Bluff Your Way Through the Play – All’s Well That Ends Well

We can’t blame you if you’re not familiar with All’s Well That Ends Well. It’s a play that mixes light and dark, joy and melancholy. It uses fairy tale conventions, but gives them a twist. Here are a few pointers to help acquaint you better with the play.

I Called It First

Before Leo Tolstoy found the final tile for his novel War and Peace, he considered calling his epic All’s Well That Ends Well.

Polarizing Protagonist

Victorian theatre artists had mixed feelings about All’s Well That Ends Well. Acclaimed actress Ellen Terry found Helena’s pursuit of Bertram to be predatory and “undignified.”

Playwright George Bernard Shaw praised Helena for embodying the New Woman and compared her to Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

Ominous Opening

The first recorded performance of All’s Well That Ends Well in 1742 didn’t end so well.

The actress playing Helena fell ill on opening night and the actor playing the ailing King of France was ailing himself and died during the run — earning the play a cursed reputation.

A Little of This a Little of That

Shakespeare often borrowed stock characters from the Italian theatre tradition of commedia dell’arte.

The character of Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well would have been immediately recognized by Elizabethan audiences as a variation of the comic braggart soldier El Capitan.

Defying Definition

All’s Well That Ends Well should probably have a question mark tacked onto its title. The fairy tale-like story deals with grief while trying to resolve an ethical dilemma. Mingling comedy with tragedy, it’s a play that defies categories.

How Am I Supposed to Feel?

There are only two Shakespeare plays that give you an indication of how we’re supposed to feel about the play: All’s Well That Ends Well and As You Like It.

What’s Under the Sheets?

The bed trick is a plot device used both in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. The most common is when a man thinks he’s having sex with one woman, but without his knowledge a second woman takes the place of the first.  While hardly believable, the device does open up the opportunity to comment on relationships.

Mother Dearest

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of just a few of Shakespeare’s plays that features a mother, the Countess of Roussillon, as a prominent character.

Marrying Up

Shakespeare used the device of “marrying above one’s station” to create friction (whether real or imagined) in All’s Well That Ends Well, and the plot twist is just as popular a story line today.

From Jane Austen’s heroines to Meghan Markle’s royal wedding to the film and book Crazy Rich Asians, the triumph of love over class is one that continues to resonate.

Foul Papers

Scholars believe that All’s Well That Ends Well was published from a working draft, known as “foul papers.”

In the original script the Countess’s lines are attributed variously to “Mother,” “Lady,” “Countess,” and “Old Countess.” Other characters are referred to by title only in the beginning of the script and assigned given names later in the story.

Gender Flip Fairytale

It’s a familiar plot: A hero accomplishes an impossible task and gets rewarded by a king with the princess’s hand in marriage. In the case of Helena, she does the impossible task (healing the king) and Bertram (as the king’s ward) takes the place of the princess.