Another unpopular "problem play" like Troilus and Cressida (though not as nauseating) and Measure for Measure, this "comedy" is also considered "unpleasant" (Asimov 595) and "rancid" (Bloom 346, 354). George Bernard Shaw called it a "bitter play with a bitter title" (qtd. in Wells 234). "All's Well and Measure for Measure are even more closely bound, by their use of the bed trick, their climactic scenes of 'rebirth' and restoration, and their inclusion of extensive discussions of virginity (Helena, Isabella) and a pregnant woman (Helena, Juliet) in the plot" (Garber 619). "In Measure for Measure a young woman seeks successfully to preserve her virginity by means of the bed-trick; in All's Well that Ends Well a different young woman seeks successfully to lose hers by the same means" (Wells 234). It's "Shakespeare's satire upon the male propensity scarcely to distinguish one woman from another" (Bloom 354). But attempts to account for the play itself typically founder: what are we to make of the assertion that this is a play "in which people's behaviour is explicitly related to abstract concepts and in which moral conflicts are explored though not necessarily resolved" (Wells 234)? Critical dissatisfaction stems from "the bitterness of the satire in a comedy, the disagreeable nature of the hero, and the forced, mechanical nature of the plot that ends unconvincingly" (Whalen 104). The verse itself is generally abstract, elliptical, compressed, tortuous, and obscure; and the text provides no real snazzy "Shakespeare" passages worth memorizing. Perhaps it was "written in the first place in a state of vacillation between romance and realism, or even between satire and romance" (Goddard, II 38).
The story in Boccaccio's Decameron, of Beltram of Rossiglione (Asimov 597), occurs with certain folktale analogues such as the abandoned wife trying to regain her husband with a series of impossible tasks, curing the sickness of the king, the bed-trick, an exchange of rings. Still, it is difficult to take the play as a kind of folk tale (Goddard, II 38). Shakespeare compresses time, makes Helena poor, Bertram more faulty, and adds four new characters (the Countess, Lafew, Parolles, Lavatch). The play is also shot through with moral reflectiveness, and is unpopular because of this conscious intellectuality.
A play sounding like an earlier version of All's Well was presented early in January 1578/9: The historie of the Rape of the second Helene (Clark 110; Ogburn and Ogburn 79, 160; Farina 77): note some references to Troy and Priam (I.iii.68f). The elder Ogburns suggest an earlier version from 1572 (Ogburn and Ogburn 161). The assumption that Shakespeare intends a Roussillon like Boccaccio's, at the foot of the Pyrenees gives rise to some geographical oddities. The fact is that he intends the Castle of Rousillon in the valley of the Rhone, twenty miles from Tournon. "In Oxford's day it was occupied by the Dowager Countess of Rousillon, mother of Hélène of Tournon, whose tragic death in 1577, is reflected in the death of Ophelia. Hélène of Tournon, daughter of one of the ladies in waiting on Marquerite [sic], Queen of Navarre, died of love for a young nobleman" (Clark 121). Helena "is said to have come in 'four or five removes' [V.iii.131] from Marseilles to Roussillon, which of course was nonsense if Roussillon was by the Pyranees, but correct as from Marseilles to the Castle of the Dowager Countess of Rousillon. For the latter the trip would be in four stages, or removes: Lançon, Avignon, Montelimar, and Valence" (Clark 121; cf. Anderson 108-109, Farina 78).
"In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband" (I.i.1-2). In a gloomy opening, we learn that the Countess of Rossillion's husband has died not long ago and that her son Bertram will relocate to the French court, as a ward to the crown, a situation he sees as his being "evermore in subjection" (I.i.5).
Edward de Vere's early life as a ward of the crown, under the care of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, upon the death of de Vere's father, and being married at 21, no doubt because of political pressure, is mirrored in the case of Bertram. Note that "A count in France is the equivalent of an earl in England" (Whalen 105). When Arthur Hall also became a ward of the court, his widowed mother behaved as described here: "Sir Richard Cotton gave Cecil a moving account of her grief at the loss of her husband, a loss which became doubly painful, when she learnt that her son must leave her ... (within two months) Arthur Hall became a member of Cecil's household" (qtd. in Clark 112). Bertram "apparently knows in advance that his wardship will not be sold, and that he will be in subjection to the King evermore [I.i.5]. Considering that only nine young men of Elizabeth's reign enjoyed (endured) this very rare type of guardianship under the crown, the author's knowledge and appreciation of it must have its origin in personal experience" (Clark 113; cf. Anderson 18).
