About All's Well That Ends Well
It is difficult to assign a date to the composition of All's Well. There are no definite allusions or associations with contemporary slang or happenings. There are a good number of rimed couplets, suggesting that this play might be an early work of Shakespeare's. But because these couplets are such fine examples, they suggest a mastery of the couplet tradition instead of immaturity. Most scholars who note errors in characterization, as well as entrance and exit notations, seem to think that this First Folio edition is probably a recast, rewritten version of the play, lacking Shakespeare's final editing. And because of one of its key lines, they think that it may be a "lost play" of Shakespeare's — Love's Labour's Won.
Shakespeare's plot of a beautiful woman who is turned down by the man whom she loves — after she has cured a king of a critical illness — is clearly taken from William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1566), a situation that had already been explored by Boccaccio in his Decameron; both stories also contain the ingenious "bed trick." At that time, Helena's cleverness in getting a child from Bertram would have been applauded. The baby would have been proof of her deep love and courage. It was sterling — if ironic — proof of her vow of fidelity. Then, as well as today, Bertram would have had few redeeming qualities. He lacks all sense of honor; he is a cad. Thus, the comedy is ultimately flawed. We cannot totally rejoice at Helena's "success" in regaining her husband. The play simply has a rapid "happy ending," which was required. Ultimately, we feel that Helena is such a remarkable woman that her absolute infatuation with a fraud makes her character suspect. The meaning of All's Well is, therefore, ambiguous and seemingly ironic.