From The Oxford Shakespeare:
Versions of the play performed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly emphasizing either the comedy of Paroles or the sentimental appeal of Helen, had little success; but fine productions from the middle of the twentieth century onwards have shown it in a more favourable light, demonstrating, for example, that the role of the Countess is (in Bernard Shaw's words) "the most beautiful old woman's part ever written", that the discomfiture of Paroles provides comedy that is subtle as well as highly laughable, and that the relationship of Bertram and Helen is profoundly convincing in its emotional reality.Well, the Oxford Shakespeare is always controversial, and I find it hard to buy the assertion that "the relationship of Bertram and Helen is profoundly convincing," though it's very possible that a first-rate director and gifted actors could make it so.
From Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate:
Shakespeare's most sustained dramatization of bawdy court matter occurs at the climax of All's Well That Ends Well, one of the bitter comedies that he seems to have written around the time that he was being dragged into the marital business of the Mountjoy household on Silver Street in Cripplegate. The closing scene of the play is steeped in the language of court proceedings. Bertram is called before the tribunal. His "great offence" of infidelity to his wife, Helen, is cited. He attempts to excuse himself. Witnesses give differing accounts of a ring, the key piece of evidence in the case. A petitioner appears before the court. There is call for justice to be done. Diana makes her complaint and calls for "remedy." Bertram responds to this further "charge." The question of "reputation," and in particular the honesty of a woman, is central to the case: is Diana a chaste maid or a "common gamester of the camp"? The "proof" offered by the ring is again invoked: "Methought you said," notes the King, who is playing the part of judge that the vicar would have played in a bawdy court, "You saw one here in court could witness it." Bertram speaks with the casual sexual language that marks many a bawdy court case: "Certain it is I liked her, / And boarded her i'th' wanton way of youth." Parolles is then called as a witness. A judgment is reached. There is talk of "bail" and "surety." And then the coup de théâtre: Helen, supposedly dead, appears, and a happy resolution is achieved. Provisionally at least: "All yet seems well," says the King, not "all is well." Helen's response to Bertram's promise that he will "love her dearly, ever, ever dearly" provided she can explain how she has contrived to make him "doubly won" implicitly raises the threat of a return to the consistory court, should he not behave better second time around: "If it appear not plain, and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you."For more on the "bawdy court," see here.
Not all the language of this scene belongs specifically to the church court: Shakespeare's stage trials use a broad legal lexicon, fusing together the multiple jurisdictions of the age. But it would unquestionably have been the bawdy court that audience members would have held in mind when they witnessed the resolution of a marital dispute of this kind.
From The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966):
The atmosphere of All's Well is as "dark" as the story itself. Parolles is no adulterous braggart-soldier, no cousin to Falstaff. He is, rather, a shrewdly drawn portrait of a type of degraded gentleman who haunted London as an aftermath of the wars on the continent. He is contemptible in many ways besides his cowardice. That he should be Bertram's boon companion increased our initial contempt for the man whom Helena so irrationally desires. Having been given no reason for her infatuation, we find no satisfaction in the final reconciliation and completed marriage of the ill-suited pair.Are Helena and Bertram really "ill-suited"? It might be argued instead that they are complementary: Bertram is morally sick just as the king is physically sick, and her task, indeed her entire raison d'être, is to heal.
--Oscar James Campbell
This play has many delightful scenes, though not sufficiently probable, and some happy characters, though not new, nor produced by any deep knowledge of human nature. Parolles is a boaster and a coward, such as has always been the sport of the stage, but perhaps never raised more laughter or contempt than in the hands of Shakespeare.
I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is head 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.
The story of Bertram and Diana had been told before of Mariana and Angelo, and, to confess the truth, scarcely merited to be heard a second time.
--Samuel Johnson (1765)
I cannot agree with the solemn abuse which the critics have poured out upon Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well. He was a young nobleman in feudal times, just bursting into manhood, with all the feelings of pride of birth and appetite for pleasure and liberty natural to such a character so circumstanced. Of course he had never regarded Helena otherwise than as a dependent in the family; and of all that which she possessed of goodness and fidelity and courage, which might atone for her inferiority in other respects, bertram was necessarily in a great measure ignorant. And after all, her prima facie merit was the having inherited a prescription from her old father the Doctor by which she cures the King -- a merit, which supposes an extravagance of personal loyalty in Bertram to make conclusive to him in such a matter as that of taking a wife. Bertram had surely good reason to look upon the king's forcing him to marry Helena as a very tyrannical act. Indeed, it must be confessed that her character is not very delicate, and it required all Shakespeare's consummate skill to interest us for her; and he does this chiefly by the operation of the other characters -- the Countess, Lafeu, etc. We get to like Helena from their praising and commending her so much.While I prefer Johnson's view of Bertram, Coleridge makes a shrewd point: Would we like Helena as much if the more interesting characters in the play didn't keep telling us we should?
