Harold Bloom refers to All’s Well that Ends Well (All’s) as Shakespeare’s “most undervalued comedy” in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (one of the best books on Shakespeare you will find). I would personally give this title to Comedy of Errors, or even Measure for Measure which seems to not get the appreciation that it deserves. I will admit that I do not like All’s that much: the first time I read it I did not have the time to give it its full consideration, so I re-read it recently and still cannot say that I love it. I think it boils down to this play is severely lacking in language and character: there are no great moments of literary passion that you find in many of Shakespeare’s works, and there are really only three characters that can come close to surviving in a Shakespeare character death match.
While touching on these complaints, I will focus on All’s redeeming qualities as well, which can be summarized in two and half words: it’s different. Yes, as a Romantic comedy All’s is inevitably placed against the two champions of the genre – As You Like It and Twelfth Night – and while there are some similarities, there are more differences. All’s offers a clash of genres and contemporary dramatic tropes, woven into one story. It offers a relationship that is unlike those in previous comedies. And it offers a mother. Think of how many Shakespeare plays have a mother figure – then think of how many have a strong mother figure and you can cross off Gertrude and Amelia. We are left with the nameless Queen from Cymbeline, Volumnia from Coriolanus, and the one that precedes them both – the Countess Rossillion from All’s. But we’ll get back to her.
For the male readers/audience of All’s, the play addresses that phenomenon of women who go after a guy despite the fact that he is no good for her and you cannot fathom what she sees in him. For the female readers/audience of All’s, the play asks: “why would you do that? What do you see in him?” Or as W.B Yeats, puts it:
“It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” – A Prayer For My Daughter
The reason for this is because the primary relationship in the play is between Bertram, Count Rossillion, and Helena. In any other Shakespearean primary character, you can find some redeeming qualities: “yeah, he’s an idiot, but he represents sentimentalism at its height” or “he’s not a well-developed character, but he’s funny.” There is nothing redeeming about Bertram. As the play opens, his father has died, leaving him as Count Rossillion. But he is too young to assume his title, so the King of France adopts him as a ward. “I must attend his majesty’s command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection” (1.i). He just becomes more and more of a spoiled brat as the play goes on.
Then there is Helena. Helena is an interesting character. She is often compared to Rosalind from As You Like It for her control over of the situation, and ability to scheme. Helena does not have nearly as much wit as Rosalind and is more like a whiny little sister (not Celia). And yet, Helena has a formal education, sort of. Her father was a great doctor and before he died he passed on all his knowledge to Helena. It is very rare that you find an educated female character. Despite her education, since her father died she has become an orphan and was taken in by the Countess as a “favour.” So she is lower class, as Bertram is so quick to point out. Helena loves Bertram: as mentioned the crux of the play is “why?” Why does she, a good-natured, smart young lady love that horrible person?” Let’s see…
The play opens with Bertram leaving for France to attend the King. We learn from Lafew, a Lord, that the King has a anal fistula…can’t sit down very well. This little piece of information is not present in any of the source material for All’s and so Shakespeare looked at this story and said “there is really not enough butt jokes in here…I can fix that.” But this disease of the rectum becomes a major plot point in the story.
So Bertram leaves, with some advice from his mother:
Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be check’d for silence,
But never tax’d for speech. What heaven more will,
That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down,
Fall on thy head” (1.1)
Anyone familiar with Hamlet will recognize Polonius’ advice to his son in these lines. However instead of an incompetent father, we here have an incompetent son. Bertram will do none of these things that his mother tells him, because Bertram looks out for number one.
Just before he leaves he tells Helena to be good to his mother, that’s all. So as soon as Helena’s alone of course she will launch into the “O! I am unhappy” routine – “I cannot live if he is gone…what am I going to do?” WHY?
Helena is interrupted form her thoughts when Parolles enters. Parolles, along with Helena and the Countess, is the redeeming character of this play. He’s like Falstaff, but not good enough to be Falstaff. But he is a scoundrel, and he is funny, and has a sharp-tongue, so there is much to like in him. Helena announces his entrance by telling the audience that he is a “notorious liar” and a “great way fool, soly a coward” – all which is true. The two have a fun banter about virginity and how to seduce a man. He is then called away to join Bertram and Helena is once again left alone to torture us. She delivers a sonnet-like-thing that is just…awful. I will always give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt and say it is intentionally awful – but it illustrates that we are dealing with a play in which we should not expect any bon mots, or sweet phrases.
“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense and do suppose
What hath been cannot be: who ever strove
So show her merit, that did miss her love?
The king’s disease–my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix’d and will not leave me” (1.1)
The first major development in the paly comes in I.iii when the Countess calls Helena before her, after dismissing a Clown who I will not write about because he is not funny, nor adds anything to the play, and is an embarrassment to the great clowns that came before him. So Helena and the Countess go round and round as the Countess tries to draw out that Helena loves Bertram. Helena is being coy and the Countess – who I picture as Maggie Smith – finally says for Helena to just admit she loves Bertram. Helena does and the controlling mother starts forming her plan to get the two married. She gets Helena to admit that she wishes to go to Paris and we learn that Helena believes she has a cure for the King’s troubles. She goes off to Paris to win the favour of the King, all according to the Countess’ plan.
