All’s Well that Ends Well is a disturbing play, in part because it doesn’t quite settle into the expected plot pattern of Shakespearean comedy. It is a dark comedy, like Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, but it is not nearly as reassuring at the end. In both of these plays, the antagonist is eventually exposed and punished (and, in Measure for Measure, married off—a part of Angelo’s punishment), but in All’s Well that Ends Well, we are left feeling that Bertram, the antagonist as well as the object of Helena’s affection, has not suffered nearly enough for his offenses and that he is still woefully unworthy of his wife. It is a problem, as C. K. Hunter puts it, of “too much complication leading to too little resolution” (Introduction, The Arden Shakespeare: All’s Well that Ends Well [London: Methuen, 1959], xxiv).
Bertram has far more in common with Measure for Measure’s hypocritical and self-important Angelo than with other Shakespearean lovers such as Benedick, Bassanio or Orlando, who are at least honorable. However, it is unfortunately true that while the Benedicks of this world are rarer than unicorns, there’s a Bertram lurking behind every bush. What bothers us most about All’s Well that Ends Well, after Bertram’s failure to atone for his sins, are the all-too-realistic flaws of the primary characters.
Bertram is, of course, the first character to spring to mind when one considers flaws, and he has been condemned by a great many critics and audience members. Samuel Johnson sums up our grievances against Bertram thus: “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness” (Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986], 148).
He’s a bounder of the highest order, shallow and cruel, but these faults are not uncommon in inexperienced youths. And Bertram is naive—an “unseasoned courtier,” his mother calls him (1.1.75; all references to line numbers are from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet [NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972]). Furthermore, he is the only character who is incapable of seeing Parolles for the cowardly braggart that he is, in a play where the ability “to see through Parolles is a sign of maturity” (John Wilders, New Prefaces to Shakespeare [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988], 189). Bertram has been kept at home in the tender care of his parents, and only after the death of his father is he allowed to travel to court, expand his somewhat narrow experience of life, and perhaps even sow a few wild oats. But when he arrives at court, he finds that he is hemmed in there as well, where he lives under the watchful eye of the king: “I am commanded here, and kept a coil with/ ‘Too young,’ and ‘the next year,’ and ‘’tis too early”’ (2.1.27 8).
The young count, yearning for adventure and the chance to go to war, is by no means ripe for marriage, and he has only the briefest glimpse of freedom before Helena appears to pluck this green (and very sour) apple from the tree. It is not difficult to understand Bertram’s frustration at this point. Helena, whom he thinks of as little better than a servant (when he thinks of her at all), has stolen all his choices; why shouldn’t Bertram have the right to grow up at his leisure and eventually fall in love and marry where he pleases?
We cannot simply condemn Bertram as callow and spiteful; he is, at the same time, a personable young man (Helena does, after all, fall in love with him) and a good soldier, and it’s entirely possible that he might have matured into a nobler, more honorable adult had he been given the chance to wander about making youthful mistakes for a few years before being clapped in the manacles of marriage. Parolles has the truth of it when he says, “A young man married is a man that’s marred” (2.3.301).
Bertram is not the only character who goes about clad in tarnished honor; Helena too, admirable though she is, fails to reach the virtuous heights where Beatrice, Portia, and Rosalind reside. Helena seems, initially, to be everything that is virtuous and good—she has captured the love of Bertram’s mother, who is no fool; she is witty, as capable of bandying words with fools as Viola is in Twelfth Night; she is skilled in her father’s profession, which enables her to heal the king; and she has the strength and determination to reach out for happiness rather than wallow in her misery.
In this quest for happiness, however, Helena shows herself to be both single-minded and selfish. Not once does she allow consideration of Bertram’s ambitions and desires to sway her from her course: she traps him first into marriage, and later, after Bertram has made his feelings for her quite clear, she traps him again, via the bed-trick, into becoming a husband in deed as well as in name. One critic, after watching a 1953 production of the play, went so far as to call Helena “a rather more dangerous character to have around than Richard III” (cited in Sheldon P. Zitner, Twayne’s New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well [Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989], xvii).
But Bertram and Helena are not the sole authors of their predicament. That other bounder in the play, the Falstaffian Parolles—amusing as a companion but abominable as a role-model—has consistently prodded his young master in the wrong direction and has helped to form Bertram’s attitudes about life and marriage. The countess, Lafew, and the king also have a hand in the foolish behavior of the young pair: “Both Helena and Bertram have to bear the responsibility of the expectations of their elders, the obligation to become a copy of their fathers, when they wish to be distinctively themselves. They are constantly forced to listen to advice and, more often than not, are told to imitate their seniors” (Wilders 186).
All’s Well that Ends Well is “about the mistakes people make in the process of growing up (Wilders 186), a struggle that, in real life, rarely ends in unalloyed happiness. Though such a struggle may not satisfy our fantasies, it is both poignant and honest. In the final scene, the characters on stage are just as skeptical as the audience is about the future of this marriage. We leave Much Ado About Nothing feeling that Beatrice and Benedick are meant for each other and have a chance at happiness, and this is what we wish for a newlywed couple; but what we most often see is the uncertainty and qualified contentment of the marriage of Bertram and Helena.