All's Well That Ends Well

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All's Well That Ends Well



All's Well That Ends Well was probably written sometime between 1600 and 1605, and many experts date the work to 1603. Others believe that the play is the lost Shakespearean drama titled Love's Labour Won, which was written before 1598. The first written mention of the play under its current title appeared in 1623, when it was licensed to be printed in Shakespeare's Folio. Attempts to date the play have involved a bit of detective work regarding some of its language, particularly Helen's letter to the countess in act 3, which exemplifies Shakespeare's less-sophisticated early style. Conversely, some critics note similarities between the tone and style of the play with that of Measure for Measure, which was written in 1604. Some commentators have theorized that the uneven nature of the play suggests that it was written at two different times in Shakespeare's life. This sketchy history indicates that the play did not attract much attention when it was first written and performed, a testament to its status as a lesser work in Shakespeare's canon.

All's Well That Ends Well has often been called one of Shakespeare's problem plays or dark comedies, a category that usually includes Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. The problem refers to the cynical nature of the plot's resolution, in which Bertram, a rather unbecoming hero who is sought after by a woman who is too good for him, has a last-minute change of heart and vows to love Helena, his wife, forever. This declaration comes on the heels of a rather devious scheme and is not prompted by a personal revelation deep enough to be convincing to the audience. The problem plays are more similar in tone and theme to Shakespeare's tragedies than they are to his romantic comedies.

Shakespeare's primary inspiration for the plot of All's Well That Ends Well was William Painter's collection of stories The Palace of Pleasures (1575), which itself was an English translation of "Giletta of Narbonne," a story in Giovanni Boccaccio's collection of folk tales called the Decameron (1353). Shakespeare fleshed out the story by adding the characters of Parolles, the Countess of Rossillion, Lavache, and Lafew. The events of the play, in which a low-born woman schemes to marry a count and wins both his ring and his child by switching places with another woman during an illicit rendezvous (a tactic known as the bed-trick), has its roots in folk tales. This may account, some believe, for the play's unbelievable nature and thus its failure as a comedy. Others believe that audiences of the day would have been familiar with such folk tales, as well as with Painter's The Palace of Pleasures and Boccaccio's Decameron, and thus would have received the play more warmly. That said, nearly all critics have at least some reservations about it.

Early critics of the play focused their attention on the incongruous plot elements and the themes of merit and rank, virtue and honor, and male versus female. More recent critics also address these issues, but they focus more attention on topics such as gender and desire. Helena's bold sexuality and her reversal of gender roles, in which she is the pursuer rather than the pursued, has generated much discussion, especially for how they intertwine with other main conflicts in the play, such as social class, the bed-trick, and marriage. Whether the play does end well, as the title suggests, has also historically been much debated.

The three main characters—Helena, Bertram, and Parolles—have generated a great deal of literary criticism over the years. Some critics brand Helena as conniving and obsessive in her love for Bertram, while others find her virtuous and noble. In general, critics are not fond of the character of Bertram, though some judge him more harshly than others. Some critics find him thoroughly unrepentant and unredeemable at the end of the play, making the ending implausible. Others are more sympathetic toward him, finding him merely immature at the beginning of the play and in need of life experience, which he obtains while fighting in Florence. Parolles has generated less controversy in terms of the nature of his character (even Parolles himself recognizes his deficiencies and is not ashamed of them), and some critics find the subplot involving Parolles the only thing that saves the play from failure.

There is no record of All's Well That Ends Well having been performed in Shakespeare's time (although it probably was), and it remained unpopular for several hundred years. In England, it was performed only a few dozen times in the eighteenth century and only seventeen times in the nineteenth century. The Victorians abhorred the sexual nature of the play. Writing in 1852, critic John Bull (quoted in the New Cambridge edition of the play edited by Russell Fraser) found that such wantonness cannot "be made presentable to an audience of which decent females form a portion." In the United States, the play was not staged until well into the twentieth century. In most cases, when it was performed, many changes were made to the text to make it more contemporary, often highlighting Parolles's part and turning the play into a farce.


Act 1, Scene 1

All's Well That Ends Well opens at the palace in Rossillion, a region in France that borders Spain and the Mediterranean Sea. Here, the Countess of Rossillion mourns her recently deceased husband and the imminent departure of her son, Bertram, the Count of Rossillion, who has been summoned to Paris by the king. The countess and her friend, the elderly Lord Lafew, discuss the king's poor health and lament that Gerard de Narbon, a famous court doctor who has just died, is not around to heal him. The doctor's daughter, the beautiful and vivacious Helena, has become the countess's ward.

In a soliloquy, Helena reveals her love for Bertram. Because she is a commoner, there is no hope of them being together, and yet she cannot bear the thought of his departure. Parolles, Bertram's best friend, whom Helena acknowledges is a liar and a coward, enters and engages Helena in a coarse conversation about the pros and cons of her virginity. Helena intends to protect her virginity, but Parolles urges her to give it up. To him it is a wasted virtue, particularly once a woman becomes a certain age. The conversation prompts Helena to take matters into her own hands. Her love for Bertram can be realized only through her own actions, and not by waiting for something to happen: "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven," she says.

Act 1, Scene 2

In Paris, the King of France confers with two lords, the Brothers Dumaine, about the dispute between Sienna and Florence; he states that he will allow his soldiers to fight on either side. Bertram, Parolles, and Lafew enter, and the king welcomes them, reminiscing fondly about Bertram's father, and wishing that Gerard de Narbon were still alive to cure his fistula.

Act 1, Scene 3

Back in Rossillion, the countess confers with Lavatch, a morose and ribald clown. The countess calls him a knave (stupid) and urges him to marry the servant woman he has gotten pregnant. She then asks her steward to fetch Helena. The steward tells the countess that he has overhead Helena talking to herself about her love for Bertram. When the lovesick Helena appears, the countess comments sympathetically on the girl's emotional state, for she was once young and in love.

The countess tells Helena that she loves her like a daughter, but Helena objects. If the countess were her mother, then Bertram would be her brother. Initially, Helena states that she cannot be the countess's daughter because she is a servant, and Bertram is a lord; they cannot be equals. The countess urges Helena to admit her real objection—that having feelings for her own brother would be improper—and she does. Helena also admits that she has plans to follow Bertram to Paris in order to try her father's cures on the king. The countess is doubtful; she says that the king's doctors have told him nothing can be done. Helena objects; she bets her life that she can cure the king. The countess relents and sends her off to Paris.

Act 2, Scene 1

In Paris, the king bids farewell to the Brothers Dumaine, who are off to fight for Florence in the war with Sienna. Lafew announces the arrival of Gerard de Narbon's daughter, Helena, who has come to cure the ailing king. Helena explains that upon his deathbed, her father passed on his knowledge to her. The king doubts her ability to make him better, but she swears upon her life that he will be healed within a day or two. She offers a wager: If she fails, she will be put to death; if she succeeds, she will be able to choose her own husband from among "the royal blood of France." With little conviction, the king accepts her offer.

Act 2, Scene 2

The countess entrusts Lavatch with the task of traveling to Paris to give Helena a note and check up on Bertram. In a series of bawdy comments that frustrate the countess, Lavatch agrees.

Act 2, Scene 3

Bertram, Parolles, and Lafew are stunned to see the king miraculously cured. The king urges Helena to have a seat and take her pick of husbands from the assembled gathering of lords. Lafew wishes he were younger so Helena might pick him. Helena addresses the lords, claiming to be a simple maid, and all refuse her. Then she decides on Bertram. "This is the man," she says. Bertram argues with the king on account of the fact that she is "a poor physician's daughter." The king responds that "From lowest place, whence virtuous things proceed, / The place is dignified by th'doer's deed." Furthermore, she is pretty and smart, and Bertram should be happy to have her. As for her lack of wealth and the social status, the king states that he is capable of granting them.

Bertram reiterates that he will never love her. Helena briefly recants her decision, but the king will not hear of it. His reputation is at stake, so he forces Bertram to marry her that night.

When the others have departed, Lafew and Parolles talk about what Lafew perceives as Parolles's lack of loyalty to Bertram. Lafew also derides Parolles's pompous personality and gaudy clothes. Parolles dismisses Lafew as an old man with no wisdom to impart. Lafew warns that such foolishness will lead Parolles to ruin. Offstage, Helena and Bertram are married. When Lafew tells Parolles that he has a new mistress (Helena), Parolles responds that he has no mistress and no lord other than God. Lafew responds that the devil is his master and that he should be beaten.

After Lafew leaves, Bertram enters. Bertram says that he will never consummate his marriage to Helena. Instead, he will go off to fight in the Tuscan wars and send Helena back to Rossillion. Parolles agrees to join him.

Act 2, Scene 4

Lavatch arrives in Paris and greets Helena and Parolles, whom he insults by calling him a knave. Parolles does not realize Lavatch has insulted him. Parolles tells Helena to prepare for her wedding night, and she leaves to await Bertram.

Act 2, Scene 5

Lafew tries to convince Bertram that Parolles will not be a trustworthy ally in battle, to no avail. Helena reappears, and Bertram tells her that he will not sleep with her that night because of his prior obligations. He gives her a letter to give to his mother and tells her to return to Rossillion. Helena vows that as his obedient servant she will do what he asks. After she leaves, Bertram confesses to Parolles that he will never return to her, and they go off to battle.

Act 3, Scene 1

In Florence, the duke addresses his troops, which include the Brothers Dumaine, who are both serving as captains. The duke is perturbed that the king of France has not sided exclusively with him in the war, but the two lords proclaim their allegiance to the duke nonetheless.

Act 3, Scene 2

Lavatch returns to Rossillion and delivers Bertram's letter to the countess. The letter states that Bertram has been forced to marry Helena against his will. He has run away and plans never to return to the palace. The countess is angry that he is dishonoring both the king and Helena, whom she calls "a maid too virtuous / For the contempt of empire."

Helena arrives in Rossillion with the Brothers Dumaine. She realizes that Bertram is gone for good when the two lords tell the countess that Bertram has gone to battle for the Duke of Florence. Helena reads a passage from Bertram's letter, which states that she can only be his wife if she wears his ring (which he has refused to give her) and bears him a child. Furthermore, he says that as long as Helena is alive in France, he shall not return. The countess renounces him as her son.

In a soliloquy, Helena laments her position. She is sad for herself, but also worried that Bertram will be hurt or killed in battle. She decides to leave France so Bertram can return home safely.

Act 3, Scene 3

In a brief scene, the Duke of Florence leads Bertram and others into battle. Bertram bravely heads up the troops, and Parolles, coward that he is, follows in the rear.

Act 3, Scene 4

In Rossillion, the countess receives a letter from Helena stating that she has gone on a pilgrimage to the burial site of Saint Jacques le Grand (St. James the Greater) in hopes that her departure will prompt Bertram to return home. The countess urges her steward to write to Bertram in an effort to extol Helena's virtues and point out how childish he is being in refusing her as his wife. The countess thinks that if Bertram returns home and Helena hears about it, then she will return as well due to her immense desire to be near him.

Act 3, Scene 5

In the city of Florence, the Widow Capilet and her daughter, Diana, discuss the war. News of the young Count Bertram's heroism on the battlefield has spread fast, and they are aware of his brave deeds. However, Parolles has been seeking a female companion for the count and has spied Diana. Both the Widow and her friend Mariana warn Diana vehemently against becoming involved in an affair. If Diana loses her virginity to the Count of Rossillion, she will be ruined.

Helena arrives at the Widow's house in search of a place to stay on her pilgrimage to Saint Jacques le Grand. The Widow welcomes her and says that the Count of Rossillion, a war hero, is in town. Helena says she does not know him, but finds him handsome. Diana says that the count should not be so mean to his wife, but that Parolles should be poisoned.

Act 3, Scene 6

At the camp, the Brothers Dumaine try to convince Bertram that Parolles is a scoundrel, liar, and coward. Bertram doubts that they can prove such accusations. The lords offer to pose as the enemy, capture and blindfold Parolles, bring him back to the tents, and interrogate him, knowing full well that he will incriminate Bertram to save his own skin. Bertram agrees to the plan. Parolles enters the tent, stating his intent to find a prized regimental drum that was lost in battle. The others tell him to forget about it, but he is adamant, believing he will be deemed a hero for retrieving it. They relent, deciding that it will be the perfect time to capture him. Parolles proclaims he will attempt the dangerous maneuver that night.

Act 3, Scene 7

Helena convinces the Widow that she is the count's wife. She proposes a plan in which Diana's virtue will be spared by switching places with Diana during her scheduled rendezvous with Bertram. Thus, Bertram will be sleeping unknowingly with his wife, not Diana. Ahead of time, Diana will ask that Bertram give her his ring and that neither of them speak for the hour they are together. The Widow agrees to the plan, because it will allow her daughter to retain her chastity. To seal the deal, Helena offers a great deal of money to Diana so that she will have a significant dowry and will be able to find herself a worthy husband afterward.

Act 4, Scene 1

Parolles arrives in a field, ostensibly on his quest to find the drum, but he has no intentions of doing so. Instead, he plans to take a nap, feign some injuries, and return to camp with a story about his brave but unsuccessful exploit. The two lords are hiding in the bushes, and they jump out, throwing a sack over his head. They have an interpreter utter some mumbo jumbo—"Boskos thromuldo boskos"—to make Parolles believe he has been captured by the foreign enemy. Parolles immediately offers to spill the beans about his army's secrets in an effort to spare his life. His "captors" agree to take him to their general, so Parolles can tell him everything.

Act 4, Scene 2

In his effort to plan his conquest, Bertram tries to seduce Diana by comparing her to the Greek goddess Diana and saying that remaining chaste would be a waste of her beauty. Diana reminds him that he is married, but Bertram brushes it off. He says he loves only Diana. Diana is not convinced; she knows that he just wants to sleep with her. She declares that she will believe his declaration of love only if he backs it up with the promise to marry her after his wife dies and if he gives her the family ring he wears on his finger. He protests, but gives in fairly quickly. Diana says she will meet him at midnight in her room. He will stay for only one hour, and neither of them will speak. In return for his ring, she will give him one of her own in return. After Bertram leaves, Diana gives a short soliloquy stating that her mother was right about him. All men are the same; they will promise anything to get a woman into bed.