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1835)
The unamiable character of Bertram seems to constitute the great defect of this drama. He is young, brave, handsome, and high-born; but he is, at the same time, petulant, arrogant, cold, and selfish, and his very vices present no feature of impressive interest. The unwelcome part which he plays is, no doubt, in some measure, the result of the false position in which he has been unfairly placed by the understanding between the King and Helena; but his own character appears to have been made unnecessarily repulsive. We lose all trust in him when, immediately after his apparent repentance we find him insolently untruthful in his account of his relations with Diana; and this unexpected aggravation of his demerits seems to be somewhat unaccountably introduced, as we have no such scene in the original tale of Boccaccio.... The disagreeable character of the young Count tends greatly to diminish the interest which we should, under other circumstances, be disposed to feel in the adventures of the beautiful and afflicted Helena. We can entertain no very intense desire that she should succeed in the pursuit of an object which seems hardly to deserve her devotion; and, besides, we cannot quite conceal from ourselves that she only attains it by the employment of an extravagant and not very delicate stratagem. She is herself brought before us with some drawbacks from the general beauty and elevation of her character. She has clearly no very strong regard for rigid, unequivocating truthfulness. She does not really mean to go, as she announces, on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Jaques. It is not true, as she states to Diana, that she does not know Bertram's face. And, again, we find that she does not hesitate to cause false intelligence of the accomplishment of her pilgrimage and of her death to be conveyed to the camp at Florence. These departures from strict veracity harmonise, no doubt, readily enough with the rude spirit of old romance, but they contrast somewhat disagreeably with the general ideal perfection with which Shakespeare has invested many of his female characters, and Helena herself, in no small degree, among the number.This is a representative Victorian criticism in its stiff moralizing, particularly with respect to Helena. It might be pointed out that the title of the play, repeated or echoed several times in the dialogue, is All's Well That Ends Well, which is almost another way of saying that the end justifies the means. So Helena's "departures from strict veracity" are tools that she uses to accomplish that end. As for "the general ideal perfection" of Shakespeare's "female characters," it would be nice to have a few specific examples. After all, even his best-loved heroines, such as Rosalind and Viola, do things that would have shocked a proper Victorian woman, including dressing up as boys.
--Thomas Kenny (1864)
Even at the last, Bertram's attainment is but small; he is still no more than a potential piece of worthy manhood. We cannot suppose that Shakespeare has represented him thus without a purpose. Does not the poet wish us to feel that although much remains to be wrought in Bertram, his welfare is now assured? The courageous title of the play ... is like an utterance of the heart of Helena, who has strength and endurance to attain the end, and who will measure things, not by the pains and trials of the way, not by the dubious and difficult means, but by that end, by the accomplished issue.There is a strong whiff of apologetics here: Shakespeare, being the divinely infallible Shakespeare, can't have meant to leave us feeling uneasy about the future of Bertram and Helena. Bertram is still a work in progress, and we should be assured that Shakespeare wouldn't have created him if he didn't think Helena would succeed in reforming him. Which only causes us to ask why he didn't give us more evidence that she would succeed, or even that Bertram has the potential to reform. But that is, of course, a task that Shakespeare left up to the director and the actors. Note that Dowden, unlike Kenny, buys into the idea that the end justifies the means.
--Frank Dowden (1875)
Helena is a mere jumble of contradiction, without coherence or charm; she is not realized clearly enough or deeply enough to live; she is an unconsidered attempt; an exasperating failure.We are moving away from Bardolatry here: Harris is fully willing to believe that Shakespeare is humanly fallible. But he still partakes of the Victorian distaste for the "bed-trick."
The whole story of the play is unsuited to the character of a young girl, and perhaps no care could have made a girl charming, or even credible, who would pursue a man to such lengths or win him by such a trick; at any rate no dramatist has yet succeeded with such a theme, though it might be within the larger compass of the novelist.
