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All's Well That Ends Well as Fairy Tale and Morality Play
Shakespeare employed two ancient story-telling forms in writing All's Well That Ends Well. One, the fairy tale, he inherited from his source. The other, the morality play, he worked into the story.
The type of fairy and folk tales of which All's Well That Ends Well is an example are known as Virtue stories. These are composed of two major sections: The Healing Of The King and The Fulfillment Of The Tasks. These tales can be found in the early literature of cultures the world over and have two qualities in common: the cleverness and devotion of the woman sent by her husband to perform the tasks, and the husband's immediate acceptance of the fulfillment of the tasks as evidence of the wife's courage and love. The Healing Of The King in All's Well is a variation of a common popular theme: a hero wins the hand of the king's daughter by performing a difficult task, in which failure will cost him his life. Boccaccio and Shakespeare add interest by switching the genders of the characters.
Shakespeare also drew on the morality plays, a popular medieval theatrical form in which characters representing good and evil struggle for the soul of the hero. In All's Well Shakespeare has created similar relationships by adding the character of Parolles. Parolles acts as Vice personified, and Helena acts as Divine Grace. Together they struggle for the soul of Bertram, unredeemed man.
Shakespeare carefully weaves these two forms together at two major points in the action. Helena's healing of the king operates on the level of fairy tale and carries hints of the miraculous as well. Lafeu calls it "A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor." At the end of the play, Bertram's acceptance of Helena fits the Virtue story form. It also reflects the point in morality plays when unredeemed man, burdened by sin and about to be carried off to the everlasting torments of hell, calls for mercy. However, unlike the characters in morality plays and fairy tales, Shakespeare's characters are realistic in their motivations and behavior. Can a fairy tale work in the complex lives of real people?
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