Review 1404: All’s Well That Ends Well

Although All’s Well That Ends Well is grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, the introduction to my edition says that, like Measure for Measure, it is a problem play. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but Wikipedia says it applies to ambiguity and a shift in tone between darkness and light.

The actions in this play by Count Bertram bear many resemblances to those of Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southhampton, who was made to marry a girl he didn’t want. Helena, the ward of the Countess of Rousillon, is the daughter of a physician and so is inferior in position—or at least he thinks so—to Count Bertram, the Countess’s son. Yet, she is in love with him.

When the Count goes to the court of France, Helena follows. The King is deathly ill, and she offers him a cure of her father’s. He agrees, if it works, to marry her to the single lord of her choosing.

Of course, the cure works, and she chooses Count Bertram. Forced to marry her, the young man leaves for war in Italy vowing never to consummate the marriage.

Frankly, this later play is not one of Shakespeare’s best. Its main theme is the disagreement between young and old, as everyone in the play who is older thinks Bertram is an idiot to reject such a virtuous, lovely bride, and also the part that status plays in marriage as opposed to character. The play has no rolling speeches, however, and pretty much just gets down to doing its job.

From the modern viewpoint, it’s fairly easy to see why this play isn’t presented as often as others. I read it before I went to see it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Mainly, Count Bertram is pretty despicable despite his change of heart at the end. First, he rejects Helena just because of her social status, even though she is beloved by his mother and the King. Later, he attempts to seduce a virtuous Italian girl of good family, Diana, even promising to marry her despite being already married. When she pursues him to France, he lies about her, saying she is a camp bawd. What a great guy. Obviously, all would be well if Helena didn’t end up with him at the end, at least for Helena. But that’s the 21st century view.

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3 thoughts on “Review 1404: All’s Well That Ends Well

  1. Jane October 11, 2019 / 11:46 am

    I’ve realised I don’t know anything about this play at all, even the names don’t sound familiar!

    • whatmeread October 11, 2019 / 12:00 pm

      Yeah, despite having taken two Shakespeare classes in school, I never read it.

      • Jane October 11, 2019 / 12:19 pm


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