Act 4, Scene 3

The Brothers Dumaine discuss Bertram. The first lord tells the second lord that Helena is dead, having succumbed to grief on her pilgrimage to Saint Jacques le Grand. Her death was confirmed by the priest of the shrine. Furthermore, Bertram knew this when he made his deal with Diana. The lords are saddened by Helena's death, and they are dismayed (but not surprised) that Bertram is cheered by it and happily announces that he will return to Rossillion shortly.

The two lords tell Bertram that Parolles has been held in the stocks, offering his "captors" a litany of confessions. Bertram still does not believe Parolles would say anything bad about him. To prove him wrong, Parolles is sent in, still blindfolded. Parolles says that the duke's horses are weak, his troops scattered, and his commanders are poor rogues. He further indicts Captain Dumaine as a low-level apprentice who once impregnated a mentally retarded girl. One of the captors retrieves a letter from Parolles's pocket, in which he wrote that Bertram is a fool. He claims to have been warning Diana that the count was "a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity, and devours up all the fry it finds." He begs for his life and continues to say terrible things about Captain Dumaine, including that "drunkenness is his best virtue." He also condemns the other Captain Dumaine and readily agrees to betray all of them if only he is allowed to live. Bertram is livid at Parolles's betrayal. When Parolles is unmasked, he balks at being fooled but readily apologizes.

Act 4, Scene 4

Following the bed-trick (which takes place offstage), Helena tells the Widow and Diana that they will all return to France in order to make good on her promise. When they get there, Diana will need to do one more thing before their scheme is complete. Diana vows to do whatever Helena desires, such is her gratitude for having her virtue saved by the bed-trick. Helena assures her that "all's well that ends well."

Act 4, Scene 5

In Rossillion, Lafew criticizes Parolles, and the countess wishes she had never known him. She laments Helena's death, stating that she loved her as if she were her own child. Lafew proposes that Bertram marry his daughter, and the countess agrees. Lavatch engages in some off-color banter with Lafew and the countess; they both state that he is morose but harmless. Lavatch announces that Bertram has returned.

Act 5, Scene 1

While traveling to Rossillion as fast as they can, Helena, Diana, and the Widow encounter a gentleman. Helena asks him to take a message to the King of France. The gentleman states that the king is not in Paris but in fact heading for Rossillion. "All's well that ends well yet," Helena reminds the Widow. Helena promises a reward to the gentleman if he can deliver her letter to the king promptly, and he obliges.

Act 5, Scene 2

Parolles returns to Rossillion and urges Lavatch, who roundly criticizes Parolles's withered clothes and body odor, to give Lafew a letter. But Lafew enters, and Lavatch introduces Parolles as a "poor, decayed … foolish, rascally knave." Parolles begs forgiveness from Lafew, who grants it.

Act 5, Scene 3

The king mourns Helena's death, and with Lafew and the countess present, he summons Bertram. The king asks Bertram if he knows Lafew's daughter. The count says he was in love with her, and the king announces their betrothal. Lafew asks Bertram for a ring to give his daughter. He presents the ring he believes Diana gave him during their rendezvous. Lafew instantly recognizes it as Helena's ring, but Bertram objects. He claims it was thrown from a window by a woman who wanted to sleep with him. The king sides with Lafew, saying that Helena promised only to take it off her finger if she consummated her marriage with Bertram. Bertram remains adamant—he did not receive the ring from Helena. The king orders Bertram to be taken away. As Bertram is being led away, he says that if the ring belonged to Helena, then she, in fact, became his wife in Florence, and yet, she was not there, so the ring was not hers and she is not his wife.

Bertram is led away, and the king is perplexed. Meanwhile, the gentleman arrives with a letter to the king from Diana. The letter claims that Bertram promised to marry her upon the death of his wife, but that he fled Florence without making good on that promise. She is on her way to Rossillion to seek justice.

At this turn of events, Lafew recants his daughter's hand in marriage, believing Bertram not worthy of being her husband. The king agrees and starts to believe that Helena met with foul play, possibly at Bertram's hands. Bertram and Diana, along with her mother, are brought to court. The king asks Bertram if he knows either Diana or her mother, and Bertram refuses to answer, but states that Diana is not his wife. Diana insists that Bertram believes he took her virginity. Bertram says she was a whore. Diana presents his ring as proof that she is telling the truth. The countess and the king instantly believe her. Diana says that Parolles can vouch for her story, and he is ordered to appear. Bertram backtracks, saying he slept with Diana and she stole the ring. Diana says that she gave Bertram the ring the king is now wearing.

Bertram finally confesses; Parolles appears and confesses that he was the go-between for Bertram and Diana. The king questions Diana about the ring some more, and she cryptically says she never gave it to Bertram. The king knows full well the ring was Helena's and orders Diana to be sent to jail for refusing to cooperate. She sends her mother to fetch her bail.

Diana enjoys the riddle she has presented, and knowing of Helena's ensuing pregnancy, she tells the king: "Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick. So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick."

The Widow presents Helena, who quotes Bertram's original letter: "When from my finger you can get this ring, / And are by me with child," proving that she has achieved Bertram's seemingly unattainable criteria. Presented with this evidence, Bertram professes his undying love for Helena and promises to be a faithful husband. The king, delighted at this turnabout, applauds Diana for retaining her chastity while allowing Helena to fulfill her role as Bertram's wife. He offers Diana a dowry and her choice for a husband.


Bertram, Count of Rossillion

Bertram is the Count of Rossillion. His father has recently died, and his mother, the Countess of Rossillion, is still in mourning. Bertram is quite young, perhaps no more than twenty, and he is eager to join the king's ranks in Paris and then go off to battle in Florence. Bertram's best friend is Parolles, but he is oblivious to the fact that Parolles is an opportunist and a scoundrel. Bertram balks at marrying Helena because she is a commoner with no wealth or status. He agrees reluctantly only after the king promises to endow Helena with wealth and a title in order to sweeten the deal. This is evidence of Bertram's snobbishness, as Helena's social standing outranks all her other positive qualities in Bertram's eyes. Finding himself trapped in a marriage to Helena, whom he does not love, he flees to Florence to join the wars. While there, he proves himself valiant on the battlefield, and his reputation as a hero spreads quickly throughout the city. He spies Diana in town and sends Parolles to set up a rendezvous. Before their scheduled tryst, he promises the young virgin that he truly loves her and will marry her as soon as his wife dies. That night, he believes he sleeps with her, but he beds his wife, Helena, instead. Thinking he is with Diana, he gives her his family ring as a token of his affection.


  • All's Well That Ends Well, directed by John Barton and Claude Whatham and produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was filmed in 1968 by the BBC and released on video. The production stars Lynn Farleigh, Ian Richardson, and Catherine Lacey.
  • All's Well That Ends Well, a 1981 production directed by Elijah Moshinsky and starring Ian Charleson, Angela Down, and Celia Johnson, was released by BBC Time/Life Series and distributed by Ambrose Video.
  • An audiobook of All's Well That Ends Well, read by William Hutt and published as part of the CBC Stratford Festival Reading Series, is available on compact disc.
  • A two-cassette full-cast recording of All's Well That Ends Well, starring Claire Bloom and Lynn Redgrave, was released by Caedmon Audio.

Bertram's first change of heart takes place when he witnesses the blindfolded Parolles's exuberant confessions to the Brothers Dumaine. Parolles declares that Bertram is a coward, liar, and promiscuous to boot. Bertram is forced to accept that Parolles has been duplicitous. After the wars are over, Bertram returns to Rossillion. He thinks Helena is dead and that he has slept with Diana; in fact, he is adamant about it when Diana appears before him and the king. When the bed-trick is revealed and Helena appears, ostensibly pregnant with his child and bearing his ring, he happily concedes defeat. She has fulfilled the requirements he stipulated in his letter as being necessary for him to accept her as his wife, and he vows to love her forever.

Commentators are divided over Bertram. Most agree that he is immature and full of shortcomings, but some critics find him sincere and repentant by the end of the play and thus worthy of the honorable Helena. Others find this turnaround in his character implausible and false. "No Shakespearean hero is so degraded and so unsparingly presented," wrote Russell Fraser in the New Cambridge edition of the play. One of the harshest summaries of Bertram's character came from renowned literary critic and philosopher Samuel Johnson, who summarized Bertram (as quoted in Fraser) as "a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness." The outrage, for those who dislike Bertram, is that he is given a happy ending he does not deserve.

Critics who argue that Bertram has truly repented by the end of the play suggest that it is his immaturity and desire for life experience that cause him to initially reject Helena. Elizabethan audiences, they argue, would have found Bertram's desire to go to war entirely honorable. Likewise, his blindness to Parolles's true nature is attributed to his inexperience, but once it is demonstrated via the kidnapping episode, Bertram becomes wiser. Those scholars who find Bertram entirely despicable and without merit conclude that his acceptance of Helena in the final scene of the play is one calculated to save his neck, as he finds himself backed into a corner with all the evidence (Helena, Diana, and Parolles all testify against him) stacked against him. A few critics abstain from roundly praising or condemning Bertram, offering other ways to interpret his character.

Brothers Dumaine

The Brothers Dumaine, sometimes called the two French lords, serve as captains for the Duke of Florence in the war with Sienna. They are honorable men, fond of Helena, friends with Bertram, and convinced of Parolles's bad nature from the start. They try in vain to convince Bertram that Parolles cannot be trusted. In order to prove their case, the Brothers Dumaine enact a plan to ambush Parolles and reveal his true nature to Bertram. They disguise themselves as enemy soldiers and kidnap Parolles near Florence when Parolles embarks on a mock-heroic quest to recapture the regiment's drum. The Brothers pretend to speak a different language, and while Parolles is blindfolded, he betrays Bertram openly and vociferously.

Countess of Rossillion

The Countess of Rossillion is Bertram's mother, and she is still mourning the recent death of her husband. She has also willingly become Helena's guardian since the young woman's father, a physician of local renown, has also recently passed away. Kind and generous, the countess exemplifies the best of the noble tradition and encourages Helena's love for Bertram, even though she thinks her son is foolish and headstrong for rejecting the talented, vivacious girl. The countess rates honesty and virtue higher than valor in battle or nobility of rank, even when this means that she must side against Bertram. She believes her son is old enough to get married, but too young to go into battle. She mourns Bertram's departure for Paris in the same way she mourns the loss of her husband.

The countess's fondness for Helena is evident when she tells the girl she loves her as if she were her own daughter. But when Helena offers to travel to Paris to heal the king, the countess encourages her to go. Even after Helena professes her love for the countess's son, the countess is understanding and does not discourage Helena's passion. She understands the spell of "love's strong passion," having fallen under it herself when she was younger.

The countess has been widely praised as one of Shakespeare's best female characters. Famed nineteenth-century critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw (as quoted in Fraser) called the countess "the most beautiful old woman's part ever written." One of the most famous actresses to play the role was Academy Award-winner Judi Dench, who played the countess in 2003 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford, England.


The daughter of the Widow Capilet, Diana is courted by the Count of Rossillion while he is fighting with the king's regiment in Florence. She is a virgin, and she knows Bertram's reputation as a cad, and that he is married. When Helena arrives in Florence as a traveler and agrees to stay at the Widow's inn, Diana tells her about the count's awful wife. At first, Helena pretends to be someone else, but after she confesses to being Bertram's wife, Diana agrees to the bed-trick scheme as a way to preserve her own honor. She is also happy to help Helena achieve the demands of Bertram's letter. After the bed-trick has been carried out successfully, she and her mother accompany Helena back to Paris.

Diana plays a major role in revealing the bed-trick in the play's final act. She delights in this role, presenting a maddening riddle for the king, Bertram, and others to decipher. She insists she never slept with Bertram, even as Bertram insists that she did. When the king threatens to put her in jail for her insolence, she presents her bail in the form of Helena, the answer to the riddle and the person they all thought was dead. When all is revealed, the king applauds Diana's role in the bed-trick scheme and rewards her by letting her choose a husband from among the men at court. She will thus be spared the hardship and poverty of her life in Florence. For her, the story truly ends well.

Duke of Florence

The Duke of Florence welcomes Bertram and Parolles when they escape Paris to fight the war. He is allied with France in a war against Sienna, another province of what would later become Italy.


Helena is the daughter of the recently deceased court physician, Gerard de Narbon, from whom she has learned his healing secrets. She has become the ward of the Countess of Rossillion, with whom she has a very maternal relationship, though she has fallen in love with the countess's son, Bertram. She is disturbed by the thought of being considered the countess's daughter, because that would make Bertram her brother and her romantic interest in him would be unseemly. Because of these concerns, she admits her love for Bertram to the countess, who is sympathetic to the girl's predicament. Helena is admired by nearly everyone except Bertram for her charm, beauty, intelligence, and honesty. Her name, as several characters in the play remind her, is equivocal with Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman of Ancient Greece, over whom the Trojan War was fought.

Helena is tormented by the thought of being separated from Bertram when he departs for Paris. She takes it upon herself, with the countess's blessing, to travel to Paris in order to heal the king, who is suffering from an incurable condition, but also because it will keep her in proximity to Bertram. She miraculously heals the king and thereby earns his loyalty, admiration, and a valuable ring that figures prominently in the story when the bed-trick is revealed.

Bertram rejects Helena because of her lowborn status. He is a count, and she is a commoner. No matter how virtuous she may be, it would be improper to marry her. Helena understands this, yet she does not accept it. She takes matters into her own hands and hatches a plan: first, to become Bertram's wife, and second, to fulfill his demands to obtain his ring and bear his child. Even in the face of repeated rejection, she persists in her goals, so strong is her infatuation with Bertram.

