Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well

By William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends Well Introduction

Read the full text of All's Well That Ends Well with a side-by-side translation HERE.


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:

  • Cure a dying king who's been suffering from a fantastically disgusting illness known as a fistula
  • Get the ring off the finger of the guy who hates her and refuses to come anywhere near her.
  • Trick the same guy into sleeping with her and getting her pregnant.

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...

  

What is All's Well That Ends Well About and Why Should I Care?

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...

All's Well That Ends Well Resources

Websites

This is Your Brain on Shakespeare
Ever wondered what your brain looks like when it's on Shakespeare? Check out this cool article about how reading Big Willy Shakes impacts brain activity.

We Heart the Folger Shakespeare
The Folger Shakespeare Library is online and it's got tons of resources for students, teachers, and Shakespeare lovers.

Talk Like Shakespeare
OMG! These people love Shakespeare almost as much as we do!

135 Phrases Coined by William Shakespeare
Everything you ever wanted to know about famous phrases coined by the Bard:

Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet
This is one of the best Shakespeare sites on the Internet. It's got boatloads of links to the best online resources for students and scholars.

Movie or TV Productions

National Theater (2009)
The coolest and most visually stunning version we've ever seen, this National Theater production really plays up the fantastical, fairy tale elements of All's Well That Ends Well. In 2009, the performance was broadcast on live television and was also screened in UK movie theaters. We're not sure of NT's plans to release a DVD, but you can check out the trailer and look at pictures here.

The One Your Teacher Will Probably Show in Class
This BBC production (1981) feels a little dated to most high school and college students, but it's a solid adaptation and the critics love it. Plus, Bertram totally rocks an ‘80s-style mullet. You can probably find this flick at your local library and/or watch it on YouTube. (Go to "Video" for some links to popular clips.)

All's Well That Ends Well (18 minute film directed by James Roberts)
This 2007 flick has little to nothing to do with the play it's named after, but it does feature a bum named Billy Shakes who gives a burnout actor some advice about how to revive his career. As a bonus, it features a cameo by Penny Marshall, a.k.a. Laverne from the old TV show "Laverne and Shirley." (Ask your parents.)

Historical Documents

Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (c.1350-1353)
Shakespeare's main literary source for this play. Check it out at GoogleBooks:

William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure (1595)
Shakespeare probably read an English translation of Boccaccio's story in The Palace of Pleasure, by a guy named William Painter. Read it on GoogleBooks. Or just stick to Shakespeare.

Video

Trailer for the National Theater's 2009 Production
This production plays up the magical, fairy tale qualities of the play.

How NOT to Seduce a Seventeenth-century Virgin
Check out the seduction scene from the 1981 BBC adaptation. (Is it just us, or does Bertram need to work on his moves?)

Bertram Ditches Helen
Oh, the drama! Watch it all unfold here, compliments of YouTube.

Reduced Shakespeare Company Does the Comedies
Got four minutes? Check out the RSC's hilarious and condensed performance of ALL the Shakespeare comedies, including All's Well That Ends Well, of course.

Audio

LibriVox's Recording of All's Well
The play is read aloud by actors and it's totally free!

Images

Set for the National Theater
Check it out. This is one of the best All's Well That Ends Well sets we've ever seen.

First Folio Title Page
Here's a look at the title page of the play from the first folio edition (1623). So old.

Fairy Tale Theater
The poster for the National Theater's 2009 production of the play. How would you have designed it?