All's Well That Ends Well is often described as a "dark" or "problem" play, distinguished from the earlier, more cheerful comedies by unpleasant characters and a sophisticated bitterness toward human relations, all capped off with a "happy ending" that is nothing of the sort. In part, these criticisms are unfair. The characters in general are a pleasant group, distinguished either by the wisdom of experience (the King of France, Lafew, the Countess) or by basic decency and good intentions (Diana, the First Lord and Second Lord Dumaine). The only truly unsympathetic figure in the supporting cast is Parolles, who is less a villain than a comically value- free rogue. The ending, while unsatisfactory to our sensibilities, seems to please the characters, and the play is far from being a tragedy.

There are unpleasant themes percolating amid the comedy, however. Specifically, the gloom of decay and old age hangs heavily over the older characters, none of whom seem to have long to live. At the same time, for a play ostensibly concerned with romance, All's Well That Ends Well takes a harshly cynical view of sexual love. We expect coarse humor from characters like the Clown, who exist to provide smutty comic relief, and cynics like Parolles, but even the romantic heroine, Helena, indulges in sexual banter, and has a low opinion of male sexual behavior in general. This view is justified, the play suggests, since the successful central deception, the bedroom switch that enables Helena to become pregnant by her husband, Bertram, and thus force him to stay by her side, hinges on the fact that in the dark, all women are alike to men.

Just as significant in analyzing the unpleasant effect of the play on the reader/audience are the facts of the central "romance," if we can call it that. Shakespearean audiences have to accept great women picking men who are unworthy of them (Portia and the fortune-hunter Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice; Hero and the feckless Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, and many others), but it is extremely difficult to reconcile oneself to a romantic lead as odious as Bertram, who abandons Helena, tries to seduce an innocent woman, and only turns repentant in the play's final scene. We may be meant to perceive him as salvageable in some way, and to expect that he will mature in marriage, but the play gives us only a few hints of this, preferring to focus on his obvious flaws.

The resourceful Helena, meanwhile, loved by everyone (save for Bertram), cuts a far more appealing figure. However, her relentless pursuit of a man who is obviously unworthy of her has the unfortunate effect of diminishing her appeal as the play goes on. Nothing stands in Helena's way as she determinedly pursues the man she loves, and while we may admire her, by the time she appears to triumphantly show Bertram how he has been tricked, we no longer like her as much as we did–and our opinion of her good taste, after so long watching her chase a cad, is all but gone. The final scene demands that we celebrate the triumph of love--but it seems less a fariy-tale ending than a cynically contrived close to a cynical comedy, in which true love takes a back seat to manipulation.