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All's Well That Ends Well /

A Modern Perspective: All’s Well That Ends Well

By David McCandless

On the simplest narrative level, All’s Well That Ends Well is a play about a formidably obsessed young woman pursuing a truculently resistant young man. Although the question driving the play seems to be “Can she win him?” we are as likely, given the hero’s defects, to inquire “Is he worth it?” or even “What’s wrong with her?” Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the play has for so long been considered a “problem comedy” (along with Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida). No other comedy of Shakespeare’s dramatizes such a startling romantic mismatch; no other comedy causes us to doubt the hero’s merits and question the heroine’s judgment quite so fretfully.

Even if, in the abstract, one can muster sympathy for a young man forced to marry against his will, the dramatic context all but precludes championing Bertram’s cause. Helen dominates the play’s early action, disarming the audience with heartfelt soliloquies, resourceful plotting, and a prodigious surmounting of obstacles: she risks death and performs a miracle to secure the power to choose Bertram as husband. By contrast, Bertram does not register sufficiently as a subject for us to take offense at his being treated as an object. In the play’s first scene, he itches to leave for Paris; in the second he curries favor with the King; and in the fourth he indulges in some petulant whining about having been excluded from the wars. Moreover, his strenuously contemptuous treatment of Helen (“A poor physician’s daughter my wife? Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!” [2.3.126–27]), combined with his headstrong defiance of the King, further inhibits sympathy. In addition, whereas Helen elicits nothing but praise and admiration from other characters, Bertram roundly provokes censure—even from his mother and his comrades-in-arms.

Helen, for her part, has exercised critics because of her confounding doubleness: she is at once studiously self-effacing and aggressively predatory. Traditional criticism has thus tended to portray her as either a long-suffering saint or a cunning vixen—either glossing over her audacious desire and celebrating her virtue, or reading her virtue as a mask for audacity and regretting or deploring her duplicity. Judgments of Helen—and of Bertram—perhaps follow inevitably from a focus on the play’s “problematic” form, its apparent puncturing of the comic happy ending.

I would like in this essay to focus not on the play’s “genre trouble,” however, but on its “gender trouble.”1 The story of Helen’s dogged pursuit of the disdainful Bertram is inextricably tied to the attempts of each to inhabit culturally imposed images of masculinity and femininity. Helen wants to become a woman by getting her man; Bertram wants to become a man by estranging himself from women, except insofar as they function as sexual objects. The inadequacy of these goals—as well as Helen’s and Bertram’s limited success in meeting them—discloses the inadequacy of gender as a marker of self and as a field for managing the complex interplay of power and desire. The powerful Helen proves ill-suited to the role of powerless object, while Bertram’s ascension to powerful subject seems merely to sanction his intrinsic boorishness and narcissism. The play’s exposure of the theatricality of gender makes its resolution—in which marriage seems to deliver our heroes to genders the play has already destabilized—even more problematic.

The performative base of Bertram’s masculinity is personified by his mentor, the swaggering impostor Parolles. Bertram’s identification with this cipher seems to validate Jacques Lacan’s assertion that “the statement ‘I am a man’ . . . at most can mean no more than ‘I’m like he whom I recognize to be a man.’ ”2 In positioning Parolles as mirror of masculinity, Bertram turns away from the image of his father, whom the King and Countess urge him to imitate. The King implicitly characterizes Parolles and Bertram’s father as rivals by recounting the Count’s disparagement of meretricious fashionmongers who beget nothing but clothes (“whose judgments are / Mere fathers of their garments” [1.2.68–69]). Later Lafew implies that Parolles was begot as clothes, that he was not born but made by a tailor (2.5.16–19). Parolles functions as a symptom of the “tailoredness” of gender, performing a masculinity that impeaches the cultural norm it cites—for if masculinity can be successfully simulated, how can one confidently distinguish between acting like a man and acting like a man? In aiming to authenticate the glamorous masculinity that Parolles so speciously projects—a cartoon of the cultural ideal—Bertram aims to inhabit a fiction.

