Shakespeare’s Sources – All’s Well That Ends Well

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Boccaccio - writer of the original source for All's Well That Ends Well

Continuing my series of blogs on Shakespeare’s sources today I turn my attention to All’s Well That Ends Well. Despite it’s title readers or audience members may well feel that the play does not end all that well, leaving us uncertain of the ‘happiness’ of the union between Helena and Bertram who is tricked into loving her. But in fact the original was little more convincing in its happy ending (at least to modern readers!).  The primary source for All’s Well That Ends Well was The Decameron (ninth novel, third day), written by Giovanni Boccaccio in 1353. Shakespeare could have read the text in its original Italian, as you will know if you have followed this series, Shakespeare used several Italian sources,  but it is most likely that he worked from the translation by William Painter, retold in The Palace of Pleasures, in 1575. Painter, an English clerk, gathered his collection of ‘Pleasant Histories and excellent Novelles’ from authors like Bandello, Livy, and Marguerite of Navarre, in addition to Boccaccio. The following is Painter’s synopsis of Boccaccio’s story (original spelling):

“Giletta a phisician’s doughter of Narbon, healed the Frenche Kyng of a fistula, for reward whereof she demaunded Beltramo Counte of Rossiglione to husbande. The Counte beying maried againste his will, for despite fled toFlorenceand loved an other. Giletta his wife, by pollicie founde meanes to lye with her husbande, in place of his lover, and was begotten with child of two sonnes: which knowen to her husbande, he received her againe, and afterwardes he lived in great honour and felicite.”

You will recognise the story as basically the same as All’s Well That Ends Well  and you will see too the somewhat simplistic assumption that they lived afterwards in ‘Great honour and felicite’. He happily forgetting that his wife tricked him not once but twice and she seeming to forget all his cruel disdainful words. If that was the synopsis you can see a similar simplicity in the ending of the original Source

“Commending her admirable constancy, exceliency of wit, and sprightly courage, in making such a bold adventure; he kissed the two sweete boyes, and to keepe his promise, whereto he was earnestly importuned, by all his best esteemed friends there present, especially the honourable Ladies, who would have no deniall, but by forgetting his former harsh and uncivill carriage towards her, to accept her for ever as his lawfull wife, folding her in his armes, and sweetly kissing her divers times together, he bad her welcome to him, as his vertuous, loyall, and most loving wife, and so (for ever after) he would acknowledge her.”

All very sweet – but to my mind I cannot help but think about the arguments I imagine them having in 10 years time….

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Dankeschone

    It-s interessant the mortel’s adventure is probably more palptation like the life in sectarism.So Miss Dolimore say no things  a new.I admired your constancy perhaps you appréciate Shakespear in another life but as you seems to say you can not help.As say certain person you finshed like Queen like a old.(?) (?)……..lady

    A beltramo for example

    Good night

  • William Ray

    Isn’t it curious that All’s Well That Ends Well mentions Corambus, which means two-hearted, and William Cecil’s motto was One Heart One Way? And isn’t it curious that in the Shakespeare play Bertram is higher-born than Helena but raised with her as practically her brother, just like Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was higher-born than Anne Cecil, William Cecil’s daughter, and was raised with her practically as her brother? And that the plot parallels not only Boccaccio but the Vere’s own marriage, in which a proxy, Diana, is promised to sleep with Bertram but it is Helena instead, just as Anne Cecil Vere pulled a bed-switch on her estranged husband, to get him to impregnate her after a marriage of celibacy? And the third parallel in which art imitates life is that Bertram leaves for war to escape the marriage tangle, and de Vere escaped to the Continent.  Amazing there were so many biographical parallels involving Cecil, his daughter, and de Vere, who is touted by some as the actual author of All’s Well That Ends Well, hence was the ‘Shakespeare’ that nobody seems to be able to explain how he got into so many noble households without having his hands chopped off and put in a boiling vat to keep him warm over the winter.

  • By coincidence, was just looking through Painter’s Palace of Pleasures the other day – wonderful to have access to so much information online !

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