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 that what she is doing is technically lawful). They note that although Helena satisfactorily fulfills Bertram’s requirements in his letter, this does not necessarily dictate a happy ending, since their sexual union was based on deception.
Despite the fact that she lives in the palace, Helena is a commoner. Her mother died when she was young, and her father was a doctor. Without property, money, or a title to her name, she has no assets to attract Bertram, who is a member of the noble class. Most marriages in that time were arranged to benefit both families, and Bertram’s marriage to Helena would benefit only her. Some view this as a justifiable reason for Bertram to reject Helena. However, we are told early on in the play that Helena possesses true nobility and honor, which cannot be obtained by birth. Bertram, though born with wealth and status, has no nobility or honor to speak of. The noble and honorable older generation, represented by the king, the countess, and Lafew, recognize Helena’s virtues and Bertram’s lack of them.
A few commentators have noted that wealth and rank actually mean little to either Helena or Bertram. Helena wants Bertram, not his money, and Bertram wants his freedom, not a marriage to a woman everyone considers noble and virtuous. If Bertram were truly in pursuit of great rank, he would have accepted Helena, whom the king has endowed with wealth to make her Bertram’s equal (although a few critics note that this is actually unnecessary, for Helena’s fine qualities erase the social gap between her and Bertram). Also, if Bertram were truly invested in maintaining his class distinction, he would not have befriended Parolles, a man of notably low birth and, worse, base and vile qualities.
(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