All’s Well That Ends Well
Abbreviations: AWW = All’s Well That Ends Well. Ado = Much Ado About Nothing; Ant. = Antony and Cleopatra; MM = Measure for Measure; MND = A Midsummer Night’s Dream; MV = The Merchant of Venice; Oth. = Othello; TN = Twelfth Night; Tro. = Troilus and Cressida; WT = The Winter’s Tale
Adelman, Janet. “Marriage and the Maternal Body: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.” In Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest,” pp. 76–102, esp. pp. 79–86. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Adelman reads AWW as an analysis of “male flight from a woman who has become nearly indistinguishable from the mother and the desperate measures necessary to render her safe and pure.” The most desperate of those measures (and the one central to the problematic nature of sexual relations in the play) is the bed trick, which, Adelman maintains, serves to regulate Bertram’s illicit desire, legitimizing and relocating it in the socially acceptable bond of marriage. By presenting Bertram with “legitimate sexuality as a fait accompli,” the bed trick enables him to accept what he feared was impossible—the compatibility of marriage and male desire. The final scene “depend[s] on something akin to a theatrical exorcism, where sexual contamination is first attached to the supposedly violated virgin . . . and then banished as the virtual [wife] return[s] and the truth is revealed.” Having tried to separate himself from his mother at the beginning, Bertram comes full circle, finding himself restored to her through the extended maternal alliance linking the Countess with her surrogates (Helen, the Widow, and Diana).
Asp, Carolyn. “Subjectivity, Desire and Female Friendship in All’s Well That Ends Well.” Literature and Psychology 32.4 (1986): 48–63.
In this psychoanalytic study, Asp uses Lacan’s ideas of the Imaginary and the Symbolic and intra- and interpersonal development to chart Helen’s triumph over attitudes and theories of female deprivation and inferiority. Behind the masochistic femininity of the heroine’s initial attitude toward Bertram, Asp detects a psychological form of sadism—“anger or rage at having been denied subjectivity by him and a willingness to inflict pain.” Helen achieves independent womanhood by asserting desire in her choice of a husband, by refusing objectification, and by empowering herself through strong bonds of female friendship. AWW is unique in the Shakespeare canon because of its emphasis on the inadequacy of the male as subject and the challenge it poses to “both culture and theory which . . . subordinate the issue of woman-as-subject-of-desire to the question of male subjectivity and desire.” Asp concludes that patriarchal order is modified, however slightly, as a result of the redefinition of gender prerogatives precipitated by Helen’s single-minded action: “Fired by her desire, Helen refuses to submit to gender myths that link the female with loss unless that loss can be turned to gain.” The conditional “wellness” of the play’s ending reflects the fact that sexual relations will never be harmonious, “that psychic unity is tenuous at best.”
Bradbrook, M. C. “Shakespeare’s Hybrid: All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, pp. 84–98. Sussex: Harvester Press; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984. [Reprint of an essay that first appeared as “Virtue Is the True Nobility,” Review of English Studies 26 (1950): 289–301; reprinted in Shakespeare the Comedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth Muir, pp. 119–32. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965.]
Viewing the play within the context of Renaissance ideas of virtue, Bradbrook locates the governing theme of AWW in the question “Wherein lies true honour and nobility?” For Bertram, who represents false nobility, the answer lies in biological lineage and social rank; for Helen, an example of true nobility, in moral deeds and merit. Helen’s vindication redeems Bertram and demonstrates that moral virtue is the chief criterion for real nobility. The poetic center of the play is found in Helen’s confession speech to the Countess (1.3.201–27); its structural center lies in the King’s speech on Helen’s virtue (2.3.128–55). The play fails because the poetry of unrequited love does not suit a story structured around “the social problem of high birth versus native merit.” In trying to write a play in the morality tradition, with Helen and Parolles funtioning respectively as good and bad angels vying for Bertram’s soul, Shakespeare the poet was at odds with Shakespeare the dramatist. “AWW expresses in its title a hope that is not fulfilled; all did not end well.”
Brooke, Nicholas. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 73–84.