Helena has the gift of healing, as did her father, and bets the king her life that she can make him well, another example of her remarkable self-confidence. He accepts the offer, and as a favor in return, Helena asks for Bertram's hand in marriage. The king readily complies.

Helena is considered the central figure in the play, and all of the major themes of the play (gender issues, desire, the bed-trick, marriage, and social class) are influenced by her actions. As the heroine of All's Well That Ends Well, Helena is often described by admiring commentators as noble, virtuous, honorable, and regenerative, and by detractors as obsessive and narrow-minded. Her dogged pursuit of Bertram has been both ridiculed (particularly in Victorian times) as unfeminine and commended as being bold, mostly in more recent times. Many wonder why she is attracted to a man who does not like her at all. Nearly all critics agree that she is a complex character.

Fraser and others find similarities between Helena and the real-life historical figure Christine de Pisan, an educated woman of the early fifteenth century who was renowned for her piety, goodness, intelligence, and a type of proto-feminism in which she attributed a woman's success to her own resourcefulness. Additionally, her father was the well-known doctor and astrologer Thomas of Pisano, who had been called upon in 1365 to heal England's Charles V. Fraser theorizes that Shakespeare added dimension to the character of Helena by making her a knowingly frail character, as evidenced by her pilgrimage to Saint Jacques le Grand. This suggests that though Helena is strong and brave enough to get what she wants (Bertram), she understands her limitations as a person, and possibly her faults (that is, desiring the flawed Bertram is perhaps not the healthiest thing for her). "Shakespeare's Helena is frail in that 'we are all frail,'" Fraser writes, "and it is this generic human frailty that dictates the pilgrimage to Saint Jacques." Irish playwright W. B. Yeats, quoted by Patrick Carnegy in the Spectator, called Helena "one of Shakespeare's 'glorious women who select dreadful or empty men.'"

Commentators who unequivocally admire Helena find her guiltless in plotting to wed Bertram and in fulfilling the terms of his letter through the bed-trick. One critic even refers to her as a genius. Scholars who are critical of her character find her obsessed by her sexual passion and an example of noble womanhood degraded, using her abilities as a huntress to realize her plans for a union with Bertram with no thought of their consequences to others (primarily Diana).

Most critics, however, see Helena as a many-sided character. Several critics have noted her regenerative and restorative powers; she saves the king from almost certain death, but how she does it remains a mystery. She is the key to restoring a kingdom whose noble elders are dying and who have no honorable replacements. When Helena heals the king, she restores the kingdom at least for a time, and saves Bertram (and Diana) from making what would have been a mistake of lifelong regret. She is pregnant at the end of the play, symbolically the provider of a new generation of nobility. Other critics have noted her embodiment of both feminine passivity and masculine action. She is the desiring subject (the pursuer of Bertram), yet she longs to be the desired object (pursued by Bertram).

King of France

The King of France represents a dying breed of nobility, one in which honor and virtue are supremely important. When the play opens, he is suffering from a debilitating illness, fistula, in which some of his internal organs have developed abscesses. He is nostalgic for the past and has fond memories of Bertram's father, the former Count of Rossillion. Helena, who has followed Bertram to Paris, offers to heal the king. When she succeeds, the king is grateful and generous, giving her a valuable ring, allowing her to choose a husband from among his noblemen. When Bertram rejects Helena for being common, the king offers her a title and a dowry.

The king forbids Bertram from traveling to Florence to fight in the war, stating that the count is too young. He is protective of his troops and makes sure they are trained sufficiently. He is ambivalent about Florence's war with Sienna and allows his men to choose which side they will fight for. When the bed-trick is revealed at the play's conclusion, the king is pleased that all has worked out, and he allows Diana to choose a husband. This gesture shows that, although he is grateful and gives generous rewards, he has not learned his lesson. He offered Helena the same reward, which led to the chain of events that caused Diana to be there in the first place. However, the king's actions most likely rescue Diana (and her mother) from a life of poverty, proving he is much more forgiving of class differences than Bertram, despite possessing the ultimate title. His actions prove him to be cautious, thoughtful, and ultimately benevolent.


Lafew is an elderly lord, a friend and confidant of the countess. He is quick to perceive the true character of Parolles, calls him a knave (an unscrupulous person), ridicules his flashy clothes, and warns Bertram against him. Lafew travels to Paris with Bertram, and he is one of Helena's strongest defenders. When the king allows her to choose a husband, he wishes he were young enough to be considered. Even though Lafew represents the old guard—he would have been close to Bertram's father—and his values are somewhat traditional, he is still a good judge of character and is capable of forgiveness. His sympathy and kindness become apparent at the end of the play when he assures the unmasked and humiliated Parolles that he will not be tossed out of the palace.


Lavatch is a cantankerous, pessimistic clown and servant of the Countess of Rossillion. He provides some comic relief in the play, usually in somewhat lascivious prose that espouses his gloomy world view. He is the lowest character on the totem pole in the play, so unscrupulous that even Parolles calls him a knave. He has an affair with Isabel, a servant, and gets her pregnant. He decides to marry her, but later changes his mind. Lavatch is the one older character in the play who is unwise, proving that age and wisdom do not always go together.


Mentor and confidant to Bertram, Parolles is a social climber and a scoundrel. On the other hand, he exhibits more self-awareness than Bertram and speaks several languages. He dresses in flashy clothes that border on the ridiculous and does not put his intelligence to good use. He is a prime example of a miles gloriosus, a boastful soldier, which was a stock character type in Shakespeare's day. He also has qualities of a servus callidus, a tricky slave, another type of stock character. The first glimpse of his false allegiance to Bertram is when he tells Lafew that Bertram is not his master; he answers only to God. This displays his arrogance and disloyalty; Parolles is in service to the Count of Rossillion, and likewise is expected to remain steadfast, especially so when he follows Bertram into battle. But he betrays Bertram in Florence when he is captured and tricked into believing he is about to be tortured. His boasts and deceit finally bring about his unmasking, at last enlightening Bertram as to his true character. Parolles is quick to realize he has been a fool, suffers humiliation, and assumes a new veneer of humbleness in accepting Lafew's mercy, which will enable him to remain in Rossillion.

Parolles has a long conversation with Helena in the first act. They discuss her virginity in rather flirtatious terms. One wonders why Helena would choose to confide in Parolles, a man whose advice she would almost certainly never take. For his part, Parolles tells Helena that virginity is a handicap. The longer she preserves it, the more danger she is in of becoming damaged goods. That Parolles would give such advice to a young woman so highly regarded by the countess speaks of his contempt for those in authority as well as his lax morals.

Critics praise Shakespeare for his creation of Parolles, a character not found in Boccaccio's version of the tale, whether they like him or not. He appears in thirteen of the play's twenty-three scenes, and some consider the scene of his unmasking (the longest scene in the play) to be the structural center of the play (especially since the critical scene of the bed-trick occurs offstage). Parolles is responsible for most of the laughter (albeit scant) in the play, and although he is generally regarded as a liar, a coward, a fop, and a character lacking in honor and principle, he is essential to the plot.

For many, Parolles is a more interesting character than Bertram. Some directors have created versions of the play that revolve more around Parolles than Helena, and some renowned actors have been attracted to the part, most notably Laurence Olivier in a 1927 production. Some critics debate whether or not Parolles is a bad influence on Bertram, or if they are simply like minds that have found each other. Fraser believes that "Parolles is an extension of Bertram."

Widow Capilet

The Widow Capilet is Diana's mother, and she runs the inn in Florence where Helena stays on her pilgrimage to Saint Jacques le Grand. She tells Helena that Bertram has been trying to seduce Diana. When Helena proposes the bed-trick as a way to fulfill her wifely duties and save Diana's virginity in the process, the Widow reluctantly agrees because she sympathizes with Helena's predicament. Afterward, she accompanies Diana and Helena back to Rossillion at the end of the play. When Diana presents the bed-trick to the king and others, the Widow is excused to fetch Diana's bail, which is revealed to be Helena herself.


Gender Roles

Much of the plot of All's Well That Ends Well hinges on Helena's willingness to dismiss the constraints of her traditional, feminine gender role. Because Helena subverts her own prescribed gender role (mainly, that a woman should be demure and not exhibit unprompted sexual interest in a man) in pursuing her heart's desire, Bertram is also forced against his will into a reversed gender role by becoming the pursued. Her other actions are also quite bold for a woman. She engages in a frank discussion about her virginity with Parolles but is adamant about remaining a virgin, thereby embodying both gender roles of participating in a sexual debate with a man while remaining chaste. She travels alone to Paris, heals the king (traditionally a male job), and thereby is allowed to choose her husband, a complete subversion of normal gender roles. She also leaves Rossillion and travels on a very long pilgrimage all by herself, arranges the bed-trick for her own benefit, and craftily stages her own death in order to get what she wants. However, also implicit in her proactive role is a desire to engage in a more traditional role. She longs to be desired by Bertram and to have his child. In the sense that both of these happen at the end of the play, all does end well for Helena.

This dual nature of Helena's character, in which she exhibits elements of both female passiveness and masculine action, is demonstrated in the scene where she selects Bertram as a husband. She emphasizes her low social status to the king and how unworthy she is. It could be that she is only playing up her feminine side in order to seem more attractive to the assembled suitors. But when Bertram rejects and humiliates her in front of the entire court, she retracts her choice. The marriage proceeds only because the king insists on keeping his word. When Bertram leaves her—their marriage still unconsummated—to go to the wars in Italy, she passively sits at home and then wanders off as a pilgrim so that Bertram can return to Rossillion. In a sense, this is a passive act in that it reveals her sense of defeat. Even when Bertram sends the letter with the conditions of his acceptance of her as his wife, conditions that he believes she could never fulfill, Helena is not angered but takes pity on him instead, noting how she stole rank by marrying him. Finally, once Helena has completed the tasks Bertram required of her and he takes her as his wife, she is satisfied with the role of wife and mother, which will presumably place her permanently back in a more traditional female role.

Several critics note the quest-romance and the knight-errant themes in All's Well That Ends Well, only in this case the initiator of action—the hero—is a woman. Helena possesses the knowledge and skill to influence events and other characters and thus is able to secure Bertram as a husband. However, she cannot force him to love her, and his rejection requires her to pursue an alternate plan of action. Some think that Helena's active role, her ability to go out and get what she wants (Bertram), is motivated only by sexual desire. Others excuse her unorthodox means of fulfilling Bertram's conditions because they were created with the intent of being impossible to fulfill. Thus, she had no other recourse after having been publicly humiliated by Bertram than to arrange the bed-trick.


The bed-trick in All's Well That Ends Well pervades much of the commentary on the play and intersects with the discussion of marriage. Commentators tend to focus on whether Helena's use of the bed-trick is justified and lawful and whether it provides a means for a satisfactory ending to the play. Critics who believe Helena's switch with Diana is justified argue that as Bertram's wife, Helena had every right to take Diana's place and consummate her marriage, thus saving both Diana and Bertram from dishonor. Helena saves a maiden from what would have been a grave mistake, and she keeps Bertram from committing what would have been an unlawful act of adultery. By thus saving Bertram, and, as a result, securing his ring and carrying his child, Helena is an agent in restoring the dying kingdom. Those who find Helena's actions unlawful note that Helena is actually encouraging Bertram to engage in adultery (even though Helena knows that what she is doing is technically lawful). They note that although Helena satisfactorily fulfills Bertram's requirements in his letter, this does not necessarily dictate a happy ending, since their sexual union was based on deception.

Social Class

Despite the fact that she lives in the palace, Helena is a commoner. Her mother died when she was young, and her father was a doctor. Without property, money, or a title to her name, she has no assets to attract Bertram, who is a member of the noble class. Most marriages in that time were arranged to benefit both families, and Bertram's marriage to Helena would benefit only her. Some view this as a justifiable reason for Bertram to reject Helena. However, we are told early on in the play that Helena possesses true nobility and honor, which cannot be obtained by birth. Bertram, though born with wealth and status, has no nobility or honor to speak of. The noble and honorable older generation, represented by the king, the countess, and Lafew, recognize Helena's virtues and Bertram's lack of them.

A few commentators have noted that wealth and rank actually mean little to either Helena or Bertram. Helena wants Bertram, not his money, and Bertram wants his freedom, not a marriage to a woman everyone considers noble and virtuous. If Bertram were truly in pursuit of great rank, he would have accepted Helena, whom the king has endowed with wealth to make her Bertram's equal (although a few critics note that this is actually unnecessary, for Helena's fine qualities erase the social gap between her and Bertram). Also, if Bertram were truly invested in maintaining his class distinction, he would not have befriended Parolles, a man of notably low birth and, worse, base and vile qualities.

Youth versus Experience

The bittersweet tone of All's Well That Ends Well is established by the play's older characters, especially the Countess of Rossillion and Lafew, both of whom have suffered the loss of loved ones and express their patience with those of the younger generation. The countess sympathizes with Helena's passion for Bertram, because she was once young and in love herself. Likewise, Lafew forgives Parolles for being a traitor and gives him a second chance by offering him a position. The King of France offers his sympathy to Bertram on the loss of his father, and tells the count he is too young to fight in the war. Ultimately, the happy ending of the play is in the fact that the elders will take no retribution out on the younger generation for the follies to which they have subjected themselves. A counterpoint to this is Lavatch, the aging clown, who talks dirty, impregnates a chambermaid, and then changes his mind about marrying her. He still acts like a child, and his position as a clown—a person no one takes seriously—underscores that fact. Lavatch exhibits the whims of a young person, even though he is old. He serves as an example of the misery that awaits those who fail to live up to their responsibilities as they enter into adulthood. The older generation understands that youth is a time of trial and error, and they remain hopeful that the younger generation—Bertram and Parolles especially—have learned their lessons as their elders continue to take them under their wings and prepare them for the future.


