Definitions

ruttish

All's Well That Ends Well

All's Well That Ends Well is a play by William Shakespeare, originally classified as a comedy, though now often counted as one of his problem plays, so-called because they cannot be easily classified as tragedy or comedy. It was probably written in later middle part of Shakespeare's career, between 1601 and 1608, and was first published in the First Folio in 1623.

Sources

The play is based on a tale (3.9) of Boccacio's Decameron. Shakespeare may have read an English translation of the tale in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure.

The name of the play comes from the proverb All's well that ends well, which means that problems do not matter so long as the outcome is good.

Characters

KING OF FRANCE

DUKE OF FLORENCE

BERTRAM, Count of Rousillon

COUNTESS OF ROUSILLON, Mother to Bertram

LAVATCH, a Clown in her household

HELENA, a Gentlewoman protected by the Countess

LAFEU, an old Lord

PAROLLES, a follower of Bertram

An Old Widow of Florence, surname Capilet

DIANA, Daughter to the Widow

Steward to the Countess of Rousillon

VIOLENTA, MARIANA, Neighbours and Friends to the Widow

A Page

Soldiers, Servants, Gentlemen & Courtiers

Synopsis

Helena, a lowborn beauty, serves as a gentlewoman in the household of the Countess of Rossilion. Bertram, the Countess' son, is making preparations to leave for Paris to become a ward of the King of France. Helena has long nursed a secret love for Bertram, despite their class differences. It is revealed that the King is terminally ill of a fistula (to Shakespeare it was a long pipelike ulcer). Helena, whose father was a well-renowned physician, offers to cure him if he will allow her to marry the Lord of her choice - he agrees. Her medicinal knowledge proves fruitful, and she saves the King's life. The King is overjoyed and accedes to her condition, upon curing him, of being granted the husband of her choice. Of course, she chooses the reluctant and unwilling Bertram. She offers him freedom to deny her, but the King is insistent on the marriage as a reward to Helena and Bertram is forced to consent. After their (enforced) wedding, Bertram decides he would rather face death in battle than remain married to Helena, so he steals off to fight in the Italian war developing between the Florentines and the Senoys. While at war, he writes dismissively home to Helena:

"When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband." (III.ii.55-58)

Bertram thinks these things an impossible task. Nevertheless, Helena sets out with a plan to recover her husband.

Back at the war front, the young lords strive to convince Bertram that his ne'er-do-well friend Parolles is a coward. They set up an elaborate ruse to convince Parolles to recover a company drum stolen by the enemy and trick him into believing he has been captured. Parolles, thinking himself begging for his life, readily spills all his army's secrets to his "captors", betraying Bertram ("a foolish idle boy and for all that very ruttish...") in the process. Dishonored and stripped of his title, Parolles returns to France as a beggar. Helena, meanwhile, enlists the aid of Diana, a maiden who has taken Bertram's fancy. Together they execute the bait-and-switch "bed trick" during which Helena successfully gets the Rossillion family ring and sleeps with Bertram as per the conditions in his letter. In the final act, Helena's cunning plot is revealed, and Bertram promises to be a faithful husband to her and "love her dearly, ever, ever dearly." (V.iii.354)

Performance history

There are no recorded performances before the Restoration; the earliest occurred in 1741 at Goodman's Fields, with another the following year at Drury Lane where it acquired its reputation of being an unlucky play. The actress playing Helena fainted and had to be replaced. The actor playing the king fainted and subsequently died. Sporadic performances followed in the ensuing decades, with an operatic version at Covent Garden in 1832.

Critical comment

There is no evidence that All's Well was popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime, and it has remained one of his lesser-known plays ever since, in part due to its odd mixture of fairy tale logic and cynical realism. The final scene in which Bertram suddenly switches from hatred to love in just one line is considered a particular problem for actors trained to admire psychological realism.

One character that has been admired is that of the old Countess, which is one of the few good roles for an older actress in the Shakespeare canon. Modern productions are often promoted as vehicles for great mature actresses; recent examples have starred Judi Dench and Peggy Ashcroft.

References

External links

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