Unlike Leech and Rossiter (see below), who observe an unresolved tension between the play’s realistic and romantic modes, Brooke argues that Shakespeare achieves a “consistently naturalistic presentation of traditional romance magic.” In AWW’s terse, blunt, and unadorned language Brooke finds the perfect verbal complement to the reticence informing the entrapments and forced exposures that make up the dramatic action. Helen’s exchange with Parolles on virginity in 1.1 and her unwilling exposure before the Countess in 1.3, along with the later entrapments of Parolles, Bertram, and Diana, demonstrate how the “uniquely bare” language makes “any romantic valuation of experience . . . superfluous.” The interplay of romance conventions and a “severely naturalistic” treatment continues right up to the end when Helen’s “resurrection,” seen by the King and others as a “fairy tale miracle,” becomes for the all-knowing audience “the springing of the final trap.” For Brooke, the best moments of the play share a “striking bareness.”
Calderwood, J. L. “Styles of Knowing in All’s Well That Ends Well.” Modern Language Quarterly 25 (1964): 272–94.
Calderwood describes the central “problem” of AWW as one of “knowing, both in the intellectual and in the sexual sense.” Linked within the scope of this “knowing” motif are the play’s major characters: Helen comes to know the uses of virginity and the complexities of passion; Bertram must understand Helen’s virtues and Parolles’ faults if he is to achieve self-knowledge; and the King, in trusting to Helen’s proposed cure, must imitate “Him that all things knows,” rather than “us that square our guess by shows” (2.1.167–68). Calderwood claims that Shakespeare’s metaphoric fusion of the sexual act with the act of understanding allows us to see the two seemingly discrete fairy-tale episodes—the healing of the King and the bed trick—as more closely interrelated than previously thought. A focus on various styles of knowing results in a reading of AWW as “less the success story of an entirely virtuous maid bringing a recalcitrant young man to heel than the drama of two young persons, each with his share of virtues and faults, acquiring through trial and error the experience and moral insight needed for the revitalization of a moribund society.”
Friedman, Michael D. “ ‘Service is no heritage’: Bertram and the Ideology of Procreation.” Studies in Philology 92 (1995): 80–101.
Focusing on the final scene of AWW as a performed text, with special attention to the moment of Helen’s return, Friedman concentrates on the play’s underlying conflict between two warring ideologies of procreation, both of which are embodied in Bertram: the individualistic code of military service interested only in the gratification of the soldier’s sexual desire and the communal code of a civilian, patriarchal society concerned with the ethics of fatherhood and lineal heritage. Helen’s climactic “resurrection” seems to resolve the conflict between individual desires and social pressures, for, by way of the bed trick and her resulting pregnancy, the heroine demonstrates to Bertram that “a man may love like a soldier and a father at the same time.” The resolution is illusory, however, because the bed trick requires that Bertram’s reconciliation to the civilian social order depend on “the facilitation of military ‘service,’ with which the Court’s ideology of procreation is ultimately incompatible.” Friedman turns to productions by Samuel Phelps (Sadler’s Wells, 1852), Tyrone Guthrie (Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959), John Barton (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1967), Elijah Moshinsky (BBC TV, 1980), and Edward Gilbert (Huntington Theatre [Boston], 1989) to illustrate how performances gloss over the competing sexual ethics of the soldier and the father in order to achieve an imposed “resolution” of conflict. Performances have yet to provide a picture of Helen “as Bertram sees her [in the text], simultaneously his illicit lover and pregnant wife.”
Haley, David. Shakespeare’s Courtly Mirror: Reflexivity and Prudence in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1993.
Haley observes in the plays written between 1597 and 1604 a focus on aristocratic identity and an epic self-consciousness or reflexivity that is intrinsically connected with “the courtier’s obsession with praxis [action].” In AWW the exploration of courtly self-knowledge unfolds through a dialectic between courtly prudence and divine providence. What emerges from the debate as embodied in Bertram’s search for honor is an implicit critique of the “court’s secular humanism and its [public] mirror of honor,” for the courtier’s sense of self depends on the image he sees reflected back in the courtly mirror of prince and peers and thus implies that aristocratic self-knowledge is “perpetual agnosticism.” In addition to analysis of Bertram’s self-fashioning as a courtier and his final trial and exposure, the volume includes chapters on the melancholy nature of Helen’s love and the collapse of her “providential design,” the self-judgment and self-betrayal of Parolles, and the function of the Fool.
Hillman, Richard. William Shakespeare: The Problem Plays. New York: Twayne; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1993.
