Once upon a time, there was a poor, orphaned girl named Helen, who fell head over heels in love with the man of her dreams, the very rich and oh-so dreamy French count of Roussillon...
Sounds like the makings of a classic fairy tale, right? Well, before you go dreaming up ways to turn this story into some kind of blockbuster animated feature (yeah, we're talking to you Disney), you might want to read the play.
That dreamy French count we just mentioned? Well, it turns out that he's a snob and a player who wants absolutely nothing to do with our heroine. In order to land this Prince-Not-So-Charming and have her happily ever after, Helen has to ditch the Cinderella routine and man up. Literally. In order to win the big prize (a husband who loves her), she has to take on the role of a male "quester" (look out Frodo Baggins), who must complete a bunch of impossible and embarrassing tasks:
What is this freaky story that seems like an R-rated hybrid between The Bachelorette, The Lord of the Rings, and an episode of The Jerry Springer Show?
It's William Shakespeare's comedy, All's Well That Ends Well, of course. Written between 1603 and 1606, the play is based on a popular medieval story from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1350-1353), a collection of 100 tales (mostly love stories with boatloads of dirty jokes). Shakespeare probably read an English translation of Boccaccio's story in a book called The Palace of Pleasure (1595) by a guy named William Painter. Yeah, Shakespeare's a notorious plagiarizer alright, but borrowing from other writers was no big whoop back in the day.
Because of its dark tone and unsettling themes, All's Well is often called a problem play or a problem comedy. (We talk about this in "Genre.") It also has the distinction of providing the least realistic happy ending in Shakespearean literature, which partially explains why the play isn't as popular as some of Shakespeare's other works. (Go to "What's Up With the Ending?" for more on this.) There's also the fact that it lacks the kind of rowdy, party-like-a-rock-star atmosphere of Shakespeare's so-called festive comedies (like Twelfth Night and As You Like It).
That said, we think All's Well is plenty provocative, even if it is one of the most bizarre plays we've ever read. (A lot of literary critics and Shakespeare fanatics agree with us.) Keep reading to find out why...
You know how we said that All's Well is Shakespeare's freaky, twisted version of a fairy tale gone horribly wrong? Well, it turns out that this is a pretty big deal. Sure, Shakespeare stole the idea from Boccaccio, but still, he takes a popular genre that's been around FOR-EVER and flips it on its head in a way that has us completely rethinking our ideas about love, sex, marriage, family, and happiness.
Think about it. Our girl Helen is a poor, Cinderella type who's looking for the ultimate happily ever after (read: a perfect marriage to a husband who's hot and rich). There's just one catch. Helen's Prince Charmin" turns out to be the biggest jerk on the planet. (Okay, we're being a little harsh here, but don't worry, we're going to defend Bertram in just a minute.)
Shakespeare's point? Fairy tales have been around for ages, but they're not real. They're fantasies that come neatly packaged in a generic formula that doesn't even begin to represent how things actually happen in the real world. Sure, sweep-me-off-my-feet-and-rescue-me romance sounds nice in theory, but Shakespeare's play suggests that it doesn't really exist. Not only that, but these kinds of stories operate according to strict rules and conventions that put a lot of unfair pressure on young men and women to act a certain way.
Is Shakespeare telling us that girls like Helen should stop expecting guys like Bertram to fit into the perfect boyfriend/husband mold? More importantly, is All's Well That Ends Well asking us to think about the possibility that, just maybe, nobody ever really gets a "happily ever after"? It sure seems that way to us.
You might think we're being cynical, and now you'll make it your mission in life to prove us wrong. Sounds great to us; we'd love to hear what you think. Just make sure you read the play first...