The plot of All's Well That Ends Well is a tissue of traditional folk motifs. The story of the abandoned wife who performs a seemingly impossible series of tasks in order to regain her husband is at least as old as the myth of Eros and Psyche. It has analogues in many of the literatures of the world. The hero or heroine who achieves great good fortune by knowing how to cure the sickness of the king when everyone else has failed, the bed-trick, the exchange of rings, and the association of virginity with magical power are all story elements with reverberations orginating far back in the past. In shaping them into a dramatic plot, Shakespeare was strongly influenced by the story of Giletta of Narbona, told as the ninth story of the third day in Boccaccio's Decameron. It is possible that he read the Italian original, but his chief source was probably the English translation, in William Painter's collection The Palace of Pleasure (1566-67, 1575).
Giletta of Narbona is the daughter of a wealthy and celebrated physician. She falls in love with Beltramo, the only son of the noble count by whom her father is employed. The count dies and Beltramo goes to Paris as a ward of the French king, who is suffering from an apparently incurable disease. When Giletta's own father also dies, she follows Beltramo to Paris, heals the king with the help of a remedy she has inherited, and then claims Beltramo as her reward. Beltramo himself is horrified by the idea, and even the king is reluctant to agree to a marriage so unequal. He keeps his word to Giletta, however, and Beltramo is forced to yield. Immediately after the wedding, Beltramo flees to Italy and enters the service of the Florentines against the Sienese. Giletta, an unhappy virgin wife, remains for a time in Rossiglione, where she wins the love and respect of all her husband's subjects. Hearing, however, of Beltramo's bitter jest, that he would consent to live with his wife when she possessed herself of a ring from which he was never parted and came to him with their son in her arms, conditions impossible (as he thought) to fulfill, she disguises herself as a pilgrim and journeys to Florence. There, discovering that Beltramo is paying court to the daughter of an impoverished gentlewoman of the city, she persuades the two women to help her. The daughter exacts Beltramo's ring as the price of her surrender, and Giletta then, for some time, secretly supplies her place in Beltramo's bed. When she is sure she is pregnant, she puts an end to these nocturnal meetings, rewards the gentlewoman and her daughter, and sends them out of Florence. Beltramo returns to Rossiglione where, some time later, Giletta suddenly appears to confront him with the ring and twin sons so like their father that Beltramo cannot help but recognize them as his own. All the courtiers and ladies of Rossiglione plead that Giletta should be accepted, and Beltramo, "perceiving her constant mind and good wit, and the two fair young boys," gladly agrees: he sets up a great feast and "from that time forth he loved and honored her as his dear spouse and wife."
As told by Boccaccio and Painter, this story has a simple shape and a clarity which are satisfying and wholly unproblematic. Everyone, even the king, is agreed at the beginning that Giletta, though wealthy, is too low-born to be Countess of Rossiglione. In her first attempt, made as the physician's daughter, she fails to win anything more than the outward appearance of rank. Subsequently, while administering Beltramo's estates, and then in Florence, she demonstrates an innate aristocracy of wit and enterprise so compelling that it annihilates the class barrier. She wins over Beltramo's household and subjects, then Beltramo himself, through sheer intellect and resourcefulness. No one in the story blames Beltramo for his initial repudiation. The king forced him into a demeaning marriage, and it rests entirely with Giletta to prove by her "diligence" that there might be something to recommend such a misalliance after all. It is true that the reader wants Giletta to succeed, but no blame attaches itself to Beltramo for being hard to persuade. Only through sheer intelligence, and by demonstrating that she can give her husband sons who inherit his face as well as his name, can Giletta make herself Beltramo's equal, his wife in fact and not in law only.