The abrupt ending of All's Well That Ends Well is partly responsible for giving the play its problem status. Does the play end well? If so, for whom? Most modern critics conclude that the ending is unsatisfactory and unconvincing, even though it provides the required comedic resolution whereby the hero and heroine are joined at last. They have a hard time believing that Bertram could enter into a happy marriage with Helena after being confronted with her deception. Early commentators, however, tended to have less trouble accepting the ending and argued that Elizabethan audiences, familiar with the folk tales on which the play was based, would not have found the ending lacking.

Some argue that Shakespeare lost interest in the character of Helena once she succeeded in securing Bertram, and he proceeded to a hasty closing scene. Others sense a difficult future ahead for Helena and Bertram because, even though he now acknowledges Helena as his wife, he has demonstrated no change of heart through his actions. Marjorie Garber, in her book Shakespeare After All, approves of the ending because of the careful way it was set up. The ending "is constructed like an elaborate mechanism and goes off with a bang in the powerful final scene." Furthermore, she states, that "whatever our estimation of the callow but promising Bertram and the astonishingly patient Helena, both the genre of fairy tale and the history of noble marriage suggest that ending well—at least onstage—may be the best medicine."


  • Helena is Shakespeare's only female character to address the audience through a soliloquy. Scan her soliloquy in act 1, scene 1, that begins "O, were that all." Do you find any particular meter or rhyme scheme? Do you agree with critics who say that the prose of All's Well That Ends Well is sloppy and uninspired? List three reasons why it is so or why it is not so.
  • Using a map, trace the path from Rossillion in France to Galicia in Spain, where the Cathedral of Santiago is. Where is Florence in relation to the cathedral? Calculate the distance between Rossillion and Florence. How long do you think it took Helena to get there on foot? Discuss the weather, terrain, and other obstacles (natural or man-made) she may have encountered on her journey.
  • Lafew chides Parolles for his flashy clothes, asking, "Pray you, sir, who's his tailor?" and describing him to the countess as that "snipped-taffeta fellow there, whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbaked and doughy youth of a nation in his colour." Research clothing of the Elizabethan period and photocopy or draw three examples of the types of outfits Parolles may have been wearing, befitting his social class and garish taste, that Lafew was making fun of.
  • Some critics have noted the discrepancy between the rash behavior of the play's younger characters (namely, Bertram, Parolles, and Helena), and the forgiving nature of the play's older characters (Lafew, the countess, and the king). Using the theory of personality developed by twentieth-century German psychologist Erik Erikson, who described the eight stages of psychosocial development, write a five hundred word essay explaining how the characters' stages of development influence their behavior. Support your reasoning with examples.


New Comedy

In literature, "comedy" refers to a story with a happy ending and a "tragedy" is a story with a sad ending. The earliest comedies date from fifth century b.c.e. Greece, and that style is known as Old Comedy, which was known for lampooning famous people and events of the day. Beginning in 320 b.c.e., the style of comedy changed to reflect stock characters and situations. This style was dubbed New Comedy, and often featured a love story of a young couple as part of the plot. Some other famous New Comedies include Dante's Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. All's Well That Ends Well is also a New Comedy. When Bertram is confronted with evidence of his shenanigans and Helena outwits him in fulfilling his impossible demands, he undergoes a complete change of heart. Helena obtains her prize—Bertram. Diana is also saved from a meager existence, the king's life is saved, the countess gains a daughter, and even Parolles repents. Everyone is better off than when the play began, and the solemn tone of mourning has been replaced by wedding bells and the good news of Helena's pregnancy. Parolles exhibits traits of both a miles gloriosus (boastful soldier) and a servus callidus (tricky slave), which are both stock characters of New Comedy. There are, however, plot elements responsible for the play's reputation as a problem play, which are those that run counter to the idea of comedy. These include the feeling of foreboding caused by Bertram's superficial acceptance of Helena, and the king's offer to Diana to choose a husband, which one suspects could create a whole new set of problems.

Double Entendre

A double entendre is a word or phrase that can be construed as having two meanings, due to an intentional ambiguity on the part of the author or speaker. Often, one of those meanings is risqué. Much of the humor in Shakespeare's plays comes from double entendres, and in All's Well That Ends Well the speech of Lavatch, the clown, and words of Parolles and others can be construed as double entendres. For example, when Helena asks Parolles for advice on how to retain her virginity, he replies that it is impossible: "Man, setting down before you, will undermine you and blow you up." To which Helena responds, "Bless our poor virginity from under-miners and blowers-up! Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men?" The humor in their exchange comes from the double meaning of the term "blow you up." Undoubtedly, Helena is clever enough to understand the significance of what she is saying to Parolles, and it represents her complexity as a character. She is a virtuous maiden, intent on retaining her virtue, yet she is not above engaging in a bit of ribald repartee with a man—one of low morals, at that. In another example, Lavatch tells Lafew the difference between his roles as a fool and a knave. He says he is "a fool, sir, at a woman's service, and a knave at a man's." When Lafew asks what the difference is, Lavatch responds, "I would cozen the man of his wife and do his service." In this case, the term "service" means he would take up the duties of being the wife's husband, including those of a sexual nature.


An aphorism is a concise and memorable phrase that lends itself to being quoted outside of its original context. "All's well that ends well" itself is an aphorism—one that was known to audiences at the time Shakespeare wrote his play. Though All's Well That Ends Well does not contain as many well-known aphorisms as some of his other plays, such as "To be, or not to be, that is the question" from Hamlet or "Out, out, damn spot" from Macbeth, it has its moments. In particular is Helena's declaration that "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven." She means that when a person prays for the answer to a problem and it is solved, it is likely that the person solved the problem him or herself. God did not solve it for them. She uses this belief to pursue Bertram after he leaves for Paris; she knows that if she is ever to win his love it will be through her own actions, not simply by wishing or praying. Another aphorism is Parolles's declaration that "a young man married is a man that's marred," when he sympathizes with Bertram's plight of being married to Helena against his will. Diana's friend Mariana warns her against Bertram's advances, stating, "no legacy is so rich as honesty," meaning that the greatest thing she has going for herself is her virtue, and to lose it to Bertram would be tragic. All of these phrases can stand alone in meaning beyond the context of the play.


Literature in Shakespeare's Time

Shakespeare based much of All's Well That Ends Well on Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, a collection of one hundred novellas wrapped around a frame story. Boccaccio was a Florentine writer of the fourteenth century who wrote in the Italian vernacular, thereby making the Decameron popular among the middle class, as opposed to scholars who shunned anything not written in Latin. The Decameron, which means literally "ten days," is ostensibly the tale of ten people (seven women and three men), who are hiding out in the hills above the city of Florence during an outbreak of the Black Plague. Each day, they take turns telling stories in order to pass the time. Many of their stories are retellings of folk tales.

Boccaccio's Decameron influenced many writers, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer, also a fourteenth-century writer, who adopted some of the Italian writer's ideas for The Canterbury Tales, which is commonly acknowledged as the first work of poetry written in English. The Canterbury Tales adopts a similar frame story; an assembled group of pilgrims takes turns telling each other stories on a sojourn from London to Canterbury.

Even if Shakespeare was not directly influenced by the Decameron, he almost certainly was familiar with The Palace of Pleasure, a work by William Painter closely based on the Decameron. Painter's thirty-eighth story in the collection is about Giletta di Narbona, the daughter of a physician who cures the King of France. In return, she asks the king if she can marry Beltramo, the Count of Rossiglione. Though the king complies, the count escapes to Florence. Giletta follows him, seduces him against his knowledge, and becomes pregnant with twin boys. When the scheme is revealed, the count promptly apologizes and becomes a willfully faithful husband. In Shakespeare's telling, he added the characters of Parolles, the countess, and Lafew in order to give the story more depth.

Many critics have surmised that Shakespeare based the character of Helena on Christine de Pizan, an early-fifteenth-century writer who was the daughter of the famous Venetian physician and astronomer Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano. De Pizan was the first widely known female writer, well-regarded, who exhibits many of the admirable traits with which Shakespeare endowed Helena. Her Book of the City of Ladies is widely regarded as a proto-feminist masterpiece.

Traditions of Marriage

In Shakespeare's time, marriages were usually arranged. A love match was unusual, and even more unusual was a woman choosing her prospective groom. Bertram's objection to marrying Helena is rooted in these traditions. Because he is a count, he would have expected to marry someone of a similar status, not a commoner with neither wealth nor property to her name. A man would base his opinion of his prospective wife on the extent of her dowry, or marriage portion, which would include any land, money, or other goods, such as jewelry, which would become the husband's property upon marriage (as would his wife). Helena had none of these, so Bertram considered her an inappropriate wife, regardless of her talents and personality.

As for the marriage ceremony, the king in All's Well That Ends Well dispenses with tradition, which would have necessitated the Crying of the Banns, a public declaration of the couple's intent to marry on three successive Sundays in their respective churches. This procedure allowed people time to voice objections to the marriage, for whatever reason. Exceptions to the Crying of the Banns were rare; ironically, Shakespeare himself was one of these exceptions, due to the fact that his prospective wife, Ann Hathaway, was already pregnant. As in All's Well That Ends Well, certainly the king had the power to conduct a wedding ceremony without a prior Crying of the Banns.

Other traditions alluded to in the play include the expectation that the bride be a virgin. The bed-trick did indeed save Diana from ruining her life. Additionally, an exchange of rings was not uncommon, but it was not the norm. When Bertram states that Helena would never wear his ring, this would have been widely understood to mean that his ring on her finger would symbolize his acceptance of their union. Likewise, when Helena tricks Bertram into wearing her ring (the one the king gave her), she has succeeded in claiming him as would a bride who presented her groom with a wedding ring.

Medicine and Healing

In Shakespeare's time, medicine was little more than trial and error mixed with a great deal of superstition. Little was known about proven treatments, and disease and germs were not understood. Sanitation and hygiene, even among the upper classes, was rudimentary at best. Streets were filled with garbage and raw sewage, which spilled over into the rivers and lakes. Rats and vermin abounded, and no one made the connection between these conditions and the sicknesses that killed people. Typhoid, syphilis, influenza, and plague exacted a toll on life expectancy, as did poor nutrition, which led to life-threatening anemia and dysentery. Many upper-class women covered their faces with white make-up, which contained high amounts of lead. The make-up poisoned, and even killed, many of them.

Because these health dangers were not understood, the work of physicians often included astrology. Astrologers and doctors, such as Tommaso de Benvenuto da Pizzano (Shakespeare's possible model for Helena's father, Gerard de Narbon), often resorted to bleeding people when they became ill in an effort to cleanse their bodies from bad humors, or bodily fluids.

Physicians in Shakespeare's day wore unusual outfits, complete with a long black cloak, leather gloves, leather boots, a pointed hood, and a mask with a long, pointed beak, which was filled with bergamot oil. Though the outfit may have been rooted in superstition, it probably did protect doctors, simply because it provided a barrier against the germs and bugs that would have covered their patients. Their odd appearance, however, often inspired dread in townspeople, who came to regard physicians with wariness. Anyway, only the very wealthy—mainly the nobles—would have been able to afford treatment by a doctor. Other segments of the population might be treated by a barber, who, in addition to cutting hair, also pulled teeth and bled patients.

The ailment the King of France suffers from in All's Well That Ends Well, fistula, which is an abscess that creates an opening between two organs, would not have been well understood at the time, and it is true that a physician may have told those afflicted with the condition that there was nothing that could be done. How Helena cures the king so quickly and completely is inexplicable, certainly in terms of medical knowledge either then or now, and her healing powers remain one of the story's most implausible folk-tale elements.


After she heals the king and is wed to Bertram, Helena is ordered back to Rossillion. Distraught by Bertram's letter stating he will never return home as long as she is there, she departs on a pilgrimage to the burial site of Saint Jacques le Grande. Also known as the Way of St. James, the pilgrimage leads travelers to the Cathedral of Santiago in northwest Spain, the burial site of the Apostle James, St. James the Greater, a follower of Jesus Christ and the brother of the Apostle John. The purpose of the pilgrimage was to have the pilgrim's greatest sins forgiven; the only other two pilgrimages that could do the same thing were to Rome and Jerusalem. There were several popular routes pilgrims could take to the shrine, each passing through other towns and stopping at notable locations along the way. A majority of those who undertook the trip were French, and the Way includes many stops in France before continuing on to Spain. The Cathedral of Santiago is still a popular pilgrimage site in the twenty-first century, and priests hold weekly services to welcome those who have made the trip, often on foot or bicycle.

In Shakespeare's time, this pilgrimage was still popular but considered somewhat dangerous because of the violence resulting from the Protestant Reformation. Audiences would have been familiar with the journey and accepted Helena's reasons for undertaking it. However, given that Helena leaves for the trip from Rossillion, which borders Spain, how she ends up in Florence, which is hundreds of miles in the opposite direction from the shrine, is never explained. The fact that she is traveling alone is also puzzling.


  • 1600: Rossillion (Rousillon in French) is a Spanish territory, formerly part of the Kingdom of Majorca. It is conquered by Louis XIII in 1642 and is ceded to France by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.
    Today: Rousillon is a thriving region in France that produces vast quantities of wine, particularly red vin ordinaire. The area and its capital city, Perpignan, is a major tourist region.
  • 1600: Doctors can do little to cure fistula, a medical ailment in which two organs become connected via the abnormal development of an abscess or passageway. Typical treatment may include bleeding with leeches.
    Today: Treatment for fistula includes a surgical procedure known as a fistulotomy, followed by antibiotics. Doctors prevent recurrence of the condition by treating other conditions that sometimes cause fistula, such as Crohn's disease and colitis.
  • 1600: Christians from around Europe, but particularly from France, undertake the pilgrimage known as the Way of St. James, which leads them to the Cathedral of Santiago in the north of Spain. It is an arduous journey undertaken on foot or by horse, and may take many months. Hostels are located along the way to provide accommodations for the travelers. The pilgrimage was sometimes undertaken as penance for a grave crime.
    Today: Thousands of pilgrims travel on foot or by bike each year to the Cathedral of Santiago along the pilgrimage route, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Pilgrims receive an official pass that allows them to stay in hostels at reduced rates along the way.