--Frank Harris (1911)
All's Well is artificial in effect; almost entertainment provided according to a formula. The technique of transforming narrative into drama is in good order, but the imagination of the dramatist has seldom been kindled, or his sensibilities aroused. A curious hardness and indifference are often evident. There are flashes of tenderness and fineness, as in the portraiture of Helena and the Countess, but these are all too rare. Parolles and the Clown lack the genial human qualities which make us love such eccentric characters as Falstaff and Touchstone. One is driven to the conclusion that Shakespeare, needing a play for the company, took a well-tried theme, developed it according to principles which he had by this time fully mastered, but never put his whole heart and soul into it. He relied for effect, not on emotion or truth to life, but on the familiarity and popularity of the story, and upon the theatrical effectiveness of individual scenes. And this, I think is why the modern reader, who has no feeling for the traditions of story, and who cannot judge from the stage effects, finds All's Well highly puzzling.I share the impression of "hardness and indifference" and the sense of detachment and lack of inspiration on Shakespeare's part in creating the play. Lawrence also nails the fact that while the play might succeed for someone watching it on the stage, it's hard for the reader to get it to rise off the page. Where he goes astray is in expecting Parolles and Lavatch to be as lovable as Falstaff and Touchstone.
--W.W. Lawrence (1931)
Shakespeare may have modeled Parolles after Bobadil in Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, in which Shakespeare himself too part; but Parolles is both a more complex and a more realistic character than Jonson's Elizabethan Miles Gloriosus.... Even in a satiric portrait of an unlovely contemporary type Shakespeare recognizes the essential humanity of a liar and a coward. The exposure of Parolles is a scene of broad farce; the rogue is tricked and laughed at, but he is spared the shame and pain that Bobadil suffered under the cudgel of Downright. Parolles slinks off with something like repentance in his heart; he will let his idle sword rust and try to live by "fooling" after all -- and here we may catch Shakespeare's own voice -- "There's place and means for every man alive." And a place, as a matter of fact, is reserved for him at Lafeu's table; the honest lord, who was the first to see through him, is willing to entertain and make sport with him; "though you are a fool and a knave you shall eat. Shakespeare has none of Jonson's bitter indignation at fools and knaves.This is perfectly right, I think, and yet another reason why the play seems so curiously uneasy in tone: If Shakespeare had been able to swallow his innate ability to feel what his characters are feeling, to treat them as puppets rather than as human beings, he also might have been able to avoid the clash of real and artificial that makes this play so oddly unsatisfying.
--Thomas Marc Parrott (1949)
From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom:
In proportion to its actual dramatic and literary merits, All's Well That Ends Well remains Shakespeare's most undervalued comedy.... Like Dr. Johnson, we cannot abide Bertram, the caddish young nobleman whom the evidently admirable Helena loves. This is hardly the only unequal relationship in Shakespeare; generally his women choose inadequate men. But this does seem the most aggravating object choice in the plays. Bertram has no saving qualities; to call him a spoiled brat is not anachronistic....I almost begin to feel sorry for Bertram in the face of Bloom's onslaught against him. I do question whether there's really enough evidence in the play that "Shakespeare indicates ... this spoiled cad will grow up to be even more of a monster, despite his mother, his wife, and his king; almost, indeed, to spite them." But on the other hand, that would be my prediction about Bertram, too.
Since Bertram is an empty-headed snob and nothing more, the drama's interest centers on Helena, and on Parolles, ... a splendid scoundrel, perfectly transparent to anyone of good sense, which of course does not include Bertram.... About all that a director can do with Bertram is to make him look like a juvenile Clark Gable, Trevor Nunn's solution in the production I recall seeing. Shakespeare's unpleasant young men are numerous. Bertram, as a vacuity, is authentically noxious....
Shakespeare sees to it that we are moved ... by Helena's capacity of love, while still apprehending that this splendid woman has eaten a crazy salad with her meat. Bertram is "above" her in social rank, and perhaps in good looks; otherwise ... Bertram is only a touch better than Parolles, since Bertram's only accomplishments are military, while Parolles is a mere braggart soldier, an impostor, a liar, a leech, considerably more interesting than the warring and whoring Bertram. The initial question of All's Well That Ends Well thus is: How can Helena be so massively wrong? You can salvage her bad judgment only by arguing that Bertram is immature, and will change, but Shakespeare indicates otherwise: this spoiled cad will grow up to be even more of a monster, despite his mother, his wife, and his king; almost, indeed, to spite them....
