Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Gender

    <em>All's Well That Ends Well</em> is all about challenging traditional sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ideas about gender and sexuality. By featuring a female protagonist who takes on a traditionally masculine role in her pursuit of a husband, <em>All's Well </em>reverses the typical gender roles we find in Western literature, especially fairy tales. In doing so, it asks us to reconsider what kinds of roles we expect young men and women to play in romantic relationships. The play also portrays the ins and outs of heterosexual relationships as a kind of warfare, taking the concept of the battle of the sexes to a whole new level.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Why does Helen worry that she'll be called a "strumpet" if she tries to cure the King's illness?
    2. Literary critic Jonathan Bate says that if Bertram were a woman, audiences would admire him for refusing to sleep with a spouse he was forced to marry. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
    3. Why does Paroles think men should go to war instead of staying home with their wives?
    4. Discuss the kinds of female roles featured in All's Well That Ends Well. How do they stack up against female roles in other Shakespeare plays?

    Chew on This

    Throughout the play, male characters like Paroles attempt to make a distinction between the sexes by suggesting that warfare and masculinity go hand in hand, while staying at home is for women and sissies.

    In All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare suggests that assigning men and women traditional gender roles is unfair and limiting.

  • Sex

    All's Well That Ends Well has a reputation for being one of Shakespeare's most sexually charged dramas. In the play, female sexuality is under constant scrutiny; the question of when and how a woman should lose her virginity becomes a topic of debate for just about every character.

    Throughout the play, sex and warfare are linked in some bizarre and troubling ways, connecting the play's treatment of sex to the theme of "Gender." Like Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well also features a notorious bed trick, during which a cheating husband is taught the ultimate lesson when he's duped into sleeping with his own wife.

    Questions About Sex

    1. There's a lot of talk in this play about how sex is like warfare. What are the effects of this comparison?
    2. Why does Bertram refuse to sleep with his wife?
    3. Explain Helen's reasons for pulling off a bed trick. Are her actions justifiable?
    4. Explain why Bertram has a scar on his face when he returns to Roussillon from Italy. What does this suggest about what Bertram has been up to?

    Chew on This

    The play suggests that Helen's bed trick is completely justifiable because she's married to Bertram, whose lawful duty as a husband is to please his wife.

    If Bertram were a woman who was tricked into sleeping with a man she hated, audiences would be outraged.

  • Society and Class

    Forget about family lineage, wealth, and inherited social rank. All's Well That Ends Well is a "tale of fantastic upward mobility." At least that's how Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber describes it (source). In the play, a poor orphaned girl sets her sights on marrying a rich nobleman who thinks she's not good enough for him because she's too "low born." In a lot of Shakespearean comedies, wanting to marry above one's social class is generally considered a big no-no. (Just ask Malvolio in Twelfth Night.) In All's Well, though, we're told over and over again that Helen's value is in her inherent virtue. It's her virtue that makes Helen worthy of marriage and worthy of our respect for her as a literary heroine. In this way, the play challenges the status quo and invites us to think about what it is that defines a person's worth.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why does Helen think she's not good enough to marry Bertram? (Why does Bertram object to the marriage that he's forced into?)
    2. How does the play define honor and nobility?
    3. What happens to Paroles after his friends play a prank that reveals him to be a coward and a traitor?
    4. Discuss how the social fortunes of Helen and Paroles are reversed in this play.

    Chew on This

    Despite her lack of wealth and rank, Helen is one of the noblest characters in the entire play.

    While the play condones Helen's upward mobility, it frowns on Paroles' social ambition. Because Paroles lacks Helen's virtue and goodness, the play punishes him by stripping him of everything and transforming him into a penniless beggar.

  • Marriage

    According to the rules and conventions of Shakespearean comedy, holy matrimony is what's supposed to make everything turn out well in the end. But in <em>All's Well That Ends Well</em>, a man is forced into an unwanted marriage, and, feeling trapped, he runs away from his wife. By the time the play runs its course and the couple is finally reunited, we have a hard time believing that either spouse will ever enjoy wedded bliss. <em>All's Well That Ends Well</em> uses marriage as a vehicle to explore the limits of its own genre and also to question whether or not marriage is the be-all-end-all of social harmony.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why does Lavatch say he wants to get married?
    2. Describe Bertram's response to his forced marriage to Helen.
    3. Do you believe Bertram when he promises to love Helen "ever dearly" at the end of the play? Why or why not?
    4. Why do you think all of the members of the older generation are single?

