“All’s Well That Ends Well” is a complicated story about the rejection of a beautiful and resourceful young woman by a rather unappealing young man. The effectiveness of this story turns on the fate of two rings. The first ring belongs to Bertram, the villain of the piece. It’s an ancestral relic handed down over several generations – his would-be lover Helena says “four or five descents”, his mother says “six preceding ancestors”. Either way, it is an important heirloom, to be handled with care.
But this is Bertram, and he doesn’t do care. First, in a letter arrogantly dismissing Helena, he boasts she cannot call him her husband until she has the ancestral ring on her finger – and that (he implies) is not going to happen. But Helena is resourceful, and she is determined to acquire it. She discovers that Bertram (by now stationed in Florence) is pursuing a young woman called Diana, and Helena engages her to bargain for the crucial ring “ere she seems as won”.
Diana complies, Bertram demurs, Diana insists, and Bertram concedes: his second act of carelessness. It would be, he tells her, “the greatest obloquy i’the world / In me to lose”, but this is Bertram, and he loses. The ring next appears in 5.3, appearing as proof that Diana is something more than the “gamester” or prostitute by which he dismisses her. He gave her the ring as a token of his good intentions. But Bertram was never big on good intentions.
So to the second ring. Diana promises that, once they have slept together, she’ll put a ring of her own on Bertram’s finger. This ring has a history too: it was given to Helena by the King after she cured him of a life-threatening malady; Helena gave it to Diana, to put on Bertram’s finger; now that (as Bertram believes) Helena is dead, and he is becoming engaged to Lafeu’s daughter, the ring sees service as a token of his forthcoming betrothal.
But in handing over the ring, it is recognised by the King as having once belonged to Helena; and now Bertram is powerless to stop the truth coming out about its origins. Worse, there may be a price to be paid: “Unless thou tell’st me where thou hadst this ring,” says the King to Bertram, “Thou diest within this hour”. At this point, Diana has further news to impart: “He knows himself my bed he has defiled”, she observes, “And at that time he got his wife with child”.
Bertram is going to be a father, and Helena reappears, palpably alive, to draw from Bertram the promise that he will “love her dearly”. The rings have served their purpose, establishing that it was in fact Helena who shared Bertram’s bed in Florence, and finally fulfilling the unlikely conditions of his arrogant letter to Helena. Whether the audience will welcome marriage between the ever-patient Helena and this evasive young man may be another matter.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Bertram is to leave his widowed mother for the King, to whom he will be “evermore in subjection”.
But the King is gravely ill, and the renowned Doctor de Narbon has died, leaving only his daughter.
The Countess gives last-minute advice to Bertram: “Love all, trust a few, / Do wrong to none” etc.
Alone, Helena reveals why she was crying: she is in love with Bertram, though “he is so above me”.
Parolles arrives, and Helena insults him privately before bantering with him about her virginity.
Parolles is called away by Bertram, leaving Helena to focus on plans to tackle the “king’s disease”.
Act One Scene Two
The King of France will not support Florence in her war but French nobles may take part if they wish.
Bertram’s father was a friend of the King, a man of humility and an example to young men today.
The King remembers he had no wish to live “After my flame lacks oil”, and he feels the same now.
The King asks after Helena’s father, saying he would use him as his physician if he were still alive.
But the King welcomes Bertram to his palace, assuring him that he is as dear to him as his own son.
Act One Scene Three
The Countess banters with her clown, before her Steward reveals that Helena is in love with her son.
Helena is deeply unhappy about her predicament, experiencing “the most bitter touch of sorrow”.
The Countess felt the same when she was young, she says and she assures Helena she is her mother.
But Helena resists such a relationship as she does not want to think of Bertram as being her brother.
The Countess forces Helena to admit she loves Bertram, and Helena replies she “cannot choose”.
But Helena has her father’s notes that may help to cure the King of France and so is soon off to Paris.
Act Two Scene One
The King, despairing of ever recovering his health, bids farewell to soldiers off to fight in Florence.
