(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Thomas stresses Shakespeare's deeply ambiguous treatment of honor and virtue in All's Well That Ends Well and claims that the play features a clash of personal and public moral perspectives that remain largely unresolved at its conclusion.]

A striking feature of All's Well is the way in which the play opens by specifying relationships and engaging the theme of virtue as an intrinsic quality which may be complementary to or in conflict with nominal status. In the opening line of the play the Countess expresses sorrow at the imminent departure of Bertram, but does so by emphasising the fundamental nature of family bonds: ‘In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband’. Bertram acknowledges his debt of affection to his dead father but counterbalances it with his duty to the King and his ‘subjection’ (line 5). However, this statement of Bertram's is to sound like a hollow formula in the light of his later disregard of the King's authority. No sooner has Bertram expressed himself formally than Lafew speaks of the King as a ‘husband’ to the Countess and ‘father’ to Bertram: formal bonds are to be affective ties. Lafew's confident reassurance to the Countess is based on knowledge of the King's virtue and her desert: ‘He that so generally is at all times good must of necessity hold his virtue to you, whose worthiness would stir it up where it wanted, rather than lack it where there is such abundance’ (I.i. 7-10).

The pattern is continued a few lines later with the first reference to Helena. She too has lost a father and has become the adoptive daughter of the Countess. Before extolling her virtues the Countess makes a remarkable statement about Helena's gifted father. Although, as Lafew comments, ‘he was skilful enough to have liv'd still, if knowledge could be set up against mortality’ (I.i. 28-9) the Countess describes him as one ‘whose skill was almost as great as his honesty’ (I.i. 17-18). Immediately there is a weighing and balancing of admirable qualities: if this man was famous as a physician he must have been a man of total integrity for his honesty to surpass his skill. The implication is that honesty is valued even above life-saving skills. Characteristic of the problem plays is the way in which we plunge into a consideration of values.

The relationship between inherited qualities and education is developed by the Countess in her praise of Helena: ‘I have those hopes of her good that her education promises her dispositions she inherits—which makes fair gifts fairer’ (I.i. 36-8). Where skills and talents are cultivated but are at the disposal of an ‘unclean mind’ they are not to be admired. Rather, ‘they are virtues and traitors too’ (I.i. 40). The suggestion that talent and honesty do not always go together is followed by an awareness that integrity is not necessarily inherited. The Countess' farewell to Bertram expresses hope rather than certainty that he will prove worthy of his breeding:

Be thou bless'd, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape! Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright!

(I.i. 57-60)

The Countess is aware that Bertram is on the brink of being tested for the first time in his life. His inexperience is revealed in her plea to Lafew:

'Tis an unseason'd courtier; good my lord,
Advise him.

(I.i. 67-8)

If the hope but uncertainty of inherited qualities is suggested by the Countess' speech, along with an awareness of the need for education and experience to bring intrinsic qualities to fruition, the idea of the child as preserver of the parent's reputation is brought out by Lafew's farewell to Helena: ‘Farewell, pretty lady; you must hold the credit of your father’ (line 75). It is ironic that Helena's tears are not for her famous father because she has already forgotten him. Indeed, the impression made by Bertram on her imagination is so powerful that it has erased all other images. Helena's soliloquy, in which she gives vent to her adoration of Bertram, possesses an ease and fluency which contrasts with the compacted speeches that precede it: analysis of concepts and values gives way to free flowing verse which is expressive of Helena's idealised love of Bertram:

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.
Th' ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. 'Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In out heart's table—heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour.
But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.

(I.i. 82-96)

The immediate effect of this speech is to create a sense of surprise or incongruity. Helena's ‘idolatrous fancy’ seems strikingly at odds with Bertram's cold and detached comment to her ‘Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her’ (I.i. 73-4). Not only are they separated by a social gulf, but Bertram seems unaware of her as a young woman. Moreover, there is nothing in the early exchanges to suggest why Bertram should attract such admiration—other than the fact that he is a handsome young man. That Helena is not just a silly young girl is made clear by her shrewd assessment of Parolles: she recognises that he is a ‘liar’, ‘fool’ and ‘coward’, but rather than feeling contemptuous towards him she implies that these qualities don't create an altogether unattractive character. Helena quickly routs Parolles in a battle of wits which reveals an ease of manner that enables her to cope admirably with his bawdy talk and self-importance. It is her resilience and strength of character which are manifested in the closing speech of the scene:

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.
.....The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes, and kiss like native things.

