Literature Study GuidesAlls Well That Ends WellAct 5 Scene 3 And Epilogue Summary

All's Well That Ends Well | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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All's Well That Ends Well | Act 5, Scene 3 and Epilogue | Summary

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Summary

Act 5, Scene 3

The scene begins with a surprising conversation between Lafew, the countess, and the king of France. They are once again mourning losing Helen, but the countess begs the king of France to forgive her son, saying he was only acting out "[n]atural rebellion done i' th' blade of youth." The king of France reassures the countess he has "forgiven and forgotten all," and Lafew adds Bertram suffered the greatest tragedy by having lost a woman who approached perfection. The king of France agrees and tells Lafew to inform Bertram he need not ask the king's pardon, for "[t]he nature of his great offense is dead." The king only wishes to speed the marriage of Bertram and Lafew's daughter.

Bertram appears, and the king of France once again reassures him all is forgiven. The king then asks if Bertram knows Lafew's daughter, and Bertram reveals, not only does he know her, he had once hoped to marry her. This is the reason, he says, he was unable to appreciate Helen, whom he now realizes he had also loved. The king of France says Bertram's love for Helen does him credit, but now the king is eager to finalize the union between Bertram and Lafew's daughter. Lafew asks Bertram for a token to give to his daughter, and Bertram hands Lafew the ring given to him by Diana.

Lafew immediately recognizes the ring as Helen's. Bertram protests this is not the case, but then the king asks to examine it. He, too, says it is Helen's, for he is the one that gave it to her. Even the countess recalls seeing the ring on Helen's finger. Bertram, who for a moment had shown a flicker of having matured, dives into another lie. He tells the older people the ring had been thrown out a window at him, wrapped in a paper containing the name of a woman who wanted to seduce him. Bertram says he told the woman his honor would not allow him to agree to her request, but she refused to take the ring back. The king of France, of course, does not believe such an obvious lie. He informs Bertram Helen told him she would never remove the ring unless she gave it to Bertram in bed or had it sent back to the king if she died. Bertram continues to protest, but now the king suspects Bertram may have had something to do with Helen's death. He orders Bertram to be taken away under guard until the truth can be discovered.

The gentleman whom Helen asked help from in Marseilles arrives with the message she had given him. It is not from Helen, though, but from Diana. The note states Bertram had seduced Diana and promised to marry her upon the death of his wife. Yet when Helen died, he ran from Florence. Diana is beseeching the king of France to make things right or, "a seducer flourishes, / and a poor maid is undone." Both the king and Lafew are furious. Lafew says he would prefer to buy a husband for his daughter at a fair than to see her marry Bertram. The king sends for Bertram, whom he is now more convinced than ever was responsible for Helen's death.

Bertram is brought back to stand before the king, and Diana and the widow of Florence enter the hall. Diana reveals she is the young woman who sent the note with the ring. Bertram admits he knows them but is shocked when Diana asks why he looks at her, his wife, so strangely. He swears she is not his wife, but Diana continues to insist they are betrothed. Bertram swears she is no more than an acquaintance he has sometimes laughed with. Diana then asks the king to make him swear an oath he has not taken her virginity, to which Bertram replies she was no more than "a commoner gamester to the camp,"—meaning a woman who has sex with various soldiers.

Now Diana pulls out Bertram's ancestral ring, saying if she is a camp follower then he gave his most precious possession to a prostitute. She also says there is a man in court—Parolles—who can verify everything she is saying. The king sends for Parolles, and, in the meantime, Bertram frantically recasts his lies, saying yes, he did sleep with Diana but she seduced him and he "boarded her i' th' wanton way of youth." She then stole his ring. Sighing, Diana says if he will not have her for a wife then he should give her back her own ring and she will return home. The ring, of course, is the one Bertram has just said was thrown at him from a window.

Parolles appears and confirms he served as Bertram's go-between with Diana and Bertram had made love to Diana and promised to marry her. The king of France now asks Diana where she got the ring, and she begins to answer in riddles until the king, frustrated but determined to find out what happened to Helen, threatens to execute Diana if she doesn't tell the truth. The young woman continues her perplexing responses, saying of Bertram, "He knows himself my bed he hath defiled, / And at that time he got his wife with child. / Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick. / So here's my riddle: one that's dead is quick."

