All's Well That Ends Well
Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
The date of composition for All's Well That Ends Well is uncertain. Our earliest copy of the play appears in the Folio of 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, so other clues must be sought in order to date the work. The most common datin places it between 1601 and 1606, grouping it with Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure in what are typically referred to as Shakespeare's problem comedies. All three share a dark, bitter wit and an unpleasant view of human relation s that contrasts sharply with earlier, sunnier comedies like Twelfth Night and As You Like It. The darker sensibility is embodied, this theory argues, in the coarse pragmatism surrounding sexual intercourse in All's Well and the obvi ous difficulties of rejoicing about a "happy ending" that unites such an ill-suited couple as Helena and Bertram.
An alternative dating, held by a minority of critics, places the play's writing in 1598 or earlier, and associates it with a "lost play" called Love's Labour Won, which is listed in a 1598 catalogue of Shakespeare's plays but has never been seen or mentioned elsewhere. All's Well, it is argued, matches the title of this work admirably--Helena "labours" to gain her love, and wins. Supporters of this dating claim that All's Well is likely an edited or reworked version that Shakespeare published at a later date.
In either case, the source for the story is more obvious--it is derived, more or less directly, from the ninth story of the third day of Boccaccio's Decameron, a classic of early Renaissance literature written between 1348 and 1358. The work, and the story in question, were translated into English in the mid-16th century by William Painter as The Palace of Pleasure, and it was this version that Shakespeare probably drew upon. Typically, Shakespeare altered and reshaped the original text to create a richer story, adding characters like Lafew, the Countess, and Parolles while keeping essential elements like the bed-trick and the war in Florence in place.
The critical reception of All's Well has always been mixed, with both critics and audiences often sharing the displeasure with Helena's choice of Bertram. Its reputation has revived significantly in recent years, but it remains an unpopular and little-performed play.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!