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All's Well that Ends Well

Author: Shakespeare William

Genre: Drama

Year: 1601


Helena, daughter of a famous physician, has since her father's death been the ward of the COuntess of Roussillon.  She is in love with the Countess's snobbish son Bertram.  Hearing that the King is sick and has said that whoever cures him can name their reward, she gives him a healing potion and asks him to order Bertram to marry her.  Immediately after the wedding, Bertram leaves for war in Italy with his friend Parolles.  He writes a letter to Helena saying that if she wants him to accept her as his wife, she must first get a ring from his finger and become pregnant with his child - conditions which ihe thinkgs will never be fulfilled.  Helena disguises herself as a pilgrim and goes to Florence, where she intends to find Betram or bcome a man.  She lodges with the same widow as Betram, and makes friends with Diana, the widow's daughter.  Betram is trying to seduce Diana, and the women conspire to outwit him.  Helena takes Diana's place in Betram's bed, sleeps with him and takes his ring.

Having (as he thinks) succeeded with Diana, and hearing that Helena has died in France, Betram now plans to return home.  (He is delayed by two officers, the brothers Dumain, who trick Parolles into showing Betram that he is not the honest, loyal friend he tought was.)  Back in France, Betram makes plans to marry the daughter of Lord Lafeu.  But at the last moment Diana marry the daughter of Lord Lafeu.  But at the last moment Diana appears, waving a ring (not Betram's ring, but one the French king earlier gave Helena) and claiming that he promised to marry her and then deserted her.  Betram angrily denies this, and Diana is about to be arrested when Helena comes in, wearing Betram's ring and pregnant with his child.  the conditions of the letter have been exactly fulfilled, and he has no choice but to accept her as his wife.

The atmosphere of this subtle, haunting play is sometimes described as Chekhovian, blending melancholy stoicism with powerful emotional and social realism.  As with Chekhov's plays, its underlying points seem to be that comedy and tragedy are entwined in human life, and that although happiness is ultimately possible, even certain, it is achieved unexpectedly and as if by default.  However destructive and obsessive human character may be, it still has a positive potential; at some time in the future, when we least expect it, 'briars shall have leaves as well as thors/And be as sweet as sharp'."

The Chekhovian mood is only one dimension of the play.  In a way characteristic of Shakespeare's 'bitter comedies' (the others are Troilus and Cressilda and Measure for Measure), All's Well That Ends Well draws ideas from several different genres, deconstructing or ironizing them in the process.  For example, at its heart is the story, common in romance of an orphan girl in love with a rich young boy who does not love her.  Shakespeare adds to this a motif from fairy-tale, Helena's magic curing of the king -- and then twists them together to pose a plot-problem of a new and psychologically vexing kind, realistic and outside the realms of either romance or fairy tale.  What hapens when the tables are turned and the rich younng boy is handed to the orphan girl as prize?  At first he rejects her, and the play seems simply to be ringing changes on the same old fairy-tale dilemma. 

In the play's last scene the various genres overlap and merge.  Realism, magic, fairy-tale, romance, the counterpointing of ideas in epic theatre, all converge t produce an answer to the riddle in epic theatre, all converge to produce an answer to the riddle posed at the start of the action, a happy ending which has been reached only becase the two main characters have changed. 

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