Bertram has been told by the King to remain in Paris, though Parolles encourages him to join up.
Lafeu encourages the King to meet the exemplary doctor Helena to seek a cure for his ailments.
With her father’s medical expertise, Helena believes she can cure the King, despite his misgivings.
If she succeeds, Helena asks that, as her reward, she is able to marry the husband of her choice.
Act Two Scene Two
The Countess has a message for Helena which her light-hearted clown is to deliver to her in Paris.
Act Two Scene Three
Lafeu and Parolles reflect on the efficiency and success of the treatment Helena has given the King.
As a reward the King lines up a group of young men, inviting Helena to choose a husband from them.
She chooses Bertram, and the King supports her choice, but Bertram believes she is beneath him.
The King will build up her “honour and wealth”, but Bertram is decided: she is too low-born for him.
The King threatens Bertram with “my revenge and hate”, and he accepts: “I take her hand” he says.
Lafeu and Parolles dispute the merits of Helena, though Parolles backs down when Lafeu gets angry.
Bertram swears never to sleep with his new wife, but will leave instead to fight in the Florence war.
Act Two Scene Four
The Clown reports to Helena that the Countess is unwell, while insulting Parolles – “thou’rt a knave”.
Parolles tells Helena that Bertram will not consummate the marriage before leaving for Florence.
Bertram instructs Helena to take her leave of the King, but to meet him before she leaves Paris.
Act Two Scene Five
Bertram and Lafeu disagree about Parolles’s qualities as a soldier. Bertram thinks he is “valiant”.
Parolles says that Helena is with the King but will leave Paris before the marriage is consummated.
Helena arrives to report that she has seen the King, and is told by Bertram to return to Rousillon.
When she addresses him as a wife he is dismissive of her: “Let that go”, he says, “farewell, hi home”.
When she asks him to kiss her, he tells her instead “Go thou toward home; where I will never come”.
Act Three Scene One
The Duke of Florence regrets that the King of France has not been more supportive in his war effort.
The Lords remind him that numerous young French warriors are fighting freelance for Florence.
Act Three Scene Two
The Countess hears from Bertram he has “wedded her [Helena], not bedded her” and ”run away”.
She suspects that he has made an enemy of the King in the process – “rash and unbridled boy”.
Helena appears with two nobles who confirm that Bertram has gone to “serve the duke of Florence”.
She reveals that when she has Bertram’s ring and his child, she will be his wife: until then – never.
Bertram says in his letter that until his wife is no more, he will “have nothing in France”.
The Countess establishes that only Parolles was with him – a “tainted fellow and full of wickedness”.
In a soliloquy, Helena blames herself for Bertram’s self-exile, and wishes him to be safe in battle.
She concludes that if he will not come home while she is in France, “I will be gone”.
Act Three Scene Three
The Duke of Florence has appointed Bertram to be the “general of our horse” [or cavalry].
Bertram suspects this may be too much responsibility but will “strive” to be worthy of the honour.
Act Three Scene Four
Helena writes to the Countess to say she blames herself for Bertram’s exile, and has left Rousillon.
The Countess instructs her steward to write a letter to her son reminding him of Helena’s “worth”.
She hopes he’ll return when he hears she’s gone, and his reappearance will bring her back in turn.
Act Three Scene Five
The Florentine widow and three younger women are suspicious of “the French count” and Parolles.
It seems that he has fought bravely and well, but Mariana advises to “take heed of this French earl”.
Helena appears asking the route to “the palmers lodge” and the widow says she will take care of her.
The women question Helena whether she knows of the French count who married against his will.
It seems Parolles has been attacking her but she replies she is too ”mean” to be worth criticising.
Helena guesses, and the widow confirms, that the French count has been “amorous” towards Diana.
The troops appear, and Diana regrets that Bertram “is not honest”, and lambasts Parolles as “vile”.
Parolles is concerned about his lost drum; Helena arranges to meet the four women later for supper.
Act Three Scene Six
Two French Lords aim to persuade Bertram that Parolles is a coward, a liar and a promise-breaker.
