Foreign Affairs: The Search for the Lost Husband in Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well

Karen Bamford


Previous work on the folktale roots of All’s Well has focused on two motifs clearly discernible in Shakespeare’s literary source, Boccaccio’s tale of Giletta of Narbonne: the maiden’s curing of the king and the wife’s satisfaction of her husband’s impossible conditions for marriage. However, the distance between the cooly competent Giletta and the passionately driven Helena is, in part, attributable to the influence on Shakespeare’s play of a third tale-type, “The Search for the Lost Husband” (AT 425), which, according to folklorists, circulated widely in oral versions during this period. This tale-type provides a valuable interpretive lense for All’s Well that Ends Well, clarifying aspects of the play that have puzzled critics; in particular, the apparent contradictions in the character of Helena. Like Helena’s, the wife’s quest for the lost husband is at once a penitential pilgrimage and a rescue mission. She redeems him from the alienation of enchantment, symbolized in the person of a rival bride, not by simply by her wit, but through her suffering and with providential aid. Both agent and patient, she embodies a powerful stereotype of female heroism recognizable to Shakespeare’s audience from the AT 425 tales.

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