(I.i. 212-19)

Here Helena expounds a philosophy to underpin her action. Leaving everything to heaven often serves as a pretext for inaction; and frequently seemingly disparate things are brought together and conjoined. If the audience feels any scepticism at this stage it is not about her determination to be active but rather about the worth of Bertram. Has this young woman so idealised the object of her love that he will not prove worth the effort? Significantly, her enthusiastic description of him is confined to physical characteristics: the comments of the Countess have been sufficient to create an awareness of the possibility of a discrepancy between intrinsic and extrinsic qualities. Moments later the King directs the attention of the audience back to this duality with its potential for conflict:

                                        Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face;
Frank nature, rather curious than in haste,
Hath well compos'd thee. Thy father's moral parts
Mayest thou inherit too!

(I.ii. 19-22)

The King hopes rather than assumes that Bertram will inherit his father's qualities.

When the King recalls Bertram's father he conveys a genuine sense of loss: there is no feeling of respectful sentiment being the due of the dead, but rather a picture is created of a man remarkable for humour, tact and humanity. And when the King reaches the climax of his praise it comes as something of a surprise: his greatest virtue was an ability to communicate so easily with men of all social levels that they felt comfortable with him, indeed as if they were dealing with their social equal:

                                                                      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.

(I.ii. 41-8)

The quality for which Bertram's father is most praised will be found most markedly absent in Bertram. But the King's speech suggests that Bertram should find it easier to shine as a consequence of the falling away in the present generation. The King undoubtedly creates a sense of two distinct eras, with the present being inferior to the former. While this could easily appear to be part of the traditional expression that things are no longer what they were, there is a feeling that the King is not merely responding as an ageing man idealising the past. One of the minor links between the problem plays is criticism of the obsession with the new-fangled: Ulysses makes the point in Troilus and Cressida (III.iii. 175-6); and so too does the disguised Duke in Measure for Measure (III.ii. 217-20). Here the King attributes the view to Bertram's father:

                                        ‘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 judgements are
Mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.’

(I.ii. 58-63)

Just as in the opening scene the fathers of Bertram and Helena are linked, the King turns to ask how long it has been since the death of the physician who was ‘much fam'd’ (I.ii. 71). The King's welcome to Bertram is concluded in a manner which expresses the emotional bond which binds them through the father-friend:

                                                  Welcome, count;
My son's no dearer.

(I.ii. 75-6)

So it is that both scenes focus sharply on human qualities through recollections of Bertram's father and the father of Helena.

While the question of Bertram's worth remains open, Helena's virtue is placed beyond question. On hearing of Helena's love of Bertram the Countess makes clear her estimation of her adopted daughter.

Her father bequeath'd her to me, and she herself, without other advantage, may lawfully make title to as much love as she finds; there is more owing her than is paid, and more shall be paid her than she'll demand.

(I.iii. 97-101)

Moreover, the Countess insists that her feelings towards her adopted daughter are as great as those for her natural son. In expressing this feeling Shakespeare has the Countess employ his favourite source of imagery: horticulture (also used at a critical moment in Measure for Measure but virtually absent from Troilus and Cressida):

                                                  I say I am your mother,
And put you in the catalogue of those
That were enwombed mine. 'Tis often seen
Adoption strives with nature, and choice breeds
A native slip to us from foreign seeds.