Hillman uses recent studies in intertextuality, characterization, and subject construction to argue that the “contingency of genre and character” shared by AWW, MM, and Tro. marks these “radically unstable” plays as belonging to a period of major social and cultural transition. The chapter on AWW notes how the play “wrenches” the two-world pattern (court vs. natural or green world) found in the earlier romantic comedies “askew” by having Helen leave a position of “quasi-pastoral isolation for a court world that is contiguous with the masculine sphere of ‘honor.’ ” Hillman approaches AWW’s fundamental split between romantic content and realistic style as part of a “metadramatic dynamism, at once the origin and object of play. The mixture of modes is a way of throwing control over the script up for grabs.” The chief metadramatic manipulator of AWW is Helen, whose ambition is to achieve power, to refashion her world and its inhabitants to her own design. “She is simultaneously absent and present, passive and active, already inscribed within her text yet rewriting it—and with it, inevitably, herself—from the outside.” To recognize that not only does Helen “never really want . . . Bertram any more than he wants her” but also she “never displays the slightest sign of caring whether or not he wants her” is to remove “the largest ‘problem’ in the way of reading the play in terms of romantic illusion and disillusion.”
Hodgdon, Barbara. “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes, and Doubled Presences in All’s Well That Ends Well.” Philological Quarterly 66 (1987): 47–71.
Asserting Helen’s centrality to the “internal as well as the critical drama” of AWW, Hodgdon examines the play’s erotic subtext primarily from Helen’s point of view. Her rereading of the play addresses Shakespeare’s transformation of Boccaccio’s tale (particularly the implications of the heroine’s name change from Giletta to Helen), the articulation of sexual signs in character and event, and the ways in which “substitute scenes and doubled presences function to sexualize [AWW’s] narrative structure.” Helen’s name, evoking both the mythic, adulterous Helen of Troy and the lonely, virginal Helena of MND, economically “encompasses her sexual awareness, her obsessive desire and her virginity.” The “resonant doublings” that Hodgdon observes include Helen/Diana, Helen/Fool, Helen/Maudlin, Helen’s doubled cures of the King and Bertram, the doubled rings, and Bertram’s double “winning” (5.3.357–59). Substitute scenes that articulate “the progress of offstage events” include 2.2—a narrative substitute for the King’s reawakened sexual powers in which the Fool doubles as Helen and the Countess as the King—and 4.3, a substitute for the unseen bed trick in which the exposed Parolles doubles as Bertram and the report of Helen’s death coincides with the moment of Bertram’s (unknowing) consummation of the “lawful act” of marriage. The final scene “recalls and reproduces the whole narrative, transforming each repeated event in a series of astonishing volte faces.” The tentative “wellness” of the ending, which acknowledges the problematic “ifs” of Helen, Bertram, and the King, “celebrates compromise, the text’s final real-izing of romance.”
Hunter, Robert Grams. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness, pp. 106–31. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.
Hunter draws on a medieval dramatic tradition that emphasizes God’s mercy toward sinful humanity to argue that AWW is best approached not as a romantic comedy but as a secular “comedy of forgiveness” informed by a Christian viewpoint. When Helen is seen as an agent of salvation and Bertram as a soul in need of reclaiming, the problems posed for critics by the play’s troublesome “happy ending” disappear. Both sexually attractive and spiritually admirable, Helen functions as the human instrument of divine grace. Her combination of sacred and profane elements—even her name carries religious (St. Helena) and mythic (Helen of Troy) connotations—enables her to renew the dying world of the court and to lead Bertram to self-knowledge. The ending is “happy” not because of the marriage but because of Bertram’s moral rebirth, achieved through the tenacity of Helen’s redemptive love. When one understands that charity, not poetic justice, is essential to a comedy of forgiveness and when one views Bertram’s conversion in light of the Renaissance belief in “the descent of grace upon a sinning human,” the pardoning of Bertram becomes not only acceptable but formally required.
Jardine, Lisa. “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare’s Learned Heroines: ‘These are old paradoxes.’ ” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 1–18.
