It is no secret that I greatly admire Harold Bloom as a Shakespeare critic. And while I cannot claim to share much in common with him, the one thing we do have (at least with Bloom c. 1998, when Shakespeare: Invention of the Human was published) is that we have both seen All’s Well that Ends Well performed live once.
It’s the little things that count, right?
Of course, this speaks to just how infrequently the play is performed. In the last 30 years, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario (which performs on average 3-4 Shakespeare plays a year) has staged All’s Well 3 times. I believe Macbeth has been staged 3 times within the last 10 years.
Is it a matter of quality? I don't think so, for this is so subjective. Also, I don’t think All’s Well is a bad play, and a quick Google search of reviews from recent performances confirms my feelings about the play. I’ll admit I didn’t like it the first time I read it (circumstances play into that a bit), but having read it several times now and seen it once, I have grown to appreciate it more and more.
I also don’t believe that this is one of the comedies that must be seen to be fully appreciated: aside from the character of Parolles, particularly in IV.I and IV.iii, there are no visual gags that get lost on the page—except maybe the whole “fistula-in-aro” bit, but I think productions have overblown it. So if the play reads as well as it is viewed, it is not a matter of accessibility that keeps the public away and thus merits less performances.
I think what it comes down to is this. The play is a chaotic mess. As I said, I have grown to like it the more time I spend with it, but you can’t expect everyone to give this play a second chance, or even finish a first chance if they cannot make heads or tails of it. Even the title, All’s Well that Ends Well doesn’t roll off the tongue as neatly as As You Like It, or Measure for Measure, and like As You Like It or Twelfth Night, or What you Will it doesn’t have much meaning. That is, until you read the play closely.
Our protagonist, and simultaneous model of feminism and anti-feminism, Helena, uses the cliché (although maybe it wasn’t a cliché in 1604) twice in the play. The first time is after explaining to her accomplices her brilliant plan to trap her husband.
Yet, I pray you:
All’s Well that ends well, yet,
Again, she is urging those around her to remain positive, knowing that everything will work out for the best.
Because this is a comedy, we are meant to believe that Helena’s faith will be rewarded, and to an extent it is. But this is a post-Hamlet comedy, which no longer gives us the neat endings of the good ol’ 1590 comedies. So, the title of the play becomes a snake eating its own tail. Despite Helena’s insistence, things are not entirely “all well” when the play closes, but they’re certainly not tragic either, thus adding another hurdle for audiences to overcome when trying to grasp this play.
Another thing that might keep directors and audiences away from this play is its many plots. After the foolish cowardly liar, Parolles, is shown that he is a foolish cowardly liar, he says:
Who cannot be crushed with a plot? (IV.iii)
And I may be reading too much into this, but this is as good a summary as any for this play. While there certainly is a main plot to this play (Helena’s), there are so many spinning parts happening around it that it is hard to sort out what to do with them. When adapting this play, what do you cut? To make matters more difficult, like Helena’s uncertain ending, most of the characters’ stories are not wrapped up nicely. All’s well that ends well—but nothing ends. I think that is the true beauty of this play: it is in constant motion, in which everyone is searching for their own suitable ending. So, to approach this web of a play, I’m going to look at it through the lens of transitions.
One of these transitions concerns the process of aging and maturing, which is explored in the first few scenes. So it might be fitting that in the first scene we get a diatribe on virginity in the form of a witty banter between the two strongest characters, Helena and Parolles. After a soliloquy in which Helena bemoans the departure of her unattainable love, Bertram, Parolles appears and without any prompting asks her if she is meditating on virginity. As far as plot is concerned, there is nothing that prompts this question: he could have asked if she was meditating on love or cheese and it would have made as much sense. But it allows Parolles to deliver such pearls of wisdom:
It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature to
Why is this bit wedged into a story about Helena trying to get Bertram, who she considers her better in every way, to love her? Comedy is probably part of it. Parolles’ scene tend to act as counterbalances to the heavier matters of the play. But look how virginity is portrayed in this exchange. It is a blockade that is self-determined to fall. In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick proclaims that “the world must be peopled” as his reason for accepting Beatrice. Here Parolles makes the same argument in a more verbose way. In order for girls to grow into women, women into mothers, virginity must be sacrificed. Helena does not accept this argument because she does not accept change. She has grown up with Bertram and is brought to tears when this virgin phase of their lives ends.
