Let's see. The play opens with a lot of dark, depressing talk about dead dads, gross diseases, and an ailing king. (Oh, did we mention the bummed out orphans and the grieving widow?) To round out all this death and decay business, Shakespeare tosses in a forced marriage and ends the play by showing us a man who's basically forced to stay with a woman he never loved and never wanted to marry. Needless to say, All's Well is pretty cynical about love and it questions the idea that marriage can make anyone happy.
We know what you're thinking. Shakespearean comedies are supposed to have a light, humorous tone. What's this play's problem? Is it having an identity crisis? Does it secretly want to be a tragedy? Well, maybe. Go to "Genre" and we'll tell you why.
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:
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.
On the surface, All's Well That Ends Well seems like a pretty happy-go-lucky title (kind of like As You Like It). 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. (Go to "Genre" for more on this.)
Take Helen, for example. This long-suffering heroine struggles through most of the play to be with the guy of her dreams (that would be Bertram, who wants nothing to do with her). After jumping through a bunch of hoops (like curing a dying king and pulling off a clever but sort of diabolical bed trick), Helen finally gets her wish and Bertram agrees to be a loyal and loving husband to her (5.3). This is supposed to make all the poor girl's agony and heartache seem worthwhile.
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. Check out "What's Up With the Ending?" to find out why...
What's up with the ending, you ask? We think the hilarious crew of the Reduced Shakespeare Company says it best in their Tweeting Shakespeare project. Check it out:
"All Is NOT Well That Ends Well, and this play doesn’t. MORAL: Do it with the lights on."
In other words, with a title like All's Well That Ends Well, we're sort of expecting a super-tidy, happily ever after. That's not exactly what happens, though. Just ask Bertram, who spends 99% of the play trying to avoid the woman he was forced to marry. In the end, when Helen shows up pregnant with Bertram's baby, the poor guy discovers that she tricked him into having sex with her (when he thought he was cheating on her with another woman).
Bertram's response? He promises to love Helen "ever ever dearly."
Listen. We know that Shakespearean comedies always have to end in holy matrimony, but we're just not buying this. Bertram has either had a sudden and miraculous change of heart, or the guy has given up all hope and is resigned to his fate as Helen's husband/prize. In fact, there's evidence that Shakespeare wants us to be skeptical. After Bertram promises to be a good husband, the king of France has this to say:
All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet (5.3.378-379)
Notice how the king uses the words "seems" and "if"? When he says that "all yet seems well," he's suggesting that things merely look okay on the surface.
So, what's going on here? Well, Shakespeare seems to be questioning the conventions of the genre of comedy, where the union of a husband and wife at the end of the play is supposed to signal that all's well in the world. In other words, the conclusion of this play calls into question the idea that marriage is all it's cracked up to be.
The action of the play goes down in France (Roussillon and Paris, to be exact), as well as Italy. We're not exactly sure when the play is set. Let's just say that events occur "once upon a time." After all, the French setting is very much a fairy tale world, where the poor, orphaned daughter of a famous doctor lives with a rich countess and her handsome son.
Italy, on the other hand, is another story. It's basically a training ground for young, bored Frenchmen to play war, blow off steam, and sew their wild oats. It's also the place where Helen and Diana pull off their racy bed trick. (Italy had a bit of a reputation for being a very sexy place in Shakespeare's day. And in our day, actually.) In general, Italy is a much grittier world than France, which is probably why Shakespeare sends everyone back to Roussillon for the happy ending that he whips up for Helen and Bertram.
Check out set designer Rae Smith talk about her famous design for the National Theater's 2009 stage production of the play.
Here's the deal: this play isn't any more difficult than the average Shakespearean comedy. Then why do some readers pick up the play only to want to put it right back down?
The toughest thing about reading this play is coming to terms with the unsettling and unrealistic conclusion. Go to "What's Up With the Ending?" and we'll tell you all about it...
All's Well That Ends Well is 55% verse (poetry) and 45% prose (how ordinary folks talk every day). (Source.) There are two main kinds of verse in the play: (a) blank verse, also known as unrhymed iambic pentameter and (b) rhyming couplets. Let's discuss.
