Literature

A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well

George Bernard Shaw held All’s Well That Ends Well in high regard, having what Frank Kermode described as a ‘perverse’ admiration for it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Helena, the heroine of All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare’s ‘loveliest character’ while the Victorian actress Ellen Terry called her ‘despicable’ and a ‘doormat’. Samuel Johnson went so far as to compare Parolles, the play’s chief comic character, with the mighty Falstaff. Yet All’s Well That Ends Well remains one of Shakespeare’s less popular plays, neither widely studied nor staged. Indeed, the first recorded performance is not until 1741, and even on the rare occasions when it was performed it wasn’t really staged at all, at least in its original form, since it was repackaged as a farce with Parolles as the lead character. It remains one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. What is the nature of this problem, then? And what marks out All’s Well That Ends Well as a fine play worth reading and studying? The following post – what you might consider some notes towards an analysis of Shakespeare’s play – attempts to mount a case for this most problematic of problem plays. You can read our summary of the play’s plot here.

The fairy-tale elements of All’s Well

One of the most interesting aspects of All’s Well That Ends Well is Shakespeare’s adoption, and overturning or subversion, of established tropes and motifs from fairy tales. In particular, Shakespeare draws on two well-known narrative devices from traditional fairy tales: the Curing of the King (Helena literally does cure the king of his ailment) and the Clever Wench (Helena’s plan involving the ‘bed trick’, in which she lures Bertram to bed with her by duping him into believing she is really Diana, whom he is pursuing). However, the riddle Diana speaks in the final scene of the play, explaining the plot in terms that only succeed in making the King more annoyed with her (‘He knows himself my bed he hath defiled; / And at that time he got his wife with child: / Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick: / So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick: / And now behold the meaning’) is also of a piece with many such riddles in fairy tales, as are the seemingly impossible conditions involving the ring and the pregnancy which Bertram sets his new bride.

Of course, one of the recurring themes in fairy tales is social mobility: the lowly kitchen girl discovering she’s a princess (or marrying a prince and thus becoming one through marriage), or the poor baker’s boy becomes wealthy through some good fortune that comes his way. This is clearly a theme of All’s Well That Ends Well: Helena is ‘only’ a ‘poor physician’s daughter’ (one of the grounds on which Bertram initially rejects her as his wife), but in curing the King and striking a canny deal with him, she is able to marry a lord, Bertram, and attain a title (Countess) and wealth. She does all this on her own: unlike Bertram, she has no parent to guide her and no social privilege to give her a helping hand up the ladder.

Themes of All’s Well That Ends Well

Honour/virginity

The plot of All’s Well That Ends Well might be analysed and summed up in terms of Helena’s virginity, and this theme of the play is foregrounded early on, with the conversation between Parolles and Helena concerning her virginity, and numerous references to the chaste goddess of Roman mythology, Diana. Of course, Diana is also the name of the woman whom Bertram pursues and thinks he’s deflowered, in the ‘bed trick’ where he actually sleeps with Helena, disguised as Diana. When we first meet Diana in III.5, it’s when Mariana is giving her a lecture about the importance of guarding her ‘maidenhood’ against men like Parolles. In IV.2, when Bertram lends his ring to Diana as a token of his affection, Diana insists on keeping it:

Mine honour’s such a ring:
My chastity’s the jewel of our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors;
Which were the greatest obloquy i’ the world
In me to lose: thus your own proper wisdom
Brings in the champion Honour on my part
Against your vain assault.

‘Honour’ is made to do a lot of work in several of Shakespeare’s plays, notably Macbeth, where it refers to both private moral rectitude and public glory. In All’s Well That Ends Well, the word ‘honour’ applies not only the Helena’s and Diana’s chastity but also, arguably, to Parolles’ lack of honourable qualities (his name literally means ‘mere speech’: i.e., he’s all talk, or ‘all mouth and no trousers’ as the idiom has it) and to Bertram’s lack of honour in his dealings with both Helena and Diana. Fittingly, the only way his ‘honour’ or reputation can be mended is by reclaiming Helena’s honour and acknowledging her as his honourable wife.