(I.iii. 137-41)

This reference to ‘foreign seeds’ is critical, because for Bertram there can be no question of social equality between people of unequal descent. Whereas the Countess enthusiastically accepts Helena as her own, and eagerly embraces the prospect of her marriage to Bertram, and the King praises Bertram's father for his natural humility which enabled men of inferior birth to feel that they were being treated as equals, Bertram appears to have total contempt for such values. He exhibits a powerful sense of social superiority. However, before revealing his attitude in this important sphere Bertram expresses an enthusiasm for the value of military honour. He fears that he will be forced to stay at court ‘Till honour be bought up’ (II.i. 32).

When he is chosen by Helena he is not only vigorous in expressing his dislike of the proposal, but is positively insolent in responding to the King's question:

                                                                                Know'st thou not, Bertram,
What she has done for me?
                                                                                Yes, my good lord,
But never hope to know why I should marry her.

(II.iii. 108-10)

Here is a clear breach of decorum which Bertram reiterates before going on to make the basis of his defiance clear:

                                                  I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father's charge—
A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever!

(II.iii. 113-16)

A great deal of special pleading has been made on Bertram's behalf—he is immature, too shocked to respond more cautiously, bitterly disappointed at being deprived of the excitement of being a young man at court and going off to the wars, etc.—but Shakespeare could hardly have made this character's feelings more explicit and unambiguous. To marry someone of Helena's social standing would be to suffer dishonour regardless of her personal qualities. Clearly for Bertram, unlike the King and his mother and father, status is everything; personal qualities are irrelevant. The King's reply constitutes a philosophical generalisation but is also a gentle attempt to persuade Bertram that he is mistaken:

'Tis only title thou disdain'st in her, the which
I can build up. Strange is it that our bloods,
Of colour, weight, and heat, pour'd all together,
Would quite confound distinction, yet stands off
In differences so mighty. If she be
All that is virtuous, save what thou dislik'st—
A poor physician's daughter—thou dislik'st
Of virtue for the name. But do not so.
From lowest place when virtuous things proceed,
The place is dignified by th'doer's deed.
Where great additions swell's and virtue none,
It is a dropsied honour. Good alone
Is good, without a name; vileness is so:
The property by what it is should go,
Not by the title. She is young, wise, fair;
In these to nature she's immediate heir,
And these breed honour; that is honour's scorn
Which challenges itself as honour's born
And is not like the sire. Honours thrive
When rather from our acts we them derive
Than our foregoers. The mere word's a slave,
Debosh'd on every tomb, on every grave
A lying trophy, and as oft is dumb,
Where dust and damn'd oblivion is the tomb
Of honour'd bones indeed. What should be said?
If thou canst like this creature as a maid,
I can create the rest. Virtue and she
Is her own dower; honour and wealth from me.

(II.iii. 117-44)

The King's response to Bertram is astonishing for its powerful insistence that assessment of human worth must be made in terms of character and action (‘is’, ‘deed’, ‘breed’, ‘acts’, all operate to generate a sense of action) rather than by means of social status or breeding. Starting at the fundamental physiological level the King makes a statement of fact that blood cannot be distinguished in terms of social status. Hence when the term ‘blood’ is being used as a means of making social distinctions it is operating as a metaphor not as a description of physiological reality. The King argues that the comparison must be between actions regardless of the status of the actors. He then goes one step further: high social standing cannot transform a bad action into a good deed. Finally, he insists that Helena has derived outstanding qualities from nature, which she may transmit to the next generation and so produce genuine honour, as opposed to the honour of title unsupported by virtuous character.

It is difficult to think of another speech in the whole of Shakespeare which sets forth this ‘democratic’ argument with such force and clarity. It is all the more remarkable coming from the King: a man who owes his position to inheritance of title. The argument does not necessarily undermine the principle of inheritance, the existence of an aristocracy or a hierarchical society, but it does imply that title and high status require virtuous behaviour—honour goes with actions not title—and that there should be no barrier to upward social mobility: not every virtuous and beautiful young woman can become a countess, but when she is chosen by a nobleman or is endowed with wealth (as Helena is by the King) there is no possible justification of citing humble birth as a means of casting doubt on the acceptability of such a marriage. The King in Shakespeare's source material does have momentary qualms about the marriage on social grounds; Shakespeare's King is unequivocal in his dismissal of the values enunciated by Bertram.

