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 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 Everyone is better off than when the play began, and the solemn tone of mourning has been replaced by wedding bells and the good news of Helena’s pregnancy.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.
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 risque´. 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 underminers 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.
(extracted from) 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