To prove it they will pretend to be the enemy, kidnap Parolles and entice him to betray Bertram.
The missing drum – a military humiliation – must be recovered, claims Parolles, and he will do so.
The Lords predict Parolles will fail to recover the drum but will lie about the reasons for his failure.
Meanwhile Bertram is pursuing a “lass”, and though she is “honest” he will not let that put him off.
Act Three Scene Seven
Helena has told the widow who she is, and requires her daughter’s help in catching Bertram out.
She must ask him for his ring, then let Helena take her place in his bed while absenting herself.
Helena will pay three thousand crowns to the family if they are able to catch him out tonight.
Act Four Scene One
The soldiers lie in wait for Parolles, agreeing to use a made-up language to pretend to be the enemy.
Parolles invents his “story” and considers wounding himself to make his mission seem more credible.
Suddenly Parolles is apprehended, and immediately he is ready to tell “all the secrets of our camp”.
Act Four Scene Two
Diana is reluctant to believe Bertram’s promises or to compare her situation now with her mother’s.
She asks for Bertram’s ring and at first he refuses to hand it over, then surrenders it as a loan.
Diana tells him to return at midnight, tap on the window, and remain there silently “but an hour”.
Then she will put a ring on his finger – an arrangement Bertram describes as “heaven on earth”.
Alone, Diana concludes that it is no sin to deceive (“cozen”) someone who “would unjustly win”.
Act Four Scene Three
Two Lords discuss how Bertram has angered his mother and the King by his treatment of Helena.
They are equally angry themselves that he has “perverted” Diana and intends later to sleep with her.
The First Lord tells his friend that Helena has died in a monastery – a death confirmed by the rector.
Bertram arrives clearly proud of his preparations to leave for France later – after one last pleasure.
Parolles appears, and is immediately willing to give away important information about his own side.
Asked about specific soldiers, he happily divulges privileged information and make serious criticisms.
When the interrogators need proof, they find a letter from Parolles to Diana denouncing Bertram.
Bertram is enraged to be exposed in Parolles’s letter to Diana as a debtor, a liar, a child and a fool.
Next Parolles delivers vicious criticisms of Captain Dumain – as a thief, a rapist, a liar and a drunk.
He also denounces the Captain’s brother as a coward, and undertakes to betray Count Rousillon.
He is condemned to death – “off with his head” – and begs for the blindfold to be removed.
Parolles discovers he has been duped, and has to accept that “every braggart shall be found an ass”.
Act Four Scene Four
Bertram has been deceived, and Helena thanks Dian and the widow for their support of her plan.
Now she travels to Marseilles, her husband and the King of France – though “I am supposed dead”.
Act Four Scene Five
The countess is bereft at Helena’s death, but Lafeu proposes his own daughter to marry Bertram.
Meanwhile the King is approaching and “will be here tomorrow”, and Bertram has arrived home.
Act Five Scene One
Helena, the widow and Diana arrive in Marseilles only to find that the King has removed to Rousillon.
They meet a Gentleman there who is heading for the court and give him a letter to take with him.
Act Five Scene Two
Paroles asks the clown to deliver his letter to Lafeu – then meets him in person and is given food.
Act Five Scene Three
The Countess, the King and Lafeu regret the failure of Bertram to realise how valuable Helena was.
But that all belongs to the past, and Bertram enters to apologise for his “high-repented blames”.
Now that Helena is dead, Bertram may have a “second marriage-day”, wedded to Lafeu’s daughter.
Bertram gives Lafeu a ring for his daughter, which the King recognises as one he gave to Helena.
Bertram claims he came by the ring when a woman at a window threw it to him in Florence.
The King orders his arrest while Bertram denies he got it when he “husbanded her bed in Florence”.
A Gentleman delivers a letter to the King in which Diana accuses Bertram of abandoning her.
Diana arrives, to hear Bertram denounce her as “a common gamester [or prostitute] to the camp”.
