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.
(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