Lafew, an elder statesman, sounds like Polonius in style (I.i.13-16) but is not as despicable, probably because as what was originally an early play it does not contain Oxford's later fuller awarenesses of Burghley's grasping manipulations.
Queen Elizabeth's health in 1571 had suffered due to a fistula on her leg, an ulcer above her ankle (Ogburn and Ogburn 164-165). It is specifically a "fistula" mentioned here as the monarch's affliction (I.i.34).
We learn of Helena, ward of the Countess, whose father, Gerard de Narbon was a physician and has also died. Again, the de Vere biography sheds light: the commoner Burghley's daughter would be made de Vere's wife, even though the two would have grown up in the same household and differed significantly in social rank. "As in All's Well, the young Earl of Oxford is brought up with a girl who fell in love with him, Anne Cecil, although his exalted social position placed him outside her matrimonial order" (Clark 114). The father of Helena being dead may also suggest the death of Burghley. That Helena is so focused on Bertram rather than emotionally overwrought about her late father reflects an ideal of devotion to Oxford rather than what seems to have been the unfortunate truth for that 16th-century marriage. The weirdness of the forced marriage plot, and other matters later, make it odd that Shake-speare would be writing about the events of his early life this late, unless the play also serves as a sort of guilt expiation after the death of his first wife.
We learn the King is ill and that the Countess respects Helena, despite her social status. The Countess, according to George Bernard Shaw, is "the most beautiful old woman's part ever written." Helena's opening lines echo Hamlet also. The Countess warns Helena of mourning overly, "lest it be rather thought you affect a sorrow than to have--" and Helena interrupts, "I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too." Then Lafew chimes in like Claudius: "Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy of the living" (I.i.52-56).
Comparisons of Bertram to his virtuous father -- à la Hamlet to Hamlet Sr. -- begin here and will soon feel oppressive. Also as with Hamlet, the passing of the father is "something that takes place before the play's action begins, an event that carries less significance in itself than it does in its aftermath" (Anderson 17). In a twist, it's the Countess who takes on the Polonian role in giving Bertram a litany of advice (I.i.61-70). The Countess [partly Queen Elizabeth?] appoints Lafew to advise Bertram. And "one of the things that makes All's Well a curious kind of comedy is its insistence on this age gap (Garber 620).
Alone on stage, Helena acknowledges that not merely the death of her father but also the coming departure of Bertram account for her depression. With astronomical imagery and a potentially comic degree of the manic, she professes her love for Bertram: "That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it, he is so above me" (I.i.86-87).
When Parolles, "a parasitical follower of Bertram," approaches, "a fashionmonger, in other words, a parrot, a parasite, a flatterer, an echo, a copy-cat, a so-say-I, a fool of time" (Goddard, II 44), Helena certifies the assessment, declaring him a liar and coward (I.i.100-101). He reminds some of Armado in Love's Labour's Lost (Ogburn and Ogburn 198). "As a matter of fact, everyone who meets Parolles sees through him at once and knows him to be all talk (his very name is related to the French word for 'words'). Only Bertram is deceived and takes him for genuine, which seems to be clear evidence that Bertram is rather a fool" (Asimov 598). "Many critics have disliked Parolles, but I cannot imagine why; he is a splendid scoundrel, perfectly transparent to anyone of good sense, which of course does not include Bertram" (Bloom 346). "Parolles is a mere braggart soldier, an imposter, a liar, a leech, considerably more interesting than the warring and whoring Bertram" (Bloom 348). "It may be doubted if there is any other figure in Shakespeare for whom so many other characters in the same play express such unanimously savage scorn" (Goddard, II 44).
