All's Well That Ends Well

Analysis and criticism

There is no evidence that All's Well That Ends 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 unorthodox 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] A 2018 interpretation from director Caroline Byrne at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, effects Bertram's reconciliation with Helena by having him make good his vow (Act 2 Scene 2) of only taking her as his wife when she bears his child; as well as Bertram's ring, Helena brings their infant child to their final confrontation before the king.[8]

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.[9] Some consider that Bertram is not meant to be contemptible, merely a callow youth learning valuable lessons about values.[10] Contemporary audiences would readily have recognised Bertram's enforced marriage as a metaphor for the new requirement (1606), directed at followers of the Catholic religion, to swear an Oath of Allegiance to Protestant King James, suggests academic Andrew Hadfield of the University of Sussex.[11]

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. Elijah Moshinsky in his acclaimed BBC version in 1981 had his Bertram (Ian Charleson) give Helena a tender kiss and speak wonderingly. Despite his outrageous actions, Bertram can come across as beguiling; 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.

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".[6] Modern productions are often promoted as vehicles for great mature actresses; examples in recent decades 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.[6][12][13] In the BBC Television Shakespeare production she was played by Celia Johnson, dressed and posed as Rembrandt's portrait of Margaretha de Geer.

It has recently been argued that Thomas Middleton collaborated with Shakespeare on the play.[2]


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