Most of the verse in this play is unrhymed iambic pentameter (a.k.a.
blank verse). It sounds a little scary, but it's actually one of the most common and natural sounding verse styles in Western literature. Let's start by breaking down the phrase iambic pentameter: an iamb is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, penta means five, and meter refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So iambic pentameter is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:
ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
Let's try it out on this line, where Helen gushes about Bertram:
his ARCHéd BROWS, his HAWKing EYE, his CURLS
Nice. Every second syllable is accented (stressed), so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme, we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter.
The play also has a lot of rhyming couplets (when the endings of two lines rhyme with each other). Check out these lines where Helen convinces the King to let her try to heal his disease:
What I can do can do no hurt to try
Since you set up your rest 'gainst remedy.
Here, remedy is pronounced like remedie. The effect is that Helen sounds a little sing-songy, almost as if she's chanting. (By the way, the witches in Macbeth speak in rhyming couplets when they're casting spells and chanting over their cauldron. We're not saying Helen is a witch, but the language in this scene is definitely a little trance-like, which suggests that her healing powers are sort of mystical.)
You've probably noticed that there's more finger bling in this play than a Yo! MTV Raps video. Okay, maybe we're exaggerating. Technically, there are only two rings in this play (Bertram's and the King's), but they pass from finger to finger like nobody's business. Let's discuss.
Bertram belongs to a family of noblemen (French counts, to be exact) and the ring has been passed down to him along with the rest of his family's wealth and social status, which he inherited from his dead father. The ring is a family heirloom that's a symbol of Bertram's family lineage as well as his social status in France.
When Bertram is forced (against his will) to marry Helen, he refuses to have sex with her. He writes a letter explaining that he'll never be a good husband to her unless she can (a) get the ring off his finger and (b) get pregnant with his baby (3.2). Translation: When pigs fly!
Withholding sex is a lot like withholding the ring. Here's why: by denying Helen his family ring, Bertram is basically saying he doesn't think she's good enough to be married to him (probably because she's way below him in terms of social class). By refusing to have sex with her, he's also saying that he doesn't think she's good enough to be the mother of his child (a child that would eventually inherit all of Bertram's wealth, including the family ring). By the way, the king of France doesn't agree with Bertram. In fact, he gives Helen one of his rings as a gift of friendship after she cures his illness.
P.S. You may have noticed Diana's big speech about how her virginity is like Bertram's ring (4.2). Go read our "Character Analysis” of Diana if you want to know why...
By now, you know that Bertram says he'll never be a husband to Helen unless she can fulfill two conditions:
When thou canst get the ring upon
my finger which never shall come off, and show me
a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then
call me husband. (3.2.58-61)
At this point in the play, Bertram should probably know better than to challenge Helen. After all, the girl has already tracked him down in Paris and has managed to cure the king in order to be with him, right? In other words, Helen's like Frodo Baggins on a mission and she's definitely up for the challenge.
With Diana's help, Helen is able to pull off what's called a bed trick, where one sexual partner is secretly substituted for another. Here's how it goes down: Diana agrees to sleep with Bertram if he'll give her his ring (4.2), and then Helen takes Diana's place at the last minute without Bertram knowing. (No, you didn't miss a big steamy sex scene; it happens off stage, somewhere between 4.3 and 4.4.)
Yep, that's pretty messed up. Still, Shakespeare's audiences seemed to have really loved this kind of plot device. In fact, literary critic Marliss C. Desens counts at least 44 plays of the period that use some kind of bed trick (source.) Crazy, right? Apparently, audiences enjoyed seeing unfaithful men like Bertram learn their lessons about trying to cheat on their wives.
Think about what happens in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure: Angelo tries to hook up with a virgin named Isabella but gets tricked into sleeping with Mariana (his jilted fiancée), which seals the terms of their engagement and possibly their marriage. Come to think of it, this kind of stuff isn't so different than what drives modern TV shows like Cheaters or talk shows that are geared toward humiliating cheating spouses on national television.
Now, how did Helen and Diana possibly pull this off? Even if the room was pitch black and Helen and Bertram didn't speak to each other the entire time, are we really supposed to believe this could actually happen? Well, the bed trick may not seem realistic or even possible, but that's not really the point.
