By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
All’s Well That Ends Well is, like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, about a young woman and a young man. Yet All’s Well is in many ways Helen’s story. Helen bears the name of the mythological, incredibly beautiful Helen of Troy, the object of all male desire, but the plot of All’s Well turns on the fact that its heroine is not desired by Bertram, the man whose love she yearns for. In the face of his lack of interest and the wide gap in social standing that separates them, she sets out to win him as a husband. Having technically won him, she finds little happiness in the victory. Before they are married, he ignores her; after they are married, he shuns, deserts, and attempts to betray her. She is the one who takes all the initiative in furthering their union. Such a task is a hard one in a culture that, like Shakespeare’s, consigned women to the passive role of yielding to male desire. Only by providing a spectacular, apparently miraculous, cure for the French king does she win the reward of choosing Bertram as a husband from among the young men whose fates are in the control of the King. Only through an arduous and lonely pilgrimage and a daring trick does she establish her marriage with Bertram.
In a comedy like All’s Well, which centers on courtship and marriage, Bertram’s part is largely an unsympathetic one, for, in fleeing Helen, he impedes the advancement of the plot. However, the play provides points of view from which Bertram may be perceived with some sympathy. As the play opens, Bertram’s father, like Helen’s, has just died. Yet Bertram does not, as we might expect in a comedy, come into his inheritance and assume the rights and responsibilities of an autonomous male. Instead, he becomes a ward to the French king, who severely restricts Bertram’s opportunities to find his own way in the world. When his young friends go off to war to seek fame, Bertram is obliged to maintain his attendance at the King’s court. When Helen cures the King, the King makes Bertram available to her quite against Bertram’s will. When Helen selects him, he is powerless to resist openly. To exert any control over the course of his life, he must flee the King and his native land and go to war in Italy, thereby incurring the displeasure not only of the King but also of his mother the Countess and the rest of the older generation, all of whom disapprove of his treatment of Helen and his flagrant disobedience of the King.
While Bertram finds fulfillment in his transgression, winning glory in battle and also finding sexual satisfaction, and while the play gives us reasons to understand his behavior, he continues to strike us more as an obstacle for Helen to overcome than as a sympathetic hero. The play tells Helen’s fairy-tale story of incredible challenges met and overcome—though few today see a fairy-tale ending at the conclusion of her journey.
After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to “All’s Well That Ends Well: A Modern Perspective,” by Professor David McCandless of Carleton College.