a cover for actual cowardice) is offset by other remarks that indicate unusual problems with the character:

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.


Her moralizing emphasizes our privileged position: she admits that most observers, without her insight into personality, will be swayed by Parolles' appearance to giving him precedence and to depressing those who merit advancement. The imagery, drawn from clothes, emphasizes the carriers of meaning over the meaning itself and is a metaphor not unworthy of Parolles, who will call into doubt the very functions of language. She reinforces the visual aspects when she adds, “full oft we see / Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly” (I.i.104-05). But the moralizing takes place in a vacuum. Helena sees wisdom playing the servant to folly, yet is incapable of doing anything to change the situation (an attitude that parallels her hopeless love, the subject of the preceding soliloquy). Most important, even Helena's perception, buttressed as it would seem to be by moral insight, is not to be trusted. She has prefaced her remarks by identifying Parolles as the bosom companion of Bertram, and thus the braggart soldier is one “I love … for his sake” (I.i.99). Her emotional life, along with the faulty perception of others, waits upon folly. The reader or viewer becomes aware of the ambiguities of the situation. Bertram, in his first brief appearance, has sounded the note of immaturity that will make him an unworthy object of Helena's love. And Helena further corrupts her reason by loving Parolles, the fool, liar, and coward, for the sake of Bertram. So before Parolles utters his first line, he has been established as a problematic character, one who demonstrates a clear discrepancy between appearance and reality, but also one who exists in an atmosphere that refuses to afford a clear definition, an atmosphere aptly defined by Helena's yearning to remake reality to satisfy the hunger of her own imagination. What she knows must wait on what she loves.

During the scene itself, an elaborate parody of the interview between Hamlet and Ophelia (“Nymph, in thy orisons …”), Parolles reveals the tenuousness of his position. He indulges in a combination of sexual innuendo, the sort of bawdy appropriate to servants, and extravagantly overstated courtly compliment, probably intended to remind Helena of her subordinate position by its very exaggeration. The opening exchange emphasizes the gap between language and reality:

‘Save you, fair queen!
And you, monarch!
And no.


The admission that the world of courtly compliment is out of place for these two speakers sets the tone for the dialogue, one in which insult scarcely remains beneath the surface. Parolles' initial inquiry, “Are you meditating on virginity?” (I.i.110), is as abrupt and unmotivated as Hamlet's turns of thought and phrasing when he confronts Ophelia. But Helena takes up the ball and despite a simple beginning (“How may we barricado [virginity] against him?” “Keep him out.” [I.i.112-14]), the atmosphere darkens as Helena considers the question as it exists over a period of time. Time in its complicated form (the memory of the past coloring and infecting the present and future) is not a comedic convention: in a straightforward comic farce such as The Comedy of Errors, all the action takes place helter-skelter, as quickly as possible. The idea of people having to endure whole lifetimes of turmoil, dislocation, and enchantment is foreign to the genre, inviting a more tragic rendering of the situation. Comedy reveals what is really happening at the moment: who should love whom, who should rightfully be restored to which public position. Tragedy needs the impact of passing time, be it the extended pressure of the delayed vengeance in Hamlet, the disintegration of the kingdom in Lear, or the extended twilight of a romance in Antony and Cleopatra. But even where logic tells us that some time must be passing—the education of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew or of Orlando in As You Like It—time appears to be compressed. Both Katherine and Orlando are allowed to discover their true natures and are not forced to grow into something different. So when Helena asks what to do about the repeated assaults of men against virginity, she is insisting on problems that have not occupied Shakespeare before, either in tragedy or comedy: Can one endure in a changing world? Can one indeed change in harmony with that world?

Parolles, unskilled at arguing on Helena's level, insists on the quick, cataclysmic event that comedy delights in: “Man, setting down before you, will undermine you and blow you up. … Virginity being blown down, man will quicklier be blown up” (I.i.118-19, 123-24). In three prose speeches he runs away with his metaphors, leaving sense behind and twisting logic to unleash a barrage of empty words upon Helena. She has her own ideas, and in asking for a “policy” and for a way “to lose it to her own liking,” she requires of Parolles the kind of advice he might seem to be well qualified to deliver. Yet he can only see things from the point of view of a particularly licentious man of the world. In love with the sound of his own voice and his ability to make the most tenuous connections between ideas, Parolles runs on as if afraid to stop.

Virginity is an ambiguous topic for these two enemies, Bertram's good and evil consciences. Virginity is an enemy to Helena because it implies a life without Bertram; yet it is her only comfort because it insists on the integrity of her desire. Parolles attacks virginity because it both keeps him out as a man and suggests a realm where his weapons of words are powerless. But he also prizes it because he himself hides behind a shield of language—behind a facade that will barricade the self against the intrusions of reality. In the next passage (after some kind of a gap in the text), Helena seeks a language in which “wishing well” (I.i.181) had a body; even so, Parolles fears to commit his shaky bravado to the acting out of his own words. Helena wants to lose virginity in her own way, hoping to find a body in the world of action that will not thwart the desires of her world of imagination. Parolles, a weaker character, so mistrusts the outside world that he refuses to commit his desires to the body of reality. Helena complains that her “baser stars do shut [her] up in wishes” (I.i.183). The strength of will behind her desire should eventually overcome the “baser stars,” leading to a comedic end. (Tragedy insists on the stars having the last word: Romeo and Juliet die “star-cross'd;” Bosola informs the dying Duchess of Malfi that “the stars shine still.”) But at present, she fears that her physical situation (her low birth) will limit her to wishing (the internal world of intention), despite the strong influence that her sense of self exerts on the world of action and proof. Perhaps she sees Parolles as a parody of herself—a thing of words (wishes) that has no real substance.

Parolles slips in a thrust at Helena by declaring that he will, if he can remember, think of her at court (where she wishes to be). Such words occupy a dubious middle ground between thought (wishing) and action. But Helena's final words to him draw him into her own fears of being caught in a potentially tragic astrological situation. When Parolles insists that he was born under Mars, he is retreating to the safety of his comedic type (the miles gloriosus) and is defining himself in a nonthreatening way. But Helena points out that Mars may not only define, but also limit Parolles' sphere of action, specifically to the humiliating worlds of petty rank (“the wars hath so kept you under”) and dishonorable retreat (“You go so much backward when you fight” [I.i.195, 200]). Parolles relies upon his skill with language to reinterpret her words: going backward is “for advantage” (I.i.201). Helena caps the argument by pointing out that fearful “running away” is also an indictment of Parolles' cowardice. Parolles then falls back upon sententiousness and indeed beats a swift and, for him, advantageous retreat.

At his most basic, Parolles is a Jonsonian character illustrating the pompous and meaningless language of courtly compliment. Parolles encourages Bertram to “use a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords” (II.i.50-51). Alive to the potentialities of the world of compliment and ceremony, he insists on its ability to produce a reality that, divorced from the real wars, can answer the requirements of the imagination. That such a reality poses moral ambiguities he refuses to consider: “and though the devil lead the measure, such are to be follow'd” (II.i.55-56). His own pose of derring-do and a martial past is a thing of rags and patches, as is implied by his reference to Captain Spurio (again, a Jonsonian name). Parolles is comfortable in this world.

But the Countess and her Clown, parodying this world in the following scene, bring out the treachery of courtly language: since it means anything, it means nothing. “O Lord, sir!” the Clown's tag, seems a perfect code phrase, communicating something to both parties, yet saving the speaker from clarifying his intentions (and the listener from responding to them). That such a procedure will eventually backfire becomes clear when the Countess feels free to interpret the “O Lord, sir!” as a summons to the whip. The Clown admits the failure of his courtly language: “I ne'er had worse luck in my life in my ‘O Lord, sir!’ I see things may serve long, but not serve ever” (II.ii.58-59). Yet the interchange foreshadows not only Parolles' fall but also his problematic reintegration into society.

I play the noble huswife with the time,
To entertain it so merrily with a fool.
O Lord, sir!—Why, there't serves well again.


The Clown, after having flirted with disaster, does not drop the language that has almost cost him a whipping. Rather, he is delighted to show that he can continue to thrive with it. Although he has been recognized as a fool and has made the Countess, worried over Helena's departure and her son's absence at Court, recognize her own foolishness in so spending her own time, he does not fear resorting to the silly, strutting codes again. Having been unmasked, he will no longer have to bear responsibility for them; he has forced language into its meanest guise—a nonsensical refrain that convinces no one but amuses all.

Members of an older generation, the King and Lafew can distinguish language from truth, a distinction lost upon younger characters. For instance when the King tries to persuade Bertram to marry Helena willingly, he warns Bertram of the dangers of relying on an autonomous language. Just as Bertram's father had made his own character clear by forcing his tongue to obey his hand (I.ii.41), making his language a reporter of his actions and not using language to create an alternative reality, so the King values those who do not confuse the essence with the name. He knows that names are generally false and that one must look to the identity as proven by action: “The mere word's a slave / Debosh'd on every tomb, on every grave / A lying trophy …” (II.iii.137-39). Language can be created out of nothing. If it is pleasing language Bertram wants, the King can provide the insubstantial background to set off the essential worth of Helena: “If thou can'st love this creature as a maid / I can create the rest” (II.iii.142-43). That Bertram has been corrupted appears in his lines of compliance (II.iii.167ff). Faced with personal injury he bends to the King's will and indeed delivers a hypocritical speech, later admitting to Parolles, “Although before the solemn priest I have sworn, / I will not bed her” (II.iii.269-70). The split between his words and his actions is complete.

Lafew recognizes Bertram's insincerity and does not share Helena's hesitation in denouncing Parolles. He turns on Parolles, vexed at the man for the faults of the master. The braggart is not “a vessel of too great a burthen” (II.iii.205); he charges his language with an import that reality cannot bear and is “not worth another word” (II.iii.262-63). Lafew departs, and Parolles collapses into empty invective—he cannot finish his comparisons: “I'll have no more pity of his age that I would have of—I'll beat him, and if I could but meet him again” (II.iii.239-41). Lafew's anger at Parolles might seem excessive, but his insistence on Bertram as Parolles' “lord and master” provides the key to understanding his state. Parolles has clearly corrupted Bertram, the scarves and bannerets of his costume symbolizing the shoddy and immoral language that has snared the impressionable Bertram's imagination. Parolles himself has been shaken by the preceding events, and knows that Lafew blames him for Bertram's failings. He hedges and refuses to answer questions in a straightforward manner. He dislikes Lafew's language because it is too close to reality—to the “bloody succeeding” (II.iii.191) that Lafew's words imply. Yet Parolles has no trouble in bending language to fit the situation: “A young man married is a man that's marr'd” (II.iii.298); and he sums up the situation from his—not the audience's—point of view: “The King has done you wrong” (II.iii.300). But then, as if he knew instinctively that the world of reality (in which Bertram should love Helena and be thankful to the King for making the match) is stronger than the world of wishing and language (in which Bertram has been wronged by the King and forced into a hateful marriage), he admits, “But hush, 'tis so” (II.iii.300).

A Jonsonian analysis of Parolles as corrupt language would probably emphasize language as a weak vessel for the truth of reality, and therefore as a corrupter of others. But Parolles' fatal aspect is his inability to recognize or define himself in his language. This failure charts his deviation from the villains of the earliest comedies and his movement toward the tragic heroes of the first decade of the seventeenth century. The excessive and almost disproportionate contempt of Lafew and the French Lords for Parolles finds an ironic mirror in his own admission, “I love not many words!” ( A character named Parolles will be on shaky ground indeed after such an admission, as the French Lords realize when they sum up his character:

Is not this a strange fellow, my lord, that so confidently seems to undertake this business, which he knows is not to be done, damns himself to do, and dares better be damn'd than to do't?


Parolles' words have redefined reality (“this business, which he knows is not to be done”) and used language as a spur to force himself into this made-up reality (“damns himself to do”), all while admiring the impossibility of the linguistic reality (“dares better be damn'd than to do't”). Thus he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't—a usable definition of tragedy, especially as he has brought this situation upon himself. Parolles yearns to plot out his desires—the “real” Parolles—on the matrix of the natural world. Thus far he has described, in his customarily inflated and self-serving language, the formula for such a reality. Unlike the universe of mathematics, however, Nature withholds unambiguous support for the curve that would illustrate Parolles' private formula.

The very resistance of reality to the world of desire condemns Parolles to an ambiguous resolution. All's Well is a comedy, and as such there is little chance that Parolles should encounter reality at all. Just as Shylock enters a courtroom that appears real but actually contains Portia in disguise, a Portia who knows the quibble on which to make Shylock's case founder, so Parolles enters not the enemy's camp—the field of reality—but rather a heightened and ultimately artificial world. In this camp he has no chance to make his intentions come true: all is rigged against him. And just as Shylock finds the courtroom an externalization of his own villainy (the insistence upon the letter of the law, with no thought of extenuating mercy), so Parolles enters a camp where the improbability of his own language is mocked by the unintelligibility of his captors' nonsense. Their prattle in effect isolates him with the “real” Parolles: because he cannot use his own language to deceive them, he is reduced to whatever makes up Parolles when he is shorn of words. Indeed, each soldier speaks a tongue of his own making, highlighting the subjective nature of language and its inherent difficulty—impossibility, rather—as a medium of understanding in a graceless world. The scene parodies the terrible questions and inadequate answers traded by Lear and his daughters. The Lords can agree that merely to “seem to know, is to know straight our purpose” (IV.i.18-19), but only because they are in a comedy; in a tragedy such a remark inevitably leads to ruin.

As the Lords comment on Parolles' preparations, Shakespeare divides the stage world into two arenas. In the visible one the Lords and the audience know what is going on—and Parolles thinks he does. But a more important debate is occurring within Parolles himself. He has landed in this mess because of his own lies, but idiotically seeks to save himself by lying more. His “plausive invention” (IV.i.26) seeks to link language with reality, though all the time he knows (and this is the first time he has been willing to admit it to himself) that he does not dare do the things he has boasted—and lied—about. That his position is treacherous the Second Lord makes clear: “This is the first truth that e'er thine own tongue was guilty of” (IV.i.32-33).

To be guilty of speaking the truth underlines the self-destructive nature of Parolles' introspection. One or another of his selves must suffer: either he is a fraud or his true self of “fears” must encounter the enemy and take the consequences. Unlike most of Shakespeare's other villains, he asks himself how he got into this mess, and the question strikes at the core of his being: “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.34-36). He is aware of more inside of himself than he has ever acknowledged. He lives in a world not of lies but of intentions. The intentions can find some resolution in language, but language is a tightrope that can send the walker spinning downward into the real world of death, where all intentions finally are tested. The contrast with Helena is notable, for she too has led a life of intentions but pushes herself out into a real world and performs them. At no moment does Helena doubt her own efficacy, though Shakespeare is careful to keep her offstage between her exit with the ailing King and the healed King's return.

Parolles' overheard soliloquy (IV.i.24-31) charts the path toward the tragic heroes, who are forced to consider how they can balance their own intentions against the resisting reality. Parolles admits, “they begin to smoke me, and disgraces have of late knock'd too often at my door.” The world of his intentions, defined by his tongue, is at war with the real world, the natural world that has serious claims on his heart, since his physical being must live in it. When he asks himself why he dared to undertake the recovery of the drum, he is recalling the soliloquy of Oliver, who is unable to give himself a reason to hate Orlando. A rational world eludes him, and the darkness of his intentions is more than matched by the darkness of the outside world. The speech likewise foreshadows Hamlet's first soliloquy, when the Danish prince himself is puzzled about why the events of his life are so destructive to his general well-being, and he knows not why he is so sad.

Parolles understands all too well his own limitations, but the Second French Lord's comment on the soliloquy underlines the tension between the comic and tragic modes at work in this scene. Indeed, it seems scarcely “possible he should know what he is, and be that he is” (IV.i.44-45). The French Lord is working from a comedic perspective where knowledge leads to an easy resolution: when the Syracusan twins are identified, all falls into its proper place. But Parolles has entered the nightmare world of tragedy, where knowledge does not guarantee a respite from suffering. As the extreme example of Hamlet demonstrates, knowledge leads too often to immobility in the face of conflict, not to the heroic action that would resolve all dilemmas. Parolles does know himself, but the knowledge does not cure his infected will. Instead, he is repeatedly seduced by the power of language to serve as a substitute for reality, and in lines 46ff he teases himself by conjuring up all that he might do to appear to have controlled reality. He repeats “any drum of the enemy's … a drum now of the enemy's,” as if the repetition of the sounds could conjure up reality. The mere repetition of sounds—language at its most irresponsible—is what ensues as his captors garble and gabble madly. Parolles instinctively cries out for them not to blindfold him (“hide my eyes”) because he knows he cannot trust language, and without the additional security of his eyes he will be truly isolated. He will lose his life “for want of language.” The French Lord sums up Parolles' situation: Parolles will tell the truth to save his life, but in a situation in which telling the truth is the least honorable course of action. The words he will use to develop that truth will actually be his undoing and he “will betray us all unto ourselves.” So the poet underlines the relative nature of language and the treacheries that dog our intentions.

As Parolles is cross-examined in the “enemy's” camp (IV.iii), he illustrates Shakespeare's attempt to depict “thought at the moment it arose in the mind.” Analogous earlier scenes come to mind: Shylock seeing his legal maneuvering collapse under Portia's wit, Malvolio growing mad as the Illyrian court contradicts itself to his face. But this scene intensifies those earlier confrontations. Parolles seems to be telling the truth: none of his examiners admits that Parolles is doctoring the evidence. (The First Lord claims that Parolles' estimate of the troop strength is “very near the truth.”) Parolles is afraid of torture—that focusing of the whole resistance capability of the external world—and insists upon the autonomy of the truth that he will present. Unfortunately, Parolles begins to realize that the truth he is telling is independent not only of the pain of the torturer's screw but also of any verification by the enemy camp. So when it comes to describing Captain Dumaine, he begins to embroider freely upon the truth (at least, his listeners imply that Dumaine is guiltless of the low birth, rape, and general dishonesty with which Parolles lards his description). But gradually a pattern emerges: Parolles is loading Dumaine with all of his own faults: “He professes not keeping oaths; in breaking 'em he is stronger than Hercules. He will lie, sir, with such volubility, that you would think truth were a fool. … He has everything that an honest man should not have; what an honest man should have, he has nothing” (IV.iii.251-54, 259-61). Is Parolles trying to confess his own weaknesses? Or is he trying to transfer them onto the autonomous world that the unverifiable confession offers? In any case, his “truth” is a self-realization. In his whispered aside (ll. 298-302), Parolles begins to register the impact of his disaster: “Only to seem to deserve well … have I run into this danger.” The effort to make the real world respond to one's desires leads to destruction. A Portia can win Bassanio, and a Rosalind can educate Orlando. But by the time of All's Well, the mood has darkened. Parolles cannot create a noble impression, much less a noble actuality.

Parolles is unmasked and his initial response confirms the tragic awareness: “Who cannot be crush'd with a plot?” Shakespeare is more interested in those who fall prey to conspiracies than in those who escape them. Unlike virtually all other comedic villains, Parolles remains onstage, responding to his situation and continuing to register the impact of his downfall on what will be the remainder of his life. Shylock is dismissed to happiness with an extorted (if hardly credible) “I am content.” Malvolio is allowed “I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you”—dangerously near the end of the play, although the effect is neutralized by his disappearance and the melodies that round out the action. But Parolles (who, perhaps unlike Shylock and certainly unlike Malvolio, has not been “most notoriously abus'd) remains onstage, taking stock. He is left with only his clothes (that scarf with its emblematic knots) and his words (the sonnet that appeared to be telling Diana the truth about Bertram, but only to allow Parolles to seduce her himself). Yet these are enough to shelter him in the new world he will inhabit: the demilitarized zone between the combating armies of comedy and tragedy. For Parolles has seen the truth, and the truth has made him wise. His is to be neither a tragic wisdom that might force him into a final burst of heroic energy (such that motivates Hamlet), not the elemental splitting asunder that forces Lear to neutralize his energies by dying into nature. Parolles will live by abjuring all ambition. He will give up bragging and take up “fool'ry,” living “safest in shame.” He will renounce the attempt to make the outside world receive the pressure of his own character. For he now knows how the world works: It gives way at just that point where one has applied pressure, so the trick must be to play as balanced a game oneself.8 Parolles will accept the world as it is, knowing that he need only find the “place and means” guaranteed “for every man alive.” It is a particularly low-key resolution.

Parolles' tragic acceptance of the world is illustrated in his two final appearances. In the earlier of these, Lafew recognizes him as the contrite and reformed hypocrite, and he reassures the man who seems to be accepting Lafew as both his God and his devil (V.ii.49): “though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat” (V.ii.53-54). So Parolles' prophecy of soft living as a fool is coming true. The world thinks him a fool, so now he will act the fool, humbugging Lafew and accepting his charity, but still preserving his own core of identity, unaltered by outward circumstance. Parolles is through with boasting; he is instead using language in a more pernicious way, to allow others to verify the world of their intentions by his (false) correspondence to that world. This does not make Lafew a gull for harboring Parolles, it only points up man's reliance on appearance and a man's inability ever to penetrate the core of being.

In the later scene, Bertram's interrogation before the King, Parolles' very appearance makes Bertram start to blurt out the truth. Parolles' approach is not to get caught by overreaching himself. Therefore, he plays the fool, taking back with one hand what the other has appeared to offer: “He lov'd her, sir, and lov'd her not,” and “I know more than I'll speak” (V.iii.248, 256). He appears to be taking refuge in silence, but he has been reading his Cicero, and his paraleptic testimony (which caps a long list of Bertram's wrongdoings with “therefore I will not speak what I know” [V.iii.265-66]) characterizes Parolles' hard-won revelation. He is becoming a poet—he is telling the truth, but from the mouth of a fool. Likewise, he is a tactical survivor: his evidence is “too fine”—hairsplitting, not to mention ambiguous—and therefore disqualifies him from the world in which greatness and happiness may be achieved. But it is a world in which one may be well fed in return for letting those who will know greatness make sport with one.

Parolles has come to recognize the treacherous and self-destructive nature of consciousness itself. Since consciousness and the outside world are bridgeable only by language, and since language will refuse to bear the weight of so strong a burden, the self is isolated in a prison. Parolles agrees to submit to the imprisonment, knowing that he will be well fed. Thus Shakespeare comes to realize the futility of investing a character with tragic awareness in a comedic setting. Psychological credibility derives from the awareness of one's limitations, and a comedic plot is founded upon the transcending of those limitations. The botched ending of this play is botched precisely because the same court cannot hold both a Helena, who molds the outside world into her image, and a Parolles, who discovers the rigid nature of reality. The French Lords must witness both Bertram's conversion into a loving husband and the entrapment of Parolles, which they have defined as

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.


Such a webbed life requires a continuous psychological maintenance. Unlike Bertram, who looks forward to a stable future (“I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V.iii.316]), Parolles—and we—know that life requires a constant recalibration of our sensibilities. Under such pressure, the ordinary mortals of the comedic world seem ill-resolved; only a tragic hero, whose greatness is measured by the height of his own achievements and the depths to which his isolated consciousness brings him, can summon up the energy to achieve a truly remarkable resolution, finally escaping both contentment (the comedic resolution) and recalibration (the everyday resolution). Such resolutions are out of place in comedy: they belong only to the world of Othello, Lear, Macbeth, and Antony.

“As we are ourselves, what things we are!” The French Lord, having condemned Bertram's romantic follies, generously includes himself and the entire sinful world in his expression of wonder and doubt at the mysterious, botched nature of man. The implications of the line that self-discovery will lead to self-condemnation are both comedic and tragic. In the earlier plays, it means that Kate will become a true, loving wife; that the runaway lovers in the wood outside Athens will pair up properly; that Bassanio will grow worthy of Portia; that Orlando will come to deserve Rosalind. But if we apply it to the dark and glorious plays to come, it means that Cressida will live in shame and Angelo in self-disgust. Even worse, Othello and Lear will be unable to support the awful consciousness of their true natures and will stifle their tragic awareness in death. Parolles, tentatively expanding the role of the miles gloriosus and equally tentatively exploring his own sense of identity, falls prey to doubt and self-analysis. Aware of the gap between intention and response, he prepares us for those tragic personalities who are unable to bridge the chasm between will and conscience.


  1. Frank Percy Wilson, Elizabethan and Jacobean (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1945), p. 26, as quoted in M. C. Bradbrook, “Shakespeare the Jacobean Dramatist,” in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971), p. 141. This essay has benefited from the pointed comments of many readers; I especially thank G. Blakemore Evans for his careful and encouraging scrutiny.

  2. Wilson, p. 141.

  3. Warner Berthoff has studied the common ground of the plays of this decade in “‘Our Means Will Make Us Means’: Character as Virtue in Hamlet and All's Well,New Literary History, 5 (1974), 319-51. His study of language and freedom concentrates on the problems of heroism in comedy and tragedy and finds the poetic ambiguities and resolutions strikingly similar. William B. Toole has also studied the three problem plays and Hamlet, but so emphasizes an ethical structure derived from Dante that the actual language of the plays is obscured: Shakespeare's Problem Plays: Studies in Form and Meaning (The Hague: Mouton, 1966).

  4. Despite close argumentation and a sensitive attention to the ambiguities of the solution, W. L. Godshalk relies too heavily on a standard categorization of roles at a period when Shakespeare is emphasizing instead a fluid characterization: “All's Well That Ends Well and the Morality Play,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 61-70. As long as Parolles—or Helena, for that matter—is seen in the framework of the morality Vice figure, he will be distanced from the audience's notion of a realistic character wrangling with reality in an heroic manner. Likewise, Frances M. Pearce is too intent on the religious sensibility to argue convincingly for a “truly comic harmony at the close”: “In Quest of Unity: A Study of Failure and Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 87. At least such studies pay attention to Parolles. Peter Ure asserts that “Parolles is depicted by methods that hardly suit with the rest of the play and certainly do not minister to Bertram's moral needs”: William Shakespeare: The Problem Plays (London: Longmans, 1961), p. 17. An equally extraordinary approach to the play is that of Alexander Welsh, who emphasizes the biological imperatives of the characters at the expense of their language in this, probably the wittiest of the problem comedies: “The Loss of Men and Getting of Children,” Modern Language Review, 73 (1978), 17-28.

  5. J. Dennis Huston has contributed to the reevaluation of Parolles in a sympathetic light, though he perhaps finds too much “new life” in Parolles' actions at the end of the play: “‘Some Stain of Soldier’: The Functions of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Quarterly, 21 (1970), 431-38. Likewise, Jules Rothman emphasizes the sympathy produced by the character during performance: “A Vindication of Parolles,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 23 (1972), 183-96. The recent Royal Shakespeare Company performances of this play in London and New York have likewise done much to bring this character to the forefront of the action.

  6. Robert Hapgood suggests that the plural form of Parolles' name underlines the “conjunction of liveliness with shame”: “The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well,Essays in Criticism, 15 (1965), 269.

  7. AWW, I.i.100-01. This and all subsequent quotations from Shakespeare's text are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  8. One of the few critics to recognize that Parolles is indeed not reformed by his trial is R. A. Foakes: Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays, From Satire to Celebration (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1971), p. 14.

Dorothy Cook (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8002

SOURCE: Cook, Dorothy. “Helena: The Will and the Way.” Upstart Crow 10 (1990): 14-31.

[In the following essay, Cook assesses Shakespeare's portrayal of Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, contending that she generates and resolves a major portion of the play's action and establishes the play's principal values.]

Like most of the heroines in the romantic comedies, Helena, in All's Well That Ends Well, creates and resolves much of the action. She establishes many of the principal values in the play. She is different from earlier Shakespearean women because she is initially less successful and generally more fallible. Appropriately, she moves in a realistic world.1 Helena should therefore not be viewed sentimentally as wholly charming,2 parochially as a shameless “harpy,”3 or cynically as a mere “schemer.”4 Rather she is a youthful woman who actively seeks a husband whom she desires. In the first half of the play she makes the mistake of trying to secure Bertram publicly, before she attempts to win him privately. In the second half of the play, however, Helena redeems herself and Bertram, achieving for herself and him sexual fulfillment, greater personal maturity, and a renewal of social purpose. Clearly, Helena provides the play with much spontaneous, humorous, and exciting drama. Shakespeare's sympathetic tone makes Helena's role and function as comic heroine admirable. His focus excludes a textual basis for exaggerated feminist concern with patriarchy, since the King, Lafew, the French Lords, and Bertram hardly constitute oppressive male authority.5 Nor does the playwright's emphasis on a heroine support the idea of a pattern of “lost independence, initiative, and control” in the “partial, potential, or pretended submission of Diana and Helena.”6 From a purist's viewpoint, Helena's position in the play still requires full appreciation. Her character and contribution to structure and meaning are evident in her formulation of plans and pursuit of them at Court, then in her deft arrangement for the consummation of her marriage in Florence, and finally in her sensitive demonstration at Rossillion of the sincerity of her love. More than simple “comic pointer,”7 Helena's character is both firmly conceived and fully realized.

Beginning with a private disclosure of her feelings8 and proceeding to her naming the Count as her husband (II. iii. 104), Helena appears to be governed by “ambition” and by designs in her love (I. i. 90). But in these matters and in staging the surprise announcement of her love for Bertram at Court, Helena is motivated chiefly by impulsive love. In addition, she expects innocently that custom and authority will reward her, not only for the service she performs for the King but also with Bertram's high regard. From the opening scene on, Helena must actively establish her merits. She contrasts with the prattling dandy, Parolles, and with the impetuous Bertram, whose unquestioned social status make them worthy of attendance at the Court. Because she is the orphaned daughter of a renowned physician and the loved ward of the aged, generous Countess of Rossillion, she might from the start be possessed of confidence, intelligence, and virtue. Helena's confidence is, however, unschooled, and her intelligence must be refined. Her virtue, together with her diligence, is confirmed by the Countess in the opening scene. The old lady observes that the young woman “derives her honesty and achieves her goodness” (I. i. 45). Bertram's mother supports Helena's position as protagonist. Unlike the blocking characters of New Comedy, the older generation of the Countess, Lafew, and the King are allies of this heroine.9

Young Helena must nevertheless overcome both her inexperience and her social position. Almost immediately Parolles introduces these difficulties with the sarcastic greeting, “Save you, fair Queen” (106). Upon his apparently random but not less dramatically apt choice of a second subject, virginity, Helena jests abstractedly. She is disarming yet not without decorum, and she is clearly aware that she can answer the foolish Parolles without paying him much attention. Composed less of a duologue than a monologue, this meeting is a kind of interruption of Helena's thinking. In it she muses out loud about her love and the chastity that are her only dowry. “How might one do,” she thinks verbally, “to lose her virginity to her own liking?” (150-51). Then she elaborates, largely ignoring Parolles and the sexual temptations that await Bertram at Court. In impugning Parolles' pompous valor, Helena courageously implies that in risking “sighs a plenty,” even “endless rue,” she might realize her love through the gift of her heart. However unwise, Helena's love is a gift, a lyrical, romantic force, as well as a sexual one. Her virginity is not treated by Shakespeare solely in the negative manner of a Parolles: crudely, as seductive power; shallowly, as idealizing power; or pettily, as domestic power.10 Helena rightly believes that the braggart, Parolles, is too superficial to be troublesome either to her or to Bertram.11 He serves principally as a butt for blame, and in this first scene, as an ironic foil to the heroine. Critical of Parolles' cowardice and worried about the vulnerable Bertram, Helena ponders, thinking with sweet irony in Parolles' words, how to get a good husband. Parolles' selfish idea of inequality, though expressed in jest here, will be seriously countered by Helena in the overall movement of the play.

Since Helena passionately loves a man who seeks independence, she must resolve through calculation the conflict between love's claim and youthful freedom. Her methods are different only in degree from those employed in other Shakespearean comedies. Before she speaks in the play, Helena weeps, but emotion will not win Bertram. An appealing and unusual introduction of a heroine, her genuine feeling is poignant yet almost humorous. It only delays the impatient Bertram. Helena's tears serve to chart her progress from a lonely girl to an admired wife. They are temporarily misinterpreted by the Countess, who, like the King, is ineffectual in her efforts to influence Bertram. At a moment of gentle chastisement of Helena, the Countess is prevented from speaking her words by her ward's honest but enigmatic response, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” (54). The interruption conveys Helena's preoccupation with her love. It further stresses the spirit of the orphan who dares to love a man far above her station. Her wish to prove herself is one way in which Shakespeare dramatically links her with Bertram. His thirst to realize whatever capacities he may have is similar to Helena's desire to fulfill her potential. She is aware of her desires but unsure of how to proceed, whereas the “unseason'd” (71) Bertram acts rashly, without knowing clearly how he might distinguish himself. Because both feel their goals are distant, their future fascinates.

Several critics dispute Helena's central position in the play. At least two have unconvincingly assigned Bertram a moral stature equal to or exceeding hers.12 Richard P. Wheeler argues in Bertram's defense that the play violates Shakespeare's basic comic pattern by dismissing the questions of the youth's reform and consent. Typically, Wheeler cites Dr. Johnson and Arthur Quiller-Couch. He himself contends that the play is founded on a father-son struggle between the King and Bertram, and he claims that Bertram's marriage is both emasculating and incestuous, Helena being a mother surrogate.13 Wheeler's psychoanalytic outline of myth and masculine degradation sensationalizes as well as distorts the details of the play. Moreover, the psychological authenticity of the considerable sexual satisfaction and maturity that Bertram owes to Helena is more convincing than Wheeler's belief that because his love is, to the end, compelled, Bertram is the figure who commands sympathy in the play.

Manifestly, Shakespeare places Helena closer to his audience by disclosing with great charm her weaknesses and strengths. Helena rationalizes about her “idolatrous fancy” (97) when she confides her love. Underneath she finds Bertram's arrogance and restless energy appealing. A physical attraction to his masculinity is evident in her account of herself as “The hind that would be mated by the lion” (91), although these words consciously lament the social obstacles to her love. In addition, the details in her description of Bertram's appearance and of the frustration of living near yet separated from him point realistically to the warmth of her 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 favor.


Shakespeare does not fault such love, nor does he depict it here as a basis for sheer possession. He explores its power and approves its private right to existence, stressing the lover's confident assumption that in time and with her endeavors, her love will deserve returning. “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie” (216), Helena soliloquizes: “Who ever strove / To show her merits, that did miss her love?” (226-27). Because she knows that “The Court's a learning place” (177), and Bertram is one who must learn, being so fresh to it—but learn perhaps shame or even lechery—she cannot forebear desiring that her good wishes for Bertram “had … a body … which might be felt” (181-82). To display Helena's tender anxiety and prepare for the consummation of their marriage later, Shakespeare strongly sanctions Helena's behavior by basing it on her awareness of Bertram's fervor and her own ardor. “The King's disease—my projects may deceive me,” she ironically allows, “But my intents are fix'd …” (228-29). Probably because it is grounded in impulse and in inexperience, Helena's first plan does disappoint her, regardless of the common practice of arranging marriages by royal prerogative. Josephine Waters Bennet writes cogently that we must not read the play “in the context of folklore or romance.” Helena is “a girl hotly in love.” Because she pursues a disdainful male, she is “basically a comic figure,” but the “resourcefulness, quick wit and intelligence, and the integrity of her passion, save her from absurdity.”14 In fact, these character attributes preclude a condition of ultimate absurdity and assure Helena's humanity.

The second scene in Act I shifts to the Court. Much of it provides for Helena's appearance before and success with the ailing King, as well as for her initial failure with Bertram. By praising both moral and manly virtues, the King specifically prepares us for the conflict between Helena's love and Bertram's inclination to test himself in war, which rests on the issue of individual preference. To diminish the secondary conflict between their positions in society, the King ironically reveres not only Bertram's father as the model of honor but also Helena's. He cites the elder Rossillion's belief in an individually proven nobility and a consequent acceptance of worthy people from the “ranks” (I. iii. 43) below him. The King quotes the words of Bertram's father on a timeless morality that transcends fashion, the generations, and seems even to exceed battlefield fame. This central theme of personal worth is represented by Helena. Finally, the King is roused by the fervor of his eulogy; he wishes himself both dead and well, protesting momentarily that were “The physician at your father's” alive, he “would try him yet” (70, 73). Still, because he is resigned to “nature,” or age, “and sickness” (74) and because he admires personal deeds of valor, Helena will have to win this first man with her own abilities, despite her father's reputation. In directing the focus of the play toward Helena, Shakespeare predisposes the King toward her virtue and her healing capacities well before Lafew thinks of introducing her to the ailing monarch.

Another important preparation for Helena's appearance at Court exists in the Countess' approval of the Clown's marriage to Isbel. Both he and Helena are “poor,” in need of “good will,” and “driven on by the flesh” (I. iii. 16,18,29). The Clown's song about Helen of Troy and his remarks about the “lottery” of marriage (88) further suggest the rigors to confront Helena. Her love, we recall, has been revealed to us in Shakespeare's depiction of its bittersweet tears. The heartache of the unrequited, even unexpressed love, places Helena in the Renaissance tradition of the appealing lover, expressing his complaint. And Shakespeare has manifestly set it in contrast to the vulgar superficiality of Parolles' remarks on virginity and marriage. That within the conventions of the comedies the Steward should have seen or overheard her expression of love is no surprise. The Countess' motherly recognition of it is also credible. There are no grounds for stripping all obvious dignity from these characters with the cynical suspicion of collusion between the Steward and Helena in an effort to dupe a foolishly sentimental Countess.15 Plainly, Helena's purpose is encouraged by the Countess. She warns Helena of disbelief at Court, but promises support for her “venture” (247) there. What Shakespeare stresses in this scene, then, is not his heroine's intellectual or moral superiority and certainly not cunning and deceit, but the spontaneity and force of “love's strong passion” (133), which inspires a natural but often premature confidence.

While Helena is planning to win a husband, Bertram is ironically being well primed for those “brave wars!” (II. i. 25). Yet the King forbids Bertram his wish to join the courtiers in Italy. In restraining Bertram, the King singles him out, contributing unwittingly to his subsequent rebellion. Angry and embarrassed, Bertram is taunted, not just by Parolles, but by the noble French Lords, who say here that “There's honor in the Theft” (33) of stealing away to fight. Nevertheless, Bertram decides dutifully to “stay” and attend “the King” (49), and Parolles does no more than innocuously prompt him to “take a more dilated farewell” (57) from the departing soldiers. Then, stripped of choice in marriage, Bertram is saddled with bewildering suddenness and shame. The prospect of the Italian war thus becomes urgently appealing. Shakespeare will qualify Bertram's rationale of honour, but the constant purpose in his life so far has been independence. He must attain freedom before he can relinquish himself. If this rash youth errs in pursuing the sword and the drum, the blame for his mistakes must be borne in part by both the King and Helena, who try to deny him what appears to be a necessary stage of masculine decision and development.

As human weakness governs both the conflict between Bertram and the King, so it prevails in the meeting at Court between Helena and the King. At first self-sufficiently regal, unwilling “to prostitute” himself and his crown to an unknown maid, the King ironically relies on those “most learned doctors” (116) who have abandoned him. Helena is humble yet proud in the honesty of her promise, initially unwilling to compromise herself or her father's knowledge by stopping to argue its effectiveness and her motives. But she readily gives up this reserve and, pleading biblical and divine precedents in which miraculous cures have come from “simple sources” (140), she appeals at last to the Deity. The King responds in kind, saying that he thinks “some blessed spirit speaks” (175). Still he is skeptical. His hopes half raised, he asks shrewdly how soon he will be well (159-60) and takes the politic precaution of requiring Helena's death in return for his, should he die. Once he is himself persuaded to hazard her “skill infinite, or monstrous” desperation (184), he is ready to listen and agree to her reward. She wants a man, “thy vassal, who I know / Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow” (199-200). The shaking of hands upon this quite earthly bargain, together with the King's reiterated promise to deliver the husband whom Helena will command, undercuts, with sharp comic irony, religious faith with qualified mutual trust. Since readers of All's Well have sometimes been perplexed by Helena's use of the bed trick, her youthful expedience in this scene must be clearly confronted. By the end of the play, therefore, she is neither too genuinely virtuous nor too unnaturally prim to be suited to Bertram.

