All’s Well That Ends Well
This is one of Shakespeare’s plays that generally is grouped in the heading of the “problem comedies” — that is, a comedy (formally — ending in a positive outcome and without any of the major characters dying) that is dark in tonality and filled with the kind of situations that could easily lead to tragedy.
The class of “problem comedies” was proposed by the Shakespeare critic F. S. Boas in 1896 (Shakespeare and his Predecessors). There has been considerable debate about the validity of such a classification at all, but the term has stuck, and may be used advisedly, with a realization of its limitations. To some extent, all of Shakespeare’s comedies are problem comedies. The plays in this group, however, all come fairly late in Shakespeare’s career (1595-1605), and deal with dark themes of unchastity and in particular a threat of rape or some kind of coercive seduction. The problem comedies generally include this play, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and some would add a few others to the list, specifically The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens, and The Merchant of Venice.
Two — this one and Measure for Measure — are resolved in part by the so-called “bed trick” in which a rapist’s purposes are foiled by the substitution of another woman — generally the wife or betrothed of the villain — for the intended victim in such a way that the perpetrator is unaware of the substitution. Even without thinking too much about the practicality of this solution, such plays are obviously rather disturbing in their implications, and I recommend some parental discretion here. It is worth noting, however, that the device has scriptural antecedents (Rachel substituted by Leah), and a number of cases in Arthurian romance, as well as the Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio. Something like it occurrs in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (based on the play by Beaumarchais). In both instances in Shakespeare’s plays, the “bed trick” is in fact used to rescue conventional sexual morality — leading the husband to consummate his marriage with his wedded or betrothed wife — though it was used for more salacious or lurid purposes by a number of other later poets and playwrights.
For all that, most modern readers and audiences find this at least somewhat distasteful: the faithful wife pursues her increasingly repellent and undeserving husband in spite of his unfaithfulness, and at the end, rather than being squashed like the cockroach he is, he merely has a realization that he’s been missing the point all along, and welcomes his wife at last. Most of us think she deserves far better, and he far less. For all that, there are some human insights, as well as some humor, in the course of the play, and the right performances can awaken those for the attentive viewer.