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INTRODUCTION TO ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.
THE Decameron of Boccaccio furnished the groundwork of this
comedy, but it was the Decameron translated into English by William Painter, and entitled The Palace of Pleasure, 1566. The outline of the story was preserved, with many of the minute circumstances of the original, but, as usual, the poet altered the names of the characters. Giglietta or Giletta became Helena, and Beltramo was made Bertram. The principal locality, Rousillon, was retained. All the comic business of the drama is Shakespeare's. Parolles and his drum, and the puns and satire of the witty fool, are wholly and indubitably Shakesperean. The language of the play exhibits two distinct styles—the poet's early manner, in which rhyming couplets and looseness of construction are conspicuous, and his late manner, in which compressed thought and figurative illustration appear in nervous and musical blank verse. This disparity struck both Coleridge and Tieck. The latter observes: “Some passages not merely difficult, but almost impossible to be understood, remain out of the poet's first attempt, and here the poet combats with language and thought~the verse is artificial, the expressions forced. The prose, particularly in the last acts, is so pure and clear-the scenes with Parolles are so excellently written—that in all that concerns the language we must reckon them among Shakespeare's best efforts. The first act is the most obscure, and here are probably the most extensive remains of the older work. The last half of the delineation of Parolles must belong to Shakespeare's
later period. Yet in the very first scene of this first act censured by Tieck, are found two of the poet's most characteristic and beautiful passages—the blessing pronounced by the Countess on her son, and Helena's description of Bertram,' every line and trick of his sweet favour. And in the same act we have the king's account of Bertram's father and Helena's description of her hopeless love-passages both exquisite in thought and expression. These had been grafts on the early production, and at the same time were introduced those happy sententious observations which are found scattered through the different scenes. The character of Helena we may also conceive to have been then elevated and intensified. Her devoted attachment to one so worthless and unprepossessing as Bertram, and continued after he had so unequivocally expressed his dislike of her, seems to compromise the virgin delicacy and dignity of her sex.
The outline appears to be a youthful exaggerated conception, while the intellectual features and high finish of the character are the work of the mature artist. Mrs Jameson has remarked, that all the circumstances and details with which Helena is surrounded are shocking to our feelings and wounding to our delicacy, yet the beauty of the character is made to triumph over all.' We can scarcely, however, sympathise with the immovable depth of Helena's love, under all circumstances of contempt, insult, and hatred, on the part of Bertram ; and the poet has unnecessarily, as Coleridge observed, made his loveliest character utter a lie in denying that she had ever seen the Count. Such discrepancies and unnatural contrasts must have resulted from the patched nature of the play, written at two different periods of the poet's life.
In Meres's enumeration of Shakespeare's dramas in 1598, mention is made of one named Love's Labour Won, and Farmer concluded that this was the original title of All's Well that Ends Well. Adopting this suggestion, and connecting it with the idea of Coleridge and Tieck, that two styles were visible in the play, Mr Collier supposes that All's Well that Ends Well was, in the first instance, prior to 1598, called Love's Labour Won, and that it had a clear reference to Love's Labour's Lost, of which it might
be considered the counterpart. It was then, perhaps, laid by for some years, and revived by its author, with alterations and additions (his later style) about 1605 or 1606, when the new title of All's Well that Ends Well was given to it. This conjecture appears highly plausible, for to no other comedy of Shakespeare's produced before 1598 would the title of Love's Labour Won be applicable. We have no notice of the play having been, under either title, acted at court, and there is no printed copy of it prior to the folio of 1623.
All's Well that Ends Well has never stood high in popular favour. One reason of this obviously is, that similar characters and incidents were reproduced by the poet in dramas of greater power and interest. Parolles is highly amusing.
He is a ' notorious liar,'' a great way fool,' and 'solely a coward, yet we do not heartily despise him.
*These fix'd evils sit so fit in him,
Contempt is extinguished by laughter. The only drawback to the character of Parolles is that he reminds the reader of Falstaff, and then we miss the exuberant wit and geniality of the unrivalled knight. In like manner, the scenes between Bertram and Diana recall those between Angelo and Mariana, which in their nature are painful and repulsive, but in Measure for Measure are relieved by higher poetry and by tragic associations. The clown in All's Well that Ends Well has many pointed and lively remarks, but we think of good-natured Launce and motley Touchstone, and feel how great is the inferiority of the knave of Rousillon. The Countess possesses a quiet matronly grace which is pleasing ; she has no prototype in the novel, and her sanction of Helena's attachment to her son, and in sending her to Paris with leave and love' and 'means and attendants,' removes, as has justly been remarked, 'much of the levity which characterises Giletta in the tale, and which seems inherent in her mission. In such creations and additions
we see the judgment of Shakespeare, though he was too often content to work after his rude old models.
“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
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. 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.'-JOHNSON.
“Johnson expresses a cordial aversion for Count Bertram, and regrets that he should be allowed to come off at last with no other punishment than a temporary shame, nay, even be rewarded with the unmerited possession of a virtuous wife. But has Shakespeare ever attempted to soften the impression made by his unfeeling pride and light-hearted perversity? He has but given him the good qualities of a soldier. And does not the poet paint the true way of the world, which never makes much of man's injustice to woman, if so-called family honour is preserved? Bertram's sole justification is, that by the exercise of arbitrary power, the king thought proper to constrain him in a matter of such delicacy and private right as the choice of a wife. Besides, this story, as well as that of Grissel and many similar ones, is intended to prove that woman's truth and patience will at last triumph over man's abuse of his superior power, while other novels and fabliaux are, on the other hand, true satires on woman's inconsistency and cunning. In this piece old age is painted with rare favour; the plain honesty of the king, the
good-natured impetuosity of old Lafeu, the maternal indulgence of the Countess to Helena's passion for her son, seem all, as it were, to vie with each other in endeavours to overcome the arrogance of the young count. The style of the whole is more sententious than imaginative; the glowing colours of fancy could not with propriety have been employed on such a subject. In the passages where the humiliating rejection of the poor Helena is most painfully affecting, the cowardly Parolles steps in to the relief of the spectator. The mystification by which his pretended valour and his shameless slanders are unmasked, must be ranked among the most comic scenes that ever were invented : they contain matter enough for an excellent comedy, if Shakespeare were not always rich even to profusion. Falstaff has thrown Parolles into the shade, otherwise, among the poet's comic characters, he would have been still more famous.'SCHLEGEL