The actual frank election by Helena of that promised gift of a husband, however, is at once selfish and selfless. Supported by the King and Lafew, Helena proceeds with wit, with a growing confidence in the face of uncertainty, and with modesty accompanied by a touch of coquetry. Had she been warmly received, her behavior might have contributed to general ease and a becoming sense of self-respect. But the “youthful parcel of noble bachelors” (II. iii. 52-53) is tense with reserve. “Be not afraid that I your hand should take” (89), she reassures an evidently worried third Lord. Because she is quick, critical, and generous with good wishes, she sounds self-defensive. She is understandably apprehensive as she approaches Bertram. Moreover, Lafew's observation that the Lords “are boys of ice / They'll none have her” (93-94), evinces a general reluctance that strengthens Bertram's position. It also underlines Helena's courage and further defines her zestful venturesomeness.

What Shakespeare has devised is a moment of warmth, a confrontation spiced with anger. Both Helena and the King use the means available to them as they pursue vital love and royal prerogative. In their own way they behave with an excess that arouses insistence in Bertram. Helena's attempt to give up her reward, however, to be “glad” the King is “restor'd” and to “Let the rest go” (147-48) is no mere pretense. The occasion cannot be trivialized by comparing it with a children's birthday party.16 It at once separates Helena from the men, and it shows an intelligent awareness in her of the problem that her plan has caused. Furthermore, Shakespeare is introducing the comic ordeal, that necessary trial which brings two people together and, because of shared difficulties, helps keep them together. Helena's eagerness and stratagem are the source of the ultimately comic expenditure of energy, in her salubrious contriving and Bertram's deceitful conniving in the second half of the play.

If Helena has been too persistent in her reach for Bertram, she yields when he is repulsed by her. On the other hand, the now healthy King rages regally beyond her influence. Because the single-minded Bertram cannot accept personal or social worth established by what appears to be verbal fiat alone, he tells his sovereign that he “cannot love” Helena “nor will strive to do't” (II. iii. 145). Bertram has heard the word “honor” (156) mentioned repeatedly, but when he is threatened with “revenge and hate / … in the name of justice, / Without all terms of pity” (164-66), he experiences tyranny. Having precipitated a painful kind of male rivalry, Helena finds that her fervor bears but cold comport. At this juncture, Helena's project has not simply affected the King's regeneration. It has also stung Bertram. The potentially destructive release of a ruler's might is both amusing and serious. Helena has made a mistake, but the situation is not irretrievable.

At this point in the play, there is a deepening of thematic emphasis on the movement from the “lying trophy” (139) of the word to the forthcoming trials of the deed.17 It is consistent with the developing and delicate concern with maturity in both Bertram and Helena. In the first half of the play Helena's instinct not to tell the Countess of her feelings is demonstrated by the modesty in her initial solitude; in her manner of confessing her love to the Countess; in her embarrassment at Court, despite her determination; and in her submissiveness after the wedding. Her action is, of course, externally explained by the social distinction between her and Bertram. Personally, Helena keenly experiences Bertram's harsh repudiation of her, denying her even that longed-for parting kiss. Thus she turns, in the second half of the play, from public claims to private endeavor. She has experienced her own revelation and will profit from it. While Helena acutely feels her plight, she evidently also sees that she must proceed considerately to establish a relationship with Bertram. And since Bertram has learned that stealth will free him from undesirable obligations to his King and wife, Helena will need to move cautiously to retrieve a husband who never wanted her. Clearly Shakespeare employs Helena to stress, not enforced marriage or the patience of a Griselda, but persuasion.18

When Helena thinks, rightly or wrongly, that in seeking to preserve Bertram's nobility she may cause his death (III. ii. 112-16), her future seems dark. Yet the Clown's satire on the Court is again reassuring and dramatically supportive. His remarks on the falsity of appearances among the courtiers are consistent with the arrangements of the French Lords, who by exposing Parolles, attempt to teach Bertram. As Joseph C. Price notes, “the exposure of the false soldier anticipates the exposure of the false lover.”19 The immediate failure of Bertram to learn this lesson with his comrades, however, further shifts the interest towards the private efforts of Helena. She will deftly conclude Bertram's education. The significance of the play's action as wife and husband separate includes the alliance between Parolles' empty words and gestures and Bertram's lies and readiness to sell his “manor for a song” (9). Against this folly Shakespeare pits the misprized virtues of service and love in Helena. These values promise more than simple unmasking; they anticipate mature growth.

Because Helena is unlike Shakespeare's socially secure heroines, who, from the outset, seem to know their men and are rarely shown mistaken in their knowledge, she must labor in novel and apparently unseemly ways for his love. She must undertake a long journey, and she must persuade others to help her attain her love in quietly passive though finally moral ways. Although both the Countess and Helena lament Bertram's flight, their distress is soon replaced by hope and action. After Helena, too, steals away, the Countess concludes that Bertram “cannot thrive” (III. iv. 26) without her. To facilitate Bertram's return, Helena first appears to retreat into a life of religious seclusion. That she does in fact seek Bertram in disguise is basically consistent with her previous actions and the intensity of her love. Religion and its piety are unimportant.20 Following Bertram's wedding-day harshness, Helena is both stunned and anguished by the “dreadful sentence” (III. ii. 61) of his letter, which conveys his apparently absolute renunciation. As she did when speaking to Parolles in the opening scene, however, Helena withdraws, conversing mostly with herself. In her own self-incriminating letter to the Countess she acts to conciliate Bertram. At the same time she benefits from widespread sympathy in “pitiful” (127) report that inclines the women of Florence toward her. Through parallels with the first half of the play, Shakespeare invites us to believe that a heroine who followed her beloved to “the sportive court,” where he was “shot at with fair eyes” (106-07), will not hesitate to follow her husband to the wars, where, shot at with bullets, she will find the risks are greater. Helena sees that she has helped to “chase” (103) him away, and she determines to create the conditions for his return.

After marriage, Helena complies to a husband whose pride has been injured. But she soon responds with the comic subtlety that characterizes many of Shakespeare's women. Considering how noisy Parolles is, how willful Bertram is, and how offended the Widow, Diana, and her neighbor are by his advances, the coincidence of Helena's early meeting with them seems slight. Because he is a war hero, Bertram's affairs are widely known and discussed. What is significant is Helena's second application or another remedy that is again often ironically ascribed “to heaven” (I. i. 217). In France Helena found ready understanding of her virtue in the Countess and Lafew. Here she must elicit sympathy in the young Diana and her mother, persuading them continually of the benefits and righteousness of her efforts. Thus, even after Helena has revealed her secret identity in Florence, she bargains with the Widow, as she did with the King about his cure. Before the Widow yields, Helena convinces her that she is “great in fortune” (III. vii. 13) and that her “purpose” is “lawful” (29-30). She does, in fact, very largely “buy” the widow's “friendly help” with a “purse of gold.” Indeed, she stipulates that after she recovers her husband, she will add an additional “three thousand crowns” (15, 14, 35) to Diana's dowry. To ascribe pejorative meanings to these words and actions is a mistake. The Widow is not greedy, nor is Helena corrupting. Her morality is carefully established in the text. An overemphasis on money alone would unfairly detract from her struggle.

More significant than Helena's purchase is her treatment of the virtues of complex morality in love. Along with the Countess, Helena seems to agree that some “rude boys” (III. ii. 82), perhaps notably the handsome, gallant, and aristocratic ones, must often be actively encouraged to love their wives honestly and to accept willingly the duties of the gentlemanly stations they were born to. Much of the play's humor stems from the implications of this idea of male immaturity and from the what-every-woman-knows theme. Helena does not undertake the saving of Bertram to express feminine dominance, as Parolles is spared “for the love of laughter” (III. vi. 34). She cautiously and apologetically justifies the “wicked meaning” and “sinful fact” (III. vii. 45, 47) of apparent prostitution by directing Bertram's lust to realize the “great prerogative and rite of love” (II. iv. 41), sanctioned by marriage. Actually, the so-called bed trick, or this “deceit so lawful” (III. vii. 38), further emphasizes the crucial quality of Helena's sexuality, as well as her courage.21 As she previously offered her life for the King's, so she now ventures the reputations of her close companions, the Widow and her daughter. Where another's love cannot be ignored, Shakespeare demonstrates the power of that love.

In further correspondence with the early parts of the play, Diana is depicted engaging Bertram, and Helena is shown with the Widow and her daughter after the bed trick. Both scenes echo the King's substantial praise of Helena's virtues, addressed in II, iii to the rebellious Bertram. There the King concludes, “Virtue and she / Is her own dower” (II. iii. 143-44). Now Diana, the virgin, argues with Bertram the “precepts worthy of note” (III. v. 100-101) that Helena has bestowed upon her. Having sworn “many oaths” without uttering that “plain single vow that is vow'd true” (IV. ii. 21-22), Bertram cannot yet see that a woman's “honor” may be equal to her heritage. Following Helena's instructions (III. vii. 30-34), Diana says, with mocking seriousness, “chastity's the jewel of our house, / Bequeathed down from many ancestors, / Which were the greatest obliquy i' the world / In me to lose” (IV. ii. 46-49). But Bertram will not recognize that Diana's words break the social barriers that have helped to frustrate Helena's love. Yet in his passion, that most transcendent force of all, Bertram ironically consents to give his ring for sexual pleasure. At least momentarily he accepts the equalizing powers of love and virtue represented by Helena. They neutralize both rank and the niceties of choice.

The results of the midnight encounter mark another stage in the development of Helena's maturity. In contrast with Bertram's lust and deceit, Helena's reaction emphasizes the moral power of love to surpass social distinctions. There is little doubt that Helena would have enjoyed the blandishments, lit by “the quick fire of youth” (IV. ii. 5) that Bertram addressed to Diana. In a mood of awe and moral awareness after their union, she marvels at the “sweet use” men “make of what they hate” (IV. iv. 22). The wife has of course enjoyed the passion of a husband who has been tricked, but who during their stay together seems paradoxically to have tricked himself. Yet beyond gratification there is in Helena's words the predominant sweetness of binding intimacy and of love. As the last act will confirm, she both speaks and behaves as if she now knows what she has always felt, that in time she can elicit a return of her affection from Bertram. Of less importance here and throughout than personal confidence and worth is the exchange of rings, which will signify publicly the consummation of the marriage. Contrasted with the talk of Bertram's nobility and lineage, love's sweetness diminishes the importance of ceremony and rank in society.

Bertram, on the other hand, has seen neither Helena nor Diana as individuals, but merely as women, the one repulsive because he “was compell'd to her,” the other attractive because he believes he is compelling her by “love's own sweet constraint” (IV. ii. 15-16). In the context that Shakespeare creates and Helena arranges, the psychology of this trick of substitution is wonderfully plausible. A proud and uninitiated man may believably seek to flesh “his will in the spoil” of the “honor” of a “young gentlewoman … of a most chaste renown” (IV. iii. 14-17). The offense is very much mitigated by Bertram's understandable rebelliousness, by his desire, by his willingness in actuality to pay “before” with his ring (230), by Helena's use of “sweet” partly to describe their meeting, and by his enjoyment not of Diana but of his wife. And although his reputation with Parolles for evading payment “when he does owe it” is justified when he abandons Diana, Bertram is completely unlike the treacherous and icy Angelo.22 “Anatomis'd,” he might “take a measure of his own judgments” (32-33) and pay his “after debts” (226), as the French Lords and, implicitly, Helena hope.

The last scene in All's Well is a brilliant conclusion to the play. By admitting that he is the cause of his own misfortunes and by asking Lafew to assist him to some favor, Parolles anticipates the opportunity for pardon and repentance that Helena arranges for Bertram. Specifically, the climactic last scene contrasts with the early reward scene in which Helena says, “This is the man” (II. iii. 104). Although not centrally present on stage, she is the prime mover behind its action and meaning. On the level of plot Bertram's dishonor in Italy is steadily laid bare, as he expresses his dishonesty and anger at Diana in a series of comic reversals and apparent contradictions. The confusion is resolved by Helena's very appearance. The disorder begins with Bertram's giving to Lafew the ring that the King gave to Helena after she cured him. The new match between Bertram and Maudlin, Lafew's daughter, grows out of elegiac appreciation for the supposedly dead Helena. Despite his being “mad in folly” and lacking “the sense to know / Her estimation home” (V. iii. 3-4), Bertram is forgiven. He himself must profess that since losing Helena he has come to love her “whom all men praised” (V. ii. 53). He must accept the deserved reproach of loving afterwards what one hated and perhaps destroyed before. Then the King provides Lafew's daughter as a reconciling replacement for Helena. Because there is no evidence to support it, Bertram's claim to have always preferred Maudlin is simply propitiating.

On the verge of escaping the consequences of deserting his wife and defiling Diana, Bertram is suddenly revealed as a scoundrel. He is suspected of having murdered Helena and taken from her the ring that symbolizes the King's authority. Bertram's unwitting and futile denials accentuate his attempts to keep back her reward. His subsequent excuses, half-truths, and outright lies suggest that Bertram is worse than an “unbak'd and doughy youth” (IV. v. 3). His “Natural rebellion …, too strong for reason's force, / O'erbears it, and burns on” (V. iii. 6-8). Bertram remains to a degree immature in a way that those who wish to vindicate him, ironically, do not fully understand. For if he is really to progress there can be no good excuses for his mistakes, as the King indicates there may be. Yet outright confession risks not only humiliation but also irretrievable guilt, both of which are finally unjustified, as Helena knows.

But is justice done? Does Bertram deserve forgiveness? Is he worthy of his wife? Why does Helena still want him after he slanders Diana? And, if she does, will he change? Of all these apparently problematic questions only the last one seems relevant, because of Helena's love. Bertram merely says in the last lines of the play, perhaps under the pressure of the King and everyone else, that he will be faithful. We may not trust Bertram, then, since he has yet to prove himself. Nevertheless, Helena behaves convincingly as if all will end well. The apparent ambiguity at the end of this play is overcome by Helena's emphatic self-assurance. After he begs pardon, Helena asks Bertram rhetorically, “Will you be mine now you are double won?” (V. iii. 314). We cannot doubt her ability to “make him know clearly,” so that his “if” is hardly conditional. Thus her mention of “deadly divorce” (318) is consistent comic irony. The amazed King expresses cautious hope, but we can be almost certain of Helena's happiness, despite the note of realistic qualification on which the play ends. Why? In following her ordeal we have learned to trust Helena and we respect the careful discretion with which she treats Bertram here. His faults are laid bare for all to see, but Helena knows them already and desires him nonetheless. Her attitude does not fully redeem him, but it assumes that he is redeemable.

Of Parolles the first French Lord says to Bertram, “when you find him out,” when “his disguise and he are parted,” you have him ever after (III. vi. 93, 104). The truth of this observation lies in Parolles' shamelessness. He will not change, but live on, thriving on what he already is. Bertram, on the other hand, has previously shown that he is possessed of some sense of honor, a pride which accounts for the manner in which Diana has been instructed by Helena to confront him. As Helena's agent or second self in this last scene, Diana systematically strips from Bertram his arrogance and deviousness. But she stops short of an indictment that might permanently dishonor or estrange him from Helena. Increasingly, Diana introduces an air of puzzling mystification, which Helena has planned with extraordinary precision. Because of Helena's careful employment of Diana, Bertram's intentions have not been, in the terms of the play, his actual deeds.

The result of Diana's inconsistency in her prosecution of Bertram is twofold. On the surface it jeopardizes even her life, so that although virtuous in thought and act, she stands equal with Bertram, unjustly threatened. The same leveling is apparent in Bertram's rise and decline and the frustrated hopes of the King, Lafew, and the Countess. All share a disappointment or disparagement in this scene before the justice and mercy that they merit are administered. Even Parolles, who is an equivocal, yet revealing witness, stands briefly before the monarch himself. Dramatically, Diana's apparent reversal stresses tolerance of human fallibility. The effect of this grouping and the reminder of common imperfection is to include rather than to exclude Bertram, to lighten the burden of suspicion and accusation that weighs on him. Thus the ups and downs, the confusion and frustration, are knotted by Diana's almost inconsequential riddle. That is Helena's cue.

As virtual author of events in this scene, Helena has apparently believed that Bertram's early humiliation and flight, his valor in war, his gratified lust, his rejection of Parolles, and his confrontation with Diana constitute a checkered progress that implies a basis for moral development. When she herself appears, the King has been chief examiner; his attempt to prosecute and judge has been futile. Helena does not enter to work a miracle; she is tactfully self-pitying and hence accusatory; flattering, explanatory, and gently plaintive; emphatically assertive and loving. In all, Helena is human but supremely and constructively diplomatic. She does not blame Bertram or patronize him. By replying that she is wife in “name” only (V. iii. 308), however, she alludes to the King's previous adjuration, “Thy love's to me religious” (II. iii. 183), as she subtly sounds the depth of loyalty in a man who is hero, husband, and father-to-be.

By describing his unintentional sexual fulfillment of their vows as “wondrous kind” (V. iii. 310), Helena reminds us of the major conflict in the play that she is resolving, the contest of wills. To realize her own passion she has had to learn about and deal with the determined independence and indulgence of his male sexuality. Her choice is clear, and she is devoted. But Bertram has needed time, which as Helena has said, is reviving. She has met Bertram's need to conquer and, paradoxically, honorably to be subdued. And she never suggests that what she has won at last will not have to be won again in the future. His desire to “know … clearly” (315) the truth of those words, “wondrous kind,” should be taken as a wish to renew an embrace that will bring him to love her. Helena may not yet have wholly reinstated Bertram, but he seems ready to be influenced by her. And she is able.

In addition to the proof of love in the consecration of their marriage, Helena provides proof of her persistence, which confirms her worth. Her request, “Will you be mine …” (314), does not so much ask that Bertram accept her, as it gracefully and poignantly makes her irresistible. It evokes his verbal reciprocation of her love. Still, she does not pin her husband to a promise; rather she promises him wittily and reassuringly that she has been faithful. Her last line, a compassionate reunion with his mother, shifts the focus from the pair to his responsibility in the family. As it moves from one kind of obligation to another, it effectively satisfies the Countess' great desire to see her son well married and a vigorous succession assured to preserve a “well-derived nature” (III. ii. 88). Helena has progressed from eager suitor to vital wife.

With the apparent winning of her husband, Helena achieves a larger social purpose as well. As a physician's daughter, her successful treatment of no less than the King suggests that she is a healer who might bring health on a grand scale, perhaps to the realm at large. But Helena's accomplishments are not epical or mythical. The scope of her influence lies within the established hierarchy of society. Now pregnant, Helena not only preserves and strengthens that order as it is exemplified in the House of Rossillion but also brings about the initial command of the King, contributing a silent support to his authority and thus to the coherence of the country. This civilizing effect is stressed by the return of the runaway Bertram to his “home” and heritage (III. ii. 120), as well as by the implicit end to his destructive betrayal of himself (V. iii. 14-15).

To stress Helena's role in solidifying society, Shakespeare concludes All's Well with the King's promise to Diana: “Choose thou thy husband, and I'll pay thy dower” (V. iii. 328). Since Diana's experiences with Helena at one time left her saying skeptically that she would “live and die a maid” (IV. ii. 74), her final inclusion in an active social existence, like that of Parolles, further points up how Helena serves the King. He is pleased to say: “all is whole” (V. iii. 37). At the same time Helena's attainments are critical of rigid and snobbish social stratification. Perhaps most of all Helena establishes the morality of her early belief that internal merit requires recognition and confirmation. When social equality is a barrier, then confidence in word and controlled energy in deed must prevail. And no one equals Helena in the actual, modest performance of deeds that demonstrate an eminent endurance, a generous tact, and a persistent love.

Finally, Helena affirms the comic values of sympathetic tolerance, patient resilience, and gracious humility together with the comic method. Her behavior shows that a quiet perseverance and a rigorous maturing experience may correct impetuosity and restore harmony. By looking farther into the future, she expresses the remarkable confidence of the comic heroine. If she is expedient, she is benevolently so, having as her end a larger and embracingly virtuous purpose. She has realistically dressed “virtue's steely bones” (I. i. 103), not in the frippery of a Parolles, but in the delicate drapery and flesh of a warm woman who combines the better qualities of both Diana and Juno. She reconciles ideals with the real in a manner that assumes human faults yet strives to overbalance them with reliability and virtue. She knows, as the first French Lord says:

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

(IV. iii. 71-74).

But her approach to life's complexity is without this man's head-wagging resignation. Helena is tenacious, and she possesses a qualified optimism. She has subtly turned Bertram's “never” (II. iii. 110) to “ever, ever” (V. iii. 316). Her final reference to his letter quietly asks that he now keep his promise. There is also an underlying forgiveness in her references to his kindness and in her asking him to “be mine now you are double won?” (314). If in the past Helena tried to compel his love, she now indirectly asks for his consent. Helena extends and varies Shakespeare's achievement in creating the comic heroine and in broadening his comic pattern here in All's Well to allow for a more realistic treatment of humanity. She is earthy and practical in a way that resembles but exceeds those qualities in Rosalind. She contrives, but within definite moral limits, to ensure that the end is the “crown” (IV. iv. 35). Finally, then, Helena's love evokes the dramatically appropriate couplet with which the King closes the play. In substance it describes a major Shakespearean comic pattern:

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

(V. iii. 333-34)

The couplet echoes the credo of “The course of true love never did run smooth” (MND, I. i. 134) and “Sweet are the uses of adversity” (AYL, II. i. 12).


  1. The issue of realism in All's Well That Ends Well and its combination with the romantic, the fantastic, and the symbolic has been widely argued and is the main reason many critics terms the work a “problem play.” E. K. Chambers, “All's Well That Ends Well,” in Discussions of Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, ed. Robert Ornstein (1925; rpt. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1961), regrets Shakespeare's “unsmiling mood,” p. 41. Peter Ure, Shakespeare: The Problem Plays (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), is typical of those who believe that Shakespeare fails “to bring the two worlds of realism and romance together,” p. 18. More recent critics, like Michael Shapiro, “‘The Web of Our Life’: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well,” JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], 71 (1972), 514-26, try to resolve the supposed duality in the play by seeing it as a transitional piece between a “relatively realistic mode to the predominantly symbolic mode of the final romances,” p. 514. Other critics, with whom I tend to agree, conclude that, whatever the setting and circumstances and whatever the references to folktale and cure, the play is largely realistic, so that other surface elements serve as an ironically humorous vantage point from which to view Helena's role more clearly. See, for example, W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (1931; rpt. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1969), pp. 62ff., and Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), p. 116. Similarly, Josephine Waters Bennett, “New Techniques of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 18 (1967), 337-62, is general but persuasive on Helena's human and spiritual resources, cf. esp. pp. 338, 341.

  2. Hazelton Spencer, “All's Well That Ends Well,” Discussions of Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, Ed. Robert Ornstein (1940; rpt. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1961), p. 43.

  3. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1968), p. 113.

  4. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), p. 166; Richard A. Levin, “All's Well That Ends Well and ‘All Seems Well’,” Shakespeare Studies, 13 (1980), p. 133.

  5. Marilyn L. Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1986), pp. 55-56.

  6. Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), p. 64.

  7. Larry S. Champion, Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), p. 128.

  8. All textual references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  9. R. G. Hunter, pp. 106-07, 116; R. L. Smallwood, “The Design of All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Survey, 25 (1972), pp. 46-47.

  10. Neely, pp 63-64.

  11. M. C. Bradbrook in “Virtue Is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,” Review of English Studies, 11 (1950), 289-330 wrongly places Helena and Parolles on equal levels, as “good and evil angels” on either side of Bertram, p. 31. G. K. Hunter, “Introduction,” All's Well That Ends Well, 3rd. ed. Arden, (London: Methuen, 1959), concurs, p. xxxiii. But as Roger Warren, “Why Does It End Well: Helena, Bertram and the Sonnets,Shakespeare Survey, 22 (1969), 79-92, notes, “The play cannot adequately be called a morality or a debate, because the extraordinarily vivid characterization of both Helena and Bertram forces us to share in their fortunes,” p. 79. Moreover, both Helena and Parolles are possessed of both good and bad qualities.

  12. Albert Howard Carter, “In Defense of Bertram,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 8 (1956) 21-31; Shapiro, cf. esp., pp. 52ff.

  13. Richard P. Wheeler, “Marriage and Manhood in All's Well That Ends Well,Buckness Review, 21 (1973), 103-24.

  14. Bennett, pp. 341-45.

  15. Levin, p. 133.

  16. R. G. Hunter, p. 116.

  17. Edward Dowden, “The Role of Helena,” Discussions of Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, ed. Robert Ornstein (1881; rpt. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1961), well perceives Helena's role in the second half of the play when he writes: “The energy, the leap-up, the direct advance of the will of Helena, her prompt unerroneous tendency towards the right and efficient ‘deed’ is what interested the playwright.” “She does not display herself through her words; she does not, except on the rarest occasion, allow her feelings to expand and deploy themselves; her entire force of character is concentrated in what she does. And therefore we see her quite as much indirectly, through the effect which she has produced upon other persons of the drama, as through self-confession or immediate presentation of her character,” p. 35. Contrast this view with Tillyard's unfortunate failure to see that we do learn more about Helena after she has put on her pilgrim's habit, a view which leads partly to his conclusion that Shakespeare never taxed his imaginative powers in the second half of the play, pp. 102, 111. Among more recent critics who stress the importance of Helena's role in the last half of the play and the supporting parallels with the first half is Frances M. Pearce, “In Quest of Unity: A Study of Failure and Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 71-88, who writes, “Her career illustrates the positive role of will in achieving the ‘destined’ happiness, the need for faith and for committed action. … Her courage in treading the difficult path of hazardous humiliation is as apparent in the ‘bed trick’ as in her rash venture to cure the King,” p. 86.

  18. Williamson, pp. 58, 72.

  19. Joseph G. Price, All's Well: The Unfortunate Comedy (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1968), p. 163.

  20. Price, p. 83; G. K. Hunter, p. xxxiii; G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (London: Methuen, 1958), pp. 131, 156; and Jay L. Halio, “All's Well That Ends Well,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 33-43, esp. pp. 36, 42.

  21. Critical views of the bed trick vary, depending on whether a commentator's sympathy lies with Helena or with Bertram, or on whether he wishes to do justice to the “complexity” of this problem comedy. G. K. Hunter cites E. K. Chambers' opinion, which he says is typical of early critics, that the trick is mean. Evans, who is also severely critical of Helena, writes that it exemplifies her single-minded, cunning, and secretive ways, p. 150. Like Tillyard, G. K. Hunter himself thinks that the second half of the play is seriously flawed, but observes that the bed trick is a measure of the spiritual strengths to which instinct of sex has reduced the noblest of women, p. xlix. Tillyard finds it ignoble but factual, p. 117. Recent commentators like R. G. Hunter observe the bed trick is a means of deceiving Bertram into performing his necessary role in the physical regeneration of the dying world of Rossillion (p. 124) and that, as Bennett observes, it is an appropriate way of dealing with Bertram's “adolescent sexuality,” p. 351.

  22. Bennett, p. 350.

Martin Dodsworth (review date 10 July 1992)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

SOURCE: Dodsworth, Martin. “Grace Notes.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4658 (10 July 1992): 18.

[In the following review, Dodsworth discusses Peter Hall's production of All's Well That Ends Well, describing it as deeply powerful and moving.]

Its unattractive young hero—silly, selfish, snobbish—makes All's Well That Ends Well a notoriously difficult play; there seems to be so little in Bertram for Helena to love. By a desperate stratagem she forces him to marry her, but after the ceremony he will have nothing more to do with her; she remains faithful, suffers humiliation and indignity for his sake, and in the end is reunited with him. Readers of the play are apt to ask why this should have to be; Bertram hardly seems worth all the trouble he causes. The challenge for actors and directors is to show us that it does have to be. One of the many virtues of Sir Peter Hall's new production is that it manages to bring out an underlying necessity in the action.

For one thing, this Helena is not quite a paragon. Sophie Thompson plays her as a wide-eyed innocent, slightly awkward in bearing, wholly intent on getting what she wants, wanting nothing that can be discreditable to her because she is so innocent, but quite capable of wanting what will harm her. She is very close to a child and has the power to impose her childish conviction on others. When, at the end of it all, she has fulfilled the impossible conditions for her reunion with Bertram, she has the absolute faith of a child in the written word: “And look you, here's your letter. This it says. …”

Bertram and she are kneeling face to face, he because he has been utterly disgraced before the king, she because kneeling makes two of them alone together as she feels they should be. She starts to read the letter, pointing with her finger at every significant word: “When from my finger you can get this ring, And are by me with child. …” Then suddenly, and at last, an adult understanding takes over, the rest of the letter is summed up in a comprehensive and dismissive “etcetera” and she tears it in half, cancelling the bond to which Bertram had subscribed, inviting him at last to commit himself to her freely and afresh. It is a beautiful moment, but also an enabling one for the whole of the play, because it turns out to be about beginning as well as ending; a future comes into sight that has the power to dissipate all our impatience with what the young people have been. They had to be as they were for us to experience this as it is.

The production is intense and powerful. The bare stage of the Swan puts all the emphasis in how characters relate to one another. Body language throughout is significant. It rarely signifies happiness. Of the major characters, only the old courtier Lafew, very well played by Alfred Burke, is unoppressed by life. Bertram's mother wears mourning throughout the play; her love for her son is tempered by irritation, her love for Helena by anxiety. Bertram is insecure, neither a child nor a man. The king's sickness makes him self-conscious and moody. If this is a comedy, we are infrequently reminded of the fact.

In this production something perverse in human nature has to be extirpated. The comic scenes which Shakespeare wrote for the subplot of Parolles, the braggart whose cowardice is exposed when his companions persuade him that he has been seized by the enemy, were never, perhaps, very funny; they smack too much of the enjoyment of cruelty. But in this production they are hardly funny at all; Parolles undergoes an agony of humiliation, roaring out his self-shame in shameful betrayal of his own side. It is an anticipation of the process which Bertram undergoes in the very last scene, a kind of burning-out of the moral canker. Reynaldo, the steward to Bertram's mother, is presented as a Puritan; he appropriately inhabits a play of such dark moral colouring.

God seems to be on Helena's side; she uses a kind of religious chant when she promises the King that he will have his health restored, “the greatest grace lending grace”; and there are other touches that suggest a providential involvement in her affairs. If there is, the sense of this production is that man very nearly disposes of what God proposes.

It all makes for an enthralling three hours of theatre, and for the most part it convincingly holds together the odd blend of realism and folk-tale in the play. Nevertheless, there are limitations. The price paid for coherence is a certain thinning-out of character. Parolles's “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live” loses the hint of human resilience of which it is capable; Helena is made to seem simpler than she is. When she talks of Bertram's “bright radiance and collateral light”, there should be a sense of her intelligent imagination reaching out to define the quality of her love—but these words sound beyond the simple single-mindedness of Peter Hall's heroine. It is a virtue of his production, however, that it makes you think that the fault might be Shakespeare's rather than the director's.

Jeremy Gerard (review date 23 August 1993)

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SOURCE: Gerard, Jeremy. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Variety 352, no. 2 (23 August 1993): 23.

[In the following review, Gerard assesses the New York Shakespeare Festival production of All's Well That Ends Well directed by Richard Jones. Gerard comments that the production emphasized the play's troubling and ambiguous nature while retaining the play's comic features.]

Death silently stalks the players in Richard Jones' mesmerizing production of “All's Well That Ends Well” in Central Park. But like the cruel, cynical world of this “problem play” of Shakespeare's, this Death boasts a comic gloss, being impersonated by a little boy in a Halloween skeleton costume. Sometimes he slips, unnoticed, scythe in hand, into courtly processions at Rousillon and Paris; sometimes he peers down at the action from a perch in a row of spectators above and behind the proceedings.

For all that he represents, this pint-size portent is hard to take too seriously. Other intimations of death are harsher, particularly in Act 1, which concludes with a wedding procession that bears a chilly resemblance to the funereal opening Jones offers to begin the play. While not shortchanging the comic elements, this production utterly refuses to soft-pedal its—or Shakespeare's—disturbing ambiguity (the chief mistake with “Measure for Measure” last month in this theater).

Jones, one of a handful of brash directing talents shaking up the London theater, is best known to New York audiences for his staging of David Hirson's “La Bete” in 1991, a Broadway failure that nevertheless struck most who saw it as boldly staged. He knits the psychological and visual elements of play and production into an evanescent, dreamlike whole—an aesthetic clearly in evidence at the Delacorte.

Of course, the Delacorte on a soft summer night can imbue almost any show with a dreamlike quality, something many directors have taken advantage of. But Jones and designer Stewart Laing brazenly ignore the park's charms, preferring instead to impose their own sensibility on the play. The stage, widened almost to the breaking point, is bracketed by pine doors (one huge, one small) cantilevered at either side. A small orchestra bathed in blue light is visible through a square frame that seems suspended in the darkness at stage right, and a row of candles dots the edge of the stage.

When the action moves to Italy, Laing doesn't open up the space to the natural elements available; instead, he has a narrow window open on the rear wall to reveal a lovely, painted Tuscan landscape. For a play in which dealmaking supersedes trust, and appearance prevails over love, such painterly, slightly surreal artifice seems reasonable.

As Helena, the orphan in love with her guardian's feckless son, Miriam Healy-Louie dominates the ensemble with a performance that goes right to the heart. Why Helena loves the cad Bertram (Graham Winton) despite his meanness, snobbery, treachery and duplicitousness defies comprehension, yet the Dublin-born actress makes it plausible simply through the depth of passion in her voice and the dignity with which this Helena meets every challenge.

There is much dignity, as well, in Joan Macintosh's Countess. But Winton is a fairly bland Bertram, particularly beside Michael Cumpsty's flamboyant Parolles—a comic antihero who has all of Falstaff's character flaws and none of his gross charms—and Rocco Sisto's dry clown, Lavatch.

As Diana, the Florentine woman who allows herself to be wooed by Bertram so that Helena might ultimately take her rightful place in bed with him, Patrice Johnson is fine; that she is black (and has a white mother, Patricia Kilgarriff) will bother only those who mistakenly think that “All's Well” is a realistic play. Also fine are Herb Foster's stalwart King of France and Henry Stram's faithful Lafeu.

Jonathan Dove's underscoring is almost always beautiful and only occasionally intrusive. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting is varied and fluid; indeed, the whole production is imbued with an organic quality of movement (for which some credit is surely due movement director Daniel Banks).

Any question that the Delacorte is an appropriate venue for Shakespeare's thornier works is dispelled here. Though “All's Well” doesn't end well—who could possibly believe that Bertram and Helena will live happily ever after?—Jones' staging makes it a midsummer night's dream.

Robert Brustein (review date 4 October 1993)

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SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. New Republic 209, no. 14 (4 October 1993): 32-4.

[In the following review, Brustein examines the New York Shakespeare Festival production of All's Well That Ends Well directed by Richard Jones, noting that Jones's tragicomic approach emphasized the play's dark and serious tones.]

After a spirited Measure for Measure in July, the New York Shakespeare Festival produced a haunting All's Well That Ends Well in August. Much of the credit for these triumphs, surely among the best productions yet seen in Central Park, must go to JoAnne Akalaitis, who first conceived of pairing two of Shakespeare's most difficult problem plays with directors imported from England (the Texas-born Michael Rudman is an English resident). Akalaitis was not allowed to enjoy the fruits of her planning, having been removed from her job last spring, but she deserves a valedictory salute for helping to bring the Shakespeare Marathon to its maturity.

All's Well is the third American production directed by Richard Jones, who staged La Bete on Broadway in 1991 and a less succesful production of Bulgakov's Black Snow with my own company last December. From his previous work in theater and opera, Jones was known as a stylist with a special flair for farce. Recently, he has been applying more tenebrous tones to his palette, and his All's Well, though not without its giddy moments, emerges as an unusually somber experience even by the standards of dark comedy. Always a strong visual director, Jones has provoked a stunning design from the English artist Stewart Laing, whose costumes and setting create an atmosphere of surreal disorientation.

Wide-screen movies broadcast on cable T.V. are often provided with a “letter-box” format, which elongates the width of the screen and narrows the height. This is a letter-box version of All's Well That Ends Well. The set sits in a horizontal opening that spreads across the entire expanse of the stage, with huge doors on either side, madly skewed and raked. This allows for continuous lateral motion and, with the aid of traveler, uninterrupted scene changes. It also provides room for a few spectators to look down on the action from upstage, sometimes joining the scene by waving green flags.

The design is essentially an abstraction. On a sea-green backing, marked by an aqua blue strip, hangs a white Rothko-like panel with a Donald Judd-like sculpture in the center that doubles as a mirror. When the action moves to Italy, the panel divides to reveal a lovely Tuscan countryside, decked with burnt umber fields and a tiny medieval town reminiscent of Robert Wilson's miniature future cities. Washed by Mimi Jordan Sherin's sea-change lighting, the visual impact is ravishing. With this design, Laing takes his place alongside such brilliant young English designers as Bob Crowley and Anthony Macdonald.

When the audience enters, a row of candles are flickering on stage, in front of a long table bearing the shrouded body of a man. The body seems to be laid out on a bier, and is guarded by a diminutive figure in black (played by a child) wearing a death's-head and carrying a scythe. But death is just waiting, not stinging, and this is no corpse. It is the King of France, languishing from a fistula, and when he is carried offstage by black-clad carriers to the accompaniment of vibrating chimes and tinkling triangles, the miniature death's-head ominously follows. This figure will appear and reappear throughout the action. Jones has made disease and death the central metaphors of the play.

The decision seems entirely appropriate since not only is the King ailing but the play culminates in the resurrection of a “dead” woman, much like The Winter's Tale and Pericles. Helena will return from the dead to claim her reclacitrant husband. Before dealing with her own life-and-death problems, however, Helena must resurrect or resuscitate the King with a remedy she has inherited from her father, a famous physician. As shrewdly played by the Irish actress Miriam Healy-Louie, Helena is a shy, passionate, red-headed scholar in spectacles, lonely and abandoned, befriended only by the maternal Countess of Rousillon (endowed by Joan Macintosh with magisterial elegance).

Contrasting with images of death and disease, embodied in emblematic black, are images of innocence, embodied in white. In the cure scene, it is innocence that medicates disease. Helena, first seen wearing a white robe covered with a black cardigan, is a virgin in the shadow of death. If she fails to heal the king, her life will be forfeited. As she describes the secret remedy while the Countess braids her hair, the King is carried in on his long table by uniformed officers who turn his body to prevent bed sores and hover over him like figures in Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson. She climbs on the king's table, facing him on her knees; he sits up, head bowed. When the lights come up after a blackout, the two are merrily dancing, while the courtiers applaud and stars sprinkle from the sky.

The reward she elects for curing the King is to choose her own husband. All of the court bachelors (including a 10-year-old-child) appear before her, but she demands the hand of the Countess of Rousillon's son Bertram. It is Bertram's mean rejection of her (he finds her “base”) that poses the major problem of the play, for why would this accomplished woman set her cap for such a soulless snob? Despite his contemptous treatment, she persists in her chase. Her eagerness to cast off chastity makes Parolles' rebukes to her virginity (“it is too cold a companion … away with it. … Virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese”) seem superfluous. By order of the King, Bertram is married in the Elizabethan equivalent of a shotgun wedding. (Shaw, praising Helena's aggressive pursuit, made her a model for the “unwomanly woman” Ann Whitefield in Man and Superman.) The wedding takes place in a slow march, just prior to everyone's departure for war. Helena poignantly expresses regret that she has chased Bertram from his native land (he can't wait to leave). She nevertheless undertakes to follow him to Italy, a pilgrim with a crook and a backpack.

