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 proactive 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 bedtrick 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.’’
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007