All’s Well That Ends Well was probably written sometime between 1600 and 1605, and many experts date the work to 1603. Others believe that the play is the lost Shakespearean drama titled Love’s Labour Won, which was written before 1598. The first written mention of the play under its current title appeared in 1623, when it was licensed to be printed in Shakespeare’s Folio. Attempts to date the play have involved a bit of detective work regarding some of its language, particularly Helen’s letter to the countess in act 3, which exemplifies Shakespeare’s less-sophisticated early style. Conversely, some critics note similarities between the tone and style of the play with that of Measure for Measure, which was written in 1604. Some commentators have theorized that the uneven nature of the play suggests that it was written at two different times in Shakespeare’s life. This sketchy history indicates that the play did not attract much attention when it was first written and performed, a testament to its status as a lesser work in Shakespeare’s canon.
All’s Well That Ends Well has often been called one of Shakespeare’s problem plays or dark comedies, a category that usually includes Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. The problem refers to the cynical nature of the plot’s resolution, in which Bertram, a rather unbecoming hero who is sought after by a woman who is too good for him, has a last-minute change of heart and vows to love Helena, his wife, forever. This declaration comes on the heels of a rather devious scheme and is not prompted by a personal revelation deep enough to be convincing to the audience. The problem plays are more similar in tone and theme to Shakespeare’s tragedies than they are to his romantic comedies.
Shakespeare’s primary inspiration for the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well was William Painter’s collection of stories The Palace of Pleasures (1575), which itself was an English translation of ‘‘Giletta of Narbonne,’’ a story in Giovanni Boccaccio’s collection of folk tales called the Decameron (1353). Shakespeare fleshed out the story by adding the characters of Parolles, the Countess of Rossillion, Lavache, and Lafew. The events of the play, in which a low-born woman schemes to marry a count and wins both his ring and his child by switching places with another woman during an illicit rendezvous (a tactic known as the bed-trick), has its roots in folk tales. This may account, some believe, for the play’s unbelievable nature and thus its failure as a comedy. Others believe that audiences of the day would have been familiar with such folk tales, as well as with Painter’s The Palace of Pleasures and Boccaccio’s Decameron, and thus would have received the play more warmly. That said, nearly all critics have at least some reservations about it.
Early critics of the play focused their attention on the incongruous plot elements and the themes of merit and rank, virtue and honor, and male versus female. More recent critics also address these issues, but they focus more attention on topics such as gender and desire. Helena’s bold sexuality and her reversal of gender roles, in which she is the pursuer rather than the pursued, has generated much discussion, especially for how they intertwine with other main conflicts in the play, such as social class, the bed-trick, and marriage. Whether the play does end well, as the title suggests, has also historically been much debated.
The three main characters—Helena, Bertram, and Parolles—have generated a great deal of literary criticism over the years. Some critics brand Helena as conniving and obsessive in her love for Bertram, while others find her virtuous and noble. In general, critics are not fond of the character of Bertram, though some judge him more harshly than others. Some critics find him thoroughly unrepentant and unredeemable at the end of the play, making the ending implausible. Others are more sympathetic toward him, finding him merely immature at the beginning of the play and in need of life experience, which he obtains while fighting in Florence. Parolles has generated less controversy in terms of the nature of his character (even Parolles himself recognizes his deficiencies and is not ashamed of them), and some critics find the subplot involving Parolles the only thing that saves the play from failure.
There is no record of All’s Well That Ends Well having been performed in Shakespeare’s time (although it probably was), and it remained unpopular for several hundred years. In England, it was performed only a few dozen times in the eighteenth century and only seventeen times in the nineteenth century. The Victorians abhorred the sexual nature of the play. Writing in 1852, critic John Bull (quoted in the New Cambridge edition of the play edited by Russell Fraser) found that such wantonness cannot ‘‘be made presentable to an audience of which decent females form a portion.’’ In the United States, the play was not staged until well into the twentieth century. In most cases, when it was performed, many changes were made to the text to make it more contemporary, often highlighting Parolles’s part and turning the play into a farce.
(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