Much of the second part is dominated by the antics of Parolles, a “notorious liar” and braggart soldier on the pattern of Pistol and Falstaff. As played by a goateed Michael Cumpsty, Parolles spends much of his time in front of a mirror, admiring his bright blue beribboned uniform. As the courtier Lafeu remarks, “The soul of this man is his clothes.” By the end, this sartorial fop will be reduced to filthy long johns. Captured and blindfolded by his own soldiers speaking gibberish and pretending to be the enemy, Parolles instantly spills his guts about all the secrets of his camp. It is a scene reminiscent of Falstaff peaching on Prince Hal, but Parolles does not have the wit to extricate himself from charges of cowardice.

Bertram's lusty passion for Diana Capilet provides the means by which Helena can meet the conditions he has made for continuing their marriage—possession of his wedding ring and evidence of marital consummation. For like its companion piece of the summer, Measure for Measure, All's Well accomplishes its climactic reconciliation through sexual deception (the Park's 1993 season might be called “The Bed Trick Repertory”). Waiting for Bertram, having substituted herself for Diana in the dark (she brings her own pillow and sheets), Helena lies on the same table that bore the body of the King, observed by the same diminutive figure of death.

And death is an attendant when the victorious army returns to France. Jones interpolates a scene in which the Countess of Rousillon has become sick and languishes on the table; instead of ending well, the play concludes in melancholy. Diana comes to accuse Bertram of seducing her, as Isabella accused Angelo in Measure for Measure, but discovers that Bertram is equally disposed to libel a decent women (he calls her “a common gamester to the camp”). The “dead” Helena appears, rising through a trap, not only alive but quick with child. The entire stage turns blue. She and Bertram vow to love each other “ever ever dearly.” But even this admittedly unconvincing hymeneal is dampened by the dying Countess, who is borne off stage in a slow-motion Robert Wilson-like procession, trailed by the figure of death.

Most of the acting, in addition to the standout performances of Healy-Louie and Macintosh, is strong and deep. Herb Foster is commanding as the King of France, Graham Winton properly sulky as Bertram, Patrice Johnson appealing as Diana Capilet, Patricia Kilgarriff decisive as her mother, Bette Henritze poignant as the Countess' companion and Henry Stram authoritative as the elderly courtier Lafeu. Cumpsty's Parolles, though well spoken, is more of an egotist than a braggart, a musical comedy star on the order of Robert Goulet. And Rocco Sisto's Lavatch, played as a bourgeois in a white-feathered fedora, lacks true eccentricity. The only genuine comedy is provided by the chorus—courtiers, waiting women and soldiers drilled within an inch of their lives—whether simultaneously lighting clay pipes during the interrogation scene or returning from Italy with identical suitcases. Still, comedy is not the point of Jones's production. His approach is more akin to Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedy, a style that skirts perilously close to disaster without falling off the edge.

Let me say a word, too, in praise of Jonathan Dove's original music, as performed by some fine instrumentalists under the direction of Alan Johnson. The continuous underscoring of mostly mournful melodies enhances the funereal proceedings at every point (except during the unmasking of Parolles, when it seems inappropriate). The doleful music accomplishes the same function as the surreal set and the ethereal acting style, which is to shut out both the bucolic spendor of the Park and the urban grit of the city, and plant the audience in a wholly invented atmosphere. Even with jets and helicopters roaring over our heads, we are persuaded of worlds we never imagined.

Grevel Lindop (review date 27 September 1996)

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SOURCE: Lindop, Grevel. “Cold Wars and Boors.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4878 (27 September 1996): 19.

[In the following review, Lindop offers a rather negative appraisal of Matthew Lloyd's production of All's Well That Ends Well, commenting on the production's lack of emotional warmth and “unwelcoming” set.]

Austerity is the keynote: for the Royal Exchange Theatre itself—relocated, after last June's bombing, to the elegant but bleak caverns of Upper Campfield Market—and for this production, set in a stiff and chilly version of the 1930s and holding throughout to the sombre economies implied by the all-black costumes of its opening stage-direction.

All's Well is the most problematic of problem plays, mixing fairy-tale with grimly unattractive realism. Helena, offered her choice of husbands after healing the stricken King of France, chooses the unpleasant Bertram, a cynical philanderer who rejects her and takes off for the wars, which he views as an inviting opportunity for irresponsible adventures in sex and violence. Helena follows in disguise and wins him back by the predictable bed-trick, standing (or rather lying) in for Diana, the Florentine girl Bertram is bent on seducing. In the process, she fulfils the conditions of Bertram's oath not to see his wife again until he wears her ring and carries his child.

When, back in France, the supposedly dead Helena reappears with these titles to matrimony, Bertram undergoes an instantaneous moral reform of which no proof whatsoever is shown, while the King, apparently impervious to the lessons of experience, invites Diana to choose herself a husband. … The ironies of the title are obvious, as are the problems for the audience. What does Helena see in Bertram? What kind of relationship can they have? How can the folktale rituals of the magical healing and the bed-trick remain credible in the same play as Bertram's complacent cynicism and the cowardice of his braggart friend Parolles?

Such things can be made to work; but they demand a certain inconsequent theatrical magic. Matthew Lloyd's production rejects this possibility from the start by eschewing any touch of emotional warmth, deploying its cast in stiffly stylized groupings and displaying each in cool isolation. Ashley Martin-Davies has created an interesting but unwelcoming set, the floor an expanse of dark, glassy marble fractured by numerous cracks, a kind of cold flamboyance exemplified also by the white lilies placed on a block of perspex centre-stage in the first scene. These touches point up Helena's speech about virginity, but stress only its coldness and not the rather more human idea that Helena would actually prefer to lose hers to her chosen man.

The characters seem to take their cue from their surroundings. David Bark-Jones's Bertram, immaculate in the dark suit of Act One and still unruffled in brown battledress half-way through a military engagement in Act Four, is stiff and restrained throughout—convincing enough when paired off against his will with Helena, but disappointing when he is supposed to be seducing Diana. Diana, played by Polly Moore, seems equally immovable; some, at least, of her lines are coquettish and vulnerable on the page; but Moore speaks them as if she were leaving a business memo on an ansaphone. James Smith as the wheelchair-bound King looks convincingly frustrated, but delivers his lines in a toneless shout which soon becomes tiresome. Trevyn McDowell's Helena is likeable, but fails to make psychological sense of her part, or to generate any feeling of magic except at the moment of the healing, where her ritualistic and hypnotic tone of voice suggests for an eloquent moment what is missing from the rest of the production.

The saving grace of the evening is Alastair Galbraith's Parolles. Perhaps because irredeemable from the start, he is blessedly exempt from the icy self-control exuded by the rest of the cast. He relishes the restlessness of his own needling rhetoric, exudes weaselish energy in his movements and, duped by his comrades into thinking himself a prisoner of the enemy, throws himself with masochistic gusto into betraying his own side and defaming his “friend” Bertram. When the humiliating trick is revealed, he delivers his great soliloquy of disillusion (some of Shakespeare's most haunting and unparaphrasable lines) with touching and powerful conviction: “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live. … There's a place and means for every man alive.”

Robert Smallwood (review date 1998)

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SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1997.” Shakespeare Survey 51 (1998): 219-55.

[In the following excerpt, Smallwood examines Irina Brook's production of All's Well That Ends Well, finding that the director failed in her attempt to create a setting in which the play's folklore elements could be explored. Smallwood praises Rachel Pickup's energetic and intelligent portrayal of Helena and Emil Marwa's childlike and naïve Bertram.]

From a new ‘problem comedy’ to one for which the epithet is of more venerable vintage—but once again to a director bent on a novel and unexpected reading. Irina Brook's production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Oxford Playhouse in the late summer attempted to create a world in which the folk-story origins of the play might operate more freely by presenting it in a pastiche African world. The attempt, though energetic and forceful, was doomed to failure. Rachel Pickup's Helena, however, was so full of energy, so gracefully and intelligently spoken, and so committed in her love for Emil Marwa's boyishly naive Bertram, that much of this wonderful play's essence seemed to survive the mistaken directorial concept.

From a theatrical property basket the cast of white and black actors were presented, as the play began, with shawls and robes that suggested an African world, and when not actually performing they sat round the stage, punctuating the dialogue by playing on drums and bells. Not once did the concept help the play and at times it was violently at odds with it, not least when Bertram refused Helena with all the weight of sixteenth-century social hierarchy behind him (‘A poor physician's daughter my wife!’) and Jeff Diamond's King of France responded in terms that assume the absolute power of a Renaissance monarch, with every syllable he uttered made absurd by the fact that the crown he wore was a tambourine without a skin found in the property basket; or when Helena cured the king, not in secret through the medical legacy of her father (‘prescriptions of rare and proved effects’), but through a sort of cod witch-doctor's dance projected onto a screen with the entire cast watching. When a Shakespeare play is genuinely absorbed into a different ethnic culture, and re-presented in the light of it, the results are frequently illuminating; the external imposition of pseudo-versions of ethnicity (as with the Globe production of The Winter's Tale reviewed elsewhere in this volume), is patronizing and phoney.

But for all its self-imposed problems, the production at many points demonstrated the theatrical power of this strangely neglected play, scenes such as Helena's confession to the Countess (a fine performance by Madlena Nedeva of this most sympathetic of roles, though robbed of some of its scope by the excision of Lavatch, with whom she has such a patient and generous relationship), or Bertram's rejection of Helena after the fun of the choosing dance (here very competitive and overtly sexual, in a way that seemed perfectly legitimate), or Bertram's wooing of Diana (with its valuable opening lesson in how to fail in a chatting-up routine by getting the girl's name wrong), or the comic cruelties of the interrogation of Parolles, all coming off with fine theatrical energy. There was an interesting unscripted glimpse of the opening moments of the ‘bed trick’, with Helena, in Diana's very identifiable veil, leading Bertram lovingly by the hand to the consummation she has so long yearned for. The ending took the sentimental choice of a penitent Bertram kneeling to Helena and kissing her on ‘more welcome is the sweet’, a kiss that might have come two acts earlier as Helena begged it (‘strangers and foes do sunder and not kiss’) if Bertram had not been diverted by Parolles's loud (and calculated) drumming at the crucial moment. The production ended, perfectly in character, with a directorial misjudgement, the Epilogue being spoken, not by the King, but by the mysterious witch-doctor figure who had doubled Reynaldo and the ‘Gentle Stranger’. But for all its oddities, it had still revealed that the play's theatrical energy is more or less indestructible if the role that drives it has been adequately cast; and in Rachel Pickup's performance of Helena it undoubtedly had. The buoyancy and emotional commitment of her appeal to the ‘leaden messengers’ not to harm the arrogant young man who is, so unworthily, the object of her love, were not easily to be forgotten. …

Josephine Waters Bennett (essay date autumn 1967)

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SOURCE: Bennett, Josephine Waters. “New Techniques of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 4 (autumn 1967): 337-62.

[In the following essay, Bennett investigates the various comic techniques Shakespeare employed in All's Well That Ends Well, and argues that the play is more a comedy than a romance.]

All's Well That Ends Well has long been a problem play in the sense that it presents unsolved problems to modern readers and producers. We have neither quarto nor record of performance to help date it,1 and the variety of recent interpretations suggests that the playwright's intention is not now understood. Professor G. K. Hunter, in his excellent, recent edition, shrewdly observes that “criticism of All's Well has failed, for it has failed to provide a context within which the genuine virtues of the play can be appreciated.”2 In fact, until we understand the intention of the playwright the genuine virtues of the play cannot be recognized. Hunter supplies a helpful hint when he observes that All's Well is the obvious twin of Measure for Measure: “plot, characterization, themes, vocabulary, even the tangles, perplexities, and perversities of treatment [are] shared”.3

Since we know that Measure for Measure was performed, and indeed, created4 to grace the Christmas festivities at court at the end of 1604, we can be reasonably sure that All's Well was written at about the same time.5 Hunter makes the usual assumption that All's Well is the earlier of the two. He says, “What difference there is, points to a slight development and clarification of the material when it is handled in Measure for Measure” (p. xxiv). I believe, on the contrary, that All's Well shows a marked advance in technique, in what he calls the “tangles, perplexities, and perversities of treatment”, by which Shakespeare was exploiting new sources of comic effect. This paper is chiefly concerned with analysis of these comic techniques, but frequent comparison with Measure for Measure will help to place All's Well in the process of Shakespeare's development, once we understand its nature and relationship to its twin.

All's Well That Ends Well has long been the least popular of Shakespeare's plays. Most modern critics have declared it a failure.6 Almost every one of the characters has been attacked as unpleasant, the trick by which Helena secures Bertram for husband has offended many, and the ending has proved inexplicable. I believe that this mass of unfavorable criticism arises largely from mistaken preconceptions about what the author was trying to do, or what he should have done. I propose, therefore, to examine the play from the point of view of what he did do, in the hope of arriving at an understanding of what he intended. That is, I propose to proceed on the assumption that the author knew his business and therefore that the play was a success in its time; and I believe that, when its true relation to Measure for Measure is recognized, it will be apparent that that play also was much enjoyed by the audience for which it was written.

The most obvious similarity between Measure for Measure and All's Well is, of course, the bed-trick by which, in the former Isabella's chastity is preserved, and in the latter Helena secures the husband of her choice. There are other basic similarities. In Measure for Measure Shakespeare begins with the paradox of a law which punishes the men for adultery instead of the women, and in All's Well the initial paradox is a woman's pursuit of a reluctant boy. In both, the situation is the reverse of what is usual and expected. Shakespeare had already exploited the female pursuer in Venus and Adonis, but in All's Well he reversed the relative positions of the two principals. Helena is no goddess but a woman of inferior birth and fortune to the man she pursues. These handicaps she overcomes by passionate determination and recklessness. Her pursuit of the noble Bertram is heedless of consequences.

Isabella is the Shakespearian heroine most often compared to her, yet her passionate nature and her resourcefulness both contrast with Isabella's need for masculine guidance, first of Lucio, and then, after her brother fails her, of the Friar. Most critics begin with the assumption that All's Well is basically romantic comedy. They try to see Helena as “a ministring angel”, a woman, like Isabella, with “a sense of divine mission”,7 and to make of the play a morality on the commonplace of honorable actions proved nobler than noble birth,8 or, recently, a prodigal-son play.9

However, as a character and in relation to the plot, the figure who corresponds most closely to Helena is not Isabella, but Mariana. She is the one who has been deserted by the man she loves, and who recovers him by means of the bed-trick. If we begin with Mariana's poignant little song,

Take, o take those lips away
That so sweetly were foresworn,(10)

expressing her loneliness and physical longing, perhaps we can see Helena more clearly. Both women have recourse to the bed-trick to consummate their marriages. The two women whose chastity is preserved by this substitution are, in one play Isabella, in the other Diana. Surely it is more reasonable to suppose that Helena developed from Mariana than that she is any relation to the chaste Isabella—and how could Isabella develop from either Helena or Diana? The repetition of the bed-trick suggests a deliberate relationship between the two plays which Shakespeare's first audience would recognize and understand. It is too striking a plot-device to be repeated accidentally or casually. It has been assumed that All's Well was written first, and that this trick was borrowed from it as an easy solution to Isabella's dilemma. But the bed-trick occurs in many stories, including the biblical story of Leah and Rachel. No particular source need be postulated to account for the Friar's plan to save Claudio and yet spare Isabella.11

However, it is easy to see how the playwright's imagination might be challenged by the problem of what kind of woman would do such a thing. Mariana's part must be kept too small and subordinate to Isabella's to allow much character development, and so Shakespeare may have gone on to write All's Well, making use of a much more elaborate version of the bed-trick story for his main plot.

It has long been recognized that the plot of All's Well was derived from Painter's retelling of Boccaccio's story of Giletta of Narbona.12 Shakespeare follows this story with considerable fidelity, except that he changes entirely the circumstances and character of the heroine. Giletta is rich, Helena is a poor dependent orphan. Giletta is a good, patient soul, very much like the patient Griselda. After her cure of the king and marriage to Beltramo, she returns alone to her husband's home and proves her worth by ruling his subjects so well as to earn their good will. After long consideration she sets out on a pilgrimage which leads her to Florence and the bed-trick. In fact, she lies with her husband several times, bears twins, and lingers in Florence long enough to have them nursed before she returns home with the ring on her finger and the twins in her arms. Then Beltramo relents and accepts her as his “dere spouse and wife”.

Shakespeare's Helena is no such patient creature. On the contrary, she is vehement and reckless in her pursuit of her Adonis. Her uncontrollable desire for Bertram drives her to find an excuse to follow him to Paris and to make her desperate pledge to cure the King or die in the attempt (II.i.186-188). When Bertram runs off to the wars rather than “bed” her, passionate remorse and self-immolating love drive her to undertake a pilgrimage from which she vows never to return (III.ii.99-129, and iv.4-17); and when, in Florence, she chances upon a girl he is courting, she immediately plans to substitute for this girl in her husband's embraces in order to fulfill the impossible conditions which he has imposed upon her. From her first cry, “There is no living, none, / If Bertram be away” (I.i.82-83), she is a consistent character, a woman so passionately in love, and so determined, that she will do anything to get her man. She has none of Giletta's patience. Shakespeare has heightened the impression of her impetuosity by shortening the time interval at every point. This, of course, was usual in turning a story into a play, but Shakespeare has used it here to give Helena impetuosity and the play rapid movement.

The change in the character of the heroine should prepare us for a change in the denouement; yet Hunter is not alone in calling the ending of All's Well perverse, and suggesting that his source story would have provided a more effective end to the tale which Shakespeare was retelling. “But no!” he says, “Shakespeare invents a labyrinthine series of accusations and lies for the last scene, protracting the reconciliation into a tedious lawsuit.”13 “Lawsuit” hardly describes the series of false charges and quibbles by which Diana proceeds, and she is certainly not “protracting” the reconciliation, but delaying it so that it is reduced to minimal length.

It is this delay, or rather avoidance of an emotional ending, which has caused most modern critics to declare the play a failure. However, this last scene, like the bed-trick, closely parallels Measure for Measure and constitutes the chief evidence that All's Well is the later play, since it is modeled on the ending of Measure for Measure, as a kind of echo, or parody, which depends for much of its humor, and even for full understanding, on Measure for Measure, so that the relationship could not be the other way around, as I hope to show.

Dissatisfaction with the denouement arises from mistaken notions of what the author was trying to do, and from a consequent failure to observe what he was actually doing. Because the source-story is romantic comedy, it has been assumed that Shakespeare's play is also romantic at base. Hunter says that throughout “the play juxtaposes extreme romantic conventions with down to earth and critical realism” (p. xxxiii). In other words, the playwright is telling a romantic story with other ends than romance in view. An age which can relish T. B. White's The Once and Future King and Camelot ought to be able to adjust to, and understand the purpose of, this juxtaposition. To read the play simply as romantic comedy gone wrong can only lead to disappointment.

And here we must take account of another mistaken preconception. Victorian distaste for the bed-trick was, of course, violent, and W. W. Lawrence, in an attempt to defend this part of the plot, explained it as derived from widespread folklore and fairytale. He argues that Shakespeare could not have intended Helena to be other than noble, or the ending other than romantic and “happy ever after”; because he did not attempt “to make such sweeping changes in the meaning of traditional stories, in situations made familiar to people by centuries of oral narrative” because the simple audience would be “perplexed and baffled.”14 The assumptions involved in this line of reasoning are astonishing. The whole conception of folklore is a nineteenth-century one, as anachronistic in this context as is the striking clock in Julius Caesar. Shakespeare was not thinking in terms of the folk, but dramatizing a story which he found in Painter's Palace of Pleasure, and which his quite literate audience probably also knew in that form. He had, no doubt, heard of the bed-trick in other connections and in other stories, but in the tale of Giletta of Narbona it is combined with the story of the healing of the king in a complex which has no such universal dissemination as Lawrence claims for it. Moreover, neither he nor his audience had the exaggerated respect for “the folk”, i.e. “the common man”, which the sociological theory of our time has created, a respect which tends to make folklore sacrosanct, and which clearly colors the condemnation of the ending of All's Well.15

On the other hand, Shakespeare probably was consciously recalling and suggesting the classical myth of Venus and Adonis, in the first half of the play, and of the impossible tasks given to Psyche (in the Cupid and Psyche story), in the second half of the play.16 Allusion to classical myth served the same purpose, in the Renaissance, that folktale often serves today; it provided an archetype which lent an aura of profound truth or ancient wisdom to a story, giving it depth, or the semblance of depth, which enlarged its significance. But far from venerating these classical myths as sacrosanct, the Renaissance poet felt free, and indeed felt an obligation, to recreate them by giving them new meaning, a new treatment which justified the retelling. The reader's, or in drama the hearer's, recognition of the old story heightened his pleasure and his appreciation of the artist's interpretation by high-lighting the changes he had made. This parody technique, as it has been called,17 was widely understood because it was taught in the grammar schools of the Renaissance. It is often mistaken, today, for simple plagiarism, or imitation.

But if folklore and romance are the wrong contexts in which to read or act this play, then how should we view it? Let us begin with the alterations which are most obvious in the story. In addition to changing the character of the heroine, Shakespeare repeatedly emphasized the youth of the hero, or protagonist, and he added several characters: the Countess, her Clown, Lafeu, and Parolles. These new characters govern the audience-response to both Bertram and Helena. Bertram's rebellion against his fate is made clearer and more reprehensible by the disapproval of his mother and Lafeu and by his choice of the knavish Parolles as his mentor. Helena's aggressiveness is reduced, especially in the first half of the play, by the sympathy and help given her by the Countess and Lafeu. Moreover, as Hunter observes, the playwright has, by these additions, counterpoised youth and age (pp. xxxvi-xxxviii) and “extreme romantic conventions with down-to-earth and critical realism” (p. xxxiii). He says, “Shakespeare is handling traditional motifs, but he makes a new effect out of them by manipulating the viewpoint” (p. xxxii). Unfortunately, I believe, Hunter does not pursue this insight far enough to observe how the point-of-view is manipulated, but instead complains of “the dramatic perversity of many of its [the play's] devices” (p. liii), especially in the last act. He finds even the verse, like the plot, “laboured and complex” (p. lvi), and, except for two or three great speeches, a failure (p. lix).

The techniques which Hunter calls “tangles, perplexities, and perversities of treatment” (pp. xxiii-xxiv), begin in the first act. Let us look at them there. The first 76 lines neatly provide the exposition: the Countess is a recent widow, Lafeu is conducting her son Bertram to Paris to be a ward of the King, the King is ill and his physicians have given him up, Helena's father, Gerard de Narbon, was a famous physician who might have cured him but he recently died leaving his daughter in the care of the Countess. Farewells are said and Helena is left alone on the stage and in tears, which Lafeu had suggested were for her late father; but she immediately bursts out,

O, were that all! I think not on my father,
.....                                                            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 lament runs on for twenty lines, but her passionate avowal is, by its suddenness, its extravagance, and her shocking admission that she has forgotten her father, too violent and abrupt to carry our sympathies with it. We are startled and surprised, rather than moved. She is interrupted by the entrance of Parolles, and in seven lines more of soliloquy we learn that she considers him a liar, a fool, and a coward, yet she begins her shrewd characterization with the words, “I love him for his [Bertram's] sake.” Then, like a quick-change artist, she changes her tone and bandies fooleries with Parolles, in prose, on the subject of virginity, going on (and back to verse) to speculate on Bertram's education in love at court, beginning, “There shall your master have a thousand loves,” and ending with a wish that she might follow him, obliquely expressed and beginning with a double entendre,

                                                                      'Tis pity
That wishing well had not a body in't
Which might be felt. …


“Felt” expresses both her desire to be with Bertram and the physical and more specific hunger which accompanies her desire to give herself—expresses it, in fact, so frankly as to raise a laugh in an audience which understood the innuendo.

Helena ends the conversation with a charge of cowardice aimed at Parolles which is so cleverly phrased that Parolles cannot think of an answer. He excuses himself, “I am so full of business I cannot answer thee acutely.” However, he will return a perfect courtier and teach her to be thankful for a courtier's counsel, ending, “Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee. So farewell.” He has no idea of her passionate interest in Bertram, and yet the audience has been kept aware of what is uppermost in Helena's mind, and so is able to follow easily when she resumes in line 212 the soliloquy which had been interrupted in line 86.18 We have been kept aware of her thoughts while she spars with Parolles about virginity and Bertram's sex-education at court. Moreover, this demonstration of her nimble mind, her shrewd judgment of people and situations, and her ability to dissemble, prepares us for her subsequent activities and the reckless determination which carries her ultimately to success.19 She is no helpless innocent, no Isabella, but a woman mature in passion, if not in years, with strong will, wit, intelligence, and resourcefulness. She cuts off Parolles' insinuation that she discard her virginity with the curt, rejoinder, “Not my virginity yet:”20 where the “yet” expresses a mind made up and should, taken with her passionate declaration of love, prepare us for her later desperate expedient for entrapping Bertram.

Preoccupation with the heroine, a sentimental over-sympathy with her distresses, arising apparently from the belief that this is essentially, or should be, a romantic play, is probably the main cause of modern failure to enjoy the play as comedy.21 Hunter says, “To fit Helena into the play or adapt the play to Helena is obviously the central problem of interpretation in All's Well” (p. xlviii). Our problem is rather to see Shakespeare's Helena as he intended and drew her, not to “adapt the play” to a romantic preconception of her. Hunter makes the usual comparison of Helena with Isabella, but Helena is a woman passionately in love, Isabella is Shakespeare's only comic heroine who is not in love. Helena is a determined and resourceful woman, Isabella is dependent on masculine guidance at every step.22 Isabella values her virginity above the life of her brother, Helena values her lover above her own life and wishes to die in order to rescue Bertram from the dangers of war. Both girls are deeply religious, but in a religious age that hardly constitutes a striking similarity. Both make use of religious conviction to further their own desires, in ways that are very human but not very similar. Helena can only be misunderstood if she is viewed in terms of Isabella.

The scene between Helena and Parolles so deeply shocked the Victorians that its virtues of character-exposition have been neglected. Critics have even denied that Shakespeare could have written it;23 yet the exposure of Helena's thoughts under the disguise of banter with Parolles is as brilliant a bit of dialogue as there is anywhere in Shakespeare.

Helena's frankness was true to the life and manners of Shakespeare's day, but we must also remember that this dialogue was written to be spoken, not by a woman or young girl, but by a boy impersonating a woman. In that situation touches of burlesque were inevitable in comedy. In the last forty years we have largely restored Shakespeare's plays to the bare stage for which they were written, but so far we have done nothing to correct the distortion which results from the substitution of women for boys in the female parts. In fact, we have simply assumed that this substitution is an improvement. However, the parts were written for boys and are adjusted to that situation. Because they were to be acted by boys the dramatist compensated by giving the boys very feminine lines to speak, just as he compensated for the lack of scenery by making his characters speak sensitively of their surroundings. But he also took advantage of the bare stage for rapid changes of scene, and for other effects not possible with scenery.24 He also took advantage of the dramatic possibilities of boy actors. It has been observed that producing Shakespeare with scenery gives a reduplicative effect which makes the poetry seem superfluous, and a similar reduplication arises from the use of women in parts written for boys impersonating women. For example, to use women in boy's clothes for the frequent situations in which his heroines dress as boys is to lose entirely the dramatic effectiveness of having boys pretending to be girls continue the pretense while they are dressed as boys.25 These characters no longer act women's parts today, they merely are women. A naïve literalness has taken the place of acting, appreciation of which Shakespeare cultivated in his audience, and which, by the time All's Well was written, had reached a subtlety no modern audience expects or is prepared to appreciate. The success of the boys' companies attests the taste for this acting, for enjoyment of the techniques of illusion, or appreciation of both illusion and reality at the same time—the same kind of enjoyment involved in appreciating a picture for what it represents, and at the same time for the artist's skill in creating on a flat surface the illusion of three-dimensional objects.26 We are doing violence to a delicate and intricate art when we substitute the literal for the imagined, as we regularly do in the case of Shakespeare's heroines.

In the resulting distortion we expect both too much and too little of the actress. It is a case of the painted versus the real fruit. We enjoy the latter both as beautiful and as stimulating to appetite, but the painted fruit, by leaving the appetite unstimulated, allows more various, more intellectual, and more lasting aesthetic pleasures. The imagined Helena can have more subtlety and variety because our protective (or concupiscent) emotions are not aroused: we are not involved with her as a woman, but only as acted and imagined woman. We can savor the similitude to reality, sensing at the same time both the illusion and the art which creates it, free from the blinding and blunting emotions which realism arouses.

We must make this adjustment to Shakespeare's art if we are to appreciate Helena, for she is easily the most subtle and intricate portrait of a woman which Shakespeare created—as courageous as Rosalind, as deeply in love as Viola, as intelligent and able as Portia. She is Juliet to an indifferent Romeo. If she lacks the quality of Juliet's charm, she commands our admiration of her generous spirit and dignity in adversity. Love is her whole being. As a girl hotly in love and pursuing a disdainful male, she is basically a comic figure; but her resourcefulness, quick wit and intelligence, and the integrity of her passion, save her from absurdity. And Shakespeare, with consummate skill, saves us from too much emotional involvement, too much sympathy for her to enjoy her predicament objectively. He does this by taking advantage of the artifice of the boy actor—and by manipulating our emotions through the point of view from which the story is told.

Whether a situation is comic or tragic depends not on the situation but on the point of view and the outcome. In All's Well That Ends Well Shakespeare has reassured his audience, by means of his title, about the outcome; and then he has proceeded to present a youthful romance from a mature point of view. He has used the Countess and Lafeu especially, but the King and the Widow also, and even the Clown, to help us to see Helena's troubles through grown-up eyes. “Even so it was with me when I was young”, says the Countess (I.iii.123) and gives us the perspective from which to view Helena.

Critics have complained that the play has no single, unified point of view because it is not written from the point of view of either Helena or Bertram, but it is not a romance of young love. It is a play of the extravagances of young love seen through the eyes of experienced, sympathetic, yet wiser maturity. In Romeo and Juliet we have the doting but completely uncomprehending father causing the destruction of his beloved daughter, i.e. we see him from the point of view of sympathy for the daughter. But in All's Well the lovers are presented as they appear to the wisely loving and experienced Countess, or to the generous, wise, and noble Lafeu. Between them they smooth the young lovers' way and help them to find each other by finding themselves. Lafeu is a wonderful study of a truely noble man, so entirely in command of himself that he always sees the need of the moment and attends to it, friend of the Countess, of Helena, of Bertram, of the King, and even friend to Parolles in his need. He is an experienced courtier and true gentleman who can jest his King into good humor or bandy words with Parolles, comfort the Countess, smooth Helena's way to the King, or make Bertram's peace for him. He is everything that a man ought to be. The fineness of the Countess has long been recognized. For contrast, we have presented to us the point of view of the old Clown, a shallow malcontent, seeing only the surface and understanding nothing, an utterly superficial observer. And we see love and war through the eyes of Parolles, the parasite, a light-weight sophisticate, incapable of either love or war, but making pretensions to both, able to impose only on the inexperienced Bertram. Parolles is unmasked before Bertram, he has deceived nobody else. Lafeu recognizes him as an empty husk. “Lord have mercy on thee for a hen!” he suddenly exclaims, and the basic effeminacy of Parolles' “scarves and bannerets”, his pretences and his cowardice, is made clear.

From this mature point of view Shakespeare makes comedy out of the desperations of young love, but it is comedy for the mature, not for those who demand “realism” so that they can “identify” with the leading character, those who regard “complete intellectual and emotional surrender to illusion” as “the summit of theatrical experience”.27 It was intended for an audience which could enter into the fiction, and pity the passionate heroine, while at the same time savoring the acting, and, from the distance of a mature point of view, seeing the comic side of Helena's pursuit of Bertram. In a narrative, such as Venus and Adonis, the point of view of the narrator is easily maintained: the selection of diction, phrasing, imagery, and events establishes the tone. The author, in his persona as narrator, controls the reader's attitude toward the story. But in drama the characters must speak from their own point of view as characters; therefore the manipulation of audience-response is much more difficult to manage in anything beyond simple realism; but in this play Shakespeare has developed special techniques for achieving it.

To begin with, he has simplified the plot so that he has space to provide complex perspectives from which to view it. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, he has provided separate strands of amorous situation and dramatic fiction in the youthful affairs of the young lovers, in the married quarrel of the fairies, in the stately and formal mating of Theseus and Hippolyta, and then a travesty of tragedy, as of theater, in the “tedious brief scene of Pyramus and his love Thisbe”. In All's Well he has spun all this into a single strand, twisting together the romantic, the comic, the inexperienced, the mature, the theatrical, and the burlesque, exploiting the borderline between tears and laughter with a consummate art which we entirely miss if we take any single filament for the whole strand of his spinning.

Helena's second soliloquy, after her bout with Parolles, replaces elegiac emotion with decision; and here we become aware of another technique which the poet uses freely in this play (as in every other), the manipulation of language as part of his control of audience-response. Helena's first passionate outburst (ll. 77-96) is, as we would expect, in blank verse. Her conversation with Parolles is largely in prose. And her soliloquy of decision is in pentameter couplets, a medium which gives just the right sense of wisdom and finality to that decision:28

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky
Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
.....                                                            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. Exit.

This is the end of scene i. We are so well able to follow the line of her unspoken thought that the mere hint, “the king's disease”, prepares us for what is coming; and this foresight provided for the audience is an important technique of comedy, since an audience enjoys being made to feel wiser than the people on the stage.

The manipulation of diction and speech rhythms goes far beyond the choice of meter. The blank verse lines of Helena's confession gain timbre and passion by frequent medial breaks (ten in twenty lines) and run-on lines (nine); while the fourteen lines of resolution, in couplets, show only four medial breaks and six run-on lines. The difference in diction is also marked. In the blank verse there are concrete images of the “bright particular star”, the hind and the lion, and the trope of drawing Bertram's picture and worshipping “his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls”. In the couplets the figures are vague and abstract: “heaven”, “the fated sky”, “power”, “space”, “fortune”, “native things”, and so forth. Helena feels in concrete images, but thinks and decides in more general and less visual terms.

It is not that we consciously recognize these speech patterns and respond to them rationally, but that Shakespeare is playing on our emotions without our recognizing it. Unlike Guildenstern, he knows our stops and can play upon his audience as a musician plays upon his instrument. In All's Well he is exhibiting his virtuosity before an experienced audience, controlling the point of view, showing emotion, not evoking it, so that it can be observed acutely and understood rather than felt.

Another device for reducing the audience's emotional involvement is change of scene. The Merchant of Venice is notable for its regular alternation of scenes between Venice and Belmont, which gives the comedy a rhythm such as can be found also in other of Shakespeare's comedies; but here the change of place has a somewhat different use. Scene ii of Act I carries us away to Paris to see the King face the grim reality of imminent death. As usual, the change also reduces our sympathetic involvement with Helena and so prepares us, by a kind of emotional cold shower, for scene iii, which returns us to Rossillion and brings the Countess to Helena's assistance. The solicitude of Bertram's mother puts the sympathies of the audience on Helena's side, but not by the emotional means of making us sympathize with her, rather by the rational means of representing the Countess as sympathizing with her.

The management of audience-response is as subtle as it is masterful in this scene, which begins with the Countess' words to her Steward, “I will now hear. What say you of this gentlewoman?” The speech directs our thoughts to Helena, but the Steward's reply is interrupted by the entrance of the Clown, who comes to beg leave to marry “Isbel”. This has been recognized as a parody scene29 anticipating Helena's interview with the Countess. Normally, a parody follows the thing parodied in the manner of mimicry, but here the parody is comic preparation for the more serious scene to follow. It tantalizes the audience with expectation, and, at the same time, by its comic mood, makes it impossible for us to take Helena's problem very seriously. The conversation of the Countess with her Clown is tied to Helena's situation not only by the opening lines which bring up the subject, but also by the Clown's song when he is commanded to summon her.

In the Arden edition of 1962 this song is merely described as “a ballad fragment” without any reference to the patent allusion, in the opening couplet, to Marlowe's famous lines,

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Illium?(30)

The Clown sings,

Was this fair face the cause, quoth she,
Why the Grecians sacked Troy?

The deliberate, prose flatness of the second line has humor as a teasing refusal to quote what the first line calls to mind. The Clown is playing on Shakespeare's choice of name for this heroine, a choice which is ironic, since Helena's story is the antithesis of Grecian Helen's. Both are beautiful, but one pursues where the other is pursued.

The “ballad” is followed by the Clown's report of the scarcity of good women, a thoroughly unserious preparation for the Countess' interview with Helena. Before Helena enters, however, the tone of the scene is modulated by the Steward's long-delayed report of what he has overheard of Helena's lamentation, and by the Countess' sympathetic sestet of reminiscence beginning, “even so it was with me when I was young.” So we are prepared for her kindly treatment of her ward.

If this were romantic comedy we should rightly expect a touching scene in which the Countess should sympathize with Helena and promise to help her. That is what happens; but Shakespeare has deliberately drained the scene of sentiment and rendered it comic by the contretemps of Helena's misunderstanding of the Countess' offer to be a mother to her. She violently rejects the idea. She will not have the Countess for mother because that would make Bertram her brother! The Countess is sympathetic (contrary to convention), but Helena makes help difficult. Only at the end of the scene is understanding achieved, and the Countess' shift from you to thee gives a touch of sentiment to her last speech. But immediately both scene and mood shift, as Act II opens at the French Court. There is no time for sentiment. And so it is throughout the play. There are moments of deep and honest emotion, on the part of both Helena and the Countess, but these moments are kept brief so that we observe rather than feel them. Immediate comic relief (as in I.i), complete change of scene (as in I.ii), or other device such as the Clown's anticipatory parody (as in I.iii), mutes the impact and “distances” the emotion.

As observers we are kept firmly outside the play, looking on—kept dangling by the delay of expected events, teased by allusive parallels, and delighted by the recognition of human absurdity which we have escaped from. “Even so it was with me when I was young”, says the Countess, smiling at Helena's woe and keying the audience's response to it. We also are wiser than Helena, and enjoy her woes from the vantage-point of self-gratulation.

The techniques observed in Act I appear also in the controversial Act V. In the first scene of the latter, Helena, Diana, and the Widow arrive at Marseilles expecting to find the King there, but learn that he has gone to Rossillion. Helena sends him a letter and prepares to follow it immediately. Scene ii, in Rossillion, settles the fate of Parolles and serves several dramatic purposes. It prevents Helena's arrival at Rossillion from following immediately on her setting out; that is, it serves as a time-interval. It also builds suspense by delaying an expected complication. We had learned, at the end of Act IV, that Lafeu, believing Helena to be dead, had arranged the King's forgiveness of Bertram and the marriage of his own daughter to him. This plan for a second marriage for Bertram, when the audience knows that his first wife is about to arrive, creates anticipation of the final complication and so provides suspense for the last act, just as the Duke's preparation to “return” and deal with Angelo creates the necessary suspense (much less effectively) for the last act of Measure for Measure.

In this scene (V.ii), first the Clown and then Lafeu subject Parolles to a kind of verbal hazing, or masculine joshing, about his bedraggled and masterless state and needy condition which keeps us waiting and so increases the tension. There is also a parody preparation for the “hazing” of Bertram in the scene which follows, just as in I.iii, the interview of the Countess and her Clown uses parody as emotional preparation for the Countess' interview with Helena. It also provides a neatly ironic conclusion to Parolles' story. In an earlier encounter with Lafeu, Parolles had indignantly denied that he was in anybody's service. He was “companion” to the Count of Rossillion, no servant to anyone (II.iii.186-195). In V.ii, he is reduced to humble gratitude for Lafeu's contemptuous engagement of his services: “though you are a fool and a knave you shall eat. Go to; follow.” Parolles comments fervently, “I praise God for you.” In similar fashion, in the next scene, Bertram is given such a hard time by the King, Lafeu, Diana, Parolles, and even the Countess, his mother, that he is reduced to fervent gratitude in his welcome of Helena as the solution of his difficulties.

