From the back cover:
“This play concerns a maid, Helena, who cures the King of France of a disease, then asks for Lord Bertram’s hand in marriage. Bertram obliges, then quickly flees to Italy to engage in war, hoping for death to avoid marriage. Helena is greatly hurt, and sets out on a pilgrimage, only to wind up in Florence, Italy, where she meets Bertram’s new young mistress, Diana. In a perplexing “bed trick,” Helena sleeps with Bertram, while Bertram believes he is sleeping with Diana. This act secures Helena’s bond to Bertram, and Bertram, matured by war, consents to happily love Helena and their future child.”
Rather by coincidence, this play was much like Cardenio/Double Falsehood, the previous Shakespeare play I read. The finale finds itself with a marriage between two people who probably would have been better off never having met. In DF, a rapist is (sort of) forced to marry his victim when her less-than-virginal state would otherwise become a liability for her. In All’s Well, a man who had been forced to marry someone he considered beneath him (and then duped into consummating the marriage by means of a bed trick), must finally yield and submit to the unwanted union. (One could add to this group Measure for Measure and make it a trio.)
I very much enjoyed the folktale scaffolding of this play, with the poor girl healing the king who promises she can have what she wants without knowing what (or who) he’s promising away, the girl marrying the boy who turns out not to like her, the promise that he’ll be a true husband only when certain impossible conditions are met…
In real terms, he’s kind of a jerk and a snob. It would be different if he objected to any arranged marriage (i.e. the fact of not having a choice in who he marries) or if he objected on the basis of her character or what have you, but to object on the basis that she grew up a poor physician’s daughter seems rather haughty (especially since the king agreed to provide her with title and wealth so the match wouldn’t be uneven).
For us moderns, it might be difficult to completely get why Helena pursues Bertram so relentlessly once he proves to be so unworthy of her. But in reality she hasn’t got much of a choice. It’s either Bertram (with the hope he’ll eventually come around and get some sense of respect for her) or the convent.
As for Parolles, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. A bit of a boaster and a rogue, but I don’t think he really deserved to be punked like that.
One more thing…that conversation in the first act about losing one’s virginity while the time is ripe was exquisite. All that word play put into service talking about something so timeless & universal. Ah, Will, I’m sure you could’ve talked anyone into bed in a minute or two.