Hello Dear, here I present an overview of a wonderful play by William Shakespeare. 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 (Remember these 3 plays as Problem Plays). Like its fellows, All’s Well centres on sex and social relations and offers no sure and convincing resolution at its conclusion, leading its audiences to recognise 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 comédie resolution, albeit in muted form.
SOURCES OF THE PLAY
The main plot of All’s Well That Ends Well, the story of Bertram and Helena, comes from the Decameron (1353) of Giovanni BOCCACCIO, who apparently invented it. Shakespeare used the translation by William PAINTER of Boccaccio’s tale in The Palace of Pleasures (probably in the 3rd éd., 1575), supplemented by the French translation by Antoine LE MAÇON, which Painter also used. Lord Lafew, the Countess of Rossillion, and the sub-plot concerning Parolles were Shakespeare’s inventions, though the last may have been influenced by an episode in The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) by Thomas NASHE.
TEXT OF THE PLAY
All’s Well was probably written c. 1604. However, no mention of the play prior to its publication in 1623 has survived, and its date of composition has troubled scholars. In the 18th century it was believed to be the mysterious LOVE’S LABOUR’S WON, cited as Shakespearean by Francis MERES in 1598; it was accordingly presumed to have been written before that year. However, All’s Well’s obvious similarities to Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure were soon recognised, and Samuel Taylor COLERIDGE introduced another hypothesis: he held that an early version of the play was indeed Love’s Labour’s Won but that Shakespeare rewrote and retitled it between 1604 and 1606.
The play was first published in 1623, in the FIRST FOLIO. The Folio text is believed to have been printed from Shakespeare’s own manuscript, or FOUL PAPERS, for several reasons, most notably its vague and inconsistent speech headings and stage directions and the existence of VIOLENTA, a GHOST CHARACTER.
THEATRICAL HISTORY OF THE PLAY
No production of All’s Well is known before a single performance of 1740, although several references suggest that it had been performed in the early 17th century. The play was popular in the 1740s—Theophilus CIBBER was a popular Parolles, and Peg WOFFINGTON played Helena—but was revived only occasionally during the rest of the century.
Act I, Scene 1
The COUNTESS of ROSSILLION’S son BERTRAM is leaving for the court of the KING of FRANCE. The Countess and Lord LAFEW discuss the King’s poor health; she regrets that the father of her ward, HELENA, has died, because he was a great physician. The Countess bids Bertram farewell and departs, and Bertram, after a cursory farewell to Helena, leaves with Lafew. Helena soliloguises on her seemingly hopeless love for Bertram. Bertram’s friend PAROLLES arrives and engages Helena in an exchange of witticisms on virginity. Parolles leaves, and Helena decides that she must act if her love is to be rewarded. She sees an opportunity in the King’s illness.
Act 1, Scene 2
The King discusses the war between Florence and Siena, stating that he has decided to permit French noblemen to fight in the conflict if they wish. Bertram arrives and is welcomed warmly by the King. The King remarks on his ill health and regrets the death of the famed doctor who had served in the court at Rossillion.
Act 1, Scene 3
The Countess’jester, the CLOWN, requests permission to marry, making obscene jokes and singing songs. The STEWARD wishes to speak about Helena, and the Countess sends the Clown to get her. The Countess remarks on her fondness for Helena, and the Steward confides that he has overheard the young woman musing on her love for Bertram. As the Steward leaves, Helena arrives, and the Countess elicits from her a confession of her love for Bertram and of her intention to go to Paris. Helena asserts that she has secret prescriptions of her father’s that she is convinced will cure the King, and the Countess agrees to help her travel to Paris to try them.
Act 2, Scene 1
The King bids farewell to the First and Second Lords and other young noblemen leaving to fight in Italy. Bertram regrets that he is commanded to remain at court. Lafew appears and introduces Helena as a young woman who can cure the King’s illness. Helena convinces the King to try her médecine, offering to wager her life that it will work within 24 hours. In return, she asks the King to approve her marriage to the man of her choice.
Act 2, Scene 2
The Clown jests about life at the King’s court, and the Countess gives him a message to take to Helena.
Act 2, Scene 3
Lafew, interrupted repeatedly by Parolles, tells of the King’s return to health. The King arrives with Helena, who is to choose from among the young gentlemen of the court. She selects Bertram, but he refuses to marry her, saying that her social rank is too low. However, the King orders him to accept, and he acquiesces. Parolles puts on airs, and Lafew disdains him with elaborate insults. Lafew leaves, and Bertram reappears, declaring that he will run away to the wars in Italy before he will consummate his marriage to Helena. He plans to send Helena back to the Countess alone.
Act 2, Scene 4
Parolles conveys Bertram’s instructions to Helena.
Act 2, Scene 5
Lafew warns Bertram not to rely on Parolles. Helena tells Bertram she is ready to leave; he pointedly avoids a farewell kiss. She departs, and Bertram and Parolles leave for Italy.
