William Shakespeare's Works/Comedies/All's Well That Ends Well/Plot Summary
Introductory Note: This play is unlike Shakespeare's other romance comedies in that it focuses on a female character aggressively pursuing a male character rather than a male pursuing a female. The female character, an appealing young woman named Helena, traps the male character, Bertram, into marriage. He is an immature young man who despises her because of her inferior social standing. After he abandons her on their wedding night, she continues to pursue him and eventually wins him back in a scheme of deception.
The Countess of Rousillon [Shakespeare spells Roussillon with one "s" but the modern spelling has two] has taken in an appealing young woman named Helena after the death of her father, Gerad de Narbon, a highly respected physician. While in the household, Helena falls in love with the countess's son, Bertram, but keeps her feelings to herself. Bertram pays her no heed and does not hesitate to go off to serve in the court of the King of France, a friend of Bertram's late father. Accompanying Bertram is his friend, Parolles, a braggart who is a corrupting influence on Bertram throughout the play. The king suffers from what is believed to be an incurable fistula. When he greets Bertram and his friends, he says,
I would I had that corporal soundness now,
As when thy father and myself in friendship
First tried our soldiership! (Act I, Scene II, Lines 30-32)
The king says he would submit himself to treatment under Gerad de Narbon, who also attended Bertram's father, if the great physician were still alive. All other physicians have done him no good, and the king thinks death is near. While Bertram is in Paris, Helena pines for him even though he may be out of reach because of his high social station. Under prodding from the countess, Helena admits the cause of her melancholy: her separation from Bertram. Then Helena reveals a plan to go to Paris to heal the king with a potion left behind by her father. While in Paris, she will have an opportunity to be with Bertram. The countess, pleased that Helena loves her son, encourages her in her plan. After Helena arrives in Paris, an old lord of the court, Lafeu--who had accompanied Bertram and Parolles to Paris--tells the king of her wondrous healing powers:
.......I have seen a medicine
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With spritely fire and motion; whose simple touch,
Is powerful to araise King Pepin, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in's hand,
And write to her a love-line. (Act II, Scene 1, Lines 75-81)
But the king at first refuses to let her treat him because he has had his fill of failed cures. She then stakes her life on the efficacy of her medicine, but stipulates a condition: If her treatment works, the king wil allow her to select a husband from among the eligible bachelors at court. The king agrees. Within days, his illness disappears, and the king presents five worthy gentlemen for her to chose from. Helena rejects all of them and selects Bertram as her husband-to-be. However, Bertram complains that she is the daughter of a mere physician and, thus, unworthy of him. He vows and that he cannot and will not love her. Helena, heartbroken, is wiling to let the matter end there. The king is not. After elevating Helena to a higher social rank, he commands Bertram to marry her, telling him,
My honour's at the stake; which to defeat,
I must produce my power. Here, take her hand,
Pround scornful boy, unworthy this good gift. (Act II, Scene III, Lines 156-158)
Bertram yields, and the wedding ceremony takes place that evening. Meantime, Lafeu and Parolles discuss the events of the evening. When Lafeu criticizes Bertram for his ungentlemanly conduct, Parolles threatens the old man but backs down, revealing himself as a coward, after Lafeu threatens him in return. After the wedding, headstrong Bertram refuses to stay with Helena even for a single night, preferring instead to hie off to join other young French lords in a military campaign in Florence, Italy. Parolles praises his decision, saying it is better to seek glory in war than wallow in the hellhole of France. As Bertram prepares for his military venture, Lafeu warns him that Parolles is cowardly and untrustworthy, but Bertram is heedless. Befre leaving, Bertram orders Helena to return home to Rousillon with a letter for his mother. In the letter, Bertram infuriates his mother by writing, "I have sent you a daughter in-law: she hath recovered the king and undone me. I have wedded her, not bedded her; and sworn to make the NOT eternal." Helena then receives a letter of her own from Bertram. It says,
When thou canst get the ring upon my finger which
never shall come off, and show me a child begotten
of thy body that I am father to, then call me
husband: but in such a 'then' I write a 'never.'