Critical interpretation of All's Well That Ends Well often hinges on whether the critic believes the play lives up to its title. The widespread belief that it does not has led to its reputation as a problem play, or rather, a comedy with strings attached. Shakespeare, who was by all accounts an astute observer of the human condition, seems not to have invested the lead characters of Bertram and Helena with enough depth to understand the error of their ways, or permitted them to have meaningful moments of enlightenment that would bring about the necessary changes. For centuries, critics have been vexed by Bertram's about-face in the last scene, when he suddenly realizes his foolishness and agrees to be Helena's faithful husband and the father of their child. At the very least, critics have detected a bit of irony in the title; even Shakespeare had to know that these characters were not about to live happily ever after. As they settled into their marriage, would the very pro-active Helena have been satisfied to revert to the feminine ideal of a passive wife? And would Bertram truly be able to put his days as a scoundrel behind him and love a woman who previously repulsed him? How can their relationship succeed, given that it is based upon the deception of the bed-trick? All of these questions pose problems for critics. Some find ways to reconcile them with Shakespeare's intentions, and others cannot. For them, All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's sloppier plays, and therefore unsuccessful. As William Witherle Lawrence writes in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, "critical explanations have nowhere shown wider divergence than in regard to this play, nor have the points at issue ever been more sharply marked."

The play has been praised for several factors, however, including the characterization of the Countess of Rossillion, one of Shakespeare's more well-rounded older females. In fact, most of the older characters in the play exhibit good judgment and work hard at guiding the younger generation into accepting their roles and responsibilities. Russell Fraser, in his introduction to All's Well That Ends Well, published in the New Cambridge Shakespeare series, goes so far as to say "All's Well That Ends Well is a great play whose time has come round." In support of this idea, he writes that,

[Shakespeare's] characters may change for the better or worse, and things beginning at the worst may turn upwards in the course of the play. But no character puts off altogether what he was at first, and if the play begins in darkness, the darkness is never altogether dispelled. Characters in All's Well are left open to mortality, and in the world they inhabit the best is behind. This feeling, conveyed in the first scene of the play, is borne out in the ending.

In a similar manner, Eileen Z. Cohen, writing in Philological Quarterly, defends Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick as a narrative device and disagrees with those who find it unbecoming of Helena. "[Shakespeare] requires us to believe that virtuous maidens can initiate and participate in the bed-trick. He insists that it saves lives and nurtures marriage, that it leads the duped men out of ignorance and toward understanding, and that the women who orchestrate it end with a clearer image of themselves."

Most critics also approve of the way Shakespeare fleshed out Boccaccio's original story, "Giletta of Narbonne," by adding the subplot of Parolles, in which the kidnapping trick serves as a parallel to the bed-trick and exposes his treasonous behavior to Bertram. In addition to fulfilling the New Comedy roles of the miles gloriosus and the servus callidus, Parolles, in the scene of his unmasking, serves as the fulcrum of the play, since the other main event—the bed-trick itself—takes place off stage. According to R. J. Schork, writing in Philological Quarterly, "The several New Comedic roles enacted by Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well are proof of Shakespeare's versatility and ingenuity in blending New Comedic motifs into a plot lifted from Boccaccio. All the characters in the play … could be matched to analogous characters in Roman comedy; none of them, however, plays the stock role straight." Others attribute the play's weaknesses to its folk-tale elements, which almost by definition render it immune to criticism based on lack of character development. According to Lawrence, both the Healing of the King and the Fulfillment of the Tasks are well-known folk-tale conventions that turn up in many cultures, including India, Norway, and Turkey, and which would have influenced Boccaccio. Many of these tales also "exalt the cleverness and devotion of the woman," Lawrence writes in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, "the wits of the wife are more than a match for those of the husband, and her purpose is a happy reunion with him."

No matter what the play's virtues, critics eventually return to its problems. Irish poet W. B. Yeats, according to Spectator theater critic Patrick Carnegy, "saw Helena as one of Shakespeare's 'glorious women who select dreadful or empty men.'" And Samuel Johnson, says Carnegy, wrote off Bertram "as a bad lot whose fate was, in a devastating phrase, to be 'dismissed to happiness.'" However, Charles Isherwood, reviewing a modern production of the play for the New York Times, writes that Bertram is "an adolescent forced before his time into manhood, and is only obeying the impulses of his young blood when he flees the embrace of his wiser new wife." In another New York Times review of the play, Alvin Klein notes that "most contemporary directors have transposed into the twentieth century the play's very considerable obstacles, which have nothing to do with time, but with the tediousness, thinness and inherent unpleasantness of a timelessly ineffectual tale." Ultimately, according to Maurice Charney in All of Shakespeare, a major problem with the play is the bed-trick itself: "We are not comfortable with the fiction of substituting one woman for another, as if in bed all women were alike." Additionally, in regard to Helena's miracle cure for the king, Charney wonders "if Helena does indeed have magical powers, why does she need to go to so much trouble to fulfill her tasks?"

In the end, Helena's feminist take on creating her own reality in a patriarchal world has proven attractive enough for some to resurrect the play from its near-forgotten status of previous centuries. Modern-day directors have taken pains to show why she would be attracted to Bertram, sometimes successfully and other times less so. The play's other themes—of generational differences, class distinctions—have proven sturdy enough to sustain the play through its more questionable moments. It may remain forever a problem play, but critics have shown that it contains enough nuance, humor, and truth to remain a relevant part of Shakespeare's canon. Poet John Berryman, in his essay "Pathos and Dream" quoted in Berryman's Shakespeare, notes that Shakespeare wrote four plays that are deemed "failures": The Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John, Timon of Athens, and All's Well That Ends Well. "The reasons for his failure in each case were different," Berryman says, "but at least he was always capable of failure, and it is pleasant to know this."


Mary Free

In this brief excerpt, Free examines how All's Well That Ends Well is unlike Shakespeare's other comedies through its central coupling (marriage) of Helena and Bertram. The play has only this one pairing, whereas Shakespeare's other comedies have many couples. Helena and Bertram share only five scenes together, during which they do not always engage each other in dialogue. There is no battle of wit and will between them. Helena's role "outside" her social sphere further increases the comic distance, and there is scant "lightness" or "playfulness" in the play.

… Marriage is a central element in the construct of Renaissance comedy. In the Shakespearean canon, a number of the comedies include marriages, placing them (or implying that they impend) close to or at the plays' ends as a reaffirmation, restoration and promise for the continuation of society. Other comedies deal with married women as in The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor; or they move the marriage forward, thus foregrounding it and making it precipitate further action in the main plot as in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing. What makes All's Well That Ends Well's foregrounded marriage unique is the undeniable fact that Bertram does not want Helena regardless of how much she wants him or how much the members of the nobility—most notably the King, the Countess, and Lafew—want him to want her. Further, in its institution, its mixing of high personages with low, and the alliances between social groups, the foregrounded marriage in All's Well That Ends Well subverts the comic by creating discomfiting inversions in the play's social spheres. While the concept of marriage as regenerative force via Helana's pregnancy obtains in principle at the end, when the "broken nuptial" comes together, no wonder we, along with the King in the epilogue, feel little if any delight: things but "seem" well; we have no guarantees. We cannot be certain even there that Bertram truly wants her.

A distinction that contributes to my thesis is that All's Well That Ends Well stands apart from the Shakespearean comedic mainstream in that Helena and Bertram, however estranged their relationship, remain the single couple in the play. Elsewhere Shakespeare provides us with sets of couples: twins who marry and woo in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, two men in pursuit of one woman in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream, two married women who plot to outwit one man and teach another a lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rosalind and Celia with their loves in As You Like It, and a triad of lovers in The Merchant of Venice. Even Measure for Measure, the play most often closely linked to All's Well That Ends Well, provides us pairings. All's Well That Ends Well gives us two windows, a virgin, and a wife in name only. While all these pairings deal with power in relationships, they do not constitute the exact marked hierarchies of power that All's Well That Ends Well presents to us.

The foregrounded marriage in All's Well That Ends Well differs from those in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing in origination and ordination. While Kate in The Taming of the Shrew has no more choice than does Bertram about whom each marries (Baptista and Petruchio merely strike a bargain as do the King and Helena), Petruchio and Kate as a pair remain this play's focal point. We observe the battle of wit and will between them, and the entire fourth act centers on them. Whether we grant or disallow the concept of mutuality of consent, whether the production relies on Zefferellian horseplay or a more restrained production concept, The Taming of the Shrew provokes laughter—the sine qua non of the comic—because of the physical and verbal interaction between the principal characters. The same holds true for Much Ado about Nothing. Like Kate and Petruchio, Beatrice and Benedick command our attention, their wit and wordplay amuse and distract us, and they are more interesting to us than the play's other couple Claudio and Hero. Even in that relationship, the comedy of Much Ado about Nothing remains more comic than does All's Well That Ends Well. Claudio and Hero agree to marry, an important distinction between their relationship and that of Helena and Bertram. The distasteful circumstances of the broken nuptial notwithstanding, the separation between Claudio and Hero fails to disrupt wholly the play's overall comic spirit for two reasons: first, we know Dogberry and the Watch hold the key to reconciliation; second, as well as more important, the comic Beatrice and Benedick remain our primary focal point.

Helena and Bertram appear on stage together in but five scenes. Their exchanges generally indicate the dynamic of power in their relationship as Helena oozes subservience to her lord and master, while Bertram, until the final scene, plays his superiority, both of class and gender, for all it's worth. In three scenes where they appear together, they speak to or about one another but engage in no dialogue. In 1.1 Bertram in one and a half lines commands that Helena, "Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, / And make much of her" (76-77). In 2.3 she subserviently offers herself to him in two and a half lines:

   I dare not say I take you, but I give
   Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
   Into your guiding power

The remainder of this scene has them each talking to the King, but not to one another. In a third scene (3.5), Helena merely views Bertram from a distance as the army passes and asks about him. Only two scenes have them exchanging dialogue. In 2.5, comprising thirty-five lines, Bertram, without having consummated the marriage and refusing Helena's modest request for a departing kiss, dismisses his bride by sending her back to Rossillion. His language is primarily in the command form, hers acquiescent. She comes "as [she] was commanded from [him]" (2.5.54). She declares herself Bertram's "most obedient servant" in a scene that allows for no possible irony (2.5.72). Even when she musters the courage to hint at a parting kiss, she hesitates and stumbles as a young woman very much in love and unsure of herself. In 5.3, the reconciliation, they exchange two lines each, and arguably Bertram's "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly" is addressed more to the King than to Helena. These two encounters comprise but thirty-nine lines all told.

All's Well That Ends Well remains a comedy in structure, yet Helena's agency in the enforced marriage, as well as the subsequent separation and ploys, distances us from the comic. Other elements distance us as well. When the Countess learns that Helena loves Bertram, we have the perfect occasion for a traditional blocking figure, but no. The Countess not only enjoys, but also encourages Helena in her aspirations. No witty bantering about sex, love, fidelity in wed-lock—that which might create the comic within the matrix of comedy—takes place between Helena and Bertram, the play's only couple. Certainly some comic playfulness occurs within the play. No one will deny its presence in the virginity dialogue between Helena and Parolles, nor in the choosing scene as Helena walks from budding youth to budding youth before "giving" herself to Bertram, nor in Parolles's humiliation. Nevertheless, what lightness exists remains apart from the focal couple. Of added significance is how little of the playfulness associated with earlier comedies takes place among the women. Beyond the Countess' hope for Helena's love, her brief acknowledgement of her own past, and her teasing in the "I say I am your mother" dialogue (1.3), women's dialogue as they assess man's fecklessness has a more brittle edge than do similar assessments given in the earlier comedies.

Helena's actions set her apart from her Shakespearean sisters. Other independently-acting heroines—Viola, Rosalind, Portia—play at their love-games and are, in some cases, willing to leave Time to fadge things out. They also employ masculine disguise to effect the amount of control or empowerment they enjoy. Helena does what she does without disguise. In some respects Helena and Portia are the most closely akin. Portia is willing to comply with her father's will; Helena is willing to submit herself to Bertram's. Both work purposefully to achieve their goals. However close that kinship, differences obtain. Allies from the play's outset, Portia and Nerissa plot to test true love's faith; Helena, who must create her allies, has yet to gain mere acceptance as wife. To achieve her goals, she acts with what Western culture sees as male prerogatives. As A. P. Riemer has said, she acts with a "male purposefulness" (Riemer 1975–76, 54). In order for her to succeed undisguised, she must perform these actions in a way that the empowering male structure (i.e., the King and Lafew as members of the ancien régime) fails to recognize as violating sex or class differences.

In All's Well That Ends Well Helena follows Bertram to Paris. There she originates the marriage by striking a bargain with the King and curing him. Unlike the other pairings and marriages in the comedies, however, no tacit nor overt mutuality exists between this nuptial pair. Here the King must ordain an enforced marriage of his ward Bertram to comply with the terms of the bargain. Such ordination violates the usual circumstances that we find in the festive comedies. In those comedies, ordination, directed against a woman, may initiate the flight from authority into the saturnalian world of comic license.

Bertram's response to the King's command is like that of Silvia or Hermia: forced into marriage ordained against his will, a marriage that is originated by a spouse who is not loved, he runs away, as do the heroines. Bertram's running away to Florence offers a different kind of escape from that of the heroines. Not only is his escape to a city but to one associated with sexual licentiousness. The King himself warns his courtiers against "Those girls of Italy." When Helena discovers Bertram in Florence, she entraps him by means of the bed trick, which inverts predicated male-female sex roles just as "girl gets boy" inverts what we would recognize as the clichéd phrasing. Her action substitutes the legal for the licentious. Helena entraps Bertram a second time as well in 5.3 by her further employment of Diana before the King. Even the King becomes confused as Helena employs her skills. What allows everyone to escape prison is Helena's ability to use the language of empowerment without disturbing the status quo….