She had been living her own Eden, even though Bertram did not reciprocate, in which she could:
See him every hour; [and] sit and draw
Bertram is sent off to be a ward of the King, to start a new phase in his maturity: a change which Helena could not accept because it runs contrary to her happy ending.
Incidentally, in order to achieve her ending, Helena does have to sacrifice her virginity, transitioning from the child she is at the start of the play (figuratively speaking, because she seems on the older side of Shakespeare's female lovers) to the woman she becomes at the end.
And then there’s Bertram. Whatever the reasons for this play’s lack of popularity may be today, in the 18th century, this play was looked down on because of Bertram. People can debate about Shakespeare’s best villain, or best fool, or best female character, but when it comes to Shakespeare’s least likable character, pick Bertram and you’ll win. He is the son of the late Count Rosillion, making him the new Count. He thinks he is better than everyone, and has no regard for anyone. That Helena loves him is the great frustration that people have with the play.
,At the start of the play, Bertram is leaving his home to be the King’s ward. Before he goes his mother gives him some advice.
Love all, trust a few,
We might call this the “reverse Polonius” for in Hamlet, the old man gives his son advice that he himself disregards throughout the play, whereas the Countess gives her son advice which he will disregard throughout the play.
And so he leaves his childhood home to transition to the next phase of his life. But he is unsatisfied. While Parolles and the lords discuss the war that that are going to fight in Florence, Bertram laments that he cannot go.
Whereas Helena wants to guard her virginity, her childhood, Bertram is eager to shake his off. He resents being called “too young” and being kept like a child by the King. But while we know that Helena’s endgame is marriage to Bertram, we do not know what Bertram’s desired end is. He wants to go to war but not for king and country, or honour and glory. It is simply a means of escape. Bertram is constantly running: from home to court, from court to war, and we don’t know why. What makes Bertram so frustrating is that he is against everything: unlike most characters in theatre whose wants are clearly displayed, our only window into Bertram is what he doesn’t want: most prominently, a marriage to Helena.
So we can conclude from the first few scenes that the ending Helena is seeking is marriage to Bertram, and the ending Bertram is seeking is not marrying Helena. Let’s circle back to get to the intersection of these opposing goals.
Even though the play seems grounded, insofar as there are no fairies, green space, or ghosts, it is based on a Medieval tale from the Decameron, which means that there are a few contrived plot elements. Conveniences were the norm and this play does not skimp on them. Helena happens to be the daughter of a renowned physician, who taught her a lot and passed on his secret medicines after he died.
His specialty was in the treatment of fistulas and it just so happens that the King of France is suffering from a fistula, and no other doctor has been able to treat him. So naturally, Helena comes before the King of France with an offer that, if she can cure him she can marry anyone she wants (outside of the royal family). The king accepts, and is cured.
The King of France, like Helena and Bertram, is preoccupied with the transition of age. Unlike the two children trying to rush into or escape from maturity, the King stands on the threshold of death, wistfully looking in. His men are going off to war and he has a painful puss sack on his butt. He cannot walk on his own, and it hurts him to sit. Several productions have him carried around on a large cushion.
When talking with Bertram about Bertram’s late father, the King recounts their glory days in battle, and then says:
Would I were with him! He would always say--
The King’s desired ending should have been in battle, a glorious soldier’s death. But this did not come and he is trapped. That is until Helena conveniently cures him. With restored health, he adopts a new purpose, in search of a new ending—that is to see Helena successfully married.
The King gathers his lords and presents them to Helena to choose in one of those gender reversals of fairy tale norms (in which the ladies are trotted out for their prospective husband.) Here we see Helena at her lowest, and get possibly the most insight into her character. The scene in which she confronts different lords before confronting Bertram can be read in two ways, and admittedly this is one moment where we really need a visual clue rather than textual to pin it down.