Bertram's answer to the King's speech is surprising. When he insists, ‘I cannot love her nor will strive to do't’ (II.iii. 145), not only is he rejecting the social ethos advanced by the King, but he is also denying a vital social principle in his society: his duty to his monarch. The King reminds Bertram of this but not before Helena has attempted to relinquish her reward and the King has insisted that fulfilling his side of the bargain is a matter of honour:

My honour's at the stake, which to defeat,
I must produce my power. Here, take her hand,
Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift,
That dost in vile misprision shackle up
My love and her desert; that canst not dream
We, poising us in her defective scale,
Shall weigh thee to the beam; that wilt not know
It is in us to plant thine honour where
We please to have it grow. Check thy contempt;
Obey our will which travails in thy good;
Believe not thy disdain, but presently
Do thine own fortunes that obedient right
Which both thy duty owes and our power claims;
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. Speak. Thine answer.

(II.iii. 149-66)

Only after Bertram has been warned that he will have no significant place in the court life of his society does he submit to the King's demand. What in the source material was a private transaction behind closed doors is in Shakespeare's play a public occasion which is embarrassing and humiliating to all three participants. Bertram's retreat is anything but dignified and stems quite clearly from a recognition of his own dependence on the King's favour:

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.

(II.iii. 167-73)

Having reiterated his pledge to provide Helena with a handsome dowry (one that will make her more than Bertram's equal in terms of wealth) the King warns Bertram that his fortunes are inextricably tied to Helena:

                                                            As thou lov'st her
Thy love's to me religious; else, does err.

(II.iii. 182-3)

Clearly the King has less than total confidence in Bertram's willingness to be a ‘good’ husband without a strong incentive.

Thus, like the debate scene in Troilus and Cressida which begins with Priam setting out the costs of the war and the Greeks' offer of peace, and ends with Hector's astonishing turn about, this public occasion conveys a feeling of the perversity of human nature. As Hector sets forth an irrefutable case for ending the war before joining ranks with Troilus in the pursuit of ‘honour’, so too in this scene is there a feeling that Bertram has bowed to necessity but remains unconvinced of the validity of the social principles enunciated by the King. And what of Helena? The problem for the audience is to comprehend how she will be able to retain her feeling of love for Bertram after the treatment she has received in this scene. Can she still idolise him?

When Helena next appears it is to be informed by Parolles that she has to forgo the consummation of her marriage because Bertram has urgent business elsewhere. Helena's response is one of simple acceptance: ‘In everything I wait upon his will’ (II.iv. 52). Before Helena receives the remainder of her instructions from Bertram—to return to Rossillion where he will join her in two days—the audience has had the opportunity of seeing Parolles thoroughly exposed by Lafew, while being accepted as a worthy confidant by Bertram. Even after Lafew has insisted that ‘the soul of this man is his clothes’ (II.v. 43-4), Bertram remains convinced that Parolles ‘is very great in knowledge, and accordingly valiant’ (II.v. 7-8). Bertram, then, is singularly undiscerning: he lacks the ability to see through even such a transparent character as Parolles.

Bertram's attitude to Helena is one of contempt: as she advances to receive her instructions from him his terse comment is ‘Here comes my clog’ (II.v. 53). He then proceeds to lie to her and in response to her tentative plea for a kiss he dismisses her coldly. After making all possible allowances for Bertram's disappointment it is difficult to feel any sympathy for him. His behaviour towards Helena is callous. However, even after receiving the next blow—the riddling letter informing her that Bertram will never accept her as his wife until she has his ring and a child fathered by him—Helena expresses no antagonism towards Bertram. Rather she suffers great anxiety on his part and a sense of guilt that she has caused him to court danger in the wars:

                                                                                                    Poor lord, is't I
That chase thee from thy country, and expose
Those tender limbs of thine to the event
Of the none-sparing war?
.....Whoever shoots at him, I set him there;
Whoever charges on his forward breast,
I am the caitiff that do hold him to't;
And though I kill him not, I am the cause
His death was so effected.