We therefore should begin apprehending All's Well That Ends Well by seeing that Helena's judgment is neither unsound nor sound; it is not a question of judgment at all. Helena, so long as she lives, will be in love with Bertram, because that is her selfsame identity, what she has been always.... I delight always in telling my students that the happiest marriage in all of Shakespeare is that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who suit one another so admirably! Why do Othello and Desdemona marry, in a mismatch that gives Iago his terrible opportunity? We can no more answer that definitively than we can choose among Iago's many motives for his malignity.... Marriage, Shakespeare always implies, is where we are written, and not where we write.....
Parolles is the spiritual center of All's Well That Ends Well, the emblem of the rancidity that underlies its courtly surfaces.... Yet why are Parolles and Helena in the same play? ... Their link is Bertram, who cannot be blamed upon Parolles, since Bertram hardly is improved after Parolles's exposure. Had Parolles not existed, Bertram would have fallen in with some other hanger-on, some other flattering rascal. The only authentic element in Bertram is his desire for military glory, since even his womanizing seems more an adjunct of his soldiering than a quest in itself. A few defenders of Bertram attempt to see him as the victim of his parasite Parolles, but that will not sustain scrutiny, Parolles is not in the play as Bertram's dark angel; rather he represents what Shakespeare always loathed, mindless fashion, time-serving mock gentility, false courage, the domain of the lie. What is singular and important about Parolles is his transparency; every person of good will in the play sees through Parolles at a glance. Bertram's blindness is the index of worthlessness, and is akin to Bertram's aversion from Helena, which must go a long way back into their shared childhood.... Parolles, and in a far more complex way Helena, are the keys to what is strongest and subtlest about All's Well That Ends Well, a dark vision of human nature that is also profoundly accepting of the darkness....
Much admired by George Bernard Shaw as an aggressive, post-Ibsenite woman, Helena has little laughter in her, and so is not very Shavian. She is formidable indeed, well-night monomaniacal in her fixation upon the glittering emptiness of Bertram. Since her high-handedness in obtaining him is so outrageous, we can wonder why we are not moved to some sympathy for him.... Humanly, Bertram has been wronged to an extreme; he is the prize set by Helena as her fairy-tale reward for curing the King of France. This ought to be abominable, but since Bertram is abominable, we are not distressed....
[T]he bed trick, the substitution of one woman for another in the dark, ... helps bring about a rancid resolution.... The sportive formula -- in the dark they are all alike -- is partly Shakespeare's satire upon the male propensity scarcely to distinguish one woman from another, but it also carries a burden of bitterness with it. When Isabella accepts the bed trick, with Mariana substituting for her, in Measure for Measure,... we are not startled at her moral complicity because, like nearly every other character in the play, she is at least half crazy. But we necessarily are bothered when Helena herself proposes the bed trick, where she is to be the sexual performer under another person's name....
The bed trick is one thing, and fair game if you want to play it, but is it not a very different matter to pretend death, so as to grieve the foster mother Countess, the King, and Lafew? ... [S]he is relentless in her drive to make all's well for herself by ensnaring the inedible Bertram. This quest must strike the audience as singularly unwholesome, and Shakespeare gives every sign that he is well aware of our ambivalence, not toward Helena but toward her unrepentant mission.
The play protects Helena from our skepticism by presenting her monomania in heroic dimensions. Does anyone else in Shakespeare, woman or man, struggle so incessantly to surmount every impediment to the fulfillment of an ambition? Only the hero-villains rival Helena -- Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Macbeth -- and they all at last are slain or undone. Helena triumphs, even if we are dismayed by her choice of reward. Yet what a complex struggle she has undergone; to recapitulate, it is to see that her agon to win Bertram is the total structure of the play, except for the saga of Parolles, whose defeat and subsequent will to survive constitute the parodic echo of Helena's victory and will to marry.
From Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess:
Comedies like All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are not meant for laughs, and one is uneasy at the whiff of a looser morality than would have been seemly in the old Queen's reign -- too much coupling with the wrong woman by intention and the right woman by accident, too many unrebuked sneers at virginity, too much coarse frankness between men and women. There is a burden of self-doubt in the very uncategorizability of these plays, and it comes out in the tortuousness of the verse in All's Well, qualifying the simple moral fable taken from Boccaccio.Burgess is striving here to put the play in the Jacobean rather than the Elizabethan context. I'm not sure there are that many "unrebuked sneers at virginity," the "old Queen's" most celebrated characteristic. It seems to me that the play, especially in the character of Diana, is a resounding defense of virginity. And as for the "coarse frankness between men and women," has Burgess completely forgotten Doll Tearsheet? I think Burgess has confused Queen Elizabeth with Queen Victoria.