All’s Well That Ends Well is a comedy written by William Shakespeare in the early 1600s. It was inspired, like many Shakespeare plays, by a folk tale that had been recorded in older literary works. All’s Well That Ends Well is described as one of the “problem plays” he wrote during this period. This is because Shakespeare’s approach to the story was unconventional for comedies of the time. Numerous generations of actors and literary critics have since offered their own interpretations of what Shakespeare intended.
Although its precise date is not known, Shakespeare scholars believe All’s Well That Ends Well was written between 1601 and 1605. By this time, he had been active in the London theatre for a decade, writing historical plays and comedies. His likely source for the story was William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, a contemporary book offering English translations of European literary works. In this case, it was a tale relayed by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th-century classic The Decameron. Boccaccio’s source, in turn, was probably a common folk tale in medieval Europe.
In the play, the heroine Helen manages to wed the noble Bertram through convoluted circumstances. Bertram flees the country rather than follow a royal order to marry Helen, whom he does not particularly like. Helen follows and tricks him into impregnating her, causing him to reluctantly agree to the marriage in the play’s final moments. This is not a typical approach to romantic comedy, then or now. The morally ambiguous territory of Shakespeare works like All’s Well That Ends Well led 19th-century literary critic F.S. Boas to coin the term “problem plays.”
The problem plays include Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida as well as All’s Well That Ends Well. All were written between 1600 and 1605, the same period that saw the creation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet. It is possible that these plays represent the Bard’s dissatisfaction with the simple comedic tropes of his time. By adding darker and more complex actions and motivations to his characters, he increased the literary qualities that keep his plays alive for audiences centuries later. This literary complexity was also present in the plays he created afterward, including King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest.
This does not make All’s Well That Ends Well any easier for actors to interpret, however. The character of Bertram is unsympathetic almost until the play’s end, and Helen’s methods at winning him are morally questionable. As no records of the play’s early performances survive, it has fallen to later generations of actors to find sympathetic ways to portray the characters. They have achieved this by adding subtle emotional levels of naiveté or amorous confusion, or simply through physical charm. Shakespeare’s ambiguous take on the story may extend to its title, which asserts that in a comedy, a happy outcome is all that really matters.