All's Well That Ends Well presents the customary material of Comedy—the triumph of love over obstacles—-in a grotesque and ambivalent light, and this has led most scholars to place it with Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida among the so-called Problem Plays. Like its fellows, All's Well centers on sex and social relations and offers no sure and convincing resolution at its concision, leading its audiences to recognize the inadequacy of humanity to live up to the grand ideals and happy endings of literary romance. Nevertheless, All's Well is humorous, and it does in the end offer the traditional comedic resolution, albeit in muted form.
Though love is the play's most prominent subject, there is a marked absence of the mutual joy of earlier Shakespearean lovers—as in, say. Much Ado About Nothing Helena is obsessed with a clearly inferior man whose response to her is wholly negative until his grudging and heavily qualified acceptance at the close and she wins him only through the rather sordid 'bed trick' The comments of the Lords, the Clown, and other characters deflate the main plot even further. However, although the play supports negative interpretations, it is clear that Shakespeare did not intend such views to predominate. They are effectively countered by the positive attitudes of the Countess, the King, and Lafew. The playwright is careful to build his lovers up and to minimize the vileness of the bed trick, and he provided the traditional reconciliation scene at the close of the play. Moreover, in Helena's persistent pursuit of Bertram despite his manifest unworthiness, some commentators have seen an allegory of Christian grace, though others disagree. In any case, many critics see an artistic failure in the playwright's attempt to force his naturalistic presentation of Bertram's snobbery and Helena's manipulation into the traditional mould of reconciliation comedy. That All's Well is weaker than many other Shakespearean dramas is widely conceded, but it remains of considerable interest precisely because of its conflict between naturalism and romantic fantasy. Though somewhat unsatisfying in its own terms, the play constitutes a step towards the Romances, where a different approach to the same conflict yields more successful results.
All's Well centere on Helena. Though she is sometimes seen by critics as a satirical portrait of a possessive woman, this view seems contrary to Shakespeare's intentions, for he presents her in the most flattering of lights. She is the subject of highly complimentary remarks by the Countess and Lafew at the play's outset, and the King also admires her, both before and after the success other medicine. In restoring a dying monarch to health, she resembles an heroine of age-old legends, and she takes on an appropriate aura of undoubted goodness. Later, the Widow and Diana welcome her into their lives enthusiastically, and upon her return to those who believe her dead, in 5.3, she is received with the awe due a goddess. Moreover, her immediate resolution of all problems seems to justify this reverence; she is a virtual deus ex machina.
The only cause for Bertram's rejection of Helena is her non-aristocratic status. In this respect she becomes an emblem of the play's point: true nobility resides in the spirit of an individual, not in his or her rank in the social hierarchy. This idea is expounded by the King when he chastises Bertram's snobbery, observing that 'From lowest place when virtuous things proceed, / The place is dignified by th' doer's deed' (2.3.125-126). Significantly, Helena's inferior social status was invented by Shakespeare for this purpose. In his source, both lovers were aristocrats of equal rank.
Given Helena's highly positive characteristics, the bed trick places her in less disrepute than it otherwise might. It may be seen as a symbol rather than a realistic manoeuver, a mere plot device that fulfils our expectation that Helena will get her man. In the source, the bed trick results in the presentation of twin sons to the unwary father, but the playwright purposefully muted this outcome to an almost unnoticeable implication that Helena is pregnant in 5.3.307. Moreover, the extreme artificiality of the device, combined with its familiarity to Shakespeare's audience as an element of traditional folklore, help to distance its squalor from Helena's nobility of spirit. Lastly, its importance is further minimized by the prominence given to the exposure of Parolles while it is taking place. Helena is established as an heroine in the first half of the play, and thereafter—when her actions might not seem heroic—she plays a relatively minor role, becoming a central figure again only in the play's last moments.
Bertram, too, is favorably presented in the first half of the play. The Countess and the King both praise him, the Duke of Florence grants him high command despite his youth, and the First and Second Lords, while deploring his morals, recognize his potential worth and hope that their exposure of Parolles will cause the young count to 'take a measure of his own judgments' (4.3.31-32). Though his faults are plainly evident, Shakespeare's unmistakable position is that Bertram has underlying merit. The possibility that the young man will mature and reform is present throughout the play, helping us to accept his folly.