As in I.iii, where the expected interview between Helena and the Countess is delayed, and sentiment avoided, first by the Clown's parody request for permission to marry, and then by Helena's refusal to accept the Countess as her mother; so in V.iii, the meeting between Helena and Bertram is delayed to the last moment so that there shall be no touching reconciliation, but only Lafeu's adult, humorous recognition of a potentially touching scene, in his wry comment, “Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon. Good Tom Drum [i.e. Parolles] lend me a handkercher.” The immediately preceding scene had called attention to Parolles' bedraggled and unwashed condition. The handkerchief would certainly not be clean!

Before we can appreciate the last scene fully, we must consider Shakespeare's characterization of Bertram and also the relation of the end of All's Well to the end of Measure for Measure. Dislike of Bertram has prevented our understanding of the play almost as much as the romanticizing of Helena.31 Shakespeare has been accused of denegrating Bertram, of making him an even more unpleasant character than Angelo, but this is not true. Bertram uses no such power of coercion to secure Diana's submission to his lust as Angelo attempts to use on Isabella; and, while his subsequent repudiation of Diana is more practical than admirable, there is in his conduct nothing comparable to Angelo's treacherous ordering of Claudio's execution in order to protect himself.

Hunter finds “the process of development out of frigid immaturity, through active evil, into humble wisdom and acceptance of life” (p. xxiv), clearer in the case of Angelo than of Bertram. This is curious, because Angelo's growth is little more than development of an uneasy conscience evidenced by soliloquies, and his repentance is adequate only because his crimes were prevented. He is much less convincing as a young nobleman of promise than is Bertram, who grows up in more ways, over an apparently longer period of time, and through experience in a more “real”, or plausible situation. At the beginning he is a minor whose loss of his father makes him the ward of the King. Our first glimpse of him after his arrival at court is his lament to the two Lords who are setting out for the Italian wars, “I am commanded here, and kept a coil with ‘Too young’, and ‘The next year’, and ‘Tis too early’” (II.i.27-28). Like the boy he is, he resolves, “By heaven, I'll steal away!”, and Parolles, his foolish counselor, encourages him. When Helena, having cured the King, is given her choice among the King's wards, she tells four of them in turn that she will make no demand of them. Each gives her a polite, but tepid, reply, while Lafeu fumes, “These boys are boys of ice”, “And they were sons of mine I'd have them whipp'd”. Then Helena turns to Bertram, among these “boys” and says with modest dignity,

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


Bertram is shrilly indignant that he should be asked to pay the price of the King's cure. He protests,

A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever!

Less disciplined than the others, or more tried, he talks like a willful adolescent. However, the King's honor is at stake and he forces Bertram to submit. Then, while the wedding is being performed off-stage, Lafeu's telling-off of Parolles fills the interval and confirms Helena's (and so the audience's) judgment of Parolles, so that, when Bertram comes to him immediately afterwards for comfort and counsel, the audience can see that bad counsel is at least partly to blame for Bertram's foolish conduct. The bridegroom's outburst of feeling is as tragi-comic as Helena's had been in the first scene:

                                                  O my Parolles, they have married me!
I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her


Adonis was not more petulent, nor more reluctant. His utter boyish dismay at the prospect of the marriage bed is surely both more comic and more acceptable psychologically than Angelo's sudden desire for Isabella or his argumentative method of trying to seduce her. Both Lafeu and the King have given us mature perspective from which to see Bertram.

After the end of Act II, when he sends Helena off to Rossillion without so much as a parting kiss, we see little of Bertram, but what we hear indicates that he is maturing rapidly. Shakespeare fully understood the dramatic necessity of the single episode which serves as token of a whole development. He understood the need to indicate as well as to represent. Of Bertram's success as a soldier we have such brief indications. In III. iii, we see him being appointed to the very responsible post of “general of our horse”, by the Duke of Florence. In III. v, his fame is made clear by the crowd waiting in the street to see him pass, and by their comments. Diana says, “They say the French Count hath done most honorable service.” Her mother replies, “it is reported that he hath taken their great'st commander, and that with his own hand he slew the duke's brother.”

Bertram's attempt to seduce Diana indicates his growth in another direction, and the attempt to satisfy this new appetite is only too painfully typical of adolescent sexuality. He does not, however, actually lie with her, although he believes that he has, and so he is vulnerable to her lies in the last scene. The final step in his education is effected by the two Lords who unmask Parolles before him, and so, by a single episode, typify and epitomize the experiences which make him a competent judge of men.

At the end of Act IV, audience-attitude toward the return of Bertram is prepared by Lafeu, who tells the Countess that her son was misled by Parolles, and that he has prepared the King to forgive Bertram. His confidence in the young man is sufficiently indicated by his proposal that Bertram marry his daughter “to stop up” the King's displeasure (IV.v.72-73). The audience is shown Bertram's homecoming through the eyes of the Clown, who is concerned only with appearances. Yet we learn that he is well attended, as befits a successful general. The Clown says, “Faith, there's a dozen of 'em with delicate fine hats, and most courteous feathers which bow the head and nod at every man” (IV.v.100-102). Moreover, he reports that Bertram has begun to exhibit the badge of adulthood, a beard. This passage seems not to have been understood by most commentators. The Clown reports that Bertram has “a patch of velvet on's face; whether there be a scar under't or no, the velvet knows; but 'tis a goodly patch of velvet.32 His left cheek is a cheek of two pile and a half,33 but his right cheek is worn bare” i.e. shaved. Lafeu immediately interprets this evidence of a wound too fresh to shave as “a scar nobly got”, but the Clown refuses to distinguish between scars, “It is your carbonado's face”, he says.34

Bertram makes a more complete development from boy to man than Angelo does. He is also much the better man. He has proved himself a great success as a soldier, where Angelo was a complete failure as a ruler. The King says that he has a good report of him from Florence. At the beginning of the final scene he shows himself also to be a mature and able courtier. When the King asks him whether he remembers Lafeu's daughter, he replies,

Admiringly, my liege. At first
I stuck my choice upon her, ere my heart
Durst make too bold a herald of my tongue;
.....                                                                                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.


Whether this is true or not, it is tactful. He has adroitly combined a prompt and graceful acceptance of the King's second choice of a wife for him with an excuse for his rejection of the first.35 The king commends his diplomacy with the words, “well excus'd.”

The arrival and claim of Diana is a serious embarrassment to Bertram, but that alone would not have been sufficient to discredit him in the eyes of the King and Lafeu. The ethics of the day did not require a man to marry a woman just because he had seduced her. Shakespeare takes the precaution of showing us that Diana is well aware of what to expect if she yields to him. She says,

My mother told me just how he would woo
As if she sat in's heart. She says all men
Have the like oaths. He had sworn to marry me
When his wife's dead; and therefore I'll lie with him
When I am buried. Since Frenchmen are so braid,
Marry that will, I live and die a maid.


She is no betrayed innocent (as the audience knows, but Bertram does not), and if he slanders her by saying that she was “a common gamester of the camp”, the audience knows that she is shamelessly lying about him after having tricked him into consummating his marriage with Helena. It is the witness of the two rings which convinces his accusers that Bertram has done away with Helena and married himself solemnly to Diana.36

Diana's conduct in the last scene is a close and obvious imitation of Isabella's in the last scene of Measure for Measure. In the latter play, however, there is more preparation for the false charge. We know, at least in general, why she makes it. She has been so instructed by the Friar (who is also the Duke). She protests to Mariana, “I would say the truth; but to accuse him so, / That is your part: yet I'm advis'd to do it.” We know that the Duke has been very busy arranging his “return” and the reckoning with Angelo. But just what Diana is trying to do with her false accusation we have not been told. Critics have assumed that Diana's accusation is a first, bungling attempt which Shakespeare made more effective in Measure for Measure; but what seems more likely is that All's Well is the later of the two plays, that Measure for Measure was a great success, and that the denouement of All's Well gains comic significance by its reminiscence (or parody) of its twin. Shakespeare was too able and experienced a dramatist, by 1604-5, to bungle a denouement.

In both plays the ending is stage-managed, but in All's Well the director, Helena, is off-stage so that her cleverness is not the point, as is the Duke's. We have been told that she is bringing Diana and the Widow to Rossillion with her, but we are kept in the dark as to why. We see her sending a letter ahead to the King, but we have no inkling of its deceptive purport until a letter signed “Diana Capilet” is brought to the King. We naturally assume that this is the same letter. It claims, “I followed him to his country for justice. Grant it me, O king!” (V.iii.143-144). We know that this is a false claim, but it gains point as reminiscence of the parallel scene in which Isabella begins her false accusation of Angelo with the words, “Justice, O royal Duke!” and ends, “And give me justice, justice, justice, justice!” (V.i.20-25).

Diana carries her false charges much further than did Isabella, and with much less justification, since Bertram used no such compulsion as Angelo had attempted. But Diana's situation is so similar to Isabella's that her accusation gains comic relevance if it is viewed as allusion. Both women are putting on an act. Isabella has been so instructed, as part of the Duke's plan to bring Angelo to repent. In All's Well we can easily guess that Diana's false accusation is intended to help Helena in some way, but how? Bertram is already in trouble because Lafeu and the King have recognized the ring he takes from his finger as the one which the King had given to Helena. This trouble over the ring seems purely accidental. We can hardly be expected to suppose that Helena had put it on Bertram's finger while they were in bed together with this particular end in view. But the focus of this scene is not Helena's cleverness but the embarrassment of Bertram. In Measure for Measure the Duke held the center of the stage, but in All's Well Bertram is the central figure. The King is not in command of the situation, because he neither knows the truth nor directs the action. He performs about the same function as does Escalus in Measure for Measure, who orders the arrest of the Friar for speaking ill of the Duke, and so brings about the revelation that the Friar is the Duke. In a somewhat similar fashion the King in All's Well orders the arrest first of Bertram and then of Diana, and so forces Helena to appear.

In Measure for Measure first Isabella appears and accuses Angelo falsely, and then Mariana appears and claims him for her husband, and the Duke orders Angelo to examine both women and pass judgment. Since in All's Well Helena is not to appear until the very end of the last scene, suspicion of Bertram is brought about by Lafeu's recognition of the King's ring. This second ring is Shakespeare's invention. Bertram's ring, which Helena must obtain, is part of the original story, but we suddenly hear, in this last scene, of a second ring, one which the King had given to Helena, and which Bertram had appeared wearing. The King demands to know where he got it. Bertram thinks that he got it from Diana when they were in bed together, and so he stoutly denies that it was ever Helena's. His denial leads the King to suspect that he got it by foul play, and his arrest is ordered. As he goes out he utters what is more true than he knows:

                                                                                If you should prove
This ring was ever hers, you shall as easily
Prove that I husbanded her bed in Florence,
Where yet she never was.


Any audience can be counted upon to enjoy its superior knowledge of Helena's whereabouts.

In some ways the introduction of the second ring is a much better device for putting Bertram in jeopardy than was the double accusation against Angelo. In both plays the charges are double; the betrayal of a virgin and murder. In both, the audience knows that neither crime has actually been committed. However, the King's dark and persistent suspicion of Bertram is more life-like, more credible, than the false accusations of Angelo. The Duke has taken care that Claudio not be executed, and so he is merely putting on an act when he accuses Angelo. But the King has, within the limits of his knowledge, good reason to suspect Bertram, and so it is a brilliant bit of humor-of-situation when he orders Bertram to prison under suspicion of murdering Helena, when the audience knows that she is lurking somewhere in the wings, waiting for the right moment to appear.

There are echoes between the closing scenes of the two plays, not only of situations and predicaments, but also in the management of mood and tempo. Just as Measure for Measure, Act V, begins with the Duke's dissembling compliments to Angelo, so in All's Well everything goes smoothly for Bertram until Lafeu recognizes the King's ring. The King, and even the Countess, identify it as Helena's, and so the King, “wrapp'd in dismal thinkings”, orders his arrest. It is at this point that the letter signed “Diana Capilet” arrives, followed by Diana in person. The more serious charge, therefore, is woven in with the less serious, is brought first, and complicates the second charge (supported by Diana's possession of the ancestral ring). They come back to it near the end of the scene, when Diana offers to return Bertram's ring if he will return hers, i.e. the ring the King had given to Helena. The King's questioning of Diana about this second ring leads to his discrediting her and forcing her to produce “the jeweller that owes the ring”, Helena. This is a less elaborate, but more ingenious and closely knit series than the one which the Duke of Vienna weaves round Angelo; where first Isabella and then Mariana accuse him, and then, after the truth of that affair has come out and he has been married to Mariana, Angelo is condemned to die for having executed Claudio, so that Isabella must plead for his life, and finally the Duke thinks of another charge, the technical one of having executed Claudio at an unusual hour. The charges against Angelo are flimsy because the Duke, as well as the audience, knows that they are false, while the King's suspicion of Bertram, and Diana's charge of seduction are real at least to the King. However, the whole balance of the two scenes is different, because in Measure for Measure the whole long scene centers firmly about the Duke, while in All's Well not the comparable figure, the King, but Bertram is central. His is a wonderful acting part, requiring great bodily, as well as vocal expressiveness in this scene. His harrassment, caused by the King's unjustified suspicions and by the false charges of Diana, reduces him to a state of such acute embarrassment that the appearance of Helena is as welcome to him as the arrival of a pardon is to a condemned man. Everyone has turned against him; Lafeu rejects him as a prospective son-in-law, the King suspects him of murder, his mother accepts the evidence against him, and even Parolles testifies against him while protesting that he will not do so. Meanwhile the audience is kept waiting for the appearance of Helena, but when she finally does appear, those on stage are amazed at the sight of her. The King asks, “Is't real that I see?” and Helena replies,

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

Bertram bursts out with, “Both, both. O pardon!” (V.iii.300-302). For him she brings welcome relief from all his difficulties. His is an honest sentiment rendered ironic by its convenience. Here we have tragi-comedy in Shakespeare's vein: not the sentimentalism of the honest whore or the repentant wife, but the irony of life which sometimes renders virtue convenient. Bertram has grown up, that is, reason has gained control of will. He has accepted Lafeu's daughter gracefully because it is the King's will, only to be suspected of murder and confronted with Diana's demand for “justice”. The sudden appearance of Helena frees him from all embarrassments at once, from charges some of which he believes to be true, and none of which he can refute: from Lafeu's daughter and Diana, both. He already has a wife! His “Both, both, O pardon!” is heartfelt, though of a mingled motive which substitutes irony for pathos in its appeal to the audience's emotions.

All's Well ends with the practical business of providing Diana with a dowry. The king tells her,

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

This is the same offer that he made to Helena at the beginning of the play, as if the playwright were saying, “Here we go again.” It is a comic ending to a comedy which has avoided, and carefully prevented, too deep involvement of the audience's sympathies, through the manipulation of tone, scene-sequence, and point of view.

The plot of All's Well, like that of Measure for Measure, involves a desperate remedy for a serious situation (though it is a greater stretching of “reality” than I can manage to call sentencing of a man to death for adultery or a woman's getting herself pregnant by an unwilling male “real life” problems). However, there is much less plot in All's Well than in its twin, and even less subplot. Instead of so much plot, there is more character development. Neither Isabella nor Angelo is comparable in depth and individuality to Helena and Bertram. Otherwise, in Measure for Measure, we have only the Duke and Escalus, whereas in All's Well there are the King and Lafeu, as well as the frequently admired Countess.37 Helena has been misunderstood and misrepresented. Shakespeare gives her passionate moments, but they are sudden and brief. The firmness of her character and her heedless determination and ability deprive the audience of the protective impulse which is the active part of sympathy.

I have discussed the devices by which Shakespeare controls our sympathies in the first act. In Act II the focus of attention is on the King, his disease, and the miracle of his cure which is rendered ridiculous by its suddenness, and by the verbal contest between Lafeu and Parolles to describe it. In the scene in which Helena chooses, we see the King's wards from Lafeu's point of view as silly boys, and that attitude colors our reaction to Bertram's shrill refusal. Then the King takes Bertram in hand, and Helena is silent except for one dignified attempt to withdraw her choice of Bertram (II.iii.147-148). The wedding takes place off-stage, while Lafeu is telling-off Parolles. Then we see Bertram running to Parolles for comfort and advice and resolving, “I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her.” Helena appears in scene iv, but says little except to accede humbly to the orders which Bertram relays to her through Parolles. Parolles and the Clown dominate the scene. Helena has a minor part also in scene v, which concludes the act, and there her modest begging for a parting kiss from Bertram allows only a touch of pathos at the very end of the scene.

Act III immediately switches the action to Florence, where the Duke promises the two French Lords a welcome, and they assure him that “the younger of our nature” will follow. So Bertram's welcome in Florence is assured at second hand. Scene ii begins with the Countess and her Clown. She has a letter from Bertram, which she reads, announcing his determination never to “bed” Helena and to run away; but the reading of the letter is sandwiched between comments by the Clown. First he tells the Countess that her son is a very melancholy man because he sings all the time. This is preface to the punch-line, “I knew a man that had this trick of melancholy sold a good manor for a song.” Then, while the Countess silently reads her letter he makes the parody complaint, “I have no mind to Isbel since I was at court.” Then the Countess reads her letter aloud—the letter in which Bertram repudiates his wife. Her indignant comment is cut short by the return of the Clown to announce the arrival of Helena “between two soldiers”, a description which suggests an arrest. When the Countess asks, “What is the matter?” he assures her, “your son will not be kill'd so soon as I thought he would”, because he has run away. “The danger is in standing to't; that's the loss of men, though it be the begetting of children.” This bawdy joke, and the laugh it should raise, is preparation for Helena's tragic entry and her melodramatic announcement, “Madam, my lord is gone, for ever gone.”

The Countess acts like a sensible and mature person. She asks, “Where is my son, I pray you?” and Helena's lamentation is punctuated and modulated by the Countess' practical questions, “Brought you this letter, gentlemen?” “Towards Florence is he?” “And to be a soldier?” “Return you thither?” “Who is with him?” Her good sense is the point of view from which we should see Helena's fears. Her exit leaves Helena alone on the stage to utter her passionate lament (III.ii.99-129). She blames herself for driving him from home, and from “the sportive court” into the danger of “smoky muskets”. She imagines him killed, saying, “Better 'twere / I met the ravin lion when he roar'd,” than that her presence in Rossillion should keep Bertram from its safety. She ends with the resolution, and pun,

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

Was Shakespeare remembering, and suggesting, Thisbe? There is a bit of dimeter to reenforce the allusion. Otherwise, Helena's thirty lines of lamentation, although they are basically wrong-headed in preferring Bertram's safety to his honor, are poetic, even tragic. But certainly Helena's extravagant fears are intended to contrast with the Countess' reasonable and practical behavior. They contrast also with what follows. Scene iii gives us a glimpse of Bertram in Florence being appointed “the general of our horse” by the Duke. This is a post of great honor and responsibility. The little scene (only eleven lines) not only carries us far away from Helena and her tragic lament, but it also juxtaposes, and thus sharply contrasts reality with Helena's fearful imaginings.

In scene iv the Steward reads Helena's despairing farewell letter to the Countess, and the Countess orders a stern letter written to her son, but she is sensible enough to express the hope that everything will work out as, ultimately in fact, it does. Scene v takes us to Florence again, where we meet Diana and her widowed mother, and where Helena arrives and promptly makes her practical arrangements for the recovery of Bertram.

In the sequence of scenes in this play there is free use of the technique of comment by contrast. The reality of war is represented rationally in Act III, scenes i and iii, and Helena's womanly fears and despairs, in scenes ii and iv. The crass rearrangement of scenes to accommodate superfluous scenery, or out of mere whim, which many producers have been guilty of, has obscured the significance in Shakespearian plays of the sequence of scenes, arrangement of which was an important part of the modulation of audience-response which the dramatist uses so expertly. These scenes are not detachable or moveable parts, not merely elements in the dramatic telling of a story, but movements in a symphony in which the audience is the instrument.

In IV. ii, the Clown provides a touch of parody, as he does usually in this play, and as usual the parody comes first and prepares the mood for what follows. After the exit of the Countess, Helena utters her noble and musical lamentation and resolution to “steal away” so that Bertram may come home. Then comes the brief scene in Florence, where the Duke makes Bertram “general of our horse”, and Bertram pledges himself to Mars. Then, with only three lines of explanatory preparation, the Countess reads Helena's farewell letter (III.iv.4-17). The stilted and antique flavor of this sonnet-letter has been observed, but I believe that justice has not been done to its effectiveness in expressing the depth of feeling of Helena's grief. Her youthful passion of “I am undone; there is no living, none / If Bertram be away”; has burned itself to ashes, and these ashes of self-reproach and self-abnegation are distilled into eloquence in this sonnet:

I am Saint Jaques' pilgrim, thither gone.
Ambitious love hath so in me offended
That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon,
With sainted vow my faults to have amended. …

The dignity of the lines is created by the combination of simple, harmonious diction and religious imagery with a quaint (or antique) inversion of sentence structure and word order. It is extravagant. Even in the moment of reading it, the Countess does not take seriously the closing couplet,

He is too good and fair for death and me;
Whom I myself embrace to set him free.

However, she is moved, and expresses her emotion with grave dignity which mingles practical directions to her Steward with somewhat the same simple diction and even the inverted word order of the sonnet.

This is the end of the first movement of the play, in the middle of Act III. The next seven scenes (III.v, vi, vii, and IV.i-iv) are laid in Florence, and it is not until the last scene of Act IV that we see the Countess again. This scene provides the necessary information for the denouement. We learn that Helena is reported to be dead, and Bertram is returning. Lafeu tells the Countess that her son was misled by Parolles. Then, after fifty lines of bandying words with the Clown, he returns to the subject, “And I was about to tell you, since I heard of the good lady's death and that my lord your son was upon his return home, I moved the king my master to speak in the behalf of my daughter; which, in the minority of them both, his majesty out of a self-gracious remembrance did first propose. His highness hath promis'd me to do it; and to stop up the displeasure he hath conceived against your son there is no fitter matter. How does your ladyship like it?” (ll. 65-74). He also tells her that the King is coming and will arrive tomorrow. So all the necessary preparations are made for Act V, just as, in Measure for Measure, Act IV ends with three short scenes showing the Duke busy preparing for his “return” in Act V.

All's Well parallels Measure for Measure, not only in its use of the bed-trick, and in the management of Acts IV and V, but also in the emotional structure of Act III. Measure for Measure breaks sharply after the passionate scene between Isabella and Claudio in which he begs her to save his life at any cost and she denounces him. As she departs she is accosted by the eavesdropping Friar, who suggests the bed-trick as a way out of her dilemma. The two parts of this scene form so sharp a contrast that critics have described the play as breaking in two at this point. But the break at the same point in All's Well is equally sharp: III. iv, ends with the Countess' stately exit line, “Grief would have tears and sorrow bids me speak.” III. v, begins with the Widow's urgent, “Nay, come: for if they do approach the city, we shall lose all the sight.” In both plays the change is from emotion-fraught blank verse to plain and practical prose. In Measure for Measure the change takes place in the middle of a scene; in All's Well it is intensified by change of scene as we are transported from the deserted wife and mother at Rossillion to Florence and the bustle of war. We have been prepared for Bertram's success in war by scenes i and iii, as in Measure for Measure we were prepared for the Friar's intervention to help Claudio by his concern for Julietta (II.iii) and Claudio (III.i). However, the abrupt change of tone in the middle of Act III is a new technique, a shifting forward of the business of Act IV, so that the end of that Act could be used for preparation of the elaborate denouement in Act V. The same break occurs in The Winter's Tale, where III.ii, gives us Paulina's (false) grief that the Queen is dead and shows us Leontes' penitence. In III.iii, we are transported to the seacoast of Bohemia and the comic death of Antigonus and the rescue of the abandoned baby. The Winter's Tale also has an elaborately stagey last act to make room for.

The evidence that All's Well followed hard upon Measure for Measure, rather than preceded it, lies in the allusive parallels between the two plays. Which version of the bed-trick came first is not apparent, but the false accusation of Bertram, which so closely parallels the accusations of Angelo, is inadequately prepared for and, if we can believe most modern critics, ineffective unless it is recognized as a parody, or comic echo. In Measure for Measure Shakespeare made allusion to Much Ado About Nothing, recreating Dogberry as Constable Elbow, and echoing several comic situations in that play.38 Similarly, in All's Well the echoes of Measure for Measure are pervasive, for, while there is no repetition of character, there is repetition of an important element in the plot, as well as parallel in the last scenes, and in the abrupt break in the middle of Act III. There is also a curious passage (II.iii) in which Parolles impertinently finishes Lafeu's sentences for him. Parolles is not so quick in his wit-contest with Helena, nor elsewhere in the play, but here his interruptions seem to be reminiscent of Lucio's interruptions of the Duke in the last act of Measure for Measure. Here Lafeu manages to outdo Parolles and get the upper hand, finishing his sentences for him. In Measure for Measure the Duke wins the contest easily when Lucio pulls off the Friar's hood and discovers that the Friar is the Duke. The scene in All's Well serves the purpose of emphasizing the absurdity of Helena's miraculous cure of the King, but the form it takes, the bandying of words between Parolles and Lafew, gains point as reminiscence of Lucio's compulsive interruptions of the Duke. While Measure for Measure gains somthing from reminiscence of Much Ado About Nothing, it does not seem to need All's Well to enrich its humor. On the other hand, All's Well is much enriched and more readily interpreted by reference to Measure for Measure. It is this relationship which suggests that it was written after Measure for Measure.

What is new in All's Well is the manipulation of point of view. Where, in the earlier comedies we see a character or a situation only occasionally through the eyes of another character, as for example in Prince Hal's description of Hotspur, in All's Well we see Helena's passion largely from the oblique angle of maturity, of the Countess' “Even so it was with me when I was young” (I.iii.123).

Bertram expresses for us the playwright's intention when he tells the King that the reason he could not appreciate Helena was that he had “stuck my choice” on Lafeu's daughter, and “the impression of mine eyes” being fixed on her,

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.


The Elizabethans delighted in the manipulation of the “perspective glass” used to assist artists in keeping the proportion true between model and heroic statue, or miniature. It could also be used to furnish amusement by distorting images39 as crooked mirrors are used in amusement parks today. Just so, in this play Shakespeare creates comedy by distorting the perspective of romance. We see Helena's love for Bertram largely through the eyes of the old Countess and her shallow Clown, who sees only surfaces and prefers to think the worst. The King's reminiscence of Bertram's father sets the perspective for Bertram, and Lafeu's comments provide the audience with the point of view from which to see the King's wards in the scene in which Helena chooses her husband.

What Hunter calls “the tangles, perplexities, and perversities of treatment” are simply this manipulation of point of view40 by which Shakespeare modulates the responses of his audience. He manages this modulation in other ways in other plays, having other effects in view, but here he seems deliberately to arrange his instrument so that the audience can see the foot-work and the keyboard—can see him producing his effects. The contrasted scenes, the preparatory parody, the juxtaposition of romantic emotion and practical reality, the view of youth from the vantage point of age, are the techniques by which this comedy is created.

Ben Jonson, in attempting to exploit the humours theory of character on the stage, created characters whose individuality depended on the strength of their bias—a Volpone, or a Sir Epicure Mammon. But Shakespeare saw that the “characters” so popular on the stage and among the young wits of his day were distorted and colored more by the eye of the beholder than in themselves. It is this perspective, the angle of vision distorting the view, which he is exploiting in All's Well. And it is this “perspective” which gives the play unity. It is not the function of Parolles to provide this perspective, any more than it is the function of the Clown. They provide the contrast which sets off the mature wisdom and tolerance of the Countess and Lafeu. It is this tolerance, and foresight, rather than Helena's clever plotting, which is emphasized, so that it seems to bring the play to its happy, though restrained and wry ending, not in the embrace of Helena by Bertram, but in Lafeu's comment, “Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon” and in the King's cautious and (in view of Helena's experience) ironic offer to Diana,

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

There is the caution of worldly wisdom which the mature cannot escape, in his final couplet,

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

Modern concepts, on the one hand of “the folk”, and on the other of realism, verisimilitude as audience involvement, and the sentimentalism of “romantic love”, make it difficult for us to see the subject-matter and the techniques of audience-management which Shakespeare made use of increasingly in his Jacobean plays.41 The order in which these plays were written is important. The parallels between Measure for Measure and All's Well help to explain the latter play, and especially its ending. If we regard it as later, then Measure for Measure provides a frame of reference for it.

In All's Well Shakespeare felt free to omit steps in the action. We are never told how the report that Helena was dead got about. We know nothing about the ring which the King gave to Helena until Lafeu suddenly recognizes it as Bertram takes it from his finger. We are not told why Helena is taking Diana and her mother north with her, although we naturally assume that, having fulfilled Bertram's conditions, she is going back to France to claim her husband. We know that Helena sends a letter to the King from Marseilles when she does not find him there, but we do not know, until it is read in the final scene, that this letter is signed “Diana Capilet”, and that it is part of an elaborate plan to “put Bertram on a spot”. In fact, these omissions reduce our consciousness of Helena's plotting—of her cleverness. This is the reverse of the strategy in Measure for Measure where the Duke manages the denouement from a position at center-stage, so that his cleverness is made evident. The other characters are merely actors in a play he has planned and arranged—puppets for whom he manipulates the strings. Helena is kept off-stage until the last possible moment, and her machinations are left unexplained, even made as inconspicuous as possible—as if Bertram's embarrassment and the accusation of murder building up against him were accidental. In fact, Helena's cleverness is concealed, as far as possible, in order to keep the sympathy of the audience with her, and prevent it from shifting to Bertram. In addition to the obvious parallels between the endings of these twin plays, there is this contrast which shows the playwright's mastery in the control and direction of audience-sympathy which is a part of his exhibition of the technique of manipulating point of view.

Shakespeare has carried even further in this play than in Measure for Measure his experiments in representing serious and potentially tragic (or at least fatal) situations and emotions so controlled by various artifices as to prevent sympathy from destroying comedy. He had used paradox, irony, macabre humor, and above all theatricality in Measure for Measure, but he uses other, more subtle, and more varied devices of emphasis and distraction in All's Well. Having foregone his deus ex machina, the Duke, he had to find other ways of either reassuring the audience of the play's comic outcome, or distracting it from too deep a sympathy with the passionate Helena in the first half of the play, and from too clear an awareness of her scheming in the second half. The first he does by the sudden extravagance of her declarations, by the parody of her situation by the Clown, by her dashing from place to place (a device which anticipates something of the excitement of a Western movie), but especially by the juxtaposition and manipulation of scenes. However, the overriding and unifying device is the manipulation of point of view. Helena is mocked by Lavatch and competes with Parolles, but the play is full of wiser heads. Emotions are checked by the good sense of the Countess and guided by the unsentimental charity of Lafeu, who says to Parolles, “though you are a fool and a knave you shall eat”, and who, when the Countess expresses impatience with her Clown, replies, “I like him well; 'tis not amiss”, and changes the subject. The King and even the widow Capilet also help both to guide the youngsters and to provide the point of view of maturity from which to see them. In addition to these narrative devices, Shakespeare uses freely the manipulation of diction and of speech-rhythms to control and direct or mute our emotions. In all of these ways All's Well marks an advance beyond Measure for Measure and toward the intricacies of Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. It marks an advance also over Measure for Measure in the field of myth which gives depth and universality to the story. In both plays Shakespeare uses a currently familiar story for foreground, or plot; but in both he modifies the plot to bring it into meaningful relationship with archetypal backgrounds. In Measure for Measure the fall and redemption of mankind provides the archetypal pattern. In All's Well That Ends Well the treatment of the follies of young love from a mature point of view, the wisdom and charity of the Countess and Lafeu, provide a new dimension for the old Adonis and Psyche situations, giving this play a mellow wisdom which looks toward the last comedies. Here first, as later in The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, there is the interplay of generations, the old guiding the young, or, in The Winter's Tale, the young healing old wounds and correcting old mistakes. All's Well has something to say to every generation. Seen in its true perspective, it is a wise, tolerant, and beautiful play.


  1. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in his “Introduction” to the New Cambridge Edition of the play (1929, 1955), p. vii, calls it “largely a palimpsest and overwritten upon juvenile work after a considerable interval of time”. J. Dover Wilson, in his notes to the same edition, agrees, pp. 103-106, finding many “indications of patchwork” and even evidence of a collaborator. Two allusions he thinks indicate 1604-5 as the date of revision, while one (II.i.30) he thinks fits an Elizabethan situation. It certainly does not require an Elizabethan date of writing. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (London, 1950), “Appendix E”, pp. 151-154, answers Wilson's arguments for stratification and collaboration. But M. C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London, 1951), p. 162, speaks of the play as “hovering uncertainly in date between early and late nineties”. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, II (London, 1958), 375, finds it “likely that All's Well was written between 1600 and 1603”. G. K. Hunter, “Introduction”, All's Well That Ends Well, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1962), pp. xix-xxi, reviews briefly discussion of the date.

  2. Arden Edition, p. xxix.

  3. Ibid., pp. xxiii-xxiv. Dover Wilson, pp. 106 ff., also comments on the parallelism of the two plays.

  4. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, IV (Oxford, 1923, 1961), 119; and see my Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment (New York, Columbia University Press, 1966).

  5. Hunter, pp. xxiii-xxv, says, “it is not probable that plot, characterization, themes, vocabulary, even the tangles, perplexities, and perversities of treatment should be shared, unless the mind and technique of the author were still at the same stage.”

  6. John Russell Brown, “The Interpretation of Shakespeare's Comedies 1900-1953”, Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955), p. 11, reports of All's Well, “few critics believe that it was a successful play”. W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931, 1960), pp. 34-38, surveys the adverse criticism. Tillyard, p. 89, opens his discussion of the play with the sentence, “It is agreed that All's Well is in some sort a failure”.

  7. The phrase is quoted from Hunter, p. xxiv. Anna B. Jameson, Shakespeare's Heroines (London, 1897), pp. 108-121, compares Helena to Juliet and Isabella among the “characters of passion and imagination”.

  8. Lawrence, p. 37, attributes the idea of moral allegory on the theme, “Merit goes before rank”, to Gervinus. And see Hunter's note, pp. xxxviii and xxxix-xli. Bradbrook, also sees the play as moral allegory.

  9. E. M. Waith, “Characterization in John Fletcher's Tragicomedies”, RES, [Review of English Studies] XIV (1943), 141-164, compares All's Well with its source to show that Shakespeare was “adapting his material to the fashionable pattern of the prodigal son” plays. R. Y. Turner, “Dramatic Conventions in All's Well That Ends Well”, PMLA, LXXV (1960), 497-502, analyzes it as a prodigal-son play.

  10. Measure for Measure IV.i.1-2; text from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. W. A. Neilson and C. J. Hill (Cambridge, Mass., 1942), p. 411.

  11. Lawrence, pp. 39-50, shows how widespread the story-motif was, and Hunter, pp. xliv-xlv, cites contemporary dramatic instances and one alleged from real life in Shakespeare's time. Lord Burleigh's daughter, the Countess of Oxford, was said to have used the trick.

  12. Hunter, pp. xxv-xxix, succinctly discusses the source and Shakespeare's alterations of the plot, and he reprints William Painter's version of Boccaccio's story on pp. 145-152. It is also reprinted in Bullough, II, 389-396; and in Quiller-Couch's “Introduction” to the New Cambridge edition, pp. xiii-xxii.

  13. P. liv. Quiller-Couch, p. xxxi, says, “The whole of the concluding Scene is clearly bad playwright's work, being at once spun-out and scamped.” W. W. Lawrence suggests that “the natural way” to manage the denouement “would be for Helena to claim justice of the king, tell her story, and call upon Diana to substantiate it”, p. 75.

  14. Pp. 68, 69; and see Tillyard, pp. 95-97. Such statements assume a universal dissemination of all folktales, i.e. everybody always knew all of them, which is obviously absurd. Hunter, pp. xxx ff., discusses Lawrence's theory, but accepts it “for at least one level of Shakespeare's intention”.

  15. The substitution in bed was not simply a story motif, much less a fairy-tale, but belongs to that class of folklore which is vulgar error, that is, a trick believed to be feasible and no doubt occasionally attempted by neglected wives.

  16. Lawrence does not mention the Psyche story in his discussion of tales of the fulfillment of tasks (pp. 39-54), but Quiller-Couch recognizes the tale of Psyche as the “basic theme” behind the Patient Griselda and other mediaeval stories (p. xxix).

  17. Hunter, p. xxxv and note treats the matter of parody briefly but ably.

  18. The device of interrupted soliloquy occurs also in Measure for Measure, where (at the end of II.ii) Angelo exits talking to himself, and II.iv opens with his entrance soliloquizing on the same theme. Meanwhile the 43 lines of scene iii, in which the Duke-as-Friar interviews Juliet, have indicated the passage of time. Helena's interrupted soliloquy is much more cleverly managed.

  19. Hunter, pp. xxxi-ii, explains her in terms of the source story, but Shakespeare makes her an entirely different, and much more consistent, character. Boccaccio's Giletta, with her echoes of the patient Griselda, would never have worked the bed-trick on her husband! Character and action are incompatible in the older tale.

  20. I follow the punctuation of the Folio. Hunter prints a semicolon before yet and three dots after it, as if it were the beginning of a new thought, not the dismissal of the subject, the conditional, not the temporal yet.

  21. Performances of this play are rare.

  22. See my chapter on Isabella in Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment.

  23. Dover Wilson calls this dialogue “tedious bawdy chat”, and would “relieve” Shakespeare of it; see the New Cambridge ed., p. 110. Hunter's notes on the passage are good, although he does not comment on “thing” in Parolles' conclusion to his anatomy of virginity, “Will you anything with it?” which gives point to Helena's crisp dismissal of his impertinence, “Not my virginity yet”.

  24. Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe: 1599-1609 (New York, 1962), especially Chapter 3 ff., provides a useful survey.

  25. Ben Jonson's tribute to Salomon, or Salathiel, Pavy (Epigrammes, CXX), who “plai'd so truely” old men's parts that the fates mistook him, does not require us to believe that the audience made a similar mistake.

  26. An interesting attempt to analyze this dual consciousness is Maynard Mack's “Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays”, in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo., 1962), pp. 275-296.

  27. I quote a recent anonymous reviewer, who evidently thought that he was expressing a generally accepted criterion.

  28. Dover Wilson, p. 124, finds Helena's final couplets in I. i. 211 ff. “strongly reminiscent of [the soliloquy] in the Gonzago play of Hamlet”, as also the couplets in the second half of II.i.161-168, which he compares with Hamlet III.ii.165-168 (p. 141 and see p. 107). Shakespeare uses the same device of couplets for Beatrice's decision after she has been tricked into believing that Benedick is in love with her; and see S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944), pp. 36-37, on the use of rime in As You Like It to “distance and tone down a scene where otherwise emotion might run too high”. Hunter, pp. xx-xxi, cites passages in Othello and Cymbeline which illustrate “the association of gnomic sentiments with formal couplets” as “a constant factor in Shakespearean and indeed Elizabethan dramatic art”. Tillyard, pp. 99-104, discusses these couplets, and points out that “Talbot and his son perish in couplets” in the First Part of Henry VI.

  29. Hunter, p. xxxv, note 1, cites the Towneley Secunda Pastorum, and Marlowe's Faustus, but observes that “where, as in All's Well, the play is searching for a central point of view, the addition of parallel perspectives can only have a critical and even disintegrating effect.” It is my contention that All's Well has a central point of view, and that Shakespeare is here using parody to set the tone so as to present the desperation of the young in a comic light.

