All's Well That Ends Well
Likely composed and first performed between 1602 and 1605, All's Well That Ends Well has long been considered a problem play. The drama has resisted 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. The play centers on Helena, who becomes the ward of the Countess of Roussillon after the death of her father, a famous physician. Helena falls in love with the Countess's son, the pompous Bertram, who regards her as socially inferior. After she heals the King, Helena requests as her reward Bertram's hand in marriage. Unhappy at being coerced to marry a woman he does not love, Bertram sets a series of impossible tasks that Helena must accomplish if she wants him to accept her as his wife—she must become pregnant with his child and take the ring from his finger. By conspiring with Diana, a woman Bertram is trying to seduce, and taking her place in Bertram's bed, Helena accomplishes her tasks and Bertram is forced to accept her as his wife. All's Well was inspired by a story from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1353). Scholars have noted that the drama retains some of the traditional folktale motifs of its source, including the healing of the king and the fulfillment of impossible tasks. Although traditionally viewed by critics as one of Shakespeare's least successful dramas due to its numerous unresolved issues, ambiguous ending, and largely unsympathetic characters, All's Well That Ends Well has risen in esteem among contemporary scholars. In an attempt to overturn the play's designation as a flawed work, many modern critics have endeavored to reevaluate All's Well's dramatic structure, genre, themes, and characters.
As in many of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, the central figure of All's Well That Ends Well is a determined young woman. Unlike such esteemed Shakespearean heroines as Rosalind or Viola, All's Well's Helena has frequently perplexed or disappointed commentators. Surveying past critical perceptions of Helena, Susan Snyder (1993) describes her as an unorthodox female protagonist, and remarks on the traditional critical apprehension of her sexual aggressiveness in pursuing an unwilling, and perhaps undeserving, Bertram. Snyder also considers Helena's role in challenging patriarchal gender conventions that expect passivity and submissiveness from women. David Haley (1993) stresses the significance of Bertram as the main focus of All's Well That Ends Well. According to Haley, Bertram's personal maturation from a “proud, scornful boy” to a young nobleman possessed of at least a degree of self-knowledge and a sense of personal responsibility forms the thematic arc of All's Well. Michael D. Friedman (1995) focuses on the tension between Bertram's individualized sexual desires and the social necessity of legitimate procreation. Principal among the minor characters in All's Well That Ends Well is Bertram's dubious companion Parolles. Robert Hapgood (1965) associates Parolles with a life of shame, viewing him as a debauched liar in the tradition of Falstaff, but bearing none of the redeeming features of Shakespeare's exuberant tavern knight. For Hapgood, the ignoble rogue Parolles quite simply sacrifices honor in favor of unrestrained living. R. J. Schork (1997) claims that Parolles is a clever adaptation of several stock types from Roman New Comedy: the cowardly braggart soldier, the crafty servant, and the archetypal pimp.
Although never a favorite with audiences, All's Well That Ends Well's popularity on the stage has increased since the second half of the twentieth century. The drama is a challenge to directors, who must create psychological coherence and dramatic resolution out of the play's incongruous elements, such as its ambiguous ending and unsympathetic characters. Eric Grode (see Further Reading) reviews the minimalist staging of director Andrew Grosso's 2000 production of the play at the HERE Theater in New York. Grode praises the director's incisive rendering of the drama's darker themes, but laments the loss of the its much-needed comedic elements. In another unfavorable review, Peter Marks (2003) critiques director Richard Clifford's 2003 staging at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. Although the critic acknowledges the inherent difficulties of successfully staging All's Well That Ends Well, Marks contends that Clifford's production was a conventional, drab, and lifeless effort that failed to elicit audience sympathy. Unlike these two relatively disappointing presentations, Gregory Doran's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, which featured an outstanding Judi Dench in the supporting role of the Countess of Roussillon, received the highest praise of reviewers Matt Wolf (2003) and Patrick Carnegy (2003). In addition to offering accolades to Dench for making emotional sense of the play through her compelling performance, Wolf commends workable interpretations of both Helena and Bertram, and an innovatively comic Guy Henry as the garrulous Parolles. Carnegy lauds Doran's brilliant ability to effectively lead audiences through this notoriously obscure stage drama, and notes that “Doran keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering why the play's making better sense than you might have imagined.”
Critics of All's Well That Ends Well are interested in the play's treatment of love, redemption, and honor as well as its evocation of the destructive forces of old age, decay, and death. Carl Dennis (1971) illuminates a religious theme in All's Well associated with the Christian conceptualization of agape, or divine love. Dennis discusses the play's dramatization of an unsympathetic and seemingly unredeemable Bertram saved by the saintly grace of Helena's boundless love for him. Michael Shapiro (1972) presents a variation on this theme, arguing that redemption in All's Well begins with self-knowledge, but is only achieved through mutuality. In this reading, Helena saves Bertram with her love and intelligence, and Bertram returns the favor to Helena by offering her his own redemptive forgiveness. David M. Bergeron (1973) focuses on the play's allusions to the tumultuous affair of the classical gods of love and war, Venus and Mars. Associating these figures respectively with Helena and Bertram, Bergeron declares that the play offers a final triumph of love over discord and conflict. Vivian Thomas (1987) stresses Shakespeare's deeply ambiguous treatment of honor and virtue in All's Well That Ends Well, claiming that the play features a clash of personal and public moral perspectives that remain largely unresolved at its conclusion. Finally, Lynn M. Simpson (1994) concentrates on the psychological dynamics of All's Well and its themes of separation, identity, and memory. Simpson contends that Helena's character, caught between romance and reality, illustrates a repressed failure to adequately mourn for her dead father. According to the critic, Helena insulates herself against her grief by denying it, and outwardly compensates with bold self-assertion in a reckless sexual pursuit of the reluctant, but ultimately willing Bertram.