All’s Well That Ends Well was based on a story from the Decameron (a collection of tales written in the 14th Century) and is often described as a problem play. It appears to be a comedy – it contains humorous scenes such as the interrogation of Parolles, and love wins out in the end – but there are other aspects of the play which are unlike Shakespeare’s other comedies.
The story takes place in Rossilion, Paris, Florence and Marseilles.
The Main Players
Countess of Rossilion (or Rousillon)
Bertram – her son, the Count of Rossilion after his father’s death Helena – a gentlewoman of the household
Lavatch – the Countess’s clown
Parolles – a friend of Bertram’s
King of France
Lafew (or Lafeu) – a old Lord
First & Second Lord Dumaine – Lords in the King’s service
Diana – her daughter
The King of France is ill and no one can cure him. When his friend Count Rossilion dies, he commands Bertram, the Count’s son, to attend him at court.
Bertram takes leave of his mother and goes to the King in Paris.
As the King reminisces about Bertram’s father, he laments that the skilful physician, Gerard de Narbon, is also dead and cannot help him.
Helena, the physician’s daughter has been living under the care of the Countess Rossilion and secretly loves Bertram. When Bertram goes to Paris, Helena follows him and by using knowledge learnt from her father, she cures the King.
The King rewards her by allowing her to choose a husband from among the bachelors at his court and she chooses Bertram.
Bertram declares he cannot marry Helena because she is of an inferior class, but after threats from the King, he goes ahead with the marriage. Unwilling to consummate the marriage, he tells Helena to go to his mother under some pretence and he immediately runs away to the wars in Italy with his friend Parolles.
Bertram writes to Helena from Florence and says:
When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a “then” I write a “never.”
The Countess is furious with her son’s behaviour and blames Parolles’ influence. Helena goes on a pilgrimage to Florence and there she meets the Widow Capilet and her daughter Diana, who is being courted by Bertram. When Helena reveals her situation to the Capilet’s, they fall in with her plan and Bertram is told that Helena is dead. Under cover of darkness, Helena takes Diana’s place and goes to meet Bertram, who has promised to marry Diana. He gives Helena his ring, believing her to be Diana, and in return receives the ring that the King gave to Helena after she had cured him. Helena conceives a child that night and Bertram returns to his mother’s house unaware that he had shared his bed with his wife and not Diana.
The King is also at Rossilion and expresses his grief over Helena’s death. Bertram asks for his forgiveness saying that he did love Helena but when the King sees the ring he gave Helena, Bertram is suspected to have done her harm.
Diana arrives not long after which compounds affairs even more until Helena finally enters, tells Bertram that she has fulfilled both conditions he placed upon her and he declares that he will love her dearly, forever.
The king’s a beggar, now the play is done; All is well ended, if this suit be done…
We listened to the BBC Arkangel
audio as we read the play, spreading it over about 11 weeks. I read along with the Cambridge School
guide and Benj read it from this website
Bertram – initially I was a little sympathetic towards him as he was expected to marry someone he had no wish to. His attitude and behaviour quickly put an end to that. He was self-seeking and callous; immature and easily led. His change of heart towards the end of the play seems a little strange.
Helena – a mixed bag. I thought she was rather insipid at times but she did end up displaying some strength of character. Did she really love Bertram or was she just ambitious? Why would she want to marry a man who had been so indifferent to her?
Countess Rossilion – a just, sensible woman who, although she thought Parolles was a bad influence on her son, didn’t make excuses for Bertram’s bad behaviour.
Parolles – was the source of some light hearted moments in the play even though he was a rogue. He learnt some humility towards the end.
Lafew – the quick witted old Lord discerned Parolles’ true nature.
The King – benevolent and kind; his behaviour in the scenes towards the end of the play where the situation comes to a head is amusing.
Diana – both she & her mother were decent people and wanted to do what was right. She had a good head upon her shoulders and didn’t allow herself to be taken in by Bertram’s flattery.
Something that stood out to me was that apart from Bertram, all the people of rank and position in the play were honourable and well-intentioned. The Countess, for example, loved Helena and was happy for her to marry Bertram even though she was beneath him in rank.
This play is probably best left until highschool unless you use an abridged version such as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare. There are some interesting ideas & themes for discussion in this play regarding relationships and morals.