As usual, Shakespeare greatly compressed the timespan of Boccaccio's story, reducing it to a more manageably dramatic compass. He also made some significant changes in the situation and characters of the two protagonists. Helena, unlike Giletta, is poor as well as low-born, and she lacks the total self-sufficiency and some of the cunning of her prototype. Bertram, her reluctant husband, stands convicted of faults considerably more damning than Beltramo's aristocratic pride. He is callow and insensitive, a lecher, an oath-breaker, and a liar, who not only misprizes Helena but makes other serious mistakes of judgment as well. Shakespeare also added four major characters for whom there were no equivalents in his source: the old Countess of Rossillion, Lafeu, Parolles, and the fool Lavatch. All four have one thing in common: they operate in their different ways, throughout the comedy, to raise Helena in our estimation and to degrade Bertram. The play that results has sacrificed the simplicity and clear emotional emphasis of the folk-tale from which it derives. Indeed it seems positively to stress the incompatibility between characters who are sophisticated and complex and a plot which is neither of these things. Like its successor Measure far Measure, All's Well That Ends Well often seems to be questioning its own story material and, particularly in the final scene, to look ironically at its own title and at the very nature of comedy.
It is virtually axiomatic in comedy since the time of Menander that when a young man or woman wishes to marry purely for love, overleaping disparities of birth, wealth, and position, the older generation represented by fathers, mothers, uncles, and guardians will strenuously oppose such an attempted infringement of the laws of established society. All's Well That Ends Well with no help whatever from its source, insists upon inverting this pattern. Boccaccio's king, though grateful for his cure, did not relish bestowing Beltramo upon a rich physician's daughter. Shakespeare's King, by contrast, is warmly approving of the match, even though Helena, unlike Giletta, is not only a commoner but poor. The old lord Lafeu, the most eminent of the King's courtiers, also adopts the attitude that nothing can be too good for her. Most surprising of all, the old Countess of Rossillion, Bertram's mother, greets the news that her only son has been married to her waiting-gentlewoman with unfeigned delight. In this play it is the old who are generous and flexible in their social attitudes while the young—Bertram, Parolles, and (according to one view) the young lords whose constraint and inner fear at the prospect of being chosen by Helena are mocked by Lafeu—tend to be class-conscious snobs.
All's Well That Ends Well is a play filled with nostalgia for the past, concerned to evoke the remembrance of better times. Rossillion, where the action begins and ends, is an almost Chekhovian backwater, elegiac and autumnal, a world preserved in amber. It derives its character chiefly from the old Countess, from the shrewd and "unhappy" fool favored by her late husband, and from memories of the dead: Bertram's father, or that wonder-working physician Gerard de Narbon whose skill, ultimately, was not proof against his own mortality. It is understandable, to some extent, that young Bertram should be impatient to leave this place, even as it is understandable that he should experience an initial psychological shock when told he must marry a girl he has known there all his life as a dependent, a kind of inferior sister. Yet neither Paris nor Florence, the two places to which he tries to escape, functions for him as that heightened, more extraordinary world familiar in so many of Shakespeare's comedies. In neither is he transformed.
In Paris as at Rossillion, the Golden Age lies in the past. The king is old and fretful, a man who has outlived his health, his friends, and his pleasure in living. The court which surrounds him is hard-headed and rational and Lafeu summarizes its ordinary way of thinking when he complains, from the standpoint of an older generation, that
They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.
Into this sceptical, hard-headed world comes Helena, offering something quite alien to it, in the form of a miraculous cure, and demanding a fairy-tale marriage as her reward. The cure, achieved by way of a secret transmitted to her from the past, is unexpectedly successful. The marriage is not. Bertram refuses to accommodate himself to the archetypal story pattern, to recognize any return of the Golden Age. A struggle develops between the demands of romance, or comic form, and the stubborn resistance set up by a realistic, everyday world in which merit is not always rewarded, or even recognized for what it is. In this world, unicorns do not exist to testify to the mystic power of virginity, and Prince Charming is likely to prefer the fashionably dressed elder sisters to beauty in rags. Love itself is not simply the servant of a fantastic plot, but a matter of complex adjustments within the...
(The entire section is 3965 words.)