Helen could be said to perform femininity as much as Parolles performs masculinity. Throughout her campaign to win Bertram, she effaces her potentially transgressive desire with compensatory displays of exemplary submissiveness, presenting herself as an unoffending good girl who wants nothing more than to please her man, gratifying the cultural ideal of feminine subservience. Helen’s much-discussed doubleness derives not so much from a cunning duplicity as from a kind of culturally induced schizophrenia, in which she must coexist with and strain to appease a second self aspiring to the feminine ideal, an ideal her own desire involuntarily sullies. Helen must therefore instantiate the image of innocent virgin that she herself constructs. She is, in a sense, her own Parolles.

The play’s opening scene amply establishes Helen’s doubleness; she proclaims her passion for Bertram even as she sadly disowns it, passively accepting an enforced chastity and the seemingly irrevocable loss of her beloved. In virtually no time, however, she boldly conceives a plan for winning Bertram. The unlikely agent of her conversion is Parolles, whose relentless testimonials to the naturalness of sex move her to ask, “How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?” (1.1.156–57). Appalled by this implied transgression of feminine passivity, Parolles reminds Helen that, as a woman, she must be the chosen rather than the chooser. “Off with ’t while ’tis vendible,” he scolds, “answer the time of request” (160–61), essentially urging her to surrender her virginity to the first fellow who asks for it. Helen answers decisively if obscurely:

Not my virginity, yet—

There shall your master have a thousand loves,

A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,

A phoenix, captain, and an enemy,

A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,

A counselor, a traitress, and a dear;

His humble ambition, proud humility,

His jarring concord, and his discord dulcet,

His faith, his sweet disaster, with a world

Of pretty, fond adoptious christendoms

That blinking Cupid gossips.


Modern editors have been inclined to assume a missing line between Helen’s terse defense of virginity (171) and her expansive list of lovers’ endearments (172–81). “There” is usually taken to mean “at the court,” and the speech is explained as Helen’s anxious contemplation of courtly rivals whose enchantments may well stir Bertram’s desire. But the speech can also be understood as a coded disclosure of Helen’s sexual passion. She will not part with her virginity “yet” because she is saving it for Bertram (Parolles’ “master”) and, in the act of giving it, she will release a powerfully creative force bestowing a “thousand loves” on him. The obscurity of her speech reflects the unspeakability of female desire within a patriarchal culture that has tended to silence it. Perhaps “at the court” has seemed the best candidate for Helen’s imagined “there” precisely because virginity—or rather the unpenetrated female territory it predicates—has been perceived not as a “there” but as a “nowhere,” a “nothing to be seen,” in Luce Irigaray’s memorable phrase.3

The speech hints at Helen’s problematic status as a desiring subject in a culture that relegates women to the role of desired object; yet it also affirms her urge to become a desired object. The “thousand loves” that Bertram will enjoy “there” may be seen as versions of Helen, newly fashioned in the multiple guises of the courtier’s beloved. Her desire expresses itself as the desire to be desired, the desire to fit herself to a conventionally decorative, self-diminishing “femininity.”

When choosing Bertram as husband, Helen explicitly constructs herself as normatively feminine, trading dominance for submission: “I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service ever whilst I live / Into your guiding power” (2.3.110–12). Later, having succeeded in marrying Bertram, Helen savors feminine passivity as the reward for her masculine activity, embracing wifely subjugation with a fervor that mortifies Bertram. “Come, come, no more of that,” he exclaims when she pronounces herself his “most obedient servant” (2.5.79, 78). Desiring a farewell kiss, Helen finds herself tongue-tied, once more disabled by the unspeakability of her desire. When Bertram finally demands, “What would you have?” she replies,

Something, and scarce so much; nothing, indeed.

I would not tell you what I would, my lord. Faith, yes:

Strangers and foes do sunder and not kiss.


Helen’s desire for a kiss is “something” that quickly becomes “nothing,” something she would not tell. Although she shifts back into affirming it (“yes”), she then pauses, searching for a language expressive of her desire. As though confirming the impossibility of finding it, she proceeds to describe the desired kiss as something strangers and foes do not exchange. Hesitant to appear unfemininely forward, Helen secretes her desire to a negative space—a move habitually required of female subjects in a culture that equates their sexuality with “lack” and converts their biological difference into a symbolic cultural negation.

