The plot tweet: Helena saves the king, chooses unwilling Bertram as reward. He runs away; she chases him; Parolles steals the show. It doesn't end so well.
My favorite line:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven.
I have seen All's Well that Ends Well performed twice, and both times it was staged as a story of Bertram's gradual maturation and reformation. One production was convincing; the other wasn't. It can be done. But should it be done? Should we give him that much credit?
Seriously, this guy has no redeeming qualities. Without getting into deep Freudian scenarios, it's impossible to understand what the otherwise sensible Helena sees in him. He's selfish, reckless, disrespectful and vapid. He trusts the wrong people. He abandons his wife, disobeys his king and seduces innocent young women. Even in the final scene, when he should know better, he spins a web of lies until the last possible moment and accuses others to save himself. Nothing he says can be taken at face value -- even his alleged mourning for Helena. And when he finally accepts Helena, it's a conditional statement: "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly ..." Yep, that's going to turn out really well for Helena.
And don't even get me started on the king, who observes the chaos but makes the same darn mistake with Diana.
No wonder this has been classified as a "problem play." The plot is a problem; the characters are problems; even the title is questionable. Some scholars have explained this discord as a bad mix of biting social commentary and traditional fairy-tale structure (the Cinderella story and the familiar plot of accomplishing tasks to win true love). Whatever the reason, this play is oddly unsettling -- despite the best efforts of the two productions I have seen.
As in many other Shakespeare plays, a minor character, in this case Parolles, steals the show. Like Bertram, he has no redeeming qualities -- but at least he knows it. He endures with as much good grace as he can muster, and his presence is oddly hopeful:
Yet am I thankful: If my heart were great,
'Twould burst at this. Captain I'll be no more;
But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft
As captain shall: Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live ...