This is a dreadful sentence. (Act III, Scene II, Lines 59-63)
Deeply hurt, Helena leaves Roussillon and goes on a pilgrimage to Saint Jaques monastery in Spain. However, her feet do not cooperate, and, instead, lead her to Florence, where Bertram is encamped with troops. Helena stays at a lodging house for pilgrims run by an elderly widow. The widow's daughter, Diana, tells Helena that a certain Count Rousillon (Bertram) has distinguished himself in battle. "Know you such a one?" she asks. Helena says she has heard of him, but does not know him personally. Helena also learns that Bertram has been trying to seduce Diana. In public, Diana points out the Count Roussillon to Helena. Later Helena tells her whole sad story to the widow, revealing herself as the rejected wife of the young court. Then she enlists Diana's help in a plot to win back her husband. Diana agrees to help her. Here is the stratagem. Bertram has been attempting to seduce Diana. Diana will agree to a midnight tryst with Bertram if he will give her his ring, yielding her chastity in exchange. When Bertram agrees to all the conditions, Diana says,
And on your finger in the night I'll put
Another ring, that what in time proceeds
May token to the future our past deeds. (Act IV, Scene II, Lines 71-73)
After Diana obtains the ring, all goes well. At the appointed hour, Helena takes Diana's place in a darkened room, going unrecognised, and she and Bertram make love. During the night she places on his finger a ring given to her by the King of France. Meanwhile, Parolles has been exposed as a simpering coward by French lords who ambushed and captured him, then make him think he was in the custody of the enemy. Parolles, whose name means "words" in French, tells his "captors" everything they want to know in order to save his skin. Elsewhere, Bertram's mother, who has ben led to believe that Helena has died, sends a letter to Bertram announcing Helena's death and asking her son to return home. After he arrives, he begins to realize what a good and loving woman Helena was. When the king visits Roussillon, Bertram claims that he loved Helena. The king forgives him for rejecting her. But life must go on, and the king thinks Bertram should now marry Lefeu's daughter. However, before he makes the match, the king notices the ring on Bertram's finger--the very ring he gave Helena, the ring that Helena placed on Bertram's finger in the dark room after first removing Bertram's own ring. While Bertram lamely tries to explain how he obtained the king's ring, Diana shows up, saying it was she who placed the ring on Bertram's finger while in bed with him. Then she demands that Bertram marry her. (Diana is really acting on Helena's behalf. Helena must first prove that a midnight meeting took place before she can disclose that it was she, not Diana, who met with Bertram.) Next, the widow arrives with Helena. Helena announces that not only does she have Bertram's own ring, but she also carries his child. Thus, she has met both of the conditions Bertram set forth in his letter to her. The whole truth of what happened in Florence then unravels, and Bertram accepts his wife. The king says, "All is well ended" (Act V, Scene III, Line 336).
Antagonist: Class System That Discriminates Against Persons Of Low Birth
Bertram: Self-centred and immature Count of Roussillon, who rejects the woman who loves him because of her inferior social status.
Countess of Roussillon: Kindly and level-headed mother of Bertram.
Helena: Gentlewoman protected by the Countess; she is in love with Bertram even though he believes she is not good enough for him. When he leaves his home in Roussillon to make his mark in Paris at the court of the King of France, she later follows him in hopes of winning his love. Bertram's mother, the countess, abets her in her plan.
King of France: He suffers from a chronic ailment which Helena, schooled in the healing arts, has the power to cure.
Duke of Florence
Parolles: Follower of Bertram. Parolles is a bad influence on the young man and is, in part, responsible for Bertram's less than gentlemanly behaviour.
Lafeu: An old lord who warns Bertram that Parolles is a coward.
Steward, Clown: Servants to the Countess of Roussillon.