But she produces Bertram’s ring which the Countess confirms belonged to “six preceding ancestors”.
Furthermore, she confirms her ring is now with the King, given to Bertram while in bed with him.
Paroles is brought in to confirm that Bertram slept with Diana, as well as promising her marriage.
Diana won’t tell the King about the ring, and offers contradictory explanations of what happened.
Then Helena is brought in to prove she’s alive, has Bertram’s ring, and is pregnant with his child.
Bertram promises that if things are as they seem to be, he will marry Helena and love her dearly.
Helena pledges that her story will prove true, and the King is delighted that “All yet seems well”.
As the play opens, it becomes clear that both Helena and Bertram have recently lost their fathers. Bertram is to leave his widowed mother nonetheless, and he receives from her the kind of farewell speech and unsolicited advice that fathers in Shakespeare more often dole out to daughters. Meanwhile, Helena is tearful but not, it seems, for the loss of her father. Fathers and daughters are one of Shakespeare’s specialist subjects. Often there is little love lost between them. It is worth reminding ourselves that Shakespeare lived in London, several days’ travel from Stratford, where his two daughters were being brought up.
A prominent theme of this play is the relationship between Bertram and his mother. Relationships between sons and mothers are thin on the ground in Shakespeare’s work: Hamlet and Gertrude is one example – and there isn’t much love lost there. The relationship between the Countess and Bertram is, if anything, even rockier. She is routinely quite open in her comments about the short-comings of her wayward, ill-disciplined, entitled son.
The Countess’s steward (or chief servant) reveals that he has overheard Helena admitting that “she loved your son”. Eavesdropping has a long history in Shakespeare’s plays – sometimes with negative results, sometimes more positive. In “Hamlet”, for example, Polonius is hiding behind a curtain to listen in to a conversation between the prince and his mother. Hamlet senses movement behind the curtain and stabs at it, with predictable results. Elsewhere, eavesdropping is used to deceive the listener quite deliberately: in “Much Ado About Nothing”, Beatrice listens in to a conversation specifically designed for her to overhear, and is pleasantly manipulated by what she hears into falling in love with Benedick – who has been similarly deceived. Shakespeare’s plays make much of the confusion eavesdropping can cause: mixed messages, private agendas, Chinese whispers.
At the end of Act One, Helena reveals she is off to Paris to discover whether her father’s medicinal skills can help to cure the King. This is quite a trip. Rousillon, where the Countess has her palace, is in the deep south of France by the Mediterranean. Paris is in the far north, closer to the English channel. So Helena’s journey to the King to see if she can help him is a serious project. Meanwhile, Florence, which is the setting for many of the scenes later in the play, lies in the opposite direction: north to Rousillon, south to Florence.
When Helena tells the King that she can cure him, she is invited to choose a reward, and she asks that she be allowed to select the husband of her choice. The King consents, and the audience will know exactly where her choice will fall. They will also recognise this kind of narrative device since it originates in fairy-tales, and illustrates how wide Shakespeare threw his net to create his narratives. A similar fairy-tale romance (if that’s the right word) is Portia’s fate in “The Merchant of Venice” – the difference is that in that play, Portia’s lover Bassanio reciprocates her feelings. Here, with Bertram, not so much.
The question has to be asked of Helena, why she finds Bertram quite so irresistible, given his indifference to her. The answer may perhaps lie in Shakespeare’s view of love, which he regards as an emotion beyond reason. In poems like “The Phoenix and the Turtle” and in plays like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, he represents those who fall in love as being almost passive recipients of an irrational state of mind over which they have no control: falling in love with donkeys, for example. An irrational, uncontrollable state of mind is really Helena’s fate here.
When Bertram swears at the end of 2.3 that he will never sleep with his new wife Helena, he is saying effectively that he is not participating in the marriage. Shakespeare has in mind the convention that a marriage has to be consummated to be valid, and that Bertram’s decision is tantamount to divorce. Of course, if Bertram can be persuaded – or deceived – into consummating his marriage, honour will be satisfied. But then it will have to be proved ….