Source: Mary Free, "All's Well That Ends Well as Noncomic Comedy," in Acting Funny: Comic Theory and Practice in Shakespeare's Plays, edited by Frances Teague, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994, pp. 41-45.

Eileen Z. Cohen

In the following excerpt, Cohen examines how Helena and Isabella in, respectively, All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, use the bed-trick as a disguise, and in doing so, these characters "reverse traditional female behavior, invert stereotypes, and turn apparent lechery into the service of marriage."

Western literature abounds in characters who have arranged bed-tricks—from Lot's daughters to Iseult, and by the seventeenth century the bed-substitution was a commonplace convention of English drama. Yet it is Shakespeare's use of the device in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure that disturbs us, doubtless because of the women who perpetrate it, Helena, a virgin-bride, and Isabella, a would-be nun. We seem unwilling to accept that Shakespeare deliberately intends to disrupt our sensibilities. Scholars have told us that we must accommodate ourselves to conventions or fairy tale traditions that are outmoded, or they call these heroines sluts, or saints and tell us to forget about the bed substitutions.

Shakespeare, however, does none of these. Instead, he requires us to believe that virtuous maidens can initiate and participate in the bed-trick. He insists that it saves lives and nurtures marriage, that it leads the duped men out of ignorance and toward understanding, and that the women who orchestrate it end with a clearer image of themselves. Thus, we have a simple theatrical device that effects complex response in the characters and in us, the audience. The convention "deconventionalizes" and makes the world of each play and the characters therein more real. Paradoxically, a device associated with lust abets love and marriage; it utilizes illusion and deception to bring perception and understanding. In so doing, it strips away stock responses to the women who design the deception. Shakespeare apparently does not associate virtue in women with blindness or passivity—or even predictability. He will not allow the audience to generalize about female virtue. Given popular sixteenth-century attitudes towards women, Helena and Isabella must have been as disturbing to their original audience as they have been to subsequent ones, and the bed-trick, because of its ultimate affirmation of the complexity of virtue, just as jarring.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the controversy concerning women was part of the literary and social experience of the middle and upper classes of society. It surfaced in the 1540s and again at the beginning of James I's reign, with reprintings of various pieces throughout these decades. What emerges from the debate, whether the writer was a critic or a defender of women, is that he or she rarely considers women except in the most general ways. Devil or angel, she is a stereotype. A flurry of popular pamphlets was precipitated by the publication of Schole House of Women, which went through four editions between 1541–1570, and is alluded to in several other pamphlets. Here, women are "loud and sour" (Aiii), gossipy (Aiv), adulterous (Bii), frail, crooked, crabbed, lewd (Cii), and weak and feeble in body (Cii). A female's function, because she is made of man's rib, "in every nede / Shulde be helpe to the man, in word and dede" (Biii). There is a remedy for each of man's afflictions, except gout and marriage ([London: John Kyng, 1560], Biii).

Responses to this attack abound. Readers were assured that woman was not created out of dog bones, but from man—the crown of creation. There have been many good women, a fact to which the Bible, the classics, and their very own Queen attest. Anthony Gibson, in addition to cataloguing great women, ebulliently lists their virtues: Women are beautiful and their voices are soft (20). Since they are by nature inclined to sadness, they are wiser than men (21), and more charitable (30). Philip Stubbes, too, had a good word to say for virtuous women—or rather, a virtuous woman, in a eulogy to his dead wife, A Christal Glasse for Christian Women (London: R. Ihones, 1592). He describes her as a perfect pattern for virtue: modest, courteous, gentle, and zealous for truth. (A2). "If she saw her husband merry, then she was merry: if he were sad, she was sad: if he were heavy or passionate, she would endeavor to make him glad: if he were angry, she would quickly please him so wifely she demeaned herselfe towards him" (A3). In both Stubbes and Gibson, the burden of virtue is as heavy as that of vice.

Very few of the writers in this controversy approach women as other than very good or very bad. Perhaps the most aggressive of those who do blur the stereotypic perceptions of both men and women is the author of Jane Anger Her Protection for Women (London: Richard Jones, 1589). "She" is less rigid than most of her contemporaries with regard to male and female characteristics. "Jane Anger" lowers the barriers between the sexes in that she does not say that women are necessarily more or less virtuous than men. Rather, she equalizes the sexes by suggesting that women pay men in just coin. "Deceitful men with guile must be repaid …" (B2). Woman's greatest fault is that she is too credulous (B2). Though "Jane Anger" still deals in stereotypes, she perceives the weaknesses and strengths of men and women in different ways from most of her contemporaries. She condemns men for failing to see women in terms of these strengths, "We being wel formed, are by them fouly deformed" (B3).

Even though many of these pieces are satiric and were probably written because there was a ready market for them, rather than out of sincere beliefs, their popularity indicates an interest in the nature of women and an insistence that their virtues were different from those of men. From these pages and more, there emerges an ideal woman in whom the virtues were chastity, patience, piety, humility, obedience, constancy, temperance, kindness, and fortitude—all passive characteristics. Even her supporters urged her to suppress assertiveness. The ideal male virtues were justice, courtesy, liberality, and courage. For a man the ideal was self-expansion and realization of self; for a woman, self-abnegation and passivity. For a man chastity was unimportant; for a woman it was everything. Her honor and reputation were defined in terms of it. The educator Vives frankly states, "As for a woman [she] hath no charge to se to, but her honestie and chastitie."

Helena and Isabella offer a marked contrast to many of the prevailing presumptions about women that the popular literature manifests, and in some ways a sharp difference from the portrayals of Rosalind and Viola, both in earlier plays. If art does hold a mirror up to nature, then Shakespeare's drama reflects, refracts, and refocuses the ideas of his time. In Twelfth Night and As You Like It, the remover of affectation from the other characters is a woman, who for much of the play is disguised as a man. Necessarily, disguise was inherent in the role even before the play began since the woman was played by a male actor. But now the deception is double because we have a male actor, dressed as a woman, disguised as a man, and in the case of Rosalind, sometimes pretending to be a woman. Disguise, instead of conveying ambiguity, gives the audience distance from the characters, whose dialogue is now ironic and conveys double meanings. Our response thus becomes intellectual rather than emotional, as perhaps it had been when we were faced with Rosalind's exile and Viola's grief—before they donned male clothing. In these comedies disguise thus clarifies and helps to confirm the point of view of the play.

However, in All's Well and Measure for Measure Shakespeare alters this presentation of illusion. Rather than wearing male clothing, Helena and Isabella assume another form of disguise, the bed-trick. Isabella perpetuates the disguise because she believes in the legality of Marianna's plight-troth and Helena because she is a married woman. Among Shakespeare's most interesting and courageous characters, they reverse traditional female behavior, invert stereotypes, and turn apparent lechery into the service of marriage. The ultimate irony, or secret hidden behind illusion, is that resourceful, autonomous women shore up marriage. Helena and Isabella show why they force us to redefine virtue, rather than simply lowering our opinion of them. They encourage the audience to reevaluate virtue, chastity, honesty, and honor in the context of character development. Stock responses to these characters, merely to like or dislike them, will not do because their subtlety demands that the audience respond with subtlety as well.

The bed-trick can be thought of as a kind of disguise since the female lover is disguised by darkness and silence from the male lover. In that sense it is no more or less deceptive than disguise. Like Rosalind and Viola, Helena and Isabella know who they are—a wife and novice, respectively; the characters whom they trick do not see them as they see themselves. One might here use the defense of "Jane Anger" that deceitful men should be repaid in kind, that to men for whom all women are the same in the dark, deception is exactly what they deserve. The bed-trick is, however, far more significant and more "theatrical" than that. Disguise is obviously conventional, but the bed-trick is even more unrealistic if we concede that disguise—that is, role playing and putting on uncharacteristic clothing—is the reality of actors and plays. The bed-trick serves, in addition to its obvious plot function, as the inherent symbol of the play, comparable to Hermione's statue coming to life. Life, death, fertility, and renewal cannot easily be portrayed realistically on the stage. Bertram and Angelo do not get what they deserve. In fact, they get far better, and the bed-trick provides the opportunity to effect their union with feeling and harmony. Lust may have driven them to their ignorance of the women with them, but these women in their love both demand recognition.

Ironically, as the disguise device that is embodied in the bed-trick becomes more theatrical, the plays in which the bed-trick appears are more realistic than the earlier comedies in which the disguise is of a more conventional nature. Here, we have sickbeds, barracks, courtrooms, and cities instead of pastoral forests and imaginary seacoasts. The heroines, themselves, are less mannered and witty; instead they have the drive and zeal of conviction. Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting in these later comedies that the male protagonists, who are also not typical and indeed are very unlikely heroes, make obvious disguise impossible. Their corruption ought to be confronted directly. Male disguise establishes Viola and Rosalind as the friends of Orsino and Orlando, and it momentarily submerges their feminine identity. Bertram and Angelo cannot be treated in the same way. For Isabella and Helena to put on male clothing is to create a visual similarity between them and their antagonists. Such disguise would imply amicable relationships. Perhaps, too, Shakespeare is suggesting that in ethical confrontations such as these, one cannot stare down ruthlessness in someone else's clothes. One must take a stand in one's own person. Isabella and Helena must simultaneously be themselves and more daringly theatrical in order to reinforce the differences between them and the men they confront. The bed-trick affirms the feminine sexuality of these women and, in part, their identities. Helena must be recognized as wife and consummate her marriage, and Isabella must be recognized as virgin and not consummate the relationship with Angelo. They will also ensure that the men will honor their vows as a result.

With this peculiar merging of the realistic and the theatrical, Shakespeare redefines societal expectations of female virtues. Role playing, identity, and integrity of self are examined through the characters involved in this obviously sexual disguise, in plays that are about life and death, marriage, fertility, and renewal—all of which are tied together by the image of the bed.

Both Helena and Isabella are associated with and ultimately effect recovery and generosity in their respective plays. The outcome of their machination is marriage. Thus the stereotypic female roles—nurturing and insuring generation—are at the heart of the plays. However, the rare, unstereotypic personalities of these women and the use of the bed-trick—a seemingly adulterous theatrical device, establishes them as unconventional. The bed-trick, with its secrecy, silence, and deceit, is the device that strips away illusion and ignorance, and confirms truth and understanding. It uses carnal knowledge to effect compassion and knowledge of the spirit. Thus, the use of the bed-trick to beget marriage and the miracle of loving confirms what is unique in these women.

Both the stereotype of nurturer and the more complex and realistic portrait of a passionate-virtuous woman are established very early in All's Well. A litany of family designations begins this plays as the Countess says, "delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband" (1.1.1-2), thus initiating the rhythm of family, generation and death—in short, all of life. In the ensuing exchange between her and Lefew, family designations recur, father, child, husband, as they will in act 1, scene 2, when the King greets Bertram, and again in act 1, scene 3, when the Countess and Helena have their exchange between mother and daughter. Also in act 1, scene 1, Helena and Parolles discuss virginity. Though chaste, Helena does indicate that virgins do fall in love and do passionately feel desire.

The stereotyping and unstereotyping of Helena is further established in her two "miracles." She takes her legacy from her father to the court to heal the King and her love to Bertram's bed to give him the blessings of life. She does not perform a miracle in either case unless the human capacities to cure and to love are miracles. If the healing and loving are wondrous, then the bed-trick is a misnomer and is the bed-miracle, instead, just as the King's recovery apparently is. Miracle or not, loving sets people apart from the rest of the natural world, and both the King and Bertram benefit from Helena's precipitation of event. Indeed, Helena anticipates the similarities between her two miracles, both occurring in bed as they do. She acknowledges her daring in her venture to heal the King and tells him that should she fail she will feel the "Tax of impudence, / A strumpet's boldness, a devulged shame, / Traduc'd by odious ballads; my maiden's name / Sear'd otherwise" (2.1.169-172). In short, her reputation will be destroyed. Like her discussion about virginity with Parolles and her asking for a husband in payment for curing the King, this speech reveals Helena's many facets, not the least of them being her vulnerabilty. She acknowledges the sexuality of love and marriage; indeed, she welcomes it. She also acknowledges that there are risks of failure, suffering, and public disgrace in acts of daring. There are hazards in shaping destiny.

Helena later decides to make her pilgrimage to save her husband from the dangers of war by encouraging him with her absence to come home. This decision, made from love, will lead to resolution of events by the bed-trick. Helena's motive for leaving Rousillion is quite different from Giletta's in The Palace of Pleasure, where the latter planned to seek and bed her husband from the outset of her journey. In All's Well, as in the variation from the source in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare gives greater complexity to his character. Indeed, fate seems to approve of Helena's love and generosity for it introduces her to the Widow and Diana, the means to love Bertram. Had ambition been her motive for marriage, she would not have denied herself the comforts of her new station in life. At Rousillion she has the name of wife without the excess baggage of a petulant boy-husband.

However, she cares about Bertram's well-being and off she goes. She ruefully describes herself to Diana and the Widow as being "too mean / To have her name repeated; all her deserving / Is a reserved honesty, and that / I have not heard examin'd" (3.5.60-63). As with Parolles in act 1, scene 1, her virginity is the topic of discussion, but now the stakes are quite different. Then the question was how a modest maid might pursue the man she loved; now virginity should no longer be the normal condition of her life. As before when she declined modesty in favor of Bertram, she is aware of the ambiguities of what she is about to do. She acknowledges that her plan may be misunderstood and must be defended, "which, if it speed, / Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact" (3.7.44-47). With it all, she will save Bertram from adultery and give him love….

