Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well Old Age and Youth

By William Shakespeare

Old Age and Youth

...but I must attend his Majesty's
command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore
in subjection. (1.1.4-6)

From the very beginning, we get the sense that the older folks don't think the kids of the younger generation are capable of making their own life decisions. Here, we find out that since Bertram's dad has died, Bertram has become the ward of the king of France. Basically, that means that the king is Bertram's legal guardian until he's old enough to manage his own money and personal affairs. Being a ward also means that Bertram has to marry whoever the king says. As we know, this doesn't turn out so well for Bertram. Is Shakespeare criticizing the system of wardship?

He hath armed our answer,
And Florence is denied before he comes.
Yet, for our gentlemen that mean to see
The Tuscan service, freely have they leave
To stand on either part.
                                     It well may serve
A nursery to our gentry, who are sick
For breathing and exploit. (1.2.14-21)

The king is too tired and worn out to get involved in a foreign war, but he says that it's fine with him if any of the young noblemen want to get involved. This passage makes it clear that warfare is a young man's game. At the same time, it also suggests that young guys only like to fight because they're restless; it's a good way for them to blow off steam. Is that the kind of people you'd want defending your country?

Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face.
Frank nature, rather curious than in haste,
Hath well composed thee. Thy father's moral parts
Mayst thou inherit too. Welcome to Paris. (1.2.25-28)

When the king of France greets Bertram, the first thing he says is that Bertram looks just like his dad. Then he adds that he hopes Bertram also inherited his dad's "moral parts." In other words, Bertram is expected to live up to his father's reputation; that's not always an easy thing to do.

I would I had that corporal soundness now
As when thy father and myself in friendship
First tried our soldiership. He did look far
Into the service of the time and was
Discipled of the bravest. He lasted long,
But on us both did haggish age steal on
And wore us out of act. It much repairs me
To talk of your good father. (1.2.30-37)

This is a bittersweet passage, wouldn't you say? Here, the king of France knows that he's sick and dying, but apparently, thinking about a friend from his youth makes him feel a whole lot better.

'Let me not live,' quoth he,
'After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain, whose judgments are
Mere fathers of their garments, whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.' (1.2.65-70)

Here, the king criticizes the younger generation of men for being shallow and interested only in material things. In fact, the king (along with his friend Lafeu) spends quite a bit of time worrying about what's going to happen when Bertram's generation takes over.

I would have said it. You say well. Here
comes the king.
Lustig, as the Dutchman says. I'll like a maid
the better, whilst I have a tooth in my head. Why,
he's able to lead her a coronato. (2.3.40-44)

The king of France's sudden recovery is pretty astonishing. When Helen treats his disease, it's not long before he's dancing around the palace with Helen in his arms, as if he were a man twenty years younger.

Sit, my preserver, by thy patient's side, (2.3.48)

When young Helen uses her dead father's medicine to cure the dying monarch, the king of France is grateful; he even calls her his "preserver." In a previous passage (1.2.52-67), the king of France worries that the younger generation isn't capable of taking over when he's dead and gone. The fact that he's cured by a girl completely contradicts the idea that all young people are shallow, foolish, and incompetent. Maybe there's some hope for the future after all.

You are too old, sir; let it satisfy you, you are
too old.
I must tell thee, sirrah, I write man, to which
title age cannot bring thee. (2.3.210-213)

There's something amusing about an old man threatening to beat up a guy who's half his age, especially when we know he could probably do it. Shakespeare seems to be writing this for a laugh, but the whole scene makes a bigger point: the older guys like Lafeu are better men than their younger counterparts.

The devil it is that's thy master. Why dost thou
garter up thy arms o' this fashion? Dost make hose
of sleeves? do other servants so? Thou wert
best set thy lower part where thy nose stands. By
mine honor, if I were but two hours younger, I'd
beat thee. Methink'st thou art a general offense,
and every man should beat thee. I think thou wast
created for men to breathe themselves upon thee. (2.3.263-270)

If adults constantly criticize the way you dress, you're not alone. Here, Lafeu hassles Paroles about his clothes; he's so annoyed by the younger guy's outfit that he says he'd like to "beat" him. This isn't the only time an older character makes a big deal about how the younger generation of men dress themselves. At one point, Lavatch makes a sarcastic crack about how Bertram's friends are all wearing "delicate fine hats, / and most courteous feathers" (4.5.87-88). In this play, clothing emphasizes the generation gap.

Check out this short clip where a famous costume and set designer talks about how she designed costumes to play up the generation gap in a 2009 production of All's Well.

But I am sure the younger of our nation,
That surfeit on their ease, will day by day
Come here for physic. (3.1.20-22)

The Italian duke has complained that the old king of France hasn't joined their war. Here, the first lord Dumaine assures him that France's young noblemen will likely join his army. What's interesting is that the Lord talks about the younger men as if they're a bunch of bored school kids who don't get enough exercise. Of course, this also suggests that the Italian battlefield is like some kind of jungle gym.

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