(III.ii. 102-16)

The contrast between the reactions of Helena and the Countess is striking. The Countess is direct in her chastisement of her son:

Nothing in France until he have no wife!
There's nothing here that is too good for him
But only she, and she deserves a lord
That twenty such rude boys might tend upon
And call her, hourly, mistress.

(III.ii. 78-82)

Moreover, she claims that honour is not interchangeable: the sum of honour cannot be augmented if it is lost in one sphere and gained in another: ‘tell him that his sword can never win / The honour that he loses’ (III.ii. 93-4). Ironically, when Bertram does return from the war the honour he has gained in battle does serve him well in gaining quittance for his treatment of Helena.

It is not merely Helena's tender care for Bertram which is so marked but the whole speech is delivered in a highly romanticised vein; she is still in love with what sounds like an ideal or idealised young man rather than the insensitive character who has treated her with contempt. There seems nothing selfish in Helena's love; her own bruises she can bear with equanimity; it is the prospect of Bertram suffering that she cannot endure. And yet, though her ostensible reason for leaving home is to encourage Bertram to return, Helena is soon in Florence on Bertram's doorstep planning yet again to win him. Although Helena's chief goal is to see Bertram safe and comfortable she is unable to quell her longing for him. Shakespeare has headed off any antagonism towards her by the Countess' comment that:

                                                                                                    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.

(III.iv. 25-9)

This attitude is reinforced by the ladies of Florence who are full of admiration for Bertram's appearance but dislike his treatment of his wife and the attempt to seduce Diana. It is the young virgin herself who insists on placing moral considerations in the final estimation of a man: ‘if he were honester / He were much goodlier’ (III.v. 79-80). Likewise, Mariana in cautioning Diana against Bertram states: ‘the honour of a maid is her name, and no legacy is so rich as honesty’ (III.v. 12-13). Bertram, in contrast, sees honesty as Diana's only failing: ‘That's all the fault’ he replies in answer to the comment ‘But you say she's honest’ ( 107-8). Here is the topsy-turvy world of the dashing young nobleman: he gives his all on the battlefield to heap up honour, but in order to satisfy his lust is prepared to ruin a poor young virgin. In a play overflowing with references to worth and honour Shakespeare has created an awareness of the incongruities between scales of values. When Helena puts her proposal of the bed-trick before the widow she has to persuade her that there can be no question of improper behaviour. Despite her poverty the widow is proud of her ancestry claiming ‘And would not put my reputation now / In any staining act’ (III.vii. 6-7). In contrast to the reticence of the widow Helena has no doubt that Bertram will surrender his family ring in payment for Diana's virginity:

Now his important blood will naught deny
That she'll demand; a ring the country wears
That downward hath succeeded in his house
From son to son some four or five descents
Since the first father wore it. This ring he holds
In most rich choice; yet, in his idle fire,
To buy his will it would not seem too dear,
Howe'er repented after.

(III.vii. 21-8)

It is ironic that a man who stood first against marriage on the principle of high birth should be willing to part with a symbol of his family's honour for an hour of sexual gratification with a woman whom he disdains as a human being. The ring is of far greater symbolic significance than the drum ostensibly sought by Parolles. But the drum is merely a pretext for action that will win esteem; Parolles' difficulty is to acquire the symbol without risking his life. Unlike Bertram who possesses physical courage in abundance, Parolles is a natural coward. As he ruminates on his dilemma, one of the eavesdropping lords asks the question, ‘Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?’ (IV.i. 44-5) Rather than promoting a contempt for Parolles' brazenness, this comment rather creates an awareness of his self-knowledge. At no point in the play does Bertram ever display such a sense of insight into his own character: from first to last he appears to think of himself as an admirable fellow. Moreover, Parolles' exposure is highly comic as he unwittingly participates in a dialogue with his fellows. His vice is revealed in an atmosphere of amusement, whereas Bertram's exposure takes place in a formal situation which is untouched by comic elements. When Parolles is ‘captured’ his outburst is poignant as well as comic:

