All’s Well That Ends Well: Summary, Characters, Analysis

All's Well That Ends Well Shakespeare

All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare

Ambivalent and autumnal in mood, All’s Well That Ends Well clearly belongs to the period of the problem comedies (of which it is perhaps the most accomplished and the most elusive), although its precise date, in the absence of any external evidence or clear topical references, is harder to fix. In vocabulary it is closely linked to Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello, and it is most likely to have been written just after them, probably around 1604-05.

All’s Well That Ends Well Text

The play’s only substantive text is that printed in the First Folio, apparently (to judge from its inconsistent speech prefixes, idiosyncratic punctuation, and mute characters) from Shakespeare’s own foul papers. This was probably the first play the Folio’s compositors set from such copy, which may help to explain its high percentage of misprints, errors, and cruces. Some details such as the play’s division into five acts, its specification of cornets in stage directions, and its use of the initials ‘G’ and ‘E’ in speech prefixes for the respective Dumaine brothers (possibly indications that these roles once belonged to King’s Company actors Gough and Ecclestone) suggest that this authorial manuscript may have been used as a promptbook for a conjectural revival around 1610-11.

All’s Well That Ends Well Origin

The main plot of the play is from Boccaccio, the novella of Beitramo de Rossiglione and Giglietta de Narbone recounted on the third day of the Decameron, which Shakespeare probably read in English in William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566-7). Shakespeare’s additions are principally, the comic roles of Paroles and Lavatch.

All’s Well That Ends Well Characters

Helena

The daughter of a very famous, recently deceased court physician, Helena has the physical and mental attributes that could Command the attention of virtually any eligible bachelor, but unfortunately she does not have the correct social pedigree to entice the man whom she loves, Bertram, a count’s son. Through the use of her native wit and the body of knowledge that she inherits from her father, as well as because of her sheer strength of will, she overcomes all obstacles and wins Bertram. To some commentators on this play, Helena’s tactics seem questionable, although no one underestimates her strength of character.

Bertram

For several reasons, Bertram seems significantly inferior to Helena. He is under the influence of the patently superficial Parolles, and he lies outright on more than one occasion. Furthermore, he blatantly disregards the king’s wishes. To a modern audience, he might seem to have every right to refuse a forced marriage, but to the world which the play inhabits, that is not the case. Besides, Helena is clearly in everyone else’s opinion) a splendid person. The play ends, however, in such an abrupt manner that Shakespeare leaves us wondering just how “well” all has “ended for Bertram and his “rightful” bride.

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King of France

In his prime, the king was a valiant warrior and a staunch friend of Bertram’s father. He is utterly charmed by Helena, and he is grateful for the cure that she administers to him, all of which makes his outrage even greater when Bertram refuses to accept Helena as a bride. He exerts his royal authority to force the marriage, and in Shakespeare’s scheme of things in the play, he seems to be right in doing so.

Countess of Rousillon

Bertram’s mother fully sympathizes with Helena in her state of lovelorn agony, and she goes so far as to say that she will disown her son as a result of his rejection of her adopted daughter.” She does what she can to make things “end well.”

Lafeu

Lafeu is an elderly friend of the countess and her family. His role is that of adviser and mollifier. He is the first to see through Parolles’ schemes, and it is his daughter whose planned marriage to Bertram (before Helena is “resurrected” at the end of the play) will signal a return to good order.

Parolles

Lafeu sums up the character of Parolles when he says, “The soul of this man is his clothes.” Parolles is the tempter of Bertram as a “prodigal son, and in the end, Parolles is seen as such and rejected.

Clown (Tanache)

The countess’ servant offers comic reflections about several characters in the play, most pointedly about Parolles. His mouth is lewd, and his manner is absurd.

A Widow of Florence

For a fee, the widow helps Helena arrange and execute the old “bed trick”; here, Bertram is trapped into sleeping with his own wife in the belief that she is another woman.

Diana

Diana is the widow’s daughter and Helena’s ally in her pursuit of Bertram. She is the bait used to trap Bertram. Diana displays a good deal of wit and a composed bearing under the pressure of the courtly observers during the final “revelation scene.”

Mariana

A neighbor of the widow

Two French Lords, the Brothers Dumain

The two noblemen who mastermind the plot to expose Paroles. They are friends to Bertram.

All’s Well That Ends Well Summary

Act 1 Scene 1

The widowed Countess of Roussillon takes leave of her son Bertram, who has been summoned to court by the terminally ill King of France, of whom he is a ward: with him goes the Countess’s old friend Lord Lafeu. The Countess’s own ward, Helen, weeping orphaned daughter of the physician Gerard de Narbonne, confesses in soliloquy that her tears are inspired not by her father’s death but by Bertram’s departure, lamenting that the difference between their ranks renders her secret desire for him hopeless. She is interrupted by the self styled captain Paroles, Bertram’s companion, who engages in a bantering dialogue about virginity before following the Count: alone again, Helen hints that she may use the King’s illness as a means towards furthering her pursuit of Bertram.

