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All's Well That Ends Well | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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All's Well That Ends Well | Themes


True Nobility Is Found Within

The biggest barrier to marrying Helen, at least in Bertram's eyes, is she is from a lower class than he. For this reason he resents being forced to marry her and actually runs away to war before the marriage can be consummated. However, in direct contrast to Bertram's attitude, those who should be more conscious of status—the countess, Lafew, Bertram's late father, and even the king of France—are less concerned with it. As the king himself tells Bertram, "Good alone / Is good, without a name; vileness is so." The king of France's statement crystallizes the idea in the play goodness is its own proof. The older and wiser characters in the play admire Helen and feel she is more than worthy of marrying and being loved. Bertram, on the other hand, finds himself the subject of a great deal of criticism by others, and it is he who must prove his worth both to other characters and to the audience. Further, the characters who themselves are noble within tend to be able to recognize whether others possess noble qualities. In contrast, the less noble characters, such as Bertram and Parolles, tend to be unaware of the merits of others.

Determination is the Key to Success

Helen is faced with what appear to be overwhelming obstacles to becoming Bertram's wife. First, she feels "he is so above [her]" in social class for her to marry. Next, he is called away to the court of the ailing king of France. Helen overcomes both of these obstacles by following Bertram to Paris where she cures the king and is offered a title and her choice of husband as her reward, and she chooses Bertram. But then the next obstacle presents itself. Bertram runs away from their marriage before consummation, and he sets up two impossible challenges that must be met before he will acknowledge Helen as his wife. First, she must obtain his family ring, which he never takes off. Second, she must bear his child, though he refuses to lie with her. But Helen's determination is such that she finds a way to accomplish both objectives with the help of some willing accomplices. She never considers herself beaten and stays confident she is worthy of Bertram's affections. Her determination eventually gives her the man she has loved since childhood.

The End Justifies the Means

Both Helen and Bertram make some poor choices and devise questionable schemes to accomplish their goals. Neither feels compunction about his or her actions. Bertram wants to escape an arranged marriage, and he feels justified in achieving that goal by heading off to serve in the Tuscan wars and setting up two impossible challenges for Helen to meet before he will accept her as his wife. Helen, in turn, wants Bertram even though he has rejected her, and puts a somewhat unsavory scheme in place to make it happen. She employs the aid of a young woman to help her, compromising the girl's reputation in the process, and uses the infamous "bed trick" to sleep with Bertram and become pregnant by him. But by the end of the play, she and Bertram are indeed destined to become husband and wife, and it appears "[a]ll's well that ends well"—in other words, everything that has come before that moment is acceptable as long as the conclusion is satisfying.

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