All's Well That Ends Well | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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All's Well That Ends Well | Act 3, Scenes 6–7 | Summary

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Summary

Act 3, Scene 6

Bertram is having a rude awakening, thanks to First Lord Dumaine and Second Lord Dumaine, brothers who have befriended him. They tell him in no uncertain terms, Parolles is "a most notable coward, / an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, / the owner of no one good quality." Their reason for telling Bertram all this is they don't want him to find himself betrayed by Parolles, should a serious or dangerous situation arise. Unsettled, Bertram wonders if there is some way to test Parolles, and the lords provide a solution. Parolles has been loudly lamenting the loss of a fine war drum on the battlefield, a drum he calls an "instrument of honor." They suggest Bertram allow Parolles to retrieve it, at which point, dressed as the enemy, they will capture him and bring him blindfolded to a tent where Bertram waits. They swear within minutes Parolles will betray Bertram and give up confidential intelligence to save his own skin.

Parolles appears blustering about the importance of the missing drum and is quickly tricked into volunteering to retrieve it. First Lord Dumaine, Second Lord Dumaine, and Bertram urge Parolles to leave immediately, which he does. The lords then promise Bertram he will have his proof by midnight. First Lord Dumaine leaves. Bertram asks Second Lord Dumaine to go with him to see the beautiful Diana, who, Bertram says, has been "wondrous cold" and has returned all his letters and tokens. The man agrees, and they head off.

Act 3, Scene 7

As Bertram's companions begin to execute their plan to trick Parolles, Helen and the widow of Florence are hatching a scheme of their own. Helen has revealed her true identity to the widow of Florence, proving it as much with a purse of gold as with words. She says she is "buying" the widow's help and will reward her more if the scheme succeeds. The plan is to have Diana meet with Bertram and request the ring he wears, a cherished ring passed down through his family for several generations, as proof of his sincerity. Helen has no doubt, to achieve his goal, Bertram will comply with Diana's request for the ring, and she tells Diana to give him Helen's ring in return. The last element of the ruse is after receiving the ring, Diana will appoint a time for a physical encounter but Helen will arrive in her place. Helen muses Bertram will think he is doing something wicked—deflowering a virgin—when he is actually doing his lawful duty by his wife. The widow of Florence agrees to the plan, which they decide to begin carrying out that very night.

Analysis

Scenes 6 and 7 put two schemes in motion, both of which are designed to fool the two men who to this point have been the least admirable ones in the play. The tricking of Parolles is more than justified. He has shown himself to be as deceitful and untrustworthy as a man can be, and a terrible influence on Bertram. His every action is executed with an eye to improving his own situation, yet his rude manners and disrespect for people who could actually help him doom him to failure. It does not say much for Bertram, then, that this is the man he chooses to be his adviser and companion, and, indeed, every bit of advice Parolles gives Bertram, from leaving France to betraying Helen, is ignoble and wrong. The scheme proposed by First Lord Dumaine and Second Lord Dumaine provides Bertram with an opportunity to escape from Parolles's influence.

Helen's scheme is a bit more problematic for modern audiences to accept. It is still mystifying why she is so enamored of Bertram, and even more so after learning her husband wants to corrupt Diana. It is also a bit surprising she plans to use the virginal Diana to achieve her goals and the widow of Florence agrees to the ruse, not so much out of a desire to see a deceitful man shamed, or a lawful wedding consummated, but because Helen promises her riches. Trying to understand the play psychologically is highly unsatisfying; it's easier to enjoy All's Well that Ends Well as a kind of variation on a folktale, with the plucky heroine using her wits to meet the impossible goals set by her beloved. In addition, the "bed trick," in which one person takes the place of another, was a staple of Renaissance comedy and therefore would have been enjoyed by Shakespeare's audiences.
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