What happens in All’s Well That Ends Well

I’m launching a brand-new feature on the blog, What happens in Shakespeare — short summaries of Shakespeare plays for readers who just want the facts. I’ll kick things off with the surprisingly cynical and misleadlingly named All’s Well That Ends Well.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “All Is NOT Well That Ends Well, and this play doesn’t. MORAL: Do it with the lights on.”

All’s Well That Ends Well

Helena is a medical professional with terrible taste in men. She is in love with a wealthy scumbag named Bertram. He does not love her back.

The King gets sick. Helena cures him. He gives her a favor: she can have the hand of any man she wants in marriage. Apparently the King has enough time on his hands to interfere in these matters. She chooses Bertram.

They do get married, but Bertram says the only way his marriage to this woman he despises for no good reason will be a non-sham is if A) she can get the ring off his finger and B) she can get pregnant by him. To make sure neither blessed event happens, he joins the war effort in Italy (she’s in France).

Helena secretly follows Bertram to Italy, where he puts the moves on another woman, Diana. Being a scumbag, he gives Diana his ring (yes, the same one he refused to give Helena, his actual wife). Here we have the famous bed trick. Bertram is about to get sexy with Diana when she and Helena trade places. Now we start to suspect both our heroes may be the tiniest bit self-serving.

A false rumor gets around that Helena is dead. Bertram goes back to France and asks permission from the King to marry yet another woman, him being a widower now. Helena shows up to announce that she is pregnant with Bertram’s child. Diana appears with Bertram’s ring. Now that Bertram is trapped, he says he loves Helena and will be faithful to her. Self-serving trickery is its own reward. These two have to live with each other.


For actual scholarship by experts, visit The Shakespeare Resource Center’s much better page on All’s Well That Ends Well.

What happens in Shakespeare

To celebrate my favorite author’s birthday, I’m launching a new feature on the blog: What happens in Shakespeare. 

I got the idea while my wife and I were watching the TV series Slings and Arrows (which is brilliant and hilarious and you need to go watch it now. NOW! GO!). The first season centers around a production of Hamlet. Nadja asked me what happens in Hamlet. I tried to recount the story, but realized right away that while it’s all clear in my head, it’s a pretty complicated plot once you start trying to explain it.

So I decided to write short summaries of Shakespeare plays. Just the action, just the main characters, and for the sake of keeping it brief, just the big plots in most cases — not the subplots. And just the plays I’ve actually read. I needed a motivator to finish reading all the plays, a project I started a few years ago and let drop. Can’t call myself a fangirl if I haven’t read all the plays.

There are some terrific summaries out there written by real Shakespeare scholars. I’m definitely not one of those. For actual scholarship, I can recommend The Shakespeare Resource Center. SparkNotes has a context feature that helps you understand the author’s influences and what was happening in his world at the time of writing each play, plus a very good scene-by-scene breakdown. I’ve gained tons of insight from reading the Folger Shakespeare Library editions, mainly for the footnotes on every page that help translate Shakespearean English, since that’s basically a foreign language. And for the ultimate TLDR experience, you can’t beat the Reduced Shakespeare Company; they summarized the plays in 140 characters each on Twitter.

I’ll kick things off in the next post with All’s Well That Ends Well (for no special reason except that it’s the latest one I’ve read).

A mute swan in England. Ben Jonson called Shakespeare “the Swan of Avon.”