  30. I quote from The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, in Chief Elizabethan Dramatists, ed. W. A. Neilson (Boston, 1911), Scene XIII, ll. 92-93, on p. 94. Hunter, note on p. 24, follows D. Wilson (New Cambridge Edition), who reports Malone's suggestion that the Clown is quoting a lost ballad, The Lamentation of Hecuba and the Ladies of Troy, entered in the Stationers' Register in 1586 (II, 451). Obviously something has been done to the song, since the Countess complains, “You corrupt the song, sirrah.” She refers to the “one good in ten,” but there may be other corruptions. Shakespeare echoes Marlowe's lines also in Troilus and Cressida II.ii.81-83, where also he gives them a prose flatness, Troilus says of Helen,

                                                                                                                  why, she is a pearl,
    Whose price hath launch'd above a thousand ships,
    And turn'd crown'd kings to merchants.
  31. Hunter, pp. xlv-xlvii, discusses the “problem of Bertram”, comparing him to Coriolanus, but he does not consider the evidence of growing up. Lawrence, pp. 62-63, calls him “a cad and a villain”.

  32. Editors usually interpret the “patch of velvet” literally, citing Measure for Measure I.ii.31-34, where the implication is very different. The Oxford English Dictionary gives, as the second meaning of velvet, “the soft downy skin which covers a deer's horn while in the growing stage”, and in no. 5 quotes, “these velvet bearded boys will still be doing”, C. T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary, 2d ed. revised (Oxford, 1958), identifies the velvet in this passage of All's Well as “down on the cheek”. The difficulty of shaving over a scab, or fresh wound, is obvious, as is also the impracticability of making a patch of any cloth stick over a growing beard.

  33. This is an absurdity. “Three pile” was the best French velvet, but no “half” pile is possible.

  34. The carbonado, an incision to relieve syphilitic chancres, ties in with the reference to pile (L. pilus, hair) of the velvet. In Measure for Measure the line, “as thou art piled for a French velvet”, is explained by A. Dyce, General Glossary to Shakespeare's Works (Boston, 1901), as “a quibble between piled-peeled, stripped of hair, bald” from the pox, and piled as applied to velvet.

  35. The audience knows why he is asked whether he remembers Lafeu's daughter, and would not be troubled about when and how Bertram came to know of it.

  36. The exchange of rings would be further evidence that a private marriage had taken place.

  37. Hunter, pp. xxxiii-iv, cites G. B. Shaw and Emile Legouis as admirers of the Countess, but many others have paid tribute.

  38. See my Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment, Ch. VII. The names, Isbel and Diana Capilet, are obviously intended as allusions to Isabella and Juliet, comic because their situations are reversed.

  39. Hunter, p. xxxiii, speaks of “the perspective of Parolles”, but he does not find that the play has a “unified viewpoint” (p. xxxv); see pp. xxix-xxx, and pp. 1 ff. on the unity of the play.

  40. On p. xxxii he says, “Shakespeare is handling traditional motifs, but he makes a new effect out of them by manipulating the viewpoint.” However, he does not follow up that insight except by saying (p. xxxiii), “The Shakespearean view of Bertram and Helena could hardly, in short, be presented except in the perspective of Parolles—a perspective which reduces the effect of the folk-analogues that Lawrence regards as the key to the play.” It is not the perspective of Parolles, however, in which we see Bertram and Helena, but the perspective of the Countess, Lafeu, and the King, that is, the point of view of maturity and wisdom. One feels that if Hunter had been free to brush aside all previous discussion and examine the play afresh, his perceptive and informed judgment would largely have anticipated this paper, and improved upon it.

  41. Hunter, p. liv-vi, finds “a strong case for avoiding the traditional separation of ‘problem-plays’ from ‘romances’ and considering as a group the ‘later comedies.’”

David M. Bergeron (essay date November 1972)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4331

SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “The Structure of Healing in All's Well That Ends Well.South Atlantic Bulletin 37, no. 4 (November 1972): 25-34.

[In the following essay, Bergeron examines the theme of healing in All's Well That Ends Well, focusing on Helena's physical healing of the King and the metaphorical healing of Bertram and Parolles.]

Since the time of W. W. Lawrence's Shakespeare's Problem Comedies numerous critics and interpreters of All's Well That Ends Well have written about the structure of the play. An excellent summary of the various critical approaches is found in Joseph Price's recent book in which Price also offers his own view: “He [Shakespeare] has unified the play through its structure: the play is tightly knit through parallels, parodies, anticipations, and commentaries.”1 From a different viewpoint Professor Toole argues that “the structure of the play is based on a humanistic modification of the structure of the morality play.”2 Much earlier Miss Bradbrook had offered a different analysis of the play's structure.3 One could go on rounding up the critics, but the point is that the study of this play's structure offers an excellent way of getting at the play's meaning. And few critics deny the skill of construction of All's Well, some in fact granting that that is the play's only claim on our attention.

While I can appreciate the ideas about structure proposed by several critics, I would like to offer another approach, one that argues that structure and theme ultimately become united in the play. Lawrence, of course, had argued that the play has two distinct movements; I accept that but would redefine the movements, and here my analysis is somewhat indebted and parallel to Robert Hunter's admirable essay on the play.4 The first movement, comprising Act I to Act II.iii, is, of course, the healing of the King by Helena; it is crucial to the dramatic development of the play and leads logically (and structurally) to the second movement, which includes II.iii through Act V and which I would call the “healing” of Bertram. This second part of the structure also contains within it another healing process, namely, the “healing” of Parolles in the subaction. The curing of Parolles is necessary if any cure is to be achieved in Bertram. Another way of stating the structural movement of the healing process is to see the dramatist moving from the literal healing of the King to the metaphorical curing of Bertram and Parolles; that is, from actual physical illness to something abstract, an infection of the spirit. The structure of healing offers an adequate antidote to those who see only “darkness” and “bitterness” in the tone of the play, because what this structure implies and anticipates is the comic resolution of the drama—tragic potential is snuffed out in the process of restoring and curing.

With all the characters dressed in black, an ominous mood opens the play; it is expanded by the revelations that the Countess' husband has died, that Bertram's leaving her can be likened to the burial of a second husband, that the King has a seemingly incurable fistula, and that Helena's father, a physician himself, was no proof against mortality. The King, according to Lafeu, has abandoned his physicians “under whose practices he hath persecuted time with hope, and finds no other advantage in the process but only the losing of hope by time.” (I.i.15-16)5 Loss of hope, decay, death, all conspire to endow the play with a bleak opening—a sense of threat hangs over the lives of the characters. What is being established by the dramatist is the dramatic problem that must be resolved; a sense of renewal or healing is precisely what is needed if this dark world is to be translated into something brighter. But is the opening of this comedy radically different from the threatening atmosphere that opens A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Hermia faces possible death, or marriage to one she does not love, or austerity and the single life in a convent, if she does not bend to the will of her father, Egeus? Or is it different from the anticipated plight of Aegeon, in The Comedy of Errors, who faces the “doom of death” by virtue of being a Syracusian in the town of Ephesus? The opening situation in All's Well does in fact reflect a dramatic technique observed several times in the earlier, “happy” comedies. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the dramatist establishes a predicament that is reversible, that is susceptible of a comic resolution, whether that includes a pilgrimage to the green world or some other means of achieving the desired end.

Within the portrait of death and decay in the opening scene there are embryonic seeds of possible renewal. The Countess observes that if Helena's father, Gerard de Narbon, were alive, he could doubtless be the cause of the “death of the king's disease.” Because Helena is the descendant of this ancient physician, she offers the possibility of having some inherited means of achieving restoration. After the conversation with Parolles in which he argues colorfully against virginity—“It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature to preserve virginity” (1. 136)—Helena decides on her mission: “… 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.” (I.i.241-244) Parolles, is, of course, correct: renewal can come in nature only if virginity is not preserved; in this way the cycle of life can displace the advent of death.

Encountering Bertram in scene ii, the King again assesses his condition, wishing that he had the “corporal soundness” of his former days, and asserting that if the old physician were living, he “would try him yet.” (1. 72) Reflecting further on his plight, the King says: “… nature and sickness / Debate it at their leisure. …” (11. 74-5) Implied in the statement is a sense of conflict, and one wonders if the debate of nature and sickness does not also eventually operate in Bertram's situation, at least metaphorically. In I.iii Helena is referred to as being “sick” in love, but this predicament is both natural and curable; Helena clearly knows wherein lies the cure. She confesses to the Countess her love for Bertram and determines to go to Paris to seek the cure of the King, using some of her father's remedies, admitting that it is her desire for Bertram that made her think of “Paris and the medicine and the king. …” (1. 239) From the outset Helena is a tissue of mixed motivations, but the dramatist has established the priorities: cure the King first; then Bertram may be more worthily sought.

As the soldiers take their leave of the King in the opening of Act II, one of them expresses the hope that when they return they will find “your grace in health.” (II.i.7) Helena is to see to it that the King finds health through grace, her saving, healing grace. She has to argue against his natural obstinacy at trying yet another cure, but his own sense of wonder revives in the encounter with Helena, who argues: “Of heaven, not me, make an experiment.” (II.i.157) The King yields to the “blessed spirit” he sees working in and through her, this Helena who claims that “Health shall live free and sickness freely die.” (1. 171) For trying her skill Helena accepts the prospect of death if she fails, while extracting her terms if she is successful; namely, that she have free choice in a husband, to which the King agrees. As we know, the cure is successful, and Lafeu sees the hand of heaven working through the event, refuting the argument of those who say “miracles are past. …” (II.iii.1) The King refers to his “healthful hand” and to his “banish'd sense” that has been repealed. Helena and the others ascribe this miracle to heaven; her first mission is thus complete, but it carries with it the seed of the next major dramatic problem: Bertram's refusal to accept Helena as his wife.

Bertram clearly joins the two dramatic problems of the play when he responds to the King's statement that Helena has raised him from his sickly bed: “But follows it, my lord, to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” (II.iii.119-120) Bertram fears the “corruption” of marrying one lower than himself, not of course recognizing that it is his spirit that is corrupted already and in need of healing. The whole encounter here with the reluctant man and the king's definition of where true nobility exists (not in inheritance but in virtuous deeds) echoes the situation in Chaucer's “Wife of Bath's Tale,” and indeed the play in several ways offers a definition of “gentillesse.” Ironically, Bertram views Helena as the “loathly lady” without any genuine basis for such a judgment. That the problem is Bertram himself is made explicit in the King's comment: “Here, take her hand, / Proud scornful boy, unworthy this good gift. …” (11. 157-8) The immaturity of this “boy” is part of what needs curing. Earlier in the play the King, quoting Bertram's father, generalized about this younger generation “‘whose judgments are / Mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies / Expire before their fashions.’” (I.ii.61-3) Anticipating the curing or growth that is possible, Helena had earlier observed: “The court's a learning place. …” (I.i.191) Thus Bertram, who takes Helena's hand but will not bed her, who will observe the outward ceremony of marriage but not the spiritual or physical reality, presents himself as one in need of healing—the remainder of the dramatic structure outlines the process of curing.

Insensitive to the extreme is Bertram's leave-taking of Helena, whom he refers to as his “clog.” (II.v.58) All of Helena's protestations of love and obedience and fidelity are coldly met by Bertram who dismisses them quickly. His lack of concern is underscored in the letter sent to his mother that establishes the seemingly impossible conditions on which he will accept Helena. (III.ii) Helena has, of course, already conquered insuperable odds in her healing of the King; thus she determines to set forth on another voyage of curing so that she might rightfully gain what is hers—this “rash and unbridled boy,” as the Countess calls Bertram. While Bertram joins the army of Mars, willing to wage war but not love (“A lover of thy [Mars's] drum, hater of love” [III.iii.11]), to commit himself to a martial but not a marital love, Helena takes on the guise of a pilgrim, both a sign of her quest (complete with religious connotation) and a dramatic means of passing unobserved in Bertram's midst. She claims in her letter: “He is too good and fair for death and me; / Whom I myself embrace, to set him free.” (III.iv.16-17) Despite Helena's overstatement the point is valid: Bertram in order to be saved must be set free from his own prideful, selfish self. Or as his mother puts it:

                    What angel shall
Bless this unworthy husband? he cannot thrive,
Unless her prayers, whom heaven delights to hear
And loves to grant, reprieve him from the wrath
Of greatest justice.


The “her” doubtless refers to Helena whose prayers have been efficacious in healing the king and whose effort shall “reprieve” (heal) Bertram.

By the end of the third act Helena has revealed her identity to the Widow in Florence where she has come in search of Bertram, and she plans her “bed-trick,” substituting herself for the Widow's daughter Diana. The contrivance of the bed-trick has been much criticized, and it is not the best possible dramatic solution to the problem. It was probably less difficult for Shakespeare's audience to accept; but had it produced any problem or outrage, the dramatist would not also have used it in Measure for Measure. Helena senses no moral problem here and certainly no legal one as she insists that it is “a lawful deed,” a simple reclamation of what is hers by right of marriage. The moral difficulty is with Bertram, who sets out to seduce Diana. When Diana reminds him of his vows (legal and moral) to his wife, Bertram says that he was compelled to marriage and that he truly loves Diana. Ironically, Bertram reveals himself in his response to Diana's questions and comments on love:

Be not so holy-cruel: love is holy;
And my integrity ne'er knew the crafts
That you do charge men with. Stand no more off,
But give thyself unto my sick desires,
Who then recover. …


Bertram says more than he knows when he speaks of his “sick desires”; he is ripe for curing. When he does give himself over to Helena (thinking that it is Diana of course), he ironically is ready for recovery. The spiritual mysteries of healing of the King are reduced to the “profane,” practical, physical means of curing Bertram. And yet it is a kind of miracle, putting him on the road to health.

After the interview with Diana, Bertram receives the letter that his mother has sent him chiding him severely for his action; it “stings his nature,” according to the Second Lord, who says further: “on the reading it he changed almost into another man.” (IV.iii.4) His conscience is capable of being pricked—a hopeful sign for the possibility of healing. Word also comes that Helena has died and now sings in heaven. (1. 63) The physician herself has taken on the shroud of mortality, or so it seems; but, of course, she is simply putting on another disguise, part of her strategy, which she explains to the Widow in IV.iv. Again Helena assigns to heaven the power of what has happened as she says to the Widow: “doubt not but Heaven / Hath brought me up to be your daughter's dower, / As it hath fated her to be my motive / And helper to a husband.” (IV.iv.18-21) Helena remains a curious conjunction of different motives and impulses; like the earlier pilgrims along the road to Canterbury she marches to two voices—“sacred” and “profane,” ascribing to sacred forces the accomplishment of her profane, earthly task. In the next scene the clown refers to her as having “the herb of grace” (IV.v.18)—in every way she qualifies as a physician. Helena herself anticipates hopeful change in the circumstances of the characters when she says: “But with the word the time will bring on summer, / When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns, / And be as sweet as sharp.” (IV.iv.31-33) She enunciates the doctrine of restoration and healing, of ending the winter's tale and bringing on summer. Inherent in the statement is a rough definition of comedy—in comedy the healing herb of grace works like magic. What Helena is busy doing is suiting form to the conceit, finding an adequate means (whether it involves a bed substitution or feigned death) to bring about renewal, because all is well that ends well.

The last scene of the play offers enough evidence to let us know that there is still a struggle between the “old” and “new” Bertram, that perhaps the patient is not fully cured. As the elders, the Countess, the King, and Lafeu, observe in the opening lines of the scene, Bertram has committed a great folly, a “natural rebellion,” “but to himself / The greatest wrong of all” (V.iii.14-15), in his earlier denial of Helena, now reputedly dead. The King is willing to pardon Bertram, to bury the “incensing relics” of his offense, to bury the old Bertram and grant life to the new one—the sense of restoration permeates the opening of the scene. Indeed the King greets him: “All is whole.” (1. 37) Bertram admits his guilt: “… she whom all men praised and whom myself, / Since I have lost, have loved, was in mine eye / The dust that did offend it.” (11. 53-55) There is a new humility in what Bertram says, and that bodes well for his possible cure. Having “lost” Helena, he has found his love for her which, while it seems a tragically late recognition, is better than none at all. Perhaps he is also in the process of losing himself in order to find himself. He is now being offered Lafeu's daughter, a certain indication that the other characters see in him a more mature, chastened person.

But when Bertram gives to Lafeu's daughter the ring last seen on Helena's hand, the scene erupts and the tables are turned on him. Guards haul Bertram away; the King, thinking that possibly Bertram has killed Helena, thanks heaven for revealing this situation. Bertram's defense of himself is neither always honest nor admirable; the former self still lurks within his body. But the testimony of Diana and Parolles does force him finally to admit the “truth” of his relationship with Diana. Thus Diana, who knows that Helena lives, functions dramatically and thematically to offer a final test for Bertram, perhaps a refining fire to burn away the remaining dross, the final movement of the curing process. Diana clearly does the bidding of the master physician.6 Bertram is stretched out on this tough rack for his own ultimate benefit. And with Diana's riddle (11. 301-305), the “dead” Helena is resurrected, a concrete example of renewal of life, of summer coming in. Bertram asks for pardon; and, learning that Helena has fulfilled his conditions, he promises to “love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.” (1. 317) Bertram's change, which strikes many critics as too sudden and implausible, seems dramatically logical considering the process of healing that has been going on for some time. If he is not wholly cured, he is, like the men of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost, at least on the right road to recovery, and we must take his words as genuine and at their face value. The physician has triumphed again, this time curing the infected, obstinate spirit of Bertram, reducing him to a saving humility and an acceptance of love. Bertram is given a second chance, the unique opportunity afforded by comedy.

Assisting, anticipating, and parodying Bertram is his friend Parolles, whom the Countess describes as “a very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness.” (III.ii.89) He is neither the cause of Bertram's corruption nor the cause of his cure, but he is involved in both. He encourages Bertram's worst qualities, but finally he assists the cure by exposing himself and illustrating how unworthy of Bertram's esteem he is. Crucial to Bertram's new maturity is the recognition of his own faulty judgment concerning Parolles, paving the way for him also to correct his assessment of Helena.

Though the second movement of the play focuses on the healing of Bertram, it includes the curing of Parolles, which complements and parodies Bertram's restoration. In II.iii, the scene that marks the end of the play's first movement and the beginning of the second, the wise Lafeu encounters Parolles and sees through him immediately, understanding Parolles' affectation, his pretense, and his lack of substance. Lafeu says to Parolles: “Yet the scarfs and the bannerets about thee did manifoldly dissuade me from believing thee a vessel of too great a burthen. I have now found thee; when I lose thee again, I care not. …” (II.iii.213-216) What Lafeu can see the immature Bertram cannot; therefore, Bertram is perplexed in II.v when Lafeu and Parolles engage in a verbal altercation. Using again the image of clothes, Lafeu asks who is Parolles' tailor and says to Bertram: “… Believe this of me, there can be no kernel in this light nut; the soul of this man is his clothes. Trust him not in matter of heavy consequence. …” (II.v.47-50)

But Bertram's vision is not corrected nor Parolles put on the road to health until some of his fellow soldiers decide to trick and expose this boastful coward. Bertram asks incredulously: “Do you think I am so far deceived in him?” ( Like Helena with her strategy, the soldiers plot a means of catching Parolles. As the First Lord observes: “He was first smoked by the old lord Lafeu: when his disguise and he is parted, tell me what a sprat you shall find him. …” (11. 111-113) It is instructive to note how the plan against Parolles parallels Helena's own efforts as in the very next scene (III.vii) she reveals her identity to the Widow and sets forth the strategy of taking Diana's place in bed.

Parolles provides us almost more than we have a right to expect as the dramatist explores dramatic irony in removing the masquerade in IV.i and IV.iii. Like Falstaff, who would hack his own sword to make it seem that he has done great battle, so Parolles contemplates what he might have to show for his supposed military venture. He says, for example: “I must give myself some hurts, and say I got them in exploit. …” (IV.i.40-41) Later with an unconscious linking to the clothes image he ponders: “I would the cutting of my garments could serve the turn. …” (1. 50); “Or to drown my clothes, and say I was stripped.” (1. 56) When he is “captured,” he immediately begs for his life and promises to reveal all the secrets of the camp. He is as good as his word in IV.iii. While Parolles is being trapped by the soldiers, Bertram is being ensnared by Diana and Helena; again Parolles' situation parallels and parodies the main action. When the full exposure comes in IV.iii, the First Lord reminds Bertram that he has been deceived about Parolles who “had the whole theoric of war in the knot of his scarf. …” (11. 162-163) And the Second Lord vows that he will “never trust a man again for keeping his sword clean, nor believe he can have every thing in him by wearing his apparel neatly.” (11. 165-167) Parolles' clothes will no longer suffice—his garments are metaphorically cut off and he is stripped. All of which is a necessary prelude to his healing. Bertram surrenders his illusion about Parolles as Parolles casts off his outer self and acknowledges the inner reality.

With a new-found humility Parolles says: “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. …” (IV.iii.367-370) The prideful, boastful, and cowardly infected spirit is now on the mend, the humbling process being the first step. The change pervades Parolles' comment to the Clown: “I have ere now, sir, been better known to you, when I have held familiarity with fresher clothes; but I am now sir, muddied in fortune's mood. …” (V.ii2-5) In an exchange that echoes their meeting in II.iii, Parolles greets Lafeu: “O my good Lord, you were the first that found me!” To which Lafeu replies: “Was I, in sooth? and I was the first that lost thee.” (V.ii.44-47) Lafeu had of course found him out and “lost” him as an insignificant knave. But Parolles has lost himself and therefore found himself, the real self without masquerade, without garments. Parolles urges Lafeu to bring him “in some grace”; though Lafeu dismisses the notion with a quibble, there is an appropriateness for the term. Helena had used the “herb of grace,” and there is a kind of grace now descending on Parolles—the grace of seeing himself as he is, and Lafeu had started the whole process. To be in this state of grace is, of course, to be healed. Though Lafeu still regards Parolles as something of a knave, he does extend kindness to him: “You shall eat; go to, follow.” (1. 58) To which Parolles can respond with unvarnished simplicity and an earned humility: “I praise God for you.” (1. 59) Parolles' cure forecasts Bertram's final restoration in V.iii. Infected spirits are as susceptible to healing as is the King's fistula. The fever of pride has to be broken, however, before medicinal grace can be effectual—Bertram and Parolles illustrate this principle.

By the end of the play it is obvious that the structure has become synonymous with one of the play's principal themes; this structural and thematic unity represents part of the play's achievement. The drama moves from an initial threat of decay and sickness to renewal—a cured King and a healed Bertram and Parolles. The old self is repealed and a new or truer self emerges. As individuals are healed, so is the larger world of the play: Rousillon is more flourishing at the end than at the beginning of the drama. To be healed is to have another chance, and this comedy provides that opportunity. In the rotten and fractured world of a play like Hamlet one is consumed in the process of trying to achieve a healing, a putting of time back in joint. But in All's Well That Ends Well the master physician Helena is able to achieve her own personal desires while ordering the disordered world—the physician survives to enjoy and benefit from the cure. Such is the unique possibility of comedy.7


  1. Joseph Price The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of “All's Well That Ends Well” and Its Critics (Toronto, 1968), p. 171.

  2. William B. Toole, Shakespeare's Problem Plays: Studies in Form and Meaning (The Hague, 1966), p. 130.

  3. Muriel Bradbrook, “Virtue is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well,” RES, [Review of English Studies] 1 (1950), 289-301.

  4. Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York, 1965), pp. 106-131.

  5. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago, 1961). All quotations are from this edition.

  6. A different approach to the function of Diana and the other major figures is found in my essay “The Mythical Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (forthcoming).

  7. A shorter version of this paper was read at the English III section of the SAMLA meeting in November, 1970.

J. M. Silverman (essay date winter 1973)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4619

SOURCE: Silverman, J. M. “Two Types of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 1 (winter 1973): 25-34.

[In the following essay, Silverman examines the dual nature of the play's structure, demonstrating the way the comedic action of All's Well That Ends Well moves from simple and naïve to a more complex and insidious form.]

The willful refusal of certain characters to participate in the final comic harmony, and the manifold paradoxes which inform the “mature” comedies of Shakespeare, confront us with dramatic designs which threaten our usual assurance that disparate elements will ultimately knit together into a single structure. Occasionally, moreover, we find plays which are so obviously bifurcated that to reduce the importance of this structural break and replace it with some broad scheme of unification is to do serious damage. The Winter's Tale is an obvious example, with its hiatus of sixteen years between Act III and Act IV: here the incipient tragedy of Lecontes' jealousy yields to the broad pastoral comedy of Bohemia, so that in the final reconciliations the intensities of the earlier part are recollected through the joys of recognition as an old nightmare transcended through privation. Yet even with this division, we are given certain characters who are called upon to live with memories of separation. The division is made part of the play's thematic design.

All's Well is in this respect both a more complex and a less satisfactory play. Prior to The Winter's Tale, it is Shakespeare's most obvious example of a play exhibiting some sort of dualism in its structure.1 But here the two halves remain examples of irreconcilable dramatic modes. This is the more surprising in that the shift here is not from incipient tragedy to romantic comedy, but from a deliberately naive and “miraculous” form of comedy to one more devious and filled with intrigue.2 Denied an easy fulfillment by Bertram's stubborn refusal, the play describes a reconciliation much less full of wonder, with nocturnal substitution and feminine guile succeeding where potions and royal commands do not. Indeed, the play's two “halves” offer two types of imperfect comic resolution. We may be as dissatisfied with Bertram's acquiescence in Act V as we are with his refusal in Act II, and in that case we are forced back to examine the procedures leading up to his climactic actions.


We are asked by Helena in her second soliloquy to admit the possibility of “strange attempts,” as if those things which we understand to be merely possible are within the realm of achievement through an effort of will. Yet the sky is “fated” and the “power” which feeds her infatuation seems to lie outside her. The “remedies” may lie within her for changing her situation, but it is an inherited potion to which she turns. And in this plot we have inherited at the outset a great many elements which, if unraveled in a more or less predictable fashion, might lead to a satisfactory comic conclusion where the two lovers of different standing would be united when the aspiring heroine proves herself worthy by curing the King with a miraculous drug bequeathed her by her father (who might, if this were a romance, even at this point be resuscitated for the occasion of the marriage). Instead, the conventional romantic elements prove stubbornly resistant to ceremonious merger and must be hand-sewn together.

Helena is at her most passive at the very outset, watching in almost total silence as Bertram and Lafew take their leave for the Court. Her virtues and nurture are discussed approvingly by the Countess, but in her first soliloquy Helena seems undone by a self-destructive and all-consuming love:

Th' ambition in my love thus plagues itself.
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love.


Bertram is “a bright particular star” whose “bright radiance and collateral light” comfort Helena only by reflection. The luxurious immobility of her infatuation admits its own disease:

                                                            '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.


Thus the conversation with Parolles on virginity, with its quick verbal thrusts, serves to display Helena in a more knowledgeable light than did the immediately preceding private imaginings, where unmated hinds must die for love of the lion. In the verbal duel she argues adeptly, without real passion, almost disingenuously in defense of chastity;4 and of course she will adapt herself to quite another set of circumstances than her argument ostensibly admits as soon as Bertram's intractable whim decrees. Parolles would argue that virginity is a condition which forces its holder to live within the boundaries of the self:

Virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese; consumes itself to the very paring, and so dies with feeding his own stomach. Besides, virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the canon.


Helena, however, does not make the proper connection between abstract desire and concrete achievement. In the midst of the conversation, by now only fitfully attended by the court-bound Parolles, Helena still seeks some means of making her silent wishes concretely felt. It is a pity, she says,

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 that we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks.


Literally, she will not embody her desire until after Bertram's refusal of her hand in marriage. Until then her faith rests in more chastely ceremonious avenues of fulfillment. By the second soliloquy, with only thirty lines of inconsequential banter succeeding her rather pathetic wish, she has seemingly hit upon her “project” to cure the King and win Bertram. Without prior deliberation she has arrived at the solution which will satisfy private desire and induce harmony in the kingdom at large.

Given its rather reckless assertiveness and Helena's swift resolve, the entire second soliloquy is somewhat naive in its blunt purposiveness and its assertion of the primacy of the will. Events are conceived as constantly in motion, links in a chain of events capable of conclusion or irresolution according to the sharpness of our wits. Given this, the results are inevitable for a bright virgin:

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


The initial design which Helena employs, however, really has little to do with sharpness of wit and her intrinsic merit. She avails herself of an inherited miracle from her past, which succeeds in effecting only marriage without union. Recourse to the miraculous, no matter how virtuous and beneficial to the kingdom, can only persuade Bertram to enter the external form of that sublime action which traditionally ends romantic comedies.

Prior to her departure for Paris, Helena, whose love for Bertham has been related to the Countess, tells the older woman of her design:

You know my father left me some prescriptions
Of rare and prov'd effects, such as his reading
And manifest experience had collected
For general sovereignty; and that he will'd me
In heedfull'st reservation to bestow them,
As cures whose faculties inclusive were
More than they were in note. Amongst the rest,
There is a remedy approv'd set down
To cure the desperate languishing whereof
The King is render'd lost.


These “rare and prov'd effects” are the offspring of Helena's wish for “effects” at I.i.198, and when the Countess objects that the King and the court physician have given up on a cure, Helena hints at sacramental power coming to her aid:

                                                                                There's something in't
More than my father's skill, which was the greatest
Of his profession, that his good receipt
Shall for my legacy be sanctified
By th' luckiest stars in heaven …


She has earlier elevated Bertram to the status of a fixed star beneath which her constant love held her in a position of obsequious adoration. Now the stars and the heavens in general are displayed as heralds of her triumph. The Countess may remain mildly skeptical, but her attendant blessing shows her willingness to subscribe to Helena's venture.

The King shows considerably less enthusiasm, so that his earlier recollection of Gerard de Narbon to Bertram seemingly indicates no more than a general approbation of earlier times and the physicians who flourished then. He is introduced to Helena by Lafew, who sees in Helena a woman whose “simple touch / Is powerful to araise King Pepin” (II.i.78-79). Despite his tone of mild persiflage, Helena seems to him genuinely endowed with mythic powers of regeneration. The old lord speaks seriously of her surpassing wisdom and constancy, although actually he can have had no time in which to observe this and in the opening scene did not know her to be the daughter of the celebrated physician. We are not to think Lafew extraordinarily credulous, for he is exhibiting with a modicum of wit his willingness to subscribe to the conventions of court romance, wherein the King is cured by the innocent virgin. Within these boundaries, Lafew gives Helena free scope.

The King and Helena have their confrontation, which is oddly similar (at least in its high moral ring) to the interviews between Angelo and Isabella in Measure for Measure, II. ii and II. iv, and to the interminable discussions among the Greeks in Troilus and Cressida. And there is a quizzical tone imparted to the King's speeches, as if he is forced to acknowledge his own mistakenness even while unable to accept the validity of his opponent's arguments. The King doesn't expect much from Helena's drug, but she reminds him of the failure of expectations and suggests that the greater the expectation the higher the rate of failure in performance. This is reversal to rhetorical advantage, but makes sense in light of her stated aim of reversing normal expectation in the wooing of Bertram. Throughout the play, she will consistently remind herself and others of the merely possible; her way of attaining that possibility will markedly alter after II. iv. The King relents, hearing in her voice “some blessed spirit”; the sound of that voice rescues “impossibility” from death at the hands of common sense. The miraculous is about to have its brief innings.

We journey, then, from the amorous paradoxes of the opening soliloquies to a miraculous “solution.” Self-examination, no matter how limited, gives way to the formal incantation of the duologue:

Art thou so confident? Within what space
Hop'st thou my cure?
                                                                      The great'st grace lending grace,
Ere twice the horses of the sun shall bring
Their fiery torcher his diurnal ring,
Ere twice in murk and occidental damp
Moist Hesperus hath quench'd her sleepy lamp,
Or four and twenty times the pilot's glass
Hath told the thievish minutes how they pass,
What is infirm from your sound parts shall fly,
Health shall live free and sickness freely die.


The dying father passes on to his maiden daughter “the dearest issue of his practice,” and she singlehandedly confutes the findings of the King's “most learned doctors.” It is more than a miracle, it smacks of the highest sort of wish fulfillment. The deliberate simplification points toward a comic resolution which would now seem to be immediately available but which will prove for the time being to be practically unobtainable. For Bertram's earth-bound spirit and what has generally been termed his “sullenness” consists fundamentally of his refusal to participate with the other principals in subscribing immediately to a formal comic solution. Comedy's most triumphant celebration of renewal and the healing of division becomes his cry of desolation: “O my Parolles, they have married me!” (II.iii.289). He is as proud and scornful as the King charges, but he demands some sympathy, presented as he is with a closed dramatic situation which he can in no way control and within which the only gesture afforded his will is acquiescence. His remarks about Helena's parentage are crass, but they are wayward and futile gestures in comparison with the potentially venomous power of the King. “Obey our will,” he says,

Or I will throw thee from my care for ever
Into the staggers and the careless lapse
Of youth and ignorance; both my revenge and hate
Loosing upon thee, in the name of justice,
Without all terms of pity.


Bertram's immediate show of submission is only good sense and self-preservation.

It would seem at this point that Helena has sensed, much more so than the King, that something has gone wrong with their design. Of course, one of the chief difficulties of All's Well is that, unlike Measure for Measure, so much of the plotting and manipulation (which will increase markedly from this point in the play onward) remains subterranean and unexamined in open dialogue or soliloquy. We are forced to accede to Helena's reliance on guile as a means of providing a comic resolution, as opposed to an antique cure for her condition and the kingdom's, without being privy to her exact plans. In The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, guile is sealed up by the power of a controlling intelligence. But Helena is more cautious: the openness of motive with which she presented her first solution to the King will no longer obtain. In the “betrothal” scene, which Helena of course dominates, we note that after her direct words to Bertram choosing him as her “guiding power” she speaks only once more. After some forty lines of altercation between Bertram and the King, Helena suggests that she wants no further part in the arrangement:

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


Thereafter she remains silent. It is impossible to think that she has already settled silently on a new and more secretive course of action to suit the general time (the Florentine wars accord little with the miraculous restoration) and particular circumstance. But there is a calculated ambiguity in her brief meeting with Bertram before his Italian departure. Bertram almost apologetically asks for Helena's acquiescent understanding of his behavior:

                                                                                Prepar'd I was not
For such a business; therefore am I found
So much unsettled.


He declares his unreadiness for marriage, and then hints at a grandiosity of motive which should somehow be of comfort to his forsaken wife:

For my respects are better than they seem,
And my appointments have in them a need
Greater than shows itself at the first view
To you that know them not.


His lie about his impending meeting with Helena is less noteworthy than the tentativeness and lack of substance in his discourse. Helena's responses are equally cryptic. We may of course see her once more drained of all power and self-control by Bertram's mere presence, prostrating herself before her exalted ideal. But her homiletic disclaimers (II.v.76-77; 78-81) seem too ungrudging, given her recent injury, and certainly the remark about her “homely stars” is a cutting reference to a familiar theme now buttressed by Bertram's stated reasons for refusing the marriage contract. Moreover, when she demands a parting kiss from her husband, she prefaces the request by a pregnant allusiveness disguised as maidenly reserve.

What would you have?
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 hints at something which is not resolved by her concrete demand for a kiss, a deferred fulfillment to be consummated, as it turns out, only by the devious occurrences in Italy.


A miraculous solution to difficulties generated in the comic protasis demands the direct and almost disinterested intercession of a supreme agency. The comic resolution in such cases must be effected by some power which gives to the action a unified perspective more wide-ranging and more ordered than that of any other single individual in the drama. With his metaphysical benignity, Prospero comes closest to identifying precisely breadth of vision with ultimate comic harmony. Prospero effects no “plot” or design; his art commands into being certain tableaux which engender movement toward understanding in those who wish to participate in the island's deeper meanings. In Measure for Measure, Vincentio's unquestionable breadth of vision never permits him to relinquish his design of high justice, which he prosecutes almost as severely and with as little thought for individual variance as Angelo upholds the more mundane letter of the law. Vincentio's raw material may be more intractable than Prospero's; at any rate, what promotes itself as divine justice in Measure is occasionally forced to reveal the shortcomings of its temporal guise. Although the final harmony of the comic ending may imitate full cosmic harmony, the means of arrival are often vexed. The conventional elements of Shakespearean comedy, it may be said—disguise, flight and retirement, the inversion of sexes—are reminders of the confused and fallen world of contingency whose redemption the unity of art may imitate. No drama can escape these contingent elements, since the very mode of their expression partakes so fully of the comic confusion. We account language most rich when it is complex and most apt to provide wit, while the intricacies of dramatic plot provide us with a feeling of complication at the least and intoxicated confusion at the best. To the extent that drama aspires to replace language with music and incantation, plot with dance and ritual gesture (as in the masque), it seeks to escape the paradoxes of its own condition.5

In the final three acts of All's Well, we are offered a different type of comedy than in the first two.6 Although Helena's fate remains the central concern, the unified perspective provided by her restorative power is replaced by a more varied design. In an earlier soliloquy, Helena has declared her “intents” to be “fix'd” (I.i.244); to the extent that her goal has always been Bertram, her intentions remain the same. But in the second half of the play she embarks on a course of perfecting those “intents” which Bertram's inadequate behavior has proved insufficient when openly offered. She becomes more flexible and, indeed, more devious. It is Bertram, with his vows to Diana (the opposite of maiden vows to the goddess) and his conditions for a return to France, who has put himself in the position of being coerced by his own fixed premises. The most noteworthy of these self-important pronouncements occurs in his letter to Helena:

When thou canst get the ring upon my finger which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never’.


At the outset, there is a nice ambiguity which permits final reference to the rings of both Bertram (the one he gives Diana) and Helena (which she puts on his finger and which, according to Bertram's final speech, will never be removed). The letter reflects Bertram's verbal scrupulousness, a quality for which he so far has not been noted. He self-consciously replaces “then” with “never”; he plays with the differences between substance and shadow by pairing off “wife” with “nothing.” Gnomic messages of this sort often bring out the practical critic in Shakespearean characters, as the painful examples of Malvolio and Gloucester make clear. Bertram's message may lie closer in effect, though not intent, to prediction of the soothsayer in Cymbeline. A series of improbable events must occur before the time is eventually ordered. For Helena, Bertram's words are her “passport.” They serve to mark her departure for Italy and to give her a condition which she must fulfill. In a sense, she will perform a greater “miracle” than when she was endowed with her father's potent medicine, for she must rely on her own devices.

But to equate the “bed-trick” with the curing of the King, though each is the central “effect” in its portion of the play, would be to strain for a unity of tone which All's Well does not possess. When the King pronounces Helena's voice the organ through which “some blessed spirit doth speak (II.i.178), he only confirms the sanctity of the task which Helena has already ascribed to “inspired merit”:

But most it is presumption in us when
The help of Heaven we count the act of men.
Dear sir, to my endeavours give consent;
Of Heaven, not me, make an experiment.


Disguised as a pilgrim of Saint Jaques le Grand, however, she cannot be the pristine maiden who once stood before the King; she is, of course, such a pilgrim of love as was Romeo at the Capulet ball, embodying more secular pursuits than her “sainted vow” (III.iv.7) might attest.7 In that letter to the Countess, the echo of her earlier sanctification of Bertram is surely ironic, in light of the necessity of understanding “death” in its more literary sense.8 Her letter is her alibi, and spreading the rumor of her death is a necessary step toward achieving the final condition of Bertram's edict: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France.” The conversation between the two lords (IV.iii.56-87) confirms the success of Helena's plot. Disguise has intensified into outright deceit.