Old Widow of Florence
Diana: Daughter of the Widow. Diana cooperates with Helena in a scheme to trick Bertram into pledging his love for Helena.
Violenta, Mariana: Neighbours and friends of the Widow
Minor Characters: Lords, Officers, Soldiers, Gentlemen (French and Florentine).
The action begins in Roussillon, a region in southern France, then moves to other locales, including Paris, France; Florence, Italy; and Marseilles, France. Bertram, one of the central characters in the play, is the Count of Roussillon.
The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of All's Well That Ends Well occurs, according to the first definition, when Helena, through trickery, takes Bertram's ring while he is asleep. (Bertram had vowed that he would never return to Helena unless she obtained the ring on his finger--a task he thought impossible, given his determination never to willingly yield it to her.) At this point, the plot begins to resolve itself. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Helena shows Bertram the ring and he vows to love her forever.
Theme 1: A human being should be judged on his or her inner qualities, not on social standing. Bertram rejects Helena (until the end of the play) because she is below him on the social scale. Blinded by his prejudices, he fails to see her good qualities. This theme foreshadows the themes of later English writers, such as Jane Austen, Emily Brontë and Charles Dickens.
Theme 2: Women have the intelligence and know how to compete with men. Examples: (1) Only Helena can cure the king's fistula. (2) Helena and Diana team up to trick Bertram. The motif of women struggling to prove their worth--or suffering under male domination--is a recurring theme in literature. For example, in the 5th Century B.C., Sophocles dealt with this theme in Antigone, a play in which a teenage girl challenges the authority of a king. In the 19th Century A.D., Kate Chopin dealt with this theme in several of her works, including a splendid short story entitled "The Story of an Hour," in which an oppressed women fails to assert herself in a male world but does enjoy an hour of freedom.
Theme 3: All things are not as they seem. Bertram thinks high standing brings happiness. In reality, he discovers later, only love, honesty, and other virtues can bring happiness.
Dates and Sources
Date Written: 1603-1604
First Printing: 1623 as part of the First Folio
Probable Main Source: The Decameron, by Boccaccio (1313-1375). The Decameron, written between 1349 and 1353, consists of 100 tales told by seven men and three women to pass the time after they isolate themselves in a villa to escape the plague. The subjects of the tales include romance, deceit, and the power of the human will.
Number of Words in Complete Text: 24,505
Type of Play
All's Well That Ends Well is a romance comedy. It is also classified as one of three of Shakespeare's "problem plays" (along with Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida) because it presents as heroes or heroines characters who are seriously flawed in some way. In All's Well, Bertram is a problem because he consistently mistreats Helena, the woman who loves him; he regards her as unworthy of him because of her inferior social status. Helena is also a problem because, though intelligent and appealing, she resorts to trickery to win Bertram. Only at the end of the play does Bertram accept Helena, but his sincerity remains a question. Consequently, because the heroes are less than heroic and because the ending of the play is abrupt and somewhat forced, many critics regard All's Well as one of Shakespeare's weaker comedies. These critics may be entirely right in their assessment. However, one may fairly speculate that Shakespeare intended the play as a satire on social conventions of the day, pointing out the problems that arise from snobbery and hauteur, as personified in Bertram. In this context, the play becomes far more palatable and the character development and plot artifices more artistically acceptable.
In the dialogue of All's Well That Ends Well and other Shakespeare plays, characters sometimes speak wise or witty sayings couched in memorable figurative language. Although these sayings are brief, they often express a profound universal truth or make a thought-provoking observation. Such sayings are called epigrams or aphorisms. Because many of Shakespeare's epigrams are so memorable, writers and speakers use them again and again. Many of Shakespeare's epigrams have become part of our everyday language; often we use them without realizing that it was Shakespeare who coined them. Examples of phrases Shakespeare originated in his plays include "all's well that ends well," "every dog will have its day," "give the devil his due," "green-eyed monster," "my own flesh and blood," "neither rhyme nor reason," "one fell swoop," "primrose path," "spotless reputation," and "too much of a good thing." Among the more memorable sayings in All's Well That Ends Well are the following:
Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead,
excessive grief the enemy to the living.
