All's Well That Ends Well has generally been considered one of Shakespeare's most difficult and unpopular plays. Labelled a "Problem Comedy", editors believe that the play was written between 1604 and 1605, and exhibits a darkening of Shakespeare's interest in comedy. The play deals with the complicated relationship between Helena, the daughter of a famous physician, and Bertram, the arrogant son of the Countess of Roussillon. Helena is secretly in love with Bertram, and when she miraculously cures the ailing King, she asks for Bertram's hand in marriage, to which the grateful sovereign happily agrees. Bertram bitterly opposes marriage to Helena, who he regards as a social inferior. After reluctantly agreeing to the marriage, Bertram flees to the wars in Italy with his companion Parolles.
What ensues is Helena's increasingly desperate and complex attempts to retrieve her errant husband, which involves various machinations and a piece of mistaken identity and an infamous "bed-trick" which has never fully convinced audiences or critics. More recently critics have been kinder to the play, seeing its cynical disillusionment with romance as reflecting contemporary social and political anxieties about warfare and commerce, and feminist critics have been keen to celebrate Helena as a particularly complex heroine. The play is also fascinated by language, encapsulated in the character of Parolles (or "words"), and his memorable line for which the play is chiefly remembered: "Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live". --Jerry Brotton [via]