Bertram clearly upholds the cultural equation of women with nullity. Indeed, he positions himself as the self-actualizing hero for whom women represent the treacherous sirens’ lure to feminized oblivion, transferring “lack” to men by afflicting them with an enslaving desire that arrests their pursuit of worldly power and sufficiency. Certainly Parolles figures women as dangerous emasculators, urging Bertram to “steal away” to the wars (2.1.34) and escape the unmanly bondage of marriage:

He wears his honor in a box unseen

That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,

Spending his manly marrow in her arms

Which should sustain the bound and high curvet

Of Mars’s fiery steed.


War, Parolles seems to say, offers a more manly sort of riding than marital sex. Whereas a man “sustains” masculine essence (“manly marrow”) atop a horse in war, he “spends” it embracing a “kicky-wicky” in marriage. In such a context, the “box unseen” that conceals masculine “honor” becomes virtually synonymous with the receptacle into which a man “spends” his essence, allowing Parolles to negate crudely the female space whose generative powers Helen had celebrated.

Bertram effectively imprisons Helen in the land of “not” when annulling his marriage to her: “I have wedded her, not bedded her,” he informs his mother, “and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” (3.2.20–22). He tries to “make the ‘not’ eternal” by imposing a seemingly impossible set of conditions for Helen’s becoming his wife: once she has secured his ancestral ring, he tells her, and shown him a child he has begotten, “then call me husband. But in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never’ ” (60–62)—a proclamation that does indeed afflict Helen with an “eternal” not.4

Helen accedes all too readily to Bertram s negation, not only renouncing her desire but undertaking a pilgrimage for the sake of expiating it. She effectively colludes in her own erasure, refashioning herself as a guilt-ridden bad girl bent on disowning her “ambitious love” (3.4.5), an alteration which so enhances her status as good girl that the Countess is moved to compare her to the Virgin Mary (27–31). Helen seems intent on melding permanently with the self-nullifying “femininity” she has hitherto only fitfully performed.

Similarly, at the same point in the play, Bertram seems fixed on instantiating the image of fabulous warrior that Parolles has heretofore only projected. Bertram flourishes in the Florentine wars, garnering the military glory he coveted by ascending to the position of “general of our horse,” dedicating himself to the war-god Mars (“Make me but like my thoughts, and I shall prove / A lover of thy drum, hater of love” [3.3.13–14]). He appears to actualize what Parolles can only simulate, enacting masculine potency more plausibly than the beribboned impostor could ever hope to.

But to the extent that cultural icons (“good girl,” “fabulous warrior”) can never be fully inhabited or authenticated, Bertram and Helen are also impostors: trading the complexity of self-formation for the simplicity of performance, extinguishing those aspects of themselves at odds with received myths of masculine power and feminine lack, becoming not so much icons as reductive caricatures—the chest-thumping warrior and the sexless madonna.

That Helen is only posing seems evident from the speed with which she ends the pilgrimage when opportunity affords her a second chance to win Bertram. In one sense, she trades the role of madonna for that of whore, anonymously supplying a body compliant with Bertram’s ecstatically impersonal love-making, desperately aiming to meld with the image of desirability that Bertram projects to (the absent) Diana. Yet the bed trick releases and affirms Helen’s sexuality as much as it conceals and degrades it. Though, from one angle, she functions as a disposable receptacle—a “box unseen”—for Bertram’s essentially autoerotic exercise, from another she functions as a dominant sexual agent, transforming him through trickery into a body compliant with her own desire.

One key indicator of Helen’s dominance is the time frame she imposes on Bertram: “When you have conquered my yet maiden bed,” Diana says on Helen’s behalf, “Remain there but an hour, nor speak to me” (4.2.69–70). Helen phrases this command as a restriction, as though prohibiting Bertram from staying all night (an intention we might hesitate to ascribe to him), ostensibly because the morning light would discover her imposture. Still, if avoiding detection were her sole concern, she would presumably ask him to depart as soon as he had “conquered [her] bed” rather than an hour later. The same holds true if she were concerned only to satisfy Bertram’s impossible conditions by having sex with him. So what is the point of this postcoital hour, of these lines that have absolutely no bearing on the plot?

