by Elliot Wasserman
How much do we need fairy tales that paint permanently perfect endings? Even fairy tales themselves did not used to present unalloyed happiness without a shadow or two in the final tableau. In their dark, unrecorded origins, fairy tales dealt out a pitiless justice with their happy endings, and in Shakespeare's time such tales remained uncollected, continuing to evolve in an oral tradition that only folklorists like the Grimm brothers could freeze into place through their publication over two centuries later. Shakespeare certainly knew a sentimental tale or two, as well as the pre-Grimm versions of what we have further sentimentalized today. After all, Shakespeare seems to have known just about everything an Elizabethan could know, and he continues to remind us of a few things we forget--as he does in this play.
All’s Well that Ends Well tells the story of a daring and enterprising maiden named Helena who passionately loves a young French count named Bertram. Although Helena lives in the count’s palace in the care of the count’s mother, she knows that she is not born to a high enough station to permit her any reasonable chance at winning Bertram’s love and marrying him. But she does not give up, and so she hatches an extraordinary plan to win his hand in marriage. At this point the play becomes something of a fairy tale, but only to a degree. Although the title of the play has a “happily ever after” ring to it, Shakespeare could never be accused of writing a simple fairy tale because characters on Shakespeare’s stage refuse to be paper doll cutouts. They may seem predictable at times, and set upon a course for the perfect outcome, but they insist upon having their own say in everything that affects them. Although we hear the characters themselves refer to how things can all turn out right in the end, in Shakespeare’s world, things are never so simple. All’s Well that Ends Well explores how individuals refuse to act like those fairy tale characters. They resist the easy ending, and they resist each other. Shakespeare’s people work their will upon other characters and even themselves in manners that are all too human. It is in their complex natures to resist. Thus, with characters who are fully fleshed, albeit poetic, is there such a thing as a fairy tale ending or only a kind of pitiless justice? Have we achieved the ideal outcome of a modern day fairy tale, or taken actions that will engender future travail? Shakespeare leaves his audience with the evidence, but the audience members will have to reach their own conclusions. They, like Helena, will have to ask themselves, "How badly do I want this ending?"