Whereas Wheeler (below) deals with confused responses to Woman according to a psychoanalytic model and consequently sees them as internal to the individual subject, Jardine reads them as “culturally constructed and historically specific.” Focusing on MV and AWW, she probes the ambivalent treatment of the “woman’s place” in Renaissance intellectual life. Learned women like Portia (a student of the law) and Helen (a student of medicine) reveal two incompatible views of the educated woman’s expertise in traditionally male fields: one as essentially admirable and the other as “intrinsically indecorous.” In AWW Helen’s knowledge functions both as a symbol of female virtue and as a sign of unruly behavior (i.e., a disruptive threat to male autonomy). At the play’s conclusion, having atoned for her earlier “forwardness,” the actively knowing heroine becomes a “passively tolerant wife”—“a kind of wish-fulfillment solution” to the paradox of the learned lady as both civilizing and impudent.
Kastan, David Scott. “All’s Well That Ends Well and the Limits of Comedy.” ELH 52 (1985): 575–89.
Kastan examines the conclusion of AWW in light of comic theories and definitions that posit “happy endings” and the shaping of action to yield “comforting patterns of wish fulfillment.” In AWW the ending fails to satisfy because the characters are too manipulative and conniving. Bertram is “crushed” by a plot, the bed trick is especially unpleasant, and the “predatory” Helen fails to see that love is something that cannot be compelled or earned. The numerous conditionals and qualifications running through the final scene and epilogue underscore the tentative and fragile nature of AWW’s “happy ending.” Unlike the marriages that conclude TN—delightfully improbable unions manipulated by the playwright rather than by the dramatic agents themselves—the forced union of Bertram and Helen, achieved through a process humiliating to each, is a comic resolution that “does not release comic celebration.” AWW, Shakespeare’s “most insistent exploration” of comedy’s limits in gratifying “fictive aspirations,” makes us recognize “the inadequacy of a conception either of comedy or of ethical behavior that focuses exclusively on ends.”
Lawrence, W. W. Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies. New York: Macmillan, 1931.
In this seminal study of AWW, Lawrence argues that the play’s so-called problems disappear when it is examined against the conventions of medieval romance and folklore, especially the motifs of “the healing of the king” (associated with tales involving a “clever wench”) and “the fulfillment of the tasks” (associated with the “Virtue” stories showcasing the “faithful wife”). When viewed from this perspective, Helen’s status as a noble, virtuous heroine is unqualified; Bertram’s abrupt conversion becomes understandable; the unsavory aspects of Bertram, Parolles, and the Fool appear as requirements for dramatic contrast and motivation; and the ending becomes acceptable, for “no matter how harsh the treatment of the woman by the man, no matter how unsuited they may seem to each other, it is a convention of the Virtue Story that they ‘live happily ever after.’ ” Lawrence contends that Shakespeare was not at liberty to make radical changes in stories that had become familiar through a long and rich oral tradition. To read the play ironically is to forget its source and the social and dramatic conventions of Shakespeare’s time. The bed trick, for example, would not have bothered Elizabethan audiences, as it involved a wife lying with her husband. Moreover, they would have seen Helen’s fulfillment of Bertram’s condition as a clear demonstration that “virtue should stick at nothing in pursuing its course.” Lawrence concludes that with the triumph of virtue over baseness, the play was appropriately named: all does end well.
Leech, Clifford. “The Theme of Ambition in All’s Well That Ends Well.” ELH 21 (1954): 17–29.
Because Shakespeare fails to harmonize a folktale plot with realistic elements, the total effect of AWW is “blurred.” For Leech, the real-life atmosphere of the Countess’s household and the King’s court, the satiric treatment of the Florentine wars, and the “clumsy” ending make it “difficult to enter readily into the story of a half-magical cure or the story of apparent impossibilities brought to pass.” The chief problem, however, lies with Helen, whose “intolerable and insolent” capacity for manipulation and willful determnination to “lose” her virginity do not comport with the behavior of traditional heroines of romantic comedy and folktale. The bed trick, a device that can “hardly bring comfort,” reveals the extent to which ambition taints her love for Bertram. Only Parolles shows signs of real growth; his acknowledgment that “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live” (4.3.355–56) reveals “a certain humanity.” For Leech, the main problem of the play is aesthetic, namely, a “failure in imagination.”
Leggatt, Alexander. “All’s Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance.” Modern Language Quarterly 32 (1971): 21–41.
