"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.'"
This is a dreadful sentence.
— Helena, reading a letter from Bertram, 3.2
A play by William Shakespeare
. With its unusual plot and odd resolution
, it straddles the line between comedy and tragedy, and is considered to be one of Shakespeare's "problem plays".
Helena is a beautiful but lowborn woman, the orphaned daughter of a great physician. She serves as gentlewoman to a French countess and is secretly in love with Bertram, the countess' son. Bertram leaves to become the ward of the King of France, but the king suddenly falls ill. Helena promises she can save him, but asks that she be able to marry any lord she chooses; the king agrees. Using the knowledge her father imparted to her, she cures him, and he gives her leave to marry above her class.
She chooses Bertram as her husband, but adds that he doesn't have to marry her if he doesn't want. The king will have none of it, and orders that Bertram marry his rescuer. Furious about the match, Bertram escapes to Italy shortly after the wedding, along with his cowardly friend Parolles. Bertram sends a taunting letter to Helena, declaring that he will not have her as a wife unless she meets two requirements: She must get his family ring, and she must become pregnant with his child. Since he never plans on returning to France, he brags that neither will ever take place.
Helena is distraught, but sets out to retrieve her husband. She winds up in Florence, where Bertram is living, and discovers he now has his sights set on Diana, the daughter of a widow. With help from the young lady, Helena tricks Bertram: First, she has Diana convinces Bertram to give up his family ring as a love token, which she then gives to Helena. Next, Diana invites Bertram into her room; Diana and Helena execute a Bed Trick
, and Bertram ends up sleeping with his wife. In an unrelated subplot, Parolles is exposed as a coward and exiled from the army.
With the help of the countess, Helena spreads rumours that she has died, prompting Bertram to return to France. She follows in secret, along with Diana and the widow. Once everyone is all together, Helena reveals that she 1) is not dead, 2) has Bertram's family ring, and 3) is pregnant with his child, thanks to their one-night romp. His conditions met, Bertram promises "I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly."
- All Is Well That Ends Well: Trope Namer
- All Love Is Unrequited: Helena to Bertram, Bertram to Diana
- Arranged Marriage: Unusual male version. He doesn't take it well.
- Bed Trick: Helena substitutes herself for Diana when Bertram shows up for his assignation with Diana.
- Cool Old Lady: The Countess. She loves Helena like a daughter and despite the difference in their social classes, is favorable toward the idea of Helena marrying Bertram. She also has a well-developed sense of humor, shown in her interactions with Helena and the courtiers, her Snark-to-Snark Combat with Lavache, and her amused disappointment at Bertram's behavior.
- Cue the Flying Pigs: Bertram's rejection/challenge.
- Dirty Coward: The play's subplot consists of Bertram's soldiers trying to expose Parolles as this. They succeed by setting up a situation where they make him think he's been captured by the enemy, and Parolles proceeds to slander his fellow soldiers and provide information (voluminous information at that) on troop composition and movements
- Does Not Like Men: Diana has a fairly low opinion of men, due to the frequent warnings she has received of how men manipulate women into giving up their virginity, and then abandon them, and it doesn't help that Bertram follows to the letter every trick Diana's mother warned her of.
- Engagement Challenge: Helena invokes a rare gender inverted traditional example wherein she persuades the King to let her attempt to cure him, indicating she will give her life if she fails. In exchange, she asks for the hand of any nobleman she chooses. Additionally, Bertram's letter sets (what he believes to be) impossible conditions under which he will acknowledge Helena as his wife, and she sets out to fulfill them.
- Healing Herb: Helena knows of one.
- Here We Go Again: At the end of the play, the King of France offers Diana her choice of husband as a reward for helping Helena.
- Horrible Judge of Character: Bertram is definitely one. He is completely trusting of Parolles and considers him a valuable friend, whereas everyone else in the play immediately knows that Parolles is a two-faced scoundrel. Conversely, Bertram scorns Helena, whereas everyone else who meets her sings her praises.
- I Love You Because I Can't Control You: If Bertram's final line is sincere, Helena's trickery — in other words, proof that she can be as cunning and devious as himself — leads to him respecting and loving her.
- Jerkass: Bertram. At first, you can understand why he might be angry about the arranged marriage to Helena. He came to court believing that he would finally be able to prove his manhood and get out of his father's shadow, and instead the King bars him from going to war and gives him away as a prize to one of his mother's servants. But he ends up handling the situation very childishly (proving that he's not as grown up as he would like to think he is), and he cruelly takes out his anger on the good-natured Helena, even though it was the King who forced the marriage. And sending your wife a letter bragging about leaving her, then trying to sleep with another woman, is pretty low.
- Notably, this is not a case of Values Dissonance — even the other characters in the play, including the king, point out that he's being a complete tool.
- The Jester: Lavache fills this role for the Countess. Due to being a favorite of her late husband and because of his role, he's able to say anything he wants to his betters and get away with it.
- Miles Gloriosus: Parolles
- Nature Abhors a Virgin: Parolles argues for it.
- Poisonous Friend: Adaptations that try to take the plot seriously play up Parolles as this in an attempt to make Bertram less of a Jerkass.
- Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Invoked. When Parolles believes himself to be captured by the enemy, he shamelessly sells out his fellow soldiers to save his life. After this happens, he is told by the "translator" for his "captors" him they are going to execute him anyway, because someone who would sell out his allies like that can't be trusted.
- Runaway Bride: Bertram is a Rare Male Example of a groom running away from an Arranged Marriage, a counterpoint to Helena being a Rare Female Example of the peasant winning an Engagement Challenge.
- Sand in My Eyes: At the end of the play, Lafeu cries with joy and proclaims "Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon."
- Title Drop:
We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown;
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.
"All is well ended, if this suit be won."