Artuš Scheiner - All's Well That Ends Well

Illustration for All's Well That Ends Well. Painting by Artus Scheiner (1863-1938), before 1923. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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All's Well That Ends Well is a play by William Shakespeare. It is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605,[1] and was originally published in the First Folio in 1623.

Although the play was originally classified as one of Shakespeare's comedies, it is now considered by some critics to be one of his problem plays, so named because they cannot be neatly classified as tragedy or comedy.


  • King of France
  • Duke of Florence
  • Bertram, Count of Rousillon
  • Countess of Rousillon, Mother to Bertram
  • Lavatch, a Clown in her household
  • Helena, a Gentlewoman protected by the Countess000
  • Lafew, an old Lord
  • Parolles, a follower of Bertram
  • An Old Widow of Florence, surnamed Capilet
  • Diana, Daughter to the Widow
  • Steward to the Countess of Rousillon
  • Violenta and Mariana, Neighbours and Friends to the Widow
  • A Page
  • Soldiers, Servants, Gentlemen, and Courtiers


Helena, the orphan daughter of a famous physician, is the ward of the Countess of Rousillon, and hopelessly in love with the son of the Countess, Count Bertram, who has been sent to the court of the King of France. Despite her beauty and worth, Helena has no hope of attracting Bertram, since she is of low birth and he is a nobleman. However, when word comes that the King is ill, she goes to Paris and, using her father's arts, cures the fistula from which he suffers. In return, she is given the hand of any man in the realm; she chooses Bertram. Her new husband is appalled at the match, however, and shortly after their marriage flees France, accompanied only by a scoundrel named Parolles, to fight in the army of the Duke of Florence.

Helena is sent home to the Countess, and receives a letter from Bertram informing her that he will never be her true spouse unless she can get his family ring from his finger, and become pregnant with his child—neither of which, he declares, will ever come to pass. The wise Countess, who loves Helena and approves of the match, tries to comfort her, but the distraught young woman departs Rousillon, planning to make a religious pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, in Florence, Bertram has become a general in the Duke's army. Helena comes to the city, and discovers that her husband is trying to seduce Diana, the virginal daughter of a kindly widow. Diana wishes to stay a virgin, and so Helena helps her trick Bertram; he gives Diana his ring as a token of his love, and when he comes to her room at night, Helena is in the bed, and they make love without his realizing that it is Helena. At the same time, two lords in the army expose Parolles as a coward and a villain, and he falls out of Bertram's favor. Meanwhile, false messengers have come to the camp bearing word that Helena is dead, and with the war drawing to a close, Bertram decides to return to France. Unknown to him, Helena follows, accompanied by Diana and the Widow.

In Rousillon, everyone is mourning Helena as dead. The King is visiting, and consents to a marriage between Bertram and the daughter of an old, faithful lord, named Lafew. However, he notices a ring on Bertram's finger that formerly belonged to Helena—it was a gift from the King after she saved his life. (Helena gave the ring to Diana in Florence, and she in turn gave it to her would-be lover.) Bertram is at a loss to explain where it came from, but just then Diana and her mother appear to explain the trickery—followed by Helena, who informs her husband that both his conditions have been fulfilled. Bertram accepts Helena as his true wife, but in many productions he still seems unhappy.


The play is based on a tale (3.9) of Boccaccio's The Decameron. Shakespeare may have read an English translation of the tale in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure.[2]

The name of the play expresses the proverb All's well that ends well, which means that problems do not matter so long as the outcome is good.[3]

Performance historyEdit

There are no recorded performances before 1741, when All's Well That Ends well was played at Goodman's Fields, with further performances the following year, at Drury Lane.[4] Rehearsals at Drury Lane started in October 1741 but William Millward, playing the king, was taken ill, and the opening was delayed until the following 22 January. Peg Woffington, playing Helena, fainted on the first night and her part was read. Milward was taken ill again on 2 February and died on 6 February.[5] This, together with unsubstantiated tales of more illnesses befalling other actresses during the run, gave the play an "unlucky" reputation, similar to that attached to Macbeth, and this may have had curtailed the number of later revivals.[4][6]

Henry Woodward popularised the part of Parolles in the era of David Garrick. Sporadic performances followed in the ensuing decades, with an operatic version at Covent Garden in 1832.[7]

The play, with plot elements drawn from romance and the ribald tale depends on gender role conventions, both as expressed (Bertram) and challenged (Helena). With evolving conventions of gender roles, Victorian objections centred on the character of Helena, who was variously deemed predatory, immodest and both "really despicable" and a "doormat" by Ellen Terry, who also – and rather contradictorily – accused her of "hunt[ing] men down in the most undignified way". Terry's friend George Bernard Shaw greatly admired Helena's character, comparing her with the New Woman figures such as Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.[8] The editor of the Arden Shakespeare volume summed up 19th century repugnance: "everyone who reads this play is at first shocked and perplexed by the revolting idea that underlies the plot."[9]

In 1896 Frederick S. Boas coined the term "problem play" to include the unpopular work, grouping it with Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure.[10]