Leggatt describes AWW as “a play about testing, and a play which in itself is a test” between the worlds of romance and realism. The values of the former pass with receptive characters like the King, Lafew, and Helen; they fail with Bertram, Parolles, and the Fool. Each time romance seems to triumph (the curing of the King in Act 2 and the “miraculous” arrival of Helen in the final scene), reality intrudes in the person of Bertram (first in his rejection of Helen, thereby forcing her to abandon the idealism of romance for a pragmatic course of action, and later in his qualified acceptance of her). The tensions in AWW between the romantic and the realistic are never fully resolved, and its realities (fistulas, venereal disease, and bed-wetting) are more unpleasant than those found in the earlier comedies. Calling the play “an important dramatic experiment,” Leggatt praises Shakespeare for daring to bring “two kinds of dramatic convention together, not in harmony . . . but in a positive and deliberate conflict.”
McCandless, David. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Gender and Performance in Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies, pp. 37–78. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
In his study of the drama of sexual difference in AWW, MM, and Tro., McCandless practices “a new mode of performance criticism keyed to a feminist gestus” that is specifically designed to “illuminate the tensions and contradictions intrinsic to phallocentric gender ideology.” McCandless draws on AWW’s performance history and his own directorial vision to stage the erotic subdrama of the play’s folkloric and fairy-tale motifs, pushing an underlying oedipal plot closer to the surface “for the purposes of tracing [AWW’s] provocative interrogation of gender.” Deconstructing the folkloric device of the bed trick as both “an act of prostitution” (with Helen as object servicing Bertram’s lust) and “a kind of rape” (with Helen coercing Bertram into having sex with her against his will), McCandless argues for performing what in the text is unperformed: a staged bed trick “demystifies and substantiates a female sexuality that the play elsewhere mystifies and evades.” McCandless’s “gestic strategy” attempts to reconcile Helen’s “indomitable sexuality with her obsequious femininity,” her “masculine” boldness with her “feminine” subservience. Even her visible pregnancy in the final scene sustains her “doubleness,” since it speaks not only to Bertram’s potency and paternity but also to her own desire and pleasure, thereby “reaffirming the active sexuality transgressively alien to the oedipal plot.” Ultimately, both Helen and Bertram, “subjects-in-process,” remain mysteries to be solved, for both try to “ground themselves in genders that the play suggests are groundless—or at least unstable, fluid, performative.”
Mowat, Barbara A. “Shakespearean Tragicomedy.” In Renaissance Tragicomedy: Explorations in Genre and Politics, edited by Nancy Klein Maguire, pp. 80–96. New York: AMS Press, 1987.
Mowat considers the problem plays (AWW, MM, and Tro.) experiments in tragicomedy as defined by Guarini in his 1601 Compendio della poesia tragicomica: a story in which tragic and comic parts are mixed, with persons of high rank approaching death but ultimately avoiding it, and a miraculously achieved “happy ending” that purges melancholy. In AWW Shakespeare places the comic action in a world of funerals, a dying king, and somber parental figures to achieve Guarini’s essential requirement: the blending of “action, grave or comic, and speech ‘tending toward commiseration or toward laughter.’ ” Throughout the play, comic events and situations are either presented seriously (e.g., Helen’s disguise as a religious pilgrim) or tempered so as to modify the laughable (e.g., the morality-like quality of Bertram’s education in the Parolles subplot). In the opening scene, as lamentation gives way to the bawdy banter between Parolles and Helen on virginity, Shakespeare carefully orchestrates “the range of emotions to be explored in the play as a whole.” Despite the ill will and “gratuitous unpleasantness” of the final scene, the technical “happy ending” meets—at least for the characters in the play—Guarini’s requirements: “suspense, near-despair, and ‘a credible miracle’ which averts the expected catastrophe.”
Neely, Carol Thomas. “Power and Virginity in All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare’s Plays, pp. 58–104. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Neel’s feminist reinterpretations of Ado, AWW, Oth., Ant., and WT demonstrate how all five plays “embody the conflicts attendant on marriage by the incorporation of broken nuptials,” which the author defines as “anything that disrupts the process of wooing, betrothal, wedding, and marriage.” In AWW, broken nuptials in the form of delayed consummation, estrangement, and mock death express the individual anxieties, desires, and conflicts of Bertram and Helen as well as the social pressures placed on their union by parents, rulers, and the community at large. In the festive comedies the needs of the older generation are moderated to accommodate the individual wishes of the younger; in AWW, which “transforms the motifs” of the earlier comedies, youthful desire is “channeled to serve the social needs of both generations.” Helen’s pretended death while on a pilgrimage engenders Bertram’s repentance and the mending of their ruptured nuptial; it also confirms her virtue. That ultimate vindication, however, comes at a cost: her patriarchal confinement in the “restrictive stereotype of chaste, loving, obedient, long-suffering wife.” Neely maintains that the deliberate inconclusiveness of the final scene shows marriage “not as a happy ending but as an open-ended beginning . . . with the potential for resolution.”