Shakespeare draws a vivid contrast between the childish and selfish behaviour of Bertram and the selfless example set by Helena. Where Bertram will not even offer her a kiss on the day of their ‘marriage’, she is all obedience and compliance. Worse, where Bertram says he will not return to France while she is there, she accepts the logic of the situation: “I will be gone”. Female characters who are beyond criticism – like Helena – are probably more common in Shakespeare than is strictly realistic. It’s an interesting question whether this kind of idealised representation doesn’t load more pressure onto young women than is already their lot.
As mentioned in the Introduction, Bertram’s letters to Rousillon in 3.2 are among the most important details for understanding the complex plot. First to his Mother he reveals that “I have wedded her, not bedded her”, so the marriage has not been consummated. Then to Helena he offers the two conditions for the marriage to proceed: she must acquire the ring off his finger that many generations of his ancestors have worn; and she must become pregnant with his child. Until then, he adds, “I have nothing in France”. As Helena herself observes, “This is a dreadful sentence”.
The letters in 3.2 and the letter Helena writes to the Countess, read out in 3.4 by her Steward, are a reminder that letters in general are quite a common feature of Shakespeare’s plays: Lady Macbeth hearing about the witches, or Edmund (in “King Lear”) plotting against his brother and father with forged correspondence. Whether Shakespeare’s audience would have had much experience of receiving or writing a letter is a good question – it is estimated that around three-quarters of the male population could read or write in his day, and around a quarter of women. Evidently letters were enough of a familiar sight to most people to be worth their place in the plays.
Nobody has anything good to say about Parolles: he is perhaps the most maligned character in all Shakespeare. Even so, there is a hint of the practical joke about the trick played on him: it’s not as if his captors are shocked when he betrays his friend Bertram: it’s what they were looking for. Practical jokes were evidently fairly routine events in the social life of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, given that they’re not uncommon in his plays: a good example is the kind of games Prince Hal plays on Falstaff in “Henry IV Part One” and “Henry IV Part Two”. In the second of these, the prince pretends to be a waiter in the tavern where Falstaff is taking his evening meal, and entices him to abuse the heir to the throne. Falstaff duly obliges, before the waiter’s real identity is revealed. The difference between Falstaff and Parolles, however, is that Falstaff always has an answer that gets him off the hook. Parolles puts up less of a fight.
Act Three Scenes Six and Seven describe two plots which are clearly very similar yet intended to contrast with one another. In the first, Parolles is to go in search of the missing drum, and fall into the hands of his “friends” – though he believes them to be the enemy; in the second, Bertram is to go to bed with Helena – though he believes he is with Diana. In both cases, the audience is as conscious of the deception as the victim is ignorant: a further reminder that dramatic irony is a central tool in the Shakespearean tool box.
The deception of Parolles and the deception of Bertram may have their parallels, then, but their exposure is presented differently – partly because of the sensitivity of Bertram’s bedroom behaviour, and partly because Bertram has not yet discovered at the end of Act Four that he has been deceived. He’ll find out soon enough. Meanwhile the exposure of Parolles is too enjoyable to miss: Shakespeare always seems to take delight in seeing boastful types being taken down a peg or two – such that, as Parolles himself suggests, “every braggart shall be found an ass”. That is his fate.
A brief resume on the matter of the rings: when Bertram meets Diana in 4.2, she’s rightly suspicious of his intentions, believing he wants nothing more than to enjoy her physical charms without any deeper commitment. So she challenges him to give her the ring he wears on his finger. He won’t give it, he says – he’ll lend it: after all, “It is an honour, ‘longing to our house, / Bequeathed down from many ancestors”. This is the ring which, in his letter to Helena in 3.2, he makes a pre-condition of marriage. Now he’s lost it, but it will turn up again later.
Rings play a prominent role in many Shakespeare plays: in “The Merchant of Venice” for example, Portia gives Bassanio a ring he is not to lose, then in disguise recovers it from him. Here, further deception over a ring sees Diana give to Bertram a ring belonging to Helena – given to her by the King of France as a reward for her medicinal services. The ring Diana has “borrowed” from Bertram will naturally re-surface later in the play.
