All's Well That Ends Well | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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All's Well That Ends Well | Context

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Italian Inspiration

William Shakespeare drew the basic story line for All's Well That Ends Well from The Decameron, a collection of stories written by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio between 1349 and 1353. The tales in The Decameron are united by a frame story, in which 10 young people have fled a plague in Florence and have secluded themselves in a villa in a nearby town. Each of the guests is charged with telling one story a day to pass the time.

The story on which Shakespeare's play is based is told by Queen Neifile on the third day. The story begins by introducing the Count di Rossiglione, a perpetually ill man who insists the doctor Gerardo di Nerbona remain constantly by his side. The doctor's daughter, Giletta di Nerbona, falls passionately in love with the count's son Beltramo and is devastated when the count dies and the young man is sent to live with the king of France. Her own father dies soon afterward, leaving his wealth and medical secrets to his daughter. Giletta, still in love with Beltramo, refuses all other suitors and is prohibited from following Beltramo to France.

An opportunity of sorts comes with news the king of France is suffering from a painful tumor. Giletta uses the knowledge gleaned from her father to prepare a cure, and she departs for Paris. The king is quickly healed, and he rewards Giletta by saying she may marry the husband of her choice. She chooses Beltramo, but the young man is not receptive since he believes Giletta is of a lower class than he is. The king insists he marry the girl, but before the marriage can be consummated, Beltramo flees the court and heads off to war.

Giletta still hopes to earn Beltramo's love and returns to his estate, which has fallen into disrepair after his father's death. Using her innate intelligence and her resourcefulness, she restores Beltramo's home to its former glory and begs Beltramo to come home to her. He responds he will do so only when she wears his family ring, which he never takes off, and bears him a child, although he will not lie with her. Giletta hatches a scheme, making it known she is filled with sorrow and will become a pilgrim. Dressed in pilgrim's garb, she heads to Florence where she learns Beltramo is madly in love with a poor noblewoman in town. Giletta convinces the young woman and her mother to help her, saying they will be paid handsomely for their aid. Beltramo receives a message from the young noblewoman, asking him to send her his ring as a pledge of his love, and in exchange, she will allow him to come to her bed. Beltramo quickly agrees, but unbeknownst to him, it is Giletta waiting for him in the dark bedroom.

Giletta becomes pregnant and remains in Florence until she gives birth to twin sons. Beltramo, in the meantime, returns to Rossiglione. Giletta finally follows him there. She approaches him at an All Saints' Day banquet. She shows him the ring and his sons, who look just like him, and asks him to fulfill his pledge. Beltramo finally sees her worth, recognizes her as his wife, and loves her dearly from that day forward.

This basic story line from The Decameron, including the miraculous cure, the rejection of the bride, the bed trick, and the ultimate triumph of the enamored woman, is faithfully recreated in All's Well That Ends Well. There are differences, however. In her management of the count's estate, for example, Giletta has many more opportunities to show her intelligence and capabilities than Helen does, and the story has the tone of a simple folktale where the plucky heroine triumphs. But in All's Well That Ends Well the tone is more cynical. New characters, such as the countess, Lafew, and Parolles are introduced to add more perspectives to the story. The young count is made into a much more disagreeable character than he is in Boccaccio's story, and Helen's motivations and tactics are less than noble. In general, Boccaccio's story is considered a much simpler tale overall, an entertaining folktale romance with an emphasis on action, showing little interest in the characters' psychological motivations. Shakespeare's story seems more intent on upending fairy-tale conventions and introducing a strong element of reality.

Shakespeare's Genre-Defying Plays

When they were originally collected in what became known as the First Folio (published 1623 with pages approximately 13 inches by 8 inches), William Shakespeare's plays were divided into three categories: tragedies, histories, and comedies. Later scholars argued for a fourth category, romance, but those plays are usually considered a subset of comedy. Plays were assigned to these categories according to the following criteria:

Tragedies

The tragedies, which include such works as Macbeth (1606–07), Hamlet (1599–1601), Julius Caesar (1599–1600), Othello (1603–04), and King Lear (1605–06), have the following elements in common:

  • The main protagonist, though he or she may have admirable traits, has a critical flaw—unbridled ambition, uncontrollable jealousy, or excessive pride, for example.
  • The play must end in some horrible catastrophe involving, in Elizabethan practice, the death of the principal character.
  • The catastrophe must not be the result of an accident or fate. It must be brought about by the main character or by characters the protagonist has forced into impossible situations.
  • Despite their flaws or indefensible actions, the hero must have some trait or quality that outweighs their defects and interests the audience, so they care for the hero's fate more than for anything else in the play.

Histories

Plays based on actual history existed before Shakespeare's time, but they were considered a subset of tragedy. During the English Renaissance, they emerged as a separate genre. Shakespeare's plays targeted a particular place (England) and time period, so his histories share the following traits:

  • They retell real events in medieval English history. Eight plays cover the Wars of the Roses (1455–85), a battle for the throne between the House of Lancaster, whose badge was a red rose, and the House of York, whose badge was a white rose.
  • All are based on the lives of English kings.
  • All contain social and political commentary of some sort.
  • Most focus on claims of legitimacy to the throne, or to participation in government.