In II.3, Parolles tells Bertram as they are preparing to go to war, in a speech that echoes Henry V’s reference to men at home holding their manhoods cheap (with ‘manhood’ having two meanings here): ‘He wears his honour in a box unseen, / That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home, / Spending his manly marrow in her arms’ (and yes, ‘manly marrow’ is the distant cousin of Andrew Marvell’s bawdy reference to his ‘vegetable love’ growing for his mistress.) Honour for men means going off to fight. For a king, it means adhering to one’s promise. As the King says to Helena when Bertram initially refuses her, ‘My honour’s at the stake’ (II.3). And in the same scene, the King makes a speech which uses the word ‘honour’ no fewer than seven times in quick succession (the speech beginning ‘’Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which / I can build up’). Honour, in short, is a multifaceted thing in the play, and one of the core themes.

Health/wellness

As well as ‘honour’, another word that recurs in the play is ‘well’ – aptly for a play called All’s Well That Ends Well. Notions of characters being ‘sick’ or ‘well’ recur in the play, from the King’s ailment which Helena cures, to Bertram’s ‘sick desires’ for Diana (IV.2), which, he says, if she gives in to, she will make sure he ‘recovers’ from. Or there is the Clown’s riddling speech to Helena in II.4 concerning the Countess: ‘She is not well, but yet she has her health: she’s very merry; but yet she is not well. But thanks be given, she’s very well and wants nothing i’th’world; but yet she is not well.’ Such plays upon ideas of things being ‘well’ or otherwise is to be expected in a play which contains the word twice in its title; and the Clown’s speech also foreshadows the play’s own ending, which leaves us wondering just how well everything has actually ended.

The ending of All’s Well That Ends Well

How should we analyse and interpret the ending of the play? Is this truly a happy ending? On the one hand, Bertram has been tricked into accepting Helena, a woman he never sought for his wife in the first place; but on the other hand, he needs to be punished for his treatment of Diana, whom he bedded and then left, once he’d had his pleasure of her. Nevertheless, it’s worth contrasting the ‘bed trick’ from this play with the one that appears in another of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Measure for Measure. There, the hypocritical Angelo is duped into thinking he is bedding the innocent Isabella, when in fact he is making love to Mariana, the woman he promised to marry and then rejected. In that play, things are morally far more straightforward: Angelo has blackmailed Isabella into going to bed with him in exchange for her brother’s life, but instead of losing her honour to such a hypocrite, Isabella retains her virginity and Mariana gets her man. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Bertram is a cad for seeking to seduce Diana when he has no plans to make an honest woman of her, but at the same time, he never wanted Helena in the first place and was forced to marry her. The seemingly impossible impositions he lays down for her, involving the ring and the pregnancy, are extreme, but he has some cause for being unhappy about the King forcing him to accept Helena as his bride. Helena, too, in requesting him, knowing that the King will not refuse her, is less than morally pure.

If we remove Bertram’s treatment of Diana from the play, we end up with a rather distasteful plot whereby a woman, hell-bent on marrying the man she loves, forces him to do so even though he doesn’t love her, and then when he runs a mile, tricks him into accepting her as his wife. But of course, Bertram’s carefree disregard for Diana’s honour and feelings cannot be so easily extricated from the play, and it’s what makes the bed trick possible in the first place. All’s Well That Ends Well is a play with a hero and heroine who are both flawed.

One final point: a curious theory concerning the play’s stage history

Macbeth isn’t the only play in the Shakespeare canon to attract the charge of being bad luck. The first recorded performance of All’s Well That Ends Well, in the 1740s, was plagued with problems: the actor playing the King, William Milward (1702–1742), was taken ill during rehearsals (aptly, given the King’s ailment at the beginning of the play); as a result the opening of the production was delayed for three months. Peg Woffington, who played Helena, fainted during the first night performance. The unlucky Milward fell ill again shortly after this, and died four days later, aged just 40. There were rumours of more illnesses among other people involved in this production, much as a number of calamities and even tragedies befell productions of Macbeth over the years. It’s tempting to analyse the play’s lack of revivals and productions in light of such superstitions, until we remember that there appear to have been very few productions of All’s Well That Ends Well before the disastrous 1740s Drury Lane debacle. The play remains a niche one, for diehard fans of Shakespeare only. But what a gem.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

3 Comments

  1. It’s fairly apparent why contemporary audiences would not favor this play with all its trickery and duplicity. Twelfth Night seems more appealing in that regard.

    • Most definitely. I’ve just finished rereading Twelfth Night (and watching the Globe production from a few years back with Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry) so will have to blog about that soon! Interestingly, the Globe also did a production of All’s Well recently. I thought the cast did a terrific job with a rather problematic play…

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