We must be careful, though, to distinguish between the deceits of Helena and Parolles,9 and in this matter the opening conversation of IV. iii is most helpful. Speaking of Bertram's questionable behavior in Florence, the First Lord exclaims, “As we are ourselves, what things we are!” (IV.iii.23-24). In addition to the rueful assessment of our general ability to behave badly, “as” here permits a more shrewdly cynical reading: “To the extent that we are our true selves, we behave badly.” The two men agree that we are “our own traitors” (IV.iii.25) and “trumpeters of our unlawful intents” (IV.iii.32), and the conversation incorporates Parolles:

I would gladly have him [Bertram] see his company anatomiz'd, that he might take a measure of his own judgements, wherein so curiously he had set this counterfeit.


The stripping of Parolles will be an object lesson; but Parolles' counterfeiting is most painful in its exposure and nowhere more painful than in his final private reliance on the naked self, “simply the thing I am” (IV.iii.369). The Second Lord sees this quite clearly, and this accounts for his remark after he has been anatomized by Parolles:

… I have little more to say, sir of his honesty. He has everything that an honest man should not have; what an honest man should have, he has nothing.
2. Lord.
I begin to love him for this.
For this description of thine honesty? A pox upon him for me, he's more and more a cat.


Bertram, of course, cannot understand why the Second Lord should be pleased, but it is in keeping with the gentlemen's earlier ambiguous approval of Helena's pilgrimage as a “pretence” (IV.iii.57). To the extent that Parolles can turn adversity into a strategic fiction (“He hath out-villain'd villainy so far, that the rarity redeems him”), he has the bemused approval of his onlookers, as had Falstaff when multiplying the buckram men. Since Parolles is finally a mere opportunist, he is exposed through an organized fiction. Helena treads the middle ground between her earlier straightforward and vulnerable design, and Parolles' fundamental lack of plot.

Deceit, then, may be “lawful” (III.vii.30, 38) when well managed and backed by the authority of the crown, gold, and domestic rectitude:

                                                                      Why then to-night
Let us assay our plot; which, if it speed,
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed
And lawful meaning in a lawful act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.


There is no gainsaying that the act is sinful if isolated from these mitigating factors, and even within them Bertram's intent is deemed sinful. The justification of the “plot” means simply that Helena acts from the “mingled” laws of her comic design, and that this design accommodates so delicate a device as lawful deceit. Disclosing herself finally to Bertram and the Court, Helena calls herself a “shadow” and “not the thing.” She is revealing the depth of her imitation, while reminding Bertram that she has fulfilled the terms of his stipulation to the letter. He correctly sees that she is both substance and shadow, capable of “doubly” winning him (V.iii.315). That is, she has won him both through miracle and guile; and her doubleness reflects the play's structure, as well as intensity and sleight of hand.

In arguing that All's Well moves from a simple and vulnerable comic design to one more devious and perdurable, we have reinforced the statements of many critics about the play's lack of any monocular unity. The lapsing of one kind of comedy within the play, and the emergence of another, shows the danger of thinking about comedy in terms of a single structural fabric. Individual plots, schemes, and designs may languish and revive in a single play; All's Well That Ends Well gives evidence of a play whose plot seems to be struggling to achieve some form of equitable resolution. The importance of this lapsed design is not whether ultimately it satisfies our unquestionable desire for some unified structure, but that it continually throws us back to examine the process of its achievement.


  1. The double plot suggested by W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 2d ed. (New York, 1960), has been accepted as a point of departure by most critics. In the Introduction to his New Arden edition of All's Well (London, 1959), G. K. Hunter applies Lawrence's description of theme to the play's structure and finds a fundamentally similar division (pp. xxx-xxxi).

  2. See Alfred Harbage, “Intrigue in Elizabethan Tragedy,” Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig. ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo., 1962), pp. 37-44. For Harbage, intrigue is constituted by all those elements of plot which involve a central character in various elaborate duplicities. This multiplication of contrivances, Harbage suggests, leads the audience toward comedy.

  3. All quotations from the play are taken from the New Cambridge Edition, eds. William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Cambridge, Mass., 1942).

  4. For example, at I.i.131-33.

  5. Some recent critics have seen in this aspiration poetry's necessary ambition of substituting a monad or ‘effigy” for the fallen doubleness of words and syntax. See especially Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Poet as Fool and Priest,” ELH, 25 (1958), 279-98, and Murray Krieger, A Window to Criticism: Shakespeare's Sonnets and Modern Poetics (Princeton, 1964), pp. 58-70.

  6. G. K. Hunter treats this difference, but calls Helena's behavior in the play's first half evidence of positive virtue, in the second, of negative virtue; see New Arden edition, p. xxxi.

  7. For a further use of holy metaphor, compare Bertram's exchange with Diana at IV. ii. 21-34.

  8. Compare James L. Calderwood, “The Mingled Yarn of All's Well,JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], 62 (1963), p. 71: “She has clearly forsaken the mode of action and returned to her original attitude of love-as-worship. … And so at this point Helena has come full circle in her movement from passivity to action and back to passivity.”

  9. Their deceits are not distinguished by Clifford Leech, “The Theme of Ambition in All's Well,” ELH, 21 (1954), 17-29; or Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), pp. 145-56.

Maurice Hunt (essay date December 1987)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7693

SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “Words and Deeds in All's Well That Ends Well.Modern Language Quarterly 48, no. 4 (December 1987): 320-38.

[In the following essay, Hunt explores the disintegration of the relationship between language and action in All's Well That Ends Well.]

Were playgoers to judge from the King of France's recollection of the deceased Count of Rossillion, any question of competition between words and deeds in All's Well That Ends Well would appear settled during Act I. There, the ailing monarch, nostalgic for the past, praises Bertram's father for a remarkable ability:

So like a courtier, contempt nor bitterness
Were in his pride or sharpness; if they were,
His equal had awak'd them, and his honour,
Clock to itself, knew the true minute when
Exception bid him speak, and at this time
His tongue obey'd his hand.


By making his tongue obey his hand, Bertram's father never risked becoming a Parolles, a character whose words ridiculously outstrip his capacity for performance. By precisely fitting words to deeds, the Count never sank to braggadocio. Moreover, through his metaphor of a striking clock, the King suggests that Bertram's father was a master of time; his knowledge of the “true minute” included a grasp of timing, of recognizing the opportune moment for wedding a deed to his word.

And yet this harmony of hand and tongue is lost in All's Well even as it is remembered. Shakespeare destabilizes the ideal image of deeds fitted to words when the King impicitly prefers the Count's deeds as communicators of his excellence:

                                                                                          Who were below him
He us'd as creatures of another place,
And bow'd his eminent top to their low ranks,
Making them proud of his humility
In their poor praise he humbled.


“Us'd,” “bow'd,” “humbled”—these remembered actions rather than the Count's speeches convey his virtue in the King's opinion; primarily, the Count's modest deeds made him good and won him honor. More important, it is by his humble actions that his virtue can be known to succeeding generations; the King believes that the arrogant, verbose fops of the play's present age might reform themselves by copying the Count's ideal behavior (I.ii.45-48).

Ironically, however, such “a copy to these younger times” (I.ii.46) would have to consist of a word picture since the Count is dead. Significantly, the King's “royal speech” (I.ii.51) has created his encomium of deeds. The quoted phrase represents Bertram's compliment concerning the monarch's commemorative words. Coming close upon the King's implicit praise of deeds as a sign of virtue, Bertram's compliment nevertheless is a bit elvish on Shakespeare's part. Given the fluctuation of the value of words and deeds throughout All's Well, the audience may well wonder how, in the less than ideal worlds of Paris and Florence, the characters can achieve the balanced expression of the King's old friend. Even partial achievement would represent a Renaissance ideal. “That which we thinke let vs speake, and that which we speake let vs thinke; let our speeche accorde with our life,” Thomas Nashe wrote in The Anatomie of Absurditie (1589). According to T. McAlindon, the remark

is characteristic of its age not only in its refusal to separate eloquence from virtue but also in its appeal to what Nashe's contemporaries accepted as the fundamental norm, both rhetorical and moral, for all good speech: there must be a harmony between thought and word, between word and deed. The sign, the sensible impression of such harmony was decorum, or what the Elizabethans … variously referred to as comeliness. …2

Thus Helena's and Bertram's harmonizing of their words and deeds would signal acquired courtesy, an accomplishment of character complementing their attainment of true honor (an established reading of the play).3

Through 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. An analysis of the King's vacillation proves instructive. “Would I were with him,” he concludes concerning his dead friend:

                                                            He would always say—
Methinks I hear him now; his plausive words
He scatter'd not in ears, but grafted them
To grow there and to bear—“Let me not live”,
(This his good melancholy oft began
On the catastrophe and heel of pastime,
When it was out) “Let me not live”, quoth he,
“After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain; whose judgments are
Mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies
Expire before their fashions”. 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.


Because the monarch's recollection is so passionately expressed, the ears of his listeners seem to experience the miraculous fertility of the Count's words. Yet those words could neither halt time's onslaught nor dissuade death. Ravaging time entails disease, both the Count's unnamed, lethal malady and the King's fistula;4 crippled by time's agent, the monarch has become obsessed with deeds he can no longer perform (I.ii.64-67). He sadly wishes to follow his friend into darkness because he can bring home “nor wax nor honey.” By using the bee/hive metaphor, the King evokes a familiar image of industry, of deeds unselfishly done for the good of the community. Still, his conclusion that he were best “dissolved from my hive / To give some labourers room” smacks of more than self-pity; it reflects a degree of spiritual ignorance as well. The parable of the laborers and the hours (Matt. 20: 1-16), indirectly recalled by the King's language, asserts that the worker hired last, given time to accomplish only a few deeds before being called to the Great Reckoning, merits as large a reward as the laborer who has long toiled in the vineyard. Instead of devaluing work, the parable in fact sanctifies deeds when only a few acts can be redemptive. In short, while the King transfers worth from words to deeds during his affective speech, he does not appear to possess a spiritual understanding of the potential redemptiveness of action.

Throughout the early acts of All's Well, the King continues to waver between stressing words and recommending deeds as the means to virtue. Having talked himself out of acting, he resorts to pithy sayings as virtue's spur. Generally, his rhymed maxims must be regarded as a failure on his part.5 His personal reliance upon verbal precepts rather than exemplary deeds appears as early as the beginning of Act II, where he ends his off-stage advice to the courtiers leaving for the Italian war by recommending certain “warlike principles” (II.i.1-5). The futility of his sayings reveals itself in his listeners' immediate, ignoble advice to Bertram, whom they urge to steal away to fight even though the King has forbidden his departure. By not allowing his audience to hear the King's warlike sayings, Shakespeare shrewdly preconditions viewers to doubt the effectiveness of the monarch's words.

Regarded in this context, the King's later criticism of words seems dramatically apt. After hearing Bertram base his rejection of Helena on her humble birth, the King rebukes the young man. Aristocratic title, in the monarch's view, amounts to a hollow word upon a pedigree or coat of arms; in rejecting a “poor physician's daughter,” Bertram in his opinion condemns virtue because of its “name”—a superficial, social label (II.iii.121-24). “Thou dislik'st Helena for an unreal word,” the King might have said. “But do not so,” he cautions in a lengthy speech (II.iii.125-43), which has been called a “fiercely nominalistic harangue.”6 In this passage he unequivocally stresses deeds rather than words as honor's source. “From lowest place when virtuous things proceed, / The place is dignified by th' doer's deed,” he claims (II.iii.125-26). Moreover, he maintains, “Honours thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers” (II.iii.135-37). In keeping with this emphasis, the King coins a metaphor of epithet and grave to convey the essential unreliability of the word as an index of value. Seemingly a linguistic relativist at heart (at least with respect to other speakers' utterances), he subscribes to the nominalist view that words are arbitrary, dispensable labels for the nameless things they are meant to signify:

                                                                                Good alone
Is good, without a name; vileness is so:
The property by what it is should go,
Not by the title.


This amounts to a dangerous opinion for a speaker who will soon depend upon the notion that his words are divinely creative.8

The King's proposal for creating the social status that Helena supposedly lacks quickly reveals his exclusive notion. His means of planting honor where he would have it grow consists simply of his word (II.iii.156-57). If he declares that Helena is honorable, why, then, she is honorable. In his mind nothing is honorable or dishonorable but his saying makes it so. Here he insists on his royal word as an earthly version of the divine Word, which creates ex nihilo.9 In his testy reliance upon his “all-powerful” speech, the King almost comically denies his recent diatribe against the word. The irony of his about-face is not lost on Bertram:

Pardon, my gracious lord; for I submit
My fancy to your eyes. When I consider
What great creation and what dole of honour
Flies where you bid it, I find that she, which late
Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now
The praised of the king; who, so ennobled,
Is as 'twere born so.


Obviously, Bertram makes fun of the King's grand idea of the magical power supposedly dwelling in his speech; he almost certainly perceives the startling inconsistency between the monarch's theoretical criticism of words in relation to deeds and his typically human angry insistence upon the potency of his speech when challenged. Bertram's flight from consummating his marriage graphically indicates the failure of the King's word to transform either Bertram's affections or Helena's status in her beloved's eyes.

Thus far analysis has focused on the manner by which Shakespeare suggests, through the King of France's character, that words and deeds cannot be brought into the harmony they once enjoyed in the former Count of Rossillion. In addition to the near impossibility of achieving such a harmony, the radical impotence of sayings casts further doubt upon the wedding of word and deed in All's Well. If words are inherently weak, mankind's morality risks becoming sadly dependent on its retrospective creation by powerful acts that supersede empty promises or ignored advice—the attempts of speech to prompt ethical behavior. The character of the Countess, admirable in every other respect, suggests that Shakespeare intended his audience to regard verbal insufficiency as a general failing. Like the King, Bertram's mother often futilely scatters sayings in Bertram's and Helena's ears. If her advice to Bertram as he leaves for Paris (see I.i.57-66) resembles that of Polonius when Laertes departs for France, the similarity underscores a dramatic point; her maxims, like those of Polonius, subsequently appear ineffectual even though she, unlike Polonius, commands the viewer's respect.10 In both his priggish treatment of Helena and his vicious assault on Diana's chastity, Bertram reveals that his mother's proverbs are powerless. Instead of blaming her unimpeachable character or her good intentions in uttering her maxims, we might locate the problem in the inability of words alone to influence or change a listener's behavior. Thus a heavy irony attaches itself to her warning “Be check'd for silence, / But never tax'd for speech” (I.i.63-64); she risks portraying herself as a somewhat fussy moralizer deaf to the weakness of her own sayings.

It might be argued that Helena's language represents an exception to the general indictment of words in All's Well. Near the end of the play, Lafew singles out Helena's gracious speech during his summary of the virtues of the supposedly dead heroine. The old courtier condemns Bertram for losing a wife “whose words all ears took captive” (V.iii.17). The proof for Lafew's claim rests in Act II. Helena's eloquent argument for the value of her therapy, an argument based on poetically phrased biblical truths (II.i.133-43, 147-57), moves the King to say:

Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak
His powerful sound within an organ weak;
And what impossibility would slay
In common sense, sense saves another way.


At the end of the scene the King pledges, “If thou proceed / As high as word, my deed shall match thy deed” (II.i.208-9). Through the promise of her cure, the King and Helena have the opportunity to wed deed to word as memorably as the former Count of Rossillion. Although Helena's gracious speech persuades the King to try her cure (to his physical salvation), authoritative language does not effect the winning of Bertram—her main reason for healing the King in the first place (I.iii.225-30; II.i.189-99). The King's and Helena's wedding of words and deeds never occurs. Having played a role in renewing the King, the privileged word, spoken powerfully by the monarch, fails to convert Helena's unaffectionate husband. The King's failure of language cheats Helena of her prize.

The inability of major characters' words to dictate behavior and realize final wishes reflects a basic breakdown of communication in All's Well. Only in recent decades have critics become aware of Shakespeare's complex skepticism toward the communicative power of words—of the poetic medium itself. That the most eloquent artist of our language should have found the currency of his eloquence partially counterfeit strikes us as a paradox of the first order.11 In most respects, Shakespeare's attitude toward language in All's Well conforms to this general linguistic skepticism. In the scene in which Parolles is duped, for example, the First Lord says, “When you sally upon him speak what terrible language you will; though you understand it not yourselves, no matter; for we must not seem to understand him, unless some one among us, whom we must produce for an interpreter” (IV.i.2-6). The repeated, ironic violation of cherished sayings argues that mankind does not fully grasp the meaning of sententious words easily uttered throughout the play. The Lord continues with his cues for Parolles' undoing: “Now he hath a smack of all neighbouring languages; therefore we must every one be a man of his own fancy, not to know what we speak one to another; so we seem to know is to know straight our purpose—choughs' language: gabble enough and good enough” (IV.i.15-20). Like Lafew's speech on modern and philosophical persons (II.iii.1-6), the Lord's words resonate beyond the demands of the episode, applying themselves first to the dramatis personae as a whole and then to the lives of the theater audience and the great world beyond.12 Regarded metadramatically, the words imply that mankind lives in a linguistic prison, speaking past listeners in singular, untranslatable tongues, pretending that the babble of civilized speech expresses clear meanings.13

Not surprisingly, Parolles (whose name means “words”) viciously capitalizes on the essential unreliability of speech. According to a courtier whose accuracy we have no reason to doubt, Parolles is “a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality worthy your lordship's entertainment” ( Two of Parolles' three main vices involve the corruption of words. “I love not many words,” he hypocritically claims. “No more than a fish loves water,” the courtier sharply jests ( Predictably, Parolles' regrettable influence on Bertram consists of words—words that are never fulfilled in deeds. Usually these words make up Parolles' astonishing lies and puffy claims for success in battle. We can only conclude that Parolles, an older dandy, has ruled a naïve boy through his glib falsehoods and boasts, transparent to the mature Lafew but bewitching to the adolescent Bertram. Parolles' divorce of his deeds from his pretentious words amounts to an extreme example of the lesser separations of speech from behavior in the play, separations that, while not malicious in intent, nonetheless proceed from the fallen human condition encapsulated in the character of the fop.

Despite defects in speech and mankind's constitutional difficulty in synchronizing behavior with language, playgoers can detect a promise of the eventual melding of words and deeds in the extraordinary “speaking acts” of Helena. When the Countess lovingly states that she is the maiden's mother, Helena, in an episode that has often puzzled critics, insists that her guardian is “mine honourable mistress” (I.iii.134). Surprised, the Countess fixes upon her original, seemingly harmless word:

                                                                                Nay, a mother.
Why not a mother? When I said “a mother”,
Methought you saw a serpent.


On first consideration, the Countess's “mother” seems to be the destructive counterpart to the King's supposedly creative word. Whereas the King through his verbal fiat attempts to join Bertram to Helena, the Countess through her word, in Helena's opinion, risks making the maiden's marriage a cultural taboo. The Countess understandably cannot guess the sudden horror that has seized Helena after the possibility of committing a kind of emotional incest occurs to her.14 Nonetheless, the basis for Helena's fear reveals itself. Significantly, the act—the deed—of Helena's blushing utters the truth to the Countess (I.iii.144-48). Helena's curdled blood in her cheeks and her weeping eye “say” openly that she cannot think of Bertram as a brother, sharing the same “mother” with him. As conveyers of meaning, blushing and weeping function more powerfully than any concealing words could. “You are my mother, madam,” Helena says as she capitulates (I.iii.156), yet her blushing and weeping continue to betray her secret fear, undermining her seeming acquiescence. The Countess concludes:

Yes, Helen, you might be my daughter-in-law.
God shield you mean it not! daughter and mother
So strive upon your pulse. What! pale again?
My fear hath catch'd your fondness; now I see
The myst'ry of your loneliness, and find
Your salt tears' head. Now to all sense 'tis gross:
You love my son. Invention is asham'd
Against the proclamation of thy passion
To say thou dost not. Therefore tell me true;
But tell me then, 'tis so; for, look, thy cheeks
Confess it t'one to th'other, and thine eyes
See it so grossly shown in thy behaviours
That in their kind they speak it; only sin
And hellish obstinacy tie thy tongue,
That truth should be suspected.


The Countess's “mother” and “daughter” trigger a deed—Helena's act of blushing—that reveals an emotional truth when these words affect Helena's pulse—making the blood ebb and flow from her face. In this process, an act is auspiciously responsive to an uttered word. Equally important, Helena's expressive deeds suggest that Nature will speak when characters unnaturally or deceptively silence themselves, refusing to reveal a wholesome fact. The war among mankind's faculties resulting from unnatural silence stresses the importance in All's Well of trusting, spontaneous speech. Finally trapped by her body's utterances, Helena admits that she loves Bertram (I.iii.186-89).

Through this remarkable episode, Shakespeare has implied not only that deeds can on occasion speak but also that they can prompt an eventual honesty in words—an honesty ideally that figures in any re-creation of the harmony between word and deed. Helena soon learns to her grief, however, that wordless language cannot be selfishly manipulated or forced. Looking over the bachelor wards of the King, she becomes a bit coy with wordless language:

I am a simple maid, and therein wealthiest
That I protest I simply am a maid.
Please it your majesty, I have done already.
The blushes in my cheeks thus whisper me:
“We blush that thou should'st choose; but, be refused,
Let the white death sit on thy cheek for ever,
We'll ne'er come there again.”


As a complex plotter, Helena can scarcely think of herself as a “simple maid.” By her declaration, she most likely wishes to test the strength of the King's promise, for he quickly protests, “Make choice, and see, / Who shuns thy love shuns all his love in me” (II.iii.72-73). Helena's translation of the “words” spoken by the blushes in her cheeks appears affected, overtly précieuse in its poetic message. During her encounter with the Countess she painfully learned that natural acts can speak vigorously; in this complementary episode she seeks to conjure her blood again to utter a message to her advantage. But the strain, the artificiality of the imagined utterance, indicates that even the clever heroine cannot willfully fabricate wordless speech. Though her translated utterance succeeds in its local purpose, it fails, when regarded within the larger context of this episode, to win Bertram as a loving husband.

Furthermore, Shakespeare suggests that the heavenly word cannot be inopportunely invoked by mortal wishes. It is entirely possible that heaven spoke through Helena when her fluent arguments, derived from biblical passages, played a part in moving the King to take her medicine. And yet, through the dramatic principle of analogous action, Shakespeare implies that the heavenly word will not oblige every selfish desire in every earthly circumstance. Between the episode of the word's success in helping to cure the King (II.i) and the scene of the word's failure to transform Bertram into a willing husband (II.iii), Shakespeare inserts a brief interlude predicting the failure of Helena's plot to win a husband through the (supposedly) supernatural voice of the King.

In a seemingly nonsensical meeting, the clown Lavatch playfully tells the Countess that he has a single answer serving all men bound, as he is, for the slippery court. “Marry, that's a bountiful answer that fits all questions,” she replies (II.ii.14-15). Lavatch quips: “It is like a barber's chair that fits all buttocks: the pin-buttock, the quatch-buttock, the brawn-buttock, or any buttock” (II.ii.16-18). Feigning surprise, the Countess answers, “It must be an answer of most monstrous size that must fit all demands” (II.ii.31-32). Urged by Lavatch to ask any court question, the Countess hopes to find in foolish banter the restoration of youth that the King seeks in Helena's medicine: “To be young again, if we could, I will be a fool in question, hoping to be the wiser by your answer” (II.ii.37-38). Lavatch's answer to her varying questions consists of a single phrase: “O Lord, sir!” “I play the noble housewife with the time, / To entertain it so merrily with a fool,” the frustrated Countess finally declares (II.ii.54-55). Yet originally the phrase Lavatch has seized on was a heartfelt plea, as the Countess implies when she says to him, “Do you cry ‘O Lord, sir!’ at your whipping, and ‘spare not me’? Indeed your ‘O Lord, sir!’ is very sequent to your whipping …” (II.ii.48-50). At bottom, Lavatch's undying “O Lord, sir!” amounts to a prototypic prayer—a plea burlesquing and hence calling into question the royal verbal fiat about to be dramatized in the King's instant creation of Helena's honor as well as in his demand that Bertram love and marry her. Perhaps Helena presumes without warrant that Providence condones her securing Bertram by using the King's cure as leverage for a bargain. Certainly, Providence ultimately intends Bertram for Helena. But it may wish to refine her character by teaching her, somewhat painfully, of its reality independent of easy human invocation. Lavatch's comedy suggests that Helena hopes that any difficulty in her court business of curing the King and winning Bertram can be resolved (or glossed over) by either divine entreaty or reference to heavenly influence—“O Lord, sir.” When the Countess verbally trips up Lavatch in his tedious reply, he admits, “I ne'er had worse luck in my life in my ‘O Lord, sir!’ I see things may serve long, but not serve ever” (II.ii.52-53). His admission signals the King's and Helena's defeat in verbally converting Bertram.15

In the above analysis Providence appears to be the appropriate term for identifying the motive force behind events in All's Well. Marvelously creative words have their own life in this play, revealing their truth in their own providential time. Moreover, in All's Well Providence sets the context for the effectiveness of expressive deeds—but only for those characters who act boldly to help bring about their happiness. In the nostalgic, generally passive ambience of the play, Helena's willingness to act aggressively to fashion not only her joy but also her own character stands out in sharp relief. After Parolles energizes her during their witty debate on virginity,16 Helena's world becomes one of physics rather than verbal metaphysics, of motion rather than self-pitying stasis. In her early soliloquy she confidently declares, “The mightiest space in fortune nature brings / To join like likes, and kiss like native things” (I.i.218-19). That confidence rewards her. She enacts her naturalistic credo when she travels the “mightiest space” to find herself in a Florentine street through which her “like,” the fugitive Bertram, passes before her eyes.17 While Helena prays to Nature, she in fact invokes the Art above Nature, the Art that makes Nature: God's Art, Providence.18 Providence makes possible Helena's winning of Bertram through its mysterious dynamic of mutual attraction, a magnetism in which action—movement out of the dark rooms of the Countess and the King—is the key to redemption.19 Moreover, this magnetism verifies what the audience has suspected for some time: Helena and Bertram are more alike in character than one would first suppose.20 Devious Bertram does come to admire Helena's creative duplicity (V.iii.309-10); the viewer suspects that he agrees to consummate his marriage as much for this reason as for his letting go of any love for Lafew's Maudlin.

Helena concludes her interrupted soliloquy in Act I with a firm resolve to win Bertram by striving to show her worth in the King's cure (I.i.222-25). Striving Helena, unafraid of pain, depends on deeds rather than words. That she fails in her first attempt, that her confidence after the King's cure is too easy, surely too sanguine—these facts suggest that Helena cannot gain Bertram through words alone (the King's promise and her naming Bertram).21 Deeds, ordered by Providence, advance her toward her passionate goal. Her act of pilgrimage, after all, fittingly ensures her eventual success.

Thus far, Shakespeare has providentially ordered either the word or the deed in All's Well. By determining the play's resolution through a riddle, he introduces the means for finally wedding words and deeds in this dark comedy.22 In a riddle, acts, by definition, give often profound meaning to seemingly empty or nonsensical words; in fact, until they are fulfilled by deeds, riddles frequently convey a destructive message. This certainly is the case in All's Well. Bertram, having ordered Helena to return to Rossillion, flees to the Italian wars instead of consummating his marriage. The cruel letter he sends her takes the form of a riddle: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never’” (III.ii.56-59). “This is a dreadful sentence,” Helena adds (III.ii.60), her final word evoking the meanings of “judgment” and “statement.” In its primary meaning “sentence” condenses the idea of Bertram's dreadful word “never,” a nihilistic judgment displacing the hopeful potential represented by “then.” Somehow, dramatic action must fulfill Bertram's riddling words if Helena is to be happy; her deeds must flesh out the riddle—the word—for the admittedly toned-down happiness of this comedy to become a reality.

At first, however, Helena shows no inclination to realize the riddle. In fact, she chooses to act out other words in Bertram's letter instead. She reads,

“Till I have no wife I have nothing in France.”
Nothing in France until he has no wife!
Thou shalt have none, Rossillion, none in France;
Then hast thou all again.


Helena of course is thinking of her sacrificial pilgrimage to St. Jaques le Grand, a journey that—when news of it reaches Bertram—will speed his return to Rossillion to claim his patrimony. That Helena intends her spiritual mortification to end in her death is clearly indicated by the concluding couplet of her letter to the Countess: “He is too good and fair for death and me; / Whom I myself embrace to set him free” (III.iv.16-17).23 But after persuading the rector of St. Jaques to write a letter informing Bertram of her death, Helena decides to live; her change of heart represents the play's most unfathomable mystery. One can only conclude that, in comedy, life and love inevitably triumph over the death-wish. Whatever the case, Providence, through the natural dynamic of mutual attraction, leads Helena to Florence, where she quickly learns of Bertram's assault on Diana's chastity. Immediately she hits upon a plan to catch her husband. In “this deceit so lawful” (III.vii.38) Helena creates a riddle to match Bertram's enigma; in this respect she employs the word against the word. And she does so through the central deed of the play: the bed-trick. Assuring the old Widow of Florence that the stratagem she has devised—Diana is to beg Bertram's ring, assign a time for love-making, and give way to Helena—involves no sin, Helena concludes:

                                                            Why then tonight
Let us assay our plot; which, if it speed,
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a lawful act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.


These riddling words portray a paradox fulfilling the equally sphinxlike words of Bertram's letter; in this respect Helena's words satisfy his condition for marriage.

And what of Bertram? Can he fulfill words in deeds? Initially the evidence is not promising. Throughout All's Well, Shakespeare puns on “word” and “sword.” For example, after Bertram spurns Helena, the Countess says,

                                                                                Y'are welcome, gentlemen.
I will entreat you, when you see my son,
To tell him that his sword can never win
The honour that he loses. …


Granted London pronunciation, an Elizabethan audience might hear the phrase “his sword” as “his word”—the second s lost in verbal elision.24 In the light of Shakespeare's treatment of words and deeds in All's Well, the Countess makes a complex statement. On one level she opposes Bertram's words and his sword—the word and the deed, Mercury and Mars. On another level she focuses on the emptiness of Bertram's speech; one word, devalued by his promise-breaking with the King and Helena, can never redeem another word, the pedigree lost through his wretched behavior. Concerning the first dimension of meaning, we realize that Bertram, unlike Helena, cannot fulfill a word—his promise, in this instance—through a redemptive deed, performed by his sword.

Still, Bertram does manage to wed the word to the deed during the play's denouement. Significantly, another riddle begins the dramatic movement that results in the figurative wedding on which Bertram's actual marriage depends. In Act V, the truth of Helena's bed-trick is expressed in riddles, a verbal medium more maddening than enlightening to those unaware that only hard linguistic forms can express some facts. When Diana confronts Bertram in the final episode, she riddles upon the belief that he bedded her:

                                                                                                    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.


Regarded in the light of her name, Diana's last words are evocative; the word as riddle suggests the symbolic blending of Helena and Diana (Love and Chastity).25 Shakespeare prepares for this possibility when Helena suggests to the Countess that in her youth she herself perhaps did “Wish chastely and love dearly, that your Dian / Was both herself and love” (I.iii.207-8). Through a riddle Shakespeare identifies the paradoxical gift of chastity that association with Diana confers upon Helena. By doubling for Helena in the bed-trick, Diana publicly purifies the former virgin who, through questionable tricks, has in a sense prostituted herself to achieve an Elizabethan ideal: Married Chastity.

Only a riddling statement can reflect the purity of Helena's wordless deed. Such a statement concerns the ring, originally the King's gift to Helena, which was given to Bertram during the bed-trick. When Bertram tries to give the same ring to Maudlin as a betrothal token, the King, recognizing it, expresses shock as well as horror, for he assumes that Bertram has murdered Helena to obtain it. When the King asks Diana, “Know you this ring? This ring was his of late,” she asserts, “And this was it I gave him, being abed.” “The story then goes false,” the King continues, “you threw it him / Out of a casement?” “I have spoke the truth,” Diana simply replies (V.iii.226-29). For the characters on stage, Diana's claim undermines her credibility and thus her authority as agent of reconciliation. Obviously, Helena in the dark slipped the ring upon her husband's finger, intending it to undo him later and coaching Diana in her scheme. In what sense, then, can Diana claim to have spoken the truth? In the sense that Helena achieves wedded chastity through her bed-trick, Chastity (Diana) can be said to have been abed with Bertram. Diana's assertion that she gave Bertram the King's ring thus symbolically suggests the purity of Helena's deed, an act that redeems a world of lying words and broken promises. Diana's claim implies that the words of the play's comic ending create a subtext with its own kind of metaphoric truth.26

Exasperated by the literal meaning of Diana's riddling statements, the King orders her to prison. When Diana tells her mother to fetch her “bail” (V.iii.289), Helena suddenly appears, miraculously so to the characters on stage. “Is't real that I see?” the King asks, perhaps rubbing his eyes. “No, my good lord,” Helena replies. “'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see; / The name and not the thing” (V.iii.300-302). Because Bertram, still ignorant of the consummation of his marriage, has not yet accepted her, Helena suggests that she is a wife in word only, not in everyday conjugal deed. Nonetheless, her judgment upon herself reverberates with extra dimensions of meaning. As shadows of substances (things, acts), words in the play have often seemed sadly divorced from the objects they are meant to portray—the gap usually indicative of a falsehood associated with the utterance of speech. During his directions for the babble of tongues, the Lord deceiving Parolles said, “When you sally upon him speak what terrible language you will; though you understand it not yourselves, no matter; for we must not seem to understand him, unless some one among us, whom we must produce for an interpreter” (IV.i.2-6). Considered within the context of the play as a whole, the Lord's “some one” ultimately refers to Diana. She becomes the interpreter making sense of the babble of tongues and cross-purposes among the play's characters.

When Bertram, hearing Helena's claim that she is a shadow of a wife, suddenly shouts, “Both. both. O pardon!” (V.iii.302), he reveals his new ability to fit thing with word—the reality of chastity (independent of any name) with the title of wife.27 He suddenly grasps the principle of chastity that prompted Helena to undertake the unorthodox, easily misconstrued consummation of her marriage. Having fitted word and thing, shadow and substance, Bertram soon merges word and deed when he embraces Helena, accepting his wife in an act that perfects his wedding vows—to say nothing of his promise to the King.28 With Bertram's words and embraces, the time has finally brought on romance summer, when briars have “leaves as well as thorns” (IV.iv.31-32). Bertram has acquired his father's admired ability to know “the true minute” for courteously fitting deeds to words. Helena reminds her husband:

                                                                                          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, & c. This is done;
Will you be mine now you are doubly won?


“This is done.” The statement reflects the word become deed. In the warm claspings at the close of All's Well, the audience sees gestures, deeds that are no more than crystallized words of love.


  1. All quotations from All's Well That Ends Well are from the Arden edition, ed. G. K. Hunter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959).

  2. Shakespeare and Decorum (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973), pp. 6-7.

  3. M. C. Bradbrook, “Virtue is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,RES, [Review of English Studies] n.s., 1 (1950): 289-301, has described this attainment as the play's central motif.

  4. In Act V, the King indicates that time plays a major role in severing words from deeds in All's Well. “All is whole,” he states there. “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” (V.iii.37-42). Clearly, time in Shakespeare's conception drives a wedge between words and their fulfillment in deeds. Thus contemplated deeds are best done without announcement or promise, silently, as a seal of their virtue.

  5. John Edward Price, “Anti-moralistic Moralism in All's Well That Ends Well,ShakS, [Shakespeare Studies] 12 (1979): 95-111, has argued that the King's language often consists of “useless platitude[s]” (p. 95) against which Bertram, seeking independence from a stale morality, actively rebels.

  6. The phrase is Keir Elam's, offered during an analysis of the King's speech in Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse: Language-Games in the Comedies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 172-73.

  7. For an overview of nominalist treatments of Shakespeare's language, see Margreta De Grazia, “Shakespeare's View of Language: An Historical Perspective,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] 29 (1978): 374-88. “In the sixteenth century,” De Grazia argues, “it was assumed that defects in man brought about confused speech; in the seventeenth century, it became widely held that confused speech brings on many of the defects in man” (p. 381). Nonetheless, the King of France's skeptical view of the essential rightness of words for things predicts the intense seventeenth-century distrust of language expressed by Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, among others. For strains of sixteenth-century nominalism in Shakespeare's comedies (strains not discussed by De Grazia), see Elam, pp. 118-36, 166-76.

  8. Richard II constitutes Shakespeare's fullest analysis of royalty's divine speech. During his exploration of this topic in Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: “Richard II” to “Henry V” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), James L. Calderwood remarks, “The original power of the divine Word remained actively at work in the King's English, just as divine authority descending by way of primogeniture was immanent in Richard himself” (p. 13). Calderwood's account of Shakespeare's questioning of these medieval/Renaissance dogmas in Richard II remains convincing: “it is the purpose of the play to divest Richard of these views—to drive a wedge between words and their meanings, between the world order and the word order, between the king and the man who is king, and between names and metaphors” (p. 13). Shakespeare's portrayal of the King of France's language extends this doctrinal criticism to All's Well.

  9. A. F. Bellette, “Truth and Utterance in The Winter's Tale,ShS, [Shakespeare Survey] 31 (1978): 69-71, analyzes Shakespeare's interest in this Johannine idea.

  10. G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower: On Shakespeare as the Poet of Royalism (London: Methuen, 1958), p. 96.

  11. See Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 22-46, 260-84; and James L. Calderwood, “Love's Labour's Lost: A Wantoning with Words,” SEL [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900], 5 (1965): 317-32, and “Coriolanus: Wordless Meanings and Meaningless Words,” SEL, 6 (1966): 211-24. Also see Anne Barton, “Shakespeare and the Limits of Language,” ShS, 24 (1971): 19-30; and William C. Carroll, The Great Feast of Language in “Love's Labour's Lost” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 11-29.

  12. A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, ed. Graham Storey (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961), pp. 100-101, has argued that in All's Well Shakespeare's lines often “have profounder and more far-reaching meanings or undertones than their contexts warrant.”

  13. This point is also made by Robert Hapgood, “The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well,EIC, [Essays in Criticism] 15 (1965): 276-77.

  14. For an account of the psychological threat of incest for Helena and especially for Bertram, see Richard P. Wheeler, “Marriage and Manhood in All's Well That Ends Well,BuR, [Bucknell Review] 21 (1973): 111-13, and Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 42-43.

  15. Frances M. Pearce, “Analogical Probability and the Clown in All's Well That Ends Well,Shakespeare Jahrbuch (Weimar), 108 (1972): 129-44, complements the critical opinion that Lavatch's verbal analogues are uniformly derogatory with an account of their prophetic function (pp. 137-42). Pearce argues that “all the alleged correspondences between the Clown's words and later events have an order that precisely matches the order of events in the plot” (p. 139).

  16. J. Dennis Huston, “‘Some Stain of Soldier’: The Functions of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well,SQ, 21 (1970): 431-38, was the first critic to describe Parolles' positive animation of Helena early in the play (pp. 434-38).

  17. Critics generally join one of two camps concerning the question of Helena's sudden appearance in Florence. Those who believe that Helena planned from the beginning to hunt down Bertram in Italy—deceiving everyone with an empty promise of pilgrimage—include Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), pp. 151, 157; and Richard A. Levin, “All's Well That Ends Well, and ‘All Seems Well,’” ShakS, 13 (1980): 131, 137-39. Those who believe that Helena genuinely intends to repent by a pilgrimage to St. Jaques and that her appearance in Florence lacks predatory calculation are well represented by G. Wilson Knight's remark: “Though she certainly knew that Bertram had gone to serve the Duke (III.i.54), we must not suppose that her finding him in Florence was part of a deliberate plan, since her letter to the Countess had already urged his immediate return to France (III.iv.8) …” (p. 143). Also see James L. Calderwood, “Styles of Knowing in All's Well,MLQ, [Modern Language Quarterly] 25 (1964): 282; J. C. Maxwell, “Helena's Pilgrimage,” RES, n.s., 20 (1969): 191; R. L. Smallwood, “The Design of All's Well That Ends Well,ShS, 25 (1972): 53-54; and Gerard J. Gross, “The Conclusion to All's Well That Ends Well,SEL, 23 (1983): 266.