The reappearance of Helena in 5.3 (after it seemed that she had died) may come as a surprise – pleasant or otherwise – to some of the central characters in the play. But the audience is not wrong-footed, having followed her fortunes closely throughout the play. Later in his career, Shakespeare creates a narrative (“The Winter’s Tale”) in which it does indeed seem that a young woman has died, only for her to be brought back to life in the final scene, much to the audience’s surprise. In this play, by contrast, the audience once again has the advantage over the characters, and are better informed than those they are watching: dramatic irony again.
Who’s Who / Characters
Driven and determined, not easily deflected from her chosen course, she combines resourcefulness with selflessness, creating a character to whom others warm – the Countess, the King, the widow – despite the indifference of her chosen partner, Bertram. True, she might be accused of being a touch manipulative, but in many ways she is a typical Shakespearean heroine – kind, thoughtful, at times beyond criticism – though her decisions in love suggest she doesn’t always get it right. But even then, her determination is admirable.
His father – whom he evidently resembles physically – was a man of humility and dignity, according to the King of France. Sadly Bertram lacks both qualities, though he is perhaps an accomplished soldier. Other than that, according to Parolles, he is a liar, a child and a fool – all of which are reinforced by the play itself. His pledge made at the end of the play to love Helena “dearly” is perhaps a promise more easily proffered than observed.
Helena condemns him in the first scene as a “notorious liar”, a “fool” and “a coward”. He is similarly denounced in 3.5 by Diana as a “filthy officer” and not to be trusted. Meanwhile the Lords (3.6) believe he is a coward, a liar and a promise-breaker. He is probably the most widely-insulted character in Shakespeare’s plays: even so, his conclusion after being unmasked as a fraud and a fool in 4.3 is admirable: “simply the thing I am / Shall make me live”.
- What was the name of Helena’s father?
- Who tells the Countess that Helena is in love with Bertram?
- Who believes Parolles to be a “valiant” soldier?
- Who believes Parolles to be “full of wickedness”?
- What promotion does the Duke of Florence give Bertram?
- How much money will Helena pay the widow’s family if they help her?
- How might Parolles make his mission to recover the drum seem more heroic?
- How do the kidnappers threaten to execute Parolles?
- Who is proposed to marry Bertram after Helena’s apparent death?
- How does Bertram claim to have acquired the ring that catches him out?
“The course of true love”, says Lysander in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “never did run smooth”, and few characters in Shakespeare offer better proof of the rough course of true love than the saintly if somewhat manipulative Helena in “All’s Well that Ends Well”.
For a modern audience there is first the problem of Bertram, whose attractions are not easy to discern at this distance: good breeding, perhaps, a title, a fortune to his name, but few of the sensitivities that might be thought to appeal to a young woman of taste.
Moreover, the humiliations visited on Helena in pursuit of her wayward beau would be enough to put off the most determined huntress: arriving in Florence, for example, she hears tell that the young warrior has had to marry “against his liking” and that “a gentleman” (namely Parolles) has been talking “but coarsely” of his wife.
As a result, Helena has no option but to deny that she knows her own husband (“His face I know not”) or that his wife is worthy of Parolles’s critical broadsides. In effect she has to deny her own existence – and that is appropriate, because later in the play, the rumour will go round (probably begun by Helena herself) that she is dead.
The negotiations she undertakes with her new friends in Florence to get what she needs to trigger her marriage – the ring first, then the pregnant status – would probably account for most of Bertram’s suitors. But Shakespeare’s conviction, mentioned above, that love is a kind of madness, an irrational visitation that takes over the mind, is being reprised here. It doesn’t matter whether we agree with Helena that Bertram is a good catch. It’s enough that she believes it, and her convoluted quest provides the structure for a narrative that comes eventually – in Helena’s eyes anyway – to a happy if somewhat improbable ending.