William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well
is classified as a “problem play” because it is not truly a comedy or a tragedy. The plot focuses on characters who have seemingly endless problems, but they turn out okay in the end. The play was originally published in Shakespeare’s First Folio
, a collection of his dramatic works, in 1623. It was written sometime between 1604 and 1605. The world’s most famous playwright, Shakespeare’s plays are still regularly taught and performed today.
The play begins in the late Count of Rousillon’s palace. His son, Bertram, has been summoned to the royal court. The king, gravely ill, is gathering courtiers around him. The Countess despairs because her son is leaving her. She will be alone in the palace, now she has lost the two men she loves. Bertram wishes he could make her feel better.
Meanwhile, the young girl Helena is heartbroken. Although she is of low birth, the orphaned child of a once-famous doctor, the Countess took her in. However, the Countess doesn’t know that Helena is deeply in love with Bertram, even though Helena knows he’s above her social station. The Countess wishes that Helena’s father were still alive. He could have cured the king, ensuring Bertram stayed home.
Helena decides to follow Bertram to court to cure the king’s illness. Knowing she has her father’s skill, Helena hopes to win Bertram’s affections. Although the king’s own physicians are wary about letting an untested young girl near the king, the king knows she might be the only one who can heal him. However, if Helena cannot cure him, she will be executed.
In Act II, Helena is willing to take her chances in the name of love. When she cures the king in Paris, he offers her a gift—she can marry any man she wants. Helena, naturally, chooses Bertram. Bertram doesn’t want to marry Helena. The king, however, makes Bertram marry Helena, because he promised the girl whomever she wanted.
Helena realizes that Bertram will never love her. She wishes she had not married him. Bertram sends her home, promising to return later. Helena knows he won’t, but she is glad to get away from him. When Helena leaves, Bertram admits to his friend that he is never going home again, instead, he’s fleeing to Italy. He invites his friend to go with him.
Meanwhile, Helena arrives home. The Countess is angry with her son for abandoning Helena and defying the king’s wishes. She knows Helena is a virtuous, lovely girl who deserves better treatment. She is not concerned with Helena’s social standing; instead, she despairs that her son thinks he’s above other people.
Bertram writes to Helena, explaining he won’t return home until she is gone. He also won’t look at her again until she is carrying his child, which is, of course, impossible. Having suffered enough humiliation, Helena decides to run away. During the night, she will disappear. The Countess knows nothing of her plans.
Later, the Countess receives word from Helena that she is on a religious pilgrimage. She tells her steward to write to Bertram to tell him to come home because Helena is gone. She plans to get Helena back and to make them accept their marriage vows. Word reaches the Countess that her son is doing well in Florence, where he is distinguishing himself as a good soldier, but she doesn’t care. She wants him home.
Eventually, Bertram returns. He is part of a procession winding its way through the streets. Helena sneaks into the crowd to watch him, disguised as a pilgrim. She meets a widower and his daughter, Diana. They are happy to let her stay with them for a time. They share a lot of gossip with her. They have heard the story of the unhappy Count who married a woman against his will. He ran away to escape his strange wife; now, he’s back because she is gone.
Helena doesn’t reveal her identity. She asks Diana how she knows so much. Diana reveals that Bertram courts her. Eventually, Helena explains that she is Bertram’s lawful wife, but she will help Diana get him if that is what she wants. She will pretend to be dead so Bertram can marry again. In exchange, she asks for a dowry to secure her own better marriage. Diana does not want Bertram now, but she goes along with the plan.
Meanwhile, the Countess humiliates Bertram for his behavior. He begs the king for forgiveness. The king grants it, but he worries Bertram murdered Helena when Bertram tries to marry Diana. Diana’s mother brings in Helena. The king is delighted to see her alive and well; he knows they have played a trick on Bertram.
Bertram, seeing the error of his ways, promises to love Helena. He asks her forgiveness although he knows she might not give it. Helena, however, is satisfied Bertram has learned a lesson in humility, and she forgives him. They are reunited and begin their marriage anew.