    Chew on This

    In <em>All's Well,</em> marriage is portrayed as an institution that shackles men and women in unhappy relationships.
             
    When the King promises to let Diana choose a husband in the final act, the play threatens to repeat the same mistakes that have already been made.

  • Death

    From the opening lines of All's Well That Ends Well, death, illness, and decay loom over the characters like a dark cloud. Two fathers are dead, the king of France is ill, and an entire court is in mourning. Yet the play is also about rebirth. The king of France is miraculously healed and a woman presumed dead resurfaces in the play's final act (much like Hermione in The Winter's Tale). Although the play ends with the promise of new life (Helen's pregnancy and her seeming resurrection from the dead), All's Well That Ends Well never quite recovers from the sense of death and decay that opens the play. This has led some critics to classify this work as a problem comedy that doesn't necessarily end well.

    Questions About Death

    1. Explain why everyone is in mourning at the play's opening.
    2. From what kind of illness does the king suffer?
    3. How does Helen cure the king's disease? What kind of impact does this have on the plot?
    4. Why is everyone so surprised to see Helen in the play's final act?

    Chew on This

    <em>All's Well That Ends Well </em>is a lot like <em>Hamlet; </em>when each play opens, a father has recently died and left his son to mourn his loss.
             
    The king of France's recovery from his mysterious illness parallels Helen's astonishing rebirth in the play's final scene.

  • Family

    Family drama is par for the course in Shakespearean comedy, which is why <em>All's Well That Ends Well </em>often reads like a daytime soap opera. Parents betray children, kids fail to live up to their parents' expectations, husbands cheat, wives scheme, and families are torn apart.  If there's one thing Shakespeare loves more than breaking up families, it's putting them back together again, whether they want to be reunited or not.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why has Bertram become the king of France's ward?
    2. Explain why the countess of Roussillon is in charge of Helen's upbringing.
    3. What kind of mother is the countess? How does she compare to Diana's mom, the widow?
    4. Bertram is often compared to Hamlet, another young man who can't seem to escape his father's ghost. Do you think this is useful comparison? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Bertram is frequently compared to his dead father, making it difficult for him to form his own identity in the play.
         
    Both the countess and the widow are forceful characters; they both have a strong maternal influence over their children.

  • Old Age and Youth

    Much like Romeo and Juliet, All's Well That Ends Well is interested in the generation gap between young and old. In this play, young men tend to be careless and shallow and the older generation worries about what will happen to the world when their children are left to run things. At the same time, Shakespeare points out that it's not easy for young people to grow up in their parents' shadows, especially when the older generation is always looking to the past as if it were some kind of golden age.

    Questions About Old Age and Youth

    1. Is there evidence of a generation gap in this play? Why or why not?
    2. Compare and contrast the attitudes and behaviors of the younger and older generations.
    3. Why do all the young French noblemen run off to Italy? (Why does Bertram stay behind in Paris?)
    4. Why does the king of France choose to officially stay out of the Italian war?

    Chew on This

    <em>All's Well That Ends Well </em>dramatizes the generation gap and suggests that young people aren't equipped to make their own decisions without the help and guidance of their elders.

    In the play, Shakespeare portrays members of the older generation as meddling busybodies who interfere and complicate the lives of young people.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Deception and mystery are all over in All's Well That Ends Well. The play is full of riddles to be solved (like the king's strange illness, Helen's supposed death, and the mystery of the two rings) and just about every character participates in some form of deceit (like the bed trick and the prank played on Paroles). In fact, the entire plot of All's Well hinges on the characters' abilities to solve puzzles and/or uncover deception. What's the overall effect of this? Well, it suggests that life itself is much like an elaborate plot or some kind of game to be played. And what if things end well for some players and not for others? Well, that's just life.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Explain how Helen and Diana pull off their bed trick.
    2. Is it even possible that a guy like Bertram could be fooled into sleeping with the wrong woman? Why or why not?
    3. Why do Bertram and his friends play a prank on Paroles? What does the elaborate trick reveal about Paroles' character?
    4. Some characters (like Paroles and Bertram) are punished for being deceptive, but others (like Helen) seem to get off scot-free. Why do you think that is?

    Chew on This

    Because Helen's deception is geared toward securing her marriage, she escapes punishment in this play.

     Although the bed trick seems completely implausible, it's successful because it pokes fun at the way some people don't discern between sexual partners.