The productions that I have found online, and the one that I saw, play this exchange comically, giving Helena all the power to lead her suitors on and then reject them. It makes sense if we consider that she knows her ending, she knows that she will pick Bertram, and is just having fun with the others, enjoying her moment of superiority over her social betters. But Lafeu’s interjections suggest that the men are refusing her—or since they cannot actually refuse her under the king’s orders, they are disdainful or even fearful that she will pick them. She says to the third lord, “be not afraid that I your hand should take” suggesting that the actor is meant to show fear as she approaches. This, combined with the first lord’s curt response, and the second lord’s fiery eyes, add to the argument that this is not a comedic exchange, and that while the older generation of this play (the Countess, King, and Lafeu) love her and dote on her, she is not suitable for the younger lords. This comes to a head when she chooses Bertram.
Bertram is pretty clear: he does not want to marry Helena because she is poor. But should we take him at his word? Maybe, but Shakespeare, a few scenes earlier, conditions us to a world in which people make excuses for their true feelings. The Countess learns that Helena loves her son, and lays a trap for her. She names Helena her daughter, which distresses Helena. Helena does not want to confess that she can’t be the Countess’ daughter because that would mean that Bertram is her brother, and this is not Game of Thrones. So she tells the Countess that she cannot accept such a generous offer, that she is not worthy of being the Countess’ daughter. After pressing her, the Countess teases out the truth. But we do not necessarily get Bertram’s truth. The king offers to raise Helena’s status, to make her wealthy and thereby a socially acceptable mate for Bertram, but still he is not satisfied. Instead of trying to figure out why, the King simply threatens to cast Bertram out if he does not accept Helena, and so Bertram obeys, for now.
So all’s well that ends well, for the King. He has received his desired ending, to see his saviour married. Helena too is nearing her end, but we get the sense that her goal wasn’t necessarily marriage to Bertram, but a consummation of that marriage, thereby losing her virginity and no longer being trapped in the childish phase of her life. It is reminiscent of Juliet’s complaint:
What good is marriage without sex? But this is exactly what Bertram means to deny her.
Because Parolles calls him “sweet-heart” some have interpreted Bertram’s true reasoning for not wanting to marry Helena to be his love for Parolles, and so at the end of this scene they kiss and we understand. This is head-canon: there is no evidence to support or deny this interpretation outright, and so it is up to directors to decide how much Mercutio they want to inject into Parolles’ character. Either way, Bertram again flees in search of a new phase of life—the solider—and a more suitable ending for himself.
The first half of the play focuses on the wants and obstacles of Helena, Bertram, and to a lesser extent, the King. It is very Shakespearean in its focus on the human perils that either end comically or tragically. The second half falls heavily back on its source, and here, like a game of Jenga that has been going on for some time, the plot tumbles a bit.
At the start of Act III, the Florentine duke speaks with a few lords about the wars. The two pieces of information we have about these “wars” are that they are the Tuscan Wars, and that the particular combatants are the Florentines and the Senoys (people from Senia). This places the events of the play in the 13th century, when the Guelphs and Ghibellines fought for idealistic control over Florence. The Italian Wars is an exciting mess, too complex to dive into here. France never officially joined the earlier phases of the Italian Wars, and that is why in the play, the King does not officially join the war --
Therefore we marvel much our cousin France
but lords individually volunteer to fight for one side or the other.
I had to do a bit of digging to uncover the particular war that Bertram and Parolles go to fight in—and I can’t guarantee that I am right. The fact is that the war is inconsequential. The lord speaking to the Duke says:
Holy seems the quarrel
which is the type of generic support that someone who doesn’t understand or care about football might make when watching the Superbowl with fans of one team. Go war. Score that…death? And if I am right about the specific war, then this was the bloodiest time in Middle Ages Italy, but who cares when we get the French lords pranking Parolles, and Parolles going out in search of a lost drum? Parolles’ subplot, which becomes the main focus of the soldiers’ scenes is not part of the original source. So either Shakespeare is using these scenes to inject comedy into Helena’s plotline, which is more serious, or this is another part of the transitions in this play. I prefer to explore the second, so I will.