  18. A glance at Robert Fludd's well-known engraving Utriusque Cosmi Historia (1617-19) reveals the popular Renaissance belief that Providence (God's Art) controls Nature. A gloss on the ideas in the engraving is provided by The Winter's Tale IV.iv.89-97. In Shakespeare's poetry, the Art “over that art / Which … adds to Nature”—the Art that “makes” Nature—clarifies the value of God's hand and chain in the engraving. For Fludd, these divine attributes symbolize the Art guiding that greater Nature which rules her “ape” mankind, who in turn remains intent on rectifying fallen nature through the secular art represented by his compasses.

  19. W. L. Godshalk, “All's Well That Ends Well and the Morality Play,” SQ, 25 (1974): 61-70, notices this dynamic of magnetism in the play but ascribes it to Nature rather than to Providence (pp. 63-64).

  20. Godshalk, p. 70. Also see Jay L. Halio, “All's Well That Ends Well,SQ, 15 (1964): 38.

  21. Price notes that “Helena's success over the Countess and the King has resulted from her ability at persuasive discourse. She will require more than this to succeed with Bertram. So, Helena moves to the background—in the literal and symbolically subservient garb of a pilgrim—and prepares to seize whatever opportunity arises” (p. 104). In other words, Helena resorts to deeds when words fail her.

  22. The only study of the riddle in All's Well is Phyllis Gorfain, “Riddles and Reconciliation: Formal Unity in All's Well That Ends Well,Journal of the Folklore Institute, 13 (1976): 263-81. Gorfain's conclusions about the importance of riddling in the play differ substantially from mine.

  23. Hunter notes that in Helena's final verse “the whom refers to death, the him to Bertram” (p. 82).

  24. Fausto Cercignani, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), pp. 38, 112. Wordplay on “sword” and “word” was commonplace among Renaissance dramatists; the tension between words and swords in Marlowe's Tamburlaine—to cite one instance—is explained by Helen Watson-Williams, “The Power of Words: A Reading of Tamburlaine the Great, Part One,” English, 22 (1973): 13-18.

  25. The merger of Diana and Venus in Helena, producing Married Chastity, has been described by John F. Adams, “All's Well That Ends Well: The Paradox of Procreation,” SQ, 12 (1961): 262-63; Eric LaGuardia, “Chastity, Regeneration, and World Order in All's Well That Ends Well,” in Myth and Symbol: Critical Approaches and Applications, ed. Bernice Slote (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), p. 124; and David M. Bergeron, “The Mythical Structure of All's Well That Ends Well,TSLL, [Texas Studies in Literature and Language] 14 (1973): 561-63.

  26. William W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York: Macmillan, 1931), p. 74, represents the widespread critical objection to Shakespeare's protracting of Diana's role at the end of the play. Yet we have seen that the protraction serves a variety of necessary dramatic functions.

  27. Gorfain notes that “Helena characterizes herself, when she enters the gathering at Rossillion, as ‘the shadow of a wife, the name and not the thing.’ Bertram happily acknowledges her as both, and thereby acknowledges the sexual union that harmonizes vow and deed, word and action, which are in tension throughout the play” (p. 268).

  28. Alexander Welsh, “The Loss of Men and Getting of Children: All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure,MLR, [Modern Language Review] 73 (1978): 24, writes: “In All's Well That Ends Well the tolerance of Parolles, at the end, implies some forgiveness of a less-than-perfect correspondence of words and deeds, and some forgiveness of Bertram.” In my view the correspondence is more precise.

Patricia Parker (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15573

SOURCE: Parker, Patricia. “All's Well That Ends Well: Increase and Multiply.” In Creative Imitation: New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Greene, edited by David Quint, Margaret W. Ferguson, G. W. Pigman III, and Wayne A. Rebhorn, pp. 355-90. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.

[In the following essay, Parker suggests linkages between characters, scenes, and themes in All's Well That Ends Well, arguing that the sexual terms “increase” and “dilation” have economic, verbal, hermeneutic, and familial implications in the play.]

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


In act II of All's Well That Ends Well, Parolles (the Shakespearean character whose name means “words”) advises the curter Bertram to employ more words in his “adieu” to the lords of the French court by taking what he calls a “more dilated farewell”:

Use a more spacious ceremony to the noble lords; you have restrain'd yourself within the list of too cold an adieu. Be more expressive to them, for they wear themselves in the cap of the time. … After them, and take a more dilated farewell.

(II.i.50-57; my emphasis)1

Parolles, who is studying to be the “perfect courtier” (I.i.203), here counsels Bertram—an immature or “unseason'd courtier” (I.i.67)—in the verbal fashions of the court. But the terms he suggests, of recourse to a more “spacious ceremony” and “more dilated farewell,” will occur in another, later scene in which Parolles himself is “granted space” (IV.i.88) after he almost loses his life for want of “language” (IV.i.70).

Parolles' counsel to Bertram to “take a more dilated farewell” sounds in a play filled with farewells—from Bertram's initial departure for Paris and his subsequent stealing away to Florence to Helena's pilgrimage and the final return of the characters to Rossillion. The play inherits these displacements from its narrative source, Boccaccio's story of Giletta of Narbona in Decameron III.9, summarized in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure:

Giletta a Phisition's daughter of Narbon, healed the French King of a Fistula, for reward whereof she demaunded Beltramo Counte of Rossiglione to husband. The Counte being maried against his will, for despite fled to Florence, and loved another. Giletta, his wife, by pollicie founde meanes to lye with her husbande, in place of his lover, and was begotten with childe of two sonnes: which knowen to her husband, he received her againe, and afterwards he lived in great honour and felicitie.2

With name changes to Helena and Bertram, a streamlining of the bedtrick to a single night and pregnancy, the feigned death of the wife, and a much less “felicitous” atmosphere at its end, this narrative is essentially the plot Shakespeare follows in All's Well. To it, however—notoriously, in the view of many critics—he added not only the figure of Parolles but a great deal whose interconnection still remains largely uninterpreted in this play: chiefly, the scenes of wordplay between Bertram's countess mother, the counselor Lafew, and the clown Lavatch; the repeated evocations of the specter of incest; and variation on the multiple senses of “increase,” the theme that Thomas M. Greene3 has reminded us combines the generational, hermeneutic, and economic motifs already writ large in Shakespeare's sonnets. I want to suggest in what follows—in response, in part, to G. K. Hunter's lament that criticism of the play has “failed to provide a context within which the genuine virtues of the play can be appreciated”—precisely the unnoticed links between the various characters, scenes, and “businesses” added by Shakespeare to his much more “straightforward” source.4 This I propose to do under the heading of “increase.”

“Increase” in the sense of “increase and multiply” is, of course, the command delivered to Adam and Eve at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the command that makes possible the narrative extension as well as the multiplication of life that ensues. It is also the command recalled repeatedly in texts contemporary with All's Well which treat of the loss of virginity required in order to amplify and extend the branches of a family tree: an act of increase that depends on the opening up of something constricted or closed.5 All the traditional arguments against virginity, from the discourse of Genius in the Roman de la Rose to the texts that echo it, oppose its “end” or “fine” to the extension, and reprieve from death, made possible through such an opening to increase.6 This generational form of opening, in the arguments traditionally martialled against virginity, depends on inducing something closed to open and dilate. But the “increase” of such sexual opening also had its hermeneutic and verbal counterparts, the understanding of interpretation as opening up to “increase” a closed, hermetic, or forbidding text (“dilating or enlarging a matter by interpretation,” as one text puts it),7 and the dilation of discourse whose parodic double was empty inflation or mere words. “Increase and multiply” in both the generational and the hermeneutic sense is, for example, the subject of the chapter of Augustine's Confessions that links the command in Genesis to the interpreter's opening of a scriptural text, a link also forged in the early modern tradition of verbal copia as an amplification of speech which proceeds by increasing a smaller, more restricted, stock of words.8 What I want to suggest in focussing on “dilation” in both sexual and other senses in All's Well is that this linking of verbal, hermeneutic, and familial under the heading of “increase” also provides a way into the subtle interconnections between the play's otherwise apparently unconnected and disjointed scenes, a much-needed context for its buried linkages.

Whether or not it is the play corresponding to Francis Meres' mysterious reference to a Love's Labors Wonne, All's Well That Ends Well is Shakespeare's most conspicuously teleological title, suggestive of the comic plot of fulfillment achieved only after a period of trial. Yet the Shakespearean play whose title appears to emphasize final closure is not only notoriously ambiguous in its own ultimate close but filled with more pressing, and more immediate, senses of ending or closing off.9 By contrast, both in the scene in which Parolles counsels Bertram to “take a more dilated farewell” (“Use a more spacious ceremony”) and in the scene where this same Parolles is threatened with immediate death for want of “language” before he is finally “granted space” (IV.iii.96), the extension of discourse, as of life, is linked with the creation of an intervening “space.” Such an association is not restricted to scenes actually involving “Parolles” or words: it extends to the play's repeated enactment of something constricted or closed that needs to be “granted space” or opened up.

Like several other plays of Shakespeare, All's Well begins with a heavy sense of conclusion—not, as in The Comedy of Errors, for example, with a literal “doom” or sentence of death, but with a different kind of “sentence,” one whose constrictions the play itself will need to counter in order to be granted space and language of its own. The play opens with the need to open up a space between beginning and end, birth and death, son and husband, in the despairing sentence uttered by the countess at the moment of her son's first farewell. In this, the play's own first sentence—“In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband”—the sense of “delivery” as birth is immediately short-circuited by the heavier sense of burial, or death. Birth and death are too close here. The interval between them is the opposite of a more “spacious” interim or “dilated farewell,” just as the potentially incestuous collapse of space between husband and son as “second husband” invokes a sense of generational constriction.

Ironically, however, it is the “farewell” the countess fears will be a second death—Bertram's departure for the French court—which the King's representative Lafew goes on to present as a different kind of “second,” in a play which will be filled with seconds and surrogates. Lafew's response—“You shall find of the king a husband, madam; you, sir, a father” (I.i.6-7)—deflects the hint of incestuous conflation in the countess's opening line by displacement onto a surrogate or substitute father; but it also thereby converts a gloom-filled “sentence” or apparent end into a starting point and Bertram's departing introduction of space or distance into a form of “delivery.” As with The Comedy of Errors, whose opening contains a play on opening, All's Well depends at its beginning on the opening up of space within something more constricted: both the hints of incest and the sense of still-birth that would, to paraphrase Bertram's later line, cause the play itself to “end” ere it “begin” (II.v.27).

I start with this oppressive sense of ending at the beginning of All's Well not simply to introduce the importance in this play of spacing out and opening up but to address one of its central interpretive cruxes—the question of why this opening scene should also include the extended exchange between Parolles and Helena on the subject of “increase.” At the beginning of this exchange, Helena is immersed in her own despairing meditation on ending (“I am undone, there is no living, none, / If Bertram be away,” I.i.84-85). And it is precisely in the midst of this oppressive sense of close or end—after the marking of two fathers' deaths (Helena's as well as Bertram's) and allusion to the mortal malady of the king—that the play introduces Parolles, the character whose name means not just one but many “words” (V.ii.36-40), along with his counsel to “increase and multiply.”

Parolles enters the scene as Helena is lamenting the same departure the countess had mourned as a form of burial; and the sparring between them—an exemplary instance of what Stephen Greenblatt has called Shakespeare's warming verbal “friction”10—is on the subject of “virginity” as another kind of death (“virginity murthers itself,” I.i.39). The punning that ensues on pregnancy as the “blowing up” of virgins and on tumescence and detumescence as “blowing up” and then “blowing … down” a man (lines 119-124) quickly leads to the extended exchange on the subject of “increase”:

Loss of virginity is rational increase, and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost. … Virginity, by being once lost, may be ten times found; by being ever kept, it is ever lost. 'Tis too cold a companion; away with't … 'tis against the rule of nature. … Keep it not, you cannot choose but lose by't. Out with't! Within t'one year it will make itself two, which is a goodly increase, and the principal itself not much the worse.


The imagery of the entire passage links generational and monetary “increase”—increase of the principal through interest and propagation as a form of increase and multiply—the two forms of wealth linked in the period as ways to “encrease” a “stock.”11 The notoriously inflated (or “blown up”) Parolles, who enters the play as the champion of “increase,” forges as well a linking of both with verbal increase; the entrance of the figure whose name means “words” is linked with the opening up of the play to its own more dilated farewell. As if to call attention to the link, the scene's description of virginity as “too cold a companion” or as an “old courtier” who “wears her cap out of fashion” and knows not how to suit either “fashion” or “time” (I.i.156-57) verbally anticipates the later scene of Parolles' “more dilated farewell,” with its contrasting of those who “wear themselves in the cap of the time” to “too cold an adieu” (II.i.49-56).12

All's Well That Ends Well begins, then, with an oppressive sense of death and a “farewell” that appears at first to the countess and to Helena as death's equivalent, an ending beyond which there is “no living, none.” But in the case of Helena, who will be the prime generator of the plot to come, the exchange with the character called “words” on the subject of “increase” seems to involve opening up this oppressive sense of end in a way not unlike the opening up of the surrogate death or “fine” of virginity. Parolles—the figure in the play for an increase or dilation that is finally only inflated or “blown up”—enters the play just as the Helena who is focused on death is, in another sense, as he suggests, “meditating on virginity.” And by the end of this sparring with the figure called “words,” Helena has passed from despair to a more active sense that “our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,” from passivity before unalterable necessity (“now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his relics”) to the generation of a plot. Her intention to travel to Paris in order to offer a cure to the king and win Bertram is the result:

                                                                                                    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.


The intervening space introduced by Bertram's farewell becomes, after the exchange with Parolles on “increase,” the space of Helena's “project,” both in the sense of a plot with an end in view and in the sense of something directed towards the future. Opening up a space within constriction, achieving a reprieve in the face of an oppressive sense of end or “fine,” is what enables the play called All's Well That Ends Well to open itself to “increase.” The exchange with Parolles provides both for the play and for Helena, its prime mover, the “parole” his name suggests:13 both the “word” she takes up in a scene whose final words are hers and the reprieve from ending her “project” proceeds to provide. The verbal sparring of this opening scene clearly establishes an association between Parolles or “words” and the dilation which is simultaneously the generational, monetary, and verbal fulfillment of the command to “increase and multiply.”

This early exchange between Parolles and Helena on the subject of “increase” proleptically anticipates Helena's own eventual pregnancy after she has found a way to “blow up” her virginity according to her own designs and has presented Bertram with evidence of that increase. But the importance of “increase” in all of its senses—and hence the importance of this early exchange—is also underlined in a succession of scenes apparently so minor that they have remained strikingly underinterpreted in criticism of All's Well, though they provide some of the best examples of the importance in Shakespeare of the apparently marginal. The link between verbal and generational “increase” established in the sparring between Parolles and Helena is reaffirmed almost immediately within act I itself when, in scene iii, the steward's wordy or Parolles-like preamble (2-5) serves as a form of stalling for time, filling up the space before the countess notices the presence of the clown Lavatch, who has come to express his own desire to “increase and multiply” (lines 22-24: “I think I shall never have the blessing of God till I have issue a' my body”).14 The link between words and “bearing” or generational increase—along with disparagement of merely empty or inflated words—has already been established just before this scene, in the king's praise of Bertram's father as one whose “plausive words” were “scatter'd not in ears, but grafted … / To grow there and to bear” (I.ii.53-55). This image is explicitly recalled in the clown's “He that ears my land spares my team” (I.iii.44) as a comic argument for cuckoldry as an increase of “husbandry.”

“Increase” also pervades the multiple allusions throughout the play to alchemy as a means of renewing or extending life, as the “multiplying medicine” (V.iii.102) associated with the command in Genesis to “increase and multiply.”15 But the sense of “increase” as opening up a space within something constricted even more strikingly suggests links between the first act's insistence on increase and its equally insistent emphasis on incest, an emphasis nowhere found in the play's narrative source. The countess's opening line (“In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband”) not only collapses the space between birth and death, allowing no space of life or saving interval, but also conflates incestuously a “husband” and a “son.”16 What is only hinted at in the countess's initial line, however, is directly confronted as the threat of incest in the scene later in act 1 where Helena objects to calling Bertram's mother her “mother” as well. The passage is striking enough in its resistance to this conflation to deserve fuller quotation:

                                        You know, Helen,
I am a mother to you.
Mine honourable mistress.
                                        Nay, a mother,
Why not a mother? When I said ‘a mother,’
Methought you saw a serpent. What's in ‘mother’
That you start at it? I say I am your mother,
And put you in the catalogue of those
That were enwombed mine …


… does it curd thy blood
To say I am thy mother? What's the matter, …


—Why, that you are my daughter?
                                        That I am not.
I say I am your mother.
                                        Pardon, madam;
The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother.
I am from humble, he from honored name;
No note upon my parents, his all noble.
My master, my dear lord he is, and I
His servant live, and will his vassal die.
He must not be my brother.
                                                  Nor I your mother?
You are my mother, madam; would you were—
So that my lord your son were not my brother—
Indeed my mother! Or were you both our mothers,
I care no more for than I do for heaven,
So I were not his sister. Can't no other,
But, I your daughter, he must be my brother?
Yes, Helen, you might be my daughter-in-law.


In relation to the series of chess moves Helena must make if she is to be “mated” as she desires (I.i.91),17 becoming the “daughter” of the countess would resolve one of the obstacles she faces—the class distance from Bertram as one too far “above” her (I.i.82-92). But it would do so only by creating another obstacle, the dangerous proximity of consanguinuity. Therefore, Helena here invokes the very distance in social position she had earlier bemoaned (“The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother. / I am from humble, he from honoured name”). “Daughter”—the term that in early modern usage could name both daughter by marriage and daughter by birth—is displaced or spaced into its more distant correlative (“you might be my daughter-in-law”), exogamous extension rather than endogamous collapse. The separation of ambiguously paired identities, originally contained within a “double-meaning” (IV.iii.99) name, comes in this scene as the answer to one of the play's first riddles, in ways that remind us how close the links are between incest, with its conflation of familial identities, and the kind of riddling whose solution depends on such spacing or separating out.18 The sense of incest as involving something too “near”—and hence the need to create a space between relations that threaten to come too close—is underscored verbally just before this exchange by the Steward's otherwise gratuitous “I was very late more near her than I think she wish'd me” (I.iii.106-7; my emphasis).

The whole extended space of All's Well That Ends Well—which proceeds through a series of displacements or farewells—is needed to provide the corresponding “answer” to this early scene of incest and its riddling, just as later in Pericles a series of geographical displacements and a relentlessly narrative espacement intervene to separate out an opening incest's riddling conflation of generations and identities. The plot of All's Well from this point forward in fact involves a series of displacements as well as a putting off of conclusions which are premature or threaten to be too “near.” The heavy sense of ending with which the play begins and the exchange between Parolles and Helena on the death-wish of virginity have their counterpart in the literal death-wish of the ailing king, in a scene (II.i) in which the word “farewell” is sounded throughout. The king's gesture of parting from the young French lords on their way to war in Italy is joined by his sense that his own end is unalterably at hand (First Lord. “'Tis our hope, sir, / After well-ent'red soldiers, to return / And find your Grace in health. / King. No, no, it cannot be,” II.i.5-8). And it is, again, in this scene—as the king temporarily retires to another part of the stage—that Parolles appears, uttering now the counsel to “take a more dilated farewell” (II.i.57; my emphasis).

Parolles' urging of this “more spacious ceremony” is inserted between two iterations of the king's sense of the imminence and inevitability of his end, the second of which is explicitly a form of death-wish:

But, my good lord, 'tis thus: will you be cur'd
Of your infirmity?
                    O, will you eat
No grapes, my royal fox?


It is at this point—in the same scene as Parolles' “more spacious ceremony” and “more dilated farewell”—that Helena arrives as the “Doctor She” (II.i.79) provided with an enabling “physic.” Once again, the exchange between Helena and the king has to do with the granting of a “space” (II.i.159). The king's conviction that he is “one near death” (122-31) is countered by Helena's reminders that:

                                                                                great floods have flown
From simple sources; and great seas have dried
When miracles have by the great'st been denied.
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises; and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits.


The king's fixation on ending is countered not only by the hope offered through Helena's physic but through this series of images recalling the miracles, and “parole,” of the Exodus—water from rock and the drying of the Red Sea—at precisely those points where what had at first seemed an imminent end opens into a space of reprieve. It needs to be observed that here “coldest” gathers echoes both from the symbolic death of “cold” virginity in the early exchange on “increase” and from the “cold” of Parolles' counteradvice to take “a more dilated farewell” (“you have restrain'd yourself within the list of too cold an adieu,” II.i.51-52; my emphasis).19

The king's exchange with Helena, though it leads first to his refusal of what he terms a “senseless help” (line 124) for a “past-cure malady” (“fare thee well, kind maid. / Thy pains not us'd must by thyself be paid,” 145-46), results finally in the granting to Helena of the requested “space” (159) in which to try her cure, and in the king's readiness to be her “resolv'd patient” (204) in all the multiple senses of that phrase. In the fertility imagery appropriate for a king whose ailment, a fistula or “pipe,” also suggests a kind of impotence,20 Helena herself becomes a form of “physic.” This scene of Exodus-imagery of water coming from rock or barren ground is filled, as has often been remarked, with innuendos of sexual rejuvenation, which begin with Lafew's comparing himself to “Cressid's uncle” (97) as he leaves the two alone together (“I have see a medicine / That's able to breathe life into a stone, / Quicken a rock … powerful to araise King Pippen, nay, / To give great Charlemain a pen in's hand / And write to her a love-line,” II.i.72-78). The king's becoming “lustick” or “lusty” (II.iii.41) as a result of the cure of the “Doctor She” is hence related to a specifically sexual “increase” through the familiar associations of this phallic “pen,” long linked with fulfillment of the command to “increase and multiply.”21 By contrast, the fistula, not just “water-pipe” (Latin, fistula) but a “running” sore, provides a parody of this fertility, of flowing liquid from a “stone.” As a choice for the opposite of genuine fertility, it also forges a link with the pseudo-increase or parodic fertility of Parolles or “words,” since the association between a fistula or running sore and an unstoppable loquacity was proverbial (“Loquacity,” as one contemporary text puts it, is “the Fistula of the minde”).22

The king's “lustique” cure also, however, both procures a reprieve for him and performs, once again, a transition for Helena from the threat of death (“If I break time, or flinch in property / Of what I spoke, unpitied let me die,” II.i.187-88) to the possibility of “increase.” This is expressed through the images of genealogical “branches” and grafting, in lines that eschew the right to have her “low and humble name to propagate / With any branch or image” as lofty as the king's (II.i.197-98). The familiar image of generational increase through the branches of a family tree, invoked in Helena's disclaimer as she chooses Bertram instead, will by the end of the play, as at the end of Cymbeline, be linked as well with the ramifications or “branches” of an extended discourse.23 But even here the King's progression from the death-wish of his anticipated end parallels the reprieve and regeneration of Helena after the exchange with Parolles on the subject of “increase.” The involvement of Parolles or “words” in both scenes—first as the proponent of “increase and multiply” as opposed to the death-wish of virginity and then as the counsellor of a “more spacious ceremony” and “more dilated farewell” in the scene of the king's valedictory—suggests that he is paired not only with Helena but, more generally, with a form of increase that puts off immediate ends and, more specifically, with one that depends on “paroles.”24

The play whose title foregrounds closure or ending appears, then, from its very beginning to gain its own life or “increase”—and the achievement within it of the project of a “Doctor She”—from the opening up of space and the putting off of endings, as well as from the tension between mere verbal dilation in its empty, “blown up” form and a dilation which is finally of a more fruitful kind. This kind of dilation includes the extension or dilated farewell of a play whose length is underscored by the Epilogue's reference to the “patience” of the audience. The subtle juxtaposition with Helena at both points in the play's early acts establishes a link between the two—Helena's argument to the king recalling Parolles' argument against the death wish of virginity—and hence begins to suggest a relationship of counterfeit or parodic imitation between the kind of verbal dilation or wordy inflation he represents and the “increase” represented by her. This difference is underlined by Helena's “I am not an imposture” (II.i.155) in the same scene in which Parolles asks to be remembered (“Say to him I live”) to one “Captain Spurio” (II.i.43), whose name literally means “counterfeit.”25 To see Shakespeare's insertion into his source of the figure of “Parolles”—often regarded as a supernumerary irrelevance—as related instead to all the multiple senses of “increase” is not only to suggest a link, as well as an opposition, between this “manifold linguist” and the figure of Helena who directs its plot, but also to suggest the subtle links that exist between the many scenes within the play that are often similarly treated as marginal or supernumerary.

As if to emphasize a connection between the extension of life and the extending of words, as between the play's various forms of putting off, the entrance of Helena through which the king is offered a respite from death (II.i.93) is preceded by lines which give to his counsellor Lafew (whose name might instead promise a contrasting “in few”) a verbosity associated elsewhere with Parolles (“Thus he his special nothing ever prologues,” II.i.92). Most striking in this regard, however, is the fact that the offstage interval in which the King's death is postponed by Helena's physic is filled by an extraordinary scene of wordplay on the theme of “putting off,” in another of those Shakespearean additions to the source whose verbal sparring once again involves the intersection between natural and other forms of “increase.” (It begins, for example, with a double-meaning reference to the clown's “breeding,” II.ii.1-2.) That such a dizzyingly pyrotechnical exchange on “putting off” should come immediately after Parolles' education of Bertram on the courtier's art of the “dilated farewell,” as well as after the king's agreement to a “space” which puts off his death, makes it yet another of the play's apparently marginal but strategically revealing scenes. In the series of parallels through which the clown parodically iterates the larger plot, Lavatch declares that his “business is but to the court” (II.ii.4) in lines that directly echo Parolles' studying to be the “perfect courtier” in the scene just before (“I am so full of businesses, I cannot answer thee acutely. I will return perfect courtier,” II.i.202ff.). And “putting off,” in the exchange that follows in this scene, ranges through various meanings from “selling” to “palming off on some one” to taking off one's cap before it settles into an extended parody of the very forms of “putting off” which Parolles, in his counselling of a “more dilated farewell,” had instructed the “unseason'd courtier” Bertram to learn—the technique of extending or amplifying through the courtier's apparently endless supply of words.26

As the wordplay proceeds, such “putting off” becomes linked with the clown's description of “an answer [that] will serve all men,” a description to which the countess responds, “That's a bountiful answer that fits all questions,” and then again, “It must be an answer of most monstrous size that must fit all demands.” The “answer” that will “fit all demands” becomes, as the scene proceeds, the clown's stalling “O Lord sir,” which puts off or evades through a copious supply of intervening words, the empty “nothings” associated in the larger play with Parolles (“Clown. Ask me if I am a courtier … ? / Countess: I pray you, sir, are you a courtier? / Clown. O Lord, sir! There's a simple putting off”). “Putting off” is here a form of filling up both space and time, postponing a more direct “answer” to a “question” through a Parolles-like ability to extend through words. But what is signal in this scene is the fact that it not only calls attention to the idea—and multiple forms—of “putting off” but also reminds us that putting off cannot necessarily last forever, as the clown discovers as the scene approaches its own conclusion:

I ne'er had worse luck in my life in my ‘O Lord, sir!’
I see things may serve long, but not serve ever.
I play the noble huswife with the time,
To entertain it so merrily with a fool.
O Lord, sir!—Why, there't serves well again.
An end, sir; to your business: give Helen this,
And urge her to a present answer back.


“Things may serve long, but not serve ever” provides a motto which applies to all this play's forms of putting off, from the physic which, even in the hands of Gerard de Narbon, can extend life but not ultimately put off death (I.i.28-29),27 to the wordy “nothing” (II.iv.21-26) Parolles, whose “spurious” counterfeiting will be ultimately exposed. Both “An end, sir!” and the countess's call for a “present answer” remind us, in this play of ends or “fines,” of ends which, though deferred, do finally come, even to a play whose own extension and increase depends on putting off.

The sheer multiplicity of changes on the theme of “putting off” in this scene of wordplay between the countess and the clown, however, also forges links with the different forms of “putting off” that follow act II—an act that at first looks as if it might provide a more immediate folktale ending in the conclusion of the project through which Helena wins a husband by curing the king. For this same clown, in yet another parody of the larger plot, announces in his next exchange with the countess his intention to “put off” his intended wife (“I have no mind to Isbet since I was at court,” III.i.12), just after Bertram has managed to evade the wife who chooses him rather than the other way around. The entire comic scene on the forms of “putting off” (II.ii) is linked by unmistakable verbal echo to the kind of putting off which thus generates the plot a second time, when Helena is wedded to, but not bedded by, a now again-departing Bertram. This time the putting off is not verbal but erotic. But this delay of consummation is announced once again through Parolles or words, sent to deliver another “adieu”:

Madam, my lord will go away to-night,
A very serious business calls on him.
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;
Whose want, and whose delay, is strew'd with sweets,
Which they distill now in the curbed time,
To make the coming hour o'erflow with joy,
And pleasure drown the brim.

(II.iv.39-47; my emphasis)

Bertram's earlier farewell, his departure for Paris, had introduced the distance which led first to Helena's despairing sense of an end (“there is no living, none”) and then to her first more active project, the curing of the king and the fulfillment of the play's first comic plot. This, his second displacement, now for Italy, creates a space of putting off which reaches its end only after she relies not on her father's medicine but on her own devices.

Once again, this displacement creates what the king had earlier called a “coming space” (II.iii.181)—here the space before consummation that Helena, like Desdemona, experiences as a “heavy interim” (Othello, I.iii.958). It is in this new period of put-off ends that attention is repeatedly called to Bertram's being under the influence of “Parolles,” as if the play were aligning verbal and erotic “putting off” in its larger plot as it does more microscopically in its interweaving of asides that refer both to the putting off of Helena and to the lengthy travellers' tales associated with Parolles's bombast (II.v.15-31). Verbal echoes link Bertram with a Parolles-like inflation as the “proud, scornful boy” rebuked by the king for disparaging Helena's humble social origins (“Where great additions swell's and virtue none, / It is a dropsied honour,” II.iii.127-28; my emphasis). The “answer” Bertram offers to the king's command to “speak” is a speech of wordy nothings which in retrospect appear to have been, no less than the clown's “O Lord, sir,” a form of putting off (II.iii.167-73). And while Lafew's repeated references to the spurious or counterfeit dilation of travellers' tales (II.iii.202; II.v.28-31) have Parolles as their clearly intended referent, his “A good traveller is something at the latter end of a dinner, but one that lies three thirds and uses a known truth to pass a thousand nothings with should be once heard and twice beaten” (II.v.28-31) applies just as appropriately to Bertram, who is about to practice such a deception on Helena and on Diana, this second plot's now second virgin.

Bertram intends his departure to be another definitive and unalterable end (“tonight, / When I should take possession of the bride, / end ere I do begin,” II.v.25-27; my emphasis). It is therefore at this point that he delivers not just the letter to the countess announcing “I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” (III.ii.21-22), but a second letter whose curt farewell or intended last word is punningly termed a “dreadful sentence,” both a final statement and a “doom” (“When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never’,” III.ii.57-60). This deferral of consummation by Bertram's farewell creates yet another intervening “space”—now described as a “breadth” or “long distance” (III.ii.24)—which Helena first, passively and Griselda-like, calls a time of “waiting” upon her husband's will (II.iv.52), as if Bertram were a stand-in for another “lord,” as in the familiar allegories of the Griselda story. But it also becomes the space of a different and specifically female “plot” (III.vii.44), a project which opens up this “dreadful sentence” by converting it from a concluding statement or final word into a form of riddling question. Bertram's “not” (III.ii.22) is turned into a “knot” to be explicated or untied, and his apparently definitive “never” becomes the temporal trajectory of a demand to be answered or fulfilled. Helena calls it her “passport” (III.ii.56), in the sense of something which licences her to wander or displaces her from her home; and her displacement takes the form of a pilgrimage, traditionally the sign of displacement or of an exodus which distances or separates out.28

This second departure and second “project” bring together with extraordinarily concentrated internal echoes the play's several overlapping forms of “increase,” as well as a dilation and a delay that are simultaneously erotic and verbal. The “space” of Helena's plot becomes the space of a doubled deferral of consummation or erotic holding off. One of these is presented in its most conventional form as the virginity of a figure named “Dian,” a name added by Shakespeare to the play's source and explicitly identified with the “titled goddess” (IV.ii.2) of virginity. The other, more problematically, converts the delaying of consummation from a female to a male introduction of space or distance, and the withholding object of desire from a woman to the “peevish, proud, idle” (I.i) boy whose conditions Helena finally fulfills.29 In the first, Bertram's rhetorical appeals to Diana to “stand no more off” (IV.ii.34) directly echo Parolles' arguments against virginity in the early exchange with Helena on the subject of “increase” (“you are cold and stern / And now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got,” IV.ii.8-10); and Bertram's wooing of a “Dian” invokes the traditional lexicon of female “angling” or delay presented in its most commercial form as what Parolles in that opening exchange had called a “vendible commodity” (I.i.153-55). In the second, the fact that the actively questing Helena must now “blow up” a man—or, in the language of the exchange with Parolles in act l, inspire the tumescence necessary to “increase”—introduces one of this problem play's most problematic elements, the tonal problems in comedy of such reversal of the orthodox pattern of wooing: the sexual pursuit of a reluctant male by an active and finally successful woman.30

The early exchange between Parolles and Helena (I.i) on the subject of virginity had already presented it as a “commodity” which, “the longer kept,” is “the less worth” (“Off with't while 'tis vendible,” I.i.152-54). But the economics of “putting off”—of gauging how long to “put off” the sale in order to increase but not jeopardize the price—is the burden of Parolles' counsel to Diana on how to handle men like Bertram whose only interest lies in “scoring,” a word also linked to accounting or tallying (“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 n'er pays after-debts; take it before,” IV.iii.223-26).31 This is the conventional masculinist topos—of feminine delay as a way of raising “rate” or price—that Bertram rehearses as an aggressive defence when he is confronted by this “Dian” in act V:

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 inf'nite cunning, with her modern grace,
Subdu'd me to her rate.


The conventional delay of a “Dian” of virginity (whose “infinite cunning” achieves a desired “fine” or end by putting off another one) and Bertram's putting off of consummation with Helena, his “compell'd” wife (IV.ii.15), become, then, the motive forms of “putting off” that generate the play's second, and more extended, plot, as well as the now different plotting of a “Doctor She.” This explicit evocation of the tradition of erotic delay and its link with “rate” or increase is, like the early exchange between Helena and Parolles, yet another Shakespearean addition not to be found in the play's narrative source. Like the comic wordplay on the forms of “putting off” in the scene between the clown and countess in act II, it suggests that what Shakespeare added to the narrative from Boccaccio, apart from Parolles the “manifold linguist,” is an emphasis on “increase” itself, in all the different forms it takes in All's Well.

As if to continue the complex exchange between Helena's plot of “increase” and the form of increase or putting off represented by Parolles or “words,” the scenes in act IV that effect the “blowing up” of her own virginity in the bedtrick are presented in direct parallel with the scenes in which the ambushed Parolles, the play's figure for the inflation of mere words, is correspondingly deflated or blown down. Act IV, for example, begins with the plot to expose Parolles as an inflated “bubble” or “wordy nothing” ( when he hopes to counterfeit the recovery of his “drum” by simply filling the time for long enough (IV.i.24-25). Act IV then proceeds to interleave these scenes with those of Helena's delivery to “fill the time” (III.vii.33) in the parallel counterfeiting of the bedtrick. In the scene at the French court in act II, Parolles' counsel to Bertram to “use a more spacious ceremony” and “take a more dilated farewell” associates him explicitly with the increase or amplification of discourse as well as with the prolonging of a “farewell”; and throughout the play, the figure of Parolles combines the courtier's verbal amplitude with the stage character of the “blown up” or inflated braggart. The scene of the ambush in act IV—and its deflation of Parolles, the play's “manifold linguist” (IV.i.19-20)—depends once again on a foregrounding of language or “paroles.”32 The “choughs' language: gabble enough and good enough” (IV.i.19-20), which the ambushers conspire to speak, is parodically both empty sound or nonsensical “nothings” and the prattle of the “chough” or chatterer Parolles shares with the Osric of Hamlet and other Shakespearean sendups of the loquacious “new man.”33 When Parolles is ambushed by men who pretend not to understand his “tongue,” not only does a lack or “want” of language entail the threat of immediate death for the figure named “words” (“I shall lose my life for want of language,” IV.i.70); but after his plea for an extension of life (“O, let me live, / And all the secrets of our camp I'll show,” IV.i.83-84), he too is “granted space” (IV.i.88) for long enough to expose himself as the “counterfeit module” (IV.iii.96) or wordy “nothing” he is. His discourse becomes a parody of the “confession” (IV.iii.113) that such a delaying of a “doom” is traditionally provided for, an elaborate “running” stream of words in which he spills the “secrets” of others as the “answers” to the “demands” of his ambushers' “inter'gatories” (IV.iii.183).

The interspersing of the scenes that make up the “plot” to deflate the inflation or swelling of Parolles with Helena's fulfillment of the conditions of Bertram's letter by being “blown up” in a different sense brings to a climax the link and contest between Helena and Parolles which began with the early sparring on “increase.” The “space” granted to Parolles as a reprieve or putting off of death (IV.i,iii) is provided in scenes which coincide with Diana's introduction of an erotic delay and with Bertram's “Stand no more off” (IV.ii.34). On the same night that Parolles, pretending to be something he is not, exposes himself to a deflating recognition scene and has all his “knots” untied except on his “scarf” (IV.iii.323-24), Helena, avoiding recognition by pretending to be someone she is not, effects her own “plot” by “filling the time” (III.vii.33-44) in the bed of virginal “Dian” for long enough to convert Bertram's eternal “not” into a marriage “knot” and become pregnant with the demanded “issue.” The inflated Parolles is “crush'd with a plot” and finally “undone” (IV.iii.312-13) though, as long as the play continues, he continues to live as “simply the thing he is” (IV.iii.333-34). On the same night, Helena accomplishes the sexual “doing” that effects her “plot” and leads to the blowing up which will serve as a sign of her “increase.” If one of the major preoccupations of All's Well is the relation between words and deeds, then Parolles or empty words is deflated on the same night as the bodily increase of Helena provides her with a sign of marriage in deed as well as word.

We have already remarked the long-standing link between natural and interpretive “increase,” between the opening up of virginity and the opening of a closed or forbidding text. Bertram considers the forbidding text or “dreadful sentence” (III.ii.60) he sends to Helena to be a form of final act or last word, just as he hopes his “scoring”—the consummation of his quest to conquer a virginal “Dian”—will be the “end” of the “business” (IV.ii.93) as opposed to the “blowing up” of pregnancy or outcry which from the perspective of a man like Bertram is simply another kind of female plot, a way of converting what should be an end or “fine” into a beginning. It is in this doubled space of deferred consummation, however—Bertram's putting off of Helena and Diana's putting off of him—that Helena effects the plot that finally converts Bertram's closed “sentence” from a final word into the pretext for her own version of “increase and multiply,” both generational and interpretive. In the process she becomes both a lower-caste woman opening an aristocratic family up to exogamous increase and a successful hermeneut opening the closed or virgin text of a recalcitrant Bertram to more fertile meaning. In the terms of the early exchange between Parolles and Helena, Helena's fulfillment of the conditions of Bertram's “dreadful sentence” involves her opening up of its closure to increase, just as the bedtrick that accomplishes this project involves the “blowing up” of virginity in a sense very different from Bertram's reckoning.

