All’s Well That Ends Well

All’s Well that Ends Well is a First Folio play inspired from Giovanni Boccacio’s Decameron (1353) by way of either William Painter’s own expurgated version “Palace of Pleasure” (1566) or another version by Antoine le Maçon. This collection of stories appeared during 1348 when a plague swept through Florence and ten storytellers were enlisted to entertain and relieve the gruesome horrors with ten tales a day at the noble’s court, hence its title. Several academics are inclined to think that this play was formerly known as Love’s Labours Won and was written as a counterpart to Love’s Labours Lost. This was not the only play in Shakespeare’s folio that was influenced or derived largely from the Florentine school, the history of Cymbelline was another and Geoffrey Chaucer’s work “The Canterbury Tales” was also greatly influenced by Boccaccio’s own classic collection. The occultist and astrologer John Florio only completed a translation of Decameron in 1620, so we can be certain that Painter’s play was the original source for Shakespeare’s own version in dramatic form. Indeed, he may have borrowed much from Painter’s plays in the early years of his career, for example in the development of the plot in Romeo & Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Merchant of Venice. With the adaptation provided by the role reversal the play itself highlights the virtues of female persistence and constancy, despite the scorn and neglect of a lover, and of course a rendition of the familiar “bed-trick”. Here, the heroine’s reward is the man of her dreams, who is himself uneasy about being regarded merely as the object of her desires.

It is a peculiar hybrid of folk tale and morality play and yet it is set within a realistic social environment. The folkloric leitmotif is that of the King who is cured by the magic potency of the Virgin Maiden who awakens the powers or status of the father figure (Fisher King & Cinderella). In many of these popular fairy tales the heroine represents a clever wench who fulfils some impossible conditions imposed on her by some authority figure eg: Rumpelstiltskin and in the final analysis, as in Cinderella, she manages to marry her high born prince. A study in the ravages of time or change and the inherent conflict between two generations, one in decline, the other in ascendancy are reminiscent of the end of the Elizabethan era itself? In Greek mythology it parallels the story of Perseus and Andromeda – the helpless maiden who was chained to a rock. From the Arthurian narrative strand it mirrors the tale of Sir Gareth who, while in search of a dragon, encounters a lady in need of assistance in the forest.

Synopsis of the Play: “The Impossible Task” or The Wheel of Fortune

On the death of his father, a certain youthful fellow called Bertram inherits the title Count of Rousillon, and is subsequently made a ward of the French court and immediately summoned to Paris by the King. On their journey the young ward, Bertram is accompanied by an elderly Lord, Lafeu and a bragging, pernicious wastrel named Parolles. On their arrival in Paris it is soon discovered that the King is seriously ill and apparently close to death. Bertram is the love object of a certain Helena (the daughter of a physician), she thinks that her lowly office is unsuited to Bertram’s new-found status and prosperity. Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Rousillon becomes aware of Helena’s admiration, rejoices in the match and sends her to Paris under the pretext of advising on the well-being of the King and proposing a potion prescribed by her father. Helena agrees to cure the King but also makes a request of her own, ie: the choice of any man from his court. After the administration of a cure the King’s health improves dramatically and Helena is given her reward, namely the choice of Bertram, although he arrogantly feels she is wholly beneath his current station. However, the King wisely concedes to the union and Bertram, still a ward of court has to agree. The other young noblemen are preparing to take part in the Florentine War and on the eve of the wedding of Bertram and Helena, the rascal Parolles persuades Bertram to abscond for military campaigns in Tuscany and deserting Helena.
The poor rejected Helena returns sadly to her province of Rousillon where she receives an explanatory letter from Bertram informing her love is surely hopeless, unless, as Bertram defiantly boasts she can possibly gain possession of his ring or sire his child in breach of his absence. In effect this situation becomes, at least for the heroine Helena, the “Impossible Quest” or task imposed on her by the object of her desire. Undeterred and full of determination, together with some element of feminine guile she disguises herself as a pilgrim and goes forthwith to Florence. While she is lodging with a reputable dame Marianna from the region, she discovers from her that the scoundrel Parolles is already attempting to secure a sexual liaison between her virtuous daughter Diana and Bertram. Meanwhile, the reluctant Bertram soon discovers that Parolles is simply a coward and a scoundrel and with the assistance of his lords decides to play a trick on him. He is charged with securing a drum captured by the enemy. They observe his every move and pounce on him unawares. However, while this secondary plot is being hatched, Helena gains the confidence of Lady Marianna by revealing her true identity and suggests employing a sexual exchange or “bed-trick”, so that she will be able to successfully consummate her marriage to Bertram and also secure his ring. Marianna’s daughter is also recruited in the conspiracy and told to agree to a sexual encounter if Bertram might surrender a certain ring as payment. Meanwhile, Parolles is duly exposed as a lying coward when he is sent on an errand to recover a drum from the enemy. Helena manages to gain access to Bertram in the guise of Diana and on top of that to secure the ring, in exchange for another token thereby fulfilling the requirements that Bertram had imposed on her. She then departs for Marseilles and at the King’s court she is presumed dead or missing. It is now being arranged for Lafeu’s daughter to be Bertram’s second wife and Bertram gives the ring bestowed on him by Helena as a token of his respect. The ring is identified as belonging to Helena and Bertram, and suspected of secretly murdering her, Bertram is promptly arrested. To add further spice to the affair Diana turns up at the French court and accuses Bertram of seducing her with a promise of marriage and then deserting her. As proof of her assertions she confidently displays the ring which he had exchanged unwittingly with Helena, his real wife. As Diana refuses to give any proof of her scandalous accusations to the King she is imprisoned and Helena has to step forward into the denouement and gives her own true account of events. The King is relieved, Bertram is dutifully repentant and, in the light of the true facts agrees to honour his marriage with Helena.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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