Conflict between generations is a theme prevalent in many of Shakespeare's tragedies, histories, and comedies. Romeo and Juliet struggle against their parents' feud and values. Hamlet battles within himself to deal with the ethics of his father's order for revenge. Hal and his biological father, Henry IV, work out an uneasy coexistence, while the Prince simultaneously resolves his relationship with his spiritual father, Falstaff. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mainspring of the plot is the willingness of Lysander and Hermia to go against the wishes of Egeus. In such works audience sympathy is usually with the younger generation, which often embodies a tolerance and understanding unrestricted by narrow beliefs and codes of behavior.
In All's Well That Ends Well, however, wisdom lies with the older characters, who frequently harken back to past years as a better, happier time. The younger figures, in particular Bertram, are not especially likeable or sympathetic. Indeed, one reason this play is difficult to interpret is Bertram himself, doubtless Shakespeare's least amiable hero. That the story ends with a marriage suggests the play is a comedy, but the road to this moment of contentment is so rocky and the antagonisms between characters so harsh that we enjoy little laughter, and the disentangling of the plot is far from joyous. Thus whether all "ends well" is problematic. The source of the story is "Giletta of Narbona," the ninth novella of the third day in Boccaccio Decameron ( 1353), a collection of 100 fables and folk tales ostensibly told by ten people who have taken refuge from the plague in France. Shakespeare probably read these stories in William Painter Palace of Pleasure ( 1567).
The play's opening scene communicates the gloomy tone that dominates the work. In the first line the Countess mourns that the imminent departure of her son will be like the loss of a second husband. That son, Bertram, mourns his dead father, while the King he is soon to attend is himself mortally ill (I, i, 11- 16). Furthermore, the one physician who might have cured the King, Helena's father, is also deceased. Helena, who has been raised by the Countess, reveals that she, too, is possessed by sadness (I, i, 54), but she does not publicly specify