According to famous Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, the bed trick is Shakespeare's way of making fun of men who sleep around and don't really discriminate between sexual partners. Makes sense to us. Even Helen seems to think so. When she replays in her mind her steamy hookup with Bertram, she wonders how it's possible that Bertram could have made such sweet love to a person that he supposedly hates (Helen). In the end, Helen chalks it up to lust:
But O, strange men,
That can such sweet use make of what they hate
When saucy trusting of the cozened thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night! So lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away. (4.4.23-27)
When Bertram returns home from war, he sports a giant Band-Aid and a scar on the side of his face (4.5). Of course, everyone wants to know how he got it and why. Lafeu thinks it's a "scar nobly got" in battle and therefore sees it as a "liv'ry [uniform] of honor." In other words, Lafeu sees the scar as evidence that Bertram acted honorably while he was in Italy; this would suggest that maybe Bertram isn't such a bad guy after all. (He may have been a lousy husband to Helen, but, hey, he's a war hero, so maybe there's some hope for him yet.)
Not so quick. Lavatch then points out that, actually, the scar looks a lot like the kind a guy would get if a doctor had to treat him for syphilis (a venereal disease that causes skin eruptions). If this is the case, then the scar isn't so much a badge of honor as it is a sign of Bertram's shameful behavior. (Everyone knows that Bertram's been sleeping around and cheating on his wife every chance he can get.)
The thing is, we never find out how Bertram got the scar so we can't be sure if we're supposed to think of him as a war hero or a cheater. Our guess is that Shakespeare wants us to remember that Bertram is a combination of the two.
According to Booker, "in the first stage we see a little world in which people have passed under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration, and are shut off from one another." That sounds about right to us. Helen wants to be with Bertram but he's just a little "confused" about why he should have to marry her. He completely shuts her out of his life by withholding sex and running away.
Booker says that in the second stage of a comedy, "the confusion gets worse until the pressure of darkness is at its most acute and everyone is in a nightmarish tangle." Yep, that's pretty much what happens when Bertram is tricked into sleeping with Helen (he thinks he's getting it on with a girl named Diana). When a rumor circulates that Helen is dead, Bertram is accused of murder.
"Finally," says Booker, "with the coming to light of things not previously recognized, perceptions are dramatically changed. The shadows are dispelled, the situation is miraculously transformed and the little world is brought together in a state of joyful union." In All's Well, Helen reveals her identity as the woman Bertram has recently slept with. She even comes with evidence: Bertram's ring and his baby growing inside her. Finally, Bertram agrees to be the husband she's always dreamed of.
Helen's got it bad for Bertram and she'll do anything to get him (like cure the king of France's gross skin disease for a chance to choose any husband she wants). The problem is that Bertram's not into Helen. At all.
So, not only does Helen not get a honeymoon, her man also runs away from her and says he's not going to act like a husband until two conditions are met: (a) She has to get pregnant with his baby and (2) She has to get the ring off his finger. Things aren't looking very good for Helen.
Bertram's behavior doesn't exactly lend itself to a happy, healthy marriage, now does it? Especially when he sets out to seduce a young woman named Diana. What is Helen supposed to do now?
The climactic moment (no pun intended) in the play is when Helen and Diana pull the old sexual partner switcheroo. Bertram thinks he's going to bed with Diana, but Helen takes her place in the dark room instead. Helen not only manages to consummate her marriage but she also gets pregnant with Bertram's child. Plus, Diana gets the ring off Bertram's finger and gives it to Helen.
The king of France suspects Bertram may have murdered Helen when he shows up wearing a ring that used to belong to her. Plus, Diana shows up and accuses Bertram of making a lot of promises he hasn't kept. It looks like Bertram is going to prison...
When Helen shows up, she whips out Bertram's ring and points to the baby growing in her belly. His response is a little shocking – he promises to love Helen "ever ever dearly."
Nobody questions Bertram's new commitment to Helen, and the king notes that "all seems well." (Um, okay.) Then the king says he's going to let Diana choose a husband, too. Hmm. Shouldn't someone remind the king of what happened the last time he played that game?
Helen's got it bad for Bertram and she'll do anything to land him as a husband. She chases/stalks Bertram to Paris, cures the king's mystery disease, and wins a chance to choose any husband she wants. (That would be Bertram, of course.)
Bertram isn't ready to settle down with a "poor physician's daughter," so he refuses to sleep with his wife. He tells Helen that he'll never be a husband to her unless she can meet the following conditions: (a) get the ring off his finger and (b) get pregnant with his child. Then he runs away to Italy and starts sleeping around with other women.
Helen wins Bertram back by tricking him into having sex/getting pregnant with his child and... you guessed it, getting the ring off his finger. Game over.