The men whom Helena and Isabella confront expect stereotypic replies from them; Bertram and Angelo judge by appearances and are taken in by the bed-trick while it asserts complexity and reality over superficiality and mere appearances. George Bernard Shaw described Bertram as a very ordinary young man with "unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality." Bertram certainly seems to embody some of the attitudes toward women that the sixteenth century expressed. He expects that Helena will passively accept the role of virgin-wife which he assigns to her and that his superior intelligence will defeat her. For him women are wives to be rejected, or wenches to be seduced. When Diana defends her honor and equates her chastity with his aristocratic legacy, he is so enmeshed in his lust that he gives away the symbol of that legacy. Want of feeling marks his behavior throughout, culminating in his description of his night's work. He has "buried a wife, mourn'd for her, writ to my lady mother I am returning, entertain'd my convoy, and between these main parcels of dispatch effected many nicer needs; the last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet" (4.3.85-89). The last is the liaison with Diana-Helena.

Bertram will not accept his good fortune, either in marrying Helena or in the contingent good will of the king. He sees her not as herself, but as his "father's charge / A poor physician's daughter" (2.3.114-115). The King, recognizing her virtues, in gratitude defines honor in terms of deeds, not heritage. "Honours thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers" (2.3.135-37). He makes a distinction that the myopic Bertram cannot see, "Virtue and she / Is her own dower; honour and wealth from me" (2.3.143-44). Bertram rejects her and goes off to be a soldier, to be brave, and to wench. Thus, he even makes a stereotype of himself. Parolles delivers his lord's message in conventional courtly love language—serious business has called Bertram away from his "rite of love" (2.4.39). Bertram later smugly declares, "I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the 'not' eternal" (3.2.20-1). He is too arrogant to realize that his decision may not be Helena's, and he anticipates that she will do as she is told. Lavatch had sung, "marriage comes by destiny" (1.3.60). Surely the action of this play denies that platitude. It comes to Helena in name and in actuality through her own actions. Bertram will not bed her; so she will bed him.

As the bed-trick is being planned, so is the drum-trick. Both Parolles and Bertram will be in the dark, literally and metaphorically. Neither will know that his "friends" are beside him. One will speak and hear nothing and the other will be blindfolded and hear foreign sounds. By agreeing to the strictures of darkness and silence, Bertram acknowledges his lust. Love seeks and knows the differences between people; lust makes them all the same. Ultimately, each will reveal his worst when caught. It is Parolles who says, "Yet who would have suspected an ambush where I was taken?" (4.3.291-92). Bertram could as well have said the same thing.

When Bertram makes his assignation with Diana, his language is once again that of the highly conventional, literary, courtly tradition. He will do "all rights of service" (4,2.17); Diana is "holy-cruel" (4.2.33); and he suffers from "sick desires" which only her acquiescence will cure (4.2.35-36) He vows "for ever" (4.2.16). The darkness then disguises Helena from Bertram, but he also does not know himself, so caught up is he in the roles of lover and warrior. The bed-trick will open him up to feeling and an understanding of his own vulnerability.

Helena, through her active assertion of first, her role as physician, and then her role as wife, acts as restorative for Bertram and will perhaps enable him to cultivate the kinds of feelings that do heal and comfort, that do express humanity and the complexity of the human experience, "a mingled yarn, good and ill together" (4.3.68). Helena brings intelligence, compassion, and fertility to the world of Bertram and Parolles. Theirs is the world of battle and of superficial friendship based on flattery and self-seeking….

Like the bed-trick, the endings of All's Well and Measure for Measure are at once conventional and unconventional. They both end with marriage, but "happily ever after" may not rule the day. Equally, the heroines who have effected these endings and revealed the subtleties of a world in which the illusions of the characters who have expected stereotypic behavior have been removed elude arbitrary classifications.

In All's Well, when morning comes, after the bed-trick, Helena anticipates better times, "When briars shall have leaves as sweet as thorns / And be as sweet as sharp" (4.4.32-33). Thus she expresses hope but is also mindful of the "mingled yarns of life" (4.3.74). Even in the final scene when it is full daylight and many voices of propriety and family are heard, the bed-trick seems re-enacted as it had been anticipated by the King's illness, with the exchange of rings, the substituted women, the oaths, the lies—all until the light comes and the truth is revealed. Once more the ambiguities of life are defined. In an ideal world, all would be well. Here all is well only if Helena can make the riddle clear to Bertram (5.3.310). If she cannot, divorce will follow (5.3.311). The play is a success if the suit for applause is won (epilogue, 1-2). Of course, she will prove the consummation, there will be no divorce, and we will applaud when the player asks us to. With the introduction of the ifs, however, comes the confirmation that people behave in individual ways. There are mitigating circumstances, and not to recognize them condemns us to a life based on appearances and assumptions. Bertram thought he got an evening's fling; what he got instead was blessing and love. The ifs tell us that life can go sour; it can also rise and bake sweet.

Women like Helena are more risky to love than passive, conformable women. They ask for more—that their husbands be as chaste as they for one thing—and give more. They are reckless and dare to assert themselves with the means available in order to give their gifts. The convention of the bed-trick confirms and enriches their specialness. Further, it ties together the past and present, dying and fertility, role playing and disguise, all of it, to deny the ordinary and unimaginative.

The final discovery in Measure for Measure, like that in All's Well, exposes a man who has misjudged the subtleties and complexities of the personality of the woman who confronts him. Isabella, to expose Angelo's misuse of power, allows her good name and reputation to be tarnished. She publicly denounces him but must say that he has seduced her in order to do so. For her, reputation of chastity is not the same as chastity itself. And virtue means much more than chastity as she risks public disgrace to expose evil. Throughout, however, Angelo remains alienated. He is given love and marriage, neither of which he wants. Because he cannot tolerate public shame, he requests death, which is denied him. Finally, Isabella makes her grandest assertion for life, and once more her sincerity and directness surface. Angelo's death will not revive Claudio; therefore she pleads for his life. As she had participated in the bed-trick to save her brother's life, so she now pleads for Angelo's out of compassion for Marianna.

As in All's Well, the ending of Measure for Measure is precarious. None of the marriages seems ideal. We do not believe that distress is over and happiness necessarily follows. Instead, there is sense of a beginning, of new opportunities and second chances, rather like life. We have arrived at this realization in part by having had our sensibilities shocked. Chastity typically demands reticence and passivity, but Shakespeare says no in these plays. The bed-trick is unseemly to the unimaginative, indecorous to the conventional and undemanding. These plays ask of their heroines that they be virtuous and assertive, chaste and outspoken; that they search for the harmonies of life. These characters and their participation in the bed-trick shock, disorient and ultimately extend a reality—that part of virtue which actively reaches for the elusive commitment to life. In creating plays in which the stereotypes are distorted, Shakespeare via an old and much used convention seeks to define honor, chastity, virtue—not as abstractions but as realities.

Source: Eileen Z. Cohen, "'Virtue Is Bold': The Bed-trick and Characterization in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 171-86.

John M. Love

In this excerpt, Love examines how social rank "debases" Helena and Bertram and determines their fate as well as that of Parolles. He argues that the issue of social rank is pervasive throughout all of the action of the play. Love also points out the differences between All's Well That Ends Well and Boccaccio's "Giletta of Narbona," particularly in terms of the difference between Helena's and Giletta's stations and how this is directly related to their actions.

… The alien, ineradicable element of All's Well that Ends Well and the source of its darkness is the barrier of class. Class debases the characters of Bertram and Helena throughout the play, and in the final scene it determines their fates and that of Parolles, despite the measure of virtue and vice each character possesses. At that point Helena, "a maid too virtuous / For the contempt of empire" (II.ii.30-31), must plead with a pampered husband, Bertram's fellow-prodigal Parolles appears beaten into due submission, and Bertram is, in Johnson's words, "dismissed to happiness." The difference between All's Well and the comedies that preceded it lies in its greater darkness, for class pervades the action and influences all the main characters.

Shakespeare's Helena hardly resembles the heroine of William Painter's tale of "Giletta of Narbona," the likeliest source of the play. In the first place, she has been deprived of the wealth and independence that made Giletta her spouse's equal in all respects save those of blood. Giletta, "diligently loked unto by her kinsfolke (because she was riche and fatherlesse)," clearly managed her own affairs. Having "refused manye hus-bandes, with whom her kinsfolke would have matched her," she journeyed to Paris alone and unaided, and there sealed her bargain with the King. Once married, she "went to Rossiglione, where she was received of all his subjects for their Lady. And perceyving that through the Countes absence, all things were spoiled and out of order: she like a sage Ladye, with greate diligence and care, disposed his thinges in order againe, whereof the subjects rejoysed very much, bearing to her their harty love & affection." By contrast, from the moment the Countess presents Helena to Lafew as Gerard de Narbon's "sole child … bequeath'd to my overlooking" (I.i.35-36), Helena's dependence upon her mistress and adopted mother is apparent. As much "unseason'd" as Bertram, she presumes to travel to Paris only with the Countess's knowledge and approval, "my leave and love, / Means and attendants, and my loving greetings / To those of mine at court" (I.iii.246-48). There, with the aid of Lafew, Helena gains a timid entrance to the King. But she does not in any sense come into her own upon her return to Rossillion as the wife of Bertram.

In those scenes which Painter's narrative suggested, Helena's application to the King in act 2 and her encounters with Diana and the Widow, Helena displays a heroic confidence in the heavenly source of her healing power and in her eventual success. Elsewhere in the play, in keeping with the dependent status that Shakespeare bestowed upon her, she remains mistrustful of others, fearful of earning their contempt by her slightest gesture of self-assertion, and self-effacing before her wayward husband.

Fearfulness leads her first of all to deceive the Countess, ironically her staunchest ally. After the soliloquy she utters upon Bertram's farewell, Parolles's meditation on virginity, and his farewell, "Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee" (I.i.210-11), the soliloquy with which Helena concludes the first scene clearly outlines a plan to win Bertram by means of the king's disease:

   Our remedies oft in ourselves doe 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….
   The king's disease—my project may deceive me,
   But my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me.

Under persistent questioning by the Countess, Helena admits her love, but equivocates, and finally denies any intention of pursuing Bertram, notwithstanding the audience's knowledge to the contrary:

   … I follow him not
   By any token of presumptuous suit,
   Nor would I have him till I do deserve him;
   Yet never know how that desert should be …
… O then give pity
   To her whose state is such that cannot choose
   But lend and give where she is sure to lose;
   That seeks not to find that her search implies
   But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies!

Helena admits only that Bertram's journey reminded her of the king's illness, and when in the scene immediately following her interview with the Countess she demands of the King, "What husband in thy power I will command" (II.i.93), the deception becomes unmistakable. Helena's guardedness in the first scene and her frequent reiteration of courtesy titles and deferential gestures in the presence of the Countess suggest the acute consciousness of an inferior place that might lie behind this unwarranted secrecy.

Helena remains uneasy even after her miraculous cure of the King. In act 2, scene 3, she balks at the mere prospect of choosing a husband from among the assembled courtiers, anticipating a rebuke even though the King has expressly forbidden one:

   Please it your majesty, I have done already.
   The blushes on my cheeks thus whisper me:
   "We blush that thou should'st choose, but, be refused,
   Let the white death sit on thy cheek for ever,
   We'll ne'er come there again."

The terms of her address to individual lords indicate that Helena fears contempt for her class, not her person or unmaidenly forwardness:

   The honour, sir, that flames in your fair eyes
   Before I speak, too threat'ningly replies.
   Love make your fortune twenty times above
   Her that so wishes, and her humble love!
   Be not afraid that I your hand should take;
   I'll never do you wrong, for your own sake.
   You are too young, too happy, and too good,
   To make yourself a son out of my blood.

Like the unswerving support of the Countess, the young lords' protestations at being passed over underscore the extent of Helena's misapprehension.

Thereafter, the most poignant moments of the play grow out of Helena's self-effacement in the presence of her renegade husband: her choosing of him, "I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live" (II.iii.102-03); their farewell, in which Bertram denies her the courtesy of the kiss that she can barely bring herself to ask; her self-accusing letter to the Countess; her bittersweet recollection of the rendezvous with Bertram, "But, O, strange men! / That can such sweet use make of what they hate" (IV.iv.21-22); and finally, her dramatic reappearance at Rossillion:

   King. Is there no exorcist
   Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?
   Is't real that I see?
   Hel. No, my good lord;
   'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see;
   The name and not the thing.

Though Shakespeare gave Helena a far greater advantage over Bertram than Giletta held over Beltramo, Painter's heroine confronted her husband far more conscious of her power: "knowing that they were all assembled … shee passed through the people, without chaunge of apparell, with her twoo sonnes in her arms…. 'My Lorde,… I nowe beseche thee, for the honoure of God, that thou wilt observe the conditions, which the twoo (knightes that I sent unto thee) did commaunde me to doe: for beholde, here in myne armes, not onely one sonne begotten by thee, but twayne, and likewyse thy Ryng. It is nowe time then (if thou kepe promise) that I should be received as thy wyfe.'"

Unlike her mistrust, Helena's humility is a virtue, yet the circumstances under which it appears make her at least potentially a pathetic heroine. Her nature and her circumstances ally her more nearly to the heroines of the later romances than to her predecessors in the festive comedies, but the pathos she evokes finds its closest counterpart in Desdemona. Even though it leads to a reconciliation with Bertram, her manner during the final scene cannot but recall her character and status throughout, as well as the somber emotions she has frequently stirred.

That the unworthy husband presumes upon the class barrier that works against his virtuous wife is one of the pervasive ironies of All's Well, and in that sense Bertram's nobility of blood corrupts him by licensing his misdeeds. But Shakespeare's juxtaposition of each stage of Bertram's career and its counterpart in Parolles's creates a second irony, for the two finally emerge as wayward youths, possessed of the same degree and kind of vice, but distinguished by class and thus by fate.