As she finishes speaking, Helen enters the room. Bertram is shocked to his core. Helen produces the letter he once sent her, in which he says he would only marry her if she wore his ring and bore his child. She asks if he will finally be hers now that he is "doubly won." Bertram quickly responds if she can prove both things, he will "love her dearly, ever, ever dearly." Her increasingly visible pregnancy, Helen says, will make the truth clear. Lafew and the others begin weeping in joy, and the king asks to hear the entire story. He then turns to Diana, now understanding her role in events, and promises he will pay the dowry for any husband she chooses, much as he once promised Helen. He then proclaims "[a]ll yet seems well" and the bitterness of the past has made the present sweeter.

Epilogue

The epilogue immediately follows and asks the audience for applause, saying, "The King's a beggar, now the play is done. / All be well ended if this suit is won, / That you express content, which we will pay, / With strift to please you, day exceeding day. / Ours be your patience, then, and yours our parts. / Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts."

Analysis

After a lengthy buildup, the ending of All's Well That Ends Well plays out swiftly, although with a few confusing (for the characters) twists and turns. Parolles, though not rehabilitated, is forgiven by the good-natured Lafew. Bertram is trapped in his increasingly messy web of lies. Diana sets that stage for the revelation Bertram is a cad, and Helen is alive and appears to claim her "reward"—Bertram as her husband. All players seem delighted with the eventual outcome, and events appear to have fulfilled Helen's prophecy that "all's well that ends well."

Critics disagree as to whether this ending is actually the traditional happy one, though, or a frustrating one. Bertram continues to demonstrate such disagreeable qualities that it's a mystery why the beautiful, intelligent Helen is so laser-focused on him. Even after being to war and supposedly proving himself as a leader, he continues to behave as an immature lothario who treats women as interchangeable potential conquests. And when questioned by the king of France, he not only lies, but his lies are ridiculously juvenile and totally unbelievable.

To be able to accept the play as a comedy, therefore, and Helen's achievement as a triumph, it is helpful to look at the play either as a satire or a sort of bawdy fairy tale, not to be examined too on the level of character or psychological motivation. Taking the fairy-tale view, Helen is the plucky heroine—poor and in love with a man far above her in rank and station. She initially wins him through the almost magical feat of curing the king of France. But when they are forced to marry, her husband charges her with two impossible tasks she must achieve to become his wife. She manages to accomplish both goals through a combination of subterfuge and cleverness, and her success at the end can be seen as the triumph of a clever woman over a foolish man who is finally able to see her worth.

Unfortunately for those looking for a more playful interpretation, the lightweight character of Bertram undermines audiences' expectations for a fairy tale and creates a more cynical and satirical tone. The "handsome prince" is usually portrayed as good, brave, and noble, more than worthy of the heroine's love. In this case, though, he is a flesh-and-blood young man with all of the faults, rebelliousness, and immaturity young men often display. (His youth is mentioned several times during the play, and it is likely he is only in his late teens since he is initially deemed too young to go to war.) His pride is easily wounded, he resents being told what to do, and he ignores the value of what's in front of him—Helen—in part because others tell him he should value it. Bertram also has made the mistake of attaching himself to Parolles, who is the worst possible influence a confused young man can have. A similar argument can be made about Helen. Yes, she is intelligent and clever but, at her core, she is a young girl who has had a crush on Bertram for her entire life, is blind to his flaws, and will do whatever it takes to win him.

Even the ending is not unequivocally happy, with Bertram's pledge to love Helen depending on an "if," and the king observing, "All yet seems well" rather than "all is well." Shakespeare seems to be implying even fairy tales are conditional and there are no guarantees in love or life. Only if audiences also believe Helen can see beyond Bertram's immaturity to the man she believes he will someday be—and Bertram is at heart a good man who will come to love Helen—can the audience truly believe "[a]ll's well that ends well."

Though it is common for Shakespeare to have a short epilogue asking for applause at the end of the play, in this epilogue Shakespeare specifically asks the audience to be patient and content—to simply accept the ending for what it is perhaps?—and he purposely reminds the audience they have just seen a play, not witnessed real-life events, by telling them the king has become a "beggar"—a poor actor. If the audience is pleased, though, there will be more plays to come.

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