Act 3, Scene 1
The DUKE of FLORENCE receives the First and Second Lords.
Act 3, Scene 2
The Countess reads Bertram’s letter declaring that he has run away from his new wife, as Helena appears with the First and Second Lords, who are on leave from Florence. She reads aloud a letter from Bertram: he will not acknowledge her as his wife until she wears his ring and bears his child, which, he insists, will never happen. In a soliloquy, Helena decides that she must leave France and become a wanderer so that her husband may live unhindered by an unwanted wife.
Act 3, Scene 3
The Duke of Florence makes Bertram his general of cavalry. Bertram rejoices to be engaged in war, not love.
Act 3, Scene 4
The Steward reads a letter from Helena stating that she has become a pilgrim. The dismayed Countess orders him to write Bertram, asking him to return, hoping that Helena will eventually come back as well.
Act 3, Scene 5
The WIDOW Capilet, a landlady of Florence, her daughter DIANA, and their neighbour MARIANA remark that the new French general, Bertram, has attempted to seduce Diana, sending Parolles as his intermediary. Helena appears, identifying herself as a French pilgrim, and she is told about the general, whom the ladies have heard has rejected his wife. Helena agrees to lodge with the Widow.
Act 3, Scene 6
The two Lords propose to prove to Bertram that Parolles is a coward. They will kidnap him and make him believe he has been captured by the enemy; they are sure that he will betray his comrades out of fear while Bertram overhears his interrogation. Parolles enters and brags that he will retrieve a captured regimental drum, a prized emblem. He leaves, and the First Lord follows to prepare the plan; Bertram invites the Second Lord to visit Diana with him.
Act 3, Scene 7
Helena has told the Widow that she is Bertram’s wife, and she proposes a plot: if Diana pretends to accept Bertram as a lover, Helena will substitute for the young woman in bed; Bertram will not recognise her in the dark. The Widow agrees.
Act 4, Scene 1
The First Lord instructs his men to pose as foreign mercenaries, pretending to speak in an exotic language to Parolles. The FIRST SOLDIER volunteers to act as their ‘interpreter’. Parolles appears, wondering what excuse he can offer for returning without the drum. He is captured and immediately promises, through the ‘interpreter’, to reveal military secrets if his life is spared.
Act 4, Scene 2
Bertram attempts to talk Diana into sleeping with him. She demands that he give her his ring, a family heirloom, and also asks him to promise not to speak to her when they meet later that night. He agrees.
Act 4, Scene 3
The First and Second Lords discuss Bertram’s disgrace for having left his wife, noting also that he has seduced a young woman by giving her his family ring. They have heard that his wife has died, and they regret that he is probably pleased by this. Bertram arrives, and the blindfolded Parolles is brought in to be ‘interrogated’. He reveals military secrets, disparaging both Bertram and the Lords as he does so. The blindfold is removed, and Parolles sees who has exposed him. The Lords, Bertram, and the Soldiers bid him a sardonic farewell and leave for France, the war being over. Alone, Parolles declares that having been proven a fool, he will simply have to become a professional FOOL, or jester.
Act 4, Scene 4
Helena intends to take the Widow and Diana to the King’s court at MARSEILLES, where she can get an escort to Rossillion and arrive ahead of Bertram.
Act 4, Scene 5
In Rossillion, Lafew, the Countess, and the Clown mourn Helena. Lafew proposes that Bertram marry his daughter, and the Countess agrees. Lafew has learned that the King will visit Rossillion shortly. The Clown reports Bertram’s approach.
Act 5, Scene 1
In Marseilles, Helena and her companions encounter a GENTLEMAN who informs them that the King has gone on to Rossillion.
Act ‘5, Scene 2
In Rossillion, Parolles, now in rags, is teased by the Clown. Lafew appears, and Parolles begs him for assistance. After chastising him for having earned his misfortune through knavery, Lafew promises him a position in his household.
Act 5, Scene 3
The King pardons Bertram for his part in Helena’s death and tells him of his prospective marriage to Lafew’s daughter. Bertram offers Lafew a ring to give his daughter. The King recognises it as the one he had given Helena, but Bertram claims that it came from an admirer in Florence. The unbelieving King orders him arrested. Diana arrives and asserts that Bertram cannot deny that he took her virginity. She produces his family ring and says that Parolles can testify to her relationship with him. Bertram insists that she seduced him and then demanded his ring; he equates the gift with payment to a prostitute. Parolles appears and states that Bertram’s infatuation with Diana extended to promising marriage. Helena appears and claims Bertram as her husband, reminding him that he had said he would accept her when she wore his ring and bore his child. She says these things are done and tells of her impersonation in Diana’s bed. The delighted King promises Diana a dowry if she wants to marry. He speaks an EPILOGUE to the audience, asking for applause.
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