Discuss the generational differences in All's Well That Ends Well

Few of Shakespeare's works offer such a sharp contrast between two generations. The older characters in the play are haunted by death--the Countess has lost a husband and is aging herself; Helena's father has passed away; Lafew is infirm; Diana's mother is, appropriately enough, a Widow; and the King is near death as the play begins. In a sense, the shadow of death makes this a very realistic work, since the younger generation--Helena, Diana, and Bertram--are at an age for marriage, and, given the life expectancy of Shakespeare's time, few people lived to be grandparents. But if the old people are haunted by death, they are also graced with wisdom and discernment: they all see through Parolles, perceive Helena's worth, and condemn Bertram. The younger generation, while not unsympathetic, lacks this wisdom: Helena is intelligent, but her love for Bertram is misguided; Diana is naive and inexperienced; Bertram is callow, arrogant and spoiled. The prospect of these characters inheriting France from the gentle wisdom of the Countess, the King and Lafew is a disheartening one.

Discuss the play's perspective on relations between the sexes.

Like all of Shakespeare's comedies, the plot of All's Well That Ends Well is primarily concerned with bringing young people together in marriage. It is not, however, a romantic play: relations between the sexes are relentlessly demystified. The good characters, like Helena and Diana, are moral, defending female virtue and monogamy against the lechery of Parolles and the adulterous advances of Bertram, but they are cynical about the opposite sex nevertheless. Helena is "in love" with Bertram, but she seems unconcerned by the fact that he does not love her back, busying herself instead with trapping him into marrying--first through the King's command, and then by tricking him into sleeping with her. "But, O strange men!" she says, anticipating her night with Bertram. "That can such sweet use make of what they hate, / When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts / Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play / With what it loathes for that which is away." (IV.i.21-25) In other words, men will sleep with anyone, and cannot tell one woman from another. Helena takes advantage of this animal-like trait, and we applaud her practicality, but we cannot say that her ultimate union with Bertram has anything to do with romance. Marriage in this play is the result of determination on one side, and lust and foolishness on the other.

Discuss Parolles' role in the play.

Bertram's companion is, by general agreement, a boastful, cowardly, treacherous character. Bertram's unpleasant qualities have occasioned some critics to argue that it is Parolles who leads Bertram astray--that he is the villain of the piece. This, however, elevates Parolles higher than he deserves, raising him to the level of true Shakespearen evil, akin to Iago in Othello or Edmund in King Lear. These villains are masters of deception, but Parolles is no such thing--he is eminently transparent, and beginning with Lafew in the second act, every character of good will sees through him. Bertram's failure to do the same is not a reflection of Parolles' evil genius, but rather Bertram's own blindness. Indeed, Parolles' villainy is transformed into comedy in the long scene where he is made to believe that he is a prisoner, and, blindfolded, proceeds to betray all his supposed friends while they look on and laugh. After that point, he is harmless, and Shakespeare will even rehabilitate him, bringing him back to Rousillon as a servant to Lafew, and giving him a role as a witness in the final scene. The play's comedy, in the end, triumphs over Parolles' dishonest nature.

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