When Helena and Parolles banter about the topic of virginity, it cannot be taken as flirting on Helena's part. Courtly wit is exchanged, showing that Helena is no wilting violet but can hold her own in such repartee. Still, "her conversation with Parolles on virginity seems to the modern reader out of key" and we are apt to be "shocked by its frankness" (Goddard, II 41) and by the language of capitalist commodification: e.g., "Off with't while 'tis vendible" (I.i.154-155). The scene includes a few terms suggesting Anne Cecil, the "little countess of Oxford" (Ogburn and Ogburn 162). It also seems to contain an indirect and ambivalent tribute to Queen Elizabeth (Ogburn and Ogburn 172):
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,
A phoenix, captain, and an enemy,
A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,
A counsellor, a traitress, and a dear....
"Anne Cecil seems to have disliked [Rowland] Yorke from the beginning of her marriage; it may have been a young wife's instinctive jealousy for her husband's friend, with whom he could share so much barred to her" (Pearson 158).
After Parolles' self-important exit -- "I am so full of businesses, I cannot answer thee acutely" (I.i.206-207) -- Helena acknowledges (in rhyming verse) that people are often apt to project their own will or initiative onto the heavens or fate. Echoing lines from Julius Caesar, she remarks, "Our remedies oft in themselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven" (I.i.216-217). But she also insists rather severely in a self-instigated pep talk that her "intents are fixed" (I.i.229). "Narcissistically Bertram, an earliest playfellow, is what Helena longed to be, the authentic child of her foster mother, while in the leaning-against mode, Bertram would have symbolized both lost fathers, his and hers. Helena's love therefore is overdetermined to a degree unusual even in Shakespeare" (Bloom 349).
The phrase in the first line, "The Florentines and Senoys are by th' ears" (I.ii.i), is "a translation of a very real Italian colloquialism" (Farina 79). The King is ill in bed and lords discuss the Italian wars as "A nursery to our gentry" (I.ii.16) -- a gymnasium or training ground for the French gentlemen to exercise in and mature. In 1578 hostilities in the Low Countries provided this for Englishmen (Ogburn and Ogburn 167). When Bertram arrives, the King yammers on about his old friend, Bertram's spiffy father. Did de Vere as 17th Earl of Oxford have a similarly colossal legacy to uphold? "The State Papers Domestic in the early part of the reign of Elizabeth I show these words to be true as to John, the 16th Earl of Oxford" (Clark 110).
The King speaks in a melancholy mood, anticipating his own impending death. When one lord insists he'll be missed because he is so loved, the King responds, "I fill a place, I know't" (I.ii.69).
The clown Lavatch has requested that the Countess allow him to marry the servant Isbel, bantering about marriage as repentence for sins of the flesh and offering some paradoxical sophistry about the benefits of being cuckolded. "'Isbel' is a nicely down-market version of the far more formal, and far more virginal, Isabella, immortalized in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure" (Garber 629).
References to Priam and Troy (I.iii.70f) lend credence to the idea that this play at an earlier stage was called The Rape of the Second Helen (Ogburn and Ogburn 160). One thinks also of court life under Elizabeth when the Clown dwells on this point: "That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!" (I.iii.92-93).
A steward, Rinaldo, reports to the Countess that Helena is in love with Bertram. The Countess extends kindness to Helena, offering to act as a mother to her. A passage with I/die rhyming (I.iii.158-159) sounds perhaps like Oxford's "Echo Poem" (Ogburn and Ogburn 161). But Helena insists in a panicked way that "The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother" (I.iii.155) -- since given her own perspective, that would make her thoughts incestuous! Uncharacteristically, the older generation in this play is much less classist than the younger, and the Countess approves of the match. Unless Helena is a clever fortune-hunter, which some have suggested, she sounds sincere when she laments, "Nor would I have him till I do deserve him, / Yet never know how that desert should be" (I.iii.199-200). (It will be largely because of how far Bertram lowers himself.) Although the Countess points out the likely dismissal of "A poor unlearned virgin" (I.iii.241) in the Parisian court when the medical experts have failed, Helena will apply her father's art to the sick King.
Expectations are inverted regarding the older generation on the question of marrying for love. In this play the old are generous and flexible; the young tend to be class-conscious snobs.