Shakespeare's Play "All's Well that ends well" -- a Critique
Conflict between generations is a theme prevalent in many of Shakespeare's tragedies, histories, and comedies. Romeo and Juliet struggle against their parents' feud and values. Hamlet battles within himself to deal with the ethics of his father's order for revenge. Hal and his biological father, Henry IV, work out an uneasy coexistence, while the Prince simultaneously resolves his relationship with his spiritual father, Falstaff. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mainspring of the plot is the willingness of Lysander and Hermia to go against the wishes of Egeus. In such works audience sympathy is usually with the younger generation, which often embodies a tolerance and understanding unrestricted by narrow beliefs and codes of behavior.
In All's Well That Ends Well, however, wisdom lies with the older characters, who frequently harken back to past years as a better, happier time. All's Well presents us with a dying problem and if, as has been suggested, it is a problem play, its problem is a basic one - how do you rejuvenate a constantly dying race? (Palmer, 1971).The younger figures, in particular Bertram, are not especially likeable or sympathetic. Indeed, one reason this play is difficult to interpret is Bertram himself, doubtless Shakespeare's least amiable hero. That the story ends with a marriage suggests the play is a comedy, but the road to this moment of contentment is so rocky and the antagonisms between characters so harsh that we enjoy little laughter, and the disentangling of the plot is far from joyous. Thus whether all "ends well" is problematic. The source of the story is "Giletta of Narbona," the ninth novella of the third day in Boccaccio Decameron (1353), a collection of 100 fables and folk tales ostensibly told by ten people who have taken refuge from the plague in France. Shakespeare probably read these stories in William Painter Palace of Pleasure (1567).
The plot of the play -- borrowed, via William Paynter Palace of Pleasure, 1566, from Boccaccio -- seems a bit far-fetched to have wide appeal to modern audiences. Bertram, Count of Rousillon, ordered by the King of France to marry Helena, decides that "a young man married is a man that's marred." Influenced by his boon companion, the rascally Parolles, he goes through the ceremony, and then leaves for the wars, declaring that when Helena presents him with his own seal ring and his own begotten son, he will acknowledge her as his wife. Helena in disguise follows Bertram; substituting for the pretty Diana at an assignation, she secures Bertram's ring, and in due time fulfills the second condition.
The value of the play lies, then, less in the story than in the characters. The play stands out artistically, said Bernard Shaw, by the sovereign charm of the young Helena and the old Countess of Rousillon, and intellectually by the experiment, repeated nearly three hundred years later in A Doll's House, of making the hero "a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his wife" (James, 1983). Among the minor figures, the old Lafeu and the adventure-dreading, adventure-boasting coward Parolles are especially neatly drawn. Helena is beautifully attended and vouched for, largely by elderly people. Nothing graces youth more than the friendship of the old. The wise, kindly, clear-eyed Countess of Rousillon loves her as a daughter and knows her heart. A quite different interpretation was advanced by E.K. Chambers, in Shakespeare: A Survey (1925). He saw the play as a picture of the way in which love blinds and betrays a noble woman into a poor choice and into demeaning herself to win and hold him, "not Helena's triumph but Helena's degradation . . . It is a poor prize for which she has trailed her honor in the dust." This evaluation, however, smacks more of the doctrinaire twentieth century than of the sentimental sixteenth (Worthen, 1989).
Although it has not been a stage favorite, the play rewards the reader. Hazlitt considers it "one of the most pleasing of our author's comedies. The interest is, however, more of a serious than of a comic nature. The character of Helena is one of great sweetness and delicacy. She is placed in circumstances of the most critical kind, and has to court her husband both as a virgin and as a wife, yet the most scrupulous nicety of female modesty is not once violated. There is not one thought or action that ought to bring a blush into her cheeks, or that for a moment lessens her in our esteem" (Sue-Ellen, 1988). The men are of quite different nature. In some productions, the play was cut so as to make the scoundrel Parolles the central figure; King Charles I, in his copy of the Second Folio edition of Shakespeare's dramas, wrote as title for this play, Monsieur Parolles. Bertram is a cad, to whom Samuel Johnson could not reconcile his heart: "a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness" (Traub, 1992). These portraits are so tinged that Harold C. Goddard has suggested that there is an irony in this picture of two gentlemen of France similar to that in Two Gentlemen of Verona, (James, 1993) with their polished exteriors and their putrid core. At the end, there is only a hope that Helena and awakened love will change Bertram, but the King closes the play with an optimistic couplet.
An important element in the drama is the dialogue itself, prose and poetry. The ear is the sure clue to Shakespeare. Whether it be pure tone of beauty or sly twinkle of fun, the words in sound and echo fit the mood. The more important events of the play may seem far-fetched, but the motives and emotions are natural, are in us all. Combined with the character studies are enough poetry and comedy to make the reader find enjoyment still in thinking "all's well that ends well" (Margot, 1985).
The play's opening scene communicates the gloomy tone that dominates the work. In the first line the Countess mourns that the imminent departure of her son will be like the loss of a second husband. That son, Bertram, mourns his dead father, while the King he is soon to attend is himself mortally ill (I, i, 1116). Furthermore, the one physician who might have cured the King, Helena's father, is also deceased. Helena, who has been raised by the Countess, reveals that she, too, is possessed by sadness (I, i, 54), but she does not publicly specify its source. Thus a sense of mortality and human futility in the face of that mortality loom heavily.
The plot moves underway with the Countess's advice to Bertram, who is to leave for the court in Paris:
Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness (I, i, 62-68)
Her tone is like that of Polonius in Hamlet, but her counsel is wiser, and observations more perceptive. To Lafew she adds:
Farewell, my lord, 'Tis an unseason'd courtier, good my lord,
Advise him. (I, i, 70-72)
The Countess has little faith in either Bertram's judgment or his nature. He is not only inexperienced, but inclined to follow the advice and actions of less sterling characters. In contrast to these reservations is the attitude of Helena. Left alone, she reveals that she is weeping not for her long-gone father, but over her unrequited love for Bertram:
'Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star (I, i, 85-89)
She is tormented by the difference in their classes. We, however, consider the object of her fascination. Thus far Bertram has given no evidence of being worthy of idolatry. We ponder, therefore, whether Helena intuits something deep within him or if she will in some way work to redeem him.
Our impression of Bertram is reinforced with the entrance of Parolles, a braggart soldier whom Helena describes:
One that goes with him. I love him for his sake,
And yet I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, soly a coward . . . (I, i, 99-101)
Helena has been such a puzzle and provocation to critics because she occupies the "masculine" position of desiring subject, even as she apologizes fulsomely for her unfeminine forwardness and works desperately to situate herself within the "feminine" position of desired object. 5 At the same time, Bertram poses problems because he occupies the "feminine" space of the objectified Other, even as he struggles to define himself as a man by becoming a military and sexual conqueror. He is the desired object, the end of the hero's (or, in this case,…