All’s Well That Ends Well belongs with Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure as one of a small group of plays that defies classification, and which was written while Shakespeare was also writing his greatest tragedies. These plays have variously been called “tragicomedies” or “problem plays”.
This particular play seemed to me to closely related both to the earlier comedies, and, more particularly, to the late romances Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. As in the earlier comedies, at the centre of the play is a resourceful heroine who “gets her man” at the end. And, as in the very early play The Two Gentlemen of Verona, she pursues a man who whom she loves, but who does not love her: in both plays, this makes for a bit of awkwardness at the denouement when the man being chased has to change his mind rather abruptly to ensure a happy ending. The resemblance to the late romances is also notable – most especially Cymbeline, where, once again, the heroine has to face and overcome all sorts of tribulation to find fulfilment. (And in both plays, the heroine is, at some point, wrongly believed to be dead.)
One could point out a few parallels also with Measure for Measure, but perhaps it’s unfair to see this play merely in the context of others, since it seems to me to stand up quite well on its own terms. That is not to say that it is among Shakespeare’s masterpieces (even though it was written while Shakespeare was at the very height of his powers): it hasn’t really won much favour either from readers or from audiences ( although there have been a number of very fine productions, including the one in the BBC Shakespeare series).
More than most other plays in the canon, this one seems to owe much to the genre of the fairy tale. In the first two acts, we have the heroine, Helena, curing the King of a mysterious illness. When asked for a reward, she asks for the hand of Bertram, for whom she cherishes an unrequited love. All this is very much in the realms of the fairy tale. But psychological realism suddenly intrudes when Bertram, quite understandably, is unwilling to be forced into a marriage against his will to someone he has never really cared for. On seeing her prospective husband’s unwillingness, Helena is not insistent in pressing her claim, but the King, furious that his authority is flouted, insists. Suddenly, we seem to have stepped out of the fairy tale.
The first half of the play I found rather affecting. At the start of the play, Helena’s expression of her unrequited love is touching; and even more touching is the relationship between Helena and Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Rousillon. One might have expected the elderly aristocratic lady to have been outraged that a mere physician’s daughter should wish to marry her son, but, on the contrary, Shakespeare’s presents a relationship between the two ladies that is loving and tender. Indeed, if one may speak of an overall “tonality” of a play, it’s the sense of tenderness that strikes one most strongly: it is hard to believe that this gentlest and most tender of plays was written in such close proximity to a play as harsh and as bitter as Troilus and Cressida.
This sense of tenderness is apparent also in the relationship between Helena and the King. Indeed, apart from Bertram (and the comic braggart Parolles), everyone seems to sympathise with Helena. But perversely, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for Bertram. Expectations may no doubt be different in a society in which arranged marriages are the norm, but it is hard not to feel sympathy for someone – male or female – who is forced into marriage.
The denouement of the play comes, of course, when Bertram accepts Helena, having learnt to value and to love her. This could have made for good drama, but, despite the sudden irruption of psychological realism towards the end of the second act (when Bertram, unhappy with being forced into marriage, deserts Helena), Shakespeare seems intent to continue in the fairy tale mode. Bertram tells Helena in a that he will only return to her if she can achieve certain impossible tasks. And the latter half of this play, like the latter half of Measure for Measure, focuses on the frankly rather uninteresting mechanics of the plot as Helena, true to the traditions of the fairy tale, wins Bertram back by accomplishing the apparently impossible tasks. And as with the latter half of Measure for Measure, I can’t say I’m entirely convinced. But, since Shakespeare has done this in two plays, it was no mere accident: for reasons I cannot fathom, this is, indeed, what Shakespeare wanted.
However, there are also elements in the latter half that seem to me very attractive. The come-uppance of Parolles is amusing (and I imagine the role is a gift for a good comic actor); and the characters of the Widow and her daughter Diana are beautifully sketched in: they are far more than mere plot devices. And, once again, the relationship between these two characters and Helena is sensitive and tender.
While I find myself attracted by the tone, I do not find myself entirely satisfied with this play. Shakespeare is obviously trying something new here: he seems fascinated by the form of the fairy tale, and is experimenting with what may be made of it in dramatic terms. Isn’t it fascinating that even as he was scaling the highest peaks of tragedy, he was already looking ahead to what else he might be moving on to?