The best answer is that they draw attention to Helen’s control of the event. Regardless of what happens in that hour, it is Helen’s time, in a way that the minutes devoted to the initial sex are not (as the image of having been “conquered” implies). “Helen’s time” is irreducible to the temporal order of the play itself or to any order derived from logic or efficacy. It highlights a sexual agency that Helen has otherwise taken great pains to suppress.

Helen’s creation of her time may express a desire for “something more,” for satisfaction on her terms, for more sustained intimacy. In arranging the tryst with Diana, Bertram wishes for nothing beyond the performance of sex, a “trick” in another sense of the word. Helen not only offers him a different kind of trick but attempts to elicit a different kind of performance, one that transcends a merely performative sexuality. Helen’s time confirms not only her sexual subjectivity but also her need to tame the beast, to transform a one-night stand into a foretaste of conjugal love.

In the aftermath of the bed trick, however, Helen seems rather to confirm Bertram’s beastliness, marking him as “other,” a creature from whom she is estranged:

                             O, strange men,

That can such sweet use make of what they hate

When saucy trusting of the cozened thoughts

Defiles the pitchy night! So lust doth play

With what it loathes for that which is away.


Still, by situating herself as object of conquest, Helen fulfills the conditions that enable her to conquer Bertram. By gratifying his fantasy, she aims to defeat it and decisively assimilate him to hers, trying once more to transform him from Beast to Prince Charming.

Bertram’s humiliating exposure in the play’s final scene is forecast by the parallel shaming of his discarded double, Parolles. The drum trick that ensnares Parolles, like the bed trick that entraps Bertram, depends on the victim’s inability to communicate (Parolles cannot comprehend his comrades’ gibberish, Bertram cannot speak), his intention to transgress (Parolles means to commit treason, Bertram adultery), his capacity for mistaking the familiar for the strange (Parolles takes his friends for his enemies, Bertram his wife for his lover), and his susceptibility to primitive drives (Parolles succumbs to fear, Bertram to lust). When put on trial, both Parolles and Bertram lies profusely in an effort to save themselves but are ultimately exposed as contemptible frauds. But whereas Parolles flexibly exchanges the role of military hero for that of fool, Bertram does not so readily reinvent himself as Prince Charming.

In the final scene Helen, though presumed dead, nevertheless continues to manifest her sexuality covertly, through surrogates and symbols. She embodies herself—and her desire—in two rings that, once introduced, decisively spoil Bertram’s attempt to play the Prodigal Son. In a sense, both function as wedding rings. The first, which Helen places on Bertram’s finger during the bed trick, signifies the consummation of her marriage, and the second, which Bertram surrenders to Diana in exchange for (he thinks) her sexual favors, betokens the fulfilled conditions that allow Helen to claim him as husband.

As tokens of Helen’s persistently mystified sexuality, the rings have the effect of mystifying the play’s characters—and spectators. In performance, one struggles mightily to differentiate the two or to discern their respective routes to Rossillion. The rings are too slippery, too indeterminate in origin and unstable in meaning to qualify as reliable agents of representation. The King may go so far as to suggest that Helen’s ring possesses alchemical properties, multiplying owners as Plutus’s “med’cine” multiplies gold (5.3.118–21).

Diana’s evasions and equivocations concerning the rings further destabilize meaning, transporting the King to the realm of “not”: “It was not given me, nor I did not buy it. . . . It was not lent me neither. . . . I found it not. . . . I never gave it him” (5.3.307–14). Diana diverts the King from investigating Bertram’s guilt to unraveling a riddle. In trying to explain her denial of that guilt, Diana makes the riddle explicit, evoking the hidden secrets of the bed trick:

 . . . he’s guilty and he is not guilty.

He knows I am no maid, and hell swear to ’t.