                                                                                          O, let me live,
And all the secrets of our camp I'll show,

(IV.i. 83-4)

Parolles' disgrace, as a soldier, is total. But when set beside Bertram's calculated wooing of Diana his response is understandably human. In the light of his later denunciation of Diana, Bertram's courtship is cynical in the extreme. Dismissing the ties of his enforced marriage he pledges undying love to the woman whom he intends to use:

I was compell'd to her, but I love thee
By love's own sweet constraint, and will for ever
Do thee all rights of service.


(The entire section is 11649 words.)

Robert Hapgood (essay date July 1965)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hapgood, Robert. “The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well.Essays in Criticism 15, no. 3 (July 1965): 269-78.

[In the following essay, Hapgood studies Parolles as a representation of shame in All's Well That Ends Well and notes that the character sacrifices honor in favor of unrestrained living.]

The wit of Parolles's name is in the ‘s’—which Irvine and Kökeritz in their pronouncing dictionaries agree in sounding, along with the ‘e’. Altogether of Shakespeare's invention, the name has generally been taken to derive simply from ‘parole’ in the sense of ‘word’ (Lafew plays upon it thus, V, ii, 39). Wilson Knight suggests,...

(The entire section is 3808 words.)

Susan Snyder (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Snyder, Susan, ed. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-67. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Snyder examines the diverse critical assessments of All's Well That Ends Well's Helena from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.]

All's Well that Ends Well has never been a favourite with audiences and readers. No allusions to it from Shakespeare's own time have been found, and evaluations by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics tend to be at best defensive; more often their tone is embarrassed or denunciatory, and some, like Quiller-Couch, Tillyard, and...

(The entire section is 5040 words.)

David Haley (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Haley, David. “Bertram at Court.” In Shakespeare's Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in All's Well That Ends Well, pp. 1-51. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Haley interprets All's Well That Ends Well as a moral play depicting Bertram's path to self-discovery and his transcendence of a courtly “crisis of honor.”]


In its structure and dramatic emphasis, All's Well That Ends Well looks like Helena's play. Her intellect and force of personality dominate every scene in which she appears, and the audience is kept aware of her extraordinarily...

(The entire section is 11218 words.)

Michael D. Friedman (essay date winter 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Friedman, Michael D. “‘Service Is No Heritage’: Bertram and the Ideology of Procreation.” Studies in Philology 92, no. 1 (winter 1995): 80-101.

[In the following essay, Friedman focuses on the tension between Bertram's individualized sexual desires and the social necessity of legitimate procreation portrayed in All's Well That Ends Well.]

Ah, if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep,
That thou no form of thee hast left behind
.....No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murd'rous shame commits.

(Sonnet 9, ll. 3-6, 13-14)


(The entire section is 8941 words.)

R. J. Schork (essay date summer 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Schork, R. J. “The Many Masks of Parolles.” Philological Quarterly 76, no. 3 (summer 1997): 203-09.

[In the following essay, Schork claims that All's Well That Ends Well's Parolles is a clever adaptation of several stock types from Roman New Comedy: the cowardly braggart soldier, the crafty servant, and the archetypal pimp.]

As a romantic comedy there are a number of very odd twists to All's Well That Ends Well. Its adolescens hero is a reluctant lover, delinquent husband, and a liar. The King of France practically forces the youthful Count of Rossillion to marry a poor, but beautiful and intelligent commoner; Bertram's noble mother...

(The entire section is 2326 words.)

Peter Marks (review date 6 November 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Marks, Peter. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Washington Post (6 November 2003): C4.

[In the following review of director Richard Clifford's 2003 staging of All's Well That Ends Well at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., Marks finds the production conventional, drab, and lifeless.]