Other plays that might appear to be histories—Macbeth (1606–07), Julius Caesar (1599–1600), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07)—are generally grouped instead with the tragedies, since the emphasis is on the human stories rather than the political elements.

Comedies

Comedies include such light fare as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595–96) and The Taming of the Shrew (1590–94), as well as some of Shakespeare's darker and more disturbing plays, including The Tempest (c. 1611) and, surprisingly, The Merchant of Venice (1596–97). Comedies are not necessarily funny, although they usually contain comic elements. Despite vast differences in overall tone, the plays share the following characteristics:

  • events that lead toward marriage and an ostensibly "happy" ending
  • a focus on love and the obstacles to its fulfillment
  • comic misunderstandings
  • miscommunication between generations
  • mistaken identities and gender switches
  • humor through language: wordplay, clever metaphors, and insults

The three categories have always proven problematic for scholars because the genres overlap in so many of Shakespeare's plays. Tragedies such as Macbeth (1606–07) or Julius Caesar (1599–1600) have strong historical elements. Similarly, many of the histories play out like tragedies. Both tragedies and histories may contain scenes of pure comedy, while several so-called comedies have dark or tragic moments—or disturbing, unsatisfying conclusions—that take the audience on a much more serious journey than they may have anticipated. Comedies also sometimes function as satires intended to explore the human condition, bringing them even closer in tone to the more serious dramas.

The "Problem Comedies"

Many scholars believe at least three of Shakespeare's plays—Measure for Measure (1603–04), Troilus and Cressida (1601–02), and All's Well That Ends Well (1601–05)defy categorization. In fact, they are sometimes labeled the "problem plays," or "problem comedies." Each of them contains the elements of a Shakespearean comedy but none of the three have a straightforward tone, shifting from comedy to drama, and sometimes even to tragedy.

In the case of All's Well That Ends Well many readers and critics have had difficulty reconciling the more realistic and sometimes thorny story at the center of the play with the accepted elements of a Shakespearean comedy. Those elements, which include lovers overcoming obstacles on their way to a happy ending, are played out in ways that leave many audiences feeling uncomfortable and unfulfilled. The overall tone also meanders between light comedy and something much more dark and cynical.

For example, the play begins during a time of mourning with references to the deaths of two beloved patriarchs. The dialogue then shifts to focus on the fading health of the king of France. These details do not set the audience up for a lighthearted romp. More unsettling still are the "lovers" at the heart of the story. The heroine, Helen, has set her sights on Bertram, a young man whose flaws make it almost impossible for an audience to like him. He is callow, spoiled, and petulant—even his mother sees his shortcomings. Bertram also treats Helen, as well as other women, as objects for him to use as needed and dispose of when done. He is also more class-conscious than any of the other characters, disdaining Helen's love for him simply because she is from a lower social class than he. Helen, in turn, is presented as the bright and resourceful heroine, much admired by her elders, but her obsession with Bertram raises questions about her own sense of self-worth as well as her judgment. In addition, she achieves her goals using methods that raise uncomfortable ethical issues. She fools Bertram with "the bed trick," in which she takes the place of another woman Bertram has been trying to seduce. Helen has paid the young woman to help her, thereby drawing an innocent girl into her scheme and causing her name to be compromised.

Bertram is forced to admit what he has done and accepts Helen as his wife only when he no longer has a choice—circumstances that call the "happy ending" into question. Bertram subtly makes it clear he will accept the marriage and will love Helen only if Helen can prove she is indeed carrying his child. Even the king of France does not seem certain this is a happy ending, and his closing line, "All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet," contains more than a hint of skepticism.

Critics who defend All's Well That Ends Well as a comedy believe others are looking at the play's plotline and characters with modern eyes, without taking into account the context of the time or the conventions of early modern comedy. The "bed trick," for example, is a staple of folklore and Renaissance literature, and would have been seen by audiences at the time as a humorous strategy that not only showed determination and resourcefulness, but also offered proof of just how far one lover was willing to go to demonstrate their love for the other. As for the shallow actions of Bertram, it can be argued he is simply a young man who is not yet 20 and is, therefore, still immature and rebelling against being told what to do. As for his sexual adventures, they are, perhaps, not very different from those of most other young noblemen. Critics also point out, given the class distinctions of the time, Bertram was not entirely wrong to be unhappy at the match that was being forced upon him.

Finally, Shakespeare may also have been poking fun at the conventions of romantic comedy, fairy tales, and wish fulfillment with this play, turning those fantasies on their ear by introducing a strong dose of reality. Human relationships and love are complex; people behave badly to get what they want; and young people often take bad advice from friends rather than listening to the wisdom of their elders. With All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare may have been intending to show his audiences a fractured fairy tale that is a much more realistic depiction of human nature.
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