And of course she succeeds in curing the King. So happy is he that he gathers a group of his young lords and says to her: “pick one.” And of course in a long-winded manner – because she is ever so happy! – she picks Bertram. But she does not even pick Bertram, but says: “I dare not say I take you, but I give me and my service, ever whilst I live, into your guiding power” (2.3). She gives herself completely to him – an absolutely obedient wife falls right into his hands, and he says “I don’t want to marry her.” “But she saved my life,” says the king. “Yeah, well why should I suffer for that?” said the brat….and he continues.
“She had her breeding at my father’s charge
A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever!”
Translation: I don’t want no poor girl to muck up my title!
The King becomes very wise and philosophic and says that if the only thing stopping him is her title that is silly because he is the king and he can raise her title to whatever he wants. He then waxes poetic about the nature of goodness and how good is good and virtue is virtue and the class distinction is arbitrary and meaningless. It’s great! Let’s tear down those class barriers and see people for who they really are! Bertram replies:
“I cannot love her no will strive to do’t”
Helena tries to save face – because who would love being told she is unworthy to her face and says that she doesn’t care anymore, it is enough that the king is well, let the rest go. But the King flips out and starts berating Bertram. Interestingly enough, he begins his tirade with “my honour’s at the stake” – so we might ask how much he really cares about Helena, and how much he cares about looking like a weak man in front of his lords? He concludes by saying that Bertram must take her as wife or he will be cast out and left a beggar, so of course the goat’s end says: “Oh, yes, I have been so foolish. I thought she was base but now, if I look at her from this angle, yes as long as you, King sire, say so, she is beautiful!”
So that’s settled, and Bertram confides to Parolles that, yes they forced him to marry, he will never bed her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars, and never bed her.” What? He would rather go die in the wars than have his wife? Why? But this is what he does and writes a letter to send to his mother and Helena saying that he is so sorry but he had to go to war.
So you would think that Helena, having suffered so much from this guy, would realize that he is not worth her time, and that there are so many lords who would love to have a treasure like her, right? No. Well, actually she comes home pretty defeated, but the Countess will not give up, and doesn’t really care for people’s emotions.
Now Bertram, or Shakespeare, created this caveat to the situation. Bertram says
“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” (3.2)
Most audience members would have been familiar with the two classic “tricks” – the “ring trick” and the “bed trick.” Over the course of his career, Shakespeare uses both – in All’s he uses both at the same time. Not only does Helena have to get Bertram’s ring off him, but she has to sleep with him. In brief: she runs away, disguising herself as a pilgrim (a male pilgrim), goes on pilgrimage to St. Jacques, meets a widow and her daughter Diana, devises a plan in which she gets Diana to seduce Bertram and have sex with him in the dark (so that Helena can take Diana’s place), and Diana also gets the ring. By the way, it is Diana’s mother who Helena arranges all this with, Diana is as much a pawn to her mother as Bertram and Helena are to the Countess – mothers are evil.
So the plan goes off, somewhat smoothly. And of course “All’s well that ends well” – sort of. In the last half of the play, the amount of times that a character says a variance of “All’s well that ends well” is quiet absurd. It is like Keats’ use of “happy” in Ode to a Nightingale – clearly he is not happy. We really have to question how well everything ends by the amount of times it is affirmed. There is a complex plot involving Diana and the ring which almost gets her killed until Helena shows up, reveals her plot and shows Bertram that she has both gotten his ring and is pregnant by him. And in a Shylock-like moment he says something to the effect of “I am content” and then takes Helena for his wife. To which Helena says something to the effect of “if I am ever untrue, leave me or kill me.” So everyone is happy…but something is wrong. Shakespeare never answered the question: why? Why does Helena submit, after everything she went through, to this man who is really the same man? He will go on being a spoiled child and she will be submissive – and this is a happy ending? The lesson: girls will find themselves attracted to spoiled jerks, plain and simple – nothing you can do about it. So don’t try to be intelligent, or chivalrous – just be a rich spoiled jerk.
But enough of that. I want to, in this long discourse, turn finally to Parolles, for his plot gets lost somewhere in the mess. He is in the Tuscan wars with Bertram and his fellow lords hate him, for being a coward and a liar. They devise a plan in which they will capture him, pretending to be the enemy, and get him to betray his own men. Without needing to read anything else in the play, I suggest you read Act 4, scene 1: it’s delightful: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/allswell/allswell.4.1.html
They blindfold Parolles and use a made up language to sound like the enemy. Then a “translator” gets Parolles to talk, and he reveals secrets about the men who are standing around listening to him. A key joke is Parolles’ line:
“I shall lose my life for want of language” (4.1). He means that he shall die because he cannot understand them. But the joke is that his name means words and it is words that are responsible for his downfall. So they go through the whole bit – reading the made-up language aloud is fun – and then they take off the blindfold and reveal the plot, at which point Parolles becomes suddenly serious, like Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night, but more dejected than vindictive.
“Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” he says: and this is really true for everything in the play. Bertram is crushed with a plot. Helena is crushed with a plot. Parolles is crushed with a plot. Diana is almost crushed with a plot. There is a danger in scheming: this is really the only surety that Shakespeare delivers in this play.
We may not know why Helena loves Bertram, but we do know that her plots, like the plot against Parolles, is meant to humble everyone around her, not satisfy. No one is truly happy at the end of the play despite what they may think: except the Countess, who got exactly what she wanted, and maybe Diana and her mother who after all is done, the King offers one of his lords to marry. The fact that this king reverses the whole suitor role is a matter left for a further time.