Even on the most accommodating of slopes, All's Well That Ends Well would be rough sledding. Perverse is not too strong a term for the vein in which Shakespeare is working in this peculiar “comedy” about a woman creepily pursuing a snooty punk of a nobleman who can barely stand the sight of her.

Over the years, literary critics...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Matt Wolf (review date 22 December 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Variety 393, no. 6 (22 December 2003): 55-6.

[In the following review, Wolf suggests that director Gregory Doran's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon was held together by a spectacular Judi Dench in the role of the Countess of Roussillon.]

Judi Dench comes out alone, briefly, at the start of the new Royal Shakespeare Co. production of All's Well That Ends Well, and a good thing, too: It's not easy looking anywhere else when Dame Judi is on stage. On this occasion, the collective gaze has been especially keen, since...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)

Patrick Carnegy (review date 27 December 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of All's Well That Ends Well. Spectator 293, no. 9151 (27 December 2003): 42-3.

[In the following review, Carnegy lauds director Gregory Doran's 2003 production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, highlighting outstanding performances by Judi Dench as the Countess of Roussillon and Guy Henry as Parolles.]

You know at once from the title that nothing's going to end well, and nor has it for this, the perhaps least loved of Shakespeare's comedies. There's a permafrost at the heart of the story of the girl who ensnares an unlovely husband, is justly rejected, and after both have undergone...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Carl Dennis (essay date January 1971)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Dennis, Carl. “All's Well That Ends Well and the Meaning of Agape.Philological Quarterly 50, no. 1 (January 1971): 75-84.

[In the following essay, Dennis discusses the religious themes of fidelity and divine love in All's Well That Ends Well.]

Dr. Johnson's criticism of All's Well that Ends Well has never been effectively answered. Its hero, Bertram, is too fault-ridden to attract the reader's sympathies, and his final good fortune in getting back the good wife he unjustly spurns seems grossly unmerited. Bertram, as Dr. Johnson writes, is “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward, and...

(The entire section is 4178 words.)

Michael Shapiro (essay date October 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Shapiro, Michael. “‘The Web of Our Life’: Human Frailty and Mutual Redemption in All's Well That Ends Well.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 71, no. 4 (October 1972): 514-26.

[In the following essay, Shapiro examines the theme of mutual redemption derived from self-knowledge in All's Well That Ends Well.]

Toward the end of his Introduction to the New Arden edition of All's Well That Ends Well, G. K. Hunter outlines the case for considering the “problem plays” as precursors of the late romances.1 Looking backward as well as forward, one can also approach All's Well and Measure for Measure as the last...

(The entire section is 5715 words.)

David M. Bergeron (essay date winter 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “The Mythical Structure of All's Well That Ends Well.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14, no. 4 (winter 1973): 559-68.

[In the following essay, Bergeron focuses on All's Well That Ends Well's allusions to the tumultuous affair of the classical gods of love and war, Venus and Mars, and associates these figures respectively with Helena and Bertram.]

Critics have frequently discussed the symbolic structure of Shakespearean comedy, whether they suggest the pattern of the journey into the “green world,” a structure perfectly realized in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or the ritual structure of reconciliation in...

(The entire section is 4145 words.)

Lynne M. Simpson (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Simpson, Lynne M. “The Failure to Mourn in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 172-88.

[In the following essay, Simpson probes the psychological and thematic function of loss, grief, and mourning in All's Well That Ends Well.]

Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to the psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back.

—Sigmund Freud, “On Transience”


(The entire section is 6218 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Babula, William. “The Character and the Conclusion: Bertram and the Ending of All's Well That Ends Well.South Atlantic Bulletin 42, no. 2 (May 1977): 94-100.

Argues that Bertram's “conversion” or “rebirth” at the end of All's Well That Ends Well is an indication of his first steps toward personal maturation.

Briggs, Julia. “Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks.” Essays in Criticism 44, no. 4 (October 1994): 293-314.

Studies Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick (a clandestine exchange of sexual partners) for the purposes of legitimizing sexual transgression in All's Well That Ends Well...

(The entire section is 625 words.)