I’ll swear I am a maid, and he knows not. . . .

He knows himself my bed he hath defiled,

And at that time he got his wife with child.

Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick.

So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick.

And now behold the meaning.

(5.3.329–31, 341–45)

Diana’s coupling of opposites deranges the binary logic on which language—and representation—depends. Her words posit an impossible two-in-oneness, a meaning capable of uniting antonyms, of reconciling positive to negative. This assertion of doubleness proves an “abuse” to the King’s ears until Helen steps forward and offers herself as the answer to the riddle, the “one” who dissolves all contradiction.

Yet Helen continues to be impenetrably double, calling herself, essentially, a wife and no-wife (“the shadow of a wife . . . / The name and not the thing” [5.3.350–51, emphasis mine]), thereby perpetuating rather than dissolving contradiction. Bertram affirms that she is both “name” and “thing” and begs her pardon, as though ready to accept her as wife and end her riddling self-division. But he follows his seemingly unequivocal affirmation with a more conditional one: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (360–61). Characteristically, Helen affirms her claim to have met his conditions in negative terms: “If it appear not plain and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you” (362–63)—once more raising the specter of a permanent not, the “never” of Bertram’s original formulation. If Helen does indeed succeed in securing Bertram as husband, the marriage she makes can represent, at best, a double negative: she successfully negates Bertram’s negation of her wedding. She proves herself not a not-wife. Whether she can truly achieve the status of wife remains provocatively questionable.

Equally questionable is precisely what it would mean to achieve it. What does “the thing” signify? The suspicion that “wife” connotes “safely nullified female” haunts the play’s final scene. Given Helen’s previous displays of obsequiousness, given the wife’s submissive status in marriages of Shakespeare’s time, one may plausibly conclude that becoming “the thing” of wife requires Helen to erase permanently those aspects of herself at odds with exemplary femininity, to end doubleness at the expense of self-negation. From this perspective, Helen’s dominance of Bertram ultimately enables her to submit to him in marriage. She wins him only by putting him temporarily in her thrall so that she can put herself permanently in his. She resolves her doubleness by becoming “the one” she thinks he desires. The fulfillment of Helen’s quest for womanhood depends on her helping Bertram to fulfill his quest for manhood, positioning herself as the woman awaiting him at the end of his heroic journey.

In order to do this, she must refigure him as a hero, as Prince Charming, as one with whom to live happily ever after. Thus, she revises her reading of the bed trick, no longer affirming Bertram’s difference (“O, strange men”) but his likeness, his “kindness” (“O, my good lord, when I was like this maid, / I found you wondrous kind” [5.3.353–54])—a word that connotes kindredness as well as gentleness or generosity. Helen needs to claim Bertram as one of her own kind, to create him in her own image—the same image she has sought to impose from the start despite his obstinate assertions of “strangeness.” She succeeds only to the extent that she elicits an apology and a capitulation that approximate and promote the kindredness she covets. The play, however, offers no assurances that Bertram has truly accepted his transformation from Beast to Prince Charming or that he can ever hope to match Helen’s idealized vision of him.

Critics have long lamented the paltriness of Bertram’s conversion speech, but the problems with the play’s final scene run much deeper. Because Bertram has twice before falsely professed admiration for Helen (2.3.180–85, 5.3.52–63), no words of his, no matter how eloquently or torrentially penitential, could ever confirm his sincerity. Nor, for that matter, could his actions. Even the most extravagantly self-abasing gestures may be symptoms simply of feverish gratitude rather than of genuine conversion (after all, Helen has saved Bertram, a murder suspect, from possible execution). Helen may be able to work up feelings in Bertram that simulate and even enable love but do not actually generate it. And, of course, Bertram may simply cunningly simulate a penitential swoon. In either case, Helen manipulates Bertram into affecting a kindness that he may quickly discontinue after assuming his male prerogatives in marriage. It may be that for the second time in the play, Helen’s goal eludes her even as she appears to achieve it.