The parallel courses that Bertram and Parolles run begin with their farewells to Helena in the opening scene. The Count, characteristically attentive to the niceties of rank, departs with the charge, "Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her" (I.i.73-74). The farewell between Helena and Parolles that follows parodies Bertram's patronizing air, from the opening gambit:

Par. Save you, fair queen!

Hel. And you, monarch!

Par. No.

Hel. And no.


to the valedictory:

Par. Little Helen, farewell. If I can remember thee,

I will think of

thee at court.

Hel. Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.


That in the presence of the despised Parolles Helena relaxes the guard she had earlier maintained, and that his absurd meditation on virginity proves more fruitful advice than the elders' precepts, only increases the apparent distance between Helena and the nobles, a distance that her earlier silence and tears had suggested.

Parolles's fall from grace likewise mirrors Bertram's. In the same scene in which Bertram's presumption earns the King's rebuke, the Captain runs afoul of Lafew for forgetting his proper place:

Laf. Your lord and master did well to make his recantation.

Par. Recantation! My lord! My master!

Laf. Ay. Is it not a language I speak?

Par. A most harsh one, and not to be understood without bloody succeeding. My master!

Laf. Are you companion to the Count Rossillion?

Par. To any Count; to all Counts; to what is man.

Laf. To what is Count's man.


Lafew objects less to Parolles's outlandish garb and manner than to the pretensions to equlity with his social superiors which the manner and garb signify: "Why dost thou garter up thy arms a' this fashion? Dost make hose of thy sleeves? Do other servants so?… You are more saucy with lords and honourable personages than the commission of your birth gives you heraldry" (II.iii.245-58). In this sauciness Parolles copies Bertram, yet reverses the attitude of his fellow-commoner, Helena. In his own humiliation Parolles seconds Bertram's resolve to flee "to those Italian fields / Where noble fellows strike" (II.iii.286-87), strengthening the parallel.

Throughout the third and fourth acts, each step of the French lord's plot against Parolles immediately precedes the corresponding step in Helena's winning of Bertram. In the final two scenes of act 3, the lords unfold their scheme to Bertram and enlist his aid, and Helena does the same with Diana and the Widow. Act 4 begins with the ambush of Parolles, and his vow to reveal "all the secrets of their camp" (IV.i.84), a promise that seals his fate as surely as Bertram's gift of his family ring and promise of a rendezvous seals his in the scene following. In act 4, scene 3, the parallel lines converge. Not only does Bertram report his nocturnal meeting, which the audience knows to be the last stage of Helena's plan, but Parolles's exposure becomes the exposure of both wayward youths. Although they would have Bertram believe that they aim at Parolles only "for the love of laughter" (III.ii.32), among themselves the French lords "would gladly see his company anatomiz'd, that he might take the measure of his own judgements" (IV.iii.30-32). Their disapproval of Bertram's conduct with Helena and Diana, his concern over the Captain's confession, "Nothing of me, has a'?" (IV.iii.109), the pointed warning that "If your lordship be in't, as I believe you are, you must have the patience to hear it" (IV.iii.111-12), the aptness of Parolles's slanderous portrait of the Count as "a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish" (IV.iii.207), and the contrast between Bertram's rage and his companions' amusement at the slanders, all serve to unite the two youths in folly.

Once the time comes for Parolles and Bertram to answer for these equivalent offenses, the parallel abruptly breaks off. In the soliloquy that follows his exposure, Parolles seems beyond chastisement:

    Yet am I thankful. If my heart were great
    'Twould burst at this. Captain I'll be no more,
    But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
    As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
    Shall make me live. Who knows himself a braggart,
    Let him fear this; for it shall come to pass
    That every braggart shall be found an ass.
    Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and Parolles live
    Safest in shame; being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive.
    There's place and means for every man alive.
    I'll after them.

Nevertheless, his offensesearn him the lowest place and the poorest means. When he reappears in the fifth act, he shows respect even to the Clown, whom he had earlier patronized: "Good Master Lavatch, give my Lord Lafew this letter; I have ere now, sir, been better known to you, when I have held familiarity with fresher clothes; but I am now, sir, muddied in Fortune's mood, and smell somewhat strong of her strong displeasure" (V.ii.1-5). In the same scene, he abjectly confesses to Lafew, "O, my good Lord, you were the first that found me" (V.ii.41). He acknowledges Bertram as his master in the trial scene, and that Lafew will see to it that atonement follows conviction of sin and repentance is apparent from the charge he gives his newest servant as they observe the lovers reunited: "Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher. So, I thank thee. Wait on me at home, I will make sport with thee. Let thy curtsies alone, they are scurvy ones" (V.iii.315-18).

Bertram sins more than this and suffers less. He arrives at Rossillion unmuddied, spared the "exceeding posting day and night" (V.i.1) that Helena endured, needing no letter to the King, and in the height of fashionable attire. In the trial scene, Parolles suffers the contempt of Diana, Lafew, the King, and even Bertram, while Bertram lies, contemns, slanders, but finally embraces Helena. In the absence of Parolles, one might call the treatment that Bertram receives mercy; the Captain's presence makes it something less attractive than that….

Source: John M. Love, ""Though many of the rich are damn'd': Dark Comedy and Social Class in All's Well That Ends Well," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 517-27.


Carnegy, Patrick, "Fruitful Follies," in the Spectator, Vol. 293, No. 9151, December 27, 2003, p. 42.

Charney, Maurice, "All's Well That Ends Well," in All of Shakespeare, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 95-103.

Cohen, Eileen Z., "'Virtue Is Bold': The Bed-Trick and Characterization in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 65, 1986, pp. 171-86.

Fraser, Russell, ed., "Introduction" to All's Well That Ends Well, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 1-37.

Garber, Marjorie, "All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare After All, Pantheon, 2004, pp. 617-33.

Haffenden, John, ed., "Pathos and Dream," in Berryman's Shakespeare: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by John Berryman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999, p. 51.

Isherwood, Charles, "Maybe He's Just Not into You, Helena," in the New York Times, February 14, 2006.

Klein, Alvin, "What a Woman Wants (Never Mind Why)," in the New York Times, July 26, 1998.

Lawrence, William Witherle, "All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 2nd ed., Frederick Ungar, 1960, pp. 32-77.

Schork, R. J., "The Many Masks of Parolles," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 3, Summer 1997, p. 263.

Shakespeare, William, All's Well That Ends Well, 2nd Series, edited by G. K. Hunter, Arden Shakespeare, 1968.


Beck, Ervin, "Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well," in Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring 1997, p. 123.

Beck writes about the symbolism of Helena's name, particularly as it relates to other characters in classical literature, all of whom were bearers of truth.

Briggs, Julia, "Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 44, No. 4, October 1994, pp. 293-314.

Briggs discusses the influences on Shakespeare in his use of the bed-trick and how Shakespeare used the bed-trick in his own work. Briggs focuses on Arcadia, a work preceding Shakespeare's plays, and Shakespeare's own Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well.

Bryant, J. A., Jr., "All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy, University Press of Kentucky, 1986, pp. 203-20.

Bryant examines how the two plays, although "traditional" comedies, veer from the usual paths of such tales, arriving "at the prescribed destination with marks of the passage still showing."

Clark, Ira, "The Trappings of All's Well That Ends Well," in Style, Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall 2005, p. 277.

Clark focuses on the verbal trickery and the plot reversals of the play, arguing that these "traps" are essential style elements and should be analyzed as such.

Friedman, Michael D., "Male Bonds and Marriage in All's Well and Much Ado," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp. 231-49.

Friedman discusses male bonding in All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado about Nothing, primarily the relationship between Bertram and Parolles, and Claudio and Benedick, and how it pertains to marriage in the plays.

Haley, David, "Bertram at Court," in Shakespeare's Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in All's Well That Ends Well, University of Delaware Press, 1993, pp. 17-51.

Haley's article examines All's Well That Ends Well as a courtly play (and Shakespeare's approach to the courtier in general), with specific emphasis on Bertram as a courtier.

――――――, "Helena's Love," in Shakespeare's Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in All's Well That Ends Well, University of Delaware Press, 1993, pp. 87-122.

This essay by Haley examines Helena's character, including her love melancholy, her "prophetic virtue" and "providential mission," and her "erotic motive" to be united with Bertram after he has rejected her (thus abandoning "providence for Eros").

Hodgdon, Barbara, "The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter 1987, pp. 47-71.

Hodgdon approaches a reading of All's Well That Ends Well from Helena's point of view, examining in particular how Shakespeare based his play on Boccaccio's play and what he did differently; how "sexual signs are articulated in character and event"; and how substitute scenes are used, particularly the bed-trick.

Hunt, Maurice, "Words and Deeds in All's Well That Ends Well," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, December 1987, pp. 320-38.

Hunt's essay examines the "competition" between words and deeds in All's Well That Ends Well primarily through the King of France, who vacillates between valuing word and deed and thus the two cannot be brought into harmony; Helena, through whom Shakespeare implies that "not only that deeds can on occasion speak but also that they can prompt an eventual honesty in words"; and Bertram, who merges word and deed in the final scenes of the play when he embraces Helena.

Jardine, Lisa, "Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: 'These Are Old Paradoxes,'" in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring 1987, pp. 1-18.

Jardine's article discusses how Helena and Portia, in, respectively, All's Well That Ends Well and The Merchant of Venice, possessed knowledge traditionally associated with the "male sphere." Helena, in particular possessed knowledge as a healer (the community's "wise woman"), in her upbringing (her "education"), and as the "woman who knows" in her deception of Bertram. Jardine discusses the tension between possessing knowledge as a part of female virtue and possessing it in the "male sphere."

Kastan, David Scott, "All's Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy," in ELH, Vol. 52, No. 3, Autumn 1985, pp. 575-89.

Kastan argues that, although All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's other "problem plays" are classified as comedies and not tragedies because "fictive aspirations have been gratified," the reader is not entirely satisfied with these "aspirations" and indeed has been "made suspicious of them," thus making the plays "generic mixtures" or "mutations."

Makaryk, Irene Rima, "The Problem Plays," in her dissertation, Comic Justice in Shakespeare's Comedies, 1979.

Makaryk discusses All's Well That Ends Well within the context of the two other "problem plays" with which it is usually aligned—Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida.

Maus, Katharine Eisaman, "All's Well That Ends Well," in The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton, 1997, pp. 2175-81.

Maus's essay provides an overview of All's Well That Ends Well, touching on such topics as the reversal of gender roles, the lack of "endings" in the play, desire, honor, and social class.

Muir, Kenneth, "All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare's Comic Sequence, Liverpool University Press, 1979, pp. 124-32.

Muir's article gives a brief overview of All's Well That Ends Well, focusing on the actions and motivations of Helena and Bertram.

Richard, Jeremy, "'The Thing I Am': Parolles, the Comedic Villain, and Tragic Consciousness," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 18, Burt Franklin & Co., Inc., 1986, pp. 145-59.

Richard's article demonstrates how the character of Parolles fits into Shakespeare's development of the metamorphosis of the comedic villain in his work: "Parolles and the manner in which he suggests that all is not well that ends well creates a new Shakespearean drama of the pitfalls of the mental world rather than the pratfalls of the physical."

Roark, Christopher, "Lavatch and Service in All's Well That Ends Well," in Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring 1988, pp. 241-58.

Roark argues that examining the role of Lavatch, the clown, can add an important dimension to understanding the play, especially its more problematic elements, such as the unsatisfying ending.

Schroeder, Lori, "Riddles, Female Space, and Closure in All's Well That Ends Well," in English Language Notes, Vol. 38, No. 4, June 2001, p. 19.

Schroeder examines the concept of female sexuality in the play from various angles and comments on the significance of pregnancy in terms of the plot and the play's title.

Simpson, Lynne M., "The Failure to Mourn in All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 22, 1994, pp. 172-88.

Simpson examines the Oedipal anxieties in Helena and Bertram as they pertain to the failure of each to mourn the death of her/his father. Helena substitutes Bertram for her dead father, and Bertram substitutes the King of France for his. Simpson takes a psychoanalytic approach with regard to the concepts of guilt, death, forgetting, memory, and forgiveness in the play.

Snyder, Susan, "All's Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare's Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter 1988, pp. 66-77.

Snyder examines two aspects of All's Well That Ends Well as they relate to Helena. The first concerns the "gaps, disjunctions, and silences" in the play, "where we lack an expected connection or explanation in the speeches or actions" of Helena, primarily as they concern her character's mixture of initiative and passivity. In the second part of the essay, Snyder compares the Helena of All's Well with the Helena of A Midsummer Night's Dream and with Helen of Troy, demonstrating how All's Well's Helena, even at the end of the play, stands in marked contrast to the other two similarly named heroines as undesired subject rather than desired object.

Styan, J. L., All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare in Performance Series, Manchester University Press, 1984.

Styan describes how All's Well That Ends Well has been performed primarily on stage but also on television in the twentieth century. The first part addresses issues of performance; the second part takes the play scene by scene; and the appendix contains listings of twentieth-century productions, major productions, and principal casts.

Sullivan, Garrett A., Jr., "'Be This Sweet Helen's Knell, and Now Forget Her': Forgetting, Memory, and Identity in All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Spring 1999, p. 51.

Sullivan explores the theme of lost fathers, unrequited love, and the benefits of repressed memories in the play.

Vaughn, Jack A., "All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare's Comedies, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 153-59.

Vaughn provides a very brief overview of All's Well That Ends Well, touching on the difficulty critics face in assessing the motives and actions of Helena, Bertram, and Parolles. Also provides a brief stage history.

Wells, Stanley, "Plays of Troy, Vienna, and Roussillon: Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and All's Well That Ends Well," in Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, W. W. Norton, 1995, pp. 234-44.

Wells's article follows the relationship of Helena and Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well to illuminate the play's "moral self-consciousness."

Yang, Sharon R., "Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well," in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 4, Summer 1992, pp. 199-203.

Yang briefly explores the parallels between the characters of Lavatch and Bertram, particularly how Lavatch's "words and experiences expose the absurdity of Bertram's perspective."