This play, like “Measure for Measure,” is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” – not consistently light-hearted enough to comfortably be called a comedy, but lacking the body count of a tragedy.
Helena loves Bertram, but he’s a Count and she’s the daughter of a deceased physician (a doctor who, while he was of great renown for his skill, wouldn’t be considered to be in a high-status career in those times.) Despite the fact that Helena is beloved by just about everyone – including Bertram’s mother, who became her guardian upon her father’s death – the relationship could never work… under ordinary circumstances. But those circumstances change when Helena saves the life of a dying King of France using her father’s proprietary medicines and methods. The grateful King removes [almost] all roadblocks to the marriage by allowing the wedding between a commoner and an aristocrat, providing Helena the wealth for a substantial dowry, and putting the squeeze on Bertram by telling the Count that if he loved his King he’d agree to allow the King to preserve his royal honor by rewarding Helena with all she truly wants.
The one roadblock the King can’t remove is Bertram’s feeling that he is too good for Helena because he’s a Count and she’s a nobody. The couple is married, but before the marriage can be consummated, Bertram slinks off to Italy under the pretext of fighting a war. He sends Helena back to his home where he thinks his mother will support him by making life hell for her new daughter in-law, but – joke is on him – his mother thinks that he’s being a jerk and she gives Helena a warm reception. Bertram forwards a note to Helena that unless she can get the ring off his finger and a baby is in her womb sprung from his loins, she shouldn’t really consider them married. Again the joke is on him, because Helena is the smartest person in the play and she develops a clever plot (that in part is similar to the “Measure for Measure” ploy) that is designed to meet the “impossible” requirements of Bertram, as well get the Count back to France where his failure to behave as a husband will be taken as a slap in the face to the King.
Of course “All’s Well That Ends Well” is worth reading. It’s Shakespeare. But I will say that I found “Measure for Measure” to be a better story. The major hurdle in this play is in accepting that Helena remains so stuck on Bertram, despite the fact that he’s portrayed as a jerk. Bertram does conduct himself admirably in war, but the “the heart wants what the heart wants” rationale is all we really get by way of explanation. It’s not clear whether Helena’s plot is playing out from the time she runs away from the Countess’s place, or whether she legitimately runs away to be a nun, but exploits a target of opportunity. Either way, there’s some deus ex machina to that part of the play. Also, her stock drops as we see the elaborate length she’ll go to in order to get her man.
I’d recommend this play, but if you can only do so much Shakespeare and haven’t read “Measure for Measure” yet, I’d recommend that one over this.