Of the three “problem plays,” Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, with their dark cynicism about sex and politics, seem finally to be coming into their own in our darkly cynical time. Not so All’s Well That Ends Well.
All’s Well has been called the comic version of Coriolanus; if nothing else, these are two of Shakespeare’s hardest plays to like. Much of the problem lies with the male leads. Coriolanus is a mother’s boy in desperate need of anger management. Bertram of All’s Well is just a boy: spoiled, petulant, commitment-phobic. Nothing seems to motivate his rejection of the beautiful and talented Helena, whom the King of France has promised the subject of her choice because she cured him of a fistula. Even the class difference, the only motive Bertram voices (“A poor physician’s daughter my wife!” 2.3.115)—dissolves when the King observes “’Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which/I can build up” (2.3.117-118). He just dislikes Helena—which makes him the only character in the play who doesn’t love this almost-too-good-to-be-true paragon.
Bertram is attracted to one Diana, leading to the bed trick in which Helena substitutes herself for Diana, thus satisfying his condition that he impregnate her before he’ll marry her. But because his lust doesn’t have the wider implications of Angelo’s in Measure for Measure, the bed trick doesn’t have the same resonance here.
Of course there are many things to like in All’s Well. The braggart Parolles is a smaller version of Falstaff in every sense (“Simply the thing I am/Shall make me live,” 4.3.322-323), with a strong dash of Osric, but his deception in Act 4 is hilarious—though without the emotional depths of Malvolio’s similar captivity. And Shakespeare’s celebrated plasticity of language is in full effect: see 3.2.50, where he uses “woman” as a verb!
But in the end it comes down to Bertram and his coldness. It’s said that in a 1967 performance for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ian Richardson made the caddish Bertram sympathetic. No wonder this great actor was later able to make us cheer for Francis Urquhart. Ralph Fiennes did the trick for Coriolanus; if his new duties as M don’t keep him too busy, we can only hope he’ll tackle All’s Well.