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Playgoer’s Guide


All ends, and it is with death that our story begins. The funeral of the Count Rossillion follows close upon the death of Helen’s father, Rossillion’s celebrated physician. She has grown up here in the Rossillion court. Now, with the old Count’s death, Bertram, his son and heir, is placed under the tutelage of the King, and prepares to leave for the Parisian court. Stricken with the new grief of losing Bertram, Helen confesses her love to his mother, the Countess, and secretly follows him to Paris.

There, the King’s subjects fear for his life, threatened by an incurable illness. Against all odds, Helen persuades the King that she may help with medicinal powers learned from her father. Miraculously the King recovers and grants Helen the husband of her choice. She chooses Bertram.

Entrapped and enraged, the bridegroom flees France for all the freedoms that Italy promises. His escape signals the beginning of a remarkable journey for him and for Helen, their paths marked by vows broken, alliances forged, and meetings cloaked in darkness.



All’s Well That Ends Well lives among the eighteen plays in Shakespeare’s canon never printed in his lifetime, and might well have been lost without the publication of the First Folio in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. Plays in the First Folio rescued by two actors in his company, John Heminge and Henry Condell, include among others Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It.

Written ca. 1603–04, this difficult-to-categorize “problem play” was written around the time of Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603 and the plague that in that same year claimed the lives of one-in-five Londoners.

In All’s Well That Ends Well Shakespeare transforms a simple romantic fable contained in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 epic prose poem, Decameron. Translated into English by William Painter in 1566, its tale of Giletta of Narbon reads that she…

…healed the French King of a Fistula, for reward whereof she demaunded Beltramo Counte of Rossiglione to husband. The Counte, being married against his will, for despite fled to Florence, and loved another. Giletta, his wife, by pollicie founde meanes to lye with her husbande in place of his lover, and was begotten with childe of two sonnes; which known to her husband, he received her againe, and afterwards he lived in great honour and felicitie.

George Bernard Shaw, among Shakespeare’s most vitriolic detractors, nonetheless praised All’s Well as “still too genuine and beautiful and modern” for its audiences. Over the past half-century many more productions of this psychologically challenging play have been staged than throughout its first 350 years. The first record of All’s Well That Ends Well in performance does not even appear until 1741.

Shakespeare’s late “comedy” has been dubbed “a play whose time has come,” with its flawed, problematic characters, its fascinating blending of tone and genre, and the uncertainty of its happy ending, all appealing to a modern sensibility. Chicago Shakespeare staged All’s Well That Ends Well in 2000, as part of the Theater’s inaugural season on Navy Pier, directed by Barbara Gaines, with a cast including Timothy Gregory, Lia D. Mortensen, Linda Kimbrough, and Larry Yando.

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