Nevo, Ruth. “Motive and Meaning in All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Fanned and Winnowed Opinions: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton, pp. 26–51. London: Methuen, 1987. [Reprinted in Strands Afar Remote: Israeli Perspectives on Shakespeare, edited by Avraham Oz, pp. 113–37. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998.]
A Freudian analysis of the “psychic space of evocation and resonance” shared by both audiences and dramatic characters leads Nevo to conclude that AWW, contrary to being a “problem play,” is a “particularly interesting successor” to the festive comedies. Nevo attributes the “generic uneasiness” the play arouses in critics and audiences to their own “unaware masculine or feminine identifications[,] . . . defences and resistances.” What gives the play its unique “richness and density” is the “intermesh” of the desires, fantasies, and memories of both older and younger generations. Concentrating on the “chiastic” doubling of Bertram and Helen—the former fearing a forbidden mother in his love and the latter seeking a forbidden father in hers—Nevo reads AWW as “a mode where three dreams cross [without ever harmonizing]: the dream of the elders, reliving their lives through their children, the dream of the young man escaping parental domination, and the dream of the young woman desiring a child and a father.” Parolles is the “most brilliant dramatic invention” in the play. As Bertram’s alter ego, he enables the audience to see the “rake’s progress as an authentic reflection of masculine adolescence.”
Price, Joseph G. The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of “All’s Well That Ends Well” and Its Critics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.
In the first book devoted solely to AWW, Price provides an extensive critical and theatrical history of the play. The stage history addresses performances under the headings “Parolles and Farce (1741–1785),” “The Kemble Text: Sentiment and Decency (1794–1895),” “The Director and the Search for Unity (1916–1964),” and “All’s Well in America and in the Minor Theatres (1799–1964).” The critical history is divided into sections labeled “The Spirit of Fantasy: Farce and Romance (1655–1840),” “Psychological Realism: Analysis of Failure (1840–1940),” and “The Reappraisal: A Pattern of Unity (1940–1964).” The survey of scholarship and productions reveals six major approaches to the play, each narrowly focusing on a single aspect: farce, romantic fable, melodrama, realism, satire, and symbolism. Rather than looking at these often contradictory aspects in isolation, and refusing to impose a tidy coherence by eliminating several of them, Price defends the play as a “tightly knit” blend of “seemingly jarring worlds.” Through an elaborate system of parallels, parodies, anticipations, and commentaries, the theme of honor unfolds in symphonic variation. “If each of its elements is exploited rather than ignored,” AWW emerges as “a very human play.”
Rossiter, A. P. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, edited by Graham Storey, pp. 82–107. London: Longmans, Green, 1961.
Rossiter compares AWW with its source (William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, a translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron [Day 3, Story 9]) to focus his discussion of the play as a tragicomedy in which the Parolles subplot of “the seemer unmasked” casts a negative light on Bertram, a dupe and liar in his own right. Shakespeare’s additions (the Fool, Lafew, Parolles, and the Countess), alterations (the King, Bertram, and Helen), and conversion of the denouement into “a species of Trial-scene” that is “thoroughly uncomfortable” result in a work filled with ambiguity of tone, plot, and character. The strange dichotomy of fairy-tale expectations and human reality psychologically exposed creates “off-notes” or “discords” that make the “feel” of AWW “uneasy.” In a postscript Rossiter claims that analysis of Helen’s inconsistent character “only results in confusion.”
Snyder, Susan. “All’s Well That Ends Well and Shakespeare’s Helens: Text and Subtext, Subject and Object.” English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 66–77.
