Written in 1602-3, this is one of Shakespeare’s later comedies, and it is as full of problems as any play he ever wrote. It is at once engaging and repellent, and its characters are to a large measure rather alien and unpleasant. It provides, I think, both a suitable finish to the course and reasonable ground for subsequent reading of other Shakespeare plays.
Things to consider while reading All’s Well that Ends Well
This is one of Shakespeare’s plays that generally is grouped in the heading of the “problem comedies” — that is, a comedy (formally — ending in a positive outcome and without anyone dying) that is dark in tonality and filled with the kind of situations that could easily lead to tragedy.
The class of “problem comedies” was proposed by the Shakespeare critic F. S. Boas in 1896 (Shakespeare and his Predecessors). There has been considerable debate about the validity of such a classification at all, but the term may be used advisedly, with a realization of its limitations. To some extent, all comedies are problem comedies. The plays in this group, however, all tend to come fairly late in Shakespeare’s career (1595-1605), and to deal with dark themes of unchastity and in particular a threat of rape. The problem comedies generally include this play, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and some would add a few others to the list, specifically The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens, and The Merchant of Venice.
Two — this one and Measure for Measure — are resolved in part by the so-called “bed trick” in which a rapist’s purposes are foiled by the substitution of another woman — generally the wife or betrothed of the villain — for the intended victim in such a way that the perpetrator is unaware of the substitution. Such plays are obviously rather disturbing in their implications, and I do recommend some parental discretion here. It is worth noting, however, that the device has scriptural antecedents (Rachel substituted by Leah), and a number of cases in Arthurian romance, as well as the Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio. Something like it occurrs in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. In both instances in Shakespeare’s plays, the “bed trick” is in fact used to support conventional sexual morality — leading the husband to consummate his marriage with his wedded or betrothed wife — though it was used for more salacious or lurid purposes by a number of other later poets and playwrights.
A narrative retelling of All’s Well that Ends Well from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.
Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on All’s Well that Ends Well, containing a brief synopsis of the play and the production history with the company.
Here’s a summary of All’s Well That Ends Well on film.
All’s Well that Ends Well and what has come before
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
Symmetries in the play
Problems in the play
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