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All's well that ends well: Meaning Now

What do we mean when we say it today?

Helen's philosophy may sound an awful lot like Rafiki's from The Lion King: "it doesn't matter, it's in the past," but her phrase has been around a heck of a lot longer than our favorite monkey advisor. Back in 1546, a writer named John Heywood recorded it in a list of English proverbs. The only thing Shakespeare changed was some simple punctuation. It went from "all is well" to "all's well" to make it more conversational. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?

We've already pointed out how Helen's quest to cure the king and score a husband sort of looks like a classic folktale. You know what we're talking about. There's always some poor young man who wins a princess by completing some impossible task, like, say, curing a king, slaying a dragon, or answering some kind of crazy riddle. This folktale plot even shows up in classic video games like Super Mario Brothers, where an Italian-American plumber has to make it through Mushroom Kingdom and kill a fire-breathing, dragon-like turtle before he can collect his prize, Princess Peach Toadstool.

But we should point out the difference: Helen is a girl who pursues a guy, which places Bertram in a traditionally feminine role while Helen goes after him. (Just imagine if Princess Peach Toadstool was a girl-plumber out to rescue Prince Mario.) Shakespeare is asking us to think about what happens when you take a classic quest-romance plot and then flip-flop the characters' genders.

Hmm… does that mean that wily Willy is using Helen to point out that there's a double standard when it comes to the pursuit of love? It sure seems that way.

But in the end, Helen doesn't really seem to care about the different gender roles or the fact that she's had to jump through hoops to get the guy. She's a happy camper if everything turns out well (read: if Bertram falls for her).

So "all's well that ends well" becomes her mantra of sorts. As long as things turn out well, everything will be fine in the meantime (ish). But then again she'd have to feel that way to go through all that she does. Think about it. There's no way that she'd be able to marry a guy who was so horrible to her if she sat around thinking about the past.

On the surface, All's Well That Ends Well seems like a pretty happy-go-lucky title. It's as if Shakespeare is saying to us, "Hey, it's all good" or "Don't sweat the small stuff. You might run into some bumps along the road but that doesn't matter, as long as things turn out okay in the end."

Come to think of it, this is the same philosophy behind each one of his comedies, where characters always undergo some long, drawn-out trial-and-error type drama before finally reaching the happy ending that makes all the struggle seem worth it.

Still, do things really work out well in the end? Is it even possible for Helen find happiness in her marriage? What about Bertram? Do things turn out well for him? Or is Shakespeare just toying with us?

Some audiences and literary critics just aren't buying Shakespeare's so-called happily ever after. But we'll let you decide that for yourself.

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