Helena's “increase,” then, takes a hermeneutic as well as a bodily or generational form. On the same night as Parolles or “words” is granted “space” to expose himself as a “counterfeit module,” Bertram's forbidding text is opened to a fulfillment which simultaneously fulfills and alters it.34 The space that includes both kinds of extension is the interval of “patience” (Epilogue, 5) which is the elapsed time of the play itself, by the end of which Helena, as the “Doctor She,” has opened a closed or concluding “sentence”; won Bertram a second time (V.iii.308), which the space of delay has served to render different from the first; and finally supplied in her own dilated body the expanded and bountiful “answer”35 which fits all of this play's several riddles or questions, including the riddling of a “Dian” in its final scene:

He knows himself my bed he hath defil'd,
And at that time he got his wife with child.
Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick.
So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick,
And now behold the meaning.

(V.iii.300-304; my emphasis)

Helena's “increase”—both hermeneutic and generational—renders the play, however, a “problem” play because it involves a reversal of gender as well as a more threatening version of “increase and multiply.” In Dian's final riddling, Helena herself is the multiple “answer” in a play literally filled with such riddling questions or demands. The intervening space of “language” between question and answer is linked in this play with the space of delay between courtship and consummation in the very scene where Parolles advises Bertram to take a more “dilated farewell.” Here the king addresses the young French lords about to set off for war in Italy, in lines whose phallic “questant” and feminine “demand” are echoed in the “questions” and “answers” of the wordplay which follows in the scene between countess and clown on the theme of “putting off”:

                              see that you come
Not to woo honor, but to wed it, when
The bravest questant shrinks. …


Those girls of Italy, take heed of them.
They say our French lack language to deny
If they demand.


“Language” here is cast as something which puts off demands or questions, or something interposed between a demand and its corresponding answer. The “lack” of language which here implies more immediate consummation or ending is echoed within the play both in the clown's comic variations on the forms of putting off and in the ambush scene, where a lack or “want of language” entails, for Parolles, the threat of immediate death before he gives way to his interrogators' “demands” (IV.iii). But apart from its evocation of war's homoerotic context, the phallic sense of “questant” and the reference to the “girls of Italy” gives to these lines an unsettling suggestion of a “questing” that reverses the orthodox gender positions. Diana, indeed, becomes this “girl of Italy,” as the “demand” for the ring (III.vii.22) and the phrasing of Bertram's first lying account of her suggests in saying that he had no “answer” for her amorous demand (V.iii.98). She is also the demander of riddles, in the series of paradoxes that baffle the court and endanger her case until she produces Helena back from supposed death as their manifold “answer.”

In the curiously phallic language of the king's address to his men—with its undertone of the sexual sense of “answer” and its evocation, once again, of tumescence and detumescence (“when / The bravest questant shrinks,” II.i.15-16)—the sense of gender reversal before these aggressive “girls of Italy” and their possibly unsatisfiable “demands” gives the passage a sense of “de-manned” as well as “demand.” If “Not to woo honour, but to wed it” recalls the aggressive male context of Theseus's “I woo'd thee with my sword” in A Midsummer Night's Dream, both the “shrinking” here and the reference to a female “demand” suggest something more troubling for the orthodox and conventional. Phyllis Gorfain has described the way in which All's Well, in making women the demanders of riddles as well as the stage-managers of the plot (in Helena's case making “demand” even of a king), reverses the normative power structures of both society and riddling. And it is this reversal—of women as “demanders” and hence, in a patriarchal culture, de-manners—that provides us with much of the “problem” of this “problem” play.36

The tonal uneasiness which results from this reversal is part of what Susan Snyder, in a superb essay on All's Well, locates in the play's conversion, in Helena, of her namesake Helen of Troy—the quintessential passive object of desire—into an active pursuer of a man.37 In this context, Helena's “passport” associates her not only with a licence to wander but with the assumed licentiousness of the wandering woman who follows a man.38 Within the play, explicit discomfort with a woman's demanding (or commanding) a man sounds not only through Bertram's evident misogyny and surly resistance but through the scenes with the clown Lavatch, whose exclamation—“That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!” (I.iii.92-93)—evokes the more orthodox Pauline strictures on the proper order of female and male. The servant Lavatch, commanded by the countess, his gender subordinate but social superior, is the source both of the play's one explicit reference to Helen of Troy and of the misogynist moral that there is only “one good woman in ten” (I.iii.82). It may be—as with the presentation of Helena as a “most weak / And debile minister” (II.iii.30-31), yet one who demands—that the unease with female ordering in this play makes it, along with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Troilus and Cressida, an indirect glance at that Elizabeth who, both in her virginity and in her stagemanaging of male subordinates, frequently invited such resentment and such aggressive double entendre.39 The sexual double meanings of Lavatch's claim to “understand” his mistress the countess “most fruitfully” (II.ii.69-70), from one who “stands under” her as her servant or social inferior, release the salacious (and ambivalent) senses of “serve” used several times within this play. This includes the Petrarchan language which, as Diana points out, is part of the rhetoric of men who “serve” in love until they achieve the consummation through which women “serve” them, and hence the actual power relations beneath the Petrarchan niceties (IV.ii.17-18).40

It is within this context that we may turn, finally, to the threat of “increase” in the bedtrick itself. Helena becomes, through its substitution, not the imposed and rejected wife but the sought-for “Dian” of the male imagination, whose virginity attracts all the Petrarchan epithets attached to it in the exchange with Parolles in act 1.41 The scene in which the trick is conceived by its female co-conspirators goes out of its way to stress that the substitution is a “lawful” one:

You see it lawful then. It is no more
But that your daughter, ere she seems as won,
Desires this ring; appoints him an encounter;
In fine, delivers me to fill the time,
Herself most chastely absent.


Why then to-night
Let us assay our plot, which if it speed
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a lawful act.


The bedtrick presented as “lawful,” however, depends, like the counterfeiting of Parolles, upon duplicity, not just in the mundane sense of fooling Bertram (who appears not to notice any difference in the dark) but in the literal sense of manipulating the relationship between one and two. The riddle presented by Diana in the final scene (“He knows himself my bed he hath defiled”) depends literally upon such duplicity, on one figure's being displaced or separated out into two. It plays on the Helena who, in the bed of Diana, simultaneously is and becomes “no longer Dian” in two riddling senses, no longer virginal and not the “Dian” he intends, in lines where Helena's responding “When I was like this maid” (V.iii.309) means similarly “when I counterfeited her likeness” and “when I was a ‘maid,’ like her.”

Helena's devising of the bedtrick has opened her to the charge of “strumpet,” even with all the protestations of “lawful meaning in a lawful act.” If, in fulfillment of the early exchange with Parolles, the originally virginal Helena, now “no longer Dian,” provides an “answer” to Bertram's dooming “sentence” by opening her body—and her closed virginity—to “increase,” then this same opening and active pursuit leaves her (as it does Desdemona) vulnerable to questioning. In the exchange of wordplay on “bountiful” answers and answers of “most monstrous size” in the scene between the clown and the countess in act II, a “bountiful” answer is described as “like a barber's chair that fits all buttocks” (II.ii.17). But these lines also link it to the proverbial slang for “whore,” as when Stephen Gosson refers to Venus as “a notorious strumpet … that made her self as common as a Barbars chayre.”42 The answer of “most monstrous size” that can “fit” all questions (or the “barber's chair that fits all buttocks”) is like the “common place” of the Dark Lady Sonnets, open to all men.43 In lying with Bertram, Helena, like her, also lies.

There is another sense, however, in which the bedtrick involves duplicity as well as an unexpected form of “increase.” In a play which goes out of its way to stress surrogates or seconds as well as second times, Helena herself is double rather than simple or single. This splitting of Helena is underlined by its contrast to the first words spoken about her, by the countess, in the play:

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.

(I.i.41-44; my emphasis)

The female figure whose medicine already associates her with “simples” (II.i.75) is associated here with a simpleness routinely glossed in its sense as singleness, as something without mixture or addition.44 “Simple” is the term repeatedly attached to Helena in the play's early scenes (“I am a simple maid, and therein wealthiest / That I protest I simply am a maid,” II.iii.66-67). But even in the “simple touch” (II.i.75) of her link with simples or medicinal herbs in the curing of the king, this “simple maid” is ambiguously double—a virgin or “maid” who risks the “tax of impudence / A strumpet's boldness” (II.i.170-71) by the “demands” she makes (II.i.86, 191), in a curing scene filled with sexual innuendo and double entendre. Her patron is a “Dian” she wishes could be “both herself and Love” (I.iii.212-13), in a line that already names the tension in the play between the “titled goddess” of virginity and the “strumpet” Venus, a split between “virgin” and “whore” that Carol Thomas Neely shrewdly links to the polarizations of masculine fantasy in this play.45

This splitting—or doubleness—comes with the substitution of the name “Helen” for the source's Giletta, and that name's explicit linking with Helen of Troy (I.iii.70-71). In the version of Stesichorus, well known and frequently exploited in early modern texts,46 the wanton Trojan Helen was a surrogate or spurious substitute for the true and chaste one, whose chastity was by contrast preserved by being kept removed from the scene of strumpetry, herself (to borrow a phrase from the bedtrick) “most chastely absent.” (The reference to the lover who “sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt”—the single allusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream to the Helen of Troy with whom Shakespeare's only other Helena shares her name—suggests just such a glancing at the Stesichorus legend, where Egypt is the place of the chastely distanced double or lookalike.) Stesichorus's version, in other words, already splits a single female figure into virgin and whore: a figure called “Helen” remains chaste or “Dian” because of the female surrogate who takes her place, just as in All's Well, “Dian” is kept apart and virginal in a bedtrick in which a figure named “Helen” now takes her place.

Such splitting or doubling—as well as the substituting of a surrogate—also enables the riddling distinctions of the bedtrick that both link and separate “Dian” from the “Helen” who is “no longer Dian” in All's Well. Whereas before, each figure had threatened to embody the opposite of the associations of her name—Helena the married wife left still virgin by her husband's rejection, Diana the virgin associated with the goddess of virginity but inviting Bertram to her bed—Helena in the bedtrick substitutes for Diana in a way that involves duplicity and doubling but paradoxically preserves the chastity of both. Helena is both the “other” woman and herself, in an echo of the clown's paradoxical changes on the benefits of being seconded in husbandry.

The Helena of All's Well is disturbing to more “simple” or singular conceptions because she embodies the fear that women are always double or duplicitous. When this Shakespearean “Helen” goes to “Paris” to seek her own ends, Lafew calls her “Cressida,” linking her even further with the Troy legends of duplicitous women. Diana is not just duplicitous but triplicate: “Diana” and “Fontybell” appear as names for her in the text but so, mysteriously, does “Violenta.”47 The bedtrick—a scandal to Victorian audiences and part of what, in the play, according to Dover Wilson, sets “our” teeth on edge in the exclusive male “our” of such criticism—embodies the anxiety that it is never possible to go to bed with only one woman, that the woman in question is always split. Approach a “Dian,” the ultimate male conquest, and you get, instead, a “Helen,” the infamous strumpet or, what is worse, female sexuality with its own different and more active agenda.

For Bertram, the bedtrick plotted by women acting not as rivals but as co-conspirators makes his night of consummation—to him apparently a simple “end” or “fine”—into what we might call a nightmare of “increase.” One woman, the desired one, turns out to be duplicitous, or two. It is not just that consummating his desire may be anything but an “end” to the business—for a man who seems very much not to want to “blow up” virgins in Parolles' sense of the “rational increase” of pregnancy—but that what he had projected as both a conquest and a telos turns out to be anything but “simple.” They trifle with him in a double sense: the object of consummation is “no longer Dian” in a sense very different from what he had planned, and the wife he thought he had abandoned is the exalted virgin he deflowers. If his intended “scoring,” to use Parolles' term, carries the meaning of an accounting or numbering, the number he tallies is increased in a way beyond his simpler reckoning.

The play which places so much stress on “end” or “fine” is finally, at its own end, still open to increase. The king's “Let us from point to point this story know” is a version of the invitation to elaborate all the “ramifications” or branches of a story that in so many Shakespearean endings forecasts a continuation beyond a more limited dramatic close. And his famous “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (V.iii.333-34) opens up closure itself to contingency, to an “increase” that may not be of a particularly closural kind.48 Not only is there an offstage extension promised after its “end” or “fine”—a narrative that in the source is told, instead, before Giletta is accepted by her husband49—but Helena is still only pregnant at the end, unlike Giletta, who has already produced the demanded “issue” in the form of twin sons. We are not surprised that a play that has placed such stock in deferral should continue to do so in its own final lines, shifting the relative certainties of its source to a projection that keeps these ends still at a distance. But the play entitled All's Well That Ends Well ends with an epilogue that also stresses its dependence on audience approval (“It is ended, if you will approve it”), in a way that begs the question of whether a plot that so clearly reverses the orthodox roles of gender and class can so simply be “approved.” The teleological title summons assumptions of the conventional comic end (already altered in Shakespeare, however, as early as Love's Labor's Lost). But All's Well That Ends Well continues to be a “problem” comedy, despite attempts to dispel that designation for it.

There is another way, for example, that the problem of gender in particular is related to the plotting of “increase and multiply.” The interpretive activity seen as opening up or inducing an opening in an otherwise closed or forbidding text is, as we have seen, an activity which is itself already explicitly gendered by its link with the opening of a closed female figure to “increase.” In the masculinist logic of Parolles' changes on the “blowing up” of virgins, Helena is cast as the closed or narrow “o” (to use Helkiah Crooke's term) to be dilated or opened up. But as the active Venus whose virginal Adonis is reluctantly won, as the figure who in the bedtrick accomplishes (in all senses) a “blowing up,” and as the hermeneut who induces an opening in Bertram's closed “sentence” which opens it to “increase,” she not only reverses the orthodox positions of class and gender but also occupies too many positions at once. The structures of comedy that are summoned in act V to provide closure for a scene that refuses, whatever the title, to be satisfyingly closed are those wed to the orthodoxies these more conventional roles provide. But the fact that in this story of “increase” Helena has to play, in a more desperate sense than Bottom, all the roles at once leaves unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, the story's relation to the more traditional distribution of gendered parts.

The plot is, finally, the story not only of the spacing that avoids a potential incest or threatening “nearness,” but of the opening of an aristocratic family to a more expansive exogamy, an expansion that links it with the famous images of grafting from The Winter's Tale. Despite his best efforts to prevent it, Bertram's noble family expands just enough to graft onto itself a slip of lesser stock, an image used several times in this play for the “breeding” that enables such “increase” (in, for example, the Countess's “'Tis often seen / Adoption strives with nature, and choice breeds / A native slip to us from foreign seeds,” I.iii.144-46). The spurned lower-caste girl wins a husband of her choice, and the family incorporates a household servant whose folktale fulfillment of impossible tasks finally pays the price of entrance. But it is still only a constrained class and gender victory; and she remains his “servant” (I.iii.159) in at least one of the play's multiple senses of that term. If “women are words, men deeds”—an ubiquitous early modern proverb still echoed on the Great Seal of the State of Maryland—and if Parolles is therefore effeminated through his association with “words,” Helena is not only the accomplisher of deeds but the figure who has to shrink back into a more passive female role in time for a conventional comic close. If the bedtrick is the ultimate sign of her active achievement, it is also the place where she takes the place of the passive object of desire, becoming the traditional “vessel” of bearing in a tradition where the pregnant female body was the seal and sign of that passivity. Bertram's family expands just enough to take in its “foreign seeds,” and Helena's “increase” is accepted as Bertram's issue rather than the “spurious” one it might have been.50 But Helena's dilation, like that of the pregnant votaress of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is still uneasily conscripted to a patriarchal structure, albeit a more enfeebled one. What the women of this play manage to effect is, by contrast to the male bonding of Parolles and Bertram, consistently impressive. But in this play this “project”—in the form, perhaps, of a “sentence” still to be fulfilled—remains, uneasily, the project of an order within whose constrictions there may be still only a severely limited “space” to plot.


  1. All's Well That Ends Well, II.i.50-57. The text used in this and all references is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, 1575 edition, novel 38, in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 2 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958).

  3. See Thomas M. Greene, “Pitiful Thrivers: Failed Husbandry in the Sonnets,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), 230-44.

  4. See G. K. Hunter, ed., All's Well That Ends Well, Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1959), xxix. The original Cambridge editors of the play, in numbering it among Shakespeare's “worst” plays, commend Boccaccio's more “simple” narrative line and praise Painter's as “straighter and more dignified than the plot of All's Well; straighter, because it keeps to its theme, without pushing in the business of Parolles, Lafeu, and the clowning of the Clown; more dignified in that it conducts Helena … to her determined purpose, yet consistently with the behaviour of a great lady.” Their complaints against Shakespeare's less-dignified Helena echo Victorian horror at a plot which stresses a woman's active (and explicitly sexual) pursuit of a man rather than her role as passive object or long-suffering wife. The New Cambridge edition, edited by Russell Fraser (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), provides in its introduction a useful survey of views of the play.

  5. For the use of the term “dilation” for the sexual opening of a woman see, among others, The Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher, in the reprint edition by Arno Press (New York, 1974), 10, 81. Audrey Eccles' Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Tudor and Stuart England (Kent, Ohio, 1982) also cites passages on the “opening” of the cervix “in Copulation … and in childbirth.” See also “answerable” in Helkiah Crooke, A Description of the Body of Man (1616), 234, on the cervix: “It receyveth the yard fitly like a sheath, wherefore the amplitude is answerable to that it must contain. … It becommeth in the time of coition longer or shorter, wider or narrower as the yard is; and according to the womans appetite … more open or more contracted.” Crooke also describes the “orifice” of the womb as “like the letter, o, small and wondrous narrow” (233). On the iteration of “increase and multiply” in discussions of propagation in early modern texts, see Thomas Laqueur, “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” Representations 14 (Spring 1986), esp. 38, and the early sections of his Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990). Laqueur cites E. Roesslin's The Birth of Mankinde (1545) in this respect, though not the way that text, subtitled The Womans Book, subverts the orthodoxies of the “perfection” of the more active male his essay principally pursues.

  6. See, for example, the praise of Francis Marker in The Booke of Honour (1625) for “those who have dilated and made excellent their bloods, by the great happiness of their fortunate Issues” (II.ii.47) or Herbert of Cherbury's argument in “Ode upon a Question Mov'd” (“So when one wing can make no way / Two joyned can themselves dilate, / So can two persons propagate, / When singly either would decay”).

  7. See John Smith, Mysterie of Rhetorique Unveil'd (1657), in its definition of Paradiastole, a relatively late text which here sums up a long tradition. See also John Chamberlin, Increase and Multiply (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1976) on the ars praedicandi tradition of the preacher-hermeneut's “opening” of a brief or difficult and forbidding text of Scripture into the extended verbal forms of commentary and sermon.

  8. On these various traditions, see my earlier “Dilation and Delay: Renaissance Matrices,” in Poetics Today 5, 3 (1984): 519-29, and Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London: Methuen, 1987), esp. chap. 2. The present essay is from the All's Well chapter of a longer book, published in germ as part of “Dilation and Delay.”

  9. On endings and intermediate endings in this play see, among other treatments, Ian Donaldson, “All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings,” Essays in Criticism 27 (1977): 34ff.; Gerard J. Gross, “The Conclusion to All's Well That Ends Well,Studies in English Literature 23 (1983): 257-76; Thomas Cartelli, “Shakespeare's ‘Rough Magic’: Ending as Artifice in All's Well That Ends Well,Centennial Review 27 (1983): 117-34. For a different reading of second times and second chances, see David M. Bergeron, “The Structure of Healing in All's Well That Ends Well,South Atlantic Bulletin 37 (1972): 25-34.

  10. See Stephen Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” in his Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988). Though the notion of the “warming” of verbal friction is a very fruitful one for this play, with its repeated “cold,” the linkages this essay makes with broader generalizations about gender in the period are ones I would resist. See my “Gender Ideology, Gender Change: The Case of Marie Germain,” forthcoming.

  11. For the link elsewhere in Shakespeare between “increase” of wealth, especially through usury, and generational “increase,” see Marc Shell's reading of ewes and usury in the chapter on The Merchant of Venice in The Economy of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978); and Thomas M. Greene's essay on the sonnets (n. 3) which begin “From fairest creatures we desire increase” (I.i). See also the “womb's increase” in Coriolanus, I.i.183, and “The children are not in the fault, whereupon the world increases” (2 Henry 4, II.ii.29). “Increase” is glossed in John Barrett's Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionarie (London, 1573) with “An inlarger, multiplier, or increaser. Propagator, toris.” Thomas Wilson's A Discourse upon Usury (London, 1572) gives as its definition of usury (fol. 85): “As for example, I doe lende to receive more then I layde out … and my chiefe purpose in laying out my moneye is, by my principal to encrease my stocke, and hope by my lending, to receive an overplus.” Wilson, author as well of The Arte of Rhetorique and The Rule of Reason, strongly opposes usury in this text (in contrast to lending to those in need without interest, according to the law of charity). Its prologue contrasts the “plenty” of the merchants with the true “plenty” of what he calls “spiritual usury.”

  12. G. K. Hunter, in the Arden edition (p. 13n.), suggests that here Helena, like Desdemona in Othello, II.i (a scene which Rymer complained of as mere wordy filler or verbal dilation for its own sake), is simply filling the time in this exchange with Parolles. If this is so, there is even more reason to associate Helena and “Parolles” with the idea of other kinds of “increase” in the play, including the extension of the play itself as a thing of words.

  13. Susan Snyder provides a stimulating reading of this exchange as one of the points in the play where Helen shifts from passive to active. See her “All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object,” in English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 66-77. “Parole” in the sense of being “on parole” comes ultimately from the expression “parole of honour” (parole d'honneur), whose first English usage is recorded in the OED as 1616. Another entry, for 1658, records this borrowing from the French as a “new” usage in English; but it is impossible to have a sense from the OED of familiarity with this meaning in the early 1600s, to which the play is now dated. John Minsheu, Ductor in Linguas or a Guide into the Tongues (London, 1617) gives the French “parole” as “used … for a plee in Court” and cites as well its sense of “a lease by word of mouth.”

  14. G. K. Hunter's Arden edition note here (21) comments that “the steward's preamble is very wordy and it is possible to believe that he is playing for time till the Countess notices the clown's presence.”

  15. See, for example, II.iv.35-37; V.iii.102.

  16. In this respect, the creation of a space within incestuous conflation in All's Well anticipates Pericles, where the original incestuous pairing of father and daughter is spaced out through the incremental repetitions of a plot that finally displaces these relations into father, mother, daughter and son-in-law. See also The Winter's Tale, where Mamillius, the son who is a copy or exact “likeness” of his father, dies and is in a sense replaced by Florizel, a son-in-law. The spacing described by Peter Brooks, in Reading for the Plot (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), is thus anticipated by these Shakespearean plots and workings out of the threat of incest through narrative extension. On the peculiarly “processional” form of Pericles produced by this spacing, see Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 27. On its repetitions and recursions, see Ruth Nevo, Shakespeare's Other Language (New York: Methuen, 1987), 33-61. All's Well contains a father who is described as a “copy” for his son, as well as featuring a sense of potentially incestuous proximity between Bertram and the mother Shakespeare adds to the narrative source.

  17. Helena is the “hind that would be mated by the lion” (I.i.91) and the figure called “queen” (I.i.106) by Parolles.

  18. On the link between incest and riddling, see Phyllis Gorfain, “Riddles and Reconciliation: Formal Unity in All's Well That Ends Well,Journal of the Folklore Institute 13 (1976): 263-81.

  19. “Cold” is one of several linking words in this echo chamber of a play. It is also used for Diana's virginity (“I spoke with her but once / And found her wondrous cold,”; and again “you are cold and stern, / And now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got,” IV.ii.8-10). Just before the exchange with Parolles on increase, Helena has recourse to this image in lines which ambiguously prefer this “notorious liar” to “virtue's steely bones” which look “bleak i' th'cold wind.” Helena comments that “full oft we see / Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly” (I.i.103-5).

  20. See The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey, trans. Thomas Johnson (London, 1634), bk. 13, chap. 21, p. 484: “It tooke its denomination from the similitude of a reeden [Fistula] that is, a pipe, like whose hollownes it is”; it sometimes “drops with continuall moisture”—some have “run for many yeares”; bk. 13, chap. 22, p. 485: it can “penetrate even to the bowells, which come into the parts orespread with large vessells or Nerves which, happen to effeminate and tender persons.”

  21. Here the locus classicus might again be the discourse of Genius in the Roman de la Rose.

  22. The full text is from Thomas Blount, The Academie of Eloquence (London, 1654), 76: “Loquacity is the Fistula of the minde, ever running, and almost incurable. A talkative fellow is the unbrac't drum, which beats a wise man out of his wits.” Both images apply to Parolles, the unstoppable flowing “tongue” or “manifold linguist” who is also called “Tom Drum” in V.iii.321. For the association with loquacity, see also the OED citation of Bulwer, Chiron (1644), 5: “The mouth is but a running sore and hollow fistula of the minde.”

  23. See Cymbeline, V.v.382; and All's Well, V.iii.325.

  24. To relate Parolles to the increase of the play—as well as to the iterations within it of the theme of “increase”—suggests a different perspective on Shakespeare's invention of Parolles and his subplot in this play, beyond the moral ones usually adduced in which he and Helena struggle, in morality-play fashion, for the soul of Bertram, though it does not deny that obvious motif.

  25. According to Florio's A Worlde of Wordes (1598), “spuriare” means “to adulterate, to sophisticate, to counterfeit.” The fact that “Captain Spurio” is the name introduced in the same scene as the one where Parolles counsels Bertram in the courtly art of the “more dilated farewell” also subtly forges a link between the spacious (“use a more spacious ceremony”) and the spurious, suggesting that a “spacious” dilation may also be a “spurious” one.

  26. “He that cannot make a leg, put off's cap, kiss his hand, and say nothing, has neither leg, hands, lip, nor cap; and indeed such a fellow, to say precisely, were not for the court” (II.ii.9-13).

  27. At the point where the king is cured, the name of “Paracelsus” is mentioned, perhaps not just because he was a rival of the “Galen” with whom he is explicitly paired, but because he was author of a treatise (De vita longa) on extending life, and of treatises on alchemy as a miraculous form of “multiplying.” His real name was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.

  28. Contemporary definitions of “passport” include Barrett's in Alvearie (“safe conduct to passe”) and Minsheu's in Ductor in linguas: “Passeport, is compounded of two French words (Passer, i. transire, & port, i. portus). It signifieth with us a Licence made by any that hath authoritie, for the safe passage of any man from one place to another.”

  29. See Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), 70.

  30. See, in particular, Susan Snyder on this aspect of the play.

  31. Barrett's Alvearie gives for “score” a “tallie of wood, whereon a number of things delivered, is marked.” The Latin equivalent he cites is tessera.

  32. There may be an echo, in the figure of Parolles generally but especially here in the scene of multiple languages, of the figure of Panurge (another “manifold linguist”) in Rabelais. Panurge is also related to the amplification of the texts in which he appears.

  33. On the predominance of wordiness as a feature of the 16th-century movement away from an older military society to a society of humanists and courtiers (the new men featured in Shakespeare from the Suffolk/Talbot contrast in the early histories to the extreme form of Osric), see Joan Kelly's now classic essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?,” reprinted in her Women, History & Theory (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), 44ff.

  34. In her fine chapter on All's Well, Neely notes (88) that Helena's pregnancy actually alters the letter of the “sentence” of Bertram's demand. See also Gorfain, 267.

  35. An “answer” in Renaissance English usage also implies something which accords or agrees with, fits, or resembles the original question. See Barret's Alvearie (“to Answere: to accorde and agree wyth some thing: to be like, or to resemble”) and Joel Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978), 391: “The aim of the play is discovering the most comprehensive truth, not proving the validity of one side or the other. This is why the ‘answer’ usually embraces both.” See also William G. Crane, Wit and Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1937), 90, 102.

  36. For one excellent summary of the “problem play” or “problem comedy” designation, see Neely, 58-62. For women as demanders of riddles in this play, see Gorfain, 40, 45.

  37. Snyder, above. The aggressive female wooer is already a disturbing and tonally ambivalent Ovidian motif, epitomized by the sexually aggressive Salmacis incorporated into the Venus of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, where the conventional gender roles of pursuer and pursued (subject and object) are similarly reversed. On the aggressive female wooer in general, see William Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1977), 19; on Salmacis, see Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986), 57-58.

  38. Randle Cotgrave's definition in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London, 1611) forges a link between “passport” as a licence for travel and a “light” woman: “Elle a son passe-port. She hath somewhat about her that makes her way wheresoever she goes; (Said of a light, and wandering housewife).”

  39. On Queen Elizabeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream, see Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 2 (1983): 61-94. See also Eric Mallin's “Emulous Factions and the Collapse of Chivalry: Troilus and Cressida,Representations, 29 (1990): 145-79.

  40. On this Petrarchan dynamic, see Nancy Vickers' now classic “Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 265-79. In the Petrarchan dialectic of “service” and mastery, the “Dian” who stands as the object of praise is also the virgin to be mastered; and the language of idealized service dissimulates its own will to control. On the “Petrarchan” politics of the Elizabethan age, see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ, of Chicago Press, 1980), 165ff; and Montrose's application of Vickers' model to A Midsummer Night's Dream (n. 39 above).

  41. The folio text for this scene may not, in this respect, need editorial amendment when it places a colon after “not my virginity yet” and then proceeds to list the Petrarchan commonplaces associated with it. In the Oxford single-volume Shakespeare, Gary Taylor adds a reference to the court. See Susan Snyder, 68.

  42. See Stephen Gosson, An Apologie of the Schoole of Abuse (1579), printed along with The Schoole of Abuse (1597) (London, 1868), 661, and its description of Venus as “a notorious strumpet … that made her self as common as a Barbars chayre.” This semantic complex in All's Well is shared by Othello's crossing of “barbarian” with the “maid of Barbery” as the strumpet of the Moor. Barbiera was slang for “whore.” See Frankie Rubenstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance (London: Macmillan, 1984), xii, 21. See also Ben Jonson's Alchemist and Epicoene, especially Morose's “That cursed barber! I have married his cittern that is common to all men.”

  43. If space permitted, this would also be the place to develop the relation between the semantic complexes of “dilation” and “increase” in All's Well and the Shakespearean uses—here and in other plays—of the sexual double entendres of “stretching.” All's Well makes repeated use of the figure of stretching, both in its description of the skill of the physician Gerard de Narbon which “had it stretch'd so far, would have made nature immortal” (I.i.19-20) and in the king's reference to the “gift” that “doth stretch itself as 'tis received” (II.ii.4). But the latter image—stretching in order to receive—appears elsewhere in Shakespeare in an explicitly sexual sense: as the opening up or stretching of female sexuality to “fit” whatever it receives. It appears in the image of the chevril glove (“Here's a wit of cheveril, that stretches from an inch narrow to an ell broad!—I stretch it out for that word ‘broad’,” II.iv.87) in Romeo and Juliet and in the Old Lady's reference, in Henry VIII, to the ambivalent “capacity” of Ann Bullen (“The capacity / Of your soft chevril conscience would receive, If you might please to stretch it,” II.iii.33). The image of the “chevril glove” is linked to female wantonness in the scene in Twelfth Night where Feste invokes the “chev'ril glove” in lines that refer to making his sister “wanton.” But it is also explicitly summoned for Diana's duplicitous “angling” (part of the Shakespearean complex of ingle/ningle/Othello's “corner in the thing I love”) in the final scene of All's Well when, in her riddling double entendres, she begins to look perilously close to the prostitute or “common customer” (V.iii.276) Bertram seeks to portray her as (“This woman's an easy glove, my lord, she goes off and on at pleasure,” V.iii.267-68). The link between dilation or stretching as sexual opening—in the case of virginity, a painful stretching—and other kinds of “service” is suggested as well in the double entendres of Philostrate's description of the mechanicals' play as “nothing, nothing in the world; / Unless you can find sport in their intents, / Extremely stretch'd, and conn'd with cruel pain, / To do you service” (A Midsummer Night's Dream V.i.78-81), where though the surface meaning of “extremely stretch'd” is something like “strained to the uttermost” (Riverside), there is a sense of the sexualized language of class difference as the metaphor of sexual “service” extending to all “servants.” See also Rubenstein's Dictionary, under “con,” “stretch,” “nothing.” The painful opening/dilating/stretching of a virgin is described in Helkiah Crooke's Description: “When the yarde entreth into the necke of the wombe, then the fleshy membranes … are torn even to their rootes, and the Caruncles are so fretted and streatched, that a man would beleeve they were never ioyned” (236). It is rare, he comments, that “the Membranes are dilated with little or no paine. … For all virgins although they be never so mellow, yet have their first coition painfull” (236). The fact that the “answer” that must be “of most monstrous size” could refer to male tumescence as easily as to female “stretching” would lead us into exploration of what Derrida calls “double invagination” in Shakespeare, where the dilation or opening of a woman, as a figure for the dilation of discourse, is joined by the tradition of narrative prologance (see, for example, Mercutio's double entendres on cutting his “tale short” in Romeo and Juliet). The first reference in All's Well to “stretching” is to the physician whose skill “had it stretch'd so far, would have made nature immortal, and death … have play for lack of work” (I.i.19-21), in a context which relates such stretching to the extension of life essential if the play itself is not to end ere it begins. For the Shakespearean sonnets that come closest to suggesting this complex, see sonnets 135 (“thou, whose will is large and spacious”) and 137 (“the wide world's common place”). See with them Crooke's Description (234) on the relation between the “amplitude” of the dilation of the cervix and a woman's sexual appetite (n. 5 above).

  44. See the gloss to All's Well I.i.30-34, in the New Cambridge edition, 42.

  45. See Neely, 73, 85-86. She also points out Helena's links with the harlot/saint Mary Magdalene. The wife Bertram pledges to marry, when Helena is assumed to be dead, is named Maudlin, the familiar form of Magdalene. As Neely comments (OED 2): “It is furthermore ironically appropriate that Bertram pledges to marry a woman named Maudlin, the vernacular form of Magdalene and, in the early seventeenth century, a noun meaning a penitent. Mary Magdalene's traditional roles as reformed harlot and weeping penitent figure forth Bertram's own penitence and reform; they coincide with those of the promiscuous Diana and the saintly Helena that Bertram images and foreshadow the surprises still to come in the play” (85). Neely (80) sees this transformation of Helena, the rejected wife, into the desired “Dian” as part of Bertram's separation of himself, in the play's second part, from the authority of his mother and the surrogate-paternal authority of the king. This sense of the need to gain distance or “space” is foregrounded both in the threat of incest added to the source and in the dominance of the older generation in the plot. For superb psychoanalytic readings of both, see the different emphases of Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), chap. 2; Janet Adelmen, “Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure,” in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman N. Holland et al. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989), 151-74; and Ruth Nevo, “Motive and Meaning in All's Well That Ends Well,” in John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton, eds., ‘Fanned and Winnowed Opinions’: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1987), 26-51.

  46. See, e.g., the use of Stesichorus's version by Spenser for the splitting of true and false Florimel, and the split between Una (one) and the seemingly chaste but licentious and duplicitous Duessa, outlined by James Nohrnberg in The Analogy of “The Faerie Queene” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), 115. For Stesichorus's story of the two Helens, see Plato's versions in the Phaedrus and the Republic.

  47. See the note in The Explicator 41 (1982): 6, 9, entitled “Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, lines 2017-18,” though its reading of the play is utterly divergent from my own.

  48. On its problematic ending, see among others James Calderwood, “Styles of Knowing in All's Well That Ends Well,MLN [Modern Language Notes] 25 (1964): 292-94; Gross, 257-76; Neely, 87-92; Gorfain, 264, 271ff., 275-76; and Anne Barton's Riverside introduction, with n. 9 above.

  49. See Gross, 262.

  50. According to Florio's A Worlde of Wordes (1598), “Spurio” means “a whores sonne whose father is not known, a bastard, one base borne. Used also for a counterfeit,” a definition that could fit the “spurious” son who might have been the (feared) “increase” born of Bertram's lying with Dian (if she, not Helena, had been impregnated in that bed). Spacing, “delivery,” or distancing of the kind we have traced links All's Well (as well as Pericles and, in different ways, The Winter's Tale) to the psychological imperative of differentiation and displacement stressed in the rich psychoanalytic readings the play has sustained (see n. 45 above). And its transformation of incestuous or endogamous “nearness” into exogamous “increase” takes this sense of spacing as extension into the dynastic and political. At the same time, its “increase” becomes, from the very opening, part of the play's own “metadramatic” production of itself. This perception becomes less anachronistically “modern” when we reflect that one of the charges against Shakespeare as dramatist—a charge he turned to parodic advantage more than once—was that he generated the stuff of his plays in part from inflated or bombastic filler, precisely the forms of “putting off” associated with Parolles here. (Othello starts with reference to “bombast circumstance” and then contains in II.i a scene that has been accused by more than just its detractor, Rymer, of being a wordy filler. In The Comedy of Errors, Egeon's tedious opening narrative becomes part of a sotto voce comment on the different generic tendencies of “show” and “tell,” the notorious dilations of narrative romance—from which it comes—and the stricter economies of the new classical comedy). If, then, Parolles in his addiction to “words” is in part a satiric addition of the “new man” and his effeminating wordiness to the Boccaccio source, it is a portrait and addition associated with the “increase” of the play itself. On the effeminating sense of wordiness in metadramatic relation to Shakespeare (for example, in Hamlet), see my Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London: Methuen, 1987), esp. 20-24; and my “On the Tongue: Cross-Gendering, Effeminacy, and the Art of Words,” Style 23, 3 (1989): 453.

Further Reading

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Lewis, Cynthia. “‘Derived Honesty and Achieved Goodness’: Doctrines of Grace in All's Well That Ends Well.Renaissance and Reformation 14, no. 2 (1990): 147-70.

Examines All's Well That Ends Well's concern with faith, discussing the process by which Helena converts the King of France from a skeptic to a believer in hope.

Rothman, Jules. “A Vindication of Parolles.” Shakespeare Quarterly 23, no. 2 (spring 1972): 183-96.

Maintains that Parolles is the primary element of humor in All's Well That Ends Well, and that as the stock figure of the braggart soldier he is insubstantial as a character and not to be taken seriously as a villain.

Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1992.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 3 (fall 1993): 343-62.

Assesses Sir Peter Hall's production of All's Well That Ends Well, noting that Hall's vision is focused on Helena as the play's key to interpretation. Smallwood describes the production as unsentimental, and views Hall's take on the play as straightforward.

Snyder, Susan. “Naming Names in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Quarterly 43, no. 3 (autumn 1992): 265-79.

Investigates the significance of the naming conventions used in All's Well That Ends Well, studying in particular the naming of the French lords, the Countess's Steward, and the Countess's Clown, and noting that the names Helena and Diana are especially meaningful.

Thomas, Vivian. “Virtue and Honor in All's Well That Ends Well.” In The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problem Plays, pp. 140-72. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

Asserts that in All's Well That Ends Well, 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.

Wheeler, Richard P. “Marriage and Manhood in All's Well that Ends Well.Bucknell Review 21, no. 1 (spring 1973): 103-24.

Examines the development of Bertram's character and his attitudes concerning marriage and sexuality.

Wilkes, G. A. “All's Well that Ends Well and ‘The Common Stock of Narrative Tradition.’” Leeds Studies in English 20 (1989): 207-15.

Explores the folktale influences in All's Well That Ends Well and concludes that while Shakespeare employed a variety of folktale elements, the playwright did not allow himself to be bound by the conventions of his sources.

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All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 63)


All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 86)