The nearest character to a villain in All's Well is Parolles. He is a braggart and a coward, and the depths of his ignobility are exposed when he proves willing to betray his comrades to save his life. Parolles offers another example of the moral that nobility is a matter of spirit, not rank: although a gentleman, apparently on a par with Bertram, he is presented from the outset as an unworthy man. Much of the blame we might otherwise attach to Bertram is placed on Parolles, who encourages his young friend in his errors and who precedes him in suffering humiliation and downfall. However, Parolles' very villainy makes him an appropriate object of redemption, and his response to his humiliation is telling, for he is resilient; he accepts his own nature and vows to go on as best he can, espousing the highly sympathetic sentiment that 'There's place and means for every man alive' (4.3. 328). In this spirit, he falls within range of the play's reconciliation, finding a new career as jester to his old enemy, Lafew.
The basic developments of All's Well were provided by the play's source material, but Shakespeare inserted some significant details. Several new characters present distinctive slants on the action. As we have seen, Parolles deflects unfavorable attention from Bertram, while Lafew, the Countess, and the King (who appears in the source material but is much less prominent) are entirely wise and generous, in contrast to the more problematic major characters. They are elderly and are concerned with thoughts of death and fond recollections of their own youth, but, unlike the older characters in standard comedies of the day, they are not the opposition who must be defeated for love to triumph. Instead, they are benign figures who offer understanding and support for the lovers, thus establishing a context that muffles the unpleasant aspects of the story.
We have seen that Shakespeare intended his lovers to be well regarded, and the final reconciliation is in no way rendered impossible by the moral defects of the characters, as it seems to be in Troilus and Cressida. Helena is a paragon of virtue, despite the machinations to which she is driven, and Bertram, who is admittedly sinful, is also forgivable. Nevertheless, the ambiguous nature of the lovers' relations puts a strain on the play's conclusion, and Shakespeare tightens this strain to an almost unbearable pitch as he postpones Helena's reappearance. Bertram disgraces himself ever more fully with lies and evasions, and even Diana is duplicitous in not revealing Helena's presence. The emotional tension that this generates is made evident even as it is relaxed, when Lafew admits that his 'eyes smell onions' (5.3.314) and borrows Parolles* handkerchief. This moment also clinches Lafew's acceptance of Parolles, and thus the two most corrupt characters—Parolles and Bertram—are forgiven. The scene's complex emotional tone reflects the reality of its world: as in life, happiness m All's Well That Ends Well is unpredictable and emerges, if at all, only through 'The web of our life [which] is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together' (4.3.68-69). Yet in the play's final line, the King fully expresses the spirit of traditional comedic resolution: 'The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet' (5.3.328).
Nonetheless, though the play's title—a proverb used twice by Helena, in 4.4.35 and 5.1.25—refers plainly to the conventionally happy ending of romantic comedy, Helena's happiness is just as clearly precarious. When she finally asks for Bertram's acceptance, he replies only to the King and only conditionally, in 5.3.309-310. Fittingly, the King's remark in the play's next-to-last line—wittily playing on the title—is ambiguous: 'All yet seems well' (5.3.327) is as far as he can go. Bertram and Helena's marital bliss is doubtful.
The naturalism of the play—its well-drawn characters and credible social milieu—leads us to expect a more plausible denouement, and we emerge dissatisfied. The romance of an adventurous maiden who can cure kings is unsuccessfully integrated with the more realistic tale of sexual intrigue, and the two components of which the play is made—a psychologically real world versus a conventionally comic one—merge at the end only at a considerable cost in dramatic power.
The conclusion of All's Well unquestionably lessens its effectiveness, but if the play is considered in light of Shakespeare's development, its failings seem less significant and its ending less arbitrary. The problem plays are similar to the romances in a number of ways: both depend on unrealistic stories, and both emphasize the power of noble spirituality over circumstances. Particularly in their conclusions, both favor symbolism and ritual over psychological realism. However, in All's Well (as in Measure for Measure, especially), the latter element still has great power, and the balance between the two is uncomfortable, barring a firm sense that spiritual values have indeed triumphed, despite the play's assertion that they have. Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, like All's Well, have endings that tax belief and that depend on the evocation of supernatural powers while maintaining the underlying assumption that naturalistic causes have in fact been operating. However, whereas the contradictions of All's Well generate an atmosphere of conflict and stress, similar polarities in the later plays yield a pleasurable sense of life's many aspects. In All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare had not yet developed the capacity to sublimate reality without denying it, but his instincts were leading him in that direction.
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