The following essay is reprinted from A Dictionary of the Drama. W. Davenport Adams. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904.
All's Well That Ends Well is a comedy by William Shakespeare, first printed in the folio of 1623, and probably identical with the comedy called Love's Labours Wonne which Meres, in his Palladis Tamia (1598), mentions among the plays of Shakespeare then popular. "All's Well," says Furnivall, "is, I doubt not, Love Labour's Won recast. Both have the name Dumaine in common, in both is the Labour of Love: that which is the growth of a life is won here, that which is the growth of a day being lost in the earlier play. Moreover, no intelligent person can read the play without being struck by the contrast of early and late work in it. The stiff formality of the rhymed talk between Helena and the King is due, not to etiquette, but to Shakespeare's early time: so also the end of the play" (Leopold Shakspere). Fleay (New Shakspere Society Transactions, 1874) believes that the play was the work of two widely parted periods, and that it took its present form in 1602. Gervinus (Shakespeare Commentaries) and Von Friesen (Shakespeare Jahrbuch) are also of opinion that it is an early work re-handled. On the other hand, Delius and Hertzberg attribute it to Shakespeare's later years, the latter assigning it to 1603.
The main outline of the plot was taken by the poet from Painter's Palace of Pleasure (Vol. 1. novel 38), Painter having himself taken the story from Boccaccio's Decamerone (day iii. novel 9). We read that "Giletta, a phisition's daughter of Narbon, healed the French king of fistula, for reward whereof she demanded Beltramo, Count of Rossiglione, to husband. The counte, being married against his will, for despite fled to Florence and loved another. Gilletta, his wife, by pollicie founde meanes to lye with her husband in place of his lover, and was begotten with childe of two sonnes, which knowen to her husband, he received her againe, and afterwards he lived in great honour and felicitie." This story, it may be mentioned, also formed the basis of a comic opera called Gillette.
In All's Well That Ends Well, the Countess of Rossillion, Parolles, and the Clown are wholly Shakespeare's invention. "All's Well That Ends Well is," says Schlegel, "the old story of a young maiden whose love looked much higher than her station.... Love appears here in humble guise; the wooing is on the woman's side; it is striving, unaided by a reciprocal inclination, to overcome the prejudices of birth.... In this piece old age is painted with rare favour; the plain honesty of the king, the good-natured impetuosity of old Lafew, 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 shameful 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."