- All's Well That Ends Well
" in 1623.
The play is based on a tale (3.9) of
Boccacio's Decameron. Shakespeare may have read an English translation of the tale in William Painter's " Palace of Pleasure". [ F. E. Halliday, "A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964," Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 29.]
The name of the play comes from the
proverb"All's well that ends well", which means that problems do not matter so long as the outcome is good. ["The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy", 3rd ed., 2002. Cited at [http://www.bartleby.com/59/3/allswellthat.html Bartleby.com] ]
KING OF FRANCE
DUKE OF FLORENCE
BERTRAM, Count of Rousillon
COUNTESS OF ROUSILLON, Mother to Bertram
LAVATCH, a Clown in her household
HELENA, a Gentlewoman protected by the Countess
LAFEU, an old Lord
PAROLLES, a follower of Bertram
An Old Widow of Florence, surname Capilet
DIANA, Daughter to the Widow
Steward to the Countess of Rousillon
VIOLENTA, MARIANA, Neighbours and Friends to the Widow
Soldiers, Servants, Gentlemen & Courtiers
Helena, a lowborn beauty, serves as a gentlewoman in the household of the Countess of Rossilion. Bertram, the Countess' son, is making preparations to leave for Paris to become a ward of the King of France. Helena has long nursed a secret love for Bertram, despite their class differences. It is revealed that the King is terminally ill of a
fistula(to Shakespeare it was a long pipelike ulcer). Helena, whose father was a well-renowned physician, offers to cure him if he will allow her to marry the Lord of her choice - he agrees. Her medicinal knowledge proves fruitful, and she saves the King's life. The King is overjoyed and accedes to her condition, upon curing him, of being granted the husband of her choice. Of course, she chooses the reluctant and unwilling Bertram. She offers him freedom to deny her, but the King is insistent on the marriage as a reward to Helena and Bertram is forced to consent. After their (enforced) wedding, Bertram decides he would rather face death in battle than remain married to Helena, so he steals off to fight in the Italian war developing between the Florentines and the Senoys. While at war, he writes dismissively home to Helena:
"When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband." (III.ii.55-58)
Bertram thinks these things an impossible task. Nevertheless, Helena sets out with a plan to recover her husband.
Back at the war front, the young lords strive to convince Bertram that his ne'er-do-well friend Parolles is a coward. They set up an elaborate ruse to convince Parolles to recover a company drum stolen by the enemy and trick him into believing he has been captured. Parolles, thinking himself begging for his life, readily spills all his army's secrets to his "captors", betraying Bertram ("a foolish idle boy and for all that very ruttish...") in the process. Dishonored and stripped of his title, Parolles returns to France as a beggar. Helena, meanwhile, enlists the aid of Diana, a maiden who has taken Bertram's fancy. Together they execute the bait-and-switch "
bed trick" during which Helena successfully gets the Rossillion family ring and sleeps with Bertram as per the conditions in his letter. In the final act, Helena's cunning plot is revealed, and Bertram promises to be a faithful husband to her and "love her dearly, ever, ever dearly." (V.iii.354)
There are no recorded performances before the Restoration; the earliest occurred in 1741 at Goodman's Fields, with another the following year at Drury Lane where it acquired its reputation of being an unlucky play. The actress playing Helena fainted and had to be replaced. The actor playing the king fainted and subsequently died. Sporadic performances followed in the ensuing decades, with an operatic version at Covent Garden in 1832.
There is no evidence that "All's Well" was popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime, and it has remained one of his lesser-known plays ever since, in part due to its odd mixture of
fairy talelogic and cynical realism. The final scene in which Bertram suddenly switches from hatred to love in just one line is considered a particular problem for actors trained to admire psychological realism.
One character that has been admired is that of the old Countess, which is one of the few good roles for an older actress in the Shakespeare canon.Fact|date=June 2008 Modern productions are often promoted as vehicles for great mature actresses; recent examples have starred
Judi Denchand Peggy Ashcroft.
* [http://www.maximumedge.com/shakespeare/allwell.htm MaximumEdge.com Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well] - searchable scene-indexed version of the play.
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