Fairy Tale; Shakespearean Comedy
If you've been paying attention, then you already know why we think All's Well That Ends Well is a fairy tale with a major twist. (Go read our "In A Nutshell" for more on this.)
Here's the thing, though. If you were to open up one of those heavy, gigantic volumes of Shakespeare's entire works, you'd find All's Well That Ends Well under the category of comedy. That's the way it's been ever since the play was published in the "First Folio" (1623). There's a good reason for this. This genre of Shakespearean comedy has some very specific features and conventions, which is why we've got this nifty checklist. Check it out:
Shakespearean Comedy Checklist
Light, humorous tone: Hmm. Here's where we need to tell you why some literary critics call this play a "problem comedy." (A play that mostly follows the conventions of a comedy, but also has some dark tones and themes like a tragedy.) When All's Well opens, there's a whole lot of talk about the recent deaths of Helen's dad and Bertram's father. Not only that, but the king is ill and seems to be on death's doorstep, which isn't exactly "light” “humorous." Plus, the play features a guy who's forced to marry against his will and who gets tricked into getting his wife pregnant. This all casts a pretty gloomy light on the themes of "Marriage" and "Love."
Clever dialogue and witty banter: Check. Shakespeare is the king of writing snappy dialogue. We should also add that most of said "clever dialogue and witty banter" is R-rated. If you don't believe us, go read the middle of Act 1, Scene 1, where Helen and Paroles use the language of warfare to talk about sex.
Deception and disguise: Check. This one's easy. Helen pretends to be another woman so Bertram will sleep with her. (That's pretty intense. When most other comedy heroines want to disguise themselves, they just cross-dress as young men.) Oh, and did we mention the elaborate trick Bertram's pals play on Paroles? They pretend to be Russian soldiers and fake-capture Paroles so he will humiliate himself in front of everyone.
Mistaken identity: Check. Just see "deception and disguise" above.
Love overcomes obstacles: Check. Helen is head over heels in love with Bertram and she's not about to let a little thing (like the fact that Bertram wants nothing to do with her) stand in her way. That's why she gets the king to order Bertram to marry her, tracks Bertram down after he runs away, and then tricks him into having sex with her so she can get pregnant with his baby. Wait a minute. What's wrong with this picture? Technically, our playwright sticks to the "love overcomes obstacles" formula, but he also tweaks it so that the couple is together whether they both like it or not. In other words, Shakespeare is reminding us that love and marriage are not necessarily one and the same.
Family drama: Check. If you've been paying attention, then you know that Bertram's relationship with his wife is chock full of family drama. Plus, Bertram's got some issues with his mom. Not only does the countess of Roussillon stick her nose in Bertram's business, she also disowns him when he treats Helen like garbage: "He was my son, / But I do wash his name out of my blood" (3.2.69-70).
Multiple plots with twists and turns: Check. Shakespeare is never going to take us straight from point A to point B. His comedic plots are complicated, they take dramatic turns, and his characters often wander off course. (Just think of the way Helen literally roams around between France and Italy stalking Bertram.)
(Re)unification of families: Check. Shakespeare loves breaking up families, but he also loves whipping out his crazy glue and putting them back together. Still, we're not sure we buy into Bertram's claim in Act 5, Scene 3 that he's ready to love Helen and be a good husband. Go to "What's Up With the Ending?" for more on this.
Marriage: Check. So, the big tip-off that you're reading a Shakespearean comedy is that one or more couples get hitched at the end of the play and run off to bed to consummate their marriage. In All's Well, Bertram and Helen are actually married (off-stage) in Act 2, Scene 3, but Bertram runs away to Italy before the couple can have any kind of honeymoon. When the couple is reunited at the very end of the play and Bertram promises to be a good husband, it's sort of like they're renewing their wedding vows in front of all their friends and family (5.3). Not only that, but the king then turns to young Diana and promises her that, if she's still a “fresh, uncroppéd flower" (a.k.a. a virgin), she can choose any man in the kingdom to be her husband (5.3.372). Marriage is supposed to be the play's way of giving us a happy ending and assuring us that "all's well that ends well." But when the king promises Diana the husband of her choice (the exact same thing he did for Helen), we sort of wonder if things will go as badly for Diana as they did for Helen.