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