For a long time The Comedy of Errors was my least favourite Shakespeare play but, having read The Brothers Menaechmus by Plautus I had a new appreciation for it and, quite surprisingly, have some degree of affection for it. All's Well That Ends Well is now my least favourite Shakespeare play, and I gather I'm by no means alone in that.
Shakespeare seems to have written the play between 1604-05 (about the time of some of his very best tragedies - Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear). It was originally classed as a comedy but now is thought of as one of his problem plays (along with Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida). It tells the story of Helena, the ward of a French countess: the Countess of Rousillon, who is in love with Bertram, the son of the Countess of Rousillon, who does not love her in return. When the king of France becomes ill Helena travels to Paris to cure him (her father was a doctor), and when she does her reward is that she may marry any man in the country. Naturally she picks Bertram, who is so appalled he flees the kingdom along with Parolles.
He then writes to her to tell her he will only be her true husband if she is given the family ring and is pregnant with his child, both of which are impossible. Disheartened, and despite the Countess' attempts to comfort her, she leaves the house to go on a pilgrimage. Bertram meanwhile is fighting for the Duke of Florence and when Helena arrives in Florence for the pilgrimage she finds that Bertram has fallen for Diana, the appropriately named virginal daughter of a widow. With Diana's help Helena manages to fool Bertram into thinking he is not only sleeping with Diana when it is in fact Helena, but also getting the family ring given to "Diana" as a token of his affection. Bertram is then given Helena's ring.
But the story does not end there: news reaches Bertram that Helena is dead. He returns to France, unaware she is following him, and the country is in mourning for her death. It is arranged that Bertram will marry the daughter of Lafew, however he, Lafew, notices Helena's ring on his finger. Helena appears, and all is revealed: she has his ring and is pregnant with his child. Bertram thus agrees to be her husband.
It's an odd play, rather depressing in fact, though it is fairly entertaining at times. I felt rather empty having finished it, though I forgive Shakespeare entirely on the assumption he was perhaps rather busy with those great tragedies I mentioned! It's largely based on a story from Boccaccio's Decameron (the ninth tale told on the third day), itself based on Kālidāsa's The Recognition of Śākuntalā (अभिज्ञानशाकुन्तलम्). I did much prefer Shakespeare's version to Boccaccio's, which, like many of his tales, was fairly miserable if memory serves. There is the odd comic moment in Shakespeare, but cynicism, misery and decay clung to it nonetheless.