Introduction to All's Well that Ends Well


Table of Contents of this Page

The Morality Play Structure of All's Well
Themes and Images
Characters in All's Well
The Castle of Perseverance (part)
Horrid Technical Details (which you may ignore)

The Text:
All's Well that Ends Well: Text
The text in action: Act II Scene 5

I have chosen to annotate All's Well that Ends Well because in general it has received less attention than some of William Shakespeare's other plays. (Yes, William Shakespeare wrote the play. I am vaguely familiar with the theory that Thomas Middleton had a hand in it. I don't think Middleton was capable of writing a single line of All's Well.) There aren't as many crackpot theories about All's Well as there about, say Hamlet. The Modern Language Association (MLA) abbreviation for the play's title is AWW, and I will sometimes make use of that abbreviation.

This is a work in progress. I don't have the patience to set this up as a blog. So if you have any comments, suggestions or corrections, I would appreciate it if you would send them to me:

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"All's Well that Ends Well is not a play that is often read or performed, and when it is seen or heard, it does not seem to give much general pleasure." --G. K. Hunter
That, I fear, is because the play is not simple, and if you take it at face value, and don't try to understand the complexities, you're not going to have much luck with it. Here's one of the more glaring abnormalities, from the last scene, V.3:

O, my good lord, when I was like this maid
I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring,
And, look you, here's your letter. This it says:
"When from my finger you can get this ring,
And is by me with child," &c. This is done.
Will you be mine now you are doubly won?  (V.3.303-8)

What is that "&c." (= etc.) doing in there? It doesn't scan, nor does it seem to make sense in this, the culminating scene of the play, where Helena has fulfilled Bertram's condition. Not to be tedious, Helena hasn't fulfilled Bertram's conditions for their marriage, and she says "et cetera" rather than remind him of what the conditions were. See the text.

Shakespeare used the plot which he got from "Gileta of Narbona," the thirty-eighth novel of William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure. (It is reprinted in an appendix of the Hunter Arden Edition.) But for the structure he used the structure of a morality play, one that either he had read or seen, or (more likely) one that he had constructed himself. I have reconstructed the morality play Shakespeare used, from hints in All's Well, and some wild unsubstantiated guesses, reveling in my own unbridled arrogance about my abilities and privileges.

But Shakespeare was not done: once he had created the morality play structure, he gave the whole edifice a sharp shove to the heaven side. The play not longer sits on the boundary line between good and evil (although it talks about that line); the entire play sits firmly in the land of the good. EVERYBODY in Shakespeare's morality play has good intentions. Nobody is evil, not the Vices, not even the character who stands in for Satan.

For example: there has been something of a critical dispute about why the two Captains Dumain in the play are labeled "Lord G." and "Lord E." It has mostly been agreed upon that G. and E. were the initials of the actors who played those two parts, "Gough" and "Ecclestone" being the favored candidates, as far as I can tell. But by now you know the real answer. In the morality play, one of them was a Vice and one a Virtue, but by the time Shakespeare got done with them, the two brothers were indistinguishable in their virtue (as can be seen in their discussion in the beginning of IV.3). Even Shakespeare couldn't tell them apart. So he labeled the Vice "Lord E.," (as in Evil) and the Virtue "Lord G." (as in Good). Shakespeare was not entirely consistent about their roles, but when Bertram goes off to visit Diana with an intent to seduce her (thereby committing adultery, since he's married to Helena), it is Lord E. who goes with him.

And for my next barrage of unsubstantiated nonsense--and I will point out the bottles of snake oil as they go by--Shakespeare, who was brought up a Catholic (that's one bottle of snake oil), by the time he came to write All's Well, was an atheist (there's another). He loved the Christian dogma as it had been taught to him, and he had been brought up seeing the Christian moralities, mysteries and saint plays (three). He used incidents from the old religious plays in many of his own plays; he was particularly fond of the story of "The Fall of Man" (Adam, Eve, Satan and the apple) and used it in four of his own plays that I can think of. He practically knew the Bible by heart but his ideas of the Bible stories were usually what he had seen on the stage (four). You can get a list of all the stories in the Bible that Shakespeare thought important by buying a children's Bible coloring book, provided it covers OT, NT and Apocrypha.

And I repeat: All's Well is a morality play from top to bottom, as I have tried to show. Actually it doesn't much matter whether my demonstration is successful. The play exists as Shakespeare wrote it.

But he no longer believed in the Christian god, or in any other god. He did believe that human beings were capable of behaving well by Christian standards, as well as if they were in a state of grace, and he put patterns of such gracious behavior into his comedies--just as, in his tragedies, he frequently showed human beings behaving as badly as they were capable of (in King Lear, for example, there are no totally good characters, and I include Cordelia and Edgar). I believe--I confess that this is a belief--that in All's Well, when a whole scene goes into rhymed couplets, the characters in that scene are acting as if they were in a state of grace (that's five).

Shakespeare was always concerned with human beings and human motivations, and there is general agreement (I have no proof of this) that the topic sentence of the play is expressed by Captain Dumain G.:

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.
Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and
our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.

But Shakespeare had fallen in love with the religious Christian plays and the dogma of their underpinnings. If you pay attention to the text, you discover that there are lots of little fires burning throughout the play, and they are emblematic of the big fire that waits for us if we fall into sin:
I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire; and the master I speak of
ever keeps a good fire. But, sure, he is the prince of the world; let his nobility
remain in's [in his] court. I am for the house with the narrow gate, which I take
to be too little for pomp to enter. Some that humble themselves may; but the
many will be too chill and tender: and they'll be for the flow'ry way that leads to
the broad gate and the great fire.

Shakespeare was writing at the peak of his powers when he wrote this play. He didn't give a damn about any of the theoretically required gadgets a play should contain. He didn't care about the hero--reasons to be discussed--and he made Helena the main character, star, protagonist and instigator of all the action, and he had a good time doing it. For the early part of his creative career, he dismissed his own abilities, and thought that he was a poor second to his friend Christopher Marlowe. When he couldn't think of something to write a play about, he would use one of Marlowe's subjects (as The Merchant of Venice was inspired by The Jew of Malta and Richard II was inspired by Edward II). He thought of himself as exclusively gay, as Marlowe was. When he discovered that he liked girls, he had an initial shock--which he dramatized in Love's Labor's Lost and Measure for Measure--after which he nearly burst with joy, and he wrote the joyous Much Ado about Nothing. But he still didn't think much of himself as a writer; in Much Ado, at the end of the play, the happy lovers walk on the unsuccessful sonnets Benedick has been trying to write.

Sometime around the production of Hamlet, Shakespeare's attitude changed. He still had doubts, but he also knew that he was the best writer English had produced since Chaucer. In All's Well he displays his pride in the power of the written word. The play has something like 31 letters or references to writing in it (see Letters in All's Well). Many of the letters are actually read aloud as part of the dialogue. And Shakespeare made references to the written word whenever he could, as when Lafew says in II.3:

I'd give bay Curtal and his furniture [175]
My mouth no more were broken than these boys', [176]
And writ as little beard. [177]

Finally, the play has an important back story (horrible made-up movie word, which even I have to use) which is hinted at but never discussed on stage. In my seventh year of dealing with the play a student, Bonnie Ryerson, made a suggestion that caused me to gasp and slap my forehead, like a cartoon character who finally sees the point.

That's enough. We'd better begin. Go to the text. Lector, intende: laetaberis (at the Shakespeare, I mean, not at my make-believe scholarship).

Text of All's Well that Ends Well                    Index