Critical commentEdit

There is no evidence that All's Well was popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime, and it has remained one of his lesser-known plays ever since, in part due to its odd mixture of fairy tale logic, gender role reversals and cynical realism. Helena's love for the seemingly unlovable Bertram is difficult to explain on the page, but in performance it can be made acceptable by casting an actor of obvious physical attraction or by playing him as a naive and innocent figure not yet ready for love although, as both Helena and the audience can see, capable of emotional growth.[11] This latter interpretation also assists at the point in the final scene in which Bertram suddenly switches from hatred to love in just one line. This is considered a particular problem for actors trained to admire psychological realism. However, some alternative readings emphasise the "if" in his equivocal promise: "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly." Here, there has been no change of heart at all.[8] Productions like the National Theatre's 2009 run, have Bertram make his promise seemingly normally, but then end the play hand-in-hand with Helena, staring out at the audience with a look of "aghast bewilderment" suggesting he only relented to save face in front of the King.[12]

Many critics consider that the truncated ending is a drawback, with Bertram's conversion so sudden. Various explanations have been given for this. There is (as always) possibly missing text. Some suggest that Bertram's conversion is meant to be sudden and magical in keeping with the 'clever wench performing tasks to win an unwilling higher born husband' theme of the play.[13] Some consider that Bertram is not meant to be contemptible, merely a callow youth learning valuable lessons about values.[14]

Many directors have taken the view that when Shakespeare wrote a comedy, he did intend there to be a happy ending, and accordingly that is the way the concluding scene should be staged. Jonathan Miller in his acclaimed BBC version in 1981 had his Bertram (Ian Charleson) give Helena a tender kiss and speak wonderingly.

It could be argued that the conditional phrasing of Betram's surrender is possibly a comic reference to the earlier seemingly impossible tasks that he set Helena. Now he is promising to love her 'ever, ever dearly' if she fulfils the much simpler one of explaining how all this came about.

Despite his outrageous actions, Bertram can come across as beguiling; sadly, the filming of the 1967 RSC performance with Ian Richardson as Bertram has been lost, but by various accounts (The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 2003 etc.) he managed to make Bertram sympathetic, even charming. Ian Charleson's Bertram was cold and egotistical but still attractive. Richard Monette's 1992 Bertram, David Snellgrove, was young and unformed.

One character that has been admired is that of the old Countess of Rousillon, which Shaw thought "the most beautiful old woman's part ever written".[8] Modern productions are often promoted as vehicles for great mature actresses; recent examples have starred Judi Dench and Peggy Ashcroft, who delivered a performance of "entranc[ing]...worldly wisdom and compassion" in Trevor Nunn's sympathetic, "Chekhovian" staging at Stratford in 1982.[8][15][16] In the BBC Television Shakespeare production she was played by Celia Johnson, dressed and posed as Rembrandt's portrait of Margaretha de Geer.

References Edit

  • Fraser, Russell (2003). All's Well That Ends Well. The New Cambridge Shakespeare (2 ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521535151. 
  • Lawrence, W. W., Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 1931
  • Price, Joseph G., The Unfortunate Comedy, 1968
  • Schoff, Francis G., "Claudio, Bertram, and a Note on Interpretation", Shakespeare Quarterly, 1959
  • Styan, J. G., Shakespeare in Performance series: All's Well That Ends Well, 1985


  1. Snyder, Susan (1993). "Introduction". The Oxford Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 20–24. ISBN 978-0-19-283604-5. 
  2. F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 29.
  3. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 3rd ed., 2002. Cited at
  4. 4.0 4.1 Genest, John (1832). Some account of the English stage: from the Restoration in 1660 to 1830. 3. Bath, England: Carrington. pp. 645–647. 
  5. Highfill, Philip (1984). A biographical dictionary of actors, actresses, musicians, dancers, managers and other stage personnel in London, 1660-1800. 10. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. p. 262. ISBN 9780809311309. 
  6. Fraser (2003: 15)
  7. William Linley's song "Was this fair face" was written for All's Well That Ends Well.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Dickson, Andrew (2008). "All's Well That Ends Well". The Rough Guide to Shakespeare. London: Penguin. pp. 3–11. ISBN 978-1-85828-443-9. 
  9. W. Osborne Brigstocke, ed. All's Well That Ends Well, "Introduction" p. xv.
  10. Neely, Carol Thomas (1983). "Power and Virginity in the Problem Comedies: All's Well That Ends Well". Broken nuptials in Shakespeare's plays. New Haven, CT: University of Yale Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-300-03341-0. 
  11. McCandless, David (1997). "All's Well That Ends Well". Gender and performance in Shakespeare's problem comedies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. pp. 57–59. ISBN 0-253-33306-7. 
  12. Billington, Michael (29 May 2009). "Theatre review: All's Well That Ends Well / Olivier, London". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  13. W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies 1931.
  14. J. G. Styan Shakespeare in Performance 1984; Francis G Schoff Claudio, Bertram and a Note on Inerpretation, 1959.
  15. Kellaway, Kate (14 December 2003). "Judi...and the beast". The Observer. Retrieved 5 July 2009. 
  16. Billington, Michael (2001). One Night Stands: a Critic's View of Modern British Theatre (2 ed.). London: Nick Hern Books. pp. 174–176. ISBN 1-85459-660-8. 

External links Edit

Play* Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well – searchable scene-indexed version of the play.

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