January 10, 2010 in Introduction
To paraphrase another of his plays, Shakespeare’s decision to use All’s Well that Ends Well as the title for his play of 1602–3 is a case of protesting too much. The line is used twice towards the end of the play by Helena, the young woman who uses it to justify her possible “means unfit” of winning Bertram, the “hater of love” who spurned her. Her use of the ‘bed trick’, whereby Helena tricks Bertram into consummating the marriage by swapping places with the maid Diana, is perhaps more justifiable in the seedy Vienna of the contemporary Measure for Measure. But it sits at odds with All’s Well’s many folk-tale qualities: Helena’s quasi-magical healing powers, the parade of suitors, the girl’s quest to redeem a foolish beloved, all of which are intensified by an unusual emphasis on rhyme. When the lovers are reconciled at the end of the play, the King of France agrees that “all yet seems well”: for many readers, the conventional happy-ending is too swift and tidy to be believed.
The play is Shakespeare’s most faithful rendering of a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron (which would also inspire plot points in Pericles and The Merchant of Venice), although Shakespeare continued his traditional imposition of a comic subplot, in which Bertram’s follower Parolles is exposed as a coward by his fellow French soldiers. This lack of adaptation is one of the reasons for the play’s failure to gain widespread attention. As with Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Parolles was more entertaining than the lovers to a Jacobean audience, to the point that the play was abridged and renamed in his honour.
Until the nineteenth century, much critical debate hinged on whether Bertram or Helena was more sympathetic, with neither coming out very well; indeed, many see the play as remarkably conservative in its sympathy with an older generation who successfully orchestrate what they think is best for their children. The fact that the text only survives in a corrupted manuscript is a further problem. Productions remain rare, but when the balance between traditional romance and social realities is struck correctly, All’s Well that Ends Well can be a satisfying play to watch.
Contributed by Jack Belloli