By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
All’s Well That Ends Well is one of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known and less highly regarded plays. Before we say more about the play – and how it came to be regarded as one of his ‘problem plays’ – it’s worth recapping the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well as a brief summary. This play, with its use of fairy-tale tropes and complex attitude to marriage and relationships actually has a fairly straightforward plot, thankfully.
The Countess of Rossillion, her son Bertram, and her ward Helena are all dressed in black for the Count’s funeral. Helena, who is of lower birth than Bertram, reveals in a soliloquy that she loves him. The King of France is unwell with a fistula, but none of his physicians can heal him. The one man who could have done is Helena’s father, who is also dead.
Helena proposes that she go to Paris and try to cure the King’s ailment, and asks the Countess for her blessing and permission to go. The Countess agrees, after confronting Helena about her love for Bertram, which she has heard about from a steward who overheard Helena proclaiming her love, when she thought she was alone.
Helena arrives in Paris and is granted an audience with the King, whom she (eventually) manages to persuade to let her try to cure him. If she fails and her botched attempt to heal him kills him, she is prepared to be executed; but if she succeeds in curing him, she asks in return that she be allowed to ask for the hand in marriage of any available nobleman in the kingdom.
The King agrees to this request, Helena’s cure works, and she is allowed to choose which nobleman she wishes to marry. She chooses Bertram, who objects to the match on the grounds that she is only a ‘poor physician’s daughter’ and so of too lowly birth. The King says he can provide Bertram with a dowry to marry Helena, but still Bertram objects. The King forces him to accept her.
In response, Bertram decides to leave France and go to Italy to fight in the wars. Parolles agrees to accompany him.
The Countess receives a letter from her son explaining why he has left for Italy; shortly afterwards, Helena appears, also brandishing a letter from Bertram. The letter cruelly informs her that until she possesses the ring he wears on his finger (which he plans never to remove) and is bearing his child, he will not come back to France and accept her as his wife.
Helena promptly leaves France for Italy, to go in search of Bertram and find a way of fulfilling these two seemingly impossible conditions. Helena arrives and tracks down Bertram and Parolles to Florence, where she meets a widow, along with the widow’s friend Mariana and her daughter, Diana. Helena learns that Bertram has been visiting Diana every night in an attempt to woo her, so Helena hatches a plan, which the widow agrees to: they will tell Diana to agree to Bertram’s requests, with Helena taking the place of Diana in the bedroom.
Diana then tells Bertram she will sleep with him, but he must give her his ring as a pledge. When ‘they’ make love (with Helena taking the place of Diana), Helena gives Bertram her ring.
Meanwhile, as this ‘bed trick’ is being hatched, a group of soldiers fighting with Parolles and Bertram in the army decide to trick the cocky Parolles by pretending to be foreign soldiers ambushing him and taking him prisoner. They threaten to torture him and he readily gives away information about the army to his fellow soldiers (not realising that they’re his fellow soldiers, of course).
Exposed as a coward and someone who will dish the dirt on his best friend to save his own skin, Parolles goes down in Bertram’s estimation. While this is going on, Diana agrees to let Bertram come to her bedroom that night, but only after he pledges his ring to her as a sign of his good intentions.
Some lords learn from a letter that Helena undertook a pilgrimage and is apparently dead (Bertram is, of course, unaware that Helena has come to Italy to track him down). Thinking it safe to return to France, and with the war now over, Bertram leaves Florence and returns home.
Returned to France, Bertram makes plans to wed the daughter of Lafew, an old lord. Bertram gives Lafew his ring as pledge, but the King recognizes it as the one he gave to Helena (Bertram, of course, thinks he got the ring from Diana).
Diana then shows up and tells them that Bertram has bedded her and pledged to marry her, so he must do so. As proof, she produces the ring he gave her the night ‘they’ slept together.
Bertram denies it all, and the King orders Diana to be thrown in prison – until Helena shows up, visibly pregnant, and to the shock of everyone who thought she was dead. She produces the ring Bertram gave her (thinking her to be Diana) when they made love, and Bertram says he will accept her as his wife.
And so all really does end well – at least, in some respects. This, in summary, is the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well, but the play has been regarded for some time as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’: you can read our analysis of the play’s themes here.