The Plays We Overlook: All’s Well That Ends Well

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Ian richardson

Ian Richardson as General Burgoyne in The Devil’s Disciple (1987)

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.

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Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at
  • Shocking! I was not aware All’s Well is a lesser play! I saw a production at the National a few years ago and it was HILARIOUS. The whole virginity discussion has become one of my all-time favourite moments in all Shakespeare. And I never thought of Parolles as a ‘smaller version of Falstaff’, preferring to consider the hilarious consequences if the two should ever meet in a tavern!

  • Andrew Cowie

    Here you go.

  • Alan B

    I was always a great fan of Ian Richardson and his beautiful voice is still fresh in my ears. I first saw him in the Miracle Cycle at Southwark Cathedral.

    I am baffled by the choice of photograph to illustrate this post. Smart as he is in his uniform as Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, is there no photograph in the RSC archive of Ian Richardson as Bertram?

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