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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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 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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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.
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 . . . Read More