Bertram says to the Duke of Florence:
This very day,
Bertram is doubling down on his desire to be away from marriage. This is probably the greatest insight we get into his desired ending. Does Bertram want to be his father, who we know was a great soldier? Well probably not. While he seems to be a good captain, and earn some renown, the wars are presented in such an innocent way, and coupled with the prank on Parolles, they come across more as childish games than the bloody battles of history. Furthermore, in this part of the play, Bertram’s plot is far more occupied by his courtship of the Florentine girl, Diana. So he rejects love to devout himself to a phony war only to be consumed by love. By the end of Act IV, we are still kept out from what Bertram would consider a happy ending — except for maybe a happy ending…
Meanwhile, Helena’s plot is renewed by another fairytale convenience. Bertram sends a letter to his mother informing her that he will not honour his marriage to Helena. He does not reject her outright, but places two contrived conditions.
And whenever you see these contrived conditions, you know they will be fulfilled. Helena knows this too. Eventually. After reading Bertram’s letter which details these conditions, she delivers a speech in which she expresses remorse over chasing Bertram away, and sending him to war. Her speech ends with:
Come, night; end, day!
Which could be read as a plan for suicide. But the next time we see her she is disguised as a hermit and begins to formulate her plan to overcome Bertram’s conditions and win him back. She eventually accomplishes this by conveniently running into Diana, whom Bertram is courting.
This is where we start to get the optimistic Helena who believes that all will end well. And at this point we can’t fault her. She has known where her ending is — sex with Bertram — and has done everything in her power to attain it. Sure there were a lot of conveniences to help her, and she only accomplishes it through the bed trick (she convinces Diana to go to bed with Bertram but then trades places with her before sex) — but she achieves it. We cannot say the same for Bertram.
Parolles is another character who has no sense of an ending. He is a captain, and as mentioned a coward who lies about being a brave soldier. Lafeu, throughout the play, tries to show Parolles who he truly is, but Parolles constantly dismisses him. Bertram defends Parolles against attacks from Lafeu and the other soldiers, until he is convinced to go along with the soldiers’ plan. They pretend to be enemies and capture and blindfold Parolles. It is a great anarchically comedic bit and worth seeking out a staged production of this play. The goal is to get Parolles to reveal all the Florentine plans under the mere threat of torture, which he does. He is also pressured to speak ill of his fellow soldiers, which he does. And by sheer accident, a letter is discovered, one he wrote to Diana warning her against Bertram. Having now betrayed everyone, he is “sentenced to death” and when the blindfold is removed he comes face to face with all he offended, including Bertram. Parolles is not the first character to be caught in a trap. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Malvolio in Twelfth Night are revealed for who they are at the ends of their plays. Shylock accepts his fate with resigned "contentment", and Malvolio closes his scene with a bit more open-ended threat for revenge. Parolles does not accept his defeat, or swear revenge.
Yet am I thankful: if my heart were great,
The next time we see him, he is stripped of the gaudy clothes he previously wore, and trying to be a fool.
He is trying to be the fool and live in the world of wit and metaphor, but here he is out fooled by the real fool, Lavache. And yet, a scene later when he is addressing the King, he is far more skilled in his foolishness, even parroting a turn of phrase that Lavache used earlier in the play. And so Parolles — who cannot abide an ending, starts his story anew.
But what about Bertram? Having satisfied his appetite for both war and (who he thought was) Diana, he returns home with the (supposed) knowledge that his wife, Helena is dead: for she faked her death before disguising herself as a hermit. He is confronted by Diana, and the King and does everything he can to worm his way out from his responsibilities, presenting outright lies — or by our modern nomenclature, “alternative facts.” Eventually Helena shows up and presents indisputable evidence that she did manage to get Bertram’s ring and is pregnant with his child. To which Bertram says:
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
This is his last line, spoken to the king, making only potential commitments. Sure, we know that Helena is speaking the truth and therefore he should love her dearly, but really, how do you prove — in the 13th century — that a child is his? Bertram undergoes no change throughout this play. He will continue to run away. He will manipulate those around him to justify his actions, and Helena will have to continue to one-up him, which she will do. And their play goes on -- in search of an ending.