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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
All's Well That Ends Well has an Aristotelian plot with a beginning (that which is not necessarily caused by something else but which produces other events), a middle (which derives from what has gone before and from which something else must follow), and an end (something that depends on what has happened but which need be followed by nothing else). It has the typical Shakespearean five-act structure.
Act I constitutes the beginning or exposition of the play. The relevant information essential for understanding the play is set forth quickly and emphatically, and all the main characters are introduced. Helena's love for Bertram, which constitutes the springboard for the ensuing action, is stated. She is driven by her love to Paris where she hopes to elevate herself in the eyes of the world by curing the King.
The dominant thematic concerns of the play are also expressed in Act 1. Helena, a poor physician's daughter, loves Bertram, who is socially beyond her reach. She knows that she "loves in vain" and "strives against hope". Still she persists in her affection and has a selfless devotion to her true love. As she herself says, "Religious in mine error, I adore / The sun, that looks upon his worshipper, / But knows him no more". She harbors the hope winning Bertram's affection by curing the King. Her dogged persistence illustrates a deep belief stated in the play that personal virtue is more important than inherited honor.
Other characters also give voice to this theme. The Countess praises Helena, saying, "I have those hopes of her that her education promises her dispositions she inherits --- which makes fair gifts fairer". In contrast, when the Countess bids Bertram farewell, she expresses hope, rather than conviction, that he shall prove worthy of his breeding and education. She hopes that he will " succeed thy father / In manners as in shape!" She prays for Bertram that may his "blood and virtue / Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness/ Share with thy birthright!" Though he has been born with all manner of inherited virtue, his own mother is not sure he will prove himself as honorable as he should.
Act II further develops the issues outlined in the expository first act. Bertram reaches Paris and is welcomed by the King. Helena, too, arrives at court, and the action begins quite dramatically when she cures the King. The drama continues when she claims her "fee"-- Bertram, as her husband. But Bertram strongly objects to this degrading alliance, and from this the entire play will spring forth.
The theme of the contrast between inherited rank and intrinsic virtue finds eloquent expression in the King's speech in this second act. The King holds personal virtue to be superior. Inherited rank unsupported by virtue cannot produce genuine honor. Bertram accepts Helena only to avoid the King's displeasure. Though nobly born, Bertram here begins a series of ignoble and mean actions.
Act III is concerned with preparatory material, leading to the quickly advancing rising action in Act IV and resolution in Act V. In Act III, Helena receives Bertram's letter stating that he will not consummate their union until she can obtain the ring he always wears on his finger and beget a child by him. This introduces the complication in the plot. Helena resolves to disguise herself as a pilgrim and sets out for Florence. Here, she meets the widow who tells her that Bertram had attempted to seduce her daughter Diana. Helena lays out the plot, at least in part, promising Diana a generous payment if she will go along with the plan she has developed.
Act IV heightens the dramatic tension and the quickly advancing rising action gathers speed, with events occurring in dazzling rapidity. Diana persuades Bertram to part with the ring and arranges a midnight tryst. Unknown to Bertram, Helena takes Diana's place and gives him a ring that she has received from the King. Bertram receives news that his wife has died and decides to return to France. The intensity of the tension reaches its peak in the third scene during the interrogation of Parolles and his unmasking. The climactic scenes are awaited with suspense, tension, and a fulfilling inevitability. Everything is falling into place for the resolution of the play.
Act V contains the climax and denouement, resolving the plot. The truth is finally revealed and Helena finally achieves what she has sought. Bertram promises to "love her dearly, ever, ever dearly". The King's closing words are "All yet seems well". By the end of the play, Helena has achieved a considerable rise in her social status and won Bertram. The play, thus, appears to end happily with hope for the future.
The ending of this play is different from the conventional joyous endings of other Shakespearean comedies, where the hero and the heroine are somewhat matched in likeability and honor. There are doubts about this play. Bertram has not redeemed himself in the eyes of the audience. Supposedly he has matured, as his mother says, and put aside the follies of youth; but to the audience, he still seems to be a selfish and foolish young man, and it is questionable whether Bertram and Helena will live happily ever after. Bertram's casual acceptance of Helena in the last scene seems trite, perfunctory, and insincere. The open-endedness of the play has attracted the comments of many critics, who feel that the end is not justified in the dramatic framework of the play. Perhaps the audience can consider the play a finished work, whose purpose is to develop the theme that so long as a thing ends on a happy note, it matters very little what has transpired before. In that case, as Shakespeare has declared it, all is well at Rousillon for the simple reason that the play ends well.