All's Well That Ends Well is a comedy by William Shakespeare, and is often considered one of his problem plays, so-called because they cannot be easily classified as tragedy or comedy. It was probably written in later middle part of Shakespeare's career, between 1601 and 1608. It is one of Shakespeare's least performed plays.
The five acts follow the action of Helena, a lowborn beauty, who pines for Count Bertram, the son of her guardian. She is granted his hand as a reward for curing the King. Bertram, however, is indignant at being forced to marry below his rank. After the wedding he decides he would rather face death in battle than be subjected to a mean marriage. While at war, he writes home to Helena:
Bertram intends this is an impossible task. However, Helena, with the aid of a maiden who has taken Bertram's fancy, tricks him into giving her his family ring and sleeping with her as per the "conditions" in his letter. In the final act, Helena's cunning plot is revealed, and Bertram promises to be a faithful husband to her.
There is no evidence that All's Well was popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime, and it has remained one of his lesser-known plays ever since, in part due to its odd mixture of fairy tale logic and cynical realism. The final scene in which Bertram suddenly switches from hatred to love in just one line is considered a particular problem for actors trained to admire psychological realism.
The character of Helena has been criticized. Victorian writers tended to condemn the character of Helena as unwomanly for her assertive demands for Bertram. In contrast, modern audiences tend to see her as excessively weak-minded for sticking with a husband who is so obviously unworthy of her.
One character that has been admired is that of the old Countess, which is one of the few good roles for an older actress in the Shakespeare canon. Modern productions are often promoted as vehicles for great mature actresses; recent examples have starred Judi Dench and Peggy Ashcroft.