A Complete Plot Summary
“All's Well that Ends Well” begins by introducing the main character Helena, a young gentlewoman who is not of noble birth, but has fallen in love with Bertram, a Lord. Helena is living in Bertram's household under the protection and employ of Bertram's mother. Needless to say Helena's romantic attachment seems doomed, but Helena finds a unique way to attain the hand of Bertram.
At the time the King of France is deathly ill, suffering from a fistula. Helena possesses a secret prescription given to her by her father prior to his death. As Helena tells the King:
“Ere twice the horses of the sun shall bring
Their fiery torcher his diurnal ring...
...What is infirm from your sound parts shall fly,
Health shall live free, and sickness freely die.”
In other words, Helena, promises the King that her remedy can restore him to full health in just two days. Helena asks only one favor in return for performing this wondrous cure:
“Then shalt thou give me, with thy kingly hand,
What husband in thy power I will command:
Exempted be from me the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name to propagate
With and branch or image of thy state:
But such a one, the vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow.”
The King promises that if Helena is able to cure him, he will give her the hand of any man she chooses, be he rich or of noble lineage. Sure enough Helena's cure restores the King to full health, and out of gratitude he fulfills his part of the deal. As might be expected Helena chooses the hand of Bertram, but is surprised at his response. Bertram marries her to please the King but he is highly irritated with Helena and feels that it is a dishonor for him to marry her. He takes her back to his mother's home but immediately departs to fight in the Tuscan wars leaving a parting note:
“When thou canst get the ring upon me 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.”
Not only will Bertram never give Helena the ring, but he has also sworn that while he has wed her he will never bed her. While Helena has achieved her goal of marriage to Bertram it is an empty victory, essentially widowhood with a living husband. Bertram incurs the censure of all who know him. From the King to his own mother. All see Helena as a virtuous bride that Bertram should be happy to accept. But Bertram refuses to change his position.
Meanwhile Helena leaves her new mother-in-law's home and travels in disguise to the Florentine region where Bertram is fighting. There she meets up with an old Widow and her daughter Diana. From them she learns that her husband has been amorously soliciting Diana, intent upon corrupting “the tender honor of a maid.” Helena reveals to Diana and her mother that she is, in fact, the husband of Diana's adulterous suitor. Together Helena and Diana concoct a plan that will work to both their advantages.
When Bertram tries to woo Diana she arranges a nighttime rendezvous on the condition that he give his ring to her. At first Bertram is hesitant, but led of by his lust he gives his ring to Diana, and then proceeds to his encounter. Little does he realize, but his own wife is taking the place of Diana, and he sleeps with her and leaves without ever catching on. Now Helena has both the ring and has conceived a child, fulfilling the conditions that Bertram required before he would call Helena his wife. In addition Helena gave Bertram a ring of her own, one that she knew that others would recognize as her own.
Bertram leaves Diana behind, and returns to court. Immediately the King notices Helena's ring on his hand. First Bertram denies receiving the ring from Helena, earning the King's disfavor, but he is completely disgraced when Diana enters the court and tells them Bertram had an affair with her. At the last moment Helena enters the court and reveals the trick that she used to gain both Bertram's ring and his child. Bertram responds, “I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.”
“All's Well that Ends Well” is a reasonably interesting play. The plot is, however, rather unrealistic. Although Helena's tricks to gain Bertram as her husband are entertaining, the ending of the play seems rushed and hardly satisfying. For one thing, “All's Well that Ends Well” portrays Bertram as a very dishonorable man, eager enough to sleep with another woman. After seeing this first hand, I doubt that Helena would be quite as satisfied in him. Secondly, if Helena's first attempt to gain Bertram only enraged him, then why the sudden change of attitude? At the end of the play Bertram suddenly loves Helena and everything works out perfectly. “All's Well that Ends Well” may have a happy ending, but it seems a little stretched, simply for the purpose of making it “end well” in accord with the play's title.
“All's Well that Ends Well” by William Shakespeare is a play that has a great introduction and climax, but the ending of the play seems weak in comparison. Nevertheless, this a piece of literature that you should experience.