Snyder uses MND—the only other play in the canon with a woman (similarly named) who aggressively pursues a nonreciprocating beloved—as a subtext for filling in “the silences and suppressions” surrounding the speech and action of AWW’s Helen (e.g., her surprisingly sophisticated “mental image of court love life” at 1.1.172–83 and the mystery surrounding her journey to Florence). The Helena of MND and the Helen of AWW are linked by a name—Helen of Troy—“that ironically contradicts its prototype [as the ‘archetypal desired object’] and thus underlines their peculiar situation as subject . . . of active desire, rather than . . . as pursued object.” Although the later comedy can be read “safely” as depicting a providential force propelling the action, Snyder proposes a more subversive interpretation rooted in psychology rather than religion, one that assigns agency to Helen’s desire, not God’s. In contrast to MND, where bonds of female friendship are never fully recovered and “culturally constituted sexual identities” are ultimately reasserted in a fully orthodox patriarchal order, female solidarity increases in AWW and proves empowering as Helen and Diana manipulate the King and Bertram. The uncertainty of the “happy ending” is not surprising given the play’s enactment “by disjunction, indirection, and suppression” of the difficulties and conflicts “of imagining a woman as active, desiring subject.”
Snyder, Susan. “ ‘The King’s not here’: Displacement and Deferral in All’s Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 20–32.
Snyder considers the Marseilles scene (5.1), with its absent king and (in his place) a representative telling about his sudden departure, to be emblematic of AWW’s “persistent tendency . . . toward displacement and (more or less inadequate) substitution.” Her Lacanian interpretation of the play as an enactment of desire, “the fulfillment [of which] is forever beyond,” concentrates on the unseen bed episode (the play’s central substitution) and the many deferrals and displacements generated by the final scene (e.g., Helen is replaced by Maudlin, who is displaced by Diana, who herself was a surrogate). “Falsified by the absent term of Diana,” the bed trick involves both Helen and Bertram “in a kind of ‘reference back’ to the woman who isn’t there, highlighting the lack that propels desire.” Helen’s pregnancy, a departure from the source in which her counterpart arrives on the scene with twins, exemplifies the pattern of postponed fulfillment that is characteristic of the ending and the play as a whole. Snyder perceives a Lacanian connection between Helen and Bertram and the Poet and Young Man of the Sonnets: both Helen and the Poet get “at best . . . flawed, imperfect substitute[s] for the image[s] that drive . . . [them].”
Styan, J. B. All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare in Performance Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
This study of how AWW has been realized in production concentrates on twentieth-century performances spanning the years 1916 to 1981. Following an introductory overview of the play’s “perfunctory and fitful” performance history through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and first part of the twentieth century, Styan discusses realistic versus romantic stagings, the “spectrum of possibilities” available to actresses playing the role of Helen, the difficulties posed by Bertram’s character, the Parolles subplot, and such topics as male-female relations, class snobbery, and intergenerational tensions. The volume provides a scene-by-scene analysis of the play with extensive reference to specific performances for purposes of illustration. These productions include those of Tyrone Guthrie (Stratford, Ontario, 1953; Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959), Michael Benthall (Old Vic, 1953), John Houseman (Stratford, Connecticut, 1959), John Barton (Stratford-upon-Avon/Aldwych Theatre, London, 1967/68), Jonathan Miller (Greenwich Theatre, 1975), Elijah Moshinsky (BBC TV, 1980), and Trevor Nunn (Stratford-upon-Avon/Barbican Theatre, London, 1981/82).
Wheeler, Richard P. “Imperial Love and the Dark House: All’s Well That Ends Well.” In Shakespeare’s Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn, pp. 34–91. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Wheeler makes extensive use of Freudian and contemporary psychoanalysis in his study of the problem comedies and where they fit in Shakespeare’s development. The chapter on AWW examines the play in relation to the lovers and the festive endings of the earlier comedies, the “anguished adoration” of the Sonnets (Helen corresponding to the humiliated poet and Bertram to the insensitive young man), and the miraculous recoveries central to the late romances. Arguing that AWW “belongs to a phase of Shakespeare’s development when the forceful presence of a woman is often perceived, or misperceived, as a deep threat to a tragic hero’s manhood,” Wheeler locates Bertram’s rejection of Helen in a son’s oedipal desires and fears of female domination: “marriage to Helena means for Bertram accepting a sexual bond made repugnant by its incestuous associations and abandoning the possibility of achieving masculine identity independent of infantile conflict.” A focus on Bertram helps identify the play’s unresolved tensions between comic form and deep psychological conflict.