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The major theme of the play finds expression in the Helena - Bertram story. Helena, who is the daughter of a poor physician, is in love with Bertram, who is a Count and a ward of the King of France. This is a traditional feature of the fairy tale, when the hero and heroine are kept apart by familial or social differences. Helena recognizes that she can never get what she wants because of the vast difference in their social scale. She herself confesses, "I know I love in vain, strive against hope; / Yet in this captious sieve / I still pour in the waters of my love".
Despite this recognition, she is unable to accept it and is driven by her love to Paris where she hopes to cure the King and elevate herself in the eyes of the world. The contrast between inherent and inherited virtue is spoken by many characters, including Bertram's own mother, who believes Helena has inherent virtue and who suspects that though Bertram has inherited honor, he has not virtue. The King laments the fact that many noblemen are unable to see beyond class differences. Even the soldiers whom Bertram fights with think his military honor is meaningless when compared to his personal dishonor.
The theme of the contrast between the inherited honor of Bertram and the intrinsic virtue of Helena pervades the play. The King delivers a long and surprisingly democratic speech in Act II, Scene III, about the two distinct kinds of honor. The King upholds personal virtue as more desirable than merely inherited qualities. He states that inherited rank unsupported by virtuous action cannot produce true honor. He proclaims "... honors thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers".
Another theme of the play is the contrast between youth and age. The older characters, including the Countess, her late husband, Helena's father, Lafeu, and the King, are set in distinct contrast to the young characters consisting of Bertram, Helena, Diana, Parolles, the clown, and the two French Lords. The aged characters constantly refer to a happy past, while the young characters appear to be an unsatisfied lot yearning for something out of their reach. The older characters worry about the youth and hope that the present generation will inherit the traits of their fathers.
In Act I, the Countess expresses hope that Bertram will succeed his father "in manners as in shape!" In Act II, the King remarks on Bertram's striking physical resemblance to his late father and wishes that he also inherits his "father's moral parts". Similarly, in Act I, as Lafeu bids Helena farewell, he says, " Farewell, pretty lady; you must hold the credit of your father". Thus, the youth is seen as the preserver of the father's reputation. This is linked to a related theme of the juxtaposition between the moral culpability of youth and the moral steadfastness of the older generation.
Appearance vs. reality is also a key theme in the play. Throughout the play, deception reigns supreme, and much of what appears to be is not really fact. Bertram, who is the son of the Count, has been highly born and well trained. It would seem that he would be the picture of pride and honor; in reality, he is a despicable and immature young man, given to selfish causes. Parolles, dressed impeccably in his finery, appears to be a gentleman, but is truly the evil tempter of the play. Helena pretends to be dead and disguises herself as a pilgrim, in order to trick Bertram, who has deserted her. Bertram pretends to be in love with Diana, when he is simply eager to have her body. Helena, in turn, pretends to be Diana and allows herself to be seduced by her own husband so she can trick him out of his ring. In truth, the entire plot of the play is built on deceptions and appearances.
There is also an underlying religious theme in the play. Helena is the representative of heavenly grace, and Bertram is symbolic of fallen man. This viewpoint holds Helena as a specially favored divine agent on earth, almost a Christ figure. She cures the King because of "divine" powers and saves Bertram from his fallen state. Such religious interpretation of the play strikes two major points. The first is the Biblical doctrine of man's depravity, which requires divine grace for redemption, and it seems only Helena, the Christ-like figure, is capable of saving Bertram. The second is the belief that sin will ultimately be revealed and answered, just as Parolles and Bertram are finally exposed for their wicked ways.
All's Well That Ends Well can also be analyzed as a morality play with a contest between good and evil forces. The pure Helena is the symbol of goodness, while Bertram represents the fallen prince. The forces of evil are clearly represented by Parolles, who constantly tempts Bertram. Ultimately, the good triumphs when Parolles is exposed and defeated and the good Helena wins Bertram.