Act 1 Scene 2

The King, declining to aid Florence in its campaign against Siena, nevertheless agrees that French noblemen may volunteer on either side. Presented with Bertram by Lafeu, he waxes nostalgic about the Count’s late father, laments his own sickness, and asks wistfully after the dead Gerard de Narbonne.

Act 1 Scene 3

The Countess is asked for permission to marry by her misogynistic servant Lavatch, whom she sends to fetch Helen, reported to have been over heard sighing for Bertram, one with Helen, the Countess exacts a confession of love from her, and gives her approval for Helen’s plan to visit Paris in the hopes of curing the King by means of one of her late father’s prescriptions

Act 2 Scene 1

The King bids farewell to the two Lords Dumaine, off to the Italian wars, as does Bertram, who longs to follow them despite the King’s commands to the contrary. Lafeu introduces Helen to the King, and she succeeds in persuading him to try her father’s remedy: he agrees that if it succeeds he will grant her any husband in his power.

Act 2 Scene 2

The Countess sends Lavatch to court with a letter for Helen.

Act 2 Scene 3

The fully restored king calls together all his lords for Helen to make her choice of bridegroom: she picks Bertram, who indignantly resists the idea of marrying a poor physician’s daughter. The King compels him, however, to go through an immediate wedding ceremony: meanwhile Lafeu scoffs at Paroles’s pretensions to courage and social status. Returning from his enforced wed-ding, Bertram tells Paroles he means to send Helen back to Roussillon without consummating the marriage and run away to the wars.

Act 2 Scene 4

Paroles tells a grieved but compliant Helen that Bertram must depart at once on unspecified business and wishes her to return home.

Act 2 Scene 5

Lafeu warns Bertram, in vain, against placing any faith in Paroles. Bertram takes a cold farewell from Helen, before he and Paroles leave for Italy.

Act 3 Scene 1

The Lords Dumaine are welcomed to the battlefront by the Duke of Florence.

Act 3 Scene 2

The Countess, delighted by the news of Bertram’s marriage to Helen, is shocked to learn that he has run oft, never intending to consummate it. Helen arrives with the Lords Dumaine, who confirm that Bertram has joined the Duke of Florence’s army: in a letter he vows that he will never be Helen’s husband until she can show him the ring from his finger (which he never means to take off) and a child of hers to which he is father (which he never means to beget). Alone, Helen resolves to steal away, so that Bertram may be willing to return home from the perils of combat.

Act 3 Scene 3

The Duke of Florence makes Bertram general of his cavalry.

Act 3 Scene 4

The Countess receives a letter from Helen explaining that she has gone away on a pilgrimage so that Bertram may came home: she dispatches this news towards Bertram, hoping that both he and Helen may return to Roussillon.

Act 3 Scene 5

A Florentine widow, her daughter Diana, and their neighbor Mariana are looking out for the army: Mariana warns Diana against Paroles, who has been soliciting on Bertram’s behalf, before an incognito Helen arrives as a pilgrim, and, accepting a lodging at the Widow’s guesthouse, learns of Bertram’s pursuit of Diana. They watch the troops pass-and see Paroles’s affected vexation about the capture of a drum-and agree, at Helen’s insistence, to speak further.

Act 3 Scene 6

The Lords Dumaine persuade Bertram to expose Paroles’s cowardice by encouraging his boasted solo attempt to recapture the drum, offering to capture Paroles disguised as enemy soldiers and allow Bertram to overhear his interrogation.

Act 3 Scene 7

Helen, her identity revealed, persuades the Widow to allow Diana to pretend to accept Bertram’s advances so that she can be replaced at a clandestine rendezvous by Helen.

Act 4 Scene 1

The Lords Dumaine and others lie in wait for frightened Paroles: simulating an absurd foreign language, they ambush him and lead him off to be questioned.

Act 4 Scene 2

Bertram ardently woos Diana, who, following Helen’s instructions, persuades him to give her his ring before inviting him to her darkened chamber, for an hour only, at midnight.

Act 4 Scene 3

The Lords Dumaine reflect on Bertram’s vices and virtues, on his reported seduction of Diana, and on the reported death of Helen: an exhilarated and unrepentant Bertram arrives to witness Paroles’s interrogation before setting off for France, the wars being over. The blindfolded Paroles, questioned through a supposed interpreter, invents scandalous gossip about the Lords Dumaine as well as revealing military secrets, and denounces Bertram as an immature seducer. Finally unmuffled and confronted by his comrades, who leave in con-tempt, Paroles resolves henceforth to make a shameless living as a laughing stock.

Act 4 Scene 4

Helen, the Widow, and Diana set off for Marseille to see the King on their way to Roussillon.

Act 4 Scene 5

Awaiting Bertram’s arrival, Lafeu and the Countess plan that the forgiven Bertram should marry Lafeu’s daughter, a scheme the King has already approved.

Act 5 Scene 1

Hearing that the King has left Marseille for Roussillon, Helen and her two companions proceed thither.

