Brewer’s Curious Titles: All’s Well that Ends Well

“One of the ‘dark’ comedies (c. 1604) of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The plot is based on a traditional folk tale found in Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Helena, enamored of Bertram, count of Rousillon, is given to him in marriage by the king of France, whose life she has saved. However, Bertram spurns her (‘A poor physician’s daughter my wife?’) and leaves for the Italian wars. From there he writes to her:

‘When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father

to then call me husband, but in such a then, I write a never.’ III. iii

However, in disguise, Helena follows him to Italy, where she finds he is in love with a Florentine maid, whose place she takes in the dark, gets the ring, and conceives his child. In the end, she wins his love, after he has believed her dead.

The title All’s Well that Ends Well is from an old English proverb, known from the mid-13th century. It is somewhat ironic given the dark mood of the play, although it also has the suggestion of the ends justifying the means. At the end of the play the king, after all has been resolved, says:

‘All seems well; and if it end so meet,

The bitter past more welcome the sweet.” V. iii

He then adopts the role of epilogue, and, in accordance with theatrical convention, begs the audience’s indulgence for the play:

‘The king’s a beggar, now the play is done.

All is well ended if this suit be won,

That you express content; which we will pay

With strife to please you, day exceeding day.

Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts;

Your gentle hands lead us, and take our hearts.’”       V. iii, Epilogue

Excerpted from: Crofton, Ian, ed. Brewer’s Curious Titles. London: Cassell, 2002.

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