All's Well That Ends Well

Performance history

No records of the early performances of All's Well That Ends Well have been found. In 1741 the work was played at Goodman's Fields, with a later transfer to Drury Lane.[14] Rehearsals at Drury Lane started in October 1741 but William Milward (1702–1742), playing the king, was taken ill, and the opening was delayed until the following 22 January. Peg Woffington, playing Helena, fainted on the first night and her part was read. Milward was taken ill again on 2 February and died on 6 February.[15] This, together with unsubstantiated tales of more illnesses befalling other actresses during the run, gave the play an "unlucky" reputation, similar to that attached to Macbeth, and this may have curtailed the number of subsequent revivals.[14][16]

Henry Woodward (1714–1777) popularised the part of Parolles in the era of David Garrick.[17] Sporadic performances followed in the ensuing decades, with an operatic version at Covent Garden in 1832.[18]

The play, with plot elements drawn from romance and the ribald tale, depends on gender role conventions, both as expressed (Bertram) and challenged (Helena). With evolving conventions of gender roles, Victorian objections centred on the character of Helena, who was variously deemed predatory, immodest and both "really despicable" and a "doormat" by Ellen Terry, who also – and rather contradictorily – accused her of "hunt[ing] men down in the most undignified way".[19] Terry's friend George Bernard Shaw greatly admired Helena's character, comparing her with the New Woman figures such as Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.[6] The editor of the Arden Shakespeare volume summed up 19th century repugnance: "everyone who reads this play is at first shocked and perplexed by the revolting idea that underlies the plot."[20]

In 1896 Frederick S. Boas coined the term "problem play" to include the unpopular work, grouping it with Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure.[21]


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