Act 5 Scene 2

Paroles begs to be received by Lafeu, who has already heard of his exposure and agrees to employ him as a fool.

Act 5 Scene 3

The Countess, Lafeu, and the king, though lamenting the supposedly dead Helen, receive a pardoned Bertram, who claims that he disdained Helen only because already in love with Lafeu’s daughter, for whom, with the King’s approval, he produces an engagement ring. The ring, however, is one given him in the dark by Helen in Florence, and is recognized by the King as one he himself gave her. Bertram’s denials that he took it from Helen are in vain, and he is arrested under suspicion of having killed her. A letter arrives from Diana, revealing that Bertram promised to marry her on Helen’s death: she and the Widow are admitted and confront Bertram, confounding his insistence that Diana was a common prostitute by producing the ancestral ring he gave her. Diana’s claim that it was she who gave Bertram Helen’s ring, though, brings her evidence into question, and Paroles’s comically equivocal testimony clarifies nothing. Finally, a riddling Diana sends the Widow to fetch the pregnant Helen, whom Bertram, the conditions of his earlier letter now conclusively fulfilled, has to accept as his wife. The King, after promising to reward Diana with any husband she chooses, speaks an epilogue.

All’s Well That Ends Well Artistic Features

The play highlights the folk tale origins of its story by casting dialogue in rhyme at crucial points of the narrative: these include Helen’s last soliloquy in 1.1, her interview with the King in 2.1, her choice of husband in 2.3, and the epistolary sonnet in 3.4 by which she announces her departure as a pilgrim, as well as Diana’s riddles and Bertram’s final capitulation in 5.3. Since this folk tale, however, is depicted as taking place in a realistic world (in which even the clown Lavatch is a bitter and unhappy cynic), the play is most remarkable for its irony, holding us at a reflective distance from its driven and unconfiding heroine and its caddish hero alike.

Shakespeare multiplies the story’s ironies and parallelisms by his pointed juxtaposition of the Rulling of Paroles (who believes himself to be committing treason when he is merely destroying his credit with his comrades) with the bed-trick used against Bertram who believes himself to be committing adultery when he is really condemning himself to his arranged marriage).

All’s Well That Ends Well Analysis

Before the mid-20th century, Alls Well That Ends Well characteristically received only qualified or grudging praise from literary critics, when enjoyed their attention at all.

Throughout its critical history the play’s in-versions of the normal patterns of romantic comedy-its sympathy with an older generation who are usually right to circumscribe the freedom of the younger, the relentless pursuit by the play’s heroine of a love she knows to be unrequited, and the general atmosphere of disenchantment, loss, and mourning within which her plot unfolds have made readers happier with Shakespeare’s more festive comedies uncomfortable, while the play’s closeness to a single narrative source has allowed some to dismiss it as a hasty piece of professional scriptwriting, some of whose faults (such as the indelicacy or improbability of the bed-trick) can be blamed on Boccaccio, Charlotte Lennox was among the first to make the comparison between play and source, in 1753, generally to the play’s disadvantage, and her dislike of Bertram in particular was memorably seconded by Samuel Johnson (1765):

“a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.’ Coleridge, more sympathetic to Bertram’s plight, defended him by attacking Helen instead (it must be confessed that her character is not very delicate, and it required all Shakespeare’s consummate skill to interest us for her”

Table Talk, 1835, although elsewhere he describes her as “Shakespeare’s loveliest character”), and for most of the next century discussions of the play continued to centre on whether its hero (hapless victim or bounder) or its heroine (virtuous exemplar of self-help or rapist upstart) was less objectionable. George Bernard Shaw, for example, who praised the play as a prefiguration of Ibsen, sided with Helen, Frank Harris with Bertram.

Only since the 1930s have what once seemed the play’s moral failures or equivocations been revalued as successful dramatizations of an ethically complex world, its interest in expiation, pilgrimage, and forgiveness (particularly its plays on the word ‘grace’) often linked with the (similarly revalued) late romances. Enthusiastic supporters have included George Wilson Knight and E.M. W. Tillyard, although it is notable that the first monograph devoted solely to this play (by J. G.Price) only appeared in 1968, and is called The Unfortunate Comedy.

All’s Well That Ends Well Movie

Four television films have been based on the play between 1968 and 1985, three adapted from stage productions. Only Elijah Moshinsky’s BBC TV version (1980) was initially designed for television.

Recent Major Editions

Russell Fraser (New Cambridge, 1985); G. K. Hunter (Arden, 1959); Susan Snyder (Oxford, 1993)

All’s Well That Ends Well Criticism

Arthos, J., “The Comedy of Generation”, Essays in Criticism, 5 (1955)

Cole, H. G., The All’s Well Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare (1981)

Price, J. G., The Unfortunate Comedy (1968)

Smallwood, R. L., “The Design of All’s Well That Ends Well”; Shakespeare Survey, 25(1972)

Sryan, J. L. Shakespeare in Performance: All’s Well That Ends Well (1984)

Tillyard, E. M. W., Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (1949)

 

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