Moreover, Helen’s attempt to embrace normative femininity is scuttled not simply by Bertram’s uncertain response but by her own unfeminine excess, her embodiment of a doubleness that resists reduction to a legible unity. On the one hand, Helen’s pregnant body assimilates her sexuality to a reassuringly feminine, maternal image that evidences Bertram’s potency and paternity.5 On the other, it manifests her sexual power, serving as the text of Bertram’s fulfilled conditions and thus as a spur to his capitulation. Moreover, because the astonished Bertram cannot yet “read” this text and comprehend his role as the author of Helen’s physical transformation, her pregnant body also textualizes a mystery that further estranges her from the status of easily colonized feminine object.

Helen’s pregnancy transforms her body into “something more,” tangibly registering the secrets of the bed trick which, in turn, reflect the mystery of desire itself. Helen brings Bertram, however obscurely, new knowledge of herself, offering allusions to their time in bed and visible proof of their mutual gratification—allusions both tantalizing and confounding.6 Her body claims knowledge of Bertram and attributes to him a knowledge of her that contradicts and challenges his lack of knowledge, sparking a desire to know more. When Bertram declares, “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,” the “this” he wishes to know surely encompasses a good deal more than the details of Helen’s fulfillment of his conditions: it must include the mystery of female difference, which transcends the reductive masculinist categories—madonna, whore, siren—to which he had previously consigned it.

The woman who awaits Bertram at his heroic journey’s end turns out to be the one he abandoned along the way, the one he first mistook as an emasculating siren and then misused as a disposable plaything. The invisible object of the bed trick becomes formidably subjective and visible, returning in the person of a would-be wife, a once and future lover, who claims him as if she were an avenging spirit. To desire to know more of her is to desire her, to desire Helen as a riddle worth solving. The “this” that Bertram wishes to know becomes homologous with Helen’s “there,” suggesting that the performance of sex has solved his problem with sexuality. Yet this solution and the desire for knowledge that it predicates are simply intriguing possibilities. As the play ends, Helen remains elsewhere, suspended between known and not known.

The play’s refusal to dissipate its tensions or confirm its tentative resolutions leaves its drama of sexual difference suspended, arrested in an unresolved but provocative and even poignant tension. Helen remains a mystery to be solved by the reader and spectator as well. So too does Bertram. Both characters aim to ground themselves in genders that the play suggests are groundless—or at least unstable, fluid, performative. Neither manages to forge a stable identity or secure a clear destiny.

The play itself also remains a riddle to be solved. It interrogates the happy ending it provisionally enacts by refusing to exorcise the doubts that have clouded Helen’s pursuit of Bertram from the outset. It seems almost deliberately designed to force the audience to confront the implications of its need for a comic love story in which imperiled protagonists happily transcend all conceivable obstacles and vexations. Even as Helen finally secures Bertram as husband, the play stokes doubts about the sincerity of his conversion and the seemliness of their union. Does their reconciliation evidence the flourishing of mutual love or the wedding of delusion and opportunism?

In the play’s epilogue, the actor/King declares, “The King’s a beggar, now the play is done. / All is well ended if this suit be won, / That you express content” (Epi. 1–3). The play ends well if we say it does. And indeed, given its depiction of experiences not amenable to romantic idealization, we may wish to conclude that All’s Well That Ends Well ends as well as it can.

  1. Gender Trouble also happens to be the title of a very influential book by Judith Butler on the performativity of gender (New York: Routledge, 1990).
  2. Jacques Lacan, “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 23.
  3. Luce Irigaray, “The Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,” in Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 50.
  4. I am indebted to Ralph Alan Cohen for pointing out the pervasiveness of the negative in the language of All’s Well in “The (K)notty of Discourse of All’s Well That Ends Well,” a paper presented in the seminar chaired by Susan Snyder at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Atlanta in April 1993.
  5. Given that one crucial condition of Bertram’s accepting the marriage was that Helen show him a baby (3.2.59–60), it seems unlikely that she would claim to have fulfilled his demands without at least being visibly pregnant.
  6. I use the phrase “mutual gratification” because of the belief circulating in Shakespeare’s day that a woman could conceive only if she experienced an orgasm. See Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 1–9.