61 pages 2 hours read

William Shakespeare

All's Well That Ends Well

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1602

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Summary and Study Guide


All’s Well That Ends Well is a play by William Shakespeare (1582-1616), one of the most influential writers in the English language. The date of composition is not known, but All’s Well That Ends Well was first performed between 1598 and 1608. It was published in 1623, in the First Folio. Shakespeare’s work is part of Early Modern English literature, alongside playwrights like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, during which time the play and theater were expanding readily. Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including All’s Well That Ends Well, include retellings of well-known stories, with the inspiration for the main plot surrounding Helen in All’s Well coming from the influential medieval Italian collection of tales The Decameron (1353).

All’s Well That Ends Well is a dark comedy, and it is often identified as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” characterized by both comic and tragic elements and a complex, ambiguous tone. Though the play is humorous, “comedy” at this time denoted a work with a happy ending, specifically a marriage, as opposed to one with a tragic ending. All’s Well That Ends Well covers themes of Female Agency and Social Expectations, The Social Construct of Honor and Reputation, The Question of Whether the End Justifies the Means, and The Nature of True Love and Duty, as Helen works to secure her marriage to Bertram through various social and legal conventions.

This guide uses the Folger Library edition of All’s Well That Ends Well, published by Simon & Schuster in 2001. This text is also available online. Citations given are to act, scene, and line in this edition. Versions of the play vary in naming the main character Helen or Helena; this guide follows the Folger Library style in calling her Helen.

Content Warning: The play includes themes of sexism and misogyny, sexual coercion, and manipulative behaviors portrayed in a comedic light.

Plot Summary

At the opening of the play, the Count of Rossillion has just died, and his physician, Gerard de Narbon, died six months prior. The Count’s son, Bertram, is too young to assume the title of Count, so he is going to Paris to become a ward of the King. Gerard’s daughter, Helen, is in love with Bertram, and she is distraught that Bertram is leaving. Because Helen is common born, she knows that she has little chance of marrying a noble like Bertram, but she concocts a plan to heal the King of a fistula in exchange for arranging her marriage to Bertram. The Countess, Bertram’s mother and Helena’s guardian, expresses her sincere love for Helen, and she supports Helen in her endeavor, giving her the means to travel to Paris.

Bertram, frustrated with his wardship, thinks about running away to fight in the Florentine wars. The French King decides not to send aid to either side (Florence or Siena) in the conflict, but he allows his lords to go to battle for whichever side they choose. However, the King forbids Bertram from fighting, on account of his young age. Struggling with his fistula, the King laments that he may not live much longer, but Helen arrives with medicine her father left her when he died. The King is skeptical, but Helen agrees to be executed if her treatment fails. When Helen’s treatment works, the King offers Helen whatever she desires, and she chooses to marry Bertram. Bertram rejects Helena but is forced to marry her. He refuses to consummate the marriage (which makes it legally invalid) and says, paradoxically, that he will only fulfill the marriage when Helen bears his child and wears his ring. He leaves immediately to fight in Florence.

Helen is dismayed by Bertram’s reaction, and the Countess disowns Bertram, saying that Helen will be her child instead. Helen follows Bertram to Florence, where she spreads word that she is dead and disguises herself as a pilgrim. She befriends a widow and her daughters, Mariana and Diana, and discovers that Bertram is planning to seduce Diana. Bertram is successful in the military, earning commendations from the Duke of Florence. He discovers that Parolles, a soldier in his service, is a coward and may betray the French. Bertram and his soldiers capture Parolles, pretending to be enemy soldiers, and, when Parolles betrays himself, they reveal themselves and leave him in Florence.

In Florence, Bertram seduces Diana by promising to marry her, unaware that Diana is tricking him on the advice of her mother and Helen. At the appointed time for Bertram to sleep with Diana, Helen takes Diana’s place in bed, thus sleeping with Bertram. In the process, Helen takes Bertram’s ring, which is evidence of his identity and promise to her, and gives him her ring, which was a gift from the King. Bertram heads back to Rossillion, thinking he has taken Diana’s virginity. Helen, Diana, and the Widow leave for Rossillion to confront him.

In Rossillion, the King and Countess lament Helen’s death, thinking the rumors of her death to be true. They greet Bertram on his arrival. Bertram is now intended to marry the daughter of one of the King’s men, Lafew, but the King notices Bertram is wearing Helen’s ring. The Countess notes the ring as well, and they accuse Bertram of causing harm to Helen. Bertram denies it, saying he was given the ring by a noblewoman who considered herself engaged to him. Diana arrives and claims that, though Bertram seduced her unfairly, he did not have sex with her, nor did she give him Helen’s ring. Helen enters, surprising everyone. Helen reveals the truth and that she is pregnant with Bertram’s child. Bertram is won over by Helen’s cleverness and swears to love her as her husband, and the King offers to reward Diana for her trouble.