By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The phrase ‘all’s well that ends well’ has attained the status of a proverb, so that may lead us to believe that it should be attributed to that most prolific of all authors, ‘Anon.’ But in fact, the phrase can be fairly confidently ascribed to a particular writer.
But which writer? Before we explore the meaning of ‘all’s well that ends well’, let’s have a quick quiz question. Which writer is the first known person to use the phrase ‘all’s well that ends well’?
a) William Shakespeare
b) John Heywood
c) Hendyng of Anglia
If you answered William Shakespeare, because he wrote a play titled All’s Well That Ends Well, you need to read on. In fact, whatever you answered, you should read on – but before we come to the curious origin of the phrase, let’s briefly summarise its meaning.
‘All’s well that ends well’: phrase meaning
The meaning of the phrase can be summarised as follows: if the outcome of a situation or undertaking is a happy one, that makes up for any earlier unpleasantness or difficulty.
So, for instance, if someone has a stressful day at work trying to get something finished for a deadline at the end of the day, and despite numerous setbacks, they meet the deadline and everything is completed on time, they might say, ‘all’s well that ends well’.
Or if a wedding day begins with endless problems and hold-ups but it ends with the happy couple finally tying the knot, one might say, ‘all’s well that ends well’.
In both example scenarios, things didn’t exactly go smoothly, but they ended well, so that’s all that matters, ultimately. The previous difficulties, stress, or problems are soon forgotten because the outcome was a happy one.
‘All’s well that ends well’: phrase origin
Where does this pithy saying come from, and how long as it been a part of the language?
‘All’s well that ends well’ has to be one of the oldest of the well-known proverbs. And it’s older than Shakespeare, who did indeed use it for his ‘problem play’, All’s Well That Ends Well, in the early seventeenth century (although some scholars put the date of composition as early as 1598).
Sure enough, Shakespeare’s play ends well (it’s sometimes grouped with the comedies, although it offers a darker treatment of the stock-in-trade features of the Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy), after numerous tricks, setbacks, and misunderstandings.
Ironically, during the eighteenth century – the earliest period for which we have records of All’s Well That Ends Well being performed – it attained an unlucky reputation to rival that of Macbeth, with numerous actors and actresses being taken ill during various theatre runs. During first recorded performance, at Drury Lane in 1742, the actor playing the king was taken ill, and on the opening night, the actress playing Helena fainted. All did not exactly end well for such performances.
But the phrase was already established during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Indeed, if we go back some half a century, we find it in the writings of John Heywood (c. 1497 – c. 1580), who wrote plays for the royal court from the early 1530s onwards, some sixty years before Shakespeare made his way in the Elizabethan theatre.
Heywood also wrote a book of proverbs, including the now well-known sayings ‘out of sight, out of mind’, ‘two heads are better than one’, and ‘all’s well that ends well’.
But even Heywood shouldn’t get the credit for originating the phrase, although his is the first text to use the phrase with the precise wording ‘all’s well that ends well’. In 1381, in J. R. Lumby’s Chronicon Henrici Knighton, we find the line, ‘If the ende be wele, than is alle wele.’
And in R. Hill’s Commonplace Book from around 1530, we find, ‘All ys well that endyth well’. I am indebted to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford Quick Reference)for these citations.
And we can find an even earlier version of ‘all’s well that ends well’ in a poem from around the second half of the thirteenth century in which Hendyng, son of Marcolf, utters a series of proverbial stanzas rhymed aabccb.
Hendyng may have been a persona (the name is thought to mean ‘the clever one’), but we can confidently attribute the first written account of the phrase – or something approximating it – to ‘Hendyng’, whoever he actually was.
This poem offering proverbial wisdom contains the line, ‘Wel is him that wel ende mai’. Hendyng’s poem also has another claim to fame: it is the first written text to use a certain rude four-letter word beginning with c and rhyming with hunt.
In the twentieth century, the American confessional poet Robert Lowell offered a somewhat bleaker version (or ‘happy amputation’, in the words of the critic Christopher Ricks): ‘all’s well that ends.’