All’s Well That Ends Well was first published in the First Folio, though it was probably written around 1604-5, not long after James I became king of England. The plot is derived from Boccaccio, the novella of ‘ Bertramo de Rossigilione and Giglietta de Narbone’, recounted on the third day of the Decameron.
The Problem Plays:
For the last 100 years or so All’s Well That Ends Well has been categorized as a ‘problem play’ along with Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, (both written about the same time) and sometimes a few others.
The problem plays seem to come at a particular time in Shakespeare’s career as a playwright. In the late 1590’s, he had produced his ‘mature’ comedies (Much Ado About Nothing; As You Like It; Twelfth Night; etc) and histories (Henry IV Part I and II; Henry Vth, etc). Very soon after the accession of James I, he produced most of the great tragedies (Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, etc). Perhaps the ‘problem plays’ represent a transition towards a new style of play – the tragedies.
‘Problem Plays’ were originally so-defined because they were thought to deal with some ‘social problem’. Others think of them as problems, because they don’t easily fit into the usual categories of Shakespeare’s plays (Comedies; Tragedies; and Histories). I think they’re a problem because they’re quite difficult for a director to ‘make work’.
The Problem with All’s Well That Ends Well:
The main problem with All’s Well That Ends Well is that it has the ‘form’ of a Romantic Comedy, but it doesn’t meet our expectations of that form.
A Shakespearean Romantic Comedy usually has a ‘clash’ between two generations, often represented by a father and a daughter, where the younger generation triumphs when the daughter gets her way in the choice of a husband.
All’s Well That Ends Well follows this form, but with a number of differences which can confuse the audience.
The clash of generations comes between the King of France (proxy father) and Count Bertram – who refuses to marry Helena.
Although Helena loves Bertram, he is no fairy-tale prince, but an arrogant young man, who rejects Helena unpleasantly; tries to seduce a virtuous Florentine maiden, Diana, and lies about it to the French court, including the French king and his mother. Although Helena gets her man in the end, in traditional romantic comedy, no-one in the audience is under any illusion about the marriage.
Usually, in a Shakespearean romantic comedy, the younger generation triumphs over the foolish older generation. In All’s Well That Ends Well, the older generation (Countess, King, LaFew) seem considerate and forgiving, whilst it is the younger generation (Bertram, Parolles, and perhaps even Helena) who seem foolish.
There are two main sub-plots in the play, which complement each other.
In the lesser sub-plot, Parolles, an associate of Bertram, goes with him to the war in Florence. LaFew, an older generation courtier, is fairly sure that Parolles is a dandy and a coward. Bertram thinks he is a brave soldier.
In Florence, two French Lords, associates of Bertram, but who share LaFew’s view of Parolles, set a trap for Parolles to demonstrate that he is a coward and one who does not keep his word. Parolles falls head-first into the trap, and Bertram discovers what he is. Parolles is not too disconcerted:
….. If my heart were great
‘Twould burst at this. Captain I’ll be no more,
But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
As Captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live. Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this; for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an Ass.
Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and Parolles live
Safest in shame; being fooled, by foolery thrive.
There’s place and means for every man alive.
The main plot demonstrates similar points. Count Bertram, an aristocrat is loved by Helena a doctor’s daughter, or a very different social class. She saves the French king’s life, and as a reward, the king let’s her choose her own husband. She chooses Bertram, and he rejects her because she is not of the same social class. The French king forces him to marry her, but he vows not to ‘bed her’ and goes off to the Florentine war with Parolles. There, as well as fighting bravely, he tries to seduce a young Florentine, Diana. When he returns to France, Diana follows him, and complains to the French court that she has been seduced, and Bertram should marry her. Bertram fails this test, by ‘boggling’ (changing his story as more evidence comes out) just as Parolles had failed his. Parolles, much to Bertram’s discomfort, is one of the witnesses in his ‘trial’.
Helena arrives at the trial, everything is explained, Bertram realises how badly he has behaved, accepts Helena as his wife, and they almost certainly don’t live happily ever after.
Bertram is not so frank as Parolles:
If she, my Liege, can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
The play is not a Romantic Comedy. After editing the play, reading it twice in round-robin with my partner, I felt that it was impossible to put on a successful production.
Now, having seen a couple of productions (the BBC Shakespeare Collection production, and a recent Globe production -see links in index to the right), and having playread the play with our group in Edinburgh, I think it would be a rather exciting challenge to put on a production.
Castings and Play-readings
We provide a number of playreading castings online:
Online playreading castings for 6 – 10 players
The original Jacobean play casting for 18 players
Our own experience suggests that a play-reading will work best for 6 – 8 players, and so we allow these three castings to be downloaded for free as epubs for use on Apple iPads and iPhones using iBooks, and potentially Android smartphones and tablets using Google Play Books.
These downloads are available from the following links:
Playread Casting for 6:
Playread Casting for 7:
Playread Casting for 8: