This is a very strange play and does not fit into the structure of a typical Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage (conversely, tragedies end in death), but this play, even though considered a comedy, does not end in marriage. In fact, the marriage happens at the beginning, and ends with the consummation of the marriage through trickery. On a very high level, Bertram is ordered by the King to marry Helena, which he does, but then decides to leave her and go off to war so as not to have to “officially” become her husband. Helena later tricks Bertram into having sex with her by pretending to be another woman that Bertram was wooing. Helena gets pregnant and Bertram finally has to acknowledge her as his wife.
Viewed from the post-MeToo perspective, this play does anything but end well. Bertram is a weasel, a liar, and a womanizer, and Helena would have been better off without him. I suppose you could present the play as satire, but I don’t think that is how Shakespeare intended it. Ultimately, marriage and the consummation of the marriage is the goal, even if this is accomplished via deception.
At the heart of this play is Machiavellian philosophy as expressed through The Prince.
Yet, I pray you:
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.
(Act IV, scene iv)
Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, and All’s Well That Ends Well was written sometime between 1598 and 1608, so Shakespeare would have known about Machiavelli’s famous quote: “The ends justify the means.” Shakespeare is paraphrasing Machiavelli in this quote, “the fine” meaning the finish or the crowning achievement. Additionally, the last line of the quote reemphasizes that whatever the course of events, it is the end result that matters most.
Overall, I did not hate this play, nor did I love it. It has some interesting aspects, particularly surrounding the character Parolles (hint – his name is a play on the French word “paroles” meaning “words”). But the play has problems, and personally, I could not find myself relating to any of the characters. They all seemed deeply flawed in their own ways. But maybe that is another message to be gained from this play, that we all have our issues and problems, and ultimately, it’s what we do in the end that matters.
Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading cool stuff.