All’s Well That Ends Well: Summary

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      All’s Well That Ends Well is a comedy by William Shakespeare, probably written or revised in 1602. Claims for an earlier date are based on the proposal that this is the Love's Labour’s Won, referred to by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia (1598). It was not published until the First Folio of 1623. The source is a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron, probably read in the English version in William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure.

       Helena, the orphaned daughter of a famous physician, is a ward of the Countess of Rousillon, whose son Bertram she loves. Bertram is summoned to the court of the incurably ill King of France. His companions are the cowardly braggart Parolles and the loyal old lord Lafeu. Helena follows, hoping to win favor by curing the King. She does so, and is rewarded by the invitation to choose a husband from among the courtiers. She chooses Bertram, whose objections to so mean a match are over ridden by the King. With the help of Parolles, he escapes to the Tuscan wars immediately after the marriage, leaving Helena wedded but unbedded.

      The deserted Helena returns to Rousillon, where she receives a cruel letter from Bertram, promising to accept her folly as his wife only if she can get from his finger a treasured ring and bear him a child. Disguised as a pilgrim, Helena traces Bertram to Florence, where he is courting Diana, a widow’s daughter. Helena persuades Diana to agree to go to bed with Bertram, asking for his ring as a token. Having ensured that Bertram believes her dead, Helena takes Diana’s place in Bertram’s bed under the deceptive cover of darkness. Obtaining his ring, she gives him another as a keepsake, and he returns to Rousillon.

      Believing, like Bertram, that Helena is dead, Lafeu arranges for him to marry his daughter; but the ring he gives her (Helena’s) is recognized by the King, who suspects Bertram of foul play and has him arrested. Diana, who has arrived at court to accuse Bertram of seducing her, is also imprisoned, and it is Diana’s mother who produces the necessary bail - a pregnant Helena, bearing Bertram’s ring. Confronted by the evidence o his wife’s persistence, Bertram accepts the permanence, of the marriage with good grace.

      All’s Well that Ends Well has never been a favorite among Shakespeare’s plays. Often grouped with Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, it shares with these other ‘problem plays’ an implied challenge to ideas of romantic love as a basis for marriage. Some of the plotting is perfunctory and the verse uneven, while neither Helena nor Bertram wins ready sympathy from an audience, particularly an audience that has lost confidence in the ‘change-of-heart’ convention. It is more fairly viewed as a satirical comedy than as a romantic comedy that has lost its way.

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