Called a problem play by some, a dark comedy by others, All's Well That Ends Well retains many familiar conventions of comedy and romance, including fools and knaves, journeys of discovery, imagined deaths, and unsolvable riddles. Yet, despite the comic and romantic conventions, All's Well That Ends Well creates a more realistic world that is divided between the wisdom of age and the follies of youth, a world in which deceptions are a necessary means of effecting change.
In this comedy, the disparity between the older and younger generation is apparent but not in the conventional way of earlier comedies. Representatives of the older generation-the Countess Rossillion, the King of France, and his courtier Lafew-are not silly old people who thwart young lovers. Rather they seem to be the voice of reason, preserving the values of honorable conduct and the recognition of virtue in a changing world. Though saddened by his leaving, the countess does not object to Bertram's going to the king's court but allows him to obey his king. She loves Helena as a daughter despite her lack of social class and, recognizing Helena's virtue, would happily receive her as a daughter-in-law. Later in the play, she forgives her son his indiscretions and works for his happiness by finding him a new bride.
The King of France, having vowed to be a father to Bertram and protect him as he would his own son, refuses to let him go to the wars because he is too young. He diligently attends to his duties while enduring painful treatments for his ailment. Having accepted that his illness cannot be cured, he initially rejects Helena's pleas to treat him. Convinced by her determination and her father's reputation, he allows her to try and generously rewards her when she succeeds. Lafew, who retains the wonder of the older generation, seems to be its spokesman, “They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terror, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear” (2.3.1-6; all line references are to The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974]).
On the other side, youth is represented primarily by snobbish young men, eager for battle. When presented with the prospect of marrying Helena, none of the young lords of court can see her virtue, much to Lafew's disappointment, who wishes he could be considered a suitor. The lords' loyalty is only to themselves, for they support and encourage Bertram's decision to “steal away” (2.1.33) from the court in defiance of the king's wishes. Parolles, the worst among them, is a combination of the braggart soldier and courtier fop, who attempts to deceive others with his boasts. His shallow character is immediately apparent to anyone with any sense. Helena recognizes him as “a notorious liar . . . a great way fool, solely a coward” (1.1.100-01). Lafew tells him he is “good for nothing” (2.3.207) and “not worth another word” (2.3.262-63). The Countess Rossillion calls him “a very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness” (3.2.87). But to Bertram, Parolles “is very great in knowledge, and accordingly valiant” (2.5.8-9), a soldier “of very gallant approof” (2.5.3).
Bertram's lack of discernment is also apparent in his attitude toward Helena and his treatment of her. Bertram, like so many of Shakespeare's young men, is decidedly undeserving of the heroine's affection. Initially, his flaws seem to be those common to youth. He scorns Helena, in part, because he is simply not ready for marriage but yearns to make his way in the world, to accomplish feats of honor and valor in battle, to pursue the manly sport of seducing women. He certainly does not wish to be shackled with a wife, particularly one who holds no allure for him. He has known Helena since childhood and has always believed her to be a social inferior. However, the king determines he will marry Helena despite his refusal.
After reluctantly marrying Helena, Bertram leaves that same night, sending Parolles to say goodbye to her and give her his instructions. He doubly defies his king by going to the wars and abandoning Helena, sending only a letter of explanation. Later he also sends Helena a letter of denial, declaring that she will not be his wife until she has obtained a special ring from his finger and is pregnant with his child. While fighting nobly near Florence and gaining the honor he craves, he pursues Diana, asking her to sleep with him and promising to marry her after his wife dies. When he returns to the court of the King of France and Diana attempts to hold him to his pledge, he renounces her claim. Repeatedly, Bertram deceives others by telling them what they want to hear and then running away. He takes no responsibility for his actions, wishing to remain unfettered by commitment to another.
In contrast, Helena seems dutiful and loyal. Her duty to her father may be questionable (“I have forgot him. My imagination / Carries no favor in't but Bertram's” [1.1.82-83]), but she was his willing student and honors his memory and skills by using his medications to heal her king. It would not be unacceptable for her to turn her affection and loyalty from her dead father to the man she loves. Indeed, once she and Bertram are married, she obeys his commands (“In every thing I wait upon his will” [2.4.54]) and later puts his interests above her own. She willingly foregoes the wedding night and returns to her mother-in-law as he requests. When she knows he will not return to France while she is there, she begins her pilgrimage to Spain, hoping that Bertram will then leave the war and return to safety. She does not deliberately seek Bertram in the wars nor does she connive to arrange a meeting, but when providence supplies her with the means of fulfilling Bertram's dictate, she does not reject it. She is, after all, doing precisely what her husband said she must do in order to win him.
Throughout the play, Bertram displays the excesses of youth while Helena seems more aligned with the older generation, demonstrating wisdom, tolerance, and forgiveness. This is not to suggest that Helena is as perfect as Bertram is imperfect. It is quite possible to take issue with her use of the bed trick. It is, of course, a deception, one that may make some audience members uneasy, but it is legal, a point Helena stresses when she and the widow plan the substitution of Helena for Diana, “a lawful dead, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act” (3.7.45-46). Despite Bertram's insincerity in the wedding ceremony, he is, nevertheless, Helena's husband, and she, as his wife, has every right to expect a sexual union. Indeed she cannot fulfill his challenge to become pregnant with his child unless she sleeps with him.
Diana is also guilty of deception at the end of the play when she maintains that Bertram slept with her, gave her his ring, and received one from her in exchange. Bertram denies her story but not because he thinks it untrue. He still cannot take responsibility for his actions, still believes that women who are his social inferiors are not worthy of him. Deceiving Bertram is justifiable because, like so many other people, he seems incapable of behaving properly unless he is compelled to do so.
That is how the deceptions of Helena and Diana differ from those of Bertram and Parolles. None of the characters are completely blameless, but Parolles deserves his unmasking and Bertram receives a much better future than what he deserves. Ultimately the play, like “the web of life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together” (4.3.71-72).