(Lafeu to Helena on her expressions of grief, Act I, Scene I, Lines 44-45)
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises.
(Helena to the King of France on Failed Cures for His Fistula, Act I, Scene II, Lines 145-146)
A young man married is a man that's marred.
(Parolles to Bertram after Bertram's Wedding, Act II, Scene III, Line 315)
The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together.
(First Lord to Second Lord on Bertram's changing fortunes, Act IV, Scene III, Line 83).
All's Well That Ends Well contains standard verse and soaring poetry demonstrating a maturity of style equal, in many instances, to that displayed in Shakespeare's greatest plays. Some of the most beautiful imagery in the play is expressed by Helena. In the following touching passage, she compares Bertram to a bright star too high for her to reach. The light imagery is reminiscent of that in Romeo and Juliet, written ten years before.
'Twere all one
That I should a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. 'Twas pretty, though plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart's table; heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour:
But now he's gone, and my idoltrous fancy
Must sanctify his reliques. Who comes here?
Helena also alludes to Apollo, the sun god who drives his chariot across the sky, when telling the King of France that her medicine will produce a quick cure. Note, too, the end rhyme in the passage:
The great'st grace lending grace
Ere twice the horses of the sun shall bring
Their fiery torcher his diurnal ring,
Ere twice in murk and occidental damp
Moist Hesperus hath quench'd his sleep lamb,
Or four and twenty times the pilot's glass
Hath told the thievish minutes how they pass,
What is infirm from your sound parts shall fly,
Health shall live free and sickness freely die.
Helena and the Countess of Rousillon are both strong women. Helena is courageous and persistent; she is also highly intelligent, the proof of which is her mastery of the medical arts. When Bertram takes no notice of her and goes off to Paris, she pines for a while, then acts decisively, traveling to Paris herself. There the king suffers from an apparently incurable fistula. When Helena claims that she can cure him, the king allows her to treat him under penalty of death if she fails. With the king's promise that if she succeeds she may choose a future husband from among the men at court, she proceeds and heals the king. She chooses Bertram, of course, and the king orders him to marry her. When Bertram abandons her after their wedding, she is broken-hearted. But thanks to a little luck and help from other women, she wins Bertram back. The Countess, well aware of Helena's excellent qualities, encourages Helena in her pursuit of her spoiled son, perhaps in the realization that Helena can help Bertram to mature. Her support of Helena underscores her strength of character. In an age when other mothers of high social standing attempted to make a match for their sons based on pedigree, the countess has the courage to endorse a woman of the lower class as a possible future daughter-in-law. It is interesting to note that the countess acts in a fatherly role in advising Bertram on the ways of the world. She gives Bertram a short farewell "lecture" reminiscent of the lecture Polonious gives to Laertes (in Hamlet: Act I, Scene III, Lines 59-81) before Laertes leaves home. Following is the advice the countess gives:
Be thou blest, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners, as in shape! thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright! Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none; be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life's key; be cheque'd for silence,
But never tax'd for speech. What heaven more will,
That thee may furnish and my prayers pluck down,
Fall on thy head! Farewell, my lord;
'Tis an unseason'd courtier; good my lord,
Significance of the Title
The title is based on lines spoken by Helena to point out that the success or failure of an event or a course of action depends entirely on how it ends:
But with the word the time will bring on summer,
When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown;
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.
- In the age of Shakespeare, it was not uncommon for a young man of high social standing to reject a woman because of her low social standing--and vice versa? How important is social status to marriageable young men and women in today's society?
- If you were to write a psychological profile of Bertram, what characteristics would you focus on?
- If you were to write a psychological profile of Helena, what